Thursday, 21 February 2008
Special Educational Needs: Statements
Tá áthas orm a bheith anseo san tSeanad. I thank the Leader for giving Government time to discuss this important issue. There are quite a number of children of varying needs across the system who need extra attention and care. There have been a number of occasions over the past three years when this House has debated this topic. I know it is of interest to many Senators. We recognise that very little attention was given to children with special educational needs. We have been playing catch up because it was not given the attention it deserved. In the past ten years everyone must agree that there has been a transformation in educational policy for children with special educational needs. In the lifetime of the Government over the past ten years, the changes give an indication of the progress in this area, while we recognise that the area needs investment and support.
Ten years ago there was no automatic entitlement to teaching or care support for children. Provision for children with special needs in mainstream schools was virtually non-existent. The vast majority of schools did not have resource or learning support teachers. Ten years ago there were only 252 special needs assistants in total, nearly all of which were in special schools. If a child had any significant educational or care need, the parents had no choice but to send the child to a special school. Special schools are excellent and do tremendous work but there was no opportunity to mix with other children who did not have special needs but who were in the same community.
At that time there were eight classes for children with autism throughout the country. Within ten years, vast changes have taken place. The first was when my colleague and predecessor, Deputy Martin, adopted the policy of automatic response. For the first time a child with a special educational need had the right to additional teaching or care support. Since then, the services have improved dramatically, particularly the right of each child to the maximum appropriate level of inclusion, in line with abilities, has been recognised and supported in legislation and in practice. I referred to the small number of special needs assistants, less than 300 ten years ago. There are now 10,000 special needs assistants in our schools, a figure that speaks for itself. Senators may think this is just a statistic but that is not the case. These are people working with children in our schools to enable them to get the support needed to learn.
Equally, the number of teachers working solely with children with special needs has increased to 9,000 fully qualified teachers. The continued support for them and our special schools has helped education throughout the country and has also helped children and the provision of excellent service to children with varying degrees of need.
Many of these improvements have come about in the past ten years and many in the past three years. Significant improvements have taken place since I became the Minister for Education and Science because I made it a priority. This needed to be developed following the work of my predecessors, Deputy Martin's work on automatic response, and Deputy Noel Dempsey's introduction of legislation. This had to be built on but no work had been done by a previous Minister until 1997. In the past three years, investment in special needs has doubled to over €900 million this year. In the same period, 6,000 of the additional special education staff have been appointed, 4,000 special needs assistants and 2,000 teachers.
The application process has been completely overhauled. It is no longer a centralised system whereby one had to apply to the Department. It is more customer friendly, more user friendly and more family friendly because we now have 82 special needs organisers working locally. At least people need not contact the Department centrally but can have their concerns and needs met at a local level.
Every primary school in the country has an allocation of resource teachers based on its enrolment figures. This means the needs of children with what we call high-incidence special needs, namely, the more frequently seen special needs, and those who have learning difficulties such as dyslexia can be met immediately in the school.
The majority of primary school pupils with special needs no longer require assessments in order to get extra support. When one recognises that there are 9,000 teachers and 10,000 special needs assistants, it is a particular priority and has ensured there are major improvements for our children.
Training has been improved significantly as well. This was an area where little had been done but there has been a major expansion of the special education support service. The service was set up in 2003 but last year alone it was in contact with 15,000 teachers.
The day-to-day funding for special classes has been significantly improved, and has been almost doubled for classes for children under 12 with a physical disability. A new package of extra resources — higher capitation grants, teaching principles and priority status on the building programme — has been made available to encourage schools to set up special classes for children with autism.
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Classes for children with autism have increased from 150 in September 2004 to 277, 100 of which were established in the past year. Significant advances have been made to support children and their families.
I mentioned at the outset that the only option for children with the complex or more severe special needs ten years ago was the special school, whereas now there are three options available. For the child who is able to integrate and be in the mainstream classroom, that is an option, particularly with the extra supports available to them. There is the option of a special class attached to a mainstream school, which is becoming a more frequent option throughout the country, and there is also the special school. Children and their needs change as they get older and more mature. The aim has been to establish a continuum of education in order that children can move from one setting to another according to their changing needs.
Equally, in all of this talk about the changes that have come about in our mainstream schools, it is particularly important that I should acknowledge and recognise the valuable and continuing role of the special schools, which are becoming centres of excellence. I see great potential for them to be centres of excellence and to offer outreach supports to other schools in their areas.
We are also committed to developing a new procedure for dual enrolment in order that the children can attend both a special school and a mainstream school, as appropriate. Therefore, there always will be a strong role for the special schools and children will be able to get both supports.
Many parents prefer integration. They prefer their child to go to the local school along with his or her siblings and that he or she would be able to mix and play with other children from their local area, and many of these children need intensive support. It is the wish of the majority of parents, and the guiding ethos of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, that educating children in the least restrictive environment is the norm in developed societies in recent years. From talking to parents I know they value not only the quality of education but also the socialisation that brings with it. Only last week, the parent of a child in one of our special units for children with autism with whom I spoke stated how the attitude of her local community has changed towards her child because they now see her child as just being another who is able to go to the local school and able to play. It had a wider impact which was encouraging to hear.
