Written Answers. - Special Educational Needs.

Tony Gregory

Question:

648 Mr. Gregory asked the Minister for Education and Science his views on the submission from the Association for the Severely and Profoundly Mentally Handicapped (details supplied) to withdraw the appeal in the Jamie Sinnott case; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7904/01]

Denis Naughten

Question:

667 Mr. Naughten asked the Minister for Education and Science the reason the Department has not implemented the 1993 O'Donoghue judgment in full; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8071/01]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 648 and 667 together.

I appreciate the sense of concern which parents of severely and profoundly handicapped children have as regards their children's education, a concern which is clear from the submission to which the Deputy refers. However, the submission is inaccurate in several respects and misrepresents my Department's position and the considerable progress which has been made in providing for the education of children with such disabilities, especially since the O'Donoghue judgment.

I do not intend to engage in a detailed statement relating to the Supreme Court appeal in the case of Jamie Sinnott and the Minister for Education and Science, Ireland and the Attorney General. As I have previously outlined to this House, it would not be appropriate for me to do so. The Supreme Court is expected to begin its hearing of the case next week and it is in that forum that the legal issues should be debated and resolved. A key issue in the appeal will be the extent to which the Constitution imposes a constitutional duty on the State to provide for free primary education for life to any person. Any implication that this appeal is being taken so as to deny children with special educational needs access to education is entirely wrong. It is also wrong to state that the State is seeking to overturn the award of damages in the case and to seek a refund of damages paid. From the outset of the appeal I have adopted the position that the outcome of this appeal will not affect the moneys which had already been paid to Jamie Sinnott and his mother. These amounted to £42,000 to enable Mrs. Sinnott to put in place a home based applied behaviour analysis programme for her son. A sum of £15,000 has also been paid to Mrs. Sinnott to cover expenses already incurred by her in providing an education for Jamie. In addition, the Government decided that the remaining damages declared by the High Court in respect of Jamie Sinnott will be paid on anex gratia basis and this element of the High Court judgment will not be appealed. The Government has also decided to pay all the costs arising from the High Court case and the Supreme Court appeal, whatever the outcome. In all of these matters the Government has sought to show its good faith and to avoid creating financial difficulties for Jamie Sinnott and his family, while carrying out its duty to establish legal certainty in this very important area of constitutional law.
Substantial progress has been made in the education of children with severe-profound disabilities since the O'Donoghue judgment. It may be helpful in dispelling some of the confusion and misrepresentation surrounding this issue if I outline some of the facts.
As a result of a decision of this Government children with severe-profound disabilities are now entitled to provision in special dedicated schools or in special dedicated classes attached to schools. Each special class now operates at a maximum pupil-teacher ratio of 6:1 and each class has the support of two special needs assistants. The pupils now attract a special annual capitation funding rate of £447 per child. In addition, funding is provided for the purchase of specialised materials-equipment. The pupils are transported to/from school on the special schools transport service where each bus has the services of an escort.
My Department has now provided for the establishment of a total of 122 special classes to date to cater specifically for children with severe-profound general learning disabilities. Further such classes are established as needs are identified. The current level of provision involves: 122 special class teachers with an approximate annual salary cost of £3 million; 244 special needs assistants with an approximate annual salary cost of £3.7 million and a special capitation funding of £327,000.
Detailed costings are not available on the cost of special transport for these children as they can share routes with other disability groups.
This Government has made more progress than any previous administration in the provision of access to and benefit from education for children with severe-profound disabilities. Much work remains to be done. Given the low base from which we as a society started in the mid-1990s and the complexity of putting in place a comprehensive education system for these children it could hardly be otherwise. We are addressing the issues now in a concerted way and the appeal in the Sinnott case, however decided, will not affect the much greater education provision which is now being made for children with severe-profound disabilities, our plans for the development of that provision or my commitment to the education of such children.
A planning group was established in my Department in October 1999 to review the overall provision of special education services. The remit of the group was: to make recommendations to the Minister on the arrangements which should be put in place to ensure the most effective provision of a high quality co-ordinated service at all stages of the education system for students with disabilities.
The group reported to me in December 2000. The recommendations in the report provide a sound blueprint for the development of special education services and I have asked my Department to develop proposals for Government to advance the measures recommended by the planning group as a matter of high priority.
In October 1998 my Department formally recognised the distinct educational needs of children with autism. This resulted in the establishment of dedicated provision to cater for these children in special schools or in special classes attached to ordinary schools. A total of 78 such classes have been established to date. The level of staffing and funding support provided to these children-classes is identical to that provided for children with severe-profound handicap. The overall annual cost of these 78 classes is estimated at £4.5 million.
In October, 2000 I announced a new package of support services for children with autism. This included: the development of a nationwide pre-school service for children with autism; a doubling of the level of special needs assistant support from one to two in all classes for children with autism, and the extension of education services for children with autism through the month of July. I have secured funding of £5.5 million to implement this package.
Equality of access to, participation in and benefit from education is my key policy approach and that of my Department. We are working to achieve that as fast as possible.