Dáil Éireann - Volume 590 - 19 October, 2004

Private Members’ Business. - Special Educational Needs: Motion.

  Ms Enright: I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

— recognising the frustration of parents of those children whose needs are not being met because long-promised resources are not in place;

— questioning the fairness and appropriateness of a system which removes individual assessment, critical for the identification of individual needs, and which off-loads responsibilities from the Minister to the school principal in making key decisions as to which child receives assistance; and

— aware that timely and appropriate assistance to children will help them reach their full educational potential and concerned that neglect of specific educational needs of some children will hamper their development;

calls on the Government to:

— allocate sufficient resources for the provision of special needs assistants and resource teaching hours, when and where they are needed, so that children are given the help they require;

— implement the provisions of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act immediately, so that parents, psychologists and other key support personnel can be involved in drawing up the appropriate education plans to meet the specific educational needs of children; and

— immediately sanction the resources needed to clear the backlog in assessing applications for special educational resources, state clearly how long it will take to clear this backlog and reallocate internal departmental resources to the special needs section so that they can [909] deal properly with applications and queries from schools and parents.

Let me begin with the simple statement that all children are not the same, but they are all equal. The first part of this statement, that all children are not the same, is a simple fact which would be impossible to refute. Like adults, children have different personalities, different strengths and weaknesses, and different capabilities. We should celebrate and encourage the differences between people and the rich diversity this brings to everyday life.

The second part of this statement, that all children are equal, should be a fact but it is still only an aspiration. The Government has shown, time and again, that it will not make this aspiration a reality in any meaningful way. In classrooms throughout Ireland some children are given the assistance they need to learn and develop while for other children the position is very different. They are left to struggle with the learning process, without the resource teaching hours or special needs assistants they need. Their individual difficulties are not prioritised, their needs are not met and their plight is ignored. That is a gross inequality in the education system and puts to shame many of the high-minded notions of the Government that the State cherishes all children equally. It does not, and it is failing in its responsibilities every day.

There is a basic principle that must be accepted and it is that every child has an educational potential. It is this potential that is being squandered by the Government when it fails to provide the educational assistance children need to grow, learn and develop. This principle was recognised in the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, which stated clearly that every child is educable. The commission reaffirmed the right of every child to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. It clearly recognised the responsibility of the State to provide sufficient resources to ensure that pre-school children and children of school-going age have an education appropriate to their needs in the best possible environment.

This is a responsibility the Government is failing to meet. Recently the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin described the provisions being made for children with special needs as “inadequate to the point of becoming a national disgrace”. In an address last week he stated that Ireland could not claim to be either a caring or an economically successful society unless we were prepared to address very seriously the provision of proper support for children with special needs. I agree with this statement and ask whether the Minister agrees.

As a wealthy State we have in our power to significantly improve supports for children with special educational requirements. Whether it be through the provision of additional resource teaching hours, special needs assistants, specific teaching aids or specialised computer equipment, children with special educational needs should [910] have their needs met. The potential benefits to these children from this type of increased support, both now and in later life, are too great to allow the current situation to continue.

Fine Gael research shows that children who need to see an educational psychologist must wait on average six and a half months before getting an appointment. In more than a quarter of cases they must wait more than nine months. During a survey of schools that I carried out earlier this year the principal of a school for children with special needs told me that some of her pupils had not been assessed for eight to ten years. This is without doubt a national disgrace and cannot be allowed to continue.

Determining the individual needs of a child will very often require an individual psychological assessment and extensive consultation. This is recognised by the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act. This legislation, only enacted during the summer, specifically notes that children with special needs will require an education plan, drawn up after broad consultation with parents and educational professionals.

Section 4 of the Act makes a commitment that an assessment of a child should include “an evaluation and statement of the nature and extent of the child’s disability” and should also include “matters that affect the child overall as an individual”. Section 3 of the Act relates to the preparation of education plans to meet the needs of children, and does so in a consultative way that includes the children’s parents, teachers and so on. However, against the backdrop of this recently passed legislation the Government has decided to apply a new system to the allocation of special needs resources. This weighted system judges schools according to their size, the sex of their pupils and their status. The resources appear to be allocated in a way that considers everything except the specific needs of the child.

Today a school in County Meath contacted me. There are 18 children in the school who are described as “high incidence disability”. They have been assessed and require special education teaching. Under the new system, the school gets a total of 11.5 hours per week to divide between them, giving 38 minutes per child. It has been told it must recluster and those 18 children are now entitled to only 22 minutes of special education teaching per week each. We must be realistic. It is useless, pointless and pathetic to give a child 22 minutes of special education teaching per week. They might as well not have it.

What is the point in accessing psychologists’ reports if they are undermined and ignored whenever it is effective, perhaps economically, for the Department to do so? I am not sure what criteria are used. What does one say to the parents of Gavin, a dyslexic child, nearing the end of his primary education? His psychologist recommends two and a half hours resource teaching per week and intensive training, but all he gets is ten measly minutes per week, which includes time spent moving his classroom to the prefabricated [911] building and returning to his classroom. That is all he gets per week, and Gavin is but one example of many such cases.

I telephoned the Department of Education and Science in August — I accept there was another Minister there at the time — and was told that it was dealing with junior infants at the moment and that everyone else would be sorted out in September. Neither group has yet been sorted out. Last Friday I mentioned this to the parents of a boy who finished junior infants last June. They suggested that if they kept him in junior infants this year he might have a chance of getting help this year. He has profound speech and language problems as well as behavioural and social problems. He got half of the recommended resource hours and no special needs assistant despite the fact that one was recommended. His parents say he is not improving and he is beginning to notice the difference, which is setting him back further. He is on a waiting list for a place in a school with a special language class.

I could stay here all night, as could many of my colleagues or the Minister’s colleagues on the noticeably empty benches opposite, giving examples of children and parents who are effectively victims of this system. The reason Fine Gael is calling for the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act to be prioritised immediately is so that consultation and consideration can be brought back to the heart of the decision making processes that impact upon the education of children. Specific needs require specific supports. Parents deserve to be consulted, as do teachers and school principals. Children should be assessed and the total package designed for the education of children with special educational requirements should be holistic, broad, fair and achievable. All resources that are allocated to children with special needs are welcome, but I have deep concerns about allocating resources in a blanket manner, with little attention to specific and individual requirements.

Failing to recognise and provide for the specific needs of children is in direct contravention of the legislation that governs the actions of every Minister with responsibility for education. In addition to the responsibilities under the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, the Education Act 1998 states very clearly that it is the responsibility of the Minister to “ensure ... that there is made available to every person in the State, including a person with a disability or a special education need, support services and a level and quality of education appropriate to meeting the needs and abilities of that person.”

