Special Educational Needs: Motion.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 681 No. 4

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Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  I move:

I wish to share time with Deputies Ulick Burke, Seymour Crawford, Catherine Byrne, Joe Carey, Joe McHugh and Pádraic McCormack.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  Is that agreed? Agreed.

  7 o’clock

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  I deliberately decided not to move this motion until today because I thought the Minister for Education and Science would have had the good grace to recognise the mistake he made last February in suppressing special classes in our primary schools. I had assumed that some time in March or April the Minister would have signalled his intention to sort out this problem and genuinely engage with people who knew what they were talking about when it came to the provision of special needs classes within our primary schools. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

The Minister’s immediate predecessor was sent packing from Marlborough Street because her doctrine as Minister was based on the principle, “It’s my way or no way.” She knew best and woe betide anyone who challenged the great oracle of knowledge or wisdom. The Minister’s stubborn refusal to see sense and to work out a compromise on this issue reminds me of the attitude of his predecessor. It is not a sign of weakness for the Minister to admit he made a mistake on this issue. However, it is pitiful in the extreme that he has singled out some of [792]the most vulnerable students in our school system. This is the worst decision the Minister has made since coming into office. He displays an extraordinary lack of knowledge and empathy when it comes to understanding the infrastructure that has been provided to assist special needs children in Irish education. What is most frustrating is the Minister’s attitude that he knows best.

The people who actually work with children with mild learning disabilities, including parents, teachers and principals, do not, according to the Minister, know what they are talking about. That is what the Minister said when he took the decision to abolish the 128 special classes in February. Last week, according to the Minister, I was opportunistic in even raising the issue, the INTO was disingenuous, parents were misguided and principals should know better. We are all wrong except the Minister and the senior official who told him to sign on the dotted line and abolish the classes. This has all the traits of “Madam’s” final days in Marlborough Street.

I reject the idiotic, penny pinching and cruel decision to suppress the 128 special classes in 119 primary schools in this country. I agree this decision will affect just over 500 young students, but it will have far-reaching consequences for the already overcrowded mainstream classes in these schools and for children with mild learning disabilities and their families. Does the Minister not think that all parents wants their child to be in a mainstream class? Of course they do. However, there are times when children can do better and, yes, can ultimately integrate when placed in a smaller class in a mainstream school. That is the great flexibility in these special classes. Extra attention and more focused learning can yield better results for a child. For once, can we listen to parents and teachers on this issue and not the faceless bureaucrats who would not know one end of a classroom from another?

This decision came just over half way through the school year. That the Minister gave the affected schools such a short lead-in time for this major change in their school community shows the Minister’s callous disregard for education. This is a bad day’s work. Tonight and tomorrow my colleagues and I will attempt to overturn and to persuade the majority opinion in this House.

Our motion is straight forward. We believe the classes should be left in place for the next school year, namely from September 2009 to September 2010. During this time, a review should be put in place with a proper dialogue with the education partners and crucially with parents. There are cases where some amalgamation, because of falling numbers, should be adopted. No one with whom I have spoken disagrees with this. To abolish all of the classes, effectively overnight, is a position that no serious educationalist could stand over with justification.

Despite having raised this matter twice on the Adjournment and with the Minister at Question Time, the House has not had an opportunity to seriously reflect on this decision since it was first made in February. Not only do I want my party to hear the views of all parties on the issue, I, in particular, want to hear the voices of Government Deputies. I want to know if any of them have the moral courage to put on the record what they have told me in private, namely, that this is a rotten decision and a direct attack on children.

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  Hear, hear.

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  The Minister needs to tread carefully here. He is very free and easy in quoting selectively from the UN convention but he should also have regard to the provisions of Article 42 of our Constitution. As the Minister well knows, under that Article, the State must provide a primary education system that is not only free but appropriate. The clear implication of the Sinnott and O’Donoghue Supreme Court judgments requires the State to [793]provide a form of education that meets the child’s needs, so as to make that education appropriate and consistent with Article 42 of the Constitution.

The Minister’s decision invites challenges to that decision in the courts. If that happens, the Minister and his Department will be on very dodgy ground. Whatever about getting or not getting legal advice, an issue which I would like the Minister to clarify before the end of the debate is why he decided to take this unilateral decision without obtaining the advice of the independent statutory agency, the National Council on Special Education, NCSE. The NCSE is tasked with advising the Minister on special education. Despite claiming that he made the decision on “educational” grounds, it has been confirmed that the Minister refused to wait for a report on special education provision currently being compiled by the NCSE and soon to be published. Where are the educational grounds for the decision? Would it not have been more sensible for the Minister to wait for the report from the NCSE before acting in the manner he did? The NCSE review is still being compiled and has not been published. The Minister must clarify what consultation he had with the NCSE prior to making his decision to cut special education classes. It seems extraordinary that in excess of 500 children can be removed from these classes without any view being expressed from the very body we charge to advise Government, in an expert manner, on this issue. There is something very odd in that.

The Implementation report: Plan for the Phased Implementation of the EPSEN Act 2004, published by the NCSE in 2006 states that the current state of the education system cannot provide the necessary supports for inclusion. Page 95 of the report states,“The current support framework, in almost all its manifestations, is unable, at present, to provide the necessary levels of support [for inclusion].”Page 94 states,“Schools believe they are not adequately resourced to provide effective inclusion education as envisaged by the EPSEN Act.” There is no doubt that failure to implement the EPSEN Act means that it is virtually impossible to provide mainstreaming options in all cases. The Government abandoned children with special needs when it abandoned the EPSEN Act in the last budget. The Minister has done so again through his decision to slash special classes from primary schools, without any educational or academic justification for the decision. Once again, the Minister knows best.

I have four straight questions for the Minister in the context of this debate that I want answered tonight. Did the Minister obtain legal advice before deciding to abolish the special classes in a context where the EPSEN Act is now on hold? Why was the NCSE not consulted and why did he take this action when he knew his Department had requested a review which had not been completed? My third question is a question asked last Friday by a principal of a school in my constituency — someone close to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle’s heart — namely, how many of these 128 classes did the Minister, as Minister for Education and Science, visit before taking this unilateral decision?

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  None.

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  I want to know how many of the 128 classes in 119 primary schools the Minister has visited? Has the Minister met the children? Did the Minister meet the parents, principals and teachers before being told by some official to abolish those posts? If the decision was not made for financial reasons, then the Minister must clarify whether the €7 million saving will be invested in additional learning support in the mainstream classes into which the 534 children are being moved. At the very least people in the Gallery and outside the House deserve answers to these questions.

The people who will be affected by this decision also want answers from those Deputies who seem to have no difficulty with supporting this attack on these children. On 9 March, we had to listen to the reflections of the Minister of State, Deputy Trevor Sargent, who proclaimed to [794]the world that to make cuts to special education provisions turned his stomach. The Minister of State said that he was not only a member of Government, but also a former school principal. The people affected by this decision have no interest in how the Minister of State’s stomach is turning; they want to turn his vote on this issue and they want to know the position of the Green Party. They want to know whether the Green Party Members will put up with anything that Fianna Fáil dishes up. If the bottom line for the Green Party is not special needs education, what is its bottom line?

