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

SECTION 2.

We will recommence on amendment No. 28 in the names of Deputies Enright and Stanton. Amendments Nos. 33, 86, 225, 226, 227, 230, 246, 251 and 269 are related and it is proposed to take these amendments together. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 28:

In page 7, line 11, after "place" to insert ", in partnership with the parents of the student and in consultation with the special educational needs organiser,".

I welcome the Minister. This proposed amendment is to take account of the need recognised by us and many of those who made presentations to the committee earlier in the year to involve parents as much as possible at every stage of the provision of special education to children, including the assessment process and any appeals process. Parents should be involved all the way as partners and they should be consulted and given an opportunity to make their views known.

Reference was made to special educational needs organisers and we will deal with the section that provides for them later when I am sure the Minister will explain his plans for them. It appears that principals, in particular, were concerned about the extra workload and responsibility that would be imposed on them following the passing of this Bill. This set of amendments and later amendments propose to give the special educational needs organiser more responsibility. We envisage that special education needs organisers would have appropriate training and expertise in the area of special education. Principals could then call on them to do much of the work that would fall to principals, as proposed under the Bill. I am anxious to ensure the Minister accepts this and perhaps the other amendments, or if he has technical problems with any of them, he might consider them and table improved amendments along the same line on Report Stage. I do not think anybody would disagree with the idea of parents being involved as partners and being consulted at every possible stage. That is basically what these amendments are about. There is also a need for teachers to be more involved to ensure that the extra workload does not all fall on the principals. I will return to that point later.

My amendment is No. 226. It relates to a later section but deals with a similar point that parents and teachers should have more of a role in this regard. NAMI, in its presentation, suggested to the committee that we should broaden the scope to include those partners. I hope the Minister will not have a problem with that. It is not only practical but inclusive and important that the parents are involved at all stages.

I agree with the previous speakers. Amendment No. 227 is my name and is virtually identical to amendments Nos. 225 and 226. Amendments Nos. 28 and 33, if accepted, would have the effect of giving parents more of a say in the education of their children and involving them in the decision making process. Parents must be empowered to make an informed choice on the education of their children. The point about the importance of parents being involved in the decision making process was made consistently by groups which appeared before the committee. It should not be the case that experts talk down to parents and make decisions without their involvement. That was one of the points made. There is no mention of parents in section 2.

I support amendment No. 86 for the reason I outlined. I am not sure about the implications this would have for section 4 which provides that a parent can request from the principal that an assessment be carried out by a health board prior to enrolment. The amendment makes it clear that the process would be much faster if what it proposes was accepted. If an appeal is under consideration under one method, can a request be made while such an appeal is being considered? I would like that clarified.

What is sought in amendments Nos. 225 and 226 is virtually identical to what is sought in this amendment. I urge the Minister to accept one of these amendments. The education plan can be altered, perhaps significantly, without the involvement of parents or the special educational needs organiser. It seems the special educational needs organiser, if requested by the parents, can become involved only afterwards. However, the special educational needs organiser could be involved, if requested by the parents, if amendment No. 230 was accepted, which would be a welcome change.

Parents need to be involved in all these decisions, especially if the education plan could be greatly altered. If the education plan does not provide for certain facilities and therapies, are they excluded from provision under the plan? Could a new school be properly funded to provide for them? Parents see their children every day, including during the summer and Christmas holidays, and they are best placed to contribute to this decision making process.

Amendments Nos. 246 and 251 propose that power should be given to the special educational needs organiser rather than such work falling on principals. I support that proposal as that would alleviate the burden on principals. One of the issues that arose was that principals are mentioned frequently. The special educational needs organiser should have the expertise to review the plan, which would mean that it would be carried out by a person outside the school who, in theory, would be neutral. Amendment No. 269 follows on logically from that.

I broadly support this suite of amendments, although a few words conflict with one of my subsequent amendments. The issue of partnership in terms of the involvement of parents and alleviating some of the burden on principals is important. I hope the Minister will accept this suite of amendments.

As mentioned during the debate on the Bill on Monday, some of the more enlightened schools are dealing with children with special needs. Most of those have programmes in place which actively involve parents in the preparation of the plan for the child. It is important to remember that a child's development and education does not simply stop with what the child has learned in school; it continues in the home after school. Parents need to know what is being planned and the purpose of it in order to help monitor it.

The Bill refers to the role and involvement of parents in a number of ways. Amendment No. 28, in particular, tries to tie in the involvement of the parents in section 2, at an early stage in the Bill. That is important. I do not know if the specific wording of the amendment is agreeable to the Minister but the concept of showing the fundamental importance of parents being involved in the plan of education going forward for these children at this stage in the Bill is crucial. I do not know if the Minister can accept the amendment as worded or if he views the position differently. I encourage him, if possible, to include a reference to parents in section 2, which deals with the integrated education of the child. As I said, I do not know if he can accept the amendment, as worded, or whether a different wording would be preferable, but I ask him to incorporate the involvement of parents in this section, if possible.

I strongly support amendment No. 28. The role of parents is essential in the planning and education of a child with a disability. A key element in the Bill and in the education of any child is the close involvement of his or her parents. I agree with what Deputy Curran said. There are many examples of good practice of parents of children with disabilities working with the class teacher, the resource teacher or the learning support teacher, but the sad reality is that there are other schools which might not necessarily have examples of good practice and sometimes the parents of children with disabilities feel excluded. The involvement of parents, as provided for in amendment No. 28, is essential.

It is also appropriate to record that we commend and thank all the parents groups, particularly the disability groups, on their work over the past number of years, and also the parents of children with disabilities who have worked tirelessly and campaigned on the issues. If we were to be honest, look each other straight in the eye and ask if there would be this Bill or a broader disability Bill without the active participation of these parents groups, the answer would be that such Bills would not be on the political agenda if it were not for these parents. I urge the Minister to listen to their views.

On the question of the parents being involved in the planning, it is also important to recognise that there is a good deal of hurt and anger felt among some parents who in the past consider that schools and the education system treated their children badly. This is a sad reality. I have dealt with many cases over the past number of years where children were excluded from schools because of certain situations and parents were very upset and traumatised. It is difficult enough to work if one is the parent of a child with a disability without this extra burden. Amendment No. 28 will ensure that this important issue for parents is taken into account. It should never have been otherwise.

I strongly support the education plan, which is an example of good practice. Parents must play a key role along with the class teacher, special needs assistant and others directly involved. I have one concern — I do not know whether the Minister has received any flak about it — regarding the fact that the education plan will increase the work load for school principals. As a former principal myself, I sympathise with the work load involved.

I hope the Minister will accept this sensible amendment.

I support the concept of parents being totally involved. The second paragraph of the explanatory memorandum states clearly that the key element in the education of a child is the involvement of his or her parents. We could presume that each section would carry the same proviso that parents should be involved. The first people mentioned in the section 3 assessment are the child's parents. I certainly want to see such an involvement, although I do not know whether it is necessary to insert such a provision in every section. Although this section may not be the appropriate one in which to do so, perhaps a provision could be inserted so that parents would be involved in all cases.

I agree with Deputy Finian McGrath who mentioned the dyspraxia groups and others, where parents are actively involved in schools in Galway and Cork, in particular. Psychologists are also involved, having worked with parents, but the parents have visited schools to explain what the problem is, how it can be dealt with and how students can be helped.

There is a danger that we will keep referring to the past but this is a totally new situation. As regards what happened in the past, everybody has put their hands up and said they got it wrong. However, the Minister has been at pains to ensure that the legislation deals with a totally new situation. The concerns of principals and others have to be catered for somewhere down the line, although I do not think it can be done here.

We must carefully monitor schools and not allow them to prevent any pupil from attending by means of subterfuge or assessment. Schools should not be in a position to cherry-pick and decide who can or cannot receive education. I support the concept of parents' involvement, which is spelled out in paragraph 2 of the explanatory memorandum. Perhaps the Minister can cover it but I do not know if there is such a need for repetition in each section. Everybody, however, supports the idea of parents being involved totally from day one.

I agree with what has been said concerning the involvement of parents. One of the cornerstones of the Bill — even as drafted but particularly as it will appear when we go through all the amendments — is that parents will be involved, not just through consultation but through active participation in reviewing the education plans. They will also be involved in assessing the needs of their own children. Therefore, the role of parents is central to the Bill, which reflects the fact that parents are the primary educators of their children. That is recognised not just in law but also in the Constitution. Like all the other Deputies who have spoken, I believe that the close involvement of parents is vital to children's education and is the key to their success. The parents active involvement at all stages will be the key to the success of the Bill in practice.

I echo the question mark Deputy Dennehy has raised. The section we are dealing with is a statement of existing policy which is recognised as best practice in most cases. We are all committed to the provision of education for children with special educational needs in mainstream education, where that is possible and is the best way for the child. That is a restatement of the policy that is accepted by everybody in education — that we should mainstream children with special needs in so far as that is in the best interests of the children concerned. That is why it is stated in the legislation. Therefore, it is not necessary to accept the amendments in this instance. In some respects, the wording of the amendments may be slightly out of place, although not the principle. In deference to what Deputies have said, however, I will examine whether we can incorporate the principle there. We cannot incorporate it and, thus, keep repeating the same thing throughout the Bill. That is the only caveat I will give in this respect. The section concerns the right of a child to receive mainstream education. It restates the rights of a child who wants, and would benefit from, mainstreaming to be allowed to have it rather than being excluded. The section is about inclusiveness. Sections 3, 4 and subsequent sections will ensure legally that parents must be consulted. As Deputy Stanton and others have requested, I will examine this matter to see if on Report Stage it would be a good idea to have that phrase, or a similar one, inserted to ensure that at the earliest part of the Bill the principle of parental participation is reiterated.

Amendment No. 33 deals with mainstreaming but such integrated education is well provided for not just in the section but in dealing with assessments, planning and inclusive education. There is no necessity for the extra statement that amendment No. 33 seeks to insert.

Amendment No. 86 arranges for assessments prior to enrolment, but that is not an appropriate role for a school principal. We will be discussing this matter later and, indeed, Deputy McGrath has already mentioned the complaints we have received about the Bill and the extra workload it will impose on principals. It would be unreasonable of us to ask the school principal to take on such a role, which is better suited to the special education council. By virtue of section 4(3), a parent can request that an assessment be carried out by a health board or by the council. The intent of the amendment is covered in that subsection.

Amendments Nos. 229 and 230 would have the effect of requiring a special education needs organiser to be involved in every case in which a child's education plan is amended upon transfer between schools, regardless of whether it is necessary. I regard that as being overly restrictive, given that section 8(9) permits a parent to request a school principal to consult with the organiser and the principal must comply with that request.

The intention in both amendments is covered in a later section, section 8(9), so there is no need for amendments Nos. 225, 226 and 227. Amendments Nos. 246 and 251 would require the special educational needs organiser rather than the principal to review the education plans of children attending school. Again, that would not be a wise way forward as the review of a child's educational progress is entirely appropriate to the principal of the school or the teacher concerned. That is not to say the principal or teacher cannot consult with or refer to the special educational needs organiser when doing the review. The review must be reported to the organiser, who must then examine the report and take action where appropriate.

Deputies are trying to ensure that reviews and assessments are done thoroughly but the effect of the amendments proposed would make the system hugely bureaucratic and result in unnecessary work for people, though that is not the Deputies' intention. The effect of amendment No. 269 would be to remove the principal's power to refuse to accede to a request for a review. We should be conscious of the role of the principal as the chief educationalist in the school and it is appropriate to give him or her that particular discretion. The spirit of the amendment is an effort to ensure a school does not stonewall parents or refuse to carry out reviews on weak grounds but the appeals system allows parents to appeal if they are dissatisfied. For that reason, while I am accepting the spirit of the amendment, this matter is already catered for within the Bill. If parents are dissatisfied with the decision of the principal they can appeal it. Those are very important amendments and principles and the strong view of members of the committee is that if we can we should include some reference to consultation with parents in section 2, though that arises in the next section. I will look at this before Report Stage and perhaps members opposite will look at this again in the context of the Bill when we finish Committee Stage. We can make a decision then on Report Stage.

Section 2 is a crucial section in that it discusses integrated or inclusive education, as the Minister said. Some children with special educational needs should be taught in mainstream education, if that is in the child's best interests, but some groups told the committee they were concerned that it is not always appropriate to have such children in mainstream education. It is important that parents are involved at that stage of the decision making because where children are educated is very important.

This section does not mention parents, as Deputy McGrath said. It states that the provision of education to a child with special educational needs shall take place alongside the provision of education to children who do not have such needs, and parents are not mentioned. In all cases parents should be consulted and we should build up a partnership with parents. If we can write that into the Bill at this early stage then it will be there when we are all long gone and others are looking at the legislation and interpreting it in different ways. The intention we all have should be included.

I accept the Minister's comment, that he sees how important this matter is, and if he is willing to include this amendment somewhere else, as he said, in that spirit I am willing to withdraw the amendment. This is the first time he has offered to reconsider one of my amendments.

I have accepted a few.

This may be the only opportunity to speak on amendments Nos. 225, 226 and 227, which relate to section 8. It is important that parents are consulted when a child is transferred from one school to another and a plan is being amended. The section states that the principal of the first school can consult the principal of the second school and advise that second principal. It says nothing about the parents being involved and if my child had a disability and was moving from one school to another, with the educational plan being amended, I would want to be consulted. The Minister should consider including the parents. Whatever about the special needs organiser, the parents need to be consulted at all times and not just have the right to appeal if their child's plan is being amended as a result of moving from one school to another. The Minister should look on this positively.

Is the amendment withdrawn?

Yes, with a view to tabling it again on Report Stage.