Not only is the Minister failing in that responsibility, she is further failing to keep parents and teachers informed about the process through which her Department awards additional resources. In recent weeks, letters have been sent from the Department of Education and Science instructing school principals not to telephone the Department with questions regarding special edu[912] cational needs but to put such queries in writing instead. This policy is simply creating an additional layer of bureaucracy and adding further delays to the already long drawn-out process of allocating urgently required special needs resources.

Many parents and principals throughout the country have contacted me and my colleagues to express their anger and sheer frustration at the difficulty they have in contacting the Department of Education and Science to find out if special needs assistants are to be allocated to their schools. To compound matters, I recently requested information on behalf of several children with special needs, but the only response I received was a number of near-identical standardised letters. Regardless of the question I asked I received the same one-paragraph response. With the exception of a reference to the individual child the letters were identical. It is a sad and sorry day when that is all we can show parents who consult us about their children. These responses provide nothing more than general information. They do not answer specific queries relating to a child’s application for assistance. They cause even more anxiety among an already frustrated group of parents who have been let down by the Government. In sending out these standardised responses, the Government is choosing to hide behind the new weighted system for the allocation of resources for special needs. Giving this general information and placing the responsibility on the school principal to decide which child should get assistance is utterly unhelpful.

Asking schools not to call with queries about the resources their pupils need and sending out useless responses to parents who have valid and important queries about the needs of their children shows that the Government is closing down communication on special needs. It is of paramount importance that parents are kept informed about key aspects of their children’s education. This includes applications made for resource teaching hours and special needs assistants. These provisions, in which many Members put much faith, were enshrined in the Act. The Minister must allocate more internal resources to ensure that those overworked officials in the busy Department section dealing with these applications can give information to principals, schools and parents in a speedy and more efficient manner. I do not wish to be unduly critical of those officials as they are doing their best. However, they work under stressful conditions, dealing with a large array of applications. Insufficient staff numbers only compound the problem.

There is an anomaly with regard to the capitation levels that are given to children with special educational needs. When a child is enrolled in a school for children with special needs or in a special class in an ordinary national school, the school receives a higher annual capitation assistance rate than a child attending ordinary level classes. For example, a special national school [913] will receive €376.64 per annum for a child under 12 years with a mild general learning disability. If the child transfers to an ordinary national school, which the parents and teachers may desire, the school will receive only €118.22 per child per annum even though the child will have more requirements in such an environment. It can be argued that he or she will have extra resources such as a special needs assistant. However, very often he or she will be in a larger class. Cutting the capitation grant in such cases is wrong and does not reflect the needs of the child.

  Mr. F. McGrath: Hear, hear.

  Ms Enright: I support the recent trend of integrating as many children as possible into the one school. However, I also recognise that some children are better served educationally, developmentally and socially in schools that cater exclusively for their needs. If a child with a special educational need attends a mainstream class, the capitation the school receives is the same as for other pupils. I ask the Minister to address this anomaly as a matter of urgency. Another anomaly exists for those children in junior infants class last year. Now these children have entered full-day classes and I cannot understand why the special needs assistant stays with them only until lunch time. Their needs do not change when the bell strikes lunch break.

Meeting the needs of children with special educational requirements has a cross-departmental aspect. For children with autism, in addition to the provision of consistent and regular resource teaching hours, the appointment of trained special needs assistants for individual children and access to a psychologist for regular assessment, frequent access to a speech and language therapist and occupational therapist is advised in almost all cases. A holistic approach to needs must be adopted. Each individual need must be viewed as a single building block: when all the needs are met, the education of the child can build and grow. Leaving some of these needs unmet will undermine the total educational attainment of the child, potentially for his or her lifetime. Resources are a key issue; without them, the best legislative framework for the provision of support to children with special needs will not be enough.

I recognise that the Minister has been in the job a short time. However, she must understand these children and their parents cannot wait. This motion reflects their needs and there is a number of simple actions that the Minister for Education and Science must take without delay. The telephone helplines must be kept open. Parents and teachers must have access to the Department to find out the position of applications for assistance made. More staff must be allocated. If the staff are not available to process the applications for assistance, then the applications will just gather dust in the Department. This is not acceptable for the children involved. Proper information must [914] be given. The Department must stop sending out standardised responses to every query about the provision for special needs children. This simply adds to parents’ frustration who feel they are getting nowhere with successive Ministers for Education and Science. The parents and teachers must be told at what stage applications for resources are in an upfront and honest way. Reasonable timescales for the consideration of applications must be given rather than allowing them fester for more than 18 months, as is the case now. The Minister must take advice and listen to what educational psychologists are saying. There are numerous cases where psychologists have recommended specific educational assistance for a child, only to find that the Minister for Education and Science or her Department has other ideas. Failure to listen to qualified advice is a failure to meet the specific needs of children.

The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 must be prioritised with the recommendations on the development of education plans and parental involvement put in place. A principal informed me that a special needs organiser called to his school last week. When the principal asked the organiser of a specific case, he replied that he did not know his brief or what he had to do. This is unacceptable.

  Ms O’Sullivan: I am glad the new Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, is present for the debate on this important joint motion on behalf of Fine Gael, Labour and the Green Party. However, the motion is an indication of the need for a change of Government. Despite the wealthy economy, the money flowing into the Exchequer and the awareness of the problem of special needs, the issue has not been properly addressed. All taxpayers want to see their money spent on prioritising this issue. However, the most vulnerable are being left behind. The Government has neither the capacity nor the political will to address this issue. It is an indication of the Government’s failure when, with all the money available, the needs of the weakest children who need support from the start cannot be met.

Studies prove that early intervention is crucial for these children. However, this is not happening. Last year when the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act was debated in the Houses, over 4,000 children, already professionally assessed as having a need for intervention, lost that vital year. They were left sitting on a waiting list for a decision in the Department of Education and Science. While the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, introduced legislation to focus on each child’s individual needs with individual assessments and educational plans, he planned to change to the weighted system. The final draft of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act did not match the expectations of a rights-based Bill. Although it pro[915] vided for individual plans and assessment of needs, it was dependent on the availability of resources. Meanwhile, the Department has moved to a weighted system, based on the number and gender of children in a school. In effect Government policy in this area is in total confusion.

In the meantime, those children with the greatest need are the meat in the sandwich while not having their needs addressed. This motion highlights what needs to be done to address those children’s needs. It does not deal with individual children but claims one size fits all. A system where school size determines the number of resource teachers and special needs assistants it will receive will not work. I appeal to the Minister for Education and Science to ensure there is scope for the individual needs of each child to be addressed. I support Deputy Enright’s call for the need for the Department to respond to parents and schools when they raise issues.

Yesterday, I heard of a child who had just transferred to second level who was in need of one-to-one support but it was not forthcoming. That child is now out of school. The child’s mother went into school with the child for the first two weeks so that her child could attend school. In the end the school decided that was not appropriate but it has still not been able to get the support the child needs. Professional educational psychologists have assessed this child.

