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NI Assembly Resolution of Support

NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY

Tuesday 19 February 2008

Resolved: That this Assembly supports conductive education and commends the Buddy Bear School, Dungannon, to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Minister of Education for financial support and assistance.

mainspeakers.jpg"The Buddy Bear Trust, the children, their parents and supporters appreciate the support and encouragement given by the Assembly Members and all the political parties and in particular the encouragement given by Dr Ian Paisley, First Minister and Mr Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister for the campaign to protect and develop the Buddy Bear School for children with cerebral palsy. The decision of the Assembly today may make a lifetime of difference to a child and a family. We must now work together to convert this decision of the Assembly into a reality for children with cerebral palsy." Brendan Mc Conville, Chairman

Conductive Education

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)

Mr D Bradley: I beg to move

That this Assembly supports conductive education and commends the Buddy Bear School, Dungannon, to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Minister of Education for financial support and assistance.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Caithfidh mé a rá go bhfuil an-áthas orm an rún a mholadh.

I am pleased to propose this cross-party motion. Conductive education is a form of special education and rehabilitation for children and adults with motor disorders. It is appropriate for conditions whereby disease or damage to the nervous system affects a person’s ability to control movement. In childhood, those conditions include cerebral palsy and dyspraxia, and, in adulthood, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy. Conductive education is also beneficial to those who have had a stroke or a head injury.

Conductive education began in Hungary in the late 1940s. It was originated by a Hungarian doctor named Andras Peto, and is now widely established in Hungary, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Germany, Australia, Israel and many other countries. Newry and Mourne District Council welcomed the director of the Peto Institute, Dr Maria Hari, to Newry, before she opened the Buddy Bear School in Dungannon.

Newry has seen the benefits of conductive education. In fact, one of my young constituents, Daniel Murphy, is a shining example of how conductive education can shape a young person’s life. Daniel was born with cerebral palsy, and his parents were advised that he would always be dependent on others, and would face a life of limited possibilities. Daniel, however, had the benefit of conductive education at the Buddy Bear School, and he had the unique experience of being nursed by none other than the First Minister when he visited the Buddy Bear School a number of years ago. Many Members know Daniel’s story: they have met him here, and he is a frequent visitor to Parliament Buildings. Daniel now attends college and is on a work experience programme for two days a week.

The Buddy Bear Trust is an outstanding organisation, and the school that it operates in Dungannon provides an excellent service to the whole community in Northern Ireland by offering an imaginative conductive form of education. The trust has been operating since 1988, and it opened its independent school in 1994 to offer conductive education to children with cerebral palsy.

Over 900 children and young people from Northern Ireland suffer from cerebral palsy, yet the deplorable fact remains that there is no centrally funded special provision for children who suffer from that illness. Conductive education is a learning process; it is not a treatment, cure or therapy, but it offers a lifeline to those who suffer from cerebral palsy and to their families. The issue before the House today is the uncertainty over funding for the school in Dungannon. If we fail to provide the very modest funding that is required to keep the Buddy Bear school open, we run the risk of losing the expertise that liberated Daniel Murphy from a lifetime of absolute dependency.

I was part of the cross-party delegation that met with children and parents here on 23 January. That meeting marked a turning point for many Members. We had the opportunity to hear first-hand about parents’ experiences. We heard about their frustrations and stresses and about the difficulties that the school had experienced with the education and library boards. One young mother described in detail how her world and her hopes changed when she was told that her child had cerebral palsy. There was no helping hand of support from the agencies that have responsibility for those matters. The parents descended into a deep, dark world of depression, stress, frustration and worry. We heard about the mother’s tears and about the father’s silent and secret tears and his hidden worries about his wife and child. It was a very moving story.

However, we saw the mother brighten as she told us about the first rays of hope as Ms Veres, the principal and a trained conductor in the school, showed her how to work with her child at home. Progress was soon evident. The little girl began to move around the floor, and she is now trying to walk. However, she needs more time and help.

We can easily understand why parents want the Assembly to support and develop the Buddy Bear school. I hope that the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Minister of Education will establish an interim funding arrangement for the school. I ask them to set up a review with a view to exploring how best the needs of children such as Daniel Murphy can be met and how the school might be developed in the near future as a centre of excellence, not just for Northern Ireland, but for all the border counties.

There must be co-operation between the Department of Education, its education and library boards and OFMDFM. Let us not bat the issue from pillar to post. Let us show that devolution means something to the people of Northern Ireland by making decisions that will ensure the future of this wonderful school in our community. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It is my pleasure to support this cross-party motion that presents us with an important opportunity to show what this Assembly can deliver for a local area and for this special-needs school in particular.

The Buddy Bear school and the Buddy Bear Trust have existed for some time and provide an important resource for children with cerebral palsy who need special attention and support. The school also gives the families of those children some light at the end of the tunnel by giving them the belief that their children can live normal lives through being able to get to school and get involved in conductive education. The children can then build a life for themselves and gain independence, which will enable them to deal with issues in the same way as any other child.

