I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I will begin with a quotation:
Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.
These words are as true today as when spoken by President John F. Kennedy over 40 years ago. While they apply to each of us, they have particular resonance for children with disabilities, who are at risk of being marginalised and suffering disadvantage because of their special educational needs. In the past, our education system focused primarily on the majority of children who do not have these needs. While resources were provided for those with disabilities, sufficient attention was not given to special education. Lack of resources, poor planning and a disconnection in the provision of services all combined to act to the detriment of the child with special educational needs.
That position has changed utterly since 1997. This Government has brought about a quantum leap in the level and method of response to children with special educational needs. In 1998, the Government embarked on a programme of funding designed to provide a more responsive environment to children with special needs and their parents. In October of that year, the Government decided that all primary school children with disabilities would have an automatic entitlement to a response to their needs. This led directly to the number of special resource teachers catering for children in ordinary schools increasing from 104 to more than 2,300. In the same time, the number of special needs assistants in the system has grown from less than 300 to almost 5,500 full and part-time positions.
In September 1999, the learning support teacher service was extended to every primary and post-primary school in the country. As a result, the number of learning support teachers in primary schools has grown from 1,242 in September 1997 to 1,531 today. Since then, pupil-teacher ratios in special schools and classes have been reduced to meet the recommendations of the special education review committee.
The nature and level of the educational response is based on the professionally assessed needs of each individual child. While my policy is to promote the inclusion of pupils with special needs in ordinary mainstream schools, those who have been assessed as having special educational needs have access to a variety of special support services. Those services range from special schools dedicated to particular disability groups, through special classes and units attached to ordinary schools, to placement on an inclusive basis in ordinary schools with special back-up supports. The response will normally take the form of resource teacher or special needs assistant support or both, depending on the level of need involved.
In some cases, the level of special need involved may be such as to require placement in a special class attached to a mainstream school. The number of special classes has grown from 350 in 1998 to more than 500 currently. Each class is dedicated to a particular disability category and operates at a significantly reduced pupil-teacher ratio. Pupils attending these classes also attract specially increased rates of capitation funding. To take one example, since October 1998 over 120 dedicated special classes have been established to meet the needs of children with autism. With a maximum class size of six and the support of a teacher and two special needs assistants, these classes recognise the emotional needs of autistic children. A nationwide pre-school service and education programmes to extend the school year for children with autism have been developed in the past year.
Children with special needs attending mainstream schools may also require access to special equipment to assist them in their education. The funding allocation in this area has grown from €671,000 in 1998 to a current annual figure of €3.2 million. In addition, in the last four years, funding has been made available to allow for the appointment of escorts on every school transport service for special schools and classes.
It is essential that we offer equal educational opportunities to all. We must ensure that all children are given the opportunity to give expression to their private hopes and dreams. It is for this reason I wish to bring this Bill before the House. The right of people with special needs to equal treatment is already provided for in legislation such as the Equal Status Act and the Education Act. This Bill goes further by providing for a structure which will guarantee the rights of children to the greatest possible extent and ensure that parents are central to their child's development at every step of the process. It sets out a range of services which must be provided, including assessments, individual education plans and support services and provides for a process of mediation and appeals where these needs are not met. The Bill establishes the National Council for Special Education, through which the Bill, as enacted, will be given effect.
One of the primary features of my proposals is the principle of inclusive education for as many children with educational disabilities as practicable. The education of children with special educational needs alongside those who do not have such needs has long been Government policy. This Bill gives voice to that policy. Section 2 provides that a child with special needs will be educated in an inclusive setting, unless this would not be in the best interests of the child or the effective provision of education for other children in the mainstream environment. In doing so, the Bill protects the best interests of the children concerned, who can best grow and develop in the company of their peer group.
