Wednesday, 2 October 2019
Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019: Second Stage
Tá áthas orm a bheith sa Teach Uachtarach chun an píosa reachtaíocht thábhachtach nua seo, sé sin an Bille Oideachais (Cairt Mac Léinn agus Tuismitheoirí) 2019, a thabhairt go dtí an Dara Céim.
It is nice to be back here. While this is normally not done until the end of a debate, when a Bill is successful, I thank the teams of officials in both my Department and the Attorney General's office for the work, effort and industry that has gone into bringing this Bill to Second Stage.
The Government's aim is to use our economic success to build a fair and compassionate society. Few areas are more important to this vision than education. It is therefore critical that the experience of our schools is positive, responsive and as supportive as possible for both students and their parents. I am therefore pleased to introduce this Bill, which will constitute an important step towards improving the experience of both students and parents in their engagement with schools. The fundamental aim of this legislation is to improve the level of engagement between schools, students and their parents by inviting feedback, comment and observations from students and parents and by developing a listening culture in schools. As members of this House will know, many schools already do this very well and can attest to the benefits for all of such positive engagement with students and their parents. For these schools, the legislation will help underpin and build on this work. It will also help schools that have not been as strong in this area by providing a clear framework to guide them in establishing and implementing good practice. It will do so by amending the Education Act 1998.
The Education Act 1998 was and still is hugely significant legislation in the education sector and sets out a clear framework for the operation and management of schools in Ireland. While the 1998 Act includes some provisions that can guide and influence the relationship between a school and its students and parents, it does not currently provide any cohesive or strategic approach to enhance how schools engage with students and their parents. Section 28 of the 1998 Act recognises that student and parental grievances do arise. However, that section is narrowly focused on creating procedures to process grievances or appeals once they have arisen. It is concerned with managing the process of responding to a complaint as distinct from contributing in any way to managing issues in a school differently before they give rise to grievances. The alternative approach I am taking in this Bill is to shift away from concentrating on reacting to problems in schools after they give rise to grievances, to an approach which aims to improve the day-to-day experience students and their parents can expect from schools. This will be done by setting out in law a framework that schools will apply in their engagement with students and parents. Under this framework, every school must prepare, publish and implement a student and parent charter and each school's charter must adhere to national charter guidelines developed and published by the Minister, after consultation with the education partners, including organisations representing students and their parents.
The Bill has 11 sections, which I will now outline for the House.
Section 1 of the Bill is a standard definitions section.
Section 2 is the largest section of the Bill as it inserts four new sections, namely, sections 27A to 27D, inclusive, into the Education Act 1998. I will now outline these four important new sections in more detail. A new section 27A provides that a school board of management must prepare, publish and implement a student and parent charter in accordance with the Minister's charter guidelines. In preparing its charter, the board must consult with the patron, school principal, school staff, students, parents, the student council and the parents' association and must prepare the charter in accordance with the charter guidelines. Each school charter must contain a statement that the charter has been prepared by the board in accordance and compliance with the charter guidelines. Section 27A prohibits a school board from including content in its charter that is not in accordance with, provided for or by, the charter guidelines. It also provides that the board must review and amend its charter as required by the Minister's national charter guidelines.
The new section 27B requires the Minister to develop and put in place national charter guidelines. The guidelines must address, inter alia, the following: the content of school charters; the process by which a school board will prepare, publish and implement its charter, including procedures for consultation with stakeholders at school level; the implementation of school charters; the procedures for reviewing and amending a charter; and such other matters as are necessary or appropriate for the purposes of the guidelines.In developing the charter guidelines, the Minister must consult with the education partners, including bodies representing students and their parents, as well as the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children. I acknowledge the role of the Ombudsman for Children in that regard.
Section 27B also provides that the charter guidelines in respect of the content of charters in school may relate to the following matters: the procedures for consulting with students and their parents on such matters relating to the school as may be specified in the charter guidelines, including by inviting, and responding to, comments and suggestions from students and their parents on any such matter; information on school plans and policies of the school, other than the admission policy, and activities of the school. As the Admissions Act 2018 sets out a separate and comprehensive legal framework for the development, publication and implementation of schools' admission policy, the admission policy is excluded from this provision and similar provisions in the Bill. The section also provides: the procedures, including consultation procedures, for the preparation, review and updating of school plans and policies of the school, other than the admission policy, and the development, review and updating of the activities of the school; the procedures for informing students and their parents of matters relating to the operation and performance of the school; and the procedures for informing students and their parents of the activities of the school.
