National Council for Special Education Order 2003: Ministerial Presentation.

I welcome the Minister and his officials. We are here to consider the National Council for Special Education Order 2003. Perhaps the Minister will introduce his colleagues and talk to us about this order.

I am accompanied by the Assistant Secretaries General, Mr. Pat Burke and Mr. Peter Baldwin, both of whom have overlapping responsibilities in this area. I thank the chairman for his welcome. I am pleased to seek resolutions from the Dáil and Seanad to approve a draft order proposing to establish a national council for special education.

Members will be aware that I am preparing to introduce an education for persons with disabilities Bill in the Houses in the near future. Provision for a national council for special education will be contained in the Bill. Establishing a council by ministerial order in advance of the enactment of the education for persons with disabilities Bill does not set the remit of the council in stone. If, during the course of the debate on the content of the Bill, it becomes clear that there is a need to adjust it, this can and will happen.

The difficulties faced by parents seeking an appropriate education for children with special educational needs are well documented. Section 54 of the Education Act 1998 allows me to establish bodies to perform functions in or in relation to the provision of educational support services as long as both Houses approve. I am proposing to use this mechanism to take a practical step towards remedying some of the difficulties arising in relation to special education as quickly as possible. The Education Act allows me to act quicker than we probably would have been able to act in setting up the council because the legislation is not yet passed. It is important that we do so as a priority.

As well as forming part of the provisions proposed in an education for persons with disabilities Bill, establishing an alternative structure to deal with elements of special education provision is one of the central planks of the programme of structural reform of my Department. The establishment of a national council for special education is one of the specific measures set out in the Government decision of 2001 approving the programme.

In his review of the operations, systems and staffing needs of my Department in 2000, Seán Cromien, speaking of the special education section of my Department stated:

The reality is that the section has neither the expertise nor the resources to meet the emerging demands of the system. Its involvement in the day to day delivery of services continues to be such that critical policy issues have remained unattended to. Accordingly there is a need to extricate the section and, indeed, the Inspectorate from involvement in individual special needs cases and to re-focus their attention on the core issue of policy development in the special needs area. This can be achieved only by both developing an alternative structure for processing individual cases and providing expert research capacity to underpin policy development.

Outlining some broad statistics relating to investment in the education of children with special needs in the recent past shows that there has been a significant response to needs. In particular, the quantum of resources in the system has dramatically increased following the introduction of automatic entitlement for children with special needs at primary level. The number of resource teachers has increased from just over 100 to in excess of 2,500. The number of special needs assistants has increased from 300 to 5,000. Escorts have been provided on more than 600 bus routes used by children with special needs. The increased investment has had a positive impact for many children and their families, but for many others their problems have persisted. This reflects the reality that the structure for the delivery of services has simply not kept pace with the scale of increased investment.

No one would try to claim that our overall approach to special needs education has been strategic. The increase in investment has been, by and large, a direct response to the demands of parents and education providers. To date, there has been no overall guiding plan or set of principles. This leads to some major weaknesses. We cannot be sure, for instance, that investment is being targeted in a way that will provide the most effective service for those children on whose behalf it is made. We cannot be sure that all children who should benefit from this investment do so. Without strong policy and targeting in this area, we cannot plan properly for the future. Special needs education is a wide and complex area. It is an evolving area where we are constantly discovering more about what children can do and learn, given the appropriate supports and stimuli. Any successful policy in this area must be based on relevant, up-to-date expert advice. If we do not plan for the future, we have no capacity to ensure that educational services are in place for each child when that child needs them.

While our approach to date has met significant needs within the area, it does not have the capacity to properly anticipate future needs. Without targets and systematic evaluation of outcomes, it is impossible to be sure that we are obtaining the best value for money from our expenditure. We need to put a structure in place for the future that will address these weaknesses, build on the real progress that has been made to date and extend that progress to these children who have not benefited, or who have received limited benefit, from the growth in provision.

The council I am proposing will have three broad functions. It will carry out research and provide expert advice to the Minister and Department of Education and Science. It will also provide for a range of services in order that the educational needs of children are identified and met. Finally, together with health boards, schools and other relevant bodies, it will co-ordinate the provision of education and related support services to children with disabilities.

The research and advisory function is at the core of the future development of our special education services. I expect the council to undertake this function in a systematic and prioritised way from the date of its establishment.

The second two functions are inter-related. They involve ongoing assessment and review of the educational and related support services, consultation with health boards and other bodies providing related support services, provision of information to parents, schools and other service providers, monitoring the educational progress of individual children and co-ordinating the various agencies that may contribute to education provision. I am consciously providing for a delay in the commencement of these functions to enable the council to recruit and train its key personnel. The delivery of the council's service will be achieved by deploying up to 80 special educational needs organisers throughout the State. It is essential that the council be allowed the necessary lead-in time to complete its recruitment, training and service delivery strategies in an orderly way.

The advent of the council will bring tangible benefits to parents. For the first time, clear information will be available in relation to entitlement and parents will be able to call upon a locally based official to ensure that entitlements are actually delivered. It might be helpful to take the example of an individual child in terms of considering the operation of this new service. Let us assume this child is a girl for the purpose of the illustration, although everything we are considering will apply equally to boys. The child is presenting with physical disabilities and learning difficulties. Prior to entering formal education her needs must be assessed to ensure that the most appropriate educational goals are set. The resources required to help her attain these might include the following: adaptation of a school building to accommodate physical difficulties, provision of a special needs assistant, provision of assistive technology which may improve her ability to participate in the classroom and physiotherapy or speech therapy. Additional teaching resources might also be necessary. A young child will also require monitoring to evaluate progress and reset goals if necessary. We cannot map out a ten year plan for a four year old and stick rigidly to it regardless of how the child progresses. Our planning for the child must be flexible and responsive to her needs as they present at any given time.

