Dáil Éireann - Volume 571 - 02 October, 2003

Adjournment Debate. - Special Educational Needs.

  Mr. Naughten: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise on the Adjournment the need for the Minister for Education and Science to provide classroom assistants to children with special needs in mainstream education.

  In the Taoiseach's address to the Special Olympics, he stated: “Watching each of these athletes compete leaves many of us feeling personally humbled by their courage, their spirit and of course their sheer enjoyment in using the skills which they have learned and developed.” This is the leader of a Government which does not want these same children and their peers to learn.

  Despite the euphoria surrounding the Special Olympics, the allocation of special needs assistants in schools has been cut back. While the Minister for Education and Science was announcing €42 million for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, he was instructing his Department to make cutbacks in the most vulnerable area of education by reinterpreting the criteria for the allocation of special needs assistants.

  Just three months after the outpouring of good will towards people with learning disabilities during the Special Olympics World Summer Games, a group of children with special needs is suffering due to cuts in the education budget. The recent junior certificate results of Patricia Carney, who has Down's syndrome, showed how well some children with special needs can do in the main[1288] stream education system. Children with Down's syndrome, given the opportunity, can reach their full potential.

  Up to 10,000 students at primary and second level are awaiting news of their applications for special needs resources. Some are awaiting psychological assessments, including parents of autistic children who in recent weeks were forced to obtain the assessments themselves, such is the state of the service at present. Others who have had their needs assessed are now finding that the Department is not prepared to honour its results. Only 123 psychologists of the 184 promised under the National Educational Psychological Service have been employed. The recent report of the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General highlights the huge backlog of cases arising from the shortage of psychologists which has left thousands of children waiting for assessment.

  The Department has decided to stop basing the allocation of resources on individual needs assessments. Instead, it intends to give schools a quota of special needs assistants, teachers and resource teachers. This would involve an annual allocation being made to schools based on the predicted incidence of special educational needs within different school populations.

  The Minister for Education and Science's audit of special needs assistants in schools is nothing more than a whitewash for his incompetence and his Department's inability to deal with the huge volume of requests for special needs assistants. The focus needs to be on the needs of the child rather than other considerations. To apply a quota system will leave many children in the education system who require this type of special support without any service. This is evident in the speech and language therapy service and other services which are supposed to be provided. These include remedial and resource services which are being delivered on a quota basis, leaving some children high and dry with no service.

  As other four and five year olds settle into their second month in school, many pupils with Down's syndrome are having to cope without a special needs assistant to help them in their new environment. A typical case is Michelle Cooney from County Longford. A psychological assessment carried out by the Midlands Health Board classified her as having mild to moderate Down's syndrome and stated she required a special needs assistant for 15 hours per week, with five hours of resource teaching. Instead, Michelle was granted 3.5 hours of resource teaching and no special needs assistant. Michelle is not able to function properly without this support. She is not able to cope in the playground and she needs help with things such as using the toilet so that she does not lock herself in, dresses herself properly afterwards, washes her hands and so forth. There are 26 other pupils in her class so the teacher cannot afford to leave them unattended and go with [1289] Michelle to the bathroom. As a result, the child is left sitting in the classroom because no support is provided.

  Another child who is six years of age has nowhere to go to school. On the second week in September her parents were informed that a service would be provided. However, they have not yet been told when or where that will happen. There is not even a building to provide that service.

  There is a crisis in this service. While the Minister has announced the provision of money for disadvantaged students in third level education, some of the most disadvantaged students in the education system are being ignored. Resources are being cut back and these children are not getting an equal opportunity to have the basic level of education to which everybody is entitled. The crazy aspect of this is that if an able bodied child were taken out of school because of a lack of resources, there would be a huge outcry from within the system and the Department would try to track down the parents concerned. However, since it is a disabled child nothing is being done. The Department is turning its back on these children.

  Ms O'Sullivan: I welcome the opportunity to raise this issue in more detail. There was a parliamentary question on it during Question Time. I support everything Deputy Naughten said. There are currently 5,000 primary school children awaiting assessment of their applications; a further 5,000 second level school children have not even received a response to their applications. Serious concern has been expressed by principals and parents about the crisis with regard to children who need special support.

