Seanad debates

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

National Council for Special Education Inclusion Support Services: Statements


10:30 am

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. For the information of Members, the contributions of group spokespersons will be for eight minutes and five minutes for all other Senators.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad on this issue.

In February of this year I announced the establishment within the National Council for Special Education of a new inclusion support service to assist schools in supporting children with special educational needs. This service will include the special education support service which provides training for schools in how to assist pupils with special educational needs, the national behaviour support service, which provides guidance and support to schools in dealing with behavioural issues; and the visiting teacher service for children who are deaf or hard of hearing and for children who are blind or visually impaired. Until now these support services have been managed separately within my Department. The new inclusion support service will bring these services together and they will be integrated within the National Council for Special Education, NCSE.

The decision to establish an inclusion support service within the NCSE has been taken in light of recommendations contained in the NCSE working group report on a proposed new model for allocating teaching resources for pupils with special educational needs. This report noted that the existing advisory and intervention supports which are currently available to schools are provided by a number of different bodies and organisations. The report also highlighted the need to ensure cohesion across service provision and recommended that the existing support services for students with special educational needs should be combined into one unified support service for schools. The NCSE working group therefore recommended that a national inclusion support service for schools should be established under the management of the NCSE in order to provide a coherent service for schools.

The development of this new inclusion support service within the NCSE will mean that schools will receive better and more integrated support in the future. It will build on the existing good work and supports which the national behaviour support service, the special education support service and visiting teacher service for visual and hearing impairment currently provided to children and their families as well as to teachers and schools.

The role of the new inclusion support service will be to provide advice and support to schools on the education and inclusion of students with special educational needs. It will provide in-school support for support teachers, continuing professional development for teachers, and support to schools on the management of challenging behaviour. It will promote educational programmes for schools and provide additional training for schools, where necessary. It will also enhance the multi-disciplinary capacity of the education system through providing access to expert knowledge in areas such as speech and language, deafness or hard of hearing or visual impairment.

The working group also recommended that the inclusion support service should be used to provide immediate assistance to schools in unplanned and exceptional circumstances, where this is indicated, and as needs emerge within the school. The service will have a close relationship with NCSE special educational needs organisers who will be able to indicate where supports are most needed for schools. The service is therefore anticipated to be able to provide targeted interventions or assistance to schools, where necessary, and to upskill and support schools in providing for pupils with special educational needs.

Work is ongoing to transfer the existing services to the NCSE. The NCSE has established three working groups in conjunction with the existing management bodies for the three services, the special education support service, the national behaviour support service and the visiting teacher services. The working groups are meeting regularly to identify all of the requirements which will be required to be put in place to support the transfer of the services to the NCSE under the inclusion support service. It is intended that the inclusion support service will be operational from the coming school year. It is also intended that the existing services will continue as normal as the new arrangements are put in place, with as little disruption as possible to service-users, as progress is made to transfer these existing services to the NCSE.

I also recently asked my Department to review the roles, structures and optimal working arrangements for co-ordination between the expanded NCSE with its inclusion support service and the National Educational Psychological Service.To this end, submissions were sought from interested stakeholders on what they considered the optimal working arrangements between the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, should be, at a national and local level, in order to deliver the best service for students and schools. A total of 43 submissions have been received to date from disability groups, parents, management bodies and representative organisations. These submissions will be considered carefully as we continue to develop the inclusion support service and plan to develop the most co-ordinated support services that we can provide for schools.

That is a general overview of what we are providing. In terms of the context of that, a new model has been proposed by the NCSE for children with special needs generally. In terms of the process of developing the arrangements for that model, we are not ready to introduce it in the coming school year but we are working on it, including with the Health Service Executive, which is doing some work on complex needs. In the meantime we are setting up this support service which we believe will make it easier for schools in general. There is a general issue to do with being properly co-ordinated in all these services and not having them located in different places to make it easier for the young people concerned but also for school management, teachers and parents. It is working in tangent with the work of the NCSE and the ongoing work in regard to the new model. I would be happy to hear the views of Senators and welcome their suggestions.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister will also have five minutes to respond.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I will make my opening remarks and then leave because, unfortunately, our education committee is sitting at the same time as this debate, which has happened a few times and is an issue I have brought to the attention of the Leader previously. I apologise but I will read the Official Report of the debate.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the issue of the new inclusion support service and also the broader issue of special needs education. We need to ensure that all our citizens get the education and training opportunities they deserve and that are in line with their individual needs and abilities.