When this child reaches 12 or 13, her post-primary education must be considered. If she is to transfer to a mainstream post-primary, her new school may need assistance to organise the accommodation of her needs. The educational needs of most of our children are met through the teamwork of the children, their parents and teachers working within a well defined system. The needs of the child with a disability will also be met by a team, but the team may need to be expanded to include inputs from psychologists, physiotherapists, speech therapists, special needs assistants and specialist teachers. The expanded team may be required to work within a system defined specifically for the individual child. The core of the work of the new special educational needs organisers will be to take on the role of co-ordinating all aspects of the education of children with special educational needs and ensuring that all the aforementioned players operate cohesively in the interests of the child.

The council will consist of 13 members, including a chairperson. All council members will be chosen from among persons with a special interest in or knowledge relating to the education of children with disabilities. Two of these members will be appointed following nominations by the National Disability Authority. The order provides for consultation with a range of interests prior to the making of appointments and allows me to appoint up to four members following that consultative process. The head office staff provided for the council will consist of civil servants. This staff will be in the direct employment of the council. A chief executive officer reporting to the council will head a staff including personnel at senior level with expertise in research. The number of head office staff provided for will be relatively small - about 18 people. I have already mentioned that the direct service work of the council will be performed by up to 80 special educational needs organisers. A very high proportion of the resources of the council will be deployed in direct service provision.

The council as proposed marks the start of a systematic approach to the delivery of educational services for children with disabilities. From its establishment, the council will contribute to the development of policy in this area. From 2004 it will be engaged in direct service provision to children and their parents and teachers. The basic role of the council is contained in the functions set out in the order. However, I expect that the council will evolve and develop this role as it conducts its operations in response to the needs of its clients.

I have referred previously to the gap between increased State investment and the creation of structures capable of delivering expanded services. I am confident that in the approval of this proposed order we will be taking a major step forward in developing services and service delivery to the most vulnerable of our children.

Can we agree on ten minutes' speaking time for the spokespersons of the main parties and five for everybody else? That is about as much as we can allow.

I welcome the Minister and his officials. My first question relates to the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill 2002. We were discussing before the Minister came in whether that would come before the House before the summer recess as it will have important effects. Is the Minister able to tell us whether this will happen? How will the introduction of the national council for special education affect the Bill? Will the new council be mentioned in the Bill when it is introduced? I agree with the Minister that the Department is too preoccupied with the day to day running of things and that other mechanisms do need to be put in place to deal with certain issues. Obviously special education is one of the most important of them.

I am concerned about the possibility of setting up too many bodies. How will the national council for special education and the NEPS psychological service interact? What mechanisms will be there to enable one to work with or report to the other? NEPS is the co-ordinator of psychological services. Many of the children with special education needs will need psychological assessment, but I do not see any reference to NEPS in the address by the Minister, although I am open to correction about whether it is in the order - I do not remember seeing it. We need clarity; it needs to be outlined clearly how these two services will work with each other because there is the potential for a huge overlap. I know that NEPS and the new council will be involved in an overall evaluation of each child and ensuring that all services and so on are working together. However, it needs to be made clear how these two bodies will interact.

The Minister mentioned special needs assistants. I am concerned about the training these people are given and I would like to know whether it is intended to review this. Does the Minister feel there is a need for a review? It is essential that they all receive the same level of training. I also ask the Minister whether it is intended to review the terms of employment of special needs assistants. The system in operation at the moment is very unfair. A teacher teaching a class of junior infants will get the same salary as one who is teaching sixth class. A special needs assistant working with a child in the junior classes is only in temporary employment - he or she builds up no rights or entitlements and can be let go at a moment's notice - whereas a special needs assistant with a child in any of the classes from senior infants onwards builds up entitlements and receives normal increments and salary increases. It is extremely unfair that one small group of special needs assistants is treated in this manner. Any employee is entitled to basic rights and the special needs assistants in the junior classes are not getting these.

I am also concerned about the whole system of special needs assistants. I have said that they need more training, but their terms of employment need to be considered within the system. Once they are finished with a particular child they can be out of the system even though they may have five to seven years experience in the job. There is no system to transfer them to another school. It would make more sense to try to retain those who have the experience within the system rather than giving another child a new special needs assistant who may have no prior experience. That is an area we could examine. Is it correct to say, as I have heard, that teachers who want to transfer and become resource teachers have to wait about three years to get on a training course to facilitate this. If so, how does the Minister or the Department intend to address this?

In terms of the service and its delivery, despite the fact that NEPS has been up and running for a considerable time it still takes up to a year for some children to be assessed. After that it can take several months for those children to get their special needs assistant. Does the Minister envisage that once the national council for special education is up and running that this will be addressed and that the process can be dealt with more quickly?

The Minister mentioned health boards and interaction with them. The NEPS psychologists are making assessments and the health board pyschologists are also in some instances assessing these children, either because they did not get the NEPS assessment or because the parents got these psychologists to assess their children. There is wide variance in these assessments. The last time someone from the Department attended our committee we discussed this and he said it is because they are assessing according to different criteria. If there is to be interaction with health boards in terms of the national council for special education what value is going to be given to the opinions of health boards versus the opinion of the national council for special education or somebody from NEPS? There is nothing in the order to say which will be the recognised body in this regard. How is this going to work and fit in with the existing system? It is vital that we have health board involvement but there is no point in having that if we do not know what recognition it will have.

What funding will be allocated to the national council for special education? Does the Minister have a figure in mind for what it is going to cost every year? What time scale does the Minister envisage for the 80 special needs organisers - SNOs - to be up and running? Where and how are they going to be located? Will they work from a central office where the 18 head office staff will be employed under the chief executive or will they be located in different areas around the country? How is it envisaged that the 80 SNOs will be distributed around the country? Will they be located on a county or regional basis or according to need?