We may be able to include a sentence at the end of that section stating that such decisions may be taken in consultation with the parents or something along those lines.

I am concerned with amendment No. 86. I take the Minister's point that the parents can request the health board or council to have an assessment carried out. The difficulty here, which I do not want to flag at this stage, is that every school is unique and different. Schools have different physical characteristics, with some having ramps and some having steps; some have elevators and others do not. Schools also have different personnel with different qualifications and abilities. If a pre-school child of two, three or four years has a special educational need prior to going to school and his or her local health board is asked to carry out an assessment, when that is done recommendations are made. Those recommendations will pertain to the needs of the child at the pre-school stage, which involves learning through play, as the Minister knows. If the child is attending a Montessori school, for instance, prior to going to a mainstream school, I contend the child would be in a totally different environment and that the plan put together by the health board prior to entering mainstream school may not be appropriate. There is no appropriate plan when children with special needs enter a mainstream school. The school has not been involved at that stage, therefore, the whole process must begin again. This means that three, six or nine months may be lost. The amendment seeks to point out the gap in the provision which might occur and to put in place some form of consultation with the school prior to enrolment so that when the child gets to the school his or her needs will be met. There may be other ways to deal with the issue but so far no one has identified the problem.

It must be borne in mind that pre-school is totally different from primary school. There are other issues, including "ready to learn" and so on. When a child comes from a pre-school environment, which may even be a home environment, and goes into a mainstream school, there must be plans, resources and supports in place for that child on the first day. I do not think anyone could disagree with this proposal. I would like to know how the Minister plans to ensure this occurs. It is not provided for in the Bill as outlined, which is why the amendment has been tabled.

I agree with the thrust of what the Deputy is saying, even though I am not sure if I would go that specific route. If a child with special needs ends up in mainstream education, they will have ended up there in one of two ways: either the need has not been identified first, in which case none of this would have applied as the child was just undiagnosed, or the parents of the child have detected a disability somewhere along the way and brought the child for various assessments, which may have been medical assessments. It would be better if it was obligatory to have the assessments sent to the school in advance. The provision should be driven from that side because it is a lot of responsibility on the principal to try to determine the problem in advance. Ttwo or three year olds would be attending a child psychologist in St. James's Hospital and they are part of a system at that point. There is no point in the child arriving in school at four or five years of age without any plans being made for him or her. During the initial stages of transfer into mainstream education, perhaps the onus should be on the medical people dealing with the child to at least contact the school indicating what the child is doing, where they are and what programme they are currently on rather than putting the onus on the principal, which would be fairly onerous.

Amendment No. 33 proposes that an assessment must be advised in the best interest of the student. In regard to the recent debate, the best practice I have seen both as a parent and an ex-teacher is that a plan was put in place a year before the child attended school in order to facilitate their successful inclusion into mainstream primary school. Parents met the principal at least 12 months in advance, reports were sent in by the health boards and 12 months planning took place. However, the system would break down when the child started school if the back-up resources were not in place, which is a different issue. The successful inclusion of children with disabilities usually began 12 months before the child started school. The sooner this can be done the better, so that people can plan with the principal, the school and the board of management.

I am not too hung up on the pre-school issue. Many junior and senior infant teachers see the junior cycle as a continuum of pre-school. Many of them are trained in this area and are extremely professional in dealing with the issue. They are more adaptable in junior and senior infants.

On the broader issue, amendment No. 33 is concerned with the best interests of students, which should always be the first priority. We must respect parents' choice in respect of education. Some parents will choose special education while others will choose mainstream education. My daughter went to mainstream education and was very happy but as she got older we decided the local special school in Ballymun was more suited to her needs. Parents should at least have a choice in regard to education, which works very successfully for some children. Some children are very talented and gifted, therefore, we should not get hung up on the resources issue. There are a couple of thousand physically disabled children who are extremely bright. All they need is a little back-up and they could make a massive contribution. I commend the amendment.

It is useful to identify the issue now. Deputy Curran is correct in what he said. The Minister gave assurances the previous day about dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADD and ADHD, which in some instances may not be identified until the child goes to school. Parents know their own children better than anyone else does. A parent might feel there is something not quite right and the child may need extra help or support. At this stage parents may not have had a reason to go to a clinical psychologist because the issue may not have been severe enough. Prior to entering school, parents may have a sense that the child may need help initially because of a special need. What provision is there for parents to ask for an assessment to be carried out so that supports will be available when the child enters school rather than letting the child survive in the school for three, six or 12 months without support, including going through all the procedures outlined in the Bill, which are laudable. We all know that the earlier children are given support the better. Children need these supports when they go inside the gate of the school.

Another issue arises in the Bill. The Minister said at one stage that this is rights based legislation. Does it mean parents will have a right to have an assessment for their child or does it mean parents can be refused an assessment and that a request they make can be refused or not? If the legislation is rights based, there is a right to an assessment. Conditions may apply. Parents may not have a right to an assessment each week and so on, which would be ludicrous.

Does the Minister see that under this legislation a parent would have a legal right to request an assessment? This is also very important if we are talking about rights based legislation. Should we include caveats and conditions whereby an assessment can be repeatedly refused or would it be better to allow an assessment to be carried out if a parent requests one?

No parent wants to submit his or her child to an assessment unless he or she feels it is necessary. This legislation goes to the core of this question. Do parents have a right to have an assessment carried out if they think it is necessary, with no ifs, buts or qualifications, or do we have to ringfence this right with conditions and qualifying statements? This crucial point brings us back to amendment No. 86, which allows parents to request an assessment prior to a child's enrolment in a school. These are issues which the Minister may not have considered and he may need time to consider them. However, they are important issues which should not be dismissed lightly.

I thank Deputy Stanton for his further elucidation of his position on this matter. He has clarified the thinking behind his amendment. I also thank Deputies Finian McGrath and Curran for their contributions.

At present, if the parents of child with a special need decide that they wish their child to attend a particular school, an application is made to the special needs section of the Department and assessments are carried out. Most Deputies are familiar with this procedure. It usually starts when the child is three or four years old. In my experience, schools quickly say whether they are equipped to accommodate the child. If the disability in question is physical, for example, a school may say it will need to install ramps and other facilities before it can accept the child. The lack of such facilities has been our biggest problem at various times. There is already an amount of contact before a child enters school. The experience of most parents in this regard is negative because of difficulties and delays in making the assessment and in getting a decision from the Department.

This may not be the appropriate place for what Deputy Stanton is trying to do. A later amendment to section 8 might be more appropriate.

If, when we have completed our consideration of the Bill we are satisfied that my perception differs from the reality or needs to be backed up by a further section, we can discuss that. My perception is that some special educational needs, such as those of people with autism or Down's syndrome, will be obvious, will be known well in advance and will be catered for, almost automatically. If a pre-school child has a special educational need the health board can do an assessment and provision can be made for the child before he or she attends school. If the child then goes into a mainstream school, because the assessment will have been carried out — which does not always happen at present — the child's special needs will be known and the parents will be armed with this information when they go to their local primary school, or whatever school they wish their child to attend. The fact that the assessment is carried out by the health board before the child attends school will not be a problem. The purpose of having special educational needs organisers at a local level is so that those people will be known to schools and parents. I imagine that a parent will contact the special educational needs organiser to say that he or she wishes his or her child to attend a particular school the following September and request the organiser to talk to the school or to come to the school to discuss the matter on behalf of the child. That is what I envisage happening. This is not stated explicitly in the Bill.

We will discuss this matter when we deal with section 8 and see if the Government amendments to that section will cover Deputy Stanton's point. If not, I will come back to the point because I believe it is a valid one. I do not wish to tie up procedure in red tape by prescribing that this, that and the other must be done. However, there is a logic to having links between heath boards, special educational needs organisers, schools and so on.

I ask Deputy Stanton to withdraw this amendment on the basis that we will return to the matter when we debate section 8 and consider an amendment for Report Stage.

The question of whether the Bill is rights based has been raised. Section 4 goes through a range of options regarding the assessment of a child. It allows that if the health board, the council, the principal of a school or the parents of a child are of the opinion that a child has an educational disability they may request an assessment. This section makes it clear that these people have a right to an assessment. There are obviously caveats. If, for example, parents return every week requesting a further assessment they will not be accommodated. We will deal with these matters when we discuss later sections. The education plan remains in place for 12 months. It may then be reviewed at the request of parents, the school principal or the special educational needs organiser but it cannot be reviewed every three months, for example. The plan must be given time to run.

Thank you, Minister. That disposes of the discussion of that group of amendments.

Should we not discuss amendment No. 86? I thought we were discussing each amendment as we went along.

Do you wish to discuss further other amendments in the group, Deputy? Some speakers have referred to all the amendments during this discussion.

With regard to amendment No. 86, serious points were brought forward which the Minister needs further time to consider. Is amendment No. 86 to be put now?

The procedure is that we discuss the group of amendments and put them to the committee as we reach them, in order.

Principals are very concerned about two issues: first, the extra workload they will have as a result of this Bill——

A later Government amendment will address that point.

Second, they are concerned about the responsibility being put on them, and their qualification to make judgments as to whether a child has a special educational need that might require a plan. Principals have told me that they are very concerned about this responsibility. In other words, principals have to make a judgment call on whether a child has a special educational need. We are all aware of the diversity of needs involved. Principals admit that very often they do not have the expertise or qualifications to make such judgments. That is the reason we wished to include and involve the special educational needs organiser at every stage where such judgments were being made by the principal. Such judgments appear to rest with principals and there is no onus on the special educational needs organiser to get involved. That is the purpose of the amendments before us. I will be happy with the Minister's assurance that he recognises that issue and will deal with it later. It is important to make the point now that this matter is of serious concern. There is no point passing unworkable legislation whereby principals will not physically be able to do what is required due to a lack of expertise or qualification.

If, for instance, a principal refuses to make an assessment — as permitted under the Bill — or does not make a call then he or she could possibly be brought before the courts on negligence charges. It is important we get this right. We must support principals through the special educational needs organisers who also must be examined in terms of expertise and qualifications. That is the purpose of the amendments before us.

The biggest complaint I receive from principals is that they cannot fully discharge their role as educationalists because of managerial and office work. We discussed this matter previously by way of parliamentary question. I do not accept that principals are not qualified to make an educational judgment of children. It is part of the primary role to do so. If they have difficulties and need assistance, the special educational needs organisers are available to them. I do not want special educational needs organisers being pulled in by every principal in every case. In some cases it will be quite clear that a particular child has an educational need. I do not want principals to abdicate their responsibilities as chief educationalists. They are paid to make judgments. While I am conscious of the point made by the Deputy, amendment No. 340 will make it explicit that principals obtain advice and assistance from special educational needs organisers. I do not think principals should totally abdicate their responsibilities in this area. Some of the cases involved will be quite obvious while others like those referred to in terms of ADHD and so on may be difficult and may require psychological analysis. However, the Bill makes provision in that regard.

On the point about principals being held personally liable, if a principal makes a decision in good faith and that decision is the wrong one, I do not think he or she could be held personally liable. There is an appeals system open to anybody who is dissatisfied. While principals are protected in the Bill, we cannot be overly protective of them.

That completes the discussion on that group of amendments. Amendment No. 28 has been withdrawn for consideration on Report Stage.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 29:

In page 7, line 11, to delete "alongside" and substitute "in an integrated and inclusive environment with".

I suggest amendments Nos. 29 and 30 be grouped together as they are similar.

They have not been so grouped.

The wording used states "provision of education to a child with special educational needs shall take place alongside the provision of education of children who do not have such needs". The use of the words "take place alongside" is a little murky. Perhaps we could use the words "in parallel with" thereby meaning such children could be educated in the same school but in a separate building. The current provision is not inclusive enough. My amendment will not alter section 2 in any great way but it would clarify that we wish to have an inclusive and integrated environment for children with special educational needs. Subsection (a) obviously considers the best interests of the child down the line. Many of the groups representing the deaf community would like standalone schools. Parents of children with learning difficulties are very much of the opinion that such children should be educated in an integrated and inclusive environment. That is the reason I thought we might make the wording a little more inclusive.

I support Deputy Gogarty's amendment. It is important we get the language right. We must ensure that the child in question is not just seated beside other children but that he or she is totally included. It is vital that is done. I commend the amendments.

I will be brief. The difference between inclusive and integrated education is that integrated education means a child is fitted into the system whereas inclusive education means one changes the system to include the child. The words "integrated education" printed as a heading on page 7 indicate — I made this point on Second Stage — that we are trying to fit the child into the system rather than the other way round. The language used in this area is important. We must use the word "inclusive" rather than "integrated".

I take the view that the word "integrated" relates to a child being part of the class structure. The wording used in Deputy Gogarty's amendment is positive and encompasses what we are trying to achieve. A student being taught alongside everybody else does not necessarily mean he or she is part of the class. Putting a special educational needs student into a class with 30 other students might meet the requirements of the legislation but that does not mean he or she is in an inclusive environment. A student taught differently or made to feel left out could argue he or she is being taught alongside the class and or that he or she is fully integrated in that class. The wording used by Deputy Gogarty is more positive and should be included in the Bill.

Like other members I agree with the principle behind this amendment. The wording used by Deputy Gogarty appears to copperfasten the provision. It is easy to make a child feel excluded or different. I support the thinking behind this amendment which covers all the issues that might arise. I hope the Minister will see fit to take on board this simple and straightforward recommendation.

I welcome the debate on this matter. Much time was devoted during the representations by the voluntary groups to this issue. The use of the word "alongside" was one of the most talked about in our entire discussions. Deputy Mulcahy also sought clarification on this point. I await the Minister's comments on this amendment.

