Special Educational Needs: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

acknowledges that:

every child has the right to equal opportunity through education as enshrined in Article 28.1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child;

the State has promised to "assist children with Special Educational Needs to leave school with the skills necessary to participate ... in an inclusive way in the social and economic activities of society and to live independent and fulfilled lives" through the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs (EPSEN) Act 2004;

the State has failed to fulfil a number of its obligations under the EPSEN Act 2004 as key sections remain unimplemented;

Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) must be allocated on the basis of need, must not be subject to arbitrary recruitment limits that curtail their ability to support the most vulnerable members of Irish society and must be recognised for the vital role they play in the Irish educational system; and

the recent cap placed on SNA numbers and the 10% cut to resource hours for schools is a disgraceful, mean-spirited, short-sighted false economy that will be detrimental to the lives of children with special educational needs, their classmates, their teachers, their families, the SNAs themselves and to Irish society as a whole;

recognises that:

SNAs are fundamental in the development of increased long-term independence for children with special educational needs;

the role of the SNA has, in practice, evolved from a purely support function to incorporate an educational remit that must now be acknowledged;

teachers cannot, in the absence of SNAs, provide the dedicated care that students with special educational needs require in addition to catering to the needs of the entire class; and

there is currently no alternative in the Irish schools system that would eliminate the need for SNAs to deliver pedagogical support to students with special educational needs; and,

in recognition that the need for special educational supports is increasing in line with population growth as highlighted in the Preliminary Census Report released in June 2011, calls on the Government to:

develop a centrally-led strategic and expert approach to educational support provision that takes cognisance of the experiences of users, parents, teachers, SNAs and other resource providers in addition to top-level educational experts;

include parents as educational partners, in any correspondence between schools and the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) with regards to their child and decisions made in relation to the allocation of supports, to ensure transparency within the system;

introduce an Independent Appeals Process which would allow parents to apply directly to the NCSE for learning supports as per the EPSEN Act 2004;

amend the EPSEN Act 2004 to establish a framework of rights and needs-based provision thereby eliminating the need for parents to vindicate the rights of their children through court action;

establish a system of accreditation that would allow SNAs to train and qualify as Learning Support Assistants in recognition of the complex role they play;

end its plans to introduce financial charges for pupils availing of the School Transport Scheme and to maintain existing school transport services;

reverse cuts to learning supports, specifically the 10% cut in resource hours for schools, the planned withdrawal of resource teachers for travellers, language support teachers, rural co-ordinator teaching posts for Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) schools and the visiting teacher service for travellers; and

immediately abandon the cap on the number of National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) psychologists and SNAs.

I wish to share time with Deputies Clare Daly, Finian McGrath, Mick Wallace, Mattie McGrath, Tom Fleming and Séamus Healy.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

When the role of special needs assistant, SNA, was introduced it was very specific and based on the care needs of children with special needs. It was not an educational role. In 1998, only 300 SNAs were employed in the system largely working with children with special needs requiring education and support in a segregated environment such as special schools.

We began to see parent power in the early part of the new millennium. Parents saw a growing economy and could no longer be passive about the absence of appropriate education for their child or children. We began to see court activity. This forced a new approach to children with special educational needs but it was largely driven by parents and not by politicians. The genie is out of the bottle and it will not be possible to return it. Parents may accept hardship for themselves but they certainly will not take what they perceived to be hardship for their child, particularly if that child has a special need.

Over the years, the role of SNAs has changed considerably. It is only now, when money is extremely tight, that the changing role is being questioned. It would be fair to say the system was broken long before the economic crash arrived. There has been a clear need to recognise that in practice, the role of the SNA has evolved from having a function to incorporate care needs to having an educational remit. Whether we like it or not, this is how it has evolved.

Not every case will require an SNA to be redesignated and I believe they need to be redesignated. However, it is clear that if we are to change the system their role must reflect what a large number of them do in the classroom. Often, SNAs have embarked on education and accreditation. They want to provide the best available support for the child or children for whom they care and sometimes they do so at their own expense.

Over the past 10 or 12 years, our classrooms have changed fundamentally. In addition to children with special educational needs, it is not unusual to have children whose first language is not English. Class sizes have also grown in recent years. When I was canvassing during the general election campaign I met young teachers and one would be proud to have them stand in front of a classroom. Their only complaint was not about their situation or their pay and conditions but that they were not getting an opportunity to speak or look after children because the demands in the classroom were so high. They deal with classrooms with pupils of a varying range of abilities. Given that we have such mixed classes, class sizes have become an even more important issue. In areas of the country, such as mine, where the population has expanded rapidly in recent years, the number of children tends to be greater. It is not unusual in parts of my constituency to have classes of in excess of 30 children, sometimes well in excess of this number.

What is happening is that we are trying to offer an inclusive system on the cheap. However, something has to give and the problem is that it will be the quality of education to all the children in the classroom that will suffer. The recent census of population showed 100,000 people more than were planned for and I must question whether we ever planned. In my constituency and elsewhere, I have seen new schools having to be approved at the 11th hour to cater for children, of an age at which they were entitled to an education, who could not be accommodated in the local schools or anywhere in a reasonable distance. I have also seen situations whereby children went through primary education in special classes in mainstream schools but no provision was made for them at second level. Many such families ended up returning to the courts because we did not plan. Again, it was the parents who drove this.

When I was last a Member of the Dáil I asked a series of parliamentary questions on how much had been spent in the preceding three years, from 2004 to 2006, fighting in court parents seeking appropriate education for their children. When I totted up the numbers, the total spent was €20 million. I do not want to see a return to the courts but I can see situations in which parents will feel they have no choice.

As the population grows, the need for educational supports will grow. I doubt 10,000 is the right number but it may be. It needs to be based on need rather than economics because long-term economics will suffer by virtue of the fact that the education being provided will suffer. Most children with special needs are educated in mainstream schools. Special schools are for more dependent children. A few months ago, the number of SNAs in St. Raphael's in Celbridge was reduced. One parent was asked not to send a child to school because that child could not be accommodated safely in the environment. That is a disgrace. Certain things must be safeguarded and this situation simply cannot be allowed to continue.

The voices of parents, teachers, SNAs and other resource providers, together with experts, must all play a part in designing the service. The National Council for Special Education is on the frontline but it works on the basis of available resources rather than meeting needs. Sometimes one hears the offensive remarks about special education needs officers, SENOs, but it is not their fault; they can work only with what is available to them.

There is also a lack of transparency in the system. Typically, parents complain it took them months or years to get an SNA and 15 minutes for the service to be withdrawn. That was about economics and not education. There is a need for an independent appeals mechanism as opposed to the situation at present whereby the National Council for Special Education refuses a case and then adjudicates an appeal. It lacks credibility.

A reformed system needs a method of accreditation that would allow a portion of SNAs working in the system to train and qualify as learning support assistants. This would be a reflection of the work they do at present. The rewards for many SNAs go far beyond the issue of a weekly wage. I remind the House they are not excessively paid and often the difference between what they are paid and what they would receive on the dole is not huge. The tangible results they get are from the job they do, and many of them will state this. Sometimes the result is achieved slowly, but a result is achieved. They also see that the culture for children with special needs has changed and they have been part of this change. This benefit cannot be quantified in the short term but it is light-years ahead of my experience growing up when children with special needs were very much segregated. We cannot see a return to this.