Deputy Seymour Crawford: Information on Seymour Crawford  Zoom on Seymour Crawford  Where are they?

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  There has been some talk that the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent, wanted the opportunity to speak tonight or tomorrow. If he cannot get Government time to do so, we will allow him some of our time because I want to hear what he has to say. I know many Members opposite do not agree with their Minister on this and many other issues in education. They have told me that to my face. We need to hear their voices in this debate and their constituents want them to make a stand on this important issue of education provision.

There has been virtually no discussion on the impact of this decision on children in existing mainstream classes who will see bigger classes next year not just because of the abolition of special classes, but also because of the increase in the staffing schedule. The loss of a special class in a school will have a detrimental effect on all children in that school, a fundamental point that needs to be highlighted. I am predicting now that if this measure is introduced, children currently obtaining extra support in mainstream classes will have that support withdrawn from September. Despite what the Minister has said, he has made no commitments to the 119 affected schools about extra learning support for the next school year. In a great majority of existing mainstream classes there are already a high number of children with learning and emotional needs. Catering for the special class children for an extended period of the day will have a negative knock-on effect on the amount of time the teacher can spend with all the other children.

The Minister has stated that the children who move from a special to mainstream class will still have a special needs assistant when they move. How many of the 534 children currently have an SNA? The Minister seems to be unaware that the SNA only applies to children with special care needs and in any case SNAs are forbidden from getting involved in the learning needs of children. The Minister has also stated that the children can avail of resource support. Under Department of Education and Science circular SP ED 02/05 children with a mild general learning disability lost this entitlement to low incidence resource hours.

With the greatest degree of respect the Minister is out of his depth. Any Minister with the slightest understanding of special needs provision would have sent packing the official who came to his office with this proposal tucked under his or her arm. He is badly exposed in this as a Minister who neither listens nor understands. It is time he backed down in favour of the approach contained in our motion. It is time he started to listen to people at the coalface. It is time that he dumped the prepared scripts and dumped the attitude.

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  I thank Deputy Brian Hayes for sharing time and I support the motion. The Minister’s decision is an unacceptable attack on the education of children with disability. In 128 classes in 119 schools, 534 children are seriously affected by this decision. The fact that it was carried out by the Minister without consultation with the stakeholders in education is a clear indication of his total disregard for people with special needs. In doing so he has robbed them of any hope of realising their full academic potential. It is crystal clear that the decision to slash special education was not only vicious, but also not based on any clear educational [795]policy. If the Minister believes that abolishing 128 special classes is in the interests of students who are to be mainstreamed, why does a report from an independent statutory agency argue the opposite?

The most substantial issue according to parents, teachers and all involved in special education is the impact the cuts will have on the education and consequent life experiences of the pupils who will lose the special education provision. There is also substantial concern over the impact of the movement of numbers of pupils currently in receipt of special education into mainstream classes with regard to the size of the classes and in terms of the further burden placed on teachers in mainstream classes.

In February the Minister wrote to 119 schools indicating that from September 2009 the 128 classes for children with mild general learning disabilities would be discontinued. This decision was made without contacting the parents, the educational partners or the Minister’s expert advisers in the National Council for Special Education to obtain their view on cutting the classes. It is clear that this decision was motivated solely by cutting costs. There is no educational justification for this decision. The Minister suggests that the integration of children with special needs is the most appropriate means of education. While that might be true, without the resources in those schools it is unfair not only to the children with special needs, but also to the children in the other classes into which the special needs children now need to be accommodated. That is a fatal mistake on the Minister’s part.

Mainstream classes are under serious pressure following numerous cutbacks in front line services already. Class sizes are due to increase from September. Language support teachers and home liaison teachers will also be lost. How can the Minister justify the statement in the Government amendment that it is “ensuring that teaching and care supports are available to children with special needs so that they can continue to access an education that is appropriate to their needs”?

I ask the Minister to reverse this decision because of the serious impact it will have not only on the children and their future, but also on their families who have campaigned for years to establish access to education for their children with special needs. The Minister cannot justifiably allow this to continue and I ask him to reverse his decision.

Deputy Seymour Crawford: Information on Seymour Crawford  Zoom on Seymour Crawford  I congratulate Deputy Brian Hayes on once again raising the issue of special needs classes. By removing these classes additional unsustainable pressure will be placed on existing mainstream classes and will not only damage the children in need of special classes, but will also inhibit the rights of all children to a decent education. My
constituency of Cavan-Monaghan has three affected schools, Bailieborough national school, Castleblaney junior school and St. Mary’s boys’ school in Monaghan.

Last Monday, I met a parent in a somewhat different situation. Living in a rural area, her child gets home tuition and excellent support from the local national school. The child suffers from autism and the additional annual cost to the family is €60,000. While some of this cost was covered before the child became eligible for national school, these demands have been completely ignored since and the expense, although paid through the PAYE system and all above aboard, is not reclaimable against her personal tax. If it is reclaimable, she has been told otherwise.

In the short time available to me, I wish to revert to the specific cuts at Castleblayney junior school. Thankfully for this year, the principal has had the school’s situation reviewed and the class will be retained, but this has nothing to do with the so-called appeals system. Rather, it has to do with the Department’s reclassification. The majority of people involved in this issue believe the appeals system is a smoke screen that the Government created to remove the [796]pressure from itself. During the past four weeks, the parents have been in continual telephone contact with the Department, but no one seems to know what is happening or how the appeals system works. Without criteria being in place, it is impossible for schools to put forward cases based on fact that can be understood in the long term and on which a final decision is influenced. This situation is stressful for parents because at least some of them will need to look for alternative schooling for their children, who may need to be facilitated a long way from home, thereby creating further costs on taxpayers through transport and assistance.

There is also a difficulty in that children with special educational needs do not make friends easily. Breaking up the present classes will create significant problems and have severe consequences for their confidence, which is generally low to begin with. The teachers of special classes, who are highly trained and experienced in dealing with such children, help them with skills to conform to society in the best way possible.

While Castleblayney has retained its classes for this year, it was not due to the appeals decision, but to the Department’s reclassification. I do not know how many schools will benefit in this way, but it is vital that these children and others who will be classified as in need of such education be allowed to retain their classes. It is up to the Minister to find savings within the administrative structures to ensure the most vulnerable and deserving are given a chance.

I have lived with parents who needed to deal with issues such as this. The pressures are enormous, but their efforts and the benefits of proper classes will mean that their children can live useful and profitable lives to the benefit of the State instead of being forced into a system that will leave them dependent forever.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Charlie O’Connor): Information on Charlie O'Connor  Zoom on Charlie O'Connor  The Deputy should conclude.

Deputy Seymour Crawford: Information on Seymour Crawford  Zoom on Seymour Crawford  The Government argues that these children must integrate with their peers. This is wonderful language and, while it may work for some children, it cannot work for all. I ask that the Government base its decisions on each child’s specific needs, not on some average. Children are not averages. They are individuals. We need common sense.

Deputies:  Hear, hear.

