Parents and students may be able to appeal decisions made by schools
Fine Gael TD Jim Daly’s legislation would create body students could appeal to
Fine Gael TD Jim Daly is proposing a Bill to establish an ombudsman for education. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
Parents and students would be able to appeal decisions made by schools to an independent body for the first time, under legislation which has been accepted by the Government.
Fine Gael TD Jim Daly’s Education (Amendment) Bill seeks to establish an ombudsman for education who would have powers to investigate grievances against schools.
However, the move is opposed by the Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon on the basis it could result in legal costs for schools.
Some Government ministers are also understood to have concerns and sought to delay debate over the Bill. However, it is understood Taoiseach Enda Kenny pushed for the private members’ Bill to be accepted at a recent Cabinet meeting.
Mr Daly said the Department of Education has exercised a “hands-off” policy for too long towards tackling complaints about education.
He said “autocratic” boards of management were independent of scrutiny, despite making decisions on 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 has been to take potentially lengthy and costly court action. A spokesman for Minister for Education Richard Bruton said the Government supported the legislation. Details, such as the role and power of an ombudsman for education, will be examined by an Oireachtas committee.
Such a process of examination 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 to be given as to how proposals in this area interact with the existing provisions in the Ombudsman for Children Act, so as to ensure this Bill does not give rise to any unintended consequences to the work of the Ombudsman for Children,” Mr Bruton’s spokesman said.
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 parents and also raise issues around equality of access,” he said. “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.”
Mr Daly, however, said he would amend his proposed legislation so an ombudsman for education would only advise school boards of management rather than direct them on a legal basis. This is the same way as other ombudsmen operate.
“These legal powers are not necessary,” he said. “My information is that only once has a State agency refused to abide by the advice of an ombudsman.” He 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.