Deputy O'Shea is in possession. Amendments Nos. 34 to 36 are being debated together.
Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997: Report Stage (Resumed).
I refer to the section Deputy Bruton's amendment No. 36 seeks to change which deals with the functions of the Minister and states that each of the following shall be a function of the Minister under this Act: "to ensure, subject to the provision of this Act, that there is made available to each person resident in the State, including a person with a disability or who has other special educational needs. ..". This phrase underlines the sloppiness of the terminology in the Bill.
Last week I stated that the House had been misled by the Minister last July in this regard. The interpretation section of the Bill states that special educational needs are defined as the educational needs of students who have a disability and the educational needs of exceptionally able pupils.
What amendment are we dealing with?
Amendment No. 34 which was moved in the debate last week. Deputy O'Shea was in possession. Amendment No. 35 is an alternative and No. 36 is related so it was agreed to take Nos. 34, 35 and 36 together.
I want to make an important point which will force us to recommit the Bill because of the sloppiness of the terminology. If "special educational needs" means the educational needs of students who have a disability and exceptionally able students, two types of students come within the compass of this definition — gifted children and students with a disability. However, in the section dealing with the functions of the Minister it is obvious that it includes a person with a disability or who has other special educational needs. According to the definition in the interpretation section, the only category other than people with a disability is the gifted children. If that is not the case, who are the other people with special educational needs? That sloppiness in regard to the terminology has to be addressed in the interest of streamlining the legislation.
In amendment No. 36 Deputy Bruton seeks to ensure that, as a function of the Minister, people availing of education do so in suitable accommodation with appropriate support services and, where necessary, the co-ordination of other bodies in the provision of such support services.
This amendment underlines a big problem in our system regarding the co-ordination of support services, particularly for students with special needs. The Minister should redefine special education needs as per the working definition used by the special education review group, which included environmental factors.
If children are behaving in a dysfunctional manner in school, outside support services, be they social workers or speech therapists, must be brought into play. The system is quitead hoc at present and, while the Minister may say he cannot legislate for other Departments, considerable resources are being paid for by the taxpayer, but optimum results are not being achieved. Deputy Bruton's objective needs to be achieved and if that requires changes in legislation in other Departments, they will have to be made. The Minister cannot deny there are increasing disciplinary difficulties with dysfunctional pupils in many schools.
There can be co-operation between schools regarding pupils with special needs. Special schools and vocational schools could provide services in addition to those provided by special schools. The Minister agreed that there should be co-operation between schools, but the Bill should include Deputy Bruton's proposal regarding the functions of the Minister. For instance, gifted pupils in primary school may benefit from lessons in second level schools to develop talents they may use as adults for the benefit of the community.
On the face of it, this amendment seems to address a reasonable matter, but there are problems with this in the real world. I would like to hear the Minister's views as to whether legislation from other Departments will be necessary. For instance, if the probation service or the Garda are involved, that would include the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, while the Department of Environment and Local Government would be involved if housing were an issue.
This is the most important legislation the Dáil has dealt with since I became a Member. I have major criticisms of the Bill. The legislation should be tightened up to get the optimum value from the resources available in various Departments and agencies. Those resources will have to be co-ordinated in the interests of students with special needs and all other pupils.
The Bill is in an unholy mess regarding the definition of special needs and if only for the sake of common sense, this should be tidied up. Co-ordination is fundamental to addressing disadvantage in our education system, special education for gifted children and the needs of all children. The Minister indicated on Committee Stage that there would be legal difficulties in this context, although I do not recall if it was with reference to this amendment. I strongly support Deputy Bruton's amendment. We should deal with the quagmire that has developed regarding the definition of special needs. The Minister made a misleading statement last July when we started Report Stage and, more importantly, there are contradictions in this section and in the interpretation section.
I have nothing further to add.
It is a long time since the Minister spoke on this——
I spoke on it last week.
I was referring to keeping one's mind on matters. I understand the Minister accepted that the issue of co-ordination is not trivial, but he sought refuge in the idea that no Minister can be expected to co-ordinate the services of other Departments. That response underlines the problem we face in catering for children with disabilities, the problem of falling between two schools. The health boards do not accept full responsibility and neither does the Minister. That is acutely obvious in speech therapy, where the health boards have responsibility for appointing speech therapists. The Minister is determined to establish a school with speech therapy facilities in my constituency, but has not done so because the health board has not appointed a speech therapist. The Minister says he cannot co-ordinate other Departments, but people are not being properly served because he and the Minister for Health and Children are not getting together.
The Minister will probably not relent on this matter, but this is an issue which will have to be revisited on another day. There will have to be a lead Department to deal with the education of children with special needs, and that should be the Minister's Department. He should ensure health board services are available to those children so that they can participate fully in education. The amendment will not be accepted, but this is unfinished business. It is a pity this legislation did not get to grips with it. The Minister will have to return to the matter of children with special needs falling between two schools.
Amendment No. 35 cannot be moved as amendment No. 34 has been accepted.
I move amendment No. 36:
In page 10, line 23, after "person" to insert "in suitable accommodation with appropriate support services, and to ensure where necessary the co-ordination of other bodies in the provision of such support services".
I move amendment No. 37:
In page 10, between lines 28 and 29, to insert the following:
"(iii) the provision of information on all aspects of the education system.".
This amendment provides for an additional item of responsibility for the Minister in his role of planning and co-ordinating the services of the education system. The Bill already provides that he plan and co-ordinate the provision of education in recognised schools and of support services. The amendment seeks to add that he also plan and co-ordinate the provision of information on all aspects of the education system. This was a feature of earlier drafts of the Bill which recognised that providing information and promoting debate about the education system was an important part of developing new legislation. However, this appeared to be forgotten when the idea of regional boards was dropped because it was delegated specifically to them and the Minister would only furrow his brow at the thought of reintroducing them.
I have not been idle over the summer and have been studying the Department and its activities. I am amazed at the huge lack of serious information about critical areas of the education system. For example, nothing is known of the drop out rates of third level colleges. School attendance figures are not regularly returned and the Department knows nothing about the level of school attendance on any systematic basis. The last national survey dated back to 1984. There have been spot surveys since but the Department does not conduct any regular surveys about school attendance. The Department does not require the suspension of pupils to be reported to it with the result that the Minister cannot answer a question on suspensions or expulsions in schools, a normal question which would be asked. The Minister does not plan or co-ordinate the collection of such information or the systematic testing of literacy in schools. One of the basic facts we would wish to know about the performance of the education system is whether children within it are achieving benchmarks of literacy.
There were expressions of shock when the Education Research Centre found that 17 per cent of 16 to 25 year olds were at the lowest level of literacy and that the corresponding figure for the larger adult population was 25 per cent. These statistics came as a surprise to commentators. It begs the question as to why information about crucial issues such as drop out rates, suspensions, literacy and record cards is not available. I remember it was part of legislation at the time that record cards were to be maintained in primary schools when the primary certificate was abolished. It is part of legislation that school attendance records be returned to the Department which would maintain overall records. These have fallen into disuse and the Department seems not to see itself as having a serious role in collecting information and promoting debate about the education system. It is more concerned about crisis management rather than systematically gathering information, which is the bread and butter of serious analysis of education issues.