Regarding the inclusion support service, I welcome this development. I can see its potential in ensuring that schools receive a more integrated service by having all the different support services working together and that this has the potential to help children. However, the service will only be as useful as the resources that are provided on the ground. The real issue is making sure that adequate supports are provided on the ground.

When the Minister initially announced the establishment of this new service she also announced that a new model would be coming in to replace the current general allocation model. That second part of the announcement has been parked, as the Minister said initially, but I would like more details on the reason for that. The general allocation model was a hugely positive development at the time. It was far better prior to that. We had a situation where an individual application had to be made in respect of every child before they could get access to resources. Children were not getting the support they needed and there was a major administrative backlog in the Department in terms of improving resources. The new system at least meant that, notionally, each school would have a level of resources to deal with higher incidence special needs and ensure that children would have access to supports, but the intention of the previous Government was always that it would be reviewed. Like any new system it should have been reviewed after a few years to see if it was working effectively and how it could be improved.

A particular issue was raised by representative groups and parents of children with Down's syndrome about the fact that they are not covered by the model. I welcome the Minister's announcement recently that children with a mild diagnosis, and I know the parents hate that phraseology, will have the two and a half hours extra teaching entitlement. That is a positive development but I would like more details on where the Minister stands in terms of the revised model.

When this proposal was announced Fianna Fáil welcomed, in theory, the fact that the Minister was considering addressing the deficiencies with the current system and bringing in a revised model, but we wanted to see the detail of how that would work. There is still a need for more detail, particularly on issues such as transition arrangements, an issue I have raised at the education committee also because if teachers are being taken out of a school where they have a certain level of support, proper transition arrangements are needed to do that.

The other issue that arose in the context of the work being done on trying to put a new model in place was the best way to collect data for that. I am aware that some of the schools and representative bodies raised an issue with the survey being done where they have to collect data from parents to put together an educational profile for the school. It is difficult to find a perfect system. I am not sure if there is a better way of doing that but it has inherent difficulties. The Minister might give some feedback when replying and as I said at the outset, I will read the Official Report of that.

With regard to special needs supports in general, we still have a long way to go. We are in a far better position than we were ten years ago. We now have 11,000 learning support and resource teachers in schools. We have special needs assistants. We have more special classes than ever before but we still have a long way to go to make sure that every individual has the support they need from preschool up to adult and higher education.

In terms of the school system, unfortunately, we cannot say yet that every child is being given an appropriate place. Within the mainstream system there are issues around ensuring that children in mainstream schools have the supports they need and that there is not an unfairness in that regard depending on whether the parents can afford to get an assessment. Some children are getting resources but those whose parents cannot afford to pay for private assessments are not getting them.

There are also gaps in respect of special classes. I was recently in correspondence with the NCSE on speech and language classes which, from the Minister's Department's point of view, she is prepared to staff. She can see there is a need for speech and language classes. There are some areas where places in speech and language classes are not available for children but while the education side of the house is prepared to step up and provide the teachers, there are not enough speech and language therapists on the health side so classes are not being set up and children are not getting the support they need.

Health therapies is an issue I tabled as a special topic at the education committee to bring in the HSE and ensure that more is done in that regard. The missing part of the equation in many areas in terms of children's education is making sure they are getting occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and other therapies from the health side that they need to avail of a proper education. The education budget is demand led. If there is a need for a class the Minister will secure the resources to provide it but that is not the case on the health side. That is a huge gap which I have raised many times in recent years, and I would welcome an update on how the Minister is getting on with the Department of Health on that.

