Méid an Téacs

Speech for Dáil Debate – Houses of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection Report on the Draft General Scheme of an Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2013

Meitheamh 30, 2014

Ceann Comhairle,

I am delighted to have this opportunity today to participate in a debate about the Joint Committee’s pre-legislative report on my proposed Admission to Schools Bill.

Last September I published a draft regulatory framework for discussion ahead of enacting legislation.

The framework consisted of the Draft General Scheme for an Education (Admission to Schools) Bill and the associated draft regulations.

This followed on from a public consultation process that was held in 2011.

It is not generally the case that draft regulations are provided alongside the general scheme of a bill.

However, I was anxious to do so in this case in order to facilitate a comprehensive discussion on the full range of measures to be provided – whether in the bill or in regulations.

The draft General Scheme was referred to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection last September to allow a full public discussion.

The Committee invited written submissions from interested individuals or groups and a total of 57 submissions were received.

As part of its work the Committee held 3 days of public hearings which facilitated discussion with relevant stakeholders including representatives of parents and education partners among others.

The report was published on 5th March of this year.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Committee for its work in facilitating public discussion on the draft proposals for this legislation.

I would also like to record my appreciation to all those that made submissions and presentations to the Committee.

The Committee’s report contains 14 conclusions: some relating to the draft general scheme and others relate to the draft regulations which I published alongside the draft general scheme.

These recommendations are being considered by my Department in parallel with the drafting of the Bill that is currently underway.

There will also be opportunity to consider them while the Bill, when published, goes through the various stages of the House.

Today’s debate gives an additional opportunity for me to hear the views of members of this House on the Committee’s report.

When considering the Committee’s report it is important to note that our aim with the draft framework is to create a new more parent-friendly, equitable and consistent approach to how school admissions policy should operate for all 4,000 plus primary and post-primary schools.

Its purpose is to improve access to schools for all pupils and to ensure there is consistency, fairness and transparency in the admissions policies of all schools and in the service they provide to parents.

Throughout this process, I have been anxious to ensure that we have a fair and balanced school admissions process.

I know that many parents are happy with the schools their children attend and that the vast majority of schools are inclusive and welcoming places.

But there are cases where there is disappointment and dissatisfaction, with limited means of dealing with this.

The draft framework seeks to strike an appropriate balance between school autonomy and the interests of parents in our education system.

For the reported 80% of schools that enrol all pupils the impact of the framework will be relatively marginal.

For the remaining 20% of schools that are oversubscribed, the framework specifies a small number of oversubscription criteria that will not be permissible.

Otherwise schools have discretion on how they prioritise applicants for admission (provided it is lawful from an equality perspective).

The General Scheme involves the introduction of new primary legislation that will:

  • Require all admission policies to include an explicit statement that the school will not discriminate against any applicant on grounds of – disability, special educational need, sexual orientation, family status, member of traveller community, race, civil status, gender, faith or religious tradition or no faith
  • Set out the powers of the Minister to regulate school admissions
  • Provide that it is the function of a principal to implement admission policy
  • Replace Section 29 appeal process against refusal to enrol decisions with a local appeal to Board of Management
  • Provide the Child and Family Agency and the NEWB with the power to designate a school for a child with no place
  • Provide for a school to appeal against a designation
  • Provide the Minister with the power to require schools in an area to co-operate regarding admissions
  • Introduce compliance measures that provide for the patron and/or Minister to appoint an independent person to operate the schools admission policy. The Minister would be required to seek court approval to exercise this sanction.

The legislative framework takes admissions out of the Section 29 appeals process because it is not fit for purpose.

It is cumbersome and creates a significant administrative burden.

The Section 29 appeal process has a significant flaw as it makes no distinction between a child not getting enrolled in a school of choice and a child who has no school place.

The experience is that in situations where demand exceeds supply, Section 29 appeals are generally futile – the school refused admission simply because it did not have enough places.

The committee report raised the need to consider the retention of Section 29 appeals or some form of external appeal mechanism.

I still plan to remove admission as it is currently provided for in Section 29, but I am considering what alternative approaches may be possible.

At the same time, I am conscious that there is a desire to retain all decision making on these matters at school level, to avoid infringing on school autonomy.

I am particularly interested in hearing the views of members in this debate on how best to balance school autonomy on one hand, and access to an external statutory appeal mechanism that would impose decisions on schools on the other.

The Oireachtas Committee report also expressed concerns regarding the proposal for a school to be permitted to refuse admission based on provision of Gardaí/HSE advice.

Having regard to this conclusion and also the particular concerns raised by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) and the Ombudsman for Children in relation to this issue, the provision in question has been removed from the General Scheme.

The framework also strengthens our capacity to cater for children who cannot get any school place.

