I remind Senators that each amendment must be seconded on Report Stage. Senators may speak only once except the proposer who has the right of reply.
Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill 2003: Report and Final Stages.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 7, between lines 21 and 22, to insert the following:
"3.—Where both the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Health and Children have joint roles under a provision of this Act, they shall establish a central body with responsibility for the co-ordination of education and health services in these areas.".
I welcome the Minister of State and her officials. I tabled this amendment on the realisation that the first time I raised the matter two Departments were involved in the preparation of the plan. Overall, there could now be as many as three or perhaps four Departments involved, including the Departments of Education and Science, Health and Children, and, because of a reluctance on the part of the Minister to accept the extension of time beyond the 18 years of age rule, Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Given the difficulty in co-ordinating the efforts and endeavours of all parties there can be a great number of individuals and bodies involved in planning and providing services for students with special educational needs. The thinking behind the amendment is that in order to avoid delay there is a necessity to bring a co-ordinating group together. The Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, made one revealing comment here on the last occasion, which Senator Fitzgerald will remember. He said a greater joining up of thinking was his idea of what should happen. That is the essence of this amendment. I see no be better way of co-ordinating thinking than the inclusion of this amendment to ensure persons with responsibility work together in their efforts. I am not blaming the Department of Education and Science, but the Minister of State will be well aware of the position in health boards in the past. They are now being replaced by a health executive. It is next to impossible to get a timely response to a request for whatever the service and the part it plays in it. Given the way the health boards were structured I have no reason to believe there will be an internal division of the sections, though they are no longer called health boards. People at ground level will have great difficulty in getting though to those sections to get a response.
On Committee Stage I quoted from a constituent who had returned from the US with three children, two of whom were in the special needs category. They had become involved in and availed of very fine services there. When they went to the local national school they discovered they would have to wait indefinitely to get an assessment. The parents had an assessment done privately and presented it to the principal to be forwarded to the Department. I am open to correction here. From November 2003 to date that parent has not had a response from the Department of Education and Science. Because she was conscious of the busy schedule of the principal she took it on herself to make contact with the relevant section in the Department but to date has not had a response. That parent is angry. Whether it is the Department in this instance, or the health boards in the past, there is an obvious delay and breakdown. Time is of the essence with regard to the provision of services as many Senators pointed out on Second and Committee Stages. With a view to focusing on the services required it is important that this amendment be included so those at the lower level can avail of that service.
The previous day the Minister of State mentioned the division of responsibility. A division of responsibility is a sure recipe for delay. If there are lines drawn and there is a crossover by the various Departments or services there will be delays and there will be no improvement in the delivery of the service. In those circumstances, despite this being good legislation and everybody welcoming it, the reality on the ground will not be improved. I have a letter from a principal in another school from which I will read one section. It might be more appropriate——
On the amendment, Senator.
I am referring directly to the amendment. Parents are making demands in the context of abysmal special needs provision in primary schools. The principal has experienced that as I will explain at a later date. One of those sentences followed on from another point he was making which was relevant to another of my amendments.
It is important to establish a mechanism to co-ordinate all Departments involved and facilitate the speedy provision of the services available through them.
I second the amendment. It is to a degree ironic that the newspapers are filled with reports of the body established by the Government to consider ways to encourage enterprise. Among the body's conclusions is the need for agile and responsive Government. Where agile and responsive Government are considered, the issues of delay and the unwillingness of Governments of a variety of complexions to accept that decisions must be taken within a timeframe arise. Governments seem always to resist the idea that a positive or negative response should be provided within a clear timescale. Other problems involve services the provision of which requires the intervention of more than one Department or agency and the failure of the State to institutionalise a mechanism to deal with such scenarios.
During my recent marathon tour of Munster, I visited a centre for people with learning disabilities located in a town in the Southern Health Board area whose hinterland included Mid-Western Health Board areas. The people there were tearing their hair out because the Southern Health Board used resources to support people with disabilities one way and the Mid-Western Health Board operated a different system. A great deal of the time of the people running the centre was taken up doing two different things for two different health boards with replication of activity simply because the boards could not work out a common approach to dealing with people with disabilities. This is one of our institutional problems. I ran into it 20 years ago when I first arrived here full of vim and vigour about homelessness to find the then Departments of Health and the Environment playing a wonderful game of ping-pong about which was responsible for the issue. The consequence of this ping-pong was that nobody was responsible.
While I listened with interest to what the Minister of State had to say, I fear from my experience and what I have heard of Senator Ulick Burke's experience that where there is divided responsibility there will be no responsibility. I do not claim to be an authority in this area with which my colleague, Senator Tuffy, is dealing but there is no doubt given the experience of us all that while it seems a wonderful idea to divide responsibility by drawing in several Departments, the result will be that nobody is responsible. Senator Ulick Burke's amendment is worthy of the Minister's consideration even at this late point.
When Senator Ulick Burke tabled this amendment on Committee Stage, I said I did not agree with the piling on of additional layers to deal with issues. I am still of the same opinion. As the Minister said when dealing with the amendment on Committee Stage, the council will have quite detailed powers to deal with the necessary co-ordination, which I accept. However, the real challenge involves my greatest fear about the legislation's most significant flaw, which is its definition of a child as someone under 18 years of age. I have had detailed discussions with the Minister and, at this point, will accept his assurances that the issue of the age of a child will be addressed in the forthcoming disability Bill which will continue the right to education through this legislation. The council will have the job of ensuring health boards deliver on the promises made to children in education plans whether they are 18, 19 or 20 years of age. If a child is still going through the process of education at second level, he or she will be entitled by right to the education he or she deserves.
The issue of joint roles for health boards and the Department of Education and Science gives rise to real and valid concerns. We have seen on a daily basis that children in mainstream education are not receiving the services of speech therapists, occupational therapists and physiotherapists from health boards because health resources are under such budgetary strain. I hope money will be provided through the disability Bill, whatever form it takes, and that resources will be made available as required to deliver a mix of education and health services. Hopefully, the council rather than an additional body will deal with the co-ordination of services.
The challenge is for the Department of Education and Science to deliver. It has done a very fine job to date. Anybody who has noticed over the past eight or nine years the change in education for children with special needs will recognise the great work which has been done. I acknowledged as much on the previous occasions on which I have spoken to this legislation. Children with special needs are children for longer which is why they are special. If we fail to recognise that by providing for them, we are not giving them what they deserve and are entitled to as citizens. While I do not agree with Senator Ulick Burke that there is a need to make his amendment, I remind the Minister of State and the officials who are here from the Department that the real challenge will be for the council to do its job to ensure co-ordination. The council must ensure that the education plans are followed whether a child passes 18 or not. There must be no discontinuity of service and parents must not be forced to run from Billy to Jack to secure a continued right to education and the services being delivered for their child.