There is also a need for proper support for students with psychological difficulties and mental health problems. That is an issue schools raise constantly with me, even in terms of the way they access those services. Those type of services should be provided in schools. The HSE appears to have done that in schools in a limited number of areas but not in most. Principals have told me that if they have a child with particular psychological difficulties they deal with the Mater children and adolescent mental health service, CAMHS. If the child has an appointment but the parent does not bring them to the appointment or for whatever reason the appointment is missed, the school cannot then get resources for that child. They have argued, and it is only sensible, that those appointments should be dealt with within a cluster of schools to link in those services instead of parents bringing children separately to a service to get it. The school is the obvious place to access those services.

There are big gaps on the preschool side also. We have published a policy on this to ensure that crèches and other preschool providers have the supports they need to genuinely include children with special needs.

I will mention briefly the further and adult education sector. This is an area that Inclusion Ireland and others have done a good deal of lobbying on in making sure that young adults with special needs can get the same education and training opportunities as other school leavers and that they are not shoehorned into whatever service that happens to be available. They should be offered opportunities that develop their own individual talents and interests and that are worthwhile from an individual point of view rather than fitting people to services that just happen to be available in an area.I welcome the provision of support services. The real issue from preschool all the way up to adult further education is resources on the ground and ensuring the supports are in place for people to make the most of their abilities, as well as ensuring no one is left behind.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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I am sharing time with Senator Tony Mulcahy.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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I am deputising for my colleague, Senator Jim D’Arcy, who is unavoidably absent.

I welcome the Minister’s announcement today. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, proposed a new role model for allocating teacher resources for pupils with special needs. Some work still has to be done on this. In the interim, she has rolled out inclusion support services, ISS, to be established under the management of the NCSE to provide a coherent service for schools. In her address, the Minister outlined the role of the ISS which is to advise on and support schools with the education and inclusion of students with special educational needs through developing individualised plans for students and the development of language literacy and other skills.

Senator Averil Power said much progress has been made in developing supports for students with special needs. We need to keep our eye on the ball and ensure the resources to deliver the proposed services are maintained and enhanced. The ISS will continue with the professional development of teachers for the education of students with special needs and support schools in the management of pupils with challenging behaviour. This is a major issue for many schools struggling with resources. I am aware of unanticipated and exceptional circumstances where a significant number of students with complex needs may arrive outside of the normal school year in some schools. This happens in some parts of the country where there is a fairly transient population. I know it certainly happens in the part of the country from which I come. I welcome the fact additional outreach teaching support will be provided for these schools which find themselves in these particular situations.

The ISS will also enhance the multidisciplinary capacity of the education system through providing access to expert knowledge in areas such as speech and language, deafness, hard-of-hearing, visual impairment and occupational therapies. Often when those providing services to pupils with special needs go on maternity or other leave for between six to nine months, they are not replaced. This reduces the impact of those services provided for pupils with special needs. Hopefully, with matters improving in our economy, we must ensure resources are put in place to replace those service providers for the duration of their absence.

I welcome the Minister’s announcement on the visitor teacher service for children with hearing impairments or visually impaired conditions. The Irish Deaf Society has an issue regarding the recognition of its sign language. I also welcome the invitation to organisations to make submissions as to how we can continue to enhance services provided for pupils in all schools, both primary and secondary, for pupils with special needs. I commend the Minister on the progress she has made to date and that she is proceeding with caution in this area. I also commend her on ensuring services are delivered and the organisations delivering them are co-ordinated. The more streamlined the delivery of these services, the better value for money we can achieve.

Photo of Tony MulcahyTony Mulcahy (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the improvements in services in this area. I speak as a parent and a long-time advocate of disability services.

While this is not meant as a criticism, I am irked by the fact special educational needs organisers, SENOs, are overruling far more qualified clinicians, clinical psychologists and educational psychologists when it comes to the provision of services. I had a case recently concerning an educational aid for a child, an iPad. He had received a glowing report from the educational psychologist but it was overruled by the SENO. Thankfully, that case has been sorted.

Any manner which ensures services are more coherent is positive. I believe the starting age in the education system for a child is when he or she enters preschool at the age of three. We have children in preschools with challenging behaviour getting six hours of special education support services. This is provided by the Health Service Executive. Once a child enters the educational system, as Senator Averil Power stated, there should be a line from start to finish which they follow as part of the education process. As the Minister knows, a child with special needs requires 24 hours, seven days a week support.

