Wednesday, 10 November 2004
Special Educational Needs.
I wish to share my time with Senator O'Toole. I welcome the Minister for Education and Science to the House. Perseverance pays off because this is the fourth time I have submitted this matter over recent weeks and I am delighted it is being taken tonight. I hope the Minister has a good reply to it.
Seldom since I became a public representative, either on my local authority or in the Seanad, have I seen such a daunting report on special educational needs, produced with very little resources by the staff and the principal of the Sacred Heart national school, Huntstown, Dublin 15. If this was a consultant's report it would have found its way to a public relations agency which would lobby us to ensure it reached the Minister's ear. The school in question is located in a rapidly growing area. The report is daunting for the background information it sets out on the school's present direction and the type of children attending it.
The report opens with the following statement:
[The school] has a diverse international pupil population that has grown significantly over the past four years. The first international children were enrolled in the school over six years ago. At present almost a quarter (24.2%) of the children attending the school are international children.
That represents 246 children out of a total pupil intake of 930. Some of these children present with significant non-language based difficulties. The report goes on to state:
The Board of Management and the Staff of the school are very concerned by reported incidents and allegations (by children to teachers) of physical abuse of some children. . . . Many parents are expressing the view that time spent by teachers dealing with persistent poor behaviour of some international children erodes teaching time and discriminates against national and international children who are co-operative and willing to learn. . . . In 2002 the Department of Education and Science allocated 4 Special Needs Assistants to work with 9 named international children. These posts were revoked in June 2003 and 2004, at a time when the number of international children within the school continued to increase. . . . No sooner has a teacher begun to come to terms with one international child than another child arrives, sometimes with what appears to be even greater needs.
The report gives a class profile for the whole school, for example, there are 120 junior infants, 46 of whom are international children. One has no English; five have little English; three have not yet started to communicate with their teacher or peers; ten children have expressive language skills but poor comprehension skills; while 20 are described as having challenging behaviour. In first class one child has no English while two have very little and one of those had never attended school prior to last September. In second class three children have little English; in fourth class 12 children have little or no English; in sixth class one child from Kosovo has no English and two others have little English.
The report concludes:
Currently there does not appear to be any provision by the Department of Education and Science to assist the school in supporting the inclusion of these children in their mainstream classes. . . . The resources allocated to the school by the Department of Education and Science are inadequate to deal with these children's complex needs. . . . The frustration felt by the teachers and parents by what they see as a lack of understanding on the part of the Department of Education and Science of what is happening on the ground is likely to increase if adequate resources are not provided.
The school is asking simply that the Department allocate two additional resource teachers to the school and restore the special needs assistants revoked in 2003 and 2004. This school is storing up major social and educational problems. If we do not address this now the problems will persist into secondary school. People will drop out and we will pay a high price for that in other ways.
The Government must deal with this issue. We have passed a constitutional amendment on immigration and must deal pragmatically with the numbers of people immigrating here and how they access our State services. I suggest that some kind of intensive language course must be given to these children before they attend a mainstream school. This is not fair to the children who are in the school and have attended pre-school, nor to the child who then has to compete with those children in that classroom or the teacher who has to deal with that problem behind the closed door. I beseech the Minister to examine this situation. This is not the only school in the country that has experienced this problem. This report that merits consideration by the Department. I know that every school is looking for special needs assistance. This problem will grow and grow and it must be dealt with.
I welcome the Minister and thank her for her attention on this issue. I agree with Senator Morrissey. We have discussed this issue on a few occasions over the past few weeks. The headmaster and his staff have put together an impressive report. I know Mr. John Lynch and his staff and it is a highly committed school. The work they have done in producing this report is something which would make the Minister proud as a teacher. They are purely motivated by what is best for those children. There is no other way they can do the job without this level of support. This is a problem of a new Ireland, of an Ireland where we will need immigrants in the future. We all understand this. We also know from looking at other countries that the children of these immigrants will drive our economy and pay our pensions in the future. That is from a purely selfish point of view. However, on the basis of our recognition of the importance of allowing a child to develop, that which this school is asking for should be seen in an open and unselfish manner.
We might wonder whether teachers might be daunted by the task of teaching these pupils with such language difficulties. Nonetheless, they have come back with a solution which shows that they want to do their best to give these children a chance and make them proud of the new Ireland. I appeal to the Minister to respond positively and to give some hope to these children, to the school's board of management and to the pupils. It really is important and I ask the Minister for her best and most positive response. I think it is her first Adjournment issue in the House and maybe it is time to make a grand gesture and do something which would make us proud of a fellow teacher. I thank Senator Morrissey for sharing his time with me.
I thank the Senators for raising this issue. It sounds like a very compelling case, given that a school with 930 students has so many students with language difficulties. The Department is aware of the report mentioned and I want to commend those who were involved in its compilation. I know it was motivated by people who want to do the best for their students. This is a challenge that has only faced educators and the Department in the past couple of years. Our approach to how we can meet the educational needs of these children is still developing. There is a scheme in place for non-national pupils with significant English language deficits and there are various supports available to them. Even though I outlined them, it appears that 225 students sounds like a extraordinary large ratio of students with language difficulties.
If a school has 14 or more non-English speaking non-nationals, then it is automatically entitled to a full-time temporary language support teacher for a period of two years, or two teachers if the school has 28 students with such difficulties. In the past year, the Department paid for 220 language support teacher posts at primary school level for these children. On top of that, there is a grant system where if a school has between three and eight pupils with such difficulties, the school gets a grant assistance to take measures to help improve the standard of English of the pupils. That amounted to €6,348 as well as €9,523 for schools with between nine and 13 such pupils. This is also for a maximum of two years to allow people to source a person who could provide language tuition. Schools like this one, which have 28 or more such pupils, are entitled to two full-time temporary language support teachers. This school has three such teachers so it is already going over and above the number that would be the norm as the maximum in any one school.
As the Senators will know, particularly Senator O'Toole who may have drawn up half of the schemes for the Department——
Once a scheme is drawn up, there is very little scope for exceptional measures within that scheme. Expanding it would have to include everyone on a phased basis. I accept what the Senators are saying; it is a very large number. I will consider the matter and see if there are any imaginative ways in which we can facilitate the school.