Seanad debates

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

8:00 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Sinn Fein)
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It would be remiss of me not to mention the earlier debate. Contrary to what Senator Ó Domhnaill said, this will not be a welcome announcement for the 230 mná tí that I know in Donegal. We are talking about the loss of over €300 for the average bean an tí in that county.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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That matter has been dealt with. We are on Senator Doherty's Adjournment matter now.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Sinn Fein)
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That is on top of the dole cuts that many of them are forced to live with, which is an increased burden. We know that there are other burdens also, including safety certificates.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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We can only deal with the matter that Senator Doherty has raised.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Sinn Fein)
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I will have a chance to discuss it later on because the Minister did not want to answer our party last week in the Dáil concerning that matter. He had his set piece moment with Senator Ó Domhnaill.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator cannot speak on a matter that has already been dealt with.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Sinn Fein)
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The Adjournment matter I am raising concerns special needs assistants. It is correlated because whether we are discussing special needs assistants or mná tí, the Government's priorities are the bankers and millionaires. The Government will toss them a billion euro here and there, but they will take €5 off the mná tí and will remove classroom assistants from children with special needs. That is the issue I wish to discuss. It is proposed to cut 1,200 special needs assistants who will be made redundant by the end of March. Those are the estimated figures. I am asking the Minister not to proceed with these cuts because the SNAs are needed. They are required because they provide supports to children with special needs who wish to fulfil their educational potential. The children concerned have been assessed and it has been decided that they need additional supports. We are talking about children with various conditions, including autism spectrum, ADHD and dyslexia. In some cases, SNAs were withdrawn from children with Down's syndrome. It is a scandalous situation which has a direct impact not only on jobs, which will cause massive hardship, but also on extremely young and vulnerable children.

Cuts to special needs supports are not only horribly cruel but will also seriously impair these children's education for years to come. This is all being done in the name of saving money. At the moment we do not have clear figures as to how many SNA posts have been lost and how many more are about to go. Some 403 special needs assistants are employed in County Donegal alone. Like every other SNA across the State, they deserve to know whether their jobs are secure. Neither do we know if further cuts to SNAs will occur in the middle of the school year, or if children will even have a special needs assistant until the end of the year.

The Minister should get his head around the fact that making blind cuts to education will not save money. It may save a few cent today, but it will cost euro in future. We are talking about children, not statistics or numbers that are churned out of a computer. They have a right to be educated in an appropriate environment with the appropriate support to suit their needs.

I am seeking clarity on how many SNAs have been sacked by the Government in recent months and how many are about to be sacked. Will the Government listen to my pleas on behalf of SNAs across the State, as well as children with special needs, their parents and teachers? The Government should get its priorities right and support these children. When proclaiming the Irish Republic, the leaders of this country talked about cherishing all the children of the nation equally. Let us get our priorities right and invest in our children's future. We should not try to save a buck here and there, while at the same time paying the money saved into the banks and for bankers' wages. The Government's priorities are ridiculous.

The Minister and Senator Ó Domhnaill have infuriated me by saying that mná tí will welcome getting €300 less this year than last year, after all the cuts they have had to go through. I am annoyed and am sorry for expressing my anger, but this is a very important issue. I am a father with young children. Thank God none of them has been diagnosed with special needs, but none of us knows what the future holds. No matter what learning difficulties children are born with, they should have the same rights and opportunities of access to education as anybody else. That is what goes to the core of this motion.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Tá an-iontas orm faoin méid a bhí le rá ag an Seanadóir, mar ar ndóigh le blianta fada bhí an íocaíocht a bhí na coláistí ag tabhairt i dTír Conaill i bhfad taobh thar den íocaíocht a bhí á dhéanamh i gConamara nó sa deisceart. Go deimhin féin, murach mise agus céim a thóg mise a chur faoi ndeara do na coláistí €1.20 a íoc in aghaidh gach euro ón Roinn bheadh mná tí Thír Conaill i bhfad taobh thiar fós do na mná tí eile ar fud na tíre agus níor cheap mise riamh go raibh sé sin ceart. Ar ndóigh, tuigeann mná tí Thír Conaill murach gur chuir mise iachail ar na coláistí íocaíocht cheart a dhéanamh leis na mná tí ní bheadh an íocaíocht atá acu i láthair na huaire acu.

Maidir leis na SNA's tá sé thar a bheith tábhachtach go dtuigfidh an Seanadóir go bhfuil tábhachtach oideachais na ngasúir thar a bheith tábhachtach don Rialtas seo. Tá acmhainní nach beag curtha againn isteach sna scoileanna ar fud na tíre agus go mórmhór isteach ag tabhairt tacaíochta do gasúr le riachtanais speisialta. Chaitheadh €1 billiúin taobh istigh den chóras oideachais anuraidh don chúis seo amháin. Leanfaidh scoláirí ar aghaidh ag fáil tacaíochta faoin scéim seo mar a bhí le deich mbliana anuas.