It is important to remember that children with cerebral palsy are as entitled to a place in a school as any other child. Education and library boards make allowances for every child as regards how much it costs to put them through school. Children with cerebral palsy are entitled to the same allowance.

Unfortunately, the education and library boards have not been making parents aware that the Buddy Bear school exists; that children can be accepted into it, or that conductive education can be beneficial to their children. Therefore, the boards have sidestepped their responsibility to deliver a quality education service to children with cerebral palsy.

The educational needs of the children are important, and the amount of money required to keep the Buddy Bear school in Dungannon open is not massive. Like other situations in which children have to travel to school, some children with cerebral palsy may have to travel a distance to get to the school, and they may require more intensive attention than other children. However, like every other child, they are entitled to an education.

The main role that the Assembly can play is to ask the education and library boards — through the Minister of Education — to make parents aware that the school exists and that their children can attend it. The Assembly should also encourage the funding of the school to enable it to remain open. If the school does not receive funding, it will cease to exist. Unfortunately, to date, the trust has been able to deliver the service only because people have begged throughout the country in an attempt to get sponsorship, support and finance for the school. Therefore, it is important that the Department of Education, and, in particular, the education and library boards, take responsibility and deal with the funding issue.

The school requires around £200,000 a year, which is a small amount of money. It could be made available if the Department of Education did not hire a consultant for a couple of months of the year. Therefore, there are ways of creating the required funding. The education and library boards already have the funding available to ensure that every child has access to schools and to education. It is important that the Buddy Bear school remains open.

People may say that conductive education is not the only means of dealing with cerebral palsy; that is correct. Others may say that some children with cerebral palsy can attend mainstream education; that is also correct. However, for some children, that is not an option; the only way that they can have a life and build independence is by attending the Buddy Bear school and getting conductive education, which will ensure that they have an opportunity to develop.

The motion calls on the Minister of Education and OFMDFM to give financial support and assistance to the Buddy Bear school. That support will enable the school to provide its important service to children who have been deprived of educational benefits for too long. It will also enable the parents of those children to see some light at the end of the tunnel by giving them the belief that their children can perform and become the same as every other child.

I support the motion, and I ask Members to do likewise.

Mr Savage: This debate is as timely as it is important. As a lifelong supporter of the Buddy Bear Trust, I am committed to doing my utmost to ensure that the Buddy Bear Trust Conductive Education Independent School in Dungannon can continue to operate and carry out its most valuable and highly-skilled work.

4.30 pm

In the recently agreed Budget, the Assembly earmarked more than £1·7 billion to educate children with special needs, whether they be in preschool, primary school or post-primary school. We have the power to make a lifetime of difference to a child with cerebral palsy, to that child’s family and, indeed, to the entire community if we agree to set aside around £200,000 — the figure that our honourable friend Mr Molloy has just mentioned — to protect and enhance the Buddy Bear Trust Conductive Education Independent School until the Department of Education, supported by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, has completed a full appraisal of the needs of children with cerebral palsy, parental support and staff training needs.

We all have high hopes for our children. We hope that they will be safe and well, and that they will succeed at school. We hope that they will avail themselves of education opportunities in our colleges and universities, as well as in our many apprentice schemes, so that they might enjoy a good lifestyle as they continue their journey through life. Consider, however, the hopes of the young couple who realise, or are told, that their precious child has cerebral palsy. How deep is their despair? How empty does that hurt and anxiety make them feel? Their celebration at the birth of a son or a daughter is shattered. What pain does a mother feel when she realises that her twins have cerebral palsy? Despair, anger, blame, guilt and utter helplessness are merely some of the feelings that come to mind.

Let me make it clear, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the Buddy Bear Trust is willing to be flexible in its attempts to find a long-term solution to educating children with cerebral palsy. The trust has made it clear — as it has done over the years — that it will work in the interests of children with cerebral palsy with the Minister, the Department of Education, the proposed education and skills authority, the education and library boards, and others. The Assembly must not allow the enforcers of red tape, of which there are plenty, to bring more despair to parents who have enough to do in looking after their children.

Its founder and chairman, Brendan McConville, is not paid, as is no one else who works for it. The trust has helped children since 1988, and we must help it now.

We are not here to score political points but to give peace of mind to parents by assuring them that we will protect and develop the Buddy Bear Trust Conductive Education Independent School until a full appraisal has been carried out to determine the real needs, including training requirements, of children with cerebral palsy.

Parents are convinced that the education and library boards’ refusal to give information to parents of children with cerebral palsy has caused the present crisis. Boards may argue that they do not have to inform parents about non-grant-aided schools, but surely they have a moral duty to give them as much information as possible, particularly as three boards have been paying the fees of children to attend the Buddy Bear school since 1993.

The boards also know that the Buddy Bear School is recognised and regularly inspected by the Department of Education. Whatever has happened up until now, we must move on. We have a crisis; we have distressed parents; and we have children who are benefiting from conductive education. Members have the power to make a lifetime of difference in exchange for a very small amount from the public purse.

