Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill 2003: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

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.

The Bill is a progressive development for equality of opportunity, services and esteem. It aims to develop an education system which gives children with disabilities the same opportunity for personal development through education as is given to those without disabilities.

While none of us would claim that the Bill heralds the end of the journey for equality of service provision, we should celebrate it and recognise it as a real advance in terms of valuing and including people with disabilities and special educational needs in our education system, as of right, for the first time on a statutory basis. This advance, which will be built on and developed, is now irreversible.

There is a clear consensus that we must harness and maximise the opportunities for those with disabilities or special educational needs. This consensus has been building for some time. We have arrived at this stage due to the work of many people – parents, teachers and non-governmental organisations working in this sector which have been strong advocates and persuaders on behalf of these children for many years.

I pay tribute to Angela Kerins, among others, chairwoman of the National Disability Authority, which ably and fairly managed the disability legislation consultation group which received input from eight different NGOs. This legislation honours the principles adopted by the disability legislation consultation group.

Last June the Special Olympics captured a moment in time when the societal consensus about opportunity for people with disabilities was crystallised. It was not just a passing moment of sentiment or sympathy, it was a time when the ability, opportunity, achievement and talent of people with disabilities was demonstrated and celebrated by all. The Special Olympics raised our consciousness about the diversity of ability of people with disabilities. The lasting value of the games for us as policy makers and as a society will be in translating that raised awareness and societal consensus into a new normality.

The job now is to put in place permanent and sustainable ways of organising ourselves to fully reflect the rights and opportunities of people with disabilities, such as the legislative framework, health and education services and the small but pivotal details of physical infrastructure.

The Bill is a building block in this programme of detailed work. We are down to the practical realities of rights, services and redress. I regret it has taken so long to build consensus and bring forward this legislation. We could have acted faster. The Minister deserves credit for his part in progressing to this stage. I regret some of the false dichotomies that have been raised in the theoretical, and at times highly politicised, public argument about a rights-based approach to disabilities legislation.

I support the emphasis on rights for people with disabilities and the way the disability legislation consultation group treated the issue. It is an important way of achieving the sustainable services and social infrastructure we want as a society. Rights involve a principled basis for equality and justice and they only make sense in that context. They do not make sense if they entail superior rights, special rights or discriminatory rights. Rights make sense only if they work and can be validated. We are moving beyond theoretical discussions of rights to practical solutions about the delivery of services. To claim, as some do, that it is a simple and absolute choice between charity or rights does little for practical progress in public policy.

Creating a sense of tension and fundamentalism that this Bill or the disability Bill that is to come must be judged as either win it all or lose it all badly serves people with disabilities and their families. Reasonable people know that it is seldom a matter of all or nothing, black and white, in regard to social and economic rights and services. False choices are being presented and flawed positions are being taken.

Some people are afraid of what lies beyond the present day boundaries of economic and social rights. Others claim we can operate in a world with no limitations on resources and services. Both of these positions are flawed. Is it not more the case that we strive to do our best in a world of limitations and push out the boundaries as far as we can each time? This is the only way to achieve practical progress. From our experience of overseas aid, we know that to argue solely in terms of charity and rights gets us nowhere. We could simply declare that there is a right in poor countries to clean water, food and good government, but who would implement these rights, how would they do it and what resources would they use?

The human right to development is meaningless without long-term sustainable aid programmes in poor countries. Everyone who wants to make a difference in human development in the poorest countries realises that we need specific, well-managed projects to make progress. Without such projects, the promise of a right to development would bring rights themselves into disrepute. We make rights real by applying practical solutions in the real world.

In that context, the Bill represents a significant advance in the vindication of constitutional rights in the education field for people with learning problems and disabilities. It is the largest step forward for many years and it will serve people with disabilities well for years to come.

The Bill will make special needs education a right-enforceable in law. It complements the Constitution which provides that each child is entitled to free primary education which the State has a duty to provide. In future, the State will also have a duty to ensure that each child receives at least a minimum education. The Bill establishes the National Council for Special Education as a new service provision structure. Central to the legislative provisions is the role of parents.

The Bill sets out a range of services which must be provided, including assessments, individual education plans and support services. It also provides for an appeals process, which will include mediation, in cases where needs are not being met. The system of appeal is intended to give parents a quicker, cheaper and more effective route to remedying deficiencies in their child's education. The new system will not prevent parents seeking and obtaining the protection of the courts to ensure the provisions outlined in the legislation are implemented for their child. No existing or future legal avenue to redress is being blocked off, but new rights are being created.

I emphasise the importance in the Bill of the specific timeframes for actions by all relevant players. These include schools, the National Council for Special Education and the appeals board. This provision will ensure that parents see clarity and predictability in the process to meet the educational needs of children with disabilities.

Many parents whose children experience chronic difficulties in their educational development have struggled alone for too long to negotiate help for their children. They have gone from initial assessment and resource allocation to unmet needs and the despair of witnessing the loss of precious educational time as the system failed to deliver for their child. These parents will rejoice that at long last the State is addressing their plight. Too many children have been let down by the education service. They have slipped through the system and opted out of education.

