Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill 2003: Committee Stage (Resumed).

Debate resumed on amendment No. 15:
I leathanach 10, fo-alt (6), líne 18, tar éis "potential", "and shall take account of the child's cultural background and linguistic needs" a chur isteach.
—(Senator O'Toole).

It was agreed by the House that amendments Nos. 15, 16, 20, 24 and 25 would be discussed together.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Tigh. Is é atá idir lámha againn an tábhacht a bhaineann le cúlra culturtha an linbh a chur san áireamh maraon leis na deacrachtaí a bheadh aige nó aici ó thaobh cursaí teanga de. In addressing the educational plan it is crucially important that there be a reference to and an understanding of the child's cultural background.

I was trying to make this point last night. The Acting Chairman may have felt I was overly longwinded but I needed to put my remarks in context. As a teacher — and I know Senator Fitzgerald did the same — we were inclined to use Ladybird books because they were very useful for learning techniques. Nonetheless, the Department of Education had its face absolutely set against using them because they were culturally incorrect. Peter and Jane did not fit the backgrounds of the children of Dublin. Bheadh sé sin thar a bheith tábhachtach ó thaobh cúrsaí Gaoluinne de. Ní bheadh aon ghaol ag leanaí Gaeltachta leis na Peters and Janes of Great Britain. It is hugely important that we keep that in mind. Similarly, there were perfectly good stay safe programmes in use in Britain and we looked at them very carefully. The British programmes followed the required steps but they did not come out of the children's cultural background. The same thing happened in dealing with remediation. Is cuimhin liom, go mórmhór in áiteanna Gaeltachta in gCiarraí, i gCondae na Gaillimhe agus i gCondae Mhuigheo, go raibh deacrachtaí ag na múinteoirí ó thaobh na gceisteanna bhí á gcur ar na leanaí toisc nach rabhadar préamhaithe ina gcultúr féin. I heard a recent example of this difficulty from a psychologist who was working in Irish and who had moved briefly from Gaoth Dobhair to Gaeltacht Chiarraí. Bhí an siceolaí seo ag cur teist ar leanbh agus dúirt sí leis, "Druid an doras". The child did not know what she was saying because he used, "Dún an doras". This is a very simple example which everyone would understand. Idioms, cadences, inflexions and the way we speak in different parts of the country, even in English, can be important. When one includes daoine ins na Gaeltachtaí it is even more important. In looking at a child's potential, how we can best find it and give the child support we must take these factors into consideration.

I must say a word in praise of the eagrais Ghaol-uinne. The Minister of State is aware that I have spent much of my life fighting with the eagrais Gaoluinne because, although I agree with their objectives, I do not always agree with the approach they have taken. I have discussed these amendments with Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge, in particular, and I commend the breadth of vision and progressive nature of its response on this issue. None of the amendments under discussion is focused on Gaoluinn. I am focusing on Gaoluinn in my remarks but these measures will be equally important to children coming from other cultures in a multicultural Ireland. This will be particularly so in the Minister of State's own constituency. In Ennis recently, I met Sister Betty from the primary school which probably has the biggest proportion of foreign nationals of any school in Ireland. It is years since I was in the school but I know it is superbly run. I asked her about this issue. She made the case for maintaining a reference to the children's background. Tá sé tábhachtach go gcuirfear seo san áireamh i bpleananna agus i bpolasaithe a chuirfear le chéile ar son na leanaí seo.

Roinnt blianta ó shin nuair a bhí athbhreithniú á dhéanamh ar remediation, cuireadh an cheist, "Cad mar gheall ar remediation ins na Gaeltachtaí?" Chuir Muintearas, eagras atá lonnaithe i Leitir Mór, feachtas ar bun chun scrúdú agus iniúchadh a dhéanamh ar remediation agus foilsíodh tuarascáil ar an méid a fuarthas amach. Bhí an Roinn an-tógtha leis and supported it very much. The report examined the psychological and remediation service, taking into consideration the child's background. The amendments follow the thinking in that report. They make reasonable points and should be accepted.

