Wednesday, 23 June 2004
Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill 2003: Second Stage.
Brian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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This Bill comes here after rigorous scrutiny in the other House. After substantial debates on Committee and Report Stages, where over 700 amendments were moved, the Minister for Education and Science believes that this Bill represents the best possible solution to the needs of children with disabilities and their parents. What is proposed here is a comprehensive system to address their rights to an education comparable to that available to their peers who do not have special educational needs. When this Bill is enacted we will be a lot closer to the realisation of a system of education which properly reflects the rights of children enshrined in the Constitution. This system will be one which will, in the words of the High Court judgment, allow children with special educational needs to make the best possible use of their inherent and potential capabilities, physical, mental and moral, however limited these capacities might be.
These proposals will mean a continuation of the unprecedented levels of investment in special needs education, an undertaking that children with disabilities will as far as possible be educated in a mainstream setting, and a guarantee for parents that their children will get the education they need. In addition, parents will be involved at every step and they will have an appeals process with real teeth. On the enactment and commencement of the Bill, children with special educational needs arising from an educational disability will have a right to an assessment, a right to an individual education plan and a right to have the plan implemented with all the services required. Parents will have a right to be involved and consulted at every stage of their child's development.
The right of the child and parents to services is copperfastened by the right of appeal to the Special Education Appeals Board against any incorrect or inadequate statement or description contained in his or her education plan and against any failure by a school or health board to implement any part of the plan. For the first time the Bill provides that the Ministers for Education and Science and for Finance will have statutory duties to consider the requirements for funding, education and support services for children with special educational needs and to make adequate resources available to discharge the State's duties to these children. In section 13 there is an acknowledgement of the constitutional duty of the State to ensure the equal and fair treatment of all children so that children with special educational needs have the same opportunities as children without disabilities.
The Bill requires the Minister and the Minister for Finance to be mindful of this requirement in particular when determining how resources are to be allocated. This represents a revolution in the way resources are to be made available for special educational needs and is the first time that primary legislation has dictated so directly how resources are to be allocated to a specific need such as this one. The availability of services and health and education professionals to provide them will depend on a range of factors. It is anticipated that full implementation will require a number of years. It will be a function of the National Council for Special Education to advise the Minister on the pace of implementation. The Bill provides that all its provisions must be fully implemented within five years.
There has been significant developments in the funding of special needs from the Department of Education and Science. As Senators will know, the Minister for Education and Science recently announced the creation of 350 new teaching posts in the special education area. This is part of a new system for the allocation of resource teachers which has been agreed with the education partners. This system involves a general weighted allocation being given annually to all schools on the basis of their pupil numbers. This weighted allocation will cater for pupils requiring learning support as well as pupils in the less acute disability categories of borderline, mild and mild general learning disability and dyslexia.
Schools will also be given specific teacher allocations for children with more acute disabilities in accordance with the current criteria. This will enable the Department of Education and Science to provide a more efficient and speedy response to schools and their pupils. By the same token, schools will be able to plan and deploy resources more effectively. For the disability categories in question, it will put resources permanently in place thereby providing a genuine automatic response.
The Bill has many features which will directly affect the way children with special needs and their parents deal with the education system, from diagnosis and assessment through to provisions to deal with the transition from youth to adulthood. At the heart of the system is the premise that every child with special needs will be educated in an integrated and inclusive setting unless this would not be in the best interests of the child or the effective provision of education for other children. This will not only benefit the child in question, but will also help to create greater understanding of disability within the entire school and in the broader community.
Schools will have a range of new duties in respect of children with special educational needs. They must respect the principle of inclusive education; ensure that parents are consulted regarding their child's needs; co-operate with the National Council for Special Education; ensure that teachers are aware of the special educational needs of the students and the importance of identifying children with those needs; and inculcate in students an awareness of the needs of people with disabilities.
A key feature of the Bill is the drawing up of education plans tailored to meet the educational needs of children with special educational needs. Through the planning process, disabilities can be identified, needs assessed, goals decided upon and progress monitored. Where a school principal believes that a child is not benefiting from the regular education programme, he or she must take measures to meet the child's needs. If these measures do not succeed, the principal must consult the parents and arrange for an assessment of the child. School based assessments must be completed no later than three months from the time the principal formed his or her opinion about the child. Where an assessment establishes that a child has special needs, the principal must ensue an individual education plan is prepared within one month and that, in preparing the plan, the parents, special educational needs organiser and any other relevant person is consulted.
It is intended that a school will draw up the plan where the child's needs are relatively uncomplicated. However, the principal and his or her staff will be able to call on the assistance of a special educational needs organiser. A formal planning process will be undertaken by the National Council for Special Education for children whose needs are more complex. In the case of a plan prepared by the council, a special educational needs organiser will convene a team of people which must include the child's parents and may also involve the child, school principal and a psychologist. While the plan focuses on educational needs, it must have regard to any other needs identified in the child's assessment and must be consistent with those needs.
Education plans will be reviewed at regular intervals. Schools have the primary responsibility for this and must report on it to the child's parents and the council. If the special educational needs organiser takes the view that goals in the plan are not being achieved, the team may be reconvened to review and, where necessary, amend the plan.
The provision of appropriate education services to children with special educational needs involves close co-operation and co-ordination of activities between education and health authorities. The health boards have a key role to play in providing support services such as the various therapies which those concerned need. Children and others with disabilities often reside in health board facilities or attend day care services. The Bill is intended to resolve current difficulties in co-ordination between the health and education sectors. In addition, the National Council for Special Education will be empowered to request a health board to take specified actions where it considers this to be necessary for the preparation or implementation of an adequate education plan or necessary, more generally, to assist the council in carrying out its functions.
Between publication and the start of the debates in the Oireachtas, a wide range of groups interested in the education of young people with disabilities and special educational needs has been consulted. As a result of that process and following careful consideration of the views of Members of the Lower House, as expressed there on Second Stage, a number of amendments were tabled on Committee Stage. The debate on Committee Stage was comprehensive and members of the Select Committee on Education and Science made a substantial number of suggestions for amendments. Those suggestions formed the basis for the vast bulk of the 70 amendments submitted by the Minister on Report Stage.
The most obvious change to the Bill is that its Title has changed from the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill to the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill. This is reflected in a new definition of special educational needs, which has removed what was seen by some as negative phraseology in the Bill. The debate on the Bill so far has convinced me that this change will greatly improve the Bill and promote the Minister's wish that special needs education should, as far as possible, take place in the mainstream. This view has been reinforced by submissions made by many interest groups, of which I am sure Senators are well aware.
Concern was expressed in some quarters that the Bill as originally drafted would not encompass those with certain conditions, such as dyslexia, ADD and ADHD. On reflection, I felt there was much to be gained by disposing of the usual definition of disability applied in legislation and to work to the more appropriate concept of special educational needs.
In a similar vein, the Minister agreed, when it was put to him on Committee Stage, that a reference to children failing to meet the goals expected of them was an inappropriate concept and that where there is a failure in the process, it may be caused by many factors. These may relate not to the child, but rather to the plan itself.
The Lower House has also made changes to the time limits for assessments, education plans and the appeals system to ensure that each child can avail of his or her rights without undue delay. As part of the discussions on Committee Stage, we agreed to look at the timescales in the original version of the Bill with a view to tightening them up. Significant improvements have been made to provide parents with a degree of certainty about the time to be taken at each step of the processes described in the Bill.
Section 38 introduces a new concept of mediation to special education litigation. This will do much to ease the burden on parents who feel compelled to take proceedings to ensure the rights of their children to an education under statute and the Constitution. There has been a dramatic growth in such cases and while I regret that parents feel compelled to take such measures, I respect their absolute right to do so. Nothing in this Bill will diminish the right of parents to seek redress before the courts where they feel that their rights and the rights of their children have not been given full expression.
The new process introduced by this amendment will give parents and the State parties an opportunity to air their respective positions and to seek to reach agreement without the need for an expensive and time consuming court action. As a bolster to this process, if either side refuses to take part or does so in an obstructive manner, the courts will be entitled to take that into account in dealing with later issues as to costs but not, I emphasise, regarding the substantive issues in the case. This will encourage the parties to reach an early compromise to ensure the welfare of the child and will also ensure that more of the resources available to the system can be used directly for the benefit of children with special needs, rather than finding their way into the lawyers' pockets.
In conjunction with the Comhairle (Amendment) Bill and the Disability Bill, the Education for Persons with Special Education Needs Bill will be a vital component in tackling disadvantage resulting from disability. It will address, once and for all, the gaps in our education system. I look forward to completing the legislative process as soon as possible and getting on with the work of implementation.