One of the big problems that arise in this area is when children transfer, whether that be from primary to second level or from one primary school to another. We need to have adequate resources in the system for these children. It is not good enough to have them waiting. They cannot cope in school if they are not getting the resources they need. In many cases they simply cannot adapt to the system.

I have received many letters on this matter and I will read extracts from them.

“Since [the child’s name] was approximately three years old it has been apparent that he has developed mental delays. For the last six years we have fought for everything that he has received. Now the time has come, and actually passed, that he needs resource hours. His need for help is becoming greater but yet the supply of help is not forthcoming.”

Another letter stated:

“Our son has had a special needs assistant to cover all the hours he was attending school for the last two years. As he was due to begin first class this September, which requires him to spend an extra hour at school, the school principal applied to the Department of Education to have his SNA hours increased to cover this extra hour, however, instead of an increase his SNA hours have been reduced to 12.5. This, we feel, will have a devastating effect on our son’s education.”

[916] Another letter stated: “I believe the Department of Education is in breach of its statutory obligation to meet my son’s entitlement and worse, does not appear to give a damn.” In reading that out I stress that we are not criticising the people working in that section of the Department. They are absolutely swamped with work. They need extra resources which is one of the issues referred to in the motion.

I have other letters from school principals, one of which states:

“What really has got to me and to teachers is that we were advised to have consultations and meetings with parents re referral for assessments. Then parents and teachers met the psychologist and we had assessments, recommendations, and follow-up meetings. In most of our cases it was all for nothing. After resource hours were recommended and other strategies the Department changed the rules. Parents and pupils were and are disenchanted, maybe disenfranchised would be better and after all the meetings with teachers who often initiate but are always part of the process their children got nothing. It certainly makes the school-home relationship more difficult. Further, particular children with behavioural and/or emotional problems who were brought through this process became more difficult to teach and deal with.”

Another letter from a teacher stated:

“As you may be aware, the situation with resource and special needs assistant hours in schools at the present moment is becoming a shambles. I have been in contact with the special needs section in the Department of Education on several occasions and, through no fault of theirs, they could not give me a definite answer as regards support for these children.”

Another teacher’s letter stated:

“With the proposed reduction of special education teachers from three to 1.8 in September 2005, the number of children receiving learning support and resource teaching under the new special education teaching will be reduced from 81 to 49. Some of these 32 children who will have to be dropped have already been sanctioned by a Department of Education and Science letter for resource teaching.”

This is one of the real concerns of principals. In cases where children have already been assessed and special needs assistance sanctioned by the Department but the number of resource teaching hours given to the school under the weighted system is reduced, principals do not know what they should do. They are put in the position of having to decide which children will have their hours reduced and which children will not. Again, to go back to the main point, legislation that is already enacted goes in the other direction by stating that the needs of each child must be addressed, that [917] each child must have a plan and the resources to implement it. However, the system now being put in place does not provide for that. The Minister needs to clarify her thinking on this.

It has been suggested that schools in rural areas may be grouped but that has not been clarified as yet. Deputy Enright raised the issue of the role of special needs organisers. I recently spoke to a newly appointed special needs organiser who explained to me that they have no idea what they are supposed to do, yet there is a great deal of work to be done.

The motion states that the legislation needs to be implemented as soon as possible. The Minister should do this because it will put things in place whereby the focus will be on the child, special needs organisers will be able to do their job, principals will not be expected to do an impossible job and parents and children will see their needs being addressed.

Issues also arise regarding resources and the number of resource teachers. Extra posts were announced in the summer and they were very welcome. The INTO and others involved in the issue pointed out that those numbers will not be enough even to address the weighted system, not to mind schools that may have well above the number of children in need of support that they are supposed to have under the weighted system. It is essential that we provide that kind of support.

We also need to appoint more of the ancillary people who diagnose these children and provide the support they need such as educational psychologists and speech therapists. In particular, speech therapy at an early age is of crucial importance to many young children who would not otherwise be able to participate fully in the school system. I am sure other Members of the House are aware of many cases where children are known to have a speech therapy need but are not getting the appropriate support at the right time.

It is preferable if we can give the support needed when children are young, as soon as possible after they are diagnosed. Children should have the required support in their local primary school, whether it be a one-to-one special needs assistant or some hours of resource teaching, speech therapy or whatever else. If children get the attention they need at an early stage and this is followed through the school system, they do not lose what they have learned if they change school or when they transfer from primary to second level. This would allow such children to reach their full potential. That is what we are supposed to do for all children under the Constitution so we cannot allow the current situation to continue.

In the past year the situation for children has got worse. They have been waiting in confusion. First, there was a review of resource teachers. Second, there was a review of special needs assistants. Neither parents or teachers know where they stand and, most importantly, the children [918] themselves are confused. People expect their children will get the back-up they need at their local schools but when they go, the back-up is not there. In many cases this can lead to behavioural problems for children or they fall behind and cannot catch up. This is one of the most important things a government or society can do, to provide for the children who need that special support at the early stages in the school system.

I put it to the Minister to look for the resources in the forthcoming budget for implementation of the recommendations in the motion. If that happens we would truly do a great service to the children in the system and for society in the future, because if we intervene at an early stage we can be sure these children will be able to get the best possible deal from the education system. They are not children of a lesser God, they are as entitled as anybody else to get the full benefit of the education system.

I thank Fine Gael for giving its time for this motion and I urge the Minister for Education and Science to take on board the points we make and provide for children with special needs.

  Mr. Boyle: I too, thank Fine Gael for making its Private Members’ time available for this important and opportune motion. The Green Party is very happy to work in concert with both Fine Gael and Labour in pointing out the inconsistencies of Government policy in this area. One of the frustrations of being an elected Member of the Dáil is to find dozens of people making representations about a commitment that has been entered into, sometimes withdrawn and often still to be met. I am speaking on behalf of many parents of children with special needs who still live with the uncertainty as to whether the educational needs of their children will be properly met in the years to come. The Minister will have to account for this situation.

We are now many weeks into the new school year and the fact that hundreds of parents across the country find that their demands and expectations have not been met is not just a flaw but something the Government should feel great shame about. At its most benign, perhaps it may be said that the Government has created this expectation through recognising many years ago that there was a role for special needs assistants in education and using the community employment scheme to allow such people access to the education system. That in itself sent out many mixed messages, especially when the Government started to mess around with the community employment scheme in terms of numbers and as regards the turnover of people who were allowed to be used in such a manner.

