Thursday, 15 October 2009
Dáil Eireann Debate
Minister for Education and Science (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe): I wish to assure the Deputy that the provision of appropriate educational intervention and supports for children with special educational needs continues to be a key Government priority. This is reflected in the fact that my Department was the only Department other than Social Welfare that got an increase this year.
The Deputy will be aware of my commitment to ensuring that all pupils, including those with special educational needs, can have access to an education appropriate to their needs preferably in school settings through the primary and post-primary school network. There has been unprecedented investment in providing supports for pupils with special needs in recent years. There are now about 19,000 adults in our schools working solely with pupils with special needs. This includes over 10,000 Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) — compared with just 300 in 1997. There are over 8,000 resource and learning support teachers in our schools compared with just 2,000 in 1998. Over 1,000 other teachers support pupils in our special schools. As well as this significant increase in the numbers of additional teachers and SNAs directly providing appropriate education and care supports for children with special educational needs, much investment has taken place in the provision of transport, specialist school accommodation, home tuition, assistive technology and equipment.
I assume that the reference in the correspondence to special classes being cut relates to my Department’s decision earlier this year to suppress a number of special classes for pupils with a mild general learning disability (MGLD). I would like to assure the Deputy 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 MGLD. My Department examined the enrolment numbers in these special classes and found that a number of classes did not have the minimum number of 9 pupils required to retain the special class teacher. Over half of the classes suppressed had five or fewer children. Schools which had MGLD special classes were allowed to keep them as long as the number of pupils enrolled was 9 or more.
The special classes which closed pre-date the 2005 General Allocation Model of allocating additional teacher support to schools to enable them to meet the needs of pupils with MGLD as well as a number of other high incidence disabilities. All primary schools now have additional teaching support in place for this purpose. All children with MGLD who were in the classes that have been suppressed will be able to receive additional teaching support through the teaching resources allocated to primary schools under the General Allocation Model.
The correspondence also referred to the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs (EPSEN) Act, 2004. The Deputy will be aware that this Government is committed to the full implementation of EPSEN at the earliest possible date. A significant number of sections of the Act have already been commenced, principally those establishing the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) and those promoting an inclusive approach to the education of children with special educational needs. In the light of the current financial circumstances, it is not possible to proceed with full implementation in 2010 as originally envisaged. Notwithstanding this, a commitment has been made in the renewed Programme for Government to develop, in consultation with stakeholders, a costed multi-annual plan to implement some priority aspects of the EPSEN Act, focusing on measurable and practical progress in education and health services for children with special needs.
Furthermore, as announced in the renewed Programme for Government, the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) will be provided with funding for 28 additional posts to bring the number of NEPS psychologists to 210. This means that every school in the country will have access to NEPS which provides assessment and psychological advice for schools to enable them to provide appropriate supports and programmes for children with special educational needs. The renewed Programme also commits the Government to no further increase in the pupil teacher ratio in primary and second level schools for the lifetime of this Government. Under the renewed programme we will provide 500 teaching posts between primary and second levels over the next three years.
I want to take this opportunity to emphasise that children with special educational needs will continue to receive an education appropriate to their needs. I intend to build on the progress that has been achieved in recent years which has seen a huge increase in resources for special needs. The NCSE will continue to support schools, parents and children and teachers and special needs assistants will continue to be deployed to schools to meet children’s needs in line with my Department’s policy.
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