3 March 2005 Edition

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Cherishing all the children


Despite the hype around the Special Olympics, the government has let down children wth special needs

Despite the hype around the Special Olympics, the government has let down children wth special needs

In a week when the two governments, the media and every other outlet with an anti-republican agenda, were attacking Sinn Féin, the party's TDs in Leinster House were getting on with the business the people who elected them put them there to do.

Tuesday 22 and Wednesday 23 February saw the tabling of a private members' motion on Special Needs Education by the five Sinn Féin TDs.

Primarily, the motion addressed the lack of provision for children with special educational needs.

It dealt with the concerns of parents and teachers over the weighted system of allocation of special needs teachers proposed by the government last year, and due to be implemented this September. The system would see teachers allocated to schools according to pupil numbers. The new 'quota' system would, in fact, mean many schools, particularly small, rural and disadvantaged schools, will lose special needs resources.

The Sinn Féin motion also dealt with the government's failure to implement its many promised improvements in the special needs sector.

It has been barely two years since Ireland hosted the Special Olympics, but with the exception of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004, the Government has made little headway in this crucial area.

However, the Sinn Féin TDs succeeded in reintroducing debate on the issue into Leinster House, and in doing so, received the support of all the opposition parties.

This display of cooperation was lost on Fine Gael's Olwyn Enright, who took the opportunity at the beginning of her contribution to make a gratuitous and totally inappropriate attack on the Sinn Féin party.

That aside, the debate proved productive and saw a positive response made by the government with regard to criticisms of the proposed weighted system.

Anger and dismay

Sinn Féin spokesperson on education Seán Crowe introduced the motion and used his contribution to discuss the concerns raised with him and his colleagues by members of the public.

"Old chestnuts that arise time and again when talking to parents include the lack of psychological services, and speech and occupational therapists," he said.

He added that the Irish Primary Principals Network, the Irish National Teachers Organisation, the Irish Learning Support Association and many others had expressed worry at the proposed weighted system for the allocation of special needs teachers.

Sinn Féin Dublin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh gave an example of a mother in his Ballyfermot constituency whose four-year-old is sent home from school early every day because there is no special needs assistant available to him.

Louth TD Arthur Morgan pointed to the many cases in his area of parents having to fight for their children to be educated. He also referred to the over-sized classes in the state's primary schools.

"This State has the second largest class size in Western Europe, with over 80% of children under nine years of age, 170,000 children, in classes of greater than 20," he said. "According to the INTO, to reduce average class sizes to under 20:1 will require approximately 2,500 more teachers."

The party's Dáil group leader, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, said that while he welcomed the fact that some progress in special needs had been made by the Minister for Education, Mary Hanafin, the Minister herself had acknowledge that it had been progress from a low base.

"Children with special needs have been scandalously neglected by the State," he stressed.

Making a difference

The motion tabled by Sinn Féin did manage to make a difference.

Responding to the debate, Hanafin said that the revised system of rolling out special needs education teachers would not be the weighted system proposed by the government last year, and that a new system would be announced in the coming weeks. She also made reference to the Minister for Finance Brian Cowen's obligation in the next budget to recognise the duty of the state with regard to providing an appropriate education system.

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin welcomed these developments but asked that all of the concerns raised in the debate be taken on board. He also said that while the Minister's contribution had been positive, the government's proposed amendment to the motion did not address the breadth of it.

"We cannot accept the government's proposed deletion of those essential elements we have included," he said.

The main points

The Sinn Féin motion

• Urged the Government to ensure further progress in delivery of promised improvements, including allocation of the resources required to meet the special needs and equal rights of all pupils;

• Noted the widespread concern among parents, teachers and principals that the proposed weighted system of allocation of special needs teachers to schools would, in practice, be a "quota" system, which would result in the loss of teachers to many schools, especially in disadvantaged and rural areas, and loss of support to many pupils with special needs;

• Called on the Minister for Science and Education, Mary Hanafin, to immediately conclude her department's review of the proposed weighted system and to initiate a revised system for the deployment of special needs teachers;

• Urged Hanafin to recruit the additional 650 teachers needed to implement the Programme of Improved Education for people with special needs;

• Demanded the full implementation of the Report on Educational Provision and Support for Persons with Autistic Spectrum Disorders, 2001;

• Called for the immediate provision by the Dublin and British Governments of the necessary resources required to accelerate delivery of the Middletown Centre for Autism, County Armagh;

• Urged the Government to fulfil its commitment to reduce class sizes for children under nine to less than 20 and to plan for future teacher supply requirements.

Tralee survey

Martin Ferris opened his contribution to the debate on the bill by reading from letters he had received from the parents of special needs children.

"The Department of Education has failed miserably in its duty to educate my son who has autism," one read. Another parent had written: "I write this in shock, frustration and anger at the obvious inefficiency in places designed to allegedly help children with autism in Kerry."

Ferris quoted from a recent survey undertaken by the Sinn Féin office in Tralee. It reveals that there is "a great deal of dissatisfaction and frustration among principals, teachers and parents regarding the issue of special needs education and that most schools do not receive sufficient resources to ensure the educational needs of all children are identified and provided for as mandated by the Education Act 1998".

Some of the findings Ferris mentioned included:

- children seeking special needs assessment must endure a waiting list, some for as long as a year;

- some 72 schools in Kerry will lose 38 full-time special needs teachers, most of those from the smaller schools, which often have a higher percentage of disadvantaged students in need of special assistance;

- as well as teachers, the area of special needs requires more home-school-community liaison teachers, occupational and speech therapists, psychiatric assistants and respite carers.

The Tralee survey echoed the findings of an INTO survey carried out last December. 289 schools (3,600 teachers) replied to the survey and it found that under the new system of allocating special needs teachers to schools proposed by the previous Minister for Education, more than one third of the country's disadvantaged schools were set to lose teachers.

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