The Government did not and is still not moving fast enough to ensure that special needs assistants are not only mainstreamed but given both the initial training and ongoing support in the important role they play in the education system. Special needs covers a wide variety of areas. It covers not just children with physical disabilities, [919] but those with sensory deprivation and many young people with a condition of autism or its variants. We are talking about socialisation skills and the need to have someone available on a one to one basis or close to this. If the Government is serious about the policy of including all children in mainstream education, then the programme has to be backed up by appropriate resources and a consistent policy.

As with previous speakers, the frustration of trying to contact the Department when making representation on behalf of such parents has, from my point of view, been much more than that. To be fair, when the civil servants concerned could be accessed, they were co-operative and polite. Often, however, the civil servants who were contacted were not the people making the decisions. They were the ones processing the applications. Within the process itself, decisions are made by officials in the Department which affect the rest of the life of the child concerned purely on the basis of a paper application, with no physical examination of the child. Very often a balance sheet approach is demonstrated as to how the resources should be provided for the child, the school and on a national basis. Even when supporting reports are given to Department officials by health care professions that state clearly that individual children are more than deserving of special needs assistance, there is reluctance and delay. The Minister must explain why this inconsistency exists. My experience, this year in particular, of the balance sheet approach to the provision of resources, relates to many young people with autism and especially those with Asperger’s syndrome.

If in any one school it was found that more than one child was affected, the Department officials actively discussed the possibility of whether a special needs assistance could be shared. This approach is widespread throughout the country, not only in terms of autism, but as regards children with sensory and physical disabilities. When it is asserted that one person may relate to two or more young people within the school system, that is where the Government’s logic falls apart. What happens where two or more children have physical needs at the same time? The task cannot be properly undertaken and the young people, the special needs assistant and the school are put at a disadvantage.

Previous speakers spoke about what I term school shopping. This has nothing to do with where the nearest school is or even where the best facilities exist for the child concerned. This is particularly true of the transition from primary to secondary education. Parents have to telephone several schools to find out whether every item on a long checklist may be met, in particular continued access to a special needs assistant. The problem of approaching particular schools often is compromised by the fact the Department may consider some institutions over quota as regards other aspects of their activities. To add another [920] member of staff to the school may be seen as unnecessary, regardless of the needs of the individual child. Again, this is another area of inconsistency that the Minister needs to address.

The Government’s policy, in so far as it exists in terms of ensuring that every child can access mainstream education, is confused. This is not only true in terms of access to special needs assistants but also where special schools exist to assist the process of entry to mainstream education in helping the socialisation of children. In terms of autism there is a small number of CABA, certified associate behaviour analysts, schools around the country, which even to this day operate on a pilot basis. The Department is still uncertain as to what the long-term need will be in terms of resources for such an innovative and successful approach to special education.

At the other end of the scale are young people in need of special assistance in terms of taking examinations. I received correspondence today from the education board which provides statistics showing that since 2000 the number of people given special allowances in the taking of exams has been reduced each year. How is that possible if the Government is putting more resources into the assessment of young people and with the population in general on the increase? All these signals are being sent out to the parents of children with special needs.

The Minister’s first real policy statement has caused a great deal of offence to parents of children with special needs, in her scoffing and sneering at the need of people to use the court system to vindicate the rights of their children to access education. For every case the Minister and her Department might win in this regard there are dozens being lost. The Minister would be wise not to start her term in office with such a sneering attitude and to remember the O’Donoghue and Sinnott cases. Every advance in terms of the education of young people with special needs has come about more through the courts system than through this Chamber or any policy initiative of Government. That is a sad state of affairs.

I hope in her response the Minister can at least accept much of what is in this joint motion. It makes eminent sense. It requires far less resources than this House approved earlier in the day in terms of the horse and greyhound racing industries. When we get a proper sense of priorities and finally begin to put in place the constitutional implication that all children in this country are equal, perhaps we will begin to see the need for fewer motions such as this. This might even provide an opportunity for more Members on this side of the House to compliment the Government for putting in place policies that are badly needed.

  Ms Hanafin: I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:

[921] “commends the Government for the significant additional resources made available for the education of pupils with special educational needs; and welcomes the legislative and administrative measures being taken by the Government to improve the framework within which services are delivered to pupils with special educational needs, their parents and schools.”

As this is my first major contribution to the House as Minister for Education and Science, I want to say that I look forward to working with the Opposition spokespersons whom I know have made a very valuable contribution to consideration in the House of legislation in the education area over the past few years.

I am glad the subject matter of this first presentation is the important one of special education, which is an issue of extreme sensitivity and, fortunately, one on which we have made tremendous progress in the past six years after many years of neglect. This is a good opportunity for me not only to put on the record of the House what has happened but also my commitment to advancing the provision of educational services to people with special educational needs during my tenure as Minister for Education and Science.

Listening to the Deputies, I know we can have a very constructive debate because l believe we share a common cause on this issue. We want to ensure the services are better for all the people who need them. Every child deserves the opportunity to reach his or her potential and it is my aim, as Minister for Education and Science, to create the environment where that can be achieved.

In the case of a child with special needs, a particular targeted response is needed to enable that child develop his or her abilities, enhance his or her educational level and prepare him or her for participation in society. Though I may be happy to record achievement, I am not complacent. I know that while we have achieved much we are not at the level we want to be, and I look forward to the challenge of making further improvements in the provision of educational services for people with special needs.

The record of the State over decades in providing for children with special needs has been poor. That is why I am glad advances have been made in the past six years. I acknowledge in particular the immense efforts the parents of those children have made for them. They not only had to battle to seek services but in many cases provided those service at a cost to themselves and their families. It is because of that, unlike what Deputy Boyle said, I chose last week not to pursue the parents for costs in a case the Department of Education and Science won. I did not want to put those parents through any further pressure than they had been through already. That was based on a respect and a recognition that parents often had to go to the courts. The Deputy will be well aware, therefore, that comments of mine were [922] not in any way directed at the parents of children with special needs.

Without doubt we are now playing catch-up. In any area of historical underprovision it takes time to improve services to an appropriate level. Nevertheless, we must accelerate our efforts so as to ensure that people with special educational needs and their parents are provided with appropriate services in a timely, efficient and customer-friendly manner. I accept what has been said by Deputies in regard to that. We are not there yet, and I will not pretend we are. While I will record achievement, I will also acknowledge that services provided for the education of people with special educational needs, including services provided by my Department, are not as developed as we would like. Though this might be the case, action is in train to make the necessary improvements.

Speakers referred to resources. I remind the House of the progress made in the allocation of resources and the increase in staff in this area in the past six years. There are now more than 2,600 resource teachers, up from 104 in 1998; there are 1,500 learning support teachers; there are more than 1,000 teachers in special schools; and there are more than 600 teachers in special classes. An interesting statistic is that there are 5,000 special needs assistants in our schools. There were 300 such special needs assistants only six years ago. More than €30 million is being spent on school transport for special needs students and more than €3 million goes on specialised equipment and materials, which is up from €800,000 in 1998.