I mentioned at the outset that not only have all of these services — extra teachers, extra supports and so on — been put in place, but there is also the legislative support and the legislative background. In aiming to make our service one of the best in the world, the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 was introduced. That Act includes an entitlement to an educational assessment for children with special needs. It also includes an entitlement to an individual education plan, recognising that every child is different and every child has a range of needs. It provides for parents to be consulted and informed at different stages of the process and they will also have recourse to an independent appeals board. Given the sheer scale of the improvements provided for under the Act which will lead to a significant transformation of educational services in a short period of time, the legislation specifically provides for a phasing-in period over five years. Obviously, it involves training, resources, supporting the schools and the children, and at the beginning we set out clearly that it was vital to have the supports in place to assist the schools before they become subject to new responsibilities under the Act. We are on target to have that Act, as was set out in the legislation, fully in place by October 2010 and are working towards that.
I mentioned the work that we have been doing in that regard. In addition, we have also issued advice to schools on how to devise and implement an individual education plan. Second level schools have received specific advice on how to meet the challenges associated with including children with special needs at second level, and that certainly is a challenge and something we constantly aim to improve.
A cross-sectoral team has been established bringing together the Department of Health and Children and my Department. We recognise that one must provide cross support for children with special needs between the two Departments, and with the HSE and the National Council for Special Education, to ensure there can be co-ordinated delivery of Part 2 of the Disability Act 2005 and the relevant sections of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act. A sign of the commitment of Government to ensure that we get this co-ordination was the appointment of the Minister of State, Deputy Devins, between the two Departments to ensure that the interests of the children will be better served by it.
The members of the independent special education appeals board were appointed in April 2007. At present, they are working to ensure that the structures and processes will be put in place and ready for when the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act comes into effect. We are working ahead of ourselves on that. The important work is being undertaken so that when the Act comes into effect the entitlement to recourse to an independent appeals board can be met.
We expect that many of the appeals will be on the individual education plans, IEPs, to which children will be entitled. Obviously, it is important that the schools are given an opportunity to prepare for the introduction of the IEPs and that people are trained properly in that regard. It is in train but rather than merely implementing the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act without having the back-up support, training and processes put in place, we are doing it in a sensible and planned way to ensure it works efficiently. In the meanwhile parents can appeal allocations and supports through the National Council for Special Education.
The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act is important. It will be fully in place, as set out in the timelines in the legislation, by October 2010, but it is important that we get it right.
Of course there are a number of children throughout the country who have different special needs. For example, we do much work with the Down's syndrome association and, as I mentioned already, younger people with dyslexia. Of course, I have frequently met many parents of children with autism. These are parents who are extremely committed, as are all parents who have children with special needs. They make many sacrifices for their children. It takes much time and a great deal of energy, and they do everything they can to ensure the development of their children and to ensure they get every opportunity in life. I know from parents of children who have autism that it is particularly difficult when that child is physically and emotionally distant from them. It is a considerable challenge, for families and for all of us, to ensure such children get the best opportunity in life. It is an area to which we have given major priority as well.
Autism was specifically recognised as a special educational need only in the past ten years or so. Since 1998 the Department has been trying to work along this continuum of being able to support children. It is not easy because of the historical lack of service. As I mentioned at the outset, we are all the time playing catch-up but considerable progress has been made in this regard.
In trying to prioritise early intervention, we put in place a system of home tuition for pre-school children. Senators will be aware that children up to the age of three are entitled to ten hours of home tuition a week and up to school age this entitlement rises to 20 hours a week. In addition, 23 autism-specific special pre-school classes have been set up around the country. Again, this is something we wish to expand as we have seen its value in responding to the need that exists.
The major increases to which I have referred, in provisions of special education teachers and assistants for our schools, have enabled 2,100 children with autism to be integrated into mainstream classes in their local schools. These are children on the autistic spectrum who are receiving the benefit of integration in addition to specialised education and care. Places have been created for nearly 1,000 further children in the autism-specific classes I mentioned. Senators will know that for the 500 children in special classes in special schools, six children are catered for by one teacher, two special needs assistants and more assistants if an individual children requires it. There is one unit where there are five children, five special needs assistants and one teacher, a total of six adults present for the five children. The particular need of the individual child is identified and one to one support is available if the child needs it. In addition, there are 244 children attending the centres currently being funded under the ABA pilot programme.
The emphasis always is on the children, trying to ensure that their needs are met, given that autism is a complex area and that every child has a range of needs, including children with autism. In setting up these classes throughout the country, 100 of which have been set up in the last year, the Department will also arrange to pay transport to get the child to the nearest one if there is not one immediately local to an individual family. If a family cannot get a placement home tuition is available to them. The number of children availing of this service is now very small because we are expanding the service throughout the country to meet needs.
Children in these special classes have the benefit of fully qualified teachers who are trained in educating and developing children and who understand the pedagogy involved. They also have access to additional training in autism-specific approaches. A range of different approaches is used. These include PEX, Picture Exchange Communication system, ABA, Applied Behaviour Analysis and TEACH, Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication-Handicapped Children. Training is available for teachers in all these approaches. The teachers are also qualified in child development, which is important.
I would love if there was a consensus among the autism community that one method of educating autistic children was superior to all others, one which would give these children the best chance in life. There is no such consensus. I wish there was an agreement that one intervention could meet all needs of these children. There is no such agreement, not merely regarding their behaviour, but also in developing their speech and communication skills and in helping them to become independent.
