Thursday, 6 November 2003
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Naughten: I welcome the opportunity to resume my contribution on this matter. The point I was making when we adjourned the debate two weeks ago related to the turf war between the Departments of Health and Children and Education and Science and the buck passing taking place in that regard. I also referred to buck passing within the health boards. My constituency lies between two health board areas, the Midland Health Board and the Western Health Board. It has come to my attention that four disabled pupils in a special school in my constituency and living in the Western Health Board area receive no speech therapy service because the Midland Health Board provides the speech therapist at the school. Every pupil in attendance at that school and living in the Midland Health Board catchment area is in receipt of speech therapy but the four children from the Western Health Board catchment area are denied access to it. That type of situation, which is repeated throughout the country, is a typical example of what happens when we try to divide very little money among a number of disabled people.
It is critical, therefore, that we have an integrated needs assessment system at cross-departmental and cross-sectoral level if we are to succeed in this area. There is no point introducing a needs assessment system for education and another for health. It is the responsibility of the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to ensure that happens and that we do not have persistent turf wars between the agencies under his brief. I urge him to ensure such an integrated system is put in place and enforced. There is no point telling a parent his or her child is entitled to A, B or C if there is no mechanism for enforcement. We cannot have the health boards and school authorities saying they do not have the resources to implement the system. We must ensure the legislation is enforced. If not, we are wasting our breath and the system will continue to break down.
Therapy services in general are in a disgraceful state, be it speech, occupational or physical therapy. There are long delays for even the most basic assessment. The lack of speech therapy for children with disabilities is nothing short of a disgrace. I recently met the mother of a child with Down's syndrome. That child had not received one hour of speech therapy during his nine years in the education system as a result of a lack of funding in this area and the petty bickering between the Departments of Health and Children and Education and Science. There is no co-ordination or co-operation between these Departments on services for the mentally handicapped. How can we pontificate about integration when children are not given the opportunity to communicate properly. This is disgraceful.
The physical and sensory disability database is not even up and running in some parts of the country. We do not know the scale of the problem to be addressed. This matter raises its head every year when bodies are pitted against each other for day-to-day funding. The Government is good at pitting the physical disability sector against the intellectual disability sector. One sector is consistently pitted against the other. Organisations in the health and education sectors are fighting for limited amounts of resources. It is the children who are losing out and the Government is getting away scot-free.
Under section 9, a parent no longer has a choice on where the child goes to school. That is contradictory in terms of the Constitution and current legislation dealing with children. The Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities in its submission, stated:
People with disabilities do not want to be pitied nor do they want their disabilities to be dismissed as of little importance. All they require is a little respect and basic needs and rights. Surely this is not too much to ask.
Mr. O'Donovan: I welcome this timely and forward-thinking Bill and congratulate the Minister and his Department on introducing it. Focus on disability has never been so acute or accentuated in this Year of the Disabled.
Educational disability, intellectual or physical, has been neglected for far too long. The Government is playing catch-up on an issue swept under the carpet for decades. The debate on disability began to emerge in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Great credit is due to the voluntary groups which were the first to hone in on the disabled and those with special needs. To this day, facts continue to emerge. CoAction West Cork, once a voluntary group, is doing excellent work with young people. It recently purchased property with a view to catering for ten clients. When the facility opened, another 16 people, who had been neglected and hidden away for many years, came out of the woodwork. The facility now caters for 26 people.
Voluntary groups have done a great deal of work in the background. Often they get involved when it is too late. We need to acknowledge that fact. I laud those, be it COPE in Cork or the Brothers of Charity in Killarney, who do excellent work in this area. CoAction West Cork which deals with children and adults is of tremendous importance in that it deals with areas almost 100 miles from the major population centres such as Cork city. We must all acknowledge that the State neglected this area for decades. Successive Governments neglected it during the years. In the 1980s this debate took off but it was not until the 1990s that any Government really did anything about it.
In fairness, credit is due to the last Fianna Fáil-led Government, since substantial progress has been made in the area over the last five or six years. I will quote a fact that I obtained through my research, which may originally have been quoted in the Minister's speech. Since 1998, the number of special resource teachers catering for children in ordinary schools has increased from 104 to more than 2,300, a phenomenal achievement in such a short space of time. At the same time, the number of full or part-time special needs assistants in the system has grown from fewer than 300 to almost 5,000. That is progress evident at first hand, particularly in some of the more remote parts of rural Ireland.
Having said that, there is still a long road to travel. It is like climbing a mountain. The State, in the shape of the Department and the Government, is moving up it through realising that there is a problem. However, the summit has not been reached, and there is a long way to go. I acknowledge this, whether through financial support, more Government action, or whatever. This legislation is timely – some might argue that is has come not before time. It opens windows of opportunity to those who have suffered disadvantage. I have lauded voluntary groups, the Government and the State for eventually recognising these problems.
The greatest single tribute that can be paid, which we must not forget and which is mentioned in the Bill, goes to the parents of the disabled, particularly young disabled people. The parent or parents must deal with this from the cradle to the grave. It is a lifelong service of dedication, not simply an eight or ten hour day, five days a week. It is a 24 hour service provided by the parent seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. In other words, the parent is involved 365 days a year. This should be recognised.
The Bill says it deals with the education plan. The interpretation section says “a child” means a person not less than three years of age and not more than 18 years of age. Despite some criticism, this is a sensible provision, because one can never, either for the able or the disadvantaged, plan for someone indefinitely into the adult future. If the problem is tackled at the earlier stages, either at crèches or primary schools, much can be done. It was not tackled in the past, instead being neglected.
Section 2 refers to an integrated education plan for the child while section 3 covers its preparation, whereby the onus is placed on the school principal to implement it. We must acknowledge the significant respect and status attaching to national schools, with the principal obliged under the Bill, first, to recognise the problem and then put the wheels of such an integrated plan into motion.
According to section 3, when the principal of the school has taken the measures referred to, if in his or her opinion the student concerned is still not benefiting from the education programme provided, he or she, after consultation with the parents of the student, is to arrange for an assessment of the student to be carried out. That assessment, if currently in place, is not regular or right across the board but it is a crucial mainstay of the integrated education approach.
The Bill goes on, in section 3 but particularly section 17, to refer to the setting up of the national council for special education. Once again, this is a huge step towards resolving the problems we have encountered during the decades. It must be lauded as an excellent way of tackling and monitoring the problems of children with disabilities.
Section 4 goes on to say that, where the relevant health board is of the view or opinion that a child or student may have an educational disability, it is to cause an assessment of that child to be carried out. This is also critical, since one is starting off with the identification of the problem by the principal, the parent, or both in a combined effort. The principal puts the wheels in motion, and the assessment is dealt with by the council in a manner which it is important to recognise and laud.
I hope the Minister will see this as constructive criticism. Going back to the whole cornerstone of the debate on the Bill, I fail to see the reason the parent or guardian is not included in the list. It strikes me as unusual, having regard to the prime, basic role of the parent or guardian in the process, that he or she is not included under section 5. I ask the Minister to dispel my doubts in that regard by giving sufficient reason the parent or guardian of the child is not encapsulated in the process.
Another important aspect of the development of the special needs child is the laying down of an education plan as set out under section 8. This is an excellent approach. For far too long, going back probably less than a decade, someone with a learning difficulty was placed at the back of the class or in the corner and neglected. This legislation proposes that a special plan covering a wide range of needs and assessing the abilities, skills and talents of the child be put in place, I hope at a very early age. I certainly welcome this, as I hope others will. It looks at, “the nature and degree of the child's educational disability and how that disability affects his or her educational progress”. The plan will refer to his or her day-to-day life. It will examine the current performance of the child, as well as his or her special educational needs.
Section 8(2)(f) refers to, “the special education and related support services to be provided to the child to enable the child to effectively make the transition from primary school education to post-primary school education”. This is a critical factor. My experience is that those people in my age group with learning disabilities or special educational needs struggled through primary school. When they had to progress to secondary school, they got lost or were abandoned. This process is a very important factor in keeping such people in the education system until the age of 18. This is to be welcomed because, historically, persons with disabilities who received a primary school education – many such persons did not receive that level of education – did not go any further, other than in exceptional cases. This is very important.
Section 9 of the Bill mentions the designation of schools to be attended by children with special educational needs. Deputy Naughten mentioned that every school should have this facility, but I am not sure if that is possible. If one examines those areas of rural Ireland, such as west Cork, where parishes are peripheral and spread out, one finds that national schools struggle to meet the quota of 25 or 30 pupils needed to survive. I welcome the fact that certain schools are to be designated, but it does not seem likely that every school can be designated. The demographics of rural Ireland should be taken into account. The special designated schools should be reasonably accessible to people in all parts of the country.
The Bill also sets out the duties and responsibilities of the Minister for Health and Children in this regard. I am subject to correction, but I think this is the first time that such duties have been clearly set out in order to support the provisions of Article 42 of the Constitution. The Bill imposes a statutory duty on the Minister of the day to ensure that the regulations and the system are effectively controlled and monitored.
