Wednesday, 13 April 2005
Special Educational Needs: Motion.
That Seanad Éireann:
—notes the commitment of the Government to developing and extending special education facilities;
—acknowledges real progress has been made in the area of special needs education including the significant legislative achievement of the Education for Persons with Special Needs Act 2004;
—congratulates the Government on the significant additional resources provided since 1997 for the education of pupils with special educational needs;
—commends the Government for the legislative and administrative measures to improve the framework within which services are delivered to pupils with special educational needs, their parents and schools;
—welcomes the establishment of the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, on a statutory basis in line with the commitment in the Government's programme;
—supports the Government's initiative in progressing a North-South centre for excellence to serve the needs of persons with autism in both jurisdictions on this island;
—recognises that there are over 4,000 more teachers in our primary schools and over 2000 in our post-primary schools than there were in 1997;
—acknowledges that these extra teaching resources have been used to reduce class sizes, to tackle educational disadvantage and to provide additional support for children with special needs;
—notes that the Government is committed to reducing further class sizes and welcomes the recent announcement of the Minister for Education and Science that more targeted supports will be provided across the education system under the new action plan for tackling educational disadvantage; and
—welcomes too the announcement that this will involve an additional annual investment of €40 million and the provision of some 300 additional posts across the education system generally.
Fáiltím roimh an Aire agus tréaslaím í leis an tús maith atá déanta aici. Tá mé ag tnúth le sárobair agus forbairtí ciallmhara uaithi. Is ábhar sásaimh dom labhairt ar an rún seo le haitheantas a thabhairt don Rialtas as an méid atá déanta aige ar son oideachais, go háirithe ar son oideachais do scoláirí agus míbhuntáistí acu. Níl aon dabht ná go bhfuil níos mó déanta ar reachtaíocht oideachasúil ag an Rialtas ná mar a rinne na Rialtais uilig ó bunaíodh an Stát. Tá cearta anois ag lucht míbhuntáiste. Níl ag brath ar charthanacht nó ar fhláithiúlacht óéinne, tá cearta dlíthiúil acu ar oideachas agus ar fhorbairt pearsanta agus níl ansin ach mar ba cheart. Níl mé ag maíomh faoin méid atá déanta ag an Rialtas ach tá mé ag tabhairt aitheantais don dea-obair agus an saothar inmholta atá déanta le linn réim an Rialtais seo.
I know that after that eulogy the Minister will say, "We are not there yet." She is right. I commend her for the fact that in the few months since she took over as Minister she has shown from the outset that she is enthusiastic about and acknowledges the challenges ahead, just as she compliments the achievements made and the success and progress reached over the past six or seven years.
This debate is appropriate because the Minister is new to the Department of Education and Science, though no stranger to the subject. The debate is timely because in those few months the Minister has brought many new initiatives to bear on the two vital and challenging areas of educational disadvantage and special educational needs. These have been vital and vexed questions for many decades for successive Governments. I regret that while it has been the laudable aspiration of Governments, Ministers, educationalists and teachers over those years that we provide equality of educational opportunity for all our children. However, because of lack of resources and expertise this has often only been an aspiration, and delivery, unfortunately and regrettably in many cases, is better not dwelt on.
The Minister has already focused attention on these two areas. She has set initiatives in train and has announced the launch of an action plan on educational disadvantage. We look forward to the detail of that plan and, if possible, I will comment on it this evening.
I wish to comment on the achievements made to date in these two challenging areas. Since 1997 there has been a transformation in the delivery of service and resources. More fundamentally, there has been a transformation in the delivery of legislation to bring rights, enablement and empowerment to children with special educational needs, their parents and representative groups. In that context it is appropriate to compliment the parents who through the years espoused the rights of their children through thick and thin and gained the support of their representative groups.
Before I go into the details, I compliment my colleague, the Leader of the House, Senator O'Rourke. I had the privilege a few years to act as her backup in the Dáil and I recall she strongly pushed the idea of a national council for special education.
I acknowledge that the notion was there at an embryonic stage at that time. Unfortunately, due to a lack of resources it did not come to fruition. That was not in any respect because of lack of goodwill, commitment or determination on Senator O'Rourke's part.
Moving forward to 1997, the Government of the day decided to bring the questions of educational disadvantage and a special educational needs service to the centre of the educational service. This was an acknowledgment of the vital importance of addressing these issues and was in the interests of children. It began with a decision to give all primary school children an automatic right and entitlement to a response to their needs. In recent months the Minister has acknowledged that this is not always possible, even today. I respect that acknowledgment and the fact that she is there to pick up this challenge which is at the heart of this debate.
The decision to give this automatic entitlement to a response to all children was followed by a programme of funding and legislation. These have radically and significantly enhanced the level and quality of the service to children with special needs and the area of educational disadvantage. It is appropriate to compliment our primary and second level teachers who, despite the acute lack of resources over the years, fought tooth and nail for the rights of these children. Today these teachers still enthusiastically embrace the new challenges facing them in the context of the three Bills brought forward in this area. Credit is due to teachers at primary and post-primary levels for their great sense of professionalism, duty, concern and care for the most vulnerable children in society. They have acted in the most professional manner at all times in responding to their needs, with a few rare exceptions.
I refer to the achievements in the allocation of resources since 1997. The number of resource teachers in ordinary schools has increased from 104 to 2,600 while learning support services have been extended to every primary and post-primary school creating 1,500 teaching posts and the number of special needs assistant has increased from 300 to 5,500. Overall, 4,000 additional teachers have been recruited at primary level and more than 2,000 at post-primary level. The additional teachers have been deployed to reduce class sizes, target disadvantage and give additional support to children with special educational needs. More than 1,000 teachers are employed in special schools with in excess of 600 teachers taking special classes in ordinary schools. More than €30 million is expended on transport for children with special education needs. Many other initiatives are in place, on which the Minister is building, based on the value and merit of each initiative, which I respect very much.
Since 1997 three important Bills have been enacted, namely, the Equal Status Act 2000, the Education Act 1998 and, more recently, the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. These have progressively established the rights of all children with such needs in law. The latter Act provides the framework and structures to secure the necessary rights and resources. It provides a guarantee in law because it formally establishes the National Council for Special Education and it places a legal onus on the Departments of Education and Science, Health and Children and Finance to ensure adequate resources are allocated and the support provided for special educational needs children is comparable to that for children without such needs. This aspect of the Act is important because it boosts the power of parents and representative groups to seek a judicial review where they deem comparability is not achieved.
I refer to a number of important initiatives taken by the Minister since she took up office, which seek to build on the progress to date and to evaluate and review structures, resources or decisions with the intention of progressing the roll-out of services to the disadvantaged and those with special educational needs. I commend the Minister on the action plan for the disadvantaged and I look forward to her detailing its content. It has major benefits, which we will discuss in greater detail at a later date.
I refer to her decision to appoint administrative principals to small schools in disadvantaged areas. This has been an ongoing issue, particularly in the context of the extra resources that have been rolled out in recent years. Teaching principals could not cope with the administrative duties being thrust upon them but disadvantaged schools have been targeted for the appointment of administrative principals. This will increase the time available to teaching principals for planning, targeting resources and increased monitoring of the outcomes of the utilisation of resources. That is wise, commendable and laudable.
I have a great interest in the school completion programme in my area and the results are positive. Whatever plans the Minister has for this programme, education welfare boards and the home-school community liaison scheme, I compliment her for extending the programme for another year and I hope it will retain a significant role. It is working well and it will have a greater role to play in the overall scheme. I trust her wisdom in this regard. The elimination of unqualified teachers on a long-term basis is also commendable.
I wish the Minister well and I commend her on her work and, in particular, on the partnership approach she has adopted to education. The wonderful reception she received at the recent teacher conferences demonstrated that.
I second the motion.
I welcome the Minister. She has taken to this portfolio with ease because of her extensive experience in the field and it is important that we should acknowledge that. While the motion concentrates on special needs, it is important to reflect on how important the education sector has been to the Government. The Government has recognised funds must be put in place to ensure education is given the resources it needs so that young people can develop and learn at a consistently high level. For example, in 1997 when Fine Gael and Labour were in power, education funding was €2.9 billion. That has increased dramatically to approximately €7 billion this year.