Since 1997, there has been a major injection of resources. The number of special resource teachers catering for children in ordinary schools increased from 104 to 2,300. The number of special needs assistants has grown from fewer than 300 to 5,500 full and part-time positions. The number of learning support teachers in primary schools has grown from 1,242 in 1997 to 1,531 today.

Significant efforts have been made and substantial resources have been provided in a sector in which there was always a feeling that there was a disconnection and a lack of co-ordination of services. The Bill places the programme which meets the educational needs of children with special needs on a new statutory basis. The Minister will accept that it is fundamentally dependent on money. It will be very expensive and it will depend on resources.

In particular, the implementation of education plans on an individual basis will require considerable resources. It will also place considerable and specified responsibilities on school principals. Deputy Stanton referred to this issue. I accept that the provisions of the Bill will add to principals' already considerable workloads but needs will have to be assessed, goals decided upon and progress monitored within a specified timeframe. It is useful and encouraging for parents to be sure that such specified timeframes are in place. I welcome the element of accountability at school level in terms of co-ordinating the education plan for a child. The Bill properly provides for strict time limits in respect of plans. Too many parents have experienced slippage in responses from schools to their children's educational needs and problems.

Section 12 creates a statutory obligation on the Minister for Health and Children and the Minister for Education and Science to make resources available in recognition of the constitutional rights involved. I support the legislation because it pushes out the boundaries of rights and education services for people with disabilities. It fulfils the commitments outlined in the programme for Government to independent assessment, appeals and redress mechanisms in education services.

As the Minister stated, education is a uniquely powerful tool in liberating people's talents. The Bill will ensure that people with learning problems arising from a disability will not be excluded from the wonderful opportunities education provides. The education system has rightly been credited with unleashing talents and leading to unprecedented economic development over the past 15 years. The time has come to facilitate opportunities and remove barriers to educational services for people with disabilities. Sadly, many children have not had the benefit of the Bill's provisions and have not realised their human potential. It must be accepted that it has taken too long to bring forward legislation of this nature.

Failures to make educational interventions can have terrible results for individuals. The child who is not assessed early enough will fail to make critical developments in speech learning and development. Time is of the essence in these interventions. Many parents have despaired as time has passed. They alone as parents knew that their child's needs were not being met as service provision was postponed.

Unfortunately, many parents have been forced into the courts to vindicate their children's rights and that should not have been necessary. Their constitutional rights were clear and the money spent by parents and, futilely, the State to bring and defend these court actions should have been employed to improve services across the board. Thankfully, this approach is now being pursued by the Government. Instead of the appalling and unconscionable situation of parents of people with disabilities pursuing and vindicating rights through the courts, the services they require are being put in place.

Some questions arise about the division of responsibilities among health boards and Department of Education and Science to meet special needs among pre-school children. Early intervention and assessment is vital. It is at this early stage that parents need the most help and support in their interface with the State. Parenting a child with special needs is traumatic enough for a couple without the added burden of fighting terrible bureaucratic battles with the authorities. The burden must shift to the State to vindicate a child's rights as outlined in the Bill. It is in this key area of the shift of burdens to the State from what are in many cases exhausted parents that the effectiveness of the Bill will be judged. It is the job of Members on all sides as legislators to ensure that the provisions of the Bill are delivered.

There is only a small window of opportunity in the education of a child with a learning difficulty or special needs. If mistakes are made or opportunities are missed at critical junctures in a child's development, it can have life altering effects on the individual. Many hundreds of children have been expelled, suspended and, as we know to our shame, brutalised because of learning difficulties which resulted in behavioural problems. We are having to deal with the people involved who are now adults. Their problems stem from the failure to provide for and meet the needs of children with learning problems at a certain time.

The subject of behavioural problems requires serious consideration by schools, the Minister and the Department. Policy makers and parents know from personal experience that boys in particular experience educational difficulties. More boys than girls fall out of the system because of behavioural or educational learning problems. I hope the Bill will provide a structure in which to address the broad issue of educating boys in a manner which protects their emotional lives. The high rate of suicide among adolescent males in particular must be addressed. I can think of no more appropriate way in which to do that than through the education system.

The Bill will provide a new structure and context in which we can examine, analyse and make interventions in the case of children who have difficulties in school, which they need to have addressed in a structured, organised and timely manner.

I welcome the Bill, particularly the statutory framework within which the rights of children with special educational needs are to be acknowledged and provision made for them. I hope the aspiration of a more structured and co-ordinated approach outlined in the Bill will be achieved. The Bill has substantial implications for current practices and procedures within schools and the sphere of interagency co-operation, particularly in the areas of role definition, responsibility and workload.

The INTO and other teachers' organisations have a number of reservations about clear definitions of professional roles, the practical operation of the Bill at school level and ensuring that education and not bureaucracy becomes the overriding priority in regard to children with special educational needs, all of which I share. I am concerned that the definition of "disability" contained in the Bill is different from that contained in the Education Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000, which point has been highlighted by other speakers. However, the Minister has assured us that there will be no exclusion. Nevertheless, it is important the definition is clear in this Bill, which I hope will be corrected on Committee Stage.