I do not table this amendment merely to add something to the Bill which is not already there. A lack of systematic thinking and insufficient collection of information about important areas within the education system are serious weaknesses in the Minister's Department. Even in areas where legislation provides for it — the Minister is statutorily required to collate information on school attendance — it has been allowed to fall into disuse. That is not good. I hope the Minister looks on the amendment as giving him the opportunity to organise more systematic collection and analysis of information because that is how he will ensure value for money during his stewardship of the Department. I hope the amendment commends itself to the House. It is in sympathy with many of the debates we have had and I hope it is accepted.
I strongly support this amendment tabled by Deputy Bruton which seeks to add another function to those the Minister already has. It has not been tabled just for the sake of it. It underlines a serious deficit in the Department of Education and Science. Since I became the Labour Party spokesman on education last December, I have repeatedly raised the issue of the Department not being informed of expulsions, suspensions or of a student being refused entry to a school for reasons other than lack of accommodation. It is mind-boggling that there is an accepted figure of 800 to 1,000 students who do not make the transition from primary to secondary school each year. The Minister also knows that some children are expelled from second level schools before reaching the age of 15 without adequate arrangements being made for their education. There are problems but it is as if the Department believes that, if it does not know about them, they do not exist. However, they do exist.
I find it extraordinary that there are easy methods for reporting matters such as expulsions, suspensions and refusal to accept children into a school which are not used. If the onus were put on a board of management to send a copy of a letter to the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Science detailing a child's expulsion from the relevant school, it would be an easy way of dealing with the problem and it would provide the Department with an early signal of the difficulties arising in a student's career. Rollover suspensions are effectively expulsions under another name. When a child has been suspended from school for more than five days, the Department and the parents of the child should be informed by a letter outlining the suspension imposed. This should also be the case where parents seek to have their child admitted to a school and are refused. If this system were introduced, it would take much of the weight off the appeals system which is part of the Bill and which will be debated later.
I am alarmed by the number of parents contacting me indicating that their children have dyslexia, dyspraxia or attention deficit syndrome. I have encountered situations where parents on low incomes must pay for their children to be tested for, and sometimes diagnosed with, such difficulties. I am not going to start a debate on the school psychological service, an issue about which I feel very strongly. However, there are many parents who are very upset and concerned at having to have their children privately tested for and diagnosed with the various disorders I have mentioned. While the parents have such information, schools do not and less still the Department.
There needs to be a system whereby children are tested on a more widespread basis. The Minister has made reasonable progress on expanding the primary school psychological service and he intends to expand it further. However, there is an enormous need to have these children assessed at an early stage. There should be an emergency programme if the Department cannot provide people to carry out these tests in the short-term. I do not say this lightly but I am alarmed by some of the information I am receiving.
As spokesperson on Education I have been amazed at the lack of information obtainable from the Department. I can recall tabling questions seeking an overview on certain areas, only to receive replies that the information being sought was not readily available and that the staff input into compiling such information could not be justified. One wonders if the Department has ever heard of the computer or a database.
We are agreed that there is a serious problem with information systems. There is insufficient information in the Department on issues such as children at risk and early school leavers. Those who suffer are the children and the parents of children who are not making progress in the education system.
We need to improve information systems. The Minister has resisted the idea of a definition of the functions of the chief inspector. He seems to think that he can joke with his officials when Members are contributing. He was doing likewise last week. This is a serious issue. His frivolous attitude in getting the Bill through without listening to points made by Deputies is not good enough. I would ask him to show a little more respect for the House.
I did cast my eyes to Heaven as the Deputy spoke. However, he is rehashing everything we deliberated upon on Second Stage. I have taken note of what I consider the serious points he has made. However, we are bringing Report Stage into disrepute if we have a Second Stage debate on every amendment. That shows no respect for the House either.
The Minister has his view. My view is that we are debating an important amendment which focuses on a serious deficiency in the Department. I hoped I was making helpful suggestions and supporting this amendment. If the Minister wishes to treat our contributions in a frivolous manner that is fair enough.
That is not fair. I am not being frivolous. There should also be some humanity in the House. We can make the odd flippant comment and the Deputy should not comment in such a manner. The same happened on Committee Stage. Members look around and talk to one another. It is unworthy of the Deputy to make a big deal of such behaviour.
I note the Minister's pomposity. However, I stand by my comments on the lack of respect he is showing for the House. We can differ on this as on other issues. The Minister has not commented satisfactorily on whether he misled the House. However, I do not wish to return to that issue.
We are discussing the role of the chief inspector with clearly defined functions. Part of those functions relates to the collection of the information of which I have spoken. The Minister should look upon this suggestion more sympathetically when we come to the latter stages of the debate on this Bill.
I do not know if the Minister is receiving the same kind of representations I am receiving, but I am becoming alarmed at the number of people offering diagnoses of the various conditions I described. This is no laughing matter. There does not appear to be any estimate in the Department of how many pupils suffer from these conditions which require a specialised approach. I support this amendment to which the Minister should agree. He may wish to expand on it at a later stage of the Bill. However, it is fundamental to the Bill that the functions of the chief inspector be agreed.
I reject any suggestion that I am treating this Bill in a frivolous manner. That is an unfair allegation. I have given much time to this Bill and the Opposition amendments, particularly on Committee Stage which was very long. On Committee Stage I accepted quite a number of amendments and we spent some time discussing a range of issues. Even as the Deputies were speaking I took notes to help me respond. Some of the points made are of interest and are important. However, many of the issues raised are not relevant to this amendment.
This amendment relates to the provision of information on all aspects of the education system. The Deputy's contributions relate more to research and compiling information. This amendment would not deal with many of the issues referred to by Deputy Bruton. One cannot provide information that one does not have. The key point is that we establish systems which provide the Department with greater information on what is happening. I inherited the deficiencies referred to by the Deputies. Deputy O'Shea's party had responsibility for the Department of Education for the past four years. Everything he has said concerning deficiencies of data systems is an indictment of those four years.
I have made it a priority to ensure that we utilise the IT section of the Department which is doing very good work on collecting data and marrying it with other sections in the Department to provide a good database. Last August, I initiated the first research in the Department on early school leavers and retention figures in second level schools. No such research was undertaken in the past four years. How can we intervene if we do not have the data? That exercise has been completed and we have good data on the difficulties in retention. We can pinpoint areas where difficulties arise in achieving the retention figures we would like schools to achieve. Some of this information will be confidential as we do not want to further disadvantage certain areas and schools by subjecting them to unwarranted publicity. However, we can direct the respective authorities to devise programmes to try to improve retention rates.