That represents an increase of 9% on last year's allocation. Education will receive 16.8% of current Government expenditure this year while 8.8% of total capital expenditure will be allocated to schools and other educational facilities. If, during the debate, Opposition Members pursue the predictable tactic of knocking the Government for not doing enough, they should reflect on how much the Government is spending in this area.
A significant percentage of the extra funding for education announced by the Government in this year's budget is earmarked for special needs education. A sum of €628 million will be spent on the provision of special educational services, an increase of €67 million on last year. This will pay for the recruitment of 700 additional special needs assistants, which was provided for in the Estimates and which will bring the total number of assistants to almost 6,000. The number of resource teachers has increased from 104 in 1998 to 2,600 this year while 1,500 learning support teachers are in place. In addition, 1,000 teachers are working in special schools.
As well as providing the funding for these posts, the Government has implemented important legislation, particularly the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. The purpose of the Act is to provide education for children with special educational needs, to guarantee as a right the education of children with disabilities and to ensure that right is protected by law. That is a significant commitment. It also takes into account the role of parents and the support mechanisms that will be implemented to ensure the best educational standards for their children. Another objective of the legislation is to provide equity in education services between children with disabilities and those without special needs. It also makes provision for the education of a citizen who may be over 18 but intellectually at the level of a child, an important distinction.
The other important matter, on which I do a great deal of thinking, is integrated education. How it is to work is a very serious question. It has not worked very well hitherto and I would like to hear the Minister's views on the issue. I am all for it if we can provide the classroom resources. I also feel it is very important that we designate a centre or school since we know that in the past, educational establishments did not accept their responsibilities and simply passed the buck to another school. The resources will be made available for the education of children with special educational needs and it is very important that we support that. I know the Minister has made commitments in that regard.
The establishment of the National Council for Special Education came into effect in January, and I believe more time is needed for the organisers who will be appointed to liaise with the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Education and Science regarding assessment and monitoring the educational needs of children with disabilities; I would like to hear the Minister's views on that. This is to be welcomed as it puts in place a big structure of supports for parents, as well as monitoring and assessment. That is a very important area of the Act.
Another absolutely necessary area concerns the special transport arrangements introduced. That measure also dealt with the challenges of special needs education. There is a question regarding how that will work when it comes to escorts being available for children attending school. I welcome the fact that a budget of €30 million has been allocated by the Government for that purpose. That is a very large area and monitoring it will be very important. The Minister has already made a statement on small class sizes, which is welcome. The special classes for children with autism took a long time to get off the ground and I know that the Minister is in favour of them.
I may have to deviate a little and talk about the role of the guidance counsellors. I welcome the Minister's commitment to a complementary role for guidance counsellors who will assist in the holistic aspect of education by facilitating young people to reach their maximum potential. I know that 80 such counsellors have been introduced already and the Minister has 100 more in the pipeline. The Institute of Guidance Counsellors is delighted with the Minister for her commitment in that regard. We must also ensure that those extra guidance counsellors go into the junior cycle and I understand the Minister is thinking in those terms. It is very important to target children at this stage. That is where the problems exist; a great many children from dysfunctional backgrounds need counselling and guidance in their first, second and third years. We need more group work with young people at that level as one-to-one assistance may not be possible. I welcome the increase in the numbers and look forward to hearing more in the area.
The Government's work on special education can be seen throughout the country. There are approximately 407 schools with special education classes. In my area, two such schools have provided excellent services, namely, Cheeverstown House and Scoil Mhuire in Ballyboden. They are doing superb work; I cite them as an example of what can be done and how pleased people are with the Government's commitment over the past year to fulfil the commitment to special education. There are great challenges, and I note that they will remain with the Minister, who must achieve the highest standards of education for all children. Progress has been made for which the Minister deserves great recognition. She should continue with the good work.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:
"Aware of the real difficulties that parents of children with special educational needs face in accessing resources or assistance for their children;
—gravely concerned at the application of the weighted system for resources from next September, which means that children with borderline or mild general learning disabilities will lose the specific allocation of 2.5 hours resource teaching per week that has been their right to date;
—disturbed at the impact that these proposals will also have on children with specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, who also lose their specific allocation of 2.5 hours resource teaching per week;
—concerned at the fact that 1,522 primary schools are not even covered by the National Educational Welfare Service (NEPS);
—welcoming many of the provisions of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 but highlighting, once again, the fact that unless the legislation is matched with the necessary resources children with special education needs will continue to be left behind within our education system;
—noting the lack of progress that is being made in implementing many of the important recommendations of the task force on autism;
—acknowledging that more than 80% of children in junior classes at primary level are in classes of more than 20 children, even though smaller classes make a real difference to a child's education;
noting that average class sizes in Ireland are higher than the OECD average and among the highest in the European Union;
—recognising that higher class sizes lead to greater educational disadvantage, and that in recent years the number of children who fail to make the transition from primary to secondary school has grown significantly to more than 1,000 per annum;
—deploring the failure of the Government to tackle class sizes, and its U-turn on commitments made to reduce class sizes in the programme for Government;
calls upon the Government to:
—radically improve access to educational resources for children with special educational needs, speed up the provision of services and reduce the intolerable waiting times which characterise the education service at present;
—expand the NEP service so that all primary schools within the State can refer children for psychological assessment;
—ensure that children with borderline and mild general learning disabilities, and those with specific learning disabilities, do not lose their entitlement to educational assistance;
—reduce average class sizes at primary level across the board, and further reduce class sizes in schools designated as disadvantaged to give children the best start in their schooling; and
—take immediate action to tackle early school leaving and to ensure that all children complete primary school and continue on to second level education."
I welcome the Minister to the debate tonight and wish her well in her Ministry for the years ahead.
Fine Gael will not accept the smug and self-congratulatory motion on education presented for debate this evening. It is clear from the amendment we have tabled that we believe that there are serious deficiencies in the manner in which the Government is providing for young people's education that cannot simply be glossed over or erased. Every Member of this Chamber, from the governing parties or any Opposition party on this side, is inundated with queries on educational issues from members of the public. Those people, often deeply worried parents trying to access educational services on behalf of their children, are tragically met with silence or indifference. Such parents will find the self-praise on display this evening a little hard to swallow.
I note from the Minister's statement of 29 March, when she announced the new plan intended to make a big difference for disadvantaged schools, that she must have had some doubts and, as a consequence, must have doubts about the motion before us tonight. She said that "better procedures will be put in place for identifying the levels of disadvantage in our schools". I thought this motion clearly suggests we have the best possible overall policies of effectiveness for identifying people with such needs and that the new action plan was tackling educational disadvantage. I thought we had started that seven years ago. Finally, regarding the most disadvantaged schools, the Minister mentions "addressing the issues that have diluted the overall effectiveness of some measures". The Minister's statement of 29 March therefore surely raises a serious doubt as to her commitment to this motion and to Government policy before she became Minister.
This motion fails to mention several critical points causing real concern throughout the country. It makes no reference whatsoever to the system of weighted resources to be introduced in September this year. That system is essentially one of quotas whereby schools are allocated special education teachers on the basis of their enrolment, the gender of their students and the status of the school. However, that crude application of a quota takes no account whatsoever of individual schools that may have a higher enrolment of children with a mild, general or a specific learning disability.
Under the weighted system, children with borderline or mild general learning disabilities will lose the specific allocation of two and a half hours resource teaching per week that has been their right to date. We heard Senator Fitzgerald and Senator Ormonde speak about rights. The reality is that the rights applied to date are all qualified by the availability of resources and the operation of the weighted system, with different quota systems in different schools. It will be impossible to ensure that all children who fall into these categories receive equal assistance. The weighted system institutionalises inequality in the provision of educational support, and that is clearly unacceptable.
In addition, children with specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia will lose the two and a half hours resource teaching the Department circular of August 2002 stated was their right. The proposals also minimise the importance of psychological assessments for children with special needs. Under the weighted system, psychologists' recommendations of specific support for children with mild general learning disabilities will carry no weight. The children will simply draw on a general pool of resources and be allocated whatever help their school can spare at the time. I ask the Minister to note this and to provide a reasonable and positive response, outlining the changes which will be made in this area. The weighted system is fundamentally flawed. One size does not fit all when special educational supports are being provided. The application of quotas to children with special needs is a deeply retrograde step, which I ask the Minister to reverse as a matter of urgency.
