Private Members’ Business - Special Educational Needs: Motion (Resumed).

Wednesday, 20 October 2004

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 590 No. 5

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The following motion was moved by Deputy Enright on Tuesday, 19 October 2004:

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

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

[1326]—aware that timely and appropriate assistance to children will help them reach their full educational potential and concerned that neglect of specific educational needs of some children will hamper their development;

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

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

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

Debate resumed on amendment No. 1:

  7 o’clock

Mr. Carey: Information on Pat Carey  Zoom on Pat Carey  I wish to share time with a number of my colleagues. Ar dtús, ba mhaith liom tréaslú le mo chomhghleacaí agus mo chara, Deputy Hanafin, as ucht í a ainmniú mar Aire Oideachais agus Eolaíochta. Tá fhios agam go mbeidh sí go heifeachtúil sa phost sin agus go n-éireoidh sí go geal. Tá súil agam go n-éireoidh sí níos airde ar an dreáimire pholaitiúil i gceann cúpla bliain eile, ar aon chuma. I am delighted to congratulate the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, on her appointment and wish her every success in the position.

As regards the motion tabled by the Opposition, it is important that we avoid playing political football with this, if at all possible. I began my [1327]teaching career in the mid to late 1960s. In those days we were governed by a rather dog-eared copy of a book called “The Rules for National Schools” and a pile of circulars which were kept under lock and key in much the same way as the Book of Kells is in Trinity College.

In those days children with special needs were referred to in a much more derogatory way. They were called stupid. That was being charitable, some of the time. Those children were relegated to classes, taught in rooms at the rear of assembly halls, where there was no natural light. Those conditions pertained until the mid-1970s. I recall when my own school was sanctioned for a special class. A special class was allocated a space that was meant to be used as a small kitchen for the hall in our school. Members will not believe the trouble we had to go through to get a small grant from the Department of Education at the time to try to convert that small kitchenette area for a group of approximately 12 children.

No party can claim it crowned itself in glory in dealing with children with special needs, until relatively recent times. It was not until 1997 when Fianna Fáil was returned to Government that a determined effort was made to codify any form of legislation in the area of education. I recall in October 1998 when, just as the late Deputy Donough O’Malley did with second level education, the then Minister, Deputy Martin announced to the House that all primary school children with disabilities would have an automatic entitlement to a response to their needs. That was a significant shift at the time. It was out of that announcement that the provision which has developed evolved. I am not going to recite what has happened in the area of increased allocation of resources. The Minister did that last night, as did the Minister of State. It is on record and Members all know what it is.

Much has been done and Deputy Stanton and others have rightly urged the Government to do more. I am committed, as is everyone in this House, to make the best possible provision for that area of special need. The bedding down of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 will bring about quite a shift in the area of provision for special needs children, and that is as it should be. Every one of us can recite cases that we need to draw the Minister’s attention as regards more enlightened provision for children with special needs. Why, for example, does the mother of a child have to go on Marian Finucane’s programme to have her educational needs addressed? Why does another mother have to get on “Morning Ireland”, on “Questions and Answers” and again on “Morning Ireland” to get a psychological assessment done?

We know the national educational psychological service and the National Educational Welfare Board exist and are all bedding down. Hopefully, in a short time there will be significant improvements.

[1328]I take issue, however, with a number of aspects to the Opposition’s motion. I cannot understand how Fine Gael becomes associated with a motion suggesting that responsibilities be devolved from the Minister to the school principal with regard to the making of decisions. I have been involved in education for a long time and that smacks of the “big brother” attitude of control centralisation. No member of the Labour Party is here to listen to this, but it really smacks of “big brother” taking control. We have moved away from that and we should stay far away from the Minister and Department of Education and Science becoming involved in the day to day running of schools. It took us a long time to try to shake that off. Many of us here lived in fear of inspectors coming in and deciding what was good for our schools. That can no longer happen, so I very much condemn this particular aspect of the motion.

I must also draw attention to the fact the Opposition was in power at a time when its finance spokesmen continually told us they set the Celtic tiger roaring. They tell us that when they left office in 1997, there was a budget surplus. Yet they made no provision for people with disabilities. Neither the 1995 nor the 1996 budget made such a provision. The 1996 budget was castigated by the Mental Health Association of Ireland which said families of people on waiting lists for mental handicap services had been let down by it. In 1997 the rainbow coalition froze direct funding to schools and proposed cutting teaching numbers. It also cut back money for innovation and building projects in the Department by €20 million. I do not believe this side of the House needs to be lectured by the Opposition. I recommend the Minister’s amendment.

Mr. Curran: Information on John Curran  Zoom on John Curran  I congratulate Deputy Hanafin, the Minister for Education and Science, and wish her well in her new Department. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion and fully support the amendment put forward by the Government. Those who tabled the original motion referred to a number of issues including resources being made available for special needs education. That is precisely what the last Government since 1998 and the current Administration is doing so significantly. I fully concur with the Minister’s comments last night when she said that every child in the country deserved the opportunity to reach his or her potential. It is her aim, as Minister for Education and Science, to create the environment in which that can be achieved. I am also pleased to hear the Minister say that while she may be happy to record her Department’s achievements to date, she is not complacent. That is important to acknowledge. She acknowledges that much has been achieved in the area, but goes on to say, “We are not at the level we want to be.”

That is an important recognition and outlines her commitment to this particular issue. We have come a long way, however, since 1998. I am not [1329]going to go through all the figures, but wish simply to indicate the numbers of people actively involved in this sector: 2,600 resource teachers, 1,500 learning support teachers, 1,000 teachers in special schools, 600 teachers in special classes and 5,000 special needs assistants. That shows real commitment to special needs education and demonstrates a rapid incremental expansion of services since 1998. The Minister also accepted last night that there are individual cases where schools are awaiting decisions on applications for additional resources. Members on all sides of the House have received representations, both from parents involved with children and school authorities. I was pleased to hear she is taking measures to ensure the process is speeded up. That is an important development. We are receiving the representations regularly and I was pleased to note that.

As a member of a primary school board of management, and as the parent of a child currently benefiting from the existing range of available services, I am reassured by the Minister’s comments and her commitment to making further improvements in the area of special needs education. For the parent of a child with any form of learning disability the focus of his or her life is the welfare of that son or daughter. Every day is a struggle to ensure the child receives the best services available. Every day brings a reassessment of the situation and every day we ask what more can we do for the child. The range of services available is often unclear and confusing and while every day parents of children with a learning disability hear of new methods, techniques etc., they rarely know how to access the new services.

It is within the context of that background that I welcome the new Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act. Some of the main aims of the Bill were to provide further for the education of people with special needs, provide that their education takes place, in so far as it is possible, in an inclusive environment, and that they have the same right as everyone else to avail of and benefit from an appropriate education. The Act provides for the assessment of a child’s educational needs and allows for an individual educational plan to be drawn up for that child. It provides for greater involvement of parents in the education of their children, establishes the National Council for Special Education and an independent appeals system, the Special Education Appeals Board.