I am Chairman of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, which will embark in February 2004, if not sooner, on an examination of the constitutional rights of people with disabilities. This has never been done before and we have agreed to give it priority in the new year. The Taoiseach suggested to me some time ago that the committee could examine this area. We would have done so already were it not for the fact that we have been examining the issue of property rights. We will conclude our consideration of that matter early in the new year. I am looking forward to the challenge that will be presented by the assessment of the constitutional rights of people with disabilities.
The Bill places the duties of schools in a statutory framework. My experience is that school principals have been to the forefront, over the last ten or 15 years, in recognising the difficulties faced by children with special problems. Together with parents, principals have pointed out the problems that such children face. They have brought the matter to the attention of those who can help. As far as I am aware, that duty has not been enshrined in statute in such clear and succinct terms until now.
Section 14 of the Bill deals with planning for future educational needs, which is important. Although this Bill places an onus on the State to provide special education for children under the age of 18, I believe that the section relating to future planning goes beyond that. I think my understanding of this matter is correct and I invite the Minister to comment on it in his response. This section of the Bill deals with the development of the person from childhood to adulthood.
I have made about half of the points I intended to make, but I cannot continue as I have time constraints. I would like to broadly welcome this important legislation, which represents a brave step forward. It will create challenges for the Government, particularly for the Minister concerned. It will create huge challenges for the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, and his successors. A great deal of money has been invested in this area in recent years. Future Deputies will have to deal with the growth in expenditure in this area. Perhaps the financial nature of this issue is secondary to the debate but, as I said earlier, the summit of this problem has not yet been reached.
Ms Lynch: I will pick up on Deputy O'Donovan's final point, which related to finances, as it is perhaps the key point to be made in respect of this Bill. Section 12 of the Bill, which deals with resources, is so fuzzy that I am worried that the Bill will cause more confusion. It is clear that it is not intended to cause confusion, but I am worried. This matter has to be dealt with at an early stage.
The consultation process that preceded this Bill began six years ago, but it collapsed in a heap of shattered dreams last year. People whose hopes had been raised in that time were faced with a Bill that would have removed certain rights, such as the right to go to court in order to demand what the State should provide. The levels of cynicism increased among people with disabilities and those who care for them. Their hopes, which had been raised, were dashed. We have reached the point of having a debate about this Bill six years after the start of the consultation process.
This Bill places the cart before the horse. I am convinced that this Bill should follow the disability Bill proper – the “mother Bill”– which should be before the House at the moment. I am worried by the fact that we are approaching the matter in this fashion. I know the Minister will tell us there are difficulties with the disability Bill and that he wants to ensure there will be no further difficulties, but I still believe we should be doing this the other way around.
One must feel as if the world has fallen in when one discovers that one's child has a disability. Such people manage and get on with it, however, for example by finding out about the needs of the child. In some instances, a sibling may be responsible for caring for the person with a disability. As such people get on with the task, however, they discover that very few services are available. When they seek what little is available, they find that the support services they need do not exist.
If one thinks about this, one will realise they are the very people who have been campaigning consistently over the past eight to nine years for the type of legislation necessary to ensure that the least fortunate among us are cared for properly. These people have less time and energy than others to engage in such a campaign, yet they have made it their business to fight for what they believe is the right of their children. We should all consider the matter in this fashion.
The Bill is flawed in all sorts of ways. Although it is welcome and although I am sure it will be amended on Committee Stage, the issue of resources worries me. I can only imagine what schools are thinking when the Minister refers to their duty without caring about the necessary resources. It must be appalling for them to have to deal with this. They will ultimately get the blame. They will have to meet the parents and tell them they have not got the resources to cater for their children. The parents will rightly respond by referring to the rights afforded to their children under the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill, yet they will be told by the schools that they do not have the resources. This worries me.
I am equally worried by the fact that the Bill deals only with children up to the age of 18. All of us – I am no different from anybody else – know young men and women of 18 are no longer entitled to training or education. The concept of life-long education for people with disabilities has been thrown out the window. When they reach 18 they are young adults and have different needs. They are probably at a stage in their lives at which they need the type of service being provided to those under 18, and yet their parents probably have less energy than they had when their children were two or three. The Bill does not address this.
I would have thought that the Sinnott case – the last speaker referred to the constitutional review committee – should have taught us that life-long education for people with disabilities is not only possible, but necessary. I thought we had learned this lesson and that the concept of life-long education would be dealt with in this legislation. This is not the case. We should be dealing with the disability Bill because one clearly flows from the other. However, we have put the cart before the horse.
If the people aged 18 have a difficulty – they and their parents clearly do – the children at the other end of the scale equally have a difficulty. As I stated, when one has a child with a disability, it becomes very obvious, after the initial trauma of coming to terms with it, that children with disabilities need an early start and additional input at a very early age. Parents know this better than anybody and they recognise the value children with a disability get from an early start, yet we still have a haphazard admission policy on pre-schools and crèches. A child can be admitted to one and not to another. All sorts of different rules and regulations exist.
I recently wrote to the Minister for Health and Children and asked him if there was a clearly defined policy on admission of children with disabilities to pre-schools. I received the standard reply stating that he is looking into it. Clearly, he is waiting on this Bill, which does not deal with the matter at all. This is very worrying.
One constituent wrote to me stating her son, who is two years old, was born with Down's syndrome. His sister has just moved on to national school after spending two happy, productive years at a certain pre-school. The letter states it is the woman's intention and hope that, if her son continues to develop as he has thus far, he would be capable of attending mainstream pre-school between three and five. She recently discovered that the school in question has a policy of accepting a child with Down's syndrome only if he or she is toilet-trained. Everybody who has reared a child knows that to have a child completely toilet-trained at two is a difficult enough task and that to hope to have a child with Down's syndrome toilet-trained at two is simply not realistic. The school to which the woman referred is a State school, funded by a health board. The admissions policy ordains that the child in question will not be admitted until fully toilet-trained, which could be at the age of four or five. However, the mother states in her letter that she will continue to argue and campaign to have her son admitted to a pre-school. She knows what it will mean to her son in the future and that it will ensure he will be more capable of dealing with his sister, family and society. The school down the road accepts children with disabilities who are not fully toilet-trained but, because the spaces are not available, she has focused on the other school.
Another letter I received was from a parent with a four year old daughter with Down's syndrome. This parent was informed by phone that a management committee had decided not to offer the girl a place in its pre-school in September unless she was fully toilet-trained. She proved, in a two day assessment, that she could be offered a place and that she was ready and able for pre-school. However, she is four and not fully toilet-trained. Therefore, this Bill is of no benefit to such children and will not help the very people at whom it is aimed.
Anybody who knows anything about education and children knows that an early start is vital. However, this is not available to those who need it. One cannot necessarily blame the pre-schools because they do not have the resources to look after the children in question. The pre-schools to which I refer are run by the Southern Health Board and are not private, bearing in mind that some private pre-schools accept children with disabilities who are not toilet-trained and have the resources to deal with them. The State is claiming that State-run pre-schools do not have the resources and therefore the children cannot benefit from them. This is completely unacceptable.
The early start programme was first introduced in 1995 but still has not extended into this area. Section 12 does not lead me to believe that the children to which I referred will be accepted next year. By the time the resources are in place, which will probably be around 2007, the year in which the next general election is due, they will be of no benefit to the children. Therefore, the education plan for primary and secondary levels, pertaining to children up to age 18, will not benefit the children. All that are required are additional resources and a change in the admissions policy. One cannot blame the schools because they simply do not have the resources to cater for children who are not toilet-trained. The schools are not saying they cannot cater for children with intellectual disabilities, but that they cannot cater for children who are not toilet-trained. It does not take rocket science to change a nappy. The children in question could benefit more than others from pre-school.
Another element has to be considered. Last Saturday I attended an annual general meeting in Cork concerning people with autism. Despite the mire in which these people find themselves as they struggle to obtain services to keep their heads above water and provide care, I was amazed to find that their main concern, apart from the disability Bill which should be before the House, was the withdrawal of grants funding for people with disability. While they accepted that their children would receive services once they went to school, as provided for in this Bill, they pointed out that they cannot provide proper care now because their houses are not properly equipped for this purpose. When furnishing their homes, couples who want to have children, whether cohabiting or married, do not anticipate that they may have a child or parent who will need special equipment. Grants for such equipment have been virtually withdrawn and the Southern Health Board now issues a standard letter to grant applicants stating no money is available for this purpose and it will consider their application next year. Parents are struggling to keep their children at home because they do not have the required resources.
I do not understand the reason we are not capable of stating that people with disabilities have the same rights as everybody else. During the recent hearings, someone asked whether people with disabilities are seeking more rights than other people. They are not, they are seeking equal rights. In the current climate as one of the richest countries in Europe, we should at least give those less fortunate than ourselves in society exactly the same rights as we enjoy.
I do not understand the reasoning of those who argue we cannot do this or it would cost too much. I heard similar arguments in the past, usually with regard to women. It was argued that maternity benefit, equal pay for women and employing women in the Defence Forces would cost too much, yet none of these developments broke the bank or led the world to implode when they eventually occurred. This is one of the barriers we must overcome. We need finally to realise that people with disabilities can make a worthwhile contribution to society. It is in our interests that their rights are protected.