I, too, welcome the Minister and the representatives from the Department. Like Deputy Enright I am concerned about when the Bill will be published. I raised this with the Taoiseach on the Order of Business yesterday and I got the impression that it may not be published before the end of the current term. If that is the case I would be seriously concerned because it was highlighted in the legislative programme for last autumn, and in the January to Easter programme, and again for the current programme. There is certainly an expectation that the Bill will come out. We need a specific answer on that from the Minister.

I am concerned about the general setting up of bodies like this which are at a remove from the responsibilities of the Minister and the Department. The two examples I would cite are the Examinations Commission which we discussed here recently and the Education Welfare Board. I have put down parliamentary questions about both very recently, one on the maths paper that was queried in the leaving certificate and the other on the general allocation of education welfare officers under the Education Welfare Board and in each case the answer was that this is the reponsibility of the board or the commission. I could not get direct answers to the questions I had raised.

I am concerned that we are removing special education from ministerial responsibility particularly because of the problems with the disability Bill and the education for persons with disabilities Bills as published last year. The disability organisation wanted an assessment of needs, the right to have those needs fulfilled and some means of redress if a person's needs were not fulfilled by the relevant Departments. If we have a separate council to deliver, does the ultimate responsibility to deliver the constitutional right of the child to have an appropriate education still rest with the Minister? Parents want that to be the case because they have got rights in the past, at least in some situations, only because they had a constitutional right and were able to exercise that right. I want to make sure that the responsibility to provide for the needs of people with disabilities in the educational sphere rests ultimately with the Minister, not with this council.

That is a very important point and if I am not reassured on that I will not support the separation of this role from the Minister. I will need to make a stand in the forthcoming Bill rather than in this order that but I just want clarity on it. This is being set up under the Education Act 1998. We would expect it to be set up under the new legislation on a statutory basis. What is the relationship between the new Bill which is going to come before us and the setting up of this council under the Education Act 1998? My understanding was that this council was going to be set up under the education for persons with disabilities Bill.

I realise the Minister may have brought it forward deliberately to get things up and running and I do not have a problem with that but I want to ensure that it is linked directly with the assessment of needs commitments and delivery of needs under the education for persons with disabilities Bill and under the proposed disabilities Bill. The disabilities organisations would prefer the disabilities Bill to come first becasue they want an overall assessment of need. They do not want a separate educational assessment being done before the overall assessment of need because people's needs cover a wide range of services. The Minister will be familiar with this issue but it is important that we are clear on what is going to happen with regard to assessment of need.

That brings me on to my next concern. I was reassured by the Minister's speech because he said "her needs must be assessed" when he spoke about the individual case and later "the expanded team may be required to work within a system defined specifically for the individual child" and that is the approach we have to take but in the establishment order it seems more paternalistic than that. It seems to be the system setting itself up rather than that the individual child's needs are the central point. It talks about providing a range of services, "co-ordinating with health boards", "making available information" to parents rather than direct consultation with parents. "Consulting with schools and health boards" is fair enough but the consultation does not seem to extend to parents in the order we are being asked to agree.

There is a general assessment and review of the provision of education but it does not say anything about individual assessment. Who is going to do the individual assessment of need? That relates to Deputy Enright's question about NEPS and the interaction with different bodies. We need clarity on all these questions, particularly in the context of the Bills which we will tease out in more detail than this document. Is this a provisional arrangement? Will we have a chance at a later stage to make sure that it links directly with what is provided for in the forthcoming legislation? I support Deputy Enright's question about resources. It will be essential that there is enough money to provide for all these needs.

The Education Welfare Board has not been able to roll out education welfare officers as yet because it does not have enough resources - I know extra resources have been promised. It is essential those resources are provided because this will be accompanied by statutory rights. It is crucial that the finance required to provide for special education need is put in place. That is an important issue.

Another issue which arises is that which is usually described as the money following the child, though it does not really relate to the provision of money to any child. I agree with the Minister that this scheme will need to be re-examined over the life of the child because needs may change. We need to take the approach that the individual child's needs are what drive the service. Perhaps the Minister will give us his opinion on that.

I know some members visited Finland recently and may have experience in this regard. I recently spoke to someone who told me that in Finland the parents, in consultation with experts, decide on the service, on the basis of an assessment of need, that they will avail of for their child. To what extent will that be in our system or will parents have to fit the needs of the child into whatever the service providers give? I am trying to find out where the power lies. I am reassured by the Minister's speech but the written words we are being asked to approve seem to be systems based rather than individually centred.

I, too, welcome the Minister and his officials. I share similar concerns to previous speakers in relation to the education for persons with disabilities Bill which has been touted for a long time. It has been long awaited and the issue has been raised by us many times in the Dáil. Even if it appears on the schedule in the next two weeks it will not be dealt with in any substantial manner until, at the earliest, October or November. Combined with the disabilities Bill, which may not be taken until after Christmas, that is a long wait for those organisations who were expecting action following the Government's withdrawal of the previous Bill in April or May 2002. One hopes the reason for the wait is due to fine tuning and tweaking the consultation process with the organisations in order to provide cohesive legislation that will satisfy everyone and that will be backed up by the necessary resources. If that is not so, I would appreciate if the Minister or his officials could clarify the reason for the long delay which is now becoming a farce. We are often slagged off for the length of time the Dáil and Seanad are in session. Though this committee will continue it will be next October at the earliest before this committee will get a chance to examine this long awaited legislation. Even if it comes up for discussion in the next two weeks we will not have an opportunity to examine it in any great detail.