Research was commissioned by the points commission on attrition rates at third level referred to by Deputy Bruton. By their nature, third level institutions are autonomous so the Department cannot force them to take certain measures. We have provided the funding for the points commission to undertake significant research. Recent details indicated a 23 per cent attrition rate among a certain cohort of first year university students. I have sought more expansive and comprehensive research in that area, even though some of the university authorities considered it was not feasible. I do not accept that view and I have pushed strongly for more comprehensive research on attrition rates for full time under graduates at universities and at institutes of technology. The amendment does not address those issues. These are policy issues which depend on the degree to which a Minister of the day will prioritise data collection and data systems which are necessary to inform policy.
On the issue of suspension and expulsion of pupils the database in primary schools is poor. That is an historic deficiency. It did not commence during my term. I am determined to ensure by the time I leave office there will be a comprehensive database for primary schools and that they will have the necessary technology to make returns to the Department. In the context of an initiative with regard to 8-15 year olds we are developing a pilot model to develop a good tracking system for children who leave school early. The heads of the School Attendance Bill, which came to Cabinet in recent weeks, will impose specific obligations in respect of suspensions, expulsions and the duty to report to the relevant authority. Issues pertaining to children who have been suspended or expelled will be dealt with in the context of the School Attendance Bill.
We are undertaking considerable research in the special needs area and are endeavouring to collect a suitable database. When I came to office I discovered there was not a comprehensive database and that we depended on individual schools to return information. It is wrong to blame the Department and its officials who are working under much pressure. It is a matter of prioritising an issue. I place a high priority on the collection of data which ultimately is important in framing policy. We have regular sessions in the Department with officials and statisticians, with a view to procuring hard information, going through a whole range of statistics on leaving certificate examinations, performances at ordinary level and so on. A great deal of data has been collected which can help us frame policy for the future and take corrective steps to enable us meet the objectives of our education policy. Much work is being done in the Department and it is wrong to criticise it because of the failure of the political system to prioritise this issue in the past.
On the question of international assessment tests of our literacy performance, I have taken steps, as outlined in reply to a Private Notice Question in the last session, to ensure we will participate in these tests on a regular basis in the future with other countries. This will give us a good idea of our performance rating in terms of literacy and numeracy on an international comparative basis.
In respect of the specific amendment which seeks to insert the following "the provision of information on all aspects of the education system", the Department provides a great deal of information through the communications office. I have criticised the deficiencies I have inherited but I acknowledge there have been great improvements in the information which has come from the Department over the years in many areas, for example, the publications and the data are much more accessible to the public.
Information from the Department must be treated in the context of the Freedom of Information Act, 1997, and the Public Service Management Act. That relates not only to the Department of Education and Science in terms of its responsibilitiesvis-à-vis the provision of information but to all other Departments. My amendment No. 44 provides that the Minister publishes all information relating to the monitoring and assessment of the education system, having regard to the objects provided for in section 6. That addresses some of the elements in Deputy Bruton's amendment.
This debate is useful even if the Minister considers it is not directly related to the amendment. I maintain it is strongly related to the amendment. It is unacceptable that the Minister should have to explain that colleges that are almost 100 per cent funded by State money would tell him they do not want to give certain basic information to the person who is ultimately responsible for providing that money. A legislative provision of this nature would strengthen the Minister's hand in getting information to which he is entitled. The Minister makes play of the fact that he inherited this situation. That is a mantra: every Minister inherits a situation but he should try to change whatever he can change during his term of office. The Minister has indicated he will make changes in the area of special needs information. He is absolutely right. It is unbelievable that we rely on a single survey in 1993 for most of our information about special needs provision and at the same time talk about cherishing every child equally. The Minister is taking on a responsibility to ensure every child gets education and when he asks the Department if that is the case, it says it has no idea. This is an important issue. I am not trying to blame civil servants but I am underlining to them that statute law already provides that they should collect certain information and maintain it but they are not doing so. Whether that is the responsibility of the political head or the departmental head, the legislation exists. The Minister is talking about new requirements under the School Attendance Bill when similar requirements, under existing legislation, were not observed. Let the buck stop where it will but somebody is responsible.
I will not press the amendment given that the Minister is not willing to take it on board. It goes to the heart of a weakness which is not only within the Department of Education and Science but in many Government Departments where they do not see their policy making and analytical role as central to their functions. They get too bogged down in administration they would be better delegating. I will not delay the House further on this amendment.
I move amendment No. 39:
In page 10, between lines 28 and 29, to insert the following:
"(d) to ensure that any student who is out of school for an unreasonable length of time shall have an appropriate education provided for them.".
This concerns a role and function of the Minister for Education and Science, namely, ensuring a student who is out of school for an unreasonable length of time shall have an appropriate education provided for him. Statute is quite unclear regarding who has responsibility for ensuring a child is in education when the State says he should be. This is also relevant to the years following compulsory education. There seems to be extraordinary difficulty in identifying exactly who has responsibility, something which is aggravated by rolling suspensions in the context of defining a time when a point of finality is reached after which it can be said a child is definitely out of school. As a result there are many children out of school on a long-term basis for whom proper provision is not being made.
In the most recent sample survey carried out by the Department it was found that 1.5 per cent of pupils were either expelled or suspended. This amounts to more than 6,000 pupils, a very significant number of the school going population of 450,000. There is a vacuum regarding who has responsibility for ensuring pupils are in school. The responsibility should fall on the shoulders of the Minister for Education and Science.
The Minister may say he will assume such responsibility under the School Attendance Bill and that he wishes to defer consideration of the matter until then. I will reluctantly accept that if it is the case, but I am getting more and more depressed by the delay in publishing the School Attendance Bill. The Taoiseach makes great play about the wonderful new things which will result from the Bill. I have been thumbing my last version of the Bill to try to identify where these new frontiers will lie and I must table a question to the Minister on this. It is universally agreed that this legislation is necessary. The Conroy Commission recommended change in 1970, but we may still not have a School Attendance Bill as we approach the millennium.
I would like the Minister to accept the amendment and have one part of the school attendance legislation in place by the end of the year.
I concur with Deputy Bruton that it would help the debate if the Minister could give some indication regarding the heads of the School Attendance Bill. Reading the amendment reminded me that I recently tabled a parliamentary question about a 15 year old special needs student who in September was facing a third school year without education. I accept this is an extreme case. However, all Deputies have encountered situations where children have been expelled from second level schools without alternative provision being made.
I hope this issue will be fully and substantially addressed by the School Attendance Bill when it is finally introduced to the House. However, in recognition of the enormous problem, there are short-term measures which could be introduced pending the passing into law of that Bill which would assist the Department in getting a measure on the difficulties.
During the debate on Committee Stage I felt we were being told there is a grey area between the constitutional guarantee of primary education and the legal guarantee of education up to 15 years of age. To what extent can second level schools expel a child leaving him or her with no place to go? Those who drop out of school early pose a very large problem which must be urgently addressed. The Minister would assist the debate if he gave us an outline of the heads of the Bill and explained the extent to which he is prepared to introduce interim measures to address the problem faced by the many students under 15 years of age who have been outside the education system for too long. Such students on reaching 15 years of age have no effective protection in law, even if they had such up to that age. It is likely that such students will never return to the education system.
