Wednesday, 6 November 2019
Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019: Committee Stage
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 5, between lines 27 and 28, to insert the following:
"(d) the right of teachers and other school employees to recognition of their safety, health and welfare at work, including their right to dignity at work and recognition of their professional judgements;".
Perhaps we can hear the Minister's response rather than prolonging the process. I seek the liberty to resubmit the amendment on the next Stage.
I thank the Senator for moving this amendment. I am glad to be back in the House working on this important legislation. I assure the House that this Bill does not alter in any way the existing rights of teachers and other employees under current employment, health and safety legislation and other relevant legislation, nor will it interfere with disciplinary processes under section 24 of the Education Act 1998. I appreciate, however, that the Senator is seeking to ensure the guidelines take due account of the perspective of school teaching staff and other staff alongside those of parents and students. In that regard, I assure the Senator that there are a number of provisions in the Bill already that ensure the guidelines and school charters will be balanced.
This approach is founded on shifting away from reacting to problems in schools as and when they arise to an approach that aims to improve the day-to-day experience students and their parents can expect from schools. In doing so, it is envisaged that relationships between schools, students and parents will be strengthened and that the number of grievances in schools should reduce. The Bill includes a specific provision to ensure the appropriate balance is struck. We are seeking a balance and a common-sense approach that can sort out problems before there is further gridlock. For example, it will require the Minister, in drawing up the charter guidelines, to have regard to the need for a school to foster and promote the relationship and a spirit of partnership between a school, students and their parents.
The Bill also provides that the Minister must consult the education partners. Even when this Bill passes through the House, the most fundamental stage will be consultation with the education partners. That includes the teachers' unions. This comprises a fundamental part of the process when developing the guidelines. Within the primary sector, there is a good informal mechanism that acts as a very good conduit, namely, the Primary Education Forum. At secondary school level, the unions, various partnerships and the education partners will have a say. This consultative approach will help to ensure the perspectives of all stakeholders, including school management and staff, will be sought and taken into account in developing the guidelines.
Under this Bill, a comprehensive framework will be put in place for the first time to ensure standardised grievance procedures across all schools. All these measures aim to ensure the charter guidelines and school charters will be workable, balanced and fair to all concerned, including school staff. Taking on board the spirit of the amendment, I reassure Senator Boyhan and the other Members that the role and rights of teachers will be protected. They are already protected in legislation. I will not be in a position to accept the amendment, as proposed.
I welcome the Minister to the House. As a former Member, he will be anxious to engage to the nth degree to accommodate the views of this House, as he does on every occasion. I am happy with much of his response on the amendment, which I welcome.
In framing the document on the rights and responsibilities, the charter and the guidelines, it is crucial that the professionalism, dignity, rights and centrality of the teacher be taken into account. Teachers are very much key personnel in the school community. We have to accommodate their rights and realistic expectations.
I was happy to hear the Minister say the stakeholders will be listened to keenly and seriously in the formation of the guidelines. I am firmly of the view that the rights, dignity and professionalism of the teachers should be central to any school charter or set of guidelines. The teachers are very much central to the entire process; they are not just stakeholders. The school community has now widened. It is wonderful that parents, pupils and others are involved. In the old days, the community was very teacher-centric. We cannot move from the older model to a completely new one if the teachers are not regarded as key personnel. They are very professional. This should be enshrined in guidelines and the ultimate charter. I will return to this theme again because it is key.
I, too, welcome the Minister back to the House. As with the previous speaker, I was heartened by his introductory comments on this issue. It is important that all stakeholders have an equal platform. I was heartened by his contribution and am happy to leave it at that.
I wanted to welcome the Minister and am sorry I did not do so at the beginning. He is always very welcome to the House. He has a track record of really meaningful engagement.
I note what the Minister said and I am happy to accept it if I have the liberty to resubmit my amendment on Report Stage, if necessary. Could I have some guidance on that from the Chair?
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 6, line 4, to delete "grievances" and substitute "issues of concern".
As I am conscious that these amendments are in the name of Senator Craughwell, I will be happy to hear a brief response from the Minister on each, if possible.
The Bill explicitly emphasises the need for early resolution. This is also not about reinventing the wheel. Many schools already engage in early resolution really well. They have their own policies in the form of their own individual charters. Each school has good practice, a good track record and good experience in ensuring issues can be addressed early before they become potentially unresolvable. In that regard, a central aim of this Bill is to ensure concerns of students or their parents are resolved quickly and informally without recourse to any formal complaints mechanism. This is clear from the explicit requirement in the Bill for the Minister to have regard for the need for schools to address and resolve concerns insofar as possible at an early stage.
The Bill's approach is that concerns must be raised initially in an informal manner with the school or relevant teacher and that they should be dealt with early and without recourse to any formal grievance or complaints procedure. Concerns, therefore, will continue to be addressed initially in this informal and practical manner by schools. However, the Bill recognises the reality that not all concerns will be resolved in this way and it therefore provides for standardised procedures to be put in place to deal with concerns that are not resolved early, for whatever reason. Accordingly, the Bill broadly envisages a two-stage approach. First, concerns are initially to be raised and dealt with informally and as early as possible. The majority of issues should be and will continue to be dealt with in this way. Second, where it is not possible to resolve an issue in this way, a grievance may be raised and dealt with through the standardised grievance procedures. The clear distinction in the Bill between initial concerns that are dealt with informally and quickly and grievances that fall to be dealt with under the grievance procedure is important and reflects the Bill's staged approach to dealing with issues.The group of amendments proposed by the Senator would conflate these separate concepts and would not work in the context of the various other provisions in the Bill. For these reasons, I cannot accept them.
I assure the Senator and the House that common sense will prevail. Quickly identifying a problem at the beginning before it becomes unresolvable will continue to be at the heart of the Bill.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 6, between lines 11 and 12, to insert the following:“(k) the procedures relating to the use of reduced timetables in the school;”.
