Dáil Éireann - Volume 498 - 16 December, 1998

Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997: From the Seanad.

The Dáil went into Committee to consider amendments from the Seanad.

An Ceann Comhairle: Amendment No. 2 is related to amendment No. 1. Therefore, amendments Nos. 1 and 2 may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Minister for Education and Science (Mr. Martin): I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 1:

Section 1: In page 6, subsection (3), lines 3 and 4, “on the day that is one year” deleted and “two years” substituted.

Mr. R. Bruton: If we knew the thinking behind the amendments before we agreed to them, it would be helpful. Many of them are undoubtedly acceptable and, indeed, some of them are a significant improvement. It would be helpful to get some brief indication of the intention behind the amendments.

Mr. Martin: Amendment No. 1 lengthens the period within which all parts of the Act must be commenced from one year to two years after enactment. We had discussed this in Committee in the Dáil and we decided on one year. We discussed it again in the Seanad and we compromised on two years as between one and three years. The Bill proposes a one year limit on the commencement of all sections. I assure the Deputies that it is my intention to implement all sections of the Act as soon as possible. However, I must be mindful of the practicalities. It may not be possible for me to implement all sections within a one year period. Therefore, to be prudent and to allow for the drafting and laying of regulations where necessary, I propose to lengthen the commencement period from one year to two years.

I had consultations with my officials on this. I want to be practical and honest about it. If we provide that it will occur in one year, there is a doubt as to whether or not it can be done because a raft of actions will flow from this substantial Bill. It will need a dedicated team and an implementation strategy on which I intend to move forward rapidly once the Bill is passed.

The aim of amendment No. 2 is to provide that the Minister must report formally to the Houses of the Oireachtas on an annual basis in regard to progress on the implementation of the Act. This is to provide the reassurance that, in accordance with my firm intention, both I and my Department will work to implement the various parts of the Act without any necessary delays. [1234]

Mr. R. Bruton: These amendments are acceptable.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 2:

In page 6, between lines 4 and 5, the following subsection inserted:

“(4) As soon as practicable after the end of the first and second years following the date of passing of this Act, the Minister shall prepare a report on the implementation of the Act and shall cause copies of the report to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas.”.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 3:

In page 6, between lines 35 and 36, the following definition inserted:

“‘educational disadvantage’ has the meaning assigned by section 32(9);”.

This provides for a definition of educational disadvantage in section 2. It is a technical amendment which arises from consideration in the other House.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 4:

In page 7, line 39, “a school” deleted and “an establishment” substituted.

This amendment amends the definition of a school by replacing “a school” with “an establishment”. This is a technical amendment which arises from consideration in the other House.

Question put and agreed to.

An Ceann Comhairle: Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 form a composite proposal and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 5:

Section 2: In page 8, paragraph (e), lines 31 and 32, “including speech therapy and interpreting services” deleted and “, including inter-prating services” substituted.

Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 correct a misunderstanding which arose during the course of the previous discussion in this House as a result of which speech therapy services would inadvertently have been confined to students learning through sign language. This was obviously never my intention and I am happy to correct the matter by making these services available to all students. [1235]

Mr. O'Shea: I have had representations again in relation to the constitutionality of the Bill in the context of the range of services it provides for special needs children, in particular, profoundly and severely handicapped children. We previously received an assurance, to the best of my recollection, that the Minister's solid advice was that the Bill is constitutional, there is no restriction on services being provided for children and in any case no legislation can override constitutional rights.

Mr. Martin: I wish to reaffirm that this legislation is constitutional in respect of children with special needs and their entitlements under the Constitution. My advice is rock solid on that point. As the Deputy will be aware, we strengthened the Bill in the course of Committee Stage in this House to give added strength to that point. No legislation could endeavour to essentially sub-Vert or undermine the constitutional rights of children to education.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 6:

In page 8, between lines 32 and 33, the following paragraph inserted:

“(f) speech therapy services;”.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 7:

Section 5: In page 9, line 39, after “anything”, “previously” inserted.

This is a technical drafting amendment.

Question put and agreed to.

An Ceann Comhairle: Amendments Nos. 8 and 9 are related, and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 8:

Section 6: In page 10, between lines 15 and 16, the following paragraph inserted:

(f) to promote best practice in teaching methods with regard to the diverse needs of students and the development of the skills and competences of teachers;”.

Amendment No. 8, which arises from a concern expressed by Deputy Bruton, highlights in the objects section, section 6, the importance of promoting “best practice in teaching methods with regard to the diverse needs of students and the development of the skills and competences of teachers”. All this would have been implicit in the Bill as drafted. I am happy to make it explicit through this amendment.

The purpose of amendment No. 9 is to respond [1236] to a concern expressed in the other House that the educational needs of refugees and other similar groups should be acknowledged in the Bill. I am advised that the most appropriate formulation to do that is, “to promote the language and cultural needs of students having regard to the choices of their parents”. We had some considerable debate on that in the other House and a good consensus was arrived at.

