I welcome this timely and forward-thinking Bill and congratulate the Minister and his Department on introducing it. Focus on disability has never been so acute or accentuated in this Year of the Disabled.
Educational disability, intellectual or physical, has been neglected for far too long. The Government is playing catch-up on an issue swept under the carpet for decades. The debate on disability began to emerge in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Great credit is due to the voluntary groups which were the first to hone in on the disabled and those with special needs. To this day, facts continue to emerge. CoAction West Cork, once a voluntary group, is doing excellent work with young people. It recently purchased property with a view to catering for ten clients. When the facility opened, another 16 people, who had been neglected and hidden away for many years, came out of the woodwork. The facility now caters for 26 people.
Voluntary groups have done a great deal of work in the background. Often they get involved when it is too late. We need to acknowledge that fact. I laud those, be it COPE in Cork or the Brothers of Charity in Killarney, who do excellent work in this area. CoAction West Cork which deals with children and adults is of tremendous importance in that it deals with areas almost 100 miles from the major population centres such as Cork city. We must all acknowledge that the State neglected this area for decades. Successive Governments neglected it during the years. In the 1980s this debate took off but it was not until the 1990s that any Government really did anything about it.
In fairness, credit is due to the last Fianna Fáil-led Government, since substantial progress has been made in the area over the last five or six years. I will quote a fact that I obtained through my research, which may originally have been quoted in the Minister's speech. Since 1998, the number of special resource teachers catering for children in ordinary schools has increased from 104 to more than 2,300, a phenomenal achievement in such a short space of time. At the same time, the number of full or part-time special needs assistants in the system has grown from fewer than 300 to almost 5,000. That is progress evident at first hand, particularly in some of the more remote parts of rural Ireland.
Having said that, there is still a long road to travel. It is like climbing a mountain. The State, in the shape of the Department and the Government, is moving up it through realising that there is a problem. However, the summit has not been reached, and there is a long way to go. I acknowledge this, whether through financial support, more Government action, or whatever. This legislation is timely – some might argue that is has come not before time. It opens windows of opportunity to those who have suffered disadvantage. I have lauded voluntary groups, the Government and the State for eventually recognising these problems.
The greatest single tribute that can be paid, which we must not forget and which is mentioned in the Bill, goes to the parents of the disabled, particularly young disabled people. The parent or parents must deal with this from the cradle to the grave. It is a lifelong service of dedication, not simply an eight or ten hour day, five days a week. It is a 24 hour service provided by the parent seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. In other words, the parent is involved 365 days a year. This should be recognised.
The Bill says it deals with the education plan. The interpretation section says "a child" means a person not less than three years of age and not more than 18 years of age. Despite some criticism, this is a sensible provision, because one can never, either for the able or the disadvantaged, plan for someone indefinitely into the adult future. If the problem is tackled at the earlier stages, either at crèches or primary schools, much can be done. It was not tackled in the past, instead being neglected.
Section 2 refers to an integrated education plan for the child while section 3 covers its preparation, whereby the onus is placed on the school principal to implement it. We must acknowledge the significant respect and status attaching to national schools, with the principal obliged under the Bill, first, to recognise the problem and then put the wheels of such an integrated plan into motion.
According to section 3, when the principal of the school has taken the measures referred to, if in his or her opinion the student concerned is still not benefiting from the education programme provided, he or she, after consultation with the parents of the student, is to arrange for an assessment of the student to be carried out. That assessment, if currently in place, is not regular or right across the board but it is a crucial mainstay of the integrated education approach.
The Bill goes on, in section 3 but particularly section 17, to refer to the setting up of the national council for special education. Once again, this is a huge step towards resolving the problems we have encountered during the decades. It must be lauded as an excellent way of tackling and monitoring the problems of children with disabilities.
Section 4 goes on to say that, where the relevant health board is of the view or opinion that a child or student may have an educational disability, it is to cause an assessment of that child to be carried out. This is also critical, since one is starting off with the identification of the problem by the principal, the parent, or both in a combined effort. The principal puts the wheels in motion, and the assessment is dealt with by the council in a manner which it is important to recognise and laud.
