Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019: Report and Final Stages
Before we commence, I remind Members that a Senator may speak only once on Report Stage, except the proposer of an amendment, who may reply to the discussion on it. Each non-Government amendment on Report Stage must be seconded.
It is nice to be back in the Seanad.
This amendment relates to a new provision inserted in the Bill on Committee Stage. The new provision would require all schools to provide to both parents and the Department information relating to voluntary contributions inclusive of the total moneys collected annually and a detailed expenditure of those moneys by the school and would require my Department to publish all of this information on its website on an annual basis.
During the Committee Stage debate, I outlined my concerns about this provision and indicated to the House that I would examine it in more detail, and would, if necessary, bring forward an amendment to address my concerns. In particular, I outlined that I needed to reflect carefully on the additional administrative burden that it would place on schools. This is a particularly important consideration for me. I had been clear that it is not my intention or the intention of this legislation to unnecessarily add to the administrative burden on schools.
In the period since Committee Stage was completed, I carefully examined this provision and I have some concerns arising from that examination. Of particular concern is that this provision will undoubtedly lead to an additional and significant administrative burden for schools. It puts in place an entirely new and much more extensive financial reporting requirement on schools. This new requirement is in addition to what I have already provided for in the Bill in relation to schools providing information on voluntary contributions and how they are spent directly to students and to parents.
The wording of this provision is also problematic. It refers in general terms to information on detailed expenditure being provided to parents and to the Department but it does not specify what information or level of detail must be provided. The provision is, therefore, unclear and is not consistent with the overall approach in the Bill, which involves the charter guidelines setting out clearly the specific information that is to be provided to students and parents.
The guidelines will be developed following a consultative process with the education partners. This consultative process will help ensure the reporting requirements put in place under the charter guidelines are clear to all, the relevant information needed for transparency is made available, and the reporting requirements are straightforward and workable at school level. In addition, all schools must comply with their obligations under the charter guidelines and the Minister may issue a direction to any school that is not so complying, including where it is not complying with the requirement to provide information in relation to voluntary contributions.
The inclusion in the Bill of another requirement outside of, and entirely separate from, the charter requirements for the provision of a further and potentially more detailed set of data to parents and the Department does not make sense. The publication of such data would also inevitably lead to the creation of a new type of league table - this time about school finances and levels of voluntary contributions. We all know that league tables that take account of only one aspect of a school's life are unfair, lacking in context and do not reflect the individual school's efforts, circumstances and challenges. Similar issues would arise in relation to the publication of data on voluntary contributions.
Every school is different and has different fundraising requirements and priorities. At any given time, these may differ. Those requirements and priorities can also change over time within a particular school.
Publishing data that allow for a comparison of schools based on moneys raised and spent in a given year without any consideration of context would be misleading for parents and unfair to the schools concerned. For example, such comparisons would not reflect the difference between a school that consistently seeks high contributions and a school that in a given year or for a short period is fundraising for a particular project or facility but typically does not seek or raise significant amounts from parents. It also would not distinguish between those schools that are clear to parents that all contributions are voluntary and those schools in which parents may perceive that there is an obligation to make a contribution even though it is voluntary.
In this Bill, I am putting in place an obligation on schools to be transparent on voluntary contributions and to provide key information to parents on the moneys raised and how they have been spent. I am doing this in a structured and clear way as part of a school's obligation under its student and parent charter. I believe that the approach that I have taken in the Bill in this regard is clear, fair and balanced and will not be unduly burdensome for schools.
I accept that the intentions of the Senator at all times on the issue were motivated by his own insights into this. I regret having to delete a provision previously voted in by the House but after taking the time since Committee Stage to examine this addition provision in detail, for the reasons I have outlined I propose to delete it from the Bill.
I welcome the Minister.
This is one of the most disappointing moments in my three and a half years working here. It is only a couple of weeks ago that we had widespread support for this amendment. The amendment stated:
"... Schools shall ... 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.".
It was a simple amendment calling for transparency in school voluntary contributions. It commanded the support of every party in the House and Independents with the exception of Fine Gael.