Mr. Blaney: I welcome the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill 2003 and the opportunity to speak to the legislation. At a number of meetings I had with representatives of the Dyslexia Association of Ireland in County Donegal, they impressed upon me the vital importance of having dyslexia included in the terms of the Bill. For too long, dyslexia has not received the recognition it deserves. The Letterkenny branch of the Dyslexia Association of Ireland is one of four branches in County Donegal. As a voluntary organisation it relies on parental subscriptions, donations and fund-raising for financial support, not to mention the time and effort parents must invest to keep the courses it provides up and running.
It is of utmost importance that children with dyslexia and other educational disabilities receive an adequate level of support, funding and services. One of my concerns regarding dyslexia is the lack of training for teachers in identifying and dealing with children with this disability. Pre-service teacher education programmes and in-career development courses for serving teachers are of vital importance and need to be implemented. The number of postgraduate training places for educational psychologists should be increased and educational psychology should be offered as a subject in colleges of education, which is currently not the case.
One of the most important factors in helping children with learning disabilities is early identification of the problem. In County Donegal there are still too many children on waiting lists for assessment. These students are not being identified sufficiently early or assessed sufficiently promptly and some of them must wait several years for an educational assessment. Valuable time, during which they should be receiving help appropriate to their disability, is wasted while they are waiting to have their learning disabilities assessed.
I welcome the provision in the Bill to carry out assessments within three months. This is an absolute necessity because each day missed in identifying a child's learning disability is a day lost in his or her education. In dealing with children with learning disabilities, increased co-ordination between the various individuals who deal with the child is important. Class teachers, speech therapists, learning support teachers, parents and others must work together for the development of the child.
One of my main concerns about the Bill is the weakening of the role of the parents which may deprive them of a choice of school for their child. If, as provided for in the Bill, the national council for special education will have the power to designate a school or centre for education which a child with special educational needs is to attend, where will this leave parents and their choice of school or education centre for their children? Does this mean a child can be withdrawn from a mainstream education school? The role of parents in their children's education is vitally important and should not be minimised.
I also wonder if the legislation will pave the way for the development of many more schools specialised in dealing with special educational needs. This would, in turn, defeat the notion that children with special learning disabilities need to be treated equally and on a par with children who do not have such needs. The resources required to deal with such disabilities should be provided within the current mainstream education system and no further specialist schools should be established.
I welcome the efforts being made by the Minister to tackle the current problems faced by children with disabilities and their teachers. While I agree with many of the provisions of the Bill, the points I have raised warrant serious consideration and the Minister would improve the legislation by addressing my concerns. While the Bill has considerable scope and potential to do much for disabled children, as other Members have pointed out, resources will be the key.
Mr. Callanan: I welcome this progressive and long awaited legislation. In the past, people with disabilities were offered no assistance when seeking education. On the contrary, rather than being assisted, children with disabilities were regarded as incapable of receiving an education or excluded completely from the educational process. Even in the recent past, when marginal resources were given to special education, very little was done.
Only with the return to power of the Fianna Fáil Party in 1997 did the response to children with special educational needs improve. In 1998 the Government created a funded programme which had the effect of creating an environment in which a proactive approach could be taken to the needs of special education students. In the same year, all primary school children with special needs received an automatic right to have their needs met. As the number of resource teachers in ordinary schools has increased from 104 to 2,300, the number of special needs assistants rose from fewer than 300 to almost 5,500 full-time and part-time positions.
We must always aspire to an education system which includes children with special needs in every aspect of mainstream education and provide them with every assistance needed to ensure they receive the best possible education. In some cases, there is a need for special assistants in class while in other cases a separate special need might arise. It is encouraging that the number of special needs classes has increased from 350 in 1998 to over 500 today.
It must be remembered that children with special needs are just like others. They have likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams. They should have the opportunity to make these dreams a reality. This Bill will assist schools, parents and children with special needs to realise these dreams. The Bill provides for a structure that will ensure all children with special needs receive every assistance to enable them to learn. These children are entitled to these services but there must be a structure in place to ensure they receive their entitlements.
The establishment of a national council for education is an essential component of the Bill, as the body will give effect to the Bill's provisions. The council, which will have a local area presence, will play a key role in the development and delivery of services for people with special needs. It will also have a research and advisory role and will establish expert groups to address aspects of special needs provision. It will establish a consultative forum to facilitate inputs from the educational partners and other interested bodies. The council will play an essential role in ensuring that service delivery is optimised.
The Bill sets out a range of services that must be provided to special needs children as a right, including assessments, individual educational plans and support services, and provides for a process of mediation and appeals where these needs are not met. An important aspect of the Bill is the fact that parents will have a central role in the development of the child at every step of the process. The parents will always be consulted when drawing up the child's educational plan. They are at the heart of the assessment and planning process. They have a vital role in ensuring that the child's rights are upheld at every stage of their education.
The Bill gives parents the power to appeal to an independent appeals board against any statement or description they believe is inadequate to meet their child's needs or if they feel there has been a failure to implement their child's educational plan. This aspect of the Bill is essential as it provides a bottom up approach to the provision of special needs education. It is essential that the rights and entitlements of special needs students are not dictated to the parents, who know their child's needs better than anybody.
The crucial aspect of the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill is that it establishes a duty on the school, the State and on the newly established national council for education to ensure the equality and fair treatment of all children. The implementation of educational plans will require the investment of significant resources in special education. There will be a statutory duty on the Departments of Education and Science and Health and Children to make these resources available. The Bill emphasises the constitutional duty of the State to ensure that all children receive the same educational opportunities. This is most important. For too long children with special needs have been invisible. They have been put at the back of the class and forgotten. They have not received their constitutional right to an education.
Since 1977, the Government has made quantum leaps in meeting the rights of those in need of special education. It has improved funding and resources. This Bill takes the next essential step in guaranteeing these rights. As a result of this Bill, Ireland will enjoy an education system which gives children with disabilities the same opportunity for development through education as is given to other children. It will, perhaps, lead to the realisation of the hopes and dreams of many children in the future.
I take this opportunity to praise the voluntary agencies which have worked to provide for the educational needs of children in my area, the Galway Association and the Brothers of Charity. We cannot forget the parents of children with disabilities who have been educating their children in their homes and, in some cases, travelling long distances with them to educational facilities. They have worked extremely hard and are to be commended.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I welcome this important legislation. It is an advance for people with disabilities. It has been long awaited and I hope the Minister will take on board the many representations from disabled people who have made constructive proposals for the improvement of the Bill.
I share many of the concerns about the Bill, especially with regard to definitions. The definition of educational disability is too narrow and, on the face of it, excludes people with conditions such as dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I urge the Minister to address this deficiency, recognising the broad consensus that the definition needs to be widened. As my colleague, Deputy Crowe, pointed out previously in this debate, the definition should be the same as that in the Education Act 1998, the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000.
Children with ADHD have special needs in the education system and it is essential that resources are made available so they can be assisted at the earliest stage possible. Early diagnosis and specialised education can make a huge difference. Failure to provide for their essential needs leaves these children and their families marred for life, with serious consequences on an individual and social level.
My second major concern is the mode of assessment outlined in the legislation. The fundamental problem is the lack of resources to carry out the number of assessments needed. Indeed, one can say the fundamental flaw in the legislation is that it is based on the Government's willingness to pay. The National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, has just over 120 psychologists to serve nearly 2,000 of the State's primary schools, leaving 1,000 schools without a service. Even with the Department's final tally of 200 psychologists, at which it will then consider NEPS fully staffed, there will be a relatively small number of psychologists dealing with a huge number of assessments.
At present, 57% of schools in the north-west region are not covered by NEPS. This includes my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan. The figures are even worse for the mid-west. While the vast majority of schools on the east coast are covered by NEPS, other parts of the country lag far behind.
Schools without NEPS coverage can use the scheme funded by the Department for the commissioning of individual psychological assessments from private practitioners. Under the scheme, it is the obligation of the principal to find a psychologist willing to carry out the assessment. Bearing in mind the workloads of many psychologists, it could be months before a slot is open or accessible. The principal is restricted to a panel of approved psychologists in making the selection. The approved panel contains 137 names. None is from Cavan, Monaghan, Leitrim or Carlow, there is one from Kilkenny and one from Laois. There is a mere handful in other counties while almost 50, over one third of the approved psychologists, are based in Dublin which already enjoys the best NEPS coverage.
There are other flaws in the scheme. A school is restricted to a certain number of assessments per year, roughly based on one assessment for every 50 pupils. If a school uses its allocation of assessments in a year, what options are open to it if a child with learning difficulties is then identified? Are the child and his or her parents expected to wait a year for the next or new allocation?
The Bill requires an assessment to be carried out within three months after it is requested by the principal, the health board or the council. However, in some areas there are waiting lists longer than three months. I know that in some cases the waiting lists run for years. A three month delay between a psychological assessment of a child and its delivery represents a whole school term. That is before the formulation of the education plan has taken place, which adds at least another month. A child will be waiting at least a whole school term for a decision to be made. This is unacceptable. We all recognise in the cases brought to our attention in our respective constituencies and regions that this issue must be urgently addressed.