The Bill was thoroughly debated both in this House and on Committee Stage and it is my genuine belief that if this Act is implemented in full in years to come, it will result in profound beneficial improvements in the way children with learning disabilities are treated in society and their educational requirements met.

I compliment Members from all sides of the House who contributed to the Committee Stage debate last January. We were here on 6 January dealing with more than 500 amendments. This is [1330]an emotive issue for anybody involved in it but it was dealt with it in a sensitive, caring and thought-provoking manner by all Members.

I attended a meeting the other night of a local school board at which the principal, in her report, was able to state that she had received a visit from the newly appointed special educational needs organiser. Progress is being made and, while I admit it is early days, at least the system is up and running and the schools are beginning to have an input. I urge the Minister to ensure that all aspects of this Bill are delivered within the timeframe set out and that in years to come, the necessary budgetary allocations will continue to be made to allow us reach our stated objective.

Not all issues, however, relate to resources in terms of money and numbers of teachers. It is important that all those involved in the education of our children with learning difficulties be prepared to learn and adopt new teaching methods and techniques as they emerge. New methods and techniques emerge continually. When we as parents hear of new techniques, we are never sure if they will work. We do not know on whom they have been tested. It is a grey area. I ask that the Department become actively involved in continually assessing new techniques and, if they are proven to be successful, that they are implemented in a timely manner. The one concern parents always have is that there is a short timeframe when those children are going through the education system but new techniques emerge all the time and it is important they are evaluated and implemented, if appropriate.

I welcome the contribution by the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, last night in which she committed to build on the progress to date, ensuring that each child has the opportunity to reach his or her potential. I commend the Government amendment to the House.

Mr. O’Connor: Information on Charlie O'Connor  Zoom on Charlie O'Connor  I welcome the opportunity to speak on this matter and to make it clear that I will support the Government amendment. Along with my colleagues I welcome the appointment of Deputy Hanafin as Minister for Education and Science. I acknowledge also the presence in the Chamber of the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera. I am always keen to do that because when we were both much younger — the Minister of State has always been younger than me — she represented the Tallaght area at a time when educational disadvantage was a major problem and provision was not as it is today. I am glad to say that has changed.

I do not want to refer to Tallaght every time I speak because I am sensitive to the fact that I represent a wider constituency which includes major population centres such as Firhouse, Templeogue, Greenhills and Tallaght. That said, I want to refer to Tallaght, although I often make strong representations in respect of schools in other parts of the constituency. I was in contact with the Minister’s office during the week about the Bishop Galvin school in Orwell Road.

[1331]The Minister will be aware, because it has dominated the media and Dáil business today, that a report was launched on Monday, “How are our Kids?” which provides information on disadvantage, including educational disadvantage, in the Tallaght west area. I welcome any report which lists, in a positive way, the needs of any community but I want to reflect that like many people in the community, we have been very upset by some of the negative reaction to the report. People have commented to me that whatever about identifying needs, we should be careful not to downgrade our area. Tallaght west is an extremely vibrant community. People are very proud of the community they live in and the difficulties identified by the positive aspects of this report need to be highlighted and addressed. In that regard, I acknowledge the interest the Minister has shown, and I have said that to her on a number of occasions since Monday. I repeat my invitation to her to visit Tallaght at an early stage and see for herself the positive work being done in many of our schools.

I record my strong support for the Minister in tackling educational disadvantage, particularly in the Tallaght area. As a member of a number of school boards in the area I am especially anxious to support strongly the provision of Early Start pre-school places for children at risk, which are important. We have all highlighted in a positive way the importance of reading support programmes and it will be necessary also to examine the need for extra teaching resources. The communities referred to in the report I cited — Killinarden, Jobstown, Brookfield and Fettercairn — are appreciative of the resources allocated to deal with educational disadvantage. There is always a need for more resources, however, and as the Minister is parcelling out the cake, and I know there will be a great deal of pressure on her from every part of the country, I urge her to consider my constituency in particular. My colleagues can talk about their own constituencies but I want to stress the needs of Dublin South-West, particularly Tallaght west. The Taoiseach often says that if the economy is booming and all boats are rising, it is important we look after the little boats. Little boats, so to speak, have been identified in Tallaght west. A number of Ministers have a job to do in that regard, but especially the Minister for Education and Science, and I am confident she will help us in that respect.

Mr. P. Power: Information on Peter Power  Zoom on Peter Power  I join my colleagues in congratulating the Minister on her recent appointment and wish her well in her Ministry. Her appointment has received an overwhelmingly positive response throughout all sectors of the education system, and that can only bode well for her Ministry in due course. The Minister, Deputy Hanafin, brings an awareness of issues and expertise to her Ministry. She also brings a clear commitment which was demonstrated in her contribution to this debate.

[1332]All of us come to the debate on this motion with a common objective, namely, that all children, regardless of their limits or ability, should be entitled to achieve that potential. The question is how we do that. The Minister was clear in her acknowledgement that nobody can say, for reasons of which we are all aware, that we have reached a Utopian position where all children are now able to achieve their potential, but there is no doubt we have made significant progress relative to the situation which pertained only a few short years ago. A statistic which has been highlighted frequently in the debate demonstrates that the 10,700 special needs teachers in place would constitute 50% of all the teachers who were teaching in 1998. That is a telling statistic.

I cannot agree with the first part of the Opposition’s motion which states: “... children whose needs are not being met because long-promised resources are not in place”. It is obvious the resources are in place. The key question is delivery and deliverability of those resources. It does not take an expert or well-paid psychologist to determine whether a five or six year old student has a mild or general learning disability. I would prefer to trust the experience and reasonableness of teachers and principals, cross-checked by teachers who can form an opinion on mild learning disability. It would be better to see the time and resources involved in that assessment deployed in the delivery of the resources which are needed.

A case in my constituency illustrates this. A child was assessed 16 months ago but only recently the decision was made to deny the child resource hours. The teachers and principal in the school would testify that other students, with greater ability and less pronounced learning difficulties, were provided with resource teachers. Had it been left to them to make that fairly simple assessment they could have done so very easily and the resources would have quickly been provided for that child. Early intervention in this area is vital.

No system, whether weighted or with individual assessment, will be perfect because of the subjective nature of the assessments made in these cases, but we must judge how to proceed. The system proposed will in time accelerate the delivery of the services and resources that are in place. I hope the new Minister will monitor and scrutinise the role of the new structures to ensure that the resources are provided for the children most in need.

Mr. M. Moynihan: Information on Michael Moynihan  Zoom on Michael Moynihan  I congratulate the new Minister and wish her well in the Department of Education and Science. I acknowledge the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera. Special education is an emotive issue and prior to 1988 many children were left outside the loop but since then many resources have been put into this area. The Minister said last night that irrespective of the amount of money spent and the resources [1333]supplied she was not complacent and needed to improve the service.