Researchers throughout the world have differed on this. If there was a clear consensus across the education and research communities of the world this would not be a difficulty. There is no consensus. In recent weeks people have heard top psychologists debating the merits of the different systems. What is clear is that there is merit in all of the different approaches and methods in use for children with autism. That is why because there are so many interventions and so many needs in every child with autism, it is important to ensure that we offer a flexible approach so that those needs can be met. This has been borne out by the Irish task force on autism which conducted a review of international research on the whole spectrum of autism spectrum disorder. That report identified that even ABA, an intensive intervention for young children with autism, "will continue to be the subject of peer review controversy". The general finding of the task force was that "no definitive approach that supports one approach as being better than others for all children with autistic spectrum disorders or supports a single approach for all aspects of development, nor is there any evidence by which children could be matched by particular approaches". Individual members of the task force have held different views but that was the group finding of the task force.
It recommended a range of methodologies for all children in all school settings. That is precisely the advice that we are following. This is also what autism groups in the UK are saying, what is said in Canada, in the United States, and even in Northern Ireland the group said that what is required in education is a child-centred approach rather than a method-centred approach. That is borne out with every child. One can always have flexibility of methods in dealing with a child but one cannot fit a child to a particular method. I have seen the methods PECS, TEACCH and ABA in use and I find each of them to be valuable.
I assure Senators that my Department will ensure that children who would benefit from ABA will have access to it. That is important and is very much a central part of our policy, though that message is not getting across. Our commitment to this in the Department and in Government is shown in that we have ensured that a range of ABA training programmes, varying from on-line to ten week courses as well as post-graduate qualifications, have been undertaken by teachers who are working in our special classes. Within the Department training opportunities have been expanded by having a specialist behaviour team, headed up by a person with a Ph.D. in ABA. Consultancy grants for ABA have also been provided to schools. It is wrong to say that I, or, indeed, Department officials, are against ABA. That is not the case. What we are conscious of is the fact that international best practice and research warns against relying on one method.
We have to be flexible and provide a range of methods. Given that our education system is child-centred and given also that teachers who are familiar with different interventions are the best trained people to tailor the approaches to the child rather than the other way round, this is the approach we are taking with children with autism all over the country. We believe that where a child needs a specific approach, be it TEACCH, PECS or ABA, that one will be available to that child.
It is unfortunate that the impression is given that we are completely against ABA. The situation is that we have a specific team in the Department headed up by a person with a Ph.D. in ABA, training is available for teachers in ABA and we give consultancy grants for schools to provide ABA. This should allow people to see that we recognise that every child with autism is different and that every approach is different. Children change and their needs change and that is why they need to have access to different approaches in our education settings.
I recognise that the pilot programmes for ABA established over the past ten years, were set up when there was nothing else on offer. The parents involved came together to make sure that an education would be provided for their children. Now there is a network available of special classes throughout the country. As we continue to expand our service throughout the country we would like to draw on the expertise that I acknowledge has been developed in ABA centres. In the programme for Government we have guaranteed to give long-term funding to these centres provided that we can have agreement on reaching certain standards such as qualifications of teachers and a balanced education programme for the children. We will be working with them and are having positive talks with them. The Senators will have heard on the radio, not just from myself, but from groups such as Irish Autism Action, that we are working well together to ensure that we are best meeting the needs of children throughout the country.
We are all come from the perspective of wanting to do what is best for all children with special educational needs, including children with autism. The first of those pilot ABA projects set up in the country, based in Cork, has already applied to become a special school and to work with us in agreeing standards. I hope that others will do that as well and will recognise that children change and have different needs. It is important in such a fast-changing area to keep on top of research throughout the world. We certainly will do that to see what is happening and how our education system can evolve in the years ahead. We will continue to ensure we put in place a nationwide network and incorporate best practice into our system. I look forward to hearing Senators' views but I am committed to introducing the Student Support Bill in the Dáil at 1 p.m.
This is a complex, emotive area which is very personal for families and children. I appreciate that more than anyone but I also appreciate that each child deserves the best option for education and the opportunity to reach his or her full potential. That is as true of a child with special educational needs as of any other child. That is why I have focused on this. It was identified in this House yesterday as a priority and I thank Senator O'Toole for that.
The energy, effort, commitment not to mention resources and teachers that go into this specific area is recognition that we are coming from very far behind and that this is an area of need on which we are working to try to meet all the needs of these people. It is difficult to do all this very quickly, but the Government's commitment has been demonstrated over the past ten years and will continue over the next few years. We will continue to meet the needs of all these children in a way which is child centred, friendly towards their needs, allows the flexibility of responding to their changing needs and ensures every child has access to fully qualified people who are able to work with and support him or her.
There is no better philosophy or policy on offer from any government or department of education. There is no better commitment to providing what is necessary for these children. There is also a commitment to ensuring we try to meet the needs of all children and to working very hard with all concerned, be they parents concerned about autism or Down's syndrome or parents of children with mild, moderate or severe general learning difficulties. The needs must be met right across the spectrum. I recognise we need to do more but we have shown our commitment. I look forward to hearing Senators' views on the wide range of needs of children with special educational needs.
