Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills

National Council for Special Education: Chairperson Designate

3:30 pm

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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The purpose of this part of the meeting is to engage with Mr. Joe Hayes in advance of his appointment as chairperson of the National Council for Special Education. This is an opportunity for members of the committee to discuss with Mr. Hayes his vision, priorities and experience in the short to medium term and any challenges facing the council. On behalf of the committee I am very happy to welcome Mr. Hayes. The format of the meeting is that I will invite him to make a brief opening statement of approximately three minutes, which will be followed by engagement with members of the committee.

Before we begin, I draw Mr. Hayes's attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Any opening statements made to the committee will be published on the committee website after the meeting.

I advise members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Mr. Joe Hayes:

It might be helpful if I began with a few personal words about how I was nominated as chair of the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. I am from Thurles, County Tipperary. I retired from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2014 having served in the foreign service for more than 40 years. I am married to Deirdre and we have four adult children, the youngest of whom, Eavan Kate, has a range of special needs and is intellectually disabled as a consequence of a profound illness shortly after she was born.

During my time in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I served in a wide variety of overseas assignments. Our children came with us on all of our postings. I was ambassador to China, to the Czech Republic, to Denmark and, most recently, to Singapore. I also covered a variety of secondary accreditations, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Timor Leste, Ukraine and Iceland. I served in Irish embassies in Moscow, London and Bonn. For a brief period, I was based in Armagh as the Joint Secretary of the North-South Ministerial Council.

Eavan Kate was born in 1989 shortly before I was despatched to our embassy in London. As the extent of Eavan Kate’s impairment became clear, the issue for us as a family was whether we could provide for her the necessary support and care and whether I could, at the same time, manage an assignment which, back then, required full-time and hands-on commitment. There was never any doubt. Eavan came with us to London. We were there at the height of the Thatcher government which had a strong public emphasis on wealth creation and rampant individualism. During our four years in London, nonetheless, Eavan Kate received an outstanding level of medical and educational care and support.

Several years later I was sent to China. Again, we never had any doubt that Eavan Kate would come with us to Beijing as a family, despite what we were warned about the very obvious challenges of bringing an eight year old special needs child to China. It would be socially and culturally challenging for us to adjust, not to mind for a western child with special needs. There would, we were warned, be no access to schooling, no support, and no understanding of her disability. It also transpired when we arrived that the expatriate international school community did not recognise special needs. We were thrown back on our own resources and on the support of the Chinese system. In the event, our most fulfilling posting was our four years in China. Eavan went to school, was deeply loved and supported by a succession of Chinese carers, and lived a happy, contented, colourful and fun-filled life.

Of course not everything was perfect. It would be wrong to use our positive experience with our special needs daughter as a benchmark for generalised judgment on Chinese attitudes to human rights and fundamental freedoms. During our time in China, it helped that disability carried a particular badge of honour since the son of Deng Xiaoping, Deng Pufang, had been a wheelchair user since 1968. He had been thrown off a high building by Mao’s Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Despite China’s single party authoritarian system, our vulnerable daughter was accepted, included and respected. Due to that, I learned one enduring lesson. I came to realise that one singular mark of a civilised society is its ability to acknowledge and care for the most vulnerable, for the voiceless, and for the disabled. A society which ensures equality and respect for its children with special needs is, for sure, a worthwhile one, whatever might be the deficiencies of its political system.

That, in summary, is the background to my readiness on my retirement to become involved with the area of special needs. There was never any doubt in my mind that this was the way to go, the best way of using whatever few talents I have to return something to the State which had employed me for four decades.

To my mind, the NCSE is symbolic of Ireland’s commitment to equality and fairness, a commitment endorsed by successive Governments and one which, despite failings and imperfections, reflects the very best of our society. If the committee ratifies my appointment as chairperson to the NCSE, I will work particularly to ensure the parental perspective plays a formative role.

I also have to continue the excellent work of my predecessor, Mr. Eamon Stack, who directed the council with the flair and skill that he managed in a lifetime of experience as a teacher and senior schools inspector. Mr. Stack had the support of a talented, experienced and supportive council, which operated as a strong and united team.