I have never entered the house of a child with special needs where the parents have not had a folder, because they have become permanent lobbyists for their child. For many years, parents of a child with Down's syndrome presumed a child with autism received better services. However, such parents now speak to each other and they know service provision is similar across the spectrum and that it will never be adequate. There needs to be a base line beyond which we do not go. These services must be protected. Parents speak to each other and are active together and in that regard it does not matter what diagnosis the child has. Parents may be prepared to accept hardship but they will not accept it for their children. The Government has picked a fight with the wrong group.

I will start by referring to views expressed by the Labour Party when it was in opposition. According to the Labour Party, it believes "in the equal right of every person to realise their full potential" and regards investment in education as "the most important investment we can make in our own future". It is, it continues, "central to our longer term economic recovery — not something that can wait for that recovery to happen". The party is also "committed to protecting children's education from the kinds of austerity supported by other parties". It is small wonder the Labour Party is getting along so well with the Fine Gael Party when it has adopted the same measures as Fine Gael and taken a common approach, one in which it says one thing in opposition and does exactly the opposite in power.

I found it nauseating last week to observe the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, with children perched around him reading books, talk about improving numeracy and literacy when children with additional needs are being left to flounder as a result of the Government's failure to reverse the cuts introduced by its predecessor and its decision to add a few more cuts of its own. That it delayed the announcement of these measures until the last minute in the hope that it would derail justifiable opposition from parents and teachers is a mistake it makes at its peril. Many of the Government's statements on education are characterised by disingenuous double-speak. While the Minister is correct to highlight the need to improve literacy — in that regard, I welcome the reduction in the number of subjects on the curriculum — the Minister's statement on numeracy and literacy is directly contradicted by his decision to stand over cuts in resource teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs.

The manner in which literacy is taught in the classroom is the problem. One example of the special and particular role special needs assistants have in the classroom is that they allow a division of labour which enables the teacher to concentrate on children who have a problem. Irrefutable evidence is available to show that the role played by special needs assistants has turned around the position in many inner city schools and improved the opportunities available to many of them. The report into special needs commissioned by the Government correctly highlighted that the role of special needs assistants has changed from the role originally envisaged for them, which was to provide support for a specific child with special needs. The role they play is similar in some respects to the role played by teaching assistants in the English education system. It is a vital role which must be recognised and for which there is a place because it benefits all children with special needs, as well as their classmates and society as a whole.

It is a crime and disgrace that unofficial practice in recent times has been to approve SNA posts only in circumstances where a child is deemed to be a danger to himself or others. Many children with autism are deemed to be insufficiently disruptive to require extra assistance. This means that by the time they negotiate the next layer of their education, for instance, entry to second level education, they lack the necessary social skills to deal with the transition. Every case is different and for this reason special needs assistants and resource teachers enhance the situation for everybody.

The Government has done the opposite of what it promised to do when in opposition. The measures it has proposed will cause great harm. It is creating an illusion because it will, on the one hand, save resources in education while, on the other, add costs to the social welfare budget as special needs assistants lose their jobs. It will not get away with the choice it has made. It is an indictment of the State that it spends €350,000 to keep one child in Oberstown remand centre but cannot deliver sufficient resources to allow children to develop to their full potential.

The Socialist Party calls for the reversal of the cap and cuts, including to resource teaching hours. We will stand full square with parents tomorrow and in September until the Government listens and does what it said it would do before it got into power.

I am grateful for an opportunity to speak to this Private Members' motion on the urgent need to support special needs pupils and not cut services to such young people. I thank and commend my colleagues in the Technical Group for showing great courage and leadership on this matter. I call on parents and teachers to come to Leinster House at 3 p.m. on Wednesday to show support for the campaign by the Technical Group to fight for services for all children with disabilities.

I challenge those in Government who actively support cuts to educational services for children with a disability. They are penalising children for the actions of bankers and some developers and politicians. Six months ago, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin travelled around Dublin North Central ranting about cuts to educational services which had been introduced by the previous Government. Having used the issue to secure his election, it is a disgrace that he is actively supporting further cuts in education, specifically in the number of special needs assistants. His silence is deafening.

Government Deputies are hiding.

Once again, we have an example of broken promises being made to people in Dublin North Central and the rest of the country. We all knew what the financial position was before the election. Deputy Ó Ríordáin had led our constituents up the garden path on education by actively supporting cuts. Such hypocrisy and false politics should always be challenged in the Chamber.

This debate presents Deputies with a choice. Either they are on the side of pupils with special needs or they are not on their side. Deputy Ó Ríordáin and his party have chosen the latter option. Others have made the same choice. In moving a motion in this House on 12 February 2008, the current Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Brian Hayes, who was then an Opposition Deputy, called for, among other things, additional funding for the provision of special needs education, including the provision of specialised education for children with autism, the full implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 and a revision of the appeals process available to parents. He also criticised the extent to which parents were being forced to pursue education services for their children through the courts. Speaking in support of the motion, the current Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, who was then also an Opposition Deputy, stated that the Labour Party supported the motion unreservedly and asked the Minister to "recognise the validity of one-to-one teaching for some children". Referring to the Labour Party, he stated that the existing provisions were "the minimum that we would look for". Concluding the debate, Deputy Hayes called for political leadership on the issue, stating that people needed to be given hope and, above all, choice. Tonight, I call for political leadership and support for children with special needs and their parents.

The Government's measures will affect every child attending a primary school, not only those with special needs. They will have a major impact on the most vulnerable children in society who should not have to bear the brunt of financial mistakes they had no hand, act or part in making. Their effects will be felt by such children for the rest of their lives. As has been well documented, every €1 spent on children, especially children with learning difficulties and special educational needs, saves €7 in future costs. Many top class educationalists have researched this area.

Groups such as Inclusion Ireland, which campaigns for people with disability, strongly condemned the decision to cut back teaching hours and supports for children with disabilities. The Department of Education and Skills announced that from September onwards, schools will only be given 90% of the teaching hours they will need to meet the independently assessed needs of pupils with disabilities. This is another cutback in educational support for children with disabilities. These cuts are compounded by increasing class sizes which place children with a disability at further disadvantage. Inclusion Ireland continues to have major concerns about the lack of an independent appeals system in the area of special needs education.

I urge Deputies to support the motion by stepping up to the mark at 8.30 p.m. tomorrow night by supporting children with special needs and their families and attending tomorrow's protest.

The presence of only one person on the Government benches shows the level of interest Government Deputies have in this matter. Members of the public are watching.

When the Government came into office, its members went to great pains to say they would not mind being judged on how they would look after the most vulnerable in society. If this is their way of doing that I find it difficult to understand.

