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

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

I welcome this appropriate and progressive Bill and congratulate the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and his Department on introducing it.

Until recently there was little or no effort made to assist disabled people to lead a normal life. Educational disability, intellectual or physical, has been neglected for far too long. It is important we give credit to the voluntary groups who have been fighting for the rights of people with special needs for many years. Voluntary groups have done a great deal of work in the background. When others ignored the needs of those with disabilities, it was the hard working members of voluntary organisations who worked tirelessly, highlighting the issues. These groups deserve recognition now that they have ensured that the voices of those with special needs are finally being heard.

The most important group that should be recognised are the parents of the disabled. It is the parents who provide for and ensure that these special children have everything they need from birth. It is not an easy task and I commend them for their dedication and unconditional love. An important aspect in this Bill is that the parents are recognised as central to the development of the child at every step in the process. When a child's education plan is drawn up, the parent will always be consulted. They are at the heart of the assessment and planning process. They are also vital in ensuring that those rights are always upheld at every stage of the child's education.

The Bill gives parents the power to appeal to an independent appeals board against any statement or description they believe is inadequate to meet their child's needs or if they feel there has been a failure to implement their child's education plan. This aspect of the Bill is essential as it provides a bottom up approach to the provision of special needs education. It is essential the rights and entitlements of special needs students are not dictated to parents, who know their child's need better than anyone else.

The Bill pays tribute 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 one involving eight or ten-hour days, five days a week. It is a 24-hour service provided by the parent seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

We must all acknowledge that successive Governments neglected this area for decades. While this debate took off in the 1980s it was not until the 1990s that any Government did anything about it. It is only now the Government is trying to right the wrongs of the past and make a concerted effort to do everything possible to provide for the needs of the disabled in this country. It was only in 1997 that there was an improvement in the response to children in need of special education.

In 1998 the Government created a funding programme that proactively responded to the requirements of students with special educational needs. We also saw all primary school children with special needs receive an automatic right to see those needs met that same year. As a result, the number of resource teachers in ordinary schools has increased from 104 to 2,300. The number of special needs assistants has also risen from fewer than 300 to almost 5,500 full and part-time positions.

However, we still have a long way to go. Society must learn to change its attitude towards those with special needs. We must realise that they, like all of us, have aspirations and ambitions. We must recognise that all children, including those with special needs, have a right to realise those ambitions. We must also understand that children with special needs are fantastic people who will enrich the lives of the other children in their classes under an inclusive educational system.

I welcome the fact that the Bill is based on the principle of inclusive education for as many children with educational disabilities as is practicable. This principle has been Government policy for a long time. The Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill will turn this policy into real action with section 2 providing that a child with special needs will be educated in an inclusive setting unless it is not in the best interest of the child in question or the other children in the class. We must keep in mind that in many cases an inclusive educational environment will be extremely good for all children involved.

The most important element of this Bill is the fact that it provides a statutory guarantee of education services for people with a disability. For the first time in Ireland a statutory framework will be put in place in which the education of children with special needs can be guaranteed as a right enforceable by law. The education plan plays an essential role in the creation and development of this statutory framework. The education plan will ensure that all children with special needs have their disabilities identified, their needs assessed, goals decided upon to meet their needs and their progress monitored. This is a great approach.

In the past, children with disabilities were offered no assistance when seeking education. On the contrary, children with disabilities were presumed stupid and incapable of receiving an education. Rather than being assisted they were excluded from education completely. Even in the recent past while marginal resources were given to children with disabilities, adequate attention was not given to special education.

I welcome this initiative. It is essential that we identify that every child with a special need is an individual. The education plan will ensure that this individuality is recognised. It will examine his or her level of disability as well as his or her individual needs. It is only through the structured implementation of a cohesive plan that we can be sure that children with special needs will receive the best education possible and the greatest opportunities available to them.

I broadly welcome this significant legislation. It will without doubt, be met with challenges. There will be financial challenges, as the implementation of the policy will need serious funding. However, I urge the Minister for Finance to do his best to provide this funding. People with disability in Ireland have waited far too long for this type of provision and it must be implemented as quickly and as fully as possible.

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 this problem has not yet been fully addressed. For too long children with disabilities have been ignored. They have not received the same opportunities as other children and have not received the same rights to education as other children. This legislation finally changes that. I congratulate the Minister for Education and Science for taking the courageous and giant step in creating such proactive legislation. I wholeheartedly commend it to the House.

I wish to share time with Deputies Ó Snodaigh, Healy and Harkin.

Acting Chairman

Is that agreed? Agreed.

As a newly-elected Deputy for Cork South-Central, my concentration on this issue might be more focused than most. In the last general election, Kathryn Sinnott ran as an Independent candidate in the constituency and almost won a seat. The seat is still being contested in the courts. She campaigned long and hard through the courts for her son Jamie.

A more important landmark case was the O'Donoghue case, which also had its genesis in the Cork South-Central constituency. This case was taken by Marie O'Donoghue on behalf of her son, Paul, in the mid-1990s during the lifetime of the rainbow Government when Niamh Breathnach was the Minister for Education. That case was also contested by the Government right up to the steps of the Supreme Court where the State reached a settlement. The argument centred on the principle of education as a lifelong right for all in our society.