Section 4 of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 states that the assessment of a child should "include an evaluation and statement of the nature and extent of the child's disability (including in respect of matters that affect the child overall as an individual)". Section 3 of the Act provides that education plans aimed at meeting the special needs of children should be prepared in a consultative way that includes the children's parents. In the context of that legislation, which was passed last year, the Government is applying a new weighted system that judges schools according to their size, gender balance, number of pupils and status. It is making little reference to the actual needs of children. We have not yet received an indication of the Minister's willingness to change that.
The Fianna Fáil motion does not mention the National Educational Psychological Service, which undertakes vital psychological evaluations of children with special educational needs and those experiencing difficulties at school. It is critically important that children who need psychological evaluation can have access to an educational psychologist so that their needs can be identified and met within the education system. Approximately 46% of the 3,288 primary schools in the State have not had a psychologist assigned to them under the service. That, not the suggestion of people like Senator Fitzgerald who said earlier that learning support is available to every primary and post-primary school, is the reality. The service being offered to children with special educational needs who are waiting for psychological assessment is deeply unsatisfactory.
It is unacceptable that there are geographical discrepancies in the National Educational Psychological Service. The number of schools covered by the service varies significantly from county to county. Every general primary school in County Kerry is covered by the service, compared to just 30% of such schools in County Carlow, 27% in counties Clare and Wexford, 18% in County Kilkenny and 11% in County Limerick. Some 184 of the 235 primary schools in County Galway are covered by the National Educational Psychological Service, which means that 51 schools do not have any coverage. It is damning that four special schools in the county are not covered by the service. I ask the Minister to contact the schools as a matter of urgency to inform them that their students will receive the service to which they are entitled as citizens with equal rights.
I wish to conclude by commenting on the Government's commitment to reducing class sizes, which is clearly related to the matter under discussion. The Government has not acknowledged that it has pulled back from a commitment it gave in 2002 in the programme for Government, which stated:
We will continue to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio in our schools. Over the next five years we will progressively introduce maximum class guidelines which will ensure that the average size of classes for children under 9 will be below the international best practice guideline of 20:1.
Not a single step has been taken by the Government to achieve that target in the three years which have passed since the promise was made even though, for the first time in many years, there are many qualified primary school teachers available to work. There are 1,600 trainee teachers in the training colleges at present. Some 400 unqualified teachers are teaching in our schools. I would like to correct a statement that was made earlier.
Approximately €3.162 billion, or 4.7% of gross domestic product, was spent on education in Ireland in 1997. The Estimates for 2005 have indicated that €7.21 billion, or 4.6% of GDP, will be spent on education in this country this year. How can the Minister guarantee the public, including Senators and members of the teaching unions whom she met recently, that she expects and will deliver progress?
She cannot do so. I would like to refer to the cases of two small rural schools in County Galway which are about to lose a few students. I ask the Minister to do something about the schools' problems as an act of goodwill. A three-teacher school that has 49 students will be downgraded and will lose a teacher. If a larger school's enrolment drops to 179 students, it will lose other teachers. The schools to which I refer are Lavally and Dunmore national schools near Tuam in County Galway. I could give many other examples, but I will concentrate on the two that come to mind.
I will. The two schools will lose teachers in the coming years if the Minister does not use her discretion to give the schools an advantage for a few years, thereby ensuring they do not lose out. If they lose teachers, the pupil-teacher ratio will be 29:1 in the case of Dunmore national school and 26:1 in the case of Lavally national school.
I second the amendment moved by Senator Ulick Burke. I was surprised that the Government moved a motion of this nature.
I read the newspaper reports of the Easter conferences of the various teaching organisations. The good reception that was given to the Minister for Education and Science at the conferences was in sharp contrast to the reception given to her predecessor, Deputy Noel Dempsey. The reception given to the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, was surprising when one considers the many problems which exist in our schools. I assume that Deputies from her party approach her on a regular basis to discuss the impact of the changes being made on rural schools in their constituencies.
I would like to tell the Minister about a six year old boy called Jack, who attends a small rural school in my constituency. His mother came to see me recently. Regrettably, Jack will not receive two and a half hours of tuition because a clinical and educational psychologist has said he has a "mild general learning disability". The parents of some children pay speech and language therapists €180 to compile a report. I could read out the clinical and educational psychologist's analysis and interpretation of Jack, but I will not do so. It is understandable that Jack's mother is extremely distressed.
The Minister recently published a document in which she indicated that the National Council for Special Education has recruited organisers in every part of the country. I accept that it is good to have a contact point at local level. I have contacted organisers to make a case on behalf of parents who have contacted me about their children. When one mentions to organisers that the phrase "mild general learning disability" appears in the analysis of a child, they will say there is nothing they can do because of a policy within the Department of Education and Science.
I outlined my concerns in this regard on the Adjournment on 8 February last. The Minister, Deputy Hanafin, did not respond on that occasion, when I spoke about the impact that the changes which are taking place will have in County Limerick. I have been contacted by representatives of many schools in the county. Of the 42 resource teachers who will be lost by 72 schools in the county, just 30 will be redeployed and ten resource teaching positions will be lost. I was told on that occasion that changes will be made, which is an example of the kind of comfort being given by Government Deputies throughout the country. The Minister of State who responded on behalf of the Minister on that occasionsaid:
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.
I hope the Minister will use the motion that her own party has tabled this evening to explain what she means by that and remove the uncertainty that exists for parents troubled by the impact these changes will have on their children in September. Two and a half hours is a priceless length of time for parents of children with dyslexia but it is not being made available to them. How can Government Senators table a motion sycophantically praising a Minister when such problems exist? Maybe the Minister will explain what she meant in that response on 8 February. Perhaps the Fianna Fáil Deputies who are trying to offer schools some comfort by saying there will be changes will let us know what changes will take place.
On the weighted model, a survey was carried out in County Leitrim, a rural area, and in Dundalk, an urban area, to draw comparisons. In a recent reply to Deputy O'Sullivan in the Dáil, the Minister said she was not sure if she would publish the results. My information is that the survey results do not support the weighted system that is being introduced and that is why it is has not been published. The Minister should release the survey, clear up any uncertainty and stop the obfuscation and unnecessary damage being done by the policies lauded by Fianna Fáil. She should go out there and experience a dose of reality.
I have been asked to raise the case of the national school in Pallaskenry, County Limerick. A letter from the board of management, the parents and the teachers states:
We have six class teachers for 156 pupils. This means that the average class size in our school is 26 pupils. These figures are particularly intolerable as all our students are in split classes. Currently, for example, we have one teacher for 10 first class and 20 senior infants — an actual class size of 30 five and six year olds! In addition, we have the services of a shared learning support teacher (two and a half days per week) to provide extra support to 15 pupils and the services of a resource teacher to provide support to ten children with educational needs. These additional supports to our school must be maintained for the benefit of our most vulnerable children. Accordingly, class size in our school and resources for children with special needs are issues or urgent concern for the community.
We believe that it is not fair or equitable that our children should be taught in classes of these sizes, which belong to a bygone age, at a time when our country is experiencing unprecedented economic prosperity. Our demands for increased staffing in our school are set in the context where the Programme for Government (2002) committed the Government to: "reduce the pupil teacher ratio in our schools. Over the next five years we will progressively introduce maximum class guidelines which will ensure that the average size of classes of children under nine will be below the international best practice guidelines of 20:1".
That figure is contained in the programme for Government that has been in place for three years. The Minister recently said it was an aspiration. We must not be disingenuous. What did the Minister mean? Are we going to reduce class sizes and, if so, to what level will they be reduced? What will we tell schools about the reduction of class sizes? The letter from Pallaskenry continues:
Three years later not a single step has been taken towards achieving the Government's own target, notwithstanding the fact that for the first time in many years there are qualified primary teachers available for work and a further 1,600 teachers set to graduate in June 2005.