I must be honest with the Minister. This is an opportunity that he should have embraced. It is an opportunity to give parents transparency. More important, it is an opportunity to show the total amount of school voluntary contributions made each year.
I must be blunt with the Minister. The reasons he put forward for rejecting this amendment simply do not stake up. Frankly, the phrase "additional administrative burden" is nonsense. Schools make totals in respect of the school voluntary contributions. There is no additional work. The work of the Department would simply be to request an email detailing the funds and then total them; that is it. It is, therefore, a smokescreen. The nonsense about league tables is just that.
Here is what really disappoints me. If the Minister was serious about reforming school voluntary contributions, he would have contacted my office. The Minister would have said to me that he had concerns regarding the Bill and asked whether he could work with me and consider the wording. There was not a single call, not a single email. That is because the Minister does not want a light shone on the total amount of underfunding of schools in this State. That is what this amendment would do. This amendment would require the Department to detail the total amount of school contributions and, thereby, the total amount of under-funding every year, and it would embarrass the Department. That is why the Minister does not want to go ahead with it.
The Minister has chosen the last afternoon of the last sitting day of the year on the basis that there will be Senators missing here this afternoon when I push it to a vote. Of course, I will push it to a vote, not only for Sinn Féin but for the parents out there who want and expect transparency from the Government.
It is a shameful moment for the Government to decide it will put these figures back in the dark and hide them because the underfunding, which is consistently a problem in the education system, is a cause of embarrassment. Despite the wishes of the vast majority of parents in this country, the Minister wants to keep these figures in the dark.
It is a poor moment for Deputy McHugh as a Minister. I will press the amendment.
I thank the Minister for his explanation.
Following the discussion we had on Committee Stage, I spoke to a number of school principals and some parents. There were mixed views regarding what had been proposed by the other side of the House. One of the principals said that not everybody is in a position to make a voluntary contribution, there are circumstances in which a contribution is not given and that it is not compulsory, but they would not like to highlight that one family gave it and others would be missing from the list, and they currently put together a comprehensive report that they give to their parents' council and the school governing body or whatever, where the money is accounted for, as is how it is spent. It is not as though it is not accounted for is the point that was made. I contacted four schools of different groupings and the opinion seemed to be the same. I support the Minister's call.
We all have concerns about this amendment. My understanding was that the Minister had spoken to my party's spokesperson for education, that this would go through today and if there were amendments in the Dáil, it would be addressed. The Minister has now said that he is removing it. It was unexpected for all of us.The fact that it is proposed to remove it is of concern. There are concerns about the Government amendment. As the Minister is aware, some schools do a lot of fundraising, whereas others may not be in a position to so do. We need to strike a balance. I am somewhat surprised that it is proposed to remove the amendment made on Committee Stage. That is my main concern. Senators were not made aware that the amendment was to be removed and I have concerns in that regard.
There have not been many occasions when a Minister has come to the House to ask the Seanad to reverse the will it previously expressed, although attempts have been made in the Dáil to amend or remove amendments made in the Seanad. I was disappointed when the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, attempted to persuade the Seanad to reverse its decision. She did not succeed. At the time, it was seen as disrespectful to the Seanad to expect that, having voted once on the matter, Senators would change their minds on it within a few weeks. Attempting to reverse Seanad amendments in the Dáil is fine; it is a different House and we cannot control it.
The points made by Senator Byrne on the effect of Senator Gavan's amendment are inaccurate. It would not be the case that students' family situations or the names of parents would be printed on a list. This is about accounting within schools and identifying where the money is being spent. It is not a ledger of which families have paid. That is a bit of a red herring, as are the league tables. If anything, Senator Gavan's amendment would highlight the stark inequality in school funding and identify that certain families in certain communities can provide more than others. As Senator Gavan stated, by looking at the amount that schools are taking in through voluntary contributions, it would be possible to identify where there is underfunding and discern by how much we need to increase the capitation grant. I urge the Minister to rethink the amendment because this section of the Bill as it stands would provide invaluable information for the Department on how much schools are bringing in through voluntary contributions.
