Seanad debates

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Special Educational Needs Services Provision: Motion


2:25 pm

Photo of Imelda HenryImelda Henry (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, to the House and call on Senator Rónán Mullen to move the motion.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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I move:
''That Seanad Éireann, noting:

- the recent publication of the report 'Supporting Students with Special Education Needs in Schools' by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) which,
pursuant to Section 20 of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004, has a statutory role in advising the Minister for Education and
Skills on any matter relating to the education of children and others with disabilities and to provide policy advice in the area;
- the findings in the NCSE report that certain school enrolment policies and practices have been less than fully inclusive, in particular where such policies
have created barriers to enrolment for students with special educational needs;
- and that this report reaffirms the principle that all children, irrespective of special educational needs, should be enabled to enrol in their local schools;
- that it is essential that children with disabilities have access to mainstream education, which has been shown to improve self-esteem and social skills for
students with disabilities;
- that, while respecting the entitlement of schools and their patrons to develop enrolment criteria and policies, any policies and/or criteria that exclude students
with special education needs are illegitimate, unfair and discriminatory;
and calls on the Minister for Education and Skills to:
- implement the recommendations in the NCSE report of May 2013, and in particular to ensure that his Department introduces a robust regulatory
enrolment framework for schools to ensure that:- every child with special educational needs is protected from school enrolment practices or policies with overt or covert barriers that block
his/her access to enrolment in the school;
- every child with special educational needs may enrol in the nearest school that is or can be resourced by the NCSE to meet his/her needs;
- a school must enrol a student with special educational needs if so directed by the Special Educational Needs Organiser on the basis that the school
will be provided with resources in line with national policy; and
- a school must establish a special class if so requested by a Special Educational Needs Organiser.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Is mór an tionchar a bhíonn ag an oideachas a chuirtear ar dhuine ar na seansanna a bhíonn aige sa saol ó thaobh deiseanna oibre, luacha saothair, teacht slán ón mbochtaineacht, agus tá na ceisteanna sin fíor-thábhachtach do shásamh intinne agus do shonas pearsanta an uile dhuine. Léirigh daonáireamh 2011 nach mar a chéile na cailíochtaí acadúla a bhíonn ag daoine a bhfuil míchumas orthu agus a bhíonn ag daoine eile. Mar sin bíonn constaic dhúbáilte rompu. Is lú na deiseanna eacnamaíocha a bhíonn acu de dheasca an mhíchumais féin agus, mar bharr ar an olc, is lú an t-oideachas a bhíonn orthu.

Education, as the Minister knows, is a key influence on life chances and yet, according to census 2011, people with disabilities have fewer education qualifications than non-disabled people in their age group, leading to a double disadvantage, where economic prospects are reduced both by disability status and by lower levels of education. It is the settled view of experts in the special education area that children with special needs perform better socially and academically in mainstream classes in mainstream schools. In fairness, there has been a very considerable movement towards the development of inclusive practices in Irish education over the last two decades.

Is é tuairim láidir na saineolaithe réimse an oideachais do dhaoine a bhfuil riachtanais speisialta acu gur fearr a éiríonn le páiste a bhfuil riachtanais speisialta aige go sóisialta agus go hacadúil nuair a chuirtear oideachas air i ngnáth-rang agus i ngnáth-scoil. Is mór an dul chun cinn atá déanta ó foilsíodh an chéad tuarascáil mór le rá faoi seo. Tá acmhainní éagsúla tacaíochta ar fáil anois - tá fáil ar mhúinteoirí a thugann tacaíocht speisialta agus tá teacht ar chúram speisialta ó chúntóirí speisialta, SNAs, mar a thugtar orthu. Do pháiste a bhfuil siondróm Down air, is é an gnáth-sheomra ranga is fearr. Dá mhéad atá déanta ag an Aire agus ag an Roinn go dtí seo, tá obair mhór fós le déanamh má táthar leis na constaicí atá ann a ghlanadh, más easpa acmhainní nó easpa tola is cúis leis na constaicí sin a bheith acu.

For some children with special educational needs, it is beneficial that they have the necessary support in special classes in mainstream schools. However, this is not the recommended model for all children, as the Minister knows, and in particular, for children with Down's syndrome, for whom the appropriate model is support in a mainstream class setting.

The purpose of this motion is to ask the Minister what he intends to do to prevent the enrolment barriers that exist from negatively affecting children with special educational needs. Additionally, I want to highlight that it is the policies of the Department of Education and Skills which contribute to the lack of welcome for certain students with special learning needs, particularly children with Down's syndrome. The motion before the House deals with the report from the National Council for Special Education and its findings on the issue of discrimination. The report recommends major changes in the way resources are delivered to students with special educational needs, with an emphasis on individualised assessment, educational planning and monitoring of student outcomes. In the first chapter, it recommends that the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, known as the EPSEN Act, should be fully commenced as soon as the resources necessary for its implementation become available. It also recommends the introduction of a robust regulatory enrolment framework to ensure that every child with special educational needs can access a school placement.

I want to the give the Minister credit today, where it is properly due. The NCSE report reminds us that investment in special educational supports is at an all-time high, with an annual spend of €1.3 billion on supporting students with special educational needs in school. That is a record level, despite our current economic difficulties and I commend the Minister on that and on his commitment in this area.

To get down to business, the problem that has been identified in the report is enrolment barriers. Generally, management bodies and schools have responded positively to educating students with special educational needs in inclusive environments. I know this is true and I should declare my own interest in the provision of second-level education in my capacity as a board member of CEIST, a trustee body for well over 100 voluntary secondary schools. Many children with special educational needs are now included in mainstream classes but evidence remains of non-co-operation in some areas.

The NCSE consultation paper highlighted practices whereby schools placed soft barriers to enrolment by advising parents that a different school is more suitable for their child or has more resources for supporting students with special needs. In some cases, they have refused to enrol the child on the basis that they are not being allocated all of the resources they consider are required. Parents feel they have to fight for a placement and that their child is being enrolled on sufferance. This difficulty could be addressed by the Department developing the appropriate regulatory enrolment framework required to underpin section 2 of the EPSEN Act, as strongly recommended by the NCSE report. This would deal with the concern. Having made inquiries about practices in schools, it seems to me that the emphasis should always be on enabling all students to enrol in their school of choice.

Schools found to be non-receptive to students with special needs are at risk of being unfairly judged, of course. There have been instances where a school declines to admit a student with severe or profound spectrum autism, or other such exceptional situation, because the board of management believed it could not best serve the student's interests due to the absence of sufficient resources. Many schools believe that the resources do not automatically follow the child, resulting in students awaiting facilities and resources and parents growing impatient and irritated. While the State may have let down the student, it is often the school that is at the front line of such disappointment.