A sad situation is evolving where a dyslexic child will not be entitled to two and a half hours tuition. Some time ago in County Limerick a private school for pupils with dyslexia was established. It was heralded as a success but we felt the Department of Education and Science was making positive noises in the area of resources for the primary school environment. Unfortunately, however, we are going backwards. We are pressurising parents into getting separate tuition to fill the vacuum that the Government should be filling through the education structure. I hope a Fianna Fáil Senator will come into the House this evening and say that he or she is coming across these sorts of cases and seek their resolution instead of tabling sycophantic resolutions praising the Minister.
The Minister enjoys the support of a tolerant media but I am asking her to take action on an important issue. The teachers are available and the resources exist. The Minister must get on with the job and do it properly.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the important matter of special educational facilities. It is the duty of all Members of the Oireachtas to be cognisant of the most pressing issues for citizens at any given time. It is fair to say that health care, infrastructure, the economy, child care and education would make the top five of most people's lists of areas that need our constant attention.
Education, as a policy area, is vast and has far-reaching and long-lasting effects on our society. There have been challenges at all levels of the education system; many have been met and more remain. The provision of facilities and services for those with special educational needs is rightly at the forefront of education initiatives and it is the subject of the motion before us.
I am proud to say that much has been achieved in this regard by the present Government and we will continue to make progress on delivering the facilities people need and deserve. The motion before us is an opportunity to acknowledge, commend and welcome progress while giving us time to assess what we have done. We should not forget that special needs education is an area that suffers from a history of under-provision. We must be realistic, we are trying to catch up but we are succeeding. There will be problems and it will take time to improve services to an appropriate level but we are committed to doing that and making progress.
The history of under-provision has taken its toll on special educational facilities as it has on other priority policy areas. When this Government was elected in 1997, we resolved to make amends and address this issue in a strategic and meaningful way. The strategic and planned approach is key, it is not just a question of ploughing resources ad hoc into a sector. Simplistic arguments to this effect from some parties only frustrate progress. Progress will not be frustrated, we will continue to be strategic because it is the right thing to do for those who need special educational facilities.
Contrary to the claims of some, strategy does not mean delay or inaction. We have prioritised the implementation of the core legislative and structural measures. To this end the Government enacted the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. The establishment of the National Council for Special Education and the transfer of functions to it are integral to the Government's strategic approach. It is responsible for processing applications for special educational needs support. It has been in operation since 1 January 2005 and the council will resolve many of the difficulties inherited from the past. Real progress has been made since the Government took on this issue. In more general terms, the average class size at primary level is 23.9 pupils. This is down from 26.6 in the 1996-97 school year. The number of special needs resource teachers has increased from 104 in 1998 to more than 2,600. There are now 1,500 learning support teachers, 1,000 teachers in special schools and almost 6,000 special needs assistants in schools generally. Real progress has been made and it should be acknowledged, commended and welcomed.
The provision of services for those with special needs is closely linked to the provision of general education services. The impact of the Government's actions on the wider pupil-teacher ratio is having a positive effect on special needs education. The ratio takes into account all teachers in schools, including resource teachers. When the Government took office in 1997, the pupil-teacher ratio was approximately 22:1, but had been reduced by 2004 to approximately 17:1. That is real progress. More than 4,000 additional teachers have been employed in primary schools since 1997. Additional teaching posts reduce general class sizes, help to tackle educational disadvantage and constitute additional resources for children with special needs.
In accordance with stated Government policy, we will continue to reduce further the pupil-teacher ratio subject to spending priorities within the education sector. I am happy to see that priority has been given to pupils with special needs from disadvantaged areas and in junior classes.
Parents and schools have voiced their frustration with the system and, as we must, we are acting to ease their burden. A total of 70 special needs organisers have been recruited nationally and will act as dedicated points of contacts for parents and schools. It is more evidence of the meaningful policy approaches adopted by the Government to meet educational requirements.
While the significant increase in the number of dedicated facilities for children with autism since 1998 is welcome, we can and must do more. The report of the task force on autism, which was published in October 2001, contained over 150 recommendations. As I stated earlier, the Government has prioritised the implementation of core legislative and structural measures, but outstanding issues must continue to be addressed. Given the calls to progress the Middletown centre for autism in County Armagh, its launch earlier this year was very welcome. It is right for the House to support the Government's initiative to progress a North-South centre of excellence to serve the needs of persons with autism in both jurisdictions on the island.
The Progressive Democrats Party does not doubt that significant challenges remain in the area of special needs education and it will act to address them. My party has never shied away from taking and supporting bold steps to meet the toughest tests head on. It is no different in the area of special educational needs. While tonight's motion provides us with time to reflect, we must keep making progress. To this end, I welcome the recent announcement of more targeted support which is to be provided across the education system under the new action plan to tackle educational disadvantage. I welcome the additional annual investment of approximately €40 million and the creation of 300 additional posts across the educational system.
We are dedicated to tackling educational disadvantage. While the progress which has been made should be acknowledged, historic under-provision has left the sector in trouble. We must continue to address people's frustrations and blocks and gaps in services. I intend to play my part to ensure that educational disadvantage remains a priority, in which context I welcome this evening's motion. I have encountered stories like those outlined by Opposition Members and am glad to say that by tackling the issues raised and bringing them to the attention of the Minister's office and the Department as a whole, problems have been resolved. For every story a Member opposite brings forward, I can relate a story of resolution for families.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach. Súilim go n-éireoidh go maith léi sa phost nua atá aici. Tá sí sé mhí sa phost anois and we expect results. Despite all of the discussions, the 20:1 pupil-teacher ratio commitment set out in the programme for Government will not go away. It will have to be delivered. While I accept the Minister requires time to achieve the target and do not agree that tonight is the right time for a row, such a row is brewing. The Government has committed itself to doing something but has provided no indication of how it will be achieved. I want to hear how it will happen. I intended to table a motion on the issue next month as I thought, having listened to the Minister recently, that she was working on a project, the details of which could be provided to us. Time is running out however.
The Minister is six months into her term of office and schools want to know what their positions will be next year. No matter how much people object to the examples outlined by Senators Finucane and Ulick Burke, they are real problems. The small schools in Galway and elsewhere and the special schools in Limerick will be in trouble even in the context of the provision of the 70 additional special needs assistants to whom Senator Minihan referred.
The background to the provision is that approximately 1,500 schools will lose access to special needs assistants while another 1,500 gain access to them. While 70 extra assistants will be provided in the process, it will be in the context of the absolute chaos which will emerge when Members on the Government side begin to receive deputations from local schools which lose supports. No one understands why that must happen. It is certain to create great anger in schools nationally in the absence of a plan to agree and announce a process to reduce class sizes. People with special needs will not receive what they want, smaller schools will lose teachers and over 1,500 schools will lose their special needs assistants without any sign of class sizes being reduced. It is a recipe for chaos. Someone is leading the Minister into a situation which must be dealt with.
I have been a Member for 18 years and as I continually point out, a motion which in sequence acknowledges, commends, welcomes, supports and congratulates the Government is very difficult for anyone on this side of the House to endorse, no matter what its merits. People should organise things a little better.
The best I can say about the motion is that in using the phrase "committed to reducing further" in the last paragraph somebody avoided the possibility of splitting an infinitive. How will the 300 additional posts across the education system be provided? I dare not ask, but I presume the provision of perhaps 150 posts at primary level will be to address educational disadvantage only. As it is not clear from the motion, I would like to know exactly what the 300 additional posts will achieve.
I listened to the Minister speak at the INTO conference earlier this month at which she was very well received. I took special note of her comments which I welcomed genuinely. Her comments on class size were especially welcome. She said that while she acknowledged the issue of class size was one on which more work had to be done and the average pupil-teacher ratio had been brought down to 24:1, she remained committed to delivering further reductions in class sizes in line with Government policy.
The Minister also made another reference to that issue. What concerns me is that there is no mention of a 20:1 ratio. I would like confirmation from the Minister that the objective on class size is still 20:1, as stated in the programme for Government, and that this will be delivered. I am a reasonable person. I have listened to the INTO general secretary, John Carr, speak on this matter on several occasions. He is also a reasonable person. What people want to hear is how the objective on class size will be achieved and in what timescale. It is not an unreasonable demand.