Mr. R. Bruton: I welcome amendment No. 8. This is an important amendment, not least because there is widespread support for the belief that teaching methods in Ireland are unduly narrow and do not recognise what are regarded as multiple intelligences. There is need to broaden the scope of teaching methods. Providing for this explicitly in the Bill is good. I hope it will spur on the Department and others in the education field to take an interest in working in this area.

I also welcome amendment No. 9. Apropos of this, it has come as a surprise to me to learn from correspondence that recently visiting teachers who were available to students who came from a different culture to support them with language learning, etc., have been withdrawn from schools. Will the Minister clarify the matter?

Mr. Martin: That matter was brought to my attention. They are certainly not being withdrawn. They have received correspondence to the effect that they had not been withdrawn.

We are looking at the overall provision for children from other cultures, etc. There is a need to do more in that regard. There may be some reassignment of responsibilities within that context and within that context only. We are not with-drawing existing resources.

Mr. R. Bruton: Will the Minister give me a substantive reply in writing on that matter?

Mr. Martin: Yes.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 9:

In page 10, between lines 29 and 30, the following paragraph inserted:

(j) to promote the language and cultural needs of students having regard to the choices of their parents;”.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 10:

Section 7: In page 11, paragraph (b), line 7, after “the”, “quality,” inserted.

This amendment arises from consideration in the Seanad of the requirement in section 7 for the Minister to monitor and assess the quality of the [1237] education system as well as its economy, efficiency and effectiveness.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 11:

Section 9: In page 13, paragraph (g), line 17, after “student”, “, or in the case of a student who has reached the age of 18 years, the student,” inserted.

This is to make clear that students over the age of 18 have the right to access their own educational records. This is consistent with the provision in relation to appeals and curriculum issues in the Bill. It arose from consideration in the other House.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 12:

Section 13: In page 17, between lines 35 and 36, the following subsection inserted:

“(5) Where an Inspector has carried out an evaluation or an assessment under subsection (3)(a)(i), he or she may make recommendations to the Minister in respect of improvements that he or she considers appropriate.”.

An inspector, having made an evaluation or assessment, may include in the report recommendations as to improvements which he or she considers appropriate. This arose from previous discussion in this House. While recommendations as to appropriate improvements are an important part of the assessment or evaluation process of schools, and while the Bill as drafted would have implicitly meant that inspectors' reports should include recommendations as to necessary improvements, we are making that more explicit by way of this amendment.

Mr. R. Bruton: I welcome this amendment but I am seeking clarification. Is the function of section 13, which is being amended, to look at the psychological needs of an individual student or is it a collective assessment of the school? If it encompasses individual children as well as a broad range of children, is the wording of the amendment correct in that it would be improvements in the service to the individual child? Is the phraseology consistent with what I understood section 13(4) to provide?

Mr. Martin: We are dealing with subsection (3)(a)(i), under which an inspector has carried out an evaluation or assessment. He or she may make recommendations to the Minister in respect of improvements that he or she considers appropriate in respect of the overall school. It is important to make this point explicit. [1238]

Mr. R. Bruton: Perhaps I confused this issue. On Report Stage we discussed whether the Minister would reflect on the possibility of what was termed an individual education plan for children with particular needs. I understood that the Minister was considering something in this area in the Seanad or subsequent to that stage. I mistakenly read this as a response to that undertaking. Has the Minister any proposals on the concept of individual education plans for individual students?

Mr. Martin: The Deputy tabled amendment No. 60 on section 13 which related to this and he sought to introduce an entitlement to statements for each child with special educational needs. The Attorney General's office has advised against this provision. The legal advice is that an aspirational statement such as this cannot appear in primary legislation. Any statement must include details of the system of assessment, the object of the assessment, its status and so on. It would require a new section and it cannot be included in section 13.

However, in terms of what we are doing for those with special needs, we are moving in the direction of assessments for individual children with special needs. That is where we are heading in terms of resources and of automatic entitlements to staffing resources and child care assistants.

This amendment does not relate to the Deputy's amendment. This is a separate amendment and does not relate to the point the Deputy made under section 60.

Mr. R. Bruton: I am disappointed with the Attorney General's ruling. My recollection of the debate was that we tried to frame a section so that it would not have absolute, legally binding provisions on the Minister. The Attorney General seems to have expressed the view that once one moves away from an absolute, legally binding provision, it is aspirational. Of course it is aspirational, as is much of what we are doing with the Bill. We are setting objectives for the education system which we recognise are aspirations but which we hope the system will achieve. One cannot change the world overnight by legislation. However, one can set signposts. It is a pity the Attorney General did not see this in the context of a signpost which would have been welcome. The Minister is endeavouring in other provisions to begin down this road.