Resource teachers for Travellers have been cut. This hits every child in the primary schools that are affected but it hits most Traveller children and children with weaker learning ability. Cuts to learning support teachers and to language support teachers are hitting those who most need our help. The first priority of a State is to look after those who most need its help. Some of us do all right at looking after ourselves because, for one reason or another, we have had advantages in life and have financial independence, but many people in our society need the help of the Government to fulfil their potential and grow in a healthy manner.

We are damaging young children and we are damaging children from the less well-off sections of our community the most. If we were in a Third World country we would value education as being vital to the improvement of where we are. Third World people see education as a way out of their difficult situation. We are considered a First World country but we do not have as healthy an approach to education as even Third World countries do.

We give money to so many areas but we are prepared to damage our children. We all know that a euro spent on a child before the age of ten will save the state €7 or €8 before the child becomes an adult. How false is that economy? We will save €4.5 million by charging children for coming to school on buses. Which children will suffer from this measure? Will it be the children of people who earn more than €100,000 per year? It will not. The children of people on the dole or in low-paid employment will be hit.

The Government says there will be enough help for those affected by the cap on funding for special needs assistants. The Taoiseach told the House there would be access for all children who need special needs support and that no child would lose all the support he or she needed. The words "access" and "all" are vital here. Children with special needs will have some access but will it be enough? They will probably not lose all their support but will they lose 50% of it? If a child requires 100% of a special needs assistant's attention there is no point in asking that assistant to look after three children at the same time. It will not work. All three children will be left floundering.

The Special Needs Parents Association has had huge problems with how the Government is handling this situation. It is angry at the continued lack of an independent appeals process for special educational needs organisers. Parental involvement in the decision-making process has been poor. Parents have no say in this process. When a child has been assessed there is no obligation on the assessor to report to the parent.

The association's response to the report of the joint committee was interesting. It includes the following:

The allocation of SNA hours should follow clearly stated assessment tools that will allow decisions on the educational needs and care needs of each child to be expressed in terms of actual hours of SNA support needed per day or per week. The Special Needs Parents Association submits that if you are a child with special educational needs and if your capacity to participate in and benefit from education is restricted due to an enduring physical, sensory, mental health or learning disability you need to have a psychological assessment from a recognised psychologist or medical specialist in order to access the required supports.

Referring to the cap on the number of psychologists in the national educational psychological service introduced by the previous Government, the association comments, "If a child cannot get an assessment of needs there would be no requirement on the State to provide the service". The parents of Ireland will not accept this treatment when their children's education and well-being is at stake.

I too compliment the Technical Group on the work it has put into researching this motion and putting it before the House. I also compliment it and all our colleagues on their work in meeting the families of children with special educational needs. I hope the Government will pay heed to what is being said this evening.

Only a very short time ago Deputy Brian Hayes, who is now a Minister of State, placed a motion before the House condemning all and sundry on this issue. I was on the other side of the House at the time. Deputy Hayes was vocally supported by all Opposition Deputies, including the Minister of State who is present this evening, Deputy Sean Sherlock.

I mean no personal disrespect to Deputy Sherlock when I say I cannot believe the turn-around and the sheer audacity of the U-turns performed by the Government, especially with regard to children with special needs. We heard today of a similar U-turn on the hospital service in Roscommon and of the promises that were made. We all know them. Senator Phil Prendergast and Deputy Tom Hayes used to attack me on a weekly basis for my support of the Government. There was attack after attack. The public, and especially the families and communities of children with special needs, are now totally dismayed. The Government is undermining the body politic by its blatant actions a mere three months after voting to demand that all kinds of services be retained and that extra services be put in place.

The motion moved by the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, when he was a member of the Opposition also demanded lighter regulation and ease of access to the psychological service. However, Deputy Brian Hayes and his colleagues have moved across the floor of the House, changed their clothes and are implementing those very policies that will support the fat cats of society and bankers, the bank robbers who robbed from within. These bank robbers did not come into the banks with guns. They robbed from within. The Government is protecting speculators and all the people who brought us into the current mess but not the unfortunate families who are doing their best.

Reports from the OECD and other bodies have highlighted illiteracy problems in our adult population. Other speakers have referred to the value of investing in the education of children, and especially of children with special needs, at an early age. Earlier today, I heard the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs answer parliamentary questions. I complimented her on her ambition to retain early childhood supports. It beggars belief, therefore, that the Government, without even frowning, is to vote against this evening's motion. Deputy Tom Hayes and Senator Phil Prendergast made scurrilous attacks on me and simply walked away. Senator Prendergast has gone to Europe and Deputy Hayes is here in the Dáil voting to cut essential services.

The motion of last February called for political leadership. I call on the Deputies who supported it, and who now support the Government, to find their consciences, their backbones and their decency and not deprive those children about whom they were so concerned at that time. Or were they merely concerned about getting the highest vote possible and the highest number of seats? Is this what politics has become? If so, it is very unfortunate. I also sat on committees with the Minister of State and I accepted his passion and commitment for the underprivileged but I do not know how he and his party can accept this. Parents cannot get assessments for their children unless they have the wherewithal to pay for them. Following approval, it could take a year or two before an SNA post is sanctioned. They have to fight and continuously lobby for the post. With the stroke of a pen in some office, the SNA can be removed and that can have serious implications for the other students in the classroom.

The conduct of the Government parties this evening is absolutely despicable. They have 113 Deputies in the House and only two of them are present. That is no reflection on the Minister of State or Deputy Harris but no other Member is on the Fine Gael or Labour Party benches. Does that reflect the interest the Government has in special needs for the most vulnerable children in our society or are they hiding because they travelled around the country last January and February promising at every door where this issue was brought up that there would be no cuts to this service or to the number of SNAs, that the same number of resource teachers would be maintained and, if at all possible, they would extend the system of supports for children with special needs to preschools?

Like Deputy Mattie McGrath, I heard the promises that Labour Party and Fine Gael politicians gave at the doors in south Tipperary. At a public meeting of parents and SNAs in Clonmel last night, we were told by many of them that their doors were knocked on by Labour Party canvassers for Phil Prendergast, MEP, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform who gave assurances to parents and SNAs that this scheme would be supported and expanded, if possible. These Members are hiding and it is time they came into the House and explained themselves. Previous speakers highlighted that not too long ago a motion was tabled by the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Brian Hayes, and supported by the Minister for Education and Skills when they were in opposition. Deputy Quinn stated:

This motion, which the Labour Party unreservedly supports, asks the Minister to recognise the validity of one-to-one teaching for some children... The existing provisions are the absolute minimum that we would look for.

Such commitments were given in the House by the current Government parties and on the doors last January and February during the election campaign.

The issue of children with special educational needs is important and it is dear to the hearts of their parents. At last night's public meeting, parents told their stories. They are fearful of the future and they do not know how their children will get on without the support of SNAs. They are also fearful that down the road, because their children may not get the necessary support at the right age, they could end up in residential institutions. That is a significant fear for parents.

