A NEW ERA IN EDUCATION
The importance of the Education Bill published yesterday by the Minister for Education, Ms Breathnach, can scarcely be overstated. For the first time, the structure and administration of the education system is to be placed on a clear statutory basis. In the Minister's own phrase, it should signal the end of an education system run for 130 years by little more than ministerial circular and regulation.
The Bill represents a fundamental - and long overdue - reorientation of the education service. The proposed establishment of 10 regional education boards should bring the management of schools closer to the communities they serve and weaken the excessively centralised role of the Department of Education. The legal recognition of the rights and the responsibilities of parents, teachers and school signals a new era of democracy and accountability in education. And the commitment to the "desirability" of diversity in education indicates very welcome support for plurality and choice in education.
Ms Breathnach's work in framing such a progressive body of legislation must be commended. Indeed, the input of the former Minister, Ms Mary O'Rourke, in launching the lengthy consultative process on the Bill should also be acknowledged.
The Bill is not without several potential pitfalls. There is a clear danger that the proposed regional education boards will create a new layer of bureaucracy, especially given the Government's decision to retain over 20 Vocational Education Committees. The proposal to suspend financial support for schools unwilling to introduce the new boards may run counter to the constitutional right to education for all children. And the procedure to allow parents and students over 16 years of age to appeal against certain decisions in schools could invite all sorts of vexatious complaints.
Despite its good intentions, there is also a strong sense that the Government has side-stepped many of the sensitive issues thrown up by the Green Paper on education and the National Education Convention. Unlike the Green Paper it does not, for example, suggest a model for the new-style boards of education. It does not say where the balance of power should reside between parents, teachers and owners - usually the churches. And it does not clarify where the final say will lie in the appointment of teachers.
Ms Breathnach is keen to stress that the Bill represents no more than enabling legislation and that the fine print will be completed in a continued spirit of partnership with the various interest groups. But it could be that the Government is making a virtue out of necessity, making the political calculation that there is little point in giving hostages to fortune in advance of the general election. There is no stomach, at this time, for a potentially damaging confrontation with the churches or with the teachers' unions.
But there are important issues in Irish education which will have to be addressed and powerful vested interest groups which will have to be faced down - sooner rather than later. There is general satisfaction with the system but this does not obviate the need for reform. A succession of reports from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) has voiced criticism of standards, notably our poor literacy levels and language skills. There is also a need to ensure that the system dovetails to a closer degree with our economic and social development. Ms Breathnach's Bill represents a valuable agenda for change, but the tough decisions have still to be taken.