I am trying to be consistent regarding the motivation behind the student and parent charter. In the early stages of our extensive consultation with education partners and schools on the charter, we were clear that it would not put an extra administrative burdens on schools. Senator Gavan suggested that it would only involve one email but it is not that simple. There is an administrative requirement. There are 4,000 schools in Ireland.
The point made by the Senator on transparency is already embedded in the legislation. There are guidelines within the Bill to ensure that schools are obliged to make information on the moneys they raise and the subscriptions made available for public consumption. That would achieve the goals which the Senator claims are the motivation behind the amendment which was made on Committee Stage. The last thing I want to do is to put more of an administrative burden on schools and principals. A key term to which I was introduced at a very early stage in this job is "initiative overload". There will be an obligation under the student and parent charter for schools to publish information on any money raised and how it is spent. If there is a better mechanism to ensure that is done in a way that will allay the Senator's fears, I am open to continuing that conversation when the Bill returns to the Dáil.
I do not wish to place an extra administrative burden on schools or principals. The Senator stated that transparency is the motivation behind his amendment. There is already provision in the Bill to ensure that each school is obliged to give a full account of money raised and how it is spent.
Colm Burke, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Maria Byrne, Paudie Coffey, Martin Conway, Mark Daly, Paul Daly, Aidan Davitt, Frank Feighan, Robbie Gallagher, Gerry Horkan, Anthony Lawlor, Terry Leyden, Tim Lombard, Ian Marshall, Gabrielle McFadden, Michelle Mulherin, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Catherine Noone, Pádraig Ó Céidigh, John O'Mahony, Joe O'Reilly, James Reilly, Neale Richmond.
Ivana Bacik, Rose Conway Walsh, Gerard Craughwell, Maire Devine, Paul Gavan, Pippa Hackett, Alice Mary Higgins, Kevin Humphreys, Gerald Nash, Niall Ó Donnghaile, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Lynn Ruane, Fintan Warfield.
This amendment is in two parts.Part (a) provides that the Minister may allow for a review of the charter guidelines from time to time, as he or she considers appropriate and with the review of the charter guidelines to take place before the end of each relevant period. Part (b) provides for a definition of the relevant period, which is every five years starting from the date on which this section of the Bill comes into operation. On Committee Stage, Senator Gavan proposed an amendment to provide that the charter guidelines would be reviewed at least every five years. I could not accept the Senator's amendment as worded at that time, but I agreed to introduce an amendment to achieve the Senator's aim on Report Stage. The amendment I am now proposing still allows for the Minister to review the guidelines from time to time if he or she needs to, but it also ensures that they must be reviewed at least once in every five-year period starting from when the relevant section of the Bill is commenced, as Senator Gavan proposed. It is important that the Bill provides for a mandatory periodic review of the guidelines while also allowing the flexibility to review the guidelines at a shorter interval if a matter addressed in the guidelines needs to be updated or revised, or if an urgent or new issue emerges in schools that could be addressed in the charter guidelines. I thank the Senator for identifying this need on Committee Stage and I am pleased to be able to bring forward the amendment to address it now. I hope both the Senator and this House can support this amendment.
On Committee Stage, Senator Craughwell tabled an amendment which proposed to make explicit reference to teachers in section 27C(c), in order to make clear that the provision was referring to mutual respect and communication between teachers, students and parents. While I could not accept the amendment as worded on Committee Stage, I outlined at the time that I was open to making such a provision and my officials have since engaged on the matter with legislative drafters. As a result, I am pleased to bring forward this amendment, which ensures that section 27C will now make explicit reference to teachers. The provision, when amended, will refer to "mutual respect in communications between the school, including teachers or other staff of the school, on the one hand and students or their parents on the other hand". The majority of day-to-day communications in a school are between teachers or other school staff and students or their parents, and I am happy to make explicit reference to this in the Bill. It is appropriate that the amendment refers to other staff in the school. Everyone in this House will agree with me about each individual's role and contribution to school life. I have taken the opportunity to ensure this explicit reference to teachers and other staff also applies in subsection (d), which concerns confidentiality in communications between schools and students and their parents. I thank the Senator for raising this issue on Committee Stage and I hope he and the House can support my amendment.