The Minister also referred to the number of untrained personnel in classrooms. Will something be done about that issue this year? The Minister said she would write to every primary school board of management. Everybody in this Chamber would support her in ensuring that qualified teachers who are seeking work would get jobs rather than untrained personnel. It would be helpful if that letter were sent out now so that people could begin to address the issue. That letter could be sent out in the morning. Why can it not be done immediately?
Estimates suggest that between 400 and 700 jobs would be created next year as part of the campaign to reduce class sizes. Will the Government make these jobs available? By how much will we reduce class sizes? It is even more worrying that the Minister stated that in the next school year there would be smaller classes for children in disadvantaged schools. That is a definite commitment.
The Minister has been a teacher and she knows what it is like to be in a classroom and to plan ahead. People in schools are trying to work out where they will be next September, how many teachers they will have, where they will put classes and who will be in charge. Schools need to know about that now. The Minister made a fair point but it is not unreasonable to ask that people would be informed.
I know there is a smart answer to this issue. The Minister could say that even if principals were told on the last day of June or August that they would welcome an additional teacher whenever they got one. That is the truth but that is not the way we want to plan for our schools, do our business or make appointments. I ask that the Minister would deal with this matter.
I do not think anybody can argue reasonably with the Minister's statement that she is giving priority to special education and educational disadvantage at various levels. People can argue against it but it is a valid position for a Minister to take. There are four issues to be taken into account in this regard. The first relates to the loss of special needs assistants, SNAs, and how schools will cope. Another issue relates to what we will do for the disadvantaged in the next school year. There is also the question of what we will do to reduce the average class size to 20:1 over the next two or three years, beginning this year. The last matter is what we do in regard to special education. It is not unreasonable at this stage to ask the Minister what exactly will happen and what she will do.
One of the things I find most alarming in terms of special education — speakers have commented eloquently on it — is the fact that in the UK a child with an IQ between 50 and 70 is defined as moderately disabled whereas here such a child is considered to be mildly disabled and, therefore, is not provided with any support. That is appalling. There is no point in trying to reach international standards in that respect. I accept this was the case before the Minister was appointed to this office. That situation is not fair nor acceptable and we must look carefully at this matter.
I intend to propose a debate on the area of special education. There is too much in the subject to deal with tonight. I want to keep the focus in this debate on teacher numbers. I would like the Minister to state what she will do. I will give a commitment to the Minister. If she informs me she will reduce class sizes to 20:1 on a phased basis, I will support that and I will argue with teachers in support of such a measure. The leadership of the INTO, and John Carr in particular, would certainly wish to hear how that would be done. While I might not be happy with the speed with which it will be implemented I would support a plan that aims to deliver on class sizes. That is not unreasonable.
If schools that will lose SNAs or teachers this year see what will happen in the next two years they would put up with it. When there is an expectation of certainty somewhere down the line it is easy to deal with people, but when a matter is clouded in obfuscation, as Senator Finucane stated, that creates uncertainty, scepticism and problems for everybody. Let us put a plan in place that will address the problem which people can buy into. That is not an unreasonable approach. Let us do it within resources.
I appeal to the Minister to do a Khrushchev on it and hammer the Cabinet table and read back to the Government what is stated in its programme for Government.
The Minister inherited this legacy. She cannot be blamed for asking how a class size of 20:1 can be delivered. It is not her demand; it is a commitment which the Government made to the people. The Minister is entitled to get the resources to implement it. I do not see how the Taoiseach or the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, can do other than support her. They might say they do not have the money at present and that it will not all be available at once. That is okay. We all have to work within resources.
We had a debate previously in the House about rights-based provisions. Such issues will always be defined by the resources that are available. However, it would be unacceptable for somebody in the Department of Finance to say that no resources are available for this, that it is pie in the sky and will not be done.
Let us hear a restatement of the commitment on class sizes of 20:1. Let us hear the process by which it will be delivered. Let us see what will be invested in educational disadvantage over the next year. Let us hear that the letter will go out to schools outlining the fact that we want untrained people out of classrooms. Let us hear what will be included in special education and how we will deal with the gap created by the loss of SNAs.
I wish the Minister well in that very difficult task and I do not underestimate what is involved in what I have proposed that she should do.
Go raibh maith agat a Leas-Chathaoirligh. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis na Seanadóirí. It is always a pleasure to come to the Seanad where the debate is usually calm, constructive and non-aggressive. I thank the Government side for its motion which is neither sycophantic nor laudatory but in fact sets out the progress that has been made by the Government in recent years.
While it may be obvious to everybody, my aim is to ensure that every child gets the opportunity to reach his or her potential. The motion focuses on a couple of significant areas of development but we could talk about the ambit of education. I am pleased that Government Senators chose to deal with children with special needs, the targeted response that is required for them and the progress that has been made in this area, as well as the continued response and improvements we have to make for these children because, as has already been said by Senators Fitzgerald, Ormonde and Minihan, we are playing catch-up due to the historical under-provision in this area. We are working to ensure we bring our services for children with special needs up to an appropriate level.
It is worth recognising what has been done, the advances that have been made and the difference that has made to children with special needs and to their educational needs. Some of these figures have already been mentioned. There are now more than 2,600 resource teachers in our schools, which is up from 104 in 1998. There are 1,500 learning support teachers, more than 1,000 teachers in special schools and more than 600 teachers in special classes. There are nearly 6,000 special needs assistants in our schools, compared to just 300 in 1998.
This year more than €30 million is being spent on school transport for special needs students and more than €3 million is being spent on specialised equipment and materials, up from €800,000 in 1998.
Those figures speak for themselves about the real progress and the targeting of resources that is being made for children with special needs.
The statistics outlined refer to the provision of education for children with special needs largely in mainstream national schools. However, education for children with special educational needs is provided in a variety of settings. In addition to supported provision in mainstream classes, special classes and units exist, as well as special schools. Home tuition has also been provided for children. Special arrangements are made pending their placement in one of the units, classes or schools that I have outlined. However, that might not be appropriate for the individual child. The placement may be made in one of the 108 special schools and 654 special classes and units located throughout the country. Sometimes when we talk about the mainstreaming of children with special needs, the very special role of those schools is forgotten. I want to recognise their role in particular and the fact they are providing a top class education service for children with special needs. I have asked my Department in consultation with the National Council for Special Education and other partners to consider how we can optimise the role and potential of special schools. I am also anxious that all schools should welcome children with special needs. It is not true to say, particularly at second level, that all schools welcome these children. There has been a great improvement among primary schools, but I met one second level principal recently who said he had 23 children with special needs coming into first year at his mainstream institution. While that is to be commended on his part, it is actually distorting his figures and reflects the fact that the other schools in the area are not willing to do it. I would encourage all schools to make the necessary provisions and to be supportive of children who have special needs in their own catchment areas. These are some of the types of issues and problems we need to deal with, as well as some of those outlined here today.
Undoubtedly, the National Council for Special Education and the transfer of functions to it as well as the fact that it has been up and running since the beginning of the year can make a real difference. It was established in December 2003, as an independent statutory body with responsibilities as set out in the National Council for Special Education (Establishment) Order 2003.
The council currently has 12 members, all with a special interest in or knowledge of the area of education of children with disabilities. There are 71 special education needs organisers, SENOs, who have been employed by the council since September 2004. They are working really well. They have been making good contacts with the schools and the parents. That they are present at a local level enables them to see and identify the needs. They are responsible for the primary and secondary schools in their areas and have already begun to work with them. A recruitment process fur a further nine SENOs has been commenced by the council to bring the total up to 80 persons countrywide. In addition, 17 staff are employed at the council's head office in Trim, County Meath.
With effect from 1 January 2005, the National Council for Special Education took over responsibility for processing resource applications for children with disabilities who have special educational needs. Under the new arrangements, the council, through the local SENO, processes the relevant application for resources and informs the school of the outcome. The council is also responsible for co-ordinating the provision of education and related support services with health boards, schools and other relevant bodies. One of the real issues is the lack of co-ordination between education and the health services. Parents felt excluded from decisions being made about their children. Where did the teacher fit in to all of this? Local organisers can now ensure they work with the different groups to co-ordinate the services. This means that when a child is identified with a special need, the services can be put in place immediately.