To the best of my knowledge, no special training is provided to equip teachers to educate children with cerebral palsy. I know that the Minister is currently reviewing special education and the training of teachers, but, whatever the outcome of that review, it will be too late, should the Assembly not financially support the Buddy Bear Trust and its children now.

The Buddy Bear School is not in competition with other special schools. It must be viewed as an additional resource to assist children, parents and teachers. The Assembly must do all that it can to safeguard our only conductive education school for children with cerebral palsy. We have pledged our support for children who, up until now, have had no voice and have had to depend on charity. We have the power, the authority and the resources to make a lifetime of difference to children and their families, now and in future, so, for their sake, we must act.

I shall end with an interesting story, if you will allow me, Mr Deputy Speaker. Before the most recent Assembly election, I visited the Buddy Bear School in Dungannon. A young mother came in with triplets. Into my arms, I was handed a young child — a lovely child. I had to hand that child back to its mother, knowing that I could do nothing for it. I vowed that, if some day the Assembly were back up and running, we would do something to help that mother and the many like her. Our opportunity is now.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Lunn: I support the motion, as, I am sure, will every other Member. I confess that conductive education was new to me before Brendan McConville and his team visited Lisburn City Council before Christmas to make a presentation, at which we learned something about it. Those of us who were privileged enough to attend the more recent presentation in this Building would have found it very difficult not to be moved by what we saw.

Dominic Bradley has already mentioned Daniel Murphy, who may represent the most classic case of what can be done for a child who, 30 years ago, would probably have been regarded as a hopeless case — a wheelchair case. Without the influence of the Buddy Bear Trust and its school, that is exactly what would have happened. I have been told that, recently, Daniel managed to leave his house, get on a bus, go to Newry, visit the Buttercrane Shopping Centre, and go home again on the bus, all under his own steam. That is some achievement for a young fellow of about 16 years of age. He is not the only child who came to Stormont that day; there were others who were equally impressive in their own way. However, Daniel stands out as an example of what can be achieved.

The conductive-education system is recognised worldwide, and it is used extensively in Hungary, and across the rest of mainland Europe, the UK and America. The Buddy Bear School is the only one of its type on the island of Ireland. It is vital that its work be allowed to continue. The school has managed, since its foundation in 1988, to continue its good work, but it has existed from hand to mouth every year, never sure of future funding. Unless there is some proper support from the Department of Education, it may be that the school will have to fold. That would be a crying shame for the sake of £200,000, which appears to be the school’s total running costs.

The issue of referrals from education and library boards was mentioned earlier in the debate. I am perplexed as to why there are not more referrals, and why there does not seem to have ever been a referral from the South Eastern Education and Library Board or the Belfast Education and Library Board.

I am told that there are about 900 children in the Province with varying degrees of cerebral palsy and related illnesses. There must be some of them who could be assessed in a manner that would direct the authorities to point them towards the Buddy Bear School as their best chance of improvement.

It is good that the school is quite happy to take referrals from across the border. A parallel can be drawn with the Middletown Centre for Autism, which is an all-Ireland centre of excellence. I hope that the Buddy Bear School in Dungannon can become an all-Ireland centre of excellence in its field. I also hope that, just as the Executive are being asked to provide funding, perhaps the Republic’s Government could be asked the same question.

In the meantime, I plead with the education and library boards to make referrals to the school. If they did that, and pay for those school places, the funding crisis would be partially cured straight away. That would not take very many referrals, and that is from where the finance should come.

I plead with the Minister to give our case a sympathetic hearing and to see what can be done. The Buddy Bear School is a very worthy cause, and I am glad to see its being supported by everyone in the Chamber.

Lord Morrow: I am pleased to support the motion and to associate myself with the work and efforts of the white knights of the Buddy Bear Trust Conductive Education Independent School, which is based in Dungannon. Dungannon is my home town, and the town that I have represented on Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council for some 35 years. I have some knowledge of the school, and I am determined to see it continue with its excellent record of achievement. As a public representative, both at an Assembly and local level, I will give it all the support that I possibly can and in all the ways in which I can.

The Buddy Bear School delivers a unique service to children suffering from severe cerebral palsy, using techniques pioneered by the world-famous Peto Institute in Hungary. Indeed, the school’s principal worked at the Peto Institute, and brought her experience to the children of Northern Ireland.

Conductive education is possibly the most important sphere of learning, as children are taught the basics elements of life. Their education is not just academic; the children learn the basic skills that most of us take for granted — such as sitting up, walking, and com­municating — before being set up to lead a productive and independent life. The Buddy Bear Trust has literally put children on their feet.

A fine example of that has already been referred to by others, but I would like to mention 16-year-old Daniel Murphy, whom I had the tremendous pleasure of meeting. When he was a baby, Daniel’s parents were told that he would never walk or be able to fend for himself; he was, to use everyday terms, effectively written off. However, because — and only because — of the Buddy Bear Trust, Daniel is now a fine young man who travels by bus three days a week to his part-time work in Newry. He is happy, contented, independent, and is very much looking forward to the future, and that is thanks to the Buddy Bear School. Daniel is just one example of the miraculous work that is carried out at that facility, and he is a far cry from the helpless little individual for whom the prognosis was very poor.