I want to make a point about section 7 which deals with the preparation of an education plan by the council if requested by the health board or a principal. In this case, the special education needs organiser convenes a group of persons to prepare such a plan. If the council is responsible for creating an education plan, it can consult a psychologist employed by the Minister or the NEPS or a person determined by the special needs organiser to have sufficient expertise in psychology. The term “sufficient expertise” is a little vague. In the absence of a definition of the term “psychologist”, a person who might not have the appropriate qualifications could be put on such a team. Is the special needs organiser in a position to make this judgment? Given that so much depends on it, why should we settle for an opinion less than the best available?
Mr. McHugh: I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. The Bill is a fine piece of work. On reading it and the explanatory memorandum, one could be forgiven for thinking that those with disabilities would not see another bad day in terms of their education. The Bill seeks to provide a statutory framework within which the education of children and people with special educational needs can be enforced in law. That sounds great because it seems to cover the situation adequately. However, it does not. Although the Bill's provisions seem fine, the reality will be different when the Bill is enacted.
All parents of children and young adults with a learning disability do not have the wherewithal, resources, strength or tenacity required to fight the system, to fight for their rights and, if necessary, to go to court to win that fight. There are certain provisions in the Bill which are not crystal clear and must be fought because they will not deliver a proper education for people with disabilities. I am sure the Minister knows the reality faced by parents and guardians of children and young adults with disabilities. In fairness to him, I recognise his concern and interest in this area. I know he wants to improve the situation but fear he is hamstrung by a lack of resources. People must fight on a daily basis the system put in place by the protectors of the State, traditionally known as the island of saints and scholars. They must take their fight to the streets, as they did last week in Athlone, to reinforce their arguments and secure the rights for their children enshrined in the Constitution but which have not been delivered.
Will the Bill change anything? I fear it will not. I want to give the House an example of an experience of a constituent whose school had applied for special educational support services. The child was assessed by a qualified psychologist who deemed that she met the criteria for resource teaching support as set out in Circular 08/02. However, when the application, with the psychologist's report, was forwarded to the Department, it was again assessed by the Department and the child was deemed not to meet the criteria as set down in the circular. That is a classic case of experts differing and the education of a person with disabilities dying.
Mr. McHugh: When the Bill is enacted, will there be any changes to such a situation? The two professionals with equal qualifications will still be in the system and arrive at different conclusions about the needs of the same person. What will the Bill do to correct this? It provides a statutory framework within which the education of this child is guaranteed as a right enforceable in law. However, as I pointed out, it will not bestow rights on the child because psychologists, acting on behalf of the Department, believe she does not qualify, although a professional outside the Department says she does. How will the Bill deal with this? It allows for a person to go to court after an appeal. However, this child is eight years of age and her parents do not have the human and financial resources to go through the trauma of a court case. The child and others like her continue to suffer as a result of their rights being denied.
The organisation, All Children Together, has serious misgivings about the Bill. It fears that it will deprive parents of a choice in selecting a school for their child with special needs, that it will pave the way for the creation of many more special classes in designated schools and that the situation of students with disabilities approaching their 18th birthday will be reviewed. That is not the case for children who do not have a disability. I want to read part of the response of All Children Together to the Bill because it fully encapsulates the wishes and desires of parents of children and young adults with disabilities. It states:
We would hope that in the real interests of children with educational disabilities, this Bill will be amended and that the necessary supports and services to enable these students receive an effective education will be provided as an enforceable right. We would hope that in the spirit of true partnership the role of the parent in all decisions relating to the education of their child with a disability will be recognised and authenticated. Where it is the parents' wish to have their child with an educational disability educated in a truly inclusive system of education, this decision must be recognised and upheld and the necessary resources and supports and services must be provided to the child in that system. Unnecessary obstacles must not be put in the way of parents trying to secure an effective education for their child with an educational disability. Life is difficult enough for students with disabilities and their parents. This Bill should not make it even harder.
Mr. Cuffe: I welcome the Bill and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on it. My colleague, Deputy Gogarty, has already expressed his concerns about it from an educational perspective. However, I am concerned about it from a rights-based perspective. When discussing disability, it is imperative to focus on two issues – equality of opportunity to participate and equality of opportunity to access. I will refer to these two key issues in the context of our international obligations as signatories of three important international instruments.
It is important to note that Ireland has been playing a major role in steering the international community towards developing the human rights agenda for persons with disabilities and lobbied for the establishment of a specific human rights treaty for persons with disabilities. In 1989 Ireland ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The State thus has an obligation to adhere to international human rights standards. This means that when the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights makes general comments, it is considered appropriate to take them on board.
Articles 13 and 14 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights deal with education. Article 13 states: “Education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society”. The committee elaborated on these rights in General Comment 13, which states, “Since everyone has the right to the satisfaction of their ‘basic learning needs' as understood by the World Declaration, the right to fundamental education is not confined to those ‘who have not received or completed the whole period of their primary education'”. Ultimately, this means that “the right to fundamental education extends to all those who have not yet satisfied their ‘basic learning needs'”.
Fundamental education does not have a gender and is not confined to youth. The Title of the Bill incorporates this concept but inside it is a very different story. The Bill is riddled with the term “child” instead of “student”. To add insult to injury, there is a cut-off point after the age of 18 years. Is the Minister considering changing the Title to reflect what is actually contained in the Bill? Better still, will he consider keeping the Title and amending the Bill in order that it credits such a title? Education is a lifelong process and to deny the right of those over 18 years to continue this process is to deny their right to education and diminish their chances of having equal access to and participation in the education system.
The human rights committee reiterates this when referring to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in its General Comment 18, which states: “The principle of equality sometimes requires States parties to take affirmative action in order to diminish or eliminate conditions which cause or help to perpetuate discrimination prohibited by the Covenant.” I ask the Minister to take affirmative action, address the inequalities of access and participation which I have mentioned and allow all persons with disabilities to access their right to an education as stated in the Bill.
Recognizing the special needs of a disabled child . . . shall be provided free of charge, whenever possible, taking into account the financial resources of the parents or others caring for the child, and shall be designed to ensure that the disabled child has effective access to . . . education, training, health care services . . . and recreation opportunities.
I wonder whether the Bill can meet such requirements when every provision is subject to resources and determined by the Minister for Finance. This is bound to cause complications in implementing it fully and poses the question of whether it actually facilitates a rights based approach. How can anything be rights-based if there is a price tag dangling from it?
Another area of concern is equality of access and participation of parents and students in decisions about students' education. In 1997 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child pointed to a number of areas that needed attention, one of which was the right of children with disabilities to participate fully in education. The committee recommended that a child should participate in any decision making process concerning his or her education. This recommendation should be highlighted to an even greater extent in the Bill. Parents and students should be encouraged to take a more proactive role in the participatory process from start to finish, incorporating any decisions taken through all stages of the implementation of the Bill.
I have other reservations about the Bill. It is common knowledge that resources in this area are stretched to their limits. How will the Minister tackle the practicalities of the Bill such as making schools fully accessible? Location is another consideration. The council recommends that a student attend a particular school. Will the geographical location of schools affect the possibility of full access? For example, will school buses be provided? Educational assessments should take place at the beginning of the academic school year to ensure students receive the full benefit of their plans throughout the school year. If for some reason students do not meet the goals of their plans within that time, they should be able to attend summer school to catch up in order that they may be reunited with their classmates in the autumn.
One obvious omission from the Bill is that there is no mention of advocacy. I appeal to the Minister to incorporate this important ingredient. He should reflect on the system in place in the USA, which is a good example of how things should be done. We must learn from the Americans in the area of disability rights. I look forward to the modification of the Bill to deal with the concerns of the Green Party.
He started as a performer and gave many concerts as a young boy but the noise that started in his head became worse and worse until eventually he realised he was losing his hearing. He used to be able to talk but now he found that the best way of communicating was to write in a journal. As his hearing became weaker and weaker, his doctor recommended that he move away from the urban setting and live for some time in the countryside to renew his spirit. While there, he decided that he would no longer perform but compose music instead. At 27, he became completely deaf and started to compose music seriously. In attempting to do so effectively he cut off the legs of the piano in order that he could feel its vibrations. His sound and soul became one. The year was 1801 and his name was Ludwig van Beethoven. His music became immortalised and is enjoyed to this day by music-lovers throughout the world. Against the odds, as his deafness increased so did his capacity for writing great music.
The Bill provides a statutory framework to guarantee education services for people with disabilities. I mentioned Beethoven because the problems of those who, like him, have struggled against the odds through the years are addressed once and for all in the Bill. It is our duty, as legislators, to help people with disabilities in their attempts to make sense of their world. They will now be recognised in a supportive educational environment which will help in their preparation for life.
On 31 July the Joint Committee on Education and Science agreed to advertise for submissions from various organisations and bodies which had already declared their interest in the Bill. We received 51 submissions, 40 consisting of oral presentations as well as written. It was clear in our meetings with the various bodies that wide and diverse needs would have to be addressed in the Bill. During our meetings with some of the parents' groups we identified clearly the different levels of disability from mild to profound. We considered the child who was confined to bed almost all of the time and in need of nursing care as well as the child with Down's syndrome who aspired to complete the leaving certificate applied, as many had done. We also considered children with deafness and those with dyslexia who saw this as a disability and felt they were held back in their learning experience. Many needs and interests were dealt with during the meetings.
