Dáil Éireann - Volume 656 - 17 June, 2008

Written Answers. - Special Educational Needs.

Deputy Paul Gogarty asked the Minister for Education and Science the measures in [991] place to ensure that schools operate an equitable policy in accepting an appropriate proportion of special needs students; the way this is monitored; if he plans improvements in this regard; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22757/08]

  Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: The Deputy will be aware of this Government’s commitment to ensuring that all pupils, including those with special educational needs, can have access to an education appropriate to their needs preferably in school settings through the primary and post-primary school network. This facilitates access to individualised education programmes, fully qualified professional teachers, special needs assistants and the appropriate school curriculum with the option, in line with each child’s ability, of full/partial integration and interaction with other pupils.

My Department’s policy is to provide for children with special educational needs to be integrated into mainstream schools unless such a placement would not be in their best interests or the interests of the children with whom they are to be educated. This does not necessarily mean that every child needs to be fully integrated. Some children may be better supported in a special class attached to a mainstream school. These students have the option, where appropriate, of full/partial integration and interaction with other pupils. Other children may have such complex needs that they are best placed in a special school. Students with special educational needs have access to a range of support services including additional teaching and/or care supports.

As the Deputy will be aware, the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) was set up to improve the delivery of education services to persons with special educational needs arising from disabilities with particular emphasis on children. The Council, with its network of up to 80 Special Educational Needs Organisers (SENOs), is providing a structure for the delivery of an effective and speedy education service to children and families coping with disability on a daily basis. Working locally on the ground, the SENOs are a focal point of contact for parents and schools. Parents can contact their local SENO directly to discuss their child’s special educational needs, including any issues or queries they may have in relation to the integration of their child into mainstream education, using the contact details available on www.ncse.ie.

The SENOs are responsible for ensuring that all special educational needs in their areas are addressed in an effective manner. They are charged with facilitating access to, and co-ordinating education services for children with special needs in their areas. They will do this by liaising between local providers of educational services, appropriate ancillary services, the council, the Department and parents. There are now over 19,000 staff in our schools working solely with children with special needs. This includes almost 10,000 Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) — compared with just 300 in 1997. There are also over 7,800 resource and learning support teachers — compared with about 2,000 in 1998. More than 1,100 other teachers support children in our special schools, while hundreds more work in special classes.

As well as this significant increase in the numbers of additional teachers and SNAs directly providing appropriate education and care supports for children with special educational needs, much investment has taken place in the provision of transport, specialist school accommodation, home tuition, assistive technology and equipment. Schools are therefore being supported to enable them to cater for children with special educational needs.

The Deputy will be aware that it is the responsibility of the managerial authorities of schools that are not in a position to admit all pupils, including pupils with special educational needs, seeking entry to implement an enrolment policy in accordance with the Education Act. In this regard a board of management may find it necessary to restrict enrolment to children from a [992] particular area or a particular age group or, occasionally, on the basis of some other criterion. In formulating an admissions policy a school must, however, ensure it is lawful. In particular, it must act in accordance with section 7 of the Equal Status Act 2000.

Where a Board of Management refuses to enrol a student in a school, the parent of the student or, where the student has reached 18 years of age, the student himself or herself, following the conclusion of any appeal procedures at school level, has a statutory entitlement under section 29 of the Education Act to appeal that decision to the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Science. A committee is established to hear the appeal with hearings conducted with a minimum of formality. In most cases appeals must be dealt with within 30 days. Where appropriate, the Secretary General may give whatever directions to the Board of Management that are considered necessary to remedy the matter complained of. The National Educational Welfare Board (NEWB) is the statutory agency which can assist parents who are experiencing difficulty in securing a school place for their child. The NEWB can be contacted at National Educational Welfare Board, National Headquarters, 16-22 Green Street, Dublin 7 or by telephone at 01-8738700.

The Deputy may be aware that my Department recently published a report of a major audit of school enrolment practice. The purpose of the audit, conducted by my Department’s Regional Office Service, was to examine the disparities that exist in schools in particular locations in relation to the numbers of pupils enrolled who are newcomers, have special educational needs or are from the Traveller community. Over half the primary and second level schools in the country were surveyed under the audit.

I should emphasise that the statistical information presented requires cautious interpretation, particularly in the context of local factors that could be identified in many instances at primary level (e.g. a concentration of newcomer or traveller children living in a particular area impacting on enrolment in the nearest school). When interpreted in that context, the statistical information returned does not point to enrolment problems on a system wide scale. It does, however, identify a number of school clusters where the evidence points to some schools assuming more responsibility for enrolling children of all backgrounds and needs within their local community, than others.

In order to ensure that no schools are directly identified and to ensure that “league tables” for particular areas could not be formed, the published information excludes the names and addresses of schools, but groups them within geographical clusters for comparison purposes. My predecessor has written to the main partners in education setting out some areas for consideration in order to facilitate an informed consultation with the education partners about possible policy measures available to ensure that all schools are welcoming and inclusive to all children of all needs in their own local community.

Finally, the Deputy may wish to note that I will host a Conference on the Governance Challenge for Future School Needs on 27th June 2008 in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham to consider the implications of new societal diversity on the future organisation of primary schools. It will be an opportunity for each of the main patron bodies to outline their vision of how the system needs to collectively evolve to respond to the changing circumstances. The Conference will focus on the particular challenges of ethos and inclusion for patron bodies, under both the new and existing patronage models, in ensuring that the system is appropriately attuned to future demands. The long term challenges of organising and developing our system of school governance to accommodate new parental demands and aspirations will be subject to consideration. The Conference will also deal with issues of capacity, choice, ensuring inclusion and the implications for enrolment policies.