Wednesday, 6 December 2017
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
Special Educational Needs Staff
31. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills his views on concerns being expressed that there are more special needs assistants than members of An Garda Síochána; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [52199/17]
No. I would not agree with any such concerns being expressed. It has been a core goal of our Action Plan for Education that every child will have an equal opportunity to fulfil their potential in school. That has had strong legislative support from the Oireachtas when as far back as 2004 we passed the Education of Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, which set out the inclusive approach to education of children with special educational needs. The consequence of that is that we have had an enormous growth in both resource teaching and special needs assistants, SNAs, and that has a knock-on effect. The number of SNAs is currently 13,990, which represents an increase of 32% since 2011. There are over 34,000 children receiving the support of SNAs. That figure is up dramatically in that same period, more or less proportionately. Almost 60% of those children are supported in mainstream schools, 20% in special classes and the remainder in special schools. It is provided to ensure that all pupils have the care needs to allow them participate in education. It has resulted in a dramatic improvement in the completion of children with special needs in school so we are seeing children with special needs getting to fulfil their potential in the school.
The allocation is done entirely independently by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. It assesses objectively the needs of each child and decides against criteria where they are allocated.
The NCSE is carrying out a comprehensive assessment of the SNA scheme aimed at providing better outcomes for students and ensuring we are making the best additional investment for children with special educational needs. The Government is committed to ensuring the best possible results for children and students in this area. This process is the best way to deliver that. I have therefore asked the NCSE to conduct a comprehensive review of the SNA scheme and this review is due to be completed early next year.
As a former SNA, I acknowledge the fantastic work SNAs do. They are a huge part of the education system. I welcome the increase in special needs provision in recent years. The transformation of special education over the past 20 years, in which successive Governments have played a part, has been remarkable. We can all be very proud of this. Nonetheless, parents of children with special needs were shocked to hear a senior Government Minister say that there are now more SNAs than there are gardaí. There is concern that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, believes this is a bad thing as he is reported as having expressed alarm about the sharp increase in the cost of education for children with special needs - our most vulnerable children - which is costing the State more than the higher education system. It is reported that the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has commissioned a review of the special needs assistance scheme. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, referenced this review in his reply. According to Lorraine Dempsey of the Special Needs Parents Association rising costs are more than justified and what is alarming is that the Department of Education and Skills has not anticipated these increases. I would like the Minister to comment on the matter.
I can assure the Deputy that the Minister for Finance is one of the strongest supporters of investment in special education needs, in respect of which provision has increased since 2011. Even in the most difficult times, in 2011 22,000 children were provided with SNA support. SNA provision now stands at 34,000, which means an additional 12,000 children are now in receipt of SNA support. Also, with the agreement of the Minister for Finance, into the future the provision of SNAs will be provided for in the Estimates such that schools will no longer have to wait until late in the year for know their allocations. We have already made provision for the appointment of SNAs for September 2018 in this year's budget. This is the first time this has been done and this has been facilitated by the Minister for Finance. In response to the Deputy's question, we will be in a position to allow parents and schools know earlier of their allocations.
A review of this scheme is really important. We did a similar review in respect of resource teaching and it resulted in the development of a model that I believe is much better than the previous model.
I welcome that into the future everyone will know earlier where they stand with regard to the allocation of hours. The Minister mentioned the review. Have the terms of reference for this review been agreed? Will the emphasis be on short-term financial sustainability or the long-term social and individual good of enabling children to realise their full potential, which is more important? Will the terms of reference acknowledge that, as stated by the special education supports groups, costs are rising owing to better diagnosis, additional medical complexities and the growth in child population?
I can assure the Deputy that there is wide consultation on this review. The Deputy will be aware that the chairman of the NCSE, Mr. Eamon Stack, is a former inspector of the Department of Education and Skills and a man of high reputation. The review is being conducted to ensure that the full potential of each child is secured. Great care will be taken to ensure that all evidence on need in this area, international and domestic, will be gathered. Having had sight of the work done on the resource teaching model, which I believe is a much better model as a result of the review, I look forward to the findings and recommendations of the new review early in the new year.