I am also sympathetic to the views expressed by Senator Ulick Burke. Any Member who has dealt with children with special needs in public life or professionally in education will know that 99% of what the Senator outlined is very true. We have all come face to face with such situations.
If the Bill is to mean anything, its text must address the significant lacuna the existence of which has been so cogently articulated by Senator Ulick Burke. There has been a complete lack of co-ordination of services allowing State organisations to opt out of their responsibilities over the years by too frequent buck-passing. It is with sadness that we must recognise the truth of the scenario depicted by Senator Ulick Burke. While professional teachers, child psychologists and therapists were aware of needs, there was no structure in place and no law to compel them to come together with a single focus. There was no mechanism to knock heads together. A focus on the interests, well-being and benefit of the child was required rather than the stand-off scenarios which developed, motivated perhaps by professional pride among other issues.
If ever a Bill was drafted to confront this unacceptable scenario, it is the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill 2003 which sets out to do so clearly and unambiguously by establishing the national council for special education. While I do not wish to be too anecdotal, I remember that in the early 1980s, Senator O'Rourke, the then Fianna Fáil spokesperson on education, asked me to prepare a paper on special and remedial education. I availed of the services in 1986 of an eminent national expert on special education, Eamon Ó Murchú, a primary teacher. The genesis of what we handed to the then Deputy O'Rourke, who was the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on education, was a proposal to establish a national council for special education, specifically for the purpose outlined in the guidelines she handed to me when I decided to carry out this research. Therefore, this proposal was put forward before 1986. I agree with Senator Ulick Burke it is now time to co-ordinate these services. Given that the Minister provided for the establishment of a national council in this Bill, it must be seen to do the work it is assigned. One of the most challenging tasks it will face is to bring about a co-ordination of services, the need for which was strongly articulated by Senators Ulick Burke, Ryan and Cox.
The genesis of what will be a new era in terms of the co-ordination of these services is contained in the terms of reference, role and functions of the national council. If it is perceived in the not too distant future that those functions are not adequate to deal with and confront the inadequacies in the co-ordination of the services among the various professionals and Departments, I agree with Senator Ulick Burke that we will have to amend the role and functions of the council to give it more teeth to ensure that relevant professionals operate in a co-ordinated way. Irrespective of whether we are talking about children who are in pre-school, primary school, secondary school, or those over 18 years of age, the scenario that sadly has existed up to now should not be allowed to exist for one more day in view of what is possible.
While I agree with 99% of what Senator Ulick Burke said, as Senator Cox articulated earlier, an extra body is not required to bring this about. We must ensure the council which is provided for in the Bill is given the requisite powers to implement the necessary degree of co-ordination.
Senator Ulick Burke raised this matter on Committee Stage. At that time the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, explained that the new national council for special education will be, in effect, the central body that will ensure the co-ordination of educational services. The Senator was of the view that the body would be distant because it was a national rather than a local body. That was the kernel of the argument put forward by the him on that occasion. However, the intention is that the council will work closely with the schools and health boards to ensure appropriate education provision is made available. The special needs organisers will bring together educational and medical professionals to form part of the assessment and education plan teams. They will be assigned particular schools and areas and will advise and assist schools and parents. Rather than being distant, the council will be closely involved in the education of individual children.
The provision of appropriate education services for children with special educational needs absolutely requires the close co-operation and co-ordination of activities between education and health authorities. Through the linkages provided in the Bill, the current difficulties regarding co-ordination will be resolved. I understand why this is a matter of major concern for Senators Ulick Burke, Ryan, Cox and Fitzgerald who have taken part in this debate.
Senator Ulick Burke spoke about the co-ordination of parties being perhaps the most important part of the delivery of this service. Senator Ryan was concerned that in circumstances where there would be a divided response, that would imply no response at all. Senator Cox spoke about the importance of the council being able to bring these bodies together. Senator Fitzgerald spoke about the terrible lack of structures we have had up until now to deal with the issues of concern in regard to these special children and that the importance of the council in addressing those could not be over-emphasised.
I genuinely believe there is no need for this amendment because the co-ordination of activities among the various agencies will be addressed particularly with regard to the council because the two main agencies under this Bill are the health boards and the council. This section provides for the appointment by the council and health boards of liaison officers to deal specifically with the issue of co-ordination. The Bill, as proposed, will deal with the genuine concerns expressed by the Senators.
I appreciate the Minister of State's reply. Senator Fitzgerald accepts that this amendment is 99% valid. In regard to gaining access to this body, it has been said that it will constitute another layer of bureaucracy. Parents will find it as difficult to gain access to officials in the national council as to officials in the existing structures. I outlined the difficulty parents have in getting through to an official in a section in the Department with definite responsibility in this area.
Parents are reluctant and intimidated when they get through to a senior official in the Department in order to do what is the best for their child where a need has been established. The response can often be cold and distant. A parent who is driven by a determination to do what is best for his or her child, and who has the support of the school principal, teachers and the relevant agencies, will have to deal with another layer of bureaucracy in terms of this council. Parents who are on the edge and under pressure may find it difficult and daunting to get through to an official in the national council. For that reason, it would be preferable if a co-ordinating body was structured locally.
Having regard to the health board or its replacement body, people will have identified their responsibility at local level. I ask the Minister of State to ensure that a body is put in place to ensure that these people are drawn together and their heads knocked together so there is a response to a legitimate need. It is for no other reason that I say that. Great difficulty will be experienced in dealing with the council as proposed. If, as the Minister of State and Senator Fitzgerald said, in future, and it will be sooner rather than later, personnel in the national council find they are being dragged in every direction throughout the country, that will highlight a void in terms of services for those with special needs which will have to be filled.
Senator Ulick Burke has raised a genuine point. He mentioned earlier that the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, referred to joined-up Government. We are all in favour of that because it means a better delivery of whatever services are needed to individuals in communities. We spoke about the co-ordination of policies and the operation of the council and the health boards and it will be the role of the liaison officers to address the issue raised by the Senator. There are school principals, the council and the health boards, but the role of the liaison officers is to bring this information together and to ensure there is a co-ordinated approach.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 7, line 43, after "an" to insert "individual".
The Minister of State in her last comments mentioned the individual. We are talking about children with special needs. The response must be consistent. The section refers to arranging an assessment of a student. This must be an individual assessment. That is what this amendment seeks to ensure. To ensure consistency with what is stated earlier in the Bill, the plan must be individual to the student. The individual needs are already established. This amendment is minor, but it copperfastens the need for an individual assessment. Special needs are involved because we are talking about an individual with identified special needs. It is important that the Minister of State use "individual assessment" rather than "an assessment" so that, in schools with groups of children with special needs, a collective assessment of those groups could not be conducted.