Other charter content set out in this section include: information on the structures and systems for the management of the school; the information to be provided to students and their parents relating to moneys that the school receives, including voluntary contributions made by parents, and the expenditure of those moneys by the school, and of the form and manner in which that information is to be provided; the information to be provided to students and their parents relating to the school calendar, closures and timetables and of the form and manner in which that information is to be provided; and the procedures for dealing with grievances of students or their parents relating to the school, and details of aggregated and anonymised information to be provided to students and their parents relating to grievances dealt with by the school, which may include the number or type of such grievances and related outcomes, and the form and manner in which that information is to be provided. Section 27B also provides that the guidelines may, where the Minister considers it necessary, include model charters for different categories of schools and contain different provisions for different categories of schools or different categories of students.
The new section 27C provides that the Minister, in preparing the charter guidelines, must have regard to certain matters that are specified in this section. These matters align with the core principles that were set out in the general scheme of the Bill. There are ten such matters listed from (a) to (j). These are the need for a school to: (a) seek to achieve, as far as practicable and subject to the resources available, the best possible outcomes for students in relation to their education and personal development; (b) foster and promote the relationship and a spirit of partnership between the school and students and their parents; (c) foster and promote mutual respect in communications between the school and students and their parents; (d) ensure, as appropriate, confidentiality in communications between the school and students and their parents; (e) promote the role and participation of parents in the education and personal development of students; (f) consult with, and encourage the participation and engagement of students, to the extent appropriate to their age and experience, and their parents, and respond as appropriate, to comments and suggestions made by students and their parents, in respect of the development, review and updating of school plans and policies of the school, other than the admission policy and the activities of the school; (g) monitor and review the provision of education by the school to students, including by consulting with, and responding, as appropriate, to comments and suggestions made by students, to the extent appropriate to their age and experience, and their parents, for the purposes of assessing and improving such provision on an ongoing basis; (h) foster and promote equality of access for students to, and participation by students in, education by seeking, as far as practicable, to reduce the costs to parents and students of such participation; (i) address and resolve concerns of students or their parents relating to the school, as far as possible, at an early stage, and; (j) ensure that grievances of students or their parents relating to the school are dealt with efficiently, effectively and fairly and, as far as possible, in an informal manner consistent with the principles of fair procedures.
The fourth new section, 27D, provides the Minister with a discretionary power to give a board of management a direction where he or she is of the opinion that the board has failed or is failing in whole or in part, to comply with its obligation to prepare, publish and implement a charter. Before issuing a direction, the Minister must give the board and school patron notice of his or her intention to give a direction, setting out the reasons and the proposed remedial action. The notice must offer the board and the patron, or both, an opportunity to make representations on the proposed direction and provide the board and patron at least 14 days to do so. The board and the patron therefore have an opportunity to rectify the matter before a direction issues or to make representations on the proposed direction.
The Minister must, in deciding whether or not to give a direction, consider any representations. Where the Minister proceeds to issue a direction, the board must comply with that direction. The Minister is also required to publish the direction on the Department's website not later than 14 days from the date of issue. The board must confirm in writing to the Minister when it has complied with the direction and the Minister, on being satisfied that a direction has been complied with, must publish a notice to that effect on the Department's website. The Minister must also give notice in writing to the board and the patron that the Minister is satisfied that the direction has been complied with.
I will move now to the other sections of the Bill. Section 3 provides for the amendment of section 2 of the Act of 1998 by inserting definitions for "charter" and "charter guidelines". Section 4 provides for the amendment of section 9 of the Act of 1998. Section 9 of the Act of 1998 sets out the various statutory functions of a school. In line with the purpose and aims of this Bill, two new important functions of a school are being inserted by section 4. These are to promote the involvement of students and their parents in the provision of education to students, and to ensure the implementation of the charter.
Section 5 provides for the amendment of section 20 of the Act of 1998. Section 20 currently refers to procedures for informing parents, but not students, of matters relating to the operation and performance of the school. It is being amended to link those procedures to the charter guidelines and to provide that both students and parents are referred to in section 20.
Similar to section 5, section 6 provides for the amendment of section 21 of the Act of 1998. Section 21 of the Education Act 1998 concerns the school plan and is being amended to ensure that the arrangements for the preparation of a school plan referred to in that section must comply with any applicable charter guidelines in respect of same.
Section 7 provides for the amendment of section 27 of the Act of 1998. Section 27(1) requires schools to have procedures for informing students about the activities of the school. It is being amended to ensure those procedures comply with any charter guidelines in respect of same and to provide that both students and parents are referred to in this provision. Section 27(1) currently refers to procedures for informing students, but not parents, about activities of the school.
Section 7 also amends section 27(4) which concerns the role of a student council. The amendment changes the requirement on a student council from one of promoting the interest of the school to a requirement to promote the interest of the students of the school having regard to the characteristic spirit and policies of the school and the charter.
