The Ombudsman for Children, Niall Muldoon, isn’t given to flashy or attention-grabbing public pronouncements. Yet a line from his annual report in 2016 stands out. “The autonomy afforded to Irish schools means the Government has been unable to exercise necessary oversight.”
In essence, Muldoon was making a damning observation: our publicly-funded schools – almost all of which are governed by a board of management – are not sufficiently accountable to the public.
While most parents have little or no interaction with a board of management, they can play a major role when parents are in conflict with a school over the treatment of their child.
Their role is to manage the school on behalf of a patron and ensure an appropriate education is provided for each student.
They also oversee issues such as policy on enrolment, suspension, expulsion or participation by students with special needs.
While boards often play a vital role – on a voluntary basis – in the smooth running of a school, Jim Daly, a former school principal and now a Government Minister, has previously spoken of being “blown away” at the “autocratic” nature of these groups.
The only option available to parents – or, in some cases, teachers – who disagree with board decisions, he has said, is to take potentially costly and lengthy court action.
Martina, the parent of a sixth class pupil, has served on a school board at a Catholic primary school. More recently, she found herself in conflict with her daughter’s school, who attends a different school.
“My child faced bullying in school, but the school refused to characterise it as bullying and that meant they didn’t have to enact their policy,” she said. “I was part of putting these policies together but didn’t realise how, by codifying these things, you can be making it more difficult for a school to deal with it.
“I don’t think the board of management were even informed, and it’s very difficult for most parents to access them without going through the principal. Boards are often terrified that they’ll get in hot water, which can cause them to be more conservative and brutal in their policies.”
Ciara is the mother of a boy in primary school who was diagnosed with emotional and anxiety issues. He was frequently and increasingly upset going to school and, often, his distress caused him to vomit just outside the school yard, she says.
Her son was particularly upset to learn that he was being publicly punished for giggling in class, she says.
Ciara was upset when it transpired that he faced three separate punishments over several months for this one infraction, and the boy’s anxiety grew even more, she says.
The board backed the principal. It was like 1950s
Ireland; discipline came before the child
“I tried to talk to the principal and teacher but they played down the educational psychologist’s report. The Catholic school management association advised the principal that the public punishment was not appropriate.
“They still wanted to punish my son, but enough was enough. I wrote to the board. I started the complaint procedure. I had to go to meet the principal in the parish priest’s house.
“The priest told me the complaint would go nowhere. He admitted to me that the board didn’t have all the information from the complaint to make a good decision.The board backed the principal. It was like 1950s Ireland; discipline came before the child,” she says.
Ciara’s son ended up missing two months of school and his parents eventually decided to change him to a new school.
A new “student and parent charter” has been promised since 2016 to help tackle issues such as transparency in school boards.
The department says the law will ensure that there is always “open, progressive communication between students, parents and schools”.
Three years later, the charter has not been legislated for and, while there are plans to enact in the coming term of the Oireachtas, it may not be ready in time for the 2019 school term.
Education, meanwhile, accounts for almost half of the complaints which are made to the Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon each year.
There is a gap where, if a school goes rogue, there may be no oversight
Many of these are where parents feel the board of management has not performed adequately. Only a handful, however, are fully investigated.
“The essence of our work is local resolution so, once we get involved, it tends to focus on solving the issue locally,” says Dr Muldoon.
“There are almost 4,000 primary and secondary schools where the Government pays salaries, sends out circulars and oversees the curriculum, but don’t have control over the schools. There is a gap where, if a school goes rogue, there may be no oversight.”
Dr Muldoon says the new student and parent charter may help change this and give the Minister for Education a greater role.
“One proposal under the charter is that if my office makes a recommendation – and I always send notification to the secretary general and the Minister for Education – the Minister may have a role in following through, which is not a power the Minister has at present.”
He is careful to add, however, that most boards of management are doing a fantastic job – but a tough one.
“They could do with ongoing training and support. It is more complex than it used to be: GDPR has changed how data is processed, child protection and HR are more complex.
“There could be more training and, while there is a board of management association, there should be something more centralised if we are trying to raise standards in education.”
Dermot Looney, a primary school teacher and a Social Democrats councillor who has served on six boards, says it is not the case that boards always back a principal.
“The principal prepares the agenda but doesn’t vote. We deal with various policies including enrolment, bullying, health and safety and phone use. Expulsions come to the board; we didn’t always support the principal’s recommendation,” he says.
Looney says that, while there could be more flexibility, the department has to deal with more than 3,000 boards, and there will inevitably be issues with some.
Boards strive to honestly balance the rights of pupils, parents and the wider school community
“And the removal of middle management posts in schools has not helped alleviate the burden, particularly if there are disciplinary issues which can lead to more cases of expulsion.”
Seamus Mulconry of the Catholic Primary School Management Association agrees that the “vast majority” of boards are doing a very good job.
“There are sometimes situations which are complex and sensitive, but boards strive to honestly balance the rights of pupils, parents and the wider school community,” he says.
“The current system is working, there are elements that need to be improved, but as a rule anything that can be solved locally should be solved at a local level.”
* The names of parents have been changed at their request
School boards: who appoints and runs them?
School boards of management have responsibility for appointing the principal, teachers and other staff in a school.
It is tasked with promoting contact between the school, the parents and the community and has overall responsibility for the school’s finances.
For a school under religious patronage, the patron body – typically a Catholic or Protestant archbishop – approves appointments to the board.
It also typically makes two direct appointments – usually a member of the clergy and the chair.
In schools under the control of other patrons, such as multidenominational Educate Together or Irish-language body An Foras Pátrúnachta, the chair is usually appointed by the patron.
In addition, two parents of children enrolled in the school (one mother and one father) are typically elected by parents, while there is also a principal, a teacher elected by the staff and two extra members agreed by the representatives of the patron, teachers and parents.
Boards are not obliged to release minutes and they usually don’t, even in a redacted form.
Recently, the department has introduced inspections of leadership and learning, focusing on how the school is managed and the board is run, and parents can find this information on the department website (education.ie).