Private Members' Business. - Appointment of Remedial Teachers: Motion.

Wednesday, 4 December 1996

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 472 No. 4

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Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  I move:

That Dáil Éireann condemns the failure of the Minister for Education to appoint even one remedial teacher for the 1996/97 academic year and calls on the Minister to appoint a significant number of additional remedial teachers to schools for the 1997/98 academic year from the demographic dividend that will emerge as a result of falling enrolments.

I welcome this opportunity to highlight the position pertaining to remedial teachers nationwide.

Fianna Fáil tabled this motion to highlight the lack of access of primary school children to a proper, comprehensive remedial teaching programme and its purpose is to reveal the inadequate degree of access to the remedial programme of education. We call on the Minister for Education to appoint additional remedial teachers for the 1997-98 academic year as a matter of urgency.

Our motion and contributions by the various members of the parliamentary party during this debate will expose the myth peddled by the Minister's expensive public relations machine [843] that up to 80 per cent of children have access to remedial teachers. That is absolute nonsense.

When one talks to people with direct, on the ground experience one finds that the quality of remedial education for children is very much open to question, as is its quality and means of access to many children.

I know that, in response to tabling this motion, the Minister issued a rushed press release yesterday announcing an immediate study into remedial education saying she had commissioned the Education Research Centre in Drumcondra to carry out a major study of the State's primary schools' remedial service commencing in January 1997.

Why, having been in office for four years, has the Minister only now decided to initiate such a comprehensive research study? Why was it not commissioned at the beginning of her term of office? Is this not yet another classic case of responding to an issue, by commissioning another study — which, of course, will take time — in the hope that a general election may well be called before its completion, letting the Minister off the hook?

The caseload with which individual remedial teachers have to cope is excessive and militates against the provision of a comprehensive, holistic remedial education programme. In recent years the Minister has deliberately orchestrated a media campaign to give the impression that the position has improved dramatically. In reply to a recent parliamentary question she said that access to remedial teachers had increased from about 77 per cent to 87 per cent. Has anybody questioned the quality of that access? Will the Minister explain or define for the benefit of Members the nature of this access and what it entails?

There are approximately 3,203 national schools nationwide, yet only 1,188 remedial teachers have been appointed. The reality remains that approximately 900 schools do not have the service of a remedial teacher.

The Minister failed to use the demographic dividend made available this year, from falling enrolments, to appoint additional remedial teachers, with which I will deal later.

I should have said, a Cheann Comhairle, that I wish to share my time with Deputies Hughes and Killeen.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  I am sure that is satisfactory and agreed.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  In recent years the Minister has certainly increased the geographical ground now covered by remedial teachers. Additional schools have been added to existing ones to create clusters, with additional day schools not served by remedial teachers to date. In short, the remedial service has been spread more thinly across the board while a fundamental question marks hangs over its quality. To put it simply, too few teachers [844] are coping with too many pupils within too great a geographical area.

In reply to a parliamentary question tabled by Deputy Killeen last year on the remedial education service in County Clare the Minister replied that 63 out of 122 schools in the county had access to remedial teachers whereas 62 schools had no such access to a remedial service. The student population for those who had access was approximately 8,941 and in the 62 schools without any remedial service the school population was 3,494, a pattern replicated throughout rural areas. In accordance with statistics prepared by the INTO, small rural schools are being continuously discriminated against by the Minister's policy initiatives on remedial education. Small, rural schools in particular are short of proper remedial education, in some cases the children attending them do not have access to remedial teachers and, in the majority of cases, have very limited access.

We are all aware of the large cluster of schools that have to be served by one remedial teacher. We have had the example of one remedial teacher having to serve anything between four and nine schools. It is not realistic to suggest that any remedial teacher can adequately service all children in such schools in need of remedial teaching; they are not in a position to give the type of coverage and service required.

It is estimated that approximately 10 per cent of children in any given school are in need of remedial education, a conservative estimate since modern research shows that children can experience a wide variety of difficulties and learning problems in school and that many more now require access to remedial teaching, particularly in their early years.

In addition, the overall position is not being helped by the appalling state of the schools' psychological service, illustrated by a recent report prepared by IMPACT, which demonstrated that there is no comprehensive schools psychological service. Without the help of school psychologists, many children are not being identified as being in need of remedial teaching in the first instance and many more await months, even years, for assessment. A proper psychological service is a prerequisite to an effective remedial education service. Most teachers to whom one talks consider the present psychological service to be totally inadequate. Very often children are referred to psychologists when a teacher has difficulty in identifying a problem, or when a teacher believes that referral to a special school or class may be the most appropriate for a child with disabilities.

Parents often request schools to refer their children for psychological assistance. Very often psychologists can confirm the opinions of teachers or parents and diagnose the specific nature of an individual child's problem. However, it is quite clear that entire generations of children with disabilities are being denied access to a proper psychological service. The Government [845] has made no meaningful effort to provide a nationwide, school-based psychological service. Admittedly, two pilot projects have been established in primary schools in west Dublin and Tipperary, placing very strong emphasis on the prevention of difficulties in addition to case work. From the INTO perspective, the success of these projects was due to the fact that the psychologists appointed had widespread teaching experience. Teachers found that psychologists had a good understanding of the circumstances prevailing in the classroom which was reflected in their approach to assessment, case work, referrals and recommendations for class-room strategies. There is a clear case for the Minister's Department to ensure that psychologists, with primary teaching experience, are appointed to the service.

It is regrettable that last year the Minister reneged on her commitment to appoint additional psychologists to that service. At the current rate of development, the INTO estimates it will take at least ten years before a comprehensive, school-based psychological service will be established here. That is totally unsatisfactory for many children for whom the service will come too late. Clearly, to ensure a proper remedial education provision the schools' psychological service will have to be expanded immediately on a regional basis to provide a comprehensive, school-based service in all primary schools, in tandem with the provision of the necessary support to the remedial schools service.