Deputy Catherine Byrne: Information on Catherine Byrne  Zoom on Catherine Byrne  As a mother of five, I know that children do not want to feel different. Whether they are at home, in school or on a playground or the street, they just want to be the same as their friends and part of the gang. However, we must realise that some children need a special helping hand. The Minister has, with the stroke of a pen, decided many of their futures. I welcome our motion, which shows a commitment from Fine Gael to a special group of children who are being abandoned by the Government.

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  Hear, hear.

Deputy Catherine Byrne: Information on Catherine Byrne  Zoom on Catherine Byrne  Just three months ago, the Minister for Education and Science, to whom we have entrusted the education of our children, announced that 534 children in 128 classes in 119 schools would lose the provision of their special needs teachers. We were all shocked and appalled at this announcement, not least the schools and teachers who were not informed before being sent a written letter. The Minister clearly did not consult with parents, teachers or experts in the field of special needs education and did not consider the consequences of his decision.

The Government will gain a saving of €7 million from this ridiculous decision. The Minister must ask himself whether the withdrawal of special needs classes, which are so valuable to [797]children with learning difficulties, will solve anything. It will only cause undue worry and upset and will reduce the standard of education that special needs children need and deserve.

I strongly believe that education is one area where we cannot afford to make any cuts. Special needs education in particular is an area that we must support. We cannot view education like a business or bank. This is about our children’s future. It is about the future of the country and giving our children the best start in life. After all, they are the ones who will need to deal with the mess left behind by the Government.

It now seems that the most vulnerable children in our schools will suffer because the Government cannot balance its books. It is ridiculous that schools that do not meet the current minimum requirement of nine pupils with mild general learning disabilities per class will lose a teacher. Of the 119 schools on the Minister’s list, 25 are in my area of Dublin South-Central. Nine are in Ballyfermot, seven are in the south-west inner city, four are in Crumlin, three are in Drimnagh and two are in Inchicore. Last week, I spoke to the principal of the Mater Dei primary school in Basin Lane, a DEIS band 1 school. It will lose a language support teacher and a special needs teacher. The principal is concerned for the future of many of the area’s children.

Acting Chairman: Information on Charlie O'Connor  Zoom on Charlie O'Connor  The Deputy is in her last minute.

Deputy Catherine Byrne: Information on Catherine Byrne  Zoom on Catherine Byrne  We must understand that not every child fits an exact model when it comes to learning difficulties and special needs. In fact, many of these children have multiple problems, including learning disabilities, a difficulty in learning to read English and, in many cases, difficult family situations.

All across the country, special needs and language support teachers do a fantastic job. How does the Minister reward them? He tells them that their services are no longer required and deprives children of invaluable special needs help, leaving them to struggle in mainstream classes. I support Deputy Brian Hayes’s motion.

Deputy Joe Carey: Information on Joe Carey  Zoom on Joe Carey  I commend Deputy Brian Hayes on tabling this motion in the House. The decision to withdraw mild general learning disability classes from primary schools has caused outrage up and down the country. St. Senan’s national school in Kilrush, County Clare, provides a vital service to the west Clare peninsula. Having visited the school and having spoken with the principal, I fully appreciate the importance of the current service to the three children it serves. This special class must be retained, as it accommodates children with severe disabilities. It affords its three students the most appropriate model of education and is specific to their needs. They simply would not be able to cope in mainstream education. The medical evidence presented to the Minister, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, by the school and parents proves this. If this class is removed and the service discontinued, the students in question will need to travel to Ennis, 30 to 40 miles away from their homes. It is a round trip of 60 to 80 miles per day. The medical evidence produced to the Minister’s office proves that the children’s health will not be able to withstand this travel.

The unique geographical case presented by the west Clare peninsula must be taken into consideration when providing educational cover to County Clare. In order to have a proper primary educational system, west Clare warrants such a special class to serve its population. It seems the class in St. Senan’s national school has been identified and earmarked purely on statistical grounds. I extend an invitation to the Minister to visit the school and see at first hand the wonderful work that takes place there day in and day out.

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  Hear, hear.

[798]Deputy Joe Carey: Information on Joe Carey  Zoom on Joe Carey  Last year, I visited the school with Deputy Brian Hayes, who is fully aware of the circumstances. I urge the Minister to ensure that any decision taken regarding these classes is made on educational grounds and in the best interests of the children involved.

The National Council for Special Education in Ireland has commissioned a report on special classes. Yet before it can be published, the whole infrastructure is being pulled down. Any sane and logical person can see that this decision certainly is not being made on educational grounds. Placing children who have been in special classes into mainstream classrooms which often have more than 30 pupils adds insult to injury and will further condemn such students to failure.

The Minister has suggested the withdrawal of special needs classes is due to the adoption by his Department of an integration approach to the education of children with special needs. Having asked the National Council for Special Education, whose members are the national experts in special needs education, to compile a report on the issue, he should have waited until it had compiled and published it before taking such a decision. The Minister must clarify the consultation he had with the NCSE prior to making his decision to cut the aforementioned special education classes. What evidence or advice does the Minister for Education and Science use when he makes such a decision? I suspect it is simply another slash and burn decision with little thought of the consequences. It appears to be a decision based on finance, rather than on anything else.

In correspondence to me, the Minister referred to €20 million in additional funding for 2009 to enhance front line services for children such as those referred to in this motion, with €10 million to come from the Department of Education and Science and €10 million from the Department of Health and Children. I would be interested to ascertain the manner in which it is proposed to spend this additional funding. As for St. Senan’s national school, were the special needs class to be withdrawn it would cost more to transport the children concerned to and from Ennis. I appeal to the Minister to have a change of heart and to desist from subjecting parents and children with disabilities to such hardship by leaving alone these vital special needs classes.

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  Hear, hear.

Deputy Joe McHugh: Information on Joe McHugh  Zoom on Joe McHugh  At the outset, I congratulate Deputy Brian Hayes on tabling this important and timely motion. However, had the Minister’s predecessor the wherewithal or foresight to roll out the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act in time, this debate would not be taking place because the overarching right of each child with special needs would supersede any debate in this House and any motion that my colleague, Deputy Hayes, might table. I wish to focus on the EPSEN Act aspect of this debate tonight.

As legislators, Members have a role to honour the commitment to the rights of the child with special needs. The rights of the child must be honoured because at present there is pure mockery of such rights nationwide, arising from the limbo in which parents, teachers and principals find themselves as to where they will stand in September and whether a special needs assistant will be available or alternatively, whether the special educational needs organiser, SENO will in August put a pen through different schools and resources and state they will not be available. This limbo must be dealt with and the only way to so do it is by rolling out the EPSEN Act.

While this cloud hangs over special needs, the national council still exists. One could perceive it in a cynical manner, just as the Government has done a great job in distancing itself for the HSE. County councillors and candidates from Government parties will claim that issues raised have nothing to do with either the Department of Health and Children or the Government as they are the responsibility of the HSE. I can envisage the same thing happening in respect of [799]the National Council for Special Education, whereby people nationwide will claim that issues are the fault not of the Department or the Minister but that the council is to blame. This has happened and is happening nationwide.