Education is not about turning out automatons to benefit society economically. It is about enhancing the potential of each human being. The difficulty with education for people with disabilities, particularly for those with an intellectual disability, is that the State has constantly asked how this can be justified economically and how people can develop a capacity to justify economically their place in society. I fear this Bill with its age-related links perpetuates that thinking within the Government and the Civil Service. It is an attitude that needs to be challenged.

Ultimately the question arises as to why there should be a Bill for the education of persons with disabilities. The model adopted in the United States and in Scandinavia is that the scope of such legislation should be incorporated with general disabilities legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Swedish model being prime examples. This Government, for reasons best known to itself, has decided to adopt a divide and rule approach to different aspects of disabilities legislation. This is the opening shot while people wait, possibly in vain, for a more general rights-based disabilities Bill which many who live with disability expect.

The Government has been reluctant to go down that road, however. Even where it has made initiatives since 1997, there is a question over the future use of resources. I have in mind the pilot project of the Cork applied behaviour analysis schools, CABAS, to help people living with autism within a specialised educational system to move eventually into mainstream education. It has proven to be a successful pilot project, yet the schools have not been given any indication whether the Government will continue to resource them even in the medium-term, regardless of the long-term policy as regards education.

Questions must be asked about the integrity of this Bill. As with all Government legislation it carries the ever-present caveat,“as resources allow”. Those who claim a huge gap exists between what the people expect and what successive Governments are prepared to deliver see this as the ultimate barrier in providing those resources and putting in place rights-based legislation for citizens who can number up to 10% of the population. It is one of the political riddles that between one in ten and one in eight people live with a disability, yet it is always at the bottom of political priorities. It is as if every political party has concluded that the lives of these people are unimportant and that they are not valued. In the past such groups have not organised themselves politically, but the potential exists for so many people to vote against the political parties and policies that have effectively made them second-class citizens.

This being a Friday sitting, I am disappointed that the Minister for Education, Deputy Dempsey, is not here.

He is on his way.

I am glad to hear that. I realise there are extenuating circumstances in regard to the Minister of State who has worked over and above his tour of duty today.

I thank the Deputy and return the compliment.

The relevance of the Friday sittings is called into question when the sponsoring Ministers have not been present for the full debates on two successive Bills. I look forward to the Minister for Education being similarly informed from the future contributions of Members.

Ba mhaith liomsa fáilte a chur roimh an mBille seo, mar tá sé thar am dúinn a bheith á phlé anseo. Tá sé os ár gcomhair faoi dheireadh agus tá súil agam go mbeimid in ann tabhairt faoi na fadhbanna atá ann. Sa deireadh thiar thall tá an cuma ar an scéal go bhfuil an Rialtas agus an Stát ag bogadh ón tslí scannalach inar casadh an Bille um Oideachas do Dhaoine faoi Mhíchumas 2003.

The issue of resourcing will be crucial to the success of this Bill. There is a structural need to ensure a close working relationship between the Department of Health and Children and the proposed Council for Special Education so that it functions effectively and smoothly. A resource issue is involved. The other resource issue entails the necessary money and resources being made available. Will all the schools that require special needs teachers have them? When the legislation is in operation will there be an end to principals, teachers and parents lobbying Deputies for additional resources and finance for their schools to tackle the basic needs of pupils with disabilities denied to them over the years because of neglect? There has been a blatant disregard for the need of those in our society with disabilities.

Is the Minister saying that the priorities of Government have changed and that the needs of the most disadvantaged will be addressed? I will reserve my judgment until I see this legislation in action and the long-awaited and long-delayed disabilities Bill.

A glaring omission from this Bill is the failure to refer to the tremendous work of the existing special needs schools. They have survived on shoe-string budgets for many years and are continually left waiting for promised funding. In some cases vital programmes and projects are curtailed and put on hold.

The people most affected when funding is not put in place are those in need, especially the children. People involved in the provision of education for persons with disabilities deserve full support and backing. They require disability legislation that tackles the problems they and their parents face in the effort to deliver and receive an education.

Is gá a dhéanamh cinnte de go bhfuil an ceart ó thús ag tuismitheoirí agus ag daltaí míchumasacha a bheith bainteach le gach uile cinneadh a déantar maidir leis an oideachas a bhfuil siad chun a fháil. Fé láthair ní gá dul i gcomhairle le dalta nó le tuismitheoirí nuair atá coimre bhliantúil á dhéanamh ar phlean oideachasúil an pháiste.

Cad faoi an idirdhealú a dhéanann an Bille idir dhaltaí míchumasacha a shroicheann aois a 17 i gcomparáid leo siúd nach bhfuil míchumas orthu? Déantar coimre orthu siúd a bhfuil míchumas orthu ach cad a tharlóidh dos na daltaí míchumasachas atá taobh thiar sa scoil de thairbhe an mhíchumais sin nuair a chríochnaíonn siad leis an oideachas foirmiúil, agus gan ach an chéad bhliain nó an dara bliain den mheánscoil déanta acu, in ainneoin go bhfuil dul chun cinn fós á dhéanamh acu. I gcás cuid des na daoine a bhfuilimid ag caint fúthu beidh siad in aois 30 sula shroiseann siad an chaighdeán a bhéadh ag páiste eile ag aois 18. De réir Airteagal 40 den mBunreacht, "Áirítear gurb ionann ina bpearsain daonna na saoránaigh uile i láthair an dlí.". An bhfuil an tAire cinnte go bhfuil an Bille seo bunreachtúil?

