Leaders’ Questions – 21/09/2011

Deputy Micheál Martin: Before the general election, the Taoiseach not only promised to maintain special needs assistant provision in education but also supported a motion in the House to increase funding for SNAs this year.  For the past few months parents of children with special needs have been coming under increasing pressure.  Deputies have met many parents who are affected by what is an inflexible approach to the provision of SNAs.  We know the provision of special needs assistants is critical for these children in order that they can avail of their constitutional right to an education.

Last night on “Prime Time” there were specific examples of how this policy was being implemented and how it was affecting children with special needs.  The stories on the programme were truly shocking to anyone who was watching.  It is simply unacceptable.  The way in which the system is being implemented is heartless and demonstrates a hand-off approach on the part of the Minister.  It is clear from all the evidence we have heard that there is a disconnect between what people are being told in the House and what is happening on the ground.  Parents of special needs children are well aware of the commitments the Taoiseach made and his choice to break them will not be forgotten.  Will he take a hands-on approach to this issue in order that genuine cases will be properly dealt with and common sense and flexibility will prevail?

The Taoiseach: I did not see the “Prime Time” programme to which the Deputy refers, but I realise this situation always causes genuine concern and anxiety for the parents of children who are challenged in their schooling.  Since 2001 the number of SNAs has tripled to 10,575.  There are also 9,950 resource teachers for special education services, 350 more than last year.  The programme, as far as I have heard, did have a point in that there is clearly a need to consider the extent of observation time in classes by professionals.  Professionally qualified people assess children on the basis of their needs and it is as a result of these assessments that SNAs are appointed in the first instance.  As the Deputy is aware, the special educational needs organiser then discusses the use of these SNAs with the principal, the staff and the children involved.

I assure the Deputy and everybody else that this is a sensitive matter which is importance to the Government.  We do not have a hands-off approach, as though it were happening somewhere else and the matter did not need to be considered by the Minister for Education and Skills who has a genuine interest in it.  It will not be the case that all SNAs will be removed from a school.  A child who needs care and attention will have access to an SNA.  I have made that commitment before and stand by it.  I do not determine the professional assessment in each individual case, as the Deputy is well aware, but where a professionally qualified person says a child needs particular attention, it will be provided.

As I have said to the House before, the Minister for Education and Skills has retained 475 SNA posts that have yet to be allocated.  These are withheld for a very good reason: to cater for cases in which a newly assessed child comes into a class, an accident occurs or some other issue arises.  Far from viewing this issue as being of no interest to the Government or not being a hands-on matter, the Minister for Education and Skills is considering and is right to consider the extent of observation periods in class in order that a fully comprehensive assessment of each child’s needs can be obtained.  Following this, decisions about the allocation of SNAs to particular schools or classes can be made and discussions on the use of SNAs in the interests of children take place among the SENO, the principal and the staff.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Since 1998 there has been radical change, as well as dramatic improvements in mainstreaming special needs education services.  For God’s sake, what the Taoiseach is saying does not tally with the reality on the ground.  It is ridiculous to talk about 475 posts being withheld; why are they being withheld?  The school year has started and SNAs are being removed from children.  The Government must release the 475 SNA posts being held over as a first step.  That is elementary.  We do not need to hold them back for the rest of the school year.  The Government should release them now and stop taking SNAs away from children.

I have said there is a complete disconnect between what the Taoiseach and the Minister are saying in the Dáil and what is happening on the ground.  There was a hands-off approach.  Last night on “Prime Time” the Minister used phrases as, “That is not the way it should be happening” and “It is not meant to happen that way.”

That is of no consolation to the parents and no comfort to the schools involved.  The Government has an extra €1 billion to €2 billion since it took office, which gives it flexibility; therefore, there is no real need for this.  We should have the matter sorted quickly.  I appeal to the Taoiseach to stop talking at a level that is completely at variance with the reality as experienced by teachers, parents and, most critically, children in schools.  The Government should release the 475 SNA posts being withheld.  It can deal with any emergencies that emerge during the year with the flexibility it has been given.

The Taoiseach: Deputy Martin wanted to know why the Minister for Education and Skills has withheld the appointments to 475 posts.  It has to do with emergencies and reviews—–

Deputy Micheál Martin: Flexibility is the point regarding emergencies.

The Taoiseach: If the Deputy wants the answer I will give it to him.  It is to do with acquired injuries, new entrants to schools, arrivals from overseas, new assessments of disability or particular syndromes during the school year.  That is the reason.  That is the answer to the Deputy’s question.

Deputy Micheál Martin: I did not ask a question.  I said, “Release them”.

The Taoiseach: I live in the very real world.  I met the parents of St. Senan’s schools in Templeshannon, Enniscorthy, when I was in Wexford last week.  I met them for 20 minutes.  Those people were absolutely concerned and very angry about the situation that had arisen.  However, I want Deputies to understand that I meet that situation in many places.  In that school, for example, which I understand was mentioned in the programme yesterday, there are three special classes for autism spectrum disorder, with 13 special needs assistants catering for the 18 pupils in those classes, or almost one SNA for each individual pupil, higher than the recommended ratio for special class groups, namely, one SNA for three children.

The Deputy knows, as I do, that no one knows a child better than its mother does.  This is obviously of great concern and anxiety to people.  We all want to see a situation where every child gets the best opportunity.  I believe, therefore, that in reviewing this the Minister for Education and Skills is right to look at the issue of the extent of observation time in classes in order that those who are professionally qualified to make an assessment about a particular child’s needs from an educational perspective are enabled to do so.  Based on those recommendations the Minister and the Department can determine the allocation of SNAs for each school and, through the special education needs officer, discuss the best use of that allocation between the teachers and the staff allocated to the children.

I reiterate that in any individual case where a professional assessor states that any particular child needs access to a special needs assistant, that access will be granted to that child.