Seanad debates

Wednesday, 1 February 2006

Adjournment Matters.

Special Educational Needs.

6:00 pm

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science with special responsibility for children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to the House. I submitted this matter in the aftermath of a meeting with parents in Letterkenny, which is home to the Letterkenny branch of dyslexia workshops. Over 55 parents comprise the branch. They set up this workshop in light of deficits in the special needs area. They found that their children are not being catered for in primary and secondary schools in terms of facilities to meet their specific dyslexic needs, even though it is clearly stated in the guidelines of the Department of Education and Science that children with dyslexia have a specific learning disorder that should be met in terms of learning or resource support in some form. However, this is not the case.

The main issue I wish to highlight is that many parents, since the need has not been identified at primary school level, must get private assessments. As the Minister of State is aware — I do not have a clue about the level of fees in the greater Dublin area — some parents in County Donegal pay upwards of €420 for private assessments, without which they will not get into the workshop in Letterkenny. The system is inequitable and there are discrepancies.

In terms of special needs, there is an outcry from parents throughout the country, not just in County Donegal — I only cite Letterkenny as one example — for the Department of Education and Science to acknowledge the fact that dyslexia is a special need and requires resource support and not to pass the buck to the schools. The Department decides issues of funding and provision of resource support. Principals and boards of management must take the heat from parents of children who have dyslexia.

The reply by the Minister of State will be of interest and I hope that, down the line, the clustering system in general for special needs and resource learning will be addressed in rural and peripheral areas. Many schools in rural areas, such as Inishowen and Fanad, do not meet the specific requirements and needs of children with general special needs. It is a resource issue. The Department of Education and Science has the capacity and potential to address these problems.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I am making this reply on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin. I am pleased to have been given the opportunity to outline to the House the position of the Department of Education and Science on the issue raised by Senator McHugh. A general allocation scheme has been introduced, under which mainstream primary schools have been provided with resource teaching hours based on enrolment figures to cater for children with high incidence special educational needs such as dyslexia and for those with learning support needs. All schools were notified of their general allocation for the school year 2005-06 in May 2005.

The reason for the new scheme is simple. Children with special needs such as dyslexia are found in almost every school. It makes sense, therefore, 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 children with high incidence special needs required a psychological assessment before the Department of Education and Science allocated resource teaching hours. This time-consuming process often led to delays in children obtaining 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.

In introducing the general allocation system, transitional arrangements were also introduced to ensure no child in respect of whom resource teaching support was allocated to a school would experience a loss of that support. As outlined in a circular to schools in August 2005 on the organisation of teaching resources for pupils who need additional support in mainstream primary schools, it is a matter for each school to determine the pupils with high incidence special education needs, such as dyslexia, who will receive this support. The school can then use its professional judgment to decide how these hours are divided between different children in the school to ensure that all their needs are met.

Research shows that some children with special needs will respond better with one-to-one tuition. Others, however, 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 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.

Second level pupils with dyslexia are normally integrated into mainstream classes. Here they may receive additional tutorial support through the learning support teacher, guidance counsellor and subject teacher. Depending on the degree of the condition, they may also be eligible for special arrangements in the certificate examinations.

Significant progress has been made over the past number of years in respect of increasing the number of teachers in our schools who are specifically dedicated to providing education for children with special educational needs. At primary level there are now approximately 5,000 teachers in our schools working directly with children with special needs, including those requiring learning support. This compares to fewer than 1,500 in 1998. Indeed, one out of every five primary school teachers now works specifically with children with special needs. At second level, approximately 1,630 whole-time equivalent additional teachers are in place to support these pupils with special educational needs. This compares to the approximately 200 teachers that were in place in 1998 for such pupils. In addition, there are 532 whole-time equivalent learning support teachers in our second level schools.

The Department also provides funding to schools for the purchase of specialised equipment, such as computers, to assist children with special educational needs, including children with dyslexia, with their education where such equipment is recommended by relevant professionals. Schools can apply to the local special educational needs organiser, SENO, directly for this support.

Initiatives have also been taken in recent years to improve the training and support provided to teachers in respect of dyslexia. An on-line training course for teachers catering for pupils with dyslexia has been introduced. In addition, ten new learning support trainers have been recruited to the primary curriculum support programme, specifically to provide in depth support for the development and implementation of learning support guidelines for children with dyslexia. Also, in association with the Department of Education in Northern Ireland, an information resource on dyslexia has been produced which is available to schools in CD-ROM, DVD and video format.

The steps taken in recent years and those currently in hand represent significant progress in the development of services for children and young people with dyslexia. I assure Senator McHugh that the Minister for Education and Science will continue to prioritise support for children with special needs, including dyslexia, so that all children are enabled to reach their full potential.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State must assure parents. The holistic way in which special needs education is being addressed sounds good in general but it does not deal with the specific deficits experienced by parents who may have found their children in primary or secondary schools that do not have the teachers in place with the skills to deal with dyslexia. It is a bigger issue that must also be addressed on a mid to long-term basis at university and primary school teacher college levels.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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The Senator has raised a relevant point. The council for special education would be the appropriate body to which it should be addressed. It is planning the future of this sector on a statutory basis, as I am sure Senator McHugh is aware.