Members need conclusive evidence from the Minister that there will not be a reduction in the roll-out of special needs assistants because I have heard figures of reductions of 25% through the grapevine. The grapevine is never far wrong, where there is smoke there is fire and Members require clarification that this will not happen. The NCSE knows its role, knows what it must do and is familiar with the policy. However, the Minister, not the council is in charge. The buck passing, grey areas and fudge between the Department and the NCSE must end before progress can be made in this area.

I will provide an example of the bureaucratic monster that has been created within the Department of Education and Science, the details of which I can supply later to the Minister. It concerns a principal in a school with a child who has challenging educational needs. The principal was obliged to apply in November but did not get word by February and still does not have word as to where the child stands. This type of logjam must disappear. As for the Minister’s position, his response regarding capital projects, disabilities and all elements of education is that there is no money. That response is not good enough, as creative solutions exist. Such an answer is not good enough at a time when speech therapists and recently graduated teachers are on the dole queues. Creative solutions are needed and as the Minister is in charge, he must face up to his responsibilities.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  This Fine Gael Private Members’ motion concerns and wishes to highlight the cruel Government cutbacks and withdrawal of 128 classes for children with mild general handicapped disabilities. It calls on the Government to reverse its decision to suppress the 128 special classes for the children affected, a number of which are located in the Galway area, including some in my parish of Renmore. Why was such a cruel and backward step taken by the Government when one considers the comparatively minimal savings involved?

Parents cannot understand and will not accept that this cruel blow to the most vulnerable has been implemented by an uncaring Government that has wasted and squandered millions of taxpayers’ money on itself and on crazy projects in recent years. I refer to the Bertie bowl, which was never built but which cost hundreds of millions, the purchase of useless electronic voting machines that cost €50 million and which now have been scrapped and several other crazy projects at which the Government threw money like snuff at a wake. I also refer to the tax incentive schemes to the Government’s friends in the construction business and the necessary bailing out of the banks. Now the Government has brought the country and its finances to the sorry state in which it finds itself, the first people it attacks are from the most vulnerable sector of our society, in an effort to save a miserable amount of money through front-line cut-backs in health and educational services to the disadvantaged.

Deputies:  Hear, hear.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  How can the Government allow this when it permits top executives of the Health Service Executive management pay themselves large bonuses in addition to their extraordinary salaries. For example, the chief executive of the HSE has a annual salary of €380,000 and was paid a bonus of €80,000. Why is there a need for the HSE to pay public relations consultants and senior executives tens of thousands in fees and bonuses? In figures released last year, a close associate of the HSE chief executive was paid €1,367 a day while others were paid €724 per day for work outside their contract. In 2007, 111 senior executive staff in the HSE were paid more than €1.2 million in bonuses, which is an average of more [800]than €11,000 each. At the same time, the Government has allowed those banking executives who stood down to walk away while awarding themselves extraordinary bonuses, golden handshakes and generous pensions.

This is what makes it so hard for hard-pressed parents of disadvantaged children to accept or understand the cutbacks at school level and in other services. On the doors while canvassing and in our offices, Members are being confronted by examples of the suffering, hardship and anxiety unfolding daily on parents of the disadvantaged. Parents are so frustrated and annoyed that they naturally are confronting politicians of all parties given the situation in which they find themselves. Fine Gael canvassers at such doors must be patient while explaining to the frustrated parents and carers that this Fianna Fáil- Progressive Democrats coalition, supported by some Independent Members, has caused this hardship.

While canvassing at the weekend, I met a home-working mother of five who has a mentally disadvantaged young adult who attends a training centre and whose case illustrated for me the effects of the cutbacks and the hidden costs therein. When her daughter receives respite care periodically, the hidden costs of outings or other activities, such as swimming, yoga or similar activities, arise. These parents can never go out together because a baby-sitter is not practical. However, although they wish to look after their disadvantaged daughter in their own home, the only thanks they get from the Government are these cruel cutbacks. How can I explain the large bonuses received by the HSE executive staff to the woman who came into my office recently in tears because her 24 year old son, who attends a day care centre, lost the weekly subvention of €20 that he had received for his work there? How can I explain that? It would take that person eight years to earn what a HSE employee earns in one week. This is where the cruel cutbacks are taking effect on the real hardship being experienced by parents of disadvantaged children in the home. The Minister should cop himself on. The people will have an opportunity to redress this and give the Government a message on 5 June. I advise people to take this opportunity and start the process of getting rid of this uncaring Government.

Minister for Education and Science (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe): Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  I move amendment No. 1:

[801]

This Government is committed to meeting the needs of children with special educational needs. Supports for these children have been protected in spite of the serious financial situation we now face. Since 1998, major improvements have been made to the range of supports available for these children.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  How?

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  Investment in supports for special needs has more than doubled in the past five years to over €1 billion this year. More than 8,000 resource and learning support teachers and more than 10,000 special needs assistants are now in place. Assistive technology is funded, specialist equipment and furniture is provided and special school transport arrangements are in place. This investment has transformed the ability of schools to provide for all children, promoting an inclusive school community.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  What about the motion?

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  This investment will continue to be made. The Government is committed to ensuring that as many children as possible can receive an appropriate education in their own communities, in their local school, alongside their friends, happily interacting with them.

This is not, to quote the Leader of the Opposition in a debate on special needs last year, a “social experiment”. Not only is inclusion the desire of the vast majority of parents, it is also the guiding ethos of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  Does the Minister believe that?

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  Educating children in the least restrictive environment has become the norm in developed societies in recent times. Unfortunately, it would seem Fine Gael wants to deny that right to children with special needs.

Deputy Seymour Crawford: Information on Seymour Crawford  Zoom on Seymour Crawford  That is an outrage.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  The Minister did not write his contribution.

[802]Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  I did not interrupt Deputies. The principle of inclusion is now well established internationally. The comments of the Leader of the Opposition last year should have been a matter of considerable personal shame for him. In calling Deputy Kenny’s comments “disgraceful”, Deputy Ruairí Quinn reflected the views of enlightened educational experts around the world. It was hoped that Deputy Kenny’s insensitive remarks were just an unfortunate choice of words and that he does not really want to see a return to the restrictive and unjust policies of the past when children with special needs were unnecessarily sidelined from mainstream education and isolated from their peers for no good reason. I shudder at the thought.

With this motion, Deputy Kenny’s party is yet again showing that it does not understand children with special educational needs. Fine Gael does not value that “regular schools with this inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all”. These are not my words but the view of UNESCO as written in the Salamanca statement and framework for action on special needs education in 1994.

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  Where is Salamanca? I thought Bunreacht na hÉireann would do.

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  The Minister should come home.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  The principle of inclusion was further promoted by the Council of Europe declaration in Malaga in 2003——

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  The Minister is going a long way out of the country. What about
Ballincollig?

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  ——and the Council of Europe action plan in 2006.

Interrupting is the policy of Deputy Brian Hayes. I can arrange to do the same when he contributes.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  The Minister should speak sense.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  The plan sought “to ensure that people with disabilities, including children, receive the support required, within the mainstream education system, to facilitate their effective education”. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with a Disability places a strong obligation on governments to provide inclusive education for all learners. It requires——

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  Proper facilities.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  ——states to ensure that “persons with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability” and that “persons with disabilities can access an inclusive, quality, free primary education and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live”.

