Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Sean Crowe opens debate on Special Needs Education

22 February, 2005

The motion before the House acknowledges in its opening lines that progress has been made in the area of special needs education, including the passage of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. I think Deputies on all sides of the House would agree that the Act was a positive step forward. The Minister herself acknowledged here last October that the record of the State over decades in providing for children with special needs had been poor. She said that in many ways they were playing catch-up. We acknowledge that recent years have seen additional resources put in place and that is most welcome, if long overdue.

That said, we had no hesitation in raising this issue here again and devoting our Private Members Time to this important subject. The people concerned deserve all the attention and support this Oireachtas can devote to them. The period since we last debated this issue on the floor of the Dáil has seen growing frustration and concern among parents, teachers and principals at the plans for future provision for those with special needs.

My fellow Sinn Féin TDs and I have been in touch with many people and it is no exaggeration to say that there is anger and dismay out there among broad sections of people in the education sector and especially the hard-pressed parents and other carers of children with special needs. There are three old chestnuts that keep coming up time and time again when talking to parents, the lack of and the inability to access psychological services, speech therapists and occupational therapists. The Minister must address the issues urgently. Let no one be under any doubt the situation is extremely serious.

The Irish Primary Principals Network, the Irish National Teachers Organisation, the Irish Learning Support Teachers and many, many others have expressed grave concern at the proposed weighted system for the allocation of special needs teachers. The new system is due to be put in place for the start of the next school year. That is only just over six months away in September 2005. To plan properly schools need to know as soon as possible what resources they will be allocated. Principals in particular bear a heavy responsibility under the Act and as time passes the pressure on them will undoubtedly increase. But far worse is the pressure on children with special needs and their parents, many of whom face the actual loss of services under the system as proposed.

In December last the INTO released the results of a survey of almost 300 of the most disadvantaged schools. The survey was carried out in October and November and replies were received from a total of 289 schools representing over 3,600 teachers. The results point to major difficulties in the areas of special needs and also in staffing, funding and attendance.

The INTO survey showed that under the new system of allocating special needs teachers to schools proposed by the previous Minister for Education and Science, more than a third of the country's disadvantaged schools were set to lose teachers. The survey showed that 117 schools would lose teachers compared to 102 that would gain. There was no change in provision for the remainder of schools. This vindicates the view of Learning Support teachers who described this as a quota system rather than a weighted system.

The Irish Primary Principals Network has also acknowledged the commitment on the Government's part to provide a comprehensive and satisfactory system of special needs education resource delivery. However, on the weighted system, they have this to say:

"Circular 09/04 refers to a 'weighted system' of resource allocation for SEN. This is actually a misnomer as it is more of a Quota System using pupil ratios as a blunt instrument that does not address the many nuances of disability. A true weighted system would address each individual child's educational needs giving a points rating appropriate to their learning disability or impairment. Each child would be individually rated in terms of their additional teaching and learning needs and the challenge they present in a mainstream classroom situation. Consequently the overall points rating of the school would reflect each individual child's educational needs and would ultimately determine the staffing level for the year. This system would be both fair and transparent."

The Minister has stated that she would review the proposed new system and was committed to ensuring that no child would lose resources to which they are entitled. I welcome that commitment. One of the main reasons we tabled this motion was to give the Minister an opportunity to outline the results of the long awaited review and to set out a revised and improved system for deployment of special needs teachers. As I have stated, there is a growing urgency to do this. Schools need to plan in detail now, for September of this year.

I hope the Minister will respond to other serious questions raised, especially regarding the range of special needs, which will be addressed under a new system. There is concern that children who have been identified as having Mild General Learning Difficulties will no longer be entitled to access resource teaching. These children were under the old system entitled to two and half hours, one-to-one resource teaching per pupil per week. If the Minister is to fulfil her commitment that no child with special needs will lose out then this must be addressed.

What of the position of children with Severe Specific Learning Difficulties, otherwise known as dyslexia, or children with Down's Syndrome? Again there is concern that the move to a new system will actually mean that many of these children will have to move back to special schools and out of the mainstream, when the whole thrust of an enlightened policy is to ensure that these children are educated with their peers and with all the assistance they need.

Again, I hope the Minister has noted very carefully the view of the Irish Primary Principals Network that Circular 09/04 would also appear to be in conflict with the Education for Persons with Special Education Needs Act and The Equal Status Act. The individual's person's entitlement to an assessment of needs and an Individual Education Plan is emphasised in the Act. As the IPPN states: "The provision of resources on a quota basis where many schools' total resourcing will disimprove, does not appear to be compatible with the thrust of the Act. The legal implications of this situation need to be addressed urgently."

I want to cover now some of the other key issues raised in the motion. I have mentioned the case of schools in disadvantaged areas. I have a number of them in part my own constituency.

I want to reiterate that it would be scandalous for any school in a disadvantaged area to lose out under the new special needs allocation. I urge the Minister not to allow that to happen. But of course disadvantaged schools have other needs, which are pressing. One of the main issues is the high rate of turnover of teachers and the relatively high number of inadequately teachers, including second-level teachers, working in these schools. The INTO survey shows that over one in five pupils in disadvantaged schools miss more than twenty school days in the year. This is substantially higher than the State average in primary schools which is roughly ten percent. In the most disadvantaged schools nearly a third of all pupils miss more than twenty days.

There is another statistic which speaks volumes and which highlights what people often call the myth of free education. In disadvantaged schools only about 8% of income is from fund-raising and voluntary contributions from parents whereas in non-disadvantaged schools over 30% of income on average is from parents' contributions and fund-raising. That is a massive gap. Apart from the access to extra paid grinds, it is another real indication of inequality at the heart of our education system. Our primary schools should be places of equality in our communities.

Instead, inadequate State support means that they reflect directly in the classroom the social and economic divisions outside the school gate.

Our motion focuses on primary education but it is important also to point out that there is a huge shortfall in the provision of special needs education at second level. Applications for resources for second level schools have risen from 3000 in 2001/2002 to 12,500 in 2003/2004.

In conclusion I want to say that this motion is about real people. It is about families and children who often struggle against the odds. It is about people with disabilities who demand their right to education. It is about parents whose lives revolve totally around their children and the struggle to allow them to reach their full potential. All they ask is the proper supports and rights that the Government and the State has promised them repeatedly.

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