The scale of resource allocation I have outlined has facilitated the provision of education for children with special needs in mainly mainstream national schools. However, education for children with special educational needs is provided in a variety of settings. In addition to supported provision in mainstream classes, placement may also be made in special classes and units and in special schools. Pending such a placement, arrangements have been made for tuition to be delivered in the child’s home.

Where appropriate for the individual child, integrated provision with necessary supports is the desired choice of most parents. For children for whom mainstream provision is not appropriate, placement may be made in one of the 108 special schools and the 654 special classes and units located throughout the country.

To appreciate the scale of improvement in the provision of resources to primary schools for special needs, it is worth reflecting on the fact that, at approximately 10,700, the number of adults providing services for children with special educational needs in primary schools today is more than half the 21,100 teachers in the system in 1998. The debate, therefore, cannot question the Government’s commitment to providing resources for special educational needs, but I accept there are individual cases where schools are awaiting decisions on applications for additional resources, and I have taken measures [923] to ensure that process is speeded up. Indeed, this whole process will shortly undergo major transformation as the National Council for Special Education commences operation on the ground throughout the country.

In 1998 the Government took a decision which has transformed the level of provision for pupils with special educational needs. That decision meant that pupils with special educational needs would be entitled to an automatic response to meet those needs. In other words, the allocation of resources to meet those needs no longer depended, as it did in the past, on the limited resources that were available to meet those needs. Instead, the response was based on the nature of the disability involved and once the required supporting professional assessments were made available the resources were automatically allocated. It was this decision that gave rise to the enormous expansion in resourcing levels to which I have referred.

While the Government decision of October 1998 authorised the allocation of significant resources, it posed significant challenges to the administration in processing the significant level of applications which were made in response to the Government commitment. I pay tribute to the staff of my Department’s special education section, the inspectorate and the national educational psychological service for the efforts they have made to service the demands which were exacerbated by the lack of investment in the past. It has to be acknowledged, however, that despite their efforts, service delivery in this area has not always been adequate to provide the level of service that pupils with special educational needs, their parents, their schools and teachers require and deserve. The Department recognised that it was neither properly resourced nor structured to deliver these services.

Arising from the report of an internal planning group, which was endorsed by the Cromien report on the Department of Education and Science and its operations, the Government decided to establish the National Council for Special Education to co-ordinate the provision of service to children with special educational needs. The council was appointed by my predecessor, Deputy Noel Dempsey, last December and it has recruited 70 special educational needs organisers. These people will be a focal point of contact for schools and parents. They will process individual applications for resources for special educational needs. These special educational needs organisers, SENOs as they are now being called, will commence work on the ground over the next month or so. I am confident this new resource will provide a step change in the delivery of special education services.

Arising out of its ongoing review of the resource allocation process, it was clear that the automatic response was operating in a manner that was far from automatic. The reality was that every single application had to be accompanied [924] by a psychological or clinical assessment and had to be processed individually. The requirements of the process diverted school principals and psychologists from other work and delayed the processing of applications. The process was both cumbersome and time-consuming.

In light of the reality that pupils in the high incidence disability categories of mild and borderline mild general learning disability and dyslexia are distributed throughout the education system, my Department, in consultation with educational interests, has developed a weighted model of teacher allocation for these disability categories. The weighted allocation, which also includes an allocation for pupils requiring learning support, is designed to put in place in primary schools a permanent resource to cater for the pupils in these categories.

The allocations are based on pupil numbers and take account of the differing needs of the most disadvantaged schools and the evidence that boys have greater difficulties than girls in this regard. Some people have questioned this but looking back at the numbers of applications made for extra resources, the number of applications for boys far outweighed those for girls.

  Mr. Stanton: That is because they are more active.

  Ms Hanafin: As had operated in the case of the learning support service, small schools are being clustered for the purpose of the weighted allocations. The Department’s inspectorate is finalising the clustering arrangements. The weighted model involves the allocation of additional teaching posts as well as redeployment of resources between schools. This redeployment will be facilitated through the transaction of the primary teacher panels.

There is hope that the new weighted model will improve the level of service provided for pupils with special educational needs. The new system will reduce the need for individual applications and supporting psychological assessments, and will put resources in place on a more systematic basis, thereby giving schools more certainty about their resource levels. This will allow for better planning in schools, greater flexibility in identifying and intervening earlier with regard to pupils’ special needs, as well as making the posts more attractive to qualified teachers.

The previous allocation system placed significant demands on principals, teachers and psychologists. It was also time-consuming, thereby delaying the allocation of resources for special needs. Action had to be taken to reform the system and the model now being introduced will, over time, significantly improve the capacity of the system to cater for children with special needs in a speedier, more effective way. The revised system will reduce the administrative burden on schools and allow them to concentrate on the delivery of services to pupils with special needs. It will also allow psychologists to devote more time to advis[925] ing teachers on planning for individual children and for whole school provision.

The weighted allocation will be made up as follows: in the most disadvantaged schools — as per the urban dimension of giving children an even break — a teacher of pupils with special educational needs will be allocated for every 80 pupils to cater for the subset of pupils with higher incidence special needs; in all boys schools, the ratio will be one teacher for every 140 pupils; in mixed schools, or all girls schools with an enrolment of greater than 30% boys, one for every 150 pupils; and in all girls schools, including schools with mixed junior classes but with 30% or less boys overall, one for every 200 pupils. In the lower incidence disability categories resources will continue to be allocated on the basis of individual applications, a point the Deputies did not make clear in their contributions this evening. It is important that where there is a particular and special need in the low incidence category these children are considered individually. The resource will be allocated to them according to their individual needs.

These pupils are not evenly distributed among schools and a weighted model would not be appropriate. However, the impending involvement of the National Council for Special Education and the organisers will greatly enhance the speed of response to such applications. Furthermore, the fact that individual psychological assessments will not be needed for pupils being catered for under the weighted model will enable psychological services to provide a better service to those in the lower incidence categories as well as greater levels of systemic support to schools.

The Opposition motion referred to the responsibilities of school principals in this area. The weighted model will allocate an appropriate level of resources to schools. The deployment of those resources is, as it should be, a matter for the schools and in particular for school principals in consultation with their staff. The needs of children change over time as they develop and as programmes devised by their teachers take effect. It is best to take decisions in this area at school level rather than at a remote distance in the Department of Education and Science. My Department has supported and will continue to support schools and principals through the provision of advice and not least through the support of the national educational psychological service.