We must recognise that some children with complex needs may require a more supportive special placement or school, although that does not apply to children with Down's syndrome. I wish to acknowledge representatives of Down's Syndrome Ireland in the Public Gallery today, Mr. Pat Clarke and Ms Patricia Griffin, and thank them for being here. I do not seek to excuse any school that would exclude a child with education needs but I understand why it happens. I believe that Department policy may be the cause, especially in the particular case of children with Down's syndrome. Since 2005, such children do not automatically qualify for resource teaching hours. Most of the approximately 80 children with Down's syndrome who begin mainstream school each year have a need which is more severe and they will be catered for. However, children whose level of intellectual disability places them in the category of mild general learning disability - about 30 of those children - must rely on a share of their school's special needs teaching resources given under the general allocation model.

Schools have provision to allocate and target resources at those children most in need. Children with mild learning difficulty generally receive two and a half hours per week under the general allocation model. Down's Syndrome Ireland, having welcomed many of the NCSE report recommendations, notes that it does not identify Down's syndrome as a particular disability category for the allocation of resources. The Minister has expressed a willingness to meet the organisation on this issue. I ask him to consider the future of the approximately 30 children in each class in our primary school system who are being adversely affected by not qualifying for vital resource teaching hours.

I refer to one case. Tom Murphy is four and a half years old and has Down's syndrome. He will attend school next year and his mother recently spoke out about the fact that some parents are so desperate to get support for their child in mainstream schools that they have had recourse to manipulating or fooling the IQ test. She talked anecdotally about some parents keeping the child up late the night before or not feeding him or her on the morning of the test or giving them Calpol in order that they would get a low score, thus guaranteeing them vital educational support in schools, which is appalling. This is why we need to address the lack of welcome.

I wholeheartedly agree with the NCSE report's commentary on the need to address enrolment barriers but we also need to address the reasons such barriers exist, particularly for children with Down's syndrome. Without seeking to excuse any discrimination, the resource allocation policies of the Department are the primary cause. A two-pronged approach is needed to tackle enrolment barriers with robust guidelines, as recommended and as called for in the motion, and resolution of the apparent discrimination against children with Down's syndrome identified in the Ombudsman report and a reclassification of the condition as a low incidence disorder, which will attract specific resources and greatly assist students and schools. I thank the Minister for his commitment and dedication in this area. I commend the motion to the House.

2:35 pm

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I second the motion. I welcome the Minister. Senator Mullen has stolen all our clothes, having given a comprehensive overview of the issues. I will not go over old ground but Fianna Fáil welcomes the publication of the policy advice paper on supporting students with special needs in schools by the NCSE. A number of issues arise. The paper found that such students are well supported in schools and are making good progress. I echo Senator Mullen's comment that the Minister has continued a proud tradition that began 15 years ago under the current Fianna Fáil leader when he was Minister for Education, which the Minister has duly acknowledged. I am happy to endorse the comments about the Minister's mandate since he took up office. He has protected and enhanced, where possible, special needs provision.

One of the key recommendations of the review is to ensure all children with special educational needs can fully access the extensive supports available within the school system. A total of €1.3 billion is spent supporting such students, which equates to the expenditure of four other Departments. The NCSE's recommendations are focused on refining where and how the supports are targeted to ensure all children with special educational needs have fair and equitable access to supports. As Senator Mullen said, some parents find it difficult to access a diagnosis of disability, which is needed to trigger additional teaching support for students with more complex disabilities. The NCSE has called for a new model to be developed for the allocation of additional teaching resources to mainstream schools, which is based on the profile need of each school with the need for a diagnosis of disability and it notes that the learning profile of pupils can vary from school to school. Some schools have a number of students with learning difficulties while others have fewer. The council recommends that any new system of allocating teaching resources should be targeted in line with the profile of educational need in each mainstream school rather than the current system of linking them to a particular category of disability, enrolment size or number of class teachers. I fully endorse that view. The Minister will be aware more than most that this provision has created enormous difficulties since it was introduced. It does not take account of the individual requirements of those with particular categories of disability.

Another recommendation is to commence the remaining sections of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 as resources permit. I am interested in the Minister's view on that. The council's report also recommended that a framework be developed to improve teachers' knowledge and expertise in supporting and educating students with special educational needs and that additional funding be provided to special schools and special classes to allow them to purchase and replace equipment. In the context of a budget of €1.3 billion it is interesting that this recommendation has been made. I thought that would have been addressed but there are gaps in this area. It is important that special schools can purchase and replace equipment because that forms a key part of the curriculum. Those of us who are parents of children with special needs will testify to that, having experienced the school system. Equipment is needed by them more than by mainstream students.

The INTO has not enthusiastically embraced this review saying that it could roll back 20 years of progress. I find it difficult that the organisation would take a hostile position, although its representatives say that while the current system is not perfect, it has ensured children have access to resource teaching in a timely fashion. They also said the report should be a wake-up call for parents of special needs children and advocacy groups because if its recommendations are implemented, bureaucracy will once again become the barrier to children accessing resources. The key element of the INTO's hostile response is centred very much on paperwork and bureaucracy. I am sure the Minister will have a view on this position. I reiterate that it is important that if change is implemented, it should take not account of class sizes or the size of the school. I endorse Senator Mullen's comments about Down's syndrome children. A decision about them is urgent. The question is whether the Government will decide for the upcoming school year to allocate specific resource teaching hours to those with Down's syndrome who are diagnosed as having mild intellectual disability. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that.

The pupil-teacher ratio is also an issue. There will be a significant increase in the number of children in primary school next September and while the Government is increasing the number of mainstream teachers by 450 to meet that demand, which I enthusiastically welcome - it is a great tribute to the Minister's tenacity around the Cabinet table in the current climate to have secured this increase from the Department of Finance - the Government will not increase the number of special needs assistants, SNAs, and resource teachers in the system to match that. There will have to be reductions somewhere along the line for those with special needs. I hope the Minister will address that aspect of the initiative.

Increasing the number of mainstream teachers means the pupil-teacher ratio will not have to increase in line with an increase in the number of additional children entering the system but because there will not be a consequent increase in the number of SNAs and resource teachers to match that, that could cause a logjam. Those who have the greatest need are suffering as a result of the way the Minister is approaching the finances of the Department. Will he ensure in the same way he is increasing the number of mainstream teachers, he will also ensure there will be no reduction or squeeze on the resources available to those with special needs entering school next September?

I welcome Senator Mullen's initiative. I compliment the Minister for being on top of his game on this issue. We all try to adopt the spirit of the Proclamation in cherishing all the children of the nation equally.

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete "'implement the recommendations in the NCSE report of May 2013, and in particular to ensure that his Department introduces a robust regulatory enrolment framework for schools to ensure that:'" and substitute the following:
"'consider implementing the recommendations in the NCSE report of May 2013, and in particular to ensure that his Department introduces a robust regulatory enrolment framework for schools to ensure that, in principle:'".
Tá áthas orm bheith ag caint ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo. Molaim Seanadóir Mullen as é a chur ós ár gchómhair inniu. While welcoming the motion, I propose a slight amendment to it.

