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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 30 Sep 1998

Vol. 494 No. 2

Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997: Report Stage (Resumed).

Debate resumed on amendment No. 33:
In page 10, between lines 15 and 16, to insert the following:
"(l) to provide an education system—
(i) directed towards the goal that every student (having regard to his or her needs and abilities) is best equipped for full inclusion in the social, economic and cultural life of the nation, and (ii) aimed at countering inherited educational disadvantage.".
—Deputy O'Shea.

I wish to refer to another part of the debate on 3 July because it is fundamentally relevant to this debate. I moved amendment No. 33 which states:

.special educational needs means the educational needs (a) of students who have a disability or a learning difficulty, (b) of exceptionally able students, and (c) of students who, by reason of social or economic circumstances or familial dysfunction, are liable to experience educational disadvantage

During the debate, the Minister for Education and Science said:

There is a danger that if I accepted Deputy O'Shea's amendment, the focus would be diluted and consequently the provision in terms of resources for special needs children. If the special education review committee which was established ten years ago had adopted that formula we would not have witnessed such a degree of improvement in relation to special needs children.

On foot of that statement the Minister appears to misunderstand or be unaware of the following extract from page 18 of the report of the special education review committee published in October 1993 which sets out the rationale underlying the report. It states:

In this report the description "pupils with special education needs" is used to include all those whose disabilities and/or circumstances prevent or hinder them from benefiting adequately from the education which is normally provided for pupils of the same age and for whom the education which can generally be provided in the ordinary classroom is not sufficiently challenging.

In the introduction to the report, on pages 19 and 20, the review committee proposes the following seven principles which should serve as basic guidelines for the future development of the system. The first principle states that all children, including those with special educational needs, have a right to an appropriate education. The committee was in agreement with the principles put forward in part 13 of the primary school teachers' handbook which states that each child deserves to be provided with the kind and variety of opportunities which will enable him or her to develop natural powers at his or her own rate to the fullest capacity.

The second principle states that the needs of the individual child should be the paramount consideration when decisions are being made on the provision of special education for that child.

The third principle states that the parents of a child with special education needs are entitled to, and should be enabled to play, an active part in the decision making process. Their wishes should be taken into consideration when recommendations on special educational provision are being made.

The fourth principle states that a continuum of services should be provided for children with special educational needs, ranging from full time education in ordinary classes, with additional supports as may be necessary, to full time education in special schools.

The fifth principle states that except where individual circumstances make this impracticable, appropriate education for all children with special educational needs should be provided in ordinary schools.

The sixth principle states that only in the most exceptional circumstances should it be necessary for a child to live away from home to avail of an appropriate education.

The seventh principle provides that the State should provide adequate resources to ensure children with special education needs can have an education appropriate to those needs.

The review committee recommended that due account be taken of the principles in framing an Education Act. The House should note that the definition used by the review committee included disadvantage as well as the other issues, such as disability. What the Minister said here did not reflect that.

It should be further noted that one of the recommendations for general education arrangements regarding the lack of local education administrative structures is that, following consultation with interested parties, the Government should establish local education administrative structures without delay throughout the country and these should have responsibility for co-ordinating services to students with disabilities and special needs in their areas. This recommendation has fallen on deaf ears as far as this Minister is concerned. He has steadfastly and stubbornly refused to countenance any devolution of functions to either local or regional education authorities comprising the partners in education.

Looking at where the legislation has gone so far, the Minister unintentionally gave us a misleading steer during the debate. Special education needs for the purposes of the Bill are defined in its interpretation section as the education needs of students with a disability and of exceptionally able students. That excludes others who have other circumstances giving rise to their special needs. The legislation is all over the place. The amendment I seek to add will strengthen the Bill and get it back in line with what was proposed by the review group on special education. I complimented the Minister on the fact that he has been open and receptive to other amendments. However, this legislation is flawed and it is the basic flaw which presents the major difficulty for the Labour Party. The Bill is not about partnership in any real sense. Neither does it single out disadvantage for particular attention, an area singled out by the special review group.