Ideally educational psychologists with primary teaching experience should be appointed to such a service, which should have the authority and responsibility to refer pupils to clinical psychologists, counsellors or other support services as required. The study carried out by IMPACT showed a devastating shortage of school psychologists. This is a damning indictment of the Minister for Education's lack of commitment to the development of a school psychological service. This comprehensive study concluded that the majority of pupils have little access to a school psychological service and that 80 per cent of primary school children have had no contact whatsoever with educational psychologists. This means that many children with difficulties are not identified early enough. As their problems develop these children become demotivated and demoralised. Some of these children never receive remedial education as they have not been identified as having problems in the first instance.

By the time these children enter second level education the battle has been lost. The psychologist-pupil ratio in primary schools which are served by the system is 1:7,500. The IMPACT study highlights the lack of such a service, particularly in rural areas. While the school psychological service is worthy of a separate Private Members' motion, I place particular emphasis on it in my contribution because of its [846] fundamental importance in backing up, supplementing and supporting a proper integrated remedial education service. It is not possible to have one without the other.

The Minister has engaged very expensive public relations consultants to advance her case in terms of the reform she claims to have introduced in education, particularly for the disadvantaged. The more teachers and Deputies one talks to the more one realises that the service as it exists is a sham. This is no reflection on teachers who are doing their best. However, we ask too much of them and expect them to cover too many schools and to help too many students. We should face up to this reality and do something about it. The Minister is codding the public and engaging in a cosmetic exercise. The reality on the ground is very different from that outlined in press releases and in replies to parliamentary questions.

A number of remedial teachers have given me examples of typical caseloads. One teacher in the south-east serves four national schools and has a caseload of 60 pupils. She states that even though a significant number of pupils are in need of remedial education not all of them can be given access to a remedial teacher. This teacher, in consultation with the school authorities, had to take difficult decisions and decided to target resources towards the seven to nine age group. She visits the four schools twice every week and spends an extra half day at each school every fourth week. She does not regard this as sufficient and believes these children require daily attention. In addition, there is very little one-to-one teaching as she does not have enough time. She takes children in groups for 30 to 45 minutes in order to save time.

Remedial teachers normally deal with three categories of children — slow learners, children with special learning difficulties and children with special needs. Further integration has meant that children with special needs who require remedial education form an increasing part of the school-going population. Remedial teachers have very little time to deal with children with specific learning difficulties. Children who suffer from dyslexia and other learning difficulties are not given the degree of attention and expert guidance they require.

Another teacher serves two schools and has a caseload of 50 pupils, most of whom he sees two or three times a week. The combined enrolment of the two schools is approximately 375 and his complaints are similar. For example, he does not have enough time to deal with children who have problems with maths, the necessary resources are not provided and essential back-up services are not in place.

The normal work of a remedial teacher includes the screening and testing of pupils, record keeping etc. They also have responsibility for the development of school policy on remedial teaching for children with special needs. It is generally recognised and accepted that liaison [847] between parents and remedial teachers is an essential part of the overall service and meetings between them are, therefore, very important. Remedial teachers who cover two schools are clearly faced with enormous difficulties. I have heard complaints that pupils are not being given the attention they require and deserve.

A third teacher is equally adamant that he does not have time to deal with all aspects of remedial education. Pupils in his catchment area who have problems with maths are also a casualty. He covers three schools with an enrolment of approximately 400 pupils and does not feel he has enough time to deal with children with special learning difficulties.

The guidelines issued by the Department of Education bear very little relationship to the reality on the ground or the problems with which remedial teachers have to deal. For example, they suggest that remedial teachers should deal only with children on the lower rung of the intelligence ladder. This excludes children above the lower rung who still require some remedial teaching. A general guideline is that the caseload of a remedial teacher should be approximately 40 pupils. However, the average caseload of most remedial teachers, particularly those in rural schools, is much higher than 40. The guidelines suggest that in the case of a cluster of schools the caseload of 40 should be reduced by two for each additional school, subject to a maximum reduction of eight pupils. This again bears no relationship to reality. Most remedial teachers and experts in the field regard a caseload of 38 pupils between two schools as excessive and believe it should be reduced.

The motion deals with the utilisation of the demographic dividend. Each year since 1987 the Department has had teachers available for redeployment. The Minister does not often draw attention to the demographic dividend, which basically means that a significant number of teachers become available every year for redeployment as a result of falling enrolments. In 1987 the then Government and Minister for Education, Deputy O'Rourke, decided, in consultation with the social partners, to retain any excess teachers who became available because of falling enrolments within the system and to redeploy them. This was used to appoint additional remedial teachers and to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio gradually over the period of the Programme for National Recovery, the Programme for Economic and Social Progress and the Programme for Competitiveness and Work. The demographic dividend has also been used to develop the home-school liaison scheme initiated by Deputy Mary O'Rourke and to appoint resource and visiting teachers. The Minister does not always refer to this in press releases as it takes from the gloss on her announcement of the appointment of additional remedial teachers.

[848] This brings me to the decision taken this year to utilise the demographic dividend in a certain way. According to replies to parliamentary questions tabled by me and other Deputies, there were approximately 346 teachers available for redeployment for the year commencing September 1996. The Minister was very late in publishing the staffing schedules and indicated that she would devote all the teachers to the Breaking the Cycle initiative. Her non-consultative approach to this issue led to industrial action in a number of schools and to the threat of industrial action by the INTO in schools which would lose teachers as a result of her stubborn adherence to this decision. The threat of industrial action and the successful lobbying by all sides, particularly the INTO, forced the Minister to retreat. We ended up with the Breaking the Cycle initiative which allocated approximately 135 of the 346 teachers to 35 urban schools and approximately 118, in 25 clusters of five, to schools in rural areas. Approximately 35 teachers from the 25 clusters will be appointed as co-ordinators, but we do not know what type of service they will provide for disadvantaged schools.