The Bill will, for the first time, set down a legislative framework within which the constitutional rights of children with special needs will be guaranteed. It will ensure that all children with special needs get the services they deserve and to which they are entitled. It will help to provide them with greater opportunities to participate in society. I thank Senators for dealing with the Bill and I look forward to the forthcoming debate.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan. Senators are presented with Bills on various topics throughout the parliamentary session. It goes without saying that all legislation is important because of its impact on people's lives. However, this Bill is of special and critical importance because it impacts on children and their parents, schools, teachers and families and gives our deliberations a keen edge. I am pleased the House finally has the opportunity to examine in detail the provisions of the education for persons with special needs Bill 2003. It is of great significance to thousands of people around the country.
I agree with the Minister of State that the Bill has been extensively scrutinised in the other House, but it does not take a true rights-based approach to the individuals at the centre of the educational process. Instead it retains the existing normative educational structures and attempts to graft on additional structures and processes in an attempt to address the educational needs of people with disabilities and special needs.
The Bill is shackled with overbearing resource constraints, which were highlighted repeatedly in the Minister of State's speech, and was formulated on the premise that efficiency must be achieved through forcing people with disabilities to fit existing or somewhat modified structures and processes instead of designing them from the individual out. Moreover, these additional structures have been designed in a manner which will inevitably lead to unnecessary bureaucracy and inertia in service delivery, or worse, provide cover for officials to hide behind when they cannot deliver. If this Bill is to achieve the objectives set out in its Preamble, it will require a radical rethink of how we approach educational processes in this State. We have an opportunity to do so and we should take it.
In the 1990s, the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities found that all children, including those with disabilities, have a right to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible. The commission found that every individual has an equal right to educational provision and that every child is capable of benefiting from education. This latter point is critical and it is clear the State is responsible for providing the assistance required by children with special educational needs to enable them to reach their full potential. Anything less that this is a failure which amounts to a serious negation of one of the most pressing and primary obligations.
Unfortunately, this is an obligation which has not been met. In every school in the country there are children who require psychological evaluation or special educational resources. However, these services are not being delivered. This comes down to the simple matter of prioritising resources where they can be of most assistance. Unfortunately, children with special educational needs must get used to being low down the Government's list of priorities. Why should the Minister for Education and Science and the Minister for Health and Children require the consent of the Minister for Finance to provide funds for their allocated budgets for the implementation of such educational plans? Why should the Minister for Finance have any hand, act or part in the formulation of policies to do with the educational needs of people with disabilities?
These same provisions are not to be seen in the Education Act 1998. The Act requires that the Minister, in carrying out his or her functions, shall have regard to the resources available. Is it not discriminatory in the extreme to impose a more draconian and interfering requirement of fiscal responsibility on persons with disabilities than their peers? How does it fit with the stated objective in the Preamble of the Bill to provide that people with disabilities shall have the same rights to avail of and benefit from appropriate education as their peers?
Unless the resources are put in place, all the best legislation will not ensure that those with disabilities can fully participate in our education system. It is difficult not to be sceptical that this legislation will provide the type of appropriate and resource services which are so badly needed.
Recently Fine Gael conducted a survey of more than 400 schools around the country, approximately one tenth of the total school network, and found the average waiting time for a child to receive a psychological assessment through the National Educational Psychological Service was 6.5 months. With more than a quarter of the children waiting more than nine months, in some cases students would have to wait up to five years to get an assessment. Can the Minister of State guarantee this will not continue in the future? The guarantee has been written on paper but while the resources are not available, how can the Minister of State stand over this guarantee? The record stands. A psychological assessment can be critical in determining the type of specialised assistance a child may need to reach his or her educational potential. Without an assessment it can be difficult to ascertain exactly what type of assistance a child may need to progress at school.
Given the long waiting times, the educational potential of so many children is being squandered or hindered. The waiting time does not stop there. Since February 2003, the Minister for Education and Science has received more than 8,000 applications for special education resources in his Department. However, the vast majority of these, more than 88%, have not been sanctioned, leaving children who are in need of some form of assistance at school without the help they require.
This failure indicates the critical resources and administrative bottleneck the Minister for Education and Science has been unable or unwilling to tackle in a real way. The difficulty we face today is that the best legislation in the world, if expected to function without resources, will not provide the support students with special educational needs require. Legislation needs the support from Government that comes with both the delivery of resources and the political will to clear the bottleneck that obstructs the critical services. A comment by the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies clearly indicates that the potential impact of the proposed legislation will be significantly diminished unless there is a legislative imperative associated with the appropriate provisions of support and resources. That clearly outlines its fear because of the record of the past. It is abundantly clear the Minister for Education and Science has neither sanctioned the resources nor cleared the bottleneck.
I welcome the change in the Title of the Bill. Many of those who came before the Joint Committee on Education and Children had difficulty with the term "educational disability". In particular, those with physical disabilities pointed out that they do not, per se, have an educational disability. The original Title, Education of Persons with Disabilities Bill, focused clearly on the negative. The amended Title, Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill 2003, directs attention to the specific requirements of those with special needs. Instead of being concerned with meeting the requirements of any given disability, the amended Title shows the need to assist people with special needs, whether these needs change over time as people approach maturity or under any other circumstance. The needs of people with special educational requirements are open-ended and should be met at all stages within the education system. I acknowledge the work of Deputy Stanton who was instrumental in having the Title of the Bill changed, as the Minister of State acknowledged.
During earlier Dáil debates and scrutiny of this legislation, there was considerable concern at the definition of "disability" included in the Bill. My colleagues, Deputies Enright and Stanton, tabled amendments to define "disability" according to the Education Act 1998. That Act defines "disability" according to a number of criteria, one of which included a condition or malfunction whichresults in a person learning differently from a person without a condition or malfunction. Therefore, the 1998 Act gave a broad enough definition to allow for the inclusion of conditions such as ADD, ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia. We must ensure the definition proposed in the legislation cannot be used to restrict access to any service or assistance to those who need it.
The Fine Gael amendments were specifically designed to ensure that those needing help would get it, as well as the children who have conditions such as ADD, ADHD, dyslexia and so on. I am also concerned about the use of the word "enduring" as part of the definition of special educational needs. The Dyslexia Association of Ireland has a similar concern and said it was not convinced that dyslexia would qualify as an enduring physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual impairment in a court of law.
It may be the case that a child has a special educational requirement that may be pressing and for which assistance may be needed. However, if that requirement is not considered to be as a result of an enduring condition, to what assistance will the child be entitled? I am concerned that such a prescriptive definition of disability may not allow children to access services they may need from time to time during their education. When examining the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill 2003 it is clear the remit of this legislation applies only to those under the age of 18 years. For example, "child" means a person not more than 18 years of age. I am concerned about future students who, for whatever reason, may not complete second level education by the time they reach 18 years of age. It is conceivable that a child who has a special educational requirement may start school slightly later than his or her peers, or may progress at a slower pace through the school system. What protection will such a child be afforded if he or she does not finish full-time schooling before reaching 19 or 20 years of age?
The Government may say its long awaited disability Bill will provide protection for such a person. However, this is not good enough. Today we must examine the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill without the benefit of knowing what the forthcoming disability Bill will contain. The Government has continually promised to bring forward the disability Bill but has not acted on these promises. In April 2003, the Taoiseach made a commitment to publish the disability Bill as soon as possible, but last March the Tánaiste was unable to say when the Bill would be completed. Moreover, the Taoiseach's recent excuse that ongoing consultation was the reason for the delay in the publication of the disability Bill is not supported by members of the consultation group who say that is not the issue on hand. The Government has stalled long enough in bringing forward the disability Bill. The Bill must be published as a matter of urgency, particularly as the Bill before the House has no force for a person over the age of 18 years. Those over 18 years of age must have their rights vindicated through the disability Bill and must have their educational needs fully met.
Dealing with support services or State agencies on behalf of one's child can be a daunting task for many parents. As representatives we are in frequent contact with our constituents who all know that bureaucracy and administration can deter people from applying for assistance to which they are entitled in many cases. In these instances we should ensure parents have the support of an advocate who can advise them of the assistance available for their child. Furthermore, in cases where parents feel intimidated by officialdom, such an advocacy service should be able to liaise with the relevant support services or agencies and make a case on behalf of the child in question. This type of support service is badly needed and should have been incorporated in the Bill.
