Tuesday, 14 June 2011
Special Educational Needs: Statements
Tony Mulcahy (Fine Gael)
I welcome the Minister to the House. I am a parent of a 19 year old with special needs who has moved beyond the education process and is now engaged on a Brothers of Charity work programme. There is no doubt that costs need to be managed within this wide-ranging area. Senator Reilly rightly pointed out the position up to 2009, including the OECD report. Over the past nine or ten years, the solution was to fire money at the problem, providing school assistants for children with special needs. The problem was that we had special needs assistants in schools who were not qualified for anything other than taking such children to the toilet. We must give a better service and when we are providing special needs assistants in schools they should impart knowledge and support to the children involved.
In an urban school with 800 pupils, for example, there may be five or six with special needs and two assistants to care for them and support them in the mainstream environment. We should use trainee teachers in such circumstances or those who have just started work. It would also help trainees to gain experience in schools. Above all, there should be a programme of service delivery to support those children and their parents. Such a programme should be co-ordinated across the country, rather than being hit and miss. Unfortunately, we put thousands of special needs assistants into schools with no programme or purpose to support them.
I was involved in the mainstreaming structures but that was a disastrous programme in recent years. We mainstreamed children with severe intellectual disability in primary schools where they had no support. In addition, they probably had no chance of ever getting such support. We set about closing down some of the special needs schools and now find that we have had to reverse that decision. As a result, children are going back into special needs schools because they get better support. For example, they may have classrooms with only five or six pupils and two or three special needs assistants. My child benefited from her time in a special needs school. She would not have had a snowball's chance in hell in a school with 34 other children in the classroom; it would not have been possible. While I welcome the input from the Minister of State, I ask him to consider managing our services better. Delivering a quality service might improve our OECD ratings.
We have been paying €1.6 billion annually to 42 service providers throughout the country. They are supposed to delver a service to 65,000 young adults with an intellectual disability. About 11,500 of them are in full-time residential care. While I know some of the services we get for that €1.6 billion, it is an horrendous amount of money. I understand that the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, has launched an investigation into some of the organisations involved. We have chief executives within those organisations who are paying themselves salaries of between €200,000 and €400,000 a year. If we are seeking value for money, we should examine those areas and recoup some of the vast sums of money we have been firing at service providers. There are very few religious brothers and sisters left in charitable organisations but many lay people have made a fine business out of providing services to people with intellectual disabilities. We should undertake a serious root and branch investigation into services that were created on the back of the Celtic tiger in recent years, and bring costs back into line. I know of a preschool recently where a special needs assistant was getting €19.20 an hour to support a child with severe autism who needed support while the person running the preschool was getting €50 a week to have the child present. There is a great imbalance there. In such a case we need to ensure the preschool is supported financially to care for the child and the special needs assistant perhaps needs to be paid a little bit less. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House and I hope he takes some of those views on board.