I do not completely understand the distinction being made, which seems to be quite arbitrary. When we talk about a school we know quite well that we are talking about staff, teachers and everyone who makes up a school community. The amendment now makes reference to schools and teachers on one hand and students and parents on the other. What is the arbitrary distinction between schools and teachers and students and parents? It does not seem like mutual respect. There seems to be a direct relation between the communication and the respect between two distinct groups. Am I misreading that? I do not follow it. Could the Minister elaborate on the amendment?
Senator Craughwell raised this matter in a Committee Stage amendment and it is something about which we have thought. When there is communication between students and a school, or parents and a school, that includes the whole school body. School bodies are made up of teachers, caretakers, SNAs, special education teachers and secretaries. At the heart of every school is the acknowledgement of all those who play a significant role. We are all on the same page regarding the value of teachers, and this amendment is just about including that in the Bill. I was happy to accept the Senator's point. It is not making a distinction between anyone or singling anybody out.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 11, line 2, to delete “thereby.” and substitute the following: “thereby;
(f) an explanation of the role of the Ombudsman for Children under the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 as it relates to complaints against schools.”.
Amendments Nos. 4 and 6 seek to better recognise and embed the role of the Ombudsman for Children in the procedures set out in this Bill. We had a discussion about this on Committee Stage so I do not propose to go into it in detail, but the simple fact is that the role of the ombudsman under the 2002 Act has a significant arbitrary restriction as he or she cannot investigate a complaint into the actions of a school until the local procedures have been exhausted. As I said on Committee Stage, there is a significant concern that a belligerent board of management could deliberately frustrate the ombudsman's role by drawing out the local complaints procedure, in direct opposition to the interests of the child at the centre of the complaint. I am therefore proposing the removal of this arbitrary restriction on the ombudsman's role, in order that he or she could intervene in a complaint against the school at whatever stage he or she felt was appropriate, and would not have to wait until the local procedures are exhausted. We need to trust the office of the ombudsman, which has previously served this State with distinction, with the power to intervene at the point which is in the best interests of the child, rather than those of the school or the Department.
I thank officials in the Department for engaging with my office in respect of these amendments. I appreciate that we do not want to disincentivise parents and students from using the local procedures as a first port of call, but this is an issue that can be dealt with in the guidelines outside of the law and the office of the ombudsman should not continue to be arbitrarily restricted on those grounds. I also appreciate the concern that there may be confusion among parents if there were both local and national complaints options available. However, I do not believe avoiding confusion is an adequate reason to further disadvantage the office of the ombudsman. It is surely not outside our abilities as a State to properly arm parents with clear and comprehensive information. That is why I retabled amendment No. 4, which would require that guidelines around grievances should have to explain the role of the Ombudsman for Children in this respect. I have redrafted the amendment submitted on Committee Stage to incorporate concerns expressed by the Department. This new charter process must be overseen by an expert in children's rights who has their best interests in mind. The Ombudsman for Children must be released from an arbitrary restriction which flies in the face of best international practice and his or her role in other areas. I understand that the Minister is considering amendments in the Dáil which would make the role of the ombudsman somehow contingent on the progress of a complaint through local procedures, which is not good enough. I do not understand why the Department or the Minister for Education and Skills would be so fearful of giving the ombudsman a remit in this area. We are talking about a democratically selected expert in children's issues and the idea that he or she would abuse or misuse this new power, or use it without the best interests of the child at heart, is ludicrous and non-existent. I urge the Minister to take these amendments on board.
