Dáil debates

Thursday, 3 February 2005

Priority Questions.

Special Educational Needs.

3:00 pm

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Question 1: To ask the Minister for Education and Science if she will report on the responsibilities of and work undertaken to date by the National Council for Special Education; if she has discussed with the council the system of weighted allocation of resources for children with special educational needs; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [3283/05]

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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The National Council for Special Education was established in December 2003 as an independent statutory body with responsibilities as set out in the National Council for Special Education (Establishment) Order 2003. The council has 12 members, all with a special interest in or knowledge of the area of education of children with disabilities. There have been 71 special educational needs organisers employed by the council since September 2004. They are deployed on a nationwide basis, with at least one special educational needs organiser deployed in each county.

Each special educational needs organiser is responsible for the primary and second level schools in their area and have made contact with each of their schools and informed them of their role. A recruitment process for a further nine special educational needs organisers has been commenced by the council to bring its total up to 80 persons nationwide. In addition to the organisers, there are 17 staff employed at the head offices of the council in Trim, County Meath.

With effect from 1 January 2005, the National Council for Special Education has taken over responsibility for processing resource applications for children with disabilities who have special educational needs. Under the new arrangements, the council, through the local special educational needs organiser, will process the relevant application for resources and inform the school of the outcome.

The establishment of the council will greatly enhance the provision of services for children with special educational needs, resulting in a timely response to schools which have made application for special educational needs supports. The local service delivery aspect of the council's operation, through the special educational needs organisers, will provide a focal point of contact for parents, guardians and schools and will result in a much improved service for all.

My Department is reviewing the proposed new system of teacher allocation to primary schools to cater for pupils with high incidence special educational needs. In carrying out the review, my Department is consulting representative interests. A letter was recently issued to the council inviting it to submit its views on the general allocation model.

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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The weighted system that the Minister claims she is reviewing was not to come into operation until September 2005. However, I have the impression that it is already partly in operation. Teachers, principals and parents inform me that children with special needs are being refused services on the grounds that the school is, for example, an all-girls' one with fewer resources. There appears to be much confusion in this area.

If a child is refused resources under either the weighted system or the existing one, what recourse does the child or his or her parents have to the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act and the National Council for Special Education? While the proposed weighted system will deal with mild disabilities, the Act has no specifications on mild or more severe educational disabilities. Children with milder disabilities are being refused resources under the so-called weighted system.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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The circular was issued last summer and will come into effect in September 2005. It was never the intention that the weighted system per se would be implemented prior to that date. In the interim, any applications received have been decided on the basis of needs. The idea behind the weighted system is that the staff member will be already assigned to a school or schools to pick up these needs without the need for individual applications. However, it is still not being implemented. In October, I announced a review of it on the basis that small, rural and disadvantaged schools would most likely lose out through the system.

The idea behind the system is to ensure the needs of the children with more serious learning difficulties continue to be met. They of course will still be able to go through their individual applications and their needs will be met for whatever number of hours on an individual basis. The new system will ensure that the needs of children with mild learning difficulties will be picked up in the school. These can be identified by the school, the parents and now the added expertise of the special educational needs organisers.

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Many children whose needs have not changed and who previously had a service have been refused resources in recent months. The assumption made is that the schools were operating on a different policy. I have come across a number of cases where it was the principal rather than the psychologist or the Department who informed the parents that their child did not come under the system. This confusion needs to be cleared up.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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Services are provided on the basis of the psychological report and the identified needs of the child. If it has been identified that the child does not need the service then he or she will not receive it. The main idea is to have someone in place for all students with high incidence of special educational needs, approximately 10% of the school population. Having heard the views of the council and other partners, I intend to have a system in place in September.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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Question 2: To ask the Minister for Education and Science if her attention has been drawn to the fact that hundreds of schools throughout the country will lose resources which were allocated to their students as a result of psychological assessments if the proposed weighted system as outlined by circular SP ED 09/04 is implemented; if no child will lose resource support already granted; the way in which she proposes to amend the proposed weighted system; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [3188/05]

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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The proposal involves a general allocation to all primary schools to cater for pupils with higher-incidence special educational needs, that is, pupils with borderline mild and mild general learning disability and specific learning disability. The allocation is also intended to support those with learning support needs, that is, those functioning at or below the tenth percentile on a standardised test of reading or mathematics. This approach to allocating resources for special educational needs is in line with thinking in many European states. An additional 350 teacher posts will be provided to facilitate the introduction of the new system. Individual applications may continue to be made for specific resource teacher allocations in respect of pupils with lower-incidence special educational needs.

Difficulties may have arisen with the allocation under the proposed model for children in small and rural schools if it were implemented as proposed. Accordingly, last October I announced a review of the proposed model to ensure that it provides an automatic response for pupils with common mild learning disabilities, without the need for cumbersome individual applications, while ensuring that pupils currently in receipt of services continue to receive the level of service appropriate to their needs. The review involves consultation with representative interests and the National Council for Special Education. It is intended to implement it in the next school year.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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I protest that I cannot get information on the number of children waiting for special needs resource teachers and assistants. The answer I have received is that the National Council for Special Education was put into effect on 1 January so figures are not available.

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Ceann Comhairle)
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Will the Deputy stick to the question?

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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Will the Minister agree that while the new system is administratively easy, it is unfair, as proved in a series of reports? These reports include the study carried out by the national educational psychological service in the Dundalk and Leitrim areas that showed the wide divergence of needs varying from a school that might not need resource teachers to one that might need over 50%. However, all schools will operate under a quota system. Will the Minister do a much more thorough review of rural and small schools? Disadvantaged schools will particularly suffer under the new system.

In a reply to a parliamentary question on 26 January 2005, the Minister stated that students would continue to receive the level of service appropriate to their needs. Will they continue to receive a service equivalent to a 11:1 pupil-teacher ratio in a special school, which is 2.5 hours individual resource teaching in a mainstream school? Is the Minister aware that over 1,000 schools will lose resources which, by way of psychological assessments of pupils, it has been proven they need, while other schools will gain?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I ordered the review because I was conscious that many schools would lose out, particularly disadvantaged, small and rural schools, which I would not like to see happen. The basic principle is that it is a good idea to have the teaching staff in place in the school rather than children having to wait to have their psychological assessment review carried out or to have an application responded to. It is a good idea to operate in this way, while ensuring that children receive the service appropriate to their needs. It is hoped that by providing extra resources, children who go through the school system and who might have received special attention in senior infants or first class may not need it in second or third class.

The low ratio to which the Deputy referred was worked out on the basis that approximately 3% of children would require a more intensive programme for two and a half hours. These children can still apply individually, based on the psychological report, for that level of resources.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act suggests that children will be entitled to an individual assessment and statement of needs, yet this quota system is taking away that right before the legislation is even implemented. Will the Minister comment on that aspect?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I do not accept this is the case. It targets the 10% of children who are expected to have learning difficulties in the field of literacy and numeracy. We will continue to make special provision for children with extra special needs and those with more severe difficulties who fall into the 3% category. Their needs will continue to be met. However, the idea is that support will be in place for children who may need a little help with their literacy. I do not accept that the legislation removes children's rights. In fact, it will ensure their needs are met more quickly rather than having to endure the cost involved and engaging in the cumbersome task of making an individual application.