Tuesday, 18 May 2004
Special Educational Needs.
Question 32: To ask the Minister for Education and Science the number of applications for special educational resources with his Department; the timescale for processing these applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14586/04]
My Department received more than 8,400 applications for special education resources since February 2003. The batch of approximately 5,000 applications received between 15 February and 31 August 2003 is being considered at present. Priority was given to almost 1,000 cases involving children starting school last September and all those cases were responded to at or before the commencement of the current school year.
The balance of more than 4,000 applications in that batch has been reviewed by a dedicated team comprising members of my Department's inspectorate and the National Educational Psychological Service. Those applications are being further considered in the context of the outcome of surveys of special education resource provision conducted over the past year and the data submitted by schools as part of a nation-wide census of such provision.
The processing of the applications is a complex and time-consuming operation. However, my Department is endeavouring to have this completed as quickly as possible and my officials will then respond to all applicant schools. Pending a response, schools are advised to refer to Circular 24/03, which was issued in September 2003.
In the case of teacher resources, the outcome for each applicant school will be based on a new weighted system of allocation which I announced recently. This system, as part of which an additional 350 teaching posts will be allocated, will involve two main elements: making a staffing allocation to schools based on a predicted incidence of pupils with special educational needs; and making individual allocations in the case of children with more acute lower-prevalence special educational needs.
It is expected that the change to a weighted system will afford a number of benefits. The new system will reduce the need for individualised educational psychological assessment; reduce the volume of applications to my Department for additional resources for individual pupils; and give greater flexibility to schools, which will facilitate the development and implementation of improved systems and procedures in schools to meet the needs of pupils with low achievement and pupils with special educational needs.
Transitional arrangements for the introduction of the weighted system are being developed at present in consultation with representative interests. As soon as those consultations have been completed, the detailed arrangements for processing applications for resources, including those for special needs assistants and those received after 31 August last, will be set out in a circular to be issued to schools before the end of the current school year. It is also intended that applicant schools will be notified of the outcome in their case within this time frame.
The Minister effectively stated in his reply that 7,400 children have not been allocated the resources a psychologist recommended they need because the Department had not a competent system in place to deal with the applications. When did the system change? Previously, if a psychologist made a report it was sent to the Department, after which a box was ticked and resources were granted. Are the 350 posts the Minister announced at Easter in addition to the existing provision? When will an announcement be made on the location of the posts? A number of teachers are concerned about this. If the posts are additional posts, the position might be different. This issue is particularly important given that the schools will close in five weeks. If there is to be a 1:150 ratio, what will happen in smaller schools, particularly rural schools, which currently have a resource teacher for a certain number of students but which will not have an enrolment of 150 students?
Many of the surveys that have been conducted indicated that more boys than girls have a special need. In some cases the ratio is 2:1 and in others it is 3:1. What will happen in an all-boys school with only 150 pupils? It may have many more students with special needs than an all-girls school with the same number of pupils. Has the Minister considered this?
What exactly does the Minister mean when he refers to the further consideration of 4,000 applications? Have resources been allocated to the 4,000 applicants? What consideration are they being given?
The 4,000 applications are being considered in the context of the assignment of resources to particular schools. They are part of the assessment of what is available and of what is needed in the schools. We hope to be in a position before the end of this school year to allocate resources on that basis.
The practice in regard to smaller schools is that those schools are clustered for resource teachers. This practice will continue. Discussions are ongoing on this matter and an examination of the various schools and clusters is taking place as part of the exercise. Clusters may change, because of increased enrolment in schools, but the principle of allocating resource teachers to clusters of small schools is being retained.
The Deputy asked if the 350 posts are in addition to those already in the system. They are additional posts. The calculation is based on introducing the weighted system and on the resources that are currently in the system.
The Deputy asked whether the weighted system will take into account schools in disadvantaged areas and the fact that more boys than girls have special educational needs. As I said on the last day during Question Time, we are trying to refine the system as much as we possibly can. These issues are being discussed at present.