Everybody has his or her examples of cases affected by this. In my constituency St. Joseph’s Foundation in Charleville has been providing a service for children with disabilities since 1969 and has contributed significantly to children with special needs over the past 30 to 35 years. I congratulate it on this. The management told me it is always seeking to improve the services and there is always a challenge there. Even when it achieves a stated goal new children present with different behavioural challenges and problems which must be rectified. It is a steep curve and major resources have been committed but more need to be put into the area.

Children who fell out of the special education loop were confined to a very difficult life because the resources did not exist ten or 20 years ago. At least we are now committing the resources and passing legislation to improve the lot of those with special needs.

Cecilia Keaveney: Information on Cecilia Keaveney  Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney  I too congratulate the new Minister on her appointment. As a former teacher, she will be au fait with the issues. Partnership can yield great results and Scoil Íosagáin in Buncrana has had remarkable success in this respect. One of the first Adjournment debates in which I spoke was in an effort to retain child care support for the mild handicapped group. A moderate disability classroom had been opened and we were told that the Minister would transfer the child care assistant from the mild handicapped class to the moderate class. The school is a mainstream primary school with associated special classes. I was very annoyed because I could not see the humanity in removing a child care assistant from one class to another when the disability with which the assistant dealt already was severe.

In 1996, 42% of primary schools in County Donegal did not have access to a remedial teaching service. In 1996-97 no remedial teachers were appointed yet the then Minister said she had achieved substantial advances across the spectrum of special needs, including the remedial area, and it was her intention to continue the process. That terrified me because we were trying to keep the child care assistant in the mild class, and on 17 April 1997 the then Minister told me it would not happen. Thankfully, on 8 July 1997, Deputy Martin, who had been appointed Minister for Education and Science, reversed that decision.

The school has a principal and 20 mainstream assistants, 21 special needs assistants, including full-time and part-time posts, five of them sanctioned since August to meet the needs of the autism classes, three full-time resource teachers, two full-time learning support teachers, one class for severe profound general learning disability, two classes for pupils with moderate general learning disability, one class for pupils with mild general learning disability, three classes for pupils with autism and two classes for pupils with spec[1334]ific learning disabilities. I commend the Department for recognising such a wonderful school with a wonderful principal and staff, and the support of the parents and the way both groups have worked in partnership. Much has been done and that is a record of what has happened in my constituency.

This is further enhanced by all the other supports, such as the increased number of resource teachers, from 104 to 2,600, the special needs assistants, from 300 to 5,500, and the learning supports of 1,531, home tuition, school transport, capitation grants and special schools and classes. Difficulties remain, people still fall through the gaps and the response for some is too slow, but I hope the changes under way in the Department will address these needs and prioritise the glaringly obvious cases, which does not seem to happen as it should.

I welcome the educational psychologists to Donegal because it is important that someone co-ordinates the people involved in the necessary facilities and supports there. This will maximise their contribution. More could be done with the resources in the classrooms, such as providing arts and other after-school activities. This debate should have been much longer and I look forward to contributing on this topic on another occasion.

Ms Cooper-Flynn: Information on Beverley Cooper-Flynn  Zoom on Beverley Cooper-Flynn  I thank my colleagues for the very brief time available to me to make a couple of points. I compliment the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, on her appointment and wish her every success in her new portfolio. I also welcome the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, to the House.

Under the new system the weighting is done on a school-wide basis rather than on the basis of the number of children with special needs. Children, not schools, have special needs and the Minister might consider that two schools, each with 500 pupils, would not necessarily have the same number of children with special needs but under this new system each will receive the same resources. The Minister is not bound by any particular policy or decision for the future.

I am worried that resources might be swallowed up by larger schools and that smaller schools will suffer. Teaching principals in small schools represent 75% of all principals here. At present, all of the schools have access to a resource teacher and a learning support teacher through the clustering arrangement, as the Minister is aware. Large schools automatically have these resources by virtue of their size. I would like to give one example from my own constituency of the old versus the new. One small school currently has eight tenths of a resource teacher and two tenths of a learning support teacher. Under the new system, they will have six tenths of a resource teacher and no learning support at all. The principal is expected to decide on how best these resources would be divided between special needs children. I take issue with Deputy Power’s point that a teacher is better at doing this than a psychologist. That may be the case some[1335]times, but when one has only a very small amount of resources available and has to decide between many children, one may be at an advantage with a psychologist.

In disadvantaged schools in urban areas like Limerick, there is currently one teacher to 80 special needs children. However, in a disadvantaged school in my constituency in Belmullet, which is not an urban area, there is one teacher to 150 special needs children. Is a special needs child in a city like Limerick more special and important than a special needs child in a disadvantaged school in a rural constituency? If that measure alone could be changed, then I would greatly appreciate it.

Mr. Crowe: Information on Sean Crowe  Zoom on Sean Crowe  I wish to share time with Deputies Eamon Ryan, Finian McGrath, Cowley, Healy and Connolly. Other speakers have said this is an emotive issue and I agree. The system has failed many children and I do not think there is any disagreement about that among the speakers. My colleague from Dublin South-West spoke of the new report entitled “How are our Kids?” Anyone who lives in the area from where that report came would agree that the problems are there. People want us to try to address those problems. It is similar to the whole area of special needs; it is all about resources. The other area that concerns people is the distribution of those resources.

Deputy Keaveney spoke of children falling through the gap. That is the big problem and is where the frustration, anger and the sense of being let down is coming from. In our constituencies this is the issue that families constantly come to us to talk about; trying to get a special needs teacher for a child. Last April, the then Minister announced his intention to have extra resource teachers and learning support teachers in primary schools. He was subsequently asked in the Dáil to detail his plan to implement these developments and was reminded by various sources of the need to appoint and apply these resources at the earliest date so that schools could plan for the coming year. In response, a spokesperson stated that the Department had received about 8,400 applications for special education resources since February 2003, with 5,000 applications received between February and August 2003, which were being considered, according to the spokesperson. It shows the level of applications coming in. That was last May and the Department is still processing applications from the previous February, which is a delay of more than a year. Of those 5,000 applications only 1,000 were dealt with, the remaining 4,000 were being reviewed at the time. Were these 4,000 applications reviewed and what was the outcome?

While processing applications may be complex, it is a bit inadequate for the Department to simply refer schools to a circular advising them on how best to use the resources the school already had. If the special needs resources in these appli[1336]cant schools had been adequate, there would have been no application in the first place. Children who need help in the area of dyslexia, dyspraxia, mild autism and so on, are often left in limbo. They may be too old to remain in a school that made provision for them, while unable to access the next stage in the education process as available schools in their area lacked the special needs resource teachers and assistants. This is often the case because of the backlog in people waiting assessment. A secondary school principal receiving an application from a pupil with special needs will ask for assessment or at least a review of the original assessment. However, if there is nobody to carry out the assessment, then the pupil cannot get admission.

According to a Department spokesperson last May, the new system for assessing applications will be known as a weighted system. This would largely involve making staffing allocations to schools based on predicted incidence of pupils with special needs. According to the Department the advantage was that the new system would reduce the need for individualised education, psychological assessment and reduce the individual number of applications. That clearly has not happened. I draw the Minister’s attention to the plight of an individual whose educational development has literally been brought to a halt because there is no place to go for certain children with special needs. If one comes from part of the country with a low population density, it is less likely that the local school will not qualify for those resources in a system the Department proposes, which is the allocation to schools based on a predicted incidence of pupils with special needs.

