Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill 2003: Presentations.

All those who are here to make presentations on the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill 2003 are present. The committee decided that before the Bill went to Second Stage in the Dáil it would invite interested parties to make written submissions and some to make oral submissions.

Five groups are represented today. I am delighted to extend a warm welcome to all on behalf of the members of the committee. We have the St. Vincent's Parents Support Group, the COPE Foundation, Cork, Down's Syndrome Ireland, NAMHI and Rehab. The first part of the meeting will be taken up with a five minute presentation by each of the groups. As they know, their presentations have been circulated and we have had an opportunity to look at them. I ask the witnesses to keep to the five minute limit because we will have about 50 presentations in total and it is important that we get the essence of what they want to convey in their submissions.

Before we begin I draw your attention to the fact that members of the committee have absolute privilege but this same privilege does not extend to those appearing before the committee. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Now we are ready to begin and we will hear from Seamus Cowman and Shay Feehily from the St. Vincent's Parents Support Group.

Mr. Seamus Cowman

Thank you for the opportunity to make a presentation today. Shay and I represent parents' groups. I am a parent of an 18 year old daughter with a mental age of six months and Shay's 12 year old son has a mental age of one year. Our submission primarily represents people with severe and profound mental handicap and our comments are focused on that group. Members know that "severe profound" is the most severe category of handicap. For example, our children use nappies take prescribed medication, have no bladder control or bowel function and require every assistance from a health service perspective.

Traditionally, the needs of our children were met within a health care system and the parents were happy that the primary needs of those children were being met within that system. During the 1990s the service moved to an education model, from a centre staffed predominantly by health care personnel to a system run by the Department of Education and Science, predominantly staffed by teachers, with many resulting implications and reduced services. We ran a major campaign last year to try to get an appropriate service.

The move to the education model resulted in the closure of the unit in accordance with the school year and reduced service meant we as parents at home had to take up the slack for the education service being available for only 183 days a year. We were required to attend to the rest of the service and were providing a 24-hour service, 52 weeks a year. We made the Department of Education and Science aware of this early in 2002 and requested its intervention.

By way of background to our submission, a protracted campaign of protests resulted in our being left with no option but to withdraw the children from the school roll and this remains the case today. Even though our children are under 16 or 18, they are off the school roll because of the lack of an appropriate service. The Department of Education and Science system failed our children and therefore we looked for something within the Bill which would give us some hope that the future would be different for the children with severe and profound handicap. We have discussed this matter with parents. We are not convinced that the proposed legislation will progress the situation of children with severe profound handicap. It might provide progress for children with moderate and mild handicap, but it does nothing for our group.

Why is that? It is not clear how the needs of children with severe and profound handicap are to be provided for within the education service. It is unlikely to be flexible enough to meet the disparate educational and health needs of this group. The Bill failed to build on our understanding of previous court judgments such as the Sinnott case where Mr. Justice Barr said that people over the age of 18 should have a right to education. This has not yet happened. TheO'Donoghue case in 1993 established the rights of those with a mental handicap to an appropriate education. It also included early intervention, a long school year and any service that the child requires in order to learn. That was never implemented. Our children with profound handicap never received it.

Section 3 of the Bill fails to recognise the complexity the problems of the children. It is overscholastic in its pedagogical approach to meet the needs of people with severe and profound handicap. An attempt to define learning needs for this group within the confines of the formal curriculum will not meet the primary needs of the children. What is the appropriate skill mix to deliver an educational service and what expertise and experience are required by staff members? Should we train teachers to be health carers as well as educators? Should we train carers, such as nurses, to be educators? These are fundamental issues in terms of appropriate service as outlined in the O'Donoghue case in 1993.

What is an appropriate service? It does not primarily mean education. It was the parents' experience that there must be better working conditions, particularly as regards section 6 of the Bill, established between the Departments of Education and Science and Health and Children. We found when we met with both Departments, there was complete lack of working strategies between them. We found that often the objectives of the two Departments were contradictory in terms of meeting the needs of our children with profound and severe handicap. These children need multidisciplinary teams comprising teachers, educationalists, psychologists, physiotherapists, speech therapists, nurses and social workers. They are the most dependent and chronically sick children. Bearing in mind the health profile of our children, can we have health professionals reporting to a school principal? Can we have a school principal accountable for the health care needs of chronically sick children? These are fundamental issues in the context of governance and how accountability will be maintained within the Bill.

The length of the school year, mid-term breaks, inservice training days, half days and monthly staff meetings have a serious effect on our children's progress. This summer, for example, we noticed that some of the children regressed in behaviour such as biting themselves. This was because the whole system closed down from July to August. Children need to continue to learn in the system and need constant stimulation, but this was not happening. The Minister has the power to deal with this under the Education Act 1998. Section 25 provides the Minister with power in respect of the school year but he has never used it to the benefit of people with severe and profound handicap. He must look at the school year if he is going to provide the education that is appropriate.

Thank you, Mr. Cowman. I have a dozen questions but I do not know how I will control my colleagues when it comes to questioning. We will come back to some of the issues raised.

I now call on the COPE Foundation representatives Ms Maura Nash, chief executive, and Ms Mary Desmond, head psychologists.

Ms Maura Nash

We are delighted to be here to make our presentation.

I will first give some background to the COPE Foundation. We provide services for 1,600 children and adults with intellectual disabilities in Cork city and county. We provide early intervention, pre-schooling, sheltered training, employment and housing and information and advice. We provide an assessment clinic. Psychologists provide an assessment and guidance service throughout Cork city and county. We support three special schools - Scoil Eanna, Scoil Bernadette, for children with mild intellectual disabilities and St. Paul's, for children with moderate intellectual disability which has eight classes for pupils with severe and profound intellectual disability.

The COPE Foundation welcomes the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill. The Bill shows evidence that the Department of Education and Children has taken on board many areas that were raised as serious concerns prior to its publication. Particular areas of the Bill to be welcomed are that it gives effect in law to the constitutional right of all children with a disability to education up to the age of 18 years. It gives a central role to parents in all important decisions and access to a process of appeal, including mediation, where needs are not being met. It also provides that parents' rights to seek redress in the courts are not diminished. The Bill also provides for the setting up of the National Council for Special Education which will have a duty in law to provide services identified in the assessment or educational plan, and that it will have the primary responsibility for implementing the new Act.

The Bill also raises a number of contentious issues, which should still be considered. The introduction of an appeals board, while welcomed, has the potential to become bureaucratic. It therefore requires clear operational guidelines, a timeframe for decisions, easy accessibility by parents and proper funding to carry out its functions so that it can show it has the ability in the majority of cases to redress problems rather than parents having to seek redress through the courts.

This Bill has not clarified the starting age for children to commence in schools. It is essential that the Bill clarifies the starting age for early intervention or pre-school children and who has the responsibility in this regard. Research literature and best practice determines that essential provision of early intervention from as early an age as possible is the best practice.

The length of the school year is a particular concern for the COPE Foundation, particularly for children with complex needs. This is not clarified in the Bill. The COPE Foundation recommends that it should be a full calendar year outside of Christmas and Easter holidays. The implications of the O'Donoghue judgment have not been addressed with regard to the July provision. We understand from the Education Act 1998 that the definition of the school year is open. Whatever is proposed for the school year, the July provision has not yet been resolved.

Ms Mary Desmond

The issues of specific financial, personnel and other resources will be crucial to the success of this Bill. The central issue is the need for a commitment to provide appropriate financial resources to ensure that education becomes a right. The issue of transport needs to be addressed in the proposed Bill. Parents have a right to appropriate transport for their children to access education. The child with complex needs, for example, will need the services of a wheelchair accessible taxi, escort, etc.

Section 4 of the Bill refers to the assessment process. It provides that once a request is acceded to, the assessment must begin within three months of the request. This a laudable and desirable timescale. However, there will be great difficulties securing the services of the appropriate personnel to conduct these assessments. I am sure the committee is aware of the shortage of psychologists in the State. We have had the joint review group report and a survey conducted by the head of Psychology Services Ireland last autumn. It showed that nationally there was a 37% rate of vacant posts. The task force on autism report stated that the current target of 200 psychologists to be employed by the end of 2003 would not be sufficient to undertake the intensive individual work required for people with ASDs. That is simply those children with autism spectrum disorders. It then begs the question who is going to take a leading role in the educational provision for all the other pupils with physical, mental health, intellectual and sensory impairments.

We know requests will be made through the health boards, for psychologists and other therapists working within intellectual disability and other voluntary organisations to conduct the assessments. Consequently, personnel will have to be involved in the IEP process and the ongoing monitoring of the goals that have been set. This will be very time-consuming for the staff involved and will take staff away from their core duties within the organisations. Another point relates to children with more complex disabilities and needs. There will be additional issues that will have to be addressed, other than strictly educational issues, such as family counselling, the need for respite, management difficulties in the home environment and so on. The personnel already working with such children, be it clinical psychologists, physiotherapists, nurses, behavioural therapists and so on are in the best position to provide ongoing advice and guidance on these matters, which will undoubtedly be very pertinent to each child's IEP.

Likewise there will be many questions on the points you have made. Thank you very much for your presentation. We now move on to Down's Syndrome Ireland, with Ms Maree O'Connor and Mr. Gerry Bohan, education officer and member of the education committee, respectively.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to speak before the committee today.

Let me take the members back to 6 November 1998 when the Minister for Education and Science at the time, Deputy Martin, announced at a press conference that from then on, every child assessed as having a special educational need would have an automatic entitlement to special extra teaching or school-based care, or indeed both, depending on the child's specific needs. As a parent, a teacher and a member of the national executive of Down's Syndrome Ireland, I was heartened and excited by the prospect of adequate support structures being put in place for the children in our schools. It has to be said that some efforts were made by Fianna Fáil during this time to improve the level of services to children with special needs. Unfortunately, the delivery of these services was at best inconsistent and at worst non-existent. In a Bill that aims to "provide that people with disabilities shall have the right to avail of and benefit from appropriate education as do their peers", I draw the members' attention to section 9. We in Down's Syndrome Ireland believe that our children and young adults have a fundamental right, as do their peers, to attend their own local primary or secondary school with their brothers, sisters and neighbours. This is what meaningful inclusion is about. We do not want our children to be integrated into a neighbouring school deemed more appropriate by the National Council for Special Education, nor do we want our children to be foisted onto one of these designated schools, which perhaps may simply not want to take them.

There is an important difference of meaning between the words "inclusion" and "integration". Section 9 offers our children some level of integration while denying them effective educational inclusion as is their right, just as it is the right of their peers. Although section 9(2) mentions the wishes of the parents and the capacity of the school to accommodate the child, we in Down's Syndrome Ireland have a genuine fear that this section of the Bill, which incidentally did not appear in the original Bill, is a method whereby the Department will attempt to marshal and streamline resources for children with special educational needs into particular designated schools in certain locations, thereby segregating the child with special needs from family, friends and community.

This issue is essentially one of human rights. I quote from a study conducted by Beresford and Tuckwell in 1978 which states: "Disabled young people should never be forced to lead separate lives from their families and communities". That was 1978 and this is 2003. It is 25 years on, and we are still striving to convince the Government of today of the value of proper inclusion for disabled people and children in our society. If section 9 is retained in the Bill and our children with learning disabilities are sectioned off to designated schools, it does not bode well for the future of this country. Research shows that all children do better academically, and more important, socially, in inclusive settings. Segregation teaches children to be fearful and ignorant, and breeds prejudice. Only meaningful inclusion has the potential to reduce fear and build friendship, respect and understanding, which is the very least to which children with special needs are entitled.

I would like to speak briefly on section 3 of the Bill. Given the changes made to the definition of "educational disability" as meaning enduring physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual impairment, the operative word being "enduring", we in Down's Syndrome Ireland feel the decision to initiate an assessment for these children should not be left to the discretion of the school principal. Any child with such an enduring education disability should have an automatic entitlement to an assessment independent of a school principal. We in Down's Syndrome Ireland would go further. We recognise that our children are born with a disability that will not disappear. Why then will the Department not recognise this also, and grant to our children an automatic level of support without the necessity of going through all the consultative time-consuming procedures as outlined in the Bill? All we would ask is that children with Down's syndrome would have an adequate support structure in situ on entry to primary schools. We would agree that this support would be reviewed at intervals in order to foster learning and independence skills. We would also like to highlight the fact that the transition from primary to secondary schools is of major concern to us parents and also to schools, because there is not adequate support in place for children on entry to secondary levels. What has happened to the much-applauded, so-called automatic response committed to by this Government in 1998? This Bill must in its entirety seek to copperfasten the legal entitlement of all children with special educational needs to a meaningful and appropriate automatic response from the Government.

Thank you very much.

As regards the St. Vincent's Parents Support Group, there was a precedent where this committee met the health and children committee, and given the role of the Department of Health and Children in the context of this Bill, I would have thought a joint committee meeting would be appropriate here also. I am sorry that has not happened.

The COPE Foundation suggested this Bill underwrites the constitutional guarantees for children with disabilities, but I believe it does entirely the opposite. I will cite a number of sections. Section 2(1)(b) notes that the education of our children must be consistent with the effective education of normal children. This is an entirely reprehensible statement. I wonder how the committee would feel if the statement were turned on its head. Section 9, about which my colleague has spoken, refers to the concept of designating schools. I appreciate that the Bill does not say that one must direct one’s child to a particular school, but we think this is the thin end of the wedge. There is a specific constitutional prohibition in Article 42.3 on the designation of schools by the State into which children might be forced. The section 9 provision is repugnant to the Constitution.

Finally, the last Bill for education for persons with disabilities was a sieve. Everyone recognised it as such. It did not hold water. Every time a right was given, it was stated to be "subject to available resources". We no not have a sieve any longer because the Department has learned its lesson. What we have now is a box full of goodies with a hidden trapdoor. That hidden trapdoor is section 12. Contrary to what my friends in COPE say, section 12 is an attempt to rewrite Article 42 of the Constitution in a way which will deny our children their entitlements.

Thank you very much. The next presentation is from NAMHI which is represented by the general secretary, DeirdreCarroll, and Bill Shorten.

Ms Deirdre Carroll

On behalf of the members of NAMHI I would like to thank the committee for the opportunity to address the members on the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill. They have received our detailed submission and as our time is limited I will confine my remarks to areas of concern to us. Having read a number of the submissions and heard some of the previous speakers, I can say that these concerns are not confined to NAMHI. There is in particular an overriding concern about sufficient financial and staffing resources.

NAMHI welcomes the introduction of legislation aimed at making further provision for the education of students with special needs, while acknowledging that the Education Act of 1998 applies to all students with disabilities. There are a number of areas to which we would like to draw the attention of the committee. My colleague Bill Shorten will speak on early services, assessment of needs and education plans, and I will speak briefly on definitions, roles for parents and the duties of the Minister to provide resources.

The definition of a child should not be circumscribed by chronological boundaries. While welcoming the dropping of the minimum age limit of three years, we are concerned at the cut-off point of 18 years. There is no legal requirement under the Education Act 1998 that students without disabilities have to leave school at 18 years. Why should our children be disadvantaged? We are also disappointed that the definition of education disability is based on restrictions, and propose a definition which we believe provides greater clarity and is more suited to the purpose of what should be inclusive legislation. Our definition suggests that a student with special education needs means a student who requires supports and services additional to the ordinary school programme.

The concept of integrated education as described in section 2 puts the onus on the student to conform to the existing education system and structures. The needs of the student with disabilities are required to be consistent with the effective provision of education to the student without disabilities. That is not inclusive education. It must be also remembered that there are more than 7,000 children in special schools in this country, not counting those who have been excluded. We would like to see clarification on their status in this Bill.

I now come to the role of parents and students. The Bill's emphasis is on consultation with parents when it should be on working in partnership with them. Parents' roles must be strengthened. They must be involved in the process from the earliest stage and be included as full members of an assessment team. They are entitled to the same right to an assessment as health boards, schools and the council. Specific examples thereof are provided in our submission. Parents must be informed of reasons that specific options were preferred before invoking the appeals procedures. Students themselves should also be involved in the process, and their interests must be protected, where necessary, by an independent advocate, as is the case in America. In addition, there must be proper guaranteed representation of parents of students with disabilities, and people with disabilities themselves who experience education, on the council forum, appeals boards, and so on. While welcoming the fact that the Minister's concerns must take account of Article 42 in making resources available, as outlined in section 12, the previous speaker drew attention to the Constitution. Before passing on to Mr. Shorten, I would like to remind members of what Judge Barr said in the High Court in 2000 regarding constitutional duties.