The managers and providers of preschool services may identify a need for dealing with challenging behaviour which the parents may not have noted themselves or accepted. There are children who may not be allowed to avail of preschool because they may not have a support for dealing with challenging behaviour and the service provider may not be able to deal with the matter. Service providers are passionate about what they do. They are not looking for supports that are not a necessity but this area has to be addressed. Moneys in the Department of Health should be transferred to the Department of Education and Skills for it to provide such supports in any school. When I get the figures together, I will write to the Minister on it. No one in society should be denied the right to go to preschool because they cannot get the special education support services they need. If we do not highlight these anomalies in the system, no one else will do so. Education should start at preschool right through to the end. It must be about the child’s ability, not their disability. This must be done through the one Department. I have already spoken to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly, who provides some funding in this area too.I propose we streamline children's movement into primary school and further streamline it when they go into second and third level education. There should be one channel. I will do anything I can to make that happen and will advise the Minister where I can get the information.

I was in the audience when the Minister gave her speech at the INTO conference. It was an absolute pleasure to hear her. I was a bit reluctant about attending and maybe we were all reluctant due to other events. The reception the Minister received and the quality of her speech were excellent and I am not a man for saying something that I do not mean. I spent five hours at the event and it was a great event to attend. Beforehand, I thought we would have to run in one door and out another. That was not the case and it was a good event.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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I thank the Senator.

Photo of Kathryn ReillyKathryn Reilly (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. Many of the comments that I was going to make have already been made, and therefore I will be as brief as possible. Also, a number of Senators have indicated their wish to speak.

Sinn Féin generally supports the idea of the new inclusion support services if it improves service delivery. However, we are conscious that the make-up of the new structure is not fully known as yet. We have not been given the full information and do not know how it will look when it is fully established. Reform of the allocation of NCSE resources has been postponed, with which we agree. We are glad to see that the changes will be introduced on a trial basis but we are not sure when the trial will conclude.

Most of the time policies are introduced and we are asked to support them by placing our trust in the Government that this is the right and decent policy move to make. While that may be the correct move to make when we look at evidence-based policy, we do not know how the service will be resourced. More children are being identified who will need access to these services. My colleague in the Dáil is Deputy Jonathan O'Brien and he is our party spokesperson on this issue. He has asked for clarification on the staffing allocation in the proposed new NCSE inclusion support services. Any question that is asked about the establishment or resourcing of the service receives the general stock answer which says:

Considerations with regard to the manner in which the new inclusion support services will be incorporated within the existing NCSE operational structures, and the financial implications which may arise from the amalgamation of these bodies, is ongoing, and will be established during the course of the integration of the services.
That answer is unacceptable. We all know the school population is growing. Demographics tell us the number of children who will need access to the service will grow and we need to know that the service will be resourced accordingly. The staff and structures of the new service cannot work miracles. Teachers seconded to the special education support service and the national behaviour support service will not replaced while on sick and maternity leave, which is unacceptable. Posts that need to be filled require a secondment. Why are these posts not filled when the person on secondment is absent due to illness or maternity leave? The resourcing issue has been gone over a few times this afternoon. We support the proposed plan but we require a bit more information from the Minister and the Department on its operation.

Photo of Aideen HaydenAideen Hayden (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I congratulate her on the announcement of the new inclusion support service which is under the management of the National Council for Special Education. The move is important because it will improve the delivery of educational services to children with special educational needs.

By incorporating these services into the NCSE, there will be more cohesion in service provision, as other speakers have said. As the Minister has said, these services were run separately by the Department of Education and Skills. By unifying these specialist support services, it will be easier for schools and teachers to access them and they can be more effectively delivered. The inclusion support service will provide better support to schools and training and development of teachers, all of which will have a positive effect on children and learning outcomes.

