Seanad debates

Friday, 1 July 2005

12:00 pm

Michael Finucane (Fine Gael)
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Will the Minister for Education and Science be here to respond to the matter I wish to raise?

Photo of Mary CoughlanMary Coughlan (Minister, Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs; Minister, Department of Agriculture and Food; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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I shall respond to all three Adjournment matters.

Michael Finucane (Fine Gael)
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I regret that neither the Minister for Education and Science nor one of the Ministers of State at that Department is in the House. However, I am sure the Minister for Agriculture and Food will give me a satisfactory response.

I raise the issue of services for children with special educational needs at four schools in west Limerick, namely, Raheenagh, Ashford, Broadford and Templeglantine. I acknowledge the work done in this area by the board of management action group which has highlighted its concerns regarding the impact of the weighted system introduced by the Department on many schools in the County Limerick area. It is totally unjust to base the allocation of special education teachers on the total number of children. That allocation should be based on the needs of individual pupils.

On 28 June, representatives of the boards of management action group, namely, Miriam Magnier Flynn, Denise Airey and Chris Long, met a Fine Gael deputation of which I was a member. They also met Department of Education and Science officials to highlight the impact the new system was having on the schools to which I have referred.

Some 2% of the normal population in primary schools falls under the second percentile. In comparison to this national average, these four schools in Limerick are particularly disadvantaged in that 13% of their pupils have scored under the second percentile, as diagnosed by qualified psychologists. This is six and a half times the national average and that must surely count as an exceptional circumstance which should be taken into consideration in calculating their allocation. These schools simply request a retention of the current level of special education teachers.

The deputation that met the Minister's officials presented a comprehensive submission outlining the necessity for the retention of the learning support for these schools. In the case of Raheenagh, Ashford and Broadford, this would mean the allocation of two special education teachers would need to be increased to four, which would be compatible with the current allocation in these schools. Therefore, no extra staffing is required.

Templeglantine school has a current allocation of 2.6, or 65 hours, and the allocation of two special education teachers created a deficit of 0.6, or 15 hours. The school requires a retention of 2.6 special education teachers to conform to the allocation it requires. This allocation is essential because embodied in Templeglantine's submission are five frozen applications which require an allocation of 12.5 hours. To continue to deprive children with special educational needs is most unjust. In order to redress this situation, the action group's submission proposed a cluster for Templeglantine and Athea, which need an allocation of 0.4, or ten hours, of special education teaching support.

This is a fair minded request and I hope the Minister accedes to the validity of these demands. The deputation from the boards of management action group acknowledges the constructive discussion with the Minister's officials. I hope her response will acknowledge the general request for increased special education teaching support for these schools. The action group's submission proves the exceptional disadvantage that exists in these schools due to the high level of children with special educational needs, six and a half times the national average.

Many parents are fearful of what will happen in September when the primary schools return. It is imperative that this uncertainty and fear is removed by ensuring the fair and justifiably proven special educational needs requirement, as outlined in the action group's submission, is granted. I have consistently highlighted in this House the injustice done to pupils in schools like these as a consequence of the new weighted system. I look forward to a positive response.

Photo of Mary CoughlanMary Coughlan (Minister, Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs; Minister, Department of Agriculture and Food; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir thar ceann an Aire, agus ba mhaith liom é a chur ar an eolas maidir lena bhfuil ag dul ar aghaidh faoi láthair. I wish to outline the new arrangements for providing resource teachers to schools for pupils with high-incidence special needs and learning support needs. I will also reflect on how this applies to the schools in Limerick to which the Senator refers.

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 therefore that every school be allocated 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 children with high-incidence special educational needs required a psychological assessment before they were allocated resource teaching hours by the Department of Education and Science. 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 schools from the start of the school year so that children who need their assistance can get it straight away. Under the new arrangement, disadvantaged schools, boys' schools and mixed schools will get extra resources, as research shows that pupils in these schools are more likely to have learning difficulties. To ensure every school has enough resource teaching hours to meet the needs of its pupils, an additional 660 resource teaching posts, including 340 permanent and 320 temporary, are being put in place for next September.

This will ensure that children who had been given an individual allocation of resource teaching hours by the Department will keep them in situations where the general allocation to the school would not be sufficient to allow it to provide these hours from within its general allocation. The provision of these posts will ensure no child who has been allocated a specific number of hours with a resource teacher by the Department will lose these under the new arrangements. The reality is that the majority of schools are gaining resource teaching hours under the new scheme.

A desire to address the concerns of small and rural schools was the reason the Minister for Education and Science initiated a review of the original general allocation model which had been announced last year to come into effect in the 2005-06 school year. Following this review, a special improved ratio for small schools has been introduced to ensure they are given resource teaching hours on a more favourable basis.

It has been claimed by some that the new scheme prevents schools from providing one-to-one time with a resource teacher to children who need such support. This is simply not the case. While resources are not being provided on the basis of specific assessments of individual children's needs, it is up to the school to decide whether resource teachers work with children on a one-to-one basis or in groups.

The new scheme ensures that all schools, including the schools in Limerick to which the Senator refers, have enough resources to ensure each child gets a level of support appropriate to his or her individual needs. The school can then use its professional judgment to decide how these hours are divided between different children in the school to ensure all their needs are met.

Research shows that some children with special needs respond better with one-to-one tuition. Others, however, do better when taught in small groups. It is often 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 on 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 who need it, it is important to note that one-to-one teaching is not the best option for every child.

The extra resources being provided to support the introduction of this new scheme are a further demonstration of the Government's commitment to improving services for children with special needs. In addition to the major increase in resource teachers in recent years, the introduction of this new general allocation scheme will ensure a faster and more flexible response for children with special needs.

As of next September, there will be more than 5,000 teachers in our primary schools working directly with children with special needs, including those requiring learning support. This compares to fewer than 1,500 in 1998. It is now the case that one of every five primary school teachers is working specifically with children with special needs.

In regard to the four specific schools to which the Senator refers, I confirm that officials in the Department of Education and Science have received further information relating to the matter referred to by the Senator. Accordingly, once the examination of the correspondence submitted has been completed, officials in the Department will make direct contact with the schools to inform them of the outcome. On behalf of Senator Finucane, I will advise the Minister of the need to expedite this decision.

Michael Finucane (Fine Gael)
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I request the Minister to ask whether it is possible, as a matter of courtesy, to advise me of the eventual outcome of these deliberations.