I very much welcome the recent publication of the report on supporting students with special educational needs by the NCSE. This motion is about enrolment, which is one element of that report. The finding by the NCSE that certain school enrolment policies and practices have been less than fully inclusive is somewhat disappointing. However, it is not clear from the wording whether this comment is meant to apply to discrete elements of enrolment policies or whether it refers to some policies in some schools. I suspect it is the latter and ask Senator Mullen to clarify that point in the context of the motion before the House.

It should be noted that the NCSE in its report states that the majority of schools operate inclusive enrolment policies and practices. It is my experience that the vast majority of schools are most inclusive, both in policy and in practice, allowing for the limits of what is possible at any one time within a certain school. Indeed, I wish today to pay tribute to our schools and the teachers, classroom assistants, boards of management and the wider school community for their massive contribution over recent years in immeasurably improving access to mainstream schools for those children with special educational needs.

The HSE and the special needs section of the Department of Education and Skills have also been proactive in providing the resources necessary to enable all children, irrespective of educational needs, to enrol in their local schools. However, perhaps these resources could more often be pre-supplied rather than, in some cases, applied post-enrolment. In other words, they should be supplied upon application or registration by a student rather than after the student enrols.

The motion states that it is essential that children with disabilities have access to mainstream education and I totally agree with this. However, children with special needs should also be given the choice, if it is the considered wish of their parents, to attend special schools that cater for their special needs. I would now like to look at a study in inclusiveness, which is Scoil Mhuire gan Smál in Kilsaran, County Louth. This is a mainstream school with a dedicated autism unit which was officially opened last year by President Michael D. Higgins. The school supports the principal of inclusiveness, particularly with reference to the enrolment of children with a disability or other special educational need. The school caters for children from infants to sixth class in mainstream classes. It also has one special class for children with severe and profound disabilities and three classes for children on the autistic spectrum. The school also has County Louth's only early prevention unit for children of pre­school age with autism. The purpose of the autism unit is to give pupils on the autistic spectrum a mainstream education, while suiting both their specific educational and sensory needs. If a student is deemed both academically and behaviourally suitable, he or she can be transferred on a phased or full-time basis to mainstream education in the school. At present there are five students who have successfully integrated fully into mainstream education and three others who are being integrated on a phased basis. This is only one model and not all schools can have these facilities, but it is a clear example of how inclusivity is being developed in a particular setting.

I am not aware of any school, as referred to in the motion, that excludes children in its policies, and I am sure that is illegal. If it is the case that this is happening, it should be brought to the attention of the relevant authorities. Sometimes there is a stipulation that children will be accepted subject to the resources being provided, but this more a negotiating position with the various agencies involved rather than a covert attempt to exclude children with disabilities. However, I agree that it should be examined.

Regarding enrolment policy and the aforementioned report, the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education, NABMSE, argues that what is needed is the adoption of a robust regulatory framework to ensure that all children with special educational needs can access a school placement. The motion calls on the Minister to implement the recommendations of the report, of which there are 28, and, in particular, to ensure that every child with special educational needs is protected. I support the motion but ask the proposers to consider my amendment. Having said that, I commend Senators Mullen and Quinn on their tabling of this worthy motion.

2:45 pm

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and am pleased to participate in this debate this evening. There are many valuable proposals in the report by the NCSE, Supporting Students with Special Educational Needs in Schools. I note and support both the report and this motion's strong commitment to providing access to mainstream education and the benefits which often accrue not only to children with disabilities but to society as a whole. The normalisation of disability is a vital step towards achieving a fair and egalitarian society. Indeed, ensuring access to mainstream schooling is in line with our obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which specifically recognises the needs of disabled children. It goes on to say that the education of such children must be done in a manner that is conducive to their achieving the fullest possible social integration and individual development. That is something with which we would all agree.

With the UN Convention in mind, I read the NCSE report with great interest but was disappointed by its finding that certain school enrolment policies and practices were less than fully inclusive and that such policies had created barriers to enrolment for students with special education needs. As a firm believer in the right of all children, irrespective of any specific educational needs, to access their local schools if they so wish, I encourage the Minister to give serious thought to how this can best be remedied. I question one section of the motion, although it is perhaps unintentional wording, regarding the entitlement of schools and their patrons to develop their own enrolment criteria. It is vital that the school application process be carried out in the most fair and transparent manner possible. The exclusion of any child from a State-funded school on any discriminatory basis is, for me, unacceptable, be it on the grounds of educational needs, faith or family history. I also believe that on this occasion the Government is right in tempering the language of the motion. The Minister must examine and give serious consideration to the recommendations of the NCSE report but to call upon him to introduce these recommendations in a wholesale manner, without due diligence, defeats the purpose of such a report, which aims to inform Government policy.

In particular, I am conscious of the concerns expressed about the report's conclusions that Down's syndrome should not be reclassified as a low incidence disorder, given these children often require more intensive support than others in the same classification due to the variety of additional difficulties associated with Down's syndrome. While I note the report's insistence that the proposed allocation system will allow for individualised assessment of children with and without Down's syndrome, I am concerned that this does not conclusively address whether Down's syndrome children will be entitled to resource hours. While I do not doubt the veracity of the report's finding, further review by the Department may be useful in allaying the fears of parents.

I hope the Minister will provide clarity and reassurance for parents and children. September will be upon us before we know it and many parents are concerned. I support the call for the implementation of the EPSEN Act 2004, specifically to priorities access for children with special needs education to an individual education. It is well overdue and I put my trust in the Minister.

2:55 pm

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister. I second the amendment and I hope Senator Mullen will accept it. I commend the Minister on his decision and forward thinking last year when he asked the NCSE to review and make recommendations on the supports provided to children with special educational needs and how they are allocated to ensure we are delivering the best educational experience and outcomes for every child. The NSCE report on supporting children with special educational needs in schools details 28 recommendations for consideration. It is to the Minister's credit that this is first report to be published after a 20 year gap in policy advice on this issue. I welcome that the council engaged in a wide range of consultations with numerous interested parties but, most important, parents. Every child is different and must be examined individually rather than as part of a group. That is why I welcome the input from parents. This policy advice is based on a review of national and international best practice.

The NCSE has outlined numerous findings and recommendations but what comes across most strongly is the recognition that children with special needs should not be allocated resources solely on the basis of their diagnosis but rather on their individual needs. This finding is strengthened by another key finding in the report that there should be an ongoing assessment process. This is important and I say this as a parent of a child with special needs. Sometimes children are psychologically assessed when they are aged three or four before they enter the school system and that might be the only assessment to which they are subject during their schooling. They are put in a box immediately and they remain in that box.

I welcome the recommendation that there should be ongoing assessment. Whether children need to be assessed when they are aged six and again as they approach the teenage years or in the interim, each child is different and that is the key. Their education should be individually based rather than group based because there are many different spectrums and disabilities. I share the concerns of the people representing those with Down's syndrome and I welcome them to the Visitors Gallery. I raised the valid concerns of parents and teachers of children with Down's syndrome with the Minister last week. I hope that the recommendation to assess children on an individual basis and on the basis of need will cater for their individual needs. With the autism and Down's syndrome spectrums, there are many individual needs and I hope this recommendation will lead to a more rounded and individualised approach to support for learning.