The intent is that children would be fully integrated and included in the classroom. When Deputy Crowe spoke about inclusiveness he also used the words "fully integrated". The words are interchangeable but, nevertheless, I accept the use of language is important. We should try to be inclusive rather than exclusive where we can. I am prepared to accept Deputy Gogarty's amendment, which is probably more inclusive than the Fine Gael one. I will have to return to the Parliamentary Counsel to ensure it is all right but I have no difficulty with the principle.

On Second Stage Deputy Stanton and others raised the matter of the side heading. We will change the wording from "integrated" to "inclusive". That does not require a formal amendment. I do not anticipate any difficulty with the change but if one arises, I will inform the Deputy.

Amendment agreed to.
Amendment No. 30 not moved.

Amendments Nos. 31 and 32 are out of order.

Amendment Nos. 31 to 33, inclusive, not moved.

Amendment Nos. 34 to 36, inclusive, are related and will be discussed together by agreement.

I move amendment No. 34:

In page 7, lines 15 and 16, to delete paragraph (b).

I do not expect the Minister to agree to this suggestion so readily but amendments Nos. 35 and 36 set out alternatives to this proposal. I am concerned about the language used in the Bill. Section 2, as amended, states:

The provision of education to a child with special educational needs shall take place in an integrated inclusive environment with the provision of education to children who do not have such needs unless that is inconsistent with

(a) the best interests of the child as determined in accordance with any assessment carried out under this Act, or

(b) the effective provision of education for children with whom the child is to be educated.

I seek the deletion of paragraph (b). One presumes that where parents have an input, as in other sections, that the best interests of the child in terms of educational needs would also coincide with the best interest and effective education of the children with whom the child is to be educated. In view of this, paragraph (b) is superfluous and leaves open a risk with regard to Article 42.3 of the Constitution, which prohibits the designation of schools by the State in terms of forcing people to attend certain schools. This provision amounts to a judgment call in terms of whether the inclusive integrated positioning of a student with special educational needs in a school will cause disruption. Where would this affect the “effective provision”? Would it be based on the resources provided? This matter needs to be addressed. The inclusion of paragraph (b) could cause problems and for that reason I suggest it makes sense to delete it.

I take a slightly different approach in amendment No. 35. I want to achieve equality of consideration for the child with special needs along with the other children in the classroom. The balance is in favour of the other children in the present wording of the section. The educational interests of all children must be taken into account, which is what the Minister is trying to do in the section. The child concerned should be included under paragraph (b) as well as other children in the classroom so that we treat all the children equally in terms of their educational need.

Parents have a right under the Constitution to educate their children themselves or in some alternative to a school. With regard to children whose parents consider it best to choose an alternative to a school, where does the legislation provide for that choice?

Amendment No. 36 in my name contradicts Deputy Gogarty's proposal. His amendment is idealistic but not realistic. As currently defined, section 2(b) is vague and open to abuse and misinterpretation. We must be extremely careful when legislating in areas where someone’s right to an education hinges on the rights of others. I understand the considerable anger with this aspect of the legislation. However, in a minority of cases there may be situations where the education of a child with severe behavioural problems will undermine the right of other children in the class. As Deputy O’Sullivan said, in such a situation we have equally valid competing rights. The section as it stands is too broad. How do we define “effective provision”? How do we ensure that before a child is removed from the classroom every effort has been made to ensure his or her inclusion? We must also confront the fear and ignorance of other students in the class towards those with disabilities.

According to section 13, the board of management is responsible for the implementation of section 2. While leaving the decision with the special needs organiser, we need to broaden the section to ensure the decision involves parents, teaching staff and the principal The Minister must be aware that scores of schools do not have boards of management. Who would be responsible in such a case? I presume it would be the principal.

The last sentence of my amendment calls for guidelines to be laid down by the National Council for Special Education. It seeks to ensure that everything possible would be done by the school to cater for inclusive education or that the consultation process referred to would be as inclusive as possible, including both the child with the disability and other students. The amendment proposes that the council would provide guidelines. I do not agree with Deputy Gogarty's proposal to delete this section. While the issue is difficult it must be confronted. My proposal is more realistic.

This section has raised many questions. I suggest that we reverse the provision and say the provision of education to a child without special educational needs shall take place alongside the provision of education for children who have such needs, unless that is inconsistent with the effective provision of education for children with whom the child is to be educated. How would that work?

We must treat all children equally. Perhaps we should say that children with special needs should not be in the same classroom as other children who might disrupt them. This proposes that children with special educational needs should not be in the same classroom as what may be called ordinary children, or children without special educational needs. A number of issues arise in this situation. Who will make the judgment call? I am aware that different schools and different principals have different levels of tolerance. It is wide open as to who decides that it is inconsistent and what is meant by the word "inconsistent".

Deputy Crowe pointed out that the board of management is given the responsibility at a later stage. It could happen that the Minister might find himself without boards of management and, if this responsibility is placed on them, without people on such boards because they are volunteer members. Members of boards of management will be taking on a major responsibility in deciding, for instance, that a child shall not be educated in a school. It might often be the case that the child cannot receive the appropriate education because the resources are not being provided. Many people have stated that if sufficient supports and resources are provided, almost any child can be educated in any classroom.

Deputy Crowe's amendment mirrors amendment No. 28, which was discussed earlier and was defeated. It sought the involvement in this area of the special needs organiser — in this case the national council — and the parents. The amendment states that the provision of education to a child with special educational needs shall take place. It uses the word "shall", not "may". I reiterate my question as to who makes the call about being inconsistent.

The Minister spoke about home tuition, special schools and other choices that parents may wish to make. That should be made clear in the Bill. We must ensure that a child is not deprived of an education because he is different in some way from other children. I acknowledge that it is very difficult and I speak as one who has had experience of children in schools. I have seen students in schools being most supportive, helpful and brilliant with special needs colleagues. They have been very loving towards them in the classroom and in the school environment. They assist, befriend and protect them. This is another reason why I am cautious about section 2(b). It provides an easy way out to all kinds of people. They can say they cannot deal with a child so the child cannot come into the classroom.

Are we dealing with amendment No. 36?

We are dealing with amendments Nos. 34 to 36, inclusive.

I wish to clarify a number of issues dealing with the common perception of disruptive children and children with disabilities. The vast majority of children with disabilities are not disruptive in any way. It is important to understand that children with special needs who are disruptive have extra needs that sometimes must be catered for in a different setting.

The recent Special Olympics demonstrated that children who are integrated with children with disabilities, such as Down's syndrome, have a positive attitude towards disability. Teenagers who were involved as volunteer helpers for the Special Olympics had been integrated with children with disabilities from a very young age. The debate can sometimes be focused on the question of whether a child with a disability will cause problems for the school or the teacher. I do not wish to minimise the reality but there is an extra dimension and it can be a positive experience. We have the potential to raise a generation of children and teenagers who in five or ten year’s time will have no hang-ups about people with disabilities. They will play sports together and we will have a society that accommodates and enjoys difference.

While I understand and accept what has been said, one of the first things that struck us on listening to the presentations and submissions was the wide variety of disability. We listened to parents whose children had a range of disability from profound to moderate or mild. There are some children who will be very disruptive in class and not all of those children are disabled.

We are dealing with education for persons with disabilities. It may be the case that a child will need extra help and tuition outside of the setting where there are able-bodied children who do not have a disability. There is a need for that provision in the legislation because it would not be fair on either the child with a disability or the able-bodied children to be in a situation which would not allow the removal of any child from the classroom.

This is a question of a balance of rights, which is never easy to do. There are conflicting rights in the scenarios under discussion. There are the rights of those with challenging behaviour to receive an education and, equally, there could be 25 or 26 other pupils in the class who have a right to an education which is not disrupted.

It is important that the principle and the policy is stated in the Bill. The reason it is stated in this manner is because this is a Bill for persons with disabilities. If it was a general education Bill, it could, as Deputy Stanton suggested, be put the other way around. We all accept the fact that the education of children with special educational needs alongside those who do not have such needs is policy and has been policy for a long time. It is fair to say that this policy is supported by everybody in this House. We must however face the reality that it does not always work and, as legislators, we must attempt to provide for this. A child with a disability may exhibit very challenging behaviour which may mean it will be inappropriate for the child to be in a mainstream environment.

The key word to use here is "appropriateness". We are seeking to balance rights. There is a danger in putting a provision like this into the Bill that some unscrupulous people who do not want people with any kind of disability or challenging behaviour in their school may attempt to use it, as Deputies have suggested, to exclude people from school. It is important to emphasise that the appropriateness of placing the child in mainstream education will be decided as the education plan is drawn up. The team will make the decision, as this is what the education plan is about. It is intended that all the conflicting rights and difficulties will be taken into account when the education plans are being prepared and appropriate placements will be decided at that stage, subject to the overall policy. The call will not be made by any individual parent, principal or board of management, but by the planning team in the case of a child for whom a plan is being prepared. Deputy Crowe tabled amendment No. 36 on this matter, which is not necessary as the spirit of it is already covered by the provisions of the Bill dealing with assessments, education planning and inclusive education.

Deputy O'Sullivan mentioned parents who do not want to send their children to school. Parents are recognised as the primary educators of their children. They have a right to educate their children at home. Section 14 of the Education (Welfare) Act provides for home tuition, with the registration of children being taught at home so that the State can ensure they receive the education to which they are constitutionally entitled. Section 4 of the Bill will allow the parents to seek the assessment from the local health board to make sure they are properly catered for.

It is necessary to state this policy. It is the best way to balance the rights. I will not accept amendment No. 34 for the reasons I have given, nor will I accept Deputy Crowe's amendment as it is addressed in later sections.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 35:

In page 7, paragraph (b), line 15, after "for" to insert "the child concerned and the".

The Minister has not responded adequately to the balance of rights issues.

Section 2(a) refers to, “the best interests of the child as determined in accordance with an assessment”. Any child is entitled to such an assessment. I will not accept the amendment as it is catered for in the Bill as it stands.

I believe either my amendment or that of Deputy Crowe should be included. I do not accept what the Minister has said about Deputy Crowe's amendment. If the assessments are carried out under section 3, in effect, the principal will make the decision as to whether the child has special needs. A broader determination is made under section 7. There is too great an opportunity for schools to decide it would be too much hassle to have a child with special needs and opt out by using this clause to exclude the child. Section 3 allows the principal to make such a decision without the council having the involvement it should. The Minister should reconsider this section and strengthen the balance of rights.

The principal will be required to make those decisions in line with the guidelines that will be issued by the council. He or she cannot do so willy-nilly.

Based on the provisions of section 3, the principal ultimately makes the decisions.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 36:

In page 7, paragraph (b), line 16, after “educated” to insert the following:

"as determined by the special educational needs organiser in consultation with the principal, the appropriate teacher and the student's parents according to guidelines laid down by the National Council for Special Education".

Does the team include the people outlined in my amendment? As the Bill is worded, this is done by the principal in consultation with the parents. However, we also need to involve these other people. As the Minister says, they will still be involved, so there is no harm in stating this in the Bill. I would like him to elaborate on what he said about this being addressed in later sections.

All the planning, whether at a local level, by the council or the health board, will be done in consultation with the principal. Later amendments refer to teachers, which will cover an aspect referred to by Deputy Stanton. All decisions relating to section 3 or local school assessments will have to be made on the basis of guidelines set down by the National Council for Special Education. Later sections cater for the people mentioned by the Deputy, although the special educational needs organiser may not be involved initially with the principal of the school. When discussing one of Deputy Stanton's earlier amendments we stated that, if necessary, this can be made explicit, although a later amendment in my name mentions consultations and covers this point concerning the special educational needs organiser.

All the people mentioned by the Deputy are addressed in the Bill although not in this section, which does not deal directly with assessments, education planning and inclusive education, as later sections do.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed: "That section 2, as amended, stand part of the Bill."

What will happen in the case of a child with a special educational need, as outlined in this section, who reaches the age of 18 years in February prior to sitting leaving certificate examinations? I tabled a number of amendments that were ruled out of order which seek to use the word "student" as defined in the Education Act. Children with special educational needs often start school later and take longer to go through the system. For many it is a struggle — they work very hard to get there and many of them succeed. Such a person might not sit leaving certificate examinations until the age of 20. My understanding is that the Bill does not support these children in school beyond the age of 18. What happens to them? According to the Minister's definition they are no longer children. How is that person to be supported? Do any of the mechanisms in this Bill apply at that stage? I refer, for example, to the appeals mechanisms in the Bill. A person who turns 18 years of age in the October or November before the leaving certificate examination may need extra support if he or she suffers from an illness or is slowed down by an accident. As I understand it, this Bill does not offer such support or protection. Is it possible that the supports and plans could be withdrawn? Could it transpire that parents, children and students will not have any recourse to appeal or to look for help under this Bill? How does the Minister envisage that such people will be supported? Does he believe another system will be put in place to support people who are still in second level education?

This section has been brought forward following a Government decision on the balance of rights. In response to the specific question asked by Deputy Stanton, I wish to restate that this Bill caters for people up to the age of 18. It is designed to deal with constitutional rights and to provide a statutory base and means of operating. It will ensure that people can get their constitutional rights without having to go to court. The Bill is specifically pegged at 18 as a result of the Supreme Court decision on the responsibilities of the State. The Bill cannot and should not be seen on its own, as the general disabilities Bill will ensure that there is an assessment of each child's needs. This Bill provides that children will be assessed and provided with a plan before they reach the age of 18. I cannot recall the sections in which these rights are outlined but each individual plan will cater for the person after the age of 18, although the Bill relates only to those under the age of 18. It is intended that the provisions of the general disabilities Bill will follow the provisions of this Bill.