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  Properly resourced.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  This Government has ensured that additional supports for children with special educational needs are in place in schools all over the country. Our policies and levels of investment have delivered additional teachers, additional care supports, specialist equipment and assistive technology, along with specially adapted school buildings and special school transport arrangements.

[803]I want to quash any suggestion that, by closing these special classes, schools will be without the additional teaching supports required to meet the educational needs of these children. This is simply not the case. These pupils will be provided with additional teaching supports through the general allocation model.

Deputy Pádraic McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  Bigger classes.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  Every day, and in every school, pupils with mild general learning disability are being successfully educated in integrated settings.

Earlier this year, I took the decision to close a number of special classes for pupils with mild general learning disability. This decision was taken because the pupil numbers in these classes were insufficient to merit the retention of the teacher based on my Department’s policy on class retention, which dates back to 1999.

The Opposition has called for the immediate reinstatement of all 128 classes. This call defies belief. Some eight of the classes concerned should have no pupils at all. Is Deputy Hayes really saying that I should provide teachers to classes where there should be no pupils?

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  No, I am not saying that.

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  The Minister should get real.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  Some 19 other classes should have only one or two pupils.

Deputy Seymour Crawford: Information on Seymour Crawford  Zoom on Seymour Crawford  The Minister should talk to his backbenchers.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  Deputy Hayes needs to make up his mind. Just a few weeks ago, during Oral Questions he told me that he agreed with the policy of integration——

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  Based on the circumstances.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  ——but now, without any rationale, he is insisting that 128 classes be kept open. This is a cynical exercise by the Opposition seeking to make political capital——

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  It is all our fault.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  ——using children with special educational needs for political gain. The Opposition is lecturing the Government on the need to carefully manage public expenditure yet it is now saying that it would give a teacher to classes without any pupils.

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  No one said that.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  How many children are going to benefit from that approach?

As I have said on many occasions, I am open to listening to the concerns of schools and that schools could make a case to keep those class. Only 40 of the 119 schools concerned have written to my Department seeking to retain their classes. My Department is currently reviewing these appeals and has listened to the concerns of the INTO about a small number of schools. Officials have also discussed the issue with the IPPN. It is notable that the main concern for some of the schools is that they had placed pupils with low incidence special needs in these classes.

My Department recognises that some pupils need additional teaching support, over and above that provided by the general allocation model. Schools with pupils with low incidence special educational needs receive additional teaching support in line with their assessed dis[804]ability. These schools will be referred to the National Council for Special Education to be allocated the additional resource teacher supports.

One school has advised that its special class pupils have a severe or profound general learning disability. This school is to be commended on showing such leadership in inclusion. This class will not be suppressed. It will be reclassified as a special class for pupils with a severe or profound general learning disability.

Deputy Joe Carey: Information on Joe Carey  Zoom on Joe Carey  Is that school in Clare?

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  Children in these classes benefit from even lower pupil teacher ratios of 6:1.

Deputy Joe Carey: Information on Joe Carey  Zoom on Joe Carey  Is that school in Clare?

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  I look forward to receiving the report of the review of special classes and special schools but I do not accept any criticism that my Department has moved ahead of this report. The closure of these classes is in line with departmental policy going back many years.

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  It is about money.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  Some schools have opted voluntarily to stop the classes and integrate the children into an age-appropriate mainstream class.

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  Some.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  These classes predated my Department’s initiative to allocate additional learning teaching supports to schools to enable them to cater for the needs of pupils with high incidence special needs, including a mild general learning disability. My Department has always recognised that pupils with mild general learning disabilities may need additional teaching and care supports to enable them to learn in an integrated setting. My Department’s policies in this regard have not changed and the supports are and will be available in schools.

Since 2003, my Department’s policy has been to support a more flexible deployment of these resources in primary schools. All pupils, including those with learning disabilities, need to belong to a peer group and to mix with pupils of different levels of ability in a variety of situations. An exclusive reliance on using resource teaching hours for individual tuition only is contrary to the principle of integration in learning and teaching.

My Department has advised primary schools to deploy their allocated special education resources in a way that best accommodates the special educational needs of pupils. It has recommended that wherever possible, schools should provide additional teaching support for pupils in the mainstream classroom or in small groups. Such an approach helps maximise effective and efficient teaching and learning and minimise disruptions to the class programme.

I assure parents that these pupils will receive teaching supports in school. There are now over 8,000 learning support and resource teachers in place in our schools. These teachers support children through a variety of well-established approaches, including co-operation teaching or team teaching, where the support is provided in class to the pupil. There is also withdrawal teaching, where the support is provided on a one-to-one basis or in smaller groups away from the classroom; and differentiation of the curriculum, where the curriculum is modified by both the class and learning support teachers to meet the needs of a particular pupil or group of pupils, among other approaches.

[805]These additional teaching supports are, at primary level, allocated to schools through the general allocation model, known as the GAM, which was introduced in 2005. The general allocation model effectively replaced the special class model for pupils with a mild general learning disability. Instead of being unnecessarily isolated in special class settings, away from their friends, pupils with a mild general learning disability receive additional teaching support from the learning support teacher. Since the general allocation model’s introduction, many schools have voluntarily moved to disband their special classes. This decision only addresses those classes where the pupil population was insufficient to retain the teacher. The remaining classes with sufficient pupils will stay in place.

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  There will be larger classes.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  I am disappointed with the Opposition’s motion.

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  We are really gutted.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  The Opposition may not have intended to prey on the vulnerabilities of parents of pupils with or without special educational needs.

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  What would the Minister do?

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  However, this is the result. I take this opportunity to reassure parents that teachers and schools are working on a daily basis to deliver an excellent education to their children. These teachers should be congratulated on the difference they make in these children’s lives. For students with special educational needs, placement in mainstream education provides increased opportunities to improve communication skills and interact with their peers. These students benefit socially from inclusion through a reduced sense of isolation.

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  In larger classes.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  There is a tendency for students with special educational needs to be more motivated and work harder in the inclusive classroom. An inclusive setting can expand a student’s personal interests and knowledge of the world to prepare him or her for better post-school experiences and adulthood.

For students without special educational needs, inclusion provides many benefits. It helps them to overcome the misconceptions they may have about peers with disabilities. In the inclusive school, all students can learn to accept and value individual differences.

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  Did the Minister get that in the handbook?

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  Experience of inclusive education can help everyone in the school community to prepare for a future inclusive society. All students can benefit from having two teachers in the classroom during co-operative teaching. Teachers are more apt to break instruction into finer parts, repeat directions, coach students in the use of learning strategies and offer individualised support when a student with special needs is in the classroom. Students with low achievement, who are not classified as having a special educational need, also benefit from these effective teaching strategies.

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  The Minister should get some officials to visit a classroom.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  I note that a concern of the Opposition is that my Department did not consult the NCSE and all the partners in this decision. The reality is that the rules governing [806]the retention of such posts have been in existence since 1999 and have been operational since that time.

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  Why has nobody abolished them since then?

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  On its introduction in 2005, the Department undertook to carry out a review of the general allocation model after three years of operation. This review is now under way and is expected to be completed in 2009. As part of the review, the Department of Education and Science consulted the relevant partners in education.