Tá ceisteanna móra eile maidir leis an mbord achomharc. I welcome the appeals board but questions must be asked with regard to it. I will suggest amendments, which, I hope, the Minister will accept, to ensure that the appeals board is more reflective of society and is not packed with Fianna Fáil fundraisers or the like. Nothing in the legislation requires that the members of the appeals board have expertise in the field of education. I hope the Minister will consider this matter. Neither does the Bill does require that membership of the board reflect the fact that 50% of the population are women. There are also problems regarding the time limits for appeals. That contradiction needs to be sorted out.

Caithfimid déanamh cinnte de go ritear an Bille seo, an Bille is fearr gur féidir linn a rith. Is gá athrú iomlán agus suntasach a dhéanamh i saol na ndaoine a bhfuil míchumas orthu, ar pháistí agus ar dhaoine atá tar éis na scoile a fhágail agus atá ag brath ar an domhain mhór chun tacaíochta a thabhairt dóibh agus iad ag dul ar aghaidh sa saol.

Most Members receive almost daily representations from parents, schools and teachers on the issues raised in the Bill. Rights and supports for persons with disabilities or special educational needs are at crisis levels, as indicated by the number of representations we receive concerning the refusal to appoint special needs assistants or significant delays in appointing them, thereby denying persons with disabilities access to educational opportunities.

In recent months, I have received representations from various sources in my constituency, including the local vocational educational schools which, on the commencement of the school year in September, had still not received approval for special needs assistants to support students in Clonmel and Cahir. I have also received representations from a parent, whose child was due to attend a special school in Cashel, but had been deprived of educational opportunities for nearly two months before the Department eventually approved the relevant special needs assistants.

The same position applies to secondary schools. Another constituent's child, who was due to sit her junior certificate examination, was refused admission by a school until support services, resources and special needs assistants, had been made available for the child. The child in question has still not returned to school. A family with whom I have been dealing for many years found it almost impossible to find a primary school for their child on moving house due to the difficulty in finding a special needs assistant. Although we eventually overcame this hurdle, the parent of the child in question, who is now in sixth class, recently contacted me to ask what could be done to ensure the local secondary school would be able to take the child next year because the school had informed her that the Department must approve special needs assistance before it will be able to admit her child. She was advised to make representations to her local representatives immediately to try to ensure that approval was given.

That such circumstances should arise during the European Year of People with Disabilities and only months after the Special Olympics says a great deal. The House should commend the various voluntary organisations working in this sector, including NAMHI, the Irish Society for Autism, Down Syndrome Ireland and others, which placed this issue on the agenda in recent years.

In introducing this Bill, the Government put the cart before the House. A rights-based disabilities Bill should have come before the House first. The legislation is fundamentally flawed and should, like the two previous Bills on this issue, be withdrawn and sent back to the drawing board. Unconditional, enforceable rights similar to those enjoyed by other pupils should be afforded in legislation to persons with learning disabilities. Although this Bill fails to do so, I accept that it will pass its various Stages in the House and will probably be enacted in some shape or form. I hope some of the proposals and recommendations made by Opposition Members will be taken into account and the legislation amended accordingly.

The Bill is neither focused on the educational needs of the individual learner, nor does it respect the rights of the family as primary educator and representative of the learner. It also ignores learners who are capable of representing themselves. While the word "parent" is widely used in the text of the legislation, the role of parents in their child's education is confined to acting as a petitioner on behalf of their child. In addition, although the Title contains the term "people with disabilities", the Bill's provisions are confined to children and exclude adults, who are persons in their own right and in many cases also have disabilities.

An independent, ongoing assessment of the individual needs of each child is required to ensure he or she is provided with appropriate education. This is a constitutional right which must not be dictated by resources or the lack thereof. Instead, we must make sufficient resources available to ensure that people with disabilities have the same constitutional rights as others.

The legislation is flawed as it does not address the minimum requirements of people with disabilities, their parents and families. I call on the Minister to ensure the Government introduces true rights based rather than resource constrained legislation.

The Bill's apparent exclusion of people with dyslexia must also be addressed, although the Minister of State referred to this group. I was shocked to find that children with dyslexia are not covered by the legislation. This is unacceptable and must be changed, particularly given that some 15,000 to 16,000 children in the primary school system and a similar number in the secondary school system have dyslexia. This aspect of the Bill needs to be addressed. In addition, the legislation does not refer to other disabilities such as ADD and ADHD, which should also be covered by its provisions.

The legislation must become a rights based Bill, with adequate resources made available to ensure that people with disabilities are in a position to avail of these rights. I hope the Minister will take this position on board and table amendments to give effect to rights based legislation and address the question of resources.

I wish to share time with Deputy Carey.

Acting Chairman

Is that agreed?

The Deputy agreed only after a long pause.

I had to think about the question.

It is Friday.

As with most Deputies, I welcome the Bill. It is the first real attempt to guarantee the rights of persons with disabilities to education. We are all aware of people who have suffered as a result of disabilities. While some of them have been successful and overcome their disabilities, others have not been able to cope because they did not receive the necessary assistance in time. The person who really stands out is Richard Branson who is dyslexic. Many would say that people who are dyslexic have other assets which compensate for their dyslexia.

This is the first time a Bill has tackled the problem in a coherent way. It is meant to be a partnership between the education system, the local teaching system, parents and the health boards. What concerns me is the way in which the educational needs of people with disabilities are identified. Where there are potential problems, the needs of these people should be identified as early as possible. We are all aware of cases where parents have had to wait for a long time to have children assessed. In some instances they have had to wait two to three years. The damage which can be done to one's esteem in that period is frightening. Those who are helped on time have a much better chance of overcoming their disability than those are left behind.