The drawing up of education plans tailored to meet the educational needs of children with special educational needs is a key provision of this Bill. Through that planning process, disabilities can be identified, needs assessed, goals decided upon and progress monitored. I am deeply aware of the enormous efforts made by educational professionals in schools up and down the country, every day, in meeting a huge range of diverse needs. I am also conscious that, where possible, the best person to co-ordinate an education plan for children is their school principal. Under section 3 of the Bill, where a school principal believes that a child is not benefiting from the regular education programme he or she must take measures to meet the child's educational needs. If these measures do not meet the child's needs, the principal must consult with the parents and arrange for an assessment of the child. The National Council for Special Education will assist by putting in place guidelines as to how this assessment should be carried out.
Importantly, the Bill provides for strict time limits in relation to assessments and education plans. An assessment arranged by a principal must be carried out as soon as possible, but no later than three months from the time the princi pal formed his or her opinion about the child. Where an assessment establishes that a child has an educational disability, the principal must ensure an individual education plan is prepared within one month. In preparing the plan, the parents, special educational needs organiser and any other relevant person must be consulted.
It is intended that a school should draw up the plan where the child's needs are relatively uncomplicated, but section 7 of the Bill provides for a more formal planning process to be undertaken by the National Council for Special Education for children whose needs are more complex. In the case of a plan prepared by the council, a special educational needs organiser will convene a team of people which must include the child's parents and may also involve the child, school principal and a psychologist. While the plan focuses on educational needs, it also must have regard to any other needs identified in the child's assessment and must be consistent with those needs.
Section 10 requires education plans to be reviewed at regular intervals. Schools will have the primary responsibility for this and will report on it to the child's parents and the council. If the special educational needs organiser takes the view that the child is significantly failing to achieve the goals in the plan, the team may be reconvened to review and, where necessary, amend the plan.
In preparing or reviewing a plan, the school or special educational needs organiser must have regard to the educational provision which will be required for the child on his or her becoming an adult and must take steps to enable the child to progress to further education and training. Where this occurs in relation to a child who will turn 18 in the following year, an assessment must be made of how he or she has achieved his or her goals. If those goals have not been met, the effect of this on the child's development will be assessed and, where appropriate, measures will be included in the plan to address those effects. Parents may also seek a review of the plan in certain circumstances. If this request is denied, they can appeal that decision to the council.
The implementation of education plans will require considerable resources to be invested in special education. Section 12 of the Bill creates a statutory duty on the Ministers for Education and Science and Health and Children to make those resources available. All spending is subject to the availability of resources and the agreement of the Minister for Finance – that is a political reality. However, in section 12 I have quite deliberately placed emphasis on the fundamental constitutional duty on the State to ensure the equal and fair treatment of all children so that children with special educational needs have the same opportunities as children without disabilities.
The Bill provides for a range of duties for schools in respect of children with special educational needs. Under section 13, a school must respect the principle of inclusive education, ensure that parents are consulted regarding their child's needs and co-operate with the council. Each school must ensure that teachers are aware of the special educational needs of the students and the importance of identifying children with those needs. They must also inculcate in students an awareness of the needs of people with disabilities.
Section 9 confers on the council the power to designate a school which a child with special educational needs is to attend and the school will be obliged to enrol the child. This is aimed at the practice of some schools of seeking to avoid admission of children with educational disabilities. There are appeal mechanisms in this process.
Parents lie at the heart of the assessment and planning process and a vital part of ensuring their rights is the appeals mechanism provided for in the Bill. The Bill gives parents the power to appeal to an independent appeals board against any statement or description of their child's special educational needs or any other statement or description appearing in the education plan which they consider incorrect or inadequate to meet the child's special educational needs. They may also appeal where they believe that there has been a failure to implement an education plan.
Many parents, however, will wish to pursue a less formal approach to a review of decisions. For that reason the Bill provides that the appeals board must ensure that the parties to an appeal are assisted to reach agreement. On hearing an appeal, the appeals board may give directions to the council or a school which it must implement, or it may dismiss the appeal.
The Bill establishes the national council for special education as the body charged with ensuring that the Bill as enacted will be given full effect. Its specific duties include the dissemination to schools and parents of information relating to best practice for the education of children with disabilities and the co-ordination of special education in conjunction with schools and health boards. The council will monitor progress of students with special educational needs and review the resources needed in this area. The council will also review the provision made for adults with disabilities to avail of higher, adult and continuing education. It will have responsibility to conduct research in the area of special education and provide relevant advice and information to me, as Minister. In carrying out its duties, the council will be advised by a consultative forum which will be drawn from the education partners, the National Disability Authority and others who have a special interest or expertise in the education of children with disabilities.