I listened to Senator Ulick Burke very carefully on Committee Stage and understood that every reference made to individual education plans in the Bill concerns the preparation of a plan for an individual child, as I tried to articulate on Committee Stage. There is no ambiguity in this matter at any point in the Bill. The Bill brings all the relevant agencies and partners involved towards the centre but places at the core the individual child and his or her special educational needs.
Having said that, I believe Senator Ulick Burke detects that where there are two or three children in a school with special educational needs, there could be a tendency to lump them together when creating the education plan in the interests of expediency and saving resources, although I am sure teachers would not use the expression. In view of this, I understand the Senator's concern. Perhaps there is merit in his proposal to include the word "individual". I do not know how the Minister of State feels about the issue but it is genuine and legitimate and I ask her to re-examine it.
The clear intention of the Bill is to confer on each child with a special educational need arising from a disability a right to receive an assessment, an educational plan and the support services necessary to meet that need. The Bill recognises that solutions for children with special needs do not lie in a one-size-fits-all approach. Obviously they must be specific to the particular children or child involved.
The assessments and plans must be tailor-made for the individual child. Referring to an assessment as an individual assessment does not in any way enhance the rights a child with disabilities will enjoy once this Bill is enacted. As stated on Committee Stage, the application of the entire measure to individuals is unquestionable and therefore I do not propose to accept this amendment.
Senators have asked what would happen if there were a collective approach to assessment in a school with more than one child with special needs. Such an approach would not suffice under this Bill because we are talking about specific needs of specific pupils. Each child is obviously a separate entity who will need very particular attention and a specific plan to help with his or her specific needs. That we are dealing with individual plans does not necessitate the inclusion of "individual" as this is implicit in every part of the legislation.
The Minister has circumvented the issue by avoiding the use of the word "individual" through including words such as "specific" time and again. A specific assessment is an individual assessment and I do not know where the difference lies. The use of "individual" would be consistent with most sections of the Bill. This has been highlighted repeatedly and I do not know why "specific" is used in this instance rather than "individual".
In layman's language, those two words are interchangeable. We are proposing to provide an educational plan specific or individual to a particular child with special educational needs. I use the word "specific" because the essence of this legislation is that it provides for the specific needs of specific children. The question of individual plans features in the legislation and therefore the issue about which the Senator has concerns is adequately covered.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 18, line 35, to delete "with the consent of" and substitute "having consulted with".
Section 13 is probably the kernel of the Bill. While it may be fine to see the legislation on paper, the most important issue alluded to by Members of both Houses on Second and Committee Stages was the need for adequate resources and finance to deliver the service. We have received very welcome indications that adequate resources will be provided as a result of what are in effect the shackles placed on the Minister for Finance. However, section 13(1) goes that little bit too far in using the phrase "with the consent of the Minister". We want balance in the Bill. To have balance we must remove from the Minister for Finance and his officials the overall power they will have in the implementation of this legislation. This is achieved by deleting "with the consent of" and substituting "having consulted with", as provided for in the amendment.
By stating "with the consent of the Minister", we are qualifying everything. There is no denying that the Minister for Finance has responsibility for the national finances but it is within his remit to give to the Minister for Education and Science a certain sum of money and ask him to deliver what he can with it because he will get no more. With the permission of the Chair, I will draw a parallel with the health services. In the past four years, when there were adequate finances to solve the problems in the health sector, the Minister for Finance did invest a certain amount but put a limit on it. This will also be the case in financing education for persons with special educational needs if he continues to have such a grip on the purse-strings of the Minister for Education and Science.
As I stated, this legislation looks wonderful on paper. It is a wonderful breakthrough — this jargon can be used — but the necessary resources must be provided and a balance struck such that the Minister for Finance will not be able to negate the effectiveness of the Minister for Education and Science in delivering those resources to the schools and individuals who need them. This is my fear and that is why the amendment was tabled. I remain to be convinced otherwise.
I second the amendment. In the 20 or more years I have been in this House I have seen more than 1,000 Bills go through the Oireachtas. Those which contained references to expenditure included a sub-clause stating that the Minister required the "consent of the Minister for Finance". This is mythology. If the Minister for Finance devoted himself to giving consent to all of the legislation which requires it he would do nothing else. The truth of the myth is that power is handed over to middle ranking public servants in the Department of Finance. Only the Department of Finance, with its extraordinary view of itself, would see that as a good way to do business. One of the greatest obstacles to the efficient delivery of public service is the enormous inefficiency arising from the centralising instincts of the Department of Finance.
In every Department there are well paid and well trained Accounting Officers who should be responsible for expenditure. Money should be allocated to Departments and the responsibility for spending it should lie with the Minister and the Accounting Officer. Once funds are allocated to a Department there should be no need to refer back to the Minister for Finance.
I have always been sceptical about references in legislation to moneys provided by the Oireachtas. The Seanad does not have a role in the provision of funds. All Bills should refer to moneys provided by Dáil Éireann. The phrase, "moneys provided by the Oireachtas" is in breach of the Constitution. However, that is for another day's debate.
I remind Senator Ryan that the word used in section 13 is "may" and not "shall". It makes no significant difference whether we include or delete the phrase "with the consent of the Minister for Finance". The inclusion of the phrase is consistent with the role of Government and the way it operates. We discussed this matter yesterday and I do not propose discussing it in detail.
The Bill is given strength by subsection 9(7), which we referred to yesterday and which I may not deal with now, and section 13. Section 13 places a legal imperative on the Ministers for Education and Science, Health and Children and Justice, Equality and Law Reform and also on the Minister for Finance. The section provides that all Ministers must, in allocating resources for the purposes of the Bill, have regard to the constitutional imperative contained in Article 42. The Constitution requires that children with special educational needs be given a level of support comparable in effect to their peers who do not have such needs. That provision is clearly enshrined in the Constitution.
To decide whether a level of support is adequate requires a subjective judgment. If the Minister for Education and Science decides that the support provided in a particular year is adequate and the Minister for Finance agrees to it, anyone may disagree with that perception of adequacy and seek a judicial review in the courts. The right to a judicial review remains, even when the Minister for Education and Science decides that a level of support is adequate, and a parent may take that course. The powers vested in parents, or appellants, in the amended section 13 are unique and unprecedented. This section does much more for the Bill than the deletion of phrase "with the consent of the Minister for Finance".
We had a good discussion on this matter yesterday. As Senator Ryan said, the Constitution confers on the Lower House the supreme role in the matter of public finances. The Government must obtain its approval to spend public money and the Minister for Finance is accountable to that House for expenditure.