Section 8 provides for replacement of the existing section 28 of the Act of 1998. The existing section 28 of the Education Act 1998 is replaced with a new section 28. The new section 28 is designed to work in tandem with the other charter-related provisions in the Bill. Together, these provisions will ensure that all schools will be required to have and to implement standardised grievance procedures that will be set out in the national charter guidelines following consultation with the education partners. This new section 28 provides that these grievance procedures must provide for matters such as: the requirements to be complied with by the school and the student or parent concerned in relation to the grievance process; the investigation of grievances in a manner appropriate to the nature of the grievance, whether by informal or formal means or both; the resolution of grievances, formally or informally; the giving of reasons for its decisions on grievances; and the implementation of decisions and any remedial action required.
Section 9 is a technical amendment and provides for the amendment of section 42 of the Teaching Council Act 2001 to update an existing cross reference in that Act to section 28 of the Education Act 1998, replacing it with reference to the grievance procedures provided for under this Bill.
Similar to section 9, section 10 provides for a technical amendment of section 9 of the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 to update an existing cross reference in that Act to section 28 of the Education Act 1998.The final section of the Bill, section 11, is a standard provision to provide for the Short Title, commencement and collective citation of the Education Acts. The Bill is important legislation to improve radically the experiences of students and parents in their engagement with schools. I look forward to hearing the views of Members on this important Bill, which I commend to the House.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach seo tráthnóna. The Minister is welcome back to the House. Fianna Fáil is glad to support the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019, which proposes to require every school to prepare, publish and implement a student and parent charter. Each school's charter will adhere to national guidelines and be a valuable tool to ensure clear procedures are in place, that parents and pupils assume a greater role within schools, and that there is transparency in schools' decision-making. While trust in Irish schools and their management bodies is rightfully high, the current complaints system is unclear in some circumstances and may lead to some individuals being unable to find an avenue to have their complaints addressed. While such circumstances appear rare, thankfully, the formalisation of structures through charters is a necessary development. By allowing more complaints to be dealt with at school level by way of clear procedures to ensure consistent responses, the legislation should result in fewer complaints having to be dealt with overall. It is to be hoped the legislation will improve the enforcement and standardisation of responses to emerging challenges in the education sector in the years to come. Fianna Fáil has consistently raised the need to safeguard children from the negative impact of using digital devices. While the Government has issued circulars on the issue, evidence collected by education and training board, ETB, schools indicates that some schools are moving very slowly and are not keeping their policies up to date in this area. It is something to which the Minister might give some attention.
Fianna Fáil is in broad agreement with the Bill and is happy to support it. It provides guidelines for all stakeholders as to what the proper procedures should be. Happily, complaints are generally dealt with at local level and successful resolutions are found. That is the ideal situation. However, in a situation where that is not possible, we must provide a clear pathway for all involved as to what avenues can be pursued to find a resolution. There is currently no central data collection for complaints. It is to be hoped that will no longer be the case once this legislation is implemented.
My one concern, which I ask the Minister to consider, is that I am conscious that when new legislation and guidelines are introduced for schools, they add an additional burden on them and teachers. Our teachers work very hard and, by and large, do an excellent job. I am conscious, however, that from time to time we place additional burdens on them. New procedures are thrown at them and they are expected to get on with it. There will be additional responsibility and additional workloads for teachers and boards of management, of whose role I am also conscious, arising from this legislation. I hope the Minister will provide me with some assurance this afternoon that with this increased workload, additional resources will be provided to schools by the Department to allow them to embrace the provisions as intended by the Legislature. Will the Minister assure the House that schools will be given the resources to meet any additional workload or time required to implement the legislation?
The Minister is welcome to the House and I thank him for bringing forward this important legislation. The Joint Committee on Education and Skills considered the general scheme over a period of time and had an input into it. It is important that the same process is in place across all schools and it is most welcome that this is what the Bill proposes. Guidelines are needed because the important person in all of this is the student. It is very important that students and their families feel included in any process. It is also the case that it makes life easier for boards of management when the same principles apply to all schools and the same guidelines must be complied with. It is very important that if there are issues, a proper process is in place to receive complaints and address them and that people feel their complaints will be listened to. The Bill is welcome at a time when so many issues face not only students but parents. When there is an issue with a student, it brings a great deal of stress into a household as well as placing stress on teachers, staff and boards of management. A process is being proposed to allow everything to run in a smooth manner. I wish the Bill a safe passage through the House.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire, atá anseo chun an t-ábhar seo a phlé linn inniu. Is ábhar thar a bheith tábhachtach é. Beidh an tAire sásta a chluinstin go mbeidh muidne ag tacú leis an mBillle ag an bpointe seo. On the whole, Sinn Féin supports the Bill. It is right to create uniformity in this area and to set out in clear terms the relationship of schools to parents and students. Providing a framework in the form of a charter for parents and students will surely have a positive impact on engagement between parties. However, our party has some issues with the Bill, which could be improved in some areas. We will work collaboratively with the Minister and his officials in that regard.
