Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Seanad Eireann Debate
I note that Mr. Michael O’Leary is appearing before the Joint Committee on Transport, but this is the House the focus should be on such is the impact the cuts in the area of special educational needs are having on children’s lives. Before I go into detail, I would like to speak in general terms about the Minister’s Department.
While we fight many battles, we are here for the good of children, the good of students and, ultimately, the good of the nation because education is the great builder and of strategic importance. However, the Minister is dismantling bit by bit our education system. There is a crisis in the teaching of science and mathematics in our schools. There have been cuts in teacher numbers in the sciences. Half of our teachers do not have a qualification in mathematics, yet it is meant to be the cornerstone in building the country into a knowledge and innovation economy. The NUI office has been abolished, which will affect our iconic brand internationally. One in six children leave school early. The cut in teacher numbers has led to an increase in the pupil-teacher ratio which is affecting all our children, including those with special educational needs who have been placed in mainstream classes. The non-replacement of teachers in key posts at middle management level has been widely publicised. It means essentially that our schools will be made unworkable. In addition, there is the third level funding crisis. Most of the constituency issues with which I am dealing concern grants for students. All of this is undermining the education service available to the customer — the child. The child with special educational needs is the most vulnerable of all. That has led to the motion before the House.
In 2006 the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, stated “the current support framework, in almost all its manifestations, is unable at present to provide the necessary levels of support for inclusion in our primary schools.” What has happened since? The answer is that the position has worsened. The economic downturn has led to the Minister starting to make cuts. Last year over 500 children with mild learning difficulties were placed in mainstream classes. I am keen to hear how these children are getting on and what the Minister knows about the matter. He must account for how children with special educational needs can function in mainstream classes without adequate supports, a special needs assistant or resource teacher hours, all of which are being cut. It seems vulnerable children are paying for the sins of Fianna Fáil in government. This should make it very uncomfortable for the Minister, as to have vulnerable children paying the price and all these teachers——
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: What makes me feel uncomfortable is that somebody is trying to make hay from the plight of children with special needs and using it to gain publicity. It is an unnecessary building of emotions.
Currently there is a threat that 1,200 special needs assistants, SNAs, will be withdrawn from schools throughout the country. The NCSE office told me this morning that, after the completion of reviews in 1,000 schools, 300 SNAs had already been withdrawn, with resource hours. The Government’s policy of inclusion will fall apart completely, unless it provides a level playing field for children with special educational needs. The idea behind providing SNAs as part of the Government’s policy on inclusion was to provide the child with special needs a level playing field to give him or her a reasonable chance to keep up in mainstream classes. I ask the Minister to indicate how this can happen in the absence of an SNA or without the provision of an adequate number of resource hours. It is fine if he takes them away but other supports must be put in their place. It is not fair to expect a teacher to cope alone. Some teachers have three or four children with special needs in a mainstream classroom. This will cause teachers to reach breaking point.
I spoke to staff in a few schools today. I remember a teacher who came to see me a year ago from a school in Galway city. He had a class of 30 pupils, six of whom had special educational needs, with one borderline case. Three of the children had Asperger’s syndrome; two had associated disorders; another had a speech and language disorder; two had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and one had borderline general learning difficulties, for which, as the Minister knows, there is no diagnosis. The class in question had 1.5 SNAs and I asked the teacher how he managed. I made a case for the appointment of an extra teacher, as did many others, but he did not receive one. How did he manage with 23 children in the normal spectrum and a number with special educational needs? He told me he had to split the class into two, each with 15 pupils. Having added the resource hours, the principal found the class was due 26 hours. He took a resource teacher away from resource teaching and made that teacher teach in the classroom. This was creative work done which the school could not declare to the Department because if it had been so declared, the teacher would not have been able to manage. Chances are, such a process would have been knocked on the head. That is the process with which schools, teachers and kids are grappling. I asked the teacher about the ongoing SNA review and he told me it was a hatchet job on our children. The principal of another school said the same. As far as she was concerned, it was all about numbers. Cutting numbers seems to be the main concern in the review. Special education needs organisers, SENOs, are wondering what can be cut.
In one school there is a child who runs away a lot. It is a DEIS band 2 school, with 20 children in each class, a very good pupil-teacher ratio. The eight year old in question regularly runs away from school such that if the teacher was to follow without an SNA in the classroom, the other 19 would be left unattended. I grant that the case is unusual but when it was put to the SENO, the school was told to put more locks on the doors. How about that for behaviour modification? A child in another school in Galway city climbs trees and walls and the solution of the SENO was to cut down the trees. Will the Minister follow up on such advice from special education needs organisers? It does not address the problem. There is more concern for cutting numbers. Many other speakers will say the same today.
The biggest problem is that children’s educational rights have been infringed. The Fianna Fáil-led Government and the Minister’s Department, in particular, have not yet implemented the EPSEN Act. Nothing is legally binding, despite the Act being in place since 2004. The failure to implement it has maimed children in an educational sense because they have no rights in law. When will the Act be implemented in full? This morning I spoke with a staff member at the NCSE office and was told very little of the Act had been implemented, that major parts remained untouched. The individual education plan, IEP, is not yet a legal requirement. Until each child diagnosed with a special educational need has a legal right to an IEP, his or her rights remain unprotected. I would like to hear the Minister’s plan in that respect. I was also told it was very difficult to allocate resource hours for children with multiple disabilities.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I will have no problem in doing so. Last year the Minister abolished 120 special needs classes, with over 500 children being placed in mainstream classes. Some of these children even had to be toileted. Some of the schools in question are now at risk of losing further SNAs and resource hours.
I have learned that schools are finding it more difficult to get help from the NCSE because, unless needs are obviously extreme such as the need for toileting or a child has no speech, there are no appropriate supports available. I was given a clear example by a school principal. He told me that children with speech and language difficulties may also have difficulties in the playground. They may not be able to relate to those around them and may not understand the rules of the game. If they do not have an SNA to help them understand the rules, children dump them and throw them out of the game because that is the way children are.
We need to look very carefully at this review. Has the Minister seen the report that is due out at the end of March? What number of SNAs do we expect will be cut? When will the Minister implement the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act in full? When will he increase the number of psychologists available to schools?
It is very wrong of the Minister to come to the House and accuse Senator Healy Eames of raising this issue for publicity reasons. That is far from the truth. She is raising this issue because these questions on special needs education are on everybody’s lips, as the Minister well knows. People are asking the question raised by my colleague. If we are to have a policy of inclusion for children with special needs, why are the resources being rolled back? How will these children survive in mainstream education if they do not have these supports?
Everyone is aware of the economic situation and realises the pressure under which the Department finds itself. However, the questions raised by the row-back on special needs education are immense. They affect children and families throughout the country. It is reasonable for Senator Healy Eames to ask how children are going to cope in mainstream education, how diversity is managed and how language is to be managed if there are to be cutbacks. She also asked how schools will be managed if there are cuts to SNAs. How is the Minister planning to deal with this? Will there be other supports? She asked about the withdrawal of such supports and the impacts these will have on the overall quality of education. She asked when the advice of the National Council for Special Education on the issue will be published and about the timeframe for the implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act.
She is not raising these questions for reasons of publicity. These are real questions about the future of our education system and the future of mainstreaming children with special educational needs——
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I do not know why Senators on the Government side are reacting so much. They are overreacting to very reasonable questions that every parent of a child with special needs is asking.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: These people have had to fight really hard over a long period. I already pointed out that there are cutbacks, and most of these parents are not looking for more resources at the moment. They are trying to maintain what they have. We have seen repeated examples of a row-back on special needs supports in schools. The fact that 120 classes were cut last year adds to the worry of these parents.
We have been told there will not be cutbacks in education following the Green Party renegotiation, yet we are seeing cutbacks against the most vulnerable. Cutbacks are one thing, but there is an information problem and a lack of communication on the plans for special needs. People are not clear about the policy being followed by the Government. There is a need for more information and more communication, which may well be part of the problem. If the Minister published the advice from the National Council for Special Education on special needs provision, perhaps that might clarify the situation.
