Seanad Éireann - Volume 190 - 10 July, 2008

Teaching Qualifications.

  Senator Rónán Mullen: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I draw the House’s attention to an anomaly and inequity that currently exists with regard to an allowance payable, or not payable as the case may be, to holders of postgraduate diplomas in learning support and special educational needs. Teachers who were awarded the postgraduate diploma in learning support prior to summer 2006 do not receive an allowance, whereas an allowance is paid to teachers who did broadly similar postgraduate diploma courses from 2006 onwards. This is a double whammy in that applications are accepted in spring for enrolment on the following year’s postgraduate diploma in special educational needs courses.

The criteria for selection include the following: only one application per school is considered; and priority is given to teachers who have not already attended a similar postgraduate programme for learning support or special education teachers approved by the Department of Education and Science. Teachers who did the course up to 2006 are being denied the allowance, as well as being uniquely disadvantaged as a group in being denied access to a programme of professional development which would allow them to increase their salaries. Effectively, the Department recognises that they are suitably qualified but believes they do not merit further training while refusing them the allowance which is paid to their peers. This needs to be addressed on the grounds of natural justice, equality and promoting and valuing professional development.

The relevant circular from the Department, which is accessible from its website, includes the current year’s application form for the course and useful background information on the colleges involved, the selection criteria and various learning difficulties. Demand for places on courses leading to a postgraduate diploma typically exceeds the number available. In this regard, the circular states: “Priority will be given to teachers who meet the criteria below and who have not already attended a similar post-graduate programme for Learning Support teachers or teachers of pupils with Special Educational Needs approved by the Department of Education and Science.” Accordingly, teachers who currently hold a postgraduate diploma for which an allowance is not payable are effectively ineligible for acceptance on the current course.

With the rapid growth in the number of teachers working in learning support, a considerable number of teachers apply for the course each year. These will get priority selection over teachers who already have a qualification in this area already. If a school is aware that only one application per school will be considered, it is unlikely that it will jeopardise its chances of getting a place on the course by submitting an application for a teacher who already possesses a qualification.

Subsequent to the summer of 2006, the course was effectively repackaged but the bulk of the material remained the same. The assignments which participants must complete in their personal time are strikingly similar. The course is carried out on a block release basis whereby the participants attend college for several weeks each term. The number of weeks of block release has increased since 2006 and some topics are treated in greater depth. However, the extension of the block release sessions has arguably reduced the intensity of the course for participants. In addition, substitute cover has been provided since 2006 for course participants [1000]during block release sessions. Prior to this, no cover was provided, which meant that on return to school, course participants were under significant pressure to address their teaching tasks. They are in effect being penalised while holding substantially the same qualifications even though in some cases greater efforts were required.

Part of the current course requires course participants to spend a week in a learning support department or special education section of a school other than their base schools during the year. For two years running, one teacher has hosted postgraduate students on a college’s recommendation. This teacher, therefore, continues to be a net giver. This issue affects both primary and post-primary teachers. The allowance has an impact on earning power over a teacher’s career, as well as on pension entitlements.

Successful completion of the postgraduate diploma course in learning support or special educational needs entitles one to pursue a masters degree. I am aware of one person who completed a masters course yet receives a smaller allowance on grounds of already holding an honours primary degree. This person would have received more by completing the postgraduate diploma in special education needs, which is a prerequisite for the masters degree. In the case of which I am aware the person invested personal resources of in excess of €5,000, leaving aside the indirect costs. I wonder what kind of value is being placed on people’s diligence and commitment that they are now being penalised in this way.

This situation would be unacceptable in any field. It is all the more unpalatable in a field that is centred on education in the first instance. I know the Minister of State is aware of the relevant facts and figures in this regard. I am hoping to hear from him today an honourable promise of a solution to ensure this unnecessary anomaly and inequity is rendered something of the past and that those who obtained the qualification prior to 2006 will be treated on an equal basis to those who obtained it post-summer 2006.