One of the standard proposals for school charters is that they shall contain information on voluntary contributions. Sinn Féin's long-term view, which I am sure is shared by many Members, is that voluntary contributions should be abolished and that capitation funding must be increased. It is not right that these costs should fall on parents on top of all of the other back-to-school costs they face. Children are constitutionally guaranteed free education, but these contributions are voluntary in name only, with parents feeling obliged to pay them. This is unjust. Many families, especially single-parent households, are forced into debt as a result. The so-called voluntary contribution adds to their misery. The cost of secondary school is €1,735 per child per year, which is an increase of €300 on last year. Over the six-year course of a second level education, the so-called voluntary contribution constitutes a regressive tax which robs parents of an average of €700 per child. That is a failing on the part of the State and we should act to give workers and families a break. Sinn Féin will table an amendment in this regard in the hope of standardising the regulation and collation of data on voluntary contributions.
It is proposed in the Bill that review of the ministerial guidelines shall be at the discretion of the Minister. Experience tells us this is a case of whenever suits as opposed to when there is evidence of systemic flaws. We cannot allow lethargy to weigh down this fundamental relationship between schools and parents, and we will seek to amend this aspect of the Bill. Sinn Féin considers that reviews should be conducted with predictable regularity at intervals of three to five years.
Sinn Féin also considers that section 8 should provide some focus on grievances between parents, students and schools. Section 8(2) appears to Sinn Féin to be open to interpretation and to provide schools with too much discretion in dealing with complaints. Where a complaint is made against a school, it will have the power to dismiss it if it deems it not to be in its interest to investigate it. While such a provision does not appear to me to be appropriate, any solution in this regard should not unduly burden teachers. There may be scope, therefore, to provide that schools must provide in writing their reasons for dismissing complaints. The Bill runs a risk also of making schools feel excluded. Charters are not just about parents and students. They are also about protecting schools and staff. As such, we must ensure the process is inclusive of all key stakeholders. That said, Sinn Féin supports the Bill in principle and will approach amendments in good faith and with an open mind about working with the Minister and Seanad colleagues.
I thank the Minister for coming to the Seanad. I welcome the Bill, which I support. It seeks to secure, through student and parent charters, the greater involvement of all stakeholders in school communities in the collaborative setting of rules and procedures for the running of schools.This is a good thing and is welcome. I strongly believe that students and parents need to feel part of setting the agenda and direction of this area, as they will be most impacted by the final product.
I welcome the requirements placed on boards of management for individual schools to consult with groups such as staff, students and parents when developing the charter and that the Minister must consult with a wide group of education stakeholders as he or she develops the guidelines for the charter. It is also welcome that the grievances within schools, if not resolved at school level, can be taken to the Minister and that he or she has the power to compel and give directions to schools to resolve the issues.
These provisions are welcome but it is an extraordinary shame that although the Minister for Education and Skills has had powers under section 28 of the Education Act to prescribe procedures to resolve grievances in schools for more than 20 years, they have never been used. It does not bode well that the only relevant statutory provisions in this area have never been used by successive Governments. Can the Minister assure the House that his Government and Department will not adopt a similar approach to the provisions of this Bill, which put a national structure on the resolution of issues and grievances? I hope that he will be more proactive in using his powers under the proposed Act and I ask him to give me such an assurance.
It has taken a long time for today's Bill to reach this Stage. Over time, the Bill has been altered arising from a commitment in the programme for Government. The then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, published a draft scheme of the Bill in December 2016, at which point it was sent for pre-legislative scrutiny to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills, of which I am a member. In June 2016, the then Deputy but now Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, introduced a Private Members' Bill called the Education (Amendment) Bill 2015, which sought to establish an office of ombudsman for education to deal with complaints and grievances. As a result of the similarity between the two Bills, the committee agreed to scrutinise them simultaneously and held hearings that were attended by various stakeholders to hear their views on both Bills.
As a result of the structure of the process, we chose to deal with the two Bills. We then decided that it would be appropriate to recommend our preferred Bill. As a committee, we recognised the merits of both approaches, that is, a student and parent charter that is supported by a national statutory guidelines, as well as the setting up of a new ombudsman for education that would deal with these issues professionally and on a full-time basis. We ended up recommending that the Government legislation was our preferred option. I must say that I agreed to support the Government legislation at the time because heads 6 and 7 of the draft scheme contained quite a significant proposal to expand the powers and investigation capacity of the Ombudsman for Children. Under head 6, a board of management would be required to consider any recommendations or observations for the ombudsman. Furthermore, the ombudsman would have been able to forward any recommendations to the Minister, who could then direct the board to comply with the ombudsman's recommendation. This is a very considerable expansion of the powers envisaged for the Ombudsman for Children, who has often complained about the lack of engagement by schools in terms of queries from the office, and it was very welcome to see.
