Dáil debates

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Adjournment Debate

Special Educational Needs.

5:00 pm

Photo of Terence FlanaganTerence Flanagan (Dublin North East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this serious issue. Achieve ABA school in Donaghmede was established to provide education for autistic children. It was founded by a group of parents whose children's needs were not being catered for by the Department of Education and Science. The Minister for Education and Science provides a home tuition allowance to the parents of the children attending this school. However, the allowance only covers 50% of the costs and as a result parents must come up with the other 50%, which is placing an enormous financial strain on them. To make matters worse, the Minister now only provides the home tuition allowance on a monthly basis. Meanwhile, parents are left not knowing whether they will receive this allowance. This is a national disgrace. The school is unable to plan for the future and cannot give tutors a guarantee that they will be paid.

The ABA model is viewed worldwide as the best way to educate autistic children. While it does not work for every autistic child, it has achieved outstanding results among many children. Only last week, we witnessed the Ó Cuanacháin family being dragged through the courts as they fought to obtain education for their child, Seán. They now face a massive legal bill. It is one of the great scandals of this Republic that the parents of autistic children still have to go through the courts as a means of getting justice for their children because the education system has failed them so disgracefully over a period of prolonged prosperity. There are 12 Government-funded ABA schools in operation on a pilot scheme. The Minister for Education and Science stated recently in the Dáil that no more ABA schools will be built or funded and that all autistic children will be taught in mainstream schools. All other ABA schools are now at risk because of the Department's intended position that these children will attend mainstream schools, whether they can manage or not. However, students are attending ABA schools because mainstream schools are not providing for their needs.

I urge the Minister to recognise Achieve ABA school in Donaghmede and to allocate funding annually to the school. I invite her to visit Achieve ABA and witness at first hand the excellent work it is conducting in educating autistic children. By visiting this school, the Minister will realise she is wrong to deny it a place on her pilot programme. Allocating funding to 12 ABA schools in Ireland and ignoring the other ABA schools is grossly unjust. All autistic children have the right to access the same standard of education. The Minister's policy of not providing funding for additional ABA schools means that many autistic children are missing out on the best chance of leading a normal and productive life. International research for the past 40 years has shown that up to half of children who engage in ABA as their primary method of preschool intervention go on to mainstream education without additional supports.

The Minister's approach, which provides a range of educational approaches, is not working for lower functioning children. It is obvious that both ABA local schools for autistic children and mainstream places are needed. The Government's approach is useless to a large percentage of lower functioning children who need ABA schools. The Minister should concentrate on developing a model to meet the teaching needs of all children with autism. She should cherish all the children of the nation equally and not treat autistic children in Ireland as second class citizens.

Photo of Pat CareyPat Carey (Minister of State with special responsibility for Drugs Strategy and Community Affairs, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to clarify the current situation on Achieve ABA.

The home tuition scheme was established to provide funding to parents for the education at home of children who, for a number of reasons such as chronic illness, are unable to attend school. The scheme was extended in recent years to facilitate tuition for children awaiting a suitable educational placement.

While the Department does not fund Achieve ABA directly, parents have been using the funding provided through the home tuition scheme to give this tuition in a group setting at the centre. Home tuition funding cannot be provided indefinitely in respect of children who have school placements available to them. A suitable school place is available for each of the children attending this centre. Officials in the Department of Education and Science have written to the parents of the children attending the centre in question regarding the home tuition scheme. The Government is committed to ensuring all children can have access to an education appropriate to their needs and abilities.

The Government believes that as each child with autism is unique, each child should have access to a range of different approaches to meet individual needs. This view is informed by advice received from international experts on autism, the National Educational Psychological Service and the inspectorate. An analysis of research, including the report of the Irish task force on autism, also supports this approach while 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, we are doing what we are advised is in the best interests of such children.

The Department of Education and Science has supported the use of ABA for many years 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. While ABA can address certain needs, in particular behaviour other methods such as TEACCH and PECS are just as important, especially in developing children's communication and speech skills. It is important that children have access to a range of methods so that their broader needs can be met.

Hundreds of children with autism are integrated into mainstream schools and hundreds more are in autism-specific classes. More than 275 autism-specific classes have been approved throughout the country while more are being set up all the time. A testament to the scale of progress being made in this area is the fact that the number of such classes has increased by more than 40% in the past year alone. 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. A child can have his or her own SNA if needed. Children in special classes have the benefit of fully qualified teachers who are 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.

The Department of Education and Science and the National Council for Special Education have been working hard to ensure all children with autism have access to a range of approaches in special classes. A number of years ago, before this extensive network was in place, some centres were approved for funding under an ABA pilot programme. The Government is committed to long-term funding for these pilots subject to agreement on certain standards, such as appropriate qualifications for staff and the type of educational programme available to the children. Discussions have taken place with Irish Autism Action with a view to advancing this commitment as soon as possible.

Other centres, including the one to which the Deputy refers, are seeking funding under the pilot scheme. Now that a national network of special classes is available, however, new centres will not be brought into the pilot programme. We are determined instead to ensure each child has access to the autism-specific education being made available to schools throughout the country. Appropriate placements are available in local schools for the children attending the centre in question. I hope this clarifies the position for the Deputy and I thank him once again for raising the matter.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 12 February 2008.