I have listened to what the Minister has had to say. There is no doubt there has been more of everything in recent years. However, any educational provision is not good enough. It is the quality of that education that counts and the outcomes the child gains as a result of the intervention that matters. This is especially the case with children with learning difficulties or special educational needs. Children with special educational needs typically do not learn at the pace of their peers and can get lost in large classes. This does not mean they cannot learn. To be given a fair chance or a level playing field they need timely intervention and various forms of quality support. The quality support must be from appropriately trained competent teachers and special needs assistants. It is not just a question of numbers. For example, I have been a teacher but it does not mean I am a specialist in these disabilities and difficulties. I make this critical point at the outset. Special education needs exist on a continuum from mild to severe. It should be easy for class teachers to spot the difficulties of all children, but that is not the case.
Children at primary and second level should not necessarily need a psychological assessment to access resources for learning needs. I agree it is a different matter for resource level and specific learning difficulties. In the past, learning support was only available for children below the tenth percentile. This has now stretched to the 12th percentile using the general allocation model. As an educator and observer of practice, I have seen that children below the 25th percentile are in difficulty in many of our classes.
For inclusion to be effective — the stated policy of the Department of Education and Science is for inclusion of children with special needs — the school needs to be equipped to respond at a whole-school level to all children's needs. This means better training and competency. Can the Minister say if the general allocation model of learning support for a school is now more effective at picking up and treating a wider range of children, given that children with dyslexia or special learning difficulty are now lumped into this category? I am amazed that those children are being lumped in with the general allocation model. Previously, they received resource hours along with other low-incidence children suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Down's syndrome or autism.
Will the Minister look at that area and the outcomes for children with dyslexia? In schools in my area in Galway, the learning support teacher now feels overloaded with needs under the general allocation model of provision and does not have the time available to give to new children as needs arise. The special education needs organiser, SENO, is now called the "Say No" where I come from because he or she says "No" to too many children seeking learning support hours. They do not have the time. This is not good enough. What is the Minister's response to this? I am aware we need to be very specific and not lump everything together in how we discuss children with special educational needs.
The National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, presents a major difficulty. Where there is a learning blockage or problem that cannot be figured out, the child needs to have a psychological assessment to receive appropriate help and so the school can formulate the right individual education plan, IEP, for that child. The problem is only 1,303 primary schools out of 3,200 and 456 out of 720 second level schools have a NEP service. Even when the service is in place, it is inadequate. My local school has 200 children. They get two to three assessments each year when they need ten.
What is the alternative for the parent of a child that has a difficulty? The alternative is what happened with my seven year old child. I had to pay €400 for a psychological assessment. My other option was to wait two to three years for a free assessment for my child. What if I could not have afforded that? The NEPS formulated in this way is no service because a child will lose too much critical learning time unless the parent can afford to pay. This is not good enough. The child falls behind in learning but more importantly, how does he or she feel? No one is estimating that. The nature and extent of the child's problems will deepen, making later remediation more costly to the State. This is why these students will have a right in the future under the education legislation to sue the State if they establish that their needs were not met.
At present the needs of many children at primary and secondary level are not being picked up, assessed and treated properly. I know this because I am in the schools. I have been brought into second level schools to look specifically at learning gain. We have a famine in this country at second level because, whatever the Minister likes to think, the system is not child centred. It is subject centred because it is an exam-based system.
In my child's case we diagnosed, with the help of a psychological assessment, a verbal comprehension difficulty which is being successfully remediated because we were lucky to get speech and language therapy. My child had no learning difficulty but the verbal comprehension blockage was preventing learning. We then fought for six sessions of speech and language therapy and because the level of expertise was so good and so targeted, she has made major gains in confidence and competence. That is the type of intervention that must take place. Six sessions is not enough. Much more will be needed in the future.
Upskilling in special educational needs is needed for mainstream class teachers. A qualified teacher does not necessarily have specialised training in the area. The child spends the majority of his or her time in the mainstream classroom so the teacher needs to understand the various difficulties and disabilities as well as how to differentiate instruction within the mainstream. I know teachers are doing a wonderful job but they need more help to become more specialised. The pull-out model of learning support, where a child is taken out of the classroom, is not always the right model. Many children begin to feel bad about themselves, especially as they grow older. I know there is a place for this model but we must have concern for the child's self-image.
We must look at new developments. In this regard, I welcome the new on-line course in St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra on special educational needs which is geared towards classroom teachers. It should be resourced and widened and all teachers should do it.
Another issue needing attention is training for the 10,000 special needs assistants, SNAs. The Minister is correct in saying she has appointed many more, but training is an issue. I welcome their appointment because they play a major role and are a great help. I have seen them when supervising teaching practice in classrooms. However, the majority of them are untrained to address the disabilities presented by the students they are intended to support. Therefore, policy aspirations such as inclusion can only be met partially by the Department.
The Minister needs to look at ways to better support special needs assistants in providing services to schools. For comparison purposes she should look at the skills level of applied behaviour analysis tutors, which level is the result of training. They are similar to SNAs in terms of background. She should also look at the training level of child care assistants in Early Start. This is the type of investment that must be made if inclusion is to work effectively.
There is a famine at second level for children with learning difficulties and special educational needs. Major difficulties arise in this area. Children with special educational needs services at primary level should be allowed carry these resources on to second level, but that is not the case. They must start all over again. They lose time, need an assessment and can be embarrassed in front of their new peers. It is a major transition from primary to second level and I ask the Minister to examine that area.