Those entitled to State aid by constitutional right should not have to depend on numerical strength and-or political clout to achieve their just desserts. Needs should be met as a matter of constitutional priority and savings, if necessary, should be made elsewhere. A citizen's educational right should be responded to by the State in full. A partial response has no justification in law, even in difficult financial circumstances which may entail the raising of new tax revenue to, meet such claims.

I will now pass over to Mr. Shorten.

Mr. Bill Shorten

Good morning. As well as being honorary secretary, I also chair NAMHI's education committee. This morning I would like to highlight three areas from our submission on the Bill. They are: The pre-school child; the education plan; and the assessment of need. On the first issue, we wonder why he or she is excluded from the education plan and find it difficult to understand. On assessment, the child's needs are identified and should be addressed. It is well known that the first five years of the child's life are formative. Those formative years require stimulation and education so that, in later years, the child's potential is maximised.

The Bill gives much time to the education plan, and we feel that that is right. It refers to preparation of the plan, its content and review. However, nowhere do I see an individual education plan mentioned or portrayed. NAMHI views the preparation of an individual education plan as the most important development for the student. Speaking from my own experience of 30 years spent in the field of learning disabilities, both as a special education teacher and a school principal, a child-centred individual education plan should be the kernel of the education Bill. This IEP is not just for the special educational needs organiser to draw up. A team, multi-disciplinary approach must be taken by all those involved with the student or who interact with him or her on a daily basis.

It has been said that a child should have his or her needs identified and fully resourced, and that those resources should go with the child wherever he or she goes. That is a right in law. NAMHI wants the assessment of need to mean that a student with special educational needs requires support and services in addition to the ordinary school programme.

In sections 4 and 5 of the Bill, NAMHI wants to see, as a statutory right, the assessment of need for every child with a disability. NAMHI is anxious about the ambivalence that prevails regarding health and education. Their roles should be clarified in both their responsibilities and in delivering services. In the appeals mechanism, parents' needs must be addressed by determining how long the appeal should take.

Thank you very much. We now move on to the Rehab Group. Angela Kerins is the director of public affairs, and ClíodhnaO'Neill is the senior public affairs executive.

Ms Nuala Kerins

I thank Members of the Oireachtas for giving us an opportunity to come here today. The Rehab Group is a large, not-for-profit organisation in Ireland and the UK. We provide services to more than 25,000 people with special needs. Our submission, which has been circulated, is the result of consultation among 5,000 of our clients and staff in Ireland.

I will hand you over to my colleague, Clíodhna O'Neill, who will briefly go through our comments on specific sections. Perhaps I might make an overall comment first. The Rehab Group's feeling is that the success of the Bill's implementation hinges on the quality of support that drives it. We propose that one of the functions of the National Council for Special Education be to advise teacher training bodies on the incorporation of specific training modules on the educational and other needs of pupils with disabilities. It should also ensure ongoing inservice education for existing teachers, as they are ultimately the people who will deliver the educational policies of this nation for people with disabilities. Many of the 4,000 people we consulted were significantly failed by the education system in Ireland. We do not want other generations to go through that. There is a significant need to ensure that capacity is built into our existing resources - teachers working in schools now - and also to advise teacher training bodies on the incorporation of specific training modules.

I will now hand over to Ms O'Neill, who will go through the specific sections.

Ms Cliodhna O’Neill

Good morning. We consider it important that this Bill's position in the context of all education legislation be very clearly defined. That could be clearly stated in the Bill, which is designed to complement the existing principles of the Education Act 1998. The Education Act 1998 presents a whole-system approach to the funding of education, but this Bill provides specifically for those children who require educational assistance. The link between those two Bills should be clearly defined, particularly given the danger, to which we refer in section 2(2) of our submission, that principals could label children to gain extra resources. We are quite concerned about that.

Regarding definitions in language throughout the Bill, we have several concerns. The most pressing is the need to ensure continuity across legislation and that, on that basis, the definition of disability used in this Bill should be the same as that used in the previous Education Act and in employment, equality and equal status legislation. That would provide a standardised legal approach and would include the broad span of learning disabilities, including dyslexia, which is omitted from this Bill.

On timeframes, I echo the concerns of my colleagues. The need for proper assessment and implementation periods is evident, but the educational assessment programme could leave a child without adequate educational supports for up to four months. That is a significant period in development at a time when some sort of difficulty would obviously have been identified. Therefore, ongoing interim measures must be developed to provide for the child as much as possible in that interim period so as not to lose time.

The role of parents is significant, and we feel that the role granted them in the Bill does not adequately reflect the need for them to be consulted and included in every decision which affects their child. Regarding section 4(3)(a), we feel that access to the system should be made as easy as possible for parents. They must be able to request that their primary contact arrange for their child’s needs to be assessed if they feel it necessary. That means that, as well as being able to ask the National Council for Special Education or the relevant health board, they must be able to request the principal of their child’s school to initiate an assessment if the principal has not already chosen to do so. We have proposed an amendment in that regard.

In section 5, the exclusion of parents from the team that provides the assessment is completely unsatisfactory. Parents should have the right to be present and to contribute to the process as equal members of the assessment team - and also to request the presence of any other possible team member as listed. The Bill should provide for all documents regarding the child's education to be provided to parents automatically.

The right of appeal to the appeals board should be extended to parents at all stages in the process, with the provision of an advocacy service to ensure they can make the best of the service. We also believe the needs and desires of the child should be taken into consideration, but there are no national guidelines in that regard.

On the question of membership of the National Council on Special Education, this was of particular concern during our consultation process. The voluntary sector currently provides the vast majority of special education services in Ireland yet there is no specific provision to harness this expertise in the council. A representative of the voluntary sector should be included on the council, perhaps as a specifically defined ministerial nominee.

One of the council's duties is to provide support to the third level sector and to provide information and advice thereto in respect of students with special educational needs. However, there is no provision for a representative of the third level sector on the council and we believe this needs to be rectified also.

Thank you Ms O'Neill. I thank everybody who made presentations, which have been very useful.

I would like to point out the role of the committee today. The Bill will go through Second Stage, a general debate in the Dáil and Seanad when all Members will have an opportunity, subject to time constraints, to make general points but this committee is most concerned with Committee Stage when amendments are considered. The reason members of the health committee are not here today is that it has no role in considering the legislation on Committee Stage. This committee has a role and amendments will be put forward by various members and by the Minister. It is in that context that this committee is examining the ideas, proposals and concerns articulated by the groups present.

Several members have indicated that they want to ask questions and we have agreed a rota in advance - Deputy Andrews, Deputy Enright, Deputy Hoctor, Deputy O'Sullivan, SenatorFitzgerald, Deputy Crowe and Deputy Finian McGrath. Deputy McGrath is not a member, but because he wants to raise a particular concern I have agreed to hear a question from him. I ask members to be as specific and brief as possible in the questioning with a view to being helpful in the context of Committee Stage and the quality of the legislation.

I welcome all the groups to the committee. I want to direct my questions to the St. Vincent's Parents Support Group and I will be as brief as possible. I am glad the Chairman outlined the function of the committee today, namely, to examine the legislation with a view to determining how it can be improved, which will happen in the normal course of events. The group's submission states that section 3 is rooted in normal curriculum models, and I understand its concern in terms of the history of the organisation and disputes that arose last year. We would be interested in the group's view on how the legislation could be improved.

The group's submission also states that a sufficiently holistic approach is not taken in terms of assessment but there is reference in the Explanatory Memorandum to pre-school children in particular. I believe a holistic approach is taken in section 4(6) which states:

An assessment for the purposes of this section shall include an evaluation and statement of the nature and extent of the child's disability . . . and an evaluation and statement of the services which the child will need so as to be able to participate in and benefit from education and, generally, to develop his or her potential.

Why do the representatives and the other groups mentioned not consider this approach to be holistic?

A student is defined as somebody up to the age of 18. Do any of the groups have a proposal on how that should be dealt with in the legislation, and on the issue of the long school year?

I want to direct my more specific questions to the representatives of COPE but I would be interested to hear the groups' comments on some general questions. Section 4 refers to the health boards having an opinion in terms of accessing assessments, etc. I would like to hear the views of the representatives on whether they are happy with this or have concerns about it. Currently, the Department of Education and Science will not accept many assessments from the health board if it has conflicting assessments from the NEPS. What is proposed would be a fundamental change in the operation of the current system. Do the representatives believe it is an improvement or a regressive step?

I was interested in the comments of a number of speakers about the principal being one of the key people in terms of accessing assessments. I would have some concern about that which I will address to the representatives when they appear in the afternoon. We appear to only hear the word "may". There is no use of the word "shall", which perhaps is not sufficiently concrete when we are looking for them but the health board, the council and the principal are entitled to access a number of different bodies. When the committee looked at this in the past I thought we would have multi-disciplinary teams on which there would be certain specified people. Using the word "may" and giving the power to three different groups waters that down. I would like the views of the representatives on whether they would share that concern.

One of the speakers referred to assessments being provided to parents if they request them. They should be given to parents automatically because it is their child who is being assessed. Would the representatives agree with that?

The transition from primary to post-primary is something about which I am concerned. I do not know if the groups have examined this in great detail. Do any of the representatives have an opinion on how they envisage that working and the difficulties that exist? It needs to be teased out more than it is in the Bill.

Are the representatives concerned about the way the education plans are being done currently, the way they will be done in the future and the actual training of teachers? I spoke to a teacher in the past few days who has to draw up the plans. She is now teaching in the area of special needs. She is a primary school teacher without any extra training who has been told that she will have to do this but there is no assistance, help or provision for her in that regard.

The review of the education plan is putting a major requirement on teachers and appears to revolve around the principal and the special needs organiser. There is little reference to the teacher who is dealing with these children on a daily basis. Do the representatives agree that there has to be a greater role for them?

Everybody has mentioned section 12, which is the kernel of the issue. One gets the impression from reading the Bill that it is more rights orientated, but any right that has to be subjected to the approval of the Minister for Finance is not a right.

I welcome all the groups to whose members I will direct my questions, but I will particularly address the Downs Syndrome Ireland group. Section 9 states that the council will designate where it sees fit. The section also refers to the consent of parents. I understand the possible concern of parents that this role may be taken out of their hands. What would be the profile and the composition of the staff of any national school to which parents believe they have the right to send their children? Children should have access to schools in their own local areas rather than being designated to a school in another area. What composition of staff and services resources do parents want to see made available to children in the local national school? I am trying to get a clear picture of what would be desired as an alternative to what is proposed and the concerns expressed about section 9.

I welcome all the groups. There are a number of common threads about which all the groups are in agreement, as I believe we are, particularly regarding parents as partners rather than as people who have to be consulted. We should take on board that point. Other areas on which there is common ground are the need to include people with disabilities, or their representatives, on the various bodies being set up under the Bill; the need for individual education plans, which was mentioned by Mr. Shorten; and the need for greater clarity about the right to individual plans and the right to an assessment. Too much discretion seems to be given to the principal while there is less involvement from the teacher concerned and the parents.

A number of other issues need to be dealt with in detail. The first is the definition issue which was mentioned by Deirdre Carroll and Angela Kerins of the Rehab Group. I like the definition suggested by NAMHI. The dyslexia association is concerned about the exclusion of people with specific learning disabilities. In fact, the definition in the Bill that was withdrawn last year was more wide ranging and inclusive than the definition in this Bill. The point that there should be common definitions throughout the legislation must be taken on board. Perhaps Deirdre Carroll would comment on how NAMHI came up with its definition. It appears to be an inclusive and rights-based definition as opposed to a medical model. It is a social model which reflects the thinking of the forum for people with disabilities. The forum referred to the environment being seen as disabling rather than people being seen as disabled. The NAMHI definition leans in that direction.

The other issue, which is crucial, is that raised by the St. Vincent's group, the specific needs of people with severe and profound disabilities. Their needs are primarily health rather than education-based but we are dealing with an education Bill. Do the groups feel there is a need for a different approach for people who have a severe disability? The Downs Syndrome group's representatives spoke about inclusiveness and being able to attend one's local school. That is clearly important for many people with disabilities but it is probably not relevant to the St. Vincent's group. Should there be a degree of separation regarding the different needs of different groups? I am anxious to hear the delegations' views on this because we must ensure the Bill is inclusive of all types of disability.

Everybody is concerned about section 12. Perhaps Mr. Bohan would expand on his remarks about rights and whether this Bill is extending the right to education under the Constitution or is, in fact, limiting that right. I share Deputy Enright's concern about the Minister for Finance having the deciding vote in terms of resources because resources are crucial to the success of this legislation.

I welcome the groups. While my questions are directed to all of them, I wish to concentrate on the Rehab presentation. The issue of inclusiveness versus integration has been a common thread in the presentations but does not get the same emphasis from every group. Perhaps somebody would discuss this matter further. Deputy Hoctor spoke about the right of a parent to put a child in the school of their choice in the community to eliminate much of the labelling and other sensitivities that arise in this regard. Is there a conflict between the need for inclusiveness on the one hand and the maximisation of specialised resources on the other? Perhaps one of the representatives would discuss that.

The definition issue has already been raised. There is a professional view that the existing definitions are too strongly based on medical criteria. The definition in the new Bill is broader and more encompassing, although Deputy O'Sullivan takes a contrary view. I would like to hear the delegates' comments on that. The Rehab presentation states that the system of accessing support should be easier for parents. Is the Bill not legislating that parents should have the right of access? What access other than that provided for in the Bill does the Rehab Group have in mind? The group also referred to "on request" versus "automatic". Most legislators and Ministers would not have difficulty substituting "automatic" for "on request" depending on what is meant. Does the group mean each and every item of need that is identified at each time or does it mean key decisions and key documents being available?

The Bill provides for a reasonable degree of participation by the special education needs organisers in the area of transition for the students. Obviously, the Rehab Group thinks otherwise. Is it not a fair point that if one were to give additional decision-making powers to the special education needs organisers, one could conceivably bog them down in administrative areas, taking from their specialist inputs? The group urges that parents be permitted to go to the appeals board at any point in their child's education. I am not sure I understand that point. If, for example, a teacher or a teacher in consultation with a professional decides that a child with special needs requires an extra hour of maths, is the group suggesting that the parents in such circumstances would have the right to go to the appeals board to appeal that decision? That probably begs a much wider question regarding the role and functions of parents vis-à-vis the roles of professionals and the appeals board. I am not sure where the different groups stand in that regard, which might be a shortcoming on my part. Perhaps that could be teased out further.

With regard to the participation of different groups on the council, there is provision for a consultative forum and I anticipate that it would be widely representative. Is it realistic to have wider representation on the council? Would it not be unwieldy?

It was telling that one group member spoke about the Minister's special announcement and said that delivery was inconsistent at best and often non-existent. Many of the groups the committee will meet in the next few days will probably have the same view. These hearings are being held to look at making changes to the Bill. There seems to be a consensus that the term "child" should be replaced with "student". Perhaps the groups would expand on the point they are making in that regard.

The submission from the Downs Syndrome group makes the important point that the principal might not have the skills to decide who should make up the team. Who does the group believe should be given that responsibility? With regard to the child with special needs, NAMHI and the Rehab Group make similar points about the definition. The NAMHI submission suggests that a student with special education needs should mean a student requiring supports and services additional to the ordinary school programme. Is that acceptable to Rehab, which put forward its own definition? Would it encompass what Rehab is trying to secure in the Bill?

I could make a number of other points but I have the papers submitted by the groups and may discuss them later with the delegates.

I thank the Chairman for giving me the opportunity to attend this meeting. I also welcome the disability groups. We should take this opportunity to thank them for their magnificent work in recent years and for their sheer professionalism. It was their members, families and friends - I am the parent of a child with Downs Syndrome - whose efforts and drive made the Special Olympics such a great success. I commend the groups on that.

The message I am getting about the core issue in this Bill is that parents and people who work in these services are seeking choice in education. There are three core issues relating to the Bill. First, parents and people who work in the services are talking about choice in education because different children have different needs. Second, we need a system designed for the child, not the other way around, which we had in the past whereby the child had to fit into the system. That is the way forward. Third, we need a Bill with teeth to provide essential services and resources.

As the parent of a child with Down's syndrome, I welcome the submission by Down's Syndrome Ireland and I strongly support it along with many of the other submissions. The Minister has a duty to listen carefully to the submissions, including priority issues relating to resource teaching hours and special needs assistants. Those are the priority issues that have been raised by Down's Syndrome Ireland.

The group called for a Down's syndrome forum or task force to develop the idea of inclusive education. Does the group feel that, up to now, its voice has been ignored in calling for such a forum? The group also expressed concerns about the lack of resources. In the last two weeks, I have seen five cases where children with disabilities could not start school because the resources were not in place for them. I do not find that acceptable. If we are serious about this legislation and social inclusion we will have to introduce a Bill that supports those families.