In particular, I am concerned that the definition in the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill may be used to exclude some persons from the remit of the Bill, particularly people with specific learning needs and those suffering from conditions affecting emotions, which may result in disturbed behaviour, such as attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It is important these conditions be included in the definition. More and more emotional and behavioural disabilities have appeared in our system, due to family breakdown and other circumstances in the home, with the result that children are experiencing more complex problems. The emotional and behavioural needs of young people have changed considerably, particularly those with special needs, because they need special attention. The Minister should consider the definition of "disability" used in the Education for Persons with Disability Bill 2002, the Education Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000 for use in this Bill.

I welcome the concept of integrated education, which Deputy Stanton argued should be renamed "inclusive education", where the necessary resources are in place to meet the needs of the child and class size is reduced accordingly. The Minister must agree that class sizes must be reduced and resources provided in regard to integrated education if the aspiration is to become a reality. I welcome the statement in the Bill which balances the rights of the child with a disability and the rights of the children with whom that child is to be educated.

In the context of education plans, section 8 of the Bill contains a welcome focus on the abilities of the child. However, if these plans are to increase access to participation in the wider curriculum for children with special educational needs, there is a need for clear agreed guidelines and teacher education on the drawing-up and implementation of such plans; a clear definition of the roles of participants in the process; a collaborative approach as part of the school plan; clearly defined time for planning and review; teaching and learning which do not focus on splinter skills in isolation from wider circumstances; and, most importantly, adequate resources. The recent Education and Youth Work Acts, which were passed by the Oireachtas, have become less effective because no resources were provided. If this Bill is to be effective, such resources must be provided.

There are also professional concerns about the Bill because it places considerable onus on all teachers, particularly principals, in regard to planning for the needs of children with disabilities. The vast majority of primary school principals also have full-time class teaching responsibilities. If further responsibility is to be placed on them in regard to children with special needs, teaching principals will require further release time and other support structures to enable them to carry out these tasks. This is common sense.

Another concern of teachers is that, having gone through a detailed process of consultation and preparation of an education plan, the parent has the right of appeal against the contents but the principal and staff do not. Another issue of serious concern for teachers is the mechanism for a preview of the education plan. Section 10(1) states that the principal shall review, or cause to be reviewed, at regular intervals, but in any case not less than once a year, the operation of each education plan. However, under section 11(4), if parents have reason to believe their child is not achieving the goals specified in the education plan and a review of the plan has not occurred in the previous six months, they may request the principal to do so. If the principal decides not to do so, the parents have the right of appeal to the special education council. The council then has the power to direct the principal to carry out such a review.

Aside from the contradiction in timescale inherent within these provisions, this also has considerable implications for the amount of school time which would be taken up in a constant series of reviews of plans. There are more than 2,300 resource teachers within the mainstream system as well as the number of special schools and classes. Therefore, the bureaucratic implications of teachers being constantly taken up with appeals and reviews has the potential to cause chaos within the system and divert attention away from the very worthy aims of providing the best possible education for children with special needs. I ask the Minister to address this matter in his reply.

The inclusion of section 5(3), which allows the health board or the council to appeal if the parents of a child will not consent to assessment, is welcome. This brings the procedure closer in line with the provisions of the Education (Welfare) Act 2000 and has been welcomed by all Deputies and I welcome it too. The proper implementation of the provisions of this Bill will require considerable investment in immediate and ongoing professional development for all involved to ensure that the plans and procedures outlined in the legislation will be implemented properly. The emphasis has been put on physical resources but the investment in human and professional resources is equally important. There will be a major need for inservice courses and introductions to professionals who will become involved in special needs.

The proposals in this Bill will require a great deal of co-operation within schools and between schools and various agencies. A key aspect of ensuring that the needs of children with special educational needs are met, will involve the role of the special educational needs organiser. There is considerable power and latitude given to the special educational needs organiser within the Bill. It is most important that there is a clear role definition and set of operating procedures and practices in place to avoid any misunderstandings or conflict in this regard.

In view of the difficulties which have occurred in the recruitment and deployment of education welfare officers, it is important that proper procedures for the recruitment and deployment of special educational needs organisers are laid down. It may also help if the special educational needs organisers come from a teaching background, although not necessarily so, in view of the role envisaged in the Bill.

The Bill has considerable implications for the workload of all teachers, in particular principal teachers, regarding the policies and provisions for special educational needs. In the case of teaching principals, considerable further release time needs to be made available to allow them to carry out administrative duties. The point at which an administrative principal post is created in a school also needs to be revised downwards.

I welcome the inclusion of the paragraph in the Bill which confirms that the school will be provided with the necessary moneys and support services in order to prepare and implement the education plans. However, there is concern that the section in the previous Bill which stated that the Minister should provide resources "as are necessary" has been weakened to "resources as are determined by the Minister."

The concept of a designated school, which a child with special needs should attend, must be dependent on the appropriate resources being available in that school. A weighted system where each school has special education support available before the child enrols would best enable schools to meet these needs.

Considerable secretarial and other support will be required in order to ensure that all plans are developed, updated and reviewed as appropriate. Given the emphasis in the Bill on the issue of integration, there will also be capital costs associated with both buildings and equipment in order to ensure proper provision for children with special educational needs. On implementation of this Bill, proper consultation, negotiation and agreement on a partnership basis must take place. It is clear that without proper planning and resources, the worthy aims and aspirations for the education of children with special needs will not be achieved.