There are good and solid reasons I should ensure that this Bill covers children up to the age of 18, a cut-off point which was decided constitutionally by the Supreme Court. I want to ensure that constitutional rights and protections are given a legislative base. I have said that the more general disability Bill will cater for those over the age of 18, particularly those to whom Deputy Stanton has referred, such as leaving certificate students. A young person who reaches the age of 18 in his or her leaving certificate year is not thrown out of school because the State no longer has a constitutional or other obligation in respect of him or her. Such action will not be taken as a consequence of this Bill. I take the point being made by Deputy Stanton, however. We are explicitly catering for those over the age of 18 in the plans. My Department is working closely with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to ensure that the disabilities Bill provides for a continuity of service when an individual reaches the age of 18.

I am glad the Minister has clarified this matter about which we had concerns. We were initially told that both Bills were to be published and debated at the same time so that we could analyse the, hopefully, seamless operation of them in conjunction with each other. We are not in a position to do that, however, because the disabilities Bill has not yet been published. Is it true that the National Council for Special Education will no longer be responsible for young school-going persons aged 18, 19 or 20 with special educational needs because they are over the age of 18? Is it the case that, under this Bill, special educational needs organisers will no longer have any responsibility or role in respect of the education of persons over the age of 18? It is conceivable that such persons may be sitting the junior certificate.

I would like to ask the Minister about further and third level education and further training. His Department is responsible for such matters. I take it that this Bill will not affect those over the age of 18 who have special educational needs and who are receiving third level education, other than by providing for the preparation of a type of plan which will anticipate their future needs. Such plans will not be able to ascertain the needs of such people, for example, in two or three years' time, but will merely anticipate what they may be. The Supreme Court ruling to which the Minister referred does not state that the Minister should cease to provide resources at the age of 18, as I outlined some time ago. I understand that the ruling was that the Minister has to continue to provide resources to children until the age of 18, but it does not stop him from continuing to grant resources beyond the age of 18. Will the Minister consider changing the Bill in a way that will ensure that supports and other mechanisms will continue to be provided to students, at least while they attend second level schools?

There has to be a cut-off point at some stage.

Why can the cut-off point not be set at the leaving certificate?

A person could decide to continue to sit the leaving certificate examination until the age of 65. It may sound somewhat farfetched, but it is possible that a person could stay in education for a long time. It is conceivable that a person with educational difficulties — the type of person we are discussing — could take ten or 15 years to do the leaving certificate.

I will give a short answer to the other questions the Deputy asked, including the query about the Supreme Court. There is no constitutional obligation on me, as the Minister for Education and Science, to provide extra help for people with disabilities at third level or further education. Although the Government has no constitutional obligations in that regard, it has increased the amount of money provided in the area from €500,000 to €28 million in the last five or six years. I am not exclusively concerned with constitutional rights or legalities, as we have to take account of matters such as social obligations and our desire, as stated in the Constitution, to cherish all the children of the nation equally.

I do not foresee that a person who reaches the age of 18 will no longer be considered by special educational needs organisers. The system will be operated on a practical basis. A person in school who reaches the age of 18 will be looked after and allowed to finish his or her course of studies. It is important that I mention that the fact that the State does not have a constitutional obligation to do something does not mean that it will not do it. In recent years — certainly in the past decade — we have responded to the needs of sectors of society that we may have ignored or hidden in the past. Deputy Finian McGrath said earlier that this may have resulted from a great deal of campaigning. We now have a much more enlightened attitude.

There are various transitions in a person's life whether they have disabilities or not. That transition must be handled in relation to children with special educational needs at pre-school and primary levels, responsibility for whom is transferring from the Department of Health and Children to the Department of Education and Science. According to the provisions of this Bill, they will be the responsibility of the education system until the age of 18. Thereafter responsibility reverts to the Department of Health and Children. The Government will attempt to ensure that the necessary supports are available to each citizen in the State to allow him or her to reach their full potential.

Will the national council for special education cease to have a role to play after the age of 18?

The national council will be responsible for education plans and, among other things, the employment of the special educational needs organisers and research. In respect of the individual, the council's obligations will relate to drawing up education plans and reviewing them for persons for some years before they reach the age of 18. After the age of 18, addressing the person's needs will largely become the responsibility of the relevant health board. That is not to say the health board cannot talk to the special educational needs organiser and involve him or her in further education planning for that particular person. At that stage, the planning will primarily be the health board's responsibility. The matter will be dealt with in the disabilities Bill.

The health board will take responsibility for a student attending a second level school.

Health boards will not be coming in.

A child with a special educational need in a school who reaches the age of 18 and must complete a further year or so to obtain a leaving certificate will require the continuation of special supports.

That will all be dealt with.

Under the Bill as drafted, until the person is 18 the supports of the principal, special council, appeals mechanism and special educational needs organiser will be in place. When the child reaches 18 the Minister says he or she will become the responsibility of the health board. Is there any obligation on the national council, the appeals board or the special needs organiser to assist the person to continue to work towards a leaving certificate? As the Minister will know, I have come across instances of turf wars between the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Health and Children in terms of who is responsible for what. We have seen examples of this last year. People who reached the age of 18 were told there was no room for them in schools and that they were now the responsibility of the health boards. The health boards replied that the role was one for the Department of Education and Science.

We have an opportunity with this legislation to clarify the situation. I do not wish to hold up the proceedings, but what happens to their child when he or she reaches 18 in school is of very serious concern to many people. The fantastic supports which are in place in and around schools will no longer be available to these young people.

As I said earlier, about two years prior to the child reaching the age of 18 — we will not be rigid — the team who has worked with the child will sit down and work out with the parents, an advocate, the principal and, if necessary, a psychologist the further educational needs of the young person up to and beyond the date of his or her 18th birthday. Education will not rigidly stop at 18. Supports will be put in place for the child. Responsibility after the age of 18 will lie with the health board. If the child is still a pupil at a school, he or she will be treated in the same way as every other student. He or she will continue to be entitled to the supports received in the school prior to reaching the age of 18. It will not be the case that supports will cease suddenly at 18 and that the health boards will introduce their particular forms of back-up. There will be continuity. When the young person reaches the end of his or her school life, responsibility must be taken by some agency. In this case it will be the health board. That is the purpose of the legislation.

The Deputy is correct to say that arguments are taking place though these are more often among health boards and schools rather than between the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Education and Science. There are some difficulties between the Departments also. After 18 the same thing happens. This Bill seeks to delineate responsibilities very clearly. In many cases the Department is being dragged into the courts in relation to provisions for children with disabilities where the needs are health rather than education related. Section 7 of the Education Act is being cited. As it places a constitutional obligation to provide education, everything is being dumped on the Department of Education and Science despite the fact that this is inappropriate.

The Bill before the committee states clearly that up to the age of four the responsibility for assessment teams and supports will lie with the health board. Its functions can be carried out through the education system which is how the matter should be approached. After 18 the person again becomes the responsibility of the health board. During the 14 years in between, the child's needs are the responsibility of the Department of Education and Science and the special needs education council.

While I understand the point the Deputy is making, it will not be the case that people will be thrown out of schools when they reach the age of 18. However, if someone decides he or she wishes to stay in school for ten or 15 further years, there is no obligation on the State to accommodate him or her. It may be the case that some people remain in the education system for that length of time, but there is no obligation on the State to make provisions in that regard, constitutional or otherwise.

A yes or no answer is required at this stage. To be clear, on reaching the age of 18, the student will not be entitled to go to the council.

I am not saying that.

Is the Minister saying he or she will be entitled to go to the council?

If the student is still within the school system, he or she will continue to receive the full support of the education system.

Will he or she be able to appeal to the council or the appeals board?

I do not know. He would have to appeal to the health board. The responsibility reverts to the health board. Up to the age of four, the health board is responsible for assessments and appeals. After 18, the responsibility reverts to the health board.

Question put and agreed to.
SECTION 3.

Amendments Nos. 38 to 46, inclusive, and amendment No. 48 are alternatives to amendment No. 37. Amendments Nos. 37 to 46, inclusive, and amendment No. 48 may be discussed together, by agreement.

I move amendment No. 37:

In page 7, lines 17 to 29, to delete subsections (1) and (2) and substitute the following:

"3.—(1) Where the principal of a school, in consultation with a teacher, or teachers, in the school, as appropriate, forms the opinion that a student in the school may not be benefiting from the education programme provided in the school and that this might result from a special educational need, he or she shall, in partnership with and in consultations with the student and the parents of the student and with the special educational needs organiser take such measures as are possible to meet the special educational needs of the student.

(2) Where the principal of a school forms the opinion that the measures that can be taken under subsection (1) may not meet the special educational needs of the student or that within one month of having taken the measures as outlined, he or she forms the opinion that the student is still not benefiting from the education programme provided in the school, the principal shall, with the written permission of the parents, request the special educational needs organiser to arrange for an assessment of the student to be carried out.".

Section 3 is a new section which deals with the preparation of education plans by schools. As drafted, section 3(1) provides that where a principal is of the opinion that a student is not benefiting from the education programme provided in the school to children who do not have special educational needs to the extent expected, he or she may take such measures as are practical to meet the student's needs. We propose to insert the following instead:

Where the principal of a school, in consultation with a teacher, or teachers, in the school, [this is a change to the current text and while it may be implicit in the Bill, it is not stated] as appropriate, forms the opinion that a student in the school may not be benefiting from the education programme provided in the school and that this might result from a special educational need, he or she shall, in partnership with and in consultations with the student and the parents of the student and with the special educational needs organiser take such measures as are possible to meet the special educational needs of the student.

This paragraph contains a number of changes. The amendment would also insert the following:

Where the principal of a school forms the opinion that the measures that can be taken undersubsection (1) may not meet the special educational needs of the student or that within one month of having taken the measures as outlined, he or she forms the opinion that the student is still not benefiting from the education programme provided in the school, the principal shall, with the written permission of the parents, request the special educational needs organiser to arrange for an assessment of the student to be carried out.

This differs from the current text which stipulates that:

Where a principal of a school, having made such efforts as are referred to insubsection (1), is of the opinion that the student referred to in that subsection is a child with special educational needs he or she shall give notice in writing of that opinion to the special educational needs organiser with responsibility for that school.

In the Bill as outlined the principal is asked to put in place certain measures and wait to see what happens, as it were, whereas the amendment would allow the principal to form the opinion, again in consultation, that it is beyond his or her power to do anything and to have an assessment carried out without the school taking any action. This is the subtle difference.

As I read the Bill, the principal is required initially to take action, that is, to "make such efforts as are practicable to meet the educational needs" of the student in question. Having taken those measures, if he or she concludes the student is not benefiting — no timescale is given in the text for this purpose — he or she may arrange for an assessment to be carried out. The amendments propose to telescope the timescale to the benefit of the student, which would allow the principal to pursue an assessment immediately if he or she so wished, without necessarily taking the other measures outlined. If, however, having taken these measures, he or she finds they are not working within a specified period — the one month timeframe is a suggestion and could be changed, for example, to three or six months or improved in another way — he or she could then move into the assessment procedure immediately.

Sitting suspended at 4.05 p.m. and resumed at 5 p.m.

Amendment No. 38 is related to other amendments. My amendments are to ensure a more common sense approach. Section 3(1) states:

Where the principal of a school is of the opinion that a student in the school is not benefiting from the education programme provided in the school to children who do not have special educational needs to the extent that would be expected of the student, he or she shall take such measures as are practicable to meet the educational needs of the student.

In light of this statement, amendment No. 38 makes sense. Some of the later amendments stress the pressure put on principals, 75% of whom are teaching principals. To insert in the legislation "in consultation with the person's class teacher" would take cognisance of the first hand knowledge class teachers have of their students. This is why I tabled amendment No. 38.

Amendment No. 43 is to obtain more recognition in a written format for the parents of the students. I know the Minister stated in previous replies that the role of the parent is mentioned to a large extent anyway. However, he should consider my amendment, just as he accepted the one regarding inclusivity. This would recognise the role the parent plays as the primary educator. I know this is stated in the Constitution and in other Acts but it would not be a bad idea to include a reference thereto in this Bill.

Amendment No. 48 attempts to place the workload on the council rather than on the principal. The Minister will make his views even clearer as we go along regarding what he believes the principal's primary role will be. My proposal is a precursor to the argument that principals already have a very large remit and that they should be facilitators rather than instigators. I welcome the Minister's views on this and I support the other amendments my colleagues have tabled.

There are four amendments in this group in my name, some of which are similar to those tabled by colleagues. Amendment No. 39 seeks to insert "is informed by the parents of a child or". The parents may want to tell the principal they feel their child needs to have an assessment of need. The amendment would strengthen the role of parents which we have been trying to do throughout the Bill.

Amendment No. 41 is to insert "in consultation with the special needs organiser and the class teacher". This is self-explanatory.

Section 3(1) makes reference to a child not benefiting from the education programme. I am suggesting a child may be benefiting somewhat from it but may require additional support. Therefore, the amendment seeks to insert "requires additional support". This would strengthen the section.

The most important amendment to this section which I have tabled is amendment No. 45. I thank the Minister for his later amendments that address the same issue, namely, amendments Nos. 47, 59 and 88, which are related, and amendments Nos. 78 and 87. The issue in question is that the principal of the school should be able to go straight to the council and the special needs organiser to have an assessment of need carried out and to have the plan made. We have all been informed by the Irish Primary Principals' Network and other groups about the burden on principals. Deputy Gogarty has amendments on this very important issue.

The more I examined section 3, the more I felt that we should be, where possible, avoiding it completely and allowing people to go straight to section 7, which ordains that the council should prepare education plans through the special needs organisers. The current system seems awfully cumbersome in that there is a staged approach whereby the school must first do what it can for the student. Then, if it decides the child is not benefiting from its educational programme, the principal must decide an assessment of need is necessary, have it carried out and have a plan put in place. It is only afterwards that the principal goes to the council and the special needs organiser. Having taken on board the point made by the principals, I felt that, rather than bringing in the special needs organiser at this stage to take some of the burden from the principals, it makes a lot more sense from the points of view of the schools and the children in question to take out this layer and go straight to the council to have the assessment of need carried out. The Minister has recognised this in his amendments.