It is not good enough for the Minister for Education and Skills to throw his hands in the air and say our economic sovereignty is gone. This is a wealthy country with €250 billion in the hands of the wealthiest 5% of the population. We do not have a wealth tax but I believe it is time for the Minister for Finance to introduce such a tax. Many European countries and states in America have a wealth tax. A former Fine Gael Minister for Finance, Richie Ryan, introduced a wealth tax in the 1970s when there was little or no money around. The wealthiest in our society have €250 billion in assets, excluding property, according to the most recent CSO statistics. The amount increased by €27.3 billion in 2009 and it is estimated by the CSO to have increased by the same amount in 2010. They have personal assets, excluding property, of €136 billion and they do not pay a single red cent.

Is it not time that these people were patriotic? Is it not time the Minister for Finance and the Government made them pay their fair share of taxation and put that money towards supporting SNAs and the most vulnerable children in society? He needs to do that urgently and he needs to fulfil the promise the Government parties made at every door not just in regard to SNAs but in regard to protecting the vulnerable. Cutting the number of SNAs and resource teachers will not protect the most vulnerable children in this society. As previous speakers said, the cost of these cuts will become known at a later date when these children are older and they have to avail of residential institutions.

The point of the support system for children with special needs is to ensure that when they leave school they can fulfil themselves as much as possible — in the same way we all live our lives — by living at home in their own communities, ensuring they do not have to avail of residential units. Their parents should not have to be fearful that they will end up in these units or about what will happen their children when they pass away. That is an important worry for parents. It is time that these cuts were reversed. If they are implemented, there will be almost no SNAs available for children with special needs in junior infant classes. The suggestion is that only children who engage in dangerous behaviour will be supported in junior infants. That is particularly irresponsible because the sooner children who have difficulties are supported, the better the outcome and the more support parents will have.

Parents are also seriously worried about the cutbacks affecting the national educational psychological service. Children must wait for assessments for more than 12 months. In some cases charitable organisations such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul have to support parents in getting psychological assessments because of the significant delays involved. I appeal to the Minister tonight to do what he said he would do in opposition, to do what his party said it would do at every door throughout the country in the course of the recent general election, and support children, reverse the cuts and ensure that a proper system is introduced in accordance with the motion tabled by the Technical Group.

I wish to share time with Deputies Simon Harris, Eamonn Maloney and Patrick O'Donovan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 2:

To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:

"commends the Government for continuing to prioritise the allocation of resources to support the education of pupils with special educational needs;

notes that the Government is continuing to fill special needs assistant posts and resource and learning support teacher posts at a time when a moratorium on filling posts applies in the wider public sector;

notes the level of expenditure on additional dedicated resources for special education of some €1.3 billion which is almost 15% of total education expenditure;

notes that provision has been made for the coming school year for 10,575 Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) which is more than were in place in 2010 and in preceding years;

notes that the number of resource teachers for special needs children in mainstream schools is at an all time high of 9,950;

notes that the cap on Special Needs Assistants was introduced by the previous Government when Ireland entered the Programme of Financial Support with the EU and IMF;

notes the recent review of the special needs assistant scheme and in particular the findings that the scheme has assisted as many students as possible to be included in mainstream schools, that it is contrary to best practice for SNAs to adopt a pedagogical role and that there is a need to clarify the ‘care' nature of the SNA role for parents, schools and professionals alike;

notes that school transport for children with special educational needs continues to be prioritised and that no charges have been introduced for these pupils; and

recognises that special education will continue to be a priority for the Government and that the considerable provision of resources for special education must be deployed in the most equitable and effective manner possible."

The Minister, Deputy Quinn, has asked me to apologise for his absence from tonight's debate. He is in Chicago as part of efforts to increase international student numbers in Ireland, in line with commitments made in the programme for Government. In the education area, he will address the National Association of Fellowship Advisors, attend a function aimed at promoting the George Mitchell Scholarship Programme, promote links with Irish-educated alumni, and promote Ireland to a group of high schools. He will also hold meetings with the Chicago Board of Education and engage in a number of wider activities for the Irish community in Chicago and the American Ireland Fund.

This evening's debate provides an opportunity to clarify some of the confusion evident in some of the public comment on the provision of supports for children with special educational needs. It also provides me with an opportunity to reassure all parents of children with special educational needs that their children will continue to have access to an education appropriate to their needs.

It is important to note that 15% of the entire budget of the Department of Education and Skills — €1.3 billion — will be spent in support of children with special educational needs this year. The provision is in line with expenditure in 2010 and shows that despite the current economic difficulties, funding for special education has not been cut.

The Government is committed to the protection of front line services for pupils with special educational needs. This year we will fund approximately 9,950 resource and learning support teachers in schools. That represents an increase of 350 over last year. Additionally, we have protected staffing levels in special schools and special classes attached to mainstream schools. More than 1,000 teachers are in place in special schools. The average pupil-teacher ratio in special schools nationally is 5.6:1. Also, 500 special classes will be in place in mainstream primary and post primary schools.

All sides of the House will recognise that it is necessary to ensure that educational services are delivered within the limits of the resources available. Within these limits however the Government will prioritise and support special educational services. The Government will not however re-visit the previous Government's decision to place a cap on the number of posts available under the special needs assistant, SNA, scheme.

The Minister of State is in Government now.

Deputy Halligan should listen to what I said. With all due respect——

I am not Deputy Healy.

Okay. Deputy Healy. Members should bear with me. Through the Chair, I ask Deputy Halligan to forgive me. It is the Munster intonation.

There are 10,575 SNA posts available nationally for the coming school year to support eligible children. Unlike other areas of the public sector, SNA vacancies are being filled up to this number. In 2001, a total of 2,988 SNAs were employed at a cost of €33.7 million. By 2010 that had risen to 10,543——

The Government knew that last February.

——at a cost in excess of €340 million. As Deputy McGrath is interjecting, it should be noted for the record——

It is not history, it is recent.

——that he was a member of the Fianna Fáil Government that implemented a lot of the decisions——

That the Government is now making.

——that were made that gave rise to the detrimental situation in which this economy and society finds itself.

Confusion and blame is all the Government talks about.

He is the classic Tadhg an dá thaobh and ex-Fianna Fáil revisionist who jumped ship when it was politically expedient for him to do so.

I do not accept that.

That should be put on the record of the House.

The Deputy should not interrupt and the Minister of State should speak to the motion.

In all, there are more than 20,000 adults, including SNAs and resource-learning support teachers in schools to support children with special educational needs. Each year my Department makes detailed plans, taking account of population growth, for future allocations of resources across all areas of education, including special education. In this context, Deputies may wish to know that the pupil population to SNA ratio has reduced from 252:1 in 2001 to 78:1 in 2010. By any standard the development and growth of the special needs assistant programme has been remarkable. I wish to stress that with equitable and careful management and distribution of these resources it is considered that there should be sufficient posts to provide access to SNA support for all children who require such care support to attend school.

Deputies will be aware of the recent value for money and policy review of the SNA scheme. The review has found that the scheme is supporting schools in meeting the needs of eligible students, and that it has assisted as many students as possible to be included in mainstream schools. However, the review also points to a possible over-allocation of SNAs in schools of which 10% are in special schools and up to 27% in mainstream schools.