This will address many of the problems in schools currently and will put the onus on each school to appropriately meet the needs of its pupils. The assessments will help to develop individualised planning for each child. Currently, IEPs are only provided in special schools and it is vital that IEPs are introduced in mainstream schools. I welcome this recommendation, which will help to enhance the experience of children with special needs in schools, educationally and socially. As a former teacher and parent, it is not constructive or effective to allocate resources based on diagnosis alone. Children with specific disorders and syndromes do not all have the same needs. There are many different spectrums to consider and other overlapping, co­existing issues. I hope a solution will specifically be found for children with Down's syndrome.

Appropriate teaching training to deal with increasing diversity in schools is another important finding of the report. It is vitally important that teachers receive proper training, as they will have students throughout their career who have special educational needs. That is becoming more prevalent and the number of children with special educational needs is increasing. Other Members who are former teachers feel the climate within the classroom has changed greatly over the past 15 years as more of these children have entered mainstream schools. The NCSE recommends that the Teaching Council and the Department of Education and Skills should ensure teachers are provided with the necessary tools to meet the needs of students with special educational needs. The Teaching Council should stipulate mandatory levels and frequency of continuing professional development teachers are required to undertake for teaching children with special educational needs. Teachers would welcome, as I did, ways to best encourage and foster a good relationship with children who have different needs. The report recommends that the Department should clarify the role of class teachers, support teachers and SNAs, as the lines are becoming blurred. Clarification of the role of the SNA would benefit all parties and, in particular, the child.

The report establishes that while many schools across Ireland are inclusive and encouraging of children with special needs, some schools still operate in a less than inclusive environment, which is a disappointing finding. I agree with a comment Senator D'Arcy made. I have never come across a school that has refused to take a child on the basis of special educational needs. The Minister has said he will bring forward proposals to Government on the implementation of the findings and enrolment will play a part in the proposals for a new regulatory enrolment framework for schools which is being prepared. I commend this proposal and I ask that parents been included on the policy group because that would be vital.

I recognise many improvements can and should be made but, as others said, we must acknowledge the investment that has made to fund 10,500 SNA posts and the provision of special school transport, equipment and adapted school buildings. I agree with Senator Mooney that assistive technology could be improved but we have lower pupil-teacher ratios in special schools. The Department has stated that it will work with the Departments with Children and Youth Affairs and Social Protection on this issue. This interdepartmental approach will be crucial to providing a cohesive programme for these children and their families. I urge the Departments to engage in a thorough review of the report and I look forward to the establishment of the working group, which, I hope, will include parents and representatives of parent groups.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I commend my colleague, Senator Mullen, for tabling this important matter, about which I only became aware recently as I travelled from one committee meeting to another.

Two charming young women approached me and lobbied me about this matter because they both have Down's syndrome children with a reasonably high IQ. It is really appalling that the children should be disadvantaged simply because they have a higher IQ. That seems to be a real paradox.

Senator Mullen would be mad to accept the amendment because, as the Minister knows very well, when one changes the requirement to implement a policy to a requirement to consider its implementation, it means nothing. There is a progressive Minister and in his case it might mean something, but there is absolutely no guarantee if the wording is diluted to include only "consider". It would not be acceptable to the parents.

The other point that is noteworthy is that even in the Government's amendment, the entire preamble, or all the argument, is accepted. That effectively rules out Senator Darcy's reservations. He said it would be very disappointing if there were any schools that did as outlined. The Government has already accepted that the practice may exist because it has accepted the preamble where the statement is made. It is disappointing. It is not disappointing that Senator Mullen referred to it; it is very disappointing that it happens to be a fact. I know it is because I was approached by schools that said the fact that schools near them were issuing refusals or finding ways around the system meant they had a disproportionate number of the kinds of students in question. It appears to be a fact and the Government has not disputed this in its amendment.

3:05 pm

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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On a point of information, I was speaking about the policy, not the practice, when I said the policy-----

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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The practice is much more important than the policy because that is actually what affects people.

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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In the interest of accuracy-----

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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Every single study shows that Down's syndrome children thrive in mainstream schools. We all accept that is really good for them. However, Down's syndrome children who have a mild disability have no access to the extra hours. That is regrettable, particularly because it is a change that came about in 2005. Before that, their disabilities were included as low-incidence disabilities. They are low-incidence disabilities because they occur in 0.2% of the population. Low-incidence disabilities are defined as those that occur in fewer than 1% of the population. Clearly, they qualify.

With regard to the psychological assessment that has been spoken about, it takes place in March of the year in which the child begins in the school. It is carried out by a psychologist in an institution such as Enable Ireland. The child's IQ is assessed. Many Down's syndrome children have an IQ of 50 to 69. This is classified as a mild learning disability. I return to my point that the very assessment that shows there is positive capacity to learn is used against the children. Prior to 2005, this was not the case. All pupils within an assessed syndrome were entitled to resource hours. Up to 2005, Down's syndrome fell within the category of an assessed syndrome. Will the Minister state in his reply whether it is possible to determine why the change was made? Was it made on purely economic grounds? I am afraid this may be the case.

The value of resource hours is very significant. When one receives resource hours, one receives one-to-one engagement with the teacher. The pupil is normally taken to a special room where he or she will have the entire attention of the teacher. This is very important. The resource hours, the one-to-one contact and special resources are very important.

The people who have lobbied me are very strong in their call to the Minister, whom I am very glad is present because it is very important to have present a senior Cabinet Minister with direct responsibility. I appreciate the fact that the Minister is present and I know Senator Mullen does also. The parents directly involved in this matter are asking for an end to what they regard as discriminatory treatment of their children. They want the current circular, circular 02/05, to which I referred, to include Down's syndrome as a low-incidence disability, as it used to be classified. It is just a question of returning to circumstances that were favourable to the affected children. The lobbyists are calling on the Minister to recognise Down's syndrome in its entirety and in its own right. They say the children cannot and must not be categorised as having mild or moderate learning disabilities as this does not reflect all aspects of Down's syndrome.

In light of this discussion, which has not been fractious or disagreeable in any way, could the Minister address this matter very clearly and practically? I am very impressed by the various people who have spoken about their experience. Colleagues of mine have spoken about their direct experience of children with special needs. They, perhaps, have a greater understanding than I could possibly have. This has been a very useful debate. I hope that the vulnerable children will not be penalised simply because they have higher intelligence than others. They should be encouraged. Everything should be done to allow them to become useful, happy, fulfilled and creative citizens.