As time goes on, bearing in mind that NCSE has only been established a few months, it will greatly enhance the provision of services to children with special educational needs and give a timely response to schools who have made application for supports.
The general allocation model has been mentioned here a good deal. Pupils in the high incidence disability categories of mild and borderline mild general learning disability and dyslexia are to be found throughout the education system. For that reason the Department, in consultation with educational interests, has developed a model of general teacher allocation for these disability categories. This model, which was announced in 2004 with a view to coming into effect this year, was designed to put in place permanent resources in primary schools to cater for pupils in these categories.
I am really surprised to hear some of the Senators basically suggesting that any child who needs resources will have to wait until he or she gets a psychological assessment, will have to pay for it, have it verified and then have to wait for the resources to be put in place.
The idea of having a model is to ensure that resource teachers are in place and in the school before the child even comes there. The model was constructed, looking at pupil numbers——
——based on all of the numbers in our schools throughout the country. We have evidence to show there are differing needs for children in disadvantaged areas and there is substantial evidence that boys have greater difficulty than girls. These are some of the issues that had to be taken into account. There are a number of advantages in having a model which everybody accepts, except some of the Opposition Senators here tonight.
As soon as the classroom teacher identifies the need it means the resource is already in place within the school and he or she may ensure the child can avail of it. It certainly gives the schools more certainty instead of waiting from one year to the next to find out what the allocation will be and it makes the posts more attractive to qualified teachers. However, there is some confusion. We are not talking about special needs assistants, SNAs. Perhaps Senator O'Toole confused the terminology. The special needs assistant will continue to be allocated to children with a defined need——
The special needs assistants are assigned to individual children based on serious medical or physical need. They are not in any way affected by this model. Equally, children in the lower incident disability categories will, of course, continue to be allocated resources on the basis of their individual needs. It became evident to me that the particular model allocated last year would give rise to difficulties for the small schools and rural schools if implemented as originally proposed. I discussed this with a number of people including principals, teachers and parents who were worried about the particular model which was announced. We also got the views of the National Council for Special Education. The work of the special needs organisers obviously fed into this as well. For those reasons I had the proposed model reviewed and I hope to be in a position shortly to inform schools because I am conscious they need to know. This will ensure they will have resources in place as children need them rather than having to wait for the cost and the time of psychological assessments.
In addition to the changes made in the delivery of resources to date, the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 provides a map to the future development of special educational needs services. The Act reflects the Government's commitment to putting in place a strategy to address the needs of people with disabilities. It will begin in steps over the next few years, in accordance with an implementation plan to be drafted by the National Council for Special Education. This Act governs the provision of education services for children and sets out the overall policy approach of the Department as regards the provision of services to children with special needs arising from a disability. It also allows for the provision of such services on the basis of assessed need and, in so far as is appropriate, in an inclusive setting.
One of the principles underpinning the Act is that parents must have a right to be consulted and fully informed at every stage of the process. If they feel their views are not being full recognised, or where they feel the plan is not being implemented effectively, they have a right to appeal any decisions concerning their children and these matters to an independent review board. The board will have the power to compel bodies, including health boards to take specific actions to address matters before it. However, nothing in the Act will restrict the right of recourse to the courts. Rather, it will simplify the process of enforcing the right to an appropriate education through the appeals board and the introduction of a mediation process prior to full scale litigation if the parents remains dissatisfied with the board's findings.
The Act provides for the co-ordination of services between health and education sectors as well as providing for the council in primary legislation. There is an onus on the Ministers for Finance, Health and Children and Education and Science to ensure adequate resources are provided for the delivery of services. In particular, the Minister for Finance is obliged to have due regard to the State's duty to provide for an education appropriate to the needs of every child under the Constitution and the necessity to provide equity of treatment to all children.
My Department and the Department of Education in Northern Ireland are jointly engaged in the development of the Middletown Centre for Autism in County Armagh. Both Departments have jointly funded the purchase of the former St. Joseph's Adolescent Centre, Middletown, and plan to refurbish the property to meet the needs of a centre of excellence for children and young people with autism throughout the island of Ireland. The centre will be dedicated to improving and enriching the educational opportunities of children and young people with autistic spectrum disorders. The four key services to be provided by the centre will be a learning support service on a residential basis, an educational assessment service, a training and advisory service, and an autism research and information service.
Several working groups are continuing to address the legal, financial, organisational and infrastructural aspects of the proposal. Work is continuing on the development of a campus masterplan for the Middletown property which, when complete, will guide the commissioning of any necessary infrastructure and refurbishment works. The process of recruiting a chief executive officer to operate the centre is also being formulated. It is anticipated the centre will be operational by autumn 2006.
Significant improvements have been made in recent years on pupil-teacher ratios in our schools and class sizes at primary level. The Opposition pointed to the commitment to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio in the programme for Government, which has been achieved. Over 4,000 additional teachers——
Over 4,000 additional teachers have been employed in our primary schools since 1997 and over 2,000 at second level. These additional teaching posts have been used to reduce class sizes, to tackle educational disadvantage and to provide additional resources for children with special needs.
In line with the commitment in the programme for Government, class sizes will be further reduced.
Various publications from the teachers' unions have noted that the reduction of class sizes will not necessarily improve outcomes. It has been noted in some disadvantaged schools with a pupil-teacher of 20:1 that literacy levels still did not improve.
We need to examine new teaching methods and approaches as well as the issue of class sizes. The deployment of additional posts will be decided within the context of the overall policy. Priority will continue to be given to pupils with special needs, those from disadvantaged areas and pupils in junior classes.
On the issue of the untrained teachers as opposed to the unqualified ones, as I stated at the teachers' unions' conferences, the Department will be writing to schools setting out that there is no need for untrained teachers.
The Department will be writing to the boards of management setting out the position on untrained teachers. It is important that children are taught by fully qualified teachers, particularly as more are now available.
I will shortly be publishing a new framework on tackling educational disadvantage. Millions of euro are spent on tackling disadvantage. It is to the credit of any Government to recognise schemes that are not working, to decide not to proceed with them and introduce new schemes and approaches. Members always point out that schools originally labelled disadvantaged no longer fall into that category, while schools never so labelled are. Rather than criticising the measure, I would have thought the Senators opposite would have welcomed the continued progress in this area.
The progress ranges from the new guidance counsellors, as raised by Senator Ormonde. I recently announced an extra 100 counsellor positions which I am conscious must be targeted at junior cycle students. This is not only from my own experience and teachers, but from delegates to Dáil na nÓg. Many delegates believed most guidance was needed in the transition period between primary and secondary level, rather than fifth or sixth year.
The programme for tackling disadvantage will involve better identification methods and an integrated approach working with families, children and teachers. It will involve examining the provision of libraries, the school completion programme that has encouraged young people to stay in schools, as well as out-of-school measures. The Government's record shows we have prioritised special educational needs and educational disadvantage. We will also continue to make progress in the other areas from investment in postgraduate studies in science and technology to pre-school services.
I also thank it for allowing me to highlight some of the work already done. It would not be possible in the short time allocated to outline all the work done in these areas.
I thank the Minister for her presentation. The INTO's campaign to reduce class sizes is based on the premise that smaller class sizes are crucial in tackling educational disadvantage and providing quality education to our pupils. The Fianna Fáil motion claims there are now 4,000 more primary school teachers and over 2,000 in post-primary schools than in 1997. The Minister for Education and Science claimed the figures for resource teacher positions speak for themselves. However, they do not when one sees the real pupil-teacher ratio as highlighted by the INTO. The motion also "acknowledges that these extra teaching resources have been used to reduce class sizes". This is not the case.
For south Dublin, the INTO puts the pupil-teacher ratio at 25:1. South Dublin has three RAPID areas which are included in these figures. However in Lucan and Clondalkin, not covered in the RAPID programme, the pupil-teacher ratios are much higher, some as high as 30:1. There are 100,000 primary school students in classes of 30 students or more. That is the pupil-teacher ratio and all the gloss in the Minister's contribution and in the motion before the House does not change it. The pupils, teachers, parents and politicians are aware of the reality that we have the second highest class sizes in the EU.