The decision to introduce a cap on overall SNA numbers means that all SNA posts will now be subject to annual review and there will be ongoing monitoring of overall SNA numbers throughout the year, in accordance with the recommendations of the review. That will facilitate the allocation of SNA support in the most fair and equitable way. I note Deputy Clare Daly's points in that regard, but if one is to have teaching assistants then one will have to have a teaching assistant scheme. It is either an SNA scheme or it is a teaching assistant scheme. The case she made was a genuine one.

The review has also concluded that the SNA scheme has moved away from the objectives of the scheme originally envisaged, which was to provide for children's care needs in an educational setting, and has moved towards SNA involvement in behavioural, therapeutic, pedagogical and administrative duties. The review concludes that this may stem from a lack of understanding of the role of the SNA which has led to inefficiencies in the system. Schools and parents have come to expect the allocation of SNA posts for students whose care needs do not meet the terms of the scheme. I wish to be clear in explaining to the House that there are no plans for the expansion of the SNA scheme beyond the provision of supports to schools to enable them support the care needs of pupils with disabilities.

The value for money and policy review is clear in that respect when it states the crucial importance of communicating the purpose of the SNA scheme in order to ensure that the care role envisaged for the SNA is understood by schools, professionals and parents, and that SNAs are not used to supplement teaching or as therapeutic support for students. The NCSE allocates separate additional teaching expertise to provide the additional teaching support needs for these children.

I wish to be clear on some key issues regarding the SNA scheme: SNAs are being allocated on the basis of priority criteria and in a consistent manner. The NCSE will use its professional judgment in that regard. Some of the priority criteria which apply are: ensuring that the minimum SNA to special class ratio is maintained in both special schools and special classes; ensuring that schools which have enrolled children with the most significant special care needs are supported to meet those needs; ensuring the provision of support for children with incontinence issues; and ensuring that the full-day cover provision is not reduced below a full day.

To ensure that the allocation of SNAs for the 2011 to 2012 school year is managed in a prudent and responsible manner, the NCSE, in consultation with the Department, has decided to retain approximately 475 of the 10,575 SNA posts in order that they are available to be allocated over the remainder of the school year. That will ensure the NCSE retains the capacity to meet urgent cases as they arise over the school year while also ensuring that the overall number of SNA posts allocated will remain within the capped number of 10,575. The reserve posts will be prioritised to address appeals and emergency cases, acquired injuries and new assessments during the school year, new entrants to schools, and reconsideration of allocation levels for schools in which interventions have been unsuccessful.

A process will be in place in the new school year to review allocation decisions to ensure correct procedures were followed and that they comply with the Department's policy. I understand the NCSE will communicate this to schools early in the new school year. Schools, for their part, must demonstrate that they have made every effort to manage their allocation of SNA posts to best effect.

In 2010 the Department provided 9,600 posts for learning support and resource teaching. It is intended to provide 9,950 learning support and resource teaching posts in the 2011-2012 school year, an increase of 350. This is an historically high level of provision. It has been calculated that, based on the number of applications received to date for resource teaching support by the National Council for Special Education, an allocation of 90% of the identified resource teaching allocations can be made to schools in the first instance. This will provide schools with the majority of their allocation while preserving enough capacity to ensure the Department can provide for late or emergency applications while remaining within ECF obligations.

I wish to clarify for the House that 4,538 posts available in mainstream primary schools under the general allocation model of additional teaching support are not affected by the 90% measure. The effect of a 90% allocation of resource teaching support means a reduction of six minutes per hour of resource teaching allocated. Schools can make up additional time through grouping of children, doubling of children and more effective management of teaching time. When the full level of demand is known, the initial 90% allocation may be revisited.

As Deputies are aware, a number of sections of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 have been commenced, principally those establishing the NCSE and those promoting an inclusive approach to the education of children with special educational needs. The Department has established a cross-departmental working group, including relevant agency personnel, to consider each non-commenced part of the Act. The group will focus on preparing a plan for the implementation of the Act.

The Government continues to ensure all primary and post-primary schools have access to psychological assessments. We have committed to reversing the cap placed on the number of psychologists employed by the National Educational Psychological Service. The issue of recruiting more psychologists will be kept under review in the context of the overall employment control framework in the public sector.

There are no changes proposed to the provision of school transport services, including escorts, for eligible children with special educational needs. At present, my Department also provides a direct grant to 500 parents to support their school transport costs. The grant has been reviewed and from the start of the coming school year it will be based on Civil Service mileage rates.

In the face of economic turmoil, the Government has prioritised the provision of supports for pupils with special educational needs. As well as teachers and special needs assistants, we will continue to provide assistive technology, specialist equipment, adapted school buildings and special school transport arrangements. We will protect front-line education services as much as possible within the resources we have to work with. However, this must be done within the context of bringing our overall public expenditure back into line with what we can afford as a country. All areas of Government will have to manage on a reduced level of resources. The challenge will be to ensure the resources that can be provided are used to maximum effect to achieve the best possible outcome for pupils. I commend the Government's amendment to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion and I genuinely thank the Technical Group for dedicating their Private Members' time to the important issue of special needs education. While the issues we discuss in this House every day are important, this motion is of real and genuine significance to me, as I became involved in politics through the issue of special needs. When a relative of mine was diagnosed with special educational needs, I became frustrated, like so many family members throughout the country, with the lack of services and supports available despite the great wealth in our country at the time. I established an autism charity to endeavour to highlight these issues and to support families living with autism.

One of the biggest failings of our country during the Celtic tiger era was the way in which families and children with special needs were still overlooked in so many areas. Parents of children with special needs, who already had their hands full trying to care for their children, found themselves obliged to go cap in hand to the State for the supports their children needed, despite the amount of money that was being wasted on electronic voting machines, Bertie Bowls and all the rest. I will not be engaging in party political remarks on this matter. There is a time and a place for that, but this issue is far too important to me. I am only sorry that this country finds itself in such an economic position that all my political desires, aims and objectives for special needs education cannot be implemented as quickly as I would desire. Crucially, however, that does not take away from the responsibility of the Government to outline its vision for special needs education and to work tirelessly to ensure children with special educational needs are supported.

Considering the climate in which this debate takes place, the Government amendment before the House is progressive, constructive and factual. It sends a message to parents of children with special needs that we will continue to prioritise the needs of their children, and outlines how the Government is fulfilling its commitment to prioritise this area in a number of ways, some of which the Minister of State alluded to: by providing an exemption from the moratorium on recruitment in the public sector for SNA posts and resource teaching posts; by ensuring that the number of resource teachers for children with special needs in mainstream schools will be at its highest level in the history of the State, with 315 more posts in our schools this September; by guaranteeing that there will be more SNA posts in our schools this coming school year than in 2010 or, indeed, any other year; and, crucially, by reforming the way in which posts are allocated by holding back a reserve of both SNA posts and resource teaching posts until September in order that children whose needs become apparent only in the new school year can avail of such supports. In this way we can provide parents who are not satisfied with the level of support their children have been afforded a right of appeal. For far too long, parents who have sought help in September have found that the cupboard is bare. I welcome the remarks of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, in this regard.