I am critical of the Breaking the Cycle initiative. The Minister may laugh, but if she were in Knocknaheeny or Churchfield in Cork, in Connemara or in certain parts of Dublin she would not laugh. It is unacceptable that schools which experience extreme disadvantage in urban and rural areas have been denied an additional teacher or support under the Breaking the Cycle initiative. Some schools have received eight additional teachers while neighbouring schools, with equal degrees of disadvantage, have not even received one. Tremendous inequity has entered the system. While nobody would begrudge the additional teachers to the schools concerned — they deserve all the help they can get — there is no justification for depriving schools, such as St. Mary's in Knocknaheeny or Padre Pio in Churchfield in Cork, of one additional teacher.

I challenge anyone to dispute what I have said. I have received correspondence from schools in Connemara, Donegal and Dublin which should have received assistance, but did not. I have had correspondence from a school in Letterfrack which was included in the Breaking the Cycle initiative and, while that entitles it to grant assistance, it will lose a teacher. We are assisting schools in so-called disadvantaged areas by increasing capitation grants, but they subsequently lose teachers. The loss of a teacher to the school in Letterfrack will be crucial to its ongoing success and development.

In an excellent article in Education and Living dated 5 November, John Carr of the INTO welcomed the Breaking the Cycle initiative, but stated that a comprehensive system of remedial education must be a priority for rural areas. The INTO believes it would take an additional 220 teachers to complete that service and to provide [849] genuine access to remedial education for children, particularly those in disadvantaged circumstances.

Rather than appointing 35 co-ordinators to travel around the country visiting schools in rural areas, resources should be spent on appointing 35 remedial teachers. I would have used this year's demographic dividend to appoint approximately 50 teachers. A general reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio would assist remedial teachers because it would reduce numbers in classrooms and allow greater room for manoeuvre within schools.

Breaking the Cycle was a great initiative for the editorial writers. It had a great story to tell about a wonderful new initiative that would tackle disadvantage head on. However, only 35 urban schools benefited. Hundreds of other schools in similar positions did not get even one teacher. It would have been a more equitable system if the schools selected had received three or four teachers and the remaining teachers were appointed to other schools throughout the country.

When the Estimates are being approved, I inform the Minister of the demand for a proper and comprehensive remedial system of education. We need more remedial teachers urgently to cater for children with special needs. If they are not catered for at an early age we will fail them. A mixed approach would be more beneficial in next year's demographic dividend than the one the Minister adopted last year. She should listen to the social partners and not take unilateral action. She should also heed what is being said by people throughout the country. The Minister has a difficulty with consultation. The last person she will consult is a TD. Labour Deputies may benefit in that regard, but even some of them are frustrated at the lack of progress in this area.

The Minister has a high disregard for the House. She rarely attends Adjournment debates and considers Private Members' motions an undue sufferance. It is interesting to note the number of Deputies who put their names to this motion, particularly those from the western seaboard and other rural areas, and have expressed a desire to contribute to the debate. They are listening to complaints from parents, teachers and children about the lack of a proper service. The day of the cynical press release which states that 85 per cent of our children have access to a remedial service is gone. It is time to deal with the reality.

I commend the motion to the House and urge the Minister to respond positively.

Mr. Hughes: Information on Séamus Hughes  Zoom on Séamus Hughes  I congratulate Deputy Martin, our party spokesperson on Education, for tabling the motion and making an excellent contribution. His winding up remarks were very appropriate. He outlined in a nicer way than I would the Minister's contempt for this motion. She even left the House in the middle of Deputy Martin's contribution. Private Members' Time is the only [850] resource afforded the Opposition to put forward matters of concern to them. It is incumbent on Ministers to give courtesy and recognition to that valuable time and, unless they have to attend pressing State business, they should attend such debates. While I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Stagg, he does not have a connection with the Department of Education. He is Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications, with responsibility for the generation of windpower.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  I have more responsibility than that.

Mr. Hughes: Information on Séamus Hughes  Zoom on Séamus Hughes  Perhaps the Minister thinks we are talking a lot of wind. However, I am pleased a Minister from Mayo came in listen to the debate. Although he left that county a long time ago, he returns there frequently.

There has been much publicity about the number of remedial teachers the Minister appointed in her four year tenure. Despite that, I meet deputations on a weekly basis from schools in a rural constituency in the west who believe they are entitled to some of the substantial resources in the Department of Education that are being allocated to cities and other large urban areas. Many rural schools believe they are not getting their fair share.

Why do we need so many remedial teachers? Many children of five and six years of age leave their homes at 7.30 a.m. or 8 a.m. and do not return until 5 p.m. In effect, they spend longer at school or in a school bus than the average industrial worker spends at work. How can such students have the energy to do their homework? Such time spent travelling to and from and attending school contributes to educational disadvantage. The fact that teachers in most rural schools have to teach multi-classes also contributes to educational disadvantage. That is a most undesirable educational mechanism and, while recognising the decreasing pupil numbers, a certain element of that mechanism will continue to apply. There is a need for more teachers.

I wish to refer to the Minister's response to the INTO survey on substandard schools. Last week the INTO claimed there were 47 substandard national schools. In a response in The Irish Times today, the Minister said that work on one of those 47 schools had gone to tender. If that is a record of which she can be proud, perhaps she was right to leave the House when she did. She will get a message tonight and tomorrow that will put her record in the context in which it should be recorded.

Of 47 schools deemed substandard by the INTO work on one has gone to tender. I can only presume that school is Rathbane school, for which the Chair allowed time on the Adjournment Debate two weeks ago. That debate and the associated national publicity on radio, television and in the newspapers resulted in the Minister taking note of the fact that there is such a thing as a substandard school. The [851] planning process was taking an exorbitant time and the file must have been gathering a substantial amount of dust. Something had to be done. A Minister representing the constituency telephoned from a European capital on the day the story broke to take credit for ensuring that work on the school was about to go to tender in two weeks' time. I can only presume from what I read in The Irish Times today that it is the school in question.