No one would disagree that every child is precious, whatever his or her individual circumstances may be. That is why I am delighted that the Minister of Education has often stated that she believes that every child has a right to an education. Sadly for the Minister, that is where my praise ends, because there are some matters on which I want to challenge her.

Last month, the Buddy Bear staff, along with children and parents, arrived at Stormont for a much-anticipated audience with the Education Minister and a cross-party delegation of MLAs, including her party colleague Francie Molloy, who will be able to contradict me if I am inaccurate. Given the long journey that they faced, particularly with a disabled child, the parents set off early, and I understand that some may have travelled to Belfast the previous night. However, not only did the Minister claim to have no knowledge of their scheduled visit — which had been organised and confirmed on paper some time in advance — she baulked when faced with the fact that the MLAs were waiting to join the meeting. She will have a chance to answer that, and I look forward to that.

The Minister refused outright to meet the MLAs, and only after much ado did she agree to meet parents, children, and Buddy Bear staff — she condescended to do that, at least. The trust chairman was bluntly informed by a member of staff from the Department of Education that there could be no photograph of the visit, because it was claimed that it could look as though the Minister was supporting the school. What would be wrong with the Minister being identified with — or with her supporting — that school?

I thought that the whole intention of the visit was for the Minister to see at first hand the much-needed work that the Buddy Bear Trust is doing and the services that it is providing, but it seems that the Minister had other ideas. The trust chairman was then tackled as to why Ms Ruane appears on the Buddy Bear Trust website, only to be informed that she had visited the school in her former capacity, before she was a Minister. That is amazing. Such visits seem to be acceptable when made as a mere MLA or as a private individual who is representing a political party or grouping, because one cannot do anything, but it is a different story when the individual is in a position to be able to affect the situation.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I see that you are going to ask me to sit down. There is much more that I could have said, but I would like the Minister to address the issues that I have mentioned.

Mr K Robinson: Whenever Northern Ireland possesses a centre of excellence in any sphere, it is our duty to sustain and to nurture it, particularly if that centre of excellence is related to health, welfare, or education. The Buddy Bear School in Dungannon has been a bright light in delivering conductive education for those with cerebral palsy, which affects one in every 400 children.

The Buddy Bear Trust deserves our support, and, at the very least, it should be given the financial protection that it needs until a cross-border centre of excellence can be developed for cerebral palsy, along the same lines as the autism centre in Middletown, County Armagh.

That centre should then gain from whatever economies of scale are available and funded jointly by the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government of the Republic of Ireland. Needless to say, that eventual solution needs to draw heavily on the considerable expertise and good practice built up in the Buddy Bear School in Dungannon since its inception in 1994. The Ulster Unionist Party strongly supports the work of the Buddy Bear Trust and its school, and we want to see progress made on that issue.

4.45 pm

There must be concerns regarding the nature of the relationships between the education and library boards and the school. I have to say, at the outset, that systems should never become a barrier to giving a child in need the life chances he or she deserves. Systems do not exist for their own benefit, or to justify the employment of officials administering them. They exist to address real educational, health and social issues, and they deserve to exist only for as long as they do that. If a system ever gets in the way of delivering that need, then it must be scrapped, and we must go back to the drawing board.

At present, over 900 children and young people from Northern Ireland suffer from cerebral palsy, and yet there is no centrally funded specialist provision made for those children. It should not be left up to an independent voluntary organisation to raise funds to provide the financial support for conductive education. This is a public need, and conductive education is the way to meet that need. That should be the starting point for the system’s design. We must not become hung up on what was the direct rule Minister’s way of doing things.

For the last 10 years, three education and library boards have sent children to the school. However, in recent years, the number of pupils has decreased, and it has now emerged that the education and library boards have failed to inform parents of children with cerebral palsy that the conductive education school is an alternative to the existing statutory provision. Failure by any public body to do that is, in my mind, a serious omission from its primary duty to the welfare of the children in its area.

In January 2007, only two pupils were enrolled at the school. There were further concerns when it was revealed that an education and library board was preventing a six-year-old cerebral palsy sufferer from attending the school, because of red tape.

The lack of pupils has had a serious effect on the funding arrangements for the school, as the Buddy Bear Trust relies, for its normal day-to-day operation, on the fees provided by the boards. Fund-raising has been scaled down and remained in place only for the purchase of some extra items, such as specialised equipment and furniture.

As long ago as 1996, the then Secretary of State, in response to a Parliamentary Question, said:

“Under article 31(3) of the Education and Libraries (NI) Order 1986, a proposal by an education and library board to arrange for the special educational provision for a child to be made otherwise than at a grant-aided school is subject to the approval of my Department. My Department considers each proposal made under this legislation on its merits, taking into account the professional advice, parental representations, proposed costs and any other circumstances relevant to each case. There are, however, proposals currently before Parliament to change this legislation: under these proposals, my Department’s approval role in individual placements would be replaced by a power to approve institutions other than grant-aided schools as suitable for the placement by boards of children with special educational needs.”