I presume the Minister is bringing forward the national council under section 54 of the Education Act 1998 as a precursor similar to the one which established the Science Foundation Ireland before its integration into an Act. I know officials hoped to have a national council up and running a couple of months ago. It would be good to get it up and running in advance of the Act, however much we disagree with the delay of the education for persons with disabilities Bill. Again, I share the concerns expressed by the previous two speakers in terms of accountability. Once members are appointed to the council, will the Minister's response to questions raised by Deputies and Senators be that he has no direct responsibility in this area? I have found in my capacity as spokesperson for Arts, Sports and Tourism that questions are often passed on to another Department. In terms of transparency, we need clarity that any valid questions in relation to the operation of the council can be answered by the Minister given his responsibility for its day to day operation.

I also wish to raise the issue of resources. I know additional funding will be available and that has possibly been mentioned elsewhere. It might not be a bad idea to outline on the record the additional allocation of resources being provided to help make the national council work. I am seeking a breakdown of such resources as it has been stated that a very high proportion will be deployed towards direct service provision. Can the Minister confirm that any resources deployed will not be taken from other areas? He mentioned that the needs of a child with a disability will also be met by a theme but that that theme may need to be expanded to inputs from psychologists, physiotherapists, speech therapists, etc. Other issues that may arise would include adaptation within a school building to accommodate a child's physical difficulties, a special needs assistant or assistive technology. I presume that when the special education needs organisers, when set up, will have a remit whereby if they cannot get psychologists or physiotherapists they can report to the Minister and that report will be made available to members so we can examine why they cannot carry out their job effectively. Having such a large number of organisers at various centres throughout the country is to be welcomed but they can only operate if the resources to recruit more psychologists and physiotherapists, etc. are made available. I mention psychologists and physiotherapists because other speakers have referred to shortages in that area. The South-western Area Health Board is experiencing great difficulties in relation to the shortage of psychologists. Recognition of physiotherapists will be covered in legislation to come before us later in the year. The special education needs organisers may be confronted by those two issues. They may come up against a brick wall and if they do, how are they to organise special education needs with the required resources? If they hit that brick wall, do they have any power to ringfence additional funding or do they have to go cap in hand to the Minister? How will they work in the absence of funding? Are additional resources being made available for all the tools which the special education needs organisers might try to co-ordinate? If they are not to have those resources then there is no need to have them because that would just be a waste of resources. Will that money be forthcoming this year and next year?

I welcome the Minister and his officials. I also welcome the establishment of the council at this time. I congratulate the Minister for taking this initiative in advance of the education for persons with disabilities Bill. The Minister said the council will be incorporated into that Bill and we will have an opportunity, between now and then, to see how it operates.

I particularly liked the part of the Minister's speech which read: "Special needs education is a wide and complex area. It is an evolving area where we are constantly discovering more about what children can do and learn given the appropriate supports and stimuli". I take the Minister at his word that he is personally interested in this and I support him in any action he takes to better the circumstances for children with special needs.

There is a flaw in our system in that we cannot actually propose any amendments to this secondary legislation in committee. A provision exists in legislation whereby most bodies, when established, are required when asked to come before committees such as this to do so. I do not see that provision here; perhaps it is included in the main Act. I am concerned that accountability is not included. Will the Minister address that and let me know his views? We had a situation where somebody refused to come before a committee of this House. For this reason it should be written into the legislation.

What power will the special needs organisers have? Will they be able to order or ensure that entitlements are delivered and how will they be able to do so? In regard to the perceived need of a person, is there an appeals mechanism in the case of a dispute between a special needs organiser and the parent? How will that operate? If the special needs organiser decides that he does not agree with the parent that the child needs certain assistance, what mechanism is there for an appeal? Will the Minister continue to answer questions in the House about the operation of special needs? At the moment the system is administered from his Department and he is obliged to answer them. When the new system is set up will the Minister no longer be responsible and will not have to answer questions about the operation and functions of the council?

We know that the need for special needs education starts at playschool or pre-school level. Will this council have a function at that level? Given that at pre-school level the Department of Health and Children, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Department of Education and Science are all involved, what mechanisms does the Minister see as necessary or has he given this matter any consideration? He must agree that many children have their needs identified at that level and that it is crucially important to intervene then. How will this be co-ordinated and what role and authority will his special needs organisers have at that level?

What role does the Minister see for his own Department and the inspectorate given that the duties, where special needs are concerned, are taken from the Department? How will the inspectorate interact with this special council?

What qualifications will special needs organisers have? Are these people already employed by his Department or will there be some form of competition or will the positions be advertised? Will the special needs organisers make final decisions or will they have to refer to expert groups? Nobody can be an expert in everything and these organisers may have to take advice from experts in individual areas. How will that be done?

What funding will be available to this council? In regard to the research and advisory function of the council, for how far ahead will the council actually plan, research and look at needs? A ten year timescale is needed in order to anticipate future needs but will the council have that?

The child is defined as somebody who is under 18 years of age. After leaving special education at that age those with disabilities are often left with nothing. I came across a situation yesterday where a child who has reached 18 and who is totally dependent on others for everything has been told that there is no longer a place for him in the special school or in any workshop in the area. Does the Minister see the council having a role in helping with the transition facing a special needs child at age 18?

There are special schools looking after people with special needs around the country. These have not been mentioned in the establishment order or in the Minister's speech. Will these schools be given an enhanced role in this area?

I join previous speakers in welcoming the Minister. As I had to go for a vote I am unsure of what previous speakers have said. I will be brief because I am sure most points have been covered.

I welcome the establishment order which is a timely, measured approach to where we are heading. Everybody is shouting for a disability Bill to come before the House but it is important to get this complex issue, which is an emotional issue for those involved, right. This establishment order is aspirational in what we hope to achieve and is a move in the right direction.

Is the Department satisfied that we have sufficient numbers of expert and professional personnel required to deliver the services being targeted at people with special needs? There is a shortage already in the number of professional people coming through our university system. I am concerned that if we are to add the number of people required to interface with these children we must be satisfied that we are taking the necessary approaches to ensure the line of professional people will continue in the future. Are we satisfied that is being done?