Amendment No. 4 would require the grievance procedures under the charter guidelines to include an explanation of the role of the Ombudsman for Children under the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 as it relates to complaints against schools. On Committee Stage I advised the House that while I did not think it was necessary for the Bill to provide the grievance procedures set out the role of the Ombudsman for Children, I would have my officials consider this issue further with a view to bringing forward an amendment on Report Stage if required. Having examined this proposal further, I am satisfied that including this in the Bill is not the appropriate way to achieve the Senator's goal. As the Senator is aware, the role of the Ombudsman for Children is set out very comprehensively in the 2002 Act. I acknowledge that the Senator has adjusted this amendment to refer to the role of the Ombudsman for Children insofar as it relates to complaints against schools. However, there are many provisions in the Act which governs the ombudsman's remit regarding complaints against schools.It is not appropriate, nor would it be possible, to summarise in this Bill or in school grievance procedures this extensive legislation or to attempt to summarise the various conditions and provisions that apply to the role of the Ombudsman for Children under the 2002 Act insofar as it relates to schools. Doing so in this Bill risks casting doubt on or limiting the statutory role of the Ombudsman for Children under its own legislation. For the same reasons, it would also not be appropriate to require schools to provide an explanation to students or parents of the role of the Ombudsman for Children. The appropriate body to do this is the office itself. I will, however, make it a requirement under the charter guidelines that the grievance procedures would require that schools must always inform students or parents of the fact that they may be able to make a complaint to the Ombudsman for Children. I also intend that schools would be required to provide students and parents with contact or website details of the Ombudsman for Children in order that they can make their own contact with the office to determine independently whether a complaint can be made.
I strongly agree with the Senator that this is very important information for students and parents and I will ensure this requirement will be included in the guidelines on the grievance procedures. However, for the reasons I have outlined, the approach to setting this out in primary legislation is not appropriate and it may cast doubt on or potentially limit the remit of the Ombudsman for Children with respect to schools.
On Committee Stage I advised the Senator that I needed more time to consider what is now amendment No. 6. Since Committee Stage, my Department has undertaken significant further analysis of the matter and engaged with the Ombudsman for Children, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Office of the Attorney General. With this matter I am endeavouring to balance factors such as the valid issues raised by the Senator, the current legal framework under which the Ombudsman for Children operates, the autonomy of schools and a general desirability that grievance procedures at school level would be followed before the Ombudsman for Children would become involved in a complaint. These are complex and interrelated matters and great care is required to ensure we get the balance right.
I agree it may be appropriate for the Ombudsman for Children to intervene in some limited cases, such as where a school is deliberately delaying or frustrating local grievance procedures, but I must also balance that against a need to ensure the matters should be resolved at local school level where possible. That is the best and most satisfactory approach for both students, parents and the schools involved. It is better for all concerned if, in the first instance, the school considers and deals with the grievance at local school level, even where the outcome is not to the satisfaction of the complainant. This gives all parties the opportunity to present the position and come to an understanding of the perspective and position of the other parties. I also do not want to create a position where students and parents may be confused about any perceived overlap between the local school grievance procedures and the Ombudsman for Children complaints procedure. I am therefore not fully persuaded at this time that deleting section 9(2) entirely would be an appropriate step.
I am exploring, however, whether an approach that instead sets some limits on section 9(2) or qualifies it in some way would be more appropriate. The aim would be to ensure that for the majority of cases, the local complaints procedures would have to be exhausted, but it must also cater for those exceptional cases where awaiting exhaustion of the local process would not be appropriate. There are complex legal and practical considerations that require further work before I will be in a position to decide the best way to do this. I acknowledge the Senator's efforts in communicating with the Department and putting forward her views on the matter. I assure her I will continue this work with a view to bringing forward an appropriate amendment on this matter once the various legal and other issues are teased out. I cannot accept the amendment but I assure the Senator that we will continue to work on this matter with a view to resolving the complex issues involved.
I am happy with the Minister's response to amendment No. 4 and his description of the communication of what the role entails. I am willing to accept the Minister's suggestion on how to deal with what I am trying to achieve with amendment No. 4.