Another 19 schools are at the architectural planning stage, the same stage Rathbane school was at until that story broke. I ask the Minister to consider those 19 schools because I have no doubt they deserve the same priority as given to the school in north Mayo.

Of the 47 substandard schools identified by the INTO the greatest percentage are in Mayo. While the greatest number of schools designated for construction under the building programme are also in Mayo, I am not happy about that. I want priority given to those other schools. The Minister is obliged to devote her scarce resources to the essentials in building our educational infrastructure rather than expensive consultants' reports, commissions, spindoctoring and public relations.

Mr. Leonard: Information on James Leonard  Zoom on James Leonard  I am glad to have the opportunity to make a brief contribution to this debate. I support the motion condemning the Minister for her failure to appoint even one remedial teacher. We receive many representations from parents and school boards, school committees and school managers. It is generally accepted that there is an urgent need for the appointment of many more remedial teachers. The three areas of education to be considered when meeting the people concerned are the provision of remedial teachers, school buildings and school buses.

I tabled a question on 18 April 1996 asking the Minister the number of schools in counties Cavan and Monaghan that applied for remedial teachers and are still awaiting approval and when approval of those teachers will be sanctioned. A total of 22 national schools in Cavan and 19 in Monaghan applied for remedial teachers. It is regrettable that remedial teachers will not be appointed to those schools this year. Many people will be disappointed. Schools are grouped for the purposes of remedial teaching, but no such grouping arrangement will apply this year as remedial teachers will not be appointed to them.

It has been leaked that 17 new schools will be built under the school building programme. People asked if work would commence on the Urbleshanny school in 1996, but it is not on the list. Of the 47 substandard schools listed, not one school in Cavan or Monaghan is included even though I am sure that a number of schools in those counties would fall into that category. It is a slap in the face for school committees who have worked hard to get contributions towards the cost of building schools and ensured sites are available [852] and paid for to discover their work was in vain. They had many meetings with public representatives to urge them to push their case in the past year. In the worst of times when Fianna Fáil was in office resources were available for school buildings every year.

Mr. Killeen: Information on Tony Killeen  Zoom on Tony Killeen  Tonight's debate is important in that it draws attention to the value of and the need for remedial education. Substantial numbers of children encounter literacy and numeracy problems. There is quite a body of research on that area, but despite that there is a relatively poor public understanding of the importance of remedial education. In my 20 years teaching prior to becoming a Member of the House I was never a member of the staff of a school that had the service of a remedial teacher. To the best of my knowledge two of the three rural schools in which I taught still do not have such a service.

Dyslexia is a term that is much used, abused and misunderstood in the area of remedial education. It is a composite term used to describe several problems. It frequently affects very intelligent pupils. It is difficult to imagine the frustration and the diminished sense of self-worth it induces in young people, not to mention its effects on their adult lives which follows on from their lack of ability in reading or numeracy skills.

At present because of the poor level of service many parents, some of whom can ill afford it, pay substantial amounts privately to teachers and specialists in the area of dyslexia for a service for their children. That arises particularly with parents of second level children who are in exam classes and begin to find extreme pressure on them to perform. In our role as parents we all, to some extent, suffer from seeking to consider our geese as swans. For all parents there is some difficulty in admitting to the need for intervention in the education of their children.

The reality is that a great many pupils in primary schools and a very large number in second level schools do not have access to a remedial teacher. As other Deputies said, even of those schools which have a level of service, in most instances it is very small. In larger schools there tend to be too few teachers while in rural areas remedial teachers spend a good deal of their time travelling between schools providing a shared service. From my experience as a teacher and from speaking to my teacher colleagues, the value of a remedial teacher is diminished by the time spent travelling between schools, but also because it is difficult for teachers to integrate into a school class and to play a particular role in the school system, particularly in the multi-class situation. There is a need for better in-service for remedial and other teachers.

There are major problems concerning the unsuitability of buildings in which remedial classes are held. Many are held in corridors or cloakrooms which are most unsuitable. Despite this, the level of service currently provided has had very positive results. This, more than [853] anything else, illustrates the value of the service. My colleagues with the benefit of even a limited service tell me they are astounded and delighted at the level of success they see as a result. Everyone is aware that the amount of service available is too little and that too few teachers are involved.

Then there is the situation of disadvantaged families and communities who suffer more than others in many instances. Deputy Martin referred to the school psychological service. Second level and vocational education committee schools are also in need of this service and the Minister should urge teachers who will be available to her over the coming years to provide it.

Minister for Education (Ms Bhreathnach): Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  I move amendment No. 1:

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

“Dáil Éireann commends the Minister for Education for the significant improvements she has introduced in recent years in the area of remedial education and other innovations introduced for the benefit of children with special needs.”

When I became Minister for Education four years ago, I had two priorities for our primary schools. First, I wanted to improve pupil-teacher ratios, capitation grants and support for all schools in our primary system and, second, I wanted to target specifically children with special needs arising from disadvantage, learning difficulties and physical disabilities. The House will be aware that I have succeeded in keeping more than 1,000 teachers in the primary system who would have been lost because of falling pupil numbers. These 1,000 teachers have been targeted both at a general improvement in primary schools and at children with special needs.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  That was agreed before the Minister took office.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  The House will be aware that maximum class sizes have fallen from 39 to 35 over the last four years and that in disadvantaged schools maximum class sizes have fallen from 39 to 29 over the same period. The House will also be aware that in schools which experience particular difficulties and are included in the Breaking the Cycle initiative, the maximum class size in junior classes is now 15. These general improvements in class sizes have been accompanied by specific targeting of children with special needs.

I am particularly pleased to bring to the attention of the House my record as Minister for Education in introducing significant improvements in the areas of remedial education and other innovations introduced for the benefit of children with special needs. What is important is that the system is able to respond with an [854] appropriate range of measures which are tailored to meet the needs of the children and sufficiently flexible to allow them avail of services as and when required.

