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Distaste for tables to be made official

IRELAND. League tables of exam results will be prohibited in Ireland if the republic's new education minister has his way.

Draft legislation prepared by Michael Martin empowers him to refuse access to information on schools' performance. The inclusion of this power was unexpected given that the ministry has always opposed league tables.

Some years ago, the secondary teachers' union directed members not to co-operate with a newspaper trying to compile a table. Since then, the issue has been on the backburner.

Mr Martin's education Bill also provides for fines of up to IRpound;5,000 or imprisonment for up to two years for offences relating to exam fraud and cheating.

The Bill's main objective is to put Irish education on a firm legislative basis. Until now policy has been largely decided on an ad hoc basis. The rights and responsibilities of the various partners - students, teachers, school owners, parents, the ministry - are set out clearly in the draft legislation.

The Bill attempts to promote and protect parents' rights. Its measures include: * the right to send children to a school of their choice; * a statutory role for the National Parents' Council; * an onus on schools to encourage parents' associations; * a statutory duty on the inspectorate to advise parents' associations.

Schools will be encouraged to establish students' councils, and students aged 18 or over will have a right to appeal to the ministry's secretary general against decisions such as expulsions. They will be able also to appeal to the school board against a teacher's decisions.

The previous administration had wanted to devolve powers from the over-centralised ministry to 10 regional education boards and to boards of management in all primary and secondary schools.

The current Fianna FailProgressive Democrats coalition favours devolution, but directly to schools. It has ditched the proposals for regional boards on the grounds that they would be expensive and bureaucratic.

More significant, however, is the decision not to force schools to establish boards of management that would represent parents, teachers, school owners and the wider community. The previous administration had threatened to "freeze" state funding to schools that refused to set up such boards.

If the earlier Bill had been enacted it would almost certainly have been challenged in the High Court by the owners of a small number of family-run schools. The minister is now hoping that most secondary schools will agree to establish the boards on a voluntary basis. Many already have them, as do all the primary schools.

The Bill is likely to be enacted within the next few months.

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