The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill 2003 also puts considerable extra pressures on school principals. I am calling on the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to outline in detail the supports not only in terms of finance, but also of training and administration and administrative assistance that will be made available to both primary and secondary schools in the implementation of the Bill. Part of a letter I received from a school principal in County Galway states:
Ulick, what can a principal do when teachers come in tears to you because they perceive themselves as failing the Special Needs child? I know these teachers are doing an excellent job, but I can acknowledge their perception — they have absolutely no training for dealing with children who are Mildly Handicapped, Downs Syndrome or Autistic. Parents are very demanding and the current Special Needs situation in Primary schools in abysmal. In fact any courses available to the general body of teachers in most of the Special Needs areas have been provided not by the DES but by individual teachers who have up skilled at their own expense — and they feel pretty foolish listening to the current Minister's comments on our teaching as being in the Dark Ages. What has he provided to improve these areas?
That comment from a school principal states the reality.
Last October the INTO stated that this legislation would not be worth the paper it is written on in the absence of a Government guarantee of resources to implement it. In addition, the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals stated that children with special needs in second level schools were not being given the resources they require now, even before the legislation is to be considered in the Seanad. The Minister for Education and Science must ensure that meeting the requirements of special needs students is the core part of teacher training programmes running today and provide all necessary assistance and upskilling to working teachers who may require further training in this area.
I wish to refer to the role of parents in the education of their children and welcome the Minister's guarantee of their involvement. It is important that parents are kept involved at every stage of the decision making process and can make representations. The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill 2003 established a National Council for Special Education consisting of a chairperson and 12 ordinary members appointed by the Minister. I consider that it is of paramount importance that parents and their representatives should have a strong voice on that council. Parents are battling day in day out to access the services their children need and their views and concerns must be represented on this council. I am concerned also that by choosing the route of arbitration or mediation, a parent or child's right of access to the courts will not be diminished.
It would be preferable to think that the legislation will be resourced properly and with all due care and respect for those with special educational requirements, which would negate the need for legal action in so many cases. However, with the track record of the Government, I have nothing other than continued concern for the children with special educational needs. I welcome the Second Stage debate and I will table amendments to the Bill at a later stage.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan. This significant Bill is very welcome. Following its publication, the Bill was debated at length among various organisations, at the Joint Committee on Education and Science and during its passage in the Dáil. One of the greatest challenges to our education system down through the years and in recent times is the inability to respond to children with special educational needs.
Educationalists, policy makers, Governments, Ministers, consultants and teachers have all subscribed to the principle of providing equality of educational opportunity, providing equality of access to the best available services in education and providing equality of opportunity to every child in the State to reach his or her potential. Article 42 of the Constitution, to which Members referred, asserts the rights of children to such equality of treatment. Legislation, resources and various mechanisms have been targeted at these inequalities with varying degrees of success. In fairness, pilot projects were put in place, such as special classes in mainstream schools. I recall being involved on the periphery of two of these classes in an inner-city school ten minutes walk from Leinster House during the 1970s. There were special schools dedicated to particular disability groups and remedial services were put in place for children on the margins of disability. With the greatest of respect to all the professionals involved, expertise was scarce, both in the Department and on the ground, and up to this day there are major lacunae. Resources in many cases were even scarcer. There was very poor planning, little or no co-ordination and, by today's standards, it was a hit and miss service, existing as the Cinderella of the primary education service.
In more recent times, and particularly since 1997, the service has been transformed. The changes that have come about reflect a more holistic, enlightened, mature, determined and targeted approach to the widely varying forms of educational disability. The level and quality of response through education to children at risk of being marginalised and suffering disadvantage has been spectacular, even if it is still inadequate.
There is a determination, and this is very evident in the past number of years, to bring this service to the centre and to the heart of the education service in general. It was very much on the periphery. It was the case of a nod and a wink and a sometimes best forgotten service. Now it is being brought rapidly to the centre of the education service and that is to be greatly welcomed.
In regard to three or four key developments that have taken place recently, in 1998 a programme of funding was put in place to significantly enhance the level and the quality of the service. It started with a decision to give all primary school children automatic entitlement to a response to their needs and this was a defining moment in Government education policy. A rapid expansion in the level and quality of professionals followed, for example the number of special resource teachers in schools increased from 104 to in excess of 2,000. The number of special needs assistants went from a few hundred to approximately 5,500. The learning support teacher service was extended to every primary and post-primary school in the country. There are more than 1,500 learning support teachers employed in education. The expansion of the service through access to a variety of support services has made the system more responsive to the various levels and types of need. The significant reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio over that period within mainstream schooling, special classes and across special schools has further enhanced the quality of the response.
There are individual disparities, difficulties and imbalances within that service but overall that has been the thrust of this development.
I pay tribute to two groups which made a significant contribution to promoting awareness of children with special needs and disabilities, to asserting their right to equal treatment and to realising their potential. Enabling children with special needs to reach their full potential is at the heart of the service. I commend their parents and the voluntary groups who have been to the fore in fighting beside the parents and lobbying for these rights for many years. I also commend the teachers and other professionals who have worked so hard to provide a meaningful response to these special needs, very often over the terms of various Governments with meagre or almost no resources. I saw this at first hand during the 1970s and into the early 1980s. I especially compliment the 54 organisations and individuals representing these children's needs who made detailed written submissions to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science concerning this Bill. Senator Ulick Burke was extremely active in responding to those submissions. The oral presentations were equally illuminating and provided me and other members of the committee with invaluable insights in considering the Bill. I readily concede that my few modest words are the fruit of deliberations on some of the exchanges in the committee.
While the rights of all our children are clearly enshrined in Article 42 of the Constitution, the Equal Status Act 2000 and the Education Act 1998 vindicated those rights in law but despite that vindication, constitutional and legislative, there was one large lacuna. The service lacked a structure to guarantee those rights. The word "guaranteed" has irritated Senator Ulick Burke and prompted many questions, some of which I hope to respond to later. This Bill addresses that lacuna through the establishment of the national council for special education. For the first time the special needs education service is being provided with a framework within which the education of these children can be guaranteed as a right enforceable in law. Senator Ulick Burke is concerned about resources and whether the Bill is rights-based, another issue that has prompted serious discussion. This is a central issue guaranteeing a right enforceable in law which has preoccupied parents, voluntary groups, politicians, Ministers, consultants, various others and the courts. We are all aware of it and I will not bore Senators with the details. It is a central and fundamental issue which has been much discussed since publication of the Bill.
The Minister of State has outlined the services which the Bill provides, such as the national council for special education, a planning process for individual education plans and a central role for parents in every step of the process, assessment procedures, resources, rights and reviews of plans. The Minister of State and Senator Ulick Burke have commented on the necessity to have such reviews at regular intervals. The duties of schools and principals is key in the Bill. The Minister of State and Senator Ulick Burke covered in detail the appeals and mediation procedures. The role of health boards is also crucial because it refers specifically to a targeted and co-ordinated approach which was markedly absent until recently. It also refers to the five-year lead in time for implementation.
Issues were raised on all of those topics and concerns were raised on most of them following publication of the Bill and during its lengthy passage through the other House. Many representative groups expressed concern about the availability of funding and the question of resources versus rights, which are not mutually exclusive. I hope to show that in this Bill, as amended in the Dáil, there is no such thing as mutual exclusivity in this regard. The rights-based commitment about which so many are concerned will flow from section 13. This section is a landmark development in answering these concerns and is quite revolutionary in the history of legislation.
Brian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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Senator O'Toole is concerned about an ATM.
This legislation imposes a statutory onus on the Minister for Education and Science, the Minister for Health and Children and the Minister for Finance to have regard to the constitutional imperative. This has always existed under Article 42 of the Constitution. There is now a statutory onus on these Ministers to have regard to that and to provide for the educational needs of all children. They must ensure that the level of support provided for children with special educational needs is comparable in effect to that provided for children without such needs. Parents and representative groups are significantly empowered and strengthened in their ability to ensure the resources needed to implement the Bill are made available.
I received clarification on this through speaking to certain people last night, to the effect that there are considerable grounds for the possibility of a judicial review of alleged failures on the part of one or all of the Ministers specified in the section to provide for the funds deemed appropriate for the provision of the service or services outlined in the Bill.
The range of services for which the Bill provides is no longer aspirational. Most Bills, except those from the Department of Finance, contain a list of aspirations, which is good because they are the principles espoused by the Bill but the services are defined or set down within the Bill in a committed but aspirational form. That aspirational dimension is set aside here.
