The motion I have moved calls on the Government to take two specific actions. First, it calls on the Government to reverse its decision not to hire the additional resource teachers who will be required in September in order that special needs students do not have to endure a 12% cut in their teaching hours. Second, it calls for the reversal of the Government’s decision not to hire the additional special needs assistants who are necessary to ensure students who require special needs help to participate in school do not see an average cut of 10% in the hours available to them in September.
I welcome the Minister’s announcement today that he will reverse his decision on the employment of resource teachers, which is the first action the motion requires of him. He has decided to hire immediately the additional 500 teachers who were being held back to cater for additional demand in the autumn. As a result, students will not see a cut this September in the resource teaching hours they received in the school year that has just ended. The Minister has made the correct decision in this instance.
There should be a recognition that the approach being taken by the Minister and the Government was not acceptable. It was totally unfair to the 42,500 students across the country who need additional teaching support hours to reach their potential and to be able to avail of the only chance they will get in life to receive a proper education. It is crucial now for the Government to reverse its decision to oversee a 10% cut in the special needs assistance hours which will be available to high need students who qualify for and depend on the help of special needs assistants to help them during the school day. The Government is refusing to acknowledge that any cut is being made to the hours to which individual students will have access. In this instance, it is sticking to its defence which is based on the pretence it abandoned today when it agreed to increase the number of resource teachers it will hire.
Last Thursday, when I put it to the Tánaiste in this House that students would see a cut in their resource teaching hours and their special needs assistance hours from this September, he responded by saying, “There is no cut.” The Minister has finally admitted today that there is a cut and agreed to address it by supplying the 500 teachers needed to ensure students who need resource hours will not have to experience the 12% cut due to be made from September. When the Minister made this announcement earlier today, he expressed regret that parents had gone through “anguish”. He said he had listened to and heard them. What about the parents of students who avail of special needs assistance? Are they not experiencing anguish at the prospect of their children’s special needs hours being cut? They still have to listen to the Minister and his Government colleagues saying, “There is no cut”. It is time for the Minister to apply the same treatment to special needs assistance hours that he has applied today to resource teaching hours. He needs to ensure additional provision is made to match the increase in demand.
In last year’s budget the Minister increased the number of mainstream teachers who will be available this September on foot of an increase in demand. As a consequence of the education system’s increased intake, some 450 additional teachers will be employed at primary level and 450 teachers will be employed at secondary level. While that is very welcome and we support it, the Minister has not applied the same logic by providing additional teachers to meet demands elsewhere in the system. Additional resource teachers are needed for students who have special teaching requirements and additional special needs assistants are needed for students who have special educational needs. The same logic should apply in these cases. The Minister decided today to increase the number of resource teachers. We are asking for the same rationale to be applied and the same treatment to be given to special needs assistants. According to a press release issued by the Department of Education and Skills a couple of hours ago, there is no decrease in the number of special needs assistant hours. The statement also indicates there has been no increase in the number of applications.
The reality is that in the first week of term this September some 22,000 students will need to avail of special needs assistance in order to participate fully in school life. The equivalent figure was 20,000 in the school year just ended. Even though there has been a 10% increase in the number of students who qualify for special needs assistance, the Minister has not increased the number of special needs assistants he plans to hire. That means that there will be the same number of special needs assistants in schools as last year, by and large, even though the number of students looking to avail of their services will have increased by 10%.
According to the National Council for Special Education – I am sure the Minister will make this point – the number of special needs assistants will not change in approximately half of all schools. The council has outlined that the number of special needs assistants will increase in 24% or 25% of schools. That means that there will be a decrease in the number of special needs assistants in approximately 25% of schools.
It is clear, therefore, that 75% of all schools will have the same number of special needs assistants, or fewer such assistants, by comparison with the number in the school year just ended. This is happening at a time when demand has increased by 10%.
The special needs assistants in these schools will have to spread themselves thinner and divide themselves among a large number of students. Many students who received a certain level of service from a special needs assistant last year will not be able to avail of the same service this September. Some students who had a dedicated special needs assistant because of their high levels of need will now have to share that assistant with another student. That means that the service and the resource will be stretched. That is the reality. Many students who need the services of special needs assistants will experience a cut in the service they receive. It is exactly the same principle as the one the Minister admitted today in the case of resource teaching hours. I ask him, as a starting point, to admit there is this pressure and this cut is being made. He should not continue with the pretence we have heard from him and his Government colleagues on the issue.
I would like the Minister to clarify a couple of other issues when he contributes to this debate. He has indicated that the 500 resource teachers he is planning to hire immediately will be held back until the autumn to cater for the increase in demand expected when late applications come in, as they always do. Last year a similar number of resource teachers were held back until the autumn. They were allocated at that stage because there was the demand for them. Will the Minister ensure there will be additional teachers in the autumn? When the new applicants come in, as they always do, they should not be turned away. I ask the Minister to address the questions I have asked.
The aim of the motion is, first, to welcome the recognition of the need for additional resource teachers and, second, to ask if the Minister will now give the same recognition to the need for additional special needs assistants.