We do not want to hear any more excuses from officialdom about why children are not directed to Buddy Bear School, Dungannon —we want to see action.

The school in Dungannon is what they call in the United States, heavily credentialised. In 1994, the director of the Peto Institute in Budapest, the world’s first and primary centre of excellence for conductive education, was actively involved in setting up the school, which was subsequently inspected and recognised by the Department of Education. This meant that the education and library boards were able to fund the school, by paying the fees of statemented children.

Since its establishment, the Buddy Bear School has helped over 200 children, and a recent inspection report has commended the school, and recommended that the Buddy Bear Trust and the board should work together to maintain the valuable resource for children with cerebral palsy. Let us, therefore, see an intervention by the Minister of Education to sustain this excellent institution in the interim, and let us see some concrete proposals coming from the Executive.

Mrs M Bradley: I support the motion. There is a blatant need for that organisation to be supported, to whatever level possible, and by whatever purse available to this Government and their branches. That support is essential for children who suffer from many of the diseases and conditions that mainly affect their motor skills. As those children grow into adults, they will need continuous care and assistance.

Surely, whatever skills that organisations such as the Buddy Bear Trust can help to develop — however minor they may seem compared with those that are developed by children in the mainstream-education system — are major developments in a sufferer’s life. Is such a development not a huge milestone for a child who would simply have been left to flounder his or her way through life prior to the publication of the work of practitioners such as the renowned Dr Peto of Budapest?

I am aware of the Buddy Bear Trust’s work, because as mayor of Derry in 1991, I visited the school in Dungannon in order to examine its work. At that time, a quadriplegic boy from Derry was a pupil at the school. Eventually, the young lad was able to develop sufficient motor skills to enable him to move a motorised wheelchair without help and to attend a mainstream school in Derry, although he needed care during school hours. Nonetheless, he did it, and I am pleased to say that he is now in further education. His name is Kevin O’Donnell.

When the Buddy Bear Trust visited the Building to promote its cause, mothers told me that they want nothing more than to see their children enact the smallest of improvements. In order to do that, those children need the help and professionalism of people who work in conductive education. The papers have played host to photographs of the First Minister and the Education Minister pledging their support for the school. Therefore, I trust that they will live up to their promises and do what they can to retain the school.

I sincerely ask the Minister of Education to ensure that the education boards inform parents of the existence of the Buddy Bear School. Until now, they have not done so. That is a disservice to parents and to the school. It is an insult to children who suffer from those conditions. The school is faced with closure, which, again, is an insult, particularly when the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have, in this very Chamber, declared that a better future for all is enshrined in the Programme for Government. There is no better future for those children or for their school.

I support the motion. I hope that the Minister, and anyone who can help, will keep the Buddy Bear School open in order to provide a good service for those children whom we all call special.

Mr Storey: I support the motion. At the outset of my remarks, I pay tribute to the staff, parents and all who are associated with the Buddy Bear School in Dungannon for the fortitude that they have shown over the years. In spite of all the difficulties and problems that they have had, they have maintained their stance and have continued to provide a service to the school’s children.

I want to pick up on Lord Morrow’s point about the meeting between MLAs and the Education Minister that did not take place. I was extremely disappointed. I have been accused of bullying and all sorts of wrongs against the Minister. However, I want to make a serious point to her. I do not want to use the debate as a means to score political points, as has been done in previous debates. My point is sincere and genuine. I welcome the fact that the Minister is present in the House. I trust that she will listen.

The Minister has told the Assembly that equality is central to all of her policies; indeed, it is the bedrock of her beliefs. She has said that she has an interest in all of Northern Ireland’s children. Surely, if that is the case, the children who Members have heard about in the debate, who suffer from cerebral palsy and who are associated with the Buddy Bear Trust, also deserve equality. They deserve to have the same rights as all other children.

It was extremely disappointing that the Minister did not attend the meeting in question. Through my experience in the political world, I am big enough to be able to take rebuff, rejection and exclusion. However, her absence was an insult to those families and children. Why did the Minister refuse to attend the meeting in the terms that were requested?

I am sure that her colleague, Mr Molloy, was disappointed that the scheduled meeting, of which everyone was aware, did not take place. Subsequently, I tabled a question to the Minister. However, when the question fell and went unanswered, I had to ask the Speaker for a ruling on the matter.

That leads me to conclude that there was an attempt to hide something. I welcome the fact that the Minister is here today and that she will be able to provide clarity and answers. The meeting was not intended to be a hard sell, but an open and frank discussion. As a cross-party delegation, we wanted to put the case for those children.

It is rare for an issue raised in the Assembly to attract simultaneous support from all parties. Perhaps today’s motion has done so because cerebral palsy does not discriminate on religion, politics, gender or ethnic background. Any individual or family can be affected. However, the Minister refused not only to meet the delegation but to clarify why. I am confident that Members have argued a sufficiently strong case for supporting the school.