Where it seems fairly clear from the very early stages of a child's education that he or she has a problem — this will be fairly obviously in most cases — it should not be necessary for the school to go through a variety of stages that waste the very valuable time of the child. Early intervention is crucial. The child should have a full assessment of need and an educational plan, and it would be better it the council was responsible for these, through the SENOs, rather than having a multi-staged approach beginning with the principal.

I am not too sure whether the educational plans under section 3 should exist at all or if they should all be done through the council. I am interested in the Minister's views on this and I welcome the fact that he has recognised that there is a need to by-pass section 3 and go straight to section 7.

Amendments Nos. 40 and 44 are in my name. Amendment No. 40 would ensure that the teacher or teachers would be consulted when the ability of a student to benefit from the education programme in his or her class is brought into question. In large schools especially, the teacher is far more likely than the principal to be aware of the strengths, weaknesses and problems facing students in the classroom. In most cases, the teacher will have a more personal relationship with the students than the principal. This is one of the points I am trying to push. Providing for consultation with the teaching staff in section 3(1) is sensible and I ask the Minister to accept my amendment in this regard.

Amendment No. 44 provides for the consultation of parents when the principal is making amendments to the child's education programme. As it stands, they need not be informed or consulted by the principal when he or she is making these changes. It is of vital importance that the parents of the students, who know the students best, be involved.

Amendment No. 39, in the name of Deputy O'Sullivan, allows for the parents to inform the principal that they do not feel their child is benefiting from the education programme provided in the school. This amendment is different to that in the name of Deputies Stanton and Enright but there is benefit in combining the two. Amendment No. 48 would oblige the council, instead of the principal, to carry out the assessment. The purpose of the Minister's amendments Nos. 47, 59 and 88 is to allow the principal to request the council to carry out an assessment. If the council were to carry out an assessment, would these not be carried out by the SENO as an employee of the council? If not, who would carry out the assessment? Is it not better to give the SENO the responsibility of conducting the assessments and overseeing the creation of the education plan?

The amendment tabled by Deputies Enright and Stanton complements many of our amendments and I would be agreeable to withdrawing my amendment. Combined with it, amendment No. 39 strengthens the Bill.

Many of the amendments are construed on the basis of a misunderstanding of what we are dealing with. The objective of this section is to ensure that, where possible, assessments and planning should take place at school level by people familiar with the child. Schools are the best place for this to happen as that is where the pupils, teachers and principals are located. I accept the points Deputies have raised about consultation. I do not favour removing school based assessment from the Bill as it would be a retrograde stepvis-à-vis the principle of the Bill.

The Bill should not be read as saying we must go through this process on a stage basis if the need is obvious. While I hate using cases of specific disability, it would be quite obvious if a child has autism. Autism can be difficult to deal with as there is a huge range in the spectrum. Down's syndrome is the same and children with it can range from high functioning to low functioning ability. In cases where children have obvious disabilities, the child will not have to be assessed by a principal and have a plan drawn up with progress measured and a further review being undertaken after five or six months. The team will carry out a more complex assessment.

This section is aimed at a pupil who appears normal and the parents are not aware of any disability, lack of ability or impairment. However, when the teachers and principal become concerned about this pupil and see the need to put extra supports in place, the assessment will be carried out and supports will be put in place. Progress will be measured and, despite the principal doing everything he feels he can do educationally, if the child has not sufficiently responded to this, things will move to the next stage. It is not absolutely essential for an assessment to be carried out by the council or that a school based assessment has to be carried out prior to this.

If Deputies look at the Bill in this context, they will see that amendments Nos. 37 and 44 are not necessary. The measures we are talking about are short of a formal assessment and are currently implemented in schools, in consultation with parents, on a routine basis. Where a difficulty arises, a teacher will raise this with the principal or the parents. When this Bill is enacted, consultation with the special educational needs organiser may also take place where appropriate. The relationship that is formed with the SENO will be one of co-operation, help and assistance.

Some of the amendments have raised the issue of time limits. This is covered by section 4 and we will have discussions on time limits as we continue our consideration of the Bill. Assessments must take place within three months of the request being made.

Deputy O'Sullivan referred to an amendment I tabled, No. 59. If a school based assessment is not practicable, the principal can request that the council arranges an assessment. This deals with the amendments tabled by Deputies O'Sullivan and Gogarty. The council can only undertake an assessment with the consent of the parents. However, we must allow for circumstances where parents may not want an assessment to take place and do not want their child, as they might see it, to be stigmatised. Where it is deemed necessary by a team, consent can be obtained on foot of a court order. Amendment No. 59 renders amendments Nos. 45 and 48 unnecessary.

I now turn to amendments Nos. 38 to 41, inclusive, and Nos. 43 and 46. We return to the philosophical discussion we had earlier as to whether we need to be explicit in every section and have things repeated in various sections of the Bill. In informing a proper opinion on a child's educational progress, it is appropriate for the principal to consult with the child's parents and teachers and the principal is free to do this. The reality is that it will be a teacher who brings something of this nature to the attention of the principal; it will not be the principal unless he or she is a teaching principal. The Bill deals with this by stating the matter will be dealt with by the "principal". In most cases, it will be brought to the attention of the principal by the class or year teacher. The principal is also free to consult with the school's special needs organiser where he or she feels it appropriate. Parents have the right to request an assessment.

Amendment No. 42 is covered in subsection (1). I have listened carefully to what Deputies have said in regard to trying to ensure that the provisions relating to teachers are explicit in this section. It is implicit. However, I will examine the issue for Report Stage to see if we need to be very explicit in regard to the issue that the principal should consult with the teacher. In some cases, the principal may be the teacher concerned. Therefore, we may have to word that appropriately.

In regard to the other amendments tabled by Deputies, I caution against what they intend in them on the basis that we need the school based assessment for the types of scenarios I mentioned. It is not meant to be the be all and end all. However, one needs a provision in the Bill where the school and the principal can form their own opinion and will also have an opportunity to deal with the problem and help the child as much as possible. Once that has failed and the child is not making progress, they must have somewhere else to go.

The special needs section of the Department had to deal with 4,700 applications for children with special needs in the past three or four months. Part of the problem causing delays and pressure within the section is that all these applications are going to it. Quite a number of these are obvious but the procedures must be followed. In this provision of the Bill we are trying to avoid snowing under the special educational needs organisers with calls for assessment and reviews. We want the school to have some discretion so that it can make a case that a child needs resources. We will try to provide resources to schools on a more automatic basis through a weighted system from September next year in order that it can deal with many cases it cannot deal with at the moment.

I am not accepting the amendments but I accept the point being made in regard to consultation with teachers and will consider it on Report Stage in a number of different areas in this section of the Bill.

The problem with what the Minister proposes in the Bill is that there are no timescales. It states that: "If the principal of the school is of the opinion that a student in the school is not benefiting from the education programme provided in the school, he shall take such measures as are practical". I agree with the Minister that we must have school based assessment at this level and that the principal can intervene at a low level since perhaps just a ramp is needed into the school, which can be addressed at school level; that is fine. I also agree with the Minister that there must be consultation with the teachers in the school who are teaching the student in question since the principal may not personally know the student. I agree that we must have consultation with parents.

Deputy Gogarty also raised the issue of the amount of time the principal is expected to devote to students since 75% of principals are involved in full-time class teaching and asked how they are expected to do this extra work, form these opinions and have these meetings. We must address this issue if the Bill is to work since principals are concerned about how they will physically do this work if they are expected to teach full time too. Will it work?

The wording of the section which the Minister proposes that if the principal of a school is of the opinion that "student" in the school is not benefiting from the education programme provided in the school, then it refers to "children" and then "student" again. There is mention of "students" and "children" in one section and I do not know if it is intentional.

In our proposed amendments we raise the issue that a student may not be benefiting because of a special educational need. The wording we have proposed is better than the Minister's awkward proposed wording. The phrase "to children who do not have special educational needs" is in the middle of it, and it is convoluted. Perhaps the Minister will examine the phrase and rework it since it seems to be awkward.

As regards the second issue "...where the principal forms the opinion that the measures which can be taken under section 1 may not meet the special educational needs of the student", he or she can organise for an assessment of the student to be carried out. The Minister proposes the following wording: "...Where the principal, having taken the measures". If one were to read this literally, there is an onus on the principal who is expected to have taken the measures outlined in section 3(1). According to the Minister's proposal, the principal will have to try and do something first. The phrase "having taken the measures" implies to me that the principal will have to take measures — for once, this is fairly simple English. The provision does not give the principal an out. He or she must take measures and if they do not work, he or she can go ahead. We propose that if the principal forms the opinion that the measures he or she may take under section 3(1) may not work in the first place, he or she can go straight into an assessment. The Minister has more or less stated that here but he has not put it in black and white in the Bill. We propose that the Minister does so.

This section also states "after consultation with the parents of the student". Does "consultation" mean permission and must it be written permission? Consultation is different to permission. I do not think it is possible for an assessment to be carried out on a child under 18 years unless the parents give their written permission. Otherwise it could actually be termed an assault on the child. Parents must give their written permission rather than just "consultation". Section 3(2) states that "...the principal shall arrange for an assessment to be carried out" but it does not state that permission is required — although that may be implicit. Nevertheless, it is not explicit and I am not sure it is possible for a principal to have an assessment carried out without the written permission of parents. Perhaps the Minister could revert to us on that issue.

Furthermore, this subsection does not provide a timetable. We proposed one of one month, which is short. Under subsection 3(1) the principal carries out certain measures but it does not state for how long the child, parents and principal must wait before section 3(2) kicks in. Is it possible this could be included in guidelines to be proposed by the council? If that is the case, it is fine.

I thank the Minister for his reply, which has been helpful, as have his amendments. To make the same point as Deputy Stanton, however, I am still not clear about the point at which the principal can go straight to the council under amendment No. 59. I know we are not discussing that now but the matter is also relevant to amendment No. 45. Amendment No. 59 states: "Where the principal of a school is of the opinion ... that the arrangement of an assessment under subsection (2) of a student is not practicable he or she shall request the Council to arrange for an assessment of the student under section 4". Must the principal have taken such measures as are practicable under section 3(1) before he can make such a decision? For a child who is autistic or has an obvious learning difficulty, can the principal take action as soon as he realises there is a problem or the parents have told him so? Can he immediately arrange for a full assessment and education plan at that stage? We need to know this to ensure there is no undue delay.

The short answer to the Deputy's question is yes. Where it is obvious the child has a disability that will affect his learning ability — as I said, I do not like mentioning particular disabilities, but such a disability could be autism or Down's syndrome — the school based assessment need not take place. The result of this Bill in practice will be that children are assessed by health boards from the age of two or even earlier so that their needs may be met. A child with a disability such as this will probably be assessed before he even starts school. The results will be given to the school and the necessary facilities will be provided.

The procedure provided for in amendment No. 59 is not for cases in which it is obvious that the child has a special need; it is for cases in which it is discovered in school that the child has a disability such as dyslexia, which may not be immediately obvious. When it is discovered that the child has a learning difficulty, it is currently dealt with to a certain extent within the school, through learning support teachers, resource teachers and so on. We are trying to establish a system in which schools will have these automatically. At that stage the principal will be able to assign a pupil to a resource teacher whom he knows is available to the school for 20 hours a week.

Deputies O'Sullivan and Stanton have asked at what point the principal may move away from this. As with anything in education, one must allow the prescribed remedy a reasonable period of time to see if it is taking effect. In some cases it could be obvious after a couple of months that the child is not benefiting, while in other cases the child may initially make progress before reaching a brick wall six months on.

We must consider what the provision is designed to do overall, moving away from the nitty-gritty, although I realise we must consider the amendments individually. We want a school to be able to respond to a child's needs when it is discovered there is something wrong. If we know there is something wrong before the child comes to school, the council will be in place and assessments will have been done so that facilities are available for the child. The provision is to deal with the child who does not have an obvious problem when he starts school but is subsequently discovered to have one. It is a reasonable approach to suggest a solution when a problem is discovered. The principal, in arriving at the decision on a possible solution, can talk to the special needs organiser — there is no problem about that — and decide on a plan. After a reasonable period of time, if the plan is not working, the principal, parents or council can decide an assessment or review of the plan is required. I hope I have made matters a little clearer because I realise that the position of this provision in the Bill causes some confusion.

Deputy Stanton mentioned the wording of section 3(1). If it can be improved we will do so, but there is a reason it is worded in this way. The principal must form an opinion that a child is not benefiting to the same extent from the ordinary school programme as the other children in the school. That is what we are trying to say in that section which causes the confusion between "child" and "children". We are trying to establish a system in which the child is educated under the regular school programme. If this is not working the principal, teachers and staff have the ability to assess the child and decide what needs to be done. A plan is then formed on the basis of this assessment and the necessary resources are provided within the school. All the points raised by Deputies about amendment No. 59 are dealt with in that context.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Is amendment No. 38 being pressed?

No. I will take the Minister's word that he will consider these issues on Report Stage and I reserve the right to suggest amendments later. I will not press any of the amendments in this section.

Amendments Nos. 38 to 46, inclusive, not moved.

Amendments Nos. 47, 59 and 88 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 47:

In page 7, subsection (2), line 28, after "shall" to insert ", subject tosubsection (5)*,”.