This is the most serious current problem in education. Irrespective of the reforms which will be included in the School Attendance Bill, there is an onus to act now. There is no legal restriction on the Minister preventing him from issuing a directive by way of circular letter to boards of management putting the onus on them to send copies of letters of expulsion, suspension or rejection of application issued to parents to the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Science.
The School Attendance Bill will deal with the specific point raised. My legal advice is that we should await publication of that Bill and use the mechanism associated with it to incorporate the principle contained in Deputy Bruton's amendment. The Education (No. 2) Bill makes specific provision in sections 6 and 7 regarding the obligation of the Minister to provide education for all children. This obligation does not cease simply because children are not in school. The Department already provides home tuition and tuition in settings other than the formal school setting for students who are out of school for substantial periods for a variety of reasons, something which will continue following enactment of the legislation. Section 2 includes education other than in school among the list of support services which the Minister will provide.
The School Attendance Bill will deal with children who are out of school for an unreasonable length of time for a range of reasons, specifically for expulsions and suspensions. In this context we are beginning consultations with a number of interests. The heads of the Bill have been drawn up and it has been sent for detailed drafting. We are not putting the legislation on the long finger and I am very anxious to push forward with its publication. Perhaps actions speak louder than words, but I think it is more important that the Bill be properly drafted and published so that it can be discussed in the House. The point raised in the Deputy's amendment will be dealt with in the Bill.
I welcome the fact that the Minister will definitely take responsibility in this context as it is a grey area. On the basis of the Department's survey, the number of pupils who are expelled or on suspension is 12,000 — earlier I gave an incorrect figure. If that number were crammed into one year, it would comprise almost one fifth of the student cohort and leave a high number of children in limbo. I regret the Minister is not including some of the outlined measures in this Bill when he can get it through the House quickly but I know he will tackle the issue at a later stage.
Amendment No. 40 has already been discussed with amendment No. 22. Is it being moved?
Am I correct in saying that amendment No. 44 tabled by the Minister is similar to amendment No. 40?
Amendment No. 44 has already been discussed with amendment No. 22.
I move amendment No. 41:
In page 10, between lines 28 and 29, to insert the following:
"(d) to publish a charter of the educational and support services which a parent or pupil is entitled to receive, which would include a statement of the channels of complaint open to a person in respect of these services.".
We discussed this matter on Committee Stage and the Minister more or less suggested that a picture would emerge from the myriad sections of the Bill in regard to a parent's or pupil's entitlements. If one is sufficiently diligent and industrious, it is probably possible to ferret out such entitlements.
The notion of a Minister providing a charter of education and support services is a good one; one of the Minister's predecessors introduced a charter in respect of the health services which, though failing to provide all the answers, was viewed as a positive step. The notion of having a charter of education and support services which could be displayed in schools throughout the country in the same manner as the charter for health services is displayed in clinics and hospitals is a good one and would help to promote the new spirit the Minister hopes the Bill will introduce into our education system.
I am not convinced the publication of a charter would be a particularly good thing. In essence, the Bill is a charter but one which has a statutory base in terms of the rights of children and parents. It also provides for avenues of redress and puts parents' and children's rights on a statutory footing for the first time. Such rights were previously dependent on departmental circulars which did not constitute statutory underpinning.
The Bill is quite unusual in terms of its broad nature and the manner in which it sets out the objectives of the education system. It is relatively easy to compile and publish a charter but one could be accused of being disingenuous if the achievement of its provisions did not prove realistic. There was a time when charters were all the rage but essentially people want improved services, resources and facilities. It is far more important to increase capital funding to schools by 40 per cent than publish a meaningless charter. I accept a charter might present some benefits in identifying objectives and so on, but the Bill is much stronger than a charter as it has teeth in terms of people's rights. I accept the bona fides of the Deputy's motivation in tabling the amendment.
The Minister stated that the inclusion of various measures in a charter could be perceived as being disingenuous in so far as their delivery might not prove achievable within a particular timescale. However, he missed an important point. We, as elected representatives, have a certain familiarity with the education system although there is a great deal we have yet to learn about it but many people do not have such familiarity. In recent days, a constituent of mine visited me in tears because of representations made to the Department to which no follow-up was received.
To an extent, a charter is made up of jargon. However, it would be beneficial if parents and students were made aware of their rights under this legislation and of the channels of redress open to them if services are not provided. We should not underestimate the fact that some parents and students feel alienated by the system. The dissemination of information and increased familiarity with the education system would assist us in redressing such difficulties. A charter would cultivate a sense of inclusiveness; it would spell out people's entitlements and let them know their place in the system. I cannot see the logic in having complicated legislation such as this and not informing consumers about its contents.
Information empowers people to act on their own behalf. If people were better informed, they would become more involved in the education system although some initial strains would be experienced. A charter would not convey false impressions. If we pass legislation which confers rights on citizens, there cannot be any contradiction in including those rights in a single document to which people would have ready access. I would be happy if the Minister undertook to publish an appropriate document targeted at parents when this Bill is passed. It is nonsense to pass legislation if we do not tell the people what we have done. There has been no overwhelming newspaper coverage of this. I told a meeting I attended recently, at which many parents were present, that I am appalled at the lack of interest in this legislation among parents. My concern is that we should make every possible effort to let people know what we are doing when we enact legislation on their behalf.
Some of the concepts in this legislation are quite intricate. My main criticism of this it is that it puts into statute law thestatus quo which is quite complicated, having developed in a certain historical way. To be relevant, the Oireachtas has to be inclusive. There is a worrying trend whereby people, particularly young people, are not exercising their franchise. We have to be relevant, and be seen to be doing things here that impact in a positive way on people's lives.
Does the Minister accept this amendment? I have been critical of the Department. There is a whole plethora of departmental publications, but one would have to be a professional, an insider in the system, to understand any of them. We have to become much more consumer friendly in terms of communication. We have to address the electorate at large. We have spent much time debating this Bill, and the Minister is critical of that to some extent.
However, we are doing this as elected representatives on behalf of the people. My fear is that, despite all the debate, people know very little about what is happening here and where this is leading. On that basis I ask the Minister to consider committing himself to disseminating information about the important elements of this Bill as soon as possible after its enactment.
I am amazed at the Minister's attitude to this because he has an excellent reputation for being very slick in the PR Department, for being very good at turning a photo opportunity — I am not suggesting that he put his picture on this charter.
On a more serious note, symbols are extraordinarily important in any walk of life. I would be happy if, after this Bill is passed, a document were put on the wall of every school telling people they have a right of appeal if they are not happy with certain things, that the Minister has given a statutory undertaking that the educational needs of all students, including those with special needs will be identified and provided for, and that parents are entitled to have democratically elected representatives on the school board. These are important statements that should be made and ought to be displayed on the walls in every school.