I have completed a survey on second level education with 500 public representatives and have its preliminary findings. I targeted second level because I believe it is the area most in need in terms of special needs. The results show that what is needed most at second level is greater teacher attention, including help with special educational needs. Frequently, the help needed at second level is subject-based. What is a child's entitlement when a school does not address a child's specific needs in subject areas? Many are told to go and get private help, which is appalling because the child does not need an overall assessment. Will the Minister ensure I get a written response on that from the Department?
On the subject of autism and the issue of ABA or the eclectic approach, I ask the Minister to listen what I say. Listening is critical if we are to improve outcomes for our children who are all entitled to a fair and appropriate education under the Constitution.
I observed two schools, Claddagh national school in Galway city which has an autistic unit in a mainstream school, and Ábalta national school in Knocknacarra, which is an ABA method school. In the latter there was a 1:1 pupil-tutor ratio, a focused, targeted programme of intervention, speech and occupational therapy every day and trained ABA tutors under a lead teacher or psychologist on autism spectrum disorders. This can be compared with what I saw in the very caring environment of the Claddagh national school. There were 16 children in the autism unit in a cramped space. They had very hard-working diligent teachers but they were overworked and found it difficult to cope with the 6:1 ratio. They had no speech and language therapy and no occupational therapy. How can the two compare?
Children with autism have communication and behavioural difficulties and for them not to have speech and language therapy or occupational therapy is criminal. I plead with the Minister to examine the situation in Claddagh national school. The school has a privately financed occupational therapist, at €642 per day, to help its autistic children with gross and fine motor co-ordination difficulties. Will their entitlements improve with the implementation of the Education for People with Special Educational Needs Act? Does this situation describe the Minister's preferred model of appropriate eclectic education for children? If so, it is a raw deal for children with autism.
Unless children get the same hours, services and quality interventions under the eclectic model, the two models do not compare. This may be where the drawback is. With autism, early diagnosis is critical, followed by sustained intervention. If the Minister is not arrogant and is committed to autism education, she must conduct research that tracks autistic children's progress to see what interventions they have had and what has worked. It would be wrong of her to make final decisions on the provision for autistic children unless we have a more informed Irish-based view. It would only take some weeks or months for the Department to track children who have gone through the system.
I thank the Minister for her time and hope she has been listening. She must give all children a fair chance. I know that is what she intends, but she must look at the specific requirements to do that.
I welcome the Minister to the House. It is easy to come to the House and criticise issues in the area of education. One does not need a PhD to find problems because we do not live in a perfect world. As Government spokesperson in the Seanad on education I have much to say, but there is too little time to cover as wide a debate as that on special educational needs.
As in other areas of Government, there have been significant moves forward in the past decade. One of the first issues I raised on the Adjournment debate in the Dáil, which is almost 12 years ago, related to Scoil Íosagáin in Buncrana. I was distraught, like my constituents, when we were told the one classroom support post that existed for their mild mental handicap class was to be removed when a profound handicap class was to be established. I was even more distraught on the night of the Adjournment debate because not only did the Minister at the time, Niamh Bhreathnach, not turn up for the debate in person, the Minister of State at her Department, Deputy Bernard Allen, was sent in to deliver a speech on the wrong school. Those were the days. Thankfully, things have changed.
I must put on record what has happened since in that school, from 1997 to 2007 because it is worth comparing. Enrolment was 552 in 1997 and staffing included one principal, 18 mainstream class teachers, one remedial teacher, one teacher for mildly mentally handicapped students and one resource teacher. The school had 651 pupils in 2007, an extra 100 pupils, and staffing includes one principal, 25 mainstream class teachers, three learning support teachers, two resource teachers, eight teachers in eight special classes, three temporary language support teachers, one post for administrative deputy principal and 32 special needs assistants. The school has four special classes for children with autism, two moderate classes, one class for severe-profound and one class for specific learning difficulty. The school acquired its deputy administrative principal so that the principal could act in the role required to support the services available in the school. It has services for low-instance special needs and more in-depth needs and embraces issues above and beyond particular issues, be they autism or Down's syndrome.
It is good to put on record the then and now. There has been a major move forward. I commend the Minister. Far from being arrogant, she is active, interested and on the ground. She has visited these schools and seen the situation for herself. She has seen the action that has taken place. I am delighted that this week we saw 20 special needs students graduate from Trinity College Dublin with a third level qualification. Perhaps in 1997 people might have scoffed at the idea that these people would even aspire to a third level qualification. I raise my hat to all involved in that regard.
I wish to underline the tremendous work of some groups in my area who are trying to improve facilities in the special needs sector, especially inside and outside school. These include iCare, Cashel na Cor, and North East Inishowen Special Needs Association. Their work is to be seen locally in the bricks and mortar and in the advanced planning stages of other activities. The group iCare is autism specific and is made up of parents of autistic children. It is supported by many in the community and there has been significant fund-raising to add to funding received for extra-curricular activities. That has been embraced by the entire community. Everybody now knows about the ICARE group. There is no child hidden in the closet, as would have been the case a number of years ago. The children are very much a part of the community and the community is very much a part of them. Part of that stems from the fund-raising activities they carry out in the community. While I am not endorsing the fact that they must fund raise, it has a beneficial spin-off through the community involvement in the special needs area.