Members have referred to the Government's commitment to reduce the pupil teacher ratio for children under nine years of age to 20:1 in its programme for Government. There has been no reduction in the ratio in the past four years according to INTO figures. How will the Government deliver on its commitment in the next two years? That is the reason Senator O'Toole and the Labour Party, in a recent motion in the Dáil, sought a schedule from the Government outlining how and when it will deliver on its commitment.
Another issue raised at local meetings is the inflexibility of pupil teacher ratios. Sometimes the number of pupils in a school will drop from year to year and, although that does not reflect what the position will be in the long term, the school loses a teacher. This issue must be addressed.
Educational disadvantage is another important issue. Labour Party statistics show that between 800 and 1,000 children each year do not transfer from primary to second level school, 4% of students leave school before the junior certificate examination and 18.4% of students leave school before the leaving certificate examination. Recent reports on literacy in schools indicate that up to 50% of students in some schools experience difficulties with reading, writing and numeracy. According to another report, 30% of pupils in disadvantaged schools in Ireland experience these problems.
Class sizes are an important aspect of dealing with educational disadvantage. More must be done in this regard. The Government has done nothing about pre-school education. Research indicates that pre-school education can deliver major improvements in tackling educational disadvantage. The recent OECD report referred to the Government's failure to do anything about providing pre-school education. The Labour Party believes that every child of three years of age should be guaranteed one year of pre-school education. What are the Minister's proposals in that regard?
Similarly, the Labour Party has proposals to extend programmes for targeting educational disadvantage. There has been no expansion of initiatives such as the Breaking the Cycle and Early Start programmes introduced by the former Minister for Education, former Labour Party Deputy, Niamh Bhreathnach, to tackle disadvantage. These programmes have been commended on their success to date. They must be expanded and the Labour Party has proposals for doing that.
Far more must be done by the Government on the issue of literacy. The Labour Party believes there should be regular measurements of students with literacy problems and funding should be provided for that purpose. Much work has been done on the pupil teacher ratio in schools in disadvantaged areas but more must be done. The Labour Party believes the pupil teacher ratio in disadvantaged schools should be 15:1 and it should be 20:1 in other schools. However, many schools that have or are near that ratio are experiencing many other problems as a result of the Government's policies. I am aware of parents who are obliged to give money to the school each week to cover heating and lighting expenses. That is not good enough.
In areas that are not designated as disadvantaged, schools face other challenges which have not been addressed sufficiently by the Government. There are many such schools in the area I represent, Lucan and Clondalkin. These schools have pupil teacher ratios of between 28:1 and 30:1. They also have large numbers of children of non-national parents who need special attention due to language difficulties and so forth. These schools need smaller pupil teacher ratios and more resources to deal with those issues.
The Labour Party does not believe a review of the weighting system for dealing with special educational needs is sufficient; the system should be scrapped. This policy will be detrimental for pupils and will result in many students losing out.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, Deputy de Valera, and I congratulate her on her progress in the Department. The Minister, Deputy Hanafin, deserves great credit for the work she has done in the short time she has been in office.
I support the motion before the House. This side of the House has always recognised that this country's most important assets are its young people and the education they are given. From the era of Éamon de Valera and Seán Lemass through to the current Minister, we have put education at the top of the agenda. Ireland is acknowledged to have one of the most successful and progressive economies in Europe. The foundation of that economy is the provision of a full, well rounded education for young people. We also recognise that education is the key to a better life for everybody. The Minister reinforced that point earlier.
Despite what we have heard during tonight's debate, our education system has evolved and is recognised to be a modern, efficient and effective method of providing our young people with a well rounded, comprehensive start to life that gives them the opportunity to make the most of their talents and to reach their full potential. That is the aim of the motion. Obviously, some students need more help than others so the motion concentrates on the areas of disadvantage and disability needs.
The figures speak for themselves. I am surprised to hear the Opposition Members harangue the Minister about the number of SNAs and resource teachers when one considers the miserable contribution they made when they were last in power. Special needs assistants were not even considered an issue in 1997. Look at the improvements since then and the increase in the number of support and resource teachers.
Neither has there been any mention of the improvement in facilities. The school building programme is five or six times bigger than it was in 1997. All these developments require resources and time. It takes time to change a system, particularly one that has historically been under resourced. Members on this side of the House recognise the importance of this issue, and the facts and figures outlined by the Minister demonstrate that.
It should also be borne in mind that today's school children are open to many more influences than existed years ago, such as the television and the Internet. Our system must evolve and the teachers and teaching assistants must progress with such changes. They must be trained to deal with the issues that exist now which did not exist ten or 12 years ago. We live in a changing society and our methods of education must change as well. I am very encouraged by the Minister's insistence on the involvement of parents in pre-primary, primary and secondary education. Close co-operation between parents, teachers, management and even the Department is an essential part of the mix. Along with the provision of modern facilities and equipment, this is an area in which we have not been found wanting. The recruitment of over 4,000 extra teachers, including 2,500 resource teachers, speaks for itself. I have seen the benefits of it in the inner city. The previous speaker mentioned a pupil-teacher ratio of 15:1 and that is the reality in the inner city schools that take part in the Breaking the Cycle programme. The benefits of this are obvious and I see them every day. The kids are more confident and articulate.
There are other special cases that have to be examined. However, nobody can argue that we have not given priority to these areas through budgetary and resource allocations from the Department. I am involved in an education forum, which is a new departure in the docklands area. The forum brings together all of the concerned parties, such as teachers, parents and pupils, as well as public representatives, State and semi-State agencies. We are concentrating on many of the issues raised at the forum, such as parental input into a child's education. These are simple issues, such as the timing of a parent-teacher meeting. Time can be made available later in the evening so both parents can meet the teacher.
There is also a need to provide a quiet, safe environment in which a young person can study. In much inner city housing, the space does not exist for a child to study on his or her own for a few hours. I think the Minister recognises that fact. I congratulate her on her performances at the conference. I never heard such a reaction.
Unfortunately, that is not the case and it is certainly not the role of the Opposition. Senator Brady thinks the current Minister for Education and Science is wonderful. Her main advantage is that she is not the former Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey. All she has done thus far is to undo the damage he did in his short reign as Minister. That is particularly the case in the area of special needs.
The standardisation of the school year is now turning out to be a farce. It actually promotes greater absenteeism from schools. Parents can no longer afford to bring their children on holidays. As everyone is off at the same time, holiday packages are sold at a peak price. This has resulted in children missing more time from school. I challenge Members opposite to look into that issue. More children are now missing school because of the standardisation of the school year. That is the ultimate irony, but it is the end result of standardisation of the school year.
The Minister has much work ahead of her. The rapturous reception she got at the teachers' conferences was a reflection of who she was not, as opposed to who she was. We all know the former Minister refused to turn up at the conferences last year and insulted the teachers at the time. It was no surprise, therefore, that she got a rapturous reception. Will she get the same reception next year? I suspect she will not, but we will have to wait and see.
I was bemused to hear Senator Brady speak about the schools building programme. I remember the hypocrisy and lies of the Government during the last general election, when the former Minister, Deputy Woods, told officials in the Department of Education and Science not to issue any bad news to schools in the run up to the election. Every school in Ireland was promised a new extension and new buildings, yet nothing has happened years later. In Carlow, Scoil Mhuire gan Smál celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2000. The then Minister, Deputy Woods, was there for the celebrations and he made an announcement about a building for the school. Everyone expected to see construction lorries arriving soon after, yet nothing has happened in the five years since that announcement. The local people were very sore about that and I hope they will not have forgotten it by 2007. There is major work needed on the schools building programme.
I welcome in principle the Government announcement on the devolved grant. However, much more work needs to be done on it. In Carlow, Saint Mary's Church of Ireland primary school in Bagenalstown is looking for a new school that costs around €1 million. The school management was told that the school was to receive a devolved grant. However, its happiness turned to puzzlement when it was told the school would be getting €575,000. That is a lot of money, but it is well short of €1 million and such a deficit can leave schools in an awkward position. If the school does not accept the grant, it can be knocked back for years. If it accepts the grant, it will be short of money. It is unfair to expect small rural communities to raise that kind of money. The Government is abdicating its responsibility on this issue. I welcome the idea of the devolved grant and any steps that decentralise the very centralised system we have in the schools building programme. However, granting a school €500,000 when it needs €1 million is very unfair. The school should get the money it deserves.