I am pleased to be able to advise the House that the general allocation model is successfully meeting its goals. The INTO, for example, gave its view that “the general allocation model is generally working well for pupils with special educational needs in the categories covered by the model”. This includes pupils with a mild general learning disability. The INTO has also said that the GAM provides for an “increased emphasis on inclusive education for pupils with special educational needs”. The National Council for Special Education has advised that the general allocation model’s flexibility “to address the totality of needs of pupils with special educational needs is viewed as a positive and progressive development”.

Whereas a case can always be made for additional resources, it can be seen that the partners are broadly supportive of the general allocation model and its ability to resource schools to meet the needs of the pupils concerned. What is important is that the policies of Governments since 1998 have delivered a continuum of provision for pupils with special educational needs. I am proud of these achievements.

In just over ten years, the Government has driven a complete transformation in educational policy for children with special educational needs.

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  It is now destroying it.

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  It has taken ten months to destroy it.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  I remind the House of what was available for children with special educational needs in 1997. There was no automatic entitlement to either teaching or care supports; provision for children with special needs in mainstream schools was virtually non-existent; and not all schools had resource or learning support teachers.

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  They still have not.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  There were only 252 special needs assistants in total, with virtually all of these employed in special schools, and if a child had any significant educational or care need, parents had no choice but to enrol him or her in special schools where the child would have access to exceptional teachers and care staff but little opportunity to mix with other children from the community.

In 1998, the Government put in place the policy of automatic response. For the first time, a child with a special educational need had the right to additional teaching or care supports.

Deputy Seymour Crawford: Information on Seymour Crawford  Zoom on Seymour Crawford  They may have the right but they do not get it.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  Whereas ten years ago, most parents of children with significant special education or care needs had no choice but to send them to a special school, now they have three distinct choices available to them. Their child can either attend a mainstream class in their local school with additional supports as required; if the child has a low incidence special [807]need, he or she can attend a special class in a mainstream school with a lower pupil-teacher ratio; or the child can attend a special school.

The needs of students can change as they get older and mature. The system now in place provides both a continuum of education and options to enable students to move from one setting to another in line with their changing needs. How much is left in the slot?

Acting Chairman: Information on Charlie O'Connor  Zoom on Charlie O'Connor  There are 11 minutes left in the slot.

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  I will finish up, although I wanted to deal with the EPSEN Act. The speech will be recorded in the records of the House.

We will continue to expand the educational-psychological service so that every school in the country will have a direct service for NEPS.

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  We are a long way from that.

  8 o’clock

Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  This year, out of the €10 million, we will provide an extra 50 psychologists so that every part of the country will have that psychological service. We will continue to work with the NCSE to ensure that the provision of services for children with special educational needs is provided in a co-ordinated and effective manner. We will also continue to fund the provision of expert support, professional development and training opportunities in education for all school staff. Furthermore, we will continue to deliver for pupils with special educational needs.

I commend the amendment to the House.

Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Deputy John Moloney): Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  I support the amendment and the Department’s policy, as outlined by the Minister. Rather than be drawn into an argument regarding the Government’s commitment to disability, I wish to outline what is done by the office of equality, disability and mental health, which I have the privilege of heading up. Instead of engaging in a political argument, I wish to confirm to members of the public, rather than those on the Opposition benches, the Government’s commitment in respect of the area of disability.

I accept the point made by Deputies Brian Hayes and McHugh in respect of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act and I wish to clarify the position in that regard. It is completely disingenuous and untrue to suggest that the Government has abandoned the Act. In light of the new economic position in which the country finds itself, on budget day the Government clearly explained that it does not possess the financial resources to commit to the full implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act. However, the Minister for Finance did allocate €20 million in respect of education for people with special needs. In an era of press releases and Government statements, very little was done to claim credit in this regard.

Both the €20 million allocated to the Department of Health and Children and the €10 million allocated to the Department of Education and Science are specifically ring-fenced for a particular purpose. More importantly, the 125 therapists in respect of which the Government has made a commitment will be specifically employed in the area of special educational needs. People must realise that the Government could not fully implement the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act. However, it has made the specific allocations to which I refer.

It is difficult to believe what Deputy Brian Hayes stated regarding Fianna Fáil Members saying certain things to him in private. It is extremely difficult to believe that Fianna Fáil Deputies might say one thing while believing another.

[808]Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  I will spare their blushes by not naming them.

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  The Minister of State should watch his back.

Deputy John Moloney: Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  Deputy Brian Hayes did not use names, so neither will I. However, I have heard Opposition Deputies state that they are satisfied with the commitment relating to the 125 therapists.

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  The Minister of State may certainly name them.

Deputy John Moloney: Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  These people indicated their views to me in private and I will not betray their confidence.

Deputy Seymour Crawford: Information on Seymour Crawford  Zoom on Seymour Crawford  The Minister will not name them because he cannot do so.

Deputy John Moloney: Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  These individuals acknowledged the fact that we are targeting children of school-going age. The provision of 90 posts in the area of disability services represents part of the Government’s ongoing commitment——

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  Those people are not teachers.

Deputy John Moloney: Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  I did not interrupt the Deputy. Some of his colleagues referred to their difficulty in persuading people to support Government policy. I understand that some of them even took time to explain what the Government is doing and I would have liked to have been present to hear what they had to say in that regard.

I am trying to put to bed the notion that the Government is merely engaged in a salvage operation. In that context, I emphasise the funding that has been put in place in respect of people with disabilities.

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  The Government is wrecking everything.

Deputy John Moloney: Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  I will not insult those present by reading into the record the funding that has been provided. It is not the case that the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act has been abandoned. Rather, the building blocks relating to that Act have been put in place in the form of the €20 million to which I refer.

The areas of disability and mental health often come under sustained attack during a recession. Some of what is being said in the House might give families with members who have special needs or individuals who access mental health services the impression that the Government is intent on discontinuing the provision of services. Since becoming Minister of State I have taken the opportunity to meet with the representatives of the various disability groups on a three-monthly basis. I have assured them that I will be coming before the Government in the next number of months with a five-year programme similar——

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  Another promise.

Deputy John Moloney: Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  This is not a promise. I am not merely making a speech for the sake of doing so or trying to encourage those in the Gallery to applaud me.

Deputy Seymour Crawford: Information on Seymour Crawford  Zoom on Seymour Crawford  Nobody will be applauding the Minister of State this evening.

Deputy John Moloney: Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  In the nine months during which I have had the privilege of heading up my office, I met all the groups to which I refer and I made it clear to them that the Government’s commitment to those with disabilities remains intact. In ensuring that facilities [809]will be provided, I will be dealing specifically with the areas of special needs, transport, housing, education and, most importantly, employment.

I hosted a press conference — which was attended by very few people — at which I provided information on the Government’s strategy on mental health, as outlined in A Vision for Change. I will be doing something similar in the near future in respect of the area of disability. I will be inviting people to participate in the process that will lead to my drawing up the five-year programme to which I referred earlier.

The Government has made a commitment to delivering in respect of those with disabilities and special educational needs by means of the national disability strategy. It also made a commitment to provide the best possible assistance in the context of addressing the needs of those with disabilities. I will not list the issues to which the Government amendment refers but it is important to reflect on what has occurred in recent years.