Does Down's Syndrome Ireland have many parents of children out of school at the moment who are not receiving the requisite services and are being ignored? On page 2, paragraph 3 of the executive summary, the group states, "Down's Syndrome Ireland recognises the economic circumstances that prevail, and the need to prioritise spending needs". Does the group feel that, as regards spending needs at the moment, there is a lot of waste going on within the different Departments? Does it accept that expenditure must be made on the services for children with disabilities?

The group's submission quotes Senator Harrison Williams, the author of the US Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1974. Do I get the impression from many of the groups that this Bill is not living up to the standard of the American legislation?

Mr. Cowman referred to the 18 or 19 year old cut-off point for services and access to education. We have to make sure that all young adults will have a good education and quality of life. I strongly support these concerns.

During the summer, it was announced that €50 million was to be invested in services for people with disabilities. Did Mr. Cowman's and Mr. Feehily's organisation benefit from this funding, and did it deal with the crisis situation that emerged before the summer period?

There must be consultation with staff who work in the services concerning the school year. This is a priority issue because these people are working in the front line every day. I strongly support Mr. Bohan's concerns about section 2(1)(b), section 9 and section 12. I hope the Minister will listen to these views, which I support. In addition, Mr. Shorten's proposal for the individual education plan must be at the core of the Bill, otherwise we will not make progress.

We need a legislative system which is designed for children, rather than vice versa, which has been the flaw up to this.

I am conscious that other members also want to ask questions and I want to pose some myself but we have time constraints. May I beg the indulgence of members and staff to extend the time of this sitting to one p.m. which will enable me to give five minutes to each group to respond verbally? Some of you at least will want to send some additional information arising from questions that have been raised.

I will turn first to the St. Vincent's Parents Support Group for answers to a lot of the questions that have been raised.

Mr. Cowman

There were many questions and I could spend a long time answering them.

Yes but feel free to send additional information to the committee later.

Mr. Cowman

Okay. Deputy O'Sullivan has hit the nail on the head in that in terms of our particular needs, children with severe and profound handicap are floating around the system and nobody knows what to do with them. That is basically what it amounts to. They got caught between the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Health and Children. That was actually transferred down to the ground. I am reminded of George Bernard Shaw's comment that "professions are conspiracies against the laity". We certainly experienced that because of jurisdictional disputes, which are mentioned in the explanatory memorandum. We experienced this at first hand between teachers and health care staff, as to who was in charge, who was acting in loco parentis and who was paying for it. In one situation, even some of the ties were removed from a health setting which was taken over by health, because education was in charge of it. We experienced a lot of things on the ground and jurisdictional disputes played a huge part in sorting out our affairs.

Deputy Andrews asked what the answer was. We made the point in our submission that we are over-pedagogical in our approach; that there is too much of a formal curriculum. The ideal situation is sometimes a walk in the garden or listening to favourite music because these children are not receptive to learning. My daughter could have 20 epileptic seizures per day and may not be open to learning. We had situations where teachers were looking after these children, trying to teach them something when the children might have been doubly incontinent. So, the primary needs were health-care related and education at that stage was minimal.

I respect my colleagues saying that in Down's syndrome and other areas of milder or more moderate mental handicap, education is of course a core principal. However, our children who are under one year old in terms of intellectual ability, learn at a slower pace. We are actually talking about an ability, rather than a disability, and even though our children are very disabled physically, we are talking about their potential for going beyond this. Therefore, the argument is perfectly logical that they can continue to learn beyond the age of 18. It is not a milestone in their lives and some of them, indeed, do not live to be 18. However, with new and improved health services, they are living longer. At the moment, children with profound disabilities comprise one of the faster expanding areas of dependency because of improved health services. In the past, children with such profound handicaps died at a younger age. It is a huge challenge to keep all of that going.

Mr. Justice Barr summed it up in the 1993 O'Donoghue case when he said, "We must introduce an appropriate education", but that was never followed through. If we had an appropriate education today, which would mean minimal education in our situation, and more health care, we would not have been in the dispute we entered into last year. We would have had the 48 weeks service we always had, but when the Department of Education and Science took it in we had to conform to the rights of the teaching profession, which only teaches for 183 days. Therefore, these children were subject to service of 183 days and we took up the slack.

We also questioned the inservice training. We found that some teachers were going away to learn how to teach maths and Irish to somebody with an intellectual age of six months. I would ask the Minister for Education and Science what child in this State with an intellectual age of six months is required to learn maths and Irish. We are not talking about chronological age, but about the potential age, although they have all been assessed at six months.

Mr. Shay Feehily

Deputy Andrews asked whether we would be happier with a more holistic, whole child approach in the assessments. Looking at that on paper one might say "Fine" and that is what we are trying to do in our service at the moment. However, one wonders how that can apply given the difficulties there have been in our centre. The legislation has not dealt with the difficulties that caused the health professions to withdraw from our service because, to quote them, "It was a rigid, education-dominated model". It is not clear how everything is meant to work in the child's room or who is in charge. There are conflicts there. The very valuable health professionals do not seem to have the same type of recognition in the legislation; they do not seem to be represented on the board of management. The children's needs are taken into account, yet when summer or Christmas comes, school breaks are imposed on them regardless of their needs. They depend on transport to take them to these services, which are not there. There is medical backup but it is not available because they cannot access the transport.

If there is other material that you think would be useful in the context of the Bill, arising from the various questions, feel free to send it in to us and we will consider it. Now we will hear from the COPE Foundation.

Ms Nash

I agree with some of the points made by the St. Vincent's group. We may need to examine the separation of the mildly, moderately or severely and profoundly disabled groups, because we are probably looking at different systems. We are talking about choice for parents for their children to go to local schools and the resources required to enable children to attend what school is deemed appropriate for them, as near as possible to their home environment. I can see why the Down's syndrome group come from a different position from that of the group representing those with severe and profound disabilities. When the COPE Foundation talks about the school year, I suppose we are talking about the same thing as the group representing those with severe and profound disabilities. Mr. Justice Barr indicated that in the O'Donoghue case. In the COPE Foundation, children have a right to education in July. As an organisation, we support that system through our health professionals. Parents did not have a service throughout August, although this year two parents secured funding for a service throughout August - the summer scheme. They approached us and asked us to deliver that service, so this year the children with severe and profound intellectual disabilities will, more or less, have had a calendar year service. For the first time parents with children of 16 years of age have had time to give to their other children and time for themselves. They were less stressed throughout the summer. We have to take that on board. That is the feedback from 20 parents who responded to us. That must be taken on board. This Bill does not address the gamut of mild, modest and profound disability. That is really from where we are coming.

I think the question on resources referred to the status of non-direct Department of Education and Science-funded services and decisions within the school system. That is a particular concern to us. At present a different status operates for different decision makers within the system. An example in the proposed Bill is where if recommendations are made by professional staff for pre-school children, what status will these decisions have when the children move into primary schools? Our experience to date regarding the national educational psychological service is that NEPS psychologists consider that psychologists working within intellectual and physical disability organisations would continue to take responsibility for children they have assessed, even though the NEPS psychologist is responsible for the school the child attends. It is probably linked to resource limitations and we hope that NEPS psychologists take increasing responsibility in schools as its staff resources permit. Everybody knows that NEPS psychologists give a service of around six days per year to a school. That highlights the difficulties there will be securing assessments and having NEPS psychologists involved in the individual education plans process, etc.

One of the proposals is that all these educational support staff should be part of the education system employed by the Department of Education and Science, the national council or whatever the most appropriate body, but that they should be taken away from the Department of Health and Children because the links and collaboration required will be difficult to organise and maintain. It will also be difficult to guarantee that the rights of children are ensured and that their needs are being met. This would also lead to a more effective team-based approach and enhanced relationships between the disciplines in the school system. It would also give much more clarity to the boards of management as to their responsibilities, particularly regarding staff. If boards of management are clear about staff, their duties and about everybody involved with a particular child, there will be good governance regarding the IEPs. I concur with other speakers in that IEPs are central to this system.

I concur with my colleagues on the issue of the varying levels and degrees of disability ranging from severe to moderate to mild and that all of their needs must be met. As a teacher and a parent of a child with Down's syndrome, my brief is obviously children with that syndrome and that is why we chose to speak on this topic. We are not saying children with severe learning or other needs should not be going to special schools.

I would like to take up the issue of the profile of the school which was raised. The profile of the school would be models which exist throughout the country at present when given the best level of resources. As I said in my introduction, it has been inconsistent. It can work very well in a mainstream school setting for children with Down's syndrome if they are given the maximum level of support, namely, a full-time special needs assistant, if they need one, or five hours of resource teaching. There has been a sinister turn of events in the last few months in that children starting junior infants on 1 September 2003 have entered mainstream schools but have not received the support expected. Psychologists from the service providers or health boards have stated in their psychological reports that they need full-time supervision and support in the classroom and the NEPS psychologists have recommended to the Department of Education and Science that they do not get that. I was delighted that Deputy Enright raised this issue because it is a very worrying situation.

Deputy Finian McGrath cited a quotation from Senator Harrison Williams in 1974, not last year or the year before. I wish to read it into the record.

We must recognise our responsibility to provide education for all children with disabilities which meets their unique needs [each of our children has unique needs, including children with Down's syndrome who have mild and profound learning disabilities]. The denial of the right to education and to equal opportunity within this nation for handicapped children whether it be outright exclusion from school, the failure to provide an education which meets the needs of a single handicapped child or the refusal to recognise a handicapped child's right to grow, is a travesty of justice and a denial of equal protection under the law.

We also have a Constitution which guarantees our children a right to education, yet we have a Bill which has a hidden trapdoor by which the resources necessary to guarantee those rights can be withdrawn at the whim of the Minister. Members will excuse us if we are sceptical. My child is not growing up in an age when she would have had to endure care in a psychiatric unit. Thank God things have improved a lot but there is still a failure within the State structure to truly recognise that our children are children first and foremost, that they have abilities and that they have a disability. That must run through the Bill.

I have four children and it is not acceptable to me to see my three sons going into an education system in which they are treated equally but to see my daughter, who has an educational disability, faced with legislation which states that her education must be consistent with the effective provision of education for others. If that was turned on its head and if we were to say the education of normal children must be consistent with the education of children with disabilities, there would be public outcry. We are dealing with basic human rights and the sooner this is recognised by the State and I hope by this committee in its approach to amendments to the Bill, the better.

Deputy Crowe raised the question of the school principal not having the skills set. I suggest the special needs organiser is the person to do it. Another point which I did not get the opportunity to make in my original contribution but which has been made by other speakers, relates to the age limit of 18 years. Our children enter the school system at a later age, if they enter it, because their development is delayed. They are delayed for a whole host of reasons such as they cannot get speech and language therapy or a psychological report. They are slow getting into the system and are slow going through it. Are we going to say to them that they can sit their junior certificate but that they cannot sit it once they pass 18 years of age? That is fundamentally not right.

Ms Carroll

As regards the definition, we thought this definition would encompass all children with additional needs. I can see why the definition was changed in the second Bill because at some stage people did not want to label children who might have dyslexia or a problem in school as a child with a disability. That is why the term "enduring" came in. I think it was probably done for that reason but it excludes many children and does not take account of the fact that children with a mild disability will not get the supports they need. They need supports and services to benefit from education. Supports and services are interpreted by the High Court judgments of O'Hanlon and Barr when dealing with major cases relating to children with disabilities. They define supports and services as anything which enables a child to learn. I share the concerns expressed about trapdoors. I am not a lawyer but Mr. Justice Barr was very strong in his ruling that the Department of Finance which plays a major role in advising on the disposition of the financial resources of the State appeared to be insufficiently informed regarding the constitutional obligations of the State. If Article 42 is mentioned in the Bill, these High Court rulings must be taken into account. A key point is that they relate only to children under 18 years but as I am not a lawyer, I am open to correction on this.

The issue of education for children with severe and profound disabilities and the link between health and education is crucial. What we have is a travesty in terms of what should be available for these children. They should have an education which is what enables them to learn. It is different from a scholastic education and may be different from an education for children with mild and moderate disabilities. I ask the committee, when it receives submissions from the INTO and the ASTI, to ask them what their position is on a longer school year. Embargoes by unions and jurisdiction disputes between administrations will prevent children from learning. Unions must be asked about this. I ask the committee to ask these questions when they come before it.

Mr. Shorten

Many of the support services such as speech and language and occupational therapy are provided by the health service. They are not covered by the education sector. This should be changed in order that the whole needs of the child become one cohesive and dynamic force for his or her education.

The question of the assessment of need has been touched on in the blue report and the Education Bill 1998. We have always said that if we had an assessment of needs as a statutory right and those needs were fully identified and resourced, we would have fewer problems, parents would be very much happier and students would proceed to a milieu of education which would be beneficial to them and society.

It takes four years to draw down an education Bill. I wonder why. The Education Act has only been drawn down recently. When this Bill is passed, will it take four years to draw it down? It may not be given effect until 2010. We do not know who will be in government, if there is a Government, at that time.

The Independents will be in charge by then.

Ms Kerins

I am sure there is great speculation about that.

The issue of assessment of need has been well discussed and documented in every submission. A disability Bill is also expected. Many involved in the sector believe there should be a dovetailing of the independent assessment of need promised by the Taoiseach to be included in that Bill.

With regard to Deputy O'Sullivan's query, I cannot but agree with the NAMHI. Its definition is a very good one. It is inclusive. The needs of children with dyslexia and dyspraxia cannot be met in this legislation. Why do we have to change definitions? Why can the definition not be inclusive of all who have a disability and suffer from social impairments and barriers?

Teachers' skills must be built. They are the people who will deliver the service. All sorts of experts may visit schools but if teachers do not have the skills to address the needs of children, we will be going nowhere fast. My colleague will say more about teacher training.

Deputy Finian McGrath spoke about choice. It is important that there is choice. We did not include it in our submission but the issue of the deaf child is also important. The Irish Deaf Society and many others have been campaigning for years to have sign language recognised. Only last week I had a meeting with a group of deaf people who told me that illiteracy levels among deaf children were extremely high. We need to start with basic education. We need to look at choices for children with Down's syndrome and many other groups and set a level playing field for all children as they face life.

Ms O’Neill

Most of my comments are addressed to Senator Fitzgerald in answer to his questions. My colleagues have dealt with most of the other questions raised.

On ease of access for parents, our concern is that the system be made as simple as possible. Whereas parents can request the national council to start the assessment process for a child, we do not feel it should be necessary for them to go to an outside body with which they have had no prior contact. It would be easier for them to have contact with the body they know - the school, if the child is attending, or the health board through the public health nurse. It is a question of subsidiarity.

The information a parent gets should be provided in an accessible way. We are know how jargonistic language can be. We must ensure parents can access information in a format which they can appreciate. This week the National Literacy Agency launched a guide to plain English which I am sure will be sent to all Deputies and Senators. This Bill should also be disability proofed in order that when something like an education plan or letter comes to parents, they will be fully able to understand and appreciate everything contained in it.

We feel it is odd that the special needs organiser has no real role in the transition period between schools. Senator Fitzgerald asked whether they would get bogged down. The glib answer is that they would not if there were enough of them because they would have sufficient resources. We see theirs as a steering role between two principals to ensure there is no clash and that the transition is seamless.

The right of parents to go to the appeals board was raised. There is provision for summary review of the assessment. However, a change in environment can occur without notice and fundamentally affect the progress of a child. This must be taken into consideration. I do not think frivolous or vexatious claims are likely; we should not legislate for hard cases. An action taken at a particular time may not be appropriate at another. Parents must be able to access a review very quickly.

Deputy Stanton wishes to ask a question. We will not have time for the answer but people may be able to respond subsequently.

The role of advocacy for parents is not built into the Bill. I am interested in hearing how such a system could work for parents and how it could be built into the legislation. Can Ms O'Neill send on her views on this area? Many parents would not have the knowledge, skills or backup to deal with officialdom.

I happen to be a member of the acquired brain injury advocacy support group because a member of my family is an accident victim. Even though I attended a meeting with the group recently, it did not occur to me to suggest it make a submission on the Bill. Its representatives range mainly from parents of those with a profound disability to those with a mild disability. Different groups bring a different approach from their own experience. I have learned more in the last two hours about how the Bill might best serve those involved than I did in all of the time I spent ploughing through the submissions. In some respects, this delegation has been the guinea pig. It has established some very clear points for others. I thank members for their questions.

Sitting suspended at 1 p.m. and resumed at2 p.m.

