Ombudsman could provide overdue voice for students
Most agree independent appeals system required but no consensus on form it should take
If a parent or student has a difficulty with the decision, there is no avenue of independent appeal besides the expensive and often daunting prospect of a court action. File photograph: Eric Luke
For all the talk of a student-centred education system, young people and their parents often have little voice when it comes to crucial decisions affecting them.
Under the Education Act, 1998, all schools are managed by the school board of management. These management authorities employ school teachers and other staff members. In the eyes of the law, then, the Department of Education has no role in handling complaints about a school or decisions made by a boards of management.
Yet, boards of management make hugely important decisions such as school admission policies, facilities for children with special learning needs or bullying and harassment.
If a parent or student has a difficulty with the decision, there is no avenue of independent appeal besides the expensive and often daunting prospect of a court action.
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In theory, schoolchildren and their parents have the option of appealing a decision to the Children’s Ombudsman. However, it has received about 4,000 such complaints since its inception but has only been able to initiate a full investigation into a small fraction of these for a combination legislative and resource reasons.
In contrast to other areas of public life, there is a glaring absence of independent accountability in the education sector.
The concept is well established, for example, in the Department of Justice – with agencies such as the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and Garda Inspectorate, and the Department of Health, with the Health Information and Quality Authority.
In fact, successive ministers for education have pledged to introduce such a system, which is provided for under the 1998 Education Act.
There is much less agreement, however, on the best way forward to realising this.
Within the Department of Education, there are reservations about setting up another potentially costly State body.
Instead, officials would prefer to establish a charter for parents and students, along with some form of statutory complaints mechanism.
A linked development is the plan for fitness-to-practise hearings for teachers, which would hear complaints relating to the handling of allegations of inappropriate professional conduct. This is likely to come into force very soon.
Whether an ombudsman will be ultimately be set up will depend on the outcome of Oireachtas committee hearings.