Seanad debates

Tuesday, 28 June 2005

10:00 pm

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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Without mentioning the name of the child involved, I raise this matter in light of an individual case at Ballyheerin national school, County Donegal, of which details have been supplied. This child has been receiving one-to-one support through the facilitation of a resource teacher on an ongoing basis. The work that has been achieved to date, according to his parents and the school principal, can be summed up by stating that the child has been blossoming due to the help or facilitation that has been offered.

I emphasise that this is not a severe case as the child has only a moderate learning difficulty. However, if he is making progress as is the case, a point echoed by his parents and the school principal and staff, we should study this closely. If the child does not get a continuation of sustained learning resource support, what will happen down the line? Is it not an obligation on us, as legislators, and officials within the Department of Education and Science to continue with support if it is working? It is working, it is not broken, so why are we trying to change it?

That is in regard to the individual. The bigger issue concerns the whole ethos behind clustering. I would agree with the idea of clustering, namely, the grouping of small rural primary schools and the appointment of good, dedicated resource teachers to work in them. There is a cluster in the region in question, made up of Doaghbeg, Cashel, Croaghross, Drumfad and Tamney national schools, and including Ballyheerin national school. The combination of those rural primary schools work together for the overall betterment of students with special learning difficulties. Should we not be working extremely hard to try to facilitate the students in these schools?

To refer to the ethical dimension, the consequence of this one child losing 3.5 hours of resource teaching means that the teacher who has worked in a dedicated manner in all of these schools will, unfortunately, lose his job. It is a double edged sword. On the one hand, a student is losing out and, on the other, the rural area is losing a dedicated support teacher. I am not saying there is anything sinister in this. However, I would ask an obvious question on the grounds that in a similar rural area across Lough Swilly, there is a similar problem with clustering. The deficit at a school in that area — ScoilChoilmcille, Malin, school roll No. 146310 — is perhaps one hour, but this will possibly result in the loss of another dedicated, professional and highly motivated teacher.

Although I can assume the content of the Minister's reply, a bigger issue is at stake. We are introducing clustering as a way to ensure that disadvantaged rural schools, many in CLÁR areas, are facilitated in terms of special needs supports while, on the other hand, the reduction of a few hours means that the schools involved do not get the dedicated core staff required to carry out special needs teaching. It must be asked whether children with moderate learning difficulty are being discriminated against in terms of the special learning support they require. Are they discriminated against as a result of budgeting or the Department's ability to fund a special needs teacher?

It is a complicated issue and I have no evidence on it. However, to consider the issue head-on, one would wonder whether it is a numbers game, a financial game or a sinister attempt to keep hours down so rural areas will be deprived of special needs support. I have given two examples. I ask the Minister, Deputy Mary Hanafin, to re-examine the total roll number at Ballyheerin national school, which was supplied with notice of the Adjournment matter, and the case at Malin, which I do not want to discuss at length as I do not have as much knowledge on it as on the case at Ballyheerin.

Tim O'Malley (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Limerick East, Progressive Democrats)
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I thank the Senator for affording me the opportunity to outline to the House the position of the Department of Education and Science concerning the provision of special educational needs resources for the pupil in question, who is currently enrolled in a mainstream school in County Donegal. An application for resource teaching support in respect of the pupil in question was submitted to the Department of Education and Science by the school and was reviewed by the National Educational Psychological Service in December 2004. The outcome of the review was that the pupil's needs fall within the high incidence category.

In this context, the Senator will be aware that a new general allocation system has been announced under which schools will be provided with resource teaching hours, based on their enrolment figures, to cater for children with high incidence special needs such as dyslexia and those with learning support needs. More than 600 extra resource teaching posts are being provided in our primary schools from next September to underpin the introduction of the new scheme.

The reason for the new scheme is simple. Children with special needs such as dyslexia or mild learning difficulties are found in almost every school. It makes sense that every school should have a number of resource teaching hours based on the number of pupils in the school. This is a major improvement on the previous system, under which schools with a high incidence of special educational needs required a psychological assessment for every child before they were given resource teaching hours by the Department. This was a time-consuming process that often led to delays in children getting the support they needed. Resource teachers will now be in place in the school from the start of the school year so that children who need their assistance can get it straight away. The school this pupil is attending has been informed that it has received a teaching allocation of five part-time hours under the general allocation scheme to meet the needs of pupils such as the one referred to by Senator McHugh.

It is up to the school to use its professional judgment to decide how these hours are divided between different pupils to ensure all their needs are met. Research shows that some children with special needs will respond better with one-to-one tuition. However, others do better when taught in small groups. Often it is best for resource teachers to work with children in the classroom rather than taking them away to a separate room, as the children then have to catch up work done by the rest of the class in their absence. The point is that the type of response needed depends on the child.

While the new scheme will not prevent schools from giving one-to-one time with the resource teacher to children that need it, one-to-one teaching is not the best option for every child. The Senator may be aware that the National Council for Special Education, which has been operational since 1 January 2005, is now responsible for processing applications for special educational needs supports and deciding on the level of support appropriate to the school. Some 71 special educational needs organisers, SENOs, have been recruited throughout the country and will be a focal point of contact for schools and parents. The local SENO has confirmed that to date no application for additional special educational needs supports has been received in respect of the pupil in question. However, should the school wish to forward additional supporting documentation not previously considered in respect of this pupil to the relevant SENO, arrangements will be made to have the matter examined further. I thank Senator McHugh once again for giving me the opportunity to clarify the position on this matter.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply. While I am not able to give forensic detail on whether the school applied to the SENO, as far as I am aware it did. If the case is not documented on the system this may be the opportunity for the school to do so. I will advise the board of management of the school accordingly.