I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this issue, which is of great concern to many families throughout the country. As public representatives we are aware of the concern of many parents in regard to special needs provision. In the Fianna Fáil amendment to the motion, I have asked that the Government and the Minister prioritise funding for special education within the financial provision for the Department of Education and Skills. At a time of huge demand on limited resources, we must ensure that said provision is prioritised for children with special needs. I welcome the statement of the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, in that regard.

Those of us in public life have for some years worked with many families, parents and schools which were seeking those additional resources that make such a difference to the lives of so many children. Last month, the Minister, Deputy Quinn, stated that he intends to prioritise and support special educational services. I support his policy in this regard.

The first debate on education and skills in this Dáil was in respect of a Private Members’ motion I tabled in the middle of April. That motion requested Dáil Éireann to support the role of education and training in our economic recovery and referred to the need to maintain an inclusive education system and to support people in achieving their potential through that system. In the motion in question I also outlined, in clear terms, the fact that we must protect the financial provision relating to education in future budgets. That motion won the unanimous support of the House.

Education is a key economic driver. Most important, however, its purpose is to assist individuals in reaching their full potential. In the debate on the Private Members’ motion to which I refer, I emphasised the absolute need to build on the progress made in providing much-needed and adequate support for children with special needs at both primary and post-primary level. When he served as Minister for Education and Science in 1997, Deputy Martin attached particular importance to this area within the framework of the overall education sector.

During the past decade there has, quite rightly, been a dramatic improvement in the level and quality of supports for children with special educational needs. Those improvements were much needed. As the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, indicated, “By any standard the development and growth of the special needs assistant programme has been remarkable.” There are more than 10,000 special needs assistants, SNAs, working in our schools. In 1997, that number stood at 250. There are almost 10,000 learning support resource teacher posts in primary and post-primary schools. The purpose of these posts is to provide additional teaching support for pupils with special educational needs. The financial allocation for this year provides for an increase of 350 posts on last year’s allocation. For the benefit of Deputy O’Donovan, who has left the Chamber, specific provision in this regard was made in the final budget introduced by the previous Government last December.

We all realise that despite the increase in numbers, more must be done. That is what we all want to work to achieve. I am of the view that the creation of the National Educational Psychological Service, the establishment of the National Council for Special Education and the appointment of special educational needs organisers, SENOs, has provided an essential framework for the delivery of supports for children with special needs. We are aware of the moratorium on recruitment in the public service. However, specific provision was made in the national recovery plan introduced last November to ensure that the numbers of those employed in this extremely important area would be protected.

The need for and the provision of additional resources for the special needs assistant scheme is clearly evident when one considers that the financial allocation in the period 2001 to 2009 rose by 922%. Those resources have been put to good use in the context of improving the opportunities available to and meeting the hopes of so many families and individual children. I am sure all Members are aware of children who have been the beneficiaries of this important and much-needed investment. Sadly, there are children who need such assistance but who unfortunately have not been beneficiaries. Understandably, the lack of such support is the source of serious disappointment to many hard-pressed parents and will deprive the children to whom I refer of the opportunity to progress in education.

The creation of the National Educational Psychological Service, the establishment of the National Council for Special Education and the appointment of special educational needs organisers, SENOs, has provided an important and essential framework for the special education system. There is concern in some areas regarding the possible lack of consistency in applying the criteria for the allocation of SNA support. That is the perception among some education stakeholders and certain parents, Members of the Oireachtas and other public representatives.

When making contributions in this House, we are all naturally influenced by the working of the systems in the areas in which we live and in our constituencies. I am aware that the appointment of an SENO in my area some time ago proved extremely successful. My recollection is that prior to such appointments parents or schools made detailed submissions to the Department. In many instances, they wrote numerous letters and were left waiting for replies. Final replies were often delayed as a result of some relatively small detail not being provided with an initial application. I acknowledge that officials were under pressure in the context of their workloads at different times. My memory is that the interaction seemed to take place by post only.

From my own experience of making representations, I am of the view that the appointment of SENOs has provided greater clarity because parents and schools know that there are specific individuals who may be contacted. In many instances, a few telephone calls can progress an application or provide clarity to applicants in respect of the scope and criteria which obtain in particular schemes. In the past, delays in processing applications frustrated everyone involved. It seemed to me that the processing of applications was a desk-only exercise. That was not adequate. Personal contact is necessary in sensitive cases of this nature.

I do not believe that the particular role of special needs assistants has been adequately understood. That lack of clarity has not been helpful to parents or schools. A large cohort of staff has been working in schools in recent years. This is a relatively new staffing complement and includes the many individuals who work as SNAs, resource teachers and language support teachers. It was correct for the previous Minister to initiate the value for money and policy review of the SNA scheme. It is essential to ensure that the resources and the special support available under this scheme reach the intended beneficiaries.

According to the review to which I refer, one of the criticisms of the SNA scheme is that its purpose is not well understood by either schools or parents and that this has led to some problems regarding the allocation of SNAs. It has also led to the role of SNAs being expanded beyond that which was originally intended. The review found that in the schools surveyed there was an over-allocation of SNAs of 27% at primary and post-primary level and of 10% in special needs schools. I hope the Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education will engage in a detailed debate on this review and will examine the figures to which I refer and the overall policy approach being taken.

It is absolutely wrong that there is over-provision in some schools while other schools, and the children who attend them, do not receive the support they both need and deserve. Surely there is a responsibility on all involved, be they in the Department, in the National Council for Special Education or in schools, to ensure that over-provision does not occur. The result of such over-provision means there is under-provision elsewhere and that certain children are being denied much-needed support and intervention. I do not know if the Department has established a working group to deal with the recommendations contained in the value for money and policy review. However, if the figures to which I referred earlier are accurate, then this is an issue which should be addressed without delay.

There has been an annual increase in the number of SNAs in our schools since 1997. In light of the provision made by the previous Government, the highest number of SNAs ever will be in employment in our schools this year. It would be prudent to review the operation, efficiency and value of the scheme, not on the basis of cutting costs but to ensure that the needs of children are being adequately and appropriately addressed. Any particular scheme of supports, particularly one which, by and large, is relatively new to many schools, can be improved. There should be widespread consultation in respect of any review to be undertaken by a departmental working group. The membership of that working group should include all stakeholders.

The expertise, knowledge, experience and commitment of so many stakeholders, be they parents, teachers, SNAs or those who have benefited from the supports to which I refer, should be availed of as part of any review. Such a review should be comprehensive but should also be finalised in a short timeframe. Any review should consider the role of the SNA. That role has evolved over recent years and there has been huge progress over the past 12 to 14 years. This was an area to which no resources had been committed previously. All of us know of cases needing attention through our work. As a party spokesperson, I have had calls from schools from different parts of the country concerned about their allocation for the coming year. Our amendment calls for the prioritisation of funding for the special education sector in the financial provision for the Department of Education and Skills. The Minister, Deputy Quinn, and the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, have referred to the huge progress that has been made, but we need to make further progress. Much has been achieved, but we have more to achieve to ensure that all children who need special support and their families are given that support in a timely, adequate and appropriate manner.