I thank the committee for its time and attention. Unlike my distinguished predecessor, I have no background in education, no particular skills in the area and no professional insights. However, I have a lifetime of experience as a parent and an abiding belief that the most important person is the child, the adolescent and the adult recipient of our services. They are the heart and centre of everything we do.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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Mr. Hayes is an absolutely inspired choice and I have no doubt his priority for the parental and family approach will be absolutely key. The many diplomatic skills he has will certainly be used. I am very familiar with Dunshane House, which was mentioned by Mr. Hayes; Eavan Kate is there and it does absolutely wonderful work. Do the members have any questions to put to Mr. Hayes?

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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Mr. Hayes is very welcome to the committee and I certainly agree with everything my colleague has said about our endorsement of his nomination for the role. It is not technically required but if somebody gave a bad account before us, he or she would probably be on a road to failure. We do not have official status to accept or reject the nomination but Mr. Hayes has made a very good case. He certainly fulfils all the requirements. It is very welcome that he has personal experience.

I place on record my thanks to Mr. Eamon Stack, although I only had a few interactions with him. I have not seen the chairman of a board of any organisation that would have a handle on the level of detail that he had on the various matters within the NCSE. He met me and my party leader on occasion to discuss major changes happening at the NCSE. Notwithstanding his background in education, I was very impressed to see a chairman doing that and getting involved with executives in an organisation. It was very useful and helpful.

I have no doubt that Mr. Hayes recognises that there are many parents with negative experiences dealing with the State. In general, I have very strong praise for the NCSE and my interactions with the council are extremely positive. One area where the system fails - I am not blaming the NCSE in particular - is when support is refused, not given or only partial support is given. I find parents are usually very disappointed and they feel let down. There does not seem to be a way for them to channel it, get reasons or to have some kind of interaction relating to a refusal of support or allowance of support they do not deem sufficient. Often the communication on the ground is not fantastic in those circumstances. I urge the witness to consider that.

Again, I generally have nothing but praise for the NCSE. It is effectively an independent organisation. I offer a word of caution, as Mr. Hayes has come from officialdom. Now he is on the other side of the fence as chairman of a State board so he must battle with some of the officials he may know personally. I strongly urge him to do it and I know he will. It will be a different perspective to his fight for resources and to implement some of the ideas that have been put forward by the NCSE. I have highlighted the need for nursing supports for complex medical needs. The NCSE has highlighted it and I have followed up but nothing has happened. It is important there would be a battle with officialdom to ensure it happens. I say that with all due respect to officials, who all do a particular job. Mr. Hayes is on the other side of the fence, to some extent.

Photo of Catherine MartinCatherine Martin (Dublin Rathdown, Green Party)
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I welcome Mr. Hayes. I also acknowledge the work of his predecessor, Mr. Eamon Stack, and the important work he has done in the role. I am quite moved by the presentation, which was not typical of what we get. It is a breath of fresh air.

It is what Mr. Hayes will lend to the role. I thank him for sharing his personal story of Eavan Kate and his whole family with us. It struck me when he said the singular mark of civilised society was to care for the most vulnerable, the voiceless and the disabled. At the very end Mr. Hayes said the most important person is the child, the adolescent and the adult recipient of the services, and they are at the heart and centre of everything the council does. If that is the case, I do not see how the NCSE can go wrong with Mr. Hayes at the helm. I thank Mr. Hayes for his invitation to the research conference and I am sure if members are free, the committee will send a representation. What are the two biggest challenges facing special needs education and how should they be addressed?

Photo of Maria ByrneMaria Byrne (Fine Gael)
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I apologise as I must leave because of a meeting.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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I join in welcoming the delegation and apologise for not being here at the very beginning. I thank Mr. Hayes for his presentation and welcome him to the role. I also pay tribute to Mr. Eamon Stack, whom I know going back a long way, as he was principal of a school my son attended at one stage. He had a very wide educational experience but Mr. Hayes is coming from a different perspective. As others have said, that is very good, as we need that perspective. The importance of the child is central to all of this.

I pay tribute to the work of the national council; it has done some very good work, sometimes under very difficult circumstances because resources are limited. They may have been more limited in the past but they are still limited. There is a constant need coming before the council and there is variation in what is appropriate to certain children, whether it is integration in mainstream with supports, special classrooms, particularly for children on the autism spectrum, and special schools. Depending on the needs of the child, all of those need to be provided. There is a constant and growing demand. I am sure this will be a challenge for the witness as I am sure he will want to do everything possible, as all of us would. There will always be a certain limit on resources. What is the view of the witness in this respect?

