Dáil debates

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Adjournment Debate

Special Educational Needs.

10:00 pm

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I congratulate the Minister on her re-appointment to the Department of Education and Science and thank her for being here for this debate. I welcome the relatively slim paragraph in the programme for Government which mentions the applied behavioural analysis, ABA, method for dealing with autism in young children. I have a particular personal interest in this matter from my family history and have studied it. A very interesting conference was held in Trinity College last weekend the papers from which I received today. They are amazing and very thought-provoking.

The most heart-breaking aspect of autism is that the child has great intelligence potential which is very difficult to unlock and thus it is very difficult for the child to communicate either with other children or with his or her parents. The ABA method of dealing with autism supplies the key for unlocking that potential within the child. Since I opened the Sapling School in Mullingar two years ago I have seen the potential grow within those children. I have seen them flower both at home and at school. It is wrong that we have not given the full accolade to such a method of education. I know of 12 schools that operate on a pilot basis and the programme for Government commits to funding them fully in the long term. I would like the Minister to outline whether they will have permanent status, which will be important for their buildings. There are 12 other schools pending. Will those 12 schools get the funding needed?

We all know of the Ó Cuanacháin case, which is costing so much for everyone. I have met the family to talk about their lovely boy. The change in him is stupendous since he started availing of the ABA method. I hope that is not to be snatched from him. When there is potential, every effort and financial input should be made towards bringing out that potential.

I do not know whether the in-built resistance to the ABA method rests with the Department or the Minister. Knowing the Minister as I do, I do not believe it lies with her. Occasionally we hear reference to the eclectic method, which is a lovely word which can bamboozle if one did not know what it meant. However, I would prefer to see a policy that the ABA method would be facilitated if that is the parents' wish. Those children are precious to their parents and need this method of education to unlock their potential and to attain the status of balanced young adults.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue and I am particularly pleased that such a distinguished Government Deputy has also seen fit to raise it. Deputy O'Rourke is a former Minister for Education and Leader of the Seanad. I am also grateful that the Minister is present. I congratulate Deputy O'Rourke on regaining her seat in the House and I also congratulate the Minister on retaining her portfolio.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy and I also congratulate her on retaining her seat.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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This gives me hope that we may make progress because there is interest on both sides of the House in this issue. I share Deputy O'Rourke's concern that a blockage is preventing the approval and expansion of ABA schools and that needs to be unblocked. I am disappointed the programme for Government has not provided as much for education as I had hoped. The Minister would have invested as much in the sector without any new partner in Government. I expected more from the Green Party, given the emphasis it put on education in the election campaign and the Government negotiations. I am particularly disappointed the second tranche of 12 ABA schools has not been given any comfort in the programme for Government.

My motion acknowledges that the 12 schools in the current pilot scheme will gain full recognition in time and I hope that will be the case. Deputy O'Rourke has sought clarification on this, given that there are several caveats. I am concerned about the next 12 schools and other schools throughout the State that are experiencing a demand for the ABA method of teaching. Deputy O'Rourke is correct that parents are hugely committed to this method. I do not cast aspersions on the Minister but one has to see ABA in practice to believe it, as I did when I visited the Bluebell school in Limerick city. I accept other methods are available to teach autistic children and the ABA method does not work for all of them but it suits a percentage of children. Parents are willing to go to the ends of the earth to raise money to keep ABA schools going. The school in my constituency receives no Government funding apart from home tuition grants, which are given to most of the children. Their parents will do anything from shaving their heads to holding duck races to raise funds. A local philanthropist who is very kind has also donated money to the school. Parents will do anything for their children, particularly if they have a special need, and they deserve support.

In the long term, these ABA schools will save the State money because approximately 40% of the children who pass through them can enter mainstream schools after a few years of education through the ABA method. One child who attended the Bluebell school in Limerick will enter a mainstream school in September. The child will receive support for the first few months but will be then fully integrated into the school population. ABA is a scientifically based system that has proven its worth. As Deputy O'Rourke stated, it helps children to deal with the world around them because they cannot relate to the world in the way most other children do. They need to learn the behaviour that will allow them to sit in a normal classroom. I have seen children who were taken out of mainstream schools and put into an ABA school before returning to the mainstream school with their behaviour totally changed.