Some health boards have extremely long waiting lists. Deputy Healy referred to dyslexia. This is a problem in some schools where teachers are not prepared to accept that there is a problem and sometimes children are eight, nine or ten years of age before the parents are approached. In some cases parents notice the problems of the child at home and approach the teachers to have the assessments carried out, which is frightening. As I said previously, there should be an assessment of each child within the first year or two in national school. It might cause annoyance to some mothers to have their children assessed but I believe it should be done for the child's sake. In many cases parents are not prepared to accept their children have a problem. It can often be a greater problem to get parents and teachers to accept a problem exists than it is to deal with it.

I recently witnessed another scenario where different psychologists who assessed a child came up with two totally different reports. This was terrible from the point of view of someone being able to make a decision on the needs of that child in school. The case is still ongoing in the Department because one psychologist has stated the child needs one type of help while the other states the child needs different help. That a child can be assessed and not receive the help proposed is something which needs to be tackled.

Deputy Healy referred to the voluntary organisations which have made a tremendous contribution down through the years. Teachers are very often involved directly and indirectly in the voluntary sector in dealing with the educational needs of people with disabilities. He mentioned one group, ACLD, which has done tremendous work throughout the country in helping people with their reading and writing needs. However, it is no longer acceptable to have to depend on the voluntary sector and the kindness of teachers on Saturday morning to ensure people are helped.

The back-up available must be questioned. It was stated that the implementation of the Bill will require resources. All the legislation that goes through the House has a financial cost which people accept must be met. The money invested in educating people with learning difficulties will be recouped many times over. In many instances, if the problems teenagers and others have were tackled at an earlier stage we would not have some of the social problems that arise today.

Teaching methods must be considered in the context of the Bill. I am aware people have rights in regard to assessment and help needed. We all support the introduction of special needs assistance. I hope that where special needs assistance is required something will be done. This is another aspect of the education sector which needs to be supported. One cannot expect teachers of mainstream classes to be able to cope with all the needs of pupils with special needs. There is a need to do something about this.

In some instances parents can be reluctant to send their children to school because they may not be too happy with the local teacher. This can also lead to educational disadvantage. However, one would need to be Job to solve that problem, as well as having his patience. All of us as public representatives continue to receive representations from parents of children with special needs. A co-ordinated approach must be adopted to deal with this issue. This is the first time during my time in politics that there has been a co-ordinated approach to the education of people with disabilities.

Many people with disabilities, including their families, are more than willing to make sacrifices to ensure children with special needs get more attention and perhaps more help than those who do not have problems. The care of children with both physical and mental disabilities must be considered in the context of the Bill. The sooner children with disabilities are introduced into mainstream education, the better they will be able to cope in society at a later stage and the less problems they will have mixing and going about with their friends. It is terrible to think that in this day and age pupils leave national school unable to read or write. This is a terrible reflection on the entire education system. One can well imagine how their self-esteem must suffer when they move into their teenage years not having the basic education or being able to read and write.

If given the necessary help on time, each child can be brought up to a basic educational standard which will allow them to get by in life. It is much easier to provide that help when children are young than it is when they reach the age of 14, 15 or 16 years. At that stage they feel they have missed out, been left out of the system and passed over. No child either in this country or anywhere else in the world should feel he or she has been let down by the system. As legislators, we have a duty to ensure that the legislation we pass works. In doing so, we must accept that there is a duty of responsibility on teachers, parents and health boards to implement the proposals in the Bill. If it is dealt with in any other way, it will be a failure. If everyone decides to put their shoulder to the wheel and assess each child properly, I have no doubt the Bill's benefits will be reaped by those who would otherwise be left behind by the education system.

When Deputy McGrath and I began teaching – I am sure the Minister was in short pants at the time – we were governed by a document entitled Rules and Regulations for National Schools. Deputy McGrath will recall the document covered matters like the time one called the roll, the type of black ink one used, the number of minutes per week one spent at comhrá A, comhrá B and comhrá C and the time of the day one taught religion. There was nothing in the document about a child. One could have been teaching almost units of wood in desks. There was no reference by the Department to its responsibilities to provide adequate resources. It was all down to the school manager, the school principal and the classroom teacher as to what should be done.

Some of us are also around long enough to remember INTO and ASTI conferences where we called for the introduction of an education Act. We were bedevilled by circular letters. Anyone who has been a principal or acting principal would know that it would be a case of woe betide if a circular letter was lost when a cigire came in looking for it. One could end up in a mórfhiosrú situation. I do not jest, I merely outline how things have changed.

When I began teaching, special education was, to put it politely, the Cinderella of the education system. I was in a 33 teacher school in Finglas which had one special class that was located in the darkest and most remote room in the school. Had it not been for pioneering work by some very dedicated teachers we would never have made progress.

Members will examine the minutiae of the Bill, and rightly so, but it is also important that we recognise the contribution of people like Páid McGee who runs the special education course in St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra, and how much they have transformed our attitude to special education. Others I should mention include Declan Costello for his work in setting up St. Michael's House, Dr. Paul McQuaid in the Mater Hospital, the work of the St. John of God's centre in Blackrock, people like Sally Hogarty and her school in the Phoenix Park, the work of Cheeverstown House, Scoil Chiaráin, Eamon Ó Murchú and Valerie Monaghan and the School for the Deaf in Cabra. The list is endless. Peter Quinn was one of the first pioneering psychologists in Orwell Road who laid much of the groundwork in this area.

