Tuesday, 8 February 2005
While I acknowledge the presence of the Minister of State, the matter I raise is of such importance that I had hoped the Minister for Education and Science would take it personally. It may have profound implications for her if things go wrong.
I have been approached by many primary schools in County Limerick on foot of a circular from the Department of Education and Science which notified them of the loss of resource teachers. West Limerick is a rural constituency and the loss of resource teachers there has caused a great deal of annoyance for teachers, parents and pupils. The weighted system based on roll call numbers is a blunt instrument which impacts especially severely on small rural schools. Under the new system, pupils with mild learning difficulties will no longer be entitled to individual hours with a resource teacher. Dyslexic pupils, for example, who are currently entitled to two and a half hours of individual tuition per week will have this service withdrawn and receive group tuition instead. Many pupils may fail to adjust which could impact on their literacy skills in the long term.
Every school is different. Smaller schools may have greater needs due to their rural location but the new weighting allowance will not be able to take this into account. At the Easter congress of the INTO in 2004, the announcement by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, of 350 new special needs teaching positions was especially well received. The recent announcement of changes has given rise to considerable anxiety in the area I represent. Given the review the Minister is carrying out, it is most unsatisfactory for the Department to cause concern within the educational system by announcing a reduction in resource teachers. In County Limerick alone, 72 schools will lose out on 42 resource teachers. Of these teachers, 30 will be redeployed while ten positions will be lost. A total of 51 resource teachers will be affected in Kerry, Tipperary and Limerick.
The Minister is aware of a report on special needs which contrasted the rural area of Leitrim with the urban area of Dundalk. While it has not yet been published, I am reliably informed the report does not bear out the hypothesis of the Department in establishing the formula it seeks to employ. I anticipate that if September 2005 sees the introduction of a weighted system which results in the loss of resource teachers in primary schools, there will be considerable annoyance at the direction the Minister and her Department have taken on special needs.
The current review provides the Minister with an opportunity to reconsider the position and I urge her to do so. If the suggested changes are implemented, the Minister may not get at the INTO conference in September 2005 the reception her predecessor enjoyed in 2004. I foresee a very negative reaction in rural constituencies if the plan goes ahead as anticipated by the Department in its circular. I look forward to the reply from the Department which I hope is positive.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to clarify the position of the Department of Education and Science on resource teaching posts in County Limerick which cater for children with special needs. As the Senator knows, the Department proposes to introduce a new system to allocate resource teaching supports to such pupils. The new system of teacher allocation will involve a general allocation to all primary schools to cater for pupils with higher-incidence special educational needs. Such needs include borderline, mild and mild general learning disabilities and specific learning disabilities. The allocations are intended to support those with learning support needs who function at or below the tenth percentile on a standardised test of reading and-or mathematics.
The Minister for Education and Science is conscious of the difficulties which may arise as a result of the implementation of the model as proposed, especially for children in small and rural schools including those in County Limerick. Accordingly, the model is under review to assess whether it will provide an automatic response to pupils with common mild learning disabilities without the need to employ cumbersome individual applications while ensuring the continued provision to pupils currently in receipt of supports of services appropriate to their needs. The review involves consultation with representative interests and the National Council for Special Education.
I emphasise that individual applications may continue to be made for specific resource teacher allocations for any pupil with lower-incidence special educational needs. I hope this clarifies matters for the Senator.
As I am only responding on behalf of the Minister and I am not in her Department, I cannot give a definitive answer. From my experience, I expect services will continue to be provided to pupils currently in receipt of them at existing levels.