I know I will not convince Opposition Members with regard to my point of view but I would like the public to retain its belief that the Government’s commitment to the areas of disability remains intact. Overall, the health service spends approximately €2.6 billion on disability programmes such as those relating to residential day care, respite care and assessment.

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  What about the classes in our schools?

Deputy John Moloney: Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  I am outlining the aspects of this matter about which those opposite do not want to hear.

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  This has nothing to do with the motion.

Deputy John Moloney: Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  Rather than going door to door in the hope of securing support in respect of elements people may not like, I want to take the opportunity to explain what is happening. I accept that certain Members do not wish to hear what I have to say, but I want to reaffirm the Government’s commitment in respect of the areas under discussion. In that context, it is important to state that the funding to which I refer is in addition to the significant moneys provided in respect of mainstream health services, which can also be availed of by those with disabilities.

I wish to revisit the Government policy programme, namely, the multi-annual investment programme, that won widespread acclaim. In 2006, €550 million was allocated to the HSE under the multi-annual investment programme, which is a key component of the Government’s national disability strategy. Of this, €425 million related to services for people with disabilities and the other €125 million related to mental health services.

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  The Minister of State might also refer to the funding provided in respect of the Luas.

Deputy John Moloney: Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  When I try to explain the position to those who are expressing major concerns with regard the area of disability, I am subjected to comments relating to the Luas. I do not see the connection with the Luas. Perhaps the Deputy is merely engaging in loose talk.

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  Where is the connection with the 128 classes to which the motion refers?

Deputy John Moloney: Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  I am responding to the motion that was tabled by the Deputy. At least four of his colleagues referred to the Government’s uncaring attitude to those with disabilities.

Deputy Ulick Burke: Information on Ulick Burke  Zoom on Ulick Burke  That is correct.

[810]Deputy John Moloney: Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  I am trying to——

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes  Zoom on Brian Hayes  What is the Minister of State’s view on the 128 classes to which the motion refers?

Deputy John Moloney: Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  Unfortunately, I could not make my point because of the interruptions but I realise I am saying something the Deputies do not want to hear. I remind Deputy Hayes that in my opening comment I supported the Minister and the amendment. That is all-embracing in terms of what must be contained in the Government amendment.

Parts of the special education programme have not been abandoned or curtailed. The Government has recognised that rather than give a commitment on the full implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act that could not be delivered, we took the opposite view of putting in place the base structure.

I support what the Minister said. He has taken advice that he can publicly stand over and in that context he has my full support.

Deputy Ciarán Lynch: Information on Ciaran Lynch  Zoom on Ciaran Lynch  I wish to share my time with Deputies Ó Snodaigh, Ó Caoláin, Upton and McManus.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Jack Wall): Information on Jack Wall  Zoom on Jack Wall  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Ciarán Lynch: Information on Ciaran Lynch  Zoom on Ciaran Lynch  I thank Deputy Hayes for bringing this motion before the House and share with him the Labour Party’s concern regarding the withdrawal of classes for children with mild general learning disabilities.

The decision by the Minister, Deputy O’Keeffe, to cut special teacher support in over 100 schools is a clear indication that vulnerable children are a target of this callous Government. As the recession bites and the Government struggles to bring our public finances under control, and as it bales out bankers and developers, it is clear that this Government, and its various agencies, is taking the easy approach and targeting vulnerable groups for unfair treatment.

Prior to being elected to this House I worked as an adult literacy organiser in the area of second chance education for adults who did not get fair treatment the first time around. The price of delivering education at that time was not measured only in financial terms but also in personal cost. The Government amendment should not only be measured in financial terms but also in personal terms for those children and their parents. As legislators and campaigners for people with intellectual disabilities, we must not let that happen.

This September, close to 1,000 children with learning disabilities will be told they will no longer get the support they need in what amounts to their abandonment by the Department of Education and Science, with the Minister, Deputy O’Keeffe, at the helm. In recent months, special needs assistants and special needs teacher support schemes have come under fire from the Minister, Deputy O’Keeffe, his party and its partners in Government. Somebody has to stand up in this House and say “Stop”. If we expect the Green Party Members to say “Stop”, and particularly Deputy Gogarty in his role as chairperson of the Green Party, we will be waiting a long time. One could say that for the Green Party to leave Government it will require Fianna Fáil to walk out first because the Green Party will never walk out of Government on any issue of principle on which it went into Government.

The decision being taken by this Government means that not only will these children suffer but so too will their classmates as a further burden will be placed on mainstream teachers already under huge pressure in the classroom. In recent years the trend has been to accommodate children with learning disabilities in mainstream schools, with much of the old special school system and its infrastructure thankfully being dismantled. That is something the Labour [811]Party welcomed but if the replacement infrastructure in the mainstream schools is now being dismantled, that means these children are being left high and dry.

I say to the Minister that the Government’s ending of vital services for these children is inexplicable but denying them the opportunity to flourish in school is unforgivable. It beggars belief how the Minister can come into the House this evening and claim that what he is doing is an improvement on the current system.

Questions must be asked regarding the Government’s priorities when we consider that it is targeting the weaker sections of our society. Any reduction in the SNA numbers will mean that not only will these children suffer but so too will their classmates as a further burden will be placed upon teachers who are already under huge pressure in the classroom.

I cannot understand how the Minister can say that the current system that was arrived at through examination should be dismantled and something else put in its place, and that represents an improvement. We know it is being dressed up to hide the removal of funds, which are needed to cover banking and developers’ costs, from working families and their children in the school sector, whether they be in special needs or mainstream classes.

Teachers cannot be expected to have all the skills required to provide a child with special needs with all the supports they require. Recently in St. Columba’s school in my area of Cork South-Central, students had to be sent home in the morning because of the inability to get coverage for special needs teachers. One classroom cannot simply be lumped in with another classroom on a Monday morning on the basis that cover can be provided in that fashion. The education system, particularly in the area of special needs, does not work in that fashion. A “one size fits all” approach cannot be taken. The Minister is advocating that students with special needs should be mainstreamed with their fellow students in regular classes. That is a “one size fits all” solution where all children’s learning needs are seen as being the same but which are not addressed equally.

The Irish National Teachers Organisation was quoted by the Minister earlier. Earlier this year the INTO got into a row with the Minister and his Department. Speaking at that time the INTO president, Declan Kelleher, said that supporting a policy of inclusion does not mean forcing all children with special needs into mainstream classrooms. No one has ever said that. Every special needs child should be integrated into mainstream classes, even with additional support. The UN convention does not state that, neither does the Council of Europe, yet the Minister came into the House tonight and said it was good teaching practice.

Currently, most children with learning disabilities join their own age group for general subjects such as physical education, arts and religious studies but practice has shown that they benefit most when greater attention and help is provided in special classes. The dismantling of the current system has all the signs of another Government cock-up. Furthermore, it will penalise children with special needs by denying them the specialised assistance they require and penalise the other students by further slowing up an already overcrowded classroom.