We are now approaching an integrated approach to teaching people with special needs and integrating them in primary schools. This is welcome as it is good all round for society. What special training, if any, is being given to the line teachers in national schools? Will we revisit the curriculum in training institutions now that this is something that teachers will have to embrace? I am conscious of reports from different schools as to how children with special needs are received. Where it is necessary for professional training to be given to line teachers it should be given at an early stage. This is how we will go forward. Special skills are needed in the education area.

I welcome the Minister and his assistant secretaries. The Minister's speech was honest and frank and acknowledges the lack of systematic planning in this area. There has been a sort of reaction based approach to individual needs as they emerged over the last few years. Resources have been put in but there has been little done in the way of strategy. This answers that particular need.

Deputy O'Sullivan referred to the trip we made to Finland. While the Chairman is trying to provoke me into giving a full report, I will only give some brief indications. Deputy Stanton asked questions about how the system operates in Finland. A key difference in Finland is that the local authorities have a function in the area whereas in Ireland we have a tendency to create agencies. Although yesterday's drama in the health area concerned the creation of too many agencies I do not think this is an agency too many.

There is a problem, and this is where we differ slightly from Finland, regarding accountability. Where a local authority exists and has a function in an educational area there is an opportunity for local representatives to question, assess, analyse and contribute to the functioning of such an agency as the council proposed here. However, there does not seem to be any statutory based opportunity for local representatives to query the work of the council or to call it to heel for any particular reason. It also relates slightly to the issue referred to by Deputy Enright that while these 80 organisers will be locally based, will they correlate to county council areas? Clearly, they will not correlate to health board areas. We want to know how that will be organised.

I am a member of the VEC and the chief executive attends all the committee meetings. Article 23 states that the chief executive is not a member of the council but he may attend the meetings. I would have thought it should be an obligation for him or her to attend the meetings of the council. There are only six meetings per year prescribed under the order so it does not seem to be too onerous a duty and it seems to be the sensible and professional way to do things.

There is a tendency to set up agencies without accountability and I believe that occasionally too many bodies are set up. I do not think this body is one of those. I am one of many speakers here today and I am repeating some of the points raised. We want to know how it will correlate with NEPS and how it will overlap with the Department of Health and Children. One of the things that became clear following our meeting on autism was that we want the two Departments to liaise with each other in a significant way.

I welcome the Minister and his officials. There has been a huge increase in the number of resource teachers, from 100 to 2,500. This statistic could easily be misinterpreted and be regarded as a response by the Department to special needs. The reality behind that increase has nothing to do with special needs. Very often in the past, it was a mechanism for the retention of teacher numbers when the Department wished to retain staff within the system rather than allow teachers to be displaced. Over the period of time in which they have been functioning within the schools, we can see the fast response of the Department to their retention. Currently there is very little real time in which these teachers are available to pupils that are named. The intention was good and the fact that they are there at all is welcome but it has to be seen in the context of the piecemeal access that the pupils in need have to those teachers. It is very disjointed and accidental rather than policy driven. I hope that many of those teachers who were appointed in that way would be immediately provided with the specialist training needed. Many of them are - with the greatest of respect to their professionalism - ordinary national teachers who were seconded into this activity, as it were. Many of them were delighted to get back into that rather than be redeployed as was the fashion at the time. They were brought into this service and it needs serious revamping.

The Minister's submission mentioned research. He stated that the council as proposed marks the start of a systematic approach. At what level is research relative to the overall difficulties within the Department? I find it difficult to say that we have to start from literally the bottom brick upwards. There must be research available to the council from the Department's studies over the years which would provide an important basis for initial research.

It is imperative that there is co-ordination of effort between the Departments of Education and Science and Health and Children. There has been overlapping and a failure of response to needs in the case of the Department of Health and Children as clearly identified by the Department of Education and Science.

With regard to the inspectorate, the Minister states that he hopes to extricate the inspectorate from the council. The inspectorate must play an important role in monitoring the progress and achievement of the council. If the inspectorate solely focuses on the area of policy and it is taken out of the area of monitoring, there will be a void in that area. I hope there will be a positive role for the inspectorate in monitoring and assessing the progress of the council and its needs.

Minister, when you are answering the question about the education for persons with disabilities Bill, will you indicate what kind of consultation has taken place with the interested bodies, please? We are looking at the possibility of having them make presentations to the committee. I assume that the heads of the Bill or the Bill itself will be available by then and we can hear their responses.

Deputy Andrews mentioned the setting up of councils. I think it is the best way to go forward in this instance. The Brennan report has shown the experience in health where most times this was the kind of reaction to the need for new services. I think the council will be effective but as they found in health, that does not necessarily mean that it fits in an efficient manner with other elements of the service. I do not know how the Minister will ensure this happens. On foot of the experience in health, it would be useful if some means could be found to do that.

In relation to the role of the regional organisers, is it the intention that they would be in some connected with the new regional offices? How do you intend people who need to access the service or who require information about it will make contact with these people?

I thank the members of the committee for their very thoughtful and constructive responses to the order which is under discussion today. It has been very helpful and I hope we can approach the Bill for the education of persons with disabilities in the same constructive manner.

The members have raised a large number of questions. If I mention one Deputy or Senator perhaps the others will take it as an acknowledgment of their question also. A number of people have talked about the Bill. The full Bill will be available within a few weeks at most. Unless the Whips decide otherwise, I do not particularly want it in the House before the summer. I believe 40 organisations made submissions, some detailed, to the Department on the Bill. I want those people and the Opposition spokespersons to read the Bill carefully to see that it is based on the constitutional right to education of young people up to the age of 18. In the Bill we are trying to introduce a mechanism for the delivery of that right.