They have bought a bus to enable the children to get beyond the home-school environment. They have developed a facility for after-school activities, which was opened by Mr. Keith Duffy recently. As a result of Government funding provided last year, we are in a position to have a music therapist in situ for children with special needs across the peninsula.
In respect of the recent debate on ABA, I offer my opinion, not my expertise. As time is progressing, new information is coming to light practically every day. I have spent some time studying the emerging scientific evidence relating to music therapy. Having reported on the topic two years ago, I have continued to read into it and have learned of the value of music therapy for the development of speech and the reduction of repetitive behaviour in autistic children. These are two aspects which are becoming more widely accepted in terms of the evidence emerging scientifically that music therapy intervention is as valid as any other intervention for those with special needs.
I raise this issue to display the fact that there is more than one approach that can be of assistance to a range of special needs students. The scene is constantly evolving. That is not to say I reject anything I have heard to date regarding the effectiveness of ABA, an approach that is very much favoured by people in my area, as is PECS and TEACCH. However, not all children gain from any one approach and therefore I counsel against closing the door to other options.
I look forward to the results of the report on CABAS in Cork, which was a pilot scheme set up a number of years ago. This work has been evaluated and lessons have been learned. I understand that those involved have made an application to become a special school, which is an interesting issue in itself. I hope the Minister will meet those who evaluated the work on music therapy carried out in Scoil Íosagáin as those who have been touched by the approach are extolling its virtues. This is not just relevant to autism, but cuts across the whole spectrum of special needs.
I know that speaking of an unrecognised or misunderstood therapy at a time when conventional therapies are seen to be less than satisfactory will wind up some people. However, I ask people to be informed before they are angered and to read into the subject and not dismiss it idly. I also accept that we need far more access to all therapies, but I stand over the central value of the arts therapies in this area.
Unlike Senator Fidelma Healy Eames, I feel that the starting point that is not really accepted in the area of special education is that of assessment. How do we know what works best and what is a quality intervention for a child if we have not evaluated him or her? It seems wrong that in schools that are currently serviced by the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, it will not carry out assessments on, observations of, or visits to children who are enrolled in special classes. This is the current experience. Should such children not be priority students by definition of their placement in a special class in either a mainstream or special school? I am led to believe there is a recruitment issue involved here but in the meantime, these children have no psychological interventions. In practice, this leaves teachers very much on their own at a time when the spirit of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act advocates a multi-disciplinary approach. There are very few schools that are not trying to embrace the idea of integration. There is an enormous level of willingness to work with the Minister to support special needs children in each classroom. The difficulty arises when a teacher does not have the required expertise in a particular area, especially if he or she is just a general classroom teacher who came out of the training system before the current retraining and support systems were put in place.
I call into question the role of the Department of Health and Children on the issue. I know of a case where a NEPS psychologist recommended support for a student and a psychiatrist from the Department of Health and Children did likewise. However, that student did not receive the support that was needed, when it was needed. I was please to hear the Minister say the Departments of Health and Children and Education and Science are discussing this issue and trying to deal with it in a joined-up way. The lack of joined-up planning and thinking, which does not only relate to education, means that teachers, schools, students and families must pay the price, as appropriate therapies and approaches are denied. In that context, education delayed is education denied. This problem should not be laid entirely at the feet of the Minister and perhaps she has found a lever for progress by ensuring both Departments now work together on the issue.
If a school fund raises and pays for a psychological assessment for a child, at least then it has a label to work with and some idea as to what type of education the child would benefit from. However, this leads back to the issue of access to services. We must evaluate whether we are training enough specialists to cater for the needs that exist, as well as whether there will be funding levels sufficient to meet demand. These are issues for the Departments of Health and Children and Finance and we cannot let them abdicate any responsibility in this regard.
I know, from a geographical point of view, that there can be difficulties in attracting professional staff, as is the case in my own area. That has repercussions within the health service itself, as well as in broader areas such as in the provision of speech, occupational and other therapies. With regard to the arts therapies, we do not even have the professional qualification recognition that would enable people to be paid at an appropriate level. Such issues must be tackled.
I ask the Minister to evaluate the work of the new National Council for Special Education and that of the special needs assistants. The council has been operational for only a short time but valuable lessons can already be learned. We must ensure that where things are not working well between schools and specialists, there is an appeals mechanism that is completely independent. The Minister alluded to such an appeals mechanism in her speech.
I have seen an enormous level of improvement in services from the time of my initial introduction to politics. However, the difficulty for parents is that their child is a child of his or her time. Time does not stand still and the child's chance is now. The earlier a diagnosis is made, the better the chance that interventions will have maximum effect. Our goal must be to assess early, have specialists trained and recognised in order to embrace as many new scientific approaches as are available at any point in time. This is likely to result in a number of good interventions.
I congratulate the Government on the success achieved to date but add my voice to the quest for those who are special in our communities to be cherished by our communities. I also ask that those who face the challenges of coping with the specialness of their new baby are given support, and not hurdles, as they struggle through those very important early years. All children deserve support, particularly those under six, who have not been focused on strongly in Ireland to date. That is true across the board, not just in the area of special needs.
Early investment will save euros in the future, if one is to look at the issue impersonally and coldly. However, I have found the children of whom we speak today are far from impersonal and cold. I look forward to the positive changes that will be embraced in the next decade and wish the Minister well in her difficult role. I reiterate the fact that there have been significant improvements, with which I am very impressed.