I thank the Minister for appearing before the House. As I stated on Second Stage, I strongly support the Bill in general and welcome its return to the House. It will require schools throughout the country and the communities that surround them to collaborate to produce bespoke charters that will underpin how students, parents, teachers and schools engage with, and relate to, one another. This is a significant development in how the education system is structured and should be welcomed.
Nevertheless, I propose a number of amendments with the aim of strengthening the Bill and hope they will be received in the constructive spirit in which they have been tabled. Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 are to section 27B, a new section proposed to be inserted into the Education Act 1998. The section sets out the guiding principles and procedures to be adhered to by the Minister for Education and Skills when drafting the national guidelines that set out how individual schools' charters are drafted, who must be consulted and what must be included. Subsection (3) of the proposed new section sets out 11 paragraphs of specific matters that may be covered by the charter guidelines, including procedures for student consultation, school management structure and policies on voluntary contributions. The subsection is important because it is a list of the areas the Minister will set out as matters to be addressed in the charters eventually drawn up in schools throughout the country. With amendments Nos. 3 and 4, I propose to add two further paragraphs explicitly to indicate that they are matters to be covered by school charters.
In the case of amendment No. 3, I propose that the Minister will address the use of reduced timetables as an area in the charter guidelines explicitly to be covered within the charter of a school. As Senators will be aware, reduced timetables are a practice recognised in schools where the school will arrange for a student either to be sent home before the end of the day or to arrive later than usual, reducing the contact hours of the student with his or her primary or secondary education. As the child still attends school in theory, no notification to Tusla of school absence is required. They have been used by teachers and school boards to manage challenging behaviour of students. They are a shameful practice and anecdotal evidence indicates they have been used disproportionately in the case of lower-income students, Traveller students and students with a disability. Their use must end.
In recent months, we in the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills have investigated such practices in detail, holding public hearings with stakeholders in May and publishing an interim report before the summer that rejected their use in all but exceptional circumstances. It is welcome that in response, the Minister's Department has published draft guidelines on the matter that require a notification to Tusla and the collection of national statistics, and that he appeared before the education committee to engage with us in September. I also welcomed the invitation to stakeholders to submit their observations, a process in which I was happy to engage. In my submission to the consultation group, I noted that the use of reduced timetables would decrease if teachers had greater understanding of the socioeconomic factors that might lead a child to act out in a classroom setting, and that reforms to teacher training in this regard may be useful. I also suggested that the Minister appoint an officer, either within his Department or more regionally, to work on resolving such issues among students, parents and schools on a full-time basis, and to act as an advocate for the household. Such a person could act not only as a mediator but also as an independent advocate for students and families with less capacity to advocate for themselves. Finally, I suggested in my submission that we give statutory effect to the guidelines, or at least make a statutory reference to the proposed procedures for reduced timetables, within the legislation.
The Bill proposes a new era of collaborative decision-making and agreement in schools and families, which is the motivation for amendment No. 3. If reduced timetables were given statutory provision in the Bill and included in the initial engagements that will lead to the first school charters being drawn up, we could reduce their incidence to zero, which would be an incredible achievement and legacy for the Bill. I urge the Minister to accept it.
Amendment No. 4 is proposed in a similar spirit and relates to the use of seclusion and restraints in schools. As the Minister will be aware, last September, Inclusion Ireland published a report that detailed anecdotal evidence on the use of seclusion and restraints in schools whereby a child is physically restrained by a teacher or school staff member when exhibiting challenging behaviour or, worse again, isolated in a locked space or room. My office has drafted legislation on the matter that we have yet to table. The report highlighted how such techniques are used mainly in the case of children with intellectual disabilities, an even more concerning detail about an already concerning practice. Such techniques should not be used in classrooms and their use must end. Teachers must receive the appropriate training to de-escalate episodes before such extreme techniques are required, as are national statutory guidelines and reporting mechanisms on their use, which do not currently exist, for when they may be required as a last resort.
A working group in the Department is examining the matter, which I welcome, and I accept that the Minister will resist making an addition to the Bill, given that the group is expected to engage in public consultation soon. Nevertheless, my amendments are not prescriptive and will allow him to include the results of the process in the national guidelines for charters. Measures such as reduced timetables and seclusion and restraint are often used in circumstances where families have poor relationships with schools and teachers and there is a vacuum of communication and engagement. Expressly referring to such issues in the law governing national statutory guidelines for charters will ensure the creation of a collaborative learning environment in which it is hoped such issues would not arise in the first instance.
On seclusion and restraint in particular, the guidelines will need to be backed up by statutory power. A circular will not be enough. When such techniques are used in hospitals and social care facilities such as nursing homes, there is mandatory reporting to the HSE. When they are used in schools, especially in the case of those under the age of 18 years, there is an even greater requirement for State regulation and reporting. I urge the Minister to accept amendment No. 4 because it will allow for statutory teeth to be given to the efforts to eliminate such concerning practices altogether.
What we are trying to do is broaden the scope of the legislation. If we are specific about policies at this stage of the legislation's passage, its scope will be narrowed. Nevertheless, that is not say the important points the Senator raised should not be highlighted within the guidelines. She mentioned the education partners, which will have a specific role and remit in getting their voice across. The two issues are important and I acknowledge they have been in the public domain for a while. The Senator referred to schools using reduced timetables as a practice but they should not be used as a behavioural mechanism. It is not acceptable that schools use reduced timetables to deal with behavioural issues.
As for what we are doing, the Senator highlighted some of the steps we have taken. Having consulted Tusla and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, my Department has drafted guidelines on the use of reduced timetables in schools. My Department has recently invited submissions from the education partners on those draft guidelines and the matter is ongoing. The closing date for making submissions was 25 October 2019 and my Department is considering the submissions received. The purpose of the guidelines will be to provide clarity to school authorities, parents and guardians on the use of reduced timetables and reduced days in schools to ensure their use is limited to those circumstances where it is necessary, and that where such use occurs, schools must follow best practice, with the interests of the student to the fore. My Department's position on the matter remains, as previously stated, that each and every child has a right to an education and all students enrolled in a school should attend for the full school day unless exempt for doing so in exceptional circumstances.