The Department of Education and Science's special education section was located in dark dreary prefabs at the back of the offices in Marlborough Street. Following a fire it was moved to a dark dreary building in Talbot Street. Staff in this section spent their time rightly worrying about the residential centres as the provision of special education for children in mainstream schools became increasingly depleted. Thankfully, times have changed.

I compliment the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin, who brought forward the Education Act and the present Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, for introducing the Education (Welfare) Act and this Bill. These provisions, in tandem with future legislation, will help complete the implementation of the necessary changes in this area.

While the Bill before us has its critics, it is coherent legislation and a huge step forward. One can legitimately criticise the present delivery of services where there are no clear lines of responsibility and where existing provision is too diffuse. Pass the parcel is forever being played between the health boards and schools.

Some aspects of the Bill are especially commendable. Section 2 refers to the need to provide an integrated education for children. One would have thought this was a given but, unfortunately, this has not been the case. Education has been segmented over the years and it has become more so. It is important that the legislation brings coherence to the delivery of education to children with special needs in ordinary classes.

There is a risk that the legislation could lead to an over-identification of children with learning difficulty with children with educational disabilities. Deputy Paul McGrath and I probably taught children of the same age. Children can easily become labelled in their early years, which is a great pity. The intervention that was often required in the past was not provided.

Other speakers have referred to the types of intervention that are necessary. I agree that there is a chronic lack of speech therapy services. Many children would have little difficulty if there was adequate provision of such services in the early days. If delivered on, the education plan envisaged in the Bill will address this problem. The need for early assessment has also been discussed. We are all aware of how long it takes to get an assessment done. The NEPS is a huge improvement and it is getting the work done on an incremental basis. Many problems could be addressed if reports were provided earlier.

Reference was made to dyslexia. Most of us who were teachers know that the letters b and d get reversed, as do numbers 3 and 5. Individual intervention by a sensitive teacher helps most children to grow out of this habit, but if it is not spotted early, it grows. One of the benefits of the Bill is that schools must ensure that all practicable efforts are made to assist children not benefiting from a regular education programme. The stipulation that assessments must not take longer than three months is important.

Let us not forget about the resources that have already been invested in this area. It is not a question of playing catch-up as there has already been a significant increase in the level of resourcing. Learning support teachers have increased from approximately 1,300 in 1998 to approximately 1,500 at present. The budget is about €54 million. Resource teachers have increased from 104 in 1998 to 2,300 at the moment. Irrespective of party politics, that is a significant investment. The number of special needs assistants increased from 300 in 1998 to nearly 4,500 full-time and a further 1,264 part-time posts in the same period, with a budgetary provision of €100 million in 2003. I accept that the resources being invested may not be sufficiently targeted. The allocation for part-time tuition services increased from €12 million in 2002 to €19 million in 2003. This is an indication of the level of need, some of which may still be unaddressed.

Many of us with an involvement in education have for a long time called for the introduction of an education plan. The Minister is keen to have the involvement of parents in the development of education plans. The process would not be as worthwhile without their involvement. They need to be consulted and to take equal ownership of plans. Plans need to be monitored at classroom and school level. The setting up of the special education council will provide for their better monitoring. Goals and objectives for children need to be clearly set down.

I am sure Deputy Paul McGrath also remembers the days when the inspector came to schools and ticked off the achievement of objectives in a regimented way, based on whether the class was achieving certain things. Long division was introduced at the end of fourth class and at a certain stage the class should have been dividing by numbers less than 20. Those were the kind of goals we had in the past but this is no longer part of a modern education system.

The Bill provides for necessary intervention for children who find themselves in difficulty. Its other important focus is in regard to parents of children with disabilities who want their children enrolled in the local primary school. Things have also improved in that area. I remember when a child with a degenerative disease was enrolled in our primary school. The difficulties we experienced trying to have the school's front door widened to permit wheelchair access, to get the Department to respond to the need to provide a disabled person's toilet and to have the local authority dish the footpaths, constituted a typical example of government which was not joined up. With previous legislation and the forthcoming disability Bill, the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill will provide for the coherent, cohesive delivery of services to young people and children with special needs.

How much time does the Minister need to reply?

I need about six or seven minutes.

Can we divide the remaining 25 minutes of debate between us? I propose that we share the time remaining and finish at 3.45 p.m.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

That is up to the Minister. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Previous speakers have referred to the merits of the Bill and the need to introduce it. It has not come before the House before its time. It has been long awaited and it is long overdue. Teachers and people who have been in public life for some time cannot but feel saddened to see a mother bring a young child before them on a Saturday morning to inquire about the possibility of placing the child in a particular school to improve his or her chances of obtaining an education. Apart altogether from the merits of this Bill, we must recognise the children themselves. They do not realise what is ahead of them when they are three, four or five years of age. They are in no way responsible for or capable of altering the route that lies ahead.

It is difficult and heartrending from an onlookers point of view. From the parent's point of view it is a particularly hard road to follow. I compliment and commend the parents who spend so much time and energy pursuing the objective of securing the rights and facilities to allow their children to learn. Education allows those children to participate in some way in society. We must also recognise the tremendous work done by the teachers who have provided services to these children and the great burden they have carried. There is a need for more teachers to shoulder the burden in the future. We must commend organisations like St. Raphael's special school in my constituency, KARE and St. John of God's which have given tremendous support to children and young adults with disabilities. They will continue to meet their educational needs.

