eolas reviews the work of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection, which has focused on reducing back-to-school costs for parents and proposing a fairer admissions system for schools.
The Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection was established in its current format in June 2012 and is chaired by Labour TD Joanna Tuffy. The committee’s remit previously included employment but this was transferred to the Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Committee.
Aodhán Ó Riordáin is nominally Vice-Chairman but a replacement is expected soon following his appointment as Minister of State.
“Ireland’s resilience in previous recessions has in past decades been attributed to our education system,” Tuffy has stated. “Amid current difficulties, the committee will have a role in ensuring our education system benefits all of society and helps everyone reach their best potential.” Of the six reports produced to date, three specifically cover educational issues:
• back-to-school costs;
• the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill; and
• the Technological Universities Bill.
During his time on the committee, Aodhán Ó Riordáin acted as rapporteur on its report on back-to-school costs. The report called on school patrons to take responsibility for uniform, textbook and voluntary contribution policies in their schools. Voluntary contributions should be “greatly discouraged, if not completely prohibited” with school accounts being made available for parental inspection at regular intervals.
The committee also sought a ban on the charging of fees for enrolment or application and proposed a five-year template for delivering an entirely free school book system. The department was asked to draw up guidelines which defined which extra-curricular activities have educational merit. Schools, he said, should be encouraged by patrons to introduce generic uniforms as there was “no justification” for crested jumpers, jackets or tracksuits.
Then Education Minister Ruairí Quinn said that he would carefully consider the report and backed its call for greater leadership at school level. “It is important that all schools are sensitive to the financial pressures on parents not only with regard to school uniforms or books but in respect of any matter that has cost implications for parents,” he remarked.
In January, Quinn confirmed that he had commissioned a survey on uniform costs and had received an extra €5 million per year for three years to extend book rental schemes to the 20 per cent of schools which did not have one. The scheme, he admitted, could not support existing schemes due to financial constraints but the aim was to ensure that all parents in financial difficulty could pay €40 towards books rather than the €150-200 that they would otherwise have to pay out.
The report on the general scheme of the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill was published in March this year.
Minister Quinn’s intentions included a general prohibition on admission fees or interviews, a five-year timeframe for clearing up waiting lists, giving priority to the siblings of existing or former students and the children of past students, and ensure that admissions appeals are dealt with at school level. Language tests for gaelscoileanna and gaelcholáistí would be still be permitted as long as an interview did not form part of such a test.
After hearing evidence from stakeholders, the committee concluded that there was a “lack of diversity” in terms of the type of school available. There was a “potential tension” between Articles 42 and 44 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, relating to education and religion respectively, although this had not yet been tested in the courts.
Multiple patronage and ethos – as a basis of policy – could lead to “segregation and inequality” and schools needed to co-operate on admissions policy, regardless of their ethos.
Members sought clarity on whether the Bill would extend to the further education sector, where interviews are necessary for admission. Colleges also need to assess prior academic achievement when a person applies for a specialised course.
Schools’ admission policies should be written in a simple and plain style. The use of waiting lists could give rise to discrimination against newcomers to an area and the committee called for the lists to be phased out as soon as possible. As for appeals, the committee recommended an independent and transparent appeals process (perhaps on a regional basis). The department is currently drafting the final version of the Bill.
The general scheme of the Technological Universities Bill was also presented to the committee and its report followed in April. Committee recommendations included a single set of criteria for all applicants seeking technological university status, requiring student representatives on the governing body to be drawn from a student union (where this is in place), and the appointment of elected representatives to the governing body (one from each of the local authorities covered by the university).
Three other reports refer to the Department of Social Protection’s remit but indirectly impact on education and families.
A report on the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (March 2013) refers to how the EU will work with national governments to tackle poverty up to 2020. The committee proposed that the fund should support food banks. Under the final regulations for the fund, this will be at the discretion of the Government.
The committee reported on the general scheme for the Gender Recognition Bill in January 2014 and recommended that the age for applying for a gender recognition certificate should be reduced from 18 years (as proposed) to 16 years. The general scheme has been revised to allow a person aged 16 or 17 to apply for an exemption through a court, provided that their parent(s) or guardian(s) consent.
In February, members visited Scotland to gain a better understanding of ‘equality budgeting’. The Scottish Parliament has a highly structured process for highlighting equality issues (which include age) but it was not clear whether this had a practical impact on the annual Budget.
The seven-strong Fine Gael delegation comprises TDs James Bannon, Ray Butler, Jim Daly, Brendan Griffin and Derek Keating, and senators Jim D’Arcy and Hildegarde Naughton. As well as Joanna Tuffy and Aodhán Ó Riordáin, Labour is represented by two TDs (Michael Conaghan and Brendan Ryan) and two senators (Marie Moloney and Mary Moran).
Fianna Fáil has three representatives (Charlie McConalogue TD, Willie O’Dea TD and Senator Averil Power) while Sinn Féin’s members are TDs Jonathan O’Brien and Aengus Ó Snodaigh. The other members are Joan Collins TD (People Before Profit Alliance), independent TD Clare Daly and independent Senator Mary-Louise O’Donnell.
Seven members have experience as school teachers – Conaghan, D’Arcy, Daly, Moran, Naughton, Ó Riordáin and Ó Snodaigh – while Derek Keating previously worked with Fás.