Seanad debates

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

7:00 pm

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I acknowledge the presence of one of my favourite Ministers, Deputy Haughey. He is becoming well versed on this important issue. I refer to the need for the Minister for Health and Children to decide a way forward for the introduction of arts therapies into special schools, given the proven benefits in Scoil Íosagáin, Buncrana, of the one year of music therapy for special needs students, now threatened with withdrawal.

The Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, has heard me refer to this issue more often than most Ministers, yet it does not make it any less valid to raise tonight the need for music therapy in the school in question. Scoil Íosagáin in Buncrana is a school of 651 students with one principal, 25 mainstream class teachers, three learning support teachers, two resource teachers, eight teachers in eight special classes and three temporary language support teachers. The school has four special classes for children with autism; two moderate classes, one severe and profound class and one class for special learning difficulties. The school evidently knows something about special needs.

I managed to secure approximately €60,000 last year, a small percentage of which was for administration, but most of which was to fund the appointment of a music therapist in the school. The results were monitored and the school recorded a significant success. Some of those involved gave evidence recently to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science. They indicated that 60 out of the 690 children got access to the music therapist. One of the parents outlined the case of her ten year old daughter who has autism, who had not been able to blow or suck but who had made progress following music therapy. She got to the stage where she could blow out the candles on her birthday cake and suck juice with a straw from a glass, which she had not been able to do previously.

Music therapy is sometimes misunderstood as someone playing a guitar while everybody sings and enjoys themselves. That is not the case; it is a clinical intervention to assist people especially with vocal skills but other skills also. The principal, Sinead McLaughlin, asked for an extension of the funding which had come from a children-at-risk fund but it was not possible to do that. The children are at risk in one respect but that is not the case from another perspective. The principal was told that funding for a music therapist had to come from the Health Service Executive but the HSE did not accept that point because the therapy involved a school. In order to implement the spirit of the EPSEN Act, we need a mechanism whereby the Departments of Education and Science and Health and Children can come together to decide what is working.

The Minister of State used the term "value for money" in his previous reply. For a maximum of €50,000 we could continue to have 60 special needs students advance and be supported in their development. Music therapy has proven to be effective both here and in many other countries. I accept that professional recognition is required and we are dealing with that. The question arises of how one controls the demand for music therapy. First, by definition, there are only a certain number of special schools in the country and, second, there is a finite number of qualified music therapists. I would not allow someone to play a guitar to a class of students with special needs and call it music therapy. Either we provide the real thing or nothing at all.

The reason I have tabled the motion again is that I believe in what I say and it is backed up by clinical proof. I cannot arrange a meeting between someone in the Department of Education and Science who is responsible for special education and someone in the HSE. I urge the Minister of State to undertake to arrange a meeting between the relevant person in the Department with responsibility for special education, the relevant person in the HSE, the principal of the school and me. I do not wish to solve the problem for just one person because I know that sets precedents, and I want to solve the problem for everybody. The situation in question could be resolved for the want of a small amount of money. I am sure we invest far more in areas where we might not be able to see the outcome.

In this case, however, a clinical trial has been carried out and evidence exists to stand over it. Anybody who heard what was said before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science would recognise that this case has merit. There is a very serious issue in that those responsible for special education can claim this is a health issue and those responsible for health can claim it is an education issue. We had a long meeting on Monday with the National Council for Special Education to discuss SNA provision. The same issue came up. SNAs are not there to solve all the problems. There are issues within the health area and health professionals need to be brought in. Even the National Council for Special Education accepts that the two sides are not talking to each other in a meaningful way, which is the crux of the problem. If people saw what was happening action would be taken to address the issue.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I will respond to this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney. I am pleased to have the opportunity to address this important issue raised by the Senator. I wish to emphasise the Government's continuing commitment to providing a high-quality service to all people with a disability. This commitment is illustrated by the substantial investment we have made in disability services in recent years. Between 1997 and 2006, additional revenue and capital funding of €851 million has been invested in health-funded support services for people with disabilities of which €549 million was provided for persons with an intellectual disability and those with autism.

To fund the requirements for service development for HSE funded services, the Government has set aside specific funds for service delivery for people with disabilities by way of the multi-annual investment programme. An additional sum of €75 million for revenue purposes was provided for disability services in each of the past two years under the programme, with a further €50 million being made available in 2008. The Minister has been assured by the HSE that while the commencement of some services had been delayed this year due to a financial review, it is now in a position to roll out the planned disability developments as outlined in its 2008 service plan.

The priority in 2008 is on continuing to enhance the assessment and support services for children with disabilities. This will also help to build the additional capacity in multidisciplinary and other support services, required under the Disability Act 2005 and the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. As a further significant development in support of the national disability strategy, the Office for Disability and Mental Health was established by the Government in January of this year. The office brings together responsibility for different policy areas and a range of services which impact on the lives of people with a disability and mental health difficulties. The main focus of the office is to improve co-ordination and communication across Departments and Government agencies in the delivery of disability and mental health services.

As the Senator is aware, music, drama, art and dance therapy are collectively known as the creative arts therapies with music therapy being the most popular and more widely used, but drama, art and dance therapy continue to be developed in health care settings. Music therapy may be offered, on an individual or group basis, to people of all ages who have physical, learning, social or emotional difficulties. Therapists work most commonly with individuals with special needs, with the elderly and with stroke victims.

In the specific case raised by the Senator, the Department of Health and Children understands from the Health Service Executive that a music therapist was funded through the Department of Education and Science for one year under an arts grant programme. I am advised that as this funding was granted on a once-off basis, the school is now seeking alternative funding from the Health Service Executive and other sources, including national lottery funding.

While the benefits of music therapy in Scoil Íosagáin, Buncrana are recognised by many, the significant demands on resources for disability services, together with the need for the HSE to live within its overall budget for the year, means that it is unlikely that music therapy would be prioritised in this instance. The HSE did, however, submit a business case to the Department of Health and Children in April 2008 for the statutory recognition of the creative arts therapies, including music therapy. The matter is under consideration at present and the Department of Health and Children intends to explore this issue further with the HSE. I will take the Senator's request for a meeting back to the relevant section in my Department, the Department of Education and Science.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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Is it not unusual that a day after €50 million was announced for special education for pre-school and post-school autistic students that €50,000 could not be found for children at school with autism and special needs?

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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That is the crux of my problem. It is recognised by many but not recognised by the people who need to recognise it. I appreciate the Minister of State saying that he would organise the meeting. If people saw rather than assumed what it was about they would have a different opinion on it.