Photo of Deirdre CluneDeirdre Clune (Fine Gael)
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I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Senator Norris and others referred to children with Down’s syndrome. I am glad the Minister is to meet representatives of the Down's syndrome group. I understand, although I am open to correction, that children with Down's syndrome do have access to resources, but not dedicated resources, under the general allocation to schools. They would certainly have specific hours allocated to them if Down's syndrome were considered a low-incidence disability. That is the issue for the parents in question. I support them in their negotiations with the Minister on the issue. Under the programme for Government, it was agreed that a plan would be published for the implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 to prioritise access for children with special needs to an individual education plan. The NCSE report has been published. The Minister is asking his Department to consult other Departments, including the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Health, and the Health Service Executive on their responsibilities in regard to the report and the education of children with special educational needs. It is a question of establishing a working group to develop a proposal for new tailor-made allocations. That is very wise and pragmatic.

I acknowledge that €1.3 billion was spent in 2011. Given that €35 billion was the tax intake in that year, the expenditure was quite considerable. Nevertheless, we have come from a low base in this area.

The findings of the report make for much discussion. It struck me that the majority of parents were satisfied with the supports they are receiving. The time taken to have an assessment was criticised. From dealing with parents who have been trying to obtain an assessment for their children, I realise this. The report refers to the assessment procedure and states that if a parent or the child's school can afford to pay for an assessment, it can ensure supports will be obtained immediately. The imbalance needs to be addressed.

It is important to acknowledge that the needs of the child change as the child develops from preschool right through to adolescence. It is important that there be monitoring. The report advocates the measuring of outputs rather than inputs. The outputs are important for the individual. It is important to have a database to establish outputs. Continuing professional development of teachers so as to keep them informed and trained is necessary. We could discuss the role of the special needs assistants as a separate issue. The report highlights blockages in terms of having an input to the education of the child. Therefore, while the role of the special needs assistant has probably evolved over the years, it certainly needs to be defined.

I would like to bring a couple of specific issues to the attention of the Minister. ASD units and the provision of places for children on the autistic spectrum have come to my attention recently. There has been growth in the provision of places for children in primary schools. Preschools have supported that as children move to primary school. We are now finding there are not sufficient places at second level. Children cannot move on from primary school and places are not available for those who hoped to move from preschool to primary school. A difficulty is manifesting.

I wrote to the Minister. He highlighted the fact that it is a matter for the National Council for Special Education. I wrote to it directly and I look forward to a response. It will be a constant issue as there is growth in the population and an emphasis on ensuring children with special educational needs can be incorporated into mainstream schooling.

The motion states it is essential that children with disabilities have access to mainstream education. I am sure those who tabled the motion understand that special schools are important. There are children who have better educational attainment from attending a special school. Mainstream schools with supports do not suit all children. I spoke to some parents recently whose children are in special schools. As difficult as it was for them to move their children from mainstream schools, it has been the making of them and has made for a happier family unit. Special schools have a very important role to play.

3:15 pm

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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Tá lúcháir orm deis a bheith agam labhairt ar an ábhar seo tráthnóna agus molaim na Seanadóirí Mullen agus Quinn as an rún seo a chur síos ar an chlár oibre.

This is an important discussion and I commend Senators Mullen and Quinn on tabling the motion. It is an area that can sometimes be overlooked. It is an issue families often face at a very difficult time in the development of a child's education, whether he or she is entering primary school or moving to second level. Families need support at a time when education plays such an important role in a child's development in terms of physiology, education and life skills.

Like every public representative, I have met families, parents and school authorities. Difficulties have arisen as a result of policy or funding. While I fully appreciate that the budget available for special education has increased and is at record levels, at €1.3 billion this year, the availability of resources does not always equate to solving the problem. There is a need to look rationally at how we can make sure that every child who needs special education in a mainstream school can have it afforded to him or her.

While the provision of special education is available to schools, there are competing demands within them for the same chunk of change in terms of special needs assistants. I see that in schools in my constituency. There is often a dilution of the resources available to children. It is very unfair that children should have to compete against each other for the allocation of those resources.

It is important that the report to which others have referred is implemented. The disappointments contained within it must be dealt with. The suggestion that a new model be developed for the allocation of additional teaching resources to mainstream schools based on the needs profile of each school, without the need for diagnoses of disabilities, is something I strongly urge the Minister to consider. It has been referred to in regard to Down's syndrome. I raised the issue on the Adjournment recently. A child with a mild intellectual disability such as Down's syndrome is not afforded the special educational provision that he or she should have. Children with mild intellectual disabilities should be provided with the educational advancement to which every other child has access.

Under the Constitution we cherish all the children equally, which extends to education. The Constitution contains many references to education. Just because a child has a disability does not mean he or she is less equal than another. My cousin's child, who was born ten days ago, has Down's syndrome. That child deserves the right to live, to educational advancement and to educational and job opportunities, as do we all. Just because a child has a disability or his or her ability to learn may not be as fast as that of a friend, brother or sister does not mean he or she should go without.

There is a need for the system to work more effectively and efficiently to ensure the budgets made available to boards of management and schools are adequate and meet demand. The recommendations contained in the report need to be carefully scrutinised and implemented in full. I know the Minister will do that. There are competing demands in his Department. I acknowledge that while there are competing demands, the Minister has not touched the allocation of money for special education in this year's budget. I hope that will continue into next year's budget. He will have to play the game at Cabinet level. We all hope that not only will the budget remain in place but it will increase, because it would benefit children who deserve opportunities.

I know the Department is aware of children with Down's syndrome. All children classified with it should be provided with special educational resources and training. This is not happening, and there is an anomaly. Some 30 children with mild to moderate levels of Down's syndrome will go into school next September, but they will not get the special educational teaching they deserve. It is something that should be corrected. It will not cost a lot of money but I urge the Minister to deal with it. I hope the motion will be accepted on a cross-party basis because it is sensible and well thought out. Those of us on this side of the House are delighted to support it.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House, and I welcome the report. It is a significant document, supporting students with special educational needs in schools. I commend Senator Mullen on tabling the motion because it has given us time to reflect on its content.

I note Sydney Blain is now chair of the NCSE.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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He was the chair.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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He spoke about the broad consultation used to compile the report in 2012. Every adult possible was consulted but children and students were left out, which was a mistake. I did research a number of years ago on children with dyslexia whom I had taught a number of years earlier. When one is teaching in the classroom one knows it is very important to vary instruction in order that one does not bore children. When I interviewed the children with dyslexia they asked me to continue with a subject until they had learned it and to repeat the information. They needed over-learning to impart information to their long-term memories.

A failure to listen to what students want, particularly at second level, is a huge disadvantage in seeking to devise the best possible outcomes for them. Mr. Sydney Blain observed that thinking in this area has been evolving for 20 years. It is a little like the X case in that a great deal has happened in the meantime.

I agree that the report, when and if it is implemented, will bring about a significant improvement in the education of children with special educational needs. It does, however, require careful consideration. There is a great deal contained in the report and a plan is needed for its implementation. Will the Minister indicate his plan in this regard? Does he hope to implement the report's recommendations by 2016, which is when the next election is due? I understand he has been given a detailed background costing for the full implementation of the plan. Will he indicate the costs involved? What are his own hopes and preferences in this regard?