In the short time that is available to me, I want to ask the Minister why the situation has been allowed to develop over several years and why, as has been mentioned in the House, education and library boards have not been referring children to the school. What is the Department of Education’s position on children with cerebral palsy and what provision does it make for them? Why is there no directive — perhaps there is — on the referral of children with cerebral palsy? I trust that, in contrast with previous occasions, the Assembly will receive answers from the Minister today, not prevarication.

The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Equality is the bedrock of all my policies; I am pleased to say that every policy is equality-proofed. I also put the child at the centre of all policies and will continue to do so. As I wanted to meet representatives of the Buddy Bear Trust and the families involved, that was the basis on which the meeting was organised. People may claim otherwise, and I will not get into that discussion today, but that was the point of the meeting and the basis on which I agreed to it. It went ahead, as planned, on 23 January 2008.

Provision for children with special education needs in schools is of particular interest to me, and I take it seriously as part of my ministerial responsibilities. My concern is that all children receive special education provision that meets their needs. I want to ensure that they are given the best chances at school so that they can maximise their opportunities in later life.

I am committed to improving the special needs framework and the way in which children with special needs are supported in schools and at preschool.

Le deireannas, d’aontaigh mé dréacht-mholtaí don chreatlach riachtanais speisialta oideachais a cuireadh le chéile ag foireann athbhreithniú cuimsithe i mo Roinn, agus beidh mé ag cur na moltaí seo faoi bhráid an Choiste Oideachais. Tá súil agam go gcuirfear na moltaí faoi chomhairliúchán i lár na bliana 2008.

Recently, I agreed draft proposals for changes to the special education needs framework. Those proposals were drawn together by the special education needs and inclusion review team in my Department, and I will bring them to the Committee for Education shortly. I hope that the proposals will be issued for formal consultation in mid-2008. The need for such a review reflects the bureaucracy attached to the special education needs framework, the year-on-year increase in the number of children with statements of special needs and the inconsistency and delays in assessment and provision. Clear accountability on how resources can be best used is also required.

The review aims to formulate comprehensive and cost-effective recommendations for special educational needs and inclusion, and it pays particular attention to the continuity and quality of provision, equality of access, the consistency of assessment and provision, and affordability.

5.00 pm

Recently, I met Brendan McConville and Stanley Anthony from the Buddy Bear Trust, along with a group of parents and children. Contrary to what some Members said, I have never visited the Buddy Bear School. Instead, I met representatives from the school at other events, such as teachers’ conferences, and I met the pupils when they visited the Assembly.

Is mian leo oideachas den scoth a bheith ag a gcuid páistí, agus tugann siad lán tacaíochta don teagasc agus don teiripe a fhaigheann na páistí agus iad ar scoil.

The parents of all children, including those at the Buddy Bear School, want the best standard of education that suits the needs of their children. The parents of pupils at the Buddy Bear School are highly supportive of the teaching and therapy that their children receive.

The Buddy Bear Trust is a registered charity, which opened a conductive education school in Dungannon in 1993 to provide for children with conditions such as cerebral palsy. The school is an independent special school and is approved by the Department of Education as an institution suitable for the admission of children with special educational needs under article 26 of The Education Order 1996. There are many independent schools in the North of Ireland, none of which are entitled to funding direct from the Department of Education. However, when an education and library board places a special-needs child in an independent school, it will have already decided that the placement meets the needs of that child. The board will also be satisfied that the arrangements are compatible with the efficient use of resources.

Má chuireann bord páiste go scoil neamhspleách, thig leis an bhord sin na táillí a dhíol don oideachas a chuirtear ar fáil don pháiste. Chuir boird an deiscirt, an iarthair agus an tuaiscirt páistí go dtí an scoil.

After a board has decided to place a child in an independent school, it is able to pay the necessary fees. Historically, the Southern, Western and North Eastern Education and Library Boards have placed children in the Buddy Bear School.

Conductive education embraces learning and therapeutic development of movement, speech and mental ability simultaneously — not separately or consecutively — and is based on the theory that motor-disabled children develop and learn in the same way as their peers.

It is important that Members recognise that, under special education legislation, the education and library boards are responsible for identifying, assessing and making special education provision for children with special educational needs in their respective areas. The legislation does not give me, or the Department of Education, any role in the identification and assessment of a child’s special educational needs. Neither does it give me any power to intervene in the process, which should be conducted among parents, schools and the education and library boards. The boards are entirely responsible for considering the most appropriate placement for a child, within the constraints of the legislative framework. That framework ensures that the boards and schools make special education provision that matches the assessed needs of each child. That provision may be made in special schools, in special units attached to mainstream schools, or in mainstream classes.

Ar an chéad dul síos, tá dualgas reachtúil ar bhoird riachtanais speisialta oideachais a chur ar fáil i scoileanna a fhaigheann deontas; ach má shíleann bord nach féidir leis riar ar riachtanais speisialta páiste, cuireann an reachtaíocht atá luaite agam ar chumas an bhoird sin páiste a chur go scoil neamhspleách mar Buddy Bear.