I wish to make a few general points concerning integrated or inclusive education. From my experience of working with special needs children some years ago, I found that children with special needs can work comfortably with children in mainstream education, particularly in the areas of art and physical education. They learn a lot from them, considerably improve their self-esteem and build up good friendships.

The Nano Nagle school in Listowel is a good example of integration. It was built on the same site as the primary convent school but while both schools share the site, the building is divided. A similar provision could be made in other parts of the country. I recommend that the successful planning used in that school be used as a prototype in other parts of the country. However, another example of what is happening in the school is not so successful. On Tuesday, I raised a matter on the Adjournment regarding provision for autistic children in the school. While the classroom assistants, a special teacher and equipment were all available, there was no room available in which to carry out the teaching. They were based in a portacabin at the rear of the school. Unless physical resources are provided along with the human resources, learning cannot take place. The group was moved from the portacabin into the school canteen but this deprived seven classes and 66 children of the opportunity to use the canteen. This confirms that without the physical and human resources this Bill will not work.

The Nano Nagle school also has a class for severe and profound special needs. This is conducted in the other prefab at the rear of the building. I pointed out on Tuesday that three of that class must be tube fed and two of the children suffer from severe epilepsy. One child suffers from seizures which can last up to 15 minutes. They are in such a small congested area that although they have the equipment, there could be fatal consequences to this type of seizure on account of the lack of space. While I agree with Deputy O'Donnell that we have made a lot of progress, we still have a long way to go.

I have been reading some of the comments of various interest groups. In a recent article inThe Irish Times the general secretary of the INTO, Mr. John Carr, said that the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill, “isn't worth the paper it is written on without a cast-iron guarantee of resources”. He also expressed dismay that the original Bill has been weakened substantially and is likely not to include children with specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia. He said that the original Bill committed the Minister to, “providing such resources as are necessary,” but it has been altered to, “providing resources as are determined by the Minister”. The INTO also believes that without a definition of “disability” in the Bill, children with disabilities such as dyslexia and conditions affecting behaviour and emotional development will not be included. I think the Minister will guarantee us that this is not the case.

The National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals has also expressed concern that at second level, children with special needs were not being given the resources they required, thereby placing pressure on the resources of entire schools. The outgoing president of the association said at the annual conference that it would be little short of cynical on the part of the Government to enact the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill when schools quite obviously do not have the resources to implement it.

Earlier this month, a national representative body for people with intellectual disability, NAMHI, said it feared that a recent audit of special needs resources, undertaken by the Department, would result in cuts in special needs assistance to children in primary and secondary schools across the country.

One group particularly outraged by the current definition of special needs is the Dyslexia Association of Ireland. This is a countrywide group made up of families, teachers and adults with dyslexia. As the Minister knows, dyslexia is not a physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual impairment. It is a specific learning disability, independent of intellectual or physical ability. Dyslexia is not an intellectual impairment, but it can be a disabling condition in the learning situation and children with dyslexia can, and often do, have special educational needs. This was recognised by the report of the task force on dyslexia. The organisation representing people affected by dyslexia is very concerned about the Bill and has met the Minister. I ask him to take their concerns on board.

Down's Syndrome Ireland is also concerned that the proposed Bill is seriously flawed and does not fully address the minimum requirements of those with disabilities and their families. It is further concerned that the new proposed legislation contains similar provisions to the Disability Bill published before the end of 2001. Down's Syndrome Ireland has already called on the Government to introduce rights-based rather than resource-constrained legislation and to hold a full consultation process.

I welcome this important Bill. As somebody who worked with children with special needs in the past and continues to have an active interest in this area, this is an important development. I emphasise that despite the resources provided in existing special schools, there are still major deficiencies in areas of special needs, especially in ones like autism. This will only be effective if the resources are provided and the Minister recognises that.

Like speakers on all sides of the Houses, I also welcome the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill. The Joint Committee on Education and Science invited submissions and received a total of 53, and subsequently representatives of about 40 groups came to oral hearings with the committee. There were several striking aspects about the exercise, the first of which was that there were so many individuals and groups with a deep interest in the subject and in the Bill. There was also the fact that in several specific areas there was more than one group and they were not always quite in one voice regarding what they required of the Bill or of the subsequent service from the Department of Education and Science.

This operation in committee took place during the summer recess and, as is normal, did not merit a mention anywhere in the media, which was not surprising. In spite of that, it is a useful exercise in the democratic process to have committees allow people with a specific interest in an area under discussion, in legislation or in policy, to come in and have their say. The members of the committee were unanimously of the view that it was enormously helpful for these people to present their views, and that was one part of the exercise. The next part was that the committee decided to prepare a large report, arising from all the submissions, which was sent on to the Minister and other interested parties.

We would need a little more from the exercise. The committee members want to see some of the proposals of various interest groups acted on and accepted in the form of amendments. To be fair, it is very difficult to say specifically which ones because in quite a few instances the groups were not quite agreed on whether various things needed to change or whether they were good or bad. By and large, however, there were some pointers going through what was said in those presentations and I was delighted to hear the Minister, on the opening of the debate on Second Stage, indicate that he remains open to the views of people with an interest and that he will be prepared to accept amendments when this business returns to the committee on Committee Stage. I commend the members of the committee for the enormous amount of work they put in to wading through all these submissions and entering into a debate with the bodies who came before the committee.

