Breathnach hails landmark in Irish education


NlAMH BHREATHNACH has called the new Education Bill a landmark in Irish education history in that for the first time it puts into law a balanced partnership between parents, teachers and the owners of schools, who are overwhelmingly churches and religious organisations.

"For the first time ever, each partner will have a statutory role in the education system," she told a press conference in Dublin yesterday. The legislation would end the traditional, widely criticised system of centralised education which operated without a statutory framework and in which nearly 4,000 schools had a "one-to-one relationship" with the Department of Education.

The Bill will see the establishment of 10 regional education boards; the setting up of management boards representing parents, teachers and owners in all publicly-funded schools; statutory recognition of parents' associations; statutory definition of school inspectors functions and powers; and legal appeals procedures for parents and students.

Ms Breathnach said that until now schools were told what to do by means of regulations and circulars and their administration was "behind closed doors".

She stressed that no longer would the education system be run "behind great walls or railings at the Department of Education", saying "Now we'll put into effect a partnership between parents, who have to educate their children according to the Constitution, teachers who do the job and are very proud of the job they do, and owners of schools, be they churches or Gaelscoileanna or multi-denominational schools."

Ms Breathnach stressed that from now on parents would have the right, enshrined in law, to participate in all school boards and plans and to have access to their children's reports. She repeatedly emphasised the equal rights of parents under the new legislation, noting that it represented "the coming of age of parental involvement" which had started when they had first started taking their places on primary school management boards in the mid-1970s.

She added: "I can't actually see any school management saying to enthusiastic parents, `Go away, we don't want you'."

She also rejected a suggestion that placing the Department of Education's inspectors on a statutory footing, with a clear definition of their functions and powers, implied any move towards an informal league table of schools and their performances.

The Bill would provide for the active promotion of the Irish language, the Minister said, and legislation would lay down a statutory obligation on the boards to "provide a diversity of school types including Gaelscoileanna, multi-denominational schools and church-run schools in a region".

Asked about the composition of school management boards, which is not specified in the legislation, the Minister rejected the proposal in the 1992 Green Paper that all schools should have exactly the same form of management. That proposal "did not recognise the plurality that exists and is growing in the system," she said.

She emphasised that many of the provisions in the Bill were "enabling and evolving" to allow the structures and emphases of a changing society to be reflected in management structures, particularly through the role of parent representatives on school boards.

. The Bill will amend the 119-year-old Intermediate Education Act which banned the examination of any religious education subject.

This will allow religion to be treated as an exam subject in schools in the Republic for the first time since the State's foundation.

The Minister said she had taken a special interest in this. She compared the situation in the Republic with that in Northern Ireland, where young people studied not just their own religion but "the whole development and traditions of religions and cultures, including a look at cultural humanism".

Religion should be studied in the same depth as history, she said. She felt that to see religion only as religious instruction was closing off "that wonderful Journey" which education and the widening of knowledge involved.

A draft curriculum for a Leaving Certificate religion course has already been prepared.