Department must listen to schools and parents on special needs education

26 September 2019

Contribution by Joan Burton TD to Dáil debate on special needs education:

“I would like to especially thank parents in Dublin West who over the past year have mounted a series of public campaigns through meetings, social media and through reaching out to journalists and other media to explain the story of their lives and their children’s lives, and what they want in access to education, and what they want from a functioning system. I also thank Fianna Fáil for putting forward a comprehensive motion, which genuinely gives a flavour of the different problems at different stages in various parts of the country. It is important. This is a whole-of-life approach for the child and for the parents and family of the child. We have to become much more realistic in acknowledging that. I believe there has been a running away from that approach in the system.

We sometimes believe that if we partly address a problem it will be enough and we will not hear about the problem again.

I would like to give a specific mention to AsIAm, a group of young adults affected by autism and, therefore, knowledgeable about spectrum issues, which has been lobbying on this issue and is very much a part of what has been happening in the UN in terms of the contribution being made by people such as Greta Thunberg to make us aware of the immediacy of the situation from the point of view of children.

The Minister corresponded with a number of schools in Dublin 15 in west Dublin to generate the education legislation. He will be aware of the shock of some schools, and the willingness of others, at being asked to provide additional provision. Some of these schools are DEIS designated schools that are not massively well resourced and are dealing with a number of children who have specific needs, not necessarily all in the autism area. I find the refusal of the Department of Education and Skills to put in place a proper schools budget very strange. No school should be asked to give up two of its resource rooms, as happened when the Minister’s officials visited two schools in Dublin West. He will be aware that such rooms facilitate special teaching. The schools in Dublin West often have hundreds of children in need of special teaching and, therefore, these rooms are important. It is reasonable to request schools that have grounds and so on that they construct additional facilities but the Department needs to fund them. Schools do not have the funds to generate the special facilities required.

Scoil Mhuire in Blakestown in Dublin 15 is a DEIS school. The principal of the school set out the resources in terms of grants and so on to equip a special room. The school is to receive a set-up grant of €6,500, €2,500 for loose furniture and equipment and €5,000 for ICT equipment. The Minister will be aware that if he and his wife wanted to upgrade their kitchen and all the electrics therein, they would not be able to do it with such a small amount. Schools want to meet the requirements set for them but they are unable to do so with such small grants. There were floor to ceiling windows in one of the rooms I visited. I am sure the Minister’s officials are aware that it is not appropriate to have such windows in an autism adapted room, which is supposed to be a sensory and safe environment. He will also be aware that replacing full length windows costs an awful lot more than the grants being provided. There is a need for detailed discussion between the schools and the Department of Education and Skills regarding what is required and how it can be funded. The grant for tables or chairs is approximately €2,500 per classroom to cater for six children plus a teacher and, possibly, one or two SNAs. It is not possible to provide the type of specialised furniture required with that level of grant. That is the reality. If the Department knows of companies that will provide it for that amount, the Minister might identify them to the schools.

On training for people wishing to work in the ASD or special class environment, according to the Minister in many replies to parliamentary questions I have tabled, the Teaching Council is the body responsible but it does not recognise people who have specialist ASD training, perhaps from other countries. The Department passes the buck to the council, which passes it to the schools, which, in turn, pass it back to the Department such that we are going around in circles. There are people who want to train and work in this area. The Minister has proposals to bring this area into the programme for the degrees in education. He needs to progress those proposals. There are people who were home tutors last year and would like to be home tutors this year but neither the Department nor the special education needs organisers, SENOs, have not yet communicated with them in that regard.

The Minister should declare that two hours per day in a primary school is not a full education. It is not possible with the kind of immersive programme we have for primary education, particularly at junior-senior-infants-first class level, for a child to be in a school environment for only two hours per day. In many cases, parents are required to be in the school for those two hours as well. This is not a provision of service. It is a patch, which is not good enough for people’s precious children because they will only get one chance at education. I commend the Minister for the interest he has shown in this area and his desire to improve it. We need to make serious provision for this area in the upcoming budget. Many companies are making a lot of money in Ireland and paying no tax. The Minister and his colleagues in government should give consideration to some of them being asked to contribute to the education sector so that we can do what we want and need to do, particularly in the area of special needs.

We are making progress. The Dublin West model is one that could be used in the future. When Minister for Social Protection, I initiated a review by the chief medical officer of the Department of the domiciliary care allowance paid to families of children with autism on a monthly basis. As a consequence of the changes, the demand and payments per annum increased by approximately 20%. The same is waiting to happen in the education sector at primary level but even more so at secondary level. As a country, we have focused on provision at primary level but the Minister will know that the resources at secondary level are only 30% of what they are at primary level. The children who complete primary level have to move on to their next level of education when we have an inclusive programme.

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