Thursday, 25 March 2010
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Emmet Stagg: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Connick, as he performs his first duty in the House and warn him that he will be burdened with reading scripts on behalf of many senior Ministers if he does not put his foot down pretty quickly. It is not fair to him nor to us when that happens.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this vital issue concerning our special and most deserving young citizens. The Minister’s decision will determine the quality of life they will enjoy for the rest of their lives. Great progress has been made in making provision for the education of special needs children generally, and I acknowledge that. While parents still have to fight step by step for services, the objective of the Government policy is that each special needs child would develop to the maximum of his or her potential.
The decision of the Government and the former Minister for Education and Science to remove 1,200 special needs assistants from the education system will be an unmitigated disaster for those who are special young citizens. The progress they have made will soon be reversed in the absence of or with the reduction of the SNAs.
In the specific case of the special needs school at St. Raphael’s, St. John of God Brothers in Celbridge it is proposed to withdraw 4.5 special needs posts from that special school. There are 47 pupils in this school and all of them have been assessed to be in the category of severe to profound. They are in classes of six and they have SNAs at the rate of two pupils to one SNA. If a child has to use the bathroom, gets a fit or becomes disturbed. two SNAs are required to manage that special child. That leaves only one SNA to manage or assist the other five children and that is not possible. If the current proposal goes ahead, that is what will occur with all the consequences for the educational development of the children and their physical safety.
I appeal to the new Minister, Deputy Coughlan, whom I know to a woman with a sympathetic understanding of children with special needs, to review the decision on SNAs generally and in particular to grant the appeal lodged with the SENO in the case of St. Raphael’s special needs school. I know the Government is strapped for cash but surely some savings could be found elsewhere other than from the most needy and deserving children. I am depending on the Minister’s humanity to correct this unacceptable decision.
It goes without saying that every Member of this House must be acutely aware of the special situation that exists throughout the country in all schools in terms of the need for SNAs. The situation has been brought to our attention many times in the recent months by parents, teachers and those associated with children and young adults who have special needs. There is a fear among them that the degree to which the structures already in place and that need to be put in place in terms of SNAs is likely to be dismantled in a way that will set back the development and the opportunity available for children with special needs for many years.
We know as well as I am sure does the Minister of State of the huge workload undertaken by St. Raphael’s in Celbridge and the great job it has done for many years. I also point out the huge responsibility that remains. Somebody has to take responsibility for issues of this nature. While we are fully aware of the serious economic circumstances in the country, the most vulnerable in our society are the group of people who are most in need of protection. I fully support my colleague’s call for everything to be done to ensure special needs requirements are met in full in all cases, including in the case of St. Raphael’s special needs school in Celbridge. I invite the Minister of State to visit the school at any time to meet parents, teachers and special needs assistants to allow them to illustrate the important role they play.
Deputy Seán Connick: I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Coughlan. I thank Deputies Stagg and Durkan for raising this issue as it gives me an opportunity to clarify the position regarding the matter.
The education of children with special educational needs remains a key priority for the Government, which invests significant resources in schools to enable them to meet the needs of children with special educational needs. More than €1 billion was spent in the education system for this purpose alone last year. Students with disabilities will continue to receive support as they have for the past ten years.
I emphasise what is important in this context, namely, that schools which have enrolled children who qualify for support from a special needs assistant, SNA, will continue to be allocated SNA support. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, continues to process applications from schools for SNA support. The SNA scheme has been a major factor in ensuring the successful integration of children with special educational needs into mainstream education and providing support to pupils enrolled in special schools and special classes. The scheme will continue to be supported.
The terms and criteria for the SNA scheme have not changed. Where the criteria are met, SNA posts are being allocated. I assure the Deputies that there is no question of posts being removed from schools where they meet the scheme’s criteria. However, there is also no question of posts being left in schools indefinitely where they are deemed to be surplus to the care needs of the pupils or where the pupils have left the school.
Deputy Seán Connick: It is important to understand that in the SNA allocation process the allocation for any school and any adjustments to that allocation depend on a number of factors such as the number of pupils with care and medical needs leaving, the number of new pupils and the changing care needs of existing pupils in the school. SNA allocations are therefore not permanent but are increased or decreased as pupils who qualify for SNA support enrol or leave a school. They are also decreased where a child’s care needs have diminished over time.
The Deputy will be aware that the NCSE, through its network of local special educational needs organisers, SENOs, is responsible for allocating resource teachers and SNAs to schools to support children with special educational needs. The NCSE operates within the criteria of the Department of Education and Science in allocating such support. The NCSE is independent in the making and issuing of its decisions relating to the allocation of such supports.
The Department of Education and Science requested the NCSE to review all SNA posts because the Department had become aware that a number of SNA posts were in schools where the care needs of the pupils in the schools concerned did not justify such an allocation. Accordingly, the Department asked the NCSE to carry out a nationwide review of all schools to ensure SNA posts were allocated to schools in line with the care needs of pupils and any excess posts would be withdrawn.
The NCSE, through its network of SENOs, is carrying out a review of SNA allocations in all schools with a view to ensuring that the criteria governing the allocation of such posts are properly met. SENOs are communicating the outcome of the review directly to schools as the review progresses. It is expected that the NCSE will have completed the review by the end this month.
The Deputies are fully aware that the Department of Education and Science has prioritised the provision of special education supports to schools. While this is a key Government policy, this does not mean that resources allocated in response to various historical factors are retained in schools ad infinitum. At a time of constrained resources, it is essential that we ensure public resources are deployed as effectively as possible. Resources left in an area that are not in accordance with criteria mean public resources are not available for another deserving area.
I am sure the Deputies shares the Tánaiste’s concern to ensure there is a consistent application of policy in the allocation of special needs supports across the country. This is all that is happening at the moment. I assure the Deputies that supports will continue to be made available to schools which have enrolled pupils who qualify for such support. I thank the Deputies again for raising this matter.
Deputy Emmet Stagg: On a point of order, the point I made has been clarified by the answer the Minister of State read out as it did not address the issue of St. Raphael’s special school where all the children are either severely or profoundly handicapped. Whereas special needs are assessed at that level special needs assistants are being removed from the school on a quota basis. This is being done to achieve the previous Minister’s target of reducing the number of special needs assistants by 1,200. That is what is being done. There is no new assessment.
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