Boards must ensure fair educational provision in their region


THE regional education boards, which have been discussed in various forms since Ms Gemma Hussey's time as minister for education in the mid-1980s, finally saw the light of day yesterday.

More than a third of the Education Bill's 45 pages are devoted to the status, functions and funding of the 10 new boards.

The new boards will take on the funding of all schools in their region, using money transferred from the Department of Education and according to criteria laid down by the Minister for Education.

A working party under the chairmanship of Mr Eddie Blackstock, chairman of the board of governors of Rathdown School in Dun Laoghaire, has recently begun working on those criteria. When adopted, they will be published and made available to the public.

The task of the boards will be to ensure, as far as possible, that educational provision is provided fairly across their region. They will, for example, have to address the perception that voluntary secondary schools - funded by capitation fees - receive less money than community, comprehensive and vocational schools, which receive funds based on their previous year's allocation plus a percentage increase.

Education boards will have a statutory obligation to provide a diversity of school types in their regions, including Gaelscoileanna, multi-denominational schools and denominational schools.

They will also be required by law to ensure that the education of is facilitated.

They will own the land and buildings of publicly funded new schools and will lease them to the various groups wishing to provide education.

Six groups will be equally represented on the new boards: teachers (including principals), school owners, parents' associations, local politicians, ministerial nominees and the wider community in the region. The latter group could include business people, vocational interests, representatives of adult and continuing education and the disadvantaged.

Some boards will be larger than others. Where, for example, there are six local authority areas in an education board region, there will be six local politicians on a board, meaning that every other group will also have six representatives, resulting in a board of 36 members.

A smaller number of local authority areas will result in a smaller education board.

There will also be considerable competition for other places. The school owners' seats, for example, could be taken up by people representing the Catholic bishops and orders, the Protestant bishops and school governors, the VECs, the lay Catholic secondary schools and minority groups like the Gaelscoileanna and multi-denominational schools.

In certain areas Irish speakers, religious minority interests and travellers may be brought onto boards as representatives of the wider community.

Each board will have a standing committee to advise on the teaching of Irish, with the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht nominating up to half its membership. All boards with Gaeltacht areas in their region must have an Udaras na Gaeltachta nominee as a member. Every board has one director who must be able to communicate in Irish.

The VECs will not disappear. However, their numbers will be reduced gradually by amalgamation from 38 to 23, as the Department's committee on school accommodation has recommended.

Five urban VECs will be merged with effect from January next year. Other amalgamations will take longer, since they require an amendment in the 1930 Vocational Education Act.