Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 1 — Department of Education

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Part 1 The functions of the Department


The Department of Education had overall responsibility for the Reformatory and Industrial School System and for Marlborough House detention centre. The Department provided finance to the schools and oversaw their operation, leaving day-to-day control to the Congregations and Orders that operated them. The Department had a duty to ensure that the rules and regulations were observed, that finances were correctly utilised and that reasonable standards were maintained. The principal method of monitoring the schools was the inspection system, which was carried out by members of the Department’s Reformatory and Industrial Schools Branch.


The timeframe of this investigation falls between the publication of the Cussen Commission’s Report into Reformatories and Industrial Schools in 1936 and the Kennedy Report on the Schools in 1970. The Cussen Report endorsed the system contingent upon the implementation of its 51 principal conclusions and recommendations, but the implementation of these recommendations by the Department of Education was inconsistent and intermittent. Consequently, the system continued largely unchanged until the late 1960s. By the time the Kennedy Report was published in 1970, the system had greatly declined and the report itself was more of an obituary than a death sentence. The events that led to the ending of the system had little to do with policy decisions by the Department of Education, and that also is part of the story. Consideration of the Department’s role is thus largely confined to the 34 years between these two reports.


The Secretary of the Department of Education in evidence to the Investigation Committee in June 2006 admitted that there had been ‘significant failings’ by the Department: As Secretary General of the Department of Education and Science I wish to state publicly here today that there were significant failings in relation to the Department’s responsibility to the children in care in these institutions and that the Department deeply regrets this. Children were sent to industrial and reformatory schools by the State acting through the courts. While the institutions to whose care they were committed were privately owned and operated the State had a clear responsibility to ensure that the care they received was appropriate to their needs. Responsibility for ensuring this lay with the Department of Education, whose role it was to approve, regulate, inspect and fund these institutions. It was clear that the Department was not effective in ensuring a satisfactory level of care. Indeed, the very need to establish a Commission of Inquiry testifies this.


This chapter deals with general topics: particular events and the Department’s role in them are discussed in the chapters on individual schools.


The Minister for Education had legal responsibility in respect of schools. Under the Children Act 1908, children could only be committed to a school that was certified. The Minister held the crucial legal power of certification (1908 Act, sections 45, 58 and 91). Certification was granted for an indefinite period, not on an annual basis. The Minister had the power under section 47 to withdraw certification from schools; certification was intended to be the means by which the Minister could control many significant features of the schools. However once a school had been certified, there were heavy pressures against the use of derecognition and there are no cases of its actually being done.


When certified, schools were furnished with a document that stated the name of the school, geographical location, date of certification, conditions of admission, the number of children for which the school was certified and the name of the agency running the school. The document was signed and dated by the Minister for Education and by the manager of the school.


Certification of a school was contingent upon acceptance by the school’s management of the entire ‘Rules and Regulations for the Certification of an Institution as an Industrial School’, and these rules were listed in the certification document. It was a seven-page document that set out the legal framework for almost every aspect of a resident’s circumstances, including accommodation, clothing, diet, instruction, conditions on which children may attend National Schools, industrial education, inspection, religious exercises and worship, discipline, punishments, recreation, visits from friends and relatives, children placed out on licence or on apprenticeships, treasury grants, discharge, visitors to the school, timetables, journals, the medial officer, inquests and returns to the Department. However, there were no regulations governing the ratio of staff to children.


The Rules remained in practically the same form throughout the history of Industrial Schools. They were in signed standardised form in 1933 but they were still signed in the same way by the institution and the State.


The Minister for Education derived further powers from the Children Act 1908, sections 54-84, which included the authority to: determine the amount of the government contributions towards the expenses of children; sanction alterations in buildings; discharge (with or without conditions) or transfer inmates; allow the removal of a child by emigration; or remit payments towards the child’s maintenance ordered to be made by the parent.


The Children (Amendment) Act 1941 gave the Minister the power to direct the removal of a Resident Manager. This power which was very occasionally invoked to bring pressure to bear on the management of the schools to remove the Manager.

Part 2 The structure of the Department of Education


Throughout the period under consideration, the unit dealing with schools was the Reformatory and Industrial Schools Branch or RISB. This division was responsible for overseeing the certified school system and was also responsible for the administration of the detention centre in Marlborough House. This Branch predated independence and changed little following the establishment of the Free State.


The RISB occupied a lowly place in the Department’s hierarchy. Supervising the RISB and the primary schools unit, as well as other units, was an Assistant Secretary, who was subject only to the Secretary of the Department, but it is likely that the RISB received little of his attention. Again, compared with other branches, for instance the Primary Schools unit, which had a Principal Officer as their head, the head of the RISB was, until the reform of 1971, a relatively junior official. During the period 1941-65, he was usually at or about Assistant Principal level. The only other figure in the RISB at even a medium level was the Medical Inspector, an important and central position held during the 1940-64 period by Dr Anna McCabe.


An increased workload for the branch was brought about by the changes created by the Children Act 1941. For instance: a medical inspection was established; capitation grants were to be paid for under-sixes, teachers of literacy subjects in the schools had to be assessed in order to receive recognition as national teachers; and the Department had to allocate half of parental contributions to local authorities instead of sending the entire amount to the Exchequer. Thus the workload increased and, consequently, the level of clerical assistance had to be augmented. As of 1943 (and after 1943 there were no changes until the early 1970s), the RISB’s establishment was as follows: Inspector (Assistant Principal); Medical Inspector (a qualified doctor); Staff Officer Grade I (approximately equivalent to a higher executive officer); Clerical Officers (two); Writing Assistants (two); Stenographer; Part-time Parental Money Collectors (two).


According to a 1960 organisation and management survey of the RISB, carried out in 1959, by P Ó Maitiú, a principal in the Department, during the period 1943-59, 85 percent of the RISB’s time was spent on five main routine clerical tasks: Collecting and accounting for parental monies 25% Filing and registration 20% Applications for release of children 20% Check of county council accounts 10% Preparation of annual report 10%


Mr R MacConchradha, a Higher Executive Officer in prisons administration but formerly in the Department of Education, wrote on 20th April 1968 to Mr McCarthy, his superior in the Department for Justice. Mr MacConchradha expresses his views frankly: Even at the risk of breaking confidence, may I say that the Industrial School system has been centrally administrated in a very plodding way, with little sympathetic involvement or thought for the children. Finances have been ungenerous for years and what forward thinking there was, came from individuals in the conducting communities. The lot of the children, especially the boys, is very sad and there is an unbelievably entrenched ‘status quo’ to be overcome, not least in the Department of Education, if there is to be any change for the better.