It might help the debate if I say I am committed to doing that. There may be differences in our definition of a charter and how we might ensure that the rights and responsibilities in this Bill are made crystal clear to all the education partners, but I am committed to doing what the Deputy suggests. In the context of the election of parents to the new primary boards of management, we assisted the National Parents' Council by placing advertisements in newspapers to make it clear to parents' associations that they had the right to elect their own representatives to boards of management.
I am delighted the Minister takes that view because parents change. Today's parents are tomorrow's——
Parents move on and people want to see continuity, a statement of entitlement. It will change attitudes over time and much of the legislation is not just about setting out statutory rights but about changing the environment in which these are exercised. I welcome the Minister's decision and I hope he will ensure his photograph is not on this wall-covering when it arrives.
I have no problem with that. The Minister is welcome to have his photograph on it.
We come to amendment No. 42. Amendment No. 43 is an alternative. Amendment No. 64 is related and amendment No. 65 is an alternative to amendment No. 64. I suggest, therefore, that we take amendments Nos. 42, 43, 64 and 65 together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 42:
In page 10, line 34, to delete "with" and substitute "who have a disability or who have other".
The aim of amendments Nos. 42 and 64 is to clarify that the provisions apply both to students with disabilities and to those with special education needs. Although this was implicit in the Bill as originally drafted, I am happy to clarify it through the amendments in light of concerns raised on Committee Stage so that there will be no ambiguity.
I accept the amendment but I again point out the somewhat curious tautology. When one tries to find out what special education needs mean we find that it includes those who have a disability and exceptionally able students. This brings us back to Deputy O'Shea's point that they are two ends of the spectrum and that we should encompass many others who would not regard themselves as having a disability in the conventional sense or who would not regard themselves as being especially able but who, nonetheless, have special needs. However, I will not reopen that debate.
This is a drafting issue.
I have a bigger difficulty with it. I will not read again the definition in the Special Education Review Committee report. However, we should recommit this issue and I will give an absolute assurance that neither I nor the Labour Party will seek to exploit that in any way. The terminology is quite confused and somewhat contradictory. The fundamental point remains, that the special education needs definition in the interpretation section deals with students with a disability and gifted students. In the legislation we are including disability and special education needs although the term "special education needs" already embraces the group of students that have a disability.
The Deputy should recall what happened on Committee Stage and all the consultations which took place, when people wanted to make doubly sure that the term "special needs" included people with disabilities. We met many groups representing the entire spectrum of the disability lobby before Committee Stage and they made the point that they wanted that assurance. I think the Deputy might have wanted a similar assurance on Committee Stage. To make absolutely sure there was no ambiguity or difficulty, we decided to draft amendments to copperfasten the situation.
In regard to the wider issue of the definition of disability, it followed comprehensive and exhaustive consultation with all the relevant parties with inputs into the consultation process, specifically in the area of disabilities. The Bill was framed in that context.
The decision was taken, following representations made by a number of the partners about educational disadvantage deriving from socio-economic disadvantage, to establishvia the Bill an education committee for disadvantage which would give a clear focus to the issue of educational disadvantage outside the special needs area. That is the background to the decisions which were taken to insert both those sections in that manner in the Bill.
I accept the Minister's explanation and am not seeking to score points at this stage. However, a student with a disability could have a physical or sensory disability which might not necessarily be a learning disability. Every Member has similar intentions. It should be possible to recommit the Bill with an agreed formula because the amendment is quite sloppy as it stands.
It is not.
We are using the "special needs" definition, which includes "disability", and we are also inserting "disability and special needs" when we have already defined "special needs" as including "disability". It does not make sense.
I must recap on what happened on Committee Stage when the Deputy called for this.
Called for what?
I am speaking from memory, but I think the Deputy called for us to table this amendment inserting this definition. I think the Deputy had tabled amendments on Committee Stage.
I did table amendments.
I responded to that by tabling these amendments but now the Deputy wants us to go around the circle again. The Bill is not sloppy in this respect. The definition of "disability" is quite an important one which will enable us to make significant progress and confers important statutory rights on children with disabilities, which is important in the context of education.
We can see how matters evolve. The Bill must go to the Seanad after it leaves this House and the Deputy can discuss the matter further with us if he wishes. However, we are in danger of forgetting what happened on Committee Stage. The purpose of Report Stage is to advance the discussions we had on Committee Stage — hence the amendment.
I accept we must look at how the Bill emerges from Committee Stage and if we are not satisfied with that we have the option to return to it. However, this is an area of fundamental importance in the Bill and leaving this apparent contradiction in it would not do a service to those who send us here to legislate. There should be further consultation during the passage of the Bill through the Seanad in a spirit of goodwill and co-operation, which is how I see this issue.
I have a separate agenda in terms of the definition of "special needs", which I strongly believe should include pupils who are educationally disadvantaged and have special needs arising from environmental or social factors. However, the double entry of "disability" in the Bill should be tidied up as it does not add anything to the legislation but weakens it.
That was my position at the very beginning
I do not recall it as being such.
It was — it caused people in the disability sector to propose amendments, which I agreed to accept if there were doubts about the matters. People outside the House were saying we were trying to dilute this, that and the other and I said that was not our intention. To prove the bona fides of our motivation we responded to the Deputy's amendments by tabling this amendment. The position which the Deputy has just articulated was my starting position on Committee Stage. To be helpful, I tabled this amendment. I will go around again if the Deputy wishes.
I am satisfied our definition of "special needs" is adequate but it is important in a Bill such as this to allay people's doubts about it and to assure them that the State is committed to providing the constitutional rights of a child with a disability to an education. We decided to go down this route to allay the doubts which existed. It does not damage the legislation nor will it reduce the capacity of the State, the Minister or the Department to meet the obligations the Bill will impose on them.
The Minister misunderstands how the process developed. The concern is that while the "special needs" definition clearly includes "disability", these amendments are including the term "disability" for a second time. I am quite happy to——
I assure the Deputy that the parliamentary draftsman is happy there is no problem in including the term again, although he might regard it as unnecessary.
We have gone to the bother of defining a term and now we are adding to it. However, if the parliamentary draftsman is happy with the wording I will accept that in the context of this debate. I take it, however, that if the Labour Party wishes to return to the issue in the Seanad it will be responded to in a constructive fashion.
I move amendment No. 44:
In page 10, line 39, after "education" to insert ", having regard to the objects provided for in section 6 and to publish, in such manner as the Minister considers appropriate, information relating to such monitoring and assessment".
Amendment No. 45 is out of order as it involves a potential charge on the Exchequer.
Amendment No. 46, which arises out of Committee proceedings, has already been discussed with amendment No. 19. Does the Deputy wish to press the amendment?
Yes. I move amendment No. 46:
In page 10, line 47, after "Irish" to insert "and Irish Sign Language".
I move amendment No. 48:
In page 10, line 49, to delete "which requests such provision".