A parent rang me the other day whose child with special needs had come home from school, asking why his school had been closed down and why he could not go out and play in the school yard anymore. The truth is that there have been cuts in the number of special needs teachers. The Department carried out a review of that school and stated that the work done there is very good. Even though there has been a positive review of that school, St. Joseph’s Special School in Tallaght, the staff complement is being cut by two thirds. The number of teachers is being reduced from 16 to six and the number of special needs assistants is being reduced to five. Parents and teachers are saying this will destroy the school, make it impossible for it to function at a basic level and make it impossible for the children with special needs to do the course work they have been doing with the ratio that has applied until now. This story has been replicated throughout the country. What will the Minister say to the parents of children in a school such as St. Joseph’s which lost four staff this week, is due to lose another four and another four after that?
How are schools meant to cope with this abandonment? Is the Minister going to implement the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act? I appreciate there are resource problems. I recognise that increased resources have been put into this area by the Government over the past ten years. These resources were needed and they were invested, but I am focusing on what is happening. What alternative supports will be given if SNAs are to be taken away? If children with special needs continue to be integrated into mainstream education, as is the policy and as it should be, then how will the schools cope? What is the process in place for parents to appeal decisions on SNA posts?
I am delighted Senator Healy Eames has tabled this motion. We want to reflect the questions being asked and we want to highlight the pressures on individuals and families and the potential deterioration in the progress of children who have special needs. I do not deny that there are resource problems. However, there are also resource problems if we do not implement the kind of programme we are talking about. If we do not give these children the kind of supports they need, they will end up in residential care, not fulfilling their potential and being a much greater cost to the State than if we continue the kind of progressive regime that has been put in place over recent years and which needs to develop. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
commends the Government’s determination, in a difficult economic environment with many competing demands for funding, to continue to prioritise investment for children with special educational needs by:
We had a debate two weeks ago on college places. The media ran with many stories that every two students would be fighting for one college place. We came to this Chamber and we got the facts that there was a ratio of 1.6:1. When I was doing my leaving certificate, I applied to the CAO with no intention of going to college in this jurisdiction as I always intended to go to the North, but I had to cover my bases. There is a real story in the statistics, but the real statistic of 1.6:1 is no different from the 6% increase in the number of people applying for college places the previous year and is in line with other trends.
I welcome the fact that the Fine Gael Party has tabled this motion in order that we can acknowledge the great work that has been done on special educational needs. However, I must go back to the point from where we should start — facts. The headlines last week caused great tension among people doing their leaving certificate. If we do not put the facts in context, we will put pressure on families. I was called to a meeting of the iCARE group. It is an exceptionally hard working group that supports autistic children on the Inishowen Peninsula. I attended a meeting on 15 February and it started with a claim that the group had to deal with these awful Government cutbacks before they touched it. Donegal went through this process earlier than everyone else because we had a problem and an issue with the special education needs organiser. The Department and the special education council had to intervene to look at how the SENO was carrying out evaluations. As a result of the review, many of the SNAs were put back in place.
I understand the pain of those involved in the process. What we never had, we never miss, but when we have had something, we do miss it. It is important the Minister has the opportunity to put the facts straight, that there are no cuts, that schools are being looked at if they were assigned an SNA for a child who has moved on out of school, meaning the SNA is no longer assigned to the original pupil.
I agree that we move on beyond that to look at the children who are left behind to see what their care needs are and to ensure there is support for them. The Government is committed to SNAs and special needs and there are issues we should be debating rationally.
I taught in Derry and had pupils with not just care needs but educational needs and people were in the room with me teaching. I always found it great to have a person assigned to a weaker student. There would be three students in front, three behind and two on either side of the care assistant, who was really an educational needs assistant. This was not just one person being helped, it was a cycle of people. While we are dealing with care needs, that issue of educational needs arose. Not only were six or seven people kept in tune in the classroom, it was a happier classroom because if six or seven people do not understand what the teacher is doing while he or she is trying to teach more than 30 students, those who cannot keep up will play up, leading to a more difficult class.
The Minister has categorically stated that the scheme has not been changed and the criteria for allocating SNAs remain the same. There are people with children who have toileting needs, dyspraxia and who are a danger to themselves, as Senator Healy Eames mentioned. There is a sense that many of these children will grow out of it or that they can be trained. I want to ensure the child with toileting needs, dyspraxia, a physical disability or who is a danger to himself is not expected to grow out of that without reference to the particular circumstances. A child with autism or Asperger’s syndrome will not grow out of it. When the Minister says the criteria have not been changed for SNA allocations, I assume that means that anyone with a need will have it met.
The move to incorporate the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy John Moloney, is very important. Links between health and education cannot be overstated. A teacher said to me recently that for a child who does not keep up in the classroom, either with a care need or an education need, knowing that they are unable to keep up has a mental health effect. The link between the two Departments is vital. The Department of Transport should also be involved, unless school transport is already covered by the Department of Education and Science.
People are terrified by what they read in the national press. That is why it is important to debate this and state the facts. We must look at a panel for the SNAs who are moved from a school because the children have moved on. In my area, SNAs would love the security of a place on a panel. They have built up a lot of experience and they deserve that support.
I agree that there should be greater communication between the NCSE and parents. The special education needs organiser will come in and look at the child in the classroom. The child will be on his or her best behaviour for the duration of the stranger’s visit. As soon as he is gone, the child will be swinging off the back of the chair. The manner the SENO comes in and how long he spends in the classroom is an issue. There is a feeling that they are trying to trip the SNAs up when they talk to them instead of trying to get information from them. It has become an interview process.
The National Council on Special Education should be the guardians of special needs children. We should do all we can to ensure that is what it does. In future, the concept of a health check at two and a half for every child would mean resources could be allocated from then on. The child who shows symptoms at two and a half may later be the child with autism or dyspraxia. To be able to plan ahead is important.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and congratulate Fine Gael for tabling it. I also welcome the Minister. We have soldiered for many years in various fora, both for and against each other.
I stress to my colleagues on the Government side, particularly the new Green Party Members, that while the Government is always presented as speaking with one voice, it does not mean there are not different views within the Government. I suspect the Minister would seriously welcome the Green Party using its leverage to secure more for education. The current Minister would have no difficulty with such an approach.
Much has been said about SENOs that I would like to go into. They are not the ones who do the assessments and there are problems arising from the involvement of SENOs in many cases. I spoke on every section of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act and dealt with every part of it. When it was passed, I went around the country, at my own expense, to discuss and explain it. It is a serious disappointment that it has not been moved on to the extent it should.
I am, however, a practical man and I recognise there are financial problems. We should come out straight and admit the money does not exist to fulfil the implementation and commencement of the sections of that Act as we would all want but we should also assign a budget in order that we can sit down and identify the priorities. There was mention of some priorities in the Government amendment. That would be a helpful process. Those of us who have been raising this issue would like to see it happen.
When the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act was going through, I had been dealing with special educational needs for 40 years, working at it from all sides. If the Minister had asked 20 years ago for a paper outlining what I wanted to see in special education provision, the Act would cover it, that is how good it is written. The problem, however, is that unfortunately it is not operational. The Minister should recognise that. Although we all fought for rights-based education needs, and although it is correct to say the Act is not rights-based, it is as close as makes no different to that. A child might have a problem that is found by a teacher or parents. The child is then, through the school principal, sent for assessment. As written in the Act, the assessment must come back within a certain timeframe.
What is equally good about the Act, in the context of the way it is written, is the way in which the terms of the assessment are set out. There are major difficulties in this regard. People want to know what is being assessed and what should be the nature of the response of the assessor and the educational psychologist. All of this is supposed to be determined but it has not yet proved to be the case. Therefore, the process falls down at the first hurdle.
Every aspect of the EPSEN Act is subject to appeal. Parents can appeal against the assessment or state they do not want their children to be assessed in the first instance. Teachers and principals are also in a position to do the same. There are all sorts of appeal structures built into the Act, which is extremely democratic in that regard.