Deputies Enright, O'Sullivan and others asked about co-ordination and how it fits in with NEPS, etc. While it is always dangerous to put it too simplistically, within the legislation the council will be seen to be the body responsible for the provision of education for people with special needs. Other bodies that have been mentioned such as NEPS, etc., will have a role in helping the council to achieve what it needs to achieve to meet the individual needs of children. NEPS has a wider role than special education and psychologists are just one of the inputs towards children's assessments. The national council for special education and the special needs organisers must co-ordinate that and ensure the overall delivery of the service to the individual. There must be close linkages between all the players involved and that is what is intended.

As I clearly outlined, responsibility for setting the policy for the council rests with the Minister. The special needs council will have to operate within the parameters and the policies set down by the Minister. I am responsible to the Dáil for policy. The day-to-day workings and delivery of the service will be the responsibility of the council. However, because this is a particularly sensitive area where people need to be considered very carefully, the Bill when published will provide for appeal mechanisms at practically all stages for parents and those involved in the education of children with special needs. I would anticipate that because of that there will be considerably less need for Deputies to table parliamentary questions on individual cases. There will be a system that will be open, transparent and available to parents at all the critical decision points as needs are decided. It will be objective and will not be political. Ultimately I am answerable to the House for the operation of the overall system. The council will produce an annual report, which will be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas.

I note the point made by Deputy Stanton concerning accountability and the fact that in this order there is no mention of appearing before Oireachtas committees. While I do not believe it is necessary in the order, it will certainly be in the Bill. It is my intention that all councils such as this be answerable to the Oireachtas. There is certainly a provision concerning appearance before the Committee of Public Accounts. I believe the Deputy is asking that there should also be a provision about this committee. I will certainly make sure that is included.

I wish to make a general point about co-ordination with NEPS and all the other organisations. The special needs organisers will have responsibility for this and the legislation will give them the power to ensure they have the co-operation of other agencies. I hope there will not be arguments as to whether somebody is legally entitled to do something. The special needs advisers will have the power to co-ordinate and ensure the delivery of services from other agencies within the remit of the Bill.

The initial funding of the council will be €7 million per annum, which will be sufficient to meet the needs we have outlined for the special needs organisers and the management and administrative staff. Special needs organisers will be spread throughout the country based on school population size rather than any other criteria. It would be anticipated that the point of contact would be the local regional office of the Department.

As part of the provision of regional offices throughout the country, it is my intention that all the services of the Department and agencies under its aegis will operate from individual regional offices. Initially that may not be possible in some cases because of accommodation problems. However we have made it quite clear to the National Welfare Education Board, NEPS, the special education council and the inspectorate in the Department that we will have one office in each region from which they will all operate. This is the remit given to the directors in charge of the regional offices. It is working at the moment in most areas, but it is not physically possible in one or two areas.

As has been made clear to those who will recruit them, the SNOs will not be based in an office. While they will have an office as a headquarters and point of contact, their jobs are to be out and about visiting schools and meeting parents and various interested groups. I can make the job specification available to anybody who wants it. This requires a third level or other equivalent qualification considered acceptable by the Civil Service and Local Appointments Commission along with at least two years post qualification experience of education of children with disabilities or the delivery of other services to children with disabilities. These requirements are fairly broad to ensure we get good quality people.

Deputy Enright previously asked me about special needs assistants. The terms and conditions are under IR review at this stage. Negotiations are ongoing involving a number of different aspects. They will be covered under the part-time workers directive as well. In relation to the general question raised by Deputy O'Sullivan and others with regard to assessment of needs, that will be provided for in greater detail in the Bill. Neither this order nor the forthcoming Bill will in any way change people's constitutional rights or the obligations of the State. Those rights are independent of anything we may do in the Department. The purpose of the council and, to an extent, the legislation is to provide a mechanism to ensure delivery on those rights. That is the objective of our efforts. The other Bill on disabilities has a role to a certain extent, but we will try, within this Bill, to take account of all the needs of the children being assessed - not just the educational needs. Obviously, however, our focus is on delivering on the educational needs and it will be helpful to have the other Bill in place immediately after the education for persons with disabilities Bill.

The assessments will be carried out by a whole range of people. As I stated earlier, special educational needs organisers will bring together the appropriate personnel to ensure a full assessment. All assessments and specifications by the special needs organisers for the young people concerned will be appealable. In relation to a comment that parents are not mentioned, they are mentioned in this order and their rights will be recognised in the Bill also. They will be central to the discussions, assessments and delivery of services.

Deputy Gogarty asked whether additional resources are being provided for the council or diverted from elsewhere. The €7.5 million which we obtained this year represents extra resources and are not being diverted from elsewhere. They will be part of the ongoing Estimates process in relation to future resources. On the question of accountability and the "delay" on that in relation to the Bill, I am more concerned with getting things right and less concerned with speed. The consultations continued until December - perhaps even January - following which quite a substantial amount of consultation was required with the Attorney General's office and other Departments.

On the point made by Senator Burke and others, I acknowledge that if ever there was a need for joined up government" it is in this area. We are trying to formulate a mechanism and I look forward to the debate on the Bill. Frankly, I am not sure we have yet devised the most effective joined up approach. There are certain problems. My Department will have particular obligations under the Bill, as we already have under the Constitution. The Department of Health and Children has responsibilities in the provision of speech, language and occupational therapists and physiotherapish and that Department makes the relevant resources available to health boards, which are at one remove from the Department as such. The health boards say they are under pressure for resources and can only provide so many personnel or cannot attract a sufficient number due to inadequate remuneration.