As has been said by others, I hope there will be a smooth transition that will not affect the excellent service provision of the special education support service, the national behaviour support service and the visiting teacher service while they settle into these new arrangements. As the Minister said in her contribution, she is determined to ensure there is a smooth transition and there is no negativity in terms of service delivery.

Education is a fundamental right for all children to ensure their full development and social inclusion. Some children are presented with physical, intellectual and other barriers to learning. Therefore, we must ensure they get the correct support and opportunities to achieve their potential and participate fully in school life. I welcome the initiative by the Department and believe it will improve outcomes for children with special educational needs.

Significant progress has been made in special education generally under the Minister's leadership. A few months ago she announced a significant increase in the number of special classes in mainstream schools. She announced that 133 additional special classes would be established in mainstream schools which will bring the total number up to 858. It is excellent to hear that more children are being offered the specialist services they require and I congratulate the Minister on the initiative.

I wish to remind the Minister that I recently corresponded with her on the provision of grants to special needs classes in mainstream schools. Our discussion highlighted the fact there was a disparity between the level of grants given to children attending smaller special classes in mainstream schools and special needs children attending mainstream classes. She said that increased grants are given to children attending smaller classes but not mainstream classes because there are additional costs in setting up these classrooms and making specialist provision for the children in smaller classes. It still remains unclear as to why special needs students placed in mainstream classrooms receive the same rate as their mainstream peers without an uplift to recognise that they have special needs. The woman who brought this issue to my attention noted the difference in funding between her child and other children with special needs. The reasoning behind the difference has not been clearly explained to this woman or other parents of children who have special needs.

I welcome the increase in the number of special needs classes in mainstream schools. However, many children with special needs must be placed in mainstream classrooms. How will the difference between the support offered to these children who do not get the smaller classes and increased attention be made up? Are these children being treated differently from other special needs students? Is there an issue that needs to be addressed? Where possible, children with special needs should have their needs addressed in a mainstream classroom and the funding model should reflect same.

I congratulate the Minister on committing to consider an alternative model of resource allocation. Many parents, schools and disability groups will welcome a change to the current system. Diagnosis should not be a prerequisite or a determination for allocation. The allocation of teaching hours and resources should be based on the needs of each child.

The Minister has shown a clear commitment to the improvement and reform of special needs education and, therefore, should be commended. Many parents welcomed the announcement last month that, as an interim measure and before resource allocation is changed, children with Down's syndrome will be allocated 2.5 more teaching hours per week. The initiative is a strong recognition of the needs of children with even a mild diagnosis of Down's syndrome who require additional support over what is currently provided. It struck me that the cost of the extra provision was a relatively small sum of money. I would like if the Minister would look at every aspect of the provision of special needs services to ensure that where small sums of money in particular can make such a substantial difference, we do not leave the provision of these services wanting.

Photo of Aideen HaydenAideen Hayden (Labour)
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It is essential that resources go where they are needed because children who get the full support they need will flourish and reach their full potential. A resource allocation model which allocates on the basis of the individual needs of the child will put the minds of parents at ease because they will know their children are being fairly treated. As any parent knows, we have the highest hopes and ambitions that our children will achieve what they can achieve and succeed to the best possible extent they can, irrespective of their abilities, disabilities or needs. We as parents want to see resources spent on children giving them the full support to allow them to develop and thrive in school life.

From an administrative point of view, the Department gets the best value for money by using an optimum model of resource allocation which ensures teaching hours are spent on the children who most need them. We need access to the best learning across all areas of inclusion and special needs. It is important to consult widely, as the Minister has done. It is also important to listen, which she did, to the needs of parents who have children with Down's syndrome, and I commend her on doing so.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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It is great to have the Minister here in the Seanad. I concur with what Senator Mulcahy has said. I, too, enjoyed her presentation at the INTO conference and was quite touched by it.

In terms of what the Minister has said in this debate about the new interim service, we could be on to something good if we do it right. About six weeks ago she headed off what was potentially a huge minefield that was about to blow in terms of bringing in the new proposed model without adequate consultation. Her approach and the way she listened has worked in her favour.