At the very least the motion before the House is an attempt to maintain the existing quality of hand in hand education currently being provided. It is a hand-in-hand education system in which students with mild learning disabilities and those operating in the mainstream are educated in a complementary way. However, the Minister wants to change that but at what cost?

Children with mild general learning disabilities have been sacrificed in this House tonight to save a cost of €7.5 million out of an annual budge of €9 billion in the Department of Education and Science. The cost saving proposed will cost a lot more in the long term.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Information on Aengus O Snodaigh  Zoom on Aengus O Snodaigh  Is oth liom nach bhfuil ach cúig nóiméad agam chun déileáil leis an ábhar rí-thábhachtach seo — ceist fúthu siúd go bhfuil tacaíochataí breise oideachais [812]uathu ionnas gur féidir leo foghlaim agus tairbhe a bhaint as na huaireanta cloig a chaitheann siad ar scoil. Fiú in am an tíogair Cheiltigh, níor chaith muid mar shochaí i gceart leo siúd is boichte nó is leochailí inár sochaí, cé go raibh muid ag dul sa treo cheart sa deireadh thiar — bhí muid ag déanamh beagáinín de dhul chun cinn. Ní fíor sin anois, áfach, maidir leis an Rialtas seo. Tá sé tar éis díriú isteach orthu siúd a shíleann sé nach bhfuil guth acu chun an todhchaí a bhí acu a sciobadh uathu.

Fianna Fáil always targets the sick, the elderly and those marginalised. It targeted the over 70s with the medical card rip-off only a few months ago, it has continuously presided over a chaotic health service and now it is targeting the most vulnerable again, with a €6 million snatch of funds for special needs classes. I issue a challenge here and now to the trade union movement in the stalled partnership talks to demand a reversal of this punitive cut.

There is absolutely no logic, even in these stringent times, for penalising those most in need and that is exactly what this cut does. The lousy €6 million the Minister will save in this cut is one-tenth of what the Government is spending on horse and greyhounds chasing their tails. Are dogs more important than children? That, at the end of the day, is what it boils down to and the Government needs to address that.

In the past few months I have received many emails from parents, teachers and students in my constituency and beyond who are angered and in despair at the abolition of the special needs classes. Hundreds of children will be directly affected by this cut which will see them lose vital supports and services they need to achieve a robust education. Literally thousands of other children will be also affected by this, due to the extraordinary additional pressures and burden which must be overcome by teachers in the mainstream classes, which are already overcrowded and trying to tackle other issues. The Government is robbing children of their future for a paltry saving of €6 million when executives of publicly guaranteed banks are walking around with bonuses of €1 million, €2 million or whatever.

At the time this cut was announced I asked the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, to point to any educational rationale to underpin his ruthless decision and he was not able to do so. Rather he claimed at the time, and I presume he still does, that the needs of these children will be adequately met in mainstream classes with limited learning supports. If that were true, why set up the special classes in the first place? That is illogical. That answer, in fact, is a lie. I am sorry, I am not supposed to say that a Minister would lie.

Acting Chairman: Information on Jack Wall  Zoom on Jack Wall  The Deputy cannot say that.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Information on Aengus O Snodaigh  Zoom on Aengus O Snodaigh  I am sorry, I will withdraw the statement that it is a lie but it is, in fact, bullshit.

In this instance I feel certain that parents know best. One of the parents who contacted me on the issue stated that, as parents, they know this solution will have a detrimental effect on their child’s education and social learning education, and they speak from experience as their child has been in a mainstream class in the past. The person asked me to trust them when they say a special class is without doubt the best place for their son to learn and thrive and to develop into a responsible and independent young adult, reaching his full potential, which no child should ever be denied.

Does the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, have any idea of the scale of the problem with which many of these children must cope and how vital are the supports? I have to hand some of the lessons that children in a special needs sixth class would go through and these may be compared to some lessons I have to hand for children in a mainstream sixth class. What child with special needs will achieve the latter? I also have to hand lessons for a special needs third [813]class and lessons for a mainstream third class. The decision is illogical, ill-thought out and needs to be reversed.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  It falls to me to make the last contribution in this debate this evening and to appeal to Government to step back from the brink. The cutting of education for children with special needs is one of the most deplorable acts perpetrated by this totally discredited Government. When it comes to cuts, it now seems to be a rule of thumb for this Fianna Fáil and Green Party Government that the most vulnerable must suffer first. Therefore, I support this motion and I reject the dishonest Government amendment.

I wish to put on record the point that when it is necessary to amalgamate special classes based on falling numbers it is important to recognise the circumstances of those living in rural areas and their right to attend classes that cater for their needs.

The White Paper on Education, Charting our Education Future of 1995, states:

This means that education is a fundamental right. It means that everybody, regardless of his or her social background or ability, has an absolute right to be educated in an appropriate environment. Maybe Fianna Fáil and the Green Party should have a look at this document because it certainly seems they either just do not care or are thoroughly ignorant of what it says.

The standard answer to every parliamentary question, Oral Question and query put to the Minister for Education and Science on this issue is that there will be no pupil with a special educational need who will be without access to a special needs teacher as a result of the decision to apply the normal rules which govern the appointment and retention of teachers of special classes for pupils with a mild general learning disability. I put it to the Minister and his colleagues in Government that he has either absolutely no clue what kind of answers are being issued in his name or he himself is a sham. Either way, it is shame on Deputy Batt O’Keeffe——

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Information on Aengus O Snodaigh  Zoom on Aengus O Snodaigh  Hear, hear.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  ——shame on the Department of Education and Science and shame on this Government.

If the Minister took the time to look at the correspondence, lobbies and submissions that are sent to his office, he would see the real effects of these cruel measures on needy children. For example, St. Catherine’s senior girls school in Cabra recently sent the Minister a detailed submission illustrating starkly just how the abolition of its special class will affect its students. Most of these children will enter classes of 24 plus and it will not be possible for the mainstream class teacher to continue his or her individualised programmes in any subjects. The submission describes starkly how differentiation in a mainstream class will serve only to alienate, humiliate and destroy any self-confidence the children may have. It describes how the children in this particular class are at least four years behind the chronological age and, sadly, will remain that way throughout their lives. I submitted a parliamentary question to the Minister, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, on this submission and, in reply, he stated that there will be no pupil with a special educational need who will be without access to a special needs teacher as a result of the decision to apply the normal rules, etc. It is typical. The same reply mantra time after time.

To remove these children and all children with special educational needs from their own special class is utterly appalling. I am not sure if the Minister actually recognises what he has done to these children and the damaging impact it will have on them for years to come, and for what — a paltry sum, as Deputy Ó Snodaigh stated, of €6 million. I call on the Minister of [814]State, Deputy Haughey, and all of his colleagues collectively, in front-line Cabinet positions and junior ministries, to reverse these appalling cuts.

I conclude by asking a party not represented here at this point in the debate, the Green Party, to try to rescue the remaining shreds of its credibility by supporting the motion, to show some back bone and to do what it knows is right. I hope it will do the right thing. Children with learning disabilities across the State are depending on the Government not to deprive them of their right to be treated fairly and with respect. That is a basic right we demand on behalf of all those children and their families. It is within the Minister’s gift to deliver it now.

Debate adjourned.


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