Special Educational Needs: Motion [Private Members]

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

condemns:

— the deplorable announcement of cuts in special needs assistant supports and resource teacher hours for pupils with special educational needs; and

— the 12% cut in teaching time for special needs children to be implemented for the 2013-14 school year;

notes that:

— this reduction comes on top of a reduction of 5% in 2012 and 10% in 2011; and

— the reductions will mean that students will now get 25% fewer resource teacher hours than they would have received two years ago;

agrees that:

— such reductions are in direct contradiction to the Government’s approach of matching the expected increase in pupil numbers in mainstream classes this September with new teachers through the hiring of 450 additional mainstream teachers at primary and secondary level in order to maintain the standard pupil-teacher ratio;

— such reductions will have a severe impact on children with special needs;

— such cuts will also have an adverse impact on all children right across the mainstream school system;

— the cuts are also causing deep alarm and distress to the parents and teachers of these children;

— it is unfair and unreasonable to impose such cuts on children with the greatest need in the education system;

— the cuts undermine the principle of inclusive schools;

— the cuts weaken mainstreaming for children with disabilities and reinforce segregation; and

— the decision will negatively affect the national literacy and numeracy strategy; and

calls on the Government to:

— give students with special educational needs fair treatment by increasing the number of resource teachers and special needs assistants to match the expected increase in special needs students this September in the same way that the Department is increasing the number of mainstream teachers to meet demand;

— lift the cap on teaching resources to ensure every child eligible for resource teaching hours receives, at a minimum, the same allocation of hours as they were allocated in the current academic year;

— lift the cap on special needs assistants to ensure every special needs child with a need for a special needs assistant has a level of care appropriate to his/her needs;

— set a timeframe for the full implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004;

— provide a proper and coordinated framework for the inclusion of all pupils in suitable education settings;

— affirm its commitment to inclusive education to enable all children to achieve their potential; and

— reverse the unjustified cuts announced by the Department of Education and Skills and the National Council for Special Education.

I wish to share time with Deputies Michael Moynihan, Éamon Ó Cuív, John Browne and Barry Cowen.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan. I hope the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, will be present for this important debate on an issue that needs to be resolved by the Government.

The motion I have moved calls on the Government to take two specific actions. First, it calls on the Government to reverse its decision not to hire the additional resource teachers who will be required in September in order that special needs students do not have to endure a 12% cut in their teaching hours. Second, it calls for the reversal of the Government's decision not to hire the additional special needs assistants who are necessary to ensure students who require special needs help to participate in school do not see an average cut of 10% in the hours available to them in September.

I welcome the Minister's announcement today that he will reverse his decision on the employment of resource teachers, which is the first action the motion requires of him. He has decided to hire immediately the additional 500 teachers who were being held back to cater for additional demand in the autumn. As a result, students will not see a cut this September in the resource teaching hours they received in the school year that has just ended. The Minister has made the correct decision in this instance. There should be a recognition that the approach being taken by the Minister and the Government was not acceptable. It was totally unfair to the 42,500 students across the country who need additional teaching support hours to reach their potential and to be able to avail of the only chance they will get in life to receive a proper education. It is crucial now for the Government to reverse its decision to oversee a 10% cut in the special needs assistance hours which will be available to high need students who qualify for and depend on the help of special needs assistants to help them during the school day. The Government is refusing to acknowledge that any cut is being made to the hours to which individual students will have access. In this instance, it is sticking to its defence which is based on the pretence it abandoned today when it agreed to increase the number of resource teachers it will hire.

Last Thursday, when I put it to the Tánaiste in this House that students would see a cut in their resource teaching hours and their special needs assistance hours from this September, he responded by saying, "There is no cut". The Minister has finally admitted today that there is a cut and agreed to address it by supplying the 500 teachers needed to ensure students who need resource hours will not have to experience the 12% cut due to be made from September. When the Minister made this announcement earlier today, he expressed regret that parents had gone through "anguish". He said he had listened to and heard them. What about the parents of students who avail of special needs assistance? Are they not experiencing anguish at the prospect of their children's special needs hours being cut? They still have to listen to the Minister and his Government colleagues saying, "There is no cut". It is time for the Minister to apply the same treatment to special needs assistance hours that he has applied today to resource teaching hours. He needs to ensure additional provision is made to match the increase in demand.