There are two particularly interesting elements of the report. First is the focus on outcomes-based education rather than inputs, which is very welcome. I have substantial experience in this area as a teacher, observer and mother of a child with learning needs. We can have all the inputs we want, but if a child is not learning and we are not getting results, then we are failing that child. Finding No. 10 in the report refers to access to qualified teachers who know how to differentiate learning and how to teach children so that the desired outcomes are achieved. It is an incredible skill to be able to help children in this way and the teachers involved should be paid more if necessary. The problem, however, is that support for children at second level is not subject-based. Under the general allocation model, all children with special needs are going to the same teacher and it is generally about literacy. They are getting no support whatsoever with mathematics, for example, or with languages such as French and Spanish, even though they may be experiencing huge difficulties with those subjects. In short, the general allocation model is not working at second level for children with learning needs. It is not always, by the way, about one-to-one support. Children with learning difficulties want to be mainstreamed and to be considered the same as their peers, yet they need additional help. I am getting a great deal of feedback from parents, which matches my own experience, that subject-specific help is needed for children with learning difficulties at second level. If the Minister has a proposal in this regard, I am eager to hear it.

A second interesting aspect of the report is the focus on needs rather than diagnostic classification, that is, breaking the linkage between assessment and resource entitlement, as set out on page 30. That is very important but who will make the decisions in this regard? There must be some scientific basis to it. Is this not the argument in regard to Down's syndrome? In order to meet children's needs, we must take into account a classification or diagnosis of those needs. We have to consider the diagnostic assessment of need if we are to be fair to the child. A teacher without a specialist qualification in educational needs might read a child's needs totally differently than would a teacher with expertise in the area. In such a scenario, we might not be getting the full picture. However, the report seems almost to suggest that we should get rid of educational psychologists. Will the Minister clarify exactly what is envisaged in this regard?

I support Senator Rónán Mullen's comments in regard to inclusive enrolment policies. I agree that all children, irrespective of special educational needs, should be welcome and facilitated to enrol in their local schools. That is fine in theory, of course, but the practice is rather different. Parents of children with Down's syndrome and other disabilities have told me how they were gently persuaded to try the school down the road because they were told the latter had better resources to cope with their child's needs. Exclusive enrolment policies are not acceptable.

I generally welcome the report, although I have difficulty with some of the findings. I hope the Minister will clarify the issues I have raised. This report is deserving of more detailed discussions in this House, but much depends on the timeframe the Minister has in mind for its implementation. It would be helpful if he could break the report down into sections so that we might have a series of narrower discussions on the different aspects.

3:25 pm

Photo of Kathryn ReillyKathryn Reilly (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I support the motion Senator Rónán Mullen has brought before the House. It is disturbing and sad that the parents of children with special educational needs or disabilities have had to fight continually for their children's rights. Those rights should be enshrined in law as a matter of course. Like most public representatives, I am in regular contact with parents of children with special needs, often on a weekly basis. Many parents have become experts in fighting their corner with various organs of the State, including the National Educational Psychological Service, the child and adolescent mental health services section of the Health Service Executive and the Delivering Equality of Opportunities in Schools programme, for the right to have their children assessed for entitlement to basic resources. In recent weeks we have dealt with parents of children with autism, Down's syndrome and other conditions whose education is suffering because of the way in which resource hours are being allocated.

Colleagues have covered most of the points I wished to raise, so I will focus on one particular issue. Complaints to the Ombudsman for Children, Ms Emily Logan, increased by 22% in 2011 according to her office's annual report from October last year. The office investigated 1,393 new complaints in 2011, almost half of which related to education and 32% to health. The breakdown of the education complaints shows that problems with special needs resources made up 12% of those complaints, while 23% of health complaints related to the adequacy of and access to HSE services. The ombudsman indicated that she was not surprised by the increase in grievances in regard to education. She stated:

Parents are very worried about the cuts to special needs education. And they become fearful because there is a lack of communication on what the implications might be for the child.... While adequate resources are of great importance to guaranteeing that children's rights are respected, the attitude and culture that underpin how we engage with, and provide for, children is arguably more fundamental... We continue to see more concern for the system than for the best interest of the child and family.
Ms Logan stressed the need for Government policies based on fairness and equity which, she said, are even more important at a time of fiscal difficulties.

The recommendations of the National Economic and Social Council report must be implemented as soon as possible. A range of shortcomings and failings is identified in the report, including in regard to the linkage between allocation of resources and category of disability. A system of allocation based on need is essential if we are to improve the level of supports for children with special educational needs, particularly where the emphasis is on integrating students into mainstream education. The authors of the report were careful to highlight their efforts to ensure the recommendations were realistic in the context of available resources, including in respect of the implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. The recommendations contained in the report are cognisant of the economic realities. They are feasible proposals that can and should be taken forward as a matter of urgency. This is not to say, of course, that we should refrain from urging the implementation of the 2004 Act at the earliest possible date.

We have an obligation as Members of the Oireachtas to support children with special educational needs. We all recognise the serious difficulties and challenges facing families as they seek to access essential supports. The Government must actively support families affected by the loss of services in the past, with a view to restoration of those services. We must ensure that the NESC vision of a society where children and adults with special educational needs receive an education that enables them to achieve their potential is realised. Inclusive education practices must be underpinned by a series of statutory rights which will ensure children receive an education in an inclusive environment and achieve outcomes in accordance with their ability. I look forward to the Minister's response.

Photo of Aideen HaydenAideen Hayden (Labour)
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There is a great deal of expertise in the area of education in this House.

My expertise is limited to third level but undoubtedly there have been some interesting contributions and I imagine the Minister will agree that there are some expert people in the House.

I thank Senator Mullen for bringing forward this good motion. It is important to take some time to recognise that we have come a long way with the Irish educational system when it comes to special needs education. While Senator Mullen and several other speakers have referred to disabilities such as Down's syndrome, we should accept that special needs education covers a wider range of disabilities, including dyslexia and dyspraxia. I have had some experience of the educational system and I welcome the change in direction that there has been within the system, even within the past decade, in terms of the provision of resources to children who require particular help. These include the facilities that have been made available to children who have dyslexia and dyspraxia, for example, to enable them to compete on a more level playing field when it comes to the State examinations. The provision of facilities such as being able to do examinations by tape recorder and the provision of scribes and so on have helped these children.