I accept that the chances of changing the Bill are slim but I put the proposals on the record in an attempt to address the issue.

We have co-sponsored the amendments, although Senator O'Toole is more proficient than me in the Irish language. The purpose of amendment No. 16 is to ensure the necessary resources are more likely to be provided if they are identified.

I support the amendments. Is the Minister of State confident the Departments of Health and Children, Education and Science and Finance have the professional personnel to adequately perform the duties required under the amendments? Would they create difficulties? If so, what action will the Minister take to address these difficulties, given that this serious issue has been highlighted by many support groups?

I thank the Senators who tabled amendments. I respect Senator O'Toole's great knowledge and feel for these issues, particularly those relating to the Irish language. As a teacher and leading member of the INTO for many years, he has a tremendous background in this area. I understand where he is coming from. He wants to ensure that those who would prefer to do business through the Irish language at all times can do so as easily as possible and, therefore, that the assessment can be seamlessly carried out in Irish or English.

The section recognises the linguistic needs of children with special education needs and must be taken into account in carrying out an assessment and the development of their education plans. It is inevitable that this issue will arise in the assessment process and it is a matter, therefore, for the national council to address the components of the assessment and the plan.

The Senator will be well aware through his own work and through his great interest in cultural issues of the Education Act 1998 and Official Languages Act 2003. The Education Act 1998 provides that it is a function of a school to promote the development of the Irish language and that schools located in a Gaeltacht area must contribute to the maintenance of Irish as the primary community language. The Official Languages Act 2003 will place an obligation on a number of education bodies, including the National Council for Special Education, to provide these services through Irish.

An objective of the education partners under the Education Act 1998 is to promote the language and cultural needs of students, having regard to the choices of their parents. Public bodies must take adequate account of a person's cultural background. Failure to do so would not respect the principles of diversity and equality, which are enshrined in our laws under the Equal Status Act 2000.

Senator O'Toole also referred to children whose first language is not English. There is much greater cultural diversity in Ireland today and that should be welcomed. I am conscious of this and, within my own area of responsibility in the Department, courses are provided for those in the education system whose first language is not English so that they have equal access to the system.

Regarding amendment No. 16, this matter was raised in the other House. The Minister stated the word "services" rather than "resources" is more appropriate because the provision of services automatically requires and implies the provision of resources. However, a person qualified to carry out an assessment might not necessarily be in a position to quantify the financial resources required. I am inclined, therefore, to agree with this view and I do not propose to accept the amendment.

I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive reply. I agree with her comments on cultural background and the importance of language. However, a distinction must be made, although it will not be addressed in this legislation. I am here long enough to know that. My amendments relate to other matters in addition to doing business through Gaeilge or whatever language but I appreciate that is important. I refer to the test instruments. For example, a psychologist may conduct the assessment through Gaeilge in a Gaeltacht school but the test instrument used for the assessment will be English-based. I am trying to ensure the test instrument should be fine tuned and proofed.

The issues mentioned by the Minister of State are important and I was delighted by her comments on them. However, when the rule is run over a child with special needs, the test instrument should be proofed against any wobbles if a child's background is different. Since the Minister of State cannot make an amendment, will she give a commitment that the Department will bring this issue to the attention of the council when the legislation comes into operation? The council should be informed that in all cases involving children with different cultural backgrounds, care should be taken. Changes will have to be made to the assessment but the psychologist can do that to ensure the test instrument is fine tuned to distinguish between children of different cultural backgrounds and to ensure the testing reflects that. The assessment must be proofed against wobbles or differences that could emerge through an English-based instrument that disregards cultural background, an cúlra speisialta sna Gaeltachtaí agus pé cúlra speisialta a bheadh ag aon leanbh. Dá mba rud é go ndéanfaí sin, bheadh tuiscint ag muintir na nGaeltachtaí agus na heagrais Ghaoluinne go bhfuil seans acu brú a chur ar an mbord amach anseo le bheith cinnte go bhfuil sin déanta.

