Last week when I spoke on this Bill I mentioned a number of points, one of which related to the restrictive nature of chronological age specified in the Bill, which will only apply to persons not more than 18 years of age. As I am sure the Minister is aware, many people with a disability start school at a later age and in many cases their development takes longer. While it is difficult, chronological age may not be the most appropriate measure and I ask the Minister to reconsider this. On reaching the age of 18 and having rightfully had special support, a child with a special educational need will now have to reconsider his or her position and may have to leave the school even though he or she might not be ready to leave.
I also spoke about the advocacy need of parents. In many other countries an advocacy service is established in conjunction with legislation such as this so that parents can have access to professional support when meeting psychologists, principals and so on, which can be intimidating. That is something the Minister should look at and try to include in the Bill. This came up regularly at the committee hearings. Many of the groups were looking for this and I believe it is useful.
While pre-school is considered the responsibility of the Department of Health and Children, it is an area that needs to be looked at because the greatest impact will be achieved at the earliest point of intervention. It is something that needs to be fleshed out and clarified.
I spoke last week about the extra pressure on principals as a result of this legislation. Principals are concerned about their increasing workload. We have had the Education Act and the Education (Welfare) Act. Now there is this Education for Persons With Disabilities Bill 2003. They are all welcome and necessary, but the workload on principals is enormous. In some instances schools find it difficult to recruit principals and people are shying away from the role. Perhaps the Minister will have a look at that in the context of this Bill to see how he can give principals more support. I know the special education needs officers, SENOs, will be there to help. We need to look at the relationship between SENOs, principals and schools to see how some of this pressure may be alleviated.
At the heart of the Bill is the problem of definition and the issue of disability. Perhaps we need to move on and not use the word "disability". We should look at the educational need of children and students. The title, Education for Persons With Disabilities Bill 2003, assumes that people with disabilities have educational needs that are different from others, and not all of them have. Not everyone with a disability has a special educational need. The Minister might consider changing the title and therefore the whole thrust of the Bill and instead call it the education for persons with special needs Bill 2003. To concentrate on the needs rather than the disability of the students would change the whole focus of the Bill. It would also mean other changes. The definition of a "child with special educational needs" is a child who has an educational disability. That is clumsy, flawed and dangerous. If we change the way of thinking about special needs, all the definitions must be altered to take account of that.
"Educational disability" in relation to a child is defined as a restriction in his or her capacity to participate in and benefit from education on account of an enduring physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual impairment. I have a problem with the two words "enduring" and "impairment". I realise that we should, perhaps, be debating this on Committee Stage rather than now, but this is crucial to the overall underpinning and philosophy of this Bill. The use of "impairment" is outdated terminology, and I respectfully suggest the Minister removes it and replaces it with "educational difficulties of an exceptional nature" or something to that effect. A person may have a physical impairment, but it is not possible to say that someone with an intellectual disability has an impairment. I do not think one can say that, as such, because the continuum is profound in its scope. It is insulting to say to someone, "You are impaired". To have a need and to present that as being impaired is a misuse of language, and that needs to be changed because it is basically flawed.
There is the term "integrated education" in section 2. That is used as the heading, but it is not used in the section. The section states: "The provision of education to a child with special educational needs shall take place alongside the provision. . . . " I do not know what "alongside" means and would prefer to see the term "inclusive education" used. That would be more respectful. If that term was used, the wording of the section would need to be looked at. The word "alongside" implies separateness. The child is in the classroom, maybe, but "alongside" is a term that should be avoided.
Section 2(b) refers to an issue with which many colleagues have difficulty. It states: “the effective provision of education for children with whom the child is to be educated.” That means that if children who have not got special educational needs are to be affected in some way by being in the same classroom, it is the child with the special educational needs who has to be removed. The Bill does not say who is to take that decision. It does not specify how it is to be done or what is to happen to the child with a special educational need. That is open to all sorts of challenges and difficulties. Principals and teachers will have different levels of tolerance, and support. In one school the teacher might appeal to the principal on the grounds that a child with special educational needs is seen to be affecting the education of the other children while in another school that might not happen.
That section should be considered by the Minister because we are again treating the child with a special educational need as the victim. In effect, we are saying not just that the child has a problem, but that he or she is the problem. I said last week we should get away from the idea that the person with disability has a problem, or is a problem. That is fundamental to disability legislation. Such thinking is out of date, and it is worrying to find it implicitly in this Bill. Thinking of this kind needs to be brought up to date by all of us when dealing with this legislation.
Section 5(1)(b)(i) refers to “a psychologist”, but there is no definition of psychologist. There are all kinds of psychologists, industrial, educational, clinical psychologists and so on. We are talking about children with special educational needs and the psychologist referred to should have knowledge and experience of children with special educational needs as well as training in that area. We need to define “psychologist” so that it is clear that a qualification in special needs education is necessary.
Section 5(1)(b)(v) refers to “a therapist who is suitably qualified to provide support services in respect of a child.” I suggest we should insert “in respect of the needs of a child” rather than “in respect of a child”. Once again it is necessary to focus on the needs of the child. The provision indicates that the child is the problem, and we need to get away from that.
Section 4(6) states "An assessment for the purposes of this section shall include an evaluation and statement of the nature and extent of the child's disability". Why do we need that? Surely it is the needs of the child that should be focused on, rather than insisting that the child is or has a problem, and writing it down. The needs and resources must be focused on there.
Section 5(4) states: "An assessment undersection 3 or 4 shall be carried out in a manner which conforms to such standards as may from time to time be determined by a prescribed body”. What is the prescribed body? I assume the reference is to the Psychological Society of Ireland but I do not know. This needs to be fleshed out. The subsection continues: “that is to say, a body standing prescribed by regulations made by the Minister for Health and Children for the purposes of its determining the standards that assessments under those sections must conform to.” Again, we need to know a little more about what that is.
Section 19 refers to membership of the national council for special education. The council is a welcome development. The Bill states that the council shall consist of a specified number of people. Before making appointments to the council, the Minister will, laudably, consult national associations of parents, which I welcome, trade unions, staff associations representing teachers and principals, and recognised school management associations. It strikes me as odd that the Minister is not required to consult anybody who has expertise in this area. There is no requirement to consult the Psychological Society of Ireland, speech therapists, occupational therapists or other people who may have expertise in the area. The Minister should take this into account and amend the Bill.
Section 20 refers to the consultative forum, which is welcome. It is a good idea. Section 20(4)(f) refers to “such other persons having a special interest in or knowledge relating to the education of children with disabilities as the Council considers appropriate.” That is somewhat vague and could be firmed up. The Minister should re-examine this paragraph.
Much reference has been made to the educational needs of children, which is what the Bill should address rather than disabilities, as such. I thank the Minister for his reply to a parliamentary question which I submitted to him on this matter. He clarified that children with problems resulting from dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADD, ADHD and so on would be covered by the legislation. I welcome this and urge the Minister to ensure it will happen. It should be explicitly stated in the legislation. Changing the thrust of the Bill to focus on need rather than disability would benefit children with dyslexia or other learning difficulty.
The qualification of teachers working with children with special educational needs is an issue of concern which the proposed legislation should address. This is similar to the definition of a psychologist. Almost anybody can say that he or she is a teacher.
I welcome the Bill and look forward to the Committee Stage debate. I again congratulate the Minister on bringing it forward. It is important legislation which will affect children with special needs and their parents. All of us in the House want to do the best we can for these children. With the Fine Gael Party, I will work as hard as I can to ensure that the best possible legislation will emerge at the end of the process.