Seanad debates

Wednesday, 17 November 2004

8:00 pm

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. This matter relates to a request for a review of circular 09/04 issued by the Minister and the Department of Education and Science last June. The date on which this circular was issued was inappropriate as the school year had come to an end. The circular's contents, dealing with the allocation of special educational teachers to primary schools, has serious significance for many schools throughout the country. The allocation of special educational needs teachers under the new arrangements is one teacher to 140 pupils in an all boys' school, one teacher to 150 pupils in mixed co-educational schools and one teacher to 200 pupils in all girls' school.

We are told all children are equal and should be treated as such. This directive discriminates seriously against an all girls' school. There is a bias in it. There is no scientific basis on which the Minister or the Department can draw for this. All that has been done to date in this area was the carrying out of a special education census in 2003. If the decision is based on that census, it was unscientific. There is no justification for discriminating against all girls' schools as a result of it.

We can all agree that a large majority of pupils in receipt of special education needs support are boys. I am not aware of a scientific study that would allow for the discrimination illustrated in the figures to which I referred. Principals of all girls' schools and their boards of managements have expressed concern at this differential, for which there is no justifiable basis.

That more boys than girls were in receipt of special educational needs assistance, according to the special education census, is not a justifiable basis for a decision to allocate a special needs teacher to any school. There is a gender imbalance in this decision. If a decision on this basis is enforced, all girls' schools irrespective of their needs, which in a particular year may be greater than the needs of all boys' schools, will be discriminated against. Children who at present warrant special treatment will be deprived of it from September 2005.

The only course open to parents, who believe their children are in need, is to revert to the courts and challenge the decision under the Equality Authority. We heard the former Minister say that we want to keep such cases out of the courts.

The needs of children in any school should be the primary criterion when allocating special education teachers. It is fundamentally unjust for the allocation of such teachers to be connected to the gender of a child. The newly proposed system, if enforced, is unfair and unjust and cannot be upheld in those schools.

I refer to the Presentation primary school in Tuam. It currently has five special needs assistants. That school is short a resource teacher and it applied to the Department for the appointment of such a teacher in June last year at which time it also applied for the appointment of an RTT, but it has not received an acknowledgement by the Department. Given that the Minister recently said she wants to appoint all the special needs assistants required throughout the country, how has the Department failed to respond to requests made a year and a half ago for special resources in those areas? This school in Tuam is not designated as disadvantaged. It beggars belief that the Minister would stand over discrimination and bias of this kind.

I ask that this matter be reviewed immediately. We are led to believe that a review is currently taking place in the Department and visits are being made to schools to ascertain special educational needs, but it seems to ignore discrimination in this area in certain schools.

Photo of Tony KilleenTony Killeen (Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for affording me the opportunity to clarify the position of the Department of Education and Science on the new arrangements for the allocation of resource teaching support to primary schools, including the Presentation primary school, Tuam, County. Galway. The proposed new system for resource teacher allocation involves a general allocation for all primary schools to cater for pupils with higher incidence special educational needs, that is, pupils with borderline, mild and mild general learning disability and specific learning disability. The allocation is also intended to support those with learning support needs, that is, those functioning at or below the tenth percentile on a standardised test of reading and-or mathematics. An additional 350 teacher posts are being provided to facilitate the introduction of the new system.

The proposed allocation mechanism is as follows — in the most disadvantaged schools, as per the urban dimension of Giving Children an Even Break, a teacher of pupils with special educational needs will be allocated for every 80 pupils to cater for the subset of pupils with higher incidence special needs; in all boys' schools, the ratio will be one teacher for every 140 pupils; in mixed schools, or all girls' schools with an enrolment of greater than 30% boys, the ratio will be one teacher for every 150 pupils; and in all girls' schools, including schools with mixed junior classes but with 30% or fewer boys overall, the ratio will be one teacher for every 200 pupils. In addition, all schools will be able to apply for separate specific allocations in respect of pupils with lower incidence disabilities.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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They will have to wait for two years for a response.

Photo of Tony KilleenTony Killeen (Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Clare, Fianna Fail)
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In the particular case of the Presentation primary school, Tuam, I wish to advise the Senator that, as a school with most disadvantaged status in the context of the urban dimension of Giving Children an Even Break, the most favourable ratio of 80:1 would apply.

The rationale for a pupil teacher ratio of 150 pupils for every teacher in mixed schools to support pupils with higher incidence special educational needs and learning difficulties is as follows — the pupil teacher ratio for a learning support teacher was approximately 300 pupils, 10% of whom would be expected to have learning difficulties in the fields of literacy and numeracy. On that basis, approximately 15 out of a group of 150 pupils would be expected to have learning difficulties. This is considered half of a teacher's caseload. A further 3%, or four to five pupils, in this cohort would be expected to have higher incidence special educational needs and would expect to receive 2.5 resource teaching hours per week. This would account for the other half of a teacher's caseload.

The rationale for the different pupil teacher ratios in boys' schools, where the ratio is 140:1 and girls' schools where the ratio is 200:1 is twofold. First, international literature on the incidence of disability indicates that, across all disability types, there is a greater incidence in boys than in girls; and, second, international and national surveys of literacy and numeracy have found that these difficulties are more common among boys than girls.

The rationale for the level of support proposed for schools in areas of urban disadvantage is that evidence shows there is a significantly higher incidence of literacy and numeracy difficulties in areas of urban disadvantaged compared to other schools, including those in areas of rural disadvantage. It is important to emphasise that applications may be made for specific resource teacher allocations in respect of pupils with lower incidence special educational needs, regardless of gender, of pupil or status of school.

The proposed system is intended to improve and streamline the special education resource teacher allocation process. The model will obviate the need for cumbersome individual applications, while at the same time ensure that pupils currently in receipt of service continue to receive the level of support appropriate to their needs. In that context, the additional posts being put in place represent a significant investment to ensure the success of the measure.

Nonetheless, the Minister for Education and Science is conscious of difficulties that could arise in regard to the model, particularly for children in small and rural schools, if it were implemented as currently proposed. Accordingly, the Minister will be reviewing the proposal to ensure that it provides an automatic response for pupils with common higher incidence special educational needs. The review will involve consultation with educational interests and the National Council for Special Education before it is implemented next year.

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to clarify the position on this matter.