The section provides somebody, whether a professional, a parent, voluntary organisation or representative group, with real teeth to seek a judicial review of a decision or decisions by the Ministers. That is a significant difference. I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, on securing this ground-breaking measure from his Cabinet colleagues. I am confident the implementation of the section will allay the concerns of parents and representative groups.
Many services are provided for in the Bill and a great deal of debate has also been generated about assessment procedures and individual education plans. Anyone who ever had the slightest contact with education, whether as a parent, teacher or whatever, will be all too aware of the disastrous situation which has obtained in respect of assessment procedures, the timescales involved and waiting lists. All politicians will have been approached, from time to time, by parents seeking assistance in having their children assessed because he or she was deemed to have a particular or special difficulty at school. Everyone will have been confronted with the same problem on most occasions, namely, the waiting lists. Senator Ulick Burke referred to the timescales involved in this regard. It is true that waiting lists remain in place.
I have evidence that they exist in my constituency. When I am at home, my better half constantly informs me of the difficulties that exist. Such difficulties impinge most at junior infant level.
Everyone agrees that justice delayed is justice denied. However, we should also agree that the delay of a service to a child with a special need is a right denied. The damage caused by such a failure can have lifelong consequences. Failure to provide services has a major ripple effect. If an essential service is not provided at the appropriate time, it can cause lifelong damage to a child. In practical terms, it also means that the child in question, who might be extremely disruptive, will be left in a mainstream class until assessed and, subsequently, appropriately placed. This can cause major difficulties for children who can learn in the normal way because the child who needs a special placement might be extremely disruptive in the classroom. There are many matters which must be taken into account in this area.
I welcome the commitment in the Bill to engage with this issue head-on. Where a school principal makes a judgment that a child is not benefiting from the class programme, he or she must take steps to meet that child's educational needs. If the alternative programme that is provided does not meet those needs or the goals the principal deems are appropriate to be set, he or she must assure that the child is assessed within three months. People's representatives will state that we are placing the onus on principals. In official terms I remain a principal and I believe that principals are statutorily responsible for carrying out such duties. The duties to which I refer should not be entrusted to any other member of staff or any other professional. The buck should stop with principals. Other matters, factors, implications and issues relating to resources, etc, must be worked out and I am sure that this will happen. I compliment the Minister on holding firm in respect of the fact that the buck should stop with principals.
I also compliment the Minister on the provision which states that there will be no more waiting lists. There is a five-year implementation period in respect of the Bill. There can be no more waiting lists for assessments and referrals because within one month of an assessment, an appropriate education plan must be in place.
I welcome the principle of integrated education. Taking the approach of providing such education for children with special needs has been a vexed question for many years and it has caused a great deal of controversy. It sometimes comes down to a question of integration versus specialisation and which would be better for a particular child. There are merits on both sides of the argument but I do not believe that these approaches are mutually exclusive. The Minister's plan to favour an integrated approach except in instances where the interests of a child with special educational needs or the ordinary mainstream class are not best served is most positive and will prove most conducive in terms of promoting the development of interpersonal and life skills among children with such needs.
The Bill is a substantial milestone. Despite the doubts, concerns and negative approach of the Opposition, I am extremely confident that the landmark development defined in section 13 will ensure that the framework that is being put in place will operate well in terms of responding to the serious and sensitive needs of children with special educational difficulties.
I welcome the Minister of State. I agree with the comments he and the relevant spokespersons made to the effect that the Bill is much improved. However, I would place it in the same category as the Sermon on the Mount or the principles of Christianity or those of socialism. It will be great if it gets the opportunity and is given the resources to allow it to work.
I have a major doubt that this will be the case. I cannot accept that there is anything revolutionary about section 13. If there is anything revolutionary in the Bill, it may be contained in section 9(7) which states that a principal shall make resources available. That is new but, unfortunately, its effect is immediately emasculated by section 13.
The Minister of State was correct to indicate that the Bill has been changed substantially. I listened to much of the debate in the Lower House and I must state that the Minister took an extremely co-operative approach. The latter was also the case when the Bill, in its original form, was taken in this House. The Minister accepted a number of crucially important proposals from me at that time, including that relating to section 9 and the fact that resources shall be made available.
I wish to consider how the Bill will work. If we take a child-centred approach to the operation of the legislation, how can we make it work? If a child at pre-school level or junior infant level presents with a learning problem or an special educational need of some description, under the legislation the principal will be required to become involved. During my contribution, I will return to the additional demands being made on principals because some recognition must be given to the fact that support structures must be put in place for principals and staff. It is not good enough to merely dump work on them without also considering how they will deliver within the circumstances in which they find themselves and the time available to them.
If, as already stated, a child presents with a particular problem or need, the principal must take control. Under the legislation, he or she will be required to have an assessment carried out. Let us consider how a psychological assessment might be carried out. There are three ways in which this can be done, first, the National Educational Psychological Service can carry out the assessment; second, a private assessment, in respect of which the Department will refund costs, may be commissioned; and third, the board of management of the school or the parents pay for the assessment which, appallingly, is becoming increasingly common.
I wish to pose a question, the answer to which will clearly indicate whether Senator Ulick Burke is correct about the issue of resources. Let us consider a situation where a principal wants to have a child assessed but his or her school does not come under the NEPS scheme or, in terms of private assessments, he or she is restricted to two per 100. Section 9(7) states that a principal shall be given resources for the preparation and development of an education plan. Having an assessment carried out is part of that preparation. The only interpretation that can now be made in this regard is that the principal or board of management, in consultation with the parents, can arrange for a private assessment to be carried out and will be entitled to seek the resources for doing so from the Minister for Education and Science. Is that the case? That is a simple question and I look forward to the Minister of State's reply.
If the answer to this question is not a clear "yes", that is the first indication that section 13 is not revolutionary and that we are being presented with the same old story, namely, a lack of resources. If it is the case that a principal can proceed with an assessment and ensure it is carried out within the one to three month period stipulated in the Bill, I acknowledge that is a huge step forward. Senator Burke would also acknowledge that. He referred to the letter from a school principal outlining the difficulty of observing a child with special needs and being unable to meet his or her demands and the frustration and worry shared by the child's parents and the board of management. This sense of frustration is something which Members from both sides of the House have experienced.
Suppose the assessment is concluded and the result is conveyed to the principal. Either the principal or a designated teacher shall then "cause to have prepared" the education plan, originally termed an individual education plan. There is a set of objectives for the education plan, stipulated in section 9(2). Nobody can argue with these objectives and I acknowledge the Minister accepted amendments to improve them. They constitute a fine set of goals. I want to focus on two of them, however. Section 9(2)(e) specifies as an objective that "the special education and related support services to be provided to the child to enable the child to benefit from education and to participate in the life of the school". Paragraph (f) reads "where appropriate, the special education and related services to be provided to the child to enable the child to effectively make the transition from pre-school education to primary school education". These provisions are clear and certain and that is something both Senator Ulick Burke and I welcome. They address the needs of the child, which could be a variety of things such as support from an educational psychologist or perhaps even a clinical psychologist if appropriate. The provision certainly envisages the necessity for the assistance of a therapist of some kind, speech or otherwise. Some remediation may be required or even counselling in the case, for example, of a child who has gone through some traumatic experience that has led to his or her special education needs.
Section 9(7) states that:
The principal of the school concerned shall implement an education plan, and, for the purpose of preparing and implementing that plan, that school shall be provided with the necessary moneys and support services in accordance with section 13.
Unsurprisingly, however, section 13 states that the agreement of the Minister for Finance is necessary. I shall let that pass and will not rain on the Government's parade at this time. I am prepared to sit back and reserve judgment until I see that my doubts and scepticism are utterly unfounded and that cheques will flow from the Department of Education and Science to the schools around the country which need this sort of support.
Brian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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Senator O'Toole was never a sceptic.
This comes down to resources. I mentioned the resources in terms of providing the specific set of additional support services outside the school. There may be requirements for the class teacher to provide additional types of assistance and support structures. In a situation where more demands are put on the child's class teacher, it is inevitable that attention will be diverted from other children in the class. We must get this balance right. It is perfectly acceptable to present the specific needs and goals of a child with special educational needs to his or her class teacher but we must also accept that the fulfilment of those needs will require time and resources for that teacher. This Bill must stipulate that the resources required by the school include a recognition that the additional levels of assessment, administration, planning, case conferencing, paper work and organisation will require more administrative effort for the principal or designated teacher. The Minister of State is well placed to appreciate this necessity as some 95% of the schools in his constituency have less than 100 pupils.
