Wednesday, 8 June 2011
Special Educational Needs
Question 8: To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if his attention has been drawn to any difficulties or constraints being experienced by parents of children with special needs or behavioural problems accessing school places in view of the arbitrary date of 18 March for awarding special needs assistants. [14657/11]
The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, issued a circular to schools advising of the allocation process for the 2011-12 school year. A key feature of the scheme will be to provide for an annual allocation of special needs assistant, SNA, support to eligible schools. The NCSE asked schools to submit all applications for SNA support to it by 18 March 2011. It intends to inform schools of their annual SNA allocation as soon as possible. I am advised by the NCSE that it is not aware of any widespread difficulties being experienced by parents of children with special needs seeking to enrol children for the coming school year as a result of this measure. It further advises that in the event that any such issues arise they can be raised directly with the special educational needs organiser, SENO. Section 29 of the Education Act 1998 provides parents with an appeal process where a board of management of a school refuses to enrol a student.
When I raised a similar question with a Minister previously he indicated he would examine the matter. He states the National Council for Special Education has not encountered widespread difficulties in this regard. The difficulty faced by families is that they must go from one school to another. I have been contacted by the parents of three children with dyslexia who are trying to have their children enrolled in a particular school but the resources available to the school in question are creating a hurdle.
The Minister previously clarified the position regarding the ratio of 9:1. I presume this will be used as a fall-back position. The system is making it increasingly difficult for families who must already jump through many hoops to access school places for children with special needs. It may be the autumn before a child enters the system and the appeals process also takes a long time.
The Taoiseach indicated this morning that the House debate special educational needs. I presume the Minister would support such a debate. This aspect of education must be addressed. While I welcome the clarification provided by the Minister, is it possible to fast-track the application process for children with special needs?
I will respond first in general terms before addressing specific cases if the Deputy so wishes. The number of special needs assistants in the system, which has been capped, stands at 10,575. Through the National Council for Special Education, we are trying to move to a system where each school has an allocation of special needs assistants and each principal will have a degree of discretion in allocating the SNA resource across a range of pupils. In the past, an individual SNA was attached to an individual pupil for a certain period. In response to many of the requests that have come back from educational providers themselves and boards of management, we are trying to get a certain degree of flexibility. It is in the early stages yet and they are looking at ways in which schools in a similar area could possibly share SNAs, from one school to a cluster of schools. There may be efficiencies and an effective redeployment of resources within that model. We will be guided by what is practical and what works on the ground, but that is where we are at the moment. We have to cap it at 10,575 but we want to ensure that we will get the best possible utilisation of that resource.
I am aware of a number of teachers who have come in from a DÉIS area and I have already raised the issue of flexibility with the Minister. We are all seeking a fairer system in this regard but families are facing difficulties regardless because it will take a while to tweak or change the system. We must help those families around the current system, while sending a positive signal that it will improve for them. One principal I spoke to said that since 2009 some 21 children with autism have applied for places in his school. He said he wanted to take them in and it is part of the school's mission statement to do so, but the big difficulty is a lack of resources. That is just an example of one school.
People may ask how it is that there are so many children with special needs and whether some people are abusing the system but I do not believe so. The fact is that these matters are being identified a lot earlier now. I accept that it comes down to resources but if resources can be taken from other sections within the education system it would give these children and their families a chance. The last thing we want to see is families having to go to court to seek their legal entitlements.
I would agree with the Deputy that the last thing parents of children with special needs want is to have that situation compounded by having to go through the courts. We are trying to find a system that will work within the limited resources we have and to maximise its efficiency.