  It is crucial that a child who has a special need gets support as soon as possible within the education system. It makes a huge difference in terms of their progress. I am seriously concerned about the content of the circular on this issue sent to national schools in September. It seems to indicate that the assessment of need for children with special needs will now be put back at least a year for certain categories of children. The circular is introducing what is called a staged system. In the first stage the class teacher has to assess the child over two terms. Then the learning support system within the school addresses the child's needs for another term. It is only after this that an outside psychological assessment can be sought. In effect, the child will be a full year in school before there is an independent assessment of their needs. I am seriously concerned about this. Every expert in this area stresses the importance of intervention at as early a stage as possible.

  I also wish to refer to the allocation of a quota to schools. The document talks about a weighted system of allocation for resource teachers and an allocation process for special needs assistants. [1290] This would involve an annual allocation being made to schools based on predicted incidence of special education needs within different sized school populations. This rings serious alarm bells. One does not know what will be needed in a particular school. Some schools have a high incidence of children with special needs while others have a relatively low incidence. That can sometimes depend on the geographical location of the school. There will be schools in areas of disadvantage which will have a high number of children with different types of special needs.

  A system that makes these allocations simply on the basis of the size of the school flies in the face of the child centred approach of the education for persons with disabilities Bill which the Minister is due to introduce soon. The Minister should look again at the direction the Department is taking. It is the opposite to the approach taken in the legislation.

  I also wish to raise the issue of children with borderline mild general learning disability. The criteria are changing with regard to the level of educational need one must have in order to get support. One of the criteria is an IQ in the range of 70 to 79. I am not an expert on this but teachers have told me that this IQ is indicative of children with a learning disability, such as some of the Down's syndrome children mentioned by Deputy Naughten. It is expected that such pupils should, in the main, be catered for by the mainstream class teacher and the learning support teacher. The allocation of any additional resources will only be considered in exceptional circumstances following the staged approach outlined in the circular.

  There are many hidden cutbacks in the document on children with special needs. It is a difficult document to read but teachers, parents and a number of Deputies are beginning to realise that these are cutbacks for children with special needs, hidden in fancy language. I hope the Minister will take a personal interest in this and try to ensure that what is happening in the Department does not fly in the face of what he is doing in the legislation.

  Minister for Education and Science (Mr. N. Dempsey): I thank the Deputies for raising this matter because it gives me another opportunity to inform the House of the range of assistance being provided by the Department. I assure Deputy O'Sullivan that I take a personal interest in what is happening in the special needs section of the Department. I have visited it on a number of occasions, met the staff involved and listened carefully to what they said. I have met with a number of groups representing children with disabilities and I am conscious of the concerns they expressed.

  I am more than willing to brief the Deputies on what is happening and what we are trying to [1291] achieve with regard to special needs. There is no doubt from the assessments we have carried out that the system is being clogged by applications that are not as meritorious as they should be. As a result, pupils who have severe needs and who should be looked after immediately must wait until the applications are fully processed. I am anxious to streamline that system. There is no desire on my part to cut back on anything to do with special needs. It is important that we provide the same level of service but we must also ensure that young people who have special needs are treated properly and that people are not just labelled for convenience within the school system and perhaps labelled for life. That is another aspect of this matter about which we must be extremely careful.

  Up to October 1998, my Department's capacity to respond to individual children with special needs was limited. This changed with a Government decision in that year whereby children assessed as having special educational needs in primary schools have an automatic entitlement to a response to their needs. Since this automatic entitlement to support was introduced, the number of resource teachers in the primary system has increased from approximately 100 to in excess of 2,300 and the number of special needs assistants has grown from approximately 300 to almost 5,500 full and part-time posts.

  The nature and level of the educational response is based on the professionally assessed needs of each child. While my Department's policy is to promote the maximum possible integration of pupils with special needs into ordinary mainstream schools, those who have been assessed as having special educational needs have access to a range of special support services. The services range from special schools dedicated to particular disability groups, through special classes and units attached to ordinary schools, to placement on an integrated basis in ordinary schools with special back-up supports. The response will normally take the form of a resource teacher or special needs assistant support or both, depending on the level of need involved.