This also relates to section 7, which concerns the Minister's functions. Section 7(2)(d) provides that one such function is to provide support services through Irish to recognised schools which provide teaching through Irish and to any other recognised school which requests such provision. My amendment seeks to delete the last four words.
Since Committee Stage, a number of points have been made to me about support services for the Irish language and there are later amendments in that regard. We should not have too narrow a focus on support services through Irish to recognised schools or to any schools, because it is vital that we provide the best level of support services in Irish to all schools. We have seen the phenomenon of the growth of Gaelscoileanna but Gaeltacht schools have had a number of problems. I was recently informed by the principal of such a school that he has received students who spoke neither Irish nor English but a European language, because some non-nationals have set up home in Gaeltacht areas. Deleting the words "which requests such provision" would make clear that the provisions mentioned here are available to every school, not only to those which request them.
A great deal of resources have been put into teaching Irish since the foundation of the State. Schools were given responsibility for teaching the language but the environment outside the schools was often not supportive of Irish, and whereas a great deal of good work was done within the schools it was often not possible to converse in Irish outside. The work being done did not, therefore, have its optimum effect.
There should be a serious national debate about why it is both important and appropriate that we retain the Irish language. We should make it our objective to achieve a bilingual society and in many ways the language makes it easier for us to understand who and what we are and how the country developed. For instance, something as simple as logainmneacha can give us a picture of how an area grew up. I could give many instances of that, it is a hobby horse of mine.
Phrases like "which request such provision" have a restrictive air. The Minister may argue about resources, which are always a consideration, but we should give a clear signal about the language. Is the Department doing research into or has it a policy on the place of Irish outside the schools, so that the language taught in the schools can move into a living environment where it can prosper? Everything done by the schools is fine, and standards are achieved, but the population needs to be convinced — as I think it will be — of the necessity and appropriateness of reviving the language to the optimum degree and how that adds to our Irishness. It is now part of European culture and is something specific which we have to offer.
I want to delete this wording because it is unnecessarily negative and may exclude the 95 per cent of schools which do not teach through the medium of Irish and are not located in Gaeltacht areas. I am all in favour of áiseanna and essential help for Gaelscoileanna and scoileanna Gaeltachta, but there is a danger that we might forget the needs of the 95 per cent of schools and thus would do no service to the wider aim of the restoration of Irish as a spoken language on a much wider scale.
I did not read the section in the same light as Deputy O'Shea — I saw it as giving schools the option of having their affairs dealt with through the medium of Irish, and under that interpretation the qualification in the clause seems reasonable. There is some confusion, however, about how the Minister proposes to relate to schools which teach through Irish and those which do not — he seems to be proposing to set up a body of persons who would provide support services only to schools which teach exclusively through Irish and not to those which teach Irish as a subject. We may return to this issue when discussing the amendments to section 31. The debate on the role of that body has waxed and waned and perhaps the Minister could shed light on his present thinking.
My thinking on that issue is that the section applies to schools which teach through the medium of Irish. That proposal arose from representations made consistently down the years by Gaelscoileanna and scoileanna na Gaeltachta about the lack of resources specifically for schools teaching through Irish, including in-service training, teacher training and curriculum resources. For example, if a school wished to teach science or maths through Irish it would not have the same resources in Irish as exist in English in terms of publications, etc. It was felt there was a need for a resource base and a body to organise and co-ordinate the provision of resources specific to the needs of schools teaching through the medium of Irish.
This amendment, if accepted, would place an obligation on the Department to provide all the support services through Irish listed in the section to all schools even if they did not request it, which I think would be excessively onerous. Those services include transport, library and media services, school maintenance, examinations, curriculum support, provision for student learning, primary, post-primary and continuing education for students with special needs. Literally everything from the Department would be sent in Irish even if the school did not want it if this amendment was passed. For example, there are 11 volumes in the new primary school curriculum relating to each subject. If the school does not teach through the medium of Irish, it will not necessarily want the maths or geography sections in Irish. We will publish an Irish version of the new primary school curriculum but we must be a little realistic in terms of the obligations we are placing on the Department. Why send a great deal of material to schools which do not want it and which would put it in a cupboard or in the bin if they received it? That would be an unnecessary waste of resources. The Bill is reasonable and the phrase "to any other recognised school which requests such a provision" is not designed to be restrictive. If the school requests the materials, they will be provided.
My recollection of the previous curriculum was that it was published in bilingual form.
We will publish it in Irish and English but the issue arises as to whether to send all subject material——
The Minister misunderstood me. The previous curriculum was bilingual in that both languages were contained under the one cover.
The material this time around is far more extensive than that contained in the earlier one in 1971 and the amount of material we will send out is quite frightening. I estimate the cost of publication alone will be up to £3 million.
Send it on e-mail.
We hope to do that as well. If people do not want all that material in Irish, why should we send it to them? Obviously, the Gaelscoileanna will require and receive the material in Irish as will scoileanna na Gaeltachta and anyone else who wishes to receive it. That is an illustration of why it is unreasonable to suggest the Department should be obliged to send everything in terms of support services to every school even if they do not want it and have it in another form.
I am articulating concerns expressed to me.
I accept that.
The basic concern is that in some way the mission of 95 per cent of schools in the context of the Irish language could, following the passing of this Bill, become construed to be less enthusiastic in terms of the teaching of Irish. I know that is far from the Minister's intention. Those views have been expressed to me by people whose views I value. I am not particularly hung up on the formula of words but it struck me that this could be seen as restrictive and could possibly underpin the type of negative message some people feel may be emanating from this legislation. I will not press the amendment but want to use it to advance these arguments.
Amendment No. 49 arises from Committee Stage proceedings. Amendments Nos. 51, 52, 53, 54 and 56 are related to amendment No. 49 and may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 49:
In page 11, between lines 22 and 23, to insert the following:
"(b) shall recognise the important input of patrons, parents, students, education managements, teachers and other staff as well as the wider community, who together represent the educational partners, at both national and local level and shall endeavour to ensure that they shall be consulted in all areas where they have a direct concern by persons concerned with the implementation of this Act,".
This amendment arose from the discussion on Committee Stage. Essentially, the amendment seeks to give some type of definition to the education partners. Although it is a frequently used term, it is not always clear to whom we refer. I explicitly included the wider community as an education partner in that it does not solely refer to students, their parents and teachers. There is a wider community interest in education and any definition of education partners should embrace that wider community.
This amendment also seeks to place an obligation or an expectation on anyone concerned with the implementation of this Act, whether at national or local level, to consult in areas where persons have a direct concern with various members of the partnership. This matter was discussed on Committee Stage and the Minister expressed some sympathy with the idea of recognising the right of consultation not only at national level as and when the Minister decides. He acknowledged that there was a legitimate expectation that there will be consultation at local level when decisions are taken which would materially affect a group of parents or pupils or the wider community. This was discussed on Committee Stage but was not finalised. I thought the Minister would introduce some concept of this matter in a Report Stage amendment.
I have done so in amendment No. 52.
Amendment No. 52 refers to parents' associations in schools.
It introduces some element of local consultation.