Mr. Eamon Ryan: Information on Eamon Ryan  Zoom on Eamon Ryan  I welcome the Minister in her new job. She is arriving in a very strong position. It seems this Government will not spend money on overseas development aid. The Minister of Health and Children will not look for money in the health area. The Government is certainly not spending money on public transport. At a time when our economy is booming and our finances are brilliant, then the Minister should be in a fantastic position to allocate a massive increase in spending in the education area. Even the National Competitiveness Council has stated that, as has the OECD. Just about every party in this House, with backbenchers included, has stated that. It is the best investment we can make for life.

The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform seems to believe it is good to have inequality in our society. Perhaps there is something in competition, but only if, in a competitive society, people are starting from a level playing field. It should be a genuine meritocracy rather than an aristocracy, which is what I believe we have here. The way of going back to that more even system is to invest particularly in primary school education. It should be the Minister’s first priority. We should also target money and invest[1337]ment at those people who need every help they can get and that the State can provide because they may have certain disadvantages at the start of life. We need to do everything we can to assist them and give them a leg up before they enter the very competitive world the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has awaiting them.

I am glad to hear that the Minister for Education and Science recognises that we have a problem, that there are not sufficient resources put in and that there are problems with the administrative system on allocation of places for special needs teachers between the Department and the schools. That is something the Minister can work out and make sure that those difficulties we have heard about from Deputy Cooper-Flynn and Deputy Keaveney are sorted out so that we can spend our money effectively and wisely.

I wish the Minister the best of luck. Her success will be judged on how much money she ends up getting from her colleagues to put into this vital area for the development of a society.

Mr. F. McGrath: Information on Finian McGrath  Zoom on Finian McGrath  I congratulate the Minister on her major promotion to the education portfolio. I wish her well. She knows and understands the education system and she is a woman of ability and integrity.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this motion on the urgent need to allocate sufficient resources for the provision of special needs assistants and resource teaching hours, when and where they are needed, so that children are given the help they require. This fits in with the Minister’s vision of creating happy schools, where pupils, teachers, special needs assistants and parents all work together in the interest of the pupil. That is what progressive education is all about, that is what inclusive education is all about. I strongly support my own union, the INTO, in its demand for 650 resource teachers, more special needs assistants and above all, its demand for a quality educational service for all children in this State, especially for children with disabilities and children in disadvantaged schools.

That is what this debate is about tonight. I am looking for radical reform, more investment and more respect for the importance of education in our society. I want more supports for teachers and students. I urge caution so that we do not make the mistakes of other countries by allowing our education sector to be undermined by extreme and wild economic ideas that constantly peddle the idea that a school is like a factory or a production line churning out pupils. Schools are not factories and they are not businesses, they are involved in educating young people and, above all, helping children to develop to the maximum of their ability. The reality of life is that different children have different abilities and skills. A sound educational system will always accommodate difference, as many people said during the debate on the Education for Persons with Special [1338]Educational Needs Act. It is time to implement the provisions of that legislation.

I invite the Minister to listen to schools like St. Mary’s Holy Faith secondary school in Killester, which is trying to assist its students with special needs. I urge the Minister to increase the special needs teaching hours in such schools and, in particular, to improve their educational service. I ask the Minister to support St. Paul’s senior school in Ayrfield, St. Eithne’s girls school in Edenmore, Scoil Náisiúnta na Tríonóide Naofa and Scoil Naomh Colmcille in Donaghmede. There has been a net loss of 5.8 learning support and resource teachers in the four schools. I have mentioned some of the many schools whose problems I have been told about by parents in recent days. I remind the House that I speak as the parent of a daughter with a disability and as a former teacher in a disadvantaged school.

I welcome the Minister’s statement last night that she accepts that the State’s record in providing for children with special needs has been poor. While we have made some advances, particularly in the past six years, it is important that the Minister keep her eye on the ball. I suggest three short and sensible proposals for dealing with this issue. We need to ensure that the State’s resources are used for those children with the greatest need. We should listen to the parents and teachers on the front line. We have to end the nonsense of parents having to go to court to fight for their children’s educational services. In other words, the Minister should spend her Department’s funds on services and resources rather than bureaucracy so that we will all win. I urge all Deputies to support the motion before the House.

Dr. Cowley: Information on Jerry Cowley  Zoom on Jerry Cowley  I congratulate the Minister on her appointment and wish her every success. I agree she is a person of great integrity. I hope she will make the changes that need to be made urgently. For example, the criteria laid down by the Department of Education and Science for the allocation of special needs assistants in national schools need to be amended.

I have been approached by many parents, as I am sure every other Deputy has, about the unacceptable problems in many schools. I have spoken to the parents of a girl who is in receipt of disability care allowance. They have received supporting evidence of her disabled condition from a top neurologist and a top paediatrician. They cannot get special needs assistance for their daughter, who has had numerous falls, causing personal injury. She has been deemed a danger to herself and her fellow pupils. Her parents cannot have additional hours allocated to her. It is time to ask serious questions. This scandal should be brought to an end by putting in place a proper system which ensures that children with special needs receive the teaching assistance they need and deserve.

I wish to give more details of this scandalous case to outline the personal tragedy involved. The [1339]girl’s mother has been telephoning the Department of Education and Science for the past few days, but her calls are not being answered. Her child, who is called Mary, suffers from a type of cerebral palsy, problems with co-ordination, poor balance and hypotonia. Mary, who will celebrate her fifth birthday this month, has been attending speech therapy and physiotherapy since she was born. She attended pre-school but could not stay there forever. I understand that the Department does not give proper recognition to pre-school, but just to schools catering for those between the ages of six and 16. That is all right if one is able, but it is a different story if one is disabled.

Mary’s mother would do anything for her child. She has tried very hard. She submitted all the documents she needed to submit before the end of March 2004. She received a letter from the top neurologist at the Central Remedial Clinic, where the child continues to spend time. She also received a letter from her local paediatrician and the combined clinic. She gathered all the documentation she needed to enable the child to start school on 1 September last. When she contacted the Department of Education and Science in early August to see how everything was going, she found that everything was not going well, unfortunately. The principal of the school received a letter stating that Mary would not be given any hours. Applications had been received for special needs provision in respect of three children, one of whom was Mary. Even though she was given what is known as relief, she was not given the 12 hours which were to have been given to one of the three children who it was no longer planned to send to the school. There was no relief because no hours were available, or if hours were available, Mary did not get them.

My office contacted the Department of Education and Science to argue the case of the child, who cannot open her school bag or her lunch box, requires assistance to go to the toilet, cannot be left in the playground on her own in case she might fall, has weakness on her left side, cannot walk properly, has to wear special shoes and has already broken her top and bottom teeth after numerous falls. I cannot understand why this utter scandal is not being addressed.

