Thursday, 20 June 2013
Topical Issue Debate
Special Educational Needs Expenditure
Yesterday the National Council for Special Education announced a cut of 10% in support hours for children with special needs. This brings the total in cuts per child to 25% since 2010. The INTO has argued that the cuts are even worse than this figure suggests because the Department of Education and Skills and the council are hiding the true extent of cuts from parents. The needs of these children have not decreased by 25%. Some time ago, when we were trying to reverse the cuts to special needs assistants, I met a parent in Leinster House who told me that an official from whom she was trying to get support asked her if the child was still autistic.
In County Wicklow, nearly 400 hours will be cut at primary and post-primary level. The figures on the level of need in County Wicklow are not available.
We know that need is growing by 10% per annum nationally, and I have no reason to believe the position is different in County Wicklow.
I know as well as any Deputy that money is tight. However, public money is being put to a variety of uses. For example, hundreds of millions of euro have been used to meet the cost of pay increments in the public sector over the same period and the Health Service Executive is buying drugs at several times the price being paid by the British National Health Service. It is not acceptable to force children with special needs to pay for the sins of politicians and bankers. I call on the Government, specifically the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, to immediately announce that the budget will be scaled up to ensure resource hours are not cut.
I mean no offence to the Minister of State in pointing out that I submitted this matter with a view to having the Minister for Education and Skills come before the House to discuss it. His failure to do so highlights the need for Dáil reform.
As Deputy Donnelly pointed out, support hours for children with special educational needs are about to be cut again, this time by 10%. With an additional 4,100 children who need resources about to start school, the Government has indicated it will not fund the additional resources they require and will instead maintain spending on special educational needs at current levels. This decision will mean that a child who would have received five hours' support from a special needs assistant in 2010 will receive only 3 hours and 45 minutes of SNA support from next September onwards.
This savage, sickening and unacceptable cut has been condemned across the board, including by the INTO, the joint managerial body which represents secondary schools and Down Syndrome Ireland. It is being made at a time when backbench Deputies are recommending giving children with Down's syndrome access to special needs assistants. The Minister must announce in the next day or two that he intends to reverse the cut. This must not be done at the expense of other services, as occurred when maintenance grants were cut to fund the cost of reversing cuts to DEIS schools. The Government must provide the additional moneys required to fund special needs education for children.
At Stewarts hospital, resources will not be provided for children moving into adult services because the HSE refuses to fund education for 18 year olds. This is another case of people being refused the support they need. The authorities are aware that the young people in question have been in the system for the past 18 years, yet they are refusing to provide sufficient resources to allow them to move into adult services. The position is disgraceful.
I have been contacted by parents of children attending Scoil Mhuire in Wexford who are shocked and saddened by the decision to cut the school's allocation of special needs assistants by 2.5 full-time positions, which follows a cut of six SNAs a couple of years ago. This is the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the ASD unit in Scoil Mhuire. At that time, the Department agreed to provide one-to-one SNA support for each child enrolled with a diagnosis of autism. The ASD unit at Scoil Mhuire became the most successful unit of its kind in the country and one of the most successful in Europe. It succeeded in integrating 57% of its pupils into full-time mainstream classes in a period when the national average was 19%.
In 2011, the National Council for Special Education, following a review of the allocation of special needs assistants to the unit, axed six SNA positions, citing as the reason that pupils were presenting with diminished care needs. The parents of the children in the unit did not agree with the NCSE's assessment but were denied a right of appeal. Two years later, and for the first time since the unit was opened, while some children are partially integrated into mainstream classes, not one child will move from the ASD unit into a mainstream class this September. Effectively, therefore, full-time integration has declined from 57% to 0% in two years.
Parents have nothing but praise for staff in Scoil Mhuire who have done everything possible to make the system work. The challenges facing them, however, are unbearable. Children who are partially integrated may not be in a position to continue with partial integration because the latest cut of 2.5 SNAs will make it impossible for the few remaining special needs assistants to leave the ASD unit to support the children in question. The ASD unit was attached to Scoil Mhuire for the specific purpose of enabling children with autism to enter mainstream classes. Its sole purpose has been all but removed. Denying a child access to an education is one of the forms of abuse specified in the Government's Children First guidelines. The absence of SNA support will mean that education will no longer be available for some children. It would be hard to make this up.
I thank the Deputies for raising this issue as it gives me an opportunity to clarify the position on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. While I acknowledge the point made by Deputy Joan Collins regarding the presence of the senior Minister, it should be noted that I am a Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills.
The Government has maintained the €1.3 billion of annual funding for additional teaching resources and special needs assistants, SNAs, to support children with special educational needs at a time when there is a requirement to make expenditure savings across a range of areas. As the Tánaiste outlined to the House this morning, two out of every five adults working in our schools are solely dedicated to catering for the needs of children with special educational needs. We have no doubt about the value of the service that these staff provide and the value children and their parents derive from it. However, we are not in a position to dramatically increase the number of special needs assistants or any other service for reasons of which everyone is aware.
No one can doubt the Government's commitment to special education. We have maintained the number of resource teachers and special needs assistants in the system since coming into office, despite enormous budgetary pressures in education and every other front-line service. That said, as a public representative, I am acutely aware of the concerns that have been expressed by parents and teachers in the media in the last 48 hours. We need to be clear in all debates, both in this House and elsewhere, about what these changes mean to ensure we avoid creating any unnecessary distress or alarm.