First and foremost, boards have a statutory responsibility to make special education provision in schools in the grant-aided sector. However, if a board does not think that it can meet the special needs of a child in a grant-aided school, the legislation that I mentioned, which is already in place, enables it to make provision through an independent school such as the Buddy Bear School.

In recent years, the number of children in the school has dwindled. When the district inspector visited the school in February 2007, she found that there were three pupils. The boards have told me that one child receives statutory funding to attend the school.

It is not the responsibility of the education and library boards or the Department to promote any school in the independent sector. That is a matter entirely for the school’s own management. I am aware that the trust has recently conducted a significant campaign to raise the profile of the school.

The Department surveyed those education and library boards that have historically placed children in the Buddy Bear School. According to the latest available school census information, the boards are making special educational provision for almost 500 children with cerebral palsy in a range of special schools and main­stream settings. Moreover, many other children are being supported by provision in their schools. The boards maintain that, given the greatly varying disabilities of that group of children, the needs of one child with cerebral palsy can be very different from the needs of others and, therefore, a range of placements is required.

Gabh mo leithscéal.

The key to the decisions about placement and therapeutic interventions is the fact that the education and library boards must rely on advice from local health trusts to assist in the assessment of pupils with cerebral palsy, and the trust seldom recommends conductive therapy as a requirement to meet the needs of such pupils. Should a parent express a preference for the Buddy Bear School to be named in a child’s statement of special needs, the board has a duty to consider an appropriate placement in the grant-aided sector. If the board feels that the provision of the Buddy Bear School is required, it must satisfy itself that it is in the best interests of the child that such arrangements be made, taking into account the relevant professional advice and the wishes of the parents. Such arrangements must be compatible with the efficient use of resources.

If a board decides not to name the Buddy Bear School in a child’s statement, the parent has a right of appeal against that decision to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDIST), which would then consider whether the appeal should be heard.

I shall conclude by summarising my position on direct funding for the Buddy Bear School. Neither I, nor the Department of Education, has a role in determining the special educational placement needed for children with special needs. The Buddy Bear School is an independent school and is, therefore, not eligible for grant aid directly from the Department of Education. The proprietors of an independent school must make parents aware of their school, not the education and library board.

Nuair a bhíonn cinntí a ndéanamh faoi shocruithe agus idirghabhálacha teiripeacha, braitheann boird oideachais agus leabharlainne ar chomhairle ón iontaobhas sláinte áitiúil agus iad ag déanamh measúnú ar dhaltaí a bhfuil pairilis cheiribreach orthu; ach is annamh a mholfadh an t-iontaobhas sláinte gur gá le teiripe stiúrtha le riar ar riachtanais an pháiste.

The first duty of education and library boards is to make suitable placements for children with special educational needs in schools in the grant-aided sector. The necessary legislative base is already in place for boards to decide whether the special educational needs of children with cerebral palsy should be met at the Buddy Bear School. It is then the board’s responsibility to fully fund the placements. The education and library boards seek advice from the local health trusts about the necessary therapeutic interventions to meet the needs of children with cerebral palsy. The boards report that the trusts seldom advise that conductive therapy is necessary to meet a child’s needs.

Is é chéad dualgas na mbord oideachais agus leabharlainne socruithe oiriúnacha a dhéanamh do pháistí le riachtanais speisialta oideachais i scoileanna a fhaigheann deontas.

Mr B McCrea: I am somewhat weary and dis­appointed after that response. Rarely have I seen such a clear example of defeat ripped from the jaws of victory. We are debating a cross-party motion. Everyone agreed that it is a very worthy cause. This is incredible.

Mr Storey: It is normal.

Mr B McCrea: I think that it is abnormal. I will outline the situation, just to record the support of the House. I commend Mr Dominic Bradley for proposing the motion with the support of other Members who are present. He provided a very good outline of the benefits of conductive education, and how the school started.

I was very pleased to hear from Francie Molloy, with whom I have had the pleasure of discussing this situation. He pointed out that the school needs only £200,000. He asked —quite reasonably — whether it would be a good idea to let parents know that that educational facility was available, and, if so, why could it not have modest funding.

Mr George Savage, who has been involved in the project for more than 15 years —

Mr Savage: I have been involved for 18 years.

Mr B McCrea: Yes, 18 years. He mentioned the absence of red tape. My colleague the Member for Lagan Valley Mr Trevor Lunn made an excellent point in developing that issue. He mentioned that, as far as he is aware, 900 people require some sort of assistance. It is not as though we have to find people to fill the school.

As he also said, one could not fail to be moved by the plight of the people. I was moved by those children — they were an inspiration — and my heart went out to their parents. Members talked about Daniel Murphy, Kevin O’Donnell and other children.

Lord Morrow mentioned that, as a local man, he knows about the school. He asked why the Minister was so reluctant to embrace the cross-party delegation. I can accept that, perhaps, there was some confusion about who would be there. However, if she was prepared to meet six people, she might as well have met 12 people. We were not there to be anything other than friendly and supportive, and to say that we thought that the school was a good idea.