I make a special appeal to the Minister for Education and Science and the Minister for Health and Children. Despite increased investment and the recognition by the Department of Education and Science of children with special needs, there is a more serious and glaring gap in the requirements than there was previously. Every Member has countless constituents who plead on a weekly basis for a place for a child with particular needs. Sometimes a place is sought in mainstream education and at other times it is sought in a special school. We should always do our best to answer such calls, from whichever direction they come, to play a part in lightening the burden for people with these problems.

There is an economic benefit to doing so. We have come across this year after year. If a child with special needs has access to a reasonable standard of education, he or she will become capable of competing in society and of gaining access to the circle which prohibited such children from participating fully in the past. Everything that can be done should be done to make that possible. Notwithstanding other economic requirements and the exigencies of budgets, I appeal to the Minister for Education and Science and the Minister for Health and Children to recognise the needs of persons with disabilities at this time. If we invest in this area today, we will see a greater benefit tomorrow. Enabling people with disabilities to participate now will ensure that they can help themselves in future. Failure on the part of society to respond to their needs while they are still young will yield a negative dividend in the future. Other speakers have referred to the issue of rights which must certainly be borne in mind.

One must recognise all of the carers who have cared for children and young adults with special needs through the years and who continue to do so. Their dedication and herculean efforts are only slightly recognised through the provision of carer's allowance. The dedication of the carer must be witnessed to be fully appreciated.

At this time, we should focus on the right of access to educational facilities for all children. I do not make a political point. The quality of the fabric of many schools is deplorable. It is a sad reflection on our society that we have children who are committed during their entire school lives to education in pre-fabricated structures. Teachers and children are confined to damp conditions. Society is not treating the new generation fairly. I cannot understand why we cannot recognise in time that as the population increases and there are more children around, schools must be provided. Financial provision should be made for these schools well in advance. I make these points in respect of mainstream and special schools which are deficient in terms of structures and facilities. I ask the Minister to bear those needs in mind, particularly as we approach the festive season.

The Bill before us is fine. I hope it is given the financial backing which will be required to make its provisions effective. There is no point having legislation unless it is effective and the necessary procedures and funding are put in place. Otherwise, it is nothing more than a cosmetic exercise. It would be particularly wrong if future Ministers of whichever political hue were to say that persons with disabilities could not have what they needed because of economic cutbacks. There must be some degree of continuity and consistency in this particular area. If it is not forthcoming, this or any similar Bill is unlikely to benefit the people whose needs it was intended to address or society at large. I would be grateful if the Minister were to comment on the need for continuity and consistency in his reply.

The Sinnott case was referred to earlier. It is regrettable that some people have to go to court to seek their rights. I will say no more about it because the issue has been discussed ad nauseam over the past couple of years. It should not happen like that. Society should not force people into a situation where they must go to court to achieve what should be an ordinary, constitutional human right.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Minister for allowing flexibility on time. Deputy Durkan referred to resources and while the Minister is here, I make a brief suggestion which his Department might consider. Now that a certain flexibility has been recognised in the EU regarding the Stability and Growth Pact, and noting the number of new schools awaiting construction, will the Department look at the possibility of PPPs for schools?

PPPs have been in place for some second level schools and I believe they have been successful. In areas where primary schools will be built – three have been identified in my county – comments have been made that people would favour entering an agreement with the Department to provide the money to build a school through some kind of pay-back system which would extend over a number of years. What better type of system could there be than the local community becoming involved in providing its own school on a pay-back basis? This is something the Department should consider. If the Minister thinks there is merit in the idea, we could get accountants to draw up the type of financial arrangement necessary. This would benefit the schools. At present, due to the scarcity of resources and our adherence to the Stability and Growth Pact, we do not have the flexibility to provide the money to the Department to build those schools.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute my tuppence worth on the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill. Will the Minister reconsider the Bill's title? The Minister's explanatory memorandum provides a better title – Education of Children with Special Educational Needs. This title would more readily reflect the contents of the Bill. I ask the Minister to reconsider the title before Committee and Report Stages.

Deputy Carey reminisced about our teaching days and the difficulties we experienced as teachers. One of the first years I spent teaching, I had 44 boys in my classroom and it was rather difficult to cope in those times. I distinctly recall the advent of a new pupil to my class who travelled every day from the local psychiatric hospital where he was a resident. He was brought to school by a psychiatric nurse every morning, deposited at my door and I delivered him back into safe hands at 3.45 p.m. I had to cope with and try to do something with him along with the other 44 boys.

I agree with Deputy Carey that the cigire, when he visited schools, was not too interested in individuals. When he visited my class, he was not very interested in this young lad. I had fourth class at the time and the cigire was interested in long division. It is remarkable that something which was so important to the cigire at the time does not appear to exist now. Pupils now do it all on their calculators. The high priority we put on such matters has disappeared. I recall how important the spelling tests used to be. They too were high on the cigire's agenda. Nowadays there is no need for all that because computers have a spellcheck which removes the need to know one's spellings at all. How priorities have changed.

In my short time here the number of queries and clinic calls I receive on special needs matters has grown dramatically. Parents are conscious of the needs of their children and want the best for them and there is huge demand for a level of service which will achieve this.