Applications for special needs assistants will continue to be made on an individual level in accordance with the criteria already set out by the Department. The criteria set out refer to a significant medical need for such an assistant, a significant impairment of physical or sensory function, or where the child’s behaviour is such that he or she is a danger to himself or herself or to another. There was a significant care element included in those criteria. Processing of these applications will shortly transfer to the National Council for Special Education, which will improve the speed of response. Parents and teachers would look for[926] ward to a situation in which a child would not be totally dependent on the special needs assistant in his or her class but would be able to gain the independence as he or she goes through the education system which would enable him or her to participate fully in society.

I have taken immediate measures to have outstanding applications for special education resources responded to straight away. The objective in establishing the National Council for Special Education is to have clarity of entitlement, an accessible service at local level and speedy delivery. The general functions of the council are to carry out research and provide expert advice to the Minister on the educational needs of children with disabilities. It will provide a range of services at local and national level in order to identify and address the educational needs of children with disabilities. It will also co-ordinate the provision of education and related support services with health boards, schools and other relevant bodies.

The people with whom we deal in the special education area frequently raise the issue of the lack of co-ordination between the health services, parents feeling excluded from such decisions and the role of the teacher locally. Placing organisers in the locality will enable them to work with the parents and the schools, particularly to co-ordinate the services on a local level. That will ensure that when a child has been identified as having a special need, the services can be put in place immediately.

A total of 98 posts have been approved for the existing council; 18 of them for administrative and research purposes, 11 of which, including that of chief executive officer, were filled during 2003 in order to make practical preparatory arrangements for the council. A further five appointments have been made this year to date and two posts remain to be filled. The more important posts are those of the special education needs organisers, 70 of whom have been appointed, with a further ten to come. They will be responsible for ensuring that all special educational needs in their areas are addressed in an effective manner. The council will deploy the SENOs throughout the State to ensure national coverage. They will be charged with facilitating access to, and co-ordinating education services for children with special needs in their areas.

They will do this by liaising between local providers of educational services, and of necessary ancillary services, the council, the Department and parents. In many cases provision will be based on individual education plans for the children involved. This is precisely what the Deputies in the House have called for tonight and it is needed for these children. The 70 SENOs commenced employment with the council on 1 September 2004. They were recruited in an open, competitive process and all have previous experience of direct service provision to people with disabilities and have wide-ranging experience from which the whole system can benefit. We [927] hope to fill the remaining ten posts by the end of this year. The SENOs who have been appointed are being assigned responsibility for specific primary, post-primary and special schools in their areas. They are engaged in an induction training programme and information gathering visits to their assigned schools. This should address the comment made by one to Deputy Enright. Following the induction training and the information gathering they will be able to engage in their functions as soon as they officially start work. The council and the Department of Education and Science are discussing the structured transfer of functions.

There is provision to establish a council with similar functions but with a wider remit under the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. As soon as a commencement order is made in respect of the Act the existing council will be dissolved and replaced by a council established under the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. I intend to consult the council at an early date in advance of making the initial commencement order. In addition to the changes made in the delivery of resources to date the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 provides a map to the future development of special educational needs services. The Act reflects the Government’s commitment to putting in place a strategy to address the needs of people with disabilities. It will begin in steps over the next few years, in accordance with an implementation plan to be drafted by the National Council for Special Education.

The Act will create enforceable rights to an educational assessment for all children with special educational needs, the development of an individual educational plan and the delivery of education services on foot of the plan. It will also ensure that the resources necessary to vindicate those rights will be available to schools, health boards and the council. Resources are of major importance to the provision of the service. There will be duties on the Ministers for Finance, Health and Children, and Education and Science to ensure that adequate resources are provided for the delivery of services. In particular the Minister for Finance is obliged under the Constitution to have due regard to the State’s duty to provide for an education appropriate to the needs of every child and the necessity to provide equity of treatment for all children.

8 o’clock

The council will co-ordinate special education provision, provide special needs organisers to promote good practice in special education and guarantee that children with special needs receive an appropriate education. The 70 special educational needs organisers will assist parents and schools in making education readily accessible to children with disabilities. That education will, as far as practicable, take place in an integrated setting.

[928] One of the principles underpinning the Act is that parents have a right to be consulted and fully informed at every stage of the process. If they feel their views are not being full recognised, or where they feel the plan is not being implemented effectively, they have a right to appeal decisions concerning their children and these matters to an independent review board. The board has the power to compel bodies, including health boards, to take specific actions to address matters before it.

  Ms Enright: May I ask a question?

  Ms Hanafin: Not in the middle of my contribution. I forgot to mention at the beginning that I wanted to share time with the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan.

  Mr. Carey: Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Mr. F. McGrath: He may not want to share it.

  Ms Hanafin: Was that the question? Nothing in the Act will restrict the right of recourse to the courts, rather it will simplify the process of enforcing the right to an appropriate education through the appeals board and the introduction of a mediation process prior to full-scale litigation if the parents remain dissatisfied with the appeal board’s findings. The rights of the parents are protected the whole way to ensure that they are satisfied with the provisions of the findings on the needs of the child and the services to be provided for that child.

The Comhairle (Amendment) Bill 2004 will provide an advocacy service for parents so that in addition to the support to be provided by the special needs organisers there will be another source of advice and support for parents. Taken together the provisions of the Acts amount to a comprehensive framework to address the gaps in the system, a framework which deals with the issue not in aspirational terms but gives parents the means to enforce their rights easily and quickly.

The record of the Government in the area of special education is one of action. We have greatly expanded the level of resourcing for pupils with special needs. We are putting new structures in place through the establishment of the National Council for Special Education, which will improve and speed up the delivery of services to pupils with special needs, their parents and schools.

As I said at the outset, for many years there was a deficit of recognition for these children or their needs. It is because of that at least we can point to so much development and resources in the past six years, as well as further improvements that I hope to put in place to meet the needs of the children more efficiently. I hope to deal with the outstanding applications very quickly. We have also provided a comprehensive [929] legislative framework to govern the delivery of these services. I look forward during my tenure as Minister for Education and Science to making further improvements in services for pupils with special educational needs.

  Mr. B. Lenihan: I commend the Minister on her comprehensive reply to the motion tabled by the Opposition on this matter. The crucial point in her contribution is that a decision was taken by the Government preceding this one in 1998, of the same political complexion, by the then Minister of Education and Science, Deputy Martin, to recognise this need. The bare statistics show that there are now 2,600 resource teachers, up from 104 in 1998. That is a quantum increase in this area. We can look at the figures on special needs assistants, which are up from 300 in 1998 to 5,000 today. Any organisation faced with levels of increase and staffing complements of this order will naturally have difficulty in administering and managing the system. That is why special needs organisers have been appointed. I noticed the Minister referred to them as SENOs, but I always referred to them as SNOs. They have long been promised and are now coming on stream. They will do valuable work in bringing together the school principal and parents, identifying the need of the child and devising a programme tailored to that child’s requirements.