A comprehensive agenda for the future development of education services for special needs children was clearly spelt out in the report of the Special Education Review Committee which was published in October 1993. That report made many excellent recommendations on the future thrust of education provision for children with special needs. In pointing to the way forward, the review committee proposed seven principles to serve as basic guidelines for the future development of the educational system.

Principle No. 1: All children, including those with special educational needs, have a right to an appropriate education. Principle No. 2: The need of the individual child should be the paramount consideration. Principle No. 3: The parents of a child with special educational needs are entitled and should be enabled to play an active part in the decision-making process; their wishes should be taken into consideration when recommendations on special educational provision are being made. Principle No. 4: A continuum of services should be provided for children with special educational needs ranging from full-time education in special schools. Principle full-time education in special schools. Principle No. 5: Except where circumstances make this impracticable, appropriate education for all children with special educational needs should be provided in ordinary schools. Principle No. 6: Only in the most exceptional circumstances should it be necessary for a child to live away from home in order to avail of an appropriate education. Principle No. 7: The State should provide adequate resources to ensure that children with special educational needs can have an education appropriate to those needs.

I am fully committed to implementing these principles. My commitment in this regard is clearly reflected and confirmed in the White Paper on Education “Charting our Education Future”. The White Paper sets out the Government's policy for the provision of suitable education services for pupils with special needs, both in an integrated environment and in special educational facilities. The fundamental objective is to ensure to the maximum possible extent that all children with special needs will have access to suitably resourced education services in their own areas and within the ordinary school system. Where children with special educational needs are fully integrated in ordinary schools, a range of support services are available.

Fully qualified primary school teachers are trained to deal with a variety of reading problems, including those which are accompanied by perceptual difficulties. The class teacher provides support which is the first line of assistance and support to pupils with special needs aided by the reduction in class size which I achieved over the last four years.

[855] Remedial teachers are a particularly important resource in catering for children with less serious learning difficulties, generally in literacy and/or numeracy, by directly teaching individuals or small groups on a withdrawal basis.

Since my appointment as Minister for Education, I have allocated an additional 241 ex-quota remedial teacher posts to primary schools. A total of 1,188 remedial teachers are now in place and the percentage of pupils who have access to a remedial service has increased from 77 per cent to 87 per cent. By any measure this represents a very significant improvement in the remedial teacher service over a relatively short period.

Contrast this achievement with the record of the Opposition over the same period from 1989 to 1992. I appointed 241 remedial teachers in the last four years; my Fianna Fáil predecessors appointed 80 in the previous four years. Of course we must continue to improve the remedial service but it is a bit rich for Deputies on the Opposition benches to call for improvements now to make up for their years of neglect.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  What about the demographic dividend?

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  Provision of remedial teachers is only part of my response to children with special needs.

A more recent innovation aimed at further supporting special needs children on an integrated basis is the introduction of the resource teacher's model. The resource teacher caters for pupils with more serious learning difficulties and disabilities, who require regular periods of sustained teacher input. The resource teacher can be attached to an individual school or group of schools, depending on the level of assessed need of the pupils concerned.

When I became Minister there were only seven resource teachers. So much for the Opposition's commitment to special needs children. There are now 46 resource teachers, almost seven times the number allocated by Fianna Fáil. The visiting teacher service is another service which has been enormously strengthened during my term of office. The role of the visiting teacher is to provide special back-up support to schools in meeting the needs of children with particular disabilities.

There are two visiting teacher services in place, one of which caters for children of the travelling community. A total of 12 teachers are employed in this service, double the provision made by Fianna Fáil. These teachers work closely with traveller families and schools to promote the enrolment of and participation by traveller children in pre-school, primary and post-primary education.

The second visiting teacher service is targeted at children with visual and hearing impairments and Down's Syndrome attending primary schools [856] on fully integrated basis. A total of 39 teachers are employed in this service.

Arrangements are being made to further expand both of these services. In the case of the visiting teacher service for travellers, I have approved the appointment of an additional three teachers. These posts were advertised in recent days. In the case of the visiting teacher service for children with certain disabilities, I have approved the appointment of an additional two teachers. These posts will be advertised shortly.

Where the nature or magnitude of a child's special need is such that full integration in an ordinary schools would not be appropriate, the alternative of placement in a special class attached to an ordinary school is available. Since the publication of the report of the Special Education Review Committee in 1993, there has been a significant increase in the number of special classes attached to ordinary national schools, particularly classes for children with mild mental handicap, children of the travelling community and children with speech and language disorders. All such classes operate on the basis of a significantly reduced pupil-teacher ratio. The precise ratio involved reflects the magnitude of the needs of the children being catered for.

Since my appointment, I have provide for a one unit improvement in the pupil-teacher ratio across the entire range of special classes. I have provided for a major improvement in the special capitation rates payable in respect of pupils attending special classes and special schools. When there was a Fianna Fáil Minister in the Department of Education the grant per child with mild mental handicap was a miserable £76.20. Today it is £195 for students under 12 and £316 for students over 12. When there was a Fianna Fáil Minister in the Department of Education the grant per child with a severe or profound mental handicap was a miserable £92.70. Today it is £383. When there was a Fianna Fáil Minister in the Department of Education the grant per child with visual impairment was a miserable £132. Today it is £260 for students under 12 and £316 for students over 12.

I could multiply these examples but I do not need to. The few examples I have given show the hypocrisy of the Opposition in demanding priority for children with special needs, which has only been accorded to them during my term of office. I have introduced an arrangement whereby pupils attending special classes are fully counted on the ordinary roll of the school. This means that in addition to attracting the special class teacher, the schools in question have an improved prospect of attracting additional teaching staff on the basis of the ordinary staffing schedule.

Where certain children with special needs are involved, it is necessary to supplement the teaching staff with back-up support from care staff. Such a need arises where the children have difficulties in areas such as mobility and toiletting. [857] The child care assistant provides an important support service. Child care assistants are employed in special schools for the deaf, blind, physically handicapped, emotionally disturbed, mentally handicapped and multiply handicapped.