Head 7 of the draft scheme proposed an amendment to the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002, which would have changed the legislation quite significantly in two ways. The first was with a provision that is mirrored in section 10 of the Bill before Members, namely, a change of the investigative procedures to reflect the changes made in this Act. However, there was a second part of the 2016 version, which is notably absent from this Bill. The current position in the 2002 Act is that the ombudsman can only investigate a school once the procedures set out to deal with the complaints and grievances have been dealt with. That means a student or parent must have exhausted every avenue before an ombudsman can step in. The 2016 draft deleted the provision that required this to happen, which would have allowed the ombudsman to step in much earlier in the process and to play a far more active and proactive role in resolving complaints and grievances. The second part from the 2016 draft clearly and notably has been omitted from the Bill before us. I am sure the Minister can see the problem. In 2017, I was a member of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills. At that time I was happy to vote against a legislative route that would have started a new ombudsman for education because in the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill that we also considered, there were two strong provisions that proposed a more active and robust role for the existing Ombudsman for Children. Two years have elapsed since the provisions were proposed. They were the main deciding factor in my lending my support to the charter Bill but they have disappeared without a proper explanation. It is deeply unfair to ask a committee to make a judgment on the Bill when it contained significant and strong provisions to achieve its policy aims only to then drop them when the Bill is introduced to the House, especially when it was those absent provisions that garnered my support in the first place.
I strongly feel that the Ombudsman for Children needs to play a strong and proactive oversight and regulatory role in this area. Without the two exceptions from the 2016 draft scheme, that is impossible under this Bill. The current section 10 simply changes a legislative reference in the 2002 Act. It proposes no new role for the Ombudsman for Children, a fact which was explicitly set out in the briefing that the Department circulated to Senators this week. Why have these useful and worthwhile sections that expanded the role of the ombudsman been dropped over the past two years?
I read the Bill's digest that was prepared by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, which provides the departmental response to the absence of these two sections, one of which is wholly inadequate. The Department claimed that there were concerns about head 7 being inconsistent with the existing 2002 Act. Of course it is inconsistent, as the Government proposed a deliberate expansion of the role. This cannot have been a surprise. There was no explanation offered in respect of head 7, merely a statement that an alternative approach was taken, which is not good enough. Why have the sections been dropped? They were the heart of the oversight mechanism of the 2016 draft heads. I need a proper explanation and if that is not forthcoming, I will table an amendment on Committee Stage to reinstate them.
Students and parents need the option of recourse. If not the board of management, then the Minister, with the Ombudsman for Children, is an obvious choice. The Bill has been significantly watered down.
We also noticed the acknowledgement of voluntary contributions as an element within the legislation. We are in agreement with Sinn Féin in terms of amendments on that area too. I urge the Minister to consider the points that I have set out.
I welcome the Minister to the House. Again, my party supports the Bill, in principle. We will work with the Minister and his officials in as constructive a manner as we possibly can as this Bill makes it way through the House.
I have an issue with the Bill in that, as has been outlined by other speakers, the relationship many students and parents have with schools is a financial one. A disproportionate number of conversations that principals have with parents and that teachers have with parents and students are about money. If that is the basis of a conversation one has with a school because of a voluntary contribution, book money or any other moneys that are perceived to be owing, be it at primary or secondary level and notwithstanding the fact that free education is reputedly a constitutional right, this impinges on one's capacity to have a proper, full or empowering conversation about one's child and his or her development in the school. Regrettably, asking for a voluntary contribution is in the Bill. We should be working our way towards there being no voluntary contributions because the State should properly finance our school system. In other jurisdictions in the European Union and across Europe, such voluntary contributions are banned. The Labour Party has a Bill that proposes to ban voluntary contributions that will come towards the House next week.
If one's conversation as a parent is constantly a reminder, subtle or otherwise, about the necessity for a voluntary contribution or book money to be paid, is one more or less likely to find oneself at the school gates? Is one more or less likely to put oneself forward to become a member of the parents' association? Is one more or less likely to stand for a position on the board of management? Is one more or less like to attend parent-teacher meetings? I suggest, and most people will agree with me, that if money is an issue or if this transactional relationship one has with a school is disproportionately large, then one is less likely to engage and less likely to discuss one's child in terms of development and education, how to help one's child at home, how to read to one's child at home, how one can improve a child's oral language skills, improve literacy or how to engage with the system when one's child has a diagnosis about which one has concerns. Unfortunately, the conversation comes back to the book money or the voluntary contribution etc.