The definition of “child” was of particular concern to many of those who made submissions. According to the Bill, a child is a person of not less than three years of age and not more than 18. This caused some concerns about the issue of early intervention and the responsibility of the health boards in the early stages of the child's life and once he or she reached 18 years.
Ms Hoctor: The issue of the age bracket, which is clearly outlined in the Bill, was of concern. While the health board's remit applies again when the child with a disability reaches the age of 18, which I welcome, to my knowledge that has not been proven to be a difficulty for any child who wishes to undertake junior certificate, leaving certificate or leaving certificate applied level. In all cases the health boards, the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Health and Children should work more closely than they have in the past in terms of children in schools. I will elaborate on that aspect later in my contribution.
On the same point, I refer specifically to St. Anne's in Roscrea which is experiencing a difficulty with the provision of speech therapy and psychological services by the health board. That matter must be addressed urgently by the Mid-Western Health Board. My colleague, the Minister for Defence, Deputy Michael Smith, who is in the Chamber, is aware of the needs which have to be addressed.
I welcome the fact that the role of parents is highly accentuated in the Bill. Parents are central to the planning of the future of their child's education because they are the first educators. Deputy McHugh referred earlier to the group known as All Children Together, ACT. On reading the submission from this newly formed group, which only came together last July, I was disappointed to see that it called the Bill mean-spirited. It was by far the most negative group in terms of its written submission but on meeting its members in the committee I was pleased to hear that they recognised the many positive aspects of the Bill. That is to be welcomed.
I support this group in its request for the ultimate participation, where possible, of parents in all aspects of assessment of needs for children with disabilities. It is only right that parents have access to reports, assessment records etc. without having to seek them. I hope the Minister will address in the coming days the issue of accessibility of all reports by parents without the need to make a request for them. They should be made available to parents at all times.
I also welcome the composition of the new national council for special education which I understand will have a chairperson and ten ordinary members. I ask that parents be adequately represented on this council. Some of the parents' groups have asked that a parent of a child with a learning disability be represented on the council as well as a parent of a child with a lesser form of disability. In that way people who are living with these problems will be represented and their needs addressed on the council which, ultimately, will be the body responsible for implementing the spirit of the Bill.
The question of integration of the child into the classroom was one of the common denominators in many of the submissions we received. Integration is a question of rights, it is rights-based. We must examine the rights of the child with a disability but also the rights of children who are able-bodied. The provisions in the Bill go a long way towards addressing what is best for the child with a disability as well as those who are without disability in the classroom.
The word “alongside” is mentioned in that section also. We will hear more of that because much searching must be done, and obviously there must be consultation at all times with the parents, on the integration of the child in the classroom in terms of whether it is best for that child to remain in the room while education is proceeding with the teacher or to leave the classroom. I would welcome the Minister's final comments on that section.
The role of the principal is one about which I am concerned. The principal is a person who must be multi-skilled. Many principals are teaching as well as administering in schools but under the Bill a good deal of responsibility rests on the shoulders of the principal. They must prepare the education plan in conjunction with the special educational needs organiser and proper training must be put in place for all this area to be co-ordinated. I am talking about the principal, the teachers in the classrooms, the special needs assistants and the resource teachers. As a teacher, I am aware that many of my colleagues are undergoing training as resource teachers but it involves travelling long distances to Dublin. They are not financed adequately in terms of subsistence to stay overnight at Dublin city rates and much of that money comes from their own pockets. The Minister should seek to have the special needs organisers ex-quota so that they will not be absorbed into the current teaching record. I intend to raise the role of the principal again on Committee Stage.
I welcome the provision of an autism unit, recently announced by the Minister, for Boher national school, Ballina, County Tipperary. It is indicative of the spirit of the Government that this unit was provided in co-operation with the parents, the principal and her staff at the school. It is a reflection of the spirit of the Bill that we are providing early intervention which will mean that at an early stage children are enabled to participate fully in the life of the school and the greater life of the community.
It is important that not alone will this be a Bill for education for persons with disabilities but also for those without a disability. It is important that able-bodied children in the classroom give every opportunity to learn to the child with a disability. Young people, as we know, often have a tendency to engage in bullying and it is important that at an early stage all children learn about disabilities and how to interact properly with these children without diminishing in any way the worth of the person. That is something we can consider in the future.
I welcome the fact that all school starters who have been identified as needing it are provided with special needs assistance at this stage of the year. Many children were provided with it in the past but many are still waiting for sanction from the Department. I plead with the Minister that this be addressed immediately.
Ms Hoctor: We are not all geniuses or a Ludwig Van Beethoven but this Bill will help children with disabilities to discover their ability and to recognise their worth as unique individuals with their own capacity to learn, to love and be loved and to contribute and play their part as creative people in society. It behoves us as legislators to look after their needs on this occasion, having failed in the past in terms of the introduction of the Bill before the last election, and ensure that they are enabled to become innovative people and be fully integrated into society.
Mr. C. Lenihan: I am amused by some of the comments being exchanged here between our two friendly Deputies from Tipperary. I am grateful to Deputy Hoctor for giving of her time in the House to speak on this matter. I am glad to see that, rather than running out of comments to make, she has a good deal to say and is making a great contribution to this Dáil, of which she is a new Member.
It is instructive to note the annual Estimates process in which both the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Dempsey, and the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, have won out in terms of the Cabinet battle to ensure that resources are dedicated to both health and education in the forthcoming budget for the year ahead. It is important that these two areas have been singled out by the Cabinet in its collective wisdom for increased resources rather than further cutbacks. It is important to remember that these are the two areas about which people are most vexed and interested.
The people for whom I work in my constituency are extremely focused on education, in particular special education. We are all acutely aware of the difficulties faced by parents who have children with special needs and the difficulties they have faced to date winning the right to a proper and full education for their children. It has been a huge and difficult battle for them. I have been part of some of those battles on a case-by-case basis. I fully understand the sense of frustration those parents have experienced trying to wheedle from the Administration their due right and entitlement to an education. An education is dear to the heart of the people.
This Bill is long overdue and I congratulate the Minister on bringing it forward. It is interesting that this Bill is coming before the House at a time when we are being told Exchequer finances are straitened. It is important we send a signal to children with special needs and their parents that this Government is prepared to make a caring commitment to them and to the entitlements which are their due. It is a strong and positive signal that things are not entirely bad in our economy and that we are passing legislation which will not only extend the rights of those children and their parents, but will also add to the resourcing of schools and the people who have to deal with disadvantage. That is a positive signal about where we are as a State and a nation. Up to several years ago we simply could not have afforded to do this and we, as Deputies, had to soldier on with the frustrations of parents and the complete failure of the education system to deal with these people properly. Now we at least have a platform on which to do that. Of course, resources are not thick on the ground and there will be difficulties rolling out resources, but at least now the central platform, the legislative framework, is in place.
I welcome a number of items in this legislation which parents will also welcome. The fact there is a measurable three-month limit on an assessment is important. Time after time I have seen cases where parents have had to wait too long to have their rights and those of their children vindicated. The fact an assessment must be done in a three-month timeframe is an important guarantee to parents and children. The idea of a principal of a school drawing up an individual education plan for somebody who has been through the assessment process is positive. Again, there is a tight time limit on that and it must happen within one month which is welcome. Despite the collective and individual frustration these people have experienced over the years, at least now there is a solid timeframe within which action must take place and rights must be vindicated. That is a good way to go about this issue.
I am deeply impressed by the Minister's commitment to the constitutional rights-based approach which he has taken. Section 12 refers to the constitutional duty of the State as regards the provision of education on a fair basis to people with disabilities or with special learning difficulties. That is a marvellous improvement and is exactly in line with what many in the general disabilities area have been calling for. I note that this rights-based approach has been a key demand of Rehab and many other groups over the last few years when the rights of people with disabilities have become controversial and emotive. When one reads section 12, one sees that is the approach the Minister has taken. That is a welcome development and one which in years to come will be applauded as a genuine attempt to reform and radically improve the rights and conditions for those faced with learning difficulties of one kind or another.
I also welcome the setting up of the national council for special education. An interim board has been appointed and a chief executive is in place. I hope in the next few months or so we will see the full board take up its full duties and roles as regards the Bill. That is something which is welcome. I do not believe anybody in this House could be too critical of this Bill which is enabling legislation that will have far-reaching consequences for people and the way they are treated in our education system. I am glad the Minister has made a strong commitment to ensure that schools are no longer allowed to prevent people who wish to attend a particular school from attending. There are schools which simply do not want to take on the difficulty and pressure of coping with children with special needs. I am glad that is specifically prevented in this legislation. There has been a tendency in many of our schools, not only in respect of those with disabilities, towards cherry-picking in pupil enrolment. That is deplorable and wrong and against the egalitarian ethos of our Republic.