The child care assistant is an essential part of the care team for children in these special schools but was the need for these child care assistants recognised by Fianna Fáil when it had a Minister in the Department of Education? The facts clearly show that it was not. When I came into office I found there were only 82 child care assistants throughout the entire special education system. In my four years in office I have tripled this number to 232. This is still not enough. Additional appointments are needed but it is a huge advance to counteract the legacy of neglect left by previous Fianna Fáil Administrations.

As well as correcting the legacy of past neglect I am engaged in planning for the future. In 1993 the Special Education Review Committee recommended that a further 310 remedial posts be made available at first level. I have already allocated 241 such posts.

It is important that this substantial resource is used to best effect and deployed in line with evolving need. It is now appropriate to review all these posts to ensure they are being used in the most efficient and effective manner. Remedial teachers are allocated to schools to enable them reduce the numbers of pupils who might have difficulties in learning literacy and mathematical skills and to support them in teaching those who experience serious problems in acquiring these skills. Research, for example the IEA English reading survey 1993, indicates that between 6.5 per cent and 9 per cent of pupils at 11 years of age, or fifth class, and at 14 years of age have serious learning problems in these areas. The focus of the remedial teacher's work should be on those pupils who have the greatest needs both in terms of prevention and remediation.

An initial survey carried out by my Department's inspectorate last year has raised concerns that some pupils who do not need it may be receiving remedial education. This suggests there needs to be a much sharper focus on ensuring the service is targeted at those who need it most. The key target group would be the lowest functioning 10 per cent of pupils. The survey has demonstrated there is a serious need to ensure the existing provision is correctly targeted. There is a need to place a much greater emphasis on preventive strategies in schools and to focus on early identification strategies and differentiated teaching.

I have arranged for my Department, in consultation with the education partners, to commence a comprehensive remedial education study in 1997. The study will survey principal and remedial teachers focusing on the number of pupils attending remedial classes, the criteria for inclusion in and withdrawal from remedial classes, the organisation of remedial teaching in schools, the development and implementation of [858] policy on remedial teaching in schools, and record keeping and reporting. It will review instruction programmes in remedial classes, examine the progress made by pupils and analyse data on remedial education participation.

This study, which I hope will be completed by the end of 1997, is an enormously important step in basing future advances in the remedial teaching service on up-to-date research, knowledge of precisely how current remedial provision operates and precisely what progress has been made by pupils. This research, which is to be conducted by the Education Research Centre in co-operation with the partners in education, will inform further advances in remedial provision throughout our schools. I am pleased to inform the House of the significant progress which I have made in the provision not only of remedial teachers, but also of teachers for a variety of other pupils with special needs throughout our education system. I am pleased to inform the House of the research which is now being undertaken to ensure that provision of a remedial service can be targeted as effectively as possible in the future.

However, this is only part of the overall picture. Children who suffer from educational disadvantage also have distinct needs and I have targeted resources in an effort to break the cycle of disadvantage. My targeting of resources has been informed by research. It has been done according to independently established criteria and in a way which ensures that both teaching and financial resources are targeted at those in the greatest need.

In 1995 I commissioned the Combat Poverty Agency to conduct a detailed review of our current approaches to addressing the problem of educational disadvantage. The report presented by the Combat Poverty Agency was one of the most comprehensive studies of educational disadvantage ever undertaken in the State. It examined the concept of educational disadvantage as it impacted on pupils in the education system. It reviewed the procedures in place to identify and address educational disadvantage. The report also evaluated the effectiveness of current approaches, using a wide range of national and international research date.

Among the key issues raised in the report was a concern that under the current criteria, the scheme did not have due regard to rural and dispersed disadvantage. It was recommended that the criteria be amended to better reflect educational disadvantage as manifested in rural as well as urban settings.

It also recommended that a more targeted approach be adopted with resources being directed towards the most disadvantaged urban and rural areas. The report also considered that disadvantaged area supports should be confined to 16 per cent of the school-going population. The present scheme already extends to more than 17 per cent of pupils.

[859] In response to the Combat Poverty Agency's report, I launched a new targeted initiative which aims to break the cycle of educational disadvantage in selected urban and rural areas. Schools were selected by the Education Research Centre for support under this new initiative by reference to new selection criteria which have been developed by the centre. The new criteria take on board the recommendations of the Combat Poverty Agency and address educational disadvantage in urban and rural settings.

For urban schools, a targeted programme of supports is being made available to 33 selected schools in designated areas of disadvantage. In each of the selected schools extra staffing has been allocated to allow for a class size of approximately 15:1 in all junior classes, up to and including second class. The schools will also receive special grant assistance of up to £3,000 for the purchase of materials and equipment and up to £4,000 for local initiatives. A newly appointed co-ordinator will support the development of the programme in the selected urban schools.

A special initiative will also focus on schools with fewer than five teachers and particularly schools in rural areas serving dispersed populations which have concentrations of disadvantaged children. In this case, supports are being made available to 25 clusters of schools. Each cluster will be served by a newly appointed co-ordinator who will work with the families and teachers involved. Children attending schools in the selected clusters will attract a special capitation rate of £75 per pupil. The schools will also attract special grant assistance of up to £1,000 for the purchase of materials and equipment and up to £1,000 for local initiatives aimed at combating disadvantage. Schools selected as a result of this process have been invited to submit five-year development plans. Each such plan will be required to identify current difficulties and put forward specific proposals and targets for addressing the problem of educational disadvantage.

Given the findings of the studies to which I referred, I am satisfied that the targeted initiative now being pursued represents the most appropriate response to the problem of educational disadvantage in our primary schools. However, the Breaking the Cycle initiative is not the only response I have made.

The objective of the early start pre-school initiative, which I introduced in 1994, is to expose young children to an educational programme which will enhance their overall development. The pilot programme is a significant development. All research evidence from experience in this country and abroad indicates that high quality pre-school education can play an important part in offsetting the effects of social disadvantage and in preventing educational disadvantage.