Mr. Connolly: Information on Paudge Connolly  Zoom on Paudge Connolly  I congratulate the Minister and wish her well in her new portfolio. I am happy to speak on this motion. Addressing the problems of students with special needs in mainstream schools is a difficult and complex task. It impinges on mainstream teachers, many of whom do not have the required skills or qualifications to deal with such problems. The prevalence of the many special needs in this area is increasing all the time.

The parents of a child with Down’s syndrome called to talk to me last Monday. They complimented the services given to their child at national school level. She received 23 hours of one-to-one special needs assistance and three hours of resource teaching each week in infant [1340]school. Her need for special needs assistance and resource teaching increased when she moved into second class in primary school. However, her special needs hours were reduced from 23 hours to ten, despite the fact that she was spending an additional five hours in school, and her resource teaching hours disappeared altogether. Her teachers are trying to come to terms with teaching kids with Down’s syndrome, who would have had to attend special schools in years gone by. Much greater expense was involved in the previous approach because a bus would have been provided and an assistant would have been paid to accompany the children on the bus. It is grossly unfair that her hours have decreased.

When I telephoned the teachers at her school to ascertain their feelings on the matter, I found that they were more than willing to teach the child in the school. They recognise that she needs some extra special attention, however, so that all their time is not taken up looking after one child. When I telephoned the Department of Education and Science in Athlone, I was told to contact the special section dealing with disability. I was delighted to hear of such a section as I thought it would help to facilitate mainstreaming. I was given two telephone numbers — 090 6484166 and 090 6484187 — to call to get in touch with the relevant officials. Although I rang the numbers steadily all day yesterday and most of today, I did not receive an answer. Deputy Cowley spoke of similar problems. It is most likely that the officials are flat out dealing with inquiries, but it is very frustrating to receive such a level of response. We are talking about trying to keep a child in mainstream education. It would be better to keep the child close to her parents, who can drop her off at her local school every day, as all children like, than to send her to a school 19 miles away. I ask the Minister to address these issues.

Schools in my home area of north Monaghan, which is rural, are separated. It is impossible for resource teachers and special needs teachers in the area to develop the type of special relationship which is needed because they are sent from school to school. Teaching is an important skill, but it is also important for teachers to develop relationships with their pupils. They are not being given the right opportunity to impart the knowledge they need to impart, however.

Mr. Healy: Information on Seamus Healy  Zoom on Seamus Healy  I congratulate the Minister on her appointment and wish her well in her portfolio. I expect that she will look after her mother’s home town and home constituency.

Mr. F. McGrath: Information on Finian McGrath  Zoom on Finian McGrath  She will have to engage in positive discrimination.

Mr. Healy: Information on Seamus Healy  Zoom on Seamus Healy  Despite the substantial wealth brought to this country by the Celtic tiger economy, the issue of special needs is not being addressed and the most vulnerable children in society are being left behind. The Government does not have the political will to solve this prob[1341]lem. It is nothing short of a scandal that the needs of the weakest children in society are not being properly met. The existing system, whereby school size determines the number of resource teachers and special needs assistants allocated to each school, will not work because it disregards the need for individual assessment and one-to-one tuition in many cases. The position has worsened in the recent past as a result of the reviews of resource teachers and special needs assistants. Parents, teachers and children are confused about the current situation. Parents believe that resources are available in schools, but when they try to avail of them they find they do not exist. They find the situation frustrating. Of course, additional resource teachers were announced in the summer and they are obviously very welcome. However, as Deputy McGrath stated, teachers and parents alike said at the time that the numbers were simply not high enough even to deal with the weighted system that has been introduced, let alone the needs of individual schools where the numbers of special needs children attending are above the weighted average. I certainly question the fairness and appropriateness of a system that removes individual assessment, something that is critical to identifying children’s individual needs.

Mr. Stanton: Information on David Stanton  Zoom on David Stanton  I wish to share time with Deputy McManus.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Stanton: Information on David Stanton  Zoom on David Stanton  I wish the Minister well. No doubt we will have many battles and debates here. I respect her ability greatly, but she has a great deal to do.

How dare the Opposition come in here tonight and last night and ask for more resources for the provision of special needs assistants? What a cheek it has to call for the implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004.

Ms Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  No one said that.

Mr. Stanton: Information on David Stanton  Zoom on David Stanton  Listening to all those people last night, I heard them say that things were great and ask how the Opposition dared bring it up. That is what they have been saying. Deputy Kelly told us what would have happened in 1960 before berating the Opposition for recognising the frustration of parents of children whose needs are not being met because long-promised resources are not in place. We meet them every day of the week. They ring us up and call in to out clinics. They are really frustrated and upset.

I want to get the message across to the Minister that she must act quickly. Her colleagues came in here tonight one after another listing a litany of resources provided since 1997, which was a good job. However, a great deal has happened since. We now have an extremely complex curriculum [1342]in primary schools in particular. It demands more people, since one cannot teach without them. It is very scientific. In the past, as the Minister knows, learning was by rote. The teachers dealt with class groups, and if a child could not pick it up, that was no great problem. Many children with special needs did not go to school. I do not remember children with Down’s syndrome attending primary school. They did not go, but now, quite rightly, they are going.

Parents want them to attend the local school, and they need resources, but they are not getting them. What has happened over the summer and led to this motion is that matters have got infinitely worse. A parent telephoned me who had been trying to get through to the Department, as had her child’s principal, but to no avail. A circular was even issued with instructions not to call. There is no point in doing so, since one cannot get a response. That is not the officials’ fault, since the organisational structure is wrong. They need far more people there. I do not know whether the Minister has visited that section since her appointment.

Ms Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  I have.

Mr. Stanton: Information on David Stanton  Zoom on David Stanton  I am sure that she would agree that it needs a great deal more help and resources. There are far more special needs students in schools now. The world has changed greatly since even 1997, and rightly so. There are far more in mainstream classes, but there are great pressures on principals. The so-called “weighted” system has added to the pressure on them. They are now being asked to play God to decide who gets what in the school. Some principals tell me they spend almost all their time dealing with special educational needs. They must try to cope with it and deal with parents, but trying to contact the Department is “mission impossible”. It is not a weighted system but one of quotas. A weighted system was described in the SERC report of 1993, with which the Minister is familiar. One of the problems is that there is no primary pupil database. Perhaps the Minister might consider setting one up. We would then have to award points to each student in the school so that we had a real weighted system. However, no such system exists; it is purely one of quotas.

There is also an urban-rural divide. It was mentioned earlier that a group of disadvantaged students in a rural area was left out under the system. The big issue here is that girls are being greatly discriminated against by this system. I wonder whether it is in breach of the Equal Status Act 2000. I know that it includes provisions on positive discrimination, but Bunreacht na hÉireann says that “All citizens shall, as human persons, be held equal before the law.” Yet we have a system where, if a child is in an all-girls school, it gets less provision than in an all-boys school.

[1343]Ms Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  What if the applications are from boys?

