The Government is committed to continuing to build on the unprecedented development of special education services, which has taken place in recent years. Our commitment is reflected in the following breakdown of current service levels. Learning support teachers address the literacy and numeracy needs of pupils. These would be children scoring below the tenth percentile in norm referenced standardised tests. The number of learning support teachers in the primary school system has increased from 1,302 in 1998 to 1,531 at present. The annual salary cost of these teachers is approximately €54 million.
Resource teachers operate in the ordinary classrooms. They are dedicated to addressing the needs of children who have been assessed as having specific learning difficulties arising from a disability. The number of resource teachers has increased from 104 in 1998 to more than 2,300 at present. The annual salary cost of these teachers is estimated at over €70 million. The allocation for part-time tuition services for children with special needs has been increased from €12 million in 2002 to €19 million in 2003. This includes expenditure for part time resource teachers and the home tuition scheme.
Special needs assistants are appointed to support children with disabilities who have been assessed as requiring this support in order to participate in the education system. The number of special needs assistants has grown from 300 in 1998 to 4,000 full-time and a further 1,200 part-time posts. The annual salary cost of this service is estimated at €100 million for 2003.
Children attending special classes attached to mainstream schools, in common with children attending special schools, are entitled to avail of the special school transport service. Provision is also made for the appointment of escorts on all special school transport services. Approximately €30 million was expended on special school transport in 2002 and a further €4.4 million on the escort service. Data is not readily available for 2003.
Funding towards special equipment for children with disabilities has increased from €635,000 in 1998 to €3.26 million in 2003. Equipment such as braillers, touch-talkers and computers is grant-aided. The equipment assists these children in deriving maximum benefit from the education system. There are approximately 500 special classes attached to mainstream primary schools. These classes cater for an estimated 4,000 pupils. Each special class caters for children in a particular disability category. Each class operates at a reduced pupil teacher ratio, PTR, and children attending such classes attract a special increased rate of capitation funding. For example, the PTR for children with a mild general learning disability is 11:1. There are 108 special schools catering for approximately 6,000 pupils. Like the special classes attached to mainstream schools, the special schools operate at reduced PTRs and the pupils attract the special rates of capitation funding. These schools employ an estimated 1,090 teachers at an annual salary cost of €43.6 million.
These figures represent real and substantial improvements in special education services and provide concrete evidence of the Government's commitment to the ongoing development of these services.