Dáil debates

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Rural Environment Protection Scheme

Special Educational Needs.

9:00 pm

Photo of Mary UptonMary Upton (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak again on this issue this evening and I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for selecting this topic.

The decision to suspend classes for children with mild general learning disability is seriously regressive. It is, again, hitting the most at risk children in the community and I am afraid that the mantra that the most vulnerable are to be protected is one that I am finding a bit difficult to take on board anymore. The decision on children with mild general learning disability is damaging to the morale of teachers who have worked so hard to help these children to be able to cope with the mainstream class and it is causing enormous worry to the parents of the children concerned.

I pose a few questions to the Minister. What is his plan for September next when a new intake of pupils will impact on the current status and the probability that the numbers of children who were in the mild general learning disability category will increase? In almost all of the schools with which I am in contact in the areas that I have mentioned in Dublin 8 and Dublin 10, the teachers are aware of their communities, know the children, know what their intake will be like and are confident that the numbers will increase. Will they regain a teacher, or a class, if the numbers increase or will they be left to struggle on and be even more disadvantaged than at present?

What is the position regarding the general allocation ratio? When will that be reviewed? It seems that the Department is prompt in reviewing the ratio when the numbers drop and is not quite so efficient when it comes to an increase in numbers.

Four schools, in particular, have asked that the possibility of clustering be considered to allow the retention of a combined special class for the pupils with mild general learning disability. St. Louise De Marillac junior and senior schools in Ballyfermot would be happy to consider combining classes, thus meeting the required numbers to justify a special class as specified by the Minister. Scoil Iosagáin and Scoil Mhuire-Sheosamh De La Salle in Ballyfermot make the same request. They, too, would be happy to form a combined class if it is approved.

I am anxious to establish the position on clustering of classes in schools for purposes of mild general learning disability. The Taoiseach indicated, at questions in the Dáil a few weeks ago, that this was a possibility. On 10 March last, however, in reply to my parliamentary question, it was not clear what the intentions were in relation to this possibility.

The schools I mentioned need clarity. Many other schools in Dublin 8 and Dublin 10 also need clarity on the prospects for September next and I can only emphasise again the negative consequences for the many children who will be seriously affected if the decision to cut these classes is upheld.

The issue is not just about classes for those with mild general learning disability. For many of the schools in the areas that I have identified the level of disadvantage is significant, the dropout rate is high, the reports have been published and the statistics speak for themselves. While it is true that improvements have been observed, these recent decisions will simply turn back the clock and the cycle of disadvantage and drop-out will continue.

In reply to my parliamentary question on 10 March last, the Minister stated:

I am open to listening to proposals from schools where they can demonstrate that it is educationally more beneficial for the pupils involved to be in a special class of their own rather than to be integrated with their peers and supported by the mainstream classroom teacher and the learning resource teacher.

The sentiment of that statement was encouraging because it reflects educational needs as a priority. The facts, unfortunately, belie the sentiment as it would appear that number crunching and financial considerations are the driving force in the recent decisions.

The schools I mentioned are open to clustering of classes. They are making a serious effort to put together a package that would be acceptable and helpful to them, and I would ask the Minister to take that on board.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán 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 am taking this Adjournment on behalf of my colleague Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, Minister for Education and Science.

I thank Deputy Upton for raising this issue as it provides me with the opportunity to clarify the position on this matter. The first and most important point I wish to make is that all pupils with a mild general learning disability will continue to have additional teaching resources to support their education. There will be no pupil with a special educational need who will be without access to a special needs teacher as a result of the decision to apply the normal rules which govern the appointment and retention of teachers of special classes for pupils with a mild general learning disability.

All primary schools have been allocated additional teaching resources to enable them support pupils with high incidence special educational needs including mild general learning disability. Each school was given these additional teaching resources under the general allocation model of learning support-resource teaching introduced in 2005.

I emphasise that these additional teaching resources have not been withdrawn from any school. Schools can decide how best to use this allocation based on the needs of the pupils. Most pupils with a mild general learning disability are included in ordinary classes with their peers and are supported by their class teacher. The curriculum is flexible so that teachers can cater for the needs of pupils of different abilities. This policy of inclusion has widespread support within the educational community. Schools can use their resource-learning support allocation to give pupils special help if they need it. This might be done with a teacher working with a group of pupils or on a one-to-one basis for a few hours each week.

Before the general allocation model was introduced, some schools grouped pupils with a mild general learning disability into special classes. The Deputy will be aware that allocations to schools typically increase or decrease depending on pupil enrolment. In the case of special classes for pupils with a mild general learning disability, the normal pupil teacher ratio that applies is 11:1. My Department, however, allows for a small reduction in this number and permits a school to retain a teaching post where it has a minimum of nine pupils in the class. The rules also provide that a teacher would no longer be allocated where the number of pupils fell below nine.

In a number of schools in Dublin 8 and Dublin 10, the number of pupils dropped below this minimum and the schools no longer qualify for the teaching posts in these classes. This was the sole criteria for selection of schools in this regard.

In 2005, when the general allocation model was introduced, schools with additional teachers in classes for mild general learning disability were allowed to retain the teachers for these classes. Effectively, these schools received a double allocation. The number of these special classes has decreased over the years and schools have integrated the pupils into age-appropriate mainstream classes. All of the other primary schools in the country which do not have classes for pupils with mild general learning disability cater for these pupils from within the general allocation model.

As I have previously stated, the Minister is open to listening to proposals from schools where they can demonstrate that it is educationally more beneficial for the pupils involved to be in a special class of their own rather than to be integrated with their peers and supported by the mainstream classroom teacher and the learning resource teacher, as the Deputy has referred to. I understand that correspondence has been received in my Department from a number of schools in Dublin 10 in this regard. My Department will be in direct contact with these schools on this matter.

There has been unprecedented investment in providing supports for pupils with special needs in recent years. There are now approximately 19,000 adults in our schools working solely with pupils with special needs. There are over 8,000 resource and learning support teachers in our schools compared with just 2,000 in 1998. Over 1,000 other teachers support pupils in our special schools.

I take this opportunity to emphasise that priority will continue to be given to provision for pupils with special educational needs. The establishment of mild general learning disability classes pre-dates many of the developments in special education policy in recent years and we now have a system for providing schools with supports for pupils with high incidence special needs through the general allocation model.

The natural sympathy we all have for pupils with special needs and their parents makes it all the more important that we do not cloud facts with emotion. The parents of all children with mild general learning disability need to know that their children in mainstream classes are getting a quality education delivered by committed class teachers and supplemented by additional support from the resource and learning support teachers. This is happening every day in schools across the country and will continue to happen.

The Department of Education and Science has received correspondence on this matter from a number of schools in Dublin 10 and that correspondence is under consideration. I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to outline the position on this matter.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 25 March 2009.