Following the assessment, the needs of the child are outlined in an independent educational plan. The resources attaching to the plan and the way in which it should be delivered are then decided upon. The plan may be drawn up by the teacher, the principal or, on some rare occasions, the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. It is then put in place and assessed on a regular basis with the total co-operation and involvement of teaching staff. It may require the provision of an SNA in the classroom, etc. I will not discuss the detail in this regard because I do not have time to do so.
At the end of the year the final assessment of the plan is carried out, mainly by the class teacher. He or she will assess whether the child has made progress. The Government amendment refers to measurable progress in this regard. If the plan is not working, those involved with its implementation will recognise that fact and state there is a need for a new plan or the provision of a different set of resources. It will usually be stated the plan put together with the involvement of a certain teacher, an educational psychologist, the principal and a child’s parents does not meet the needs of the child and that special support is required from the NCSE. That is how it works and it is a simple outline of how the system is meant to operate.
A decision is required in respect of every step of the process I have outlined. If a teacher, even one with X number of years’ experience, is asked to produce an individual educational plan, he or she must receive some training in respect of the approach that needs to be taken, the issues that must be considered, how the plan should be put in place and the boxes which must be ticked. In such circumstances, there is a need to put a training programme in place.
The Minister’s predecessor asked the NCSE to produce a report on the implementation of the EPSEN Act. It is a credit to the NCSE that it produced what I consider to be the best report ever carried out on the implementation of a measure relating to education. The report contains 42 action points and lists the name of the body or person responsible for their implementation and the relevant date for completion of said implementation. We are way behind as regards implementation of the Act. I do not want to make political capital out of this; I merely want to progress the issue. The level of implementation is way behind because the necessary resources are not being invested. That is the case because there is a lack of resources within the State. I will not argue the point with the Minister in that regard. I will, however, do so on another occasion. The report also provides details of the costs involved with regard to implementation and outlines the amount of money that will be required.
I ask the Minister to recognise that the important parts of the Act have not been commenced. It will not be difficult for him to do so. I also request that he force us to recognise that he does not have access to the level of resources required. He should then indicate the resources that will be invested, outline how progress will be made and state the areas to which priority will be given. He can then state it is not possible to do more than this. When he does so, I will be the first to criticise him and argue that what is being provided is not enough. That is my job. It is his to provide a counter-argument. Ultimately, this will not drive us apart because we know the route we must take.
The NCSE’s extraordinary report on implementation of the EPSEN Act outlines the way forward on a step-by-step, euro-by-euro, month-by-month basis. If parents were able to see the road ahead, it would be similar to what they can see in respect of schools building projects. Even though the resources might not be available, if they could be sure they will be provided next year, for example, they would be much calmer.
I ask the Minister to take on board some of the points I have made. I ask our fresh, new colleagues from the Green Party who are extremely interested in this issue to begin to exert pressure in respect of this matter. The Deputy from Lucan should again be let loose in respect of it. He and the Minister for Education and Science interact well with each other.
Minister for Education and Science (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe): I thank Fine Gael for tabling the motion which gives me the opportunity to outline the facts and counteract the effects of some of the misinformation currently abroad.
The achievements of the Government in the area of special education during the past ten years demonstrate a real desire to deliver an appropriate education for children with special educational needs. In sharp contrast to the rainbow coalition, the Government has delivered for such children.
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: The Government recognised many years ago that education for children with special educational needs could only be delivered through consistent and ongoing multi-annual investment in teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, assistive technology, specialist equipment, adapted school buildings and special school transport arrangements. We have also recognised the professionals who teach children with special educational needs may need guidance and support. They certainly require training and professional guidance.
We have done more than merely recognise these challenges. In the past ten years the Government has prioritised investment and delivered a full range of supports for schools and students. We now spend over €1 billion in this area of education alone. That figure represents one ninth of my Department’s entire budget. There are over 8,600 resource and learning support teachers and over 10,000 SNAs in our schools. In conjunction with the teachers in special schools and special classes, there are over 20,000 adults supporting children with special educational needs.
In addition to teachers and SNAs, we have provided and will continue to provide assistive technology, specialist equipment, adapted school buildings and special school transport arrangements. Resources must be targeted at those children who require them. If resources are left in areas within the school system that are not in accordance with my Department’s criteria, this means that such resources are not available for other deserving areas.
The Senators opposite made reference to the withdrawal of SNA support in schools. I will be crystal clear on this point because I want to emphasise what is really important. 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 for pupils enrolled in special schools and special classes. The scheme will continue to be supported. The terms and criteria for the scheme have not changed. Schools which have enrolled children who qualify for support from an SNA will continue to be allocated such support. This is happening. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has been processing applications from schools for SNA support all year and this will continue to be the case.
Where the criteria are met, SNA posts are being allocated. There is no question of posts being removed from schools which meet the criteria for the scheme. However, there is also no question of posts remaining in schools indefinitely, particularly in circumstances where they are deemed to be surplus to the care needs of pupils or where the relevant pupils have left. I am confident that the criteria governing the allocation of teaching and care supports enable schools to provide for children with special educational needs in both mainstream and special school settings. Senators will be aware that my Department requested the NCSE to review all SNA posts in schools. It had become clear that a number of SNA posts remained in a number of schools where the care needs of the pupils in these schools did not justify such an allocation. In some circumstances, the relevant pupil had moved on but the SNA remained in the school. My concern must be to ensure there is a consistent application of policy in the allocation of special needs supports. That is all that is happening.
As Senators are aware, the purpose of SNAs is to support the care needs of children with disabilities, not to create dependency. Therefore, a child with a disability coming into junior infants at the age of four or five years will be different from one in fourth or fifth class aged ten or 11 years. He or she will be extremely different from an 18 year old leaving school. Many children with disabilities develop independent living skills as they grow and mature.
I fully recognise that some children with disabilities will always need support in school. However, are Senators really asking the NCSE to leave SNA posts in schools where the children for whom the posts were allocated have left? Are they asking the NCSE to leave SNA posts in schools where the children’s care needs have diminished? All that is being done at present is to remove posts where children have left or their care needs have diminished. I want to emphasise that we want, with the SNAs, to develop those children towards independent living. It is fair to ask whether that is what any parent would wish for their special needs child. Let me repeat that the scheme and the criteria for support have not changed. In line with previous years, the NCSE will continue to allocate SNA posts this year to schools which have enrolled pupils who meet the criteria.
Special education is a priority for the Government. Despite the ongoing economic difficulties, and in spite of competing demands for funding, the renewed programme for Government announced in October 2009 commits to further investment in the development of services for pupils with special educational needs. This is a significant achievement at a time of reduced public spending.
The renewed programme commits to the expansion of the number of psychologists employed directly by the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, to 210. Ultimately, this will allow for the assignment of a NEPS psychologist to every primary and post-primary school in the country with particular emphasis on special needs units, classes and special schools. There are 157 psychologists employed within the service, which is an increase of 30, from 127 psychologists at the start of the current Government’s programme. In the meantime, the Government continues to ensure that all primary and post-primary schools have access to psychological assessments either directly through the assigned NEPS psychologist or through the scheme for commissioning psychological assessments that is administered by NEPS and which supports the cost of assessments provided by a panel of private practitioners.
In addition, and I emphasise this point, the level of training available to teachers has improved significantly and this will continue to be built on. The establishment of the special education support service to provide expert support, professional development and training opportunities in special education for school staff has been very significant. Senators suggested that not enough teachers are being trained. Last year alone, 23,602 teachers availed of training places; that is nearly half the teachers in the country. This training is designed to ensure a quality teaching service in our schools, one that promotes inclusiveness, collaboration, and equality of access for students with special educational needs to educational opportunities. In addition, more than 300 teachers availed of places on postgraduate teacher training programmes related to special educational needs.
My Department is also enhancing the capacity of the National Council for Special Education to co-ordinate the provision of services to children with special educational needs. In the past year, the National Council for Special Education appointed 12 senior special educational needs organisers, SENOs, to co-ordinate the work of the locally based SENOs. Sanction has also been given to recruit further SENOs to improve the service the NCSE provides to schools and parents.
