I thank Deputy Hayes for bringing this motion before the House and share with him the Labour Party's concern regarding the withdrawal of classes for children with mild general learning disabilities.
The decision by the Minister, Deputy O'Keeffe, to cut special teacher support in over 100 schools is a clear indication that vulnerable children are a target of this callous Government. As the recession bites and the Government struggles to bring our public finances under control, and as it bales out bankers and developers, it is clear that this Government, and its various agencies, is taking the easy approach and targeting vulnerable groups for unfair treatment.
Prior to being elected to this House I worked as an adult literacy organiser in the area of second chance education for adults who did not get fair treatment the first time around. The price of delivering education at that time was not measured only in financial terms but also in personal cost. The Government amendment should not only be measured in financial terms but also in personal terms for those children and their parents. As legislators and campaigners for people with intellectual disabilities, we must not let that happen.
This September, close to 1,000 children with learning disabilities will be told they will no longer get the support they need in what amounts to their abandonment by the Department of Education and Science, with the Minister, Deputy O'Keeffe, at the helm. In recent months, special needs assistants and special needs teacher support schemes have come under fire from the Minister, Deputy O'Keeffe, his party and its partners in Government. Somebody has to stand up in this House and say "Stop". If we expect the Green Party Members to say "Stop", and particularly Deputy Gogarty in his role as chairperson of the Green Party, we will be waiting a long time. One could say that for the Green Party to leave Government it will require Fianna Fáil to walk out first because the Green Party will never walk out of Government on any issue of principle on which it went into Government.
The decision being taken by this Government means that not only will these children suffer but so too will their classmates as a further burden will be placed on mainstream teachers already under huge pressure in the classroom. In recent years the trend has been to accommodate children with learning disabilities in mainstream schools, with much of the old special school system and its infrastructure thankfully being dismantled. That is something the Labour Party welcomed but if the replacement infrastructure in the mainstream schools is now being dismantled, that means these children are being left high and dry.
I say to the Minister that the Government's ending of vital services for these children is inexplicable but denying them the opportunity to flourish in school is unforgivable. It beggars belief how the Minister can come into the House this evening and claim that what he is doing is an improvement on the current system.
Questions must be asked regarding the Government's priorities when we consider that it is targeting the weaker sections of our society. Any reduction in the SNA numbers will mean that not only will these children suffer but so too will their classmates as a further burden will be placed upon teachers who are already under huge pressure in the classroom.
I cannot understand how the Minister can say that the current system that was arrived at through examination should be dismantled and something else put in its place, and that represents an improvement. We know it is being dressed up to hide the removal of funds, which are needed to cover banking and developers' costs, from working families and their children in the school sector, whether they be in special needs or mainstream classes.
Teachers cannot be expected to have all the skills required to provide a child with special needs with all the supports they require. Recently in St. Columba's school in my area of Cork South-Central, students had to be sent home in the morning because of the inability to get coverage for special needs teachers. One classroom cannot simply be lumped in with another classroom on a Monday morning on the basis that cover can be provided in that fashion. The education system, particularly in the area of special needs, does not work in that fashion. A "one size fits all" approach cannot be taken. The Minister is advocating that students with special needs should be mainstreamed with their fellow students in regular classes. That is a "one size fits all" solution where all children's learning needs are seen as being the same but which are not addressed equally.
The Irish National Teachers Organisation was quoted by the Minister earlier. Earlier this year the INTO got into a row with the Minister and his Department. Speaking at that time the INTO president, Declan Kelleher, said that supporting a policy of inclusion does not mean forcing all children with special needs into mainstream classrooms. No one has ever said that. Every special needs child should be integrated into mainstream classes, even with additional support. The UN convention does not state that, neither does the Council of Europe, yet the Minister came into the House tonight and said it was good teaching practice.
Currently, most children with learning disabilities join their own age group for general subjects such as physical education, arts and religious studies but practice has shown that they benefit most when greater attention and help is provided in special classes. The dismantling of the current system has all the signs of another Government cock-up. Furthermore, it will penalise children with special needs by denying them the specialised assistance they require and penalise the other students by further slowing up an already overcrowded classroom.
At the very least the motion before the House is an attempt to maintain the existing quality of hand in hand education currently being provided. It is a hand-in-hand education system in which students with mild learning disabilities and those operating in the mainstream are educated in a complementary way. However, the Minister wants to change that but at what cost?
Children with mild general learning disabilities have been sacrificed in this House tonight to save a cost of €7.5 million out of an annual budge of €9 billion in the Department of Education and Science. The cost saving proposed will cost a lot more in the long term.