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.