The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act was mentioned by a number of speakers and I want to outline the Government’s commitment to its implementation. A significant number of sections of the EPSEN Act have been commenced, principally those establishing the NCSE and those promoting an inclusive approach to the education of children with special educational needs. The Government is committed to the full implementation of the EPSEN Act at the earliest possible date. In the interim, we are committed to developing a costed multi-annual plan, for which Senator O’Toole called, to implement priority aspects of the EPSEN Act. We will focus on measurable, practical progress in education and health services for children with special needs. This process will require consultation with the education partners as well as the Health Service Executive and the Department of Health and Children.
The Government is fully aware of the need to co-ordinate disability services for children across both departmental and agency lines. For the first time, the Government has established an office, headed by a Minister of State, which has specific responsibility for disability and mental health. An integrated approach has been adopted by the education and health sectors under the auspices of a cross-sectoral team to target additional resources to areas of greatest need. This co-ordinated approach will ensure delivery of the most effective response for children living with disability and special educational needs on a daily basis. The HSE will continue to work with funded specialist providers and in co-operation with the education sector to address the health-related needs of children with special educational needs in the context of the resources available. Progress is being kept under review by the office of the Minister of State with responsibility for disability and the cross-sectoral team.
I note that Senator Healy Eames referred to my decision to suppress a number of special classes for pupils with a mild general learning disability last year. Senators are aware that, as with all teaching posts, allocations are made in line with pupil numbers. The decision to close a number of special classes was taken on the basis that enrolment numbers were insufficient to retain the special class teacher. However, I remind the Seanad that the Department did consider and review all appeals of this decision by schools.
The fact that only 49 of the 119 schools lodged an appeal is telling in itself. Some schools advised that as some of the pupils enrolled in these special classes did not have mild general learning disabilities but had other disabilities, they were inappropriately placed; three classes were retained and redesignated for the new category of disability; and 11 classes were retained on appeal. In other situations, my Department advised the schools to contact the NCSE to apply for additional resource teaching hours where this was appropriate.
Senators are aware that the remaining pupils have access to the additional learning support or resource teaching service already in place in all primary schools and which is provided through the general allocation model of resource teaching support. However, let me state again that at a time of constrained resources we must ensure public resources are deployed as effectively as possible. Resources left in areas within the school system that are not in accordance with the Department’s criteria mean that these resources are not available for another deserving area.
Senators made reference to my apparent failure to publish advice from the NCSE on special needs provision. I assume they are referring to recent research relating to the role of special schools and special classes which was funded by the NCSE. The NCSE has not as yet sent me a copy of this research. I understand that the NCSE expects to be in a position to send me a copy of the research in the near future. I am pleased to advise the Seanad that the NCSE fully intends to publish this research on its website and is working with publishers on this matter.
The Seanad may wish to know that, while the NCSE has provided funding, responsibility for the contents of the research, including any errors or omissions, remains with the authors. The NCSE has clearly stated that the views and opinions contained in such reports are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the council. The Seanad will appreciate that I am not in a position to publish research I do not have but I am pleased that the NCSE will shortly publish this research on its website. This research will be one of many strands of evidence the NCSE will consider when formulating its advice to me on the future roles for special schools and special classes. I expect that once received, advice from the NCSE will assist the Department with policy formulation in this area.
I express my support for special schools and special classes and my belief that they will continue to have a significant role in the education of pupils with special educational needs. I am anxious to examine the ways in which special schools can co-operate with mainstream primary and post-primary schools to provide enhanced services for pupils with special educational needs and their parents.
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: The renewed programme for Government makes a commitment to avoid increasing the pupil-teacher ratio in primary and second level schools over the lifetime of the Government and provides for 500 teaching posts in the next three years over and above additional posts that will arise due to demographic increases. I am pleased to advise Senators that 100 of these posts are being used to improve the learning support service in post-primary schools.
This Government’s investment in special needs provision speaks for itself. It has transformed the ability of schools to provide for all children. This investment will continue to be made because the Government is committed to ensuring that as many children as possible can receive an appropriate education in their own communities and alongside their peers. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities places a strong obligation on governments to provide inclusive education for all learners. It requires states to ensure that persons with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability and can access inclusive, quality and free primary and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live.
The Government has ensured that additional supports for children with special educational needs are put in place in schools all over the country. Our policies and levels of investment have delivered additional teachers, special needs assistants, specialist equipment, assistive technology for children with special needs and specially adapted schools. Children with special educational needs will continue to receive an education appropriate to their needs. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, will continue to allocate teaching and special needs assistant resources to help schools support pupils with special educational needs. I am proud of these achievements.
In a period of just over ten years, the Government has driven a complete transformation in educational policy for children with special educational needs. 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, three distinct choices are now available. Their children can choose between attending mainstream classes in their local schools with additional supports as required, a special class in a mainstream school or a special school. Clearly, the needs of students can change as they mature. The system now in place provides a continuum of education and options to enable students to move from one setting to another in line with their changing needs.
I had the pleasure at a recent conference to meet a young girl who had special educational needs but is now living independently and studying for her master’s degree in NUIG. I appointed her to the national body in order that her voice could inform future policy because I believe she can make a significant contribution.
We will continue to prioritise investment and ensure that additional teaching and care supports are provided in order that schools can welcome pupils with special educational needs. We will continue to expand the educational psychological service in order that every school in the country has a direct service. We will work with the NCSE to ensure that services for children with special educational needs are provided in a co-ordinated and effective manner. We will fund the provision of expert support, professional development and training opportunities in education for all school staff.
I ask Senator Healy Eames whether she really believes that a child who is developing independence and confidence should continue to receive support he or she does not need. Might that inhibit the child’s further development? It may not challenge him or her to learn to live independently in later life. Support is aimed at enabling people with special needs to develop their independence.
As a parent, I completely understand the concerns of parents of children with special needs. My niece had special needs along the way. Everyone wants what is best for his or her child. This is understandably an emotive issue and one which we have to be sensitive in addressing. That is why I find it difficult to understand why Senator Healy Eames and the other Fine Gael Senators who support the motion would use parents and their children as a political football.
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: I will finish by stating a fact, which is something the Senator’s statements are all too often lacking. Any child who needs a special needs assistant and meets the criteria will get one.
Senator Brendan Ryan: The most disappointing aspect of the recent budget in the area of education was the lack of progress on the implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. I think this is scandalous, and the Disability Federation of Ireland agrees. In its special budget 2010 newsletter, that organisation stated:
The 2004 Act deals with children who have special educational needs. It aims to enhance the rights of children with disabilities to avail of and benefit from an appropriate education. The Act provides for a range of services which must be provided within a certain timeframe and, most importantly, in constant consultation with the student and his or her parents or guardians. Such services include assessments, individual education plans and supports and a process of mediation and appeals where needs are not met. Individual education plans allow for appropriately focused education supports to be put in place.
Children with special needs may regress significantly if intervention is not made from an early stage. The Act is progressive in giving children with special needs the right to attend mainstream schools with appropriate supports. The implementation of the Act is eagerly awaited by parents, advocates and everyone working in the area of disability. What is the point of enacting legislation and creating an expectation if it is not implemented?
The National Council for Special Education, which was set up by the Act, drew up a plan for implementation which was sent to the Department of Education and Science in 2006. The plan outlined the resources needed and set out a timetable for all sections of the Act to be completed by 2010.
I do not see any reason for hope in this statement. Are the programmes committed to implementing the Act or merely priority aspects of it? Not only is the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act not being progressed, class sizes have got bigger as well. We all, including the Government, know that bigger class sizes are bad for children, but especially so for children with special needs because they get less of the one-to-one attention they so badly need.