On the second issue the Deputy raised, in respect of seclusion and restraint, an expert working group established by my Department is developing new guidelines for schools on the prevention and management of behaviours that challenge, including the use of physical intervention, where such behaviour is considered likely to present serious risk of harm to the student concerned and-or others within the school environment.An expert group established by my Department is currently developing new guidelines for schools on the prevention and management of challenging behaviours, including the use of physical intervention where such behaviour is considered likely to present serious risk of harm to the student concerned or others within the school environment. The working group's work on drafting the guidelines is at an advanced stage. It is anticipated that the draft guidelines will be ready for consultation with the education partners later this month. The guidelines will assist schools in responding in circumstances in which students pose an immediate threat of harm to themselves or others. They will be underpinned by the principle that such interventions are never used for the purposes of discipline, should be applied proportionately and should not last longer than necessary. It is expected that the guidelines will underline the importance of recording such incidents and how they are managed.
The amendments proposed by the Senator involve really important issues. She has contributed to the debate on such issues at many public forums. I thank her for her contribution in this regard. I have availed of this opportunity to update the House on where we are at with these working groups. I reiterate that the legislative structure we are trying to put in place involves a broad mechanism. If we start reaching into different policy areas, the scope of this legislation will be broadened. I am not saying that these two important issues will not be at the heart of the guidelines when the consultation begins after this legislation goes through. Although it would be in keeping with the overall approach and aims of the legislation to single out particular policies in the manner proposed by these amendments, I do not want to narrow the scope of this legislation. I appreciate the importance of these two points. I have had an opportunity to update the House. Unfortunately, for the reasons I have outlined I will not be accepting the two amendments.
I have heard the Minister's response. I acknowledge the work that Senator Ruane has put into these amendments. I support them because they are really important. I know the Minister cannot be too restrictive or prescriptive. The Senator has raised two key issues and has referred to the Ombudsman for Children. It is clear that this legislation will be progressed. I would like to indicate my support for Senator Ruane's position on this critically important matter. The Minister has accepted its importance. It is a question of how it is bedded into the guidelines. I know the Minister cannot micromanage the whole thing because it has so many aspects. Critical educational issues have been raised. They pertain to the role, function and remit of the Ombudsman for Children. I will be lending my support to these two amendments throughout this process as long as they are on the agenda. I thank Senator Ruane for the enormous amount of work she has put into these amendments. I know she has put a lot of work into them. I know she has engaged with many people on them, particularly people who have a particular role and interest in this whole area. I want to say here and now that I am going to stay with these amendments. I am committing to supporting them as long as they stay on the clár.
I welcome the Minister. Sinn Féin intends to support Senator Ruane on these amendments. I know the Minister is aware of the extent of the scandal of reduced timetables. I want to acknowledge his commitment to tackling this issue. We all appreciate why these amendments are so important. Sinn Féin intends to support Senator Ruane on these amendments.
I thank the Minister for his response. Before I say whether I will press these amendments, I would like to know more about the working group that is looking into the issue of restraint and seclusion. I ask the Minister to give that information to me now, or between now and Report Stage. The parents I have been supporting are concerned about the use of exclusion in some circumstances in special schools that were set up specifically to work with kids who have extra needs. Parents in one school have told me about the use of what they would describe as a cupboard with some sensory stuff put on the wall, which had been empty a few weeks previously. We are talking about children who need to have Asperger's syndrome or autism meltdowns. I am not sure whether the Minister has ever seen a child having an autism meltdown. It is something I am very familiar with. I am concerned that staff in schools which have been set up specifically to work with certain children try to restrain those children when they use their normal tools to regulate their emotions. Specific things are required to support a child during an autism meltdown and to make him or her feel safe that he or she will not be harmed. If school staff can stay the course for the few minutes - it could be ten minutes - that an Asperger's syndrome or autism meltdown lasts, the child will come out the other end in a much more relieved and regulated space. The problem is that children in many schools are being punished for using their natural tools for the regulation of their emotions. Their feelings may have been triggered by the sensory stuff they took in during a particular moment.
I will not name the schools where staff have pulled children into isolation rooms and left them there on their own and in fear. Those who work in a school where children have certain ways of coping should recognise that those children should not be excluded for doing the very things that help them to get on with their school day. The working group can look at the techniques involved in obvious restraints, but I am concerned that some of the more underhand stuff might not come out with a working group. I wonder what kind of engagement is happening between parents and the working group. Some parents are sending their kids to school every day even though they are uncomfortable with the practices at the school. They may have waited a year for a place in the school. They are wondering whether their children are going to be punished - perhaps by being locked away in a room - for displaying a behaviour that is very normal to the condition they have. They have no option other then to send them back there every day. As a mother, I cannot imagine the impossible situation they have been put in. I wonder what kind of engagement is happening with parents who are in this position. They are not speaking publicly at present because they are afraid that their children will lose their school places. There should be an avenue for parents to provide more concrete and specific examples of the use of isolation rooms. Some of these rooms are being reframed as sensory rooms. They were not set up as sensory rooms. They are literally isolation rooms. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that. I am happy to withdraw these amendments on the basis that there will be further engagement between now and Report Stage.
It is clear that the Senator's level of detail and experience on the whole issue of seclusion and restraint is really important. I take it from what she has said that a strong voice, which is focusing on what will and will not work, needs to be heard. This work will be presented to the education partners at the end of November, which is this month and not next month. It is a semi-formal environment. The primary forum is an example. There will be individual and group consultation. I know it will include the National Parents Council, for example. I take the Senator's point that there are experiences out there which need to be heard because they might help to signpost us in the right direction. I am happy to set up a meeting between my officials and the Senator. If she wants to bring in a few parents or teachers who have been involved in this area in the past, I will be happy to facilitate that. I thank the Senator.