  In some cases, the level of special need involved may be such as to require placement in a special class attached to a mainstream school. The number of special classes has grown from 350 to more than 500 since 1998. Each such class is dedicated to a particular disability category and operates at a significantly reduced pupil-teacher ratio. Pupils attending such special classes also attract special increased rates of capitation funding.

  Children with special needs attending mainstream schools may also require access to special equipment to assist them in their education. The funding allocation in this area has grown from [1292] €671,000 in 1998 to a current figure of €3.2 million. It is only in exceptional cases that my Department considers an educational placement outside the country as being necessary. In general, where children have significant care needs, those are met in an educational context through the special needs assistant service.

  I am determined to ensure that this considerable investment is deployed as effectively and flexibly as possible. With that aim in mind, a detailed circular, 24/03, was recently issued to all schools dealing with the allocation of resources for pupils with special educational needs in national schools. The basic purpose of that circular is twofold, to ensure that applications for resource teacher and special needs assistant support are processed as efficiently as possible and that such resources are targeted to best effect on an ongoing basis.

  With regard to the processing of applications, priority has been given to the 780 applications in respect of new entrant children. Following a review of the supporting documentation submitted, the applicant schools have, where appropriate, been given allocations. Those allocations have initially been given on a temporary basis, pending an examination in due course of the level of resources already made available to the schools.

  The remaining 4,700 applications will be processed by a dedicated team of inspectors and psychologists, and every effort will be made to issue a response as early as possible during the current school year. A census of pupils with special educational needs and associated resources in primary schools is being conducted at present and the data will enable the team to consider the applications in the context of the existing level of resources available to each school.

  The circular highlights a number of practical strategies to assist schools with existing resource allocations. For example, wherever possible, schools should provide additional help for pupils with special educational needs in the mainstream classroom or, if necessary, in small groups; bearing in mind the various categories of special education teachers, including resource, learning support and visiting teachers deployed in the education system, schools are encouraged to develop strategies that draw on the skills of all such teachers without making artificial distinctions between them; and while resource teaching allocations have been approved on the basis of individual applications, the overriding principle is that those resources be deployed in the manner that best meets the needs of pupils with special educational needs in the school.

  For example, if there are three pupils who have been allocated two and a half resource teacher hours each, the school should consider, depending on the children, whether it might be better to have two or three children together in a [1293] small group with the teacher for seven and a half hours rather than simply giving them the two and a half hours individually. That is the type of approach involved. As Deputy O'Sullivan has said, and I agree, it must be as child-centred as possible to meet the needs of the child. Before applying for additional special needs assistants, schools should review their existing allocations to see whether an identified need can be met by redeploying available resources. Where appropriate, principals may deploy individual special needs assistants to support several pupils, perhaps in more than one classroom.

  At this point I emphasise that circular 24/03 is not proposing a cut in resources for pupils with special educational needs. Schools will appreciate, however, that the level of approved resources is not immutable. Account must be taken of the progress being made by individual pupils with special educational needs. One hopes that the extra attention they get will mean that pupils can progress. If that is so, there is no longer the same need for extra resources. However, that must be measured. It would be expected that schools would notify the Department of instances where resources had become surplus to requirements so that these could be redeployed as necessary. Put simply, the circular requires schools to take full account of what they already have before applying for more. Any other approach would be neither appropriate nor sustainable.

  The Deputies have made several points, particularly regarding the weighted system. The idea is that instead of this year's situation where there have been so many applications, based on experience such as the size of the school, of which we currently have a great deal, there would be an automatic allocation of special needs assistants to it, meaning that it would not have to apply. Then, when we have a really bad case of a child who is profoundly handicapped, physically or otherwise, the school can make an application for him or her. Fewer applications would come in and they could be processed much more quickly. That is the idea behind it. We are having discussions with the teacher unions about that, as well as with management. Over the next few weeks, if the Deputies wish a briefing on what exactly is behind the changes, I will have no difficulty in arranging one for them.