We tend to focus on one extreme of the spectrum but it is important to recognise that many children have been assisted by our recognition and broader understanding of what special needs entails. We will never know the number of Irish adults in the country today who were denied a third level education because they never got such assistance, or the number who were categorised as clumsy, for example, or even the number of left-handed children who were told that they could have it beaten out of them. That happened in my lifetime. Therefore, we have come a long way and that needs to be accepted. The Disability Access Route to Education, DARE, scheme in particular has given access to third level education to many young adults who would never have had the opportunity otherwise. With my experience of third level education I am aware that this support continues into third level education and that it is effective.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, report notes that the majority of schools operate an inclusive enrolment policy and practice. The report indicates that some schools continue to operate less-than-wholly-inclusive enrolment practices. The Minister is not running away from that issue. It is important to recognise that the Minister has accepted the motion in the main and there is no essential disagreement. However, it is also important to accept that the report under discussion only reached the Minister's desk on 17 May, less than two weeks ago. To some extent we are being a little premature given the commitment the Minister and the Department have made to review it. They have acknowledged that the report deserves in-depth and detailed examination and exploration and this takes a good deal more than two weeks. The Minister has stated that a consultation will be required with stakeholders on some of the recommendations prior to any decisions being made to implement them.

At a recent trade union conference the Minister announced that he intended to bring to Government the draft heads of the education (admissions to school) Bill 2013 to tackle some of the issues that have been raised today in respect of school admission policies. The Minister stated that the draft Bill will allow for a full public discussion, including ourselves and other Members of the Oireachtas, to ensure that we have a structured fair and transparent schools admission policy. It is important to put that on the record.

One of the issues I had intended to raise has been raised by Senator Healy Eames. It relates to one of the main findings of the NCSE policy advice to the effect that diagnosis should not be a prerequisite or determinant for the allocation of additional resources for a child or young person with special educational needs. Instead allocation should be based on the needs of the child irrespective of category of disability. I call on the Minister to explain this in more detail.

It is important to note that the Government has made and continues to make a significant contribution towards special needs education and that €1.3 billion, which is approximately 15% of the Department's budget, is spent on special educational supports. Like other Senators, I hope this commitment is maintained in future and I imagine the Minister shares that hope.

3:35 pm

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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Members will be aware that the National Council for Special Education has a specific role under section 20 of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act, to which reference has already been made, to provide me, as the Minister for Education and Skills, with expert independent evidence-informed policy advice on the education of children and others with disabilities. It is important to emphasise the nature of that advice. Last year I called on the NCSE to review and make recommendations on the supports to be provided to children with special educational needs and on how they are allocated to ensure we are delivering the best possible education experience and outcomes for our children. I was pleased to receive the report recently on 17 May.

The report is based on a review of best practice in both national and international research. It also follows a wide process of consultation with children with special educational needs, parents, representative groups, educational partners, voluntary bodies and advocacies. According to my note, which I do not doubt, children were part of the process as well. There is no doubt that the report is a comprehensive and significant review of the provisions we make for such children. The report makes it clear that there are many aspects of the current system which parents and schools are satisfied with and which are working well. It is important to put that on the record. We are making progress and this is a collective effort. No one owns this legislation; it came through from different Administrations and it is working substantially well for many people.

The report notes the extent of the investment that has been made in providing for children with needs in schools and highlights the level of investment in providing special educational support. This level remains at an all-time high despite the country's economic difficulties. It has been stated already that some €1.3 billion is spent and this represents approximately 15% of the total education budget. This includes spending on approximately 10,000 special education teacher posts - these provide additional teaching to more than 32,000 students - and more than 10,500 special needs assistant supports for more than 22,000 students. In addition, the Department funds specialist school transport, specialist equipment, assistive technology and the adaptation of school buildings. We have made considerable progress in this area.

However, the report also raises several concerns in respect of some aspects of our current system under the headings of enrolments, assessments and supports for children with special educational needs and how those supports are allocated. One of the main findings of the policy advice is that diagnosis should not be a prerequisite or a determinant for the allocation of additional resources for a child or young person with special needs. Instead, it should be based on the needs of the child irrespective of the category of disability. The report notes that the time of health professionals can be disproportionately taken up with conducting assessments as opposed to providing clinical interventions and supports, and states that in some cases parents may be delayed in getting resources because they have had to wait for assessments. The report recommends that the allocation of additional teaching and care supports should be in line with the profiled need of each school. The development of these resources should be linked to the student's learning plan process, a point made by Senator Moran, and it should be time-bound and outcome-focused. The report recommends that a new model should be developed for the allocation of additional teaching resources to mainstream schools based on the profiled need of each school and such that it breaks the direct link between the allocation of additional resources and the diagnosis of disability.

Section 2 of the EPSEN Act relates to enrolments and provides for an inclusive education for children with special needs. While not all aspects of the EPSEN Act have been commenced as of yet, section 2, providing for the right to inclusive education, has been commenced. The section provides that, to the greatest extent possible, children with special educational needs should be educated with children who do not have such needs. The policy of the Department is that children with special needs should be educated with their peers in local mainstream schools where additional support such as assistance and resource teachers are provided. Where children with greater levels of need require specific interventions, special classes and special school placements are also provided.

On school enrolment policies and practices, the NCSE report noted the majority of schools operate inclusive enrolment policies and practices. It stated, generally, management bodies and schools have responded very positively to educating students with special educational needs in inclusive environments in mainstream schools. However, it also indicated some schools still operate less than wholly inclusive enrolment practices by placing certain conditions on enrolment of children with special educational needs.

During the consultation process on the NCSE advice, some parents and NCSE staff reported finding difficulties in securing placements for children with special needs. Some parents felt schools placed soft barriers to enrolment by advising them that a different school would be more suitable or better resourced. Some schools also placed conditions in their enrolment policies.

To address these issues, the report recommended a robust regulatory enrolment framework should be introduced for schools. As Senator Hayden already said, I am moving on that issue independently as there are concerns about general enrolment policies.

All mainstream schools are resourced in accordance with the same policy parameters and, therefore, they should all be equally welcoming of children with special educational needs. That is the underlying principle behind the review of enrolment policy. The NCSE has, accordingly, recommended that to address the outstanding difficulties that remain with this matter, an appropriate regulatory enrolment framework should be put in place. The discussion paper on a regulatory framework for school enrolment contained suggestions on how to make the process of enrolling in schools more open, equitable and consistent. It is available on my Department's website.

While section 15 of the Education Act requires schools to publish their enrolment policy and to make provision in that policy for pupils with disabilities or who have other special educational needs, the Act is light-touch in terms of providing ways and means of ensuring all schools welcome all children. In summary, the existing legal framework is in essence confined to specifying the establishment and maintenance of an enrolment policy as a function of a school and providing for an appellate process under section 29 of the Education Act 1998. It is not satisfactory and we intend to change it. The primary aim of the proposals will be to ensure every child is treated fairly and that every child, including those with special educational needs, has a place at school. This recent policy advice from the NCSE will be fully considered in the context of the proposed regulatory framework for school enrolment. It is proposed that any legislative changes in the area of enrolment would seek to maintain and support the current position whereby decision-making resides with the board of management to the greatest extent possible.

Work is ongoing on this legislation. I intend to bring heads of a Bill and the draft statutory instrument to Cabinet and send them to the Oireachtas committee on education for feedback. A similar approach was adopted with the Education and Training Boards Bill which proved to be very satisfactory.