Senator O'Toole felt that the wording of section 13 suggested that, having received his allocation for a particular year, the Minister for Finance might get a second bite of the cherry by being able to determine how much of the allocation is spent on educational plans. I reassure Senators that this is not the intention of the provision. Subsection 13(1) simply states that enough money must be made available to allow for the preparation and implementation of educational plans. This would happen as part of the overall allocation process and a two stage process is not envisaged.
Senators expressed concern yesterday that the Minister would set an unreasonably low level of funding for the preparation and implementation of educational plans. This is not the case and this section will prevent rather than facilitate such a strategy. It was to this that Senator Fitzgerald very ably referred. It is a well established principle of administrative law that a Minister must not act unreasonably in exercising his or her function. If a decision were made to make a clearly inadequate allocation for educational plans, a person would have a good case to bring this before the courts. Ministers must act reasonably in performing their functions. This provision will ensure that the Ministers are reminded, when an allocation is made each year, of their duties under the Constitution. A key objective of the Bill is to ensure equality between those who have special needs and those who do not.
Senator Fitzgerald also remarked that this provision is unprecedented. It is difficult not to agree with that view. It makes the rights contained in the Bill immeasurably stronger.
I thank the Minister of State for that reply. The Minister of State suggests that people who are not satisfied with the allocation of funding should go to the courts. When the Minister for Education and Science presented this legislation to the House, he indicated his absolute determination to avoid having to go to court at all costs. I do not intend a pun on the words "at all costs". The wall which deters people from going to court is growing higher and higher. Must an individual who feels he or she cannot get his or her entitlements always resort to the courts? Having seen the examples of the Sinnott and O'Donoghue cases, no parent would want to go down that road. The Minister is determined, through this legislation, to deter people from going down that road. It is unfortunate that the Minister of State mentioned that course of action.
We must recognise how Government works. It is up to the Minister for Education and Science of the day to fight his or her case with the Minister for Finance to get his or her annual allocation for the Department. That is how Government works for all Departments.
This issue is strengthened by the fact that there is a legal imperative on the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Education and Science to carry out their duties. A person can make a subjective judgment about whether the money is sufficient and that individual can decide at election time if he or she agrees with the priorities of Government. This legislation, however, places a legal imperative on the Ministers to carry out their duties and copper fastens the position of the child.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 19, between lines 14 and 15, to insert the following:
"(4) In exercising powers undersubsection (1), special provision shall be made in respect of the increased demands placed on schools, in particular, Gaelscoileanna.”.
This amendment would ensure that children with special educational needs have the same rights to avail of and benefit from education as their peers.
It may be obvious that a child should go to a Gaelscoil but this choice will be denied because so many Gaelscoileanna are in their infancy and have totally inadequate facilities. If a child with special needs had a choice or his parents wanted him to go to a Gaelscoil because of their own linguistic background or their determination that the child will be educated through Irish, they will be deterred from going to a Gaelscoil instead of to a mainstream school. If the parents of a child with special needs want him to go to a Gaelscoil, there must be a clear indication that resources will be found for the adequate provision of services in that school. Most of the Gaelscoileanna established in the last decade are still in unacceptable accommodation and lacking facilities. We must highlight those schools because their needs are greater than any other school.
I second the amendment. Bhí mé i nGaeltacht Chorca Dhuibhne le linn deireadh na seachtaine agus thug mé faoi deara go raibh comórtais eagraithe ag daoine a bhí dírithe ar leanaí le riachtanais speisialta ach ba chomórtais iad a bhí eagraithe ina n-iomlán trí Ghaeilge. Nuair a chonaic mé an leasú seo bhí mé ag smaoineamh go bhféadfainn ceist a chur ar an Aire Stáit. What provision will be made not just in Gaelscoileanna but in Gaeltacht schools to ensure that the capacity to carry out an assessment and make provision will exist in the child's home language? There are literally thousands of children, with numbers dramatically increasing according to the recent census, who are being brought up with Irish as a first language. It is important that children whose first language is Irish and who have special educational needs should have both the right to have the assessment through that language and to have the provision of whatever special education services they need through the language of the home.
Senator Ryan referred to riachtanaisí speisialta. That requirement applies not alone to the Irish language but in an era of multiculturalism, across the board. There is a genuine case for the amendment and it is true that in many cases additional resources are needed to deal with the linguistic and cultural requirements in Gaeltachtaí and Gaelscoileanna but surely this Bill, the Education Act, the Equal Status Act and the Official Languages Act must, individually and in aggregate, take account of the multiculturalism that we all support. We cannot focus on the needs of a child without taking account of his or her linguistic and cultural needs because otherwise the assessments will be flawed and any appellant will be able to demonstrate that in an appeal. I sympathise with the amendment but, as far as I understand the Bill and the other Acts, it is unnecessary.
This is another issue that was given a good airing on Committee Stage. It comes down to the kernel of what the Bill will do for children. The education plans will be drawn up for each child and each child will have different needs. Children will have rights whether their first language is English or Irish. Although the amendment refers specifically to Gaelscoileanna, Senator Ryan's point about schools in Gaeltacht areas is noted and the amendment obviously applies across the board. It must do so because, as Senator Fitzgerald said, it would not be fair to any child unless the work for that individual child was done in the child's own first language or the language of his or her choice for the test.
Senator Fitzgerald referred to multiculturalism. I am particularly interested in that facet because one of my responsibilities as Minister of State is to ensure there are courses for those whose first language is not English, namely non-nationals. This legislation, the Equality Act and the Official Languages Act, ensure equality of treatment.
Senator Ulick Burke raised the issue of the physical infrastructure, particularly in Gaelscoileanna and that is a separate matter. I congratulate the Senator for raising those issues. The question of the building programme is of interest to all Members of both Houses.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 19, line 37, after "disabilities" to insert ", and ensure that children with disabilities are not subject to bullying or unfair treatment".
Bullying is a fact of life in many schools, at both primary and secondary level. It is a greater tragedy if children with special needs are regarded as an easier target for such bullying. Both the Minister of State and I acknowledge that in many schools, the boards of management, teachers and students go out of their way to be visibly supportive of children with special needs. It only takes one person to increase the difficulty for children with special needs. That difficulty often manifests itself at home rather than in the school environment. A child may refuse to go to school or it may manifest as illness.
I ask the Minister of State to accept this amendment. There is no national plan for dealing with bullying. It is dealt with at local level. A national plan to deal with bullying in the workplace was called for and reported on in the newspapers last week. In this instance, it is very important that the school is mandated to protect children and to provide even greater protection for children with special needs. I qualify that statement by saying that most schools are very sensitive to the idea that bullying must be eliminated from the school situation. It is important that this legislation clearly states that school authorities must eliminate bullying as quickly as possible.