I will not repeat the reasons I am not accepting these two amendments. I have highlighted those reasons. I would like to emphasise that the need for schools to provide key information about their policies, procedures and activities to students and parents and to consult students and parents on individual school plans is central to the charter approach in this Bill. A bottom-up approach will be taken after this legislation has been passed. Each school will have to develop its own policies within the guidelines. The voices of parents and students will have to be at the heart of that. They will want to know what the specific policies for that school are. In the legislative framework, we have presented an empowerment process for parents and students who feel they do not have a voice.We are all in unison in regard to ensuring we have the proper framework for that to materialise.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 6, between lines 14 and 15, to insert the following:
“(4) (a) Schools shall, in addition to 27B (3)(g), provide to both parents and the Department of Education information relating to voluntary contributions, inclusive of the total monies collected annually, and a detailed expenditure of those monies by the school; and
(b) The Department of Education shall publish this information on the website, updating it on an annual basis.”.
I am delighted the Minister has just made the comment that the purpose of this Bill is to ensure that key information is given to parents. In that spirit, I hope he will be supporting this amendment, which seeks to regulate and collate data pertaining to voluntary contributions. I am sure the Minister would agree that is key information for parents. As matters currently stand, the Department has none of this data available to it. We think it is important it should have access to it and that it is published so we know how much is collected by schools on an annual basis. As the Minister knows, some schools are using these voluntary contributions to pay for basics such as light and heat due to under-funding via the capitation grants allocated to them. This is causing substantial pressure to be placed on parents, and students are suffering because of their parents' inability to pay.
It is a very practical amendment which addresses a data deficit that currently exists within the Department. We all know of the struggles of parents to pay voluntary contributions and, as someone with three teenagers going to school at present, I have first-hand knowledge of it. We all know that voluntary contributions, by their nature, are unjust but we know they are happening, we know they have been in place for a number of years and we know they are not going away any time soon, unfortunately. At the very least, we hope the Minister will agree that this charter should include a requirement for information on voluntary contributions for the sake of transparency for parents in particular, but also for the Department, so we can gauge each year what is the real deficit that schools are looking at in terms of being able to provide optimum supports to students and teachers alike. It is a very practical, simple, common sense amendment and I look forward to the Minister's response on the issue.
I want to indicate my support for Senator Gavan. It is a simple amendment and it should not be complex to introduce. There has been a lot of discussion on this matter. I thank Senator Gavan for bringing the amendment forward. He has my support.
I want to revert to the contribution of Senator Ruane and I compliment her on the work she has done in this area. I also compliment the Minister on the open door policy he has adopted. I am hopeful an agreement can be reached between all in moving forward.
I compliment Senator Gavan for bringing forward the amendment, which we will be supporting as it makes perfect sense. There is no need for me to elaborate further on it other than to say we will be supporting the amendment.
At the heart of this legislation is the need to provide more transparency. As the Senator said, this is about information for parents, whether it is €2 that has been collected for a school bus to go to a swimming pool, or a golf classic that has been organised by the local parents association to raise money for the school. It is also important in order to protect schools that people know what the money is going to be used for or where it is going to be spent. That is why there will be very specific guidelines around the transparency structure in regard to the money that is raised and where it is spent. The capacity will happen within the school, which will have an opportunity through its own website to inform parents and the local community.
The heart of the amendment, if I am not mistaken, is to ensure that we embed and copperfasten that transparency focus. The difficulty I have with the amendment is an issue which was highlighted to me in my first week in the job at a National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, NAPD, conference in Galway, namely, initiative overload and the further administrative work for principals and school leaders. To be honest, there is already a heavy administrative burden and the last thing I want to do through this legislation is to add to that. I do not want to compel schools to have a fully filled out administrative form going to the Department on a biannual or annual basis. The school already has been afforded that opportunity through the website and, obviously, my Department officials will have access to all of that information as well.
While I am conscious of the extra administrative workload, I am also very appreciative of the spirit of this amendment because it is exactly at the heart of what we are doing in terms of transparency of information on where the money is spent. Despite increasing capitation this year, following on from increases last year, we still have a long way to go in terms of dealing with the 11% reduction in 2009. Schools are under pressure and they are doing quite a bit of fundraising, but where they are raising money, it is important that the school community and parents know exactly where the money is being spent.
Unfortunately, I am not in a position to accept this amendment but I appreciate that at the heart of what the Senator is saying is an attempt to ensure transparency. No doubt, all of that information that will be available publicly on a website would already be made available to our officials. I do not want to add to the administrative workload.
I thank the Minister for the response. We will have to agree to disagree on this. The implication of this amendment is very simple. My own children's secondary school already knows what it collects each year in voluntary contributions. This is not onerous. Transparency is important and it is particularly important that we have transparency in regard to exactly what voluntary contributions amount to each year. While that would be very useful for the Department to know, we know it is not currently collated. This is the opportunity to do it and it would be sad to miss that opportunity. Regrettably, I will have to pursue this amendment.
Ivana Bacik, Victor Boyhan, Rose Conway Walsh, Mark Daly, Paul Daly, Aidan Davitt, Maire Devine, Robbie Gallagher, Paul Gavan, Alice Mary Higgins, Kevin Humphreys, Terry Leyden, Pádraig MacLochlainn, Rónán Mullen, Gerald Nash, Pádraig Ó Céidigh, Niall Ó Donnghaile, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Ned O'Sullivan, Lynn Ruane.
Jerry Buttimer, Maria Byrne, Paudie Coffey, Martin Conway, Frank Feighan, Maura Hopkins, Billy Lawless, Anthony Lawlor, Tim Lombard, Gabrielle McFadden, Kieran O'Donnell, Marie Louise O'Donnell, John O'Mahony, Joe O'Reilly, Neale Richmond.