A wide variety of initiatives are in place in the education system and it is argued they are working effectively but they do not provide an adequate solution because we need to understand why parents are willing to fight so hard for ABA schools. This also raises an equality issue. If the 12 schools on the pilot scheme are recognised, why should children in other parts of the State not have the same opportunity and rights as the children attending these schools? I hope minds will be open to this. I am particularly concerned about schools that have been waiting for more than two years for recognition. Every year those involved must raise sufficient funds to keep the schools going. It is all very well if parents can afford to fund the schools but if they cannot, their children are denied their rights. ABA schools facilitate people who cannot afford the fees but, in the long term, affordability is an issue. Whatever about what was just debated regarding a two-tier health service, we cannot allow a two-tier education service to develop, particularly with autistic children, who are so vulnerable. I hope we will have a positive response from the Minister.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputies Jan O'Sullivan and Mary O'Rourke for their good wishes on my election and re-appointment. I am very pleased to see both Deputies back, as it is always important to have people in the Chamber who have a genuine interest in and knowledge of education to be able to debate the issues of importance.

It is significant that two of the issues on the first Adjournment debate concern education. That shows the interest held by all sides of the House. The particular topic raised by the Deputies allows me the opportunity to clarify the Government's position on the education of children with autism and the role of applied behavioural analysis, ABA.

We are determined to ensure that all children get the support they need to reach their full potential. I am particularly conscious that the parents of children with special needs are under much pressure and give much dedicated time and commitment to their children. It is also true that the record of the State over decades in providing for children with special needs was very poor and that we are still playing catch-up. However, significant advances have been made in recent years, improving the lives of children with special needs and their families.

There are now in the region of 17,000 adults in our mainstream schools working solely with children with special needs, compared with just a fraction of that number a few years back. As well as providing for very significant increases in staff, we have also improved the procedures for accessing extra support with the establishment of the National Council for Special Education. Parents and teachers now have local special educational needs organisers on the ground to work with them and help them get the appropriate support for their children.

There are, of course, significant numbers of special schools throughout the country, which continue to play a very important role, and many of which will be developed as centres of excellence. They will support mainstream schools and their children. Over €820 million is being provided for special education in 2007, which is €180 million, or nearly 30%, more than was provided in the 2006 Estimates. Further improvements in services are on the way with the roll-out of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 and the implementation of other commitments in the new programme for Government.

With regard to specific provision for children with autism, the Government believes that as each child with autism is unique, such children should have access to a range of different approaches to meet their individual needs. Applied behavioural analysis, or ABA, is one of the methods used in special classes for children with autism. The issue of contention is whether ABA should be the only method used in some settings.

Advice received from international experts on autism, the National Educational Psychological Service and the inspectorate inform the Department of Education and Science's view that a range of approaches should be used, rather than just one. An analysis of research, including the report of the Irish task force on autism, also supports this approach, and autism societies in other countries also caution against relying on just one method. By enabling children in special classes to have access to a range of methods, including ABA, the Government is doing what we are advised is in the best interests of such children.

It should be noted that teachers in special schools were using ABA principles more than 25 years ago. ABA involves the systematic application, at any time during the child's day, of behavioural principles to modify behaviour. The effectiveness of behavioural interventions to improve the performance of children with autism and to ameliorate behavioural difficulties has been recognised for decades.

The use of ABA as part of the range of interventions is particularly useful for addressing behavioural issues. The Department of Education and Science therefore supports the use of ABA and training is provided for teachers in its use. However, the Department does not accept, based on research, advice and best practice, that it should be the only method used. Whereas ABA helps to improve behaviour, other methods, such as TEACCH and PECS, are just as important in developing children's communication and speech skills.

It is important that children have access to a range of methods so their broader needs can be met. Children in special classes have the benefit of fully-qualified teachers trained in educating and developing children generally and who have access to additional training in autism-specific approaches, including ABA. The level of such training available to teachers has improved dramatically in recent years and is a major priority for the Government. Children in special classes also have the option, where possible and appropriate, of full or partial integration into mainstream classes and of interaction with other pupils.

Approximately 200 autism-specific classes have now been approved around the country, while more are being set up all the time. There are a maximum of six children in each special class with a teacher and at least two special needs assistants. Extra assistants are provided where the children need them. An individual child can have his or her individual SNA if he or she needs one.

In regard to the programme for Government commitment raised by the Deputies, the position is that this relates only to the 12 pilot ABA centres that were established in the absence of this network of special classes in our schools.

The Government is committed to long-term funding for these 12 pilot centres, subject to agreement on standards that will enable the Department to support them as primary schools for children with autism. Areas in which standards need to be agreed include the professional qualifications of the staff and the educational programme available to the children.

I am pleased to advise the Deputies that, since the launch of the programme for Government, the officials from the Department of Education and Science met the advocacy group for the pilot centres concerned — I met the groups concerned many months prior to that — to progress the implementation of this commitment.

In terms of autism provision in other locations, we will continue to work to ensure that all children can have access to a broad programme, with provision for ABA as appropriate, in special classes. I hope this clarifies the position for the Deputies and I thank them again for raising the matter.