I commend the staff of the Minister's special education section who work under extreme difficulties. They are probably short staffed and short of resources but they are always courteous and pleasant to deal with. I hope the Minister will be able to provide the extra resources they need to overcome the difficulties in the section. Thousands of applications are waiting to be processed but the section does not have the resources to do the work. Unless the Minister can provide these resources, the applications will lie there and children whose needs have been assessed will miss out. That is not fair.

I wish to make a special plea on behalf of a particular group of people affected by the provisions of this Bill and how they are implemented, namely school principals. Deputy Carey has been there and done that. There are two classes of primary school principals, those in a school of more than eight teachers who are referred to as walking principals and those in schools of eight teachers or less. A walking principal has the full-time job of administering the school, which is a difficult task. The school is generally fairly big, in an urban area and the principal must cope with all the associated problems. Approximately 25% of primary school principals around the country are in that situation.

I urge the Minister to consider the school where there are seven or eight teachers. The principal in such a school must teach a full day. These principals will probably be responsible for sixth class and for preparing the pupils for second level school. They may also have to face the difficulties associated with having some pupils with special needs. On top of all that, they have the responsibility of dealing with parents, difficult children, psychological reports etc. This Bill will impose a further raft of responsibilities on these principals who will end up having to cope with them.

It is easy for me to say all this but I can suggest a solution which I ask the Minister to examine. It may be a revolutionary way of looking at matters but I saw it happening in another jurisdiction where it worked well. The solution is that where a principal is working in a school which does not warrant a walking principal, the Minister should introduce an entitlement of days allocated for delivering on the responsibilities of the principal. To cope with this, a part-time teacher must be brought in to allow the principal time off to cope with the responsibilities of the position.

This Bill imposes huge responsibility on principals. Section 10 states that the principal must review the special plan that is in place at least once a year to establish if the pupil is achieving the goals specified in the education plan. How can principals do this if they have to teach classes full time? When will they get the chance to meet the child to review the education plan? How will they cope with it? What is the solution? One cannot keep a child back in the evening or bring him or her in on a Saturday. One cannot leave one's class to go to another. Where will principals find the time to do it? How can they ensure it will be done? Is it fair that the system will operate in this way? Will this provision be pushed aside without attention being given to it?

The establishment of education plans for children with special needs is extremely important. Such plans should be carried through in the best possible way. Somebody should oversee their carrying through. When will principals in schools with between three and seven teachers get a chance to review them? How will they do it? How will they be able to report back to parents? Principals are given such a responsibility in section 10 which states "the principal shall make a report to the parents of the child concerned and the relevant special educational needs organiser of the outcome of a review". When will they do it? The Bill also states principals are responsible for the implementation of plans for children with special needs. Not only must they review such plans at least once each year but they are also responsible for implementing them. How can they do this while carrying out their responsibilities at the same time?

The Bill contains another beautiful provision in respect of what will happen if a pupil with special needs transfers from one school to another while an education plan is in place. In such circumstances, the principal of the first school is responsible for "ensuring that the second-mentioned school is capable of implementing that plan". I challenge the Minister to explain to the House how any principal can do this. If I were a principal, I would not like to have to assess if my neighbour's school down the road could cope with a pupil's education plan. I would not like to have to say, "I do not think you can because I do not think you are up to the standard and I do not think you will be able to do it." I agree with the Minister that somebody has to ensure the school to which a pupil is moving will live up to the standards of his or her previous school but it is a very onerous responsibility. I appreciate that the Minister is interested in continuity but I am concerned about the practicalities of the proposed system which gives responsibility to principals. The Minister knows that in rural areas the principal of one school may not be on speaking terms with his or her counterpart down the road.

They might get more money.

They may not be speaking because pupils were poached or demographic areas were not being fully adhered to. I am not sure this aspect of the Bill can work.

Principals and deputy principals have been told by their advisers that if the Bill is enacted in full, the workload in respect of special needs pupils which is already significant will increase greatly. Perhaps the Minister will comment on this advice. I hope he will take on board the suggestion that principals in smaller schools should have access to part-time teachers who could take on their class for a certain number of hours in a day or a week. This is necessary if principals are to fulfil their responsibilities and live up to the further responsibilities being given to them in the Bill.

I thank the Members who contributed to the debate on the Bill this afternoon and in recent weeks. Having followed it on the monitor and in the Official Report, I have been struck by the depth of the commitment of Members on all sides of the House to trying to ensure persons with disabilities or special needs are looked after well in the education system. Anybody who reads the transcripts of this debate in the future will be struck in a similar way. I thank all Deputies on all sides for their constructive approach to the Bill. I look forward to continuing the discussion on Committee Stage.

I appreciate that I do not have much time to respond but I would like to refer to some of the significant issues of concern raised by Deputies. I would like to address a number of the points made today. The need to make available adequate resources for the provision of services, as envisaged in the Bill, has been a consistent theme in the debate. I restate my firm belief that section 12 provides a practical solution for their concerns. It takes into account the fact that funds for education services must be approved by the House. We have to remember that there is no such thing as an open-ended Estimate in any Department. This fact is recognised by section 12 which prioritises special education in the context of the Estimates.