[860] The early start pre-school pilot project was launched in 1994 when eight centres of greatest disadvantage, one in Cork, one in Limerick and six in Dublin were selected for inclusion. The programme was extended to a further 32 schools in disadvantaged areas for the 1995-96 school year. This brings the total number of schools with this service to 40. Grants are provided as follows: £4,500 per classroom start up grant for the purchase of a range of suitable equipment; £1,500 per centre per annum for the development of parental involvement; and £75 per pupil annual capitation grant. The pilot project is being evaluated by the Education Research Centre and is being monitored by the Department's inspectorate.

The home-school-community liaison scheme is a further initiative to combat disadvantage by building partnership between home and school.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  God bless Deputy O'Rourke.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  A national co-ordinator oversees the operation nationwide. In September 1993 I placed the home-school-community liaison scheme on a formal footing——

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  It did not exist before.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  ——in the educational system in recognition of the positive impact of the scheme. The home-school-community liaison scheme involves the operation of 105 coordinators serving 178 schools with approximately 51,000 pupils. Contrast this with the situation I inherited from Fianna Fáil in education where there were only 15 coordinators, one seventh of the current 105. The home-school-community liaison scheme is of vital importance in promoting a real partnership between school and home. Support has been a theme of all the advances I have made — support for teachers, schools, parents and students.

Another one of my initiatives was the teacher councils. I have responsibility for ensuring that all pupils, regardless of their personal circumstances, have a right of access to and participation in the education system. The measures I have taken have served, in some way, to alleviate the legacy of neglect I inherited from Fianna Fáil. Let me remind the House specifically of Fianna Fáil's record in the allocation of remedial teachers.

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  The Minister's party was in Government with Fianna Fáil for two years.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  As I told the House, 241 additional remedial teachers have been allocated during my term in office. This contrasts with Fianna Fáil's record in the previous four years. In 1989 not a single additional remedial teacher was allocated. In 1990 there was an allocation of 80 additional remedial teachers, but again in 1991 and 1992 not a single additional remedial teacher was allocated.

[861] We will hear passionate demands from the Opposition benches for a greater allocation of teachers and resources when they have no responsibility. Long may it remain like that. We need to do more in education. I trust I have demonstrated that action speaks louder than words.

Cecilia Keaveney: Information on Cecilia Keaveney  Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney  I wish to share my time with Deputy Michael Kitt.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Joe Jacob  Zoom on Joe Jacob  I am sure that is satisfactory. Agreed.

Cecilia Keaveney: Information on Cecilia Keaveney  Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney  I am delighted to have this opportunity to add my support to the Fianna Fáil motion. As a student teacher and a teacher I came into contact with children who had access to remedial care. I saw the faltering footsteps of those children, not knowing what was ahead of them and perhaps feeling a little different, but as they received the special attention they needed and deserved there was a dramatic improvement in their ability. I am surprised that, as a former remedial teacher, the Minister does not seem to appreciate the value of remedial teaching. When I put down questions asking for the appointment of remedial teachers in my area she repeatedly replied as follows:

Since my appointment as Minister for Education, I have allocated an additional 241 remedial teachers to the primary sector. A total of 1,188 remedial teachers are now in place and the percentage of pupils who have access to a remedial service has increased from 77 to 87 per cent. I consider that the substantial improvements which I have already achieved in this area provide practical confirmation of my commitment to the needs of the children in question.

I am satisfied that since my appointment as Minister for Education I have achieved substantial advances across the entire spectrum of special needs, including the remedial area. It is my intention to continue this process.

Since no allocation was made in the current year for remedial teachers it scares me to think that that process will continue.

Dozens of parents contact me on a weekly basis because they are worried about their children and wonder where they can go for help. They ask if they are entitled to assistance for private teaching or if there are teachers available. I am speaking not about one or two anxious or hysterical parents but about parents in general who contact me on a regular basis seeking help for their children. Some people believe that if they go to an educational psychologist and are told that their child needs remedial help that will assist them in their case. I put down a parliamentary question to the Minister on the number of educational psychologists in primary schools in County Donegal and was told there is an educational psychologist for secondary schools. I [862] take it therefore that, despite the fact that there are 18,924 children on the roll books there, there is no educational psychologist for primary schools in the county. The one educational psychologist in the area covers counties Donegal and Sligo. I would not call that a substantial advance in this service. Some people welcome the fact that there is no educational psychologist for primary schools in the area because they believe that children who see educational psychologists may be labelled as needing special care or remedial help.

The Minister said that there has been an increase from 77 to 87 per cent in the number of children who have access to remedial teaching, but some parents who come to me wonder why their child is one of the 13 per cent who are discriminated against. Of 178 schools in County Donegal, 74, or 42 per cent, have no remedial help whatsoever. I can only speak for Donegal, but if the position is similar in the rest of the country it is terrifying. Even though 104 schools in County Donegal have remedial help, there are only 37 remedial teachers serving those schools. When I asked about the number of hours devoted to remedial teaching in each school I was told the information was not available. While theoretically 78 per cent of children in the county have access to remedial teaching, in some areas there is only one teacher serving five schools, one day per school. In a school with 300 pupils or more, how can one person, on one day, satisfy the needs of the school?

Five schools in the Buncrana area — St. Joseph's in Illies, St. Mura's in Buncrana, St. Patrick's in Drumfries, St. Oran's in Cockhill and St. Egney's in Desertegney — with a total of 651 students, asked for one remedial teacher, but their request was refused. Since there are 325 children in one of those schools there should be a full-time remedial teacher there, not to talk about sharing a teacher with four other schools. In other areas the position is the same. Many areas throughout the county are crying out for help. There are three schools in Carndonagh and six schools in the Malin area looking for remedial help. Despite the lack of finance and the fact that sometimes teachers are unwilling to take on the extra work because their day is long enough in the schools, people are willing to pay for the service because they realise that it is a most beneficial resource, particularly in the primary sector.