Let us consider a small school with which the Minister of State may be familiar in the Gaeltacht region of the Galway West constituency. Will there be a room for the case conferences to take place? Is there a medical room in the school? A space in the school for the principal to sit down with the people who will be conducting the case conferences in order to develop the education plans is a simple but necessary requirement. There was a time when every school was entitled to a medical room where parents could talk to teachers about their children's needs in private. If a principal is taken from regular school work to attend a case conference, or a class teacher is removed from the classroom for the same purpose, and I am not objecting to this in any way, there are some 20 other pupils in the class who need to be looked after during that time, some of whom may require additional support. We are back to the issues of resources for the school in order to make this approach feasible and it is crucial that we recognise what needs to be done.
Another practical concern is that this Bill will establish a new system of support structures for schools in the form of special educational needs organisers, as stipulated in section 26. The description of their role is quite vague, although I recognise that it is difficult to be specific at this stage in the formulation of the legislation. However, there is a flip side to the provision that the board of management, principal, teachers and all relevant members of staff must co-operate fully with the requirements of the special educational needs organiser namely that the special needs organiser in turn must co-operate with the organisation of the school, the school plan and the principal's and class teacher's work. He or she must be part of what we call in the rules of national schools "an foireann scoile" .
One of the difficulties with this Bill and similar legislation is that it must take cognisance of the cultural background of the children. Go mórmhór tá mé ag díriú isteach ar leanaí atá ag teacht as na Gaeltachtaí agus leanaí a bhfuil Gaeilge acu mar ghnáth-teanga an lae sa bhaile. Tá daltaí mar sin ag teacht isteach faoin Acht seo, agus caithfear educational plan a chur le chéile dóibh. Tá assessments á ndéanamh ar a son nó orthu. Caithfidh pé duine atá á ndéanamh sin bheith sáite i gcultúr an linbh le tuiscint ar cad atá ar siúl in áit dhúchais an duine óig sin. Is cuimhin liom, tuairim is deich mbliana nó dosaen bliain ó shin, go raibh muid ag féachaint ar na deacrachtaí a bhain le múinteoirí cabhrach a chur ar fáil do scoileanna Gaeltachta i ndáilcheantar an Aire. An uair sin, chuir Muintearas i Leitir Mór feachtas ar bun chun díriú isteach agus taighde a dhéanamh ar na deacrachtaí agus na coinníollacha chun múinteoirí cabhrach a chur ar fáil do leanaí Gaeltachta. An uair sin, cuireadh tuarascáil le chéile atá sa Roinn, agus bhí an Roinn an-tógtha léi. Nuair a cuireadh le chéile í, dúradar go rabhadar in ann tacaíocht a thabhairt di. Tá sé sin ar fáil.
Ba mhaith liom go ndéanfaí taighde den tsórt céanna ar chur i bhfeidhm an Achta seo. Tá sé sin thar a bheith tábhachtach ag an bpointe seo. Ba chóir bheith cinnte i gcónaí that the cultural, linguistic or other background of the child is taken into account. Anyone here with a background in teaching would support that. I ask that this be considered as a possibility and will table an amendment to that effect on Committee Stage. I will be very careful about it and will not relate it to the Irish language only, because in terms of the issues we are currently dealing with, it could relate to children from a variety of backgrounds in this era of multiculturalism. It is important that we would look at a requirement that the operation of this Act would take into account a child's cultural background and linguistic needs. Tá sé sin an-tábhachtach, agus tá a fhios agam go dtuigfidh an tAire an tábhacht a bhaineann leis sin agus go mbeidh sé féin sásta tacaíocht a thabhairt don moladh sin, más féidir in aon chor é. Tá sé thar a bheith tábhachtach. Senator Fitzgerald correctly stated that, as it is written, the plan is state-of-the-art. If the resources are provided for this to be fully implemented, it could solve huge problems. This is the time to do it.
I referred earlier to the National Educational Psychological Service. There is a gap in the NEPS in counties in the mid-west, in particular, such as Limerick, Donegal and places in between, but perhaps not the county of the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey.
The service does not exist in some places and we should address the matter. There is another reason we should move it forward. An unintentional impression is created in the Bill that an educational psychologist carries out an assessment and is then off the scene. In most other European countries, for instance in the North and the rest of the UK, educational psychologists are also involved in the delivery of educational plans. This cannot be done at the moment here because psychologists in the NEPS are run off their feet doing assessments and never have time to get involved in the delivery of the plans and proposals which they develop. I know Senator Fitzgerald shares my views as we shouted for years for educational psychologists to be made available to schools. They are now coming in so let us make the best use of them.
As Minister, the Leader started that process many years ago. It has taken a long time for it to be put in place and has still not come to fruition. Successive Governments of all parties and shades have tried to move this forward. We are now close to at least being able to provide a full educational psychological service. That should be done and we should move to fill all the vacancies in the National Educational Psychological Service and ensure it is available to all. We must also extend the authority of schools to have assessments of children done privately by properly qualified professionals if they do not have access to the NEPS. Will school principals and school authorities be entitled to have an assessment done or will they be entitled to claim back the costs if it is done privately? This challenge will come up within a week of the Act being ratified. Judging by the correspondence I received on the matter, I assure the House that there will be a school that needs to assess a child but will not have access to the National Educational Psychological Service or be able to privately commission an assessment, which it should be entitled to do.
I think you started the clock when Senator Fitzgerald was supposed to finish, rather than when he did finish. That is the problem.
There is not a great deal of difference between either side of the House on what is being sought in this legislation. The only difference that has emerged is on the question of resources. Senator Fitzgerald is confident they will be made available. Senator Ulick Burke doubts that and I am also sceptical about it.
I want to see principals of small schools getting resources. The vast majority of principal teachers have full-time class responsibility. They are now being lumped with a significant additional workload on the basis of this legislation. I want that to be recognised through the allocation of the necessary additional resources for this purpose. The same applies to class teachers and schools in general.
This could be the start of a bright new future but the operation of the educational plan must be done in a fair and open way. A great deal of recognition is given to parents, which nobody would argue against, but the position of teachers has been somewhat diminished in the Bill. If one goes through the issues relating to the goals of the educational plan, they are all specifically professionally oriented. There are decisions on which parents should certainly be consulted and in which they should be involved, but these decisions can only be made by professionals, either teachers, psychologists or various other people. The role of parents is to establish the need, describe the problems and indicate how they can be part of the solution. It is important that they be involved and I would not suggest that it should be otherwise.
The educational plan is core to this matter and must be specific. Resources must be made available. I will believe it when I see it. The reason I say this is that section 13 was not necessary unless somebody had bad thoughts about making the money available. If section 13 were removed we could all hold hands and sing "ring a ring a rosie", hail the bright new future and the solving of the problem and walk out of here. However, I do not suspect the Government will be prepared to drop section 13 and leave it to section 9(7), which requires that funding be made available.
I wish the Bill well and will be supporting it in the main, although I intend to table some amendments.
I am happy to speak on the Bill and outline what I see as its good characteristics as well as ways in which it could still be altered to meet many of our aspirations. I praise the change of Title. It was wonderful that the Minister and his advisers changed it to Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs. This was a good change which apparently took place during the consultation period between the Bill being launched and its Second Reading. That period of time is always a very useful one if there is no immediate rush to get the Bill into either House. It allows for those who would be materially affected by the Bill to meet the Minister and his officials and make their points known. Such points are highly relevant. The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, pointed out that the change took place in the course of such a consultation period. I was aware that the Title had been changed but I did not know how or why it had happened. The Title is infinitely preferable to the previous one and is more embracing.
Uniquely, both the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, and I were the Ministers involved in the early stages of much of this type of thinking. Similarly, Senator Fitzgerald, the party spokesperson on education, was very much involved with me in the years in opposition, 1983 to 1987, when we worked together to formulate our policy papers. They make very interesting reading, not from a historical point of view, but because many of the points we made have come to fruition as matters of policy over the years and particularly in the Bill. I pay tribute to Senator Fitzgerald for the four years in which we worked in great harmony together. Our overriding aim was to put the Government out of office. I wish to pay tribute to the excellent advisers which both Senator Fitzgerald and I had at that time. Senator Fitzgerald reminded me that some of the points made in the House were formulated in the mid to late 1980s. It is proof that education stands the test of time. Senators O'Toole, Ulick Burke and other speakers in the debate are aware that education requires an evolutionary policy and cannot be changed overnight. It takes time and is an evolution of reflection leading to policy-making.
