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O Caoláin pays tribute to "heroic parents of children and adults with special needs

23 February, 2005


Sinn Féin Dáil leader, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin concluded the debate on special needs education in the Dáil tonight. The debate was on a motion proposed by Sinn Féin TDs during their Private Members Business. Deputy Ó Caoláin described it as "a very constructive debate," and welcomed the response of the Minister but said his party could not support the Government's amendment.

He said, "The basis of our motion is the right of each individual pupil to have his or her special educational needs assessed and the right of each pupil to the resources required to ensure that each can reach his or her full potential. Nothing less is acceptable."

He went on to pay tribute to the "heroic parents and other carers of children and adults with special needs whose determination to demand and to win their rights has been responsible for all the progress that has been made. They forced the system to listen and to act."

The test of the Government's stated commitment Deputy Ó Caoláin said, "is delivery on the ground and in the classroom. The reality today is that there are still huge numbers of children who are not getting the support they need."

Urging all deputies to support the motion tabled by the Sinn Féin TDs he said, "As I stated at the outset we all want to see results. If our debate has been of some assistance in keeping up the pressure to get those results it has been very worthwhile." ENDS

Full Text

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le gach Teachta Dála a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht seo. Díospóireacht dearfach a bhí ann agus tá súil agam go gcabhróidh sé le brú a chur ar an Rialtas chun feabhas a chur ar an gcóras oideachais do dhaoine a bhfuil riachtanais speisialta oideachais acu.

On behalf of the Sinn Féin deputies I want to thank Members who have participated in what has been a very constructive debate. Our aim in tabling this motion was not to launch a broadside at the Government or to seek party political advantage. I welcome the response of the Minister for Education and Science Deputy Hanafin in the same spirit. We all want to see results. That is our purpose here and as my colleague, our Education spokesperson Deputy Crowe stated when he opened this debate, the people concerned deserve all the attention and support this Oireachtas can devote to them.

The basis of our motion is the right of each individual pupil to have his or her special educational needs assessed and the right of each pupil to the resources required to ensure that each can reach his or her full potential. Nothing less is acceptable.

We acknowledge in our motion where progress has been made but as the Minister herself also acknowledged, it has been progress from a very low base. What is being built up comes against a background where children with special needs were scandalously neglected by the State. I want to pay tribute here to the heroic parents and other carers of children and adults with special needs whose determination to demand and to win their rights has been responsible for all the progress that has been made. They forced the system to listen andard to the announcement of the revised procedure which she promised in the coming weeks. I hope that all the concerns have been taken on board and acted upon. The clock is ticking if an improved system is to be implemented in September of this year.

But it must be said even if the revised system of allocation does address those concerns it cannot succeed without greatly increased resources from Government. The Minister noted her own responsibilities and that of the Minister for Health and Children in this regard. But what was striking in her speech was the following:

"In particular the Minister for Finance is obliged to have due regard to the State's duty to provide for an education appropriate to the needs of every child under the Constitution and the necessity to provide equity of treatment for all children."

I fully concur with the Minister in that and I hope that Minister Cowen will note it carefully and act accordingly in his next Budget.

The test of all of this is delivery on the ground and in the classroom. The reality today is that there are still huge numbers of children who are not getting the support they need. Two years ago I was contacted by the mother of young boy with autism who had to go through a nightmare to get any assistance for her son and her family. She had to struggle every step of the way to get her child properly assessed and to access the support he needed. Her experience made a mockery of the principle of early intervention. Despite her best efforts the State failed completely to provide that early intervention. She asked simply: "I am doing the very best for my little boy, why isn't the State."

This mother and other parents like her have had to provide virtually everything themselves. She is lucky in that her son is now in a special school for children with autism. But there are many hundreds on waiting lists for these handful of schools and their situation is uncertain because they are regarded as pilot projects by the Department, they rely predominantly on voluntary fund-raising and they cannot count on increased State funding into the future. I urge the Minister to give them that certainty and to fully support the mighty efforts of these parents and their children.

In my own constituency there is only one special school catering for children with special needs in all of Counties Cavan and Monaghan. The Holy Family Special School in Cootehill, Co. Cavan has long been in need of a major extension to allow existing school work to continue in a proper environment and to address the waiting list for the school. The School is awaiting approval for that extension. They received verbal approval for access to a temporary premises on an off-campus site. I strongly urge the Minister to move this project on and to give full approval without further delay to all the works that are needed. These children need and deserve nothing less.

It has been acknowledged on all sides that we need to see action on increasing the supply of occupational therapists and speech therapists. The legislation simply cannot be implemented without that. Parents whose children were assessed tow or three years ago have told me that in many ways the situation is worse now because the waiting lists are longer and sufficient professionals are not in place to do the job. This must be addressed. We should not tolerate a situation where so many parents are having to pay for psychological assessments for their special needs children or even have to go outside the country to access it.

In a short debate such as this it is not possible to cover all aspects of the issue. I want to emphasise our call for the full implementation of the landmark 2001 report on the education of children with autism. I want to mention the special needs of children with ADD and ADHD. These are often children who are very intelligent but who will fail educationally if the system fails them. Some progress has been made at primary level but there is a huge gap at second level. I know of cases where children who have come on by leaps and bounds in primary school have reached a dead end at second level. I have heard a special unit at second level described as "an adult crèche" because the educational needs of the child are not being met. This raises the need for long-term plans for these children and for the training and retraining of teachers.

My colleague Martin McGuinness, when he was Minister for Education in the Executive, together with former Education Minister Michael Woods initiated a project to establish an all-Ireland Centre for Autism at Middletown, Co. Armagh. This was a very exciting project which promises to be a centre of excellence which will be very progressive for all those with autism on this island. The project is very much on track and has been advanced but I regret to say that its delivery has been subject to what I regard as unacceptable delays. By letter of 10 February, the Department of Education in the North states that the Middletown Centre for Autism will not be ready to open until autumn 2006. I will pass that information on to the Minister for Education and Science and I urge her to act to speed up the project as our motion requests.

In conclusion I urge all Deputies to support the constructive motion tabled by the Sinn Féin deputies. While I acknowledge her positive contribution here in the House the Minister's amendment does not address the breadth of our motion and we cannot accept the Government's proposed deletion of those essential elements.

As I stated at the outset we all want to see results. If our debate has been of some assistance in keeping up the pressure to get those results it has been very worthwhile.

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