Section 5 is of some concern to me. It deals with the mode of assessment under sections 3 and 4. It reads:
5.–(1) An assessment undersection 3 or 4 shall be carried out with the assistance of persons possessing such expertise as–
(a) the health board or the Council, or
(b) in the case of an assessment under section 3, the principal, having had regard to any guidelines referred in subsection (3) of that section,
considers appropriate; those persons may, in the discretion of the board, Council or principal, include one or more of the following:
(i) a psychologist;
(ii) a medical practitioner;
(iii) the principal of the school which the child is attending or a teacher of that school nominated by the principal;
(iv) an appropriately qualified social worker; and
(v) a therapist who is suitably qualified to provide support services in respect of a child.
I hope the Minister will see this as constructive criticism. Going back to the whole cornerstone of the debate on the Bill, I fail to see the reason the parent or guardian is not included in the list. It strikes me as unusual, having regard to the prime, basic role of the parent or guardian in the process, that he or she is not included under section 5. I ask the Minister to dispel my doubts in that regard by giving sufficient reason the parent or guardian of the child is not encapsulated in the process.
Another important aspect of the development of the special needs child is the laying down of an education plan as set out under section 8. This is an excellent approach. For far too long, going back probably less than a decade, someone with a learning difficulty was placed at the back of the class or in the corner and neglected. This legislation proposes that a special plan covering a wide range of needs and assessing the abilities, skills and talents of the child be put in place, I hope at a very early age. I certainly welcome this, as I hope others will. It looks at, "the nature and degree of the child's educational disability and how that disability affects his or her educational progress". The plan will refer to his or her day-to-day life. It will examine the current performance of the child, as well as his or her special educational needs.
Section 8(2)(f) refers to, “the special education and related support services to be provided to the child to enable the child to effectively make the transition from primary school education to post-primary school education”. This is a critical factor. My experience is that those people in my age group with learning disabilities or special educational needs struggled through primary school. When they had to progress to secondary school, they got lost or were abandoned. This process is a very important factor in keeping such people in the education system until the age of 18. This is to be welcomed because, historically, persons with disabilities who received a primary school education – many such persons did not receive that level of education – did not go any further, other than in exceptional cases. This is very important.
Section 9 of the Bill mentions the designation of schools to be attended by children with special educational needs. Deputy Naughten mentioned that every school should have this facility, but I am not sure if that is possible. If one examines those areas of rural Ireland, such as west Cork, where parishes are peripheral and spread out, one finds that national schools struggle to meet the quota of 25 or 30 pupils needed to survive. I welcome the fact that certain schools are to be designated, but it does not seem likely that every school can be designated. The demographics of rural Ireland should be taken into account. The special designated schools should be reasonably accessible to people in all parts of the country.
The Bill also sets out the duties and responsibilities of the Minister for Health and Children in this regard. I am subject to correction, but I think this is the first time that such duties have been clearly set out in order to support the provisions of Article 42 of the Constitution. The Bill imposes a statutory duty on the Minister of the day to ensure that the regulations and the system are effectively controlled and monitored.
I am Chairman of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, which will embark in February 2004, if not sooner, on an examination of the constitutional rights of people with disabilities. This has never been done before and we have agreed to give it priority in the new year. The Taoiseach suggested to me some time ago that the committee could examine this area. We would have done so already were it not for the fact that we have been examining the issue of property rights. We will conclude our consideration of that matter early in the new year. I am looking forward to the challenge that will be presented by the assessment of the constitutional rights of people with disabilities.
The Bill places the duties of schools in a statutory framework. My experience is that school principals have been to the forefront, over the last ten or 15 years, in recognising the difficulties faced by children with special problems. Together with parents, principals have pointed out the problems that such children face. They have brought the matter to the attention of those who can help. As far as I am aware, that duty has not been enshrined in statute in such clear and succinct terms until now.
Section 14 of the Bill deals with planning for future educational needs, which is important. Although this Bill places an onus on the State to provide special education for children under the age of 18, I believe that the section relating to future planning goes beyond that. I think my understanding of this matter is correct and I invite the Minister to comment on it in his response. This section of the Bill deals with the development of the person from childhood to adulthood.
I have made about half of the points I intended to make, but I cannot continue as I have time constraints. I would like to broadly welcome this important legislation, which represents a brave step forward. It will create challenges for the Government, particularly for the Minister concerned. It will create huge challenges for the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, and his successors. A great deal of money has been invested in this area in recent years. Future Deputies will have to deal with the growth in expenditure in this area. Perhaps the financial nature of this issue is secondary to the debate but, as I said earlier, the summit of this problem has not yet been reached.