I welcome representatives of the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools, the Irish Vocational Education Association and the Joint Managerial Body who will be making a joint presentation. I also welcome representatives of the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies, the Irish Primary Principals Network, the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals and the Catholic Primary School Managers Association.

The first part of the meeting will be taken up by brief presentations from each of the groups. I ask them to limit these to five minutes to allow better interaction in the subsequent part of the meeting. Before we begin, I draw their attention to the fact that while members of the committee enjoy absolute privilege, the same privilege does not extend to those appearing before the committee. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I now call Mr. Liam Ryder, Ms Ann Dinan and Mr. Seán Ó Longáin to make the presentation on behalf of the ACCS, the IVEA and the JMB.

Mr. Liam Ryder

I will lead off on behalf of the management group of second level schools, represented by the three organisations. The committee has received submission which we hope to have a further opportunity to discuss later. I will highlight some particular points in the short time available to us.

We would like to focus on the definition of "special needs" as contained in the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill 2003. It focuses particularly on medical and paramedical needs. This contrasts with the much fuller definition in the 2002 version of the Bill and, in particular, the SERC report of 1993. The difference in its definition was the inclusion of emotional and behavioural issues and special needs arising from social disadvantage. From the point of view of running schools, we feel this is an important omission from the Bill and would very much like to see it corrected and dealt with in the course of the passage of the legislation.

The second item of concern to us is the availability of psychologists and resources. A great many of the provisions in the Bill depend on the availability of psychological assessments. School principals and school managements are concerned about the availability of psychologists - a problem in recent years. We are concerned at the delays in getting access to reports and the ability of schools to get reports on individuals. There will be a need for a great deal more resources in this area in order to meet the needs of the Bill. While it probably relates to the availability of resources, we are particularly concerned that there is provision for a delay of, perhaps, up to three months between the making of a request for a psychological assessment of a child and the delivery of such an assessment. We believe this is far too long and unnecessary. It represents a whole school term.

Deputy O'Sullivan took the Chair.

Mr. Ryder

Linked to this is the subject of resources, a great issue which must be looked at. Members will notice that provision of resources is defined in the Bill in the form of a psychological assessment. In other words, a psychologist will be asked to define the resources required for a particular pupil. On the other hand, delivery of these resources is in the hands of the Department of Education and Science. They do not always meet. We are concerned that school management, the school principal in particular, can get caught as the meat in the sandwich in such a case where one is waving a psychological report which states certain resources are needed but the Department is not in a position to provide them. This creates conflict which we can do without. We would like to see attention being paid to the matter in the course of the committee's deliberations. We are concerned about the workload it will place on principals and boards of management.

The Bill sets out detailed list of obligations to be fulfilled by the principal, in particular, in relation to each individual. In some ways, if a school has only one or two pupils in this category, it is not too bad. However, for a school with 30 or 40, it seems impossible for any individual principal with the present level of administrative resources to meet the needs of the Bill, as outlined. Perhaps the provision of some form of co-ordinator post may very well become necessary in that context. It certainly needs consideration.

We also have concerns that the role of the board of management needs careful examination because in all cases in the course of the Bill the issue of making decisions, calling for appeals and so on always refers to the principal who in the normal course of events is expected to be subject to the board of management. I believe section 14 places the onus on the board of management to meet the requirements of the Bill but at the same time ignores the role of the board in many of the provisions contained therein. Another matter to which we believe particular attention should be paid, though I cannot elaborate in the short time available, is the integration of children with special needs into schools and within classrooms. With regard to the school aspect, we are concerned that the Bill should not lead to ghettos of schools for children with special needs. It is very important, in our view, that all schools should be seen and even forced to play their full and active part in dealing with this issue right across the board. We are particularly concerned that in the State sector undue pressure should be applied to schools in to fulfil obligations in that regard.

As my time is almost up, let me just say the other items in our presentation are also important to us, particularly adult and pre-school education, on which I hope my colleagues will have an opportunity to speak later.

Acting Chairman

I thank Mr. Ryder for his presentation. I now invite Ms Maura Nash, chairperson of the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies, to make her presentation.

Ms Maura Nash

I thank the committee for giving me the opportunity to make this presentation. The National Federation of Voluntary Bodies considers the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill as essential in addressing the current issues faced by service providers in endeavouring to meet appropriately the needs of children with an intellectual disability. The federation consists of 60 member organisations throughout the Republic of Ireland. It is a national umbrella organisation for voluntary non-statutory agencies which provide direct services for over 20,000 people with an intellectual disability and employ some 13,000 people.

The federation welcomes the commitment in the Bill to promoting the rights of children with an intellectual disability to avail of the benefit from an appropriate education. We welcome the commitment that such children should participate in an inclusive way in the social and economic activities of society and live independent and fulfilled lives. We welcome the significant steps towards the development of an individual education plan. We expect the national council will play a key role in ensuring these rights are achieved. We welcome separate Bills for adults and children and acknowledge that many of the concerns expressed by the federation in our response to the draft Bill in November 2002 have been taken on board.

I wish to raise some concerns in relation to the Bill. We consider it essential for it to be harmonised with the disabilities Bill, both of which should be brought before the Oireachtas simultaneously. We wish to highlight the two key issues of co-ordination and resource commitment. Within this response, the Bill is now explored on a section by section basis, outlining concerns and areas on which we require further clarification. The national federation wishes to highlight the following major concerns in relation to the Bill, as presented. First, the potential impact of the proposed legislation will be significantly diminished unless there is a legislative imperative associated with the appropriate provision of supports and resources. Second, the co-ordination of service planning, delivery and evaluation will be essential if the complex and varied needs of those entitled to appropriate services are to be comprehensively addressed. The Bill outlines proposals for co-operation between the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Education and Science. However, experience to date suggests that this will remain inoperable as a result of the lack of clear guidelines in this regard, with the proposal that responsibility for the provision of support services and early intervention services transfer to the Department of Education and Science.

Third, we welcome the formalisation of the IEP to ensure the needs of the child drive the process and endorse the whole life approach to the IEP. Fourth, the national federation welcomes the priority given to promoting access to integrated education. The Bill gives the impression that the existing networks of special education services are no more than places of last resort. In so doing, it fails to acknowledge the contributions, past and present, of special schools and their capacity in future to support mainstream education services. It provides the opportunity to create a new vision in the provision of education for children with significant support needs. This could include a new management system in special schools, inclusive of the wide range of staff involved in the provision of education, and address the existing apartheid. It would provide the opportunity to make a significant improvement in the provision of services for people with a profound and severe intellectual disability. We are disappointed that this opportunity has not been grasped.

Fifth, the Bill fails to address issues in relation to boards of management, with particular reference to the lack of recognition of the range of staff involved in providing education for children with a disability and issues concerning the length of the school year. Sixth, ongoing participative consultation involving all stakeholders is necessary if the needs and rights of those with an intellectual disability are to be reflected in good and workable legislation. Experience to date does not augur well; unless the proposed national council, in its composition and approaches, reflects a commitment to partnership, the potential for positive development will be lost. Seventh, while welcoming the statements in relation to the involvement of parents, the Bill fails to secure the active and effective involvement of parents and key members in assessment and individual education plan developments when initiated by the principal.

I now turn to concerns about omissions from the Bill. The national federation is concerned to note the complete lack of reference to transport, particularly in relation to people with a significant, severe and profound intellectual disability who would require one-to-one taxi transport. This has not been addressed in the Bill. There is a lack of communication and co-ordination mechanisms with a range of interested parties such as social service inspectorates and the SENO. There is a lack of enforcement mechanisms. How will appeal based decisions be enforced?

There is a lack of safeguards and guidance on confidentiality. There is a lack of action to meet the massive demand for special education courses for teachers and support staff. There is a lack of information on the relationship between the National Council for Special Education and the Department of Education and Science. Will the council replace the special education section? Specifically, we seek further clarification as to the council's funding and where schools should seek resources such as teaching staff and support services, including speech and language therapists and so on. What is the position on other support services? Will children with a mild intellectual disability fall within the remit of the Bill?

Acting Chairman

I will now hand back to the Chairman.

The next presentation is by the Irish Primary Principals Network which is represented by Mr. Seán Cottrell and Mr. David Ruddy.

Mr. Seán Cottrell

I thank the Members of the Oireachtas involved in this committee for providing us with this opportunity. I wish to focus mainly on two points but, first, the IPPA welcomes the Bill and looks forward to assisting its delivery in the form of meaningful legislation to improve the situation of children with disabilities in our primary schools. I understand that, possibly, eight members of the committee are teachers or former teachers. I hope this will provide a resonance in relation to our mind-set as to how the Bill will impact on schools.

As one who has to cope with a special needs situation within my own family, I am particularly aware that this is a very real issue for many. However, for the purposes of today's meeting, I am looking at the situation from the perspective of the role of principal teacher. We have to learn some serious lessons from the Education and Welfare Bill, in getting the order of things right. The cart must not come before the horse in this regard in terms of resources and services. The commencement of the Bill has to be contingent on the services being in place. I will not repeat what my colleagues have said in that regard.

It is important to recognise that the role and existence of special schools has been ignored in this Bill which is a grave omission. The transfer from primary to post-primary is a serious concern for us in the sense that it is a reality which faces schools every year. This Bill fails to address the issue. There is a serious need for professional development for principals and, in particular, teachers with regard to individual education plans, or IEPs. That, however, is not strictly speaking a legislative issue.

Page 3 of the green covered document circulated to the committee features a simple diagram. The two areas of immediate concern involve the principal teacher and the special needs organiser. Anyone who knows anything about teaching - and I note that the Chairman is a principal teacher - will recognise that the principal teacher's is the most overloaded role in education. That has been defined and identified in the 2003 report of an independent management consultancy, the Hay Group. The integration of children with special educational needs and disabilities over the last few years, mainly in primary schools, since the direct response provision was announced in 1988 has led in many cases to circumstances in which there are two schools in one. In every school there is now a special school within a mainstream school, and principal teachers will acknowledge that the amount of time they can devote to the leadership and management of teaching and learning in the so-called "normal school" has been greatly diminished as a result of the sheer workload and challenge of trying to work through the quagmire of special needs bureaucracy. If the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill 2003 is made law in its current form, it will serve to legislate a massive and unsustainable expansion in the role of principals. One can legislate for fine weather, but that does not mean it will occur tomorrow.

This law fails to recognise the extent to which principal teachers are stretched. I concur absolutely with the point made by the ACCS regarding the role of boards of management and the need for them to be named in respect of responsibility rather than the principal. The principal is referred to 45 times in this Bill which is quite frightening. It seems to be a very convenient vehicle due to the nature and type of person who tends to fill the role of principal. I alert the joint committee to the fact that while one can make the principal teacher responsible for anything, if he or she simply cannot meet the responsibilities within the constraints of their workload, the exercise will be pointless. Principals must be able to act on behalf of children. There are many children for whom nobody else will act as advocate in the community perhaps due to family or other circumstances. Principal teachers do not have the same clout as others in the system when it comes to making referrals or demands on professional services. The principal teacher must be recognised as the leader of the teaching staff in a school to allow him or her to make key referrals to special services. It is alarming that there is no appeals process provided for principals in this Bill though this is not the case for all other key stakeholders.

I have identified the problems which may arise in respect of the special needs organiser, or SNO, as well as the solution I consider best. Our organisation believes that the special needs organiser if properly established can constitute, if not the panacea for all ills, a meaningful solution to the question of how to match resources with children's needs as they exist. The SNO must have a key role in identifying children and registering them on behalf of the council, arranging assessments and facilitating individual education plans and the reviews which will inevitably be required from time to time. This is not to intrude upon, undermine or replace the roles of teachers and principals, but to collaborate and co-operate with the school in a manner compatible with a genuine process of partnership between those whose role is special needs organisation and those whose role is to implement services in schools. There could be positive synergy among special needs organisers, principals and teachers if this role is defined properly.

The role of SNOs involves negotiating between the rights of those who have needs and the responsibilities of those who have the resources or the capacity to deliver resources, namely schools. If the role of the SNO is defined properly, the great need for many appeals will be done away with. The role of the SNO through a network of offices being rolled out nationally by the Department of Education and Science could provide a one-stop-shop for parents which is what is needed. Right now, a new parent coming on the scene with a child with a disability is faced with huge confusion as to what is happening.

I am sure there will be questions on what you have had to say.

Ms Mary McGlynn

On behalf of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals which represents all principals and deputies at post-primary level, I thank the joint committee for the opportunity to highlight some of the areas in our submission with regard to which we are extremely concerned. We unreservedly welcome this Bill which will respond to the needs of one of the most vulnerable groups in our society. It is heartbreaking as a principal to watch what parents must go through to achieve even basic help for their children.

In welcoming the Bill, we have a number of reservations in respect of its legislative context. We suggest that the Bill should be read in the context of the Education Act, the National Disability Authority Act and the forthcoming disabilities Bill. We are concerned that the definition of "disability" is not included in this Bill whereas it is clearly articulated in the other legislation to which I have referred. That needs to be taken on board particularly with reference to sections D and E of the definitions of the other Bills otherwise the law will be quite open to much legal interpretation and misrepresentation as time goes on. We are concerned that the primary model which Mr. Cottrell has spoken of is not the model for second level. This applies across the board. We must take care to understand that in question are children at a different age level with different needs. We are concerned about the lack of transfer support. As I speak some of my colleagues do not yet have the support they need for their first year students which is causing great hardship to a number of parents across the country. That must be addressed very quickly.

As other groups have said, the principal is the focus of a great many sections of this Bill. Bearing in mind the initial remarks I made, I merely note the fact that this will make it very difficult for the principal to operate. We need all possible resources in terms of personnel and SNOs as well as the authority to go with the accountability being demanded of us. As the management bodies have said, we are seriously concerned about the lack of definition in respect of the roles of boards of management and principals which are issues which must be revisited. Last year, we welcomed the opportunity to make submissions on the Bill which subsequently fell and issues of conflicts between SNOs and principals have been addressed in the redrafted legislation.

This is only one of the many Bills which have or will entail an extra workload for principals who have been singled out in recent years. No other group of individuals has been singled out in legislation to the same extent. This problem must be addressed as colleagues are, unfortunately, leaving the profession due to an inability to deal with the endless paperwork with which they are presented. There is a need to address the focus of the education content of this Bill and to deal with the quality and delivery of its education content in a way which benefits the students concerned.

We are concerned about the resource implications. If we are serious about the Bill, let us not enact it unless we intend to resource it. Otherwise it would be heartbreaking for the parents involved. It is most demeaning at times for them to have to chip away at a system to get the resources they deserve. Teachers do not have the training to deal with most of these areas. Much specialist training is required.

We are also concerned about implementation and fear it may be carried out in a piecemeal fashion, as with the Education (Welfare) Act, which is causing many problems. We ask that the committee consider the words "inclusive" and "integrated", so as to provide for greater inclusion and integration. This matter could be addressed. Section 13 allows the council to designate schools but we hope that schools throughout the system would have a number of students with special needs and that this would be seen as normal. However, special schools need to exist all the time.

We are concerned about the definition of "assessment" in the Bill and about the relationships between principals and health boards, etc. We are also concerned about the education plan and its implications and are deeply concerned that associations like ours be involved in the committees. We are the implementers and must be involved at that level.

Thank you, Ms McGlynn. I am sure we will return to you with many questions. I call on Reverend Dan O'Connor, general secretary of the Catholic Primary School Managers' Association and Sister Mary Collins, president of the Association of Primary Teaching Sisters, to make their presentations.

Good afternoon. Sister Mary Collins and I represent the Catholic sector. Sister Mary represents a group of people involved in education for people with disabilities which dates back to 1840, when the Dominican Sisters established the first school for the deaf in Ireland.

In welcoming the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill, the Catholic Primary School Managers' Association, CPSMA, requests that the services necessary for the education of persons with disabilities be put in place immediately when a primary school enrols a pupil with disabilities. Based on our experience it is not sufficient to say that the services will be met in so far as resources permit.

When the Education (Welfare) Act was passed, the CPSMA was dismayed that none of the services promised in it was available to schools, yet boards of management were required to fulfil the requirements of the Act. To date, there is only a limited service available from the Education and Welfare Board to primary schools. The CPSMA also notes that in the 2002 budget, there was a reduction in the budget allocated to the Education and Welfare Board. Our organisation represents the interests of boards of management, pupils, parents and staff and it expects that the Government will immediately put in place all the necessary services for children with disabilities. We also expect that the common good of all pupils attending primary schools served by our organisation be respected.