Mr. Martin: Page 17 of the Bill states that the inspector will have the powers and the where-withal to advise, following consultation with parents, to assess the psychological needs of students in recognised schools and to advise as appropriate those students, their parents and the schools in relation to the educational and psychological development of such students. There is a provision which allows the development of that valuable concept.

Mr. O'Shea: The phrase in the amendment is [1239] “may make recommendations”. One cannot make it mandatory for an inspector to make recommendations if there are none to make. It is at the inspector's discretion. I am concerned that where there are individual plans for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, special needs children or gifted children, they should be monitored as closely as possible.

Mr. Martin: I assure the Deputy that that will happen.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 13:

Section 14: In page 18, between lines 43 and 44, the following subsection inserted:

“(5) When making appointments to a board established in accordance with subsection (1) the patron shall comply with directions given by the Minister in respect of an appropriate gender balance and the Minister, before giving any such directions, shall consult with patrons, national associations of parents, recognised school management organisations and recognised trade unions and staff associations representing teachers.”.

Deputy Bruton should be happy with this amendment. It is to facilitate an appropriate gender balance on boards of management.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 14:

Section 18: In page 21, subsection (2), line 31, after “the Minister”, “and by parents of students in the school,” inserted.

This arose from a discussion in the Seanad. It provides that parents may have access on the same basis as the Minister to the accounts of the school their children attend. I am happy to make this further step in improving the transparency and accountability of publicly-funded education institutions.

Question put and agreed to.

An Ceann Comhairle: Amendments Nos. 15 and 18 are related.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 15:

Section 20: In page 22, line 11, “children” deleted and “students substituted.

Amendments Nos. 15 and 18 are drafting amendments.

Question put and agreed to.

[1240] An Ceann Comhairle: Amendments Nos. 16 and 17 are related.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 16:

Section 21: In page 22, subsection (2), line 25, after “objectives”, “including equality of access to and participation in the school by students with disabilities or who have other special educational needs” inserted.

This amendment has the effect of including in the school plan a particular reference to the measures which a school proposes to take to achieve the objectives of equality of access to and participation in the school by students with disabilities or other special educational needs. This responds to a request made in the debate on Report Stage by Deputy O'Shea.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 17:

In page 22, subsection (4), line 31, “the plan” deleted and “the school plan” substituted.

This is a drafting amendment.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 18:

Section 23: In page 23, lines 35 and 36, “of parents in their children's education” deleted and “of parents of students in the school in the education of those students” substituted.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 19:

Section 30: In page 29, between lines 17 and 18, the following paragraph inserted:

“(c) may give directions to schools, where he or she considers it appropriate, to ensure that the subjects and syllabuses pursued in those schools are appropriate and relevant to the educational and vocational needs of the students in those schools,”.

This amendment provides the reassurance that the Minister would be in a position to provide that school syllabuses and subjects meet the vocational and educational needs of their students. It is clear that the education system is entirely geared towards this objective which does not, therefore, have to be stated in the Act. However, I am happy to make it explicit through this amendment. This arose from discussions on Report Stage in this House.

Question put and agreed to. [1241]

An Ceann Comhairle: Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 are related.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 20:

Section 31: In page 29, lines 41 to 46 and in page 30, lines 1 to 4, paragraphs (a), (b), (c) and (d) deleted and the following paragraphs substituted:

“(a)(i) to plan and co-ordinate the provision of textbooks and aids to learning and teaching through Irish,

(ii) to advise the Minister on policies relating to the provision and promotion of education through the medium of Irish in recognised schools generally and in schools located in a Gaeltacht area,

(iii) to provide support services to those schools through the medium of Irish, and

(iv) to conduct research into any or all matters to which this paragraph applies,

and

(b) to plan and co-ordinate the provision of textbooks and aids to the learning and teaching of Irish and to conduct research into and to advise the Minister on strategies which have as their objective the enhancement of effectiveness in the teaching of Irish in recognised schools and centres for education.”

These amendments concern the functions of the body which I propose to establish to promote and advise me on Irish language teaching. As I said on Report Stage, there is a diversity of views on the function of the body to be established under this Act. I promised at that time to consult widely on the matter with a view to making a balanced provision which respects the views of all the parties. Since undertaking that consultation this provision has been encapsulated in these two amendments. Essentially they provide, in addition to its original functions in relation to teaching through Irish as set out in the Bill as drafted, that the body will be responsible for planning and co-ordinating the provision of text books and aids in relation to the learning and teaching of Irish and will have an advisory and research function in relation to the teaching of Irish. Its function in this regard will be carried out by a committee of the body and such committee must be established by the committee for this purpose. I hope this will meet the differing needs of the various partners. I take this opportunity to thank them all for their views as expressed to me. I am confident that with all of us working together the body and the committee can contribute in no small measure to the ongoing development of the Irish language. The [1242] Members of the other House thought this was a reasonable compromise and endorsed it.