Whether the Minister wishes to admit it, there is a steadily worsening situation in schools. It manifests itself in many ways, not least of which is deteriorating discipline. There are children in schools who are making no progress and are making it difficult for teachers to provide the level of education they wish. The resources provided for the education system are not applied as effectively as they could be. There is a major problem in the system in that schools and teachers are not stating publicly the problems they have in their schools, usually for very good reasons. If schools say they have major discipline problems, that they have students with whom they cannot cope and that it is having a devastating effect, parents will lose confidence in the schools. If other schools with similar problems do not go public, they are at an advantage. One of the major difficulties with the Bill is that it still promotes competition between schools in the numbers game. That is something that is neither healthy nor good. If the regional or local structures sought in the previous Education Bill by the then Minister for Education were in place, there would be a more regulated situation for schools.

I ask the Minister to accept this amendment. He should remember that, while the Celtic tiger helps many people, there is a growing number of people who are outside its scope. This first manifests itself in the education system. This progresses to anti-social behaviour visited on the community, causing a huge reduction in the quality of life for many people. One of the objectives of the Bill is to identify people who have inherited educational disadvantage. We know of children who come from families where unemployment has been a feature for a number of generations. Families such as this may be clustered in some areas but they are spread throughout the country. Research has repeatedly shown that, where there is little experience of education in a family and no high or reasonable level of ambition, especially as regards the mother's ambition, children find it extremely difficult to make progress. I am seeking, in the context of the section outlining the objectives of the Bill, a full, clear and comprehensive announcement of the State's recognition of educational disadvantage.

The Minister also must perform a further task, which is to put the Bill back into Committee Stage on the interpretation section and tidy up the ineffective and inappropriate definition of special education needs.

I have no intention of engaging in another Second Stage or Committee Stage debate. We have discussed these issues at great length. I reject the contentions advanced by Deputy O'Shea about the Bill and have no intention of going into them in detail. The definition we have used in respect of special needs is much more advanced and comprehensive than that used in the Education (No. 1) Bill. In terms of disadvantage, we have put forward a comprehensive proposal relating to the establishment of a committee on disadvantage, which was not in the original Bill. On all fronts, this Bill is a vast improvement on the original introduced by the Labour Party when it was last in power.

My reading of amendment No. 33 is that it is merely a restatement of what is already in the Bill, so I do not propose to accept it. I refer the Deputy to Section 7 paragraph (a), which refers to a level and a quality of education appropriate to meeting the needs and abilities of students. There are provisions throughout the Bill guaranteeing equality of treatment and so forth. I do not propose to accept the amendment.

What Deputy O'Shea is attempting to do with the amendment is admirable. He underlines one of the objectives of an education system: to achieve inclusiveness and ensure disadvantage is countered in every possible way. It is surprising that although there is a reference to promoting equality of access, the objects of the Bill are light on this subject. On Committee Stage I noted that the Minister intended to come back on Report Stage to include a term in some of the other objects of the Bill which would seek to accommodate the concerns expressed by Deputy O'Shea and other Members when this amendment was moved. Something has happened between Committee and Report Stages to persuade the Minister not to go ahead with what he seemed to indicate on Committee Stage.

Deputy O'Shea is underlining an area of the education system which has been overlooked and has not had the priority it deserves within the Department of Education and Science. I am not pointing a finger at any particular Minister. This amendment attempts to include this neglected issue in the objects of the Bill.

I was disappointed by the Minister's response to the comprehensive and detailed comments made by Deputy O'Shea on this amendment. He gave no reason for rejecting this amendment.

The Deputy should read the Committee Stage debate.

This amendment would enhance the Bill. We are attempting to incorporate educational disadvantage in it. This issue is increasingly relevant to Members, parents, teachers and boards of management.