Mr. English: Nobody in this House could put their hand on their heart and say they do not welcome this Bill. On behalf of the many citizens with disabilities, I thank my colleague from Meath, the Minister for Education and Science, for his efforts in this field. However, I ask him to go one step closer to a perfect system, if one exists. This is the Minister's chance to be remembered in history not just for fine words but, more importantly, for an education system which, when we get it right, will be the envy of many and copied by countries worldwide. What better way to have a fitting end to the Year of People with Disabilities and after hosting the Special Olympics?
I acknowledge the huge step forward this Bill constitutes in terms of our education system. However, in its present form, this legislation has one basic flaw – it refers to the Minister for Finance and the Department of Finance and the fact that funding is not guaranteed on a statutory basis. Bunreacht na hÉireann, as pointed out by the many groups which do such Trojan voluntary work in this area, is the only way to guarantee that each child gets the education he or she needs and deserves but, as usual, this Government believes it knows better despite all the advice given to it. When he introduced this Bill, the Minister for Education and Science told us about the amount of money being spent providing special services in schools. He went on to outline the number of resource teachers for which his Department has provided funding. There has been quite an increase but, while not wishing to sound cheap or arrogant, all I have to say to that is, “So what”. All he is doing is pointing out the number of people who have fallen through the system over the years without any help. That is nothing about which to boast. We are just playing catch up.
No matter what the Minister for Finance has to say, even if all of us in this House were to leave politics aside and think with our hearts, we know that all children are entitled to an education. What would be wrong with spending more on them? For once, if only for the sake of renewing public confidence in us, can we do the right thing rather than pretending to do so? Where is the benchmarking which guarantees them a quality or quantity of service to which they are entitled, free from monetary considerations? Are they not entitled to it as much as those of us who sit in this House or the teachers who teach them? This is clearly not the case.
Disability in this country often guarantees a lower quality of life and fewer opportunities resulting in poverty. That is wrong and where the flaw lies in this legislation. There is no guaranteed standard of education or guaranteed finance. My memory is not that short. This Bill is being introduced by the same Government which is about caring and sharing and which fought decent people tooth and nail through the courts to stop it, on behalf of the people, providing these services on a statutory basis. Again, the big flaw in this fine legislation is that it does not really matter about all the good intentions in the Bill, how many appeal boards there are or who sits on them when at the end of the day, the Minister for Finance can shout “Stop” because of a lack of funding. We should wake up. When is there ever sufficient funding in any Department? Maybe it is only in our dreams. If my colleagues on the Government benches were truthful with me, or the public, they would say this is the real agenda behind the Bill, namely, to stop the State giving a blank cheque to the Department of Education and Science to secure a certain level of education for all our children whatever their creed or colour or physical well-being. There will not be a blank cheque but a level of funding will be determined by an accountant or the Minister for Finance. This is a Minister for Finance who has said to ministerial colleagues in the past, when dealing with other problems, “I know what the problem is. Here is the solution. I have X number of pounds to deal with the problem, so I will give it to your Department. Say thanks now and run off like the good little boy or girl you are.” The Minister for Health and Children was treated in this way last year. I can hear the Minister for Finance saying, “This is not my problem any more. Remember to spend the money wisely because, I repeat, it is not my problem any more. If there is not enough money to go around, then go and rob Peter and pay Paul because I do not care. I have to balance my books and the old euro will only go so far.” I can also hear him saying, “It must be the Minister's fault that the problem still exists because I gave him the money to deal with it.”
The old blame game works every time and the Bill will not prevent it happening again. However, it will not wash this time. That is a wonderful way to run a business or family budget but education is one of the very few issues where the finance must match the problem, not the other way around. Accountants do not always make good teachers; neither will throwing money willy-nilly at a problem solve it. Holding expensive reviews to see where the money went is too late. A preconceived standard of education can be reached by nearly all children at a price affordable to us all if we are committed to it through the Constitution and tax system. Education is a right, not a privilege. Taxpayers who have a problem with this should take up residence offshore with the rest of the tax dodgers, apologise for the fact that they are human and remember that there are no pockets in a shroud.
I believe in good fiscal and monetary policies. A low taxation society will encourage prosperity. A waste of taxpayer's money is simply that, a waste. However, there are three main areas where taxpayer's money must be spent wisely in order to prove, without any reasonable doubt, that this is a democracy, that we have civil liberties, invest in our own prosperity and are, in some way, civilised. These are: defence of the person against physical attack by others; the health and welfare of all in our nation; and the education of all to a degree that will secure survival and give opportunities. These rights can and should be secured under the Constitution. It would take new thinking which is one step further than this Bill is prepared to go.
The general taxpaying community are good, if given the chance. If they can see value for money, they will agree with us on this. It will take a baseline tax figure to pay for it but so what? Let us follow this through. There is no point in writing a policy down in nice words. We must back it up with money.
If our education system was guaranteed to reach a certain standard for all in all sectors of the community, would we have 15 years olds running around the streets of Limerick or Dublin with semi-automatic weapons dispensing drugs to other 15 year olds in socially deprived areas? Would we have long-term unemployed? Would our criminal justice system for young and old be at breaking point and would all this be costing a fortune? Would I have queues in my office every weekend of people who have been waiting two years to have their children's disabilities diagnosed?
We all know the answer to this problem, despite what the Department of Finance might say. It is to write into the Constitution the right of every child, whether he or she has a disability, to an education that will ensure his or her future in the modern world.
What are we do to at this stage? As a start, let us accept the Bill with the amendments proposed by my colleague, Deputy Enright, on behalf of Fine Gael. This would only be a start because it will take time to secure personnel for teaching and other roles to make this constitutional amendment that can and must work. Let us stop thinking that any less will do. It will not.
This is not an excuse to do nothing for years to come. We need a timetable and budget for change. Members of this House have a collective responsibility to secure the futures of all, especially those who cannot speak or secure a future for themselves without our help. Those who require this help require it now or as soon as possible. There is no way around this unless, like the ostrich, we bury our heads in the sand and hope the problem will go away.
Let us take the Bill as a good start but commit to changing the Constitution in a short time in order that Members of this House will not have to talk about this same issue again or read about it in the national press day in and day out. People with disabilities have enough problems without us giving them more by putting a carrot in front of them when we all know, because of the Government's mismanagement of the public finances, they may never reach it.
This country has a proud tradition of placing great importance on education. We have built our success on continued investment in education. Since the formation of the State Governments have realised that if the people are to succeed, we must attain a high standard of education. Education is what will give tomorrow's generation the ability to do what our generation often could not.
Any independent observer will agree that this policy has borne fruit. A strong investment in education has been one aspect of Government policy that has remained constant. It has also been Government policy to make education as widely available as possible. Irish education has been criticised for its exclusivity. Education should not be for the privileged few but for every citizen. This is the reason I support the Bill. Though the intent was indicated, it has not always been possible to provide an acceptable standard of education for those with disabilities. We could not be sure that the framework we had in place to provide the best standard of education for those with physical or mental disabilities was available. Throughout the country some were inevitably falling through the cracks in the education system. Although efforts were made by statutory and voluntary bodies to include them, they did not always receive the type and form of education that would best suit them. Education was available but it was often not the type of education which would suit people with disabilities.
In County Laois a number of students were not receiving the care and attention they needed and not getting the education to which they were entitled. They might have benefited from mixing with the general student population. Others who needed specialist or individual attention were placed with a class of other students who also demanded attention and had educational needs of their own. This was having a detrimental effect on the education of all those involved. Thankfully, the Bill addresses this problem. The Government has recognised the small flaws in the current system and this legislation will go a long way to seal the cracks. It places the education of children with special educational needs as an enforceable right and complements the provisions already in place to these ends in the Constitution.
I welcome the role the Bill gives to parents. It is essential that they should have the right to decide what is best for the education of their children. By placing the decision-making ability in their hands and providing them with the assurance that they will be consulted about all educational matters at every step along the way the Bill safeguards their role in the education of their children. It ensures those who really have the child's best interests at heart are given a central role in their education.
We do not want to develop a system whereby the educational authorities are in a position to make decisions regarding a particular child on the basis of the level or form of the disability from which they suffer. When it comes to education, it is essential that every child is treated as an individual, that each case is examined on its merits and that the views of all those concerned are taken into account. We do not want to see a blanket educational policy for all. The needs of every child differ. Therefore, the educational policy and system adopted should be able to adapt to these differences. We should have a degree of leeway in the educational plan. The Bill ensures this right which can only be a positive development.
I also welcome some of the provisions contained in the Bill to help recognise educational disabilities and general educational difficulties at an early stage. While certain physical and mental disabilities may pose obvious educational difficulties, this is not always the case. Sometimes the problem can be difficult to spot and until it has been spotted, it cannot be treated.
The prime example of this is dyslexia. Although there are many different forms of dyslexia, perhaps it is best explained as a learning difficulty that makes it hard for people to read, write and spell correctly. This can be difficult to diagnose, especially considering the various degrees of dyslexia from which any given child could suffer. Considering that studies would suggest that between 6% and 8% of people suffer from some form of dyslexia, one can appreciate just how widespread this problem is and how difficult it must be for parents, teachers and other educational authorities to both recognise and deal with it.