Senator O'Toole's contribution demonstrated his excellent intellect with regard to education. He was one of the leaders of the INTO with whom I had ongoing consultation and with whom I discussed many of the points being made today. It is fortunate to have in the House people who were heavily involved at that time. I recall difficult debates with the INTO. However, the overriding consideration was always the welfare of the child and the position of the child at the centre of whatever provision could be agreed with the Department of Education.
Senator Ulick Burke is a respected secondary school teacher who is respected not just in his own constituency but in the midlands in general. He is respected for his views on education as it affects the child or student. This House will do credit to this Bill even if Members have different points to make. I am not saying this because we are all teachers. However, teachers always retain the tenets of teaching and of a child-centred viewpoint.
The Minister has displayed an open mind on this subject during the debate and this is admirable. I followed the debate in the other House. Over 700 amendments were tabled which shows great interest on the part of the Deputies who contributed. The Minister accepted many amendments on Committee Stage which I acknowledge would be changed on Report Stage by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. However, in many cases the amendments were accepted in spirit. I am reliably informed this Bill is vastly changed from that which entered the Dáil on Second Stage. That is admirable as legislation is better for scrutiny and if the Government is prepared to consider fair points made. No Department or Minister has the last word on any Bill because that would be ridiculous. The period of reflection has been very important and I am pleased this House has the benefit of it.
Senators Ulick Burke and O'Toole asked whether resources will be provided to allow for all that is required for children. Senator O'Toole wishes to see the removal of section 13. There is no Bill which does not include this type of section because a Government will need the financial hand at the helm. However, strong stipulations regarding the needs of the child or of its parents or guardians are enshrined by statute in the legislation. That certainty would not have been present in any other Bill.
Senator Fitzgerald obtained the legal interpretation of many of those points from the legal adviser to the Department of Education and Science and he spoke about it in his contribution. I am particularly interested that it is the first time a provision places a statutory duty on the Minister for Finance to allocate funds to a service in accordance with a policy laid down in statute. I never saw a provision such as this before.
The effect of the provision will be to provide parents and others with a further mechanism to ensure resources are made available to implement the Bill, as a failure to make adequate resources available may result in grounds for a judicial review of the actions of the Ministers. The Bill allows for a judicial review, which is a strong provision. We can all express sympathy and concern but resources are the issue.
The Dyslexia Association of Ireland is a wonderful group with which I have had many dealings as is the group which deals with attention deficit disorder. We were aware of dyslexia but the other terms are modern terms for educational needs; they were always there but they did not have a title. Every teacher who has ever taught knows the pupils in his or her class with those needs. The teacher had no way of addressing those needs and could only try to give extra time or be helpful in some way to those students. There were no means for the teacher to address the special needs of that child even when help was needed. The child's potential is very important.
In 1990 during the Irish EU Presidency, I was responsible for the Education Council. We brought forward the directive on inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream classes in cases where it was of benefit to the child. The other children also benefited from being in daily contact with a child with special and different needs to theirs. There is a place for everyone. I always treated that directive with a sense of caution and caveat. Every parent wants the best for their child. I was fearful there might be an emphasis on pushing a child who was not able for it into mainstream education. However, that is dealt with in the legislation. The children are within the ambit of mainstream education but with special needs education provided if necessary. There is a right to assessment and to an educational plan for the child and a right to be considered and to use the appeals mechanism. There is also the ultimate right of going to court to secure education if it is not provided. It is to be lamented that cases have arisen where parents were forced to go to court to achieve the constitutional right to special education services for their child.
I am pleased that a time span of one to three months is provided for the review and the plan. If at the end of that time, the plan has not been provided, the family can go further in the appeals mechanism. Bureaucracy can be a waste of time and resources. If bureaucracy allows for a delay while plans are being formulated or a review is being carried out, there is a further redress. This is all contained in this complex legislation. The steps to be taken by the child and his or her parents or guardians are clearly laid out. The Bill is a charter of rights for children with special needs and is long overdue. I look forward to participating on Committee Stage and making a helpful contribution to this legislation.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and look forward to further good debates on the issue in the House. I also look forward to the enactment of the legislation, which I hope will be operable by September when the new school year begins.
I wish to share time with Senator White. I welcome the Minister of State and the legislation as well as the work done on it in the Dáil. I was involved in some of the hearings on the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill held by the Joint Committee on Education and Science. Considerable work has been done on the legislation since then. As Senator O'Rourke stated, many amendments were tabled, some of which were accepted in part, while others were rejected. I hope the Minister of State and the Minister will see fit to accept further amendments in this House and to examine issues which were not resolved in the other House.
As part of my work on the Joint Committee on Education and Science, I visited Galicia in Spain with several colleagues to observe how similar legislation was being implemented there. As our visit lasted for only a few days, we saw only part of the picture but I was very impressed. The region appears to be much further advanced than us in special education needs provision and its legislation has been in place for a few years. It is much poorer than Ireland, unemployment, for example, is much higher, but has given priority to education for children with disabilities and spent significant sums of money on it. It appears to spend a great deal on education in general, including third level. We are moving away from our traditional approach of valuing education and need to return to that. Our success has been based on investment in education and the high value we placed on it. We must also value special needs education.
The system in Galicia was strongly geared towards the idea that integrated education is the best approach, which, to a point, is also the case with this legislation. The region has both special and integrated schools and experiments with a variety of approaches. For example, I visited a school for deaf children which has several levels of integration. Some classes are made up exclusively of deaf students, while others have perhaps just two deaf children. One child was the only student with hearing problems in a fully mainstream class. She had access to special technology which helped drown out background noise, one of the causes of her hearing difficulty. Galicia tries out various approaches, has different levels of integration and is prepared to provide the necessary resources.
I noted also that buildings there were very accessible. All the buildings we visited, including mainstream schools, were accessible. In one case, a special school and a mainstream school were located side by side and were integrated. Everybody benefits from integrated education. A child without special needs benefits from being educated alongside children with special needs in properly resourced facilities. A similar system should operate here.
We have many good special needs schools and the Government has made progress in this area but much more needs to be done. Recent progress is largely due to parents and teachers pushing for it. In Lucan, for example, an Educate Together school provides classes for children with autism. The Department, if asked what it has done in this area, would claim this school as one of its successes. The fact is, however, that parents had to fight to get the school. They barged ahead and made the school a reality which forced the Department to come up with resources. It must show much more initiative by providing facilities without first forcing parents to fight for them.
Yesterday, I listened to an interview on Marian Finucane's radio programme with a woman whose daughter has Down's syndrome and started school last year shortly after the Special Olympics. She said she was full of hope after the Special Olympics but has since grown disillusioned. She decided to send her child to her local mainstream school but one year later she and her husband are paying for the child's special needs assistant. She also said her child was not receiving sufficient resource teaching, which is wrong. Has the case been brought to the attention of the Department? If so, what action has it taken?
It is a fact of life in modern society that an increasing number of parents of children with special needs want them to attend local schools and be integrated into mainstream education. The Department of Education and Science and the Minister for Finance and his Department will have to grasp the nettle and acknowledge this will cost money.
Mainstreaming is a modern trend which benefits everybody and for which there are many reasons. People want it and it suits modern needs. Families whose children must travel long distances to school incur costs, as does the community, and are separated for long periods.
I agree with speakers who have argued that the legislation should be rights based. Section 13 should be revised to ensure that rights rather than resources are given priority. Has the Department determined the cost of making the Bill rights based? It would not be a bottomless pit. The Department must be in a position to produce an estimate of the cost and make decisions on provision on that basis. Following the local election results, the Government will probably embark on a spending spree before the next general election. Why not spend money on special needs education? It would be worthwhile and would stand to the Government.
I understand children do not have an absolute right to an assessment because principals are ultimately in a position to refuse them. This issue should be teased out in the House.
While it is very important, as Senators have stated, that parents are involved at every step, it may be even more appropriate to bring students, particularly older students, into the consultation process, provided they are suitable.
Some amendments were made on Committee Stage in the Dáil in response to concerns expressed by principals regarding the heavy workload the legislation will impose on them. The House must examine this matter to ensure the Bill is worded in a way that sufficiently addresses principals' concerns.
Similarly, the definition of "disability", while it was addressed in the Dáil, needs to be teased out.
I thank Senator Tuffy for sharing time and welcome the Minister of State and his officials.