The CPSMA is only too aware of the shortage of speech therapists and child psychologists in the primary education system. We are also aware of the difficulties that parents and school staff have to contend with when a child with severe physical or mental disability seeks assistance from the various Government services. We have already expressed our concerns about this and about the lack of services available for children of primary school-going age who are suffering from severe mental or physical disabilities.

Accepting students with disabilities from the local area into local primary schools puts a demand on the teachers, school staff and other pupils. However, if the full services and backup support are available, boards of management and teaching staff will be more than willing to provide a secure and happy learning atmosphere for these pupils.

Legislation should always be accompanied by all the services necessary to assist pupils in primary schools. Our wish as an organisation is that our schools be in a position to offer to all pupils, disabled and able-bodied alike, every opportunity to develop to their full potential. Therefore, the CPSMA expects that the national council for special education, as outlined in sections 17, 18 and 19 of the Bill, will be established immediately after the Bill becomes law. It also expects that a consultative forum, as outlined in section 20, will be established as soon as is feasible after the signing of the Bill into law.

The roles of the chief executive officer of the national council for special education, as outlined in section 22, and the special needs organisers are central for the service of students, and the employment of a full staff to service the council must be a priority. It is sad that, in light of our experience with the Education (Welfare) Bill and the Education Welfare Board, a full staff was not employed when that Bill was passed.

The special education appeals board, as outlined in section 34(3), is welcomed by the CPSMA. However, in respect of section 34, the CPSMA proposes that the ordinary members of the appeals board would not only be appointees of the Minister for Education and Science; the Minister should consider appointing members of the appeals board who represent the education partners. Section 34(11) seems to suggest this possibility.

The CPSMA is concerned that the Long Title of the Bill does not specifically mention the obligation of the Minister for Education and Science and the Department to provide for the educational needs of persons with disabilities by giving resources to boards of management of schools to assist them in providing for the education of such persons. To expect a principal teacher, especially a primary teaching principal, to fulfil the requirements outlined in sections 3, 10 and 14 of the Bill without the support of a school secretary is placing an unfair burden on him or her and the students with specialneeds.

Section 6(3), pertaining to the provision of full services to a child who is a student, must be carried out as soon as possible once the need of the student has been identified. The provisions in section 6(5), providing that a dispute between the council and the health board be referred to the appeals board within three months, does not take into account that this period is far too long for parents and pupils with special needs. The CPSMA strongly recommends that such disputes be referred to the appeals board within one month.

On section (7), pertaining to the preparation of an education plan at the direction of the council, the CPSMA recommends that there should be a timeframe built in and that a substitute teacher be appointed to cover for a principal required to attend meetings in this respect. On section 9, pertaining to the designation of the school, the CPSMA proposes that section 9(2) be replaced with section 9(1) and that section 9(1) be replaced with section 9(2). The CPSMA opposes the right of a council-designated child to attend a school without the full services needed by the child having been put in place before that student is enrolled in the school.

On section 30, regarding the duties of the school, it should be remembered that the boards of management of primary schools consist of people who, in their own free time, offer their services to pupils, parents and staff of the local school. The board members comprise a voluntary, unpaid group of civic-minded people. Also, regarding the duties of the school in section 13, there is a failure to recognise that section 15(2)(d) of the Education Act of 1998 requires the board of management to draw up and publish, with the approval of the patron, an admission policy. The Equal Status Act acknowledges the special circumstances of a school and the Education (Welfare) Act 2002 recognises the status of the admission policy. There is no reference to this in the Bill.

The CPSMA welcomes the publication of the Education for Persons With Disabilities Bill and supports its provisions for the good of all the students attending Catholic primary schools, but we plead that resources and services be provided when the Bill is enacted. Our experience of the Education (Welfare) Act in the past 12 months has been disastrous.

I thank Reverend O'Connor. We have heard all the contributions and they have been very useful. I call on Deputies Stanton, Curran and Gogarty and Senators Minihan and Tuffy, respectively, to put questions to the delegates.

I welcome the delegates and thank them for their submissions and for the interaction that has taken place. They have raised some very serious issues. I wish to address my comments to Mr. Ryder in particular, and I am sure others will contribute later. The issue of definition crops up repeatedly and there is a danger of the definitions of disability in different Bills coming into conflict with each other. This is serious because it presents school principals with a dilemma as to which definition they should use - the one in the Education Act, that proposed in this Bill or others. Principals could be caught between stools.

I do not want to upset my train of thought. One would almost need to be a junior counsel to follow everything.

Do the witnesses have a suggestion for an all-encompassing definition of disability and education? Even the term "educational disability" causes problems since some who might have a physical disability will say they can learn perfectly well and yet are included in the definition.

The role of the principal and the demands and duties placed on him or her in the Bill are massive. I am taken with the suggestion to examine the role of the special needs organiser. Mr. Seán Cottrell put that forward and I would like to hear the views of others in that regard because it seems it would be a parallel support for the principal were it to be beefed up as suggested.

I am also concerned about the qualifications of a principal to make judgments and recommendations as to whether assessments can or should take place. To whom will the principal go for advice in this regard? It is not stated in theBill. The training of principals is also a factor inthis.

I am taken with Reverend O'Connor's comment about the board of management being a voluntary body and the fact that the role of the board in this is referred to briefly in section 13. I would like to hear the witnesses' comments on how they see this developing. Is it fair to the board of management to have to take this on and will it be able to do so, especially if there is conflict?

Another issue concerning definition is that the terms "integration" and "inclusion" are widely used. Have the witnesses examined the difference between the terms? According to one, the child fits into the system, while the other means the system is adapted to the child. How do the witnesses see this working out?

Many questions have been raised and we are looking for suggestions and answers which we can propose later when dealing with the Bill on Committee Stage. It would be helpful if the witnesses attempted to answer some of their own questions and came back to us with some proposals and suggestions.

How is the membership of the consultative forum put together and what is its role?

I should have said at the outset that the committee will deal with the Bill on Committee Stage when amendments will be considered and, as Deputy Stanton said, it would be especially helpful were we to receive guidance on how it might work best from the witnesses' perspective. In this instance they are mostly service providers. We will also have presentations from some of the potential users of the service.

Mr. Cottrell referred to the number of people present who were or are teachers or principals. I am not a teacher or principal but I come to this with a strong personal interest having been a member of a board of management for a number of years. I have served six years with the present school board and ten years before that with a different school board. Therefore, I have a good deal of interest in this issue.

From a personal point of view, I have a daughter with a learning disability who happens to be in the school of whose board of management I am a member. I also have a son in the same school. It is obvious to me that the time the principal spends dealing with issues relating to my daughter is enormous compared with any attention regarding my son. The role of the principal must be addressed because there are many students with special needs and principals spend a great deal of time addressing issues relating to them.

One of the witnesses referred to a figure of 30 or 40 children with special needs in a school. That is more than a full-time job in its own right. I am interested in and look forward to suggestions in this regard. The issue stands out a mile.

Ms Nash and Reverend O'Connor touched on the other matter regarding boards of management. They are correct in saying that boards are voluntary bodies whose members work in their free time and that the abilities and commitments of boards vary enormously between schools depending on location, resources and so on. Ms Nash stated that she had concerns and I would like her to elaborate on them. Board members are voluntary people and most boards are driven by the calibre of the principal and chairman with the other members following the line by participating.

However, there is a range of legislation under which boards of management are responsible for the implementation of many policies including bullying and so on. In many cases, ordinary members of the board are ill-equipped because they do not have the appropriate background. Where do the witnesses see the responsibilities of boards of management ending up? Is the current structure of boards suitable for what is contained in the Bill? We cannot continue to expand the role of the principal because there is a limit.

There is a rota system whereby every representative is designated to ask a question of a specific group. Therefore, I will focus on the Irish Primary Principals Network, notwithstanding the questions which have been put to the other groups. I have the delegation's submission and my approach is based on our time constraints.

Certain issues have been raised by all groups, namely, if the resources are not provided for the National Educational Psychological Service, training and so on, the Bill will be unworkable, even if the warts have been scraped out. I want an indication whether the feeling is so strong on this issue that principals would refuse to implement the Bill or threaten to do so were resources not to be provided. As was said regarding education and welfare, it is repeatedly the case that resources are not provided and legislation does not work as a result. I would like an indication as to the strength of feeling on the part of the IPPN and other bodies.

Regarding section 3(7) which concerns the principal being involved in the assessment of educational needs and he or she requesting the council to prepare an educational plan, some have asked what qualifies a principal to make such a decision. This may be a rhetorical question but there are concerns that the principal might not be sufficiently independent. Would it be better to have an independent advocate to give a clear identification of the child's needs in consultation with the principal?

A second question raised by another group was whether that person should be the special needs organiser rather than the principal. The representatives outlined as one of their main areas of concern the fact that the role of the special educational needs organiser needs to be more clearly defined and adequately resourced. Do they have a suggested wording for members to table as an amendment in relation to the exact role of the SNOs? The same question could be asked about the definition of educational disability. Would the representatives simplify the current wording or merely add a rider including children with dyslexia, or would they rewrite it? Do they have a suggested wording to include people with disabilities or learning difficulties? There is a thin line between these in many cases.

I join previous speakers in welcoming the visitors and thanking them for their detailed submissions. I would not like the representatives to infer from my questions that I have already formed an opinion, as the point of this process is to gain a clearer understanding of from where people are coming. Ms McGlynn referred to the nuances of meaning in the words "inclusive" and "integrated". Could she elaborate on this and explain exactly what are her concerns?

One could be fearful that this question could be interpreted the wrong way, but from their experience with children with special needs who are integrated in the school system, could the representatives indidate if the education of children who do not have special needs suffers in any way because of this process? That may not be a politically correct question, but it is one that needs to be answered so we can have a better understanding of where we are going.

I welcome the support from all the organisations for this initiative and for the right of people with special needs to be integrated into the education system. However, we must ask questions about the existing special needs schools. What future do they see for them? Do they see a system in which parents will have the right to put their child in any school of their choosing? Should all schools cater for those with special needs, or should we be realistic with resources and try to concentrate on short-term goals? As the Rev. O'Connor said, there was disappointment over the last 12 months in trying to meet the requirements of previous legislation due to a lack of resources. Should we be a little more restrained and be realistic about what we are trying to achieve in the short-term, while aspiring to greater things in the longer term?

The role of the principal and the board of management is becoming clear. We have had previous contributions about the voluntarynature of the board of management. Withthe introduction of legislation covering allareas it is no wonder people are shying away from the voluntary activity, be it coaching football teams or whatever. That is the way we now live.

Are we creating a monster, in that we will have to introduce professional, full-time boards of management? I understand all principals are members of boards of management. The legislation may need to redefine the role of the principal and that of the board. They could be integrated into one body.

The legislation must also decide on the question of appeals. Who has the right to appeal, the principal or the board? Who deals with assessments? There are many aspects of this. Do the representatives see this approach as a means of addressing the problem?

Another point that has been made to us is that the normal education cycle may not be sufficient to meet the requirements of those with special needs, and there is a need for education across the calendar year. What are the views of the principals on adopting this type of approach to those with special needs?

I was impressed with Mr. Cottrell's submission; there is a template for movement in the right direction, which can, it is to be hoped, be elaborated and worked on. He stated that SNOs should have appropriate and adequate experience in the field of primary or post-primary education and direct experience at school level. Is he saying they should be teachers? What type of experience is required? I would like a clearer definition so I could understand that better.

I thank the representatives for their submissions. I would like to ask the Rev. O'Connor about one of the main points in his written submission, which was that resources should be provided at the outset. He mentioned a school secretary, proper staffing of the national council, a substitute teacher for the principal and so on. What would be involved generally in that type of resourcing? Ms Nash mentioned that there should be a legislative imperative. Does the Rev. O'Connor agree with this? Does he feel there should be something more concrete in the legislation to compel the Department to provide the resources?

The other three members have indicated that they also have questions, but we agreed this rota with a view to ensuring that important points made by each of the groups are followed up by a particular member of the committee, to ensure that everything is dealt with properly on Committee Stage. To this end, they have kindly agreed to take notes. It will be impossible for the representatives to respond to some of the questions within our time constraints, so they may need to send further written material, of which we will take account in our deliberations. I am sure the members will agree to extend the time so that each group has five minutes to make a response.

Mr. Seán Ó Longáin

I thank the members of the committee for agreeing to see us and for the attention they have given us. We will try to respond to the question about definition. There is a definition of disability in the Education Act 1998 and another in the Equal Status Act 2000. We will go back to the publication by the Department of the CIRC report, because we want to distinguish between the definition in the United Kingdom 1996 Act, which is learning difficulty, and educational disability. We suggest that the definition as it is good, because it refers to the restriction of the capacity of the child to learn, but it is not inclusive enough. We suggest instead - although we will not be helpful as draftsmen - adding words such as those used in the CIRC report, which mention emotional and behavioural disorders.

The question of at what level does educational and social disadvantage inhibit learning is a matter of balance for the members to consider. The definition in the Education Act is "disability", which is a very medical term, whereas educational disabilities are not medical per se. We suggest a model based more on health.

I am not a principal, nor have I been one. I am chief executive officer of a vocational committee and my wife is a primary teacher, so I can comment fairly objectively on the role of principal. However, I acted as a principal for seven months, from December 2002 to June 2003, and I can assure the members that I am one of those who insisted on including in our submission the matter of support for the principal. Otherwise, our aims will not be realised. In Australia, there is a business manager for every second level school in addition to the deputy principal. I will not suggest a level, but the resources should provide for something like a special education co-ordinator.

To be effective from a management point of view, clarity is required to ensure the functions of the board, the principal, delegated powers, patrons and executives are reserved. Otherwise there will be confusion and conflict. We do not have an answer for the committee, but we consider that this question needs one.

Our other major concern is that while the definition of a child is improved substantially in the Bill from nought to 18 years - that is wonderful, the English Act stipulates two to 19 - section 14 does not accord with the Commission for the Status of Persons with Disabilities, which stated that the IEPs were to be for pre-school children, school-going children and adults. Anyone who has connections with adults with disabilities will see that the Bill needs a broader focus in section 14, although I am not sure how that can be done.

On segregation and integration, I visited sonderschule - special schools - in Germany in 1981. People passed into them away from the three brands of second level school and it was very efficient, but I would ask if it was effective. Integration is a policy but there must be room for special schools and there must be pragmatism. We must ask where is the balance between effective education for the other children.

We asked why the section on the choice of school does not refer to parental wishes despite Article 42 of the Constitution. Perhaps the interests of the child being paramount, in accordance with the commission report, is the way to go but would it be susceptible to constitutional challenge?

Ms Nash

In response to the question on boards of management, our recommendation is that the structure needs to be reviewed in light of the Bill. The structure of the boards is inappropriate to the good governance as they exclude many key stakeholders. The key issues not addressed for the boards of management are the definition of the team and the authority of all members of the team, to whom they report, and the admissions policy. The boards of management are required to ensure that staff are aware of the needs of a child. It is essential, however, that the staff can engage with and meet the needs of the child.

Currently, in the special schools system - we are concerned with the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies - shared experience of funds and voluntary agencies is given to the boards of management, for example in HR, finance, administration and other expertise. That is given to the boards of management if required. In the mainstream, with the workload for principles and the boards of management, they may not be properly educated to deliver this and would need extra support. There is a need to address that.

The Bill provides the opportunity to create a new vision for the provision of education to children and, particularly, the significant support needed by those children. This could include a new management system, particularly in special schools, that would include the wide range of staff currently involved in the provision of education. This would have addressed the apartheid that exists at present. It would also have provided the opportunity to make a significant improvement in the provision of services to those with severe and profound intellectual disability. We are disappointed that this opportunity has not grasped. The shared experience is available within the special schools system from the voluntary agencies to the boards of management.

Mr. David Ruddy

Deputy Curran has been a member of a board of management for many years and the principal in that school is an administrative principal. I am also the principal of a school in a disadvantaged area in Clondalkin with over 300 pupils, 120 of whom have IEPs and special education needs. That gives an idea of the scale of the problem. Over the last three weeks over 50% of my personal time was spent dealing with special needs pupils, either accepting them into the school, seeking resources for them or trying to keep some children out of the school who are coming with severe problems for which we do not have the resources. We work through our admissions policy, which was been drafted in association with CPSMA, but many principals and boards of management are undergoing section 29 appeals and trying to justify to a committee why certain children should not be allowed into the school. The common factor is that the resources are not in place.

Of my colleagues, 74% are teaching principals. I am lucky in my school in that my deputy is not a full-time teacher. He carries out some administrative work. Many of us went to schools that had teaching principals but they would not have been able to teach and do their jobs well if they had been required to take on board more administrative work like this.