Accordingly, after we have gone through the present procedure, given everybody their rights and put the legislation in place, the problem remains to ensure the necessary personnel are available to deliver the services in the most effective way. I am not yet satisfied that we have the perfect system and I hope the discussion on the Bill may generate further ideas in that regard. However, I believe the direction we are taking, especially in relation to the role of SNOs and so on, will improve the situation and ensure better delivery. In particular, the fact that the legislation will require other players to co-operate with SNOs should be helpful in that area.

On the question whether the council will have any role in relation to over-18s, the focus of the Bill is on young people up to the age of 18 because that has a constitutional significance. However, the council will have a role in the transition to the post-school scenario - all of us could cite examples of the difficulties now arising - and the wider disabilities Bill will take over from there. I and my Department are willing to do anything we can for those over the age of 18, on an agency or other basis with the Department of Health and Children, in terms of providing educational services. However, we need a request in that regard and some resources. I believe in putting the young people concerned centre stage and looking at how we can best meet their needs.

In relation to training of primary teachers, there has been significant investment and expansion in that regard, including new methods of delivering services. Once the SNOs are recruited, they will undergo an intensive training process to ensure they will deliver the best possible service.

On a general point with regard to the establishment of the agency, we have the example of the health services in which there are 58 agencies. There may be a tendency, in such a scenario, towards an inability to take effective action, particularly at regional and local level. In the present instance, we are speaking of a central agency, in some respects, delivering on a national basis, under national standards and directly accountable to the Department. It is not quite the same as in the health services. I do not believe in creating agencies unless the result is value added, which I believe will be the case in this instance. It will allow people to become specialists and to undertake the necessary research.

While we have much anecdotal material from inspectors and other educational personnel, our research in this whole area is not good, principally due to a lack of focus on it over many years. Some reservations have been expressed in relation to the establishment of the North-South centre in Middleton, Armagh. We need that type of facility - that body will undertake a great deal of research in that regard. We do not have a huge body of research, but we need it. The dedicated council that is responsible for this area will be able to focus on it in a much better way than a Department which may have various sections dealing with different aspects of special needs. I think I have covered most of the points that were made.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. How soon does he envisage that the council will be up and running and the SNOs will be in position? Does he foresee that more than 80 SNOs will be appointed? It seems that 80 is a small number of SNOs to cover the entire country. The Minister did not address the question of pre-school provision, such as playschools. Will the council have a role at that level and, if so, what will its role be?

I understand that people with disabilities will be registered on a database that is to be established. Will the National Council for Special Education have access to the database? Will it be able to use it in conjunction with the health boards? We need to consider issues of confidentiality. I am concerned that some children with disabilities may slip through the net in some way. How does the council propose to identify those in need of assistance?

I understand that the Commission on School Accommodation Needs has a role to play, for example, by installing and maintaining lifts and other facilities that are necessary for access. Will the council be able to interact with that commission and other organisations such as the Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development and the Department's directorate of regional services? The Minister said that the SNOs will not be based in an office, but it is important that they are contactable. Will he ensure that will be the case? Will there be interaction with the State Examinations Commission, which has a big role to play? Who will take precedence in the case of conflict? For example, the new council may decide that a person with a disability needs a certain service or assistance during an examination, but the State Examinations Commission may not agree. Which of the two bodies will have the final say in such circumstances? It is important that we clarify these matters now so that we will know who has the final say. Will the Minister for Education and Science be involved in such conflicts as a referee?

The Minister mentioned the all-Ireland centre for excellence in autism, but I would like him to give the committee a summary of the centre's role. I have raised this issue on a number of occasions, but I have yet to receive an explanation of the centre's role. It seems that it was not established in an open manner, although I will not say that it was set up under the cover of darkness. I do not know if the Minister is aware that there is a provision whereby people can go to the centre, which has a residential unit, for a period of time. I do not envisage, however, that small children aged three or four will be sent to north Armagh - there is nothing wrong with north Armagh - because distance is a problem. The task force on autism did not approve the idea of sending children with educational problems to a residential centre. It may have been briefed on the proposal in a vague manner, but it rejected it. This committee needs to discuss this big issue with the Minister.

The new council may wish to consider the circumstances of people who are not yet 18, but who may be about to go to a third level college after completing their leaving certificate. I am also concerned about the council's interaction with the National Educational Welfare Board. Who will have precedence in the case of a dispute between the council and the board? What powers will the council have to enter schools and become involved in the day-to-day running of schoolsvis-à-vis the boards of management and principals?

It is obvious that members of the committee do not want to delay the establishment of the national council for special education, which I agree will be a useful mechanism in terms of the delivery of services to children with special needs. I am concerned, however, about what will happen when a local SNO says to parents that a child needs a certain intervention but all the places are taken up. What will happen when the SNO says that the council does not have the resources to provide the service? I want to make clear that the buck will not stop with the new council as there will have to be political accountability for meeting the needs of an individual child. Perhaps this issue should be addressed during our discussion of the Bill, rather than in this discussion, but we do not want to be told in a year's time that we agreed to the establishment of the council and that, ultimately, it is up to the new body to provide for the child's needs. If the body says it cannot do so because it does not have the resources, people will not have a service. I wish to make it clear that ultimate responsibility for the provision of facilities for children with special needs will lie with the Minister of the day.

Deputy Stanton expressed his concerns about the question of whether the new body will act in conjunction with existing bodies, particularly in relation to pre-school. If an individual child is assessed as needing early educational intervention, who will be charged with providing it? Does the Department of Education and Science have a role in that regard? I know that health boards, in practice, provide a certain amount of funding for places in privately run pre-schools which can facilitate children with special needs. That works reasonably well on a practical level, but parents often may not know how to access that service. Does the Department of Education and Science have a role in that area?

I wish to return to the issue of accountability. I agree with the Minister's decision to push ahead with this order because there is a need to get things under way. Having listened to the Minister's comments, it seems we are being asked to accept his assurances regarding the contents of a Bill we have not seen, and I am happy to do so. Much of this order hinges on a Bill which will be brought forward after the event. It is a difficult way of proceeding from the perspective of the Opposition.

