School groups say Bill may be unconstitutional

 

A SPOKESMAN for the Federation of Lay Catholic Secondary Schools has said its preliminary legal advice is that the Education Bill's provision to freeze funding and staffing levels in schools which fail to set up management boards is unconstitutional.

Mr Joe Dwyer, principal of the Killorglin Intermediate School in Co Kerry, said if the Minister acted on this she would be interfering in schools which are privately owned businesses, the property of individuals or families.

Many have been in existence since the early days of the State.

He said the dozen or so Catholic lays schools owned in this way were in a direct line from the old hedge schools of Ireland".

Among them are well known schools such as Sandymount High School and St Conleth's in Dublin, and Hamilton High School in Bandon, Co Cork, none of which has boards of governors or trustees.

Mr Dwyer said that when these schools entered the State system in the 1960s they were given a guarantee that there would be no State interference in their management.

He said the federation would be seeking further legal advice on the issue.

Mr George O'Callaghan, the general secretary of the Joint Managerial Body, which represents the managements of denominational schools, both Catholic and Protestant, said they would question the constitutionality of this provision "at a broader level".

"If the Department can freeze funds to a school on the issue of setting up a board, what's to stop them doing it in other situations where they don't like what a school is doing?" he asked, noting that the Minister had kept "a lot of powers to herself" in the new Bill.

The secretary of the Catholic Primary School Managers' Association, Sister Eileen Randles, queried the usefulness of the proposed regional education boards, and their impact on the quality of educational services to be provided.

She also said there were "very serious questions about the costing" of the regional boards.

However, she was reassured by the section in the Bill which laid down that both grants to schools and the date on which such grants would be paid would continue to be determined by the Minister for Education.

On the latter issue, she said that when higher education grants were administered by county councils, third level colleges often had problems in getting the money on time, leading to cash flow problems.

"We don't want to see that happening between education boards and schools."

The Campaign to Separate Church and State said its welcome for the Education Bill was marred by the Minister's "agreement of November 1996, entitled `Governance of Schools', with various church interests representing school patrons.

The organisation said this agreement "gives primacy to school patrons aims of maintaining a strong denominational ethos in accordance with the doctrines, moral teachings, traditions, practices and customs of the Church as defined by the Church".

"Patrons, in this respect, are given a total veto over staff, boards of management and student admissions," it said.