While one of the most striking features of the submissions was that in some cases there was some disagreement between people who had common ground, perhaps the other was the wide range of disabilities mentioned and represented by the views of those who came before the committee. It certainly brought home to me the difficulty of designing a "one size fits all" response, in terms of either legislation or service delivery. People will have been very impressed by the parents of children with profound disabilities and clearly for many of them the only adequate provision is in a non-classroom situation. It is certainly not within the confines of the ordinary school year because it is not possible for families to look after these children at home for very long periods.

There were the various other disabilities along the line. Then one came to areas such as dyslexia, which is a learning disability and in some respects quite different from some of what is provided for in the Bill, but which nevertheless is a significant difficulty for those at the higher end of the range in particular. It also poses enormous difficulties for their parents. While there would not always be an intellectual disability accompanying the learning disability, the problem for schools and parents is to find a way to enable people with dyslexia, for example, or dyspraxia or any of a number of conditions, to fulfil and reach their potential. It is a significant challenge for individual schools and for the education system and this Bill goes a considerable way towards addressing it.

There were also a number of groups dealing with people with autism. Even within that range, there are people who are quite profoundly affected, some considerably less so, and in the past four or five years there has been enormous improvement in the level of provision for them. We need to accept, however, that in this area we are to some extent on a learning curve and are finding that procedures and exercises which are successful in some cases are not successful in others. We will need to be flexible in the aims of the individual education plan and, perhaps more particularly, in carrying out assessments as to what progress is being made with each individual. That is quite well provided for in the Bill and some of the potential difficulties have been pointed out earlier and on the last occasion.

It was probably my fault, but one group we forgot to invite to make a submission was that which deals with children, and indeed adults, with acquired brain injury. Due to road and other accidents, the number of people in that category has increased very dramatically, and is increasing incrementally very quickly. It is a significant difficulty for families because people who have been progressing normally through school and have the trauma of an accident, are frequently hospitalised for several months and then come back into the family home a very different person. If such people are in a position to return to their original school, they clearly present as quite different pupils and the kind of provision that needs to be made for them varies. This will depend on the extent of any disability visited on them and on their capacity to move forward, particularly given the difficulty that they would have been used to having many abilities which they may no longer have. It is one of the areas where we need to do an enormous amount of work. The framework of the Bill is probably sufficient to provide the kind of service required, but sometimes it is not adverted to quickly enough and there is no ready mechanism to bring these people, who previously operated at a particular level, into the system at the new level at which they unfortunately must operate.

The committee also received interesting submissions from associations representing the deaf. They have a totally different requirement which, to be fair, to some extent can be dealt with under the Bill, though I personally believe that provision for deaf and blind people might well require an entirely separate section in the Bill. It is difficult to tie down what is required for people who do not have an intellectual impairment but are either blind or deaf, and there are very specific requirements to enable them to lead fulfilling lives to the extent they are able. That was one of the interesting aspects which came out of the submissions from the various people who have an interest in that area.

We also heard the views of the teaching bodies, of the principals and of management. To some extent they would have concentrated on the resource issue but also, quite properly, on a new range of responsibilities which are visited on principals in particular. I confess that I have a particular sympathy for principals in this instance as I was one for nearly 20 years. I know how readily we visit many of the ills and the requirements of society on schools and how quickly and unthinkingly we say "the schools should be doing that". On this occasion the schools should be doing this but they cannot do it without the legislative framework. This is a useful framework but as other speakers, and the principals' and teachers' bodies said, it requires resources. This is a critical step in moving towards having resources.

Section 3 outlines the role of the principal quite well. It is a burdensome job and there is a very good case for transferring some of the work to the special needs organiser. There is also a good case for outlining and supporting the role of the individual class teacher in the legislation, which the Minister could usefully do.

We also had a very good presentation from parents' associations and one of the most lively debates in the committee about the perceived clash or contest between the needs of the special needs child and those of the other people in the classroom. In general this can be positive but in specific cases difficulties emerge which have to be addressed. The Bill goes some way towards providing the framework to do that. I will not make a specific proposal on it but it would be useful to consider how it might be improved. The Constitution, the Equal Status Act 2000 and the Education Act 1998 require equal treatment, but this Bill goes far beyond those two Acts in creating real rights for people in education and the means to address and advance them.

Several groups made the case that the definition in this Bill is different – speakers today and the previous day also made this case. There are arguments as to why this might be so but there is a case for establishing some common ground with the definitions. I was very impressed by Deputy Stanton's approach to marking the emphasis on how one provides for people with special needs. It is a very good case and in ten, 15 or 20 years' time the kind of approach which the Deputy advocates will be seen as more enlightened and all-encompassing than that which we adopt at present. I hope that will be considered.

It is difficult, and sometimes we neglect, to assess the progress being made in the area of educational plans and goals. The Bill provides particularly well for this and the formula will become accepted as the norm, but in those cases where it is not it would be better, if it were possible, to have legislative remedies. It is probably impossible to have such remedies but it is important that failure to achieve goals is recognised in the first instance and addressed in so far as possible.