This is important and particularly so for children that are vulnerable or at risk.

The aim is to get such a child a school place in a timely manner.

For those children who cannot get any school place there are new powers for the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) and the Child and Family Agency to designate a school place for such a child.

This power should ensure the timely allocation of a school place for such children.

Up to now the parents of these children would generally have made multiple appeals to Section 29 Committees without success.

The regulations, which will be reviewed following further consultation, provide for the following:

  • A common national earliest date for the commencement of enrolment across the school system.
  • Subject to limited exceptions the default position is that if a school has capacity it must enrol all applicants.
  • Other than recognised fee-charging schools, parents are not charged any booking deposits, fees or other payments as a condition of initial enrolment or for continued enrolment.
  • Parents will see in advance from the enrolment policy the oversubscription criteria the school will use if demand exceeds supply.
  • Schools have discretion on what oversubscription criteria they use provided they are not one of the listed criteria that are not permissible.
  • If a school was oversubscribed in the previous year or expects to be in the coming year, parents can see from the information provided by the school which categories of applicants were successful in the previous year’s enrolment process (this will be a useful and early indicator to the parent on the chances of being allocated a school place).
  • If an applicant is unsuccessful in getting a school place then the parent will be given the reasons why the applicant failed to meet the enrolment criteria (this transparency should bring clarity for a parent and help reduce appeals).

The draft regulations that were published provide that it is not permissible to prioritise applicants on basis of:

  • Attendance at any particular pre-school, crèche
  • Attendance at meeting, open day or interview
  • Date of birth (except at primary level)
  • Order in which applications were received (5 year transition period to phase out waiting lists)
  • Past pupil (limited derogation for existing schools that use this criteria)
  • Financial contribution or commitment to same
  • Academic ability, skills or aptitude
  • Occupation or financial status of the student’s parents

The Oireachtas Committee report made of number of conclusions regarding the regulations which involved earlier phasing out of waiting lists and removal of the past pupil derogation.

These issues relate to the draft regulations.

In relation to waiting lists, the draft regulations prohibit waiting lists generally but provide a limited derogation to allow schools which have traditionally used this approach to phase out existing waiting lists over a five year period.

The report recommends that this should be done over a shorter period unless there are legal obstacles.

This issue will be further examined.

In addition, the report questioned how school enrolment difficulties that children in care may experience could be best addressed.

This matter will be further considered in consultation with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

In relation to the proposed derogation in the draft regulations to allow schools, in certain circumstances, to give priority to children of past pupils, the Committee considers that there should be no such derogation, and that a school should not be permitted to give priority to a student on the grounds that he or she is the son or daughter of a former student of the school.

In addition the Committee considers that a school should be permitted to give priority to a student who has a sibling who is currently attending the school.

The draft regulations provide for some limited priority to be given to the children of past pupils of a school.

The approach taken aimed to strike a balance by limiting the number of places that can be allocated in this manner to a maximum of 25%.

This issue will be reflected on further following consultation. It should be noted that the draft regulations do, in fact, permit priority to be given to pupils who have a sibling currently attending the school.

I would like to take this opportunity to clarify that the draft framework is primarily focused on the mainstream enrolment of junior infants at primary level and first years at post-primary level.

The framework will be refined to ensure that it takes account of enrolment in special classes and special schools.

I also acknowledge that some adjustment will need to be made to the scheme to ensure that there are no unintended consequences in the legislation for the arrangements for enrolment in other situations such as enrolment in post leaving certificate courses.

Before I conclude, I would like to state that I intend to include an amendment to Section 28 of the Education Act as part of this Bill which would provide the legislative underpinning for a Parents and Learners Charter.

The purpose of the Parents and Learners Charter is to:

  • Strengthen the position of parents within the school system and to bring about a culture change in how schools engage with and involve parents (and students in an age related manner),
  • Foster a culture of better engagement and communication by schools with parents and students which should ultimately reduce the need for invoking the complaints and grievances procedures.

The aim of these legislative proposals is to ensure fairness and transparency in school enrolment.

The framework constitutes a significant public service reform aimed at substantially improving the experience between the public and schools on student admission.

Transforming our public services and ensuring that the citizen is at the heart of how public services operate is an important objective of the Government.

The Oireachtas Committee report recognises the need for school admission practices to adapt to meet the circumstances of a diverse and changing society and comments that the legislative proposals “address a range of factors that cause frustration and obstacles at present. At the same time, they aim to allow schools as much autonomy as possible”.

I have made it clear that I will look at refining elements of the framework if it becomes clear from the consultation process that such changes are necessary and appropriate while at the same time continuing to ensure that all applicants for enrolment are treated in a fair, consistent and transparent manner.