We must return to the points made about the previous amendments. The aim of these amendments is to provide a clear distinction between school based assessments and those undertaken by the council or a health board. Subsection (5) provides that in coming to the decision that the school cannot provide an assessment, when a principal asks the council to arrange for an assessment, the principal is to be guided by guidelines issued by the council. As I said earlier, we cannot have principals deciding willy-nilly to go to the council. Under amendment No. 91, which we will consider later, a refusal by the council to arrange for the assessment is to be subject to appeal by the school or the parents concerned. This amendment makes clearer the distinction between school based assessments and those undertaken by the council.

Is it the case that there is no automatic right to assessment if a parent requests it?

Yes, once it is requested.

Is there an automatic right to an assessment? The assessment can be refused so there is no automatic right to one.

The Deputy is right. Any of the people I have mentioned, the principal, the council, the parents and the health board can request an assessment but it can be refused. However, there is an appeals system in place for that eventuality.

Is the Minister saying that if the council refuses the principal's request there is an appeals process there?

Yes, amendment No. 91 covers that and is consequential on these amendments

Under section 4 if the council refuses to carry out an assessment at the request of the parents they can appeal. Should the principals not also have a right to appeal and, if so, will this increase the delay in the assessment taking place?

The principal has a right to appeal as well.

Amendment agreed to.
Amendment No. 48 not moved.

I move amendment No. 49:

In page 7, between lines 29 and 30, to insert the following subsection:

"(3) At the end of each school year a report will be sent to the parents of every student attending school which shall include a statement by the principal or class teacher which will indicate, in the opinion of the principal or the class teacher whether or not the student has or may have a special educational need.".

Parents requested this because at the end of every year they receive a report and it was proposed that the principal or the class teacher would indicate whether in the opinion of the class teacher the child had a special educational need. This could be as simple as a box to be ticked, or as complicated as a written statement. The amendment is designed to ensure that a child does not fall through the net. Under this amendment a teacher would have to think for a while about each student in this category. Some parents may not be aware of an educational need that might exist. I have met parents who were not experienced enough or — although I do not like to say this — educated enough, to know that there was a difficulty. A teacher might spot it and if there was an onus on the teacher to indicate a possible difficulty it would alert people to that fact and maybe cause the various procedures mentioned by the Minister to be put in motion. We should discuss this in some way and include it in a statement. There may be other ways of phrasing it.

On a similar theme, the Minister mentioned briefly the role of an advocate and I would like to know whether he has any plans to provide an advocacy service for parents. Often when reports come home or when some parents are asked to attend at the school they feel intimidated by teachers. Once when I was working on a home-school community liaison project, I called to a house and asked if the parent was at home only to hear the father say from the back of the house "Tell that so-and-so to so-and-so off". When he eventually came out he was shaking and told me it was 30 years since he had been that close to a teacher. His experience of teachers was not very positive so he was afraid of me. I told him that I wanted to know if he was happy with his son's progress at school and could we help in any way or would he like to come in to see the school where he had not been in 30 years.

There is a need for some way of indicating to parents that there may be a difficulty and to place an onus on the class teacher to think about it and to say when there is a problem and the question of advocacy and an advocacy service is allied to that. We cannot propose such a service because it will be ruled out of order as a charge on the Exchequer but it did come up more than once in our committee discussion with various groups. I would be interested in the Minister's views on those two points.

The proposal in the amendment is a good idea in general for schools, many of which already do this. The Disability Federation of Ireland, which has been liaising with the relevant Departments in connection with the disability Bill, has urged that an advocacy service be included in disability legislation. I referred to it in a couple of amendments but I am not sure whether they have been ruled out of order. However, as Deputy Stanton has raised the issue, the Minister should reply to it. I am not sure whether he was involved in the discussions with the federation or if they were held with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform but the federation has raised the issue.

Amendments Nos. 49 and 50 could have been grouped because it seems that one would replace the other, depending which is agreed. Can Deputy Stanton clarify this? Which is the preferred one and what is the Minister's view on this? They both express the principle of the class teacher as advocate for the pupil. If one is working with a student over time one may need to point something out and the parents should always have a key role. Sometimes they may be blind to the fact that their child has a learning disability and this needs to be put down on paper to make them think about it. In that respect the proposal in amendment No. 49 for a statement or a tick in a box would help to express that opinion which would be followed by a proper assessment. The parents can consider it and hold further discussions with the bodies concerned. I support amendments Nos. 49 and 50. I will not speak on amendment No. 50 but could the Minister indicate his view of each of these amendments before deciding whether to support them?

I was somewhat confused when I read the amendment because I was not sure what point it was making. Deputy Stanton, however, has outlined that. It is a good idea in the sense that every child is examined annually and it may ensure that no child is missed in the system. I have no major objection to the suggestion. One could argue that doing this for every child in the class and the school eradicates the stigma attached to a child with special needs because everyone is being assessed. In this way no child will fall through the net. The detail and benefits of the review are other issues. The amendment refers only to the principle which is a good one.

The school report is essential but it should not be only an end of school year report. Most schools, especially those in disadvantaged areas which are involved in examples of good practice, make reports at Christmas and summer and hold a parent-teacher meeting in between. It is essential for a child with a disability that the difficulty is discovered early in his or her education so that he or she can develop to his or her maximum ability.

There are examples of good practice on this issue, such as the two reports and the parent-teacher meeting to cover all angles. There are also schools which assess the children with learning difficulties or disabilities every September and then try to respond by planning their services to suit the needs of the children. This happens especially in the primary sector, of which I have experience. These issues are important.

People feel threatened or intimidated by teachers but conversely many teachers have been threatened, abused and assaulted in difficult situations. In some of cases of child abuse, many teachers have experienced intimidation and threats of physical violence from dysfunctional people. The majority of people do not realise what is going on and only realise it when it emerges in court cases, where the child went to the teacher initially to open up about child abuse. It is important that these issues are taken on board.

The advocacy point is essential and all the disability and parent groups are strong supporters of it. This is always a strong part of their efforts.

I see Deputy Stanton's point in this amendment. However, a requirement of this nature would impose an onerous burden on schools. We discussed earlier the burden on school principals. We would not be lightening the burden in any way by inserting a legal requirement such as this. More importantly, section 3 as it stands already imposes a legal obligation on the school principal to take clearly defined steps when he or she forms the view that a child is not benefiting from education to the extent that would be expected. That legal obligation on the principal is already in place and it must also be done in consultation with class teachers. Where the principal forms a view, either from direct experience or teacher reports, there is a legal obligation on him or her to take action.

Having to fill out more forms for the 90% of students not affected will not help. I do not claim to be a legal expert, but for a school to be covered legally in this, it would have to set tests and assessments during the course of each school year to protect itself legally. Given that this provision would only apply to a small percentage of the school pupils, the implications of the amendment's provisions would be serious for no appreciable gain in light of section 3. I accept in the current circumstances that, if the Bill was not drafted, this proposal would have to be considered.

The advocacy service is being considered in the context of the general disabilities Bill and I am aware of it from discussions. We are trying to ensure that the two Bills are consistent, but the advocacy service will be dealt with in the other Bill. Provisions are made in later sections of this Bill to allow a parent in some of these appeals to bring with him or her a suitably qualified person who will be an advocate for the child and parents. However, I am not disposed to accept amendment No. 49 as it would place an onerous burden on schools for no appreciable gain in light of section 3 of the Bill.

I thank the Minister for his positive comments. However, the main reason for this amendment is to ensure that teachers, in particular, are alert to the possibility that a child in a class may not come to an expected educational standard because of an educational need. For example, I had the case of a hard-of-hearing child who sat at the back of the class, did not hear what was going on and was extremely disruptive. It was difficult for the teachers to identify what was happening. Eventually, in secondary school it was discovered that the child had serious hearing problems. However, over the years, the child, even though he was not aware of his problem, had learned to compensate for this by utilising lip-reading, for example. This is a case of a special educational need affecting a child. However, because no one had been alerted to look out for this, the child slipped through primary and some of secondary school before it was identified. By that stage, he had become disruptive through the frustration of not knowing what was wrong.

This amendment aims to ensure that schools and teachers are alert to the problems students might have, such as that case, and not put it down to disruptive behaviour due to boldness. I disagree with the Minister that it would entail huge bureaucracy. Simply ticking a box stating that an issue needs to be re-examined would act as an alert. The Minister stated that, if an opinion such as that were formed, there could be legal problems. I agree, but in section 3(1) the school principal can form the opinion with which there seem to be no legal problems. There is a contradiction in the Minister's argument in that regard.

I accept that the parliamentary counsel or departmental officials could tighten the wording of the amendment. It is an issue that the Minister should not dismiss because children, through compensating in schools, can hide special needs. This amendment would ensure that teachers would be alert to this and be required to point out that further checks may be necessary.

I agree with what Deputy Stanton proposes, but I was taken aback when I read amendment No. 49. If I were the parent of a child, and such a report came to my home, I would be devastated. This would not necessarily be the best way to deal with the problem. That is why I do not like the amendment. If a child is identified in school as having a learning disability or a special need, the approach to the parent must be better than a report to that effect with a tick in a box or whatever being sent to the home. That is not an appropriate way to deal with the issue.

My understanding of the Bill is that there are sections dealing with teachers and their responsibilities in identifying special needs. Teachers have such responsibilities. The amendment proposed by Deputy Stanton in effect calls for a report to be sent to the home, and as a parent I would be horrified to receive such a report. Many people would be similarly shocked and would not know how to deal with it. Deputy Stanton is attempting by means of this amendment to identify the existence of the needs referred to, but if such needs are identified, they must be responded to in some way other than by means of a simple report.

I assure Deputy Stanton that I did not dismiss this matter out of hand and I greatly appreciate the sentiments behind what he proposes. I have just taken a quick look through the Bill. Deputy Curran has made the point that section 13(1)(d) and (e) deal with the duties of schools. Section 13(1)(d) notes that a school shall “ensure that ... relevant teachers and other relevant employees of the school are aware of the special educational needs of students”, while section 13(1)(e) notes that a school shall “ensure that teachers and other relevant employees of the school are aware of the importance of identifying children who have special educational needs.” Section 13(1)(f) says a school shall “inculcate in students of the school an awareness of the needs of persons with disabilities”. The matter raised is thereby covered. Deputy Stanton makes his point well and I hope he will accept that raising this kind of awareness within a school, whether among staff or students, is probably done more effectively in this manner.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 50:

In page 7, between lines 29 and 30, to insert the following subsection:

"(3) If at any stage a teacher forms the view that a child or student may have a special educational need he or she shall inform the principal of the school of this possibility and the principal shall on receiving such a report consult with the parents and the special educational needs organiser in order to assist in forming an opinion as outlined insubsection (1).”.

This is similar to amendment No. 49. It relates to raising awareness. I accept what Deputy Curran said, and the sending of a bland statement to the home is not what I intended. There are ways of wording these matters. Amendment No. 50 puts the onus on the teacher to inform the principal if there is a possibility that a special educational need exists.

The spirit of this amendment is dealt with in amendment No. 340 which permits a principal to delegate any of the functions conferred on him or her by the Bill to a teacher in the school. As I said already, what Deputy Stanton is trying to achieve is already implicit in section 3(1) and (2) and is later strengthened by amendment No. 340.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments Nos. 51 to 54, inclusive, are being taken together with amendment No. 106 which is cognate. Amendments Nos. 53 and 54 are alternatives.

I move amendment No. 51:

In page 7, lines 30 to 44, to delete subsections (3) and (4).

Deputies will notice that some of these amendments appear to contradict each other to some degree. That is because I have not yet decided fully what to opt for since the Minister's reply should be quite revealing. Some of these amendments, such as amendment No. 54 which deletes "in accordance withsubsection (3)”, merely tinker with words. That latter change might be small in one sense but has a broader meaning in another.

My query, which might be dealt with by tabling another amendment or by the Minister responding to it, relates to whether a child can have access to independent opinion to ensure that his or her best interests are advanced. As far as I can see, little room is allowed by the Bill for an independent opinion to push things through to have an assessment approved, so to speak. It seems to be driven by the special educational needs organiser or by other bodies as dictated by the National Council for Special Education.

Given the other amendments I have tabled relating to the role of the principal, and whether he or she should be the initiator or the facilitator, I am in two minds as to whether to propose deleting the entire subsection — lines 30 to 39 inclusive — or to amend certain lines. I reserve the right to withdraw all these amendments or promote some of them depending on the Minister's opinion. Section 3(3)(a) states: “after the principal has reached the opinion”. I would like to add “or the parents have” should the Minister indicate that he strongly wants to retain this section. If so, he might have no problem with accepting the insertion of those words. I remain in two minds about the removal of the entire section, primarily because of the aspect of the role of the principal.

The other issue is the timeframe. Deputy Crowe has proposed in amendment No. 52 that, in section 3(3)(a), “3 months” should be deleted and substituted by “6 weeks”. It is hard to know what to do. I also thought of tabling an amendment relating to a set timeframe. It is hard to know whether it is practical to impose such a timeframe or whether the three month period allowed for in the Bill should be greater or lesser. If the entire passage were deleted, that would leave some leeway. Some people might argue that, in doing so, the assessments might never be carried out but, given the pressure, it may well be that the realities of resourcing may not enable the assessments to be carried out within the three month period.

I would appreciate feedback from the Minister on the thinking behind section 3(3), whether he thinks the three month limit is practical, whether he thinks there may be too much of a workload on the principal, his views on the input of parents in trying to have assessments initiated and whether the passage in question would prevent that.

I found some of the proposals implied in amendment No. 51 confusing. Regarding amendment No. 52 which I have tabled, much of the legislation rests on the methods of assessment available to the various stakeholders in this legislation. Assessments can be initiated by principals, health boards, the National Council for Special Education. or, in a restricted fashion, by parents, but there remains a fundamental lack of resources, especially to carry out the kind of assessments referred to in this legislation.