We need to look honestly and critically at the efficacy of various interventions in the education system in terms of the impact they are having. We all laud the breaking the cycle programme although it would be better to have ongoing assessment of whether it best achieves what is required. Voluntary homework programmes and other less formal community-based interventions offer great benefits. We need to pick up on those initiatives and give whatever support is necessary to ensure that they continue. We also need to look carefully at the school meals service and maybe do much more in basic areas to which one does not always advert in terms of education but which potentially have a significant and positive impact.

There is serious concern at the increase in the numbers of those with the various autism spectrum disorders, ADD, ADHD, Asperger's syndrome and so on. While it is not the specific remit of education it is necessary to work on researching the causes and, particularly in the short-term, to support imaginative and sometimes non-traditional interventions and treatments, especially if they are not invasive. Parents tell me that their burden is considerably lightened by embarking on some of these programmes. Perhaps we should be more open to them than we have been heretofore.

I appreciate the work of certain officials in the Department of Education and Science who are excellent public servants. They are snowed under with applications and follow-up phone calls about the special needs service. TDs, more than almost any other group, would recognise that there is only so much one can do in an 18 or 20 hour day. We should acknowledge the excellent work those people are doing, particularly when one bears in mind that the number of special resource teachers has increased from 104 to 2,300 in five years and special needs assistants from less than 300 to 5,500. That increase dealt with a large administrative burden. The learning support teacher service available to every school is small in number but does significant work. Since 1998 over 120 special classes have been created for children with autism where the maximum class size is six. This is one of the areas in which we are learning how to go forward and chart a progressive way. In so far as we can we ought to have those special classes in the context and within the confines of ordinary schools. It works better and the integration is very important.

In this Bill the Minister has charted a difficult and very large role for the National Council for Special Education. Section 7 covers the formal planning process, the informal board has already done some work and there is a significant role for the special needs organisers. The Minister has set a five-year implementation target which I hope is attainable. It is a good goal towards which we should work and which we must achieve. There will be regret that people who are now in the system, and people for whom the system has not cared, will lose out to some extent by the five-year implementation process but at least, at the end of that time, let us have a system immeasurably better than that which exists, with the capacity to respond at a much earlier stage. The provisions here do that particularly well. In view of what I said previously I am impressed by section 10, which provides for a regular review of the education plan and picks up on the question of a child failing to achieve goals. It would be useful if there were a way to set out what ought to be done then.

We have to recognise that it is very difficult for any of us as parents to accept the intellectual or any other disability of our children and to persuade those people to be party to the setting of realistic goals. There should be provision for professional support for the parents in addressing that area. I especially welcome their right to appeal to the independent board and there is a good case for other parties to have a similar right to appeal. Many of the groups which addressed the committee raised questions on section 12, which directs both the Minister for Education and Science and the Minister for Health and Children to make available resources.

Politicians and parents are often frustrated by officials telling them it is somebody else's job and it is one of the few times this issue has been addressed in legislation. Both Ministers are responsible under section 12. The reference to the Minister for Finance is a realistic caveat. The Minister has provided more resources in this area in the past five or six years than did all his predecessors. The reality must be faced that resources are finite but in employing them through a properly planned and structure approach, a return will be generated that has not been the case heretofore.

The Minister stated he would set up a consultative forum but it is not provided for in the legislation. However, it will be useful because it will enable those who have difficulty with the legislation as it evolves to point out where the weaknesses are and have them addressed. It will enable those who made submissions to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science and to the Minister to have a role.

With regard to the five-year target, early intervention is critical. Considerable progress is being made in the training of new speech, language and occupational therapists. Such resources will be needed to implement the Bill's provisions. Sometimes, even with the best will and all the financial resources in the world, this cannot be done because there are not enough trained professionals who are capable of delivering the service. Significant progress was made over the past two years in attracting people to take up these courses and that will pay off in four or five years when their training is complete. We will then be able to hold our heads high in terms of provision for people with special needs.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. The Minister should be congratulated on introducing the legislation. All the interest groups involved, especially those representing parents of children with disabilities, are thankful that, at long last, legislation has been introduced to address the many problems they have encountered in their lives. They are not satisfied with every aspect of the legislation but that is to be expected. The two previous contributors, Deputies Killeen and Stanton, are members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science and their comments regarding the submissions made to them were interesting. Their contributions were also interesting because both are former teachers and they saw at first hand what was needed to address the problems of providing an education for persons with disabilities.

Deputy Killeen referred to the effort put in by the committee to implement a number of the proposals they received and I hope the Minister will take a number of them on board on Committee Stage. All Members have received calls for amendments from various groups within their constituencies and I hope the Minister will include a number of the good proposals made during the debate.

While most of the concerns raised with me relate to specific cases, they are also covered by provisions in the legislation. The primary concern relates to the co-ordination and implementation of the provisions because too many Departments and State agencies are involved in the achievement of the ultimate goal, which is the provision of education for persons with disabilities. The Departments of Health and Children, Education and Science and Finance are mentioned numerous times in the Bill and interested parties look on this as a major problem, although the Government does not envisage this issue as a major threat to the Bill's implementation.

Reference has been made to the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, which has a problem with the admittance of children with disabilities into mainstream schools because it is afraid the moneys needed for improved facilities and services will not be provided. This is a stark reminder of the experience of those at the coalface in the provision of education for persons with disabilities. The concerns of the association must be addressed and, while we will have an opportunity to do so on Committee Stage, it is a worry that such a body is putting forward proposals to be given the right to postpone entry of students to school, which, if supported by boards of management, would stymie the implementation of the Bill.