What is the reality on the ground for parents of children with special needs? The feedback from parents and advocates is that they are finding it very difficult to keep their children in education. We hear that children are being put on restricted days. They are being removed from the classroom and put sitting at a desk in a hallway, sometimes being monitored by an SNA and sometimes being left on their own. Those children are typically under ten years of age. Children are being put behind partitions in classrooms. They are being expelled from schools for behavioural issues. Children have to share an SNA even though they have been sanctioned a full-time SNA by the SENO. In some cases children are not given an SNA although one has been sanctioned. There are insufficient or no school places for children with autism in many areas, including part of my area, Balbriggan. Children as young as four years of age are travelling on buses to schools for children with autism for over an hour in the morning and again after school. Parents are being asked to remove their children from schools for a number of weeks. Where stand the rights of those children and their parents?
The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, is the statutory body established under the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act to improve the delivery of education services to persons with special education needs. One of its main functions is to deliver a local service through a national network of special education needs organisers, SENOs, who interact with parents and schools and liaise with the HSE in providing resources to support children with special educational needs. The NCSE’s budget has been cut by 21%. Where is the commitment in that to special education? Hundreds of SNAs have been let go and it is expected that approximately 1,200 will be let go by the end of March.
Children with special needs are being abandoned by the Government. Children with physical and emotional problems are being left to fend for themselves. The NCSE review, which began last April, and is due to complete its work by the end of March, is not focusing on educational needs. The focus is on physical care needs without consideration of the effect on pupils or their classmates of the loss of SNA support. The Minister, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, stated that he does not regard the reduction in SNA numbers as cuts but merely the removal of inappropriately employed people from the system. What utter nonsense. The recruitment of all of those people was approved by the Department of Education and Science in the first place.
The needs of those pupils do not diminish, as the Minister put it. He also argued that because parents have been given adequate notice that it is somehow okay. An bord snip nua recommended last summer that 2,000 SNA posts be cut to save €60 million a year. The Minister, in following that advice almost to the letter, is behaving as an accountant might do rather than as the Minister for Education and Science that he is who should primarily consider the associated negative educational outcomes and impacts. What is going on is totally unacceptable. Shame on the Minister. Shame on the Government.
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: I commend Fine Gael on tabling this motion. It is important that it is discussed. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy Moloney. I thank Senator O’Toole for his comments.
This is an important debate. I wish to refer again to the section from the revised programme for Government, which says that we are committed to the implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. I have a copy of the Act.
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: I wish to make an important point. It is regrettable that Senators are suggesting that this is not something on which we need to work together. This is so important and everyone on all sides of the House should work together on it.
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: I thank Senator Healy Eames. It is one of the most crucial debates we have had in this House in a long time. It is vital that we look after those in society who have the greatest difficulty. I have a son in a special needs, ABA, school. It is crucial we consider educational needs from the point of view of the child. It is the child who must come first.
It must be acknowledged that we have made progress in this country in recent years. In 1997 we had as few as 300 SNAs in this country. It is unfortunate for speakers in a debate simply to focus on the number of a particular type of staff allocated to an area at any given time. Special needs require to be considered in a holistic way. Special needs cannot be considered purely from the point of view of education because health is a factor also. The presence of the Minister of State with responsibility for equality, disability issues and mental health which involve the Departments of Education and Science and Health and Children is helpful. It is important we use joined-up thinking on this issue.
All parties need to work together to progress matters in tandem with the community and parents and carers. I pay tribute to carers, especially parents of children with special educational needs. Prior to the 2002 general election in which I was involved, I attended a huge meeting in Galway of the Galway Alliance of Parents & Carers. One does not often hear of politicians being moved genuinely to tears but the stories we heard on that night moved politicians from all parties to tears. It was a difficult meeting. Senator Healy Eames was at that meeting. I am sure she would agree it was a most harrowing meeting to attend. We need to acknowledge that things have moved on since then.
I very much believe in a rights-based approach to special needs but I accept that the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act is largely getting there. The Act, which was put in place in 2004, is fantastic. It is a bible of best practice and what we have to move towards in terms of special educational needs. In these difficult economic times we could consider a community-based approach. We should examine how we can involve the community and parents. Schools could take interesting initiatives in terms of employing speech therapists and occupational therapists. Unfortunately, a number of people qualified in those areas are on the dole at the moment. That is not acceptable because some people cannot access proper speech therapy or occupational therapy.
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: Music therapy was also mentioned. There are many other types of therapy and I am just giving those as examples. We need to consider programmes whereby we can allow people who wish to help children to do so because there is a need. Many parents, including me in the past, have struggled enormously to get the basic services.
Early intervention was mentioned in the context of individual education programmes. That is crucial in the special educational needs area, especially for autism. There has been improvement in that respect but there is a way to go in terms of early intervention. We need to ensure it is not just those who can afford it that get early intervention. Unfortunately, many people choose to go private in terms of getting their children assessed. We need to up our game in that regard. The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act provides the framework for doing that. I pay tribute to the Irish Autism Action group in particular. It is a tremendous group of parent advocates. The parent-based approach has done much to move things along in this country.
It is interesting to compare the situation here with that in Germany. A total of 60% of children with special needs are educated in ordinary schools in this country but in Germany only 16% of such children are educated in ordinary schools. There are different approaches to this area. The crucial thing with special needs is to accept that each child is an individual and that each child is special. The definition of such a child is he or she is special and he or she has particular needs. It is not the case that one size fits all. Options need to be provided for parents. For example, ABA does not suit every child but it suits many children. ABA is not necessarily appropriate for children for the duration of their lives but it can improve the abilities of a child in order that he or she can be mainstreamed. It is important to adopt a programme that can examine all these actions.
If early intervention is ensured and the problems are diagnosed at an early stage, it will help us to save a great deal of money in the long run and to help children. We have got to move in this direction. The EPSEN Act must be implemented fully. It is not simply a party political issue. This issue affects all of us and it is a measure of how we should judge ourselves as a society. I welcome the motion but, at the same time, the Government amendment is clear and realistic about the current position. It contains many good points but we need to move together on this.
Senator Nicky McFadden: I welcome the Minister of State. I acknowledge the 73% increase in the number of SNAs between 2003 and 2008 who were employed in post-primary, primary and special schools. That is an impressive investment but prior to 2003 there had been no investment and the Minister cannot take this wonderful quality service that they have become used to and need from our schools and children. It is not logical.
If a child has a significant disability or behavioural problem, he or she qualifies for an SNA. The Minister referred to children outgrowing their need for an assistant but an article in The Irish Times yesterday referred to a child with a medical need. Her skin blisters on contact and she needs an SNA to help her stand up, sit down, reach for her pencil and so on. She needs care 24-7 and it is a little disingenuous of the Minister to say children can outgrow their SNA. The mother of the child in the article stated she would not apply for an SNA if the child did not need one. There is not a parent in the world who would want this for his or her child. Every parent wants his or her children to function independently and the Minister was insensitive about diminished requirement. He referred to “surplus posts which do not meet the current criteria”. That is a broad statement and when one is dealing with children who need to be toileted and fed, it is insensitive.
The article also reports on a principal teacher in Newbridge who described how SENOs go into a classroom and spend half an hour watching a child before saying “No” all the time. It is my experience following representations that I have made that they say “No” all the time. The child on behalf of whom I made representations was delayed entering second level because the SENO did not believe the child needed an SNA in the secondary school, which is an outrage. The principal in Newbridge stated he has to obtain expert opinions on a child from doctors, psychologists and occupational therapists and then the SENO comes into the classroom and observes the child for half an hour before saying “No”. That completely diminishes the authority and professionalism of all the other experts and that must be discussed.
The INTO general secretary, Sheila Nunan, has raised another issue. I commended the Minister regarding the increase in the number of SNAs but the INTO is concerned about the reduction in numbers this year. The union says the inclusion of special needs children in schools requires adequate staffing to meet both the education and care needs of the children. One teacher said the children will lose out because the SNA hours have been reduced or the children may have lost their SNA. The other 28 children in the classroom will also lose out because the teacher will be unable to teach the full curriculum because he or she will have to look after the child who is unable to stay quiet in the classroom or bring a child to the toilet who is unable to go to the toilet unaccompanied. A total of 1,000 SNAs will be axed and parents are nervous and anxious because of that. I have been approached by them. The Minister said he will continue with the review, which will be completed at the end of March, and he maintains that any child who needs an SNA will get one. If so, why are their positions being axed? I accept if a child has moved on, the SNA should stay with him or her but if a school has 200 pupils, I do not accept that no child will have special educational needs.