The amendment provides that the national charter guidelines would have to include model charters for schools which boards would have to follow in preparing their individual charters. The national charter guidelines will ensure clarity and consistency of approach across schools, but it is not the Bill's intention that every school's charter will be exactly the same. Schools, by their nature, are different one from the other. They vary a great deal in size and circumstances, from one-teacher schools at primary level to large post-primary schools which cater for 1,700-plus students. They have different pupil and parent cohorts, policies, activities and so on. That is why the approach taken in the Bill allows for the guidelines to contain different provisions for different categories of schools or different categories of children. For example, the requirements in respect of consultation with children may differ between primary and post-primary or special schools and schools with special classes. The guidelines might provide a range of consultation options, from which a school could select the options best suited to its needs and particular circumstances. The approach taken in the Bill, as drafted, allows the Minister flexibility in developing model charters should this become desirable.
For the reasons I have outlined, I do not consider the provision should be mandatory as schools are not homogenous entities in a single one-size-fits-all model; otherwise, the limited selection of model charters would potentially be too restrictive. I can confirm that, as part of the consultation with the education partners, I will examine whether the guidelines should include templates. Without putting words into Senator Boyhan's mouth, something I would not dare do, having a template might be a possible way forward - for example, having one template for an ETB school, one for a community comprehensive school, one for a primary school and one for a secondary school - to meet schools' charter requirements. It is also intended that the guidelines which must be developed following consultation with the education stakeholders will provide a clear and workable roadmap schools can follow and be sufficiently comprehensive and flexible for individual schools to put in place their own charters at school level. Therefore, while not accepting the amendment, I am looking at developing templates as part of the consultation process. No doubt there will be an opportunity for the education stakeholders to do this and look at a number of potential templates. We are actively considering where we should go on this issue, but we will be at a more advanced stage on Report Stage to talk further about it.
I thank Senator Craughwell for tabling the amendment. While I am not in a position to accept the specific wording, we are singing from the same hymn sheet in terms of where we want to go.
I thank the Minister for his considered reply and note the emphasis on the templates. It makes a lot of sense. I also note the emphasis on the word "mandatory" and all of the restraints and constraints surrounding it. I am happy to withdraw the amendment at this stage, while reserving the liberty to re-enter it on Repoert Stage.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 6, to delete lines 24 to 27 and substitute the following:“(7) The Minister shall review the charter guidelines every 5 years; and may make such amendments to the charter guidelines as he or she considers necessary or appropriate following this review.”.
This amendment concerns the review element of the guidelines. It is proposed that they be reviewed by the Minister at his or her discretion. Unfortunately, experience tells us that it is a case of "whenever suits", as opposed to when there is evidence that there are systemic flaws. It is for that reason we have tabled a very sensible, moderate amendment to have a review conducted by the Department every five years. I hope the Minister will see it as a reasonable step forward. The difficulty with the existing wording is that it is just too loose. It means that we do not know when or if a review will take place.
I appreciate where the Senator wants to go with the amendment and we are singing from the same hymn sheet in seeking to ensure we will have a minimum period within which to ensure a review will be carried out. Five years is potentially too long. We can look at ensuring one will be carried out earlier, but I am not in a position to be specific in that regard. While not accepting the amendment in its current form, we will proceed to Report Stage when I would be happy to bring forward an amendment to be more specific on the minimum review period and whether it should be five years or less. I, therefore, ask the Senator for a little space and time to consider the issue. I reassure him, however, that I am on the same page in seeking to ensure we will be more specific. The public is very wary of the word "discretion" when it comes to politicians giving their prognosis in dealing with certain issues. Discretion does not mean anything in the eyes of the public when it comes to ensuring there will be a minimum period in which to carry out a review. I, therefore, ask the Senator to consider withdrawing the amendment. I will come back on Report Stage with a more specific minimum review period.
I really appreciate the Minister's comments which are very encouraging. The right thing to do is to withdraw the amendment and reserve the right to resubmit it on Report Stage. I look forward to further engagement on the issue with the Minister.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 6, between lines 39 and 40, to insert the following:“(a) have adequate personnel, financial and time resources in order to implement the provisions of the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Act 2019,”.
Again, I wish to hear the Minister's brief response.
I thank the Senator for the amendment which would require the Minister, when preparing the charter guidelines, to have regard to the need for a school to have adequate personnel, financial and time resources in order to implement the provisions of the Bill. I repeat again that a lot of schools are doing very well with reference to what we are trying to do through a legislative framework. Many are already operating within constraints in doing administrative work. At the same time, given that the vast majority of schools have their own open, transparent policies and do not require extra financial resources or personnel, the Bill is not about creating an additional workload for school principals or boards; rather, it is about supporting them to ensure there will be better and more meaningful engagement between a school and its students and their parents.As I said, many schools already do this really well. This will benefit the students and parents concerned, as well as the teachers, principal and management of the school. Its aim is to help improve the overall culture and climate of the school, ensure the concerns are addressed early and that recourse to grievance procedures is greatly reduced and, where used, it is very much a last resort.
This particular amendment would fundamentally undermine the overall approach of this Bill, which is to ensure every school has and operates a charter in accordance with national charter guidelines. As I already outlined, it is intended that the national charter guidelines, which will only be developed following consultation with educational stakeholders, will be practical and user-friendly, and that their development and implementation will not create a significant administrative burden on schools but will instead provide a clear workable and practical roadmap for schools. For the reasons I have set out, I cannot accept the amendment.