The Minister can tell me if I am wrong about the following. She has said that the new interim service is for training, guidance and interventions with teachers.The Minister should use the time she has with the teachers now to consult them about the proposed model she wants to bring in. We held big meetings on this with 100 parents and teachers present when it was mooted that the proposed model would begin in September 2015. It came through clearly that we need exemplars. For example, I sent a school’s profile to the NCSE, listing the number of children on the general allocation model, GAM and the number receiving resource hours. In so far as she can, the Minister needs to give schools examples of how the new model would affect them. That would make a difference in the negotiation.

I take it that a psychologist’s report will not be needed. That sounds great because I know how much that costs etc. but as a former educator I am confused. Often the psychologist’s diagnosis is critical for giving direction to the tuition. I understand that the teacher’s job is to meet the needs but needs appear as symptoms and the cause is often not known. A psychologist gets at the cause. If we miss the cause will we give the proper supports? Will the Minister verify that?

Is the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN Act 2004 forgotten? Was it thrown out by this Government and the previous one, which carries the greatest sin on its soul for its failure to implement the Act? It is an amazing Act and has not yet been implemented in full.

The way the Minister will connect with the Health Service Executive, HSE, about complex needs is very wise. I agree with Senator Mulcahy about early intervention. That is vital. If we do not do that all our kids will lose out. There has to be a smooth transition between the levels. The mother of a child with special needs, whose teacher sometimes does not handle the child well, worries and feels alone. Every parent knows in his or her gut that there is a critical moment for intervention. Senator Hayden’s point was relevant on this point. The Minister responded to the Down’s Syndrome issue. Parents know that if we intervene and invest early we can catch those children and help them develop, which means they will likely cost less to the system as they move on. Parents will then have faith in the system. That is why we may be on to something good with the interim measure support service. Today is the first time I heard about this.

I often thought about children with special needs and how to help them more effectively. I came up with the idea of a weighting service. If in a class of 30 there are four children with special educational needs and some with second language needs, the teacher is disadvantaged. If the child with autism is weighted as equivalent to six or four kids, the child with Down’s syndrome to two children, the ratio should come down. That teacher is managing an incredible load. Equal number does not mean equal number: every 30 kids are not the same. In the class example I gave, 20 kids could be equal to 30 who do not have specific learning difficulties or requirements. Will the Minister ask the NCSE to examine this? If I had the time and resources I would like to invest in this. I compliment the Minister on her work and wish her well.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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I compliment the Minister on setting up this inclusion support service to assist schools supporting children with special educational needs.

I learned sign language to communicate with deaf clients and I know how important it is that the visiting teacher would have Irish sign language. I welcome the fact that the Minister will give extra teaching resource hours without getting a diagnosis of disability. A person who is deaf does not really have a disability, he or she simply cannot hear. I worked with the teacher who taught me sign language. He had three or four children, all of whom were deaf. I asked him how he felt about it. He had no problem with that because he did not see his children as having a disability. There is nothing wrong with their brains or minds. They do not need to be diagnosed with a disability but they do need help.

I have a relative who could not grip a pencil and had poor co-ordination. There was nothing wrong with his brain but he had problems writing. He was provided with a laptop and is thriving. He has come on in leaps and bounds and is delighted. Waiting for a psychologist’s report to say this child has a disability was taking forever. He did not need that. He only needed that little bit of extra help which he got. The special educational needs organisers, SENOs are very good and help whenever they can.

Assistive technology poses a problem for many parents while they are waiting for it. There seems to be an extraordinary waiting time. I worked with a child who could only communicate with his eyes. It took a long time, and many Adjournment debates here before he got eye gaze technology. The Department of Education and Skills was leaving it to the Department of Health which left it to the Department of Education and Skills. They did not co-ordinate. This young lad eventually got eye gaze technology and is doing very well with it.

Well done to the Minister for dealing with children who have Down’s syndrome. I could never understand what happened to them or the thinking behind it. There probably was some mind at work but it did not impress me. Down’s syndrome children will have the syndrome all their lives. They will have different levels of intellect and many will need much more assistance than others but they all need a bit of help and I could never understand the idea that they did not. I congratulate the Minister on moving quickly to help those people. I hope this new inclusion support service will greatly benefit all the children in our schools.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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I thank all the Senators for their very constructive contributions to this issue. We are not bringing in the new model this year because the National Council for Special Education working group report identified that we need time for consultation, to ensure we do this properly. There is no point doing something unless we can do it properly. We did not have the information from the HSE about the complex needs which we need before we can implement the model.