NEPS, the national educational psychological service, is underfunded. In large areas of the country, especially in the west and north, most schools have no access to NEPS. To many schools it seems only a myth because many areas are not covered by the service. The problem with the panel is that many areas have little or no coverage from NEPS, nor is there an approved psychologist. The committee invited people to appear before it just before Christmas to discuss the issue. More than a third of panel members are based in Dublin where NEPS has coverage. That is difficult. People would argue that the timescale for assessment is impractical or even unworkable.

One of the reasons I tabled the amendment was the need to examine the area. It is a matter of people's expectations, and clearly there are huge expectations resting on this Bill. If people are not covered even for such basic matters as assessment, the Bill will fail. Much of the responsibility for the failure will fall on principals. One person argued that principals would be the people involved. Principals using the panel are restricted to a certain number of assessments each year. I believe it is roughly one for every five students. If the principal of a school with 400 students is entitled to 80 assessments a year, we have all sorts of difficulties.

Amendment No. 106 is also in my name. It would oblige a health board or the council to initiate an assessment at the request of a parent within six weeks instead of three months. A three month delay before an assessment can begin is unacceptable. The assessment itself could take weeks and perhaps even months depending on the workload. A whole school term could go by before an assessment was completed, let alone an education plan. Health boards and the council are sufficiently large organisations to have the resources to initiate an assessment within a shorter period. I know the Minister will say that it is not practical and so on, but it is important that, as part of this discussion, the shortage of people conducting such assessments be addressed.

Amendment No. 106 endeavours to shorten the period from three months to six weeks. The Bill states:

(4) Subject tosubsection (5), within 3 months from the receipt of a request under subsection (3), the health board or the Council shall cause the assessment to be commenced and thereafter to be completed without undue delay.

It will take three months before an assessment even begins. Would it be possible to shorten that? Is it necessary to allow three months to pass before an assessment even begins? That assessment will probably take some time anyway. Bearing in mind the shortness of the school year, if it takes three months before the assessment begins and perhaps several more before it can be completed, the school year might be over by the time it has been carried out. It is important to try to speed up matters in some way.

On timescales and limits, has the Minister taken school holidays into account? If a request is made in May and schools are off for the summer holidays in June, July and August, is that part of the three months referred to in the section? It applies in other parts of the Bill to the advantage or disadvantage of the students as the case may be. Is it three months' working time or calendar months in schools?

I will be brief. Like most people present, when I read the Bill, I was of the opinion that the quicker assessments could be made, the better. However, Deputy Stanton hit the nail on the head when he asked how the three months were to be measured. If we were to adopt an amendment which reduced the period to six weeks, there would be certain times of the year when it might be counterproductive. If one were to measure the six weeks from the middle of November, that would include the Christmas holiday period, so there might be times when the clock would only start running at a later stage, and that might be counterproductive.

If we are measuring the period over a calendar year rather than an academic year, for it to be feasible the period must be three months. That is a maximum rather than a minimum period. The Minister can clarify this but, when I read the Bill, I understood that the three months would be based on a calendar rather than academic year. Perhaps I am wrong, but if it is a calendar year, the three months are necessary or we will have more pitfalls.

In discussing this, I find it hard to make a judgment on whether six weeks or three months is appropriate before we deal with the detail of section 5, which is the mode of assessment under sections 3 and 4. Will the NEPS psychologists be available to principals for assessments under section 3, and will the same psychologists be available for assessments under section 4, that is, those initiated by the council as opposed to principals? I am not clear about what assistance is available through the resources of the Department of Education and Science to principals for those assessments. We would all obviously like to see them being done as quickly as possible, but I cannot judge at this stage whether they can be done in six weeks.

I will begin with amendment No. 51. I believe that section 3(3) and section 3(4) are very important, since they set down how an assessment will be carried out, an education plan prepared and the time limits involved. I heard what Deputy Gogarty said regarding his own caveats, but there is no way that I would accept amendment No. 51 because it seeks to delete those two subsections. In some senses, that might be throwing out the baby with the bath water.

On amendments Nos. 52 and 106, as most Deputies have said, time limits are important. It was often said to us during the consultation process that, if matters are left open-ended, they mean nothing because they will never happen or be subject to resource difficulties with some people available and some not. We have tried in the Bill to set time limits everywhere we could. We have also tried to be as realistic as possible with those. We are talking here about assessments which could involve a number of qualified people, as detailed in section 5, who may not be that easy to assemble.

It was for that reason we inserted the three month timetable. The danger in making the timetables too short for this aspect of the assessments is that they will end up being ignored, and people will be able to make excuses such as that a person was not available on the date they called the meeting and so on. While I respect the sentiment behind the amendments, especially Nos. 52 and 106, we need a balance. I am not saying that three months is right, but we must balance our desire to ensure that it happens with the realities of whether we can make it happen within the timescale under discussion. For that reason, I am not inclined to accept amendments Nos. 52 and 106.

Amendment No. 53 is more appropriate to the legal function of forming an opinion regarding the need of a child to be assessed resting with the principal. However, that does not deny parents the right to seek an assessment. We are talking about a legal function, and it is better that it reside with the principal. The principal makes his decision, and the parents still have a right to seek an assessment. It does not legally bar them from doing so.

Regarding amendment No. 54, section 3(4) requires the school-based education plans to be prepared within one month from the completion of the assessment. The one month time limit is not imposed in every case because the plans to be prepared by the council or health board are obviously likely to involve much more complex needs. That is the reason the one month time limit is not imposed but in deference to what Deputies said, I am willing to give more consideration to it with a view to bringing forward an amendment on Report Stage to include some type of timescale.

With regard to the questions about the three months provision, as far as I am concerned the three months, as stated in the Bill, commence from the date the principal forms the opinion and so on. It is three calendar months and if the summer holidays fall in between, that is too bad. The clock starts ticking from the moment the view is formed. We are not taking Christmas periods, etc. out of it. I take the point made and I am willing to look again at the issue raised under subsection (3)(a) which states: “as soon as practicable, and in any case not later than 3 months ...”. It is not that it has to go on for three months but to put an outer limit on it. That is a better way of doing it than saying it should be within six weeks or whatever.

On whether we will have the National Educational Psychological Service psychologists or whatever, under section 5, there is no obligation to use the NEPS. I would anticipate that NEPS psychologists would be used in a fair number of cases but there is no obligation in the Bill. The Bill simply states that a team should be set up in more complex cases consisting of a psychologist, a medical practitioner, the principal of the school or the teacher, an appropriately qualified social worker and a therapist. One or more of those can be members of the team. The disability may be physical and it would be more practical to have a medical practitioner on the team but some cases may be so complex that each of those professionals would be needed and trying to get them together could take time. Including a legal obligation that it cannot be longer than three months before the team is assembled and the assessment commenced is a reasonable approach. People talked about the assessments but parents can get independent assessments done also. In light of what the Deputies said I am prepared to consider further the time limits. In some cases they are right but in others we can consider them further, but I do not accept amendment No. 51.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments Nos. 52 to 54, inclusive, not moved.

I move amendment No. 55:

In page 7, subsection (4), line 40, after "(3)” to insert “or by any other person qualified to carry out such an assessment”.

The purpose of this amendment is to change the subsection to read: "Where an assessment carried out in accordance withsubsection (3) or by any other person qualified to carry out such an assessment establishes that the student concerned has an educational disability the principal shall ...”. That brings in what was mentioned by the Minister earlier about the assessment being carried out by somebody outside of the team or the NEPS and a private assessment being carried out by the parents. That is the reason it is included in the Bill. This amendment would insert into the Bill something to which the Minister has just agreed and perhaps he would be willing to accept it.

The composition of the team is dealt with under section 5 and it is not necessary to insert the words in this amendment. We are trying to ensure that suitably qualified people do those assessments. They may not be from NEPS but they would have to be suitably qualified. The qualifications required and the people who are free to make the assessments are dealt with in section 5. We have tabled some amendments to that section as well. The amendment is not necessary.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment No. 56 is in the name of Deputies Gogarty and Crowe. Amendments Nos. 62, 67, 74, 80, 83, 89, 119, 125, 219, 268, 271, 275, 277, 288, 289, 291 and 292 are cognate and amendment No. 272 is related. It is proposed to take amendments Nos. 56, 62, 67, 74, 80, 83, 89, 119, 125, 219, 268, 271, 272, 275, 277, 288, 289, 291 and 292 together, by agreement. Agreed.

I move amendment No. 56:

In page 7, subsection (4), line 41, to delete "principal" and substitute "special educational needs organiser".

Deputy Crowe and I have tabled most of these amendments and the Minister will be aware that they are all to do with the principal. If the Minister will excuse the pun, there is a principle involved in that the principals are very concerned about this. All these amendments are tabled on behalf of the Irish Primary Principals' Network whose members are very concerned about the workload. I note the Minister's comments earlier about the role of the principal but given that 75% of principals in primary schools are teaching principals, the workload and the legal responsibility on them would be too great. The majority of these amendments were tabled to substitute the special educational needs organiser for the principal. The Minister might say that is putting an enormous workload on the special educational needs organiser but the Green Party would argue that the special educational needs organiser must have sufficient staff numbers and resources to carry out the functions of the Bill as effectively as possible.

I refer the Minister to section 24(6) which states: "The board of management, principal, teachers and other members of staff of a recognised school shall give all such assistance as may reasonably be required by the special educational needs organiser in the performance by him or her of his or her functions". I would argue that there is sufficient scope in the wording of that subsection to allow the principal to continue to play a primary role in terms of assessments. In putting the onus on the special educational needs organiser, however, the SENO would delegate certain functions to the principal but the principal would not be lumbered with more work than he or she could do in specific cases. I would argue that where the principal is not a full-time teaching principal, a higher level of workload could be taken on by the principal but in the case of teaching principals the SENO would realise what the workload involved and take a more hands-on approach to the application of their function. That is the reason we tabled these amendments. Deleting the word "principal" and substituting "special educational needs organiser" does not diminish the role the principal can and should play but it removes the legal onus on the principal to be the instigator as opposed to the facilitators.

Does the Minister intend to give any consideration to this issue? As I said, the amendments were tabled because of major concern among principals. That is a valid concern. If the Minister were to indicate that the amendments would be examined in further detail with the possibility of some compromise being put forward on Report Stage, I would be willing to withdraw them but if he takes a negative approach I will press the amendment. There is a principle involved here. A full-time teaching principal with a large workload cannot be responsible for this area as such a workload might impair his or her ability to carry out assessments in good time. A properly resourced special educational needs organiser would be better equipped to do so. Section 24(6) allows for a little toing and froing between the dual roles, leaving the special educational needs organiser as the primary instigator but giving a good deal of the workload to the principal, particularly those who are not full-time teaching principals.

If amendment No. 56 were accepted, the special educational needs organiser as opposed to the principal would draw up the education plan, a matter we discussed earlier. If amendment No. 119 were accepted, the special educational needs organiser would be in charge of carrying out and organising assessments. This bring us back to who should draw up the plan and who has the necessary expertise to do so. I listened to what the Minister said. The Hay Group report of 2002 on the role of primary school principals found that their role was overloaded and that they lacked the necessary supports and resources to effectively deliver their existing functions. Almost three-quarters of school principals are full-time teachers. These days they also function as accountants, administrators, lawyers, social workers, fund raisers and diplomats.

I attended one of their meetings at which they talked about almost being drowned under a sea of paper generated by Departments, various reports of State bodies, parents groups and so on. Principals are rightly concerned that the legislation will raise parents' expectations and they will the ones who will be asked to deliver. They argue that they do not have the necessary resources to do so.

One principal who appeared before the committee made the point that a school in a disadvantaged area of Clondalkin had more than 300 pupils, 120 of whom have special educational needs. He spoke about the great demands this places on his time. Another principal said that his school has 400 students, 15% of whom have special needs. That involves dozens of assessments and education plans over a year as well as reviews, appeals and so on.

These amendments, if accepted, would transfer to the special educational needs organiser a good deal of the workload this legislation would place on the principal. The Minister is opposed to this idea but I believe this is the correct way forward. The Minister might suggest this would overload the special educational needs organisers, which may be correct, but if special educational needs organisers do not handle it, I do not envisage how principals can do so, particularly principals of large schools. The bulk of the other amendments in the name of Deputy Gogarty expand on these points. There is a disagreement on the way forward in terms of who should have primary responsibility for this area, the special educational needs organisers or the principals. I believe it should be the special educational needs organisers.

We have had this discussion. I find it difficult to understand why the Minister is not listening to what the principals are saying. They are the people who are telling us that, with the best will and intentions in the world, they will find it difficult to carry out the functions this legislation will bestow on them. Some principals have told us it will be impossible to carry them out.

I agree that at the end of the day the principal is accountable. The principal is in charge of the school and responsible for its day to day running. The principal, perhaps in consultation with the special educational needs organiser, will do a good deal of the work, but certain judgments are being called for here. Amendment No. 119 relates to section 5, page 9, line 34. Section 5(1) provides:

An assessment undersection 3 or 4 shall be carried out with the assistance of persons possessing such expertise as——

(a) the health board or the Council, or

(b) in the case of an assessment undersection 3, the principal, having had regard to the any guidelines referred to in ....that section,

considers appropriate; those persons may, in the discretion of the board, Council or principal, include one or more of the following:

(i) a psychologist,

(ii) a medical practitioner........

