Wednesday, 15 October 2008
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting for the Adjournment this serious situation created by the withdrawal of the visiting teacher for visually-impaired students in County Mayo. This service was already restricted but nonetheless invaluable to the 45 visually-impaired students attending schools in County Mayo. Each school where there was a student or students with visual impairment was visited, probably just once a term, so that they could get the help and advice needed.
The visiting teacher was withdrawn in September and replaced by a telephone consultation advice service on each Monday for two hours. We have all been hearing about the cutbacks in education after yesterday's budget, but the withdrawal of the visiting teacher in County Mayo came two months ago and is especially miserable because it takes away what was only a partial service in the first place. This is a cutback on top of a cutback. We have been assured that the savings introduced by the Minister will not affect the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. There is evidence to the contrary in this instance. The amount of money needed to restore the partial service that existed before September would be only minute in the great scheme of things.
This service is critical to the education of children with visual impairment. It is of vital importance not only to the affected student but also to the teacher and the student's classmates. Everyone is made aware of the difficulties a visually impaired child can face. Advice is also given on the teaching tools and computer technology that can be of great assistance. I was visited by the parents of visually impaired children following the withdrawal of this service. It is hard to explain to them that we could sit in the House all night a week or two ago to provide billions to bail out banks, yet we cannot provide a few buttons, as it were, to maintain a service such as this.
After speaking with a number of school principals and the parents affected by this, I cannot over-emphasise the necessity of restoring the visiting teacher. It was an invaluable service for teachers and visually impaired students. To suggest that the same service can be provided by mobile telephone is grossly insulting to the plight of these children. The telephone solution is really quite bizarre when one considers that it is dealing with visually impaired students. Equally alarming is that the Department of Education and Science, through its directorate of regional services, has indicated that while new referrals can continue to be sent to the regional office, there is no guarantee of service for them until further notice.
Does this mean that new students in County Mayo with visual impairment will get no assistance until further notice? I do not know what the Minister will reply but I am anxious that my question is answered before I leave the House. I make a final appeal to the Minister to restore this service. The children with visual impairment relied on it. Even though it was limited and inexpensive, it gave them a sense of security and self-esteem. In short, they felt cared for. Will the Minister walk away from them now, in their hour of need?
Seán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to make a statement on this matter. The Department of Education and Science's visiting teacher service promotes, facilitates and supports the education of children with visual impairment from pre-school through first and second level schooling to third level. In addition to working with individual children, the work of a visiting teacher includes involvement with parents, schools, teachers and access offices in third level institutions. A key element of the visiting teacher's work is engagement with a range of referral agencies, such as the National Council for the Blind in Ireland, special education needs organisers and other agencies working in support of visually impaired children and their families.
Taking account of an individual child's level of impairment and need for support, the involvement of a visiting teacher with that child may vary between once weekly contact in the case of blind children; monthly, once a term or annual contact in other cases and occasional visits to special schools primarily to support staff where children have other underlying disabilities. With regard to County Mayo, referral agencies, schools and parents of pre-school children with visual impairment currently are being informed by visiting teacher management of an interim telephone advisory service that is now being provided while alternative arrangements for a visiting teacher presence in County Mayo are examined. New referrals to the service continue to be accepted and assessed.
Most recent caseload figures for County Mayo show a total of 51 children who are eligible for support from the visiting teacher service on current criteria. These break down as follows: six of pre-school age, 23 in primary schools, eight at second level and 14 in special schools. I assure the Deputy that every effort will be made to provide a service in County Mayo at the earliest opportunity. Again, I thank him for affording me the opportunity to outline the current position regarding this matter.