I complimented the Minister on the way he was prepared to take on board some of the concerns and needs of everyday living. We want this Bill to cover all aspects of education. We are not defining special educational needs as those of students with disabilities or exceptionally able students. They are not the only groups in the education system. We need legislation to ensure that all parties in education; teachers, boards of management and parents deal with disadvantage which is of major concern. The Minister should reconsider his stance on this amendment.

It is well covered in the Bill.

The Bill is not clear enough.

It is clearer than the amendment.

We want this issue addressed in the Objects of the Bill. The Minister can say that it is addressed in various sections but it should be addressed in the Objects of the Bill. It should be clearly stated that we as legislators acknowledge that there is an area of educational disadvantage and include it in the Bill. It will not weaken but strengthen the Bill.

The Secretary General will recall from his days in training college that the first thing we wrote down when preparing a lesson was "cuspóir an cheachta," the objectives. The areas to be addressed should be included in the Objects of the Bill. The Minister did not repeat what he said in the Dáil in July.

We dealt with this point on Second and Committee Stages. The Deputy knows that I was speaking in the context of progress made in special needs education on meeting the pupil-teacher ratios in a whole range of special needs categories identified in the report. I stated that we would not have made such progress if the focus did not remain on this objective. There is much more to be done on special needs. However, if we broaden the canvas too much pupil-teacher ratios would not have been improved to the same extent for children with specific needs in categories such as mild or severe autism. We need to do more. There is a danger of losing focus if we include educational disadvantage in this mix.

If we want to make progress on special needs we should keep a narrow focus with a view to pupil-teacher ratios, staffing schedules, physical accommodation, equipment and so on. That is the point I made on Committee Stage and I stand by it. The Special Education Review Committee gave an impetus to this issue.

Obviously, the Minister considers that his contribution has some meaning. However, it has no meaning for me. The definition of special needs as per that committee included the phrase "circumstances that prevent or hinder them". Special needs did not only refer to gifted children or those with disabilities, it was children who had educational difficulties for environmental reasons. This is the case, whatever the Minister may say. He has introduced a Bill which goes against the ethos of the report. I accept that he made his remarks in a particular context and that he thought what he was saying was accurate. However, it was not accurate.

It was accurate.

It was not accurate. The Minster has made a mess of the Bill by including this definition in the interpretation section. It is incumbent on him to tidy this up. He knows that indiscipline among children from dysfunctional families is a problem faced by teachers. We must address the needs of these children. These are the Objects of the Bill. The Minister has a set of objects and he is stubbornly refusing to include any substantial, meaningful or inclusive reference to disadvantage. This is a disgraceful attitude to this important legislation.

The Minister seems so hell bent on getting this legislation through quickly that he does not wish to upset anyone. However, in so doing he is missing an opportunity to address the real problems in education, some of which have not surfaced. An enormous discipline problem in schools is being ignored. We can set up pilot projects but this issue has to be substantially addressed. A signal must be sent to parents, teachers and the public. Older people who are the victims of the same dysfunctional children also need a signal from the Minister that he is serious about this issue.

The Minister was smiling smugly at some of the contributions made in this debate. This is serious business and he should apply himself to the fundamental problems in education. We can all clap ourselves on the back and say we are great that we have put legislation through. This party is not accepting a situation where the less well off in society, the disadvantaged and many others who need to be defined within that special needs definition are being ignored by the Government.

Amendment put and declared lost.

We come to amendment No. 34, amendment No. 35 is an alternative and amendment No. 36 is related. I suggest that amendments Nos. 34 to 36, inclusive, be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 34:

In page 10, line 21, after "needs," to insert "support services and".

The aim of amendment No. 34 is to place on the Minister an obligation to ensure that there is made available to every person in the State not only an appropriate education but also support services. There is no question but that this was implicit in the Bill as originally drafted. However, I am happy to make it quite clear through this amendment in response to concerns raised on Committee Stage. Amendment No. 35 proposed by Deputy Bruton has the same effect. I am satisfied that Deputy Bruton's amendment No. 36 is not necessary. The Minister's duty to provide support services is clarified by amendment No. 34. References to accommodation appear in sections 2 and 33 and in my amendments Nos. 18 and 114, discussed earlier. The Minister has already a duty under section 7 to plan and co-ordinate services. It is not necessary, therefore, to restate these commitments.

