Statutory role for parents in Education Bill praised


THE long-awaited Education Bill, the first comprehensive education legislation in the history of the State, has been generally welcomed by parents' groups but heavily criticised by some unions and school management bodies.

The Bill sets up 10 regional education boards and provides for compulsory school management boards representing all those involved in education.

The Minister for Education, Ms Breathnach, said yesterday that for the first time the Bill would put into law a balanced partnership between parents, teachers and the owners of schools, most of which are churches and religious bodies.

At a press conference to introduce the legislation, the outcome of nearly five years of consultation and planning, she said it would end the widely criticised system of centralised education operating without a statutory framework.

She repeatedly emphasised parents' equal rights under the legislation, noting that it represented "the coming of age of parental involvement".

Another key element is the statutory obligation of the new education boards to provide "a diversity of school types" in their regions, including Gaelscoileanna, multi-denominational schools and church-run schools.

Ms Breathnach said the education boards would have to be "proactive" in this regard, and the" legislation notes "the desirability of diversity" in the kinds of school operating in a region.

She said the placing of school inspectors on a statutory basis, with a clear definition of their functions and powers, did not imply any move towards an informal league table of schools.

The National Parents Council (Primary) welcomed the Bill, praising parents' statutory right to, representation on school management boards and their right to set up parents' associations, as well as the establishment of the education boards.

In contrast, the general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland, Mr Charlie Lennon, called the Bill "a bureaucratic nightmare" and its new appeals procedure for parents and students over 16 "a bonanza for lawyers".

The general secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, Senator Joe O'Toole, said it was right that parents should have an appeals procedure but it was "utterly unacceptable" that the proposed appeals board would not have a teachers' representative.

However, the president of the Teachers Union of Ireland, Ms Alice Prendergast, welcomed the requirement to establish management boards in all schools and the decision to drop the so-called "religious veto" over teacher appointments from the published Bill.

The reaction from school managers was similarly mixed.

The Joint Managerial Body was among a number of representative organisations which indicated yesterday that they would seek advice on the constitutionality of the proposal to freeze funding and staffing levels in schools which tailed to set up management boards.

The Minister said she was satisfied with her legal advice on the matter.

She also has the power under the Bill, subject to the approval of the Dail and Seanad, to impose a management board on a school where parents, teachers and owners fail to agree.

Fianna Fail's spokesman on education, Mr Micheal Martin, described the new education boards as "bureaucratic monstrosities" and pledged that his party would abolish them in government.