The provision for SNA support for the next school year will remain at exactly the same level as the provision for the current school year. In its announcement the National Council for Special Education pointed to an increase in demand for resource teaching posts of the order of slightly more than 10%. Deputies will be aware that children with learning support and special educational needs are supported through learning support provision and NCSE-allocated resource teachers. In primary schools, learning support is provided through the general allocation model and similar direct provision is made in post-primary schools. These supports have been maintained for this year.
The year-on-year growth in the overall student population is approximately 1.3%. This year, the demand for additional resource teachers from the NCSE has grown by more than 10%. While the NCSE is not yet in a position to provide a clear analysis of the underlying reasons for the very large increase in demand this year, it is clear that some of this increased demand arises from the migration of students from learning support provision to NCSE-allocated resource teacher support. This has created a significant additional pressure on the resources available to the NCSE. However, it should also have reduced, by equal measure, the pressure on the learning support resources already allocated to schools.
Schools are encouraged to make maximum use of their resource and learning support teaching allocations through appropriate grouping and pairing of children, as appropriate, to ensure children do not lose out on teaching time. This is a vital point for parents to hear because an increase in the use of more collaborative, team-based approaches to teaching can help ensure that no child will face a significant reduction in the amount of time spent with his or her resource teacher.
I know the Minister of State did not make this decision, but it is very difficult to speak calmly and with parliamentary language about what is happening in the country. Listening to what the Minister of State said, one would not know anything was wrong. He said the Government was maintaining funding. Let us at least do the children and their parents the decency of being honest about this - it is a cut. For the children with special needs and their parents, it is a cut of 25%, and for the other children, who are in a class where there is a child with special needs, and their parents it is a cut of 25%.
The social welfare bill goes up and down as people sign on and go back to work. If the Government reduced the total amount of social welfare support by half because twice the number of people signed on, it would be a cut. I do not believe this cut is necessary. I believe the money could be found elsewhere. I see other places which are less deserving of support than children with special needs and their parents. Let us find the money and let us please at least acknowledge what is happening to these children and their parents, and call it what it is - per child it is a cut.
I agree with Deputy Donnelly. It is very hard for me to hold my temper when I hear the calculated response from the Government the Minister of State represents in trying to play a three-card trick and claim there is not a cut. One of today's newspapers highlighted the case of the Sacred Heart senior national school in Killinarden in Tallaght which applied for 90 resource teaching hours for September but has been given only 63 hours - the same as this year - despite having four more pupils with this entitlement. This year the school has seven special needs assistants, SNAs, which will be cut next year to six even though there are more pupils with an entitlement. That is plainly a cut. The Minister of State cannot dress it up as anything else.
I received an e-mail from Liscarroll national school in County Cork. One particular student because of his needs attends school solely for his resource hours times which were already cut this year. This student will now require to stay at home even longer because of the cuts imposed. I hope the Labour backbench Deputies will stand up for the rights of these children as much as they are standing up for the rights of the Seanad next door that should be put in the dustbin of history. The same set of Deputies are not backing what is needed desperately to support these young children and their parents. It is scandalous to see this happening and we see no outcry from those backbenchers who are supposed to be defending children's rights.
The parents who rang me today found it difficult to listen to the Tánaiste as he played with words this morning because it just did not come across well. We know that SNA support has been very costly and still is. However, it is something that Ireland can be proud of because it sent out a signal that we were a caring society and prioritised those who most needed our help. Are we as caring a society today as we were a few years ago? The manner in which we are organising our society is beginning to leave much to be desired. Things could be different. We set priorities and make choices. We are cutting resources from people who most need our help and it is not fair.
I wish to reiterate two points. The year-on-year growth in the overall student population is 1.3% and the demand for additional teaching resources from the NCSE has grown by 10%. If we are to be serious about this issue, we must interpret that dynamic, which has not yet been done. The NCSE is not yet in a position to provide a clear analysis of the underlying reasons for the large increase in demand this year.
There is no overall reduction in resource teacher numbers for the coming school year. The number of posts available to the National Council for Special Education for allocation is 5,265, which is the same as last year. We must ensure we provide the service. That 5,265 is in addition to the 4,450 learning support teachers provided to all schools to support children with less complex learning needs, giving a total of 9,950 teachers for children with special educational needs. We need to hear from the NCSE as to why there is an increase in the overall population of 1.3% and the correlation between that and the massive increase in demand. That needs to be interpreted in some way.
We must also ensure we get the best possible use of the €1.3 billion spent annually to support children with special educational needs. That is why we asked the NCSE last year to provide the policy advice on how students with special educational needs should be supported in future. One of the recommendations made by the NCSE in its policy advice is that a new model should be developed for the allocation of additional teaching resources to mainstream schools based on the profiled need of each school. On foot of this advice, the Minister asked the NCSE to proceed immediately to establish a working group to develop a proposal for consideration of a revised allocation mechanism as set out in the principal recommendation of the report. The aim of this new mechanism will be to ensure all learning support and resource teacher posts are allocated to schools in line with the schools' educational profile and need for such support rather than using other mechanisms such as the number of students in a school or the number of class teachers in a school.
We are conscious there are challenges, and in making any changes to our supports for children with special educational needs, we also need to protect the gains we have made. Based on the allocation of resources from 1993 to now, there has been a massive increase in the level of support by the State for this area. I wish to give assurance that consultation will be a key aspect in the implementation of any of the recommendations.