Tuesday, 17 February 2009
Special Educational Needs
I wish to share time with Senator Fidelma Healy Eames. The decision by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, to destroy the futures of hundreds of the most vulnerable children in the country and the toil and effort of parents, teachers and psychologists flies in the face of logic and reason. I do not for one moment argue against the need for savings in education. However, the approach taken must be rational and based on sound educational principles and outcomes rather than on purely economic principles.
The projected savings of this scheme amount to little more than €6 million. Is the Minister suggesting he cannot find such savings in other value for money initiatives, rather than targeting the most vulnerable? Let us consider this rationally. The projected savings from the culling of special needs classes is negligible in the overall context of the €2 billion savings required by the Exchequer. The decision makes little or no sense in the context of the budgetary policy and framework. Does the decision make sense in the context of educational policy and the initiatives of the Department in the past ten to 15 years? The answer is "No". What makes these cuts especially tragic and disdainful is that they have been introduced by a Minister with an education background.
The Minister made great play last week of the fact that many of the classes in affected schools did not have nine pupils. That may be the case, but in many parts of Ireland, including County Cork and Cork city, there are schools with pupils on waiting lists for an assessment of current functioning and an assessment of current needs and without a statement of need forthcoming. The Government is doing a disservice to a marginalised, hidden and silent group.
If the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, were at full complement, these assessments could have been conducted, pupils' needs could have been identified and classes could have been saved. It is disgraceful and shameful that after 12 years, NEPS still does not have a full complement of staff. Why is this the case?
Let us examine more closely the composition of these classes. Pupils with a mild intellectual disability in full-time special needs schools or special classes with mainstream schools tend by and large to come from disadvantaged areas. This situation is related to the economic disadvantages associated with those on a lower than average income, with parents less likely to have reached third level and with less disposable income to spend on additional education supports. In effect, special classes have been a compensation for economic disadvantage and have attempted to level the playing field. The existence of special classes has resulted in fewer pupils being forced to attend full-time special schools. Such pupils have been able to remain within their communities with their brothers, sisters and friends. The classes have contributed significantly to educational improvement. A potential consequence of this decision is that more of these pupils will fail, fall into educational disadvantage, experience difficulty in mainstream classes and will be forced to attend full-time schools. This will result in an increased economic and social cost to pupils, their families and society.
The Minister stated that we do not understand what he was trying to do, that his efforts were in the interests of pupils and that they would now be integrated with non-disabled peers in the classroom. I am afraid the Minister does not understand what has taken place in these classes. Like Pontius Pilate he has washed his hands of these children and abandoned them into classrooms with increasing sizes. There is a complexity of issues never before seen in the educational system. The Minister does not realise that almost all of these classes operated on a system of partial withdrawal and supported inclusion. I state this as a teacher. We are forcing children to become lost in the educational system. Is that to be the epithet of this Minister? Will he refer to the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 in his reply?
This single cut is enough to allow the Government to perish. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, is hiding behind a policy of inclusion. Not all children with special learning difficulties are suited to mainstream classes. Children with mild learning difficulties are low functioning, with IQs of between 50 and 70. The average person has an IQ between 90 and 110. Such children cannot cope with the pace of mainstream classes.
I spoke yesterday to the mother of a five year old child with mild learning difficulties and severe dyspraxia. That child cannot talk and also has mild learning difficulties. Most of the time these difficulties co-exist. The solution is either to keep the special needs classes or, if these children are to be put in mainstream classes, to give all mainstream teachers specialist training to deal with pupils with mild learning difficulties. That is not necessarily the best solution and would cost a good deal more than €6 million. Every child with a mild learning difficulty will require a weighting of approximately three and a half to four compared with other pupils. If a class contained nine children it would be approximately the same as 30 pupils in a mainstream class. I call on the Minister for Education and Science to introduce a weighting whereby every teacher taking a mild learning difficulty child will take down their cap or ratio by four pupils in the class.
I thank Senators Buttimer and Healy Eames for raising this issue which I take on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. All pupils with a mild general learning disability have and will continue to have additional teaching resources to support their education. All primary schools have been allocated additional teaching resources to enable them to support pupils with high incidence special educational needs, including mild general learning disability. Each school was given these additional teaching resources under the general allocation model of learning support and resources teaching introduced in 2005.
These additional teaching resources have not been withdrawn from any school. Schools can decide how best to use this allocation based on the needs of the pupils. Most pupils with a mild general learning disability are included in ordinary classes with their peers and are supported by their class teacher. The curriculum is flexible so that teachers can cater for the needs of pupils of different abilities. This policy of inclusion has widespread support within the educational community. This approach is in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Schools can use their resource and learning support allocation to give pupils special help it they need it. This might be done with a teacher working with a group of pupils or on a one-to-one basis for a number of hours each week.
Before the general allocation model was introduced, some schools grouped pupils with a mild general learning disability into special classes. Senators are aware that allocations to schools typically increase or decrease depending on pupil enrolment. In the case of classes for mild general learning disability the normal pupil teacher ratio that applies is 11:1. However, the Department of Education and Science allows for a small reduction in this number and permits a school to retain a teaching post where it has a minimum of nine pupils in the class. The rules also provide that a teacher would no longer be allocated where the number of pupils falls below nine. In the schools in question, the number of pupils dropped below this minimum and the schools no longer qualify for the teaching posts in these classes.
In 2005 when the general allocation model was introduced, schools with additional teachers in classes for mild general learning disability were allowed to retain the teachers for these classes. Effectively, these schools received a double allocation. The number of these special classes has decreased over the years and schools have integrated the pupils into age-appropriate mainstream classes.
All of the other primary schools in the country which do not have classes for pupils with mild general learning disability cater for these pupils from within the general allocation model. The Minister doubts that commentators are suggesting that three or four pupils with a mild general learning disability should be kept in a class of their own when they could benefit from the interaction of other peers with support from their teacher.
There has been unprecedented investment in providing supports for pupils with special needs in recent years. There are now about 19,000 adults in our schools working solely with pupils with special needs. There are over 8,000 resource and learning support teachers in our schools compared with just 2,000 in 1998. Over 1,000 other teachers support pupils in our special schools; 76 classes for pupils with mild general learning disability are being retained where there are nine pupils or more in these classes.
The Minister wants to emphasise that priority will continue to be given to provision for pupils with special educational needs. The establishment of mild general learning disability classes pre-dates many of the developments in special education policy in recent years and we now have a system for providing schools with supports for pupils with high incidence special needs through the general allocation model.
The natural sympathy we all have for pupils with special needs and their parents makes it all the more important that we do not cloud facts with emotion. The parents of all children with mild general learning disabilities need to know that their children in mainstream classes are getting a quality education delivered by committed class teachers and supplemented by additional support from the resource or learning support teacher. This is happening every day in schools across the country.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I appreciate that this does not fall within the remit of the Minister of State's Department but I would like him to convey a message to the Minister for Education and Science.
The Minister's reply is shameful because it takes no cognisance of the motion and the question it contained. Will the Minister for Education and Science give a commitment that the assessment of need process outlined in the Disability Act will be rolled out in full for all pupils over the age of six and that there will be no roll back in the provision of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act or the Comhairle Act as they pertain to the rights and entitlements of people with disability?
He gave a speech on education and made no reference to this issue. It was a disgraceful display by a Minister who is out of touch. I accept the point the Minister of State made in the reply about the provision of allocation of resources over the years which we welcome. We are talking about the most vulnerable and marginalised——