  Deputy Tony Killeen: Tá mé ag freagairt thar ceann an Aire Oideachais agus Eolaíochta, an Teachta Batt O’Keeffe. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as ucht an ábhair tábhachtach seo a chur faoi bhráid an tSeanaid.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to outline to the House the position with regard to the payment of an allowance to teachers of students with special educational needs. As the Senator may be aware, in addition to holding a relevant qualification in the area of special educational needs, there are other criteria that a teacher must satisfy to qualify for payment of an additional allowance. A primary teacher must also hold a permanent position in a sanctioned post in an area of special education. A post-primary teacher must spend a minimum of 12 hours per week working with pupils who have special educational needs. There are also other conditions attached to the retention of this allowance, namely, primary and post-primary teachers who voluntarily leave their posts in the area of special educational needs within the school will not be entitled to retain the allowance. The current rate of this allowance is €2,502 per annum.

Prior to 2006 the Department of Education and Science funded access to a number of post-graduate programmes of continuing professional development, two of which were a programme of training in special educational needs for teachers working with students with special educational needs in primary and post-primary schools, which satisfied one of the criteria in order to qualify for payment of the allowance, and a programme of training for teachers working with students in primary and post-primary schools requiring learning support and which did not warrant payment of an additional allowance as it did not provide them with the necessary skills to cater for the needs of students with special educational needs.

[1001]In 2005, the Department introduced the general allocation model of provision which immediately provided an additional 660 special needs teachers to enable schools to cater for the needs of pupils with high incidence special education needs. Outlining the provisions of the scheme, the Department issued a circular to all primary schools providing advice in regard to the re-organisation of teaching resources for students requiring learning support and resource teaching support in primary schools.

The model provides for a general weighted allocation for all primary schools to enable schools to cater for the needs of pupils with higher incidence special education needs, those with learning support needs, borderline mild and mild general learning disability and dyslexia without the need for individual applications and psychological assessments. It also allows for individual allocations in respect of pupils with more acute needs.

The new system put in place resources on a more systematic basis thereby giving schools more certainty over their resource levels. This allows for better planning in schools, greater flexibility in identifying and intervening earlier with regard to pupils’ special educational needs as well as making the posts more attractive to qualified teachers. In this regard, the circular also advised that schools should allocate teachers in line with pupils’ needs in order to ensure that those with the greatest need received the highest level of support. A concern was articulated in the circular that pupils should be supported by the teacher with the most appropriate training, experience and expertise. It was envisaged that teaching resources would be deployed in a flexible manner which would lead to the most effective and efficient delivery of services. To ensure that this model of provision operates effectively and efficiently, a new combined postgraduate diploma programme of continuing professional development was offered to teachers from September 2006.

Some 300 places on this combined postgraduate diploma programme of continuing professional development are offered in the following centres: St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra; Church of Ireland College of Education; St. Angela’s College, Sligo; Mary Immaculate College, Limerick; UCD, University College Dublin; Department of Education, University College Cork and, the Department of Education, National University of Ireland, Galway. The budget to cater for the provision of these programmes of professional development in the current year is more than €1.3 million. Those teachers who successfully complete this programme of professional development and who satisfy the other conditions are eligible for payment of an additional allowance.

I am happy to advise the House that officials in the Department are currently engaged in discussions with the seven institutions involved in the delivery of this combined postgraduate programme with a view to developing a further comprehensive programme of continuing professional development. The aim of this new programme of continuing professional development will be to enable those teachers referred to by the Senator to effectively upgrade their current qualifications to meet the learning and teaching needs of all students with special educational needs in our schools. Department officials have been in close contact with these institutions for some time and the Minister is confident that significant progress will be made in the new academic year with a view to having such a programme of continuing professional development in place for the Autumn of 2009. Successful completion of this programme will enable these teachers satisfy the condition for payment of the allowance relating to the holding of a relevant qualification in the area of special educational needs.

I take this opportunity to thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to clarify the position in regard to this matter.

[1002]  Senator Rónán Mullen: I thank the Minister of State for his response and for the indication that there will be an add-on programme available to people in autumn 2009. However, in light of the many similarities between the qualifications achieved by people prior to summer 2006 and the qualifications for which people now receive an allowance, will the Minister of State seek from the Minister an assurance that the cost to be borne by teachers taking this course will be sufficiently low as to reflect the fact that the skills and expertise acquired will be relatively small in comparison with the significant expertise they gained in the first instance?

  Deputy Tony Killeen: I will be happy to raise that matter directly with the Minister on Senator Mullen’s behalf.