The Opposition understandably referred to the frustration of parents. As Deputies, we all know the frustration of parents in bringing these services together. There has been a huge increase in the level of service and the amount invested in it. We have to bring it all together, and that is what is happening here. The Opposition questioned the appropriateness and fairness of a system which removes individual assessment critical for the identification of individual needs and which off-loads responsibilities to the school principal in making key decisions as to which child receives assistance. I take issue with that. When there is such a large number of personnel involved and such an acute investment taking place, there has to be a system in place. It is not a matter of off-loading responsibility from the Minister. The Minister has the responsibility to secure the necessary resources for this sector and I have no doubt that she is battling for it at the Government table. Having done that, the Minister and her officers have to put a system in place.

The principals, who have done a fantastic job in the primary school system, have to get down to the difficult business of working this out on the ground, and I believe they will do an excellent job. It is not a question of off-loading responsibility. As the Minister is well aware after a few days in this Department, it is impossible to off-load responsibility, especially when we have such a vigilant Opposition watching every move and monitoring us at every stage.

[930]   Mr. F. McGrath: The Minister is going well.

  Mr. B. Lenihan: There is no question of the Minister not being fully aware of her responsibility in this matter. However, she requires the co-operation of principals to implement and effect the system. Let us face facts. Some of our difficulties in this area were caused by decisions and applications that were made at local level in the past. The Minister has to put a system in place and bring all aspects together. That is what any Minister would do. I have no doubt that if the Minister did not do that, the Opposition’s new gun on the Committee of Public Accounts would be very quick to deploy his weaponry against the Minister. The Minister would be in default in not having a proper, public transparent system in operation for the allocation of these important resources.

  Mr. Costello: I congratulate the Minister on her appointment. I am aware of her experience in the area of teaching and I am sure she will bring those skills and that professionalism to her new job. I wish her well.

Listening to her contribution tonight was a bit like listening to the Taoiseach this afternoon. He stated that he knew all about the problems in the health service in the past 30 years and about the present problems, and that he would deal with the problems in the future. At the same time, vast amounts of money were being put into the health service and, as we now know, that service is in crisis.

Unfortunately, the situation on special needs education is not dissimilar. The most significant statement in the Minister’s contribution is what will happen in the context of the special needs Act 2004. The Minister said the Act will give all children with special educational needs the enforceable right to an educational assessment. She referred to duties and the advent, at last, of an holistic and integrated approach on the part of the Ministers for Finance, Health and Children and Education and Science. She said the approach will ensure that adequate resources will be provided for the delivery of services. The Minister has not indicated when the full force of the Act will be implemented, however. It is important that we should know when the wonderful new dispensation will be introduced.

The Minister has stated that many resources have been allocated to this area in the past. The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, has recounted the resources. It can also be said that many resources have been invested in the health service, but it is still in a crisis because the resources have not been used effectively. Deputies will have noticed that the Minister of State’s list did not contain a reference to classroom assistants. The abolition of community employment schemes has meant that the number of people from the community offering assistance in classrooms, particularly in disadvantaged areas, has decreased significantly. Perhaps the Govern[931] ment could reinstate the assistants as part of its contribution in this area.

  Mr. B. Lenihan: Many of them are now in the workforce.

  Mr. Costello: I can give the Minister of State a list as long as my arm of people in his constituency and almost all other constituencies who would be willing to work as classroom assistants. If the Minister of State’s problem is that he cannot fill such positions, he can send me the prospectus and I will do it for him.

Ireland presents itself at airports and other points of entry as the home of bright and educated young people. We pride ourselves on producing such people. It is true, in many ways, that we cherish approximately 80% of our children, but I estimate that 20% of children fall through the system in one way or another. They suffer from many problems, including disadvantage, learning difficulties, problems of assessment, a lack of resources and a shortage of special needs assistants. The proportion of children who need intervention because of such schooling problems is not decreasing. The mechanisms, resources and structures necessary to deal with such difficulties are not in place. The Minister’s list of statistics relating to professional personnel, for example, reads well on paper, but the system as a whole is not being held together.

The Breaking the Cycle programme has been the only bright light in the education system in the past ten years. The programme did not offer a professional intervention to those with special needs, for example, but instead provided a preferential pupil-teacher ratio in the areas of greatest disadvantage. A difference was made because individual attention was given to children for the first time. Individual attention is often the answer to the problems of those with special educational needs. Slower pupils can be helped to make quicker progress, troublesome students can be given attention and those who find it difficult to operate in mainstream education can be given assistance. Such possibilities have been lost because they have not been followed up. Resources and support have been offered in such areas, including CE schemes, but they can be easily lost.

I am not aware of any school in my constituency which does not have difficulties in getting assessments, teaching assistants and psychologists. Many schools have to turn to the private sector to organise psychological assessments because few psychologists are employed by the Department of Education and Science. Has the Minister assessed the extent of the need? Has she made provisions to meet that need within the Department? The principals of many schools are trying to get money from various sectors to buy into private assessment because it cannot be provided by the Department. I did not see any reference to such problems in the Minister’s speech. [932] She spoke about the weighted model and forgoing the need for individual assessment. I cannot see how that will work because one cannot have collective assessment. Each individual pupil has individual needs. I will wait to see what will happen.

A neglected child will become a problem child. All Members are aware that many children end up before the courts. There have been some terrible fatalities in recent times. Newspapers have reported that the youngsters in question had many special needs. Although I have not read their life stories, I presume their problems were not addressed. Youngsters can become dysfunctional very quickly in such circumstances, as we know, leading to crime in many cases. The average reading age of those in St. Patrick’s Institution, which caters for youngsters between the ages of 17 and 21, is 12. It is clear that many people are falling through the system. The educational system has fallen short of addressing the needs of those who are borderline in so many areas. It is one of the problems faced by society at present. Many people are experiencing anxiety, fear and insecurity as a result. People are demanding harsher measures to deal with youngsters whose needs, especially their educational and social needs, were not met at an earlier age.

I would like to refer to the Phoenix Centre, a learning project established in my constituency seven years ago as a joint venture of the Department of Education and Science’s special education unit and the local drugs task force. The centre catered for ten children who could not operate in mainstream schools, who were at risk of becoming involved in drugs, alcohol and petty crime and who had other special needs. When a problem emerged this summer involving its director, it was decided to close the school down because the problem could not be managed in any other way. The ten children in question, who were doing very well, have lost two months’ education because the centre has not been reopened. I know the children and their teachers. I am aware that at least another ten youngsters have been identified as having the potential to benefit from such an outreach school, which addresses the special needs of youngsters who do not fall into mainstream categories. I ask the Minister to examine this specific case. The youngsters in question, who are not in the primary sector because they are between 13 and 17 years of age, have fallen through the net.