Ireland has come a long way in the past few years following the introduction of anti-discriminatory and employment equality legislation and the publication of this special educational needs Bill. The purpose of this comprehensive legislation is to strengthen and improve special education. Hopefully, if the legislation is delivered on the ground and if resources are provided to support it, Ireland will be as advanced in this area as anywhere in the world. This critical legislation will make a difference in the lives of thousands of exceptional children and their parents.
Last October the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, quoted John F. Kennedy who said, "Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream, which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation". Those words are as true today as they were 40 years ago. While they apply to each of us, they have particular resonance for children with disabilities who are at risk of being marginalised and suffering disadvantage because of their special educational needs.
Our education system focused primarily on the majority of children who did not have such needs in the past. The legislation will ensure teachers are better trained to help children with special needs. My sister is deputy principal of the national school in Ballinteer and she said it is critical teachers who help special needs children are adequately trained to a sufficient standard because, in many cases, they are not specialised enough.
The legislation will provide for the involvement of parents in the education of their children. Strengthening, monitoring and enforcement of its provisions will allow schools and parents to resolve disputes fairly and quickly to help students with special needs to make the transition from school to life beyond.
A number of the effects of spina bifida such as poor hand-eye co-ordination, perceptual difficulties and lack of concentration can be ameliorated once they are identified and addressed at an early stage in a child's education. Representatives of the disability sector would like the Bill to have addressed aspects of continual education requirement for children with special needs. Continual education throughout their lives must be given greater recognition than at present. The spina bifida association believes the parents of children with special educational needs will be eternally grateful in years to come for this legislation
I welcome the Minister of State and his officials. I wish to focus on one aspect of the legislation. While I recognise great strides have made in the area of disability over the past ten years, the good work cannot be maintained without this legislation and much more needs to be done.
The number of resource teachers has increased from 104 to 2,300 while the number of special needs assistants has increased from 300 to 5,500 since 1997. Meanwhile, spending on education for children with special needs has increased from €671,000 to €3.2 million. This is welcome and necessary.
However, my difficulty lies with the definition of a "child", which is "a child means a person not more than 18 years of age". That is not acceptable to me as a sister of somebody with a special need or to the parents of children with special needs. Let us recognise the practicalities. Such children do not enter school at the age of four. Children without special needs spend 13 years in the education system having spent their first four years at home. Some do not enter school until they are five and, therefore, are 17 or 18 when they leave school.
The parents of children with special needs bring their children to as many educational establishments as they can and they spend as much time with them as they can to ensure they are fit to enter mainstream schools, if that is their choice. Such children, therefore, are at a disadvantage before they enter the education system because they are usually six or seven before they attend school. That is the right age for them to do so because they are at a point where they can benefit from the resources that have been put in place in recent years.
If everything works out perfectly, they will be 20 before they leave the education system. If the legislation is enacted as drafted, such children will not have the right to support from the State once they turn 18. I accept the Minister of State's statement that the State does not have a constitutional obligation but this does not mean it will fail to provide support. However, the State only provides support when it has enough money. Educating children with special needs is costly.
It is up to the Ministers for Education and Science and Finance to provide resources. I have met Ministers for Finance from various Governments over the years, not only this one which has presided over a healthy economy for the past number of years. Various Ministers for Finance have told their Cabinet colleagues they must cut back on funding. The Minister for Finance has provided €3.2 million for special education this year and, as far as he is concerned, it is up to the Minister for Education and Science to resolve the special needs problem. The Minister for Education and Science must find the money to provide resources so that 19 year old children receive the education to which they are entitled. According to the Minister for Finance, it is not his problem because he is providing the Minister for Education and Science with a budget. That is not good enough. The Government should not accept legislation that defines a child as a person of not more than 18 years.
Children with physical disabilities also start school late. They are in the same position. I acknowledge the hard work that has been done to address this issue. For example, the child's education plan can be reviewed because he or she is about to turn 18. However, the plan could be reviewed when the child is 16 but, if he or she is sick for a year, he or she will not return to school until he or she is 18. The principal is charged with identifying the child's needs even though he or she will be 19 when he or she finishes school and the principal is also charged with identifying the needs of four and five year olds. However, the 19 year old is still a child, irrespective of how "child" is defined in legislation. A child is what we have at 17, 18 or 19 years of age. What principal will be able to say to a four year old: "I am sorry but I cannot give you a special needs assistant because I must provide an assistant for another person"? If parents feel that is not fair they must enter the appeal process. Does anyone in the Department or the Minister's office understand what it is like to rear a child who has special needs? Do they understand it is a 24-7 job, 52 weeks of the year? The parents of those children live in hope that their child will have some acceptable quality of life but then they learn they must appeal to a special committee or engage in a judicial review. Who is fooling who? All we are asking for is a proper definition that recognises the needs of the special children of our State. No Minister should tell me that it is not possible to have a definition of "child" in one Act which differs from the definition in other Acts, as we have examples of it throughout our legislative framework. "Employer" is defined one way in the Unfair Dismissals Act and differently in the working time Act.
I investigated this matter and felt we or the Opposition could amend the legislation, offering the Minister the chance to change the age of the child. That is not possible, because the amendment will be disallowed. The only people who can bring in that amendment are those in Government, and I want that to go back clearly to the Department. It is our responsibility as a Government to change the definition of a child as being a person of not more than 18 years of age. That is not acceptable and we are the only people who can act. We cannot wait for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to bring in legislation on disability rights. I have faith in a lot of people in the Government but I do not have faith in that Department to bring in legislation. I have never seen it go out of its way to bring in legislation to protect people, particularly the most vulnerable people in our society — children with special needs. I appeal to the Minister of State and his officials to bring the message back loud and clear — there is no way that the Government can fail the children of Ireland by allowing this legislation to be passed with a definition stating a child is a person of not more than 18 years. It is not good enough for Fianna Fáil and it is not good enough for the country.
I propose to share my time with Senator McHugh.
I welcome the Minister of State and I compliment everyone involved in the preparation of the Bill. We all know what the legislation intends to do but we question what it achieves. The report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, A Strategy for Equality, made recommendations on the subject of education for those with disabilities. It reaffirmed the right of every child, including those with disabilities, to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. The report states: "In Ireland every individual must have an equal right to educational provision." The commission recognised that education was a process of sharing, developing, building, strengthening, encouraging and recognising the abilities of all people and its aim was clear, namely to enhance and enable a person to achieve his or her goals. However, the commission found that if it were to measure the status of people with disabilities according to their rate of participation and success in education, then equality was clearly a long way off.
That report is ten years old but the situation is the same in many instances. It is worrying that there seems to be little real attempt to bring equality into Irish education. Unless resources are put in place the best legislation in the world will not ensure that those with disabilities can participate fully in the education system. From the Government's current record it is hard not to be somewhat sceptical that the new legislation will provide the kind of appropriate and resourced services which are so badly needed.
It was reported recently that the State's secondary schools do not have the resources to teach the vast majority of special needs students or to implement the Bill's provisions when it is enacted. The National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals has warned that schools still do not have the resources they need to teach incoming students with special needs. The organisation's president said it would be little short of cynical on the part of the Government to enact this Bill when schools obviously do not have the resources to implement it.
How are people to react when on the one hand the Government presents legislation designed to improve the education of persons with disabilities while on the other hand it consistently fails to adequately resource the same people? While access to the appropriate educational resources is one major problem, access to proper assessment is another. Some parents still wait up to two years for assessment of their children. Access to psychological services is very important and the appropriate intervention can have a very positive effect on a child for the rest of their education and for years afterwards.
The NEPS structures are in place but need to be expanded urgently. The waiting lists for educational psychologists are as long as ever, which is a worry for the many parents who require those services for their children. There are huge funding difficulties in the current education system and those with special needs have not received the kind of assistance and resourcing they need. Groups representing parents and children with special needs will need a lot more convincing that the introduction of this legislation will be matched by adequate resources.
The change in the Bill's Title addresses points raised by the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, which I welcome. There is also a major emphasis in the Bill on co-operation between the Department of Education and Science, the National Educational Psychological Service and the health boards. The creation of multidisciplinary teams is something parents and children have long wished for, yet their experiences to date do not bode well. I have frequently been shown examples of assessments by NEPS psychologists, health board psychologists and private psychologists which make hugely differing recommendations. Why is that?
The Down's Syndrome Ireland organisation represents over 2,500 families and is one of the largest representative groups for people with learning disabilities. That body is concerned that the Bill is seriously flawed and does not fully address the minimum requirements of those with disabilities and their families. I share that concern. There are also concerns about how the Bill is to operate in practice. On reading the Bill, one of the biggest concerns is how it will operate in practice. The Minister of State said it would take five years to put it in place but I hope it will be implemented in a shorter period.