I welcome the fact that the Minister has agreed, in his amendment No. 34 which is an alternative formulation of my amendment No. 35, to add support services. Increasingly support services of a type which are not strictly educational are very important to the full participation of pupils, particularly those with special needs, in education. Some of those will come from outside the mainstream education providers.

My amendment No. 36 is deemed by the Minister to be unnecessary. In my experience, which is not as vast as that of Minister, the issue of suitable accommodation within a school is a real issue and not one that would normally be embraced by appropriate support services. If the school in question does not have appropriate facilities — rooms which allow special needs to be catered for — regardless of what staffing, capitation, remedial or other supports are offered, it cannot deliver effectively. I and many outside the House believe it is important to include a reference to suitable accommodation in this context.

The other issue addressed in this amendment refers to bodies outside the education system. In allowing a child to participate fully in a school the Minister may take responsibility for delivering support services which fall within his remit, such as remedial teaching or a care assistant, but other authorities play a significant role in providing support services which are equally important for the successful participation of a child with special needs. That is why, on the prompting of those outside the House who have a particular knowledge and interest in this area, I included the provision that the Minister should ensure, where necessary, the co-ordination of other bodies in the provision of such support services. People genuinely feel they may fall between two stools, that the health board and the school authorities may not be working together to provide the range of support services necessary.

I am not convinced by the Minister's reply, nor was I able to follow the references he made to some other amendments but I will endeavor to check those amendments. I am not convinced that amendment No. 36 is redundant.

Under section 7 the Minister already has a responsibility to co-ordinate support services. In sections 2 and 33 we have already inserted references to include accommodation. I accept the Deputy's point on the need for co-ordination between local bodies, particularly health boards, the Department and schools. I question whether we could impose an obligation on one Minister and one agency to ensure co-ordination with others. Co-ordination and co-operation are two way processes. What is important is that systems are put in place and that clear lines of duty and budget lines are laid out to prevent difficulties arising in the special needs area. I have direct experience of this in terms of language therapists. Those difficulties have been resolved in a number of cases in the past months but obviously new cases will emerge. Whether we should legislate to do that is another point.

Amendment No. 114 which we have already dealt with states:

In page 18, to delete lines 44 to 48 and substitute the following:

"(g) use the resources provided to the school from monies provided by the Oireachtas to make reasonable provision and accommodation for students with a disability or other special educational needs, including, where necessary, alteration of buildings and provision of appropriate equipment."

In supporting amendment No. 36 in the name of Deputy Richard Bruton I refer to the point I made on an earlier amendment that this is the statement of the objectives of the Act. I put it to the Minister that this is where all the objectives should be stated. That we have to trawl up and down for references shows how sloppy the legislation is whereas it could all be included in this section. The statement of the objectives in the Bill should be clear, unequivocal and unambiguous. On the real definition of special needs within schools, there is a need——

Why did the Labour Party not have a definition of special needs in its Bill during the last Government and why did it not have a special section on disadvantage? The Deputy is filibustering this Bill. The Labour Party is hell bent on preventing the Bill from getting through. I adopted a reasonable attitude on Committee Stage. I see what is happening here and I saw it before the summer. I am reacting to what has gone on here for the past half hour.

The Minister is making allegations but he is not prepared to make any substantial changes in this legislation.

That is untrue. I have made amendments.

The Minister knows as well as I do that there are fundamental difficulties with this Bill. If the Labour Party chooses to debate at length to improve this legislation, I make no apologies to the Minister or anyone else for doing that, because this is very important legislation. The Minister talked about the previous legislation, but it did not get to the floor of the House.

Why were these matters, which the Deputy is now so excited about, not included in the Bill?

The Minister has rightly published a number of amendments and has shown an openness to further amendments. The debate had not taken place.

Debate adjourned.