I have been told that all available resources are targeted on the development of in-school services. In the 74 schools to which I referred there are no in-school services. The Minister boasts about schools that have disadvantaged status. In Carndonagh, however, there are two schools, one of which, a boys' school, has disadvantaged status while the other, a girls' school, does not. The children attending both schools are from the same socio-economic background and, in some cases, from the same homes. Remedial teachers often have to travel [863] many miles from one school to another, thereby wasting valuable time.

Were it not for the fact that Fianna Fáil, in consultation with the social partners, decided in 1987 to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio and retain teachers in the system we would not have the present number of teachers. Because of Deputy O'Rourke's move on the home-school links we have a valuable service. As a former teacher, I would ask the Minister to expand that service.

In 1995-6 little action was taken, particularly in regard to remedial teaching. Schools, including some in County Donegal, were described by the INTO as substandard. We do not want talks about talks, feasibility studies or task forces. We want action and the problems addressed in schools like Scoil Cholmcille, Malin. We want the conditions in these schools to be suitable for the children who deserve the best education they can get.

I welcome the Minister's announcement of a major new study into remedial education, despite the fact that it is four years since she came into office. I am sure Deputy Bertie Ahern, when he was Minister for Finance, would have been happy under collective responsibility to provide funding to the Minister for this type of study. There is also a need for a major input to remedial education, particularly at primary level; it will be too late if it is left to the second level stage. I also want to see the list of schools in County Donegal that do not have any remedial help shortened.

Mr. M. Kitt: Information on Michael P. Kitt  Zoom on Michael P. Kitt  I thank Deputy Keaveney for sharing her time. I was amazed to hear the Minister talking about all the resources she provided, particularly in primary education, because the dreadful conditions highlighted on television last week in Boofeenaun school, Crossmolina, and the reports yesterday on a school in Kilglass, in my parish, indicate how badly off we are in regard to school structures, which is relevant to the whole question of remedial teaching.

Like Deputy Keaveney I have received similar replies from the Minister. Yesterday I tabled a question to her concerning the possibility of a remedial teacher for Lisheen a Heilta, Ardeevin and Glenamaddy schools, and possibly Williamstown School in County Galway, and the Minister replied that when she is in a position to extend the remedial service, the needs of these schools will be given consideration. These schools have been waiting a long time for an announcement in this regard but the Minister continues to give the same reply about the numbers she has allocated in the past.

It is difficult to accept that a large number of pupils in County Galway are receiving a remedial service because in some cases teachers have responsibility for five or six schools. There is very little accommodation available in some schools for use by remedial teachers. In St. Augustine's national school, Clontuskert, the remedial teacher has to use a room measuring less than [864] five feet by five feet. That particular school was on the Minister's capital programme list in 1995 but I understand it is not one of the 17 priority schools to which the Minister referred in response to the television programmes on the Boofeenaun and Kilglass schools.

Remedial teachers must have rooms in which they can provide their service. One class in St. Augustine's national school in Clontuskert is being conducted in the dining room of the local manager's house, the local priest. Remedial and resource teachers are appointed using the demographic dividend, as Deputy Martin stated, but schools must have proper classrooms for teachers who are required to travel to a number of schools in rural areas.

I would have preferred if the Minister had moved on the question of the pupil-teacher ratio, which is vitally important. Mick Hanley recorded a song called “All I Remember”, the first line of which goes as follows: “All I remember was dreading September and school”. I hope children no longer dread September and the prospect of school, but boards of management around the country do not look forward to September when the enrolment figures for the previous September are quoted when they request the retention of a teacher. The Minister of State, Deputy Carey, has responsibility for western development and I hope he continues to do what he professes to be doing, namely, retaining every school, post office, Garda barracks and courthouse from Donegal to Clare, the area he represents.

The Minister raised the issue of classroom assistants who have a vital role to play, particularly in regard to physically handicapped children. These children are not often talked about and we do not hear about a five year plan for dealing with their needs. Despite what the Minister said tonight the Department of Health, through the health boards, and the Department of Education in the past provided a number of classroom assistants in County Galway, which, particularly the town of Ballinasloe, would not have any classroom assistants if it had not been for FÁS which provides people with employment, usually on a 12 months basis.

I am aware of a case involving a classroom assistant who has worked for six months but because the FÁS scheme in which she is participating ends in December, she would have been required to leave the school and the children she was helping. That would have been a great loss. If Cerebral Palsy Ireland had not decided to continue the FÁS scheme for another six months until the end of June, there would not have been anyone available to help a physically handicapped child in that school. That highlights the importance of classroom assistants. These people are not being provided in my constituency by the Departments of Education or Health; they are being provided by FÁS and the CPI organisation.

I welcomed the Minister's statement that every two-teacher school would retain their teachers [865] but the Minister should have examined the position of the one-teacher schools. There are 163 one-teacher schools in the country; every county has a one-teacher school with the exception of Laois and Offaly. The students in those schools also need assistants because it is difficult for one teacher to cope with a large range of subjects from 9.30 in the morning until 3 o'clock in the afternoon. The only technology that may be available to that teacher is a telephone which she can use to call for assistance if a child becomes ill or if some other emergency arises in the school. These teachers need help and I believe they should be given a second assistant because the Minister acknowledged that some schools may have two teachers but only 15 pupils, in the clusters of schools for the disadvantaged, while some one-teacher schools have 21 pupils. That is a major inconsistency in the scheme.

Many one-teacher schools are located in Gaeltacht areas and are managed by the Church of Ireland. I would like to see the Minister providing extra help for both the teachers and the students in those schools. Instead of freezing the pupil-teacher ratio I hope the Minister reduces it. If that was done on a phased basis it would make a great difference to the students and teachers concerned. If it is not done, what will happen eventually is that the morale of the school will suffer, the numbers will fall further and the school will eventually close.

Debate adjourned.


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