I want to send out a clear message to the Government and to the Department of Education and Skills that we must do better when it comes to communicating with parents of children with special needs. All too often over the years, and indeed in recent weeks, parents have been left worried, panicked and stressed as they read media reports and departmental circulars. For example, the announcement about resource teaching was simply botched. What should have been a good news story — additional resource teaching posts — was reported in the media as a 10% cut, but that was not the case. We as politicians, as a Government and as the Oireachtas, along with our colleagues and friends in the media, must ensure information is conveyed to parents factually and quickly.

While the Government is bound by the cap on SNAs, we now have an opportunity to outline our plan and vision for special needs education in the future. Gone must be the days of the State dragging parents of children with special needs through the courts system. Gone must be the days of mothballing important legislation affecting special educational needs as soon as the country hits rocky waters. The new Government must produce a realistic timeframe for the implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act as quickly as possible. I welcome the comments of the Minister of State in this regard.

We must also look to our European colleagues and learn from how they provide for children with special educational needs. I agree with the comments of Deputy Daly in this regard; the UK model of teaching assistants merits consideration. In addition, the Minister must address the difficulty of accessing psychological services and obtaining diagnoses. I welcome the commitment to reverse the cap on National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, assessments.

As a Deputy, I will continue to work as hard as I possibly can to support people with special educational needs. I will work with Deputies on all sides of this House to make progress on this issue. Nobody, least of all me, finds any cut to special needs education palatable, but from my conversations with the Taoiseach, the Minister for Education and Skills and many stakeholders, parents included, I am satisfied that in keeping with this legally binding cap, we are doing all that we possibly can to support children with special educational needs. We can never do enough in this area. We will always need to do more and we must always strive to do better.

Like the previous speaker, I welcome the debate on the subject of SNAs and resource teachers.

Since it was introduced in 2001, the scheme has proved to be a valuable asset to schools giving confidence to children with special needs and their parents. An important principle in a democratic parliament, and one with which I agree, is that the Opposition can raise matters such as the provision of special needs assistants, the minimum wage and joint labour committee agreements. Like others, I welcome such debates with one proviso — that the truth is told in them. In my first 130 days as a Member, I have noticed the old cliché, the first causality of war is truth, also applies to private Members' motions. Tonight not one Member on the other side of the House, some of whom, but not all of them, I have respect for, referred to the facts about educational supports.

These are the facts. This year 10,575 special needs assistants will be available, more than were available in 2010. At a time when a moratorium on public service recruitment is in place, there is none on resource and learning support teachers. I commend the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, for increasing the number of resource teachers allocated this year by 350.

None of these facts were alluded to by any Member opposite. Neither did any Member opposite refer to the fact the economy is knackered. They believe no one has left the country or that anybody is unemployed, when for instance, my children and my neighbours' children have. The economy is simply in bits. I found listening to the Technical Group — which I refer to as the Highly Technical Group because it comprises stockbrokers and developers — stomach churning, particularly when on 30 September 2008 some of that group raced to vote for the blanket bail out of Anglo Irish Bank and others. Not one of them referred to this fact this evening. It is a bit like the old adage, "Who Fears to Speak of '98?".

What about all the promises made during the election?

The problem is we are tired of listening to the Deputy.

There will be one voice only please.

The night of 30 September 2008 saw our economy destroyed.

Deputy Finian McGrath had a go at my Labour colleague, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, for talking about special needs assistant provision during the election. Yet, he got into a sweat to get into this Chamber to vote for the bank bailout on 30 September 2008. I also recall hearing him recently in the Chamber talking about celebrating the failed US invasion of the Bay of Pigs and saying to myself "this guy must be a socialist or a communist", which is all right with me. If Deputy Finian McGrath decides to go to Cuba for the summer, however, he should be careful. If Fidel Castro hears he bailed out the Irish banks while forcing half of the young Irish population to emigrate to Canada and Australia, he would probably take the Deputy aside at Havana airport and kneecap him or shoot him in the head. Deputy Finian McGrath would certainly not come back from Havana.

This motion provides the Government with an important opportunity to outline its commitment to special educational needs. Having worked in the primary education sector, I do not need to be told the value of special needs assistants or the difficulties faced by the sector. There needs to be balance and truth to this debate. While doing some constituency work in my office this evening, I was agog listening to the contributions from Members opposite, particularly from the Member from south Tipperary who claimed Government backbenchers were few and far between in the Chamber today. Yet, when the first Government backbencher rose to speak on this motion, the Technical Group evacuated the Chamber. Obviously, those Members opposite are only prepared to listen to one argument.

The previous two speakers introduced the fact that the largest number ever of special needs assistants have been guaranteed their positions for next year and the cap on public service numbers introduced by the former Government does not apply to them. It is regrettable that amnesia seems to be widespread among Members opposite. So serious are the cases of several Members in the Technical Group, particularly Deputies Finian McGrath and Mick Wallace, that they should consult their GPs. Deputy Mick Wallace, himself a builder once, spoke about the economy being in tatters because of the banks and the builders.

One can only take so much of this. The fact remains, our country is bankrupt and its economy destroyed. We are now subservient to a group of foreigners who are keeping this country open.

That was the choice of the Members opposite.

Some Members opposite might want the foreigners to go away but they have never come up with an alternative to our State funding requirements. If we defaulted, not only would there be no special needs assistants, there would be no doctors, teachers, pensions.

Why does the Government not tax its rich friends?

Why will the Government not tax its rich friends and their €250 billion in assets?

I did not interrupt Deputy Seamus Healy. He might learn a small bit of respect.

One voice, please.

The Deputy should be truthful. We put forward alternative funding arrangements.

No one on this side of the House interrupted Deputy Seamus Healy when he was having his rant.

They might not like the alternative we suggest.

There will be one voice, please. Deputy O'Donovan should speak to the motion please.

This motion is inextricably linked to the economy. Our economy is wrecked because of the actions of the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, builders and bankers who were backed up by some Members opposite. We are now attempting to save the economy and ensure the most vulnerable in society are given a chance. In March those on the other side claimed they would be constructive in their opposition. I have not heard one scintilla of positivity from that side of the House yet.

The Deputy has said nothing himself either.

Given that the country is facing a national emergency, it is about time some of the Members opposite put on the green jersey.

Is that the one with IMF written on the back?

The country needs everyone pulling together. It does not need a whole clatter of hyperbole that our country's problems will be solved by defaulting. Anyone who believes that is living in Alice's Wonderland. Some of those opposite are honorary citizens of the said Wonderland and hopefully will return there soon.

It is Deputy O'Donovan who should return there, I think.

I am glad the issue of appeals, the National Educational Psychological Service and the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 was addressed by the Minister of State. Will he convey to the Minister for Education and Skills the need to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio? This was allowed go out of control by the former Government. While I understand the Department is concerned about the financing implications of reducing it, more emphasis should be placed on it during the Government's lifetime.