The definition of "educational disability" has been raised on a number of occasions. Many support groups believe the definition is too narrow. They believe a proper definition is provided under the Education Act 1998 and the Employment Equality Act and feel the new definition is an effort by the Department to reduce its responsibility for persons in need of support. Support groups want the Minister to revisit the definition.

With regard to other definitions, I refer to a submission received from a concerned parent whose child suffers from sensory integration dysfunction. She is finding it difficult to obtain assistance for the child. She states:

Regarding the definition of the word "sensory", it is important that this is not just interpreted as sight and sound. There are seven senses, all of which send information to the brain where it is organised and interpreted. Sometimes the information from the senses is not flowing and integrating efficiently, resulting in what is known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction. This can result in difficulty with everyday living, skills, co-ordination, behaviour, movement, speech, language and learning. This dysfunction can be present in children with ADHD, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, autistic spectrum disorder, development co-ordination disorder and specific learning difficulties.

This parent is so concerned that she felt it necessary to write to her local representative to highlight her case.

Deputy Killeen stated it is difficult for everyone to be covered in the Bill but there is a need to examine whether it is possible to co-ordinate the definition of "educational disability" in the two Acts and this Bill. There should be a clear definition of "educational disability". Another aspect which has been brought to my attention is the need for training in all aspects of professional life associated with education, ranging from school principals down to cleaners. The whole emphasis in school life will change dramatically in the context of this Bill. Training must be provided on an ongoing basis. There is no point in having one-off courses and pretending that all problems have been resolved. Ongoing training must reflect the changes which will take place in education over a five or six-year period. All of the evidence and effects must be collated and fed back into the system. Otherwise, we will lose out on the benefit of an enormous amount of knowledge which will be gained through developments under this legislation.

I ask the Minister to ensure that the Bill will be implemented in accordance with the concerns of the professional bodies and interest groups. Parents are concerned that a school to which their son or daughter may go will have the appropriate facilities to deal with his or her particular needs. That is a perfectly understandable expectation and I believe it is reflective of general concerns in this regard. It is essential that all of the evidence which will be available through the implementation of this Bill is properly collated and put through the various processes to ensure a better educational system for people with educational needs.

In that regard, the financing of this legislation is of crucial importance. Currently, there are major problems with regard to the capital programme for primary schools. If that is indicative of what will happen in the case of this Bill, it may not be worth the paper on which it is written. I do not believe that is the Minister's intention. I believe he is honourable in what he is trying to do in this regard, as was the approach of the education and science committee in its deliberations on this matter.

I hope this will lead to a marked improvement in this aspect of education, which has been neglected by successive Governments. This is the first major effort which has been made and, obviously, we need to get it right. That may be difficult, but we should make every possible effort to ensure that when this legislation is enacted it will represent our best efforts at this time. Some of the groups which approached me have suggested that there should be a requirement to conduct a complete review of this legislation after five years. I do not know whether that is feasible – I simply put it forward as it was conveyed to me in terms of ensuring that this Bill will be productive in reaching its ultimate goals.

In the context of training, there is an urgent need to ensure that the services of occupational therapists, speech therapists, psychologists and other professionals whose input is necessary will be available. It would be quite pointless to enact this legislation unless we are fully confident that those requirements will be met. That is a matter within the remit of the Department of Education and Science, which ultimately determines the number of graduates in those professions who come through our third level colleges. We must ensure that the required number of qualified personnel will be available. The Department of Health and Children is unlikely to give education a higher priority than health. That will be a problem, unless we have enough specialists to deal with the matter. The question of depending on the Department of Health and Children to place education before health is at the root of concerns expressed by those groups which have been emphasising the importance of a coherent overall approach to the implementation of this Bill, having regard to its ultimate benefits.

In my area, there is an excellent facility for autistic children, the Saplings School, of which I attended the official opening by the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy. That school is attempting to provide the necessary education to enable autistic children to get into mainstream education. I was greatly impressed by the intensity of the effort being made by the parents, tutors and school management towards that end. While those involved in such matters in a professional capacity will be quite familiar with the situation, it was a wonderful experience for me, as one who was not previously involved at that educational level, to observe the level of effort and commitment of those involved. It was easy to understand their anxiety for the enactment and implementation of this Bill.

I hope the Minister will consider the concerns which have been mentioned, including overall co-ordination, review of the legislation if that is possible, training of school management and others involved and the provision of special needs assistants. The number of special needs assistants must be maintained and increased. Public representatives are constantly receiving complaints from parents about the withdrawal of special needs assistants. It is a cause of great disappointment to the parents concerned to find that what they had regarded as a major advancement for their child has been withdrawn. If we are to make progress, this situation will have to be addressed. The provision of special needs assistants must not be frustrated on the basis of financial considerations. Otherwise, this Bill will not represent the major advance we had expected.

In the provision of occupational and speech therapists and other professional staff, I ask the Minister to ensure there is no competition between the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Education and Science as to who gets what. Sufficient trained personnel must be provided to deal with all aspects of the situation.