Much consideration has gone into this particular amendment, as it has gone into all the amendments. The Bill currently requires the Minister, when preparing the charter guidelines, to have regard to the need for a school to foster and promote mutual respect and communications between the school and students and their parents. This amendment would ensure this provision in the Bill also explicitly makes references to teachers. I can clarify for the House that the phrase "communications between the school and students and their parents" as used in this provision of the Bill encompasses communications between the school staff, including teachers, and parents and students. I agree with the Senator that the majority of the day-to-day communication between a school and its students and parents is conducted through the teacher. The teacher is central to the school environment. This is recognised by the approach in this Bill and this provision explicitly ensures that in developing the guidelines, the Minister must have regard to the need for mutual respect in these communications. That being said, I am open to the idea of possibly including the phrase "including teachers" in the legislative framework but we will have to work on the wording. With the indulgence of the Senator, if he were to withdraw this amendment, I would be prepared to work on the wording to bring it back on Report Stage if possible.
I thank the Minister for his considered response. He has made a reasonable offer to work with Senator Craughwell on the rewording of the amendment. He is positively disposed in principle to the idea or the concept of the amendment and therefore I propose to withdraw it with the liberty to re-enter it on the next Stage.
I am happy with Senator Boyhan's comments. It is an important amendment and I am happy with the Minister's response. As I said at the outset, and the Minister said it himself but it merits saying again, the centrality of teachers to the school community is paramount. That position should be respected and upheld. It is fundamental to how we go about our business. I am delighted the Minister said earlier that teachers will be important stakeholders and will be consulted in the preparation of guidelines. It is very important we do that. I will leave it at that but I thought that was an important point to make.
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 7, after line 42, to insert the following:“or
(c) is so advised by the Ombudsman for Children under subsection (13).”.
I am tabling amendments Nos. 10 and 13 on foot of comments I made on Second Stage on an envisioned expansion of the role of the Ombudsman for Children and how such a provision was included in the heads of this Bill sent to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills for pre-legislative scrutiny before being dropped from the Bill, as initiated, in the Seanad. As I mentioned in the last debate, the committee agreed to support the Government legislation over a Private Members' Bill from Deputy Daly because of the strengthening of the role of the Ombudsman for Children proposed in the heads of the Bill. It is a significant altering of the statutory provisions of this Bill that they were dropped and as far as I can tell, no substantive explanation has been offered by the Minister for their removal. I have therefore tabled an adapted version of head 6 of the general scheme of the Bill to section 27D for inclusion in the Bill to reflect the important provision that was dropped. Amendment No. 10 allows for the Minister to make directions on foot of recommendations from the ombudsman and amendment No. 13 is a substantive provision that largely reflects the head that has been dropped since pre-legislative scrutiny. It would require boards of management of schools to consider any recommendations made by the Ombudsman for Children during an investigation of the actions of a school by the ombudsman. It would also allow the Minister to issue direction to said board to address the matters raised by the ombudsman. Without such a provision, a board of management is under no obligation to take heed of the Ombudsman for Children or engage with it at all. The amendment would also allow for the Minister to issue a direction where he or she agrees with the comments of the ombudsman. This gives the office of the ombudsman real teeth in how it deals with and investigates schools, while still leaving the power to give directions within the political realm, preserving the independence and impartiality of the office of the ombudsman. This was an important part of the general scheme that was debated under pre-legislative scrutiny in the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills and it is not right for it to be dropped without a full and adequate explanation. I hope the Minister can accept the amendment.
I support this amendment. It is important, as I said earlier on, and I am on the record of mentioning on many occasions the importance of the independence and impartiality of the office of the Ombudsman for Children. It goes hand-in-hand with education and children, and the formation of children. That right is always important and that independence and impartiality Senator Ruane talks about is critically important. I would like to see that strengthened in this legislation. The Senator has raised a number of valid concerns here today and in the past. I wait to hear the Minister's response but my inclination is to support this amendment.
I want to highlight a number of points about these amendments. I know Senator Boyhan talked about the independence of the ombudsman as well as Senator Ruane. The specific basis on which the Ombudsman for Children engages with schools is already enshrined in legislation. The Ombudsman for Children does not engage with schools as a representative or advocate for the complainant or for the Department, but in order to examine the issues raised. It seeks to work in co-operation with schools and the parent or student in question to encourage the resolution of any issues without proceeding to a formal investigation. This approach works effectively in law and in practice. However, the proposed amendments contain anomalies and inconsistencies and would adversely affect the ability of the Ombudsman for Children to engage with schools in a positive and co-operative manner as they currently do in the vast majority of cases. For example, the amendment empowers the Minister for Education and Skills, who is not a party to and has not been involved in the matter under examination by the ombudsman, to direct a school to comply with any suggestions guidance or recommendations given by the Ombudsman for Children whereas it separately provides that a school is simply required to consider any such suggestions, guidance or recommendations when they are received from the Ombudsman for Children. A number of concerns and anomalies came to light when the advice of the Office of the Attorney General came back during the drafting of this legislation. A key concern is that these provisions would have had the effect of fundamentally changing how the ombudsman operates by compelling school boards to consider any suggestions, guidance or recommendations rather than working to encourage schools to take actions to resolve the matter.As anybody who has heard me speak on this matter will know, I am against using legislation to compel schools to open special classes. I believe in operating in a spirit of co-operation and partnership. I do not subscribe to a philosophy of compelling schools to do things. We have a very formal system in place which promotes co-operation. Schools are encouraged to take action to resolve the matter without having to get into the formal stages of the process. I am in favour of things being sorted out at an early stage where that is possible.
There is no provision in the legislation pertaining to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children in the issuing of directions by a Minister, even on foot of a completed investigation by the ombudsman. To include a provision that would allow the Minister for Education and Skills to issue directions arising from a preliminary or full investigation by the ombudsman would be a significant departure from the current approach and impact significantly on the manner in which the Office of the Ombudsman for Children carries out its work. It is not something that is sought or desired by the ombudsman. Although the approach in this context has changed from that under the original scheme, it is important to note that the overall objective of the Bill is to bring about a significant cultural change in some schools, with a shift away from reacting to problems after they arise and towards dealing with them at an earlier stage through better engagement, consultation and transparency. Schools will for the first time put in place a standardised complaints procedure such that parents will know the score before they send their four or five year old to primary school. They will know the exact relevant procedure if their son or daughter is in a situation that requires parental involvement. There will be transparency in that regard in all schools.