I will listen to what the Minister has to say when he addresses his amendment. We need to push the notion of partnership. Decisions arise at times which have a significant impact on a community and there is a legitimate expectation that the community would have the opportunity to consult and not necessarily only with the Minister. However, with the abolition of regional boards which I am sure Deputy O'Shea will point out, the Minister stands in the breach for almost everything because there is no delegation of authority to local level. There is an expectation of consultation at local level and that is why the amendment was tabled. I await with interest the Minister's and Deputy O'Shea's contribution on this issue.
The amendment is very broad in terms of the obligations it would place on any Minister with regard to consultation. One of the issues raised on Committee Stage was the desirability of the Minister to consult at local level. Amendment No. 52 attempts to address that issue and it meets Deputy O'Shea's amendments Nos. 51 and 56 in terms of inserting "local" after "national" in amendment No. 51 and "parents' associations in schools" after "parents," in amendment No. 52. The issue raised on Committee Stage was that if we consult only with national parents' associations, certain local parents' associations may not have their voices heard or may be squeezed out and there could be disputes between a parents' association and the national bodies and that we should include a provision which would facilitate the Minister in consulting with local parents' associations. I intend to meet that concern in amendment No. 52. I do not accept Deputy Sargent's amendment No. 54.
I have difficulty accepting amendment No. 53 and I articulated the reason on Committee Stage. It is not practical to place a statutory obligation on the Minister to consult with students as proposed in amendment No. 53. What mechanisms would one put forward to facilitate such consultation with second level students? We do not have student or representative bodies at second level. In an historic step section 27 provides for specific liaison with students in an individual school setting. We consult widely. A Minister should consult local communities depending on the circumstances that arise from time to time, but it is undesirable to place a broad sweeping statutory obligation on him or her which could lead to many practical implementation difficulties in terms of decision making in the future. I am satisfied the Bill is progressive in terms of the consultative process outlined in it, particularly with the partners in education.
I have argued throughout the debate on this Bill that the implementation of education policy at regional or local level should be in the hands of a local or regional authority on the basis that devolution of education from Marlborough Street is desirable and very much in the interests of delivering a more streamlined product to the various students. I have no difficulty with the essence of Deputy Bruton's argument. He does not go down the road of particular models such as local or regional authorities.
The amendment is not effectively formalised but I support the essence of what is being sought and see a great deal of merit in it. The Minister is including parents' associations and schools and that gets us over the difficulty in regard to local consultation. I am happy to withdraw my amendment in favour of his. I have strong views on consultation with organisations which represent the disabled but he has not sought to add them to his list of bodies which should be consulted under the terms of his functions.
Amendment No. 56 seeks to delete the term "special education needs as the Minister considers appropriate". This refers to groups of persons who have a special interest in or experience of the education of students with special education needs. The reason I am seeking to remove that is that the people he described could be from the Department, for instance. That is not a reflection on them, but there are aspects of disabilities which only those who have them fully understand. I am primarily talking about physical and sensory disabilities. That type of consultation is necessary in this regard.
Consultation with groups of persons which have a special interest in or experience of the education of students is too narrow. Education is one aspect of consultation and the support of people participating in education is another issue that should be addressed in all the various consultations in which the Minister is involved.
Amendment No. 56 seeks to delete lines 30 and 31 on page 11 and the reference to special education needs. The previous sentence states: "make all reasonable efforts to consult with patrons, national associations of parents, recognised school management organisations. .including persons or groups of persons who have a special interest in, or experience of, the education of students with." If I remove "special education needs" and insert "national education policy and local regional education issues the Minister considers appropriate" the paragraph will not gel.
Is there a problem with the terminology rather than the concept?
It does not fit. It could not be included as it would render the entire paragraph meaningless. If it takes out my phrase and inserts what the Deputy suggests we will have a meaningless paragraph.
Essentially I want local and regional education issues to become part of the consultation process. Obviously in that context special education needs will be included. I accept the Minister's point. There is a possibility of better drafting. My basic concern is that the various support groups for people with a range of disabilities get a clear message that their input and comment is welcome in the consultation process. It is important because, as the Minister will be aware, people feel alienated from the system in many cases.
Local educational issues should not get lost, whatever is peculiar to particular areas. It is against that background I am seeking an amendment. There probably is not a great deal between the three of us in this regard. Consultation should be formalised through regional or local authorities which include people representing various areas with the clout and ability to make decisions. I welcome the changes in terms of parents' associations and schools, but I am not satisfied that the formula used is sufficiently inclusive. We are not dealing with something that is mandatory. Nobody will come back and say that the Minister did not consult with X or Y. All organisations should be welcomed and facilitated in making their views known. That is all this section will amount to at the end of the day. It does not impose mandatory obligations on the Minister regarding consultation. It just seeks in umbrella fashion, to include the various areas that are part of the communitywide partnership in education.
The definition set out in paragraph (b) is meant to be all inclusive. If the Deputy is anxious that we should include the word "local" in respect of those representing children with special needs, I will consider that before the Bill goes to the Seanad. I cannot accept amendment No. 56 as worded because it would be a meaningless paragraph and would not gel with the language in the Bill. I am anxious to ensure people have access to the Department, that consultation is two-way and not exclusive at all times to national bodies. I will try to work that into the Bill, particularly in the context of children with special needs. We are already doing that. I have met groups representing children with special needs and local bodies throughout the country. I do not see any difficulty in reflecting that in the Bill.
I move amendment No. 50:
In page 11, line 23, before "make" to insert "shall".
I move amendment No. 52:
In page 11, line 24, after "parents," to insert "parents' associations in schools,".
We now come to amendment No. 57, amendment No. 58 is related and, therefore, amendments Nos. 57 and 58 can be taken together.
I move amendment No. 57:
In page 11, between lines 31 and 32, to insert the following:
"(c) shall appoint an Appeals Committee to investigate complaints of persons directly affected regarding the provision of education or support services, and report thereon to the Minister.".
The Minister will recall this matter generated a degree of heat on Committee Stage because many of us were incensed at the Minister of State's description of the National Parents Council as looking for a charter for busy bodies. He accused it of carrying out a blinkered campaign of opposition to the education Bill. That was in the context of the National Parents Council expressing legitimate concerns that the extent to which the right of appeal would be afforded to parents under the Bill is restricted. Deputy O'Shea tabled a similar amendment on Committee Stage. This amendment goes a significant way towards correcting a deficiency in the Bill. The Bill primarily provides for rights of appeal for parents in respect of issues within the school, but it restricts them to matters such as suspensions.
When the Minister is taking on responsibilities in regard to parents and children, it is important that parents have an opportunity to make complaints. That is what these amendments seek to achieve. In other words, parents should have a right to question whether the Minister has ensured the educational needs of their children have been identified and provided for. That is a fundamental issue. When the Minister was on this side of the House he never tired of telling us it was unfair that parents had to go to court to establish their rights in regard to educational provision. If he does not accede to this type of amendment, he will maintain that position in respect of the new responsibilities he has made explicit in this Bill. Parents will want to challenge whether the educational needs of their children have been properly provided for. The right of a citizen before the bar of the education system must be properly asserted. That is an important principle. The Minister will have statutory duties following the passage of this Bill and people who feel he is not delivering on them should not be forced to go to court to contest their entitlements. An appeals committee that could handle these matters in a non-legalistic way would be the best course of action.