In last year's budget the Minister increased the number of mainstream teachers who will be available this September on foot of an increase in demand. As a consequence of the education system's increased intake, some 450 additional teachers will be employed at primary level and 450 teachers will be employed at secondary level. While that is very welcome and we support it, the Minister has not applied the same logic by providing additional teachers to meet demands elsewhere in the system. Additional resource teachers are needed for students who have special teaching requirements and additional special needs assistants are needed for students who have special educational needs. The same logic should apply in these cases. The Minister decided today to increase the number of resource teachers. We are asking for the same rationale to be applied and the same treatment to be given to special needs assistants. According to a press release issued by the Department of Education and Skills a couple of hours ago, there is no decrease in the number of special needs assistant hours. The statement also indicates there has been no increase in the number of applications.

The reality is that in the first week of term this September some 22,000 students will need to avail of special needs assistance in order to participate fully in school life. The equivalent figure was 20,000 in the school year just ended. Even though there has been a 10% increase in the number of students who qualify for special needs assistance, the Minister has not increased the number of special needs assistants he plans to hire. That means that there will be the same number of special needs assistants in schools as last year, by and large, even though the number of students looking to avail of their services will have increased by 10%. According to the National Council for Special Education - I am sure the Minister will make this point - the number of special needs assistants will not change in approximately half of all schools. The council has outlined that the number of special needs assistants will increase in 24% or 25% of schools. That means that there will be a decrease in the number of special needs assistants in approximately 25% of schools.

It is clear, therefore, that 75% of all schools will have the same number of special needs assistants, or fewer such assistants, by comparison with the number in the school year just ended. This is happening at a time when demand has increased by 10%. The special needs assistants in these schools will have to spread themselves thinner and divide themselves among a large number of students. Many students who received a certain level of service from a special needs assistant last year will not be able to avail of the same service this September. Some students who had a dedicated special needs assistant because of their high levels of need will now have to share that assistant with another student. That means that the service and the resource will be stretched. That is the reality. Many students who need the services of special needs assistants will experience a cut in the service they receive. It is exactly the same principle as the one the Minister admitted today in the case of resource teaching hours. I ask him, as a starting point, to admit there is this pressure and this cut is being made. He should not continue with the pretence we have heard from him and his Government colleagues on the issue.

I would like the Minister to clarify a couple of other issues when he contributes to this debate. He has indicated that the 500 resource teachers he is planning to hire immediately will be held back until the autumn to cater for the increase in demand expected when late applications come in, as they always do. Last year, a similar number of resource teachers were held back until the autumn. They were allocated at that stage because there was the demand for them. Will the Minister ensure there will be additional teachers in the autumn? When the new applicants come in, as they always do, they should not be turned away. I ask the Minister to address the questions I have asked.

The aim of the motion is, first, to welcome the recognition of the need for additional resource teachers and, second, to ask if the Minister will now give the same recognition to the need for additional special needs assistants.

I welcome the opportunity to speak and compliment my colleague, Deputy Charlie McConalogue, on tabling the motion. Despite all the denials over the weekend that there was a cut and a reversal of services, we welcome the decision on a full reversal of what was announced last week.

As we move forward, there will still be a cut to the number of special needs assistants in the classrooms from September. From where I stand, I sense a lack of understanding by the Minister of what has been achieved by special needs assistants and resource teachers in classrooms in the past 14 or 15 years. When I first came into this House in 1997, special needs assistants were community employment workers and the Department later employed them. The benefits garnered for society and families in the way special needs have been met in classrooms during the years have been second to none.

There was a lack of understanding in the decision made last week to cut the number of resource hours. It is the greatest wish of every parent with a child with special needs that he or she be integrated fully into the classroom and that the resources and supports be made available in order that he or she can benefit from mainstream education. Not everybody would be able for mainstream education, but there is always a hope and an expectation that children can be mainstreamed. The benefits children get from being in mainstream schools with the proper supports cannot be questioned, nor can the benefits to society as a whole.

During the years many projects have been developed such as the CABAS project in Cork city. I know children of friends who went there to avail of early intervention and came back into primary schools with the proper supports such as special needs assistants and resource teachers and they have gone on through the education system and come out the other end in a far better position than would have been possible without these supports. There has to be an acknowledgment by the Minister and the Department of the part played by these initiatives in the past 14 or 15 years. Any Government that would try to cut back on them, see it as possible to cut them or decide that they are beyond the requirements of a State-sponsored education system does not understand the benefits that have accrued from them.

