Parent may appeal school decisions under new legislation

Jim Daly’s Bill would create Ombudsman for Education with legally-binding powers

The Education (Amendment Bill)  is strongly opposed by the Ombudsman for Children. Photograph: Getty Images

The Education (Amendment Bill) is strongly opposed by the Ombudsman for Children. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Parents would have an opportunity to complain and appeal decisions made by schools for the first time under legislation which has been accepted by the Government.

The Education (Amendment Bill) to be tabled by Fine Gael TD Jim Daly on Thursday, seeks to establish an ombudsman for education who would have powers to investigate grievances against schools.

However, the move is strongly opposed by the Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon on the basis it could result is legal costs for schools, while senior officials in the Department of Education are also understood to have some concerns.

Mr Daly, who is due to table the private members’ Bill in the Dáil on Thursday evening, said the department has exercised a “hands-off” policy towards tackling complaints about the education system and opted to hide behind boards of management which are "independent of scrutiny or challenge".

The Fine Gael TD said these “autocratic” boards were making decisions on very significant matters such as poor teaching practice, bullying and harassment and failure to provide access to special needs students.

The only option available to parents or teachers who disagree with these decisions was to take a potentially lengthy and costly court action.

Mr Daly said he was dealing with two cases of students who had been refused access to second-level education on the basis of their special needs.

“The refusal to facilitate a child to progress from their local primary school to second level education is a massive indictment of our education system and a travesty that would not be allowed to happen should there exist an ombudsman for education.”

Grievances

He said there were many in the education system  who would benefit from the establishment of a new ombudsman's office.

“Principals, teachers and support staff also have frequent grievances which could similarly be addressed by a competent authority,” he said.

“Parents who are primarily advocates for their children would also have an avenue of appeal for decisions that they believe are not just or transparent."

A spokesman for the Department of Education confirmed that Minister for Education Richard Bruton and the Government will support the legislation.

"Improving information and complaints procedures will make a major impact, and Jim Daly’s Bill makes a valuable contribution in this area," a spokesman said.

The programme for Government commits that the Oireachtas Education Committee will examine the role and power of an ombudsman for education. The programme also commits to introducing  a stronger complaints procedure and charter for parents.

A process of examination by the Oireachtas Committee will ensure consistency with the need to ensure better local decision-making and accountability to parents, the spokesman added.

"This process will allow for consideration be given as to how proposals in this area interact with the existing provisions in the Ombudsman for Children Act so as to ensure that this Bill does not give rise to any unintended consequences to the work of the Ombudsman for Children," the Department spokesman said.

However, Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon has expressed concerns that establishing a separate office with legally-binding power could only exacerbate problems by adding another legal layer to a system without addressing underlying problems.

“It will inevitably result in significant legal costs for schools and for parents and also raise issues around equality of access,” said Dr Muldoon.

“A more effective solution would be to put a robust statutory complaints mechanism in place and to empower boards of management to handle complaints in a child-friendly manner.”

There have been long-standing plans to introduce procedures to improve the practice of handling school complaints, though none have come into operation.

The Government has indicated that it intends to introduce a provision underpinning the creation of a “parent and student charter”, though few details are available.