I agree with Deputy O'Sullivan, as the reality of political life in Ireland is that people will always approach their representatives about issues. I understand what the Minister has said about the appeals process, but there will always be cases of people who are unhappy with the appeals process for one reason or another. When people feel they have not got a fair appeal from a Department, they contact politicians as a means of airing their grievances. If we are not in a position to query these matters properly, whether by parliamentary questions or other Dáil mechanisms, people will feel that their cases have been dealt with after an appeal has been completed. I am concerned about this matter. It will not be sufficient to raise such issues in a broader framework when the report is laid before the House each year as cases may need to be considered urgently. Will this committee be the only means of questioning the new council?

The Minister said in his opening comments on the education for persons with disabilities Bill that the Bill's provisions will apply to persons up to the age of 18. The wider disability Bill will take over after that age. The fact that the Bills will not be passed together will present certain difficulties, but we live in hope that the second Bill will take over. The Minister's comments about the Constitution, which refers to education up the age of 18, are perfectly correct. The High Court judgment in the Sinnott case was reversed by the Supreme Court. I do not agree with the ending of this form of educational provision at the age of 18.

The Minister and I had ideological differences in relation to the provision of free third level education. It seems that we are making educational provision for people over the age of 18 without special needs, but we are saying to such people over that age "Sorry, the Constitution does not require us to provide for you at this stage so we are not going to." The manner in which we are providing for certain sets of people is discriminatory in a sense. When the education for persons with disabilities Bill is before the House, I will raise this issue again and point out that the Government's approach is wrong. If we learned anything from the Sinnott case, it should be that we need to provide for people with disabilities for a longer period. Moving on to the next Bill is not the way to do this.

Once the order has been finalised, the national council for special education will be appointed in July and we will advertise for special educational needs organisers in the same month. We hope interviews for the positions will take place in September-October and will use the period from then until the end of the year and early next year to train the appointees. They will then begin work in early 2004.

Parallel to these developments, I hope the proposed Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill will have passed all Stages in the Houses, at which point the legislation will take over. Members are correct that the function of the order is to allow us to proceed as I have outlined, rather than await the passing of the Bill, which would delay the operation of the council until the 2004-05 academic year. The order, therefore, will facilitate its immediate operation.

While we are satisfied that the number of special educational needs organisers will be sufficient to cover the State, this will be a matter for the council to consider. If it concludes the number is insufficient, it will make known its views.

On the questions raised by Deputies Stanton, Enright and O'Sullivan concerning pre-school provision, playschools and so forth, our aim is to respond to the educational need of each child, irrespective of its age, once its needs have been identified. Under the legislation, the council will have a role as soon as a special educational need is identified. Until recently, the Department was under no obligation to do anything for children under four years or adults. We are not adopting this approach, but a child-centred approach. If a special educational need is identified in the early years of a child, the Department now tries to facilitate it. Under the legislation the council will have a similar obligation.

The question of a database is sensitive and arose during the course of consultations when there was considerable toing and froing with parents and various groups. Although everybody agrees on the benefits of having a register, many parents fear it would be used as a means of discriminating against people with special needs. Although this is not a concern I had considered, it is obviously a fear among parents. The stigma attached to being on a register——

I understand the health boards are in the process of establishing such a register.

Yes, they are establishing a database, but we are not providing for it in legislation. We can address this issue in greater detail when we are dealing with the Bill. The council will interact with all other agencies and will have the final say on assessments. While an appeals mechanism will be available, ultimately, in the circumstances outlined, the council will have precedence.

I do not agree with the Deputy's assessment that the centre for autism was introduced under the cover of darkness. It is a good way forward and allows for expertise and costs to be shared. I could say the same about it being——

There was no discussion or debate.

It comes under the North-South aspect of the Good Friday Agreement.

That does not mean it should not be discussed.

Midleton is as central as Cork and other areas. One would have to locate everything in Athlone if one were to proceed in the manner outlined. Obviously, the needs of the children in question must be taken into consideration and if the centre is not deemed suitable for a child of three or four years, or even 13 or 14 years, he or she would not go there.

We need to establish some balance on the issue. I am aware that certain people who currently provide services are not in favour of establishing the centre for their own particular reasons. Overall, however, it is a positive and helpful move, particularly for children with special needs. They, rather than commercial enterprises which may be affected by the opening of the centre, are my concern.

Perhaps the Minister will inform the committee in future.

We must deal with that matter in another context.

Mr. Baldwin has given a commitment that he will provide for the committee a full report for discussion. Central to the Bill is the concept of the individual plan to include resources, progress in school, examination provision and so forth. We hope questions which arise will be dealt with in the context of individual plans. This would, for instance, avoid rows arising on whether certain provisions are being made as such issues will form part of the individual education plan.

Who will be responsible for the delivery of plans?

As with all other agencies, the day-to-day delivery will be the responsibility of the council. I will have overall political responsibility for the operation of the council as well as developing and implementing policy. While I understand the concerns of members of the committee, political interference in matters as sensitive as individuals' rights to obtain services is the last thing we should be seeking. I will have overall responsibility for the allocation of resources and the operation of the council, but not individual cases.

That is not what I am seeking. The Minister should have responsibility for ensuring resources are provided to cover individual needs.

It is the responsibility of every Minister to ensure sufficient resources are provided. However, the resources must also be available. They are no more unlimited in this area than in any other.

Funding will, therefore, be allocated as resources permit, to borrow the phrase usually used.

Everything the Government does is as resources permit. I do not know of any policy area where anybody said we would introduce something on the basis that unlimited resources will be made available. Resources are not unlimited.

We will enjoy Committee Stage debate on some of these issues. I thank the Minister.