I refer to the NEPS. I welcome the increase to 210 in the number of psychologists employed but that has not been my experience as a member of several boards of management. The assessment of a child is based on the enrolment of the school in a particular year and the waiting lists are so long that children do not undergo a psychological assessment. That is a dramatic statement and I may be accused of being fanatical and of raising anxiety levels but that is the reality. I welcome the increase in the number of psychologists from 127 at the start of the current year but I am not reassured that will address the waiting lists. They are so long that children will still not be assessed.
The review is being use for a cull. Schools are living in trepidation. One principal described herself as scavenging for hours for children in her care. I appreciated the comment by Senator Keaveney when she asked that the Department should act as guardian angel to our children. This is how our children should be cherished, especially those with special needs. I commend Senator Healy Eames on her forthright and honest motion and the manner in which she has conducted herself. I resent the personal attack on my colleague which I consider to be an outrage.
I am delighted this motion has been tabled as it affords a great opportunity to try to put to bed some of the misinformation that has been circulating in communities throughout the length and breadth of the country. I also have an educational background. In common with everyone else in this Chamber, I do not have a monopoly of what constitutes right and wrong but I will do my best to reflect the views as honestly as I can. In addition, I also have concerns in this regard and understand the concerns of parents who have a child who requires special needs attention. I used to assess children who were making the transition from primary to second level schools. In respect of psychological assessments, we would have in place a chief psychologist, a remedial teacher, a career guidance counsellor, a resource teacher, a special needs person and the parents. That group would decide clearly — it never became political — that if the child in question needed special attention, he or she would receive it. I will never see, under any Government, a child with special needs being deprived at any time.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I will let the case rest on that statement. I would welcome a review as any new concept that has been taken on board should be reviewed. The EPSEN Act was introduced in 2004 and I identify with the point made by Senator O’Toole about the desirability of having a step-by-step procedure. The way forward is to ensure that no special education needs organiser, SENO, will decide that a child does not require a special needs assistant. That is a group decision by the school, which is able to make such a decision. The point is that one does not want special needs assistants to be in the building in cases where the child might have left the school and gone elsewhere. The aim is to integrate the child into the mainstream as far as possible and that should be the special needs assistant’s aim. It is to be welcomed when a special needs assistant can do this and can try to provide independence for the child. Moreover, it is important to note that this scheme still is in place and the criteria for the allocation of special needs assistants remain the same. When a pupil qualifies for support, special needs assistant posts will continue. There is no question of the special needs assistant post being removed from schools that meet the scheme’s criteria. Any child who needs a special needs assistant will get one.
Senator Ann Ormonde: The criteria will be based on the professional assessment and Senator Healy Eames should be aware that the professional assessment will make the decision on what are the criteria in any given case.
Senator Ann Ormonde: The Senator knows this as well as I do. The Government has made efforts whereby 23,000 teachers were brought on an in-service course to be trained as resource teachers to help out in this area. That initiative was only last year and is a huge move.
I acknowledge there was a lack of consultation. I note the Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, who is present, represents the health aspects of this issue and there must be greater consultation that must start very early on. Early intervention often comes from the health rather than the education sector because public health nurses are the first people who ascertain what is wrong with a child. A system should be developed with the Department of Health and Children whereby the Department of Education and Science will come into play when a child is four years of age. I am not convinced that such early intervention is working well as yet. The Minister of State should bear in mind that a better cross-departmental approach is required on this issue that encompasses the Department of Health and Children, the HSE and the Department of Education and Science.
I do not want any child to be deprived and the Minister also has stated this. The people in the Visitors Gallery who are listening may rest assured that any child who needs a special needs assistant will get one. The bottom line is that my concern is for the child. Such a child should have access to equal opportunities in all walks of life and I believe the communities and schools should come into play in this regard. The school and the community should work together with parents and teachers. The approach should be developed to have a community spirit whereby the child can be integrated both into mainstream education and the community in order that he or she will grow in a natural way with the other development needs of other children in the area. In this way, they will rise through the peer pressure of their own age group.
I reassure the House that special needs assistance will remain for those who need it. The present position concerns cases in which a child has moved on or where the school considers that a child does not need special assistance and has a sufficient number of trained teachers. Moreover, this is the manner in which I wish to proceed. I was satisfied with the Minister’s speech this evening and I am glad he put an end to the misinformation that was extant. It is to be hoped that as the EPSEN Act is further developed, such children will get the proper education they need, that they will be integrated and that the supports will be in place in the special schools and for those who need them.
Senator David Norris: First, I wish to place this in a context. At the outset of this economic crisis, I warned that the Government was completely wrong to dismantle every agency that spoke out on behalf of the vulnerable. It did so and this kind of thing is the result. However, I do not believe that all virtue or human feeling resides in this House and I know my former colleague from this House, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, to be a decent and caring man. This does not mean the policies always are decent or caring because they may in fact not be. Regardless of what one might think, the loss of 1,200 special needs assistants is a quite extraordinary cull and must be explained. It appears as though there has been an attempt to explain this in economic terms, which can be highly problematic because these are the most vulnerable people and I do not believe the full case has been made.
I wish to say something in particular about St. Joseph’s school, Balrothery, at which there has been a quite extraordinary and devastating reduction of 66%. In his contribution, the Minister asked an extraordinary question of Senator Healy Eames. He asked Senator Healy Eames:
That was a most extraordinary phrase, at which I turned round and looked at some of the parents and teachers from St. Joseph’s school, Balrothery, in the Visitors Gallery. If the Minister is good at reading body language, he will have read the answer. It was a grotesque question as of course the children need it. I was very glad that Senator——
Senator David Norris: It was not a bit out of order. I am fed up with this kind of thing. We have a short amount of time and there are real issues involved. I am not attacking the other side, but——
Senator David Norris: It would not bother me in the slightest. I have had a lot worse said to me, I can assure the Cathaoirleach. I am not so thin skinned. I acknowledge the fact that people on the Government side of the House are raw because there is pressure. This is a difficult time, difficult decisions must be taken and so on, but I like the fact that Senator Ormonde stated she will not stand over a situation in which special needs assistants, SNAs, are withdrawn from where they are needed. If one asks the parents, teachers and professionals whether SNAs are needed, they will tell one. It should not just be the people who are sent in by various Departments, as it depends on their expertise. They might be sent in to take part in the cull.
This is a serious situation and it was heartening that Senators O’Toole and Ó Brolcháin appeared to be moving towards a common ground in trying to assert pressure in support of the Minister. Many of these moves come from the Department of Finance. That is its remit. However, we should all stand over a situation in which people are not forced out of their work.
Had the motion been worded slightly differently and the word “failure” not been included, accommodating it would have been easier for the Government. It is not always helpful to discuss failure. The motion calls on the Minister to publish the National Council for Special Education’s advice on this issue. Points that must be considered are that he has indicated the advice is in the process of publication independently of him and that he does not have it. This was a reasonable comment to make and I was glad to be able to hear it. He was then asked to provide a timeline——
Senator David Norris: The Cathaoirleach is now interrupting me. I would like the time that I have been allocated democratically to speak on this issue. It is making a farce of the whole matter that we are all treated like this.
Senator David Norris: That is fact coming from Senator Keaveney. I will let Senator Prendergast in because I am sure she will make a compelling case. I am also sure she will get her full allocation of time.
Senator Phil Prendergast: I thank Senator Norris for sharing time with me on what I realise is an important subject. I will try not to repeat any of the points that have already been made, but I want to share some of my experiences.