Deputy Stanton put his finger on it when he mentioned the role of the special needs organiser. The role, as defined in section 24 of the Bill, is inadequate. Deputy Gogarty asked who should be a special needs organiser. He or she should have a background in education, although not necessarily a teacher, with experience in psychology or assessment. They must, however, know about the education system.

The special needs organiser plays a pivotal role in this. If we have enough special needs organisers, when the Bill is enacted, it could be very effective. If we do not have enough, and Rev. O'Connor referred to the experience with the Education (Welfare) Act, it will be a disaster. We really want this to work. I say that as a school principal.

If there is time after this meeting, we would be happy to specify a more appropriate role for the special needs organiser.

There are several members who will be writing amendments and tabling them, including Deputies Enright and O'Sullivan, who have not made it to this session. The Minister will also introduce amendments on foot of what people say to him so the witnesses should feel free to circulate appropriate amendments after the meeting.

Mr. Ruddy

If this Bill is enacted, section 8(8) talks about transferring a pupil from a school. If a pupil from my school in Clondalkin wants to go to a school in County Clare, and he or she has an education plan, I have an obligation to provide the plan to the principal of the school in Clare, which I would be happy to do. I also have to ensure, however, that the receiving school is capable of implementing it. How will that work? How could a teaching principal do that? It comes back to the special needs organiser.

Mr. Seán Cottrell

There was a specific question about principals refusing to implement this law. In the light of current High Court injunctions, I do not see that as a likely scenario. IPPN is a professional association, not a trade union, so that is outside our remit.

There is a strength of feeling among principals. These are our most vulnerable children and citizens. People talk of the quality of a democracy being measured by how it looks after its minorities and this is our test. It is a challenge for Members of the Oireachtas to enact a law that is sufficiently aspirational on one level but implementable on another and it is also a problem for the Minister for Finance. Do we have the commitment to make this happen? If we do not we should come out and say so and state that we are talking about a time-frame that runs until 2010, similar to the leaving certificate review announced yesterday. This must not come with a big bang and then be left up to parents, who do not know what they are doing, SNOs, principals and teachers, who are stressed out. That is our plea.

There was a question about the qualification of principals to make a call in assessment terms. There are 3,309 principals in Ireland today. Some of those principals have immense experience of special education and are more eminently qualified to make calls like that. One cannot talk about these people homogeneously. Some principals are the first to admit that they are not the person to make the call. The answer lies in teamwork with an SNO. These are important decisions and no one person should be making that call.

There also needs to be a procedure to follow through. What happens if the SNO and the principal disagree? There must be a next step and a further level of filtration in terms of getting the best decision. The simple truth is that not all principals are qualified but some are. It is not a black and white issue.

Mr. Tim Geraghty

I will respond to some of the questions the Senator raised, starting with the ideas of inclusive and integrated schools. The idea of the two is clear in my own mind. I am the principal of a community school in south Dublin, St. Tiernan's, which has an enrolment of about 400 students. In excess of 15% of them are recognised as having special needs, which is a very high percentage compared to national figures.

The whole idea of inclusion comes down to the admissions policy. If a school has an admissions policy which is inclusive, it means it accepts the students within its catchment area or defined area that applies to it. It is distinct from an exclusive school. Once one has inclusion, one then must look at how to integrate students and their education into the mainstream school. We are a mainstream school; that is what we were set up to do.

This brings me to the question raised as to whether the education of other children in the school suffers when children with special needs, learning disabilities or whatever are included. I refer to the range of special needs that obtains in St. Tiernan's, which runs from cognitive needs - children who have mild to moderate general learning disabilities - to children with very specific disabilities such as Down's syndrome, Aspergers syndrome and dyspraxia to children with physical disabilities to children with emotional disabilities, some of them quite severe in the ADD, ADHD and ODD spectrum. To talk about a homogenous special needs grouping is not realistic.

We are a secondary school, so our delivery of the curriculum to students is subject based. If one takes a typical junior cycle student, he or she would be studying, say, Irish - though one may have an exemption - English, mathematics, history, geography and perhaps woodwork, art, home economics and science. As things operate currently, the Department may give us, say, two and a half hours of additional resource teaching for one of these pupils. The school week is 28 hours long, so if the child is withdrawn for those two and a half hours for resource tuition, or whatever, he or she will be in class across a wide range of subjects for 25.5 hours. Clearly, the presence of that child in the classroom will impact on how the teacher delivers the curriculum to the rest of the students.

That outlines the practical scenario. The issue of resources and the training of resource teachers needs to be addressed, and we need a plan in pace to integrate children into the school and provide the education that children with learning or other disabilities require while, at the same time, allowing normal teaching to proceed. It is a very sophisticated operation. As Mr. Ruddy said, I spent four weeks earlier this year preparing plans for these children and making submissions to the Department in respect of their needs. I know Ms McGlynn wants to address some other points.

Ms Mary McGlynn

A number of committee members raised the question about the distinction between the role of the principal and the board of management. The Education Act 1998 is the source of definition in this regard. Section 15 defines the role of the board and sections 22 and 23 define the role of the principal. It has also been pointed out, correctly, that with the amount of legislation coming on board, the voluntary nature of the board is now really problematic. However, it does not exonerate boards from having the corporate statutory responsibility for policy and legislation. This is a huge dilemma for us as principals because, naturally, we have to implement the legislation.

We see ourselves as the implementers, not as those responsible for the policy. There is a definite distinction there. We should not be writing policy documents but implementing policy, which is now coming from myriad areas. It is a huge problem for principals.

I will hand over to Sister Mary Collins to address some of the comments and then I will take up some of them.

I thank the committee for allowing us to come here this afternoon. We definitely support the Bill, but in the light of the Education Act 1998 and the Education (Welfare) Act 2001, we could not add any more responsibilities or obligations on principals or boards of management unless the infrastructure is put in place. Throughout the past year, I received telephone calls all the time from principals asking how they are to fulfil their obligation to report children after 20 days to the welfare board if they are not attending. They wonder if there is any format laid out.

We have no infrastructure whatsoever. The educational welfare officers were supposed to be in place. They might be in some places but are not in others. If we are adding responsibilities and obligations and aware of the rights of the child - which is uppermost in our minds - the two things must be married or we could not take up the new Bill as proposed.

When the Education (Welfare) Act 2001 was published, we went around the schools promoting it and the obligations of boards. One of the things we were promising boards - and this relates to the Senator's question about resources - was the introduction of the education welfare officers. The role of the education welfare officers is very clearly defined in the Act as a support to the school. As Sister Mary said, they are not in place in many areas. If the role of the special needs organiser in this Bill was like what the educational welfare officer is supposed to be doing under the Education (Welfare) Act, it would be of great assistance to schools.

We have mentioned this in our submission, but there is huge expertise in the special schools. The principals of our primary special schools and the members of the boards of management of our primary special schools are there because of direct involvement with people with special needs. Did the committee invite the association of special schools boards of management to make a submission? Did it contact the principals of special schools? They have great personal expertise that would be of help.

I attended a forum in Galicia in Spain in November 2002. The only reason I went was because one of its themes was how to address the difficulties of children who opt out of school. Our interest is in the good of the child. There are no special schools in Galicia, but in every town there is a counsellor service. This includes a school psychologist, a psychiatrist and a social worker. Any school in an area experiencing difficulty with a child can call on that. The social worker works with the family while the other experts work in the school. It is not the intention to label a child but the counselling service prepares a plan for the school which it then gives to the school and parents. The downside is that, while they have no difficulty in that area of Spain dealing with children with a severe physical difficulty or learning problems, more children in the area now come from backgrounds of significant emotional difficulties in the family and present with severe mental difficulties at a very young age.

I know of a principal of a school in Dublin where one of the children, who had been assessed as being in need of special help, was very violent and the principal spent all day accompanying that child during breaks. While parents were not watching to see who in the school would be teaching their children the following year, they told the principal that, if their children were put in the same class as the child in question, they would not send their children to school. The principal and the board of management were caught in a dilemma. A child who had been identified as having special needs and being vulnerable was not receiving services and there was the common good to be considered.

It is very important in preparing the Bill that those, other than educationalists, involved in the needs of people with disabilities are consulted. I urge the committee to examine models elsewhere in Europe that address this need. The expertise of the principals and the members of boards of management of special schools should also be consulted because they are the real experts.

I taught in a vocational school for eight years and one child in the school was dying of motor neurone disease and used a wheelchair. It was 1975 and I had black hair and a figure that allowed me to see my shoes. There were no ramps so the child had to be lifted everywhere. His classmates learned more from him than anything I could ever teach. There are pros and cons to the issue. The difficulty in primary schools will be children presenting with severe mental difficulties. How does one deal with that when one is a teaching principal with no secretarial services or back-up? There is a fantastic model in Spain that could be examined.

The Education (Welfare) Act 2002 as written would be fantastic legislation for schools, and the role of the educational welfare officers would be wonderful if they were in place.

I thank each of the speakers. They have brought a wealth of knowledge, expertise and experience to our deliberations on this issue.

Mr. Ó Longáin

I appeal to the committee not to look to Germany or the UK. They are efficient but not effective. We should not forget our adults.

Sitting suspended at 3.25 p.m. and resumed at 4.15 p.m.

On behalf of the committee, I thank the groups who have attended to make presentations on the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill 2003. We have the National Parents' Council - Primary, the Psychological Society of Ireland, the Dyslexia Association of Ireland and the National Parents and Siblings Alliance.

I ask those making presentations to confine themselves to five minutes. We already have their submissions and have nominated members to ask questions of each group. Some members will be dying to ask questions, but I will not be able to accommodate them. The groups may not finish all of what they wanted to say, but it will arise subsequently in the questioning. Even if we cannot deal with it then, we will make arrangements that further submissions can be made to us.

I point out that members of the committee have absolute privilege but those appearing before the committee do not have the same privilege. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I call on Ms Fionnuala Kilfeather and Ms Geraldine Graydon on behalf of the National Parents' Council - Primary.

Ms Geraldine Graydon

On behalf of parents of primary school children, we are pleased that there will soon be legislation to underpin the rights of children with special educational needs. The first document we read was the explanatory memorandum and it went a good way towards meeting our vision of appropriate education as a right for all children with special educational needs. Whether obvious or hidden, and it is incorporated as a participatory role for parents, we are especially pleased that provision was made for children from birth, as sought by the National Parents' Council - Primary. However, the Bill falls short of the picture painted in the memorandum.

Our written submission lists our major concerns. For far too long the State did not recognise the constitutional rights of many children with special educational needs. Many students with disabilities were excluded from schools or, even when admitted, often did not receive an effective or appropriate education. Until the principles of equality of participation and equality of outcome are underpinned in the legislation, many people with disabilities will gain little or nothing from our educational system.

Parents must, as is their constitutional right, have primacy in the decision-making process. They must be empowered to make an informed choice on the educational placement of their child always based on the principle of his or her best interests. The forthcoming Education of Persons with Disabilities Act must have a guarantee that each person with a special educational need has access to a free and appropriate educational assessment, planning and review process.

We contend that the proposed legislation for persons with disabilities must contain definitions of special needs and disability that ensure that all students entitled to benefits receive them. However, we would not like to see a return to the medical model of disability used in the 1998 Education Act. We need assurance that the National Council for Special Education, through its work, will ensure that these rights are in place.

The concepts of appropriate education and least restricted environment must be incorporated in the Act. The latter concept is often called mainstreaming or inclusion. Children's needs differ and schools must therefore be required to offer a continuum of alternative placements. The most typical and inclusive setting is general education, followed by resource rooms, special classes, special schools, homebound services and hospitals or institutions. Nowhere in the Bill is there reference to special schools. Students with disabilities must be given the opportunity to associate with students without disabilities to allow each to develop relationships with the other. Students in special schools must be given an opportunity to link in with the general educational system where appropriate.

It is the responsibility of the State to provide sufficient resources to ensure that all children and adults with disabilities have an education appropriate to their needs and in the best possible environment. We recognise that there is a serious concern about the costs of special education in light of the fact that demand for services may be greater than the resources available to meet it. However, the costs of maintaining students with disabilities in State institutions are huge and far exceed the costs of special education in mainstream and special schools.

Our attitudes grow from our values and, if we value persons with disabilities as individuals, then our attitude will be to aim to provide each individual with equal rights. No person will be better than any other or receive preferred access to education. All people will have the same rights to learn in a positive atmosphere, to fail or succeed, to fair, just and effective teaching, to help when experiencing difficulties, to be different and to be listened to.

Education plays a key role in defining the future of everyone, from a personal point of view and a social and professional one. The education system has to be the key place to ensure personal development and social inclusion which will allow children and youngsters with disabilities to be as independent as possible. The education system is the first step towards an inclusive society.

What is required now, in addition to the rights-based legislation, is a commitment and a political will to bring about change in human attitudes and behaviour so that, instead of viewing people with disabilities as an economic burden on the State, they are seen as potential contributors. Through education for all it should be possible to enable all human beings, including the disabled, to develop their full potential, contribute to society and, above all, be enriched and not devalued by their differences.

We proceed to the presentation on behalf of the Psychological Society of Ireland by Mr. Joe MacDonagh and Dr. James Connolly.

Mr. Joe MacDonagh

Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an gcoiste as ucht cuireadh a thabhairt dom labhairt faoin mBille nua um oideachais do dhaoine faoin mhíchumas. Is bunphrionsabal é de chuid Cumann Siceolaíoch na hÉireann riachatanaisí daoine faoin mhíchumas a léiriú dóibh siúd a bhfuil cumhacht acu cúrsaí a fheabhsú ó thaobh oideachais agus eile. Dá bhrí sin, cuirimid fáilte roimh an chuid den mBille a gheallann soláthar oideachais riachtanach dóibh siúd atá luaite ann.

On behalf of the Psychological Society of Ireland, the professional and learned body for psychologists in Ireland, I and the past president of the society, Dr. James Connolly, welcome this opportunity to speak for the educational needs of people with disabilities. The society made submissions on the Bill to the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to provide an expert contribution to this important legislation. The Psychological Society of Ireland is, as I am sure the committee is aware, the professional organisation representing the spectrum of psychologists working with people with disabilities and, as such, wishes to inform the debate on appropriate educational provision for these people.

As set out in our written submission, we welcome the extension of provisions to people under three years of age who have disabilities. We also welcome the sharing of responsibility between the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Health and Children in meeting the needs of young people, as well as a number of other amendments to the Bill which reduce bureaucracy and ensure continuity of provision.

We wish to present our concerns about some aspects of the Bill which remain unamended. These include the fact that the Bill does not define the necessary qualifications, training, experience and skill of people to be recognised as psychologists or as teachers of people with special educational needs.

We consider that the definition of a person with special educational needs remains too restrictive and is excessively based on a deficit model to which the previous speaker referred. Relying on the presence of an enduring impairment as a definition of educational disability ignores the fact that, for many, their educational disabilities result from their interaction with their environment at home, at school or both. Such reliance also fails to recognise an emotional impairment, which, as I am sure the committee will agree, is one of those most likely to cause failure in school. We consider that these two categories of person are also entitled to provision for their special educational needs.

We are concerned that the needs of persons aged 19 years or older are not catered for under the Bill. Many of our members work with young adults with disabilities who, because of their developmental delay, that is, operating at levels equivalent to those of children of a much younger age in certain respects, may need their education to be continued past the age at which they are legally defined as children.

To date, psychologists working in education, whether in schools, voluntary agencies or health boards, have been integral to the provision of a service to people with special educational needs. Psychologists in education identify the needs of a person and any necessary modifications to his or her environment to enhance his or her capacity to learn. They work with the school as well as with the person to plan effectively for appropriate education. Despite this, no provision appears to have been made in the Bill to capitalise on this essential role of systemic work.

The Psychological Society of Ireland is concerned that the psychologist, through the wording of the Bill, may be merely an assessor in the most limited sense of the word rather than an essential part of the team working on behalf of the person with special educational needs.

In summary, the society is concerned that the National Council for Special Education should at all times have available to it a representative from the profession which has most expertise in the provision of psychological services to young people with special educational needs. Consequently, we strongly advocate that the interests of persons with special educational needs would be best served by the society of Ireland having formal representation on the council.

The next submission is from Ms Hughes and Ms Cullen of the Dyslexia Association of Ireland.

Ms Anne Hughes

The Dyslexia Association of Ireland is a voluntary organisation which has worked with and for people with dyslexia for more than 30 years. It has 39 branches and over 2,600 members from all over the country. This presentation reflects the views of our membership.

The association welcomes the introduction of legislation regarding the education of people with disabilities. The Education Act 1998 laid the foundation for the education legislation in broad terms. The function of the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill 2003, according to the statement of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Dempsey, on July 16 2003, is as follows:

The purpose of the Bill is to make detailed provision through which the education of children with educational disabilities can be guaranteed as a right enforceable in law.

