A much-debated Education Bill was one of the casualties of the dissolution of parliament after the calling of a general election. The Bill had provoked much controversy over the role of the churches in education and because of proposals for the establishment of 10 regional education boards.
If the current centre-left coalition is returned to power the Bill will be reintroduced quickly. But if the centre-right opposition of Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats wins parts of the Bill will be redrafted.
The one area, however, where there is no political disagreement is statutory rights for parents. Parents already have considerable rights in the education arena and the Bill proposed to extend these. They are represented on the boards of management of the vast majority of primary and secondary schools. The Bill would make state funding conditional in future on a school having a board with parent representatives. The intention was that there would be equal representation of parents, teachers, school owners and the outside community on all boards.
The Bill also proposed to give them statutory rights to set up parents' associations in all schools and it contained a clause obliging school inspectors to advise the associations on appropriate issues. All schools would have been obliged to produce annual reports and parents would have been entitled to copies of these. Parents would also have been given rights of appeal to the regional education boards on decisions which significantly affected the education of their children.
The Bill provided for statutory representation on the regional boards and it gave boards a duty to consult parents during the preparation of their plans. Parents of special needs children would be given a legal entitlement to technical aid and equipment from the boards.
The National Parents' Council was to get statutory recognition under the Bill. The council gets significant state funding although this does not prevent it from criticising official policy.
The council has expressed disappointment that the Bill did not get through on this occasion. However, all the Bill was essentially doing was adding to powers parents have secured over the past few years. This is because successive ministers have pursued the partnership model in education. They have courted parents not just to secure votes but also, it is suspected, to balance the very powerful teacher union block.
Ministers are also mindful of the benefits to children of their parents' participation in the life of the school. The partnership model has not always worked, especially at individual school level, but at national level it has worked well and there is a very strong commitment to it.
When the new government is formed, whoever wins will bring forward an education bill and parents are assured that the commitment to partnerships will be strengthened.