Does that mean that under section 3 the principal will be required to organise all this and contact these people? The Minister said that it would possibly take up to three months in some cases for such a team to be put together. Where would a full-time teaching principal get the time and have the expertise and the contacts to know where these people are and whom is appropriate to contact? How can a principal leave his or her class to make all the necessary telephone calls and find out if such people have necessary qualifications and so on? Surely that is a function for the special educational needs organiser to carry out. The special educational needs organiser, in consultation and co-operation with the principal and the parents, should convene such a team. That is what I suggest in amendment No. 119.

In the other amendments tabled by Deputy Gogarty, I am not 100% convinced that we should remove the principal totally from the picture, but we should do all we can to assist the principal by involving the special educational needs organiser much more. I wonder what the special educational needs organiser will be doing because it seems the principal will be still left with most of the work on top of the additional work placed on his or her shoulders under the Education Act, the Education (Welfare) Act and so on.

The other amendment we tabled relates to page 14, subsection (5), line 47, and provides that the principal will work in consultation with the special educational needs organiser if the principal decides it is not appropriate to accede to a request under subsection (4). Principals are concerned about the time this work will take. However, the Minister does not seem to accept that concern but seems to think that they are like an elastic band and can be stretched to infinity. My fear is that they are reaching breaking point and that without support and assistance they will snap.

Another concern raised by principals is their expertise in making judgment calls in this regard. Most principals would say, as the Minister said earlier, that the diversity of disability is huge. There is a continuum from severe and profound right up along the way. We have to support principal on this. We propose that where a principal in consultation with the special educational needs organiser decides not to accede to a request, he or she should give notice in writing and so on. We should support principals and not overload them with work. We will reach a stage shortly where we will find it difficult to get people to take up the job of principal. I have heard of cases where there are difficulties in recruiting school principals. Who would want the job, especially if more and more work is being placed on the principals? There is only so much they can do physically and with the qualifications they have. The Minister should accede to some of these amendments or, at least, examine them before Report Stage. He should consult with the principals, although I do not know whether he has met them or listened to what they have to say. During the break, a principal rang me to say he was very concerned about this matter and did not know if he would stay in his job if the legislation, as drafted, is enacted. He did not know if could actually do the job. That is what the school principals' associations and the unions are telling us but will the Minister listen to them? Maybe he will go on one of his jaunts around the country to assemble a hall full of principals to chat with them and see what they think.

Direct talks are required.

The Minister would get his answer very fast if he had direct talks with the principals. He should invite them to come and see him, and listen to what they have to say.

Like other members of the committee, I have received submissions from the Irish Primary Principals' Network. I share their concerns, particularly those who are teaching principals. I view the Bill slightly differently from others who have contributed to the debate so far. I have seen an education plan being put together, which involved special needs teachers but it did not involve the hands-on approach of the school principal. That is my own personal experience. Amendment No. 56 seeks to delete the word "principal" and substitute "special educational needs organiser". Section 3(4) states:

Where an assessment carried out in accordance withsubsection (3) establishes that the student concerned has an educational disability the principal shall, subject to subsection (7), within 1 month from the receipt by him or her of the assessment, cause a plan to be prepared for the appropriate education of the student (in this Act referred to as an “education plan”).

The subsection uses the term "cause a plan"; it does not specifically say it is the responsibility of the principal to produce the plan. Schools are structured with boards of management, principals and so forth but if we take the overall responsibility away from the principal, the Bill could be left wide open. Who will be answerable to whom? As regards all the legislation currently in place, there seems to be a fairly clear path between the role of the principal and that of the board of management. The Bill does not intend that the work of preparing the education plan would be carried out by the principal. That is why the amendment seeks to substitute "special educational needs organiser". Ultimately, this is more about a chain of command. The Minister can explain his position but that is my view of the matter. If one sits on a school's board of management, effectively one is dealing with the principal. That is the structure that is in place and, consequently, the principal has the overall responsibility, thus carrying the buck at the end of the day. Perhaps I am grossly mistaken but I do not take the view that the preparation of the education plan would become the principal's responsibility; rather, as it states in the subsection, it is to "cause a plan to be prepared". The person preparing the plan would be the special educational needs organiser along with others rather than the principal, and particularly teaching principals. If I have misunderstood the intent of the Bill, I am sure the Minister will inform me but that was my view of it. It is important that whatever system comes into place, it should involve clear structures between the principal and the board of management. People should know where the dividing lines are. I share fully the concerns of principals who are concerned by the workload involved but I understood that the preparation of the education plan would be done by the special educational needs organiser.

We should listen to the principals whose concerns are genuine because they have a huge workload. I considered tabling the amendment the principals suggested but then I thought one might as well omit section 3 altogether, which concerns the school based assessment and education plan. In effect, we are saying that the special educational needs organisers would be responsible for the assessments and the plan. Section 7(1) states

The Council upon being informed by a health board or the principal of a relevant school that a child has special educational needs, shall, unless an education plan has been or is being prepared undersection 3 in respect of the child, direct the relevant special educational needs organiser to cause to be prepared a plan for the appropriate education of the child (in this Act also referred to as an “education plan”).

That is why I am saying that principals should be able to skip section 3 altogether and go, through the council, to the special educational needs organiser to get them to do the assessment and prepare the education plan. That is why I have tabled amendment No. 45 rather than substituting "special educational needs organiser" for "principal" throughout the Bill. I thought that in moving his amendment No. 59, the Minister was accepting that argument, which he is, up to a point. However, the Minister did say he felt school based assessments should continue. If the assessment is done within the school and the special educational needs organiser prepares the plan, I am not sure how that would work in practice. I concluded that whoever does the assessment should also organise the plan. In the vast majority of cases, the special educational needs organiser should organise both the assessment and the plan, in other words, it should be done under the provisions of section 7 rather than section 3.

Whether we substitute the term "special educational needs organiser" for "principal" throughout the Bill, or place the main emphasis on section 7, we should circularise principals saying they can immediately go to the council through the special educational needs organiser and get them to do the work in consultation with the school. I would like to be satisfied that principals can do that in practice. If not, I would take the approach of my colleagues in order to remove the burden from the principal. The Minister needs to clarify his thinking on this issue. We cannot leave it so that principals must undertake the vast majority of assessments and plans, while the council will be involved only in a minority of serious cases.

On Second Stage I voiced my concerns about the role of principals because, even before the Bill becomes law, they have a heavy work load. We are seeking extra resources to make the legislation effective because some schools have no secretarial services. One must ask how all the proposed work will be carried out. I am seeking clarification of the role of special educational needs organisers. My understanding is that a special educational needs organiser will be assigned to a number of schools and will be conversant with the special needs of individual pupils in a catchment area. I may be wrong on that point but I would welcome some clarification. While the special educational needs organiser will play that role, somebody must be responsible for providing research and documentation focusing on the needs of the child. The principal is responsible ultimately, in co-operation with others who are in direct contact with the child, including the class teacher and the parents. I would like to have some clarification of the role of the special educational needs organiser in this regard.

I disagree with my colleagues on this amendment. We are talking about where final responsibility lies because the buck must stop at somebody's desk. The appropriate place for it to stop is with the principal, in the same way as with other matters concerning the school. The principal has a particular function to perform and if the buck stopped elsewhere we would receive complaints that this issue was not receiving the importance it deserved.

We do not expect the principal to do this work. It will be delegated but the principal must be responsible. If time and resources are an issue, with principals being overworked, then that is a different issue which must be addressed separately. We are talking about responsibility and the buck stopping somewhere. This is where it must stop.

I express my optimism because of the great support and understanding being shown for principals. The Chair has a lot of experience in principalship——

If there is a vote I will declare my interest.

I welcome the genuine cross-party support on this issue. In wider society one might not necessarily hear it, particularly in the media, where some of the treatment of teachers and principals is questionable. Some people do not understand the seriousness, professionalism and integrity of principals, neither do they understand how difficult their job is. I welcome these positive comments.

The special needs organiser has a very valuable job. Deputy Gogarty was correct in his comments about section 24(6). Many speakers have referred to the principal's workload, which is very heavy, and for a teaching principal in a primary school it is unbelievable. A teaching principal is a teacher, social worker, security adviser, choirmaster and is often also a football coach. Even with delegation, in some small schools the work usually falls on the principal or vice-principal. We must bear that workload in mind.

Amendment No. 56. makes this easier because, as Deputy Stanton said, we have a major problem in that quality people in the education system are not going after principalships. I do not know if people are aware of this. It is a stressful, difficult job and the workload has increased massively in the last five or six years. It is our duty to ease that workload and address these problems.

I understand Deputy McHugh's point. The buck stops with the principal, who is the chief executive of the school when it comes to the everyday administration of the school from Monday to Friday. He or she calls the shots. Also, when the cigire visits a school it is the principal first meets when dealing with assessments, so the principal carries the can here also. We must recognise the role played by principals and give them our support.

Unlike the Chair and Deputy Finian McGrath, the Minister did not make it to the principal's office but he has experience as a teacher and will be aware of the workload involved.

I agree with Deputy Hoctor's point, that we tend to view this in the context of what was wrong in the past. Deputy Hoctor said there was a need for extra assistance, as did Deputy McHugh. When I ran a department in my former career I would take no diktat from anyone. I carried the can in delegating and getting in experts. We cannot impose on a principal anything from an outside source, in this case a special needs organiser. The principal has to have the first and final say, which is also a matter of legal responsibility. The principal must literally be the principal person, though there is a proven need for back-up, which the Minister may address at a later stage. Deputy McHugh is correct on this aspect.

If there were attempts to bring in other decision-makers, the principals would be the first to object because of conflicts. That is logical.

I thank members for their contributions. I am aware of the lobbying campaign that was conducted by principals on this matter and I do not blame them for trying to ensure there is no major increase in their workload in relation to this or other legislation. However, it is important to point out that we have listened to what the principals said and, particularly through amendments Nos. 59 and 340, have changed many of the provisions in the Bill which caused them concern.

I will go back to an earlier point I made. One of the major functions of a school principal, apart from those outlined by Deputy McGrath and others, is to be the chief educationalist in the school and to lead the education policy of the school. This means trying to ensure that the education plan of the school and the way education is provided are suitable for all children in the school. It is the school's primary responsibility to ensure the programme it is following is appropriate to the needs of the children in its care. I reiterate Deputy Dennehy's point. In the past at secondary level, not so much at primary level, there has been a great reluctance in schools to open the doors and allow people from the outside in to see what is going on in the school. Teachers, who are very professional, felt they should not be second guessed in discharging their duties and took umbrage if there was any attempt to do so.

We are concerned here with section 3 assessments and it is only right and proper that the school should discharge its functions fully in this matter. The responsibility must rest somewhere and, through the Bill, it rests with the principal. Having listened to the arguments put forward by the principals we have made it explicit that the principal can and should delegate responsibilities. That can be done with a teacher or teachers within the school, so the burden or workload does not fall solely on the principal.

I have one criticism of school principals, which is reflected in the Hay report and other reports, and I have also voiced that criticism directly to them in my travels around the country. Deputies will be pleased to hear I intend resuming these travels shortly and I will be delighted to meet them in the next three to four months. My criticism, which principals would accept, is their failure to delegate and to make those with posts of responsibility accept their responsibilities. There is a failure to work on a management team basis so that everyone with a post of responsibility is seen as part of the management of the school. I do not blame principals entirely for that, as they have tried to do something about it. There has also been a failure on the part of the Department to ensure proper professional and personal development was given to principals and others holding posts in schools. If that was done it would be good for teachers.

Having listened to the arguments made here and on Second Stage, we have, under amendment No. 340, included a direct provision whereby the principal can seek advice and assistance from the special education needs organiser. Teachers who might undertake this task are not entirely alone. There is a need to try to ensure that schools accept responsibility, where possible. If it is too complex it is made clear that they can refer to the council and so on. If everything is referred to the council or the special education needs organiser, the legislation will not work, which is not the desire of anyone here. It will not work if the school is excluded. Deputy O'Sullivan correctly said that if these amendments are accepted we may as well delete section 3. Then there would be protests that everything is imposed on schools from outside by those who know nothing about running them. It is not practical to accede to these amendments.

Some remarks by Deputies were based on the Bill as it stands without taking full account of some of the proposed amendments. A number of these should be reconsidered. As matters stand, section 3 assessments are included with provisions dealing with later assessments, with the result that duties would have been imposed on principals in terms of assembling teams and so on. The principals rightly pointed out that this would be too onerous, that they may not have the skills or the knowledge and they may not know the kind of people who would be needed. These amendments propose the deletion of these requirements.

It is now proposed to provide in the legislation that if it comes to the attention of a principal that a schoolchild is not benefiting fully from the education provided and is not reaching his or her full potential, the principal will be required to decide what is wrong and select a programme. If matters are more complicated the principal may, when putting in place a programme to try and assist the child, involve the special education needs organiser, the parents or other teachers. The programme might simply mean sending the child to the resource teacher for five hours a week or whatever. The school is the proper place to make this decision. However, where it is known in advance that the needs are more complex and should be assessed by a full team, section 5 provisions will apply.

Perhaps members will reconsider the amendments. We are asking schools to look after children with needs when these are discovered, with the proviso that the matter should be referred to the council where the needs are more complex. I do not believe the burden we are imposing on principals or schools is too much. It is part of their function and duty, particularly in light of the amendments I have tabled.

Amendment put.
The Committee divided: Tá 5; Níl 7.

  • Coveney, Simon.
  • Crowe, Seán.
  • Gogarty, Paul.
  • O’Sullivan, Jan.
  • Stanton, David.

Níl

  • Curran, John.
  • Dempsey, Noel.
  • Finneran, Michael.
  • Hoctor, Máire.
  • Killeen, Tony.
  • McEllistrim, Thomas.
  • Wallace, Dan.
Amendment declared lost.
Progress reported; Committee to sit again.
The select committee adjourned at 7.10 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Thursday, 8 January 2004.