This amendment is not necessary, in my view. By virtue of section 11 of the Equal Status Act, a person who is responsible for the operation of a school, must not allow another person who has a right to be present in that place, such as a student, to suffer harassment at that place. Harassment occurs where a person subjects another to any unwelcome act, request or conduct, including spoken words, gestures or the production, display or circulation of written words, pictures or other material, which is in respect of the victim and is based on any discriminatory ground, including disability and which could reasonably be regarded as offensive, humiliating or intimidating to him or her.
Senator Ulick Burke requested the implementation of a national plan to deal with bullying. He will be interested to hear that the Equality Authority and the Department of Education and Science, have produced a joint publication on the Equal Status Act and its application in schools. It is a useful document which addresses these issues and helps provide a blueprint for school managements.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 21, between lines 21 and 22, to insert the following:
"20.—(1) The Minister shall ensure that parents of children to whom this Act applies shall be afforded adequate counselling and support services.
(2) In complying withsubsection (1), the Minister shall recognise the importance of promoting the communication between such parents and facilitating the exchange of views.”.
When parents realise that a child has special needs, depending on the severity of the disability, this can have a serious impact on the family, the individual parents and siblings. This Bill will guarantee the parents' input into the education of their child. There is no doubt that parents will need counselling, assistance and support. There is a shock to the system and to the family and educational environment. This section of the Bill refers to information regarding the student being made available to parents. There is an emphasis on the provision of information but no indication of the necessity for parents to have access to professional counselling to help them be supportive of the child's needs. It was highlighted in the debate on Second Stage that people may withdraw emotionally from a situation and be in denial. This could be highly detrimental to the child with special needs and could add further to the delay. I cannot find in the Bill any mechanism whereby parents have access to counselling and support services for the short time it may be required. It would not be a great expenditure at any level but it is very important to some parents.
I agree with the points made by Senator Burke. This was discussed on Second Stage. It is vitally important that the whole weight of the services being provided by the State move into action as soon as a child is diagnosed with a special need. Disabilities legislation is the most appropriate place to provide for this type of support and counselling. I hope the input of the Departments of Education and Science, Health and Children and Justice, Equality and Law Reform will ensure the disability Bill includes a strong section making provision for a journey path to be drawn up immediately a learning difficulty is identified, whether at birth or aged two, three or four years. This must make clear which State services will be required in education and health, for example, speech and occupational therapy. The challenge is to provide children with the necessary resources and services from birth onwards.
The Bill is not the appropriate framework for making such provision because it relates solely to children in education. While I cannot support the amendment, the views articulated by Senator Ulick Burke are valid and need to be taken on board in the wider context of disability and I look forward to them being addressed in the disability Bill.
I understand the concerns raised by Senators Ulick Burke and Cox in this highly sensitive area. The Bill gives parents a central role in the education of their children. One of the reasons it has gained support across the board is that it allows parents to request that an assessment be carried out, be involved in and form part of the educational plan team, seek the advice and guidance of the special education council and appeal decisions affecting their child's education to an independent body. The parents are, therefore, central to the process of providing for the specific educational needs of their special child.
The Comhairle (Amendment) Bill will provide for the introduction of advocacy services for children and adults. I do not propose to introduce such a provision in this legislation as it would create an unhelpful overlap and possible inconsistencies between the two Bills. As Senator Cox stated, it may be possible to consider the matter in the context of other legislation under preparation.
I welcome the Minister's commitment as regards the inclusion of such a provision in the disability Bill, which we hope is being finalised. The disability Bill, as Senator Cox stated, is the most appropriate framework for addressing this matter because it also covers adults and parents.
While I have no responsibility regarding the provisions of legislation produced by other Ministers, I will pass on the concerns raised by Senators on this specific issue.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 21, between lines 43 and 44 to insert the following:
"(g) to ensure that teachers are trained to the highest international standards in special educational needs;”.
The purpose of the amendment is to ensure teachers are trained to the highest international standards in special educational needs. To illustrate the current position in this regard, I will cite a letter from a school principal to which I referred on a previous occasion when the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, was present. It highlights that, despite their best intentions and good will, the onus placed on teachers to deliver best quality education to children identified in schools as having special educational needs creates fear among many teachers delivering special needs. It states:
Ulick, what can a principal do when teachers come in tears to you because they perceive themselves as failing the Special Needs child? I know these teachers are doing an excellent job, but I can acknowledge their perception they have absolutely no training for dealing with children [with special needs].
When one considers that this is replicated in practically every primary school and secondary level school, it is clear we have a serious problem. Moreover, the current annual throughput of newly qualified special needs teachers is only 35.
The Department must provide much more extensive inservice training for teachers. This cannot be done on the cheap, as has been the case with the introduction of various new subjects to the curriculum in national and secondary schools. The approach taken in the past has created reluctance among many teachers to participate in inservice training. The Department must give a clear indication of a sea change in its approach to retraining, which has been inadequate.
Many teachers are growing old and more than 20% of them will leave the system in the next five years. Apart from their lack of experience, few new teachers entering the profession will have training in special educational needs, whereas the number of students identified as having special needs and entering mainstream education will increase. With the level of need increasing on two fronts, it is vital the Department address the urgent need for adequate and acceptable inservice training.
One of the problems with developing inservice training is the unwillingness by some parents to accommodate it. One hears in the media, on radio programmes, for example, parents complaining that a teacher has been absent from school for several days because he or she is in training. A price must be paid. School managers, principals and boards of management face great difficulty organising inservice training but the nettle must be grasped and all possible measures taken to ensure we have a sufficient number of trained teachers to meet the requirements of the legislation. This will not be easy while one has snipers in the media and among parents. While I have the greatest of respect for the right of parents to get the best for their children, some of them do not think beyond their own requirements.
Funding, the main problem, is the responsibility of the Minister for Finance who must realise that proper inservice training for teachers has never been adequately resourced.
I second the amendment. I come late to the Bill because I was not dealing with it. The functions of the council, as set out in the Bill, do not feature a reference to the necessity to ensure that adequate numbers of properly trained teachers are available to meet the requirements of making information available, monitoring the progress of students, assessing and reviewing the resources required and ensuring that a continuum of special educational provision is available. These requirements will impact on teachers, particularly since the objective of the legislation is, in as far as possible, to have children with special educational needs educated in the framework of mainstream schools.
I know many teachers and many of my family members are teachers. It is delightful and extraordinary to hear teachers of my age say how good are young new national teachers. Older people often say that national school teachers are no longer as good as in their own time. However, I have heard many national teachers in their 50s and early 60s speak of the extraordinary quality and enthusiasm of their younger counterparts. It is fantastic to hear that the quality of our primary school teachers is, if anything, better than it has ever been. If one imposes a lot of obligations, desirable as they may be, on national teachers without ensuring they receive the training necessary to fulfil those obligations, that goodwill and enthusiasm may be stifled. The Minister of State will respond that such provision for training is implied in many of the provisions of the Bill but the statement that teachers are entitled to training of the highest international standing is necessary, not least for the sake of the teachers themselves. It is necessary in terms of the allocation of resources and also to ensure the fantastic enthusiasm and idealism of young national teachers is not stifled by aspirations that are not matched by the provision for training.