We agree that children with educational disabilities should have their rights to education guaranteed in law. Unfortunately, the Bill excludes children with dyslexia from the protection of the law. It adopts a narrow and restrictive definition of educational disability.

The term "educational disability", in relation to a child, means a restriction in the capacity of the child to participate in and benefit from education on account of an enduring physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual impairment. Dyslexia is not a physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual impairment; it is a specific learning disability. It can be a disabling condition in the learning situation, and children with dyslexia often have special educational needs. Dyslexia-specific learning difficulty has been recognised by the Department of Education and Science for many years, and a range of supports have been provided. Those include special reading schools, reading units, exemptions from the study of Irish, learning support and resource teaching. Yet in the Bill, dyslexia has effectively been written out of the legislation.

We in the association find it very difficult to understand why the definition of educational disability contained in the Education Act 1998 was not used in the Bill. We point out that the Education of Persons with Disabilities Bill 2002, which was agreed by Seanad Éireann last year, contained the definition from the Education Act 1998. We regard the Education Act 1998 as the core legislation in the area. Its definition of disability included the following.

(d) a condition or malfunction which results in a person learning differently from a person without the condition or malfunction,

That definition adequately covers hidden learning difficulties such as dyslexia, and we ask that the definition of disability in section 2(1) of the Education Act 1998 be inserted into the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill 2003 and that the narrow and exclusionary definition be deleted. Following representations which we made to the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Dempsey, the Minister replied that it was his intention that the definition of disability in the Bill should cover dyslexia and that he believed that our concerns could be accommodated. Unfortunately, the intention may be there, but in the absence of a firm commitment from the Minister to amend the definition of disability, I am here today to ask that Members of the Oireachtas, and particularly members of the Joint Committee on Education and Science, impress on the Minister that it is imperative that the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill 2003 contain appropriate wording which leaves no room for doubt that children with dyslexia are covered by the Bill and that they can benefit from its protection and provisions.

We have other concerns about the proposed legislation. As time is short, I will list them in bullet form. A more detailed submission is available, of which I have copies if any member would like one. The points on which we would like to touch briefly are as follows. Responsibility for initiating and managing interventions for children with special educational needs now lies mainly with school principals. The concept of partnership in the education process must be safeguarded. The preparation of an education plan for children with special educational needs appears to be dependent on school-initiated assessment. Members of the special education appeals board should be required to have expertise in the areas on which they are asked to deliberate. We regret the absence of consultative status for voluntary organisations with a great deal of expertise in the area of special educational needs.

We thank you for the opportunity to state our case, on which we will be happy to expand if members have any questions.

The final presentation on this module is from Mr. Egan and Mr. Greene of the National Parents and Siblings Alliance.

Mr. Séamus Greene

Last year the Department of Education and Science conducted an intensive consultation process with a wide variety of representative bodies, including the National Parents and Siblings Alliance. In acknowledgement of the serious and professional way in which it was approached, the NPSA welcomes the Bill. However, some issues remain to be resolved. As time is short, I will concentrate on a few themes, but ask members to read our written submission, which contains more detail. I would also like to state that we support the broad thrust of the submissions that you will be hearing, both from NAMHI and the Irish Autism Alliance.

Some provisions have been excluded from the Bill. It is almost as if those drafting it believed that they were so obvious that they went without saying. It is the experience of parents that, when it comes to services for those of their children with an intellectual disability, nothing ever goes without saying. Perhaps I might illustrate. There is no provision for parents to be included in the assessment of needs. Equally, parents should be kept informed at every stage of the process. They should not have to ask for the result of an assessment, as is required in section 5(6). In all matters, the Bill should ensure the automatic involvement of parents.

Section 4 refers to the health board or the council being of the opinion that a child may or may not have an intellectual disability. There is no provision in the Bill for guidelines against which that opinion might be assessed. Section 3(1) requires the school principal to be of the opinion that a student is not benefiting from the education programme provided in the school before the next step towards giving an assessment is taken. To ensure that the matter is a real issue for the school authorities, there should be an onus on the school to make a specific statement at the end of each year for every student in the school that he or she is or is not benefiting from the education programme. In other words, rather than depending on the teacher to spot a problem accidentally or otherwise, the onus should be on the school to look for problems.

Section 6 puts the onus on the health board or the council to supply necessary services on receipt of an assessment, an obvious example being pre-school services. There are no time limits within which such services or anyothers must be provided. Equally, it is notclear whose responsibility it is to put them in place. All of the above illustrate areas where the "it goes without saying" policy must be examined.

The second matter at which I would like to look is the issue of availability of personnel, their training and guidelines. There is currently a great shortage of therapists, psychologists and other professionals providing support and assessment. When Government sources are asked about that, they generally refer to the new courses which have begun or are about to begin in colleges throughout the country. Peter Bacon has stated that the provision of such courses will resolve the problem by 2015. The Bill does not address the issue of the four year old who will be 16 when the problem is resolved and who possibly will have had little or no assistance in the meantime. There is no indication that teachers, principals, special needs organisers and others will be trained for the tasks given to them. Those are tasks which they are generally not equipped to perform. For example, section 3(1) obliges the principal of the school to take such measures as are practicable to meet the needs of a student who is not progressing. Schools often do not have the expertise to decide such measures. Section 14 caters for the arrangement of appropriate provisions for those students with disabilities who are approaching their 18th birthday. It is not possible to believe that most school principals would have the knowledge to make such decisions, with or without the assistance of the special needs organiser. Nor is it clear what these provisions might be in the absence of a disabilities Bill catering for those over 18 years of age. In this case the type of expertise required would not be available in the majority of second level schools.

It is a feature of the Bill that some services must be performed within a certain time period and we are pleased with that. However, it does not apply to the case of a child who is not a student, that is, under four years old. In this case, the health board concerned is under no obligation to complete the education plan in any given time. That has to be changed. It is the opinion of the NPSA that all services should be put in place and supplied within reasonable and stated time frames.

Nowhere in the Bill is the issue of the usual school summer holidays addressed. For people with intellectual disabilities it is often difficult to be dropped out of their usual weekly environment. In some cases it is not even possible to communicate what is about to happen to them. In more cases, the regression that occurs over the summer period in behaviour and learning achievement is huge. This issue must be addressed. As has been said many times during these hearings, the definition of educational disability should be extended. We believe it should be extended to include all special needs, as currently understood by the Department of Education and Science.

The intention of the committee is to hear the views of your group and others with a view to making inputs to the legislation, particularly on Committee Stage when amendments are considered. Some of the members' questions are likely to reflect that. The committee has agreed that its members will have specific responsibility to follow up on the points made by each group so nothing is missed.

I thank the delegations for their submissions. We have received a huge amount of input from these and other groups. We are trying to improve the legislation and we are seeking the views of interested groups on how to do that. It is my responsibility to ask questions of the National Parents Council - Primary, but the questions apply to both groups. Section 5 requires the input of a medical practitioner, a therapist and a psychologist, among others, in the preparation of an assessment but the council is concerned that this might not be satisfactory. Is it probable that these professionals will require a 48 week service in the assessment they prepare, if it is appropriate, and that they will identify all the needs somebody may have, including health and educational needs? Is it probable that this section will succeed in making a correct assessment given the fact that these people are professionals? Obviously, parents are not professionals as such. I am an ignoramus on this type of issue but where there is a conflict between two assessments, how would that be resolved?

My question is for the Psychological Society of Ireland. Given the tenor of its submission, the society appears to be relatively happy with the Bill, with some qualifications. Is the society happy with the definition of educational disability contained in the Bill? Some groups are not happy with it. The phrase "mental health or intellectual impairment" is used in the definition. Does "mental health" cover the psychological aspect?

The third amendment proposed by the society suggests that consideration be given not only to educational needs arising from within the person but also educational needs arising from a person's education and/or environmental context. It is true that our environment shapes our psychology but would there be a danger in this amendment of opening a wide door? In other words a psychologist would be inquiring not only into the state of mind of the child but also would be required to carry out in-depth analysis of the home, the environment, the community and so forth. Legislation must be practical and there cannot be a limitless effort in this regard.

Many of the society's proposed amendments make great sense but the sixth proposes that the necessary qualifications, training, experience and skill of a person to be appointed as a psychologist be defined appropriately in the Bill. Surely that is a matter for regulation within the profession. I do not know if some psychologists are not members of the society. If one is a solicitor, one has obviously qualified as such. Is there more than one society operating in this field so that such a definition is necessary? If not, the phrase "qualified psychologist" should be sufficient.

I thank the groups for their input. At this stage the committee is almost suffering from information overload. The parents' groups did not mention the need for advocacy, a matter which arose in previous hearings. Perhaps they would give their views on the need for parents to have an advocate, if they think it would be important and how that might operate. Not every parent would be able or qualified or, indeed, have the courage to deal with many of the people mentioned, such as teachers, principals and so forth. If it is something the groups have not considered previously, perhaps they will give it their attention. I would be grateful for their advice as to how they would see such a system working.

Section 5(3) provides that where a parent of a child fails or refuses to give his or her consent, the Circuit Court can be applied to for an order dispensing with the parent's consent for an assessment to be carried out. I am anxious to hear the groups' views on that. It is an important provision because the good of the child is primary and it is a situation that might arise.

I am concerned about the definition and I would be interested in any proposed definitions the groups, especially the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, might wish to bring before the committee. Many people have contacted members of the committee to voice their concerns about the definition in the Bill. It has already been suggested that it conflicts with definitions in other legislation. Principals, in particular, are concerned about the possible conflict between the definition in this Bill and the definitions in the Education Act and the Disability Act. Is the definition in the Education Act sufficient or must it be expanded?

The idea that the psychologist is merely an assessor is an interesting point. The society is saying that it wants psychologists to have a greater input and involvement. The NEPS is currently operating within the Department and I am sure the psychologists in that service are affiliated to the Psychological Society of Ireland. It has come to my attention that many reports that are put forward on behalf of children by psychologists, working often in the private sector, are not accepted by NEPS, which has criticised and dismissed them. This results in resources and supports not being made available to children that were recommended by the Psychological Society of Ireland. It seems that psychologists are working in NEPS while others are working in the private sector. There does not seem to be a meeting of minds on the matter. Has it been addressed in any way? Given that it is something that could arise, how has the problem developed, why does it exist and how can it be resolved? I would be interested to hear the groups' views on that matter.

I welcome the groups to the committee and I wish to pose a couple of questions to the National Parents and Siblings Alliance. The submission mentioned time limits regarding assessments. What is the group's own experience with time limits and what does it regard as a reasonable time limit? The group also referred to parental involvement in assessments and I am anxious to explore this point further. At what stage or stages in the pupil's needs does the group regard it as essential that parents should be involved? Should parents be involved in all stages of the assessment? What extent or authority of involvement would the group envisage as appropriate? I think the group would accept that there are various points of view on that and there are certain sensitivities among professionals, not that we should allow that to set aside the child's requirements. Nevertheless, there is a plethora of matters involved in multi-disciplinary teams, of which the group is well aware.

The submission said that parents should be kept informed at every stage of the process. What does the group regard as "every stage of the process" and what kind of information does it regard as appropriate? We could be talking in terms of a multitude of work but I am sure that is not the group's intention. If the ordinary teacher, principal or, indeed, the professional involved in a number of schools looks at the submission, they may want a more definite direction as to what the group has in mind.

I am particularly interested in section 3(1), which refers to a school principal being of the opinion that a student is not benefiting from the school education programme. The group wants a full report on each student at the end of each term. Why does the group consider that it should be so inclusive in this context? If the vast majority of students are doing exceptionally well, yet individual students are not performing or responding to the programme, it would be understandable that individuals should have reports produced about them, but why so for all students?

The National Parents and Siblings Alliance refers in its submission to the make up of the appeals board and the lack of detail as to its membership. Would the alliance's representatives agree that it is a severe flaw in the legislation that there is no reference to appointing people with expertise, skills or personal experience in the area of disability? Considering the importance of the appeals board to the process, is this a major error of omission? Would they agree that the legislation should be amended to ensure that the appeals board includes people with knowledge and experience in the area of disability?

Other speakers have mentioned that the definition does not include people with dyslexia. The difficulty this committee has is that a number of groups have appeared before it, yet there is no consensus on the matter. This morning, NAMHI proposed a fairly broad definition for the Bill, saying that a student with special educational needs means a student who requires support and services additional to the ordinary school programme. By contrast, Rehab took a much more legalistic route with reference to the Education Act, the Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Act. We will have to get some signal from the groups involved as to how they wish the legislation to proceed because as matters stand, it is unsatisfactory. Will it be narrowly based or as broad as the definition proposed by NAMHI, which is open to all kinds of legal interpretation?

The NPSA also makes another good point regarding the availability of psychologists, specifically whether CNOs and principals might be obliged to approach private psychologists and who will pay for it. That is a difficult question. It is, again, a question of resources.

Turning to the Psychological Society of Ireland, while agreeing that there should be fuller involvement of psychologists in the creation of education plans, possibly including this as a mandatory requirement, a PS does not have the ability even to carry out the assessment referred to in the current legislation, let alone take a proactive approach in education plans. Are the resources and supports available for psychologists to take up the role the society is advocating?

I welcome the groups to the committee. I wish to first address the issue of definition. Deputy Crowe pre-empted what I was going to say by reading the NAMHI proposal. I wonder if any of the groups wish to comment on the definition as read out by Deputy Crowe and which was proposed by NAMHI. They and other groups acknowledge that dyslexia, in particular, and also disorders such as ADD and ADHD are apparently excluded from the definition. It is essential that we get a definition that is inclusive. The definition in the Education Act 1998 was included in the Bill that was withdrawn last year. Some people had problems with it, so I would be interested to hear the views of the groups.

Deputy Crowe is correct to point out that we will have to find a definition that is acceptable to everybody concerned. This is probably the most important thing we need to do in terms of amending the Bill at this point in time because it has been raised by many of the groups we have heard. If anybody has views on that we would be interested in hearing them. Even if they do not wish to formulate a view today, they can contact us later. Before we get to the point of tabling amendments, it would be important that we get a cross section of views on the matter.

I do not want to repeat things that other people have said but I agree with Séamus Greene that there is a need for more specific timeframes, although there are some timeframes provided for in the legislation. I would welcome any specific suggestions as to what amendments we might table, particularly with regard to pre-school assessment and timeframes for the provision of services. We have timeframes for assessment within the school system but those are the two main areas where we do not have a timeframe. From experience of other legislation where there is a resource issue, timeframes are important in terms of getting services to people who need them.

I also wish to ask a question of the Psychological Society of Ireland, which follows on from Deputy Stanton's query. How does the society see its role in co-operation with the special needs organisers and with the role of principals? We had some discussion with the principals associations who felt there was too much of an onus on them in the legislation. As I understand it, the society's representatives have indicated that the society believes its members' training as psychologists is not being adequately used in a proactive way within the education system. In the previous session, we were told about a model in Spain where they have psychologists, counsellors and other experts who are available to children who have problems in the education system, on an ongoing basis and in consultation with parents. I would be interested to hear whether the society considers that its expertise could be used more proactively within the education system.

I have time to accommodate Senator Minihan if he wants to come in.

I will be brief. It is not a question, but an observation and an acknowledgement that the Dyslexia Association of Ireland has been facilitating a large number of voluntary groups throughout Ireland.

I do not have a question but wish to acknowledge that the Dyslexia Association of Ireland has facilitated a large number of voluntary groups throughout the country. There are 39 groups with over 3,000 members. The issue of definition has been raised but I wish to convey what is happening on the ground. People are working on a voluntary basis in these workshops, they are doing their own fund-raising and are bringing in their own tutors, but they do not have premises. They believed matters would be moved forward in this Bill. The former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Woods, was engaged in the task force report and there has been a lot of research and definitions. It is important for us, as a committee, to work with the groups to come up with a definition and not to let this opportunity pass. I do not want to be parochial but the dyslexia group in Donegal had to approach the local authority last year, which provided generous funding of approximately €10,000. As a group, it knows there is a need for assessments and it is calling out for help. We cannot allow this to go on.

Ms Graydon

Deputy Andrews asked about assessments. Parents must be involved in the assessment of their child for one good reason, namely, they are the experts on their child. They have the expertise on the child which the professional will not have. The professional sees the child for a limited period of time. A psychologist will see the child in an assessment environment and often children do not perform in such an environment. A teacher will only see the child for a limited time but the parent is with the child 24 hours per day, seven days per week and 12 months of the year. They will have watched the child grow and develop, although maybe not in the way they should. They may have expertise from their other children. It is vital parents are part of the assessment.