It is far too expensive, in a society that calls itself a republic and one that has a Constitution that underpins the right to free education, to send one's child to school.We have spoken about uniforms. County Derry is close to the Minister's constituency. In the Six Counties, school books are free because a determination was made once upon a time that school books should be free and no parent of a child in the North of Ireland pays for books. It would cost the Exchequer €20 million to provide that at primary level in the Republic. I believe it is not just a financial issue; I believe the Department is horrified at the suggestion that it would engage itself in the day-to-day management of schools. That is the real reason because it wants to allow the patron bodies to maintain the power and autonomy. This Bill comes from a good place. What the Minister is trying to achieve is that parents and students feel more empowered and greater partners in the education system and in their school life. That is to be congratulated and supported. That is what we want to do.
There is a wider issue about whether we tinker with the system or radically overhaul and improve it. Based on my experience as a school teacher and a principal, I was having too many conversations with parents about money. In the context of a DEIS school in an acutely disadvantaged area, even when the book rental scheme was available for all children and it was much cheaper for them to avail of school books than for any other child, having to ask for €60 impinged on my capacity to talk to that parent about other issues that I should have been talking about. Where a parents' association believes that it is fundamentally a fundraising association, it cannot deal with matters of policy and procedure that it should be promoting and thinking progressively about how the school is managing itself, thinking long-term about the school community. How anyone can feel that they are playing on a level playing pitch in the school community if they do not have the ability to make a voluntary contribution, regardless of whether the school has a progressive and open-minded view as to who can afford and who cannot? If one feels as if one cannot afford to contribute, that will impinge on the way that one will engage. This could be the beginning of a conversation on how we fund our schools, how our schools are managed, and the way we view education as a public good, and not something to be purchased. We should not have an expectation that parents' associations fundraise, that voluntary contributions are collected and that books are paid for. Other societies have made different value judgments about education and they have cleared the conversation about finance to one side because it has nothing to do with education and they have maximised this beautiful relationship between the teacher, child and parents and the school and money has no place in this conversation. If this is the beginning of a road to achieve that, we are all for it and the Labour Party will support it, but it is worthy of us to have the conversation. I cannot expect the Minister to say he totally agrees with me, and has a bag of cash to change the way we have always done things overnight. I accept that, but if we are enshrining in legislation an understanding that there will always be a voluntary contribution, that is a failing.
If we are empowering on one level but accepting this transactional relationship on another, we are not achieving as much as we could have. I appreciate the good place that this is coming from. The power imbalance has been there in the past and the legislation is trying to address that but, as other speakers have rightly said, there is a bigger conversation to be had about how the school system is funded, the way the Department is willing or unwilling to engage in the day-to-day management of schools, the way the system is organised in the North of Ireland and how we could replicate that in the South and having a deeper and more profound vision of how education can lift up, set free and liberate every child in the land. It should never be relegated by a conversation about money.
Cuirim fáilte arís roimh an Aire. It is important to recognise that to most schools a student charter is nothing new and the substance of what is being proposed is happening in practice without any State intervention. There is certainly something to be said for codifying the practice across all schools to ensure best practice. We need to ensure that we are doing this in a way that respects the rights of students and parents while not impinging on the independence of schools and their ability to administer their own affairs as well. It is reasonable to seek that balance in any measure coming from the State at this time.
The Long Title makes it clear on whom the Bill places obligations and who is to benefit when it states: "An Act to require the boards of management of schools to prepare, publish and implement charters for students and parents". The Bill gives the Minister the power to direct school boards to comply with the guidelines issued by him. It is important to acknowledge a number of aspects of boards of management. I am an interested party, because I am chairman of a board of management at a primary school in Galway, where I live. These are entirely voluntary bodies that engage in tremendous work across the country. In the Catholic school sector, at least 20,000 people serve on boards of management alone and these people receive no pay or expenses of any kind and their only interest is that the school operates efficiently for the benefit of children and the community. They deserve credit for the work they are doing and the public service they are involved in delivering. We need to acknowledge as well the excellent job that schools and teachers do generally and the fact that the vast majority of parents are happy with their performance. We always need to be sensitive to any suggestion that this Bill is needed because boards of management are somehow being negligent in the way they currently do their business. That is not true in the vast majority of cases.
I have spoken many times in the House about rights and responsibilities and how they should go together where there is a quid pro quo, and that mutuality should always guide policymakers and those who shape and frame legislation. One of my concerns about this Bill is that it seems keen to impose significant obligations on boards of management, without also having expectations or expressing expectations of student, parents and the wider school community. It confers significant rights on students and parents in respect of access to information and so forth from school authorities. What responsibilities does it attempt to confer on parents or students or does it attempt to reference? What additional buy-in is expected of parents, in particular, in return for this? The Minister might usefully address this and I would be grateful if he would because it was not evident to me from reading the Bill.
