Tuesday, 23 October 2018
Disability Support Services Provision
The first matter is Senator Bacik's for the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I congratulate the Minister on his elevation and wish him every luck and success. No nicer gentleman could have achieved the promotion, so I wish him well.
This matter is in my name and that of my colleague, Senator Ó Ríordáin. We are delighted to see the Minister here and he is very welcome. I also extend the congratulations of the Labour Party group to the Minister on his new post. I thank him for taking this matter.
The question we have raised, on foot of representations to both Senator Ó Ríordáin and me, is to ask the Minister for Education and Skills to inform the House why children with Down's syndrome are excluded from the July provision scheme administered by his Department and if he will explain the rationale behind the specific criteria being applied by the Department for this exclusion. The Minister may be aware that this is of serious concern to many parents throughout Ireland who have children with Down's syndrome. There is an online petition on the issue of July provision which has been signed by about 5,000 parents to date. The issue they raise is what seems to be an irrational exclusion of children with Down's syndrome from a scheme of July provision which provides supports to children with certain intellectual disabilities over the summer months. July provision is not available to children with Down's syndrome who have a mild or moderate intellectual disability. This seems strange, given that children with the same level of intellectual disability with different conditions are able to access the programme.
The parents who have come to us have told us eloquently how their children would benefit greatly from the programme for many reasons, in particular that the summer holidays are very long, their children crave routine and structure and are unable to participate in the majority of mainstream summer camps. They fall behind in their schoolwork and their educational development as a result of not having access, through the July provision scheme, to educational supports in the summer months. Their children also tend to be absent more often than other children during the teaching terms and they miss valuable learning time during those months which could be made up during the summer when they tend to be at their healthiest.
Letters have been sent to the Minister's Department and officials and there does not seem to be any rational basis offered for the exclusion of children with Down's syndrome from the July provision scheme. They should be provided with support and would definitely benefit from it. The Minister of State with responsibility for disability issues, Deputy Finian McGrath, has also been approached on this issue, as was the previous Minister for Education and Skills.
We are seeking some explanation from the Minister as to the basis on which children with Down's syndrome are not given access to this important programme which would give so much benefit to them and their parents and families.
Gabhaim buíochas don gCathaoirleach as ucht a chuid focail. I thank Senators Bacik and Ó Ríordáin for raising this matter. I assure the House that ensuring that all children with special educational needs are supported and given the opportunity to reach their full potential is a key priority for the Government. Funding for special education provision in 2018 will amount to €1.75 billion, up 43% since 2011 and equivalent to almost 19% of the Department's overall budget.
The July provision scheme provides funding for an extended school year for students with severe or profound intellectual disabilities and students with autism spectrum disorders. The scheme was developed to reduce potential regression in learning associated with these specific categories of special educational needs over the summer holidays. The scheme does not make provision for children with other categories of special educational needs.
The National Council for Special Education's policy advice on education provision for children with autism spectrum disorders was published in July 2016.In the course of preparing the advice, the NCSE consulted widely with a range of stakeholders, including parents, teachers, academics, experts, psychologists, HSE officials and others. The NCSE also reviewed relevant national and international research.
The policy advice, which is available on the NCSE's website, includes a review of the July provision scheme. The NCSE review found that in general parents value July provision because it provides daytime respite for families and a structured day for students. However, the review found a number of problems with the scheme as currently organised. This includes concerns that the scheme may be inequitable because it is not provided to all students with complex special educational needs. The NCSE advised that in general the scheme is not meeting its original objective which was to reduce possible regression in academic learning. The council recommended that the relevant Departments consider how an equitable national day activity scheme could be developed for all students with complex special educational needs. The proposed scheme would provide a structured, safe social environment for all students with complex special educational needs, which might include some children with Down's syndrome.
My Department has convened an implementation group with representatives of the NCSE, NEPS, the inspectorate and representatives from other Departments and agencies to ensure the report's recommendations are fully and appropriately considered. There are no plans to change the July provision scheme coverage until this work is complete.
I thank the Minister for his response. Similar answers have been given to individual parents who contacted the office of his predecessor.
It still appears that there is no rational basis for the continued exclusion of children with Down's syndrome from the scheme. It appears that the policy is indirectly discriminatory as between different conditions or disabilities, particularly in the inclusion of children with ASD, whatever the level of learning disability. That is a key issue. Issues may arise in that regard under the European Social Charter and it certainly appears to many parents that it is inequitable.
I take issue with one aspect of the Minister's response where he states the NCSE review found "parents value July provision because it provides daytime respite for families". The parents who contacted Senator Ó Ríordáin and me have made very clear this is not about respite but about ensuring their children do not fall behind in their educational and intellectual development over the precious summer months. For them, it is about meeting the educational needs of the students. That is a very important point to make.
I ask the Minister again whether there is any rational reason that children with a mild to moderate learning disability who have Down's syndrome cannot be included in a scheme that includes all children with certain other diagnoses, particularly ASD. I ask him for a response.
I do not have information on the decision-making involved in this matter. The NCSE makes its decisions based on evidence in its own research.
I am informing myself in my new brief and I will be happy to take on board the Senator's recommendations, suggestions and observations. I note in particular that she is voicing the concerns of up to 5,000 parents who have signed an online petition.
I hope the implementation group, which is considering the recommendations of the NCSE, will soon complete its work. I do not have a timeframe for completion, however. There is a suggestion that the implementation group will also consider the issue of children with Down's syndrome. I will seek to inform myself about the issue the Senator raises regarding the reason for the exclusion in the first place. I note that the focus of summertime provision was to prevent regression in education. From my earlier work with people with special needs, disabilities and different challenges, I am aware that any forum for providing any education, formally or informally, is good and important for their continued engagement with education. I thank the Senator for raising this issue.