In regard to hidden disabilities, this has been the cause of great distress to many parents. It is where my expertise lies because I have a son who is autistic and has attention deficit disorder. I could not get a proper definition of what was wrong with him. I kept hearing the global term "developmentally delayed" or the term "emotionally disturbed". Ultimately, we, as parents, almost ended up emotionally disturbed. Although it took six years, the day we got the definition of what was wrong with our child was the day we moved on and got the proper services for him. Many parents would not stick it out as they would not have the energy or the knowledge. Our son was the youngest of five children and there was a 20 year gap between him and the oldest child, so I had learned a lot as I went along.

It is vital parents are there for assessment. When there are disputes over assessments, they should be talked through because the parent may have misunderstood, or the professional may have misunderstood what the parent said. It is vital that from day one, the parent is involved, kept informed and that there is an exchange. Consultation on its own does not work; the parent must be involved. When the assessment has been carried out and the individual education plan is being worked out, the parent must be an integral part of it. There will be conflicts. They cannot be avoided because sometimes the parent might not have the language to express themselves.

Parents need help and support. When one is told one's child has a disability, nobody asks how one is coping. One has to go back to one's family and help it. It is like going through a grieving process for which there is no help or support. It is important the parent is involved because it helps the process.

Ms Fionnuala Kilfeather

I wish to add slightly to what Geraldine Graydon said. There is ample international research to show that parents are a valuable part of an assessment team. No matter what the parents' background or education, that holds true. Parents will be part of the team which will bring the child up to achieve the best possible potential, so if they are involved in the planning process in terms of the assessment, the individual education plan and the review stage, they will be part of the process rather than being left as bystanders while professionals take over. Professionals will be there for a limited period in the day but not for the long summer holidays or in the evenings. It is essential that parents are involved.

Advocacy makes a valuable contribution. We run an advocacy service for parents, although not in this particular case as yet. We see it as a useful addition to advocacy for children and young people. I will not go through our submission but our key issue is the full involvement of parents and the young people themselves. Again, there is ample international research to show that people with significant disabilities are best involved in decision-making on their behalf as it is part of the education process and human rights.

Ms Graydon

I wish to answer the question on definitions. As I said earlier, definitions are labels. They are a starting post, or a signpost, whereby people can identify what is wrong with the child and what help they need. I am, as members are, often puzzled as to why there are so many different variations when there is a good definition in the American Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It has been used in international disabilities legislation and has been tried and tested. It is broad as well as defined. It caters for not only people with hidden disabilities, but for people with visual disabilities and for children and adults who are developmentally delayed. It is complex legislation out of which some of us take bits. We need to embrace the broad concepts therein because it is good and it encompasses everything.

Mr. MacDonagh

I will bring in my colleague, Dr. Connolly, in a moment. Deputies Mulcahy, Stanton, Crowe and O'Sullivan asked questions which I will try to address as quickly as possible. Deputy Mulcahy holds the record for asking the most questions. I think he asked three questions which I will try to quickly address. He asked about our relative happiness with the Bill. We are generally happy with the definition of "educational disability". He asked if mental health would not cover it. I hope that is a fair summary of what he asked. I will bring in Dr. Connolly to respond to that.

I will address the definition of "impairment". We, as a society, are in accordance with all the groups here. However, I can speak with some expertise because I am involved on a day to day basis in a programme for a small number of young teenagers - the programme which all these people have put forward as the ideal. It is funded by the Department of Education and Science in the LIFE Centre in Lucan, a Youthreach centre for children, with which I am sure members are familiar.

The bottom line in terms of a definition of "impairment" is that there is a difficulty over the definition of a "persistent impairment", intellectual or otherwise, because it is based on what is now a discredited medical model of psychology. Rather than speak at length, I refer members to this month's issue of the Scientific American which has a special on neuropsychology and which contains insights of which psychologist are not yet aware. There is normally a delay of ten to 15 years between the cutting edge of psychology and the general understanding of what is going on in the general population. Nobody anywhere in the world takes an impairment based view of educational needs, except this Bill. That is the answer to that question. Needs-based definitions are required. The needs of the individual are specified and that is what the programme funded by the Department in Lucan currently does. The need is identified and addressed.

The second issue relates to environment and education versus persistent impairment. I have been doing this job since 1973 as teacher and psychologist. I would not do it if I thought the impairment would be persistent. What would be the point? Why would one work with somebody for months and years if one felt there would be no improvement? I can point to one person in the programme who is not eligible now because he has progressed beyond an IQ of 70. Does that mean he should be out of the programme? The idea of a cut off point based on an outmoded understanding of what IQ tests do should be dropped immediately and should not be in the Bill.

Mr. MacDonagh

Deputy Mulcahy asked a question about the definition of a psychologist. He is a barrister who trained in the Kings Inns and he brought up solicitors and so on. He suggested that a qualified psychologist would be enough in the definition in the Bill. He will be aware of the statutory regulation of psychologists and other health-related functions, which is to come before the Oireachtas next year. We are concerned that would be specified, as there is something of a vacuum at present when anybody can call himself or herself a psychologist. That is why we want the Bill to specify what a psychologist is about. Unlike the Deputy's profession, ours does not have a statutory basis and that is what we were concerned about.

Deputy Stanton asked a question about the NEPS and PSI. There was a suggestion that reports produced by privately-based psychologists were not accepted by NEPS. We have heard about that and have a great deal of direct evidence in that regard. The Deputy asked how this arose and whether we had addressed it. I will hand over to Dr. Connolly.

Qualifications, training, skill and experience must be in place if a person is to be competent as a teacher or a psychologist of people with special needs. I have been a teacher since 1973 and a psychologist since 1980 and I know exactly why those words were included. I put them in. Many people purport to be psychologists because they have a degree in psychology. They may have no experience, qualifications, or skill but they are still psychologists according to the dictionary definition. However, until statutory regulation is introduced, there is no definition of a degree of competence in the area of special needs or education that would prohibit a person from purporting to be a psychologist within the meaning of the legislation. That is a serious problem.

With regard to restrictions, following our original presentation to the Department of Education and Science, it replied advising that its understanding of a psychologist was someone working for NEPS. However, the legislation states "a person of sufficient or skill in the area of psychology" but it does not specify that person must be properly qualified, skilled, experienced and trained. Those four elements are crucial. That would be a good definition, as would be a person who is competent to be registered as a psychologist with PSI or the new national register.

There are not enough psychologists in NEPS to address all the needs in the country and, therefore, other psychologists are doing work on a private basis, some of whom are paid by NEPS on contract. Unfortunately, certain technical terms that qualify as a legal definition might not be used in the report and, therefore, the resources cannot be labelled and attached to it. That is a problem relating to restrictive definitions and not the competence of those psychologists. One eminent psychologist, who is the person everybody speaks to about autism, had his report inspected by a relatively junior psychologist and everyone was embarrassed. That is the fall-out from restrictive interpretations of documents with a view to reducing the financial bill.

Mr. MacDonagh

I refer to Deputy Stanton's question. We had a meeting with NEPS and Liam McCurtonn, in particular, last week and we shared the issues that were raised. We are working closely with the service to upskill those who may have a deficit in their competencies and we will jump with them. This links to Deputy Crowe's question about resources and supports, which Dr. Connolly answered. We are concerned about resources. NEPS grew rapidly from 1998 onwards when its modern format was instituted. We are concerned that there should be resourcing for appropriate courses for people to upskill their competencies.

We addressed Deputy O'Sullivan's question about the needs versus the impairment-based form of education and definition. Her second question related to the role of psychologists, SNOs, principals and vice principals in schools and whether there was a more proactive role for psychologists. I will hand over to Dr. Connolly.

The answer is yes. The psychologist needs to be involved on a daily, weekly or class basis. The psychologist and teacher are present with the youngsters in the programme in Lucan all the time having psychological or educational input. That is part of the ideal model. The old fashioned and outdated model of the psychologist producing the assessment and then being out of the picture.

Ms Hughes

Most people, unfortunately, agree with us that dyslexia has been written out of this definition and we were asked what definition we would consider. The definition in the Education Act 1998 was accurate because it was broad enough to cover children who learn differently, under which children with dyslexia would fit as individuals who learn differently, rather than having an impairment. We are by no means rigid. We do not say it must be defined, as such, and we are willing to consider a definition that is broad enough to cover adequately the needs of children with dyslexia. We are not fixed on it being the definition under the Education Act,

However, our worry relates to section 3 of the explanatory memorandum. We got the impression there was an attempt to limit the definition of educational disability with a view to limiting the Bill, as Dr. Connolly said. It states, "Not all children who have difficulties with learning are children with special educational needs arising from a disability. There is a risk that legislation like this Bill could lead to over identification of children with a learning difficulty as children with educational disabilities." That worries our association because there is more concern to limit the numbers of children who would be eligible for special education.

We estimate that more than 15,000 children have special educational needs arising from dyslexia. It amounts to only 2% of the primary and secondary school population. There is a fear that a broad definition would mean that children with dyslexia would eat up special education resources but special educational needs exist and must be addressed. The cost of not dealing with them would be greater than dealing with them. We are worried there is an attempt to narrow the definition and exclude our constituency of children. As long as our children are catered for, we do not have a problem.

Turning to assessment, which we dealt with in our submission, we are concerned about this issue because, as Dr. Connolly pointed out, there are not enough psychologists in the National Educational Psychological Service, and it does not look like there will be for the foreseeable future, to provide a service when schools are allocated two assessments per 100 children. It will take a long time before everyone who needs assessment will get it.

School principals are being put in the position of having to make a judgment on the most immediate need. If that is a child in a severely upset mental state or who is suicidal or out of place in the school and may need to be in a special school because of intellectual impairment or whatever, he or she will obviously come to the top of the list. A child with a condition like dyslexia, which may not be seen in the overall scheme of the school as being a huge need, will be pushed to the bottom of the list. We have had children coming to us repeatedly who have sought assessment for years without success because they were not at a chronic stage. They were children who needed help and did not get it.

There is a huge need for flexibility within the assessment area which is why we have made one of our suggestions - to add to section 3 by stating that, where an assessment is carried out before a special educational plan is put in place, it should be carried out by any other person qualified to carry out such an assessment. We could argue all night about what "qualified" means. However, if assessment is to be restricted to psychologists from within NEPS, thousands of children will be excluded. It is not humanly possible for the service to deal with all the people. That must be tackled.

We, as an association, have offered assessment for the past 30 years to children with special educational needs and before NEPS was even heard of. We feel we do an excellent job. We have always been fortunate in getting well qualified and competent psychologists. We feel it is possible to assess everyone, but it must be recognised that NEPS cannot do it on its own.

Ms Martina Colleran

I want to reiterate that concern. There is the issue of whether NEPS can cater for the level of assessment required. It is obvious within our organisation that this is not the case. If 2% of children are assessed, where do the other 8% to 10% of children with some form of learning difficulty fall into any type of educational needs that might be catered for within the school systems?

With respect to the assessment, it is important to try to narrow the definition of who is qualified to carry out the assessment. As the definition is narrowed to only those in NEPS or those appointed by the Department of Education and Science as qualified to carry out the assessments and whose reports will be recognised, a huge number of people will be excluded. If everyone was seen by NEPS, our organisation would have no work, but the nature of the situation is that we have more work than we can deal with because children are not being seen under the existing system.

Mr. Greene

The first question was on time limits on assessments. There are places in the Bill where it is suggested that assessment should happen within three months. We would regard that as reasonable. It should be the case everywhere. It is as simple as that.

The second question concerned parental involvement. Mr. Eamon Egan will deal with part of that.

Mr. Eamon Egan

Everyone on our side has stressed the importance of parental involvement. It is important the committee realises the reason it is so important. I will illustrate that by giving a couple of quick examples which happened to me. I will preface them by saying that every parent I have met over the years who has a child with any form of disability, be it intellectual or physical, has a story about a problem he or she has had dealing with professionals.

My problem was when my son went for a hearing test. At the end of the test, during which we were excluded from the room, we were told he was totally deaf. We, as parents knew he was not deaf and I insisted on the test being re-run with me and my wife present. We had to control the specialist to ensure the questions were asked slowly and that time was given for my son to respond. The net result at the end of the test was that my son was given a clean bill of health in terms of hearing.

The second humorous story, which has a serious intent, was when he was asked when he last passed water. He replied: "On my holidays in Waterford". It is a funny story but a serious point. If there are misunderstandings at such a basic level, imagine what can happen in the drawing up of an education plan which sets out the long-term future of a child. This is a critical point.

The second point raised by Senator Fitzgerald related to the composition of the appeals board. We would say that the members of the board must be appropriately qualified. This is not stated in the Bill. We also feel that included among that group should be appropriately qualified people with a disability because they have a specific understanding of the issues relating to the likely subjects of appeals and so on. Independence is mentioned in the Bill and we must make sure that such independence is properly applied within the Bill in the composition of the board.

Mr. Greene

On the issue of parental involvement, we say it should be at every stage. It is as simple as that. On the issue of parents being kept informed, when I read the Bill, I had the distinct feeling it was written by someone with good intentions who did not understand. One of the difficulties is that, when parents put their child into a school or whatever, if he or she has an intellectual disability, they put him or her into a black hole. They will not hear anything back from him. Therefore, the parents must be informed of anything that involves the child, whether it be an assessment or whatever. The IEP seems to be covered reasonably well in the Bill. This must be done even though it is not necessary in the case of children who do not have an intellectual disability.

I was asked about the principal's opinion and the report on each student. I speak with the experience of 14 years as a principal of a second level school. Where we discover that children coming into the school from primary school have dyslexia - this is the most common condition - it must be asked what went wrong. I do not criticise primary schools but life is busy and a fuss and a rush in a primary school which means it is often possible to miss some of these conditions.

We are not talking about a ten page written report on every pupil, rather that, at the end of the year, the teacher must say "Yes" or "No" and possibly tick a box. We are not interested in a major report. Making primary teachers do what we have suggested would force them to look at each student in a different way. That is what we are referring to.

I do not think anyone in the MPSA is qualified to give a definition of disability. What concerns us, and I would have this concern from my experience, is that the concept that there would be three different categories of students in a school - a child with a disability, a child with a defined educational disability, and a child in the middle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or dyslexia who does not quite have a disability but is not quite without one either - makes no sense. Disability is a broad spectrum which, I presume, in terms of intervention would be treated in that way. The definition must cover anyone in a school who has difficulty learning the normal curriculum. I am not referring to a slow learner, rather something distinct, and that must be so in this case.

Advocacy was referred to. It was optimism producing paralysis on our part. We believe that advocacy will be provided for in the disabilities Bill that will be published in November or December. We assumed it went without saying that it would be included in this Bill as well. Some present might have thought that seriously naive. However, that is what we felt.

Section 5(3), which provides that a parent who does not want their child to be assessed can be taken to the High Court, was never raised by any of our members. All I can say is that it was never seen as a problem. The availability of psychologists must be sorted. I say this as a person who has worked in schools. I cannot discuss the matter further than that. We were on the receiving end. Perhaps, more accurately, we were not on the receiving end because it is not easy to get a psychologist.

Section 5(4) deals with assessment procedures. Much of the Bill hinges on the initial assessment. If someone disagrees with the initial assessment there appears to be nowhere else to go. The initial assessment bar is set by the Minister for Health and Children. One can disagree with it and appeal the education plan, but I see no way of disagreeing with the original assessment. Has Dr. Connolly looked at this provision and has he any comment on this aspect of the Bill?

That is a question that could be directed to many people. It has been very helpful to us to hear the points of view of our witnesses. From the tone of our questions you will have got a different view of what the committee does. You may wish to suggest amendments to members which they might try to have included in the Bill. The Minister will propose amendments having heard the debate on Second Stage and having heard the outcomes of these meetings but amendments will also be tabled by the spokespersons from the various parties. It might well be useful for you to send suggested amendments to members of the committee, who are the ones who will be dealing with the Bill on Committee Stage. Deputy Stanton's question is a fundamental one on which all of you might have a view.

It stems from the point that was made earlier, that this is an impairment based rather than a needs based definition. If a set of needs is identified it is unlikely people will disagree with them but if a child is assessed as having an IQ of 71 when an IQ of 69 will allow them to access services then of course parents will object. Who would not?

This is what is called the gatekeeping role of psychology. Psychologists do not want to be gatekeepers. They want to be facilitators of education. Once there is an impairment-based definition an appeals system follows. A needs based definition does not have that problem.

I thank witnesses for the benefit of their experience and expertise. It has been most helpful.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.35 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Thursday, 25 September 2003.