Seanad debates

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

8:00 pm

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me raise this important matter on the Adjournment. I welcome the Minister of State to the House.

I raise the issue of special needs pupils and teachers. It is now imperative that special needs teachers and classes are exempt from the cutbacks being imposed regarding supervision and substitution cover. It is important that we acknowledge the special role of special needs education in the education system. It is extraordinary that in St. Columba's in Cork, which has become a model for the teaching of special needs students, its principal, who is a respected educator and a sincere man, is being forced to write to parents about this issue.

Does the Minister of State believe it is right that a provision causing hardship is being imposed on special needs education? Special needs classes should be exempt from the substitution and supervision cutbacks. That would avoid the need for principals to engage in crisis management and alleviate the concern among parents.

I am not making this up. This week, the principal of St. Columba's, Douglas, Cork, had to write to parents explaining to them that because of the cutbacks in the employment of substitute teachers and supervision, he may not be able to provide immediate cover on the first day of substitution if a teacher does not come to work because of illness. That creates a number of problems, not just in a specific school but across a multitude of schools in Cork and throughout the country.

It now behoves Government to admit it made a mistake. Before Christmas, the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, said he had found an additional €2.5 million but this is not mainstream education. I am talking about special needs education.

The circular should be rewritten to include a specific exemption for special needs education. It is imperative that is done. I acknowledge that at a time of plenty the provision of special needs assistants became a welcome part of the education lexicon. However, in this time of financial difficulty, those who most need our help to be educated deserve to be treated with the respect they are entitled to from the State. I ask that children in special needs classes be exempted. The Minister can insert one line in the circular to the effect that an exemption is being given to special needs classes.

This is not just about children with autism but those with all disabilities. We have made major inroads in this country regarding that issue. As the Minister of State is aware, the substitution and supervision cover is not like the cover in a mainstream class where any teacher can be brought in as cover. Special needs education requires a specific, trained person.

I appeal to the Minister to revisit this badly thought out, badly composed plan. What does it take for a principal to compose a letter, perhaps talk to the chairman of the school board of management, and send that letter to parents stating that the classes for their children may not be able to proceed because the principal cannot get adequate cover? I do not know any principal who will take pleasure in doing that.

This scheme must be revisited. We want to provide education for all our children but specifically our children with special needs. I ask the Minister to do that and give an exemption to schools that cater for special needs classes. They should be exempt from cutbacks in substitution and supervision cover. I ask the Minister of State to take cognisance of that issue when replying. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply. The example I gave is not an isolated case. The same is happening elsewhere and we need to reverse a badly thought-out cutback.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to clarify the current position with regard to supervision and substitution for children with special needs who are attending the school mentioned.

As a result of the 2009 budget provisions for education, arising from current economic challenges and following subsequent proposals from the management bodies of primary schools, new arrangements are being put in place for substitution cover for uncertified sick leave for teachers in primary schools.

In primary schools there will be substitute cover for teachers on uncertified sick leave other than on the first day of absence. In a school where more than one teacher is absent on the first day of uncertified sick leave, substitute cover will be provided for the second and subsequent teachers who are absent. In schools with two or less teachers, cover will be provided where any classroom teacher is absent. Circular 0115/2008 outlining the full details has been posted on my Department's website at www.education.ie.

Substitution cover will continue to be provided for all other categories of absences currently available such as certified sick leave and maternity leave. In the period until the end of the school year, there will be a full review of the substitution and supervision scheme and related matters in conjunction with the school management bodies and teacher unions with a view to making up the additional expenditure and thereby ensuring the budgetary parameters are met.

As we manage through this difficult period, I ask teachers in all schools to co-operate fully with school managers in coping with this change in the interest of the students. I also request the school managerial bodies to ensure that the supervision and substitution scheme is operated with maximum effectiveness in all schools.

With regard to circumstances such as those mentioned by the Senator, a range of options are available to school principals. These include the temporary movement of teaching staff within schools to meet the needs of the special needs children concerned. I hope this clarifies the position for the Senator and I thank him once again for raising the matter with me.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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While I thank the Minister of State for his response, his reply was not satisfactory as it did not take into consideration that a school principal may not be in a position to move teachers around or provide immediate cover. In such circumstances, who will look after the children in question? They will be forced to go home. A new tier of wrongly categorised students is being created in schools. The reply is not good enough as it does not take cognisance of the position on the ground. Nobody is listening to those who are trying to implement the circular imposed by the Government. I am disappointed because school principals are not being given flexibility.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Senator's comments will be taken into consideration in the context of the review to which I referred.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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While I appreciate that and understand the Minister of State's position, as someone who has been in the classroom, it is not good enough that a form of words has been used which allows the Minister of State to avoid addressing the issue.