The Bill has substantial implications for teachers and school principals. The role of the principal will be significantly expanded in a number of areas as a result of a number of sections of the Bill. We already know the difficulties experienced by principals, in particular teaching principals, because of their workload to which the Bill will probably add. Everyone desperately wants the legislation to achieve what it sets out to do and all children to have access to the services they need to achieve an education. The role of the principal in the Bill, as published, is paramount to achieving this but, unresourced, he or she cannot fulfil their obligations. Has the Minister considered how he plans to release teaching principals to allow them to carry out their newly envisaged duties?
What new upskilling and training will be given to principals to enable them to deal with their new role as envisaged in the Bill? Some principals have experience but others have little experience because of the need to date in their schools. I share the concerns expressed by the INTO about the words "to the extent that could be expected of the student" in the Bill. This could exclude a child from some resource provisions and that should be addressed.
The concerns I have expressed in regard to the multidisciplinary approach to education plans can also be directed towards section 5 concerning assessments. It is paramount that the multidisciplinary approach is mandatory and not discretionary. That is an important point. The findings in regard to assessment should be made available to parents automatically. To ask parents to request these reports is needless bureaucracy and that should be addressed. Every parent will want the report and should not have to ask for it. It is the Minister's stated policy that all teachers working with children with special educational needs will have the relevant training and continual professional development. However, the reality is that it is insufficient at present. What does the Minister intend to do to address this problem?
Section 13 states: "The Minister and the Minister for Health and Children shall each, with the consent of the Minister for Finance..." We are getting to the point at which Senator Cox came in. Everything seems to be dependent on the Minister for Finance. Relevant issues, which Senator Cox raised, should not come down to a question of money. The Minister for Health and Children and the Minister for Education and Science have a duty under the Bill, but it is subject to the consent of the Minister for Finance. If that is the case, where is the rights-based approach? Where are the rights if they depend on the amount of money the Department of Finance or the Minister for Finance puts in place? The Minister must have the power and the resources to implement the Bill. Rights can only be implemented if there is a will to do so. No one wants to see another stream of parents going to the courts to ensure their children are educated. The Bill does not confer many more rights on children than already exist under the Constitution. Resources will be the key to the implementation of the Bill.
Another aspect of the Bill is the sense of absence of any real attempt to deal with physical disability. This is a real issue which must be tackled. Most people with physical disability have no difficulty being educated from an intellectual point of view. The issue for them is access to education in a physical sense. A lack of physical access exists in some schools. I know of one instance where children in wheelchairs must be brought home to use the toilet because the facilities are not in place. Grants are available but they need to be speeded up. The area must be better co-ordinated.
We all hope the Bill achieves what it sets out to do. I wish the Minister and his officials well. Let us hope we can get it right and serve the people who need the facilities.
I wish to share my time with Senator Dooley.
I am proud to be part of a Government for the past seven years which has been responsible for an unprecedented level of resourcing in the area of educational disadvantage, particularly as it pertains to special needs. It is unfortunate that prior to that, this area was totally neglected by all Governments because they were pursuing other priorities. Unfortunately, this area was not given the due recognition and resources it required. It is no wonder that, as a consequence, the parents of children with special needs felt abandoned by the State and resorted to other means to get themselves out of the dilemmas in which they found themselves. The challenge this Government faced when it came into office in 1997 was of resources. In many areas, major dismantling and renewal of systems needed to take place. In other areas, there were no systems in place for people with special needs. The former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin, did a marvellous job in resourcing special education.
I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, on bringing this Bill before us because, when implemented, it will provide a statutory framework for people with special needs to receive all their educational needs. These educational requirements will be guaranteed. The additional resources to go with the education of these children will also be guaranteed. It will be a right enforceable by law. That is a major step forward in this area.
The Bill sets out a range of services which must be provided starting with an assessment and moving on to an education plan for each child. If there is a debate about the education plan, there will be a system for mediation and appeal. That caters for every eventuality. The Bill recognises the role of the parent which is key. Every parent has a keen interest in the education of their child, not least the family of a child with special needs. Gone, or certainly disappearing fast, is the notion of a child going to a special school who is able to go to a mainstream one but cannot do so because of a lack of resources or systems. In the past, children in mainstream schools relied on their school pals to bring them to the toilet, one of the most private things one does. Unfortunately, however, there was no other system in place. We have come a long way in that regard and the Bill now places parents at the centre of the process.
The one note of caution I sound is that the parent of a special needs child is not always the most objective person to adjudicate on the child's needs. I have seen this at first hand in many instances. Such parents obviously have a blind and unconditional love for their children but in some instances, they will step over the line and perhaps overvalue their children's abilities in order to get them into a particular school. It comes down to the fact that they want their children to be in as normal a learning environment as possible, which is understandable. However, I have seen many rows between multidisciplinary teams and parents who differ on what particular children may be capable of doing. I have not read the entire Bill but I hope there is no facility in the overall assessment process whereby a parent might be able to veto an assessment made by all the disciplines involved.
We need to examine the training of teachers and other personnel working in the area of special needs. Ongoing resources are required and should be made available both for inservice and pre-service training. The cohort of trained teachers currently working in this area needs additional training because matters are moving on so swiftly with new approaches and individualised programmes coming on stream. The integration process is complex so people will need to be trained in that regard. Even teachers who have been working at the coalface for some years need to upskill.
I sincerely hope that in our desire to mainstream we will not undervalue the great work undertaken by special needs schools. I realise there is a great desire to mainstream, and rightly so, but the work of such schools has been invaluable over the years. They were achieving this work when mainstreaming was not a consideration, although it was always an issue. The expertise garnered by people working in special needs schools is second to none. Mainstreaming will get all the required resources but we must never lose sight of the abilities of trained personnel in special needs schools.
It is understandable that parents want their special needs children to go into a normal educational system. Special needs schools are not as attractive in that regard because there may be a certain connotation associated with such establishments. However, there are children who cannot be mainstreamed — it is as simple as that — and, therefore, special needs schools will always be required.
The legislation marks a tremendous step in the right direction and I am confident that nothing but good will happen as a result of special needs children being mainstreamed. I am equally confident, however, that others will continue to receive their education in special schools that are dotted throughout the country.
On a point of information, this debate is not concluding at 1.30 p.m., although that may not have been clear from my statement on the Order of Business. This is a roll-over debate so whoever is in possession at 1.30 p.m. will also be in possession when the debate resumes.
I appreciate Senator Dooley's gesture and thank him for it. Having listened to Senator Cox earlier, it is clear that this sensitive and delicate issue transcends political differences. I have a difficulty with the 18 year cut off point for people with special educational needs. For the past ten or 15 years, the emphasis has been on lifelong learning from the cradle to the grave by encouraging people to re-enter the educational system. A person with special needs who wishes to return to education should be facilitated in doing so. I am not seeking an extension of the cut off point of 18 years, but it should be generally accepted that someone with a special educational need, be they aged 18 or 98, should be so facilitated. For example, a person with dyslexia does not lose that disability once they reach the age of 18.
Senator Cox transcended political boundaries in speaking eloquently and passionately about this issue. She emphasised the fact that we need additional legislation in this regard. The Bill is excellent and results from wide-ranging consultations with many people across the political spectrum. Major contributions have been made to the consultation process from people outside politics, including those represented by the teachers' organisations. They should be congratulated because we would not be having such an informed debate without their input.
I am delighted that the debate on the Bill is to continue. The legislation requires a financial input and the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, has the power to bring about the changes required to provide special educational needs. The Bill is excellent on paper but, hopefully, it will not be like the Chelsea football team at the beginning of last season — brilliant on paper, but it did not win anything. We need resources to eradicate primary and secondary level waiting lists. A six to nine month delay in assessing psychological needs is not good enough.
We are obliged to do our business by ensuring the Minister for Finance will deliver on this issue. We can be passionate about individual cases involving various schools but the emphasis lies with the Minister for Finance who has the power to allocate resources. He should make as much as possible available.
The Dyslexia Association of Ireland has established voluntary workshops around the country. The parents employ the teachers who work in these workshops, which is not good enough. Does the Minister of State think it is acceptable that parents must pay for a facility which should be provided by the State? Perhaps I am putting the Minister of State in an awkward position but does he think that is good enough?
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I will reply to the question but not until I respond at the end of the debate.
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Is the Senator referring to psychological assessments?