Aspects of the general scheme cause me some concern but appear to have been addressed in the drafting of the Bill itself. For example, the scheme states charters will include details of the service the school will provide. I know I used the phrase "public service" earlier but it is inappropriate to refer to schools providing a service, as if it were a business of some kind, and I am glad that sort of language has not made it through to the Bill. Schools are not businesses or service providers, although a service is involved and service to others is involved, but they are community institutions, which are a partnership between students, parents, teachers, boards of management, patrons, and finally in supporting and backing it up, the State. We need to be conscious that there is no suggestion that boards of management or teachers should be singled out or held to account for problems that may not necessarily exist. We are all aware of schools in our communities where a small number of parents engage in behaviours which are not respectful and they are constantly critical of schools and teachers. We have heard of stories of young teachers being abused and insulted by parents, vexatious complaints being made and so on. Only last evening a good friend of mine - who is a second level deputy school principal and a very enlightened person very much focused on the empowerment and welfare of students - described a situation where a parent was tearing strips out of her in the context of the child, who has challenging behaviour and was threatening to make complaints against her. Her only answer was cheerfully to offer the parent a form and show the parent how to fill it out. We need to acknowledge that is part of the reality in sections of our community that make the teaching life difficult at times.
Regarding charters, it is important, as I have always said, that we do not just talk about rights, as important as they are, as there has to be a mutuality. We need to find ways to talk about responsibilities as well and alert people to their responsibilities. They are a tiny minority, but we need to ensure that teachers and school management do not feel we are ignoring these cases and taking a stance that gives students and parents new rights at their expense.We should remember at all times that the primary role of the educator of children falls to parents. Research demonstrates consistently that the greater the involvement and interest of parents in their children's education, the better the outcomes for the children. Beyond this, the Education Act 1998 provides that the Minister has a responsibility to set national education policy and ensure adequate provision is made for all children to be educated according to the wishes of their parents and "the practices and traditions relating to the organisation of schools [...] and the right of schools to manage their own affairs in accordance with [...] any charters [...] or other such instruments relating to their establishment". Section 15 of the 1998 Act also makes it clear that boards of management owe their duties to the patrons of schools for the benefit of students and their parents, not to the State or the Minister for Education and Skills. The idea is boards of management should be unhindered in how they operate schools as long as they observe the objects of national education policy. That, of course, is always the rub. What should come under national education policy? One person's necessary and desirable extension of national education policy and the requirements it places on schools is another's mission creep. The State must always be conscious that it is in a partnership, rather than a domination, role.
The Bill involves the setting of prescriptive standards by way of legislation and guidelines for what the proposed charters should contain. It will allow the Minister, in effect, to prescribe the content of such charters as section 27A states a board of management shall not include in a charter any content that is not in accordance with or as provided for by the charter guidelines. That causes me concern. I wonder what mischief it is meant to address. As a provision, it appears exclusivist in its language, albeit I acknowledge freely that the Minister may have a very good answer to the question. If so, I would like to hear it.
The Minister for Education and Skills will also be allowed to intervene directly under the provisions of section 27D where he or she believes the new standards are being inadequately followed or not at all. This may be justifiable where there are widespread problems in the way schools are administering their affairs. However, we must be honest too about the extent to which such problems actually arise. I have no objection to student and parent charters in principle. However, there is an important principle of mutuality, of which we must not lose sight. That is the main point in what I have had to say.
I will refer briefly to what Senator Ó Ríordáin has been saying about money and voluntary contributions. I sympathise with his perspective and recognise his experience in education. None of us would be happy with a situation in which a parent's ability to engage with a school as an equal and respected person within that relationship would be compromised by issues connected with the ability to make a contribution of one kind or another. That is certainly not where we want the education system to be. However, I will make two points and they are not to seek to trump in any way what Senator Ó Ríordáin says. I do not think they do. However, they are points that should always be taken into consideration in this context. The first is expressed in the old Irish saying "an rud a fhaightear go bog caitear go bog é," the thing that is easily acquired is easily thrown away. While contributions should always be according to people's means, part of me sympathises with the view that at some level there should not be an expectation that the State will provide everything and that something is expected from families. We point, rightly, to gaps in the health service which cause the vulnerable to suffer and angrily and righteously seek to address them. It is the same with the education system. However, that does not mean that we should not promote and propose a mentality of participation, contribution and sacrifice. I would not like that sense of public expectation that there would be an attempt to make a contribution, having regard to the means of the individual, disappear. Too often, we hear in public debates a certain mentality expressed as follows: what about me and what about my rights? A society cannot survive and remain healthy for long if that is the dominant narrative. As such and while recognising the complete validity of what Senator Ó Ríordáin says, there has to be space in the conversation to inculcate publicly a sense that a contribution is expected. That should apply not only to voluntary schools but to State-funded schools also.