Section 4 of the Bill plays a vital part. As well as empowering a health board to carry out an assessment on a child whom the board believes has or is likely to suffer from an educational disability, it also contains other measures that deal extensively with the issue of assessment. Although the primary responsibility for assessment will fall to the national council for special education, parents will have the power to ask for their children to be assessed if they feel they may have an educational disability. This assessment will then be carried out by the NCSE or the relevant health board.
The provision that this assessment must be carried out within three months must be welcomed, as it should ensure that if there is a problem, it will be recognised as soon as possible. Once the problem has been recognised an educational plan can be properly drawn up to deal with it.
I also welcome the proposals contained within section 3. It is important that while we recognise children with disabilities, we should not go to extremes in dealing with the problem. Not all children with educational disabilities would benefit from being given special educational treatment. Some would flourish and develop more inside the ordinary school and education system. By placing the emphasis on the school to make all practicable efforts to assist a child who is not benefiting from the regular education programme, and to do this outside the special education programme of the school, we should have the safeguards in place to prevent such an occurrence.
Equally we must make sure that while we are providing the best possible education for students with educational disabilities, this is not at the expense of other students around them. They too have a right to a full education. Unfortunately, in some cases at least, this education could be disrupted if a child with special educational needs takes up too much of the teacher's time. Such outcomes would have a negative effect on the child in question, the teacher and the rest of the students in that class.
I reiterate my support for this Bill. It will provide the best possible education for those who suffer from educational disabilities and will lead to their getting the most out of our educational system and their lives. Education is the key that unlocks the world at large. In this year of the disabled, when we should be doing all we can to integrate and involve those with disabilities in society, to improve their standing and remove the obstacles in their way, addressing problems in education has to be a priority. It is at school at a young age that these obstacles are first put before those with disabilities. Hopefully this Bill will help eliminate those obstacles and ease the path before them.
Mr. O'Connor: I thank Deputy Moloney for sharing time with me and compliment him on his fine address. While I take his point that given this is the year for people with disabilities we should recognise the issue in a special way, I always make the point that special years should not just be about one year. It is important that we do as the Government has recently done and reiterate our strong support for those in our communities who need that special attention. I commend the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Dempsey, on his work in this area and for the commitments he has made.
Since I became a Deputy 18 months ago, I have often spoken on educational matters and have fought in the House, with the Department and in the party rooms for educational facilities in my constituency of Dublin South-West and Tallaght in particular. On an occasion like this, we should recognise that people with disabilities require our special attention. Whatever about ongoing campaigns, which I support, it is right that we support the Bill, which I strongly commend to the House.
It is essential that equal educational opportunities are available to all our young people. As a community, we must ensure that all children are given the opportunity to give expression to their private hopes and dreams and not in a well-meaning yet at times patronising way. I am aware that the rights of people with special needs to equal treatment are already provided for in legislation such as in the Equal Status Act and the Education Acts. However, this Bill goes much further by providing for a structure that will guarantee the rights of children to the greatest possible extent and also ensures that parents are central to their child's development in every step of the process.
This Bill outlines the range of services that must be provided, including assessments, individual education plans and support services. It also provides for processes of mediation and appeals where these needs are not met. This level of attention to the individual needs of young people is a key part of both their development and our responsibility to meet their needs. I noted that there is a general welcome for the Bill from many sectors. There are views and observations that I hope will be brought forward on Committee Stage and, where possible, the Minister will accommodate them.
This legislation will have an impact on the day-to-day lifestyles of many in our communities. It is vital that as legislators, we extend the provisions of this Bill as far as possible to meet the needs of people with disabilities. I acknowledge the correspondence all Deputies receive from the various organisations in this area. It is a good example of democracy and it is important these groups understand that we read what is sent to us and understand the problems. I read my correspondence every day. I commend them for this work.
The Bill establishes the national council for special education and I welcome this. I wish this body well and trust that its members will be as proactive as possible in meeting its goals and objectives.
I have supported the Government's policies over the past six years to provide inclusive education for as many children with educational difficulties as is practicable. The education of children with special educational needs alongside those without such needs has an inclusive effect and acts as a catalyst for better understanding and support from the community at large. Whether one represents Cork, Limerick, Galway or Tallaght one will come across the same issues. Did I mention Limerick?
I noted the statistics presented by the Minister. I repeat some of them as they demonstrate how far we have come in recent years. In October 1998, the Government decided that all primary school children with disabilities would have an automatic entitlement to a response to their needs. This led directly to an increase of special resource teachers catering for children in ordinary schools from 104 to more than 2,300. I understand the number of full-time and part-time special needs assistants in the system also increased from less than 300 to almost 5,500 in the same period. In September 1999, the learning support teacher service was extended to every primary and post-primary school in the State. The number of learning support teachers in primary schools has grown from 1,242 in September 1997 to 1,531 today. Since then, pupil-teacher ratios in special schools and classes have been reduced to meet the recommendations of the special education committee.
No doubt there are many who will say this is not enough. Look how far we have come and the progress which will continue with the enactment of this important Bill. The level of need involved in a number of cases may require placement in a special class attached to a mainstream school. The number of special classes has increased from 350 in 1998 to more than 500 currently. Each class is dedicated to a disability category and operates a significantly reduced pupil-teacher ratio. Pupils attending these classes also attract specially increased capitation grants. The inclusion of pupils with special needs in mainstream schools is not always possible, and staff and parents must be congratulated for their commitment to special schools dedicated to disability groups. It is not easy and they do a great job.
I refer to the Minister's example. Since October 1998 more than 120 dedicated special classes have been established to meet the needs of children with autism. With a maximum class size of six and the support of a teacher and two special needs assistants, the classes recognise the emotional needs of autistic children. A nationwide pre-school service and education programme to extend the school year for children with autism has also been developed in the past year. This demonstrates the Minister's commitment in the area and acts as a template for the development of other similar specialised groups.
This is the European year of people with disabilities and many people concerned about disability services have contacted public representatives. I applaud them but, given that there always will be need, the Minister and the Department are responding. As a Government backbencher, I am never afraid to recognise need or to demonstrate support for my community and its needs but there has been a great deal of progress, which should be acknowledged. While it will never be enough, there has been good progress. The Minister recently highlighted his support for learning support and resource teachers, special needs assistants, part-time tuition services, special transport escorts, equipment, classes, schools and structural provision.
This legislation is timely and will be supported throughout local communities. It is important that an ongoing commitment is made to the sector and I commend the Minister for doing so. The Bill is a necessary element in the development of a sector of our community, which is strongly entitled to the benefits of a suitable education. I support the Bill and look forward to making a contribution on Committee Stage. I commend it to the House.
Mr. Neville: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. Every child can be educated to a certain level but each has different qualities and traits, which should be developed to the maximum. Unfortunately, heretofore, many of those who were labelled “disabled” did not have the opportunity to fulfil their educational potential. While I welcome the legislation, the shortage of resource teachers and special needs assistants throughout the State must be highlighted. There is an urgency to create new posts so that professionals are available to those who need them. Resource teachers in my constituency must cover three schools. They concentrate on numeracy skills because they do not have the time to address literacy skills as well and they cannot ensure those who need to develop such skills obtain the necessary help. Many schools request that resource teachers should be given more time in each school to help children with disabilities because teachers spend a great deal of their time driving from school to school. The Minister has identified the need for more educational psychologists to ensure children are properly assessed. How can their needs be determined without proper assessment?
I refer to a number of issues, which I would like the Minister to examine prior to Committee Stage. The phrase “educational disability” is used throughout the Bill. “Disability” creates a negative image and terms such as “individual learning requirements” or “individual learning needs” should be used. Learning disability should not be expressed as a negative quality. Special needs can also be looked upon as the provision of something that is not typically provided in mainstream schools so that a child can benefit fully from his or her education. This applies to children with mild needs and those with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Everybody has different abilities and qualities and the opportunity to develop and assess them is more important than reflecting on people's lack of ability.
The terminology used conveys our attitude towards different issues and if we refer negatively to a group of people, it means we have a negative attitude towards them but if more positive language is used and the qualities and abilities of these people are identified, we will have a different attitude. The Bill is based on negative opinion of the worth and functioning of young people with extra learning needs, and phrases such as “restriction in capacity” would be more appropriate. A number of conditions requiring extra educational input are temporary, for example, when a child is undergoing a long convalescence following a severe accident or illness or is awaiting medical help to alleviate a physical condition relating to his or her ears or eyes, and the use of appropriate and acceptable language in the legislation is of the utmost importance.
The Bill will need to stand the test of time and when analysed in years to come it should read as informed legislation, embracing an ethos of equality and disability rights. I refer to section 2(b), which relates to integrated education. Who assesses the inconsistency in the education of children with disabilities and how will it be expressed formally? Parents of typically developing children need to have a formal means for registering their concern if there is a child in the class with special needs whose presence may be perceived to be detrimental to the education of all the children in the class.
Section 3(1) provides for the preparation of education plans by schools and refers to “such measures as are practicable” in regard to guidelines for children. How will schools record the measures taken? To whom will they be held accountable? The formal designation of alert status for children with special needs before an assessment is conducted would be a useful first step in getting the process under way as a proactive move rather than a later reactive response.
