Seanad debates

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Commencement Matters

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

10:30 am

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Senator for raising this matter to which I am replying on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Health with responsibility for primary and social care, Deputy Kathleen Lynch.

The participation of children with a disability in preschools is a cross-cutting issue involving several stakeholders, including the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs, Health, and Education and Skills, as well as the HSE. The free preschool year is provided through the early childhood care and education programme, ECCE, which is the responsibility of my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. The objective of this scheme is to make early learning in a formal setting available to eligible children in the year before they commence primary school.

While the HSE has no statutory obligation to provide supports for children with special needs wishing to avail of the free preschool year, it works at local level and in partnership with the relevant disability service providers to address individual needs as they arise. This is done in a number of ways, such as funding special preschools that cater specifically for children with disabilities.

In some limited cases at local level, HSE disability services have also facilitated children with disabilities to attend mainstream preschools by providing funding for preschool assistant supports where possible. In this context, I understand that the HSE's Meath disability services provide a preschool assistance subsidy in co-operation with Enable Ireland's Meath early services. This subsidy assists towards the cost of obtaining a preschool assistant for a child with a disability. I am advised by the HSE that current demand for this subsidy exceeds available resources.

As the Senator will appreciate, the HSE is obliged to continually review all its existing funding arrangements to ensure that services are provided within available resources. The HSE Meath disability services has confirmed that it will provide finding for the preschool support service for the academic year 2015-2016 from within its approved budget. With the growing number of children availing of this service in recent years, the HSE has been examining how these supports are allocated in order to ensure that the approved level of funding is used to best effect and on the basis of need.

The executive has indicated that a revised process, involving the payment of a subsidy, will be put in place in respect of 2015-16. The objective of this will be to prioritise children based on their identified needs and to maximise the number who can be supported. This may, for example, involve a preschool assistant supporting two children attending the same preschool where this is feasible and in line with their assessed need.

The HSE is currently involved in a major re-configuration of its therapy resources for children and young people with disabilities as part of its national programme on progressing disability services for children and young people up to eight years of age. When fully implemented, this programme should mean greater equity in accessing therapy services based on need, clearer referral pathways, and improved collaboration between the sectors.

An additional €4 million, equating to approximately 80 additional therapy posts, was specifically allocated in 2014 to drive the implementation of the programme. A further additional investment of €4 million will be made into the programme in 2015. This equates to €6 million in a full year. This programming is already well advanced in Meath.

At national level, the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs, Education and Skills, and Health are actively looking at the issue of the integration of children with disabilities into mainstream preschool settings, informed by work undertaken by the cross-sectoral team on children's disability issues.


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