From the outset, I want to emphasise what is really important here. Schools which have enrolled children who qualify for support from a special needs assistant, SNA, will continue to be allocated SNA support. This is happening at the moment. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, is processing applications from schools for SNA support.

The SNA scheme has been a major factor in both ensuring the successful integration of children with special educational needs into mainstream education, and providing support to pupils enrolled in special schools and special classes. The SNA scheme will continue to be supported.

The terms and criteria for the SNA scheme have not changed. Déarfaidh mé é sin i nGaeilge. Níor athraíodh ar chur ar bith na téarmaí a bhaineann leis an scéim seo. Where the criteria are met, SNA posts are being allocated. I can assure the House that there is no question of posts being removed from schools where they meet the scheme's criteria. I am sure the Senator would agree that a scheme should be implemented according to its criteria - no more, no less. However, there is also no question of posts being left in schools indefinitely where they are deemed to be surplus to the care needs of the pupils or where the pupils themselves have left. I do not know whether the Senator is trying to justify a system whereby the school retains an SNA even though the pupil for whom the SNA was provided has left the system.

As regards the SNA allocation process, it is important to understand that the allocation for any school, and any adjustments to that allocation, depend on a number of factors such as the number of pupils with care-medical needs leaving, the number of new pupils, and the changing care needs of existing pupils in the school. SNA allocations are therefore not permanent. They are increased or decreased as pupils who qualify for SNA support enrol in or leave a school. They are also decreased where a child's care needs may have diminished over time.

The Senator will be aware that the NCSE, through its network of local special educational needs organisers, SENOs, is responsible for allocating resource teachers and SNAs to schools to support children with special educational needs. The NCSE operates within the Minister's criteria in allocating such support. The NCSE is independent in making and issuing its decisions on the allocation of such supports.

The Department of Education and Science requested the NCSE to review all SNA posts because the Department had become aware that a number of SNA posts were in schools where the care needs of the pupils in the schools concerned did not justify such an allocation. Accordingly, the Department asked the NCSE to carry out a nationwide review of all schools to ensure SNA posts were allocated to schools in line with the care needs of pupils and that any excess posts would be withdrawn. The NCSE, through its network of SENOs, is carrying out a review of SNA allocations in all schools with a view to ensuring the criteria governing the allocation of such posts are properly met. SENOs are communicating the outcome of the review directly to schools as the review progresses. It is expected the NCSE will have completed the review by the end of March.

The Senator is fully aware that the Department has prioritised the provision of special education supports for schools. This is a key Government policy. However, this does not mean that resources, allocated in response to various historical factors, are retained in schools ad infinitum. At a time of constrained resources, it is essential we ensure public resources are deployed as effectively as possible. If resources are left in an area which are not in accordance with the criteria, it means public resources are not available in another deserving area.

I am sure the Senator shares the Minister's concern that there be consistent application of policy in the allocation of special education supports across the country. That is all that is happening. The Minister can assure the Senator supports will continue to be made available to schools which have pupils who qualify for such supports. I hope this clarifies the matter for the Senator.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Sinn Fein)
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I am not arguing for SNAs to be kept in schools where the criteria are no longer being met. The Minister cannot brush it off as if the children concerned have left a school. If children leave, more will come in. More children are entering the education system than leaving it.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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A question, please.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Sinn Fein)
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Therefore, the numbers should be increasing rather than decreasing, yet the Government is sacking 12% of SNAs. The only other explanation is that a child's care needs will diminish over time. I have pointed out that the children in question are within the autism spectrum, children with Down's syndrome and with ADHD. I do not know how close the Minister is to the people working on the ground, but as a good Minister and Deputy, I am he is in tune with his own constituents. This is happening across the board. Some 12% of special needs assistants are gone and there is no miraculous cure in the education system. Children with special needs are still in the system, but the criteria are being enforced very strictly. This will result in 12% of all special needs assistants being sacked by the Government by March.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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As I said, SNAs are allocated according to identified needs. If a child who has the support of an SNA leaves, unless another comes in with an equivalent requirement, the SNA hours will obviously be lost. That is basic.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Sinn Fein)
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They are being taken from children in schools.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator's point has been made.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Sinn Fein)
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Children in schools are losing their SNAs.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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As the Senator should be aware, the purpose of an SNA is to facilitate children to become independent, not to create dependency. Therefore, a child coming in sna naíonán bheaga is very different from one in fourth or fifth class. In some cases, children can become independent. What the Minister has said is very fair and simple - the need identified will be fully addressed. However, where for one reason or another there is no longer a need, obviously we are better off providing resources where there is a need.