As a committee we would like to continue to have an ongoing conversation with Mr. Hayes and the council. If, now or at any stage in the future, there are particular areas we should examine as a committee or where it would be useful to do so, we can call in people to make presentations and write reports. As a committee we are interested in continuing to engage with Mr. Hayes and the council on this very important matter.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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Mr. Hayes could see us as welcome and willing partners in trying to provide the best possible educational and holistic experience for our children, young people and adults with special needs. There was reference to a conference in the correspondence, and if it is at all possible, we would be happy to attend. Regardless of whether we can or not, it may be useful after the event to have some engagement with Mr. Hayes about the themes that emerge from the conference. The area of special needs and intellectual disability is something that we as a committee have focused on quite a bit. No later than last Thursday, we discussed with the Minister in the context of one of our reports on children with special needs and children in disadvantaged areas. Mr. Hayes is certainly pushing an open door if we can do anything to help him on his journey.

Deputies Martin and O'Sullivan asked what Mr. Hayes viewed as the challenges, but I would like to ask him about the priorities and vision he will set for his first 18 months. Obviously, the council's remit will be extended as the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 - the EPSEN Act - is fully commenced. While certain sections have already been commenced, the implementation of key sections that confer statutory rights to assessments, educational plans and appeal processes has been deferred due to economic circumstances. The council will be committed to working towards achieving the Act's ambitions, but is there any particular provision of it that Mr. Hayes would like to see commenced as a priority?

Mr. Joe Hayes:

I will briefly thank Deputy Byrne for putting his finger on a certain issue. When I became a reluctant volunteer for this role, it struck me that, after 40 years as a civil servant, I would find myself on the other side of the line, as it were. One of the advantages of approaching my 70th birthday is becoming less bound by the frontiers of bureaucracy and more capable of saying what comes to mind. It will not be a problem for me, but the Deputy raised a valid point and I thank him for doing so.

Deputy Martin asked what the challenges would be. I thought of two, and my answer will apply to everyone's contribution. One will be to keep the current level of funding and resources. With issues like Government spending on special needs, I often find that we are rarely in the front seat when those debates take place. Funding for special needs is not something that jumps forward and, when a recession comes, it can easily be sacrificed.

Second, I am struck by the fact that, of the total education budget, almost one fifth is allocated to special education. That €1.68 billion is an enormous amount of money. The challenge will not only be to retain that level of funding, but to ensure it is spent in a meaningful way. It is not just about resources, but how one uses them. That is what I like about the NCSE. This is an organisation with a great deal of independence. Initially, I worried that it was so close to the Department of Education and Skills, it was actually a part of it and all we would be doing was bolstering the conventional wisdom. To its great credit, though, the NCSE does not do that. It has an independent research arm that is well worth listening to and one of the best in the world. It is important that we keep the resources and use them properly. For example, I feel strongly about the fact that there will be special classes, not in all schools, but where children live locally. While my next comment may be radical, the new school admissions Act will present some interesting scenarios where all schools are faced with the reality of admitting and caring for special needs children instead of passing the buck, as it were, to other schools. I hesitate to say more, as I am so new to this, but there are some hot potatoes ahead of us, and handling and dealing with them will be interesting.

I am happy to be with the NCSE, as it takes inclusion and equality seriously. We need political support and attention.

Do come and visit our research centre. Please give us support. We need it.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Mr. Hayes for his comments. I have no doubt that his experience as Eavan Kate's father will bring a new fresh perspective, which is probably needed. He has a personal legacy. By that I mean, his efforts will ensure that other children will have the same opportunities enjoyed by Eavan Kate. It was interesting to hear about his journey around the world with his family in tow in terms of how society treated people with intellectual disability. I, too, speak from a personal perspective. I have a brother who lives in Kildare and he has Down's syndrome, which always informs me in terms of the issues that are presented to the committee.

We will, as a committee, notify the Minister that we have had an engagement with Mr. Hayes and we will wholeheartedly recommend Mr. Hayes for the position. On behalf of the committee, I thank him for coming before us today and for his engagement on this very important topic that genuinely occupies us quite a bit in our work programme. I ask him to ensure that the next NCSE annual report includes any issues that he would like us to engage on, as a committee. I ask him to forward the report to us when it is published and assure him that we would be more than happy to engage. We wish him well with the task ahead. We have no doubt about his commitment and dedication to the matter. We will now go into private session to deal with housekeeping matters.

The joint committee went into private session at 4.07 p.m. and adjourned at 4.15 p.m. until 3.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 12 February 2019.