A great deal of work remains to be done. There is no evidence of an holistic approach. I am glad there has been a move towards giving greater resources to individual schools so they can address the needs of their pupils. It is appropriate that parents should be entitled to enforce their children’s right to have their special needs requirements met. I hope the new measures will work, but I have not seen any sign of their success to date. The Minister has to do a great deal of work in the next two or two and a half years before there is a change of Government.

[933]   Dr. Twomey: I congratulate the Minister on her appointment. I hope she will have an interesting two years as Minister for Education and Science before the next general election. She may feel that Opposition Deputies are somewhat ungrateful for the hard work that has been done in this regard over the past 16 years. There is a feeling that most of the work has been done in the past couple of years.

  Ms Hanafin: Six years.

  Dr. Twomey: The Minister has been talking about 1988 since we came in here.

  Ms Hanafin: No, 1998.

  Dr. Twomey: Perhaps I have misunderstood the Minister — I thought she was referring to 1988. The point we are making on this side of the House is that not much has been done quickly.

Research has shown that early intervention can make a huge difference to the lives of children with special educational needs. The final outcome of intervention can vary with the level of intellectual disability. Sometimes I feel that the small gain from the intellectual input given to the children is somehow being held against them. We put in a great deal of resources and sometimes we feel that we might not get that much out of it from an educational point of view. That is wrong.

Having dealt with those children, especially as patients, I have seen the great difference it can make not only to their lives, but to those of their parents when any input at all is provided or any investment is made. Sometimes, when they do not have any speech, it gets very frustrating for them. They find it very hard to cope with their own normal, day-to-day routine, with their siblings and with their parents. It can also be extremely frustrating for their parents if they have a young child who finds it extremely difficult to communicate with them. Therefore, although we may look back on the time and resources spent on a child and question its worth, it is always a good thing. It makes a dramatic difference to their quality of life. I speak of children of extremely limited intellectual ability. It is not so much an education but giving them a chance to communicate with other family members and improving their quality of life. It is a very important social issue and it is a shame we have waited so long to see this level of effort being put into such children, who have no one to stand up for them. For many years, their parents have been banging their heads against the wall trying to get even the very limited resources available.

The Minister mentioned much about what is happening with investment and so on, but the practical reality for many years was that such children were grossly neglected and had very little done for them. That made their parents very angry and it may have made the public feel that we were a little callous and uncaring in this House because we left if for so long before mak[934] ing that investment in those who most needed it in the intellectual disability sector. The proper provision of resources can alter other children’s lives completely. They are still intellectually below the average of those in this House, but they can also benefit greatly from any help given to them. I speak of such matters as dyslexia, which covers a wide range of effects on sufferers. Some find any sort of word recognition extremely difficult, while it might not affect the lives of others at all. There are probably at least seven or eight of us in this House who have some form of dyslexia but have got away with it in our lives since most people simply think that our spelling is poor, or diabolical. However, it does not seem to stop us from getting on in life.

Some people can be held back even by something such as dyslexia and that is why we must identify those children very early and not assume that a social or family cause or some other form of social dysfunction is responsible for their educational attainment being low. We must pick those children up very quickly and that is why this legislation and early assessment are so important. When such children are identified, they must immediately be given the resources they need to help them get on in life. No matter what we have done so far, we have not really got into this problem in a satisfactory manner for the sake of such children.

Another sub-category of children are those with attention deficit disorder. Once again, some of them are intellectually below average. They need a great deal of resources and help since they are also very disruptive and find it very hard to concentrate or even sit still in class. In some cases, they have also been pushed to one side and forgotten about over the years. Medication has improved dramatically in recent years and it can help mainstream such children. Great resources are needed and the investment is well worth it if such children can get on, move into their teenage years, get a secondary education and make their lives worthwhile instead of being discarded. As Deputy Costello pointed out, in some cases they do nothing other than fill our prisons in later years.

In some respects it is a little disappointing that we have waited so long for this Bill. The country has been doing very well for several years. Everyone on the other side of the House is at pains to tell us how the economy has been booming since 1997. I am glad they got that one right, but we have waited until now to start doing something. A great deal of potential has been lost in a generation of children over the past ten years. We could have done something about them had we been a little more understanding.

I give credit regarding resource assistants in schools. I saw that change before my involvement in politics. The Government gave help to parents to try to mainstream such children. For years they were denied any form of education or pushed off to its fringes. The first thing the Government did properly was provide resource assistants. [935] However, there is no point doing so and sitting children down in classrooms if one does not have special needs teachers there too to give them an education. When one sees what is happening with children getting 12 or 22 minutes or an hour each week, one misses the point if one fails to see that it constitutes not teaching but going through the motions. If we have corrected one aspect in giving them resource assistants to keep them occupied in the classroom, why can we not also give them the teachers to provide them with a proper education?

The way in which this Bill — I believe it is not even in the legislation — has given principals responsibility could be negative. It is a little like asking a doctor to decide which patients should live and which should die. One is forcing the principal to face King Solomon on this issue; he or she must decide which children get what within the school. That is too big an issue and I am sure the Minister is well aware from her previous background that it is also a very emotional question for the parents involved. We may actually be doing damage to the role of a school principal by asking him or her to make such decisions about who gets what. The role of a school principal is very much about nurturing education, having a good relationship with parents and having no sense of confrontation in the school on issues of education. Disciplinary issues are a different matter.

In this instance, we are pushing an unsuitable role on a school principal and the Department should revisit the issue. Someone else should make the decision. It would not happen anywhere else that we would ask someone with such a sensitive role regarding children, and especially the children in question, to take on an even more sensitive one. I am surprised the proposal got through the Department of Education and Science and that principals are being put in such a position. I would have expected that not to occur and that the Department would have recognised the important separation of roles required.

From a medical point of view, assessment is also very important since it can sometimes expose a medical condition with other implications for the child. Sometimes the child’s medical condition may indicate what can be done for him or her. That could help in the assessment process. Again, it is best that it comes early so that we know exactly what the child can attain in the future. If the child looks like he or she will not attain much, at least the parents should know early what he or she can achieve and not feel that the denial of early intervention made their child the way he or she is. That is why we should place such great emphasis on intervention as soon as possible. Sometimes, medical intervention may be needed for some other reason, which is more evidence of the importance of early intervention.

Social issues have been touched on by other speakers. They have a very important role, although perhaps they are connected with [936] another section of the Department. Social deprivation and the level of educational attainment by other members of a household have a great effect on what a child can achieve. Sometimes we find that such social aspects are allowed to impinge on a parent pushing for an assessment for his or her child, perhaps seeing that he or she has a disability. It is another role and something that should be left to a separate person. Perhaps that person should take over the role of the principal in dividing resources, something I disagree with completely. On a positive note, I have seen where it can work very well. In a local national school, they have a special needs classroom, assistants and a teacher.