Whether the formula of words proposed by Senator Burke in his amendment is necessary is a matter for the Minister of State's judgment but the aspiration which it represents is essential. If that aspiration is not translated and given effect in the Bill, the state-of-the-art framework set out in the Bill will not be realised. That there is a timescale for the implementation of the Bill of five years obliges the Government to ensure that sufficient cohorts of the types of specialist teachers to which Senator Burke refers in his amendment are provided. One cannot implement the provisions of this Bill in a top drawer fashion unless the professionals are available at the coalface to do so. The national council for special education or the special educational needs organisers cannot do so, only the teachers can and if they do not have the skills to which Senator Burke referred then the provisions of this Bill, about which we are so enthusiastic, will come to nothing.
In 1985 a Fine Gael Deputy and I were approached by the parents of a six year old boy who had been diagnosed as autistic, although he was later found to be suffering from a condition related to autism rather than autism itself. The boy's father, who was a Fine Gael politician and good friend of mine, was advised by a relative in the then Department of Education that the best course of action was to place the child in a comfortable residential institution for life. Without casting aspersions on any individual, that was the establishment mindset in the Department at the time. This story illustrates how far we have come despite the significant lacunae we all acknowledge are there. The glorious opportunity that is presented by this Bill must not be lost. Incidentally, that six year old boy is now a third level graduate, working as a professional in a building not half a mile from this House. This is a marvellous story of the endurance, commitment and determination of that child's parents and their refusal to accept the mindset of officials who did not have the academic qualifications or the professional expertise to make a holistic judgment as to his requirements. It is frightening to think what could have become of that boy.
There should no longer be a situation where parents must fight the odds. The framework is there, the facilities are there and we must ensure the professionals are there to provide the services. I am unsure if Senator Burke's amendment is required but I am enthusiastic about its intention.
I agree that we are lucky to have a tremendous teaching profession. I am fortunate that my job allows me to witness the idealism of which Senator Ryan spoke on almost a daily basis. This morning I spent some time in Kilbarrack at a summer camp for seven to 11 year olds and the enthusiasm and interest of the teachers in each child was evident. Teachers want to give the best possible service to the children they teach, including those with special needs. It is vital that we address the issue of inservice training and training within the teacher training colleges because education changes quickly as we become aware of the changing practices regarding conditions such as autism and other learning difficulties. I understand there is a commitment in the Department of Education and Service to provide further funding for teacher training, which is another acknowledgement of the important work that teachers are doing and an attempt to assist them in that work.
Regarding amendment No. 7, I do not see how the national council for special education could ensure that adequate training and professional development for teachers in the area of special needs would be provided because teaching standards are not the remit of the council but rather a policy matter for the Minister. However, the council will be free to advise on this and its perspective will enrich the Minister's decision. It is also a matter for the teaching council when it is established as it will have responsibility for accrediting teacher educational programmes and reviewing the standards of knowledge, skill and competence required for teaching practice. The national council for special education will have a function to liaise with the teaching council on this matter even though the issue of teaching qualifications and standards is not directly within the remit of the former. It is primarily a function of the teaching council and therefore the provision of this amendment is inappropriate. The concerns represented in the amendment are being addressed.
One hopes this legislation will be enacted quickly but there must be a realisation that there is an acute shortage of teachers, particularly at primary level, and there is a very large percentage of untrained substitute teachers. That is a difficulty which the Minister for Education and Science must acknowledge and address. Senators Ryan and Fitzgerald and the Minister of State have acknowledged the enthusiasm that exists among national school teachers. I do not know whether it was inadvertent or deliberate but the Minister has dampened enthusiasm by issuing a short-sighted directive on the duration of the school year in the recent past. In addition, the directive he issued prior to last Christmas will be forever etched in the minds of teachers. He totally disregarded the effort, endeavour and commitment of teachers. Inspectors always supported teachers and he has dampened their commitment.
There is a greater need now than ever before for teachers to undertake inservice training but they can quite easily stand back from participating now because they can say it is the Minister's responsibility and he has a policy in this regard. I plead with the Minister of State to convey the message to the Minister that it is time for him to rebuild the bridges he burned because of his attitude. His attitude was coloured by sections of the media, which harped on day in, day out about teachers being out of the classroom. The reason they were not in the classroom was they wanted to enhance their performance by participating in inservice training, which was often arranged on anad hoc basis by the Department. That was terrible.
If the legislation is to be worthwhile and effective, the Minister must address issues such as this. It is incumbent on him to ensure the legislation gets off on a good footing and to make sure everybody affected by it will accept it. He should support the legislation by making the necessary resources available to allow teachers to implement its provisions. There is no better group to respond to the needs of pupils when the chips are down. However, the Minister cannot expect a return on the legislation while, at the same time, clobbering teachers with abuse.
The Senator wants to ensure the highest quality teacher training is provided but that is not the business of the council. That will be an issue for the teaching council when it is established and that is why I cannot accept the amendment.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 24, line 42, to delete "5 years" and substitute "3 years".
We have been around the houses on this issue. There is potential for delay in the implementation of the legislation by providing that it should be done within five years. I am fearful of this provision and that is why I tabled the amendment. It must be ensured the legislation is fully implemented in less than five years because many children who will not be able to avail of the full benefits of the legislation will have lost out again. Once they lose out in their formative years, which are important, they will continue to lose out down the line. It is fine if future legislation kicks in to address the age barrier referred to by Senator Cox earlier. We have heard the reasons for the resistance to shortening the implementation period but it is imperative that it should be reduced from five to three years.
I second the amendment. It is a fact of life, not a political issue, that government in general has resisted rigid timetables. However, it has very often demanded them from others. I raised this issue during the debate on the regional technical colleges Bill with the then Minister for Education, Deputy Seamus Brennan. The Bill contained a detailed prescription of deadlines by which the colleges had to supply various information to the Department of Education but it did not prescribe, for instance, that the Department should give adequate notice to the colleges of their budgets, which often arrive halfway through the year. There is an enormous reluctance on the part of Government to be judged by the performance standards that most other people expect to be judged by. Yesterday's report referred to the need for agile, efficient Government. The suggestion that five years is a reasonable timescale to implement this legislation is a classic example of government thinking on timescales.
Two light rail lines costing €600 million were built in Dublin in far less than five years. Five years is an extraordinary period. Two general elections on average can be held in five years. However, five years in this context refers to the time from which various sections are brought into force. That is extraordinarily long.
