Seanad debates

Thursday, 29 April 2004

Probation and Welfare Service.

Special Educational Needs.

3:00 pm

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. He has certainly been very busy lately and I was bamboozled by him yesterday, as was a group of people from Carlow who were looking at him in action in the Dáil Chamber as he discussed the citizenship referendum. We all left humbled——

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator should stick to the point.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I am glad we were not caught between him and Deputy Jim O'Keeffe, both of whom were arguing away.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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Speak to the Adjournment matter, please.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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This matter is much simpler than others that have been raised. As the Minister of State is aware, great strides have been made in recent years regarding special needs assistants and extra resource hours for children in primary schools. However, we now have a ludicrous scenario such that decisions have been made by the Department of Education and Science concerning hundreds of primary schools regarding whether they are getting the extra special needs assistants or resource hours but those schools have not been told. I know of one school which applied last June for a special needs assistant for a particular pupil. It has still not been given any indication whether it has been successful.

The Minister for Education and Science made an announcement over Easter about the appointment of 350 new teachers in the special needs area, but he did not indicate from where they will come. Unfortunately, the Department of Education and Science has had a tendency to do that in the past. It appoints new teachers but, invariably, it takes them from mainstream classes. That can have a knock-on effect throughout the school. That is why we have ended up with so many unqualified teachers in the system.

I request that the Department immediately inform all the primary schools so they can start to plan for next year. Some schools will lose teachers, others will gain teachers and some will keep the same number. Schools need to start to plan now as they have less than two months left before the school term ends.

A child normally spends eight years in primary school, but children have been waiting for one year to find out whether they will get extra help. One year out of eight years is a considerable block of time and it can have a huge effect on a child in the future, especially those children who need extra help. I hope the Minister of State will have positive news for me. If he cannot give me a definite answer today, I hope he will use his influence in the Department of Education and Science to make sure it notifies schools because, apparently, it knows what schools are getting. It should let the schools know what is happening because they have been waiting almost a year.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased to have this opportunity on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to clarify the position in regard to the processing of applications for special education resources received in the Department between February and August 2003 and also the matter of temporary accommodation in primary schools.

The position is that applications for special education resources received between 15 February and 31 August 2003 are being considered at present. In all, more than 5,000 such applications were received. Priority was given to cases involving children starting school last September and all these cases were responded to at or before the commencement of the current school year.

The balance of more than 4,000 applications has been reviewed by a dedicated team comprising members of the Department of Education and Science's inspectorate and the National Educational Psychological Service. These applications are being further considered in the context of the outcome of surveys of special education resources conducted over the past year and the data submitted by schools as part of a nationwide census of such provision.

The processing of the applications is a complex and time-consuming operation. However, the Department is endeavouring to have this completed as quickly as possible and departmental officials will then respond to all applicant schools. Pending a response, schools are advised to refer to circular 24/03 which issued in September 2003. This circular contains practical advice on how to achieve the most effective deployment of resources already allocated for special educational needs within the school.

In the case of teacher resources, the outcome for each applicant school will be based on a new weighted system of allocation which the Minister for Education and Science announced recently. This system, as part of which an additional 350 teaching posts will be allocated, will involve two main elements: making a staffing allocation to schools based on a predicted incidence of pupils with special educational needs and making individual allocations in the case of children with more acute lower prevalence special educational needs.

It is expected that the change to a weighted system will bring with it a number of benefits. The new system will reduce the need for individualised educational psychological assessment; reduce the volume of applications to the Department for additional resources for individual pupils; and give greater flexibility to schools, which will facilitate the development and implementation of improved systems and procedures in schools to meet the needs of pupils with low achievement and pupils with special educational needs. The detailed arrangements will be set out in a circular to be issued to schools before the end of the current school year. Schools due to receive additional teacher and special needs assistant posts will be notified within this timeframe also.

The Minister for Education and Science has treated this as a subject close to his heart and has given it particular attention. I accept that the extensive character of the review which he has undertaken has occasioned some delay in the matter but, as a result of tackling the fundamental problems that have existed in the sector at their roots, the Minister will be able to address many of the concerns expressed about the sector within the timeframe specified in this reply.

The list of primary schools where grant aid will be provided for temporary accommodation will be published on the Department's website in the near future. I thank the Senator once again for giving me the opportunity to clarify these matters in the House.