Mr. R. Bruton: The Minister deserves commendation for having brought everyone on board in this compromise. It proves his capacity to persuade. It is a sensible amendment. It would have been ludicrous to separate these functions. The sub-committee is a reasonable way of getting over the issue.

Mr. O'Shea: The trust we placed in the Minister on Report Stage by leaving the matter to him to conclude successfully seems not to have been misplaced, but we have Irish solutions for Irish problems — the 95 per cent have the subcommittee.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 21:

In page 30, between lines 9 and 10, the following subsection inserted:

“(3) The body established in accordance with subsection (1)——

(a) shall, with the consent of the Minister, establish a committee to assist it in the performance of the functions conferred on it under subsection (1)(b), and

(b) may, with the consent of the Minister, at any time dissolve a committee appointed under this subsection or remove a member of a committee from such membership.”.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 22:

In page 30, subsection (3), line 10, “A” deleted and “The” substituted.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 23:

Section 35: In page 32, line 22, “paragraph 4” deleted and “subsection (4)” substituted.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 24:

Section 43: In page 36, line 26, “the appointed day” deleted and “the day on which the chief executive officer is appointed under subsection (1),” substituted.

Question put and agreed to.

[1243] Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 25:

Section 54: In page 41, subsection (8), line 18, “Without prejudice to the generality of section 5” deleted and “Notwithstanding section 5” substituted.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 26:

Section 55: In page 41, line 27, “tenure of office,” deleted and “tenure of office, and” substituted.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Martin: I move that the Committee agree with the Seanad in amendment No. 27:

FIRST SCHEDULE: In page 44, lines 1 and 2, “section 19 of the European Parliament Elections Act, 1997,” deleted and “Part XIII of the Second Schedule to the European Parliament Elections Act, 1997,” substituted.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. R. Bruton: Since this is the last occasion on which we will be gathered here to celebrate the Education Bill, I commend the Minister for his tenacity in debate and also his generosity at times in conceding changes where there was a consensus in the House that change was necessary.

This Bill is a significant improvement on the one which he first circulated, particularly in respect of greater recognition of special educational needs where we have made significant progress, although some would say there is still a long way to go. That is a view with which I would agree. However, I thank the Minister for the way in which he has conducted this debate. It has been at times spirited, which was welcome. It shows us that this is an issue which generates interest and commitment from Members of the House. I also thank the Minister's officials. I do not know how many hours they clocked up. Surveys give an indication of how many hours we spend shaving or doing other things. Some officials will now be able to say that the Education Bill accounted for an important slice of their life. I hope that at the end of the day we have created something that will be a worthwhile mark for the long-term future of education.

Mr. O'Shea: At the end of this long and at times spirited debate, I wish the Minister and his officials well in terms of implementing this Act. I still believe the devolution agenda will have to be revisited, but that is for another day. All things considered, the Minister and the Deputies on this side of the House were relatively courteous to one another. The debate has been worthwhile [1244] and has improved the Bill. I wish the Minister every success with it.

Mr. Martin: I thank the Chair and the various Cathaoirligh for their co-operation, assistance and advice throughout the conduct of this Bill. It has been a great privilege for me to introduce this Bill, to deliver it and to develop it through the House as Minister for Education and Science. I thank Deputies Bruton and O'Shea in particular for their very sincere and extraordinary commitment to the process. It has been a very long process, but a very worthwhile one. They gave much time and effort to doing research and producing new amendments. It is a much improved Bill. Looking at what happened in this House and the other House one can see definitive amendments which had the effect of improving the Bill quite immeasurably. It has been a good learning experience for me, being my first major Bill as Minister.

This is the culmination of a long process going back many years — my immediate predecessor had to put up with me in Opposition and all the deliberation and consultation. I thank all the previous Ministers going back to the original decision of the current Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy Mary O'Rourke, as Minister for Education at the beginning of the decade in 1991, to give statutory underpinning to the education system. It has been a long process since then including Green Papers, White Papers, conventions and so on. I thank all my predecessors who made notable contributions to the process. I thank also the partners in education who consulted and gave much of their time and expertise and brought much of it to bear on the ultimate shape and content of the Bill.

Finally, I thank the officials of my Department, many of whom, because of our procedures in this House, had to stay up until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. and get up again at 7 a.m. to process replies and check the validity or otherwise of amendments. We often do not take cognisance of the pressure we put on officials through our systems. I thank them sincerely for their contribution. We can celebrate the arrival of Christmas with the conclusion of this Bill in this House. It has been a great experience, but a long and tough one from the officials' perspective and I thank them.

An Ceann Comhairle: Agreement to the Seanad amendments is reported to the House. A message will be sent to Seanad Éireann acquainting it accordingly.