I wish to share my time with Senator Ross, with the agreement of the House.
I welcome the Minister and agree with many of the points made by Senator Joe O'Toole regarding the effort she has put into this area. However, I believe she is misguided. Autism is now recognised and identified as a condition but it is very complex. One does not speak of autism on its own, but rather an autistic spectrum. That means that each child needs an individual assessment, which is not provided at present.
The Minister is wrong when she refers to fully qualified teachers. While they may be fully qualified as primary school teachers, they do not have the professional, focused expertise that is absolutely necessary in dealing with this situation. The Ó Cuanacháin family visited this House recently. Theirs is a celebrated case, with which I will not deal in great detail now. However, I have read some of the transcripts of the court case and it appears the evidence was unmercifully dragged out. That raised the costs enormously. I know they are not being pursued for those costs but they still have been left with an enormous bill. It seems that the case was an attempt to give a bloody nose to the front-runner to intimidate others and discourage them from taking a similar action.
The young man at the centre of this case was assessed by numerous psychologists but has been denied the treatment that is regarded as appropriate by his parents and by the psychologists, on the say so of civil servants. This is what is behind the statement by Deputy Mary O'Rourke in the Dáil recently. She obviously did not make that statement for partisan motives.
Many Senators spoke on the Disability Bill in this House. We fought a battle to try to ensure that the Act would be rights based. However, despite everything we did, as the Bill was passed, the caveat of "resources allowing" was added. That means there is no right to an individual assessment of needs for children with autism, which is absolutely vital for them.
I refer to an article published in The Irish Times on 15 February. I will not list all of its authors, but it was written by the leading scientists in the field, working in universities in Northern Ireland and the Republic. They begin by stating that they were dismayed, yet no longer surprised, by the justification given by the Minister for depriving so many children with a diagnosis of autism of the only scientifically validated treatment approach to autism, ABA. This contradicts the Minister's comments, which are also contradicted in a letter I received from a senior research scientist. He stated that, as a former research scientist, he can testify that ABA is the only remediation approach for which there is a strong peer reviewed scientific basis for its effectiveness in helping the children in question.
The Minister refers to it as teaching behaviour, but it is not a question of teaching behaviour. Children with autism manifest behavioural problems, such as hand-clapping, head-rocking, self-harming and so on, which means that it is impossible for them to have real access to education before the behavioural problems are addressed. As such, ABA plays a clear role. Having qualified primary teachers does not address the situation. To dismiss the matter as only teaching behaviour is, with the greatest respect to the Minister, incorrect.
The idea that there is a range of methods and that the eclectic approach is appropriate is disturbing. We all know that autistic children do not respond positively to changes in routine. If an eclectic approach is taken, they may find it disturbing and their learning may not be assisted. The article in The Irish Times stated:
The unbiased literature reviews and related research of the task-force undoubtedly found that following the method of applied behaviour analysis was by far superior to other approaches. ABA was also consistently advocated by other bodies which had researched this same issue (eg New York, California, Canada).
The next article is also from The Irish Times. The first paragraph praises the Minister and no one suggests that she has malign intentions, but it is suggested that the children have been failed in a number of ways. At pre-school level, part-time home tuition with a primary teacher is primarily offered. Few of these teachers are available or have the relevant teaching qualifications, leaving it to overwhelmed parents to source it. There is the question of age. Everyone states that it should not be based on age specifically, but on intervention from the point of diagnosis, which must be early. What of the millions spent in fighting court cases?
The same situation applies to capping. Were the intervention permitted, it would stop a considerable number of people ending up in institutions, another saving. Even on the crude basis of a cost benefit analysis, we would be ahead of the game with ABA.
I thank the Minister for attending the House after several appeals from me and many others for a debate on this issue. I do not agree with many of her comments, but I appreciate that she is prepared to explain her position to both Houses.
I do not agree with Senator Norris on costs. I do not care about costs as it is not a cost issue. However, there were some unnecessary costs in the Ó Cuanacháin case. I would appeal to the Minister to not take precipitative action that would bankrupt people taking a court case on behalf of their children. The high-profile case has stimulated debate in the Houses and has challenged many of us to face up to a serious and nasty problem that we have not successfully confronted. To discuss costs is irrelevant and wrong. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but she has continuously maintained that cost is not the main issue. Rather, the issue is more complicated. Costs should not be an issue because, while we as public representatives may not understand the details of the different treatments, a wave of parents have approached us with their cases since the Ó Cuanacháin case. They are dissatisfied because their children are not getting the treatment they believe is deserved.
Whatever the Minister states about the different virtues of the cases, there are some unhappy parents who claim they are being blocked by the State from getting the treatment they believe their children should get. In response, civil servants and politicians claim they know better. No one knows better in a situation such as this than the parents. The Minister was right to point out that there is no consensus and that there are different opinions from experts, task forces, etc. Politicians should not be dictating to parents about this issue. If anyone can make the decision, it is the parent, who does not consider the cost.
I was struck by Senator Healy Eames's comments because she spoke with the authority of a parent, which is important. She is one of a range of people who speak with that authority and who lobby us as politicians because they are unhappy with what is occurring. That is a far greater authority than that of clinical experts, who disagree anyway, or a Minister with good intentions but who views the matter differently. We should discuss this issue with the people and parents involved and let them have the treatment that is deserved. I do not know how much time I have left.