On Committee Stage the Minister said the Ombudsman's Act was a perfect vehicle for parents who wished to raise this type of issue, but it is not equipped to deal with whether proper services are being provided for children with special needs. There is a need for an appeals committee that would be informal in relation to its remit as is the case in regard to the Ombudsman's remit, which primarily relates to maladministration rather than the provision of services. Under existing legislation the Ombudsman cannot question policies a Minister may put in place in relation to provisions. This Bill goes further because it sets out the statutory rights of parents on which the Minister is obliged to deliver. This is an important issue. Deputy O'Shea tabled a similar amendment on Committee Stage and argued articulately in favour of this matter. I was pleased to table a similar amendment on Report Stage because it underlines important principles related to this Bill. I am sure this debate will not generate the same heat as the previous debate when the comments of Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, were fresh in our minds and we had the cuttings in our hands. I hope in the meantime the Minister has reflected on this and has seen the wisdom of the approach advocated by this side of the House. I look forward to the inclusion of this provision in the Bill because it would be an important improvement that would be accepted by all Members.
Deputy Bruton dealt with some of the points I intended to raise. I am alarmed at the number of parents of children with special needs who believe there is inadequate educational provision for their children. I have heard of many more children suffering from dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit syndrome than heretofore. Parents may contact their local Deputy or councillor or write to the Minister in this regard, but I know from my experience of writing to the Department that an acknowledgment is issued, but it may take some time before a reply is issued. While the reply will give accurate information, it does not always address people's concerns or alleviate the distress they may suffer. I understand a recent court decision ruled that if six students in a county are diagnosed as autistic a special unit must be provided for them. Will similar court decisions be made in respect of cases brought by the parents of children who suffer from other conditions? This is terribly wasteful. The human factor is the most important in terms of the distress caused to parents who must pursue this role. Another aspect is that parents who have children with similar disabilities are watching other parents go through the process, hoping that they will be successful but, ultimately, feeling alienated.
Appeals systems are a safety valve and provide for inclusiveness. Rather than parents corresponding and waiting a long time for a reply, an appeals committee should exist to examine the provision in a particular area. The use of the word "area" was debated, but I do not consider that it necessarily involves a geographical area, rather the area of provision.
Recently we have become much more aware of Asberger's Syndrome where people with autism are high performers, although there is a large deficit in social skills. I am not an expert in terms of how that can be addressed, but with early diagnosis and proper intervention, the quality of life of people with the syndrome could be improved. In terms of educational disadvantage, the models in Ireland have tended to be geographical. However, disadvantage can appear in many settings and areas and for different reasons.
If parents or students feel a certain provision should be made in an area and that certain types of education are provided in what appears to be a discriminatory manner in different parts of the country, people should have the opportunity to make an appeal and, more importantly, to get the full picture of what is happening. They should have the opportunity of being told in a forthright and truthful manner the options available in terms of the provision of the service in the short to medium term or if there is a realistic prospect of the service being provided at all.
I am not sure what is coming through to the Department in terms of the expanded psychological service. I am not sure that the same level of the conditions to which I referred earlier is apparent in the assessments carried out by educational psychologists attached to the Department of Education and Science. However, people who cannot afford it are going to private sources to get a diagnosis and then paying for private tuition to meet the difficulties.
I am aware of cases where more than one member of a family has been diagnosed with a condition. It appears that the necessary back up is not available from the Department. I am not criticising the Department, rather describing the position as I find it. An appeals committee would rapidly link people to the Department in terms of the difficulty and ensure an explanation of how it may be addressed can be provided. This is an important step forward. My concern is inclusiveness. Some vehicle or clearing house must be put in place to ensure that people with deep grievances do not spend many years pursuing a particular type of education that is not forthcoming.
I listened with interest to Deputy O'Shea's contribution because it focused directly on special needs. I have considerable sympathy for this area and I am aware of the various categories mentioned by the Deputy, such as dyslexia, Asberger's Syndrome, attention deficit disorder and dyspraxia. If the Deputy is willing I am interested in exploring the matter in terms of the Department's customer services document under the SMI and the establishment of such a committee in respect of special needs.
The amendment as phrased is very broad and could be open ended. I am not sure whether Deputy Bruton's amendment relates to the appeals process in the Bill which deals with specific areas.
No, it is school based. This amendment is outside it.
I am interested in examining the scenario because an appeals committee in this context could be also useful to the Department. Many of the disputes which arise, for example, with regard to autism, are due to the lack of indigenous research. There are many different views on the best educational programmes for children with autism. Some parents have strong views on the method of teaching such children at an early age through the established routes. An appeals committee, although I am not sure that is the correct title, could help.
In the context of special needs I am very interested in developing a body that could act as an independent assessment of needs and whether the Department is meeting them. I am not prepared to incorporate the amendments as they stand in the Bill. However, I will discuss with the Deputy the prospect of setting up an appeals committee in the context of special needs education. It could start there because there are many unsatisfactory situations in that area which I inherited and with which I am not happy. There are historic reasons for the current position but the Deputy's proposal has considerable merit.
We had a lengthy debate about this matter on Committee Stage. It is not fair for the Minister to portray this as a new proposal or a surprise. It was always the intention that this would be an opportunity for parents to appeal if they felt aggrieved about the provision in relation to the Minister's statutory obligations.
It is very wide.
I accept it is wide but at this point in the debate——
We have not had consultations.
The Minister on the last occasion defended the decision not to have the mechanism on the grounds that the Ombudsman was adequate. I and Deputy O'Shea pointed out that the Ombudsman has nothing to do with this type of issue.
The Ombudsman intervened on a number of occasions and his recommendations resulted in improvements to services, particularly in the transport area.
That is the case, but it demonstrates the huge vacuum that exists when the Ombudsman, whose remit is not in this area, was able to utilise his legislation creatively to deal with a problem for a particular family. A tailor made mechanism is required to deal with the type of grievances which will arise.
The Minister is courageous and I take off my hat to him. He started off by saying that schools had responsibility for providing for the children. He made a significant change when he said he recognised that this responsibility could not be shunted down to the schools and it was his responsibility as Minister. However, the appeal mechanism only relates to school level. The notion of appeal at this level is important. While I am encouraged to note that the Minister is like Saul on the road to Damascus and has seen the light, it is not an adequate response to the serious debate on Committee Stage to state that perhaps something will be done afterwards. This continues to be a serious matter on Report Stage. I am not willing to withdraw the amendment on a wing and a prayer in the hope that at some stage the Minister may take the view that this is a good thing to do. This is fundamental to citizens' rights.