I again welcome the Bill and congratulate the Minister on bringing it forward. I know there will be many amendments and I hope the Minister's response will be positive. I also hope he will consider the report from the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Science, as well as taking account of the points raised by Deputies in the course of this debate. In the final analysis, when this legislation is enacted, I hope we will have a structure which will meet the concerns and worries of the groups concerned, especially the parents of children with educational disabilities.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Johnny Brady.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill as I am also a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science. Some speakers have said this Bill is not worth the paper it is written on and it would be unfortunate if that phrase appeared in the public domain because it is important to have public confidence in this procedure. It would be reckless of Deputies who may be quoting the views of others to allow that phrase to become common currency in discussion of the Bill. Many people have put a lot of work into the Bill, not just on the Government side but all those who made submissions to the committee during the summer. We received hundreds of pages of submissions which were considered and tightly argued in the past few months, so that phrase is inappropriate.

Will the Deputy give way?

The point was made that the Bill would not be worth the paper it is written on if resources were not provided, with which surely Deputy Andrews would agree. If resources are provided obviously it will be useful.

It is worth having the Deputy's clarification as clearly the phrase could be taken up incorrectly. Deputy Stanton may be quoting accurately but other Deputies used the phrase rather loosely, which is unfortunate.

The Bill acknowledges the link between educational achievement and lifelong opportunities for those with disabilities. The Minister set out the great progress made in the past few years in this area and most people accept that that is the case. Those successes and achievements have created difficulties in terms of qualifications and the provision of extra resource teachers, as well as the built environment of schools coping with the new structures which have been put in place. The Bill is a landmark in legislation in that it provides an opportunity for a concerted approach rather than the unsatisfactory system we have at present, with parents beating a path to their Deputies or to the Department of Education and Science – previously they had to go to the Department of Health and Children – for the provision of extra teachers or resources on a piecemeal basis. This Bill will create a comprehensive nationwide system which will give parents, children and staff a degree of certainty as well as flexibility in delivery of these resources.

The Joint Committee on Education and Science heard interesting submissions on this matter from many bodies in recent months and it was something of a departure in procedure to hear oral submissions on a published Bill before the Second Stage debate. I found it extremely useful, as did other committee members, and the organisations making submissions also found it helpful. This process should be repeated in the future.

Deputy Stanton referred to one of the most interesting and important features of the summer hearings, which was the view expressed by the Psychological Society of Ireland, among others, that the legislation should be based on assessment of needs rather than the nature of the impairment of the child concerned. That was the most compelling and consistent argument I heard and I agree with it. It would be extremely helpful in ironing out some of the confusion regarding definitions mentioned by previous speakers.

Some bodies which made submissions pointed out inconsistencies in definitions of "disability", "educational disability" and "child", referring to previous Acts, including the Education (Welfare) Act 2000 and the Education Act 1998. For example, the Education Act 1998 defines disability extensively in five different paragraphs and defines educational disadvantage. The Education (Welfare) Act 2000 defines a child as someone who has reached the age of 16 years or who has not completed three years of post-primary education. That differs from the definition in this Bill, but we should not be afraid of different definitions. The argument for consistency can be overwhelming and requires a level of perfection which is unachievable in an inconsistent world.

The Irish Wheelchair Association made a very important observation in that its members do not suffer from an educational disability in the way most of us would understand the term. It suggested an alternative definition, "alternative educational requirement" as opposed to educational disability, which would not necessarily mean having to change the body of the definition, and I agree with it. One professional pointed out in his submission that he had never heard the phrase "educational disability" in his entire professional life, and we should take cognisance of that. Deputy Killeen pointed out earlier that the Minister is open to certain amendments on Committee Stage.

Section 3 of the Act confers on the principal of a school the right to take steps to meet the educational needs of a child who is not benefiting from the normal curriculum before preparing an assessment of needs. This provision attracted a lot of attention during our hearings and it is probably wise to insert the previous requirement, namely, that the principal will have to take measures off his or her own bat first before contemplating the preparation of an assessment of needs. Objections to this provision centre on the fact that it builds another layer of failure into the life of the child. It means that the child, who has already failed to benefit from mainstream curriculum, must also fail an attempt by the principal to take measures to remedy the situation before there is an assessment.

Many children will be conscious of this and as they are so sensitive about fitting in with the norm, this layer has certain dangers. I do not have an alternative proposal, as the principle that a student should be in mainstream education is important. Of course, there are some categories of children for whom this procedure is entirely pointless and for whom there is no chance of integration. It is also probably wise to allow a school principal to delegate these functions in certain schools, a point made by the school principals when they came in to the committee.

Section 4 deals with pre-schools. Health boards deal with this area and the National Council for Special Education deals with it when the child is a student. The right of initiation is also given to parents by this section, which is welcome. The section states that the parents of a child have the right to initiate an assessment of a child, although the time constraints here are far greater than in other sections, allowing the council a full three months before initiating anything and then allowing them time to complete the process "without undue delay". That phrase is insufficiently precise and will inevitably have to be interpreted by a court. It is not good practice for the Oireachtas to insert phrases like that when it is within our gift to set down a specific timeframe – a month, six weeks or two months. We should remove that phrase and replace it with a specific time constraint within which a council must prepare an assessment.

The voices of parents with children with disability have been heard in the Bill and I look forward to Committee Stage.

Debate adjourned.