There are 28 recommendations in this comprehensive report, the first in 20 years. It would be a dereliction of my duty as Minister if I were to give a commitment to implement uncritically all 28 recommendations without the Department having the time to analyse and cost them, as well as assessing how they could be implemented and the subsequent implications. That is why we have put down this amendment to the motion. As Senator Norris said, the preamble and thrust of the motion has been accepted. I will carefully consider implementing all 28 recommendations but it would be irresponsible of me to give a commitment to the House to accept all of them before advice on them comes from the Department.

The Department is accountable to the House through the Minister. The NCSE is a very fine organisation and a new chairman was appointed to it recently, a former chief inspector in the Department, Eamonn Stack, and a new board. It gives us advice, but giving the Department of Education and Skills advice is different to making policy. We have to be accountable for the making of policy. We have to take advice carefully, analyse it and decide how much of it we want to implement.

One of the reasons the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 has not been fully implemented is the cost. It was conceived in a different time when costs did not seem to be an obstacle to anything.

3:45 pm

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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It still was not implemented then.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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It is the road to travel and we will travel it as far and as quickly as we can. I have been able to ring-fence the amount of moneys available for its implementation. We have capped the number of special needs assistants, SNAs, but there are pressures on the system. This year, for example, the assessment process shows there is an increase in the number of overall special needs children coming into the system. We are going to have to find ways of doing more with the same amount, not less.

I understand the sense that for many parents of children with special needs the only tangible support they can identify as coming from the wider community is measured in a SNA or a resource teacher. If there is any alteration to that, it can be seen as the withdrawal of support by a community. In some cases, if a SNA is there purely to provide toilet training, for example, and it has been achieved, there should be a way the young person with special needs can graduate. That is the whole purpose of the intervention. It is not custodial or palliative in that sense but an intervention to adjust the gap between normality and children with special needs. In some cases through research and intervention we can do that.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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That is an outcome.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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That is the very point and outcomes have consequences. In some cases, those consequences may change the nature of the support. In this debate, we must not just measure the commitment to a policy by the amount of moneys put into it but also measure its success. We do this in our own personal lives. We adopt a course of action and invest time in it. If it is not working to our satisfaction, then it is normal to try something else.

This report took some time to produce with much consultation. We only have it less than a month and I do not expect to have a detailed working plan back from the Department until September, given all the other pressures we are under coming into the holiday period. As soon as I have a response, I will publish it along with the recommendations I am implementing immediately, those when I have the resources to implement them and those I might dispute on which I might seek a second opinion. We are not simply going to implement all 28 recommendations. Advice is different to direction. It is for us to consider that advice carefully and respectfully and then proceed to implement it. My predecessors and specialists have given us great guidance in this area.

I acknowledge the presence of representatives of Down's Syndrome Ireland in the Gallery. I confirm what I said to one of its representatives in the Clock Tower in the Department of Education and Skills when the policy was launched and I will make arrangements to meet with them soon. I know the group was involved in briefing the Oireachtas and I got many calls from many of the representatives.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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I thank the Minister for his response and those Members who contributed to this debate, Senator Mooney for seconding the motion, Senators Jim D'Arcy, van Turnhout, Moran, Norris, Clune, Ó Domhnaill, Healy Eames, Reilly and Hayden.

I want to acknowledge a number of valid points and I echo what was said about the very informed contributions made by various speakers, for which I am grateful. I want to acknowledge Senator Deirdre Clune's valid comment, which I certainly support, about the important role played by special schools. I also acknowledge Senators Brian Ó Domhnaill and Fidelma Healy Eames for their recent contributions on this issue in the Seanad.

Whenever we consider these matters, it comes down to a question of what type of society we want to be. I hope we are all aiming towards a secure, gentle society that is life-affirming and inclusive. It is always the test of a civilised society how well it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members, and I believe that is tied in closely with this issue.

I am interested in a number of the points made by Senator Healy Eames. She is right to talk about the importance of outputs rather than inputs. We need to measure developments in terms of the impact they are having or the outcomes for children and their learning. I acknowledge the commitment of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, to this area, and I note his proposal to introduce legislation. In the context of the health debate, it has often been said that money should follow the patient. For me, one point that emerges very clearly is that money should follow the student, so that, instead of seeing the issue in terms of the funding of schools, we identify the specific needs of individual children. This is why it is so important that we look to the full implementation of the EPSEN Act.

I want to thank the representatives of Down Syndrome Ireland in particular for being here today. The case of children with Down's syndrome is central to this debate and I, of course, acknowledge Senator Aideen Hayden's point that we need to be concerned with the wide range of special needs that present to us. It is important, as numerous speakers noted, that Down's syndrome be classified as a low-incidence disorder and that we see the issue through that lens. I believe the Minister's decision in this area should be informed by the findings of the Ombudsman for Children, Ms Emily Logan, in her recent report. Her view is that the decision of the Department of Education and Skills not to grant pupils with Down's syndrome an automatic entitlement to additional teaching resources has adversely affected the capacity of children with Down's syndrome to engage to the fullest possible extent in mainstream primary schooling. Of course, that criticism came in a report arising from a complaint by the mothers of two children with Down's syndrome attending mainstream primary schools. In a situation such as that we are not talking about direct discrimination against children with Down's syndrome, but we are talking about discrimination in effect.

The Minister said, and I have to agree with him, that advice is different from direction. Far too often, Government hides behind advice to push through very controversial measures. I can certainly think of reports that deserved to be more closely scrutinised before the Government hid behind them. That said, it is not unknown for reports that are credible and excellent to have an early commitment to implementation.

I totally understand the Minister's position. He is doing his best but, like any Minister in his position, he is terrified of the resource implications. I know that is not the only issue he adverted to, and he said he wants to see whether he agrees with all of the recommendations. However, while I can understand that it is the Minister's sense that it is his duty not to jump in, and I acknowledge that he, by implication, accepts the thrust or content of the motion, none the less, he stands back from a commitment because he wants to consider it. I feel it is my duty to ensure we keep the pressure on here, and that we have seen and heard enough to know this is something we ought to implement.

I have not heard any substantial criticism of the recommendations in the report and, for that reason, I believe I and this House ought to call on the Minister to implement it. It is not unknown for politicians or the Government to make commitments to implement certain things and then, when they find difficulties, to step back, delay or review. I do not believe we will be doing any harm to the cause of children with special needs - in fact, quite the contrary - if we state in this House that this report and its recommendations should be implemented. On that basis, I cannot accept the Government's amendment to the motion. While the Minister may have the best intentions, for this House to say he should merely consider the report would not pay a just tribute to the content of what is a very fine report. On that basis, I must persist with my motion. None the less, I thank the Minister for his attentive and informed answer, and for all the work he is doing.

Amendment put:

The Seanad divided: Tá, 30; Níl, 15.

Tellers: Tá, Senators Paul Coghlan and Aideen Hayden; Níl, Senators Rónán Mullen and David Norris.

Amendment declared carried.

Motion, as amended, agreed to.

4:05 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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At 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 30 May 2013.