This issue was discussed at length during the Bill's progress through the other House and it is difficult to see how the implementation period of no more than five years can be reduced. It has been broadly supported by interest groups as a realistic timescale. A great deal of consultation took place in drafting the legislation and taking amendments in the Dáil. The council can implement all phases in a shorter timeframe if it is possible but if an unrealistic shorter timescale is set, the council is likely to be discredited in failing to meet it. Introducing mechanisms to ensure the rights of children with special needs is protected through an incremental process and attempting to speed it up to an unreasonable extent runs the risk of derailing the entire process. I, therefore, do not accept the amendment.
Within the five-year timeframe, in the first year and possibly the second the allocation of money will be so impressive that people will really begin to hope. They will think this is a panacea, but if it were implemented over a shorter period people would just say the legislation was being implemented.
In this timeframe we cannot get going. If the pressure is on to deliver and there is a commitment to do so then that can be done in a shorter period if there is a willingness to do so. Bodies may say they cannot be seen to fail but the finger will be pointed at the Minister for failure, not the organisations.
It is unacceptable for people to go cap in hand for five years. We are told the money is in the national coffers, so why not move quickly if these measures can be put in place quickly, as we are told? We are not gathering information or reporting any more. We need action and if we cannot make this legislation active in a shorter period than five years then some questions must be asked. The consultation is all over and, my God, any member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science saw what it meant to so many groups who put across the urgency of their plight. What is stalling this for five years? It is not acceptable that the council or whatever organisation is formed as a result of this legislation can say that if it cannot meet the deadline of five years then it will be seen to have failed. That is a very poor response to people's needs.
I assure the Senator that this is not a matter of stalling the issue. We all want to see these matters progress as quickly as possible. It is not correct for Senator Ryan to say in a pejorative way that this is a reasonable time according to the Government. What is being proposed is a very realistic timetable which is based on a great deal of consultation. Obviously the interest groups were very involved in the legislation and this was looked on as a reasonable time in which to get this work done for a child. The council is in a position to implement all phases in a shorter timeframe if it finds a particular case which can be expedited in that way.
The concerns raised here about time do not have a sure footing because we are talking here about the realistic position, therefore I cannot accept the amendment.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 33, between lines 17 and 18, to insert the following:
"39.—For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in this Act or any other enactment shall prevent a person from having full access to the Courts at any time to enforce, assert or enhance their rights which accrue under or arise from this Act.".
We touched inadvertently on this amendment earlier. There was a clear indication in the statements of the Minister in the Dáil and on Committee Stage that his idea was to avoid at all costs a situation where anybody would have to have recourse to the courts. We know from the past that is not the case. There are situations where people must have recourse to the courts, and the Minister mentioned a case herself when she mentioned resources. If a person does not feel they are getting adequate resources from the Minister he or she can go the courts.
Based on people's past experience, they will not want to go to court despite the fact that there are no alternatives. The Minister has included a definite deterrent in the hope that parents will not go down that road at any costs. The wall is getting higher and higher in order to avoid that situation. As she said, the reality is that someone will query the resources and the only place to resolve it is through the courts. It is unfortunate that there seems to be a determination to deter — prevent might be too strong a word — people from taking that option, which is their absolute right and entitlement.
I second the amendment.
Parents have always been slow to go the courts under Article 42 of the Constitution. The only body I know of which was caught under Article 42 was the Irish National Teachers' Organisation. In a certain strike it was found liable for substantial sums because it was suggested it had taken away children's constitutional rights.
Parents are reluctant to take this route and the fact that some parents of children with particularly severe and demanding needs went all the way to the Supreme Court was more of a commentary on the intensity of the gap in the service than on the tendencies of parents. It should not be a problem to insert clarity in the legislation about an issue which is clearly included already, namely the right of parents to use the courts to vindicate their rights and those of their children.
This amendment is unnecessary. The right to litigate and to have access to the courts is a personal right guaranteed by the Constitution and recognised by the courts for some time now. I agree with Senators Ryan and Burke when they say the right to go to court is an absolute right of any citizen but there is nothing in the Bill which suggests otherwise. I will not accept the amendment.
This is one of the great days in the life of a Legislature which passes ground-breaking legislation. We may be sorry that this has been slow in coming but it is a huge step forward in addressing the education of children with special needs. I speak in recognition of the €3.2 billion being spent on disability per year. The Bill provides a framework of rights for children with special needs and I know the Minister and Ministers of State who have attended the debate are convinced that the issues I and others raised in section 1, the age of children with special needs, are dealt with adequately in the Bill and that any special areas will be dealt with adequately in future legislation. I refer particularly to the area of disability.
I do not wish to criticise the Minister. As the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, said, the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, was first off the blocks in providing this legislation.
However, while I accept his recommendations and assurances, I am greatly disappointed that it was not possible for him to address the age issue in this legislation. He could have done so. The Bill should have recognised the difference between children with special needs and children who do not have such needs in an age timeframe. The Supreme Court has ruled that every child under 18 has a constitutional right to receive an education. The Bill gave us an opportunity to provide greater rights, within a statutory framework, to deal with children who have reached 18 in terms of their chronological age but not in terms of their educational requirements.
This is a good Bill and represents a job well done. My only disappointment is that the age issue has not been tackled. I challenge the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister for Finance to deliver what is required in the disabilities Bill, which has not yet been published. Following one of the most positive debates on disability that I have heard since becoming a Senator in 1997, the message from all sides of the House is clear. The challenge is for those Ministers to ensure that the rights of children with special needs will continue to be guaranteed — with no break in continuity and no need to go to court or an appeals board — through second level education. We must enshrine their entitlements as we move forward to deal with other legislation, including the disabilities Bill.
I thank the departmental officials and the various Ministers for the courtesy they have shown to me in recent weeks. While I am not fully convinced, I will bow to their greater knowledge and judgment. I hope I will be proved wrong and that my fears will be groundless.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, and her colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, for having steered the legislation though the House. They did so while being able to accept other points of view, which does not happen in all cases. If the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Dempsey, had been here I think we would have crossed swords and there would have been flames on occasion.
Not at all.
That was avoided because of the way in which both Ministers of State handled the debate. I also wish to thank the departmental officials. The debate has been a great learning experience for all who participated in it. It was instructive to follow the debate in the Lower House, in addition to following the proceedings of the Committee on Education and Science where representatives of so many interest groups appeared as witnesses. Senator Fitzgerald and others who are members of that committee know that through the consultation process, everybody received an insight into the legislative requirements. The departmental officials took most of those needs into consideration.
I reiterate what Senator Cox said because my first amendment on Committee Stage related to the 18-year age limit. I always considered that it would be an easy transition for children with special needs to be educated while they were in full-time education, rather than having a cut-off point. There will be difficulties but when they are identified I hope the Minister of the day will act to amend the legislation accordingly.