With regard to amendment No. 6, no ombudsman would intervene too early in a matter. There would not be resources or time to step into local procedures where it is not absolutely necessary. I do not foresee a position where parents or children would be confused about the role of national and local procedures. A student or parent would only look outside the local procedures if they struggled to operate within the local procedures. I am pretty confident there would not be a big influx of people trying to access a national complaints procedure before a local one. This would not be overly complex and it may be made more confusing than it is. The Office of the Ombudsman for Children is eager to see the office being able to intervene and we must trust that it knows when or when not to do so. Possible confusion is not an adequate reason to not push this amendment. I am willing to withdraw amendment No. 4 but I will be pressing amendment No. 6.
This amendment arises from the amendment proposed by Senator Gavan on Committee Stage that provided for a school to give reasons where it decides not to deal with a grievance on the basis that the grievance is vexatious or frivolous. During the debate I advised the Senator I was happy that the Bill provided for this already but I would consider making an explicit provision in the Bill. Having further considered the matter with legislative drafters, I am pleased to bring forward this amendment to make an explicit provision in the Bill that requires the grievance procedures to provide that where a school decides not to deal with a grievance on the basis of it being vexatious or frivolous, it must give the reasons to the student or parent for the decision. I thank the Senator for raising the matter on Committee Stage and I hope the Senator and the House can support my amendment today.
Ivana Bacik, Rose Conway Walsh, Gerard Craughwell, Maire Devine, Paul Gavan, Pippa Hackett, Alice Mary Higgins, Kevin Humphreys, Gerald Nash, David Norris, Niall Ó Donnghaile, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Lynn Ruane, Fintan Warfield.
Victor Boyhan, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Maria Byrne, Paudie Coffey, Martin Conway, Paul Daly, Frank Feighan, Gerry Horkan, Anthony Lawlor, Tim Lombard, Gabrielle McFadden, Michelle Mulherin, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Catherine Noone, John O'Mahony, Joe O'Reilly, James Reilly, Neale Richmond.
This Bill is important as it improves how schools engage with students and parents. We must also acknowledge the great principals, teachers, school boards, staff and students. A number of issues remain to be addressed at a later stage in the Dáil. A paper was published by University of Limerick and ESRI academics yesterday showing that there is a need for the Department of Education and Skills to play a greater role in defining how digital devices are used in schools. We need a concrete vision for this in the coming years. It is a major issue and I know the Minister will address it. This legislation must go back to the Dáil, but overall it is very welcome.
I thank the Members for the discussions in here and conversations. Certainly, we all come from different backgrounds, but as always in the Seanad, people's convictions are as consistent as ever, which I always respect. Where I cannot meet people halfway, I try to go as far as I can. The amendments that I brought in here today arising from Committee Stage stem from the different suggestions that were made in this House.
The purpose of this Bill is to give young people and parents a voice, and it is particularly focused on the youth voice. Anybody involved in politics globally at this stage knows that the youth voice is getting louder and stronger, so it is a case of what we do to facilitate that voice. I hope that this Bill will act as a mechanism to meet that demand coming from young people. Any of the challenges, such as the last one raised by the Senator in terms of technology in classrooms, at the heart of those challenges have to be young people because they are people who were born after the Internet came into existence. I think the sociological label for young people is digital natives. Some of us in this House were born at a time when there was not even a landline. I am assuming that the Leas-Chathaoirleach and I are in the same boat.
We have to allow young people the space and time to make judgment calls. I think we will do that because we have a confident young generation who want to make changes, whether it is in the area of the climate challenge or other areas of difficulties in society.
I wish to acknowledge Joshua Lavery from Portadown who is seated in the Gallery. He is doing work practice today and I am working him really hard. It is good to see somebody of Joshua's generation in the House during our discussion of this Bill.
Mar theachtaireacht dheireanach - my last message - ba mhaith liom m'aitheantas agus mo bhuíochas a ghabháil arís leis na Seanadóirí uile. Ba mhaith liom teachtaireacht áirithe a chur in iúl maidir leis an Nollaig. Tá súil agam go mbainfidh Seanadóirí sult as an mbriseadh thar an Nollaig. Tá an briseadh de dhíth. Guím Nollaig shona ar gach éinne.