The increase in the number of special needs assistants has led to difficulties. Everyone knows that managing staff can be difficult at the best of times. Many schools now have three or four extra staff and principals must deal with teachers and special needs assistants yet no extra resources have been given to principals to deal with the increase in staff. The Department should look at this issue, as it is putting undue pressure on principals, particularly those who also teach.
Some of the all-girl schools in Carlow have contacted me about the allocation of special needs assistants. They are not happy with the current situation. These schools will see a reduction in hours and their situation should be examined again in the review. They should not suffer discrimination, although I appreciate it is an awkward issue.
The Fine Gael amendment deals with the failure of the Government to deal with the report of the task force on autism. We are trying to get a school for autism up and running in Carlow, but my experience in this regard did not inspire confidence. We are due a decision next month and I hope we get the new school. We were offered a new site but the Department of Education and Science did not play ball with us. I must acknowledge, however, that it did arrange for a meeting after an Adjournment matter was tabled a few weeks ago. I hope the Department's wrongdoing will be rectified by the decision in May.
The Joint Committee on Health and Children is discussing the problem of obesity and people being unfit generally, yet the Department of Education and Science does not provide proper playground facilities for children. Schools need to be equipped with such recreation facilities for children.
The pupil-teacher ratio is the main issue for schools. The Government has given a clear commitment to reduce the ratio but it has not happened. The pupil-teacher ratio has a big impact on children's education.
In some cases, psychological assessments take far too long to obtain, which is unfair on the children involved who may have to wait for up to two years for such assessments. While it may not be much in a lifetime, two years in the primary or secondary school cycle is a long time.
The method of expelling children from schools must be re-examined. I am aware of one case where a primary school pupil assaulted nurses in the local hospital's accident and emergency unit. He also caused havoc around the town. His own mother brought him to the Garda station at the age of 12 because he was so drunk. It proved to be next to impossible to get him expelled from primary school, where he terrified the teacher and students. That should not be allowed to happen.
I am pleased to speak on the motion relating to special needs. The motion states that real progress has been made, particularly in the past five or six years. When we examine the opportunities currently available to children with special needs to move into mainstream education, we can see that is the case. They can be integrated into schools and become involved both at primary and secondary level. Anyone who has had children attending school over the past ten or 12 years can see this. I speak from personal experience having seen a child pass through the system from junior infants class to fifth year in secondary school, without having received any additional support. That journey could not have happened but for the exceptional accommodation of the headmistress at that school who did whatever she could without receiving any additional resources. That child's journey proved to be a huge success story for the education system. It has been a journey of many challenges with despair at times, in addition to great joy.
It is instructive to see a child who has gone through normal education in the first and second years of primary school. At first, remedial teachers were employed and, as time went on, additional hours were provided with resource teachers. Later, there was more and more integration and co-operation between the service providers in the disability area, which were the Brothers of Charity, in addition to social workers, speech therapists, remedial and resource teachers and the school's headmistress.
The stage comes when it is time to move from the primary school model to the secondary cycle. Within the mainstream education system, teachers and school principals were identified who were prepared to take a chance by moving ahead of the catch-up system that has been undertaken in the past couple of years. It is great to see the difference for children who are attending primary school now. From junior infants onwards, assistance is provided immediately, although it may not be enough. I am not going to claim that the system is perfect because it is not. There are challenges but they must be examined in the context of what is happening daily in schools around the country. More and more children have opportunities due to the commitment of principals, teachers, parents, officials and other professionals in the disability sector.
When people who have a special needs relative with Down's syndrome or another disability, perhaps aged 35 or 40, they look at similar 18 or 19 years olds and say, "Look at the difference. Look at the life they have available to them. If only it had been like that for us 30 years ago".
I realise the challenges that parents of special needs children will face but I also know how different it is for them and how much more opportunities their children will have. The Minister must take on board what is happening in the classroom, however. Hopefully, special educational needs organisers throughout the country will be able to address the matter. Teachers have to face such issues in the classroom but many of them have not been trained how to deal with aspects of disability. They do not know, for example, how to deal with one or two children who have a special set of needs. Special needs assistants may be available to those children. Where there is a refugee population, children may have language difficulties because their first language is not English. In fact, they may not be able to speak English at all. A teacher facing a class of 20 or 25 children, depending on the area, will have to face a whole spectrum of challenges every day. Teachers need more support in order to be able to play a leadership role in the classroom. They also need guidance and direction from the Department to be able to do so.
While improvements have occurred, the greatest difficulties facing parents of children starting school is that they are not aware of what services are available. They have to know what they can or cannot do and what they can expect. In addition to the challenge of bringing up a child with special needs, there is the additional challenge of wondering whether one has to fight the system. We should not have to fight for everything we want. I appeal to the Minister and to the Department in that respect. We should know what is available and should not have to waste energy in demanding such things, which should be available by right.
As regards disadvantage, we are missing out on the holistic approach to dealing with the family issue of children with disadvantage. Unruly children may be dealt with in school, but their parents face the same challenges at home. Special funding is required, perhaps through a pilot scheme, to deal with the supports necessary for parents with children in school who have particular needs. We should have a focus group that would work with such parents by taking a holistic approach.
I thank everybody who contributed to the motion tabled by the Government side. Senator Ulick Burke and his colleagues at least tabled an amendment and set out to address some of the key issues in this area, as distinct from the Labour Party which did not think it worthwhile to table an amendment or even be associated with the amendment.
It was remiss of me not to welcome the Minister of State to the House, so I wish to do so now.
I wish to refer to a few aspects of the amendment. One such is the rubbishing of the general teaching allocation model for children with disabilities.
That is one of the messages coming through from the amendment.
The speakers on the Opposition side, particularly those in Fine Gael, tended to rubbish this model as if it had no merits. I will go back briefly and carefully over some of the merits even though I realise it is an imperfect model.I acknowledge that the Minister has already started a review of this matter in consultation with some of the partners in education, and has set down a challenge to the partners to bring forward the result as soon as possible so that schools will know where they stand.
I remind the Senators on the other side of the House of some of the merits of the proposal because it is important that we do not rubbish it. Some of the concerns expressed are met by this model, although it is imperfect and there are serious concerns about smaller rural schools. For example, the special needs which the model proposes to address are spread throughout the country.
The corollary was that the system would reduce the need for individual applications and for supporting psychological assessment, a matter which I recognise is vexed and not yet fully resolved. We on the Government side face up to its many imperfections. The national scheme of psychological assessment is not working perfectly or satisfactorily.
The many teachers to whom I speak bring the matter to my attention. With the greatest respect, Opposition Members should remind themselves of where we started in 1997 with regard to resources. Some of the statements tonight baffle logic and belie the fact that all Senators live on the same planet.
Any legal opinion will confirm that under the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004, there is, for the first time in the history of legislation of this nature, a legal onus on the Minister for Finance to take account of the limited resources——
The Minister must allot the limited resources when dealing with children with special needs in the same way he allots the limited resources available to children without special needs. On the basis of the facts before us, I rest my case.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 14 (Fergal Browne, Paddy Burke, Ulick Burke, Paul Coghlan, Noel Coonan, Frank Feighan, Michael Finucane, Brian Hayes, Mary Henry, David Norris, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Sheila Terry, Joanna Tuffy)
Against the motion: 29 (Cyprian Brady, Michael Brennan, Peter Callanan, Margaret Cox, Brendan Daly, John Dardis, Timmy Dooley, Geraldine Feeney, Liam Fitzgerald, Camillus Glynn, Brendan Kenneally, Tony Kett, Michael Kitt, Terry Leyden, Don Lydon, Marc MacSharry, John Minihan, Paschal Mooney, Tom Morrissey, Pat Moylan, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Mary O'Rourke, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Kate Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators U. Burke and Finucane; Níl, Senators Minihan and Moylan.