Work on the establishment of the council is already well under way. As Members will be aware, an order under the Education Act has been approved by these Houses to establish the national council on an interim basis until the commencement of the relevant provisions of this Bill. A chief executive officer and a number of staff have already been appointed. The direct service work of the council will be performed by up to 80 special education needs organisers. These posts were recently advertised in the national press. I hope to make a further announcement about the establishment of the council and its first members in the near future.
Clearly it will take time for the council to be in a position to ensure that services are being delivered to those who need them. Section 21 provides for a road map to the implementation this Bill. The council itself will advise me on when and how each part of the jigsaw should be put in place. I am certain that the target time limit of five years from the date of the establishment of the council, while ambitious, is realistic and achievable.
The provision of appropriate education services to children with special educational needs crucially involves close co-operation and co-ordination of activities between education and health authorities. The health boards play a key role in providing support services such as the various therapies which children with disabilities need and also because children and others with disabilities often reside in health board facilities or attend day care services. The Bill is intended to resolve current difficulties regarding co-ordination.
In the case of a school-going child, the council must provide him or her with the services identified in the education plan as being necessary for the child to participate in, and benefit from, education. If the council or health board believe that the other body can provide the services more effectively, it must inform the other body of this and that body must then ensure that provision. If a dispute arises between the council and the health board, this will be resolved by the appeals board.
In addition, section 36 empowers the council to request a health board to take specified actions where it considers this to be necessary for the preparation or implementation of an adequate education plan or, more generally, to assist the council in carrying out its functions. Prior consultation with a health board is required before a request is made to it. A health board must comply with a request unless, in its view, the assistance requested is not necessary, taking the action would not be consistent with its functions or it would not be reasonable to comply having regard to its resources. If the health board decides that it cannot comply with a request of the council then it must state its reasons and the council may appeal the refusal to comply. On hearing an appeal, the appeals board may direct the health board to comply with the request or it may dismiss the appeal.
These provisions bring clarity to the role of the health boards, provide a formal process through which the boards, following consultation with them, can be informed of what is required, and provide a structure for resolving disputes. The beneficiaries of these provisions will be those who rely on the services of the boards to access appropriate education and training services.
This Bill has been some time in the making and is the culmination of a carefully considered policy process. During its preparation we have had the benefit of being able to review the law applying in other jurisdictions and to consult widely over the last 12 months to ensure that this Bill is tailored to address the issues of greatest concern to health and education professionals dealing with disabilities. Parents and voluntary groups have been especially informative in the drafting of this Bill and have been particularly constructive in their approach to it.
The consultation process is ongoing and I will bring forward amendments on Committee Stage to reflect what is being said to me. In particular, I have received a number of representations concerning the position of children with dyslexia and whether that condition comes within the scope of the Bill. I intend to discuss this matter with the Parliamentary Counsel and, if necessary, to bring forward an amendment.
The Bill also reflects the invaluable advice we received from a number of important committees and groups, including the task force on autism and the special education review committee. In its November 2001 report, the task force made a number of recommendations for reform which have a vital bearing on autism, in particular, and on special education in general. Their key proposals are reflected in the Bill.
I look forward to the debate on this legislation in the Houses, which will raise issues of fundamental importance to our society. The purpose is to introduce clear and applicable legislation to ensure educational rights for children with disabilities are respected. I will remain open to constructive criticism and listen carefully to suggestions for improvements as the Bill progresses through this House. All sides of the House are anxious that we get this Bill as right as we possibly can. I will approach this debate in an open and constructive manner. From the discussions at the special education councils, I know the other side of the House will approach this debate in a similar manner.
As I began this speech by quoting one famous American, I will finish by quoting another, the philosopher and educator, John Dewey: "Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is not a preparation for life; Education is life itself." I commend the Bill to the House.