——a letter I received from a parent to put on the record the personal and human feelings involved. The person is a parent of a five year old boy who suffers from autism and is aware of the lack of services provided in Ireland and how one's place of birth can decide how one can cope with the condition. The debate on ABA is, according to this person, a no-brainer. The person claims that, as is clear from the presentation attached to the letter, ABA makes a difference and more hours, rather than a cut-off of 12 hours as proposed by Dr. Fitzgerald, benefit children's social skills. The Government's mix and match approach rather than pure ABA is of no benefit, a finding that is not only supported by a Norwegian study, an enlightened jurisdiction in this debate, but also by research done in UCLA. However, according to this person, the Department of Education and Science and Dr. Fitzgerald, who seems to be the only academic the Department can wheel out to support its approach, cannot show on what evidence their statistics are based. This is rhetoric, but it is a fair point of view. Some nine out of ten children benefit from ABA when it is delivered 26-30 hours per week. The person asks why the one in ten who will not benefit should dictate what the majority needs.
There are ten pilot schools in Leinster, one in Connacht and one in Munster. Prior to the Minister taking office, her predecessor wanted a centre in each county, but the Minister stopped this. People in the Department may have issues with psychologists rather than teachers delivering education to children in ABA centres. The so-called special training for teaching children with autism is an on-line course and some of the teachers the Minister uses as examples of the service she proposes need only an interest in teaching children with autism to be allowed to teach them. This is, according to the person's letter, a Third World approach.
We are returning to the issue touched on by Senator Norris and to which Senator Healy Eames gave more time, namely, equality. There are different discussions going on because the Minister is talking about one thing while parents of children with autism are discussing quality and better training. This is what is necessary.
As Senator Healy Eames and others have argued, the difference between the pupil-teacher ratio of 6:1 in national schools with autism units and the ratio of 1:1 is infinitesimal; we should concentrate on what parents want and that is a 1:1 pupil-teacher ratio.
I welcome the Minister to the House and am glad to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I compliment the Minister on coming into this House, listening to many contributors with different points of view and taking on those views. She does not have a closed mind to this subject and I am delighted she is here to listen to this debate.
We all recognises the sacrifices parents of autistic children must make as it is a very complex condition that none of us fully understand. I come from a teaching background and was in a school with many disadvantaged and disabled students. Ten years ago there was no framework for special educational needs and when we wanted to consult parents and set up a structure we found there was a lack of assistants and resource teachers. We have come a long way but we are not yet finished.
The Minister has set up a framework, grasped the nettle and been stung by people who know less and who understand the matter no more than I.
We have come a long way as the Minister has fought for €900 million for this area. The Minister indicated that between special needs assistants, resource teachers and so on there is a combined staff of 19,000. In 1998 only 3,000 people worked in this area.
Early intervention and diagnosis is the key and this is where the Department of Health and Children comes in. A mother will spot a child who is not developing normally by one and a half years of age and this is when diagnosis must be made. Once that happens the case should go straight to the Department of Health and Children and this is where a gap occurs.
The Minister has acknowledged that after early intervention home tuition is necessary; ten hours up to two and half to three years of age, increasing to 20 hours thereafter. A 1:1 pupil-teacher ratio is necessary with teachers who understand the approach that must be used because each child will require a different approach. Speaking as a teacher, I know one might use three different approaches within half an hour, depending on the child in question.
I am speaking from experience so I ask the Senator to allow me continue.
The jury is out on this topic and there are no absolutes. I visited schools and spoke to educational and clinical psychologists and each person I met gave me different answers. There is no area of this subject on which one can give a definite statement. I do not know enough about the matter and the Minister has accepted that she is using a trial and error approach but I congratulate her on setting up the framework as, under her watch, matters are progressing. Previous Governments, with representatives from all sides of the House, failed in this area but now we are attempting to get it right. Give the Minister a chance.
I welcomed the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 because in it the Minister set up a structure involving an education plan, consultation with parents and educational psychologists.
This structure is a step forward. In my teaching role I tried to implement such a system; sometimes it worked and sometimes it did not. At least there is now an appeals system. I ask the Minister to push this matter as much as possible and I know it will be completed by 2010. Pressure must be exerted in this area because we need the appeals system and parent consultation.
I am delighted the system is being decentralised to allow local areas and communities become involved. People have choices that include tuition at home, mainstream education and mainstream education with special classes. This is a big step forward and I would love to still work in education and deal with this area because it could work very well.
Training is now done in teacher training colleges but not every teacher will be good at this type of education just as not every teacher can teach maths. I am a guidance counsellor and perhaps many of us, including myself, would not be good in such a role. We must be careful in selecting teachers who have the concentration to deal with this subject.
Applied behavioural analysis, ABA, is a very good approach and I have spoken to people that use it. The Minister has not said she is against ABA but there are many types of intervention and it is important that we keep them in mind when dealing with given situations. The jury is out and more research is needed; I could return to this subject in three years and reject everything I said today due to new ideas that have circulated.
There are no fixed answers and none of us have a monopoly when it comes to wisdom on this subject. We should give the Minister a chance to get on with her work in the area and ask her to return in 12 months to see how things have progressed.