The Department should take note of teachers' requirements and provide the necessary support for them to implement the legislation with enthusiasm. That enthusiasm is there but visible support and determination is required on the Minister's part. Adequate in-service training should be provided for those who are actively involved in teaching children with special needs. Unfortunately, not enough specialised teachers are being trained at the moment. We must act quickly to support those children currently within the education system who are categorised as having special needs. It will take time to implement the legislation, but parents of children with special needs, who are crying out for support, need assistance immediately.
In recent weeks, some parents have been told that their special needs support services are being reduced from five to two and a half hours per week, or in some cases from two and half hours to none. That situation cannot be allowed to fester. The Minister must act swiftly on those issues. Funding is required but the provision of caring personnel is also needed. When that element of care comes from the Minister to those who are providing services, the battle will be over and the rewards will be reaped.
I subscribe fully to Senator Cox's view that the education of people with special needs ought not be constrained by considerations of time. Given such people's needs, age is an artificial constraint. I am intrigued that the legislation is entitled the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill, when in fact it concerns education for children with special needs. Nonetheless, nobody would deny that the Bill is groundbreaking, positive and universally welcome. I compliment the Ministers involved, their officials and the Government for having produced this legislation. I wish them well in their struggles with the Department of Finance, which still insists that education is not a productive investment. It is hard to discern from where the Department got that notion, but if one reads the annual Book of Estimates, education is regarded as social expenditure. For those of us with eyes to see, however, education is a vastly productive investment. If we did not have primary education we would not have much of a productive nature going on in the country. The idea that education is not a productive investment is a figment of the Department of Finance's imagination, but it makes the Minister for Education and Science's struggle more difficult when such a mindset still prevails.
I wish the Ministers well. In their struggle for resources, they can be sure of the opposition's support, however negative it may be in its articulation. The opposition's job is to ensure that the pressure to obtain resources is both vigorous and successful. If the necessary resources are available it will make an enormous difference to children with special needs and to their parents who have suffered enormously from finding themselves in a hiatus, bereft of services or any understanding of their children's needs. I hope the legislation works well.
I thank the Ministers of State, Deputies de Valera and Brian Lenihan, who have piloted the Bill through the House. I join with my colleagues in complimenting them for their attention to the detail of the debate. More important, they have responded meaningfully and holistically to the many views expressed. I also thank the officials in the Department of Education and Science for their commitment to the Ministers of State and to the House.
I have sometimes been accused of being over the top in my use of words, but I believe history has been made here today. The Bill firmly establishes a fundamental milestone in the development of the provision of special education for our children and signposts a far deeper enlightenment about those needs than ever before. All of us have seen many Bills in the areas of education and health pass through the House but this Bill makes history because it is revolutionary, which word I assert the right to use. It is revolutionary because it is unprecedented.
On many occasions Members of the Oireachtas have to the best of their abilities sought to articulate, assert, defend and vindicate the rights of those who have been educationally disadvantaged and left on the margins. The manner in which those rights are being vindicated in this Bill is far stronger than before. The hiatus in this area has been allowed to drift for various reasons but is addressed firmly by this Bill through a comprehensive framework, which establishes this moment in the history of education policy as being quite significant. Moreover, much good can come of it.
I warmly embrace the sentiments expressed on both sides of the House on how we deliver the state-of-the-art service at the coalface, which is inherent in the Bill. We can only do this with state-of-the-art professionals who must be trained to an international standard of expertise, all of which I fully endorse.
When we were growing up and going to school and subsequently as teachers, we were told that education is a continuum. More recently, we have been told that education is about life-long learning. We were also told growing up that education was for life. However, John Dewey in St. Patick's College in Drumcondra said that education is life itself. Never was that truer than in the case of what this Bill seeks to articulate and establish by vindicating and implementing the rights of every child.
In the Leader's absence, I told the House that in 1985 or 1986 she had asked me to prepare a paper on special needs education, the terms of reference of which were to prepare a policy which, when we were back in Government, would seek to maximise the potential of every individual child. To this end, I employed the services of Éamon Ó Murchú, whom I regarded then as the national expert on special education in Ireland. With no disrespect to the officials present, he was far ahead of anyone in the Department of Education at the time in terms of expertise, academic qualifications and so on. The core of our report to the then Deputy O'Rourke was a proposal for the establishment of the national council for special education as well as one in respect of remedial education.
The then Deputy O'Rourke set out to ensure that if the proposal was put in place, it would secure the maximisation of the potential of every pupil in the State. Unfortunately, more austere times took over which prevented the full implementation of the plan. Nonetheless, I commend the Leader for the many initiatives she brought forward, even in those austere times. Just as education is a continuum, so there is that continuum here today.
I do not often take the opportunity to speak on the Final Stage of a Bill but, when I saw it coming to a conclusion having been following its progress on the monitor, I came to the House to congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, as well as Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, both of whom piloted the Bill through this House. I also congratulate the participants in the debate. I noted the Minister of State's warm responses, which were mirrored by those of Deputy Brian Lenihan.
It was an amazing experience to witness the manner in which this Bill was dealt with in this House, particularly the authentic voices of education of Senators Fitzgerald, Cox, Ulick Burke, Ryan and others. This is an historic day because children now have a right to have whatever potential they have realised and, as in the Latin termeducare, brought forth and made to blossom. The Bill, the fruition of which represents very fine work by this Chamber over the past two weeks, will achieve all of this and I wish it well. I particularly extend my thanks to the Minister of State, the Acting Chairman and the officials who have patiently noted, waited, come and gone, as is the case with all officials. It is a good day for education and for young people.
I thank Senators for their constructive, sincere and heartfelt contributions to this debate. I enjoyed being here through Second and Committee Stages recently and today on Report and Final Stages. The generosity of spirit displayed by Senators on all sides raised the level of debate above the usual party political one, which was very important given the essence of the discussion.
I assure Senators that the issues raised here today in a broader sense, in regard to teacher training and age by Senators Ulick Burke and Cox respectively, will be addressed carefully. Senator Cox referred to the disability Bill and the issues she raised today will be addressed in that Bill. I thank the Acting Chairman and the other Senators who have served as Acting Chairmen throughout this debate. I also thank the officials from the Department of Education and Science for their tremendous assistance and consistency in helping with all the work which is done not only on this Bill, but on every aspect of education. Today, I thank them specifically for piloting this Bill.
As the Leader will know, one cannot always state it, but this was a thoroughly enjoyable debate because we all felt it was pushing through legislation which would be of immediate help to many young people in need of such assistance.
When is it proposed to sit again?
Next Tuesday at 1.30 p.m.