My colleague Ken Robinson made a strong point about our duty to develop centres of excellence. To build on another well-made point, systems are not an end in themselves. No matter what their legislative basis — no matter what Orders dictate or what direction is given — systems should not prevent a child from receiving the very best support. The Minister said that the child should be at the centre.

Mr Storey: At the centre of what?

Mr B McCrea: Exactly. Where is the equality in this? The Minister said that we must not become rule-bound in this matter. She is making a fundamental mistake.

Mr Molloy: If the Assembly is to mean anything to the people of this area, surely it must change legislation that is wrong and make it fit our circumstances?

Mr B McCrea: I accept that point absolutely. I was about to talk about that. If Orders that were made by direct rule Ministers, or previous Administrations, are not right, surely the Minister is obliged to bring new legislation to the House. That is entirely the responsibility of the Minister and the Department of Education. Judging by what I have heard today, I can assure her that she would have the wholehearted support of most people. The tail should not be wagging the dog. It is not up to the education and library boards to tell the Assembly what to do; it is up to the Assembly to tell them. That is the point. I am really fed up of hearing, “We seem to have some politicians around, but let us ignore them and carry on.” We must sort out this issue.

I valued Mary Bradley’s contribution — as I always do. She talked about her experience in the north-west and what conductive education means to her and the people whom she encounters. Those are the sorts of good-news stories that we want to hear.

Mervin Storey finished his contribution with a pertinent question about why the education and library boards are not referring children to the Buddy Bear School. If health is an issue, why is it not being dealt with? Is there a directive? Is there a vacuum in policy, or is there a policy that is dead set against the school? Whatever the situation —

Mr Storey: The House has once again seen the Minister try the Pontius Pilate exercise, in which she is now an expert, of washing her hands of all responsibility. We have seen all that before. She is blaming the education and library boards, but she also referred to the fact that there were circumstances in which the education and library boards could make referrals.

5.15 pm

Therefore, it is not just about the inadequacies of the legislation: this is a case of where there is a will, there is a way. Members should remember that the Minister said that there were only three pupils in the school. If I am not mistaken, this Minister of Education, and her predecessor, had no difficulty in funding smaller schools in another sector — but perhaps the Minister operates only partial equality.

Mr B McCrea: I welcome the intervention, but in two parts. The real questions are: why do we have a Minister of Education and what is his or her role? Does the Minister of Education merely open schools, accept credit when good things happen and pass the buck when bad things happen? Surely, the role is bigger than that; it is to provide leadership and direction. In previous statements on different issues, the Minister challenged Members to provide vision, use imagination and show some compassion. I heard none of that from her today.

This is a small matter of £200,000 for a very worthy cause. If there are problems about how to deal with that, the Assembly, the Minister and her Department need to — and I am sure that the phrase is not unparliamentary — get the finger out and get things sorted.

The Assembly is the sovereign body. I am telling the Minister — as politely as possible — that her response is not satisfactory and will not be accepted. Her Department and her officials need to find a way of solving this particular problem. Children with cerebral palsy, their families, and the people of Northern Ireland are looking to her to provide solutions. If she cannot do that, we have a serious problem.

Equality, child-centred education, speaking in Irish — none of those things present a problem for me. However, there is a danger when people use language that is divisive. There is no need to be divisive on this subject: it is picking a fight where no fight is called for. I am told that it is bad manners to use language that puts people ill at ease. Whereas I absolutely respect the Minister’s right to use the language for part of her speech, it is a calculated act, which does not help.

Mrs M Bradley: Throughout the debates on the Programme for Government, Members heard that Ministers would be acting for the sake of our children, for the good of our children, and would be providing a quality of life for the children who are our future. Those children face an uncertain future.

It is not good enough that we, as elected repre­sentatives, have to tell parents that we are sorry, but we are unable to help their paraplegic children. No one, except the mother who has such a child, knows how that feels.

Mr B McCrea: I could not agree more with the Member. Mary Bradley has shown more eloquence than I could. I conclude on that point.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved: That this Assembly supports conductive education and commends the Buddy Bear School, Dungannon, to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Minister of Education for financial support and assistance.

Mr Storey: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In an earlier debate today, mention was made by several Members that a Minister — Mr Conor Murphy — had met with the IRA regarding the brutal murder of Paul Quinn. The Assembly has a ministerial code and Pledge of Office in place, and the latter includes a pledge to support the police, the courts and the rule of law. Given that this Minister, we believe, has met with an outlawed, illegal, terrorist organisation, which is in direct opposition to the legitimate security forces of the state, that the Minister in question knows that to be the case, and that he knew it to be the case before he went to meet with them, and that he went to discuss with that illegal, terrorist organisation its possible involvement in that brutal murder, I ask you, Mr Deputy Speaker, either for a ruling on the possible breach of the ministerial code and Pledge of Office, or that you take the matter to the Speaker as a matter of urgency, so that a full report on it can be made to the House.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Mr Storey’s remarks have been noted, and I have no doubt that the Speaker will report back to the House as appropriate.

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]