The Minister will understand this issue better than myself, given her academic background and studies.

I thank the Senator. He referred to the test instrument and materials and I acknowledge the difficulties involved. I do not know how we will go about putting that to rights because the measurement of those tests would necessitate a great deal of research. It is an important issue, which I will bring to the attention of the Department. It may take a long time to put it to rights but the issue needs to be addressed.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 16 not moved.

I move amendment No. 17:

In page 10, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following subsection:

"(7) Where an assessment carried out in accordance with this section establishes that the child concerned has an educational disability, the Health Board or Council as the case may be shall, within one month from the preparation of the assessment, cause a plan to be prepared for the appropriate education of the child (in this Act referred to as an ‘education plan').".

In section 3(5), if an assessment is carried out which indicates that an education plan is required, it then provides for that. However, there is no corresponding requirement in section 4 and the amendment seeks to address this. We want to provide that the health board or council, within a month of the preparation of the assessment, will cause a plan to be prepared for the appropriate education of the child.

Section 8(2) now includes a deadline for the preparation of an education plan by the council or the health board. These plans must accommodate children with more complex needs and this will take more time. The time limit is therefore one month in which to commence the plan and a further two months for its completion. The one month suggested here is not feasible and I do not propose to accept the amendment.

The Minister of State's reply relates to time but I do not see anything in the section requiring the education plan itself to be carried out. Perhaps I am mistaken but I have read through this and it does not appear to be a requirement in the same way as in section 3(5).

Section 8(1) provides that the council, on 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 under section 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. The Bill also refers to it as the educational plan, so that covers the issue raised by the Senator.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 4 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 18:

In page 10, subsection (1), lines 32 and 33, after "persons" to insert "shall include the parents of the child and an independent advocate for the child and".

This amendment is similar to others we have tabled. It seeks to ensure that the parents are involved at all stages and that there should be an independent advocacy service for children with educational disabilities. This is lacking in the legislation as it stands, in that parents are consulted but are not centrally involved in the different stages, such as the preparation of education plans.

Throughout the Bill we have made numerous points to ensure that parents have an essential role in dealing with this issue. Parents are very much involved and are part of the team which draws up the educational plan. The comhairle will address the question of advocacy services for both children and adults with a disability.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 19:

In page 10, subsection (1), line 33, to delete "may" and substitute "shall".

At present the legislation states that an assessment under section 4 shall be carried out with the assistance of persons with experience and the necessary qualifications. However, the legislation states that this may include a psychologist, a medical practitioner, the principal of the school or someone appointed in their place — a qualified social worker, etc. The persons listed are clearly the key personnel in evaluating the educational needs of the child and for that reason the amendment seeks to replace "may" with "shall" to ensure that the expertise of at least one of those persons is utilised in assessing the needs of a particular child. I put down the amendment to ensure that that is the case.

I have looked at this amendment, which was raised by Deputies Stanton and Enright when the Bill was before the Dáil, where it was well considered. Looking at the provision again in the context of the amendment I am still happy that the phrasing in section 5(1) is correct. It is a drafting issue and we have been told by the Parliamentary Counsel that this is the correct phrasing.

I emphasis again to the Minister of State that "may" is a weak term in that it is possible that it may not be essential for one of the experts listed to be involved. They may be but it is not an absolute requirement that they should, which is the thinking behind the amendment. In the absence of the amendment, the assessment could take place without the expertise required in section 4.

I understand what the Senator is trying to convey. He sees this as a weakness, with "shall" rather than "may" strengthening the provision, and from a lay person's point of view I would agree. However, we have been advised otherwise by the Parliamentary Counsel.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Progress reported; Committee to sit again.