The bigger point perhaps is as follows. We can talk about voluntary contributions and how iniquitous and involuntary they may, in fact, be, which is certainly true. However, the long running debate about the unequal funding of schools, having regard to whether they are ETB or voluntary schools, has not been resolved. We have heard recently from school secretaries, for example, who receive very low pay and have very poor employment or earnings prospects in the voluntary sector. People working in the State system, however, enjoy a completely different level of remuneration and security. If we are to be honest and fair in this debate, the issue of unequal contributions and State support for schools must be addressed as well as and no later than the issue of voluntary contributions. The State has a duty to support schooling of whatever kind parents and families choose. There was a time when there was religious staffing of schools, which meant that there were, in effect, free, non-salaried contributions to the effort or service, if I can use that word, those schools provided. To some degree that let the State off the hook as to how it funded those schools. As I understand it, these inequalities continue to this day and they must be addressed. One cannot simply talk about the problem with voluntary contributions without accepting that there is an inequality which must be addressed at the same time. Otherwise, one would unfairly deprive schools of the chance to avail of the voluntary contributions necessary to make up the shortfall which stems from unequal State funding.
My reply to the debate may be brief as I am due to be in the Dáil at 5 p.m. If the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, appears, I will disappear. Rather than read the prepared concluding speech, I will take the time to make a few points.
First, I welcome greatly the tone and approach of the House to the Bill, on which we will work together. There are areas where we can try to meet, if not all of the way, at least on some of it. It was noteworthy to hear Senators say in their contributions that, in the main, the legislation was good. I will refer to some of the areas in which there may be concern, taking the last speaker first.
Senator Mullen referred to the national guidelines and how they fit in with the local question of protecting the individuality and authenticity of particular schools. The consultation process with education stakeholders will be very important in that regard. It will include boards of management. A number of Members contributed on boards of management which are the single largest voluntary grouping in the State after the GAA. The GAA is to be found in every parish and there are many primary schools at parish level. I take the point that we must ensure boards of management which are already under many obligations on a voluntary basis will not have anything added to their workload. Senator Gallagher referred to initiative fatigue and the amount of paperwork teachers and school leaders had to do. We do not want to get into that space. Schools already prepare school plans which will fit into the new national guidelines set out in the Bill.
Issues were raised, including by Senators Ó Ríordáin and Ó Donghaille, about voluntary contributions. What we will see under this legislation is a more transparent approach to how schools raise funds.There will be more transparency within this charter, with information on fundraising and where the money is spent.
There is the difficult and real world where many schools find themselves in at this present point in time, whether it is a school tour at the back end of the year or swimming classes with bus and associated costs. We, as a Government, try to make decisions to take the pressure off the day-to-day running of schools. That is why we increased the capitation last year by 5%, which effectively means €4 million is available this term, and €6 million for the next term, bringing it to €10 million in total. I am aware that we still have a place to go with capitation funding because when one talks to schools, boards of management, school principals and parents' associations, they feel that they are stretched as to the overall running costs of the schools. This is something of which I am deeply conscious.
Senator Ruane raised a number of issues regarding the Ombudsman for Children provisions. Before speaking on head 7, which she referenced here, during the formal drafting process certain concerns arose about how some of the general scheme's provisions relating to the Ombudsman for Children would have had the effect of fundamentally changing how the Ombudsman for Children operates, by compelling school boards to consider any suggestions, guidance or recommendations, rather than working to encourage schools to take actions to solve the matter.
Head 7 proposed the removal of the provision of the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 which prevents the Ombudsman for Children's Office, OCO, from investigating a complaint until the local school compliance processes have been exhausted. It was proposed to delete this provision in the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002, to prevent schools from frustrating or stalling an investigation of a complaint by the ombudsman in that regard. This provision needs further consideration by the Department of Education and Skills in conjunction with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Ombudsman for Children's Office and the Office of the Attorney General before a decision is made on introducing this provision as an amendment to the Bill on Committee Stage. I appreciate the Senator raising this point and hear what she is saying. We will continue to work on that.
I want to re-emphasise the importance of consultation. Sometimes when we introduce guidelines, there is a fear that it is top-down. It is not a top-down, and as everybody has emphasised during their contributions, a lot of schools are already doing this, whether it is in an informal or ad hocway. There are very strong relationships between parents and students and many of these issues, as Senator Gallagher pointed out, are resolved on the ground at a local level. We want that to continue and to ensure that, as practicable as is possible, these issues can be sorted at a local level before entering a whole formal way, which is the best approach.
I want to acknowledge my own colleague, Senator Byrne, who keeps me right on these matters on the education committee as well. I also want to reaffirm my desire, as this Bill channels through both Houses, that we work with each other. If there are areas or issues that Members feel we can work more closely on, I will be happy to do so.
I apologise, a Chathaoirligh, for rushing as I believe I was due in the Dáil three minutes ago.