Bill aims to make system more democratic and accountable

 

The Education Bill aims to reorganise the system in line with modern needs, and will involve the most radical overhaul of the administrative structure ever, writes John Coolahan

By JOHN COOLAHAN

THE Education Bill is a truly historic document and, if enacted, it will involve the most radical overhaul of the administrative structure of first and second-level education ever achieved in Ireland.

One of the pressing reasons for, such legislation is the sparsity and inadequacy of existing educational legislation, the system being largely run on convention and ministerial circulars. Hitherto, we have never had a single piece of legislation which aimed "to provide generally for primary, post-primary adult and continuing education and vocational education and training".

Now the Education Bill seeks to grapple with the problems and to restructure the system in line with modern needs. It is the outcome of almost five years of analysis, consultation and planning, since the publication of the Green Paper in 1992. The National Education Convention distilled much of the debate and the Government's policy was incorporated in its 1995 White Paper.

The Bill encapsulates this policy in legislative form. It aims to give education's administrative structure: a secure, statutory basis and.it sets out the rights and responsibilities of all partners within the system. This has been sadly missing up to now. The Bill's aspirations are to make the system more democratic, efficient and accountable and the measures proposed hold much promise in these regards.

The central core of the Bill involves a new tripartite relationship in the administration of the system between the Department, 10 new educational boards established regionally, and the individual schools.

Many of the Department's administrative and support services are being devolved to the education boards which, in the Minister's words at yesterday's launch, "will release the resources of the Department to play a strategic role in planning for medium and long-term, developments in education".

The Bill does not deal with the Department's internal reform but this is part of the change package. Analysts have long recognised that restructuring the work of the Department is essential for the well-being of the whole system. However the devolution is of a limited character and the Minister retains key responsibilities, albeit with more control exercised by the Oireachtas.

Yet it is clear from the text that the 10 education boards are seen as playing pivotal roles in policy and the delivery of services in their regions. The hope is that by working closely with the educational partners, the boards can provide an education service which is responsive, flexible and creative.

The Minister's earlier position paper on regional education boards (1994), saw the boards altogether - replacing the vocational education committees. Now, some of these are being retained, with managerial responsibilities towards their schools, but financed through and relating with the education boards.

Part two of the Bill is devoted to the education boards and it comprises more than a third of the text. It outlines the general composition of the boards (without focusing on numbers) and sets out the objectives and functions of the boards in considerable detail. These functions are impressive and extensive, but the note in section 9 (4) which alerts the boards that they shall have regard to "the resources available, presages interesting times ahead.

The education boards will submit costed operational programmes and prepare periodic educational plans for the region, for approval by the Minister, as well as presenting annual reports on the performance of the boards. These reports will be available to the public. The boards will be responsible for the recognition of schools School funding - based on criteria determined by the Minister - will be disbursed by the boards, which will have an appeal structure for pupils and parents in the event of alleged injustice, unresolved at school level. It is planned to review the education boards after five years.

The Bill also involves a major restructuring for school inspectors, who are to be a unified agency known as the "inspectorate" However, they will operate on a two-tier basis, some with the central Department as a national inspectorate. Others will be seconded by the Minister to the education boards and will work to the directors of the boards.

The issue of school management was contentious in debates over recent years. The Bill steers a careful course through the constitutional parameters. The functions of schools are set out and their fulfilment is the responsibility of boards of management, which are to be established in all schools. The Minister is to, "make all reasonable efforts to reach agreement on the composition" but has the right to make an order on composition without having reached such agreement.

Another area of potential conflict is the provision which allows school grants and staffing levels to be frozen if a patron fails to set up an approved board of management for a recognised school.

MAINTAINING the ethos of a school has been a serious concern of denominational owner of schools. This is expressed in the Bill in a more general way when it states that the board of management shall "support the characteristic spirit of the school".

Another area of controversy arising from an earlier draft was the power of veto being given to school owners on staff appointments which they adjudged would undermine the ethos of the school. The published Bill takes a much more indirect approach when it states that appointments will be made "only in accordance with procedures agreed from time to time between the Minister, the patron and any registered trade unions or staff association."

In line with the Green and White Papers, the accountability of schools is being strengthened by the requirements that school plans should be prepared in consultation with the other educational partners associated with the school and annual reports on progress are to be sent to the education board and the parents.

As expected, the Bill gives strong statutory underpinning to parents' right in a variety of provisions, reflecting the strong expression of parental rights within the Constitution.

As well as having a statutory role in all the administrative bodies, parents will have the right of access to their children's school records.

Bearing in mind the long established undisturbed educational practices and conventions, the Bill's provision for new structures and its, articulation of the rights and responsibilities of the various parties is likely to draw some criticisms. However, nobody should be taken by surprise by the measures.

They have been in the public arena for a long time. As in other democratic countries, Ireland needs, to modernise its educational administration and give it a proper legal basis.

The style of presentation is not too legalistically detailed; some issues are left a little vague and there is scope for some flexibility in finalising arrangements in a number of key areas. It is not a straitjacket style of legislation and it is capable of development and evolution.

It may well be that experience will indicate that the requirements on documentation and reportage will prove to be cumbersome and over- bureaucratic.

IMPLEMENTING the Bill will require a cultural change in people's attitudes and behaviours but the time may be ripe whereby decisions taken close to the involved parties may help unleash much ability, energy and commitment. The Bill's provisions call for a new civic culture where parents and citizens take a more active interest in educational issues which affect them intimately.

For a variety of reasons, the churches' role in Irish education will be very different in the future from what it has been in the past. In contemporary circumstances, the concerns of church authorities to safeguard the spiritual values and traditions as part of the birthright of their flocks might be best promoted with a true sense of partnership, trust and - the full sharing of responsibility in schools with lay personnel.

The spirit at the National Education Convention, of respect and regard for the rights of minority religions, of those who favoured multi-denominational schooling and of those who were non-believers, needs to be constantly nurtured.

The protection of the rights of all should be a concern of all, but this can be difficult to accommodate within our system without forbearance and generosity of spirit, and a reaching out in human fellowship. It seems to me that the Education Bill seeks to do this.

The satisfactory working out of the responsibilities and relationships between the three tiers - Department and education boards on the one hand and education boards and individual schools on the other - will be of major importance in building mutual confidence and trust and will be a learning process for all.

Equally important will be trust and good relationships between Patron, board of management and school community, within a more transparent mode of procedure. If the regional education boards are to fulfil the functions being assigned to them, they will be, and should be expensive.

As recent reports have shown, the educational support services to our schools are unsatisfactory. Even if we did not change the administrative structure, we would have to invest more in them. It would be foolhardy to set up regional education boards with an elaborate remit regarding education services if they are not to be given the necessary resources to do the job.

One looks forward to the debate and detailed analysis of the Bill's provisions. With a comprehensive Universities Bill going through the Oireachtas and now the Education Bill, it seems clear that Irish education is entering a new era and in the process, Irish democracy is being strengthened.