Seanad debates

Thursday, 7 October 2010

10:30 am

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, back to the House.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for giving me the opportunity to raise in the House the special needs of a seven year old child in my native county of Cork whose case is the source of much concern for her parents and community, who has Down's syndrome and who, up until one month ago, was happily attending her local national school, into which she had been well integrated with the assistance of a full-time special needs assistant. I acknowledge that all Members must seek equality in meeting the educational needs of each child. While it has been suggested the child in question will be treated like every other within the school, as she has Down's syndrome, there is no point in stating the same level of service should apply to her. She has special needs and requires the provision of the maximum service possible under the special needs assistance scheme.

The difficulty for the child and her parents stems from a decision taken just before the summer break that the full-time special needs assistant available to help her at school every day should have her hours reduced to one hour a day. Obviously, when this decision was made known to the child's parents, it caused great concern and consternation. Moreover, their worry and concern was shared by everyone in the local community because the child attends a typical small local national school, in which everyone works for the benefit of all. Consequently, the entire parish and community which had been happy to see the child being integrated as fully as possible into the local national school were distraught that her educational life had been severely changed following the withdrawal of the full services of the special needs assistant.

The Minister of State will be aware that when decisions are made to reduce the hours of special needs assistants, there is a either a review or an appeals process. Unfortunately, in this case the parents were wrongly advised about the appeals process and did not lodge an appeal once the initial decision was made. My understanding of the regulations is that if an appeal had been lodged immediately, the special needs assistant would have been allowed to remain in situ until a decision was made. However, incorrect advice was given to the parents, an appeal was not launched and that there was instead a so-called review process which, regrettably from the parents' perspective, was in no way as inclusive or consultative as it should have been. It is difficult to know what exactly it consisted of because the parents were not as involved as they should have been.

The review process report advocated that instead of being reduced to one hour, the number of hours of the special needs assistant for the child should be reduced to two. However, it then decreed, in what I consider to be a bizarre determination, that the two hours should not be consecutive. Apparently, assistance for one hour should be provided in the morning and for one hour in the afternoon. This makes little sense, in economic or practical terms, from the perspective of the person providing the special needs assistance for the child. The person concerned will be expected to drive to work for one hour in the morning, drive back home and then return to the school a number of hours later for one hour before returning home again.

I often speak in the House about the grave economic challenges facing the nation and fully acknowledge that money is extremely scarce. However, some priority must be given from an educational perspective in terms of equality of inclusion. Is it not wonderful that a child with Down's syndrome can be educated and integrated to the maximum degree possible his or her own community? Both the parents and the entire community believe the child should be able to avail of the maximum number of special needs assistance hours to allow her to remain in her school of choice which is located almost beside her family home which makes matters much better for the child from both an educational and social perspective.

I have indicated to the Minister of State that the review process has produced a rather unusual result. Consequently, I ask him whether there is a facility whereby the case can be completely re-examined with the full input of the parents. I respect absolutely the right of the special needs education system, the board of management, the teachers and the principal to hold a particular view, but in cases such as this, which involves a Down's syndrome child, the concerns and views of the parents should be paramount.

A significant body of psychological and medical evidence available to those in charge of the review of the case suggested that significant hours of special needs support should have been provided for the child in question. That is why the reduction was so disappointing. The allocation was first reduced to one hour per day. Admittedly, it was then increased to two hours per day but they were not two consecutive hours.

The case has already been brought to the attention of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Coughlan, and her adviser. I thank her for being willing to meet one of the parents of the child some weeks ago. She is, therefore, aware of the case in question. I ask the Minister of State to do everything possible to have the case examined further with a view to bringing about some justice and equality.

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 am addressing this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills. I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline the Tánaiste's position on the special needs assistant, SNA, scheme generally and, in particular, the allocation of SNA support for the pupil in question.

The House is aware that the education of children with special educational needs has been and remains a key priority for the Government. The Department of Education and Skills continues to invest considerable resources in schools to enable them to meet the needs of children with special educational needs. This year alone over €1 billion of the Department's budget is being spent to provide supports to enable learners with special educational needs to access education appropriate to their needs. The SNA scheme, in particular, has been a major factor in both ensuring the successful integration of children with special educational needs into mainstream education and the provision of support for pupils enrolled in special schools and classes.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, is processing applications from schools for SNA support and sanctioning SNA posts to schools. Schools which have enrolled children who qualify for support from a special needs assistant continue to be allocated SNA support. The terms and criteria for the SNA scheme have not changed. The Senator will be aware that the NCSE, through its network of local special educational needs organisers, is responsible for allocating resource teachers and SNAs to schools to support children with special educational needs. It operates within the DES criteria in allocating such support. It is independent in the making and issuing of its decisions on the allocation of such supports.

It is important to understand, in regard to the SNA allocation process, that the allocation for a school and adjustments to that allocation depend on a number of factors such as the number of pupils with care or 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 or leave a school. They are also decreased where a child's care needs might have diminished over time. The NCSE has confirmed that the pupil in question has access to an appropriate level of SNA support to meet her care needs. I understand the level of SNA support required by the pupil has diminished over time.

The Senator may be aware that one of the reasons for the allocation of SNAs is to assist children to develop greater levels of independent living skills. It is not generally in the interests of a child for the NCSE to leave an SNA in place where a child has achieved a greater level of independence. Doing so has the potential to impact on a child's personal development in a negative way. I am sure the Senator will agree that many children with disabilities do develop independent living skills as they grow and mature. Where a child develops to such an extent that he or she no longer needs the support of a SNA, that is to be celebrated. It is easy in the current climate for a decision to be portrayed as a cutback. However, as a community, we need to have ambition that looks beyond a disability and acknowledges ability that can lead to independence from SNA support for children with special educational needs.

The Senator is fully aware that the Department has prioritised the provision of special education supports for schools. This remains 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 that we ensure public resources are deployed as effectively as possible. Leaving resources in an area that are not in accordance with criteria means public resources are not available for another deserving area.

I have listened to what the Senator has said and will convey his comments to the NCSE for further consideration.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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As the Minister of State would expect, I am far from satisfied with what he has said. I appreciate, however, that he is speaking on behalf of the Minister and accept his commitment to bring the issue back to her desk. It is very much the concern and fear of the parents in this case that the child's development and skills have deteriorated as a result of the reduction in services. They fundamentally disagree with the assessment that the child can continue to make progress with a reduced service. I appeal, therefore, to the Minister of State to bring to the Minister's attention their strong concerns, worries and fears. The child's future career prospects, life skills and integration among her friends, colleagues and community will be severely hindered without the restoration of a full special needs service on a daily basis.