I propose to take Questions Nos. 278 and 279 together.
The National Disability Strategy supports and reinforces equal participation in society of people with disabilities. Its elements include — the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, 2004, the Disability Act, 2005 and its associated Sectoral Plans published in 2006 by six Government Departments, the Citizens Information Act, 2007 and a commitment to a multi-annual investment programme for disability support services.
The Deputy will be aware that although my Department does not have a Sectoral Plan under the Disability Act, appropriate education services are supported as a central element in the Government commitment to supporting those with special educational needs/disability.
This support is provided across a wide spectrum of initiatives within the education sector. At school level, in addition to the teachers provided in the classroom, significant additional supports are also provided to enable schools to cater for the needs of students with special educational needs. Such supports include additional resource teaching support, special needs assistant support, special transport arrangements, enhanced capitation and funding for the purchase of specialised equipment.
When the overall annual spend in 2008 to support persons with special educational needs is considered, including the €25m funding available under the multi-annual investment programme, my Department will spend an estimated €900m in total by the end of this year.
The equivalent spend for 2006 and 2007 are €706m (€11m available under the multi-annual programme) and €838m (€20m available under the multi-annual programme) respectively.
Following the announcement of Budget 2009, I am pleased to report that in excess of €1 billion will be available next year to support children and adults with special educational needs.
With these levels of investment, it is clear that significant progress has been made in educational provision for people with special needs in recent years. This progress has been achieved through the additional investments made by successive Ministers for Education. Advances in the level of dedicated provision to support children with special educational needs include:
Schools are now allocated extra resource teachers and special needs assistants to enable them meet the special educational needs of students. In the region of 19,000 staff in our schools work solely with children with special needs.
Special Needs Assistant posts have increased from under 300 in 1997 to almost 10,000 in 2008.
Primary schools are staffed up-front with additional teachers to cater for the most prevalent special educational needs — removing the need for assessments and delays in recruitment.
The level of training available to teachers has improved significantly. The establishment of the Special Education Support Service to provide expert support, professional development and training opportunities in special education for school staff has been very significant. In 2007, the service was in contact with over 15,000 teachers. The range of post-graduate professional training programmes available to professionals in the special needs area has also significantly expanded.
The National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) aims to facilitate, for all students, the development of their potential and maximise the benefits of their educational and other experiences, having particular regard to those with special educational needs. NEPS supports schools and students in the development and delivery of appropriate interventions for children with special educational needs.
The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) was established to co-ordinate the delivery of services for children with special needs. The NCSE is responsible, through its network of local Special Educational Needs Organisers, for allocating resource teachers and special needs assistants to schools to support children with special needs. This has completely transformed the application process for extra supports for the better.
Assistive technology, specialist equipment and building adaptations continue to be provided as necessary. Special school transport arrangements, currently costing €50m per year, will continue to be made.
There has been a particular focus in recent years on improving services for children with autism. In the past year alone, about 100 extra special classes for autistic children have been set up, bringing the total number sanctioned to over 330 classes, and
Early educational intervention is now provided for children with autism from 2½ years of age. There are now 35 early intervention classes for children with autism attached to mainstream schools that are funded by my Department. Funding is also provided through the home tuition programme for children with autism aged from 2 ½ years to 5 who are unable to access an early intervention class.
As announced on Budget day, in the current financial circumstances it is not possible to proceed with full implementation of the EPSEN Act in 2010 as originally envisaged. Government will keep the matter under review and is committed to the full implementation of EPSEN at the earliest possible date.
I am particularly pleased that, in order to strengthen and enhance services, and continue the preparation for the full implementation of the Act at a later date, the Government provided €20m in 2009 — €10m for education services and €10m for health services.
In my Department this additional funding will provide for an expansion of the NEPS service so that all schools in the country will be covered by the service as well as enhancing the capacity of the NCSE to co-ordinate the provision of services to children with special educational needs. In addition teachers and special needs assistants will continue to be deployed to schools to meet children's needs and there will be further investment in teacher training in this area.
An integrated approach is being adopted by the education and health sectors to target these additional resources to the areas of greatest need. Progress in both sectors will be kept under review by the Office for Disability & Mental Health and the Cross-Sectoral Team during 2009.