Despite the fact that there has not been a legal onus on us to increase expenditure on special education, there have been dramatic increases since 1998. Huge improvements have been made in the services available. The national educational psychological service, for example, has expanded beyond recognition in recent years. Many more resource teachers, special needs teachers and special learning teachers have been provided. The amount of funding for facilities for young people with special needs in schools has increased. All areas of expenditure have increased exponentially. I have calculated that well over €1 billion has been specifically dedicated to special educational needs in the last five years. Well over €300 million is expended on an annual basis.

Many Deputies mentioned the definition of "disability". Some have questioned the reason there has been a change from the definition contained in the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill 2002 which followed closely the definition in the Education Act. The new definition of "educational disability" is preferable because it is less medically focused than the definition included in the Education Act. It is broadly similar to the definition of "disability" contained in the National Disability Authority Act. The new definition is a good one because it concentrates on the effects of disability rather than the cause. This is more appropriate in an educational setting.

Many Deputies want assurances about the treatment of a certain group of children. I have stated in the past that children with particular conditions, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADD and ADHD, will not be denied their right to receive an assessment and individual education plan where this is necessary to meet their needs. As a result of the concerns which have been expressed, I will discuss the matter with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel to ensure this is reflected in the definition of "educational disability".

I know many people are seriously concerned about this and we have tried to allay their fears in that regard. I ask them to accept my bona fides and those of the Department. We are not trying to deprive anyone. I would like us to tease this out on Committee Stage in a non-political manner. I understand the temptation is there and, if I was on the Opposition benches, I would be doing the same but I would like such a debate because we have had it internally in the Department. I am convinced we have it at the moment. However, I am still open if there are fears and we will consult with the parliamentary counsel because Deputies have raised this question. Nonetheless, focusing on the educational needs rather than the disability and its causes is a better way of doing this.

The Bill will give rights in law to children with special needs and their parents which build upon the rights enumerated in the Education Act and Article 42 of the Constitution. On this Bill becoming law, children with special educational needs will have a right to an assessment, the right to an individual education plan and the right to have the services they need to ensure they can use their abilities to their greatest potential. I am not sure if we have caught the spirit of this in the Bill but we have tried to ensure the Bill does not just refer to a person's disabilities – we should enumerate a person's abilities and play to those strengths, a point made by several Deputies.

The parents will have a right to be involved and consulted at every stage of their child's development, a right to appeal decisions of the National Council for Special Education or a health board to the Special Education Appeals Board. The Bill will put in place a mechanism which will ensure no child gets left behind and where every parent can hope to achieve an education for their child which will make the best use of their abilities. We will give all children the tools necessary to engage in society on the best possible terms by ensuring they have the same right to avail of, and benefit from, appropriate education as do their peers who do not have special needs. These rights are essential for ensuring justice, equality and compassion in education into the future.

I fully accept the necessity for continuity and for joined-up Government and Civil Service thinking in regard to people with special needs, particularly between the Departments of Education and Science and Health and Children. We have a long way to go on this. There are provisions in the Bill which we think will take us a distance along this route and it is another area on which we can focus on Committee Stage to see if we can strengthen the mechanisms. This is crucially important, a view most Deputies share.

The Title was raised by Deputies McGrath and Stanton. I am not hung up on the Titles of Bills. There may be a better, more positive one which we can give to the Bill and we can examine it on Committee Stage. Nevertheless, we will all agree that whatever the Title of the Bill, the delivery of the service under it will be much more important. If we can make the Title more positive, that is fine.

I thank Deputy McGrath for his kind remarks about the staff in the special education section. I know he is not at all biased by the fact that many of them are his constituents. I share his view. They would be the first people to admit that they have at times not been able to give the service they would want to give. I particularly acknowledge the pressure under which they work. We are trying to refocus their work and, on two occasions on which we have suggested different methods and changes in focus, they moved and adapted readily, which is making a difference.

I accept that this Bill places an onus and responsibility on school principals. I am mindful of the fact that there are probably a few school principals among the Deputies opposite.

The Minister should increase benchmarking.

I was just about to mention benchmarking in a different context. Most principals discharge their onerous responsibilities well. They are paid an extra amount of money for the extra duties they do and they received extra money under benchmarking. If there is a failure among school principals at the moment, it is in not using the management structures they have in the schools and not ensuring that other people who have posts of responsibility discharge fully their functions. This is often because, out of the best possible motives, they feel they have to do this job themselves. If we are failing, and it is probably a failure on the part of the Department, it is in the need for further professional and management development of principals, which has been raised by the IPPN and the INTO.

The principal's day with children is full.

I will refer to non-administrative or walking principals. The Hay report reflected that because we have so many small schools, the vast majority of which are under four teachers, we cannot give the principal of every school the full walking principal status and I do not think we should. However, principals should mobilise their management and their posts of responsibility better than they do. That would be some help to them, although I am not saying it would solve all their problems.

There is a growing tendency among teachers to get posts of responsibility and the allowances which go with them and then feel they are entitled to time off to fulfil the responsibilities. I do not accept that argument. I may lose this and have done so in conciliation and arbitration, but as far as I am concerned, people get their post of responsibility money for the extra hours they have to put in and the extra responsibility they have. I do not see why somebody should get extra pay for taking on additional duties and then seek or be entitled to time off in respect of those duties. However, that is a matter for another day. I am sure the Deputies opposite who are teachers would like to discuss it with me at a later stage.

Another one just arrived in the Chamber.

I thank everyone for the constructive attitude that has been adopted. I look forward to Committee Stage being taken in the near future in order that it can pass through both Houses as quickly as possible.

Question put and agreed to.