I was contacted by a lady who had one child and was due a second. Her first child, who was in school, was aged five years and a diabetic who was severely dependent on insulin. The child needed insulin four times or more often per day. The mother was going to have a planned Caesarean section because the nature of her condition required it. In good time, we asked for an SNA to be allocated to her child because she was going to the school to administer the insulin each time a dose was required. An SNA with specialist training was required in that instance, but I was often told that no SNA could be allocated and that the mother would have to go to the school. As everyone knows, however, one is not covered by insurance for up to six weeks after an operation. A dilemma was posed when the woman was asked to take her child out of the school. Sense prevailed and we managed to get the child an SNA, but the situation was emotive and upsetting for the mother. This was a case of a child with a different type of special need than someone on, for example, the autistic spectrum.
I want to discuss SNAs I have met in Cahir, Cashel, Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir in south County Tipperary who were asked questions by officials from the Department of Education and Science. The officials told the SNAs that they were not interested in the cognitive abilities of the children with special needs in respect of whom the SNAs were in charge. Instead, the SNAs were asked whether the children would harm themselves or others were they not present. The SNAs needed to answer honestly, so they lost their jobs. What kind of criterion is this for assessing needs? Children with special needs improve in every way when someone caters for their needs and where they build interpersonal relations, trust and understanding. I had a problem with accepting the Department’s approach. The subject of autistic children is a wide one. In the limited time I have, I will not discuss them, but their needs can vary throughout the day. One-on-one help allows them to improve and manage.
A lady living in Carrick-on-Suir was involved in a slightly different circumstance. Her child was attending Scoil Cormac in Cashel because their needs required the Lámh system. The woman could not get transport to the school because her nearest special needs school was in Waterford. However, her child had been assessed by a psychologist and was improving because of the Lámh system, which suited the child.
I have encountered these situations while holding clinics in south County Tipperary. They are not made up and are absolute fact. SNAs have lost their jobs, but children are the real losers. I again thank Senator Norris for his time.
Senator Ned O’Sullivan: I thank my colleagues in Fine Gael for tabling this motion and giving us an opportunity to throw light on an important subject. I regret that the motion, as worded, is predicated on a number of misunderstandings and errors which I will address later. Nonetheless, the motion gives us and the Minister an opportunity to outline in a positive manner what is being done for pupils with special educational needs.
We should insert a bit of balance into this debate and examine the facts, although the Minister covered many of them. Some 10,000 SNAs are working in our schools with an annual budget of €300 million. More than €1 billion has been allocated for special education this year. The comparative figure in 2004 was €468 million. The number of support and resource teachers has quadrupled since 1998 from approximately 2,000 to approximately 8,000. These are staggering figures. The pupil-teacher ratio in respect of students with special needs has been enhanced. The school capitation rates for that category of school have improved by 30% in the past three years. The budget for the transport of students with special educational needs amounts to €50 million. There are also 45 early intervention classes for children with autism. That all of these figures have been glossed over in the Opposition’s motion is extraordinary, as is the negative tone of some, but not all, Opposition spokespersons.
The renewed programme for Government commits the State to further investment in special education provision at a time when education budgets in Ireland and abroad are being slashed. That there will be a psychologist for every school in the country with emphasis on those with special needs units is another significant step forward.
A close member of my family had special needs 20 years ago at a time when none of these services was available. She had the good fortune of having educated parents who were teachers and possessed the wherewithal to travel abroad to provide for my niece’s needs. There was nothing in this country at the time, a fact that should be borne in mind before we start attacking the Minister willy-nilly.
I ask Senator Healy Eames to withdraw a stark error in the motion when she concludes, namely, that teachers have no access to proper training. The Minister pointed out that nearly half the teachers in the country have had access to special training. Some 23,000 teachers availed of training places last year and more than 300 teachers availed of places on postgraduate programmes. It does the Senator’s argument no good when she includes comments that make no sense. Another element of the motion castigates the Minister for not publishing a report which he has not even had sight of, which is not completed and which will be on the Department’s website as soon as it is finished. Let us get real. We often call for Ministers to come to the House to debate various issues, and a senior Minister of State is here. Let us have facts on our Order Paper before we call for a Minister again.
Exaggeration does no case any good. Where did the figure of 1,200 special needs assistants, SNAs, come from? It was plucked out of the sky by someone who wanted to make a political trade union point and has been picked up, with no critical analysis, by Senator Healy Eames. I did my own research today and rang a number of people, including members of the National Council for Special Education and people at the coalface. A more realistic estimate of the number is 250. During our recent debate on CAO places the 2.65% increase in applications claimed by Senator Healy Eames turned out to be an increase of less than 1%. She should get her facts right.
Senator Ned O’Sullivan: May I say a final word on behalf of special schools? I am thinking, particularly, of the Nano Nagle school in Listowel. It has 24 SNAs for 66 pupils, which sounds excessive but one must consider the service the school provides. It has pupils with moderate and profound learning difficulties and children with autism, epilepsy and other conditions. The school deals with all these difficulties and provides a huge service to the region.
There are many ways to access extra funding for special needs. It is my priority. Can small towns like my own continue to afford three secondary schools, single sex primary schools, gaelscoileanna and Educate Together schools, which are all optional? In days of plenty they are a wonderful idea but in days of want these things must be looked at. We must prioritise our special needs students.
Senator Rónán Mullen: We have an ironic situation. Earlier today, we discussed a proposed constitutional amendment, one provision of which is that the State would cherish all the children of the State equally. Now we find ourselves discussing the most vulnerable members of our society. I do not wish to play party politics or any other kind. I recognise it is difficult in these times to make ends meet but I hope the most vulnerable in our society will always be at the top of our priority list. The children we are talking about ought to be at the top of that list.
When one sees parents and supporters of children with special needs taking the trouble to attend debates in this House one knows they are concerned. I spoke briefly with a representative of St. Joseph’s school in Tallaght. They are hoping for a stay of execution while the various issues in their case are resolved. They fear cuts in provisions which would affect their loved ones. I hope there will be openness and dialogue in an effort to meet their needs.
Various figures have been cited for the number of jobs which have been or are being cut. I have heard it said that the Government provided too many SNAs at one time. I do not know if that claim is true. I do know there is no need for the funding of these programmes to be cut to the extent it has been. That cannot be justified. There may have been more money to go round in times of plenty. This may have caused people to develop their expectations, but always in ways which were necessary and appropriate because they were dealing with people’s real needs.
I am involved with the trusteeship of second level schools through CEIST, Catholic Education, an Irish Schools Trust. These schools say they have already seen an indirect impact on the most disadvantaged children because of the reduction in numbers of special needs assistants at primary level. This, in turn, will have an impact on students at second level as they are deprived of the fullest possible opportunity to develop.
There have also been cuts in other areas, such as grant allocations, and increased pupil- teacher ratios in subject significant areas such as the leaving certificate applied programme, LCAP, the leaving certificate vocational programme, LCVP, and the junior certificate school programme, JCSP. All of this, taken together with what we are discussing, must give great cause for concern. The number of special needs children is rising and we must plan for appropriate assistance for them. The worldwide figures for autism alone have been on the rise for the past number of years, which is a matter of major concern.
We must ask about the appropriateness of cutbacks in the middle of the year, when people cannot plan to deal with them properly. Issues surround the making of special needs assistants redundant where boards of management are not responsible for making people redundant but are responsible for making redundancy payments. We are seeing a breakdown in the system, creating all sorts of problems for good people in different areas.
We must revisit the decisions taken to date. We cannot allow children who are in need to be neglected. We must do something to reform the budget cuts which have had such adverse effects on the lives of many children in need and on our education system.
Senator Pearse Doherty: I understand the difficulties and sensitivities in this area. Last week, I raised the issue of special needs assistants on the Adjournment and the Minister gave a very unsatisfactory reply. Even following that reply, serious questions remain to be answered. We need answers. Senators on the Government side dispute the figure of 1,200 SNA jobs lost. My colleagues in the Dáil have submitted parliamentary questions on this issue but no matter how often we ask the question, the Minister refuses to tell us how many special needs assistants have been lost in the last year. We do not know how many more will be lost or if schools which have lost SNAs or special classes will be provided with additional special needs supports. We do not know if additional resources will be provided for schools which have lost special needs supports or if mainstream class teachers will be given extra training to deal with the loss of those supports. I ask the Minister of State to answer these questions. It is important that we debate this issue with accurate facts. The pupils, who are most affected by these cuts, as well as their parents, teachers and communities, deserve answers.