These and other measures in the Bill will help to greatly improve the culture in schools and the level of responsiveness to any concern or grievance that arises. They will bring clarity to what is required of schools, students and parents in that regard. The approach in the finalised Bill presented to the House is appropriate and proportionate having regard to the comprehensive framework being put in place and the practical role and legal framework that apply to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children.
These are two of three amendments the Senator has put forward related to how the work of the ombudsman interacts with the Bill. The Senator also contributed on a previous Stage in that regard. For the reasons I have outlined, I cannot accept the amendments, but I highlight for the Senator that I am actively considering the matter raised in amendment No. 31 and will speak further to it later in the debate.
I am glad that the Minister referred to amendment No. 31 at the end of his reply because my insistence on pushing this amendment is linked with that amendment. They are both about being able to ensure the ombudsman will have some power in these matters. The Minister referred to being able to informally end disputes before they reach a certain point, but the ability of the ombudsman to intervene at an early stage will be removed by section 10. I am willing to consider whether amendment No. 10 fundamentally changes the role of the ombudsman in such matters. There is support for the amendment. I do not want to insert a provision into the Bill that will have a negative effect in that regard. However, I do not wish the Bill to leave this House without the acceptance of either amendment No. 10 or amendment No. 31. I am willing to hold back on amendment No. 10 and see what the Minister and his Department will come back to me with on amendment No. 31 which relates more to a preventative measure. Amendment No. 10 would provide direction in worst case scenarios, whereas amendment No. 31 aims to prevent matters from ever getting to that point. I would far prefer a preventative measure to be included than what is included in amendment No. 10. I am willing to withdraw the amendment but reserve the right to resubmit it on Report Stage.
This is an opportunity to contribute on this important legislation. I note the amendment brought forward by my colleague with reference to the ombudsman and the response of the Minister. The Bill seeks to establish a charter to improve and strengthen communication and co-operation between school stakeholders. That is critical and it is a very good move. I recognise the proposal made in the amendment on the involvement of the Ombudsman for Children.
I was a member of a board of management for more than ten years and spent eight years as chairperson. We must recognise the responsibility that lies with boards of management in terms of legislation, responsibility and accountability for implementing school policies and the proper operation of a school and its environment. I recognise the voluntary contribution of boards of management across the country. As Senators are aware, board members give of their time and expertise voluntarily and 99% of the time it works well and people engage in a very positive manner. However, as the Minister is aware, in some cases problems arise and that is when things must be dealt with swiftly and appropriately.
It is my experience that school stakeholders may become isolated when something goes wrong. I refer to the discussion on transparency in the making of voluntary contributions to schools. I also note that substantial State grants and funds are allocated to primary and secondary schools. With that investment comes responsibility and transparency in how the funds are spent. For that reason, I welcome the Bill and, in particular, the charter. This section allows for a ministerial direction where issues arise and efforts to resolve them are exhausted and unsuccessful. That is critical.
I raise this matter - I know that the Minister is wondering - because I have direct experience as chairperson of a board of management of a situation involving financial irregularities at a school. A whole school evaluation was carried out. The matter was brought to the attention of departmental officials, but it was left to the voluntary board members to clean up the mess. There was no charter or help in deciding how to deal with it. Thankfully, a strong board working in the interests of the school, the pupils who attended it and parents who had sent their children to it stayed strong and dealt with the irregularities appropriately. My experience was that there was very little help available from the Department. The situation to which I refer arose long before the Minister was appointed to his current office, but a blind eye was turned to the difficulties being experienced.
It is critical that we have a charter outlining that parents and students have a right to know how a school is being run. Certain board members will do their best to engage with parents and students, but others may not and that is when difficulties may arise. The Bill will strengthen the hand of boards of management and those who genuinely want to see a school being run well. It will help to fight the problem of irregularities in policy implementation, financial matters or dealing with other issues. I have first-hand experience of these matters. People who know me and the board I was on will know the school to which I refer. I will not mention names in the House because it would be unfair to do so, but if it happened in the school in which I was a member of the board of management, it is happening in others around the country. I make this point to the Minister and his officials who are in attendance. We need to be very careful in how State funds and grants are being spent in schools. A significant degree of autonomy is given to schools in that regard. Boards of management are voluntary and have the best of intentions, but problems can arise. When they do, they must be dealt with swiftly and properly. The charter will be of assistance in that respect, but we have a long way to go before there will be full transparency and accountability for how State funds are spent.
I thank Senator Craughwell for tabling the amendment.Amendment No. 11 provides for the deletion of the provision in the Bill that provides for the Minister to publish a direction issued under this Bill to a school board, together with the name of the school concerned. Amendment No. 12 is a consequential amendment that removes the obligation on the Minister to publish a notice where he or she is satisfied that a direction given to a board has been complied with.
As amendments Nos. 11 and 12 are connected, I note the new section 27D proposed in the Bill provides the Minister with the 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. While it is not intended that this provision will be frequently used, it is an important provision in the context of ensuring compliance with the Bill's requirements. It is based on applying a staged and measured approach. The first step involves the Minister considering and being satisfied that, having regard to the failure concerned and in all the circumstances of the case, all of the relevant steps to address the non-compliance have been exhausted or it is necessary or appropriate to give a direction to the school or both. This ensures that directions will not even be considered without significant efforts being made to engage with the school to resolve the issue. Also, before the Minister issues any direction, the board and the patron are given a formal opportunity to make representations to the Minister, during which time they can also avail of the opportunity to take steps to rectify the issue identified.
For the benefit of the House, I will outline the steps involved once the Minister has formed the opinion that in all the circumstances of the case a direction is, in fact, necessary or appropriate. 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 to give a direction, consider any representations. Only where all of these steps have been followed and the Minister remains of the view that a direction is required will the Minister issue a direction.
