Dáil debates

Wednesday, 7 June 2006

Adjournment Debate.

Special Educational Needs.

8:00 pm

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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I am pleased that this matter was selected on the Adjournment. A purpose built unit was constructed in 2003 in Celbridge specifically for children with autism. Three years later, the two classrooms, which would cater for up to 12 children, have not been opened. This is not because no children require these places. I am personally aware of several children who require such a place within a short distance from the school.

The reason it remains closed is because of a dispute between the Department of Education and the board of management about resourcing the unit. In a reply to a recent parliamentary question I tabled on the subject, the Minister outlined that two teachers and four special needs assistants would be required to open the unit, in addition to the provision of appropriate therapies by the HSE and grant aid to address administration costs. These are not unreasonable requirements. However, no expected timeframe was given for removing the impasse. People want this unit opened in September and information in that regard was not contained in the reply. One of the children seeking a place in the unit lives within a ten-minute walk of the school. The child is in a playschool in County Meath which is unrecognised by the Department of Education and Science. The fees are paid by the State but unless the child gets a place, the stopgap measure will be employed for another year. A considerable financial burden is being carried by the child's family to pay for school transport. Since the pre-school is not recognised by the Department, it does not pick up the cost. Parents will often go to the ends of the earth if they believe it will make a difference for their child, particularly those with a special need. The child in question is just one of a number who require a place.

It is not just that appropriate intervention is required in the case of autism, it is often required in a very timely manner because there are very definite windows of educational opportunity, as the Minister knows. Autism, given its nature, is not a condition in respect of which chopping and changing can be carried out with regard to children. By delaying educational intervention, the life chances of a child can be affected adversely.

It is clear that appropriate educational intervention creates the chance of independent or semi-independent living. There should be no question of skimping in such areas as speech and language therapy or occupational therapy when they are clearly needed. They should be invested in over the child's entire life cycle.

I very much suspect the experience in schools with existing special units was such that they expected speech and language services or occupational therapy to follow once they had opened those units only to discover, to their dismay, that there was nothing automatic about their provision. Such experiences made the board of management of the schools in question very determined to ensure the range of resources required will be available from day one so the school can do its job fully. The board is anxious that the special unit will not drain resources from the rest of the school.

Are the problems being encountered in this case a symptom of a wider problem? I refer to the survey conducted by principals whose schools have special units. The survey was handed to the Minister in a clear attempt on the part of those principals to highlight a real problem. I am aware, through a parliamentary question, that the Minister has a copy of the survey but that she is conducting or intends to conduct her own survey on the area in question. I am worried that the required response to schools such as the one in Celbridge will be postponed by virtue of the fact that this survey is to be carried out.

I have no doubt that there are 12 children to occupy the places in question once the school is opened fully. It is not unreasonable to ask that it be opened this September, three years after construction commenced. I hope a commitment will be made to open it.

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Minister, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased to have been given the opportunity to clarify the position of the Department of Education and Science on the matter referred to by the Deputy. She will be aware of the commitment of the Department to ensuring that all children, including those with autism, receive an education appropriate to their needs. The unit in question was completed as part of a new school development in 2003 and is designed to cater for up to 12 pupils. Such an enrolment attracts a staffing allocation of two full-time teachers and four special needs assistants.

The school submitted a request to the Department for staffing supports of three teachers and four special needs assistants for the unit. The school was to make a request for therapeutic services for the children attending the unit to the Department of Health and Children and the Health Service Executive.

Officials of the Department of Education and Science confirmed to the school that a staff of two full-time teachers and four special needs assistants would be available to support the classes. The school subsequently requested a third teacher. A number of meetings have been held between officials of the Department and the school authorities in an effort to progress matters. The Department's officials explained that it is not possible to accede to the request for the additional teaching post but the Department offered the school an administrative grant to facilitate the operation of the unit. In March 2006, the school advised the Department that, in its opinion, the grant did not meet its needs or those of the children entering the unit and that a third teacher was still required.

Officials in the Department of Education and Science are liaising between the board of management of the school, the National Council for Special Education and the HSE to progress the opening of the unit. Staffing ratios, the provision of appropriate therapies by the HSE and grant aid to address administration costs are among the issues under active negotiation. I understand that the HSE recently wrote to the school confirming the level of grant assistance it could make available towards therapeutic supports for the unit.

The Department of Education and Science shares the Deputy's desire to see this purpose-built facility for children with autism utilised to its full potential and the Minister remains confident that the remaining issues will be resolved.