Until I have official figures I must rely on the information I have been given, that up to 1,200 special needs assistants will have been cut from the system by the end of this month. This support is being withdrawn from children with a wide range of conditions within the autism spectrum and with ADHD and dyslexia. We have heard of cases of cuts to services to children with Down’s syndrome. These cuts cannot be justified, especially in the context of large class sizes, some as big as 30 to one teacher. Cuts have already been implemented, such as that to the resource grant and home-school liaison teachers.
A child with a special need in a mainstream classroom without adequate support would surely get lost in the system. To deny a child a proper chance of education and of life, all for the sake of a few million euro which could otherwise be found, is disgraceful.
It is high time the Government looked at the provision of special needs assistants as more than a financial matter. We are talking about children and not numbers. They do not deserve to be shoved from pillar to post as an accounting exercise. Cuts to special needs support is not only heartless. This move will seriously impair these children’s education for years to come and will have knock-on effects in the future. It is another example of the Government’s shortsighted cost-cutting measures. Special needs assistants are not a luxury that can be cut. They are absolutely essential and an integral part of the education system.
Earlier, we heard reference to the 1916 Proclamation. The leading party in the Government claims to be a republican party. The republican message in the Proclamation, the pledge made by the leaders of 1916 to the Irish republic, was to cherish all the children of the nation equally. That is what we are talking about in this debate. We are talking about children and equality. Children have as much right to a decent education and a decent start to life as anybody else.
I appeal to the Minister not to proceed with further cuts to special needs support and to reinstate the support that has already been lost. I will support the motion tabled by the Fine Gael Party and I commend it on availing of the opportunity to raise this in a formal debate. I note that the motion does not call for the reinstatement of the cuts that have taken place, and that is where I would differ from it. The supports which have been cut should be reinstated.
Where there has been significant investment in the area of special needs by the Government, it has been rightly applauded by people throughout the State, no more than it was applauded at Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheiseanna, because it was the right thing to do. It is the republican thing to do. However, when supports are withdrawn from vulnerable children, the right thing and the republican thing to do is to reinstate them.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: This motion has stimulated much debate and I thank all Senators who contributed. My interest is the child. I have no other interest in this. I am not interested in making it a political issue but it is one because Government decisions are making or breaking children. The Government side has been extremely defensive in its behaviour. I would ask some of the Senators who threw many wild accusations my way why they do not attack the people who wrote the reports in the newspapers? I have not written the reports about the number of special needs assistants being cut by 1,200. However, when I contacted the National Council for Special Education, it told me that of 1,000 schools——
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: When I contacted the National Council for Special Education, it said that of 1,000 schools, the number of special needs assistants has been cut by 300. As there are 4,000 primary schools, if we extrapolate from that, perhaps it is from there the author got the figure because it would come to 1,200.
The Government is guilty of misinformation. The problem is the criteria. A number of Senators on the Government side and the Minister said that any child who needs a special needs assistant will get one. I am delighted with that statement because there will be a massive queue at their doors. I will pass on the record to the parents who have concerns and the teachers who need that proof.
The problem is the criteria. The upshot of this is the fact the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act has not been implemented. Until that Act is implemented, none of our children’s rights is protected. The reason the school represented by the people in the Visitors Gallery, who are not here at my invitation, who are here of their own free will and whom I have never met until this evening, are about to lose 12 special needs assistants and ten teachers is that it is being judged under the special education review committee report of 1993 which preceded the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act that has not yet been implemented. The SERC report will increase their pupil-teacher ratio and, as a result, the school will lose 12 SNAs and ten teachers. Those are the criteria and they are wrong. The Minister cannot argue with these facts. If the NCSE gets its way, the school will have to close because it will not be able to guarantee the health and safety of students and staff. I ask the Minister if this a political football. This is real.
My concern is the child’s learning in order that he or she will grow to be independent. These children will have no swimming, no home economics, no woodwork practicals and no certificate examinations. These are children from four to nine years of age. What will their future entail? This Government, by applying these criteria, is destroying and educationally maiming these children’s lives and it fills me with disgust. The NCSE’s criteria is outdated and does not take modern developments or needs into account.
The National Council for Special Education’s special education needs organisers, SENOs, interpret psychologists’ reports, although they are not qualified to do so. Many Senators on the Government side, including Senator Keaveney, will be concerned that the review processes which they are carrying out in schools are unsatisfactory because they do not consult the staff. The teachers and the SNAs are not included in the consultation process. Some teachers in schools in Galway have told me they are not consulted at all. It is as if they have no intellect or no experience with the child. The SENO only sits in the class for half an hour. That review process is flawed.
In the case of the school, representatives of which are in the Visitors Gallery, the speech and language and communication disorders of their children were completely ignored because the children’s IQ was between 45 and 70. That means that if one has a low IQ, one’s speech or understanding does not matter. I have been a teacher and a lecturer in teacher education and I am a parent of two young children, and that really matters.
I call on the Government to publish the NCSE’s advice and to provide a timeline and the resourcing for the implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act which will protect all our children’s educational rights. I commend the Government on enacting that legislation but it should implement and resource it.
Senator Ned O’Sullivan: On a point of order, Senator Healy Eames should withdraw the remarks in regard to the 1,200 SNAs and her attack on the Minister for not publishing a report he has not yet received.
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Carroll, James.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Corrigan, Maria.|
|Daly, Mark.||Dearey, Mark.|
|Ellis, John.||Feeney, Geraldine.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Hanafin, John.|
|Keaveney, Cecilia.||Leyden, Terry.|
|McDonald, Lisa.||Mooney, Paschal.|
|Ó Brolcháin, Niall.||Ó Domhnaill, Brian.|
|Ó Murchú, Labhrás.||O’Brien, Francis.|
|O’Donovan, Denis.||O’Malley, Fiona.|
|O’Sullivan, Ned.||Ormonde, Ann.|
|Phelan, Kieran.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
|Bradford, Paul.||Burke, Paddy.|
|Buttimer, Jerry.||Cannon, Ciaran.|
|Coffey, Paudie.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Doherty, Pearse.||Donohoe, Paschal.|
|Fitzgerald, Frances.||Hannigan, Dominic.|
|Healy Eames, Fidelma.||McCarthy, Michael.|
|McFadden, Nicky.||Mullen, Rónán.|
|Norris, David.||O’Reilly, Joe.|
|Phelan, John Paul.||Prendergast, Phil.|
|Regan, Eugene.||Ross, Shane.|
|Ryan, Brendan.||Twomey, Liam.|
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Carroll, James.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Corrigan, Maria.|
|Daly, Mark.||Dearey, Mark.|
|Ellis, John.||Feeney, Geraldine.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Hanafin, John.|
|Keaveney, Cecilia.||Leyden, Terry.|
|McDonald, Lisa.||Mooney, Paschal.|
|Ó Brolcháin, Niall.||Ó Domhnaill, Brian.|
|Ó Murchú, Labhrás.||O’Brien, Francis.|
|O’Donovan, Denis.||O’Malley, Fiona.|
|O’Sullivan, Ned.||Ormonde, Ann.|
|Phelan, Kieran.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
|Bradford, Paul.||Burke, Paddy.|
|Buttimer, Jerry.||Cannon, Ciaran.|
|Coffey, Paudie.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Doherty, Pearse.||Donohoe, Paschal.|
|Fitzgerald, Frances.||Hannigan, Dominic.|
|Healy Eames, Fidelma.||McCarthy, Michael.|
|McFadden, Nicky.||Mullen, Rónán.|
|Norris, David.||O’Reilly, Joe.|
|Phelan, John Paul.||Prendergast, Phil.|
|Regan, Eugene.||Ross, Shane.|
|Ryan, Brendan.||Twomey, Liam.|
|Last Updated: 15/12/2010 13:01:40||Page of 9|