How long after identification should a child be looked at again by the principal and the decision taken to go for assessment? Who pays for it? Will the assessors be swamped by referrals from principals who want extra resources? How will this be managed and controlled? Is there the potential for the system to get clogged up by the weight of referrals and put to unnecessary expense in processing inappropriate ones? Clear and direct instructions to principals are needed in the first place, with an immediate response advisory panel available to them when considering making a referral. Such an initial step would save time and resources.
If a school is expected to draw up an education plan for an individual causing concern, what procedures are in place if it does not have the expertise to do so? Not every school will have such expertise. There are many schools with a very small complement of staff who may not be conversant with modern developments in the area of special needs. There remain many two teacher and one teacher schools, though most have two, three or four teachers. Will these smaller schools have the expertise required from them in the Bill? What criteria will be given to school principals to determine if someone should be assessed, or does the principal decide that, having five or six slow learners, he or she may as well have them all assessed? We are not criticising but asking the question as to how this will operate.
Regarding section 5(1)(b) and the drawing up of guidelines, this refers to the importance of adhering to the principle that categories are based on educational needs, not medical diagnosis. The medical model is still in place in the United Kingdom and widely believed to be outdated and obstructive. Attaching rates of resources to medical diagnosis is often wasteful. A child with a specific medical condition may attract more money than he or she really needs, and denies it to another whose needs are more hidden, particularly a behavioural difficulty. One could have a child with a serious physical illness assessed as having very high needs, yet one could also have a child with extreme attention deficit disorder or some other condition who medically might not be so perceived because many medical people do not believe attention deficit disorder exists. There are still some psychiatrists who will claim that disorder is the result of bad parenting. I draw the attention of the Minister to those hidden needs which involve psychological or even social difficulties which impact just as much as the medical model.
Section 9(3) refers to the appeals board which will be appointed by the Minister. Concern has been expressed about its independence. The Minister might elaborate on its formation. Most cases brought to tribunals in the United Kingdom are settled in favour of the parent, which implies that the panels are independent. It is vital that the appeals board is seen to be made up of credible members and that it acts in the interests of the pupil, without influence from the Department. Perhaps there should be a timescale for activating and finalising the appeals board plan.
Section 5 seems to imply that the principal of a school could take a quick, cheap and inappropriate route by gathering together a very small group to do the assessment, people who may not be properly qualified to do the job. Could the principal alone carry out an assessment? Section 5 states the assistants or persons may include various categories but it is the principal who decides who will assess the pupil. One could have a situation where the principal alone could decide that he or she was the best person to assess a pupil.
Section 6 deals with the difficult question of who pays for the resources. There is a blurred distinction between what is seen as the responsibility of the Department of Health and Children and that of the Department of Education and Science. For example, a special supportive chair for a pupil may help a child with posture difficulties and scoliosis but also enable him or her to access and manipulate educational materials. In a situation where cash is finite there is potential for many disputes. The two Departments need an environment in which to work co-operatively as partners rather than as adversaries in deciding on the payment for resources.
Section 9 refers to the board of management, which some schools do not have. Subsection (3) reads: “Where a school is designated under subsection (1), in respect of a particular child, the board of management of that school may, within 4 weeks from the date that the school is informed of the designation, appeal to the Appeals Board”. If there no board of management, what is the situation?
Subsection (5) notes that, “On the hearing of an appeal under subsection (3), the burden of proving that a school does not have adequate resources to enable it to meet the needs of the school concerned shall be on the board of management of that school.” The education of other children in the school needs to be considered in this regard. The school may have resources for the incoming child who has a difficulty but the effect on others may in some cases be detrimental. While the resources must be available for the incoming child, one must also ensure there is not a reduction in the level of education, or opportunity for education, for those children already in the school.
Section 14 deals with planning for future educational needs. Planning for such needs should start at the age of 14 years. Individuals with responsibility for the handover to adult services and third level education should attend the annual review of the action plan relating to children over 14 years in order to facilitate a smooth transition from second level schools to third level of whatever adult services are being accessed.
In section 14(3)(a) and (b) the question arises as to what happens to the assessments carried out in the final 12 months of a pupil's school education. They need to pave the way for a smooth transition to identifiable destinations. These may include local careers advisers, supported job schemes, further study, and adult training facilities. There should be a group with different skills making various contributions to the overall assessment in the last year before a person with a learning difficulty moves on to further education, or even employment after completing second level.
Section 18(1) deals with implementation of the report. As in the case of the Children Act, the biggest issue involved is one of cost. Many of the provisions in that Act have not been implemented because of the investment required. We still do not have a children's ombudsman nearly four years after the Bill was enacted. We are told it will come on stream next year. I hope that is true because it is an important aspect of that legislation.
Other provisions of the Children Act, such as those dealing with interviewing delinquent children and involving parents and others in the system, are at an early stage of implementation. It is easy to enact legislation but it is pointless doing so if we do not provide the resources for its implementation.
The implementation report is a huge undertaking which requires a sound framework and infrastructure to make it effective. Training for staff and parents is essential. Does the Minister have any views on how that will be done? What procedures will be put in place? What training opportunities will be provided for parents and the staff coming on stream? The more effective the training, the less dependent are children and parents on experts whose services cost a great deal for parents and the Department of Education and Science and are availed of by relatively few children. The aim is to provide a quality service for all. Perhaps the Minister will deal with the cost and timescale involved in full implementation of this Bill. Approximately four years ago the question was asked as to how many sections of Acts passed since the foundation of the State have not been implemented because a ministerial order was not made, and the reply given was that it would be too expensive to collate that information.
Section 18(1)(g) states: “to ensure that a continuum of special educational provision is available as required in relation to each type of disability;”. We must be careful not to categorise children as having “types of disability”. We should use the term, “groups of children with special needs”. That refers to what I said earlier about concentrating on the positive rather than the negative. We should refer to those concerned as “children with special needs”. Technically speaking, in the English language, they have types of disabilities, but that sends out a negative message. The term “children with special needs” has a different effect on language and consequently on attitudes towards them.
The interim period of five years before the Bill is fully implemented is of grave concern. There are many ways the situation on the ground for children and parents can be improved during that time, involving moderate cost but having a highly significant impact. For example, regional appointees for school consortia could have immediate effect in providing widespread training for staff and parents. A range of different options can be examined in that regard. Staff and parents cannot be trained without the required expertise. The cost involved in training them will not be ongoing because they will obtain skills to contribute to the development of the children.
Mr. Stanton: I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Minister on introducing it at this time. It has been long awaited. This legislation is important to many people. Those with disabilities and special needs must be enabled to reach their full potential. There is a change in thinking. In the past, people with special needs were looked upon as having a problem and, in some case, as being the problem, and as a result were often locked away, imprisoned and hidden. That was wrong and inhumane. We have moved beyond that and now recognise that it is not the person who has the problem, rather it is society and the environment which we construct. This legislation and the disabilities Bill will challenge us to examine how we can change the environment to allow people to reach their full potential.
The Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill 2003 provides, in the main, for children under 18 years of age. The definition of “child” is a person of not more than 18 years of age. I suggest that in this instance we should move that age upwards. In many cases children with disability cannot reach their full potential by the time they reach 18 years. It often takes them longer to learn and develop. The Minister should change that provision. Inserting an age limit is problematic.
The Minister needs to insert into the Bill a section which puts in place an advocacy practice for parents. Many parents do not know where to turn when they discover their child has a disability. They need advice and guidance. Such a service is provided in other countries by way of an advocate who accompanies parents, who are nervous about officialdom, when meeting teachers, principals and psychologists. The Minister should consider this matter carefully and, perhaps, introduce an amendment on Committee Stage to make provision for such a service.
The best time to intervene is when the disability is first identified. This is especially true in regard to autism. Much of the Bill deals with what happens in schools, but we also need to look at what happens in pre-schools. Training for pre-school teachers who may identify a need is important. The Bill contains no reference to training for teachers, which is very important, at pre-school or secondary level to assist them in identifying children with special needs. That is a major fault in the Bill and the Minister should try to incorporate a provision for such training.
The education committee held a number of meetings on this Bill, which will place a great deal of pressure and responsibility on school principals. The Education (Welfare) Act added to the workload of principals, as did the Education Act. Section 3(1) states: “Where the principal of a school is of the opinion that a student in the school is not benefiting from the education programme provided in the school to children who do not have special educational needs to the extent that would be expected of the student, he or she shall take such measures as are practicable to meet the educational needs of the student.” I suggest that principals need support and training to reach that opinion. We must put some measure in place so that principals are not left in the lurch or vulnerable. They need support. I know that the special needs organisers will be there and will, one hopes, support principals.
The role of special needs organisers as opposed to principals must be more clearly outlined, something that is not done in the Bill. Section 3(2) states: “the principal, after consultation with parents, shall arrange for an assessment of the student to be carried out”. Does “consultation with parents” mean “permission of the parents”? If the parents refuse, can the principal still go ahead? We need clarity on that as it is not clear in the Bill. Is the permission of parents absolutely required?
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