As can be seen, a direction will only issue in cases where a school continues to refuse to comply despite significant efforts being made to resolve the issue or where it is necessary and appropriate to do so or both. The Bill provides that in these cases, the direction will be published by the Minister. I believe that the approach taken is measured, proportionate and appropriate. It is not about naming and shaming schools. It will apply where there is serious and persistent non-compliance. It is therefore about ensuring compliance by schools with the Bill's obligations and about ensuring transparency for all in relation to this compliance. For the reasons outlined, this is a key provision in the Bill and it must be retained. Therefore, I cannot accept these two amendments.
I move amendment No. 13:
In page 9, between lines 14 and 15, to insert the following:
“(13) Where the Ombudsman for Children—
(a) makes suggestions to a board, or provides guidance to a board, or where following an investigation under the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002, the Ombudsman for Children makes recommendations to a board in relation to the actions of a school, the board shall consider any such suggestions, guidance or recommendations.
(b) advises the Minister of any suggestions, guidance or recommendations made to a board under subsection (a), the Minister may give a direction in writing to that board under this section in relation to the matters conveyed to the Minister by the Ombudsman for Children.".".
I move amendment No. 14:
In page 10, line 17, to delete “the” where it secondly occurs and substitute “appropriate”.
I note we are dealing with section 7 and the two amendments. I formally move the amendment and would like to hear the Minister’s considered response to both.
In response to amendment No. 14, the Bill currently provides for an amendment of section 27(4) of the Education Act 1998 to change 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. The Senator's proposal amends this provision in the Bill and attempts to restrict a student council, in co-operation with the board, parents and teachers, from promoting the involvement of students in the affairs of the school to promoting the involvement of students in the appropriate affairs of the school.
The Bill is not altering the current legislative provision on student councils, working in co-operation with boards, parents and teachers, to promote the involvement of students in the affairs of the school. I must emphasise that this provision, which has been in place since 1998, does not in any way empower students to become involved in matters in which they have no proper role. I fully understand the concern about the amendment, such as employment matters.
In addition, a number of issues arise with the Senator's proposed amendment which would make it unworkable. In that regard, it is not clear what constitutes "appropriate affairs" of the school or indeed who would determine what constitutes those "appropriate affairs". For the reasons outlined, I cannot accept this amendment.
I do not support any of the amendments tabled by Senator Craughwell but I consider it appropriate to speak on this amendment in particular. It is disappointing, at a time when we talk about trying to engage students in their school community and in equal learning opportunities with their peers, teachers and boards, to effectively try to remove that ability from them on the whim of a principal or board of management. The question is exactly who decides what is appropriate. That is very unfair to student councils. I am not sure we will get to it today, but in a later amendment I am trying to do the complete opposite, namely, to give student councils more power to set their own rules. I strongly disagree with the amendment, which I was disappointed to see.
In this House, with the support of other Senators, we strongly pushed to reduce the voting age to 16 in order that people could begin to vote in local and European elections when they are in school. I question the right to tell them what is appropriate and inappropriate when their daily lives are affected by so much. If it is only appropriate when one is discussing the art supplies of a classroom, that minimises the potential for a vibrant student council. I wish to voice my strong opposition to such an amendment.
I thank the Minister for his considered response and the logic behind it. I do not have a particular difficulty with any of what he says. I also note Senator Ruane's concerns and I undertake to pass them on to Senator Craughwell who cannot be present. I have heard what has been said. I am not far removed from any of that myself on a personal level and I share many of Senator Ruane's concerns. I propose that we withdraw the amendment with the liberty to resubmit it.
I move amendment No. 15:
In page 10, between lines 17 and 18, to insert the following:"(c) by the deletion of the following in subsection (5):“and such rules may provide for the election of members and the dissolution of a student council.”,and
(d) by the insertion of the following after “affairs” in subsection (6):“including providing for the election of members and the dissolution of a student council.”.”.
Amendment No. 15 relates to the role of student councils, as set out in section 27 of the Education Act 1998. I welcome the proposed changes in section 7 of the Bill that student councils will now have set out in statute their role in promoting the interests of the students of a school rather than the interests of the school, as is currently set out in the 1998 Act.
I also welcome under the proposed new section 27B that the Minister may provide for the charter guidelines to be drafted in consultation between the student council and the board of management of a school. This is a welcome provision that will allow for the engagement of the elected representatives of students with the board of management to develop a charter with the interests of students at its heart. However, for the student council to be an empowered and equal education stakeholder partner in the drafting of the charter, it needs to be able to set its own arrangements for the election of its members and its dissolution. Under the current provisions of section 27, the board of management is able to set arrangements for elections and dissolutions and so feasibly could dissolve a student council at a moment's notice. It could even feasibly arise that the board of management could engage with a student council to draft a charter under section 27B and a board of management that did not like the input of the council into the process could dissolve the council as a result. The reference to "where one has been established" in section 27B(1)(a)(v) would seem to give further latitude to pursue that as a drastic course of action. The question is how a student council can substantively contribute to the development of a student charter when it is only in existence if the board of management allows it to be so.A council derives its mandate from election by students and not the whim of management. It is to rectify this issue that I tabled amendment No. 15, which would remove the setting of rules for the election of student council members and the dissolution of a council from the remit of a board of management and place responsibility within the remit of the council itself. A democratically-elected body should be able to set the rules for its elections and how it will be dissolved. The Irish Second-Level Students Union criticised the general scheme of the Bill during pre-legislative scrutiny on these exact grounds, based on the view that the Bill was changing only the aims of the student council and not addressing the important matters of dissolution and elections. We need to empower young people to get involved in their local school communities through local student democracy and give them a real voice in decision-making at school level. My amendment would give a student council genuine democratic autonomy and legitimacy. I hope the Minister will accept it.