Mr. Stanton: Information on David Stanton  Zoom on David Stanton  Who dreamed this up? What is its basis? Was it scientific? How did they come up with the numbers? No one knows. We spent days here debating the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill with the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey. We also spent days in committee. We had over 50 presentations from people on the Bill, yet no one mentioned the weighted system. It came out of the blue last June when the schools received the circulars as they were about to break for the holidays.

I will return to the example of the child with ADHD. The child has been recognised as having the problem but cannot get any assistance until, according to the circular issued by the Department, it receives treatment. We do not know what that treatment is in SpEd 09/04. Is it some kind of medicine? Is the treatment psychological? The mother has been trying to access the child psychological services for the last two years but cannot because it is on a waiting list. The child cannot get treatment, and because of that, the Department says it can receive no help from it either. It is a double whammy. Such are the things that are going on.

It seems those circulars are written with the express purpose of trying to exclude as many children as possible. They exclude people, and that is not good enough. The Minister should meet the Irish Primary Teachers’ Network as a matter of urgency, invite them in, sit down with them, and listen to what they have to say. Perhaps the Minister would learn a great deal about what is happening on the ground. The circulars also lump everyone in together, whether they have a specific learning difficulty, a mild or a moderate one. It is ridiculous. I do not know what research has gone into this. What is its basis? We must be the only OECD country with this crazy system. I would like to know its history. Essentially, it is currently far too simplistic, and children are falling through the net.

Deputy Moynihan mentioned St. Joseph’s Foundation in Charleville. I advise the Minister to visit it, as I did three weeks ago. I am not sure when the Deputy did so, but the pressures there are extremely great. The staff are doing great work. Challenging behaviour is causing a real problem. Teachers are not being trained to deal with it and are being assaulted. Parents are at their wits’ end. I cannot accept people coming in here with platitudes and saying the Opposition should not be raising these issues and that the Government is doing a great job.

Ms Hanafin: Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  I did not say that.

Mr. Stanton: Information on David Stanton  Zoom on David Stanton  It is in the amendment to the motion that the Minister tabled. It commends the Government on doing a great job and welcomes the legislative and administrative measures. Everything is fine. Everything in the garden is [1344]rosy. However, that is not the case, since everything in the garden is very poor at present. A great deal more work must be done.

Deputy Power came in here and told us that things were grand, only to state that there was a 16-month waiting list before action was taken. At the end there was a rejection. That is a terrible system. Imagine having a small child with a learning difficulty and waiting for 16 months for a response. Those 16 months are the most crucial time when the child could really benefit from help. Yet there is no response for 16 months, and when it comes, it is that the child can have no help. Finally, according to Deputy Power, the principal and teachers of the school had to make a very strong case so that the Department relented. What way is that to run a system? That child should have had help from day one, as many others should have, and I thank Deputy Power for bringing it to our attention.

The Minister has a great deal of work to do, and we will be watching from this side of the House, returning with more motions if we do not see positive action quickly. Too much is at stake; this is far too serious. If the children do not get help now, things will get worse as they move through the system. They will drop out and fail and may end up in jail or somewhere else because of anti-social or other behaviour. Many children suffering from ADD, ADHD and autism do not get appropriate help and end up incarcerated in prisons. Governors will tell one that if one talks to them. The situation is very serious. People enter this House this evening and affect to be great pals, and everything is supposed to be very nice but it is not nice. It is far from it, and the system has made matters infinitely worse. Schools, principals and parents countrywide are under pressure. The Minister must act quickly and decisively to sort matters out. Because of the new so-called weighted system, which is no more than a quota system, small schools are suffering disproportionately. We await action by the Minister and will support her in any such positive action. The first step she can take tonight is to support the motion tabled by the Opposition.

Ms McManus: Information on Liz McManus  Zoom on Liz McManus  I thank Fine Gael for tabling this motion on a joint basis on such an important matter and facilitating me in allowing me time to speak.

  8 o’clock

In a country as wealthy as ours, the needs of children should and can be fully addressed. Childhood is a once off state. It does not happen twice. The possibilities of growth and development offered by childhood are not repeatable in life. We are not meeting sufficiently well the needs of children with special needs. To be precise, the Government is failing to do so. I have been contacted by parents of children with special needs in my constituency in Wicklow. The number of parents contacting me was so great that I became very conscious of the frustration at the delays by the Department of Education and Science, and the [1345]uncertainty that those parents experienced, especially with regard to the number of hours for special needs assistants. Because of the number of parents in touch with me, I decided to carry out a survey of all the national schools in my county. I am currently collating the information and the first aspect to strike me is the high number of schools which responded, providing a range of information.

The results clearly show what has or has not happened in just one county, and the information is disturbing. Some 60% of the schools applied for increased special needs hours or special needs assistant posts for 2004-05. Of that number, 68% said they were not satisfied with the assessment procedure or with their allocation. Only a quarter of the schools surveyed expressed satisfaction with their allocation. This is the over-riding view of experienced school principals who have close knowledge of their pupils and who are finding the system is letting them down instead of providing them with the necessary supports to mainstream children with special needs.

Even more striking was the information and comments which I did not actually seek from principals, who gave me their views, sometimes in a very forthright manner. I will quote some comments to give a sample of the cries from the heart that this survey exposed. One principal wrote as follows:

Another principal said:

Another principal plaintively noted:

In another case a child was recommended for special needs assistant support and resource hours by the psychologist from Enable Ireland but despite this recommendation the Department refused all support for the child. The psychologi[1346]cal service was criticised as being too thinly spread and the special needs assistant system too changeable.

Another principal noted:

In another school the complaint is that there is only one psychologist in the area, and if he calls to the school three times a year, says the principal, “we are really blessed. Underfunded, understaffed, there is just not enough”.

There are complaints about delays. A child with cerebral palsy is without support even though a special needs assistant has been sanctioned. Because written confirmation has not been received, the school cannot proceed to meet his needs. A constant refrain is that the system is too slow. There are complaints of long delays, needs not being addressed on time and the impossibility of implementing integration due to a lack of resources.

Another principal wrote:

A similar view was expressed in another school:

One of the recurring complaints is that a child may be assessed and found eligible for assistance, then subsequently be refused that support because of a change in the procedures. In one case mentioned, a child had a special needs assistant, sought his restoration and was refused.

I am only taking a sample of the problems encountered by school principals. They repeatedly noted the importance of the work of special needs assistants and the expertise, generally considered very high, of psychologists and resource teachers. The point made most strongly related to what one principal called the obstacle course set for children with special needs, involving delays, red tape, bureaucracy, endless form-filling and inefficiencies at Department level.

What is most evident from this information is that far too many principals, teachers and parents are finding the process of acquiring special needs supports extremely wearing, time-consuming and frustrating. I share the concerns expressed by [1347]Deputies Enright and O’Sullivan. Children with special needs present special challenges to those who care for them and educate them. The very least these children should be able to expect is an effective, fair and efficient system of assessment and of special needs provision. Clearly, that has not been their experience and I hope the new Minister for Education and Science can bring about change and an improvement, and use the valuable insights gained in this debate about the deficiencies and shortcomings of the current system of providing for these most vulnerable children. There are anxieties in schools about the new system of assessment, leading to a reduction in the number of resource teachers and special needs assistants for the schools. I urge the Minister to address the issue and reassure parents and teachers looking after children with special needs that their needs will be addressed.

Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Miss de Valera): Information on Síle de Valera  Zoom on Síle de Valera  I commend the Minister for Education and Science for her response to the motion on special educational needs tabled by the Opposition. The Minister has set out in a very comprehensive manner the scale of investment, as well as the legislative, structural and procedural reforms introduced by the Government parties over a short period since 1998.

Everyone on this side of the House, not least the Minister, has been very open and forthright about what needs to be done with regard to this issue. The significance of what has been achieved seems to have been lost on, or wilfully ignored by, the Opposition. That there are now almost 11,000 adults in the primary system providing dedicated support for children with special educational and learning support needs is an incredible achievement by any objective measure. Progress has been underpinned by major legislative and structural reform. The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act provides that the rights and entitlements of children with special educational needs will henceforth have a statutory basis. In addition, a dedicated body, the National Council for Special Education, will shortly assume operational status to ensure the delivery of necessary supports at the level of the individual school and pupil.

The new resource allocation measures being introduced by the Department have been developed following consultation with representative interests. To the greatest extent possible, these measures represent a synthesis of all the views received. The overall intention is to alleviate the burden on schools with regard to individual applications for resources and the requirement and professional reports in each case. This approach was extremely cumbersome and led to the backlog of applications referred to in the debate. We do not want to see the recurrence of such a scenario.

[1348]The delay in processing resource applications serves to emphasise the urgent need for the measures being introduced by the Minister for Education and Science. In that regard, action is being taken to ensure that the balance of outstanding applications are processed and schools notified of the outcome in the earliest possible timeframe. In the interests of clarity, the current position is that applications submitted to the Department by 30 June last for teacher support for children with lower-incidence special educational needs have received a response. In addition, responses have also been issued in respect of applications submitted by 30 June for special needs assistant support for new entrant pupils. Later applications for teacher support and appeals continue to be processed.

In the case of applications for SNA support for pupils other than new entrants, the position is that a team has been established by the Department to review SNA support in mainstream national schools generally. This team commenced its task recently and is assessing the levels and deployment of such support to ensure that the needs of children are being met in the context of new applications for resources for schools. Every effort is being made to ensure that the review and the notification of schools regarding outstanding applications for SNA support are completed in the earliest possible timeframe.

As outlined by the Minister, the new weighted model will provide schools with an automatic level of teaching support for pupils with higher-incidence special educational needs as well as those with learning support needs. Schools will still be able to apply for specific allocations of support for pupils with lower-incidence special educational needs. Due to the fact that individual assessments will not be required for children being catered for under the weighted model, psychological services should be in a position to provide a better service for children in the lower-incidence categories.

The revised arrangements do not amount, as suggested by the Opposition, to a blanket allocation that, in the words of Deputy Enright, “pays little attention to specific and individual requirements”. On the contrary, these arrangements ensure that each school will in future have an automatic allocation of teacher support and the scope to secure additional support on the basis of assessed need. What does not change under the new arrangements is the responsibility and discretion given to school principals to deploy all available resources in a flexible and effective manner. This applies to special needs assistants as well as teachers and SNAs will continue to be allocated to schools on the basis of the care needs of individual pupils.

Deputy Enright also referred to capitation grants and it is important that I clarify the position in this regard. The capitation grant is not a special educational support per se. Rather it is the basic funding allocated to all schools to cover operating costs such as heating, cleaning and [1349]insurance. The higher rates applicable to special schools and classes are not preferential. Instead, they reflect the lower class sizes but comparable costs of those facilities. In so far as children with special educational needs in any setting, special or mainstream, require additional support in terms of specialised equipment or materials, a dedicated budget is in place for that purpose. As the Minister indicated yesterday, that budget has risen from €800,000 in 1998 to €3 million in the current year.

What we are aiming for is a more flexible and responsive system capable of taking account of the needs of the individual child with special educational needs, while giving schools a measure of flexibility as to how resources are deployed. I am confident that we are heading in the right direction but I must emphasise that we intend to review progress in light of experience. With its focus on service delivery and policy advice, the National Council for Special Education will be a major asset in that regard.

I again commend the Minister for her comprehensive contribution to this important debate, which provides a welcome incentive for all concerned to redouble their efforts on behalf of children with special educational needs.

Mr. Sargent: Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  Ba mhaith liom mo chuid ama a roinnt leis an Teachta Enright.

I thank Fine Gael, particularly Deputies Enright and Stanton, and the Labour Party which, together with the Green Party, are sponsoring this motion. This is a timely debate and it follows on from a clear and embarrassing revelation about shortcomings in the health services. It was stated yesterday that there were 3,900 more hospital beds in 1990 than there are at present. The shortcomings as regards our schools are similar. On becoming aware of this debate, teachers and parents contacted many Members, including, I am sure, those in government, to remind them that the situation has worsened considerably since September.

I met an individual earlier who is a resource and learning support teacher. When I was teaching, she would have been known as a remedial teacher. She informed me that her work environment has been appalling this year. Up to now, she had been able to deal with people with special learning needs on a one-to-one basis. However, it appears the Department has issued a diktat that people should be brought together to have their needs dealt with on a group basis. Schools are obliged to do this because they do not have adequate resources and an adequate number of special needs assistants or resource and learning support teachers to allow them to meet the one-to-one needs of their students.

A person in sixth class with a reading age equivalent to that of a child of six and a half years would, last year, have dealt with his or her teacher on a one-to-one basis and made progress. Now, however, because of Government insensitivity and a sheer failure to do its job, the individ[1350]ual must sit with a group of perhaps four or five peers. The trauma this causes appears to be lost on the Government. That is only one example and it is from the point of view of the student.

Teachers are tearing their hair out. So too are parents who expect a great deal more from the education system. Principals are obliged to abandon any prospect of taking summer holidays because the Department often seems to give approval to proceed with school accommodation and building projects at the end of June. As a result, principals must be on-site for the duration of the summer holidays to ensure that such projects are completed by September.

In addition to the practical nuts and bolts issues that accompany the job of providing education, there is the additional trauma caused by the fact that special needs assistants and resource and learning support teachers not being made available. I have heard so many stories about this matter, it is a pity I do not have time to recount them. I have heard, for example, about schools in my constituency of Dublin North, particularly in the Swords area, which provided information, by way of census, in October 2003 on what were their needs as regards special needs assistants and resource and learning support teachers. A year later, these schools are still awaiting the decision of the Department in that regard and they are obliged to double up and group classes and people together. The people to whom I refer should, as stated earlier, be dealt with on a one-to-one basis. The Department seems to be changing the goalposts but it is not a fair game. The people suffering are the most vulnerable.