The commitment to the National Educational Psychological Service is a huge breakthrough that gives parents, teachers, schools and all other stakeholders valuable support despite the Government facing the worst of economic tsunamis. The Government is committing itself, in the form of its amendment to the motion, to putting special educational needs and the children who have such needs and their parents and teachers to the fore. The position of teachers in respect of this matter is sometimes forgotten. Some teachers face major problems in their classrooms.

I am delighted that last week the Minister for Education and Skills placed two issues, namely, literacy and numeracy, at the top of his agenda. Under the previous Government, Ireland fell badly down the pecking order in the context of literacy and numeracy. What happened in recent years proves that there are major problems in the primary education sector. I am not just referring to the area of special educational needs in this regard. People must realise that it is not all about money when it comes to this matter; what is at issue is the delivery of a service.

I was visited by a group of special needs assistants, SNAs, last week and I will be meeting another such group this week. I am very honest when I meet such people and I inform them that our country — like Italy, Spain, Greece and other nations — is on the brink of economic collapse. However, there is a commitment from the Government that 10,575 SNAs will retain their positions. That is the largest number of SNAs ever in employment in this country. The position is similar with regard to learning support teachers.

The Government has prioritised this matter. However, we have no money. Perhaps those who proposed the motion can dig up money from their back yards. The Government is trying to do a great deal more with much less money. I commend the amendment tabled by the Minister to the House.

What about asking the super rich to pay?

I wish to share time with Deputy Browne.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this issue, which is of great concern to many families throughout the country. As public representatives we are aware of the concern of many parents in regard to special needs provision. In the Fianna Fáil amendment to the motion, I have asked that the Government and the Minister prioritise funding for special education within the financial provision for the Department of Education and Skills. At a time of huge demand on limited resources, we must ensure that said provision is prioritised for children with special needs. I welcome the statement of the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, in that regard.

Those of us in public life have for some years worked with many families, parents and schools which were seeking those additional resources that make such a difference to the lives of so many children. Last month, the Minister, Deputy Quinn, stated that he intends to prioritise and support special educational services. I support his policy in this regard.

The first debate on education and skills in this Dáil was in respect of a Private Members' motion I tabled in the middle of April. That motion requested Dáil Éireann to support the role of education and training in our economic recovery and referred to the need to maintain an inclusive education system and to support people in achieving their potential through that system. In the motion in question I also outlined, in clear terms, the fact that we must protect the financial provision relating to education in future budgets. That motion won the unanimous support of the House.

Education is a key economic driver. Most important, however, its purpose is to assist individuals in reaching their full potential. In the debate on the Private Members' motion to which I refer, I emphasised the absolute need to build on the progress made in providing much-needed and adequate support for children with special needs at both primary and post-primary level. When he served as Minister for Education and Science in 1997, Deputy Martin attached particular importance to this area within the framework of the overall education sector.

During the past decade there has, quite rightly, been a dramatic improvement in the level and quality of supports for children with special educational needs. Those improvements were much needed. As the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, indicated, "By any standard the development and growth of the special needs assistant programme has been remarkable." There are more than 10,000 special needs assistants, SNAs, working in our schools. In 1997, that number stood at 250. There are almost 10,000 learning support resource teacher posts in primary and post-primary schools. The purpose of these posts is to provide additional teaching support for pupils with special educational needs. The financial allocation for this year provides for an increase of 350 posts on last year's allocation. For the benefit of Deputy O'Donovan, who has left the Chamber, specific provision in this regard was made in the final budget introduced by the previous Government last December.

We all realise that despite the increase in numbers, more must be done. That is what we all want to work to achieve. I am of the view that the creation of the National Educational Psychological Service, the establishment of the National Council for Special Education and the appointment of special educational needs organisers, SENOs, has provided an essential framework for the delivery of supports for children with special needs. We are aware of the moratorium on recruitment in the public service. However, specific provision was made in the national recovery plan introduced last November to ensure that the numbers of those employed in this extremely important area would be protected.

The need for and the provision of additional resources for the special needs assistant scheme is clearly evident when one considers that the financial allocation in the period 2001 to 2009 rose by 922%. Those resources have been put to good use in the context of improving the opportunities available to and meeting the hopes of so many families and individual children. I am sure all Members are aware of children who have been the beneficiaries of this important and much-needed investment. Sadly, there are children who need such assistance but who unfortunately have not been beneficiaries. Understandably, the lack of such support is the source of serious disappointment to many hard-pressed parents and will deprive the children to whom I refer of the opportunity to progress in education.

The creation of the National Educational Psychological Service, the establishment of the National Council for Special Education and the appointment of special educational needs organisers, SENOs, has provided an important and essential framework for the special education system. There is concern in some areas regarding the possible lack of consistency in applying the criteria for the allocation of SNA support. That is the perception among some education stakeholders and certain parents, Members of the Oireachtas and other public representatives.

When making contributions in this House, we are all naturally influenced by the working of the systems in the areas in which we live and in our constituencies. I am aware that the appointment of an SENO in my area some time ago proved extremely successful. My recollection is that prior to such appointments parents or schools made detailed submissions to the Department. In many instances, they wrote numerous letters and were left waiting for replies. Final replies were often delayed as a result of some relatively small detail not being provided with an initial application. I acknowledge that officials were under pressure in the context of their workloads at different times. My memory is that the interaction seemed to take place by post only.

From my own experience of making representations, I am of the view that the appointment of SENOs has provided greater clarity because parents and schools know that there are specific individuals who may be contacted. In many instances, a few telephone calls can progress an application or provide clarity to applicants in respect of the scope and criteria which obtain in particular schemes. In the past, delays in processing applications frustrated everyone involved. It seemed to me that the processing of applications was a desk-only exercise. That was not adequate. Personal contact is necessary in sensitive cases of this nature.

I do not believe that the particular role of special needs assistants has been adequately understood. That lack of clarity has not been helpful to parents or schools. A large cohort of staff has been working in schools in recent years. This is a relatively new staffing complement and includes the many individuals who work as SNAs, resource teachers and language support teachers. It was correct for the previous Minister to initiate the value for money and policy review of the SNA scheme. It is essential to ensure that the resources and the special support available under this scheme reach the intended beneficiaries.

According to the review to which I refer, one of the criticisms of the SNA scheme is that its purpose is not well understood by either schools or parents and that this has led to some problems regarding the allocation of SNAs. It has also led to the role of SNAs being expanded beyond that which was originally intended. The review found that in the schools surveyed there was an over-allocation of SNAs of 27% at primary and post-primary level and of 10% in special needs schools. I hope the Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education will engage in a detailed debate on this review and will examine the figures to which I refer and the overall policy approach being taken.

It is absolutely wrong that there is over-provision in some schools while other schools, and the children who attend them, do not receive the support they both need and deserve. Surely there is a responsibility on all involved, be they in the Department, in the National Council for Special Education or in schools, to ensure that over-provision does not occur. The result of such over-provision means there is under-provision elsewhere and that certain children are being denied much-needed support and intervention. I do not know if the Department has established a working group to deal with the recommendations contained in the value for money and policy review. However, if the figures to which I referred earlier are accurate, then this is an issue which should be addressed without delay.