As well as introducing the new support service, which is the main topic of this debate, we will also design a pilot of the new model. I think it was Senator Reilly who asked what it might look like. We will invite schools to say they would like to be in the pilot. We want to introduce that in September in a few schools to get a sense of how it would work, albeit that will be done without all the information on complex needs.We still want to do it, however, to give people a sense of how the new system would work. A number of people, including Senator Hayden, raised the importance of having a smooth transition both concerning the inclusion model and also introducing the totally new model for special needs.

Senator Healy Eames raised the issue of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act, which has been on the Statute Book for a number of years, although a lot of it has not been implemented. We are trying to do everything in line with the EPSEN Act so that we are not going in a totally different direction. Many people, including Senator Moloney, have pointed to the cost of doing assessments and the fact that in some cases a diagnosis is not needed to know what a child actually needs. It is important to get it in place as soon as one can for the child.

That brings me to the point raised by Senator Mulcahy, and supported by Senator Healy Eames, about the early years. We are currently working on this on a cross-departmental basis. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Reilly, has direct responsibility for the provision of child care in the early years. In addition, the Department of Health also has responsibility for much of this area in providing necessary supports for children from birth, if they have a disability.

The Minister, Deputy Reilly, has established a cross-departmental working group which will report before the summer. We are participating in that, as are other Departments, but it is led by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. That report will help the situation and give us a sense of how we can be more co-ordinated, which was the issue raised by several Senators.

As regards my direct responsibility for the early years, I have responsibility for the educational content but I do not run the fund. However, I have established an advisory group and am also reviewing the qualifications for those working in the early years sector, which is generally either in further or higher education. We are working in tandem, therefore, and do talk to each other at meetings. The cross-departmental group will help in that regard. I agree with Senator Power's point that children are not different - they are the same as they go through the whole system, so we must ensure that we work in tandem with each other.

Senators Hayden and Healy Eames raised related issues concerning support for children whether they are in a special class or in the mainstream school. We want to support them in whatever they need. There is a point that special classes, and I have visited a number of them, are more costly to run than mainstream classes. A lot of extra space is required, as well as equipment. In some cases they will have sensory rooms attached and I presume that is why extra resources are provided for special classes. I always encourage schools to take these special classes because they work well, particularly for children on the autistic spectrum. They can be in an autistic unit which is attached to a mainstream school.

Every year there is an increase in the number of resource teachers and SNAs. There is an increased population as well, but the increase in resource teacher and SNA hours is greater than the demographic increase. That will continue and we will ensure that there are enough resources to implement the new model. When I was considering its implementation, I had already done work on the resources that would be required to ensure that a school does not suddenly lose a pile of resources. The new model will benefit schools that have more children with special needs. We want to ensure that there is no knock-on effect on schools that the new model would indicate do not need as much as another school with the same number of pupils.

We want to deal with the needs of the child. Senator Mullins also raised the question of a spike concerning the extra number of children in any one year with complex needs. We want to be able to address that issue, which is why we need the information on complex needs.

The Senator also referred to replacing people on maternity leave, but that would not arise under our budget. It might be more in the Department of Health's area. In schools we generally do replace people, but I can raise the issue at the cross-departmental group.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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I raised the possibility of the HSE supplying speech and language therapists to schools.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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That proves the point that we need to undertake cross-departmetnal work.

I think I have dealt with most of the issues that Senators raised. I thought it was important to address the Down's syndrome issue so that such children would not have to wait until the new model comes in. That is because some schools felt they did not have certainty concerning resource hours for those diagnosed as having mild educational needs due to Down's syndrome.

I thank Senators for their contributions. I will certainly bring their suggestions to the attention of those involved in the consultation process that is now under way on the new model.

Sitting suspended at 1.36 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.