Is pointe é nach ndéantar tagairt dó ró-mhinic ach tá sé tábhachtach. Bhí mé ag éisteacht le comhghleacaí do mo leithéid, an Comhairleoir Neil Clarke, ó Leitir Cheannan a bhíá rá liom go raibh daltaí ag freastal ar an Gaelscoil ann a bhí ag iarraidh múinteoir feabhais agus speech therapist. Dúradh leo dul go dtí scoil Bhéarla mar is ansin a bheadh seirbhís agus nach mbeadh sé ann do dhaoine le Gaeilge. Go minic sin mar a bhíonn. Is féidir le duine dul trí chóras Gaeilge ach má tá riachtanas speisialta ann, ní mór leo dul go dtí scoil Bhéarla. Tá sé sin mí-bhunreachtúil chomh maith le rud ar bith eile. Tá sé scanrúil go ligeann an Rialtas é seo tarlúint.

Tá an rún seo an-tábhachtach agus, le cúnamh Dé, leis an méid atá cloiste ag an Rialtas, tá súil agam go mbeidh sé in ann oibriú agus leigheas éigin a chur ar an scéal agus, idirlinn, tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún. Níl sé ach ag insint an fhírinne.

Ms Enright: Information on Olwyn Enright  Zoom on Olwyn Enright  I compliment the Minister on being present for the entire debate. It is a recognition of the importance of the issue we are discussing. Ministers do not always attend debates and I hope her welcome attendance sets a precedent for her colleagues.

Attempts were made to contradict Deputy Stanton when he raised the issue of special needs provision. I dispute Deputy Carey’s claim that the issue has become a political football. By introduc[1351]ing that phrase, the Deputy ensured it would become a political football, which no Member on this side nor the majority on the other side want. When Opposition Members represent the views of their constituents in a debate in the House, they do not create a political football but do the job they are paid to do. It is a pity that a Member of Deputy Carey’s experience can introduce such phrases to a debate.

The Deputy also took issue with the Fine Gael Party’s association with the motion because it includes the phrase “in relation to school principals”. At best, this demonstrates deliberate ignorance in his reading of the motion. We are not taking any issue with principals having responsibilities or making judgments. Our problem is that they are being asked to make decisions on the allocation of resources which in many cases are not available. School principals have explained to me and numerous other Members that this is the position. They have no problem taking on work and making decisions and many would welcome greater decision-making responsibility in this area. Under the new weighted system, however, they are being left with the task of informing parents that children who benefited from resource hours last year will no longer receive them under the new system. I have a difficulty with this task being offloaded on principals.

Last night, the Minister stated that every application had to be accompanied by a psychological or clinical assessment and processed individually. This is the correct approach and one of the reasons for the delay and backlog. The Department in which 7,500 applications lay for a year and a half was one of the main reasons for the delay. School principals did not hesitate to fill out and return forms or forward the results of psychological assessments but acted instantly because parents were beating down their doors. The delay and many of the problems with the process were caused by the Department. A good starting point for addressing the issue of special needs would have been to establish proper systems in the Department. This was not done and must be done.

The Minister used the slightly more polite word “redeployment” to describe the cutting of resources to which I referred. Effectively, resources are still being cut in many schools. She also indicated she would accelerate her efforts to counteract this, which I welcome. How does she intend to do this? Last night I provided six examples of how she could proceed. We require an explanation. While everyone has faith in the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, we want to know precisely how and when it will be implemented. I referred last night to the case of a special needs organiser who said organisers still do not know what they are supposed to do. They have been in position for seven weeks which is an adequate period for anyone to learn about a job.

[1352]No speaker from the Government side explained from where the idea of the weighted model came. Deputy Stanton noted that during numerous discussions of the legislation which eventually became the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, the weighted system was not referred to once. How is it possible that having debated legislation at such length, Members have an entirely different notion of what we discussed? Why, before the Act was signed into law, was a decision made to introduce a new weighted system about which nobody had heard? This was wrong and unjustified.

The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy de Valera, referred to developments since 1 June, applications which have been processed and so on. When she pointed out that applications for support for children with lower incidence needs had received a response, I immediately wondered what was the position regarding children with higher incidence needs. I then realised that applications made on behalf of children with higher incidence are to be dealt with under the weighted system. Strangely, most of the people experiencing problems are those being dealt with under this system. The problem with the new system is that applicants are not processed because resources are not available.

I am surprised by the list of speakers from the Government side, many of whom, like me, represent largely rural constituencies. I am amazed they indicated that everything in the garden is in more or less rosy because that is not the case in the area I represent. I have received queries from throughout the country and they clearly indicate that there are major problems in the area of special educational needs.

Deputy Power stated he accepted imperfection. We should not accept imperfection. He also used the phrase “in time”. The problem for most of the children in question is that they do not have time. If they do not receive the help they need by the age of seven or eight, their chances of improving or catching up are greatly reduced. We are failing to provide for children of that age. While I am aware of some changes this year with regard to children in junior infants, many of whom receive assistance, many children in first, second and third class have still not been allocated the resources they need.

One of the most significant issues in rural schools is the idea of clustering. The weighted system will not work in such schools. We have been contacted primarily by rural schools, although urban schools have also done so, which indicates there is no urban-rural divide on this issue. Rural schools will face a major problem in this regard.

How will Government speakers returning to their clinics or meeting constituents in their offices face parents affected by this issue? Perhaps they are not approached by parents of children with special needs. It is possible such parents see no point in contacting Government Deputies [1353]but they are certainly coming to me in large numbers. Since last June, more people have contacted me on the issue of special needs than in the previous two years. I hope Government Deputies can return to their constituencies with a clear conscience and have the honesty to tell parents and school teachers that they believe there is a problem in the area of special education needs. Will they tell them that they voted in the Dáil for a motion stating the Government is doing a great job in this area? I find their actions, which they will have to explain, hard to believe. Special educational needs is a major issue, as my colleagues on the Opposition Benches will agree.

I am glad Deputy Cooper-Flynn’s short absence from the Fianna Fáil Party has allowed her to see matters a little more clearly. In just one minute she spoke realistically about what many children with special needs and their families face.

[1354]I thank Deputies from all sides who contributed to the debate. I appeal to the Minster to re-examine the issue of special needs, especially the weighted system, and consider how schools in areas where clustering is required will work under the system. She should not be afraid to look at new alternatives or to see the failures that are apparent in the system at present. She should also look at the weighting as it relates to girls. I am aware of the statistics but it could be argued that in those classrooms boys might be more boisterous and their needs become apparent at a younger age whereas girls might be more inclined to sit back in the classroom, with their need not becoming apparent so early. We must consider all these issues.

I urge the Minister to reconsider the weighted system, examine the special needs area and implement the Act in full in the shortest time possible. I ask Members to support the motion.

Amendment put.

[1353]The Dáil divided: Tá, 65; Níl, 53.

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[1355]Tellers: Tá, Deputies Kitt and Kelleher; Níl, Deputies Kehoe and Stagg.

[1355]Amendment declared carried.

Motion, as amended, put and declared carried.

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