There has been an annual increase in the number of SNAs in our schools since 1997. In light of the provision made by the previous Government, the highest number of SNAs ever will be in employment in our schools this year. It would be prudent to review the operation, efficiency and value of the scheme, not on the basis of cutting costs but to ensure that the needs of children are being adequately and appropriately addressed. Any particular scheme of supports, particularly one which, by and large, is relatively new to many schools, can be improved. There should be widespread consultation in respect of any review to be undertaken by a departmental working group. The membership of that working group should include all stakeholders.

The expertise, knowledge, experience and commitment of so many stakeholders, be they parents, teachers, SNAs or those who have benefited from the supports to which I refer, should be availed of as part of any review. Such a review should be comprehensive but should also be finalised in a short timeframe. Any review should consider the role of the SNA. That role has evolved over recent years and there has been huge progress over the past 12 to 14 years. This was an area to which no resources had been committed previously. All of us know of cases needing attention through our work. As a party spokesperson, I have had calls from schools from different parts of the country concerned about their allocation for the coming year. Our amendment calls for the prioritisation of funding for the special education sector in the financial provision for the Department of Education and Skills. The Minister, Deputy Quinn, and the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, have referred to the huge progress that has been made, but we need to make further progress. Much has been achieved, but we have more to achieve to ensure that all children who need special support and their families are given that support in a timely, adequate and appropriate manner.

I thank Deputy Smith for sharing his time with me. This is the second time in the past few weeks that I have got up to speak about the needs of children with special needs, particularly with regard to County Wexford. I note the Minister is not present, but I am happy to see the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, here as, having listened to him over a number of years while he was on this side of the House, I know he is caring and concerned about the less well off in society and am sure he will have the interests of those with special needs at heart.

The Minister of State has said that the Government will not revisit the previous Government's decision to place a cap on the number of SNAs. Perhaps it should not do that, but it should revisit the decisions made by some of the SENOs around the country. Some of the decisions they have made in recent weeks are not in the best interests of children attending our schools. Deputy Smith and Deputies on the far side of the House have alluded to the fact that there is no consistency in how children are being assessed for special needs assistance. Recently, I was made aware of a case where a SENO decided that a child who required a zimmer frame was not entitled to a special needs assistant. This caused great concern for the parents and I am sure similar situations are occurring throughout the country.

I have often referred to St. Senan's primary school in Enniscorthy, which is set to lose six SNAs this year. This school has 600 children, over 50 of whom have various disabilities. The principal excludes no-one from the school. The school is very inclusive and also contains an autism centre which previous Ministers consider the gold-plated autism centre of this country. I am sure the current Minister, Deputy Quinn, would do the same. Officials from the Department of Education and Skills always hold up the autism section of St. Senan's school as an example of the way forward for dealing with children with autism. Unfortunately, in recent weeks the school has received word that it will lose six SNAs. Deputy Wallace and I raised this matter in the Dáil previously and, in fairness, the Minister and the Department have sent the senior SENO to revisit and re-examine some of the decisions taken. Hopefully, the school will get back some of the SNAs. I do not intend to engage in Minister bashing. However, I feel strongly that the decision to withdraw SNAs from children entitled to them should be revisited. Hopefully, such a caring Minister of State as Deputy Sherlock will ensure this happens within the Department.

I am the parent of a child with a disability. When she attended Enniscorthy vocational school 13 years ago, there was only one special needs assistant for the four children in wheelchairs at that time. We have come a long way from that and now have 10,500 SNAs in the country. That is only right. It is important that young people with disabilities are given an opportunity to attend mainstream education. This is what it is all about, particularly in St. Senan's where Mr. Goff and the teachers try to ensure the children move on to mainstream education as quickly as possible. This must continue.

While it is right to point out that money is scarce, the Minister of State pointed out that the overall expenditure of the Department is €1.3 billion, a significant amount of money. It is important to prioritise and look after the vulnerable and less well-off in society. I have received numerous letters in the past few weeks from parents of children in different schools in Wexford and I am sure other Deputies have received similar letters from parents in other parts of the country. I would like to quote from one particular letter. It states:

I implore you [and your fellow TDs from Wexford] to please stand up for those of us who have not the energy for this fight. I fight my sons into their clothes every morning, from their socks to their coats, and I fight to keep from becoming bitter. That is very difficult when you are up EVERY morning at 4.30 a.m. with both boys. My brightest ray of hope after my sons' smiles has been St. Senans school where they have been respected and provided with a completely appropriate education both academically and socially. I once thought such enlightened places only existed in the USA. Don't let these cuts bring us back to the dark days of the past.

This parent went on to say that her children were being assessed within the school to see whether they could continue to have an SNA. This letter sums up the plight of parents of children with special needs in schools around the country who are concerned about losing SNAs. I urge the Minister of State to ensure that such children do not lose their SNAs.

This debate is good in that it discusses broadly based education and, in particular, the needs of people with disabilities. As Deputy Smith said, it is important that we continue to fund schools that provide excellent services for people with disabilities. I am sure the Minister of State will bring the message to the Minister that he must prioritise children with disabilities in our schools.

There has been a lot of discussion here previously on this issue. This debate is a welcome opportunity for us to address the issue again and I commend the Technical Group on raising it. I agree with Deputy Harris with regard to how this has been communicated and accept there have been mistakes made along the route on the issue. As an elected representative who has been dealing with the area of education, I have tried to concentrate on this issue and to draw out the information with regard to special needs assistants and the difficulties faced by parents. I do not know about other Deputies, but most of the parents who have come to me are worried sick by the possibility of their child losing their special needs assistant. They are worried sick because if their children lose that support, there is little left in the line of education available to those children.

I have read the value for money policy review in regard to this issue. Most of the cuts being made seem to be based on that review. The Minister of State reiterated tonight that the review points out the possible over-allocation of SNAs in schools, to a level of 10% in special schools and 27% in mainstream schools. The big question I and parents have with regard to this review is where these figures were pulled from. We would also like to know who drew up the report. It is reasonable for parents faced with the prospect of their children losing their SNA to look around and suggest there could be another area where cuts could be made within the education system instead. Most of us on the Opposition side have tried to be helpful in that regard.

We accept that the Minister has only one envelope of money; our argument is that the money in that envelope could be better spent. We went through this argument in regard to the Estimates. An example I gave during that debate was an article inThe Irish Times last week which reported that the head of a college in Waterford spent €100,000 on taxis to and from Dublin. When asked about these expenses, he contended that the expenditure represented value for money. All the heads of the various educational institutions are on very high wages, with many receiving hundreds of thousands of euro in expenses. Yet, at the same time, SNAs earning €14 per hour are being let go.

I met with families in my area last week who cannot comprehend how their children have lost their entitlement to special needs assistance. As other Deputies observed, it comes back to a question of assessment. In some cases it is apparently taking 15 minutes to assess a child's needs. I am not an expert and do not know what is involved in such assessments, but the parents of these children are equally in the dark. I am aware of situations where there is no on-site inspection facility and children's needs are being assessed on the basis of reports. All of these issues lead to a great deal of confusion and fear.

Debate adjourned.