Last weekend, parents and school authorities were very concerned about this issue. Parents of children who are one, two or three years into the system and who have had a diagnosis and are progressing extremely satisfactorily through the education system had to spend last weekend concerned about the future. Depending on the age of the children involved, these parents have in recent years made accommodations in their own lives in order to make sure the proper services are available for their children. I have some experience of dealing with the services that provide care for children with special needs from the cradle to the grave. Among the majority of parents I have met during the years, there is concern about how these children will develop into adulthood and how well they will be able to integrate into society.

Between 2004 and 2007 I chaired the education committee which prepared a report on special needs assistants and resource teaching hours. The point that continuously came from the parents, teachers and the education sector was that early intervention was the way forward and that the success of early intervention could not be overestimated. Last week's decision by the Minister and the Government showed a lack of appreciation of what had been achieved during the years. This is akin to the position on free education in that children who have need for a special resource have the same constitutional rights as anybody else. During the years there was much talk about the disability Bill and its funding, but there has been a lack of understanding of what has been achieved.

Before I came into the Dáil Chamber, a teacher telephoned me about her child who had special needs. She has fought the system on the issue of domiciliary care and experienced all of the difficulties that flow from this. One can criticise and throw anything one likes across the floor of the House at Fianna Fáil, but my party has done an immense amount of work in the past 15 or 16 years for people with disabilities and education services for people with special needs. People have benefited through the education system and come out the other end with the leaving certificate, something they would not have been able to do this 15 or 20 years ago. They have benefited enormously from the amount of money and resources put into this service.

I must again make the point that what was done last week showed absolutely no understanding of what had been achieved. More importantly, however, it showed no understanding of what it meant to children with special needs who needed these resource hours and to their parents. My biggest worry is that there is still a cut in regard to special needs assistants, yet there is no answer on this issue from the Minister. Whatever decisions have to be made - we all accept difficult decisions must be made in other aspects of education - the most vulnerable must be protected.

Those who have been going through the system in the past 15 years, who perhaps have learning difficulties or need extra support with social skills within the school spectrum, have benefited hugely from resource teaching and the fact that the position of special needs assistants were placed on a statutory footing. The announcement today, with the doughnutting of the Minister and the talk of how he had reflected on this issue, showed a complete lack of understanding of what it meant for people to have these facilities within mainstream schools. Across the developed world, best practice has been for people to be integrated into their own schools and for them go on to achieve most. What was proposed last week was a backward step and what is still on the cards is also a backward step. I appeal to the Minister, whatever decisions have to be made in the area of education, to ensure every single resource hour that can be made available is made available and that every hour for special needs assistants remains within the education services. This will pay huge dividends not alone for the children and their families involved, but also for society as a whole.

I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak. The first thing I would like to do is to recognise that the Minister has reversed the decision he made initially.

I have adjusted it.

However, I have to question about how that decision was made. The Minister had to have known that, with an increasing demographic and what he had already planned for in regard to increasing the number of classroom teachers, it was inevitable that the demand for resource teaching hours would increase. I cannot fathom how he allowed the decision to be made that would provide for all of the extra classroom teachers but would not deal with the people most in need of support in the system, namely, the children who need resource teaching hours.

When the Minister rightly reversed his decision on the DEIS band one schools, he gave the excuse on "Morning Ireland" that he was new to government and had much to learn. He can give no such excuse now. It is legitimate, therefore, for us to try to get an explanation from him as to the thought processes that let him think he was going to be able to provide the same resource teaching hours for children with many more in the schools and much greater demand on the services provided. He has said he recognises he was wrong on the resource teaching hours but still says he is right that there will be no increase in the need for SNAs, despite the fact that the number of children in schools is increasing.

The other side of the equation on which the Minister has not let us in is the part where he says this has budgetary implications and that savings will have to be made elsewhere. He might outline these savings in 2013, in respect of which we are talking about a period of four months, but more particularly in 2014. When the Government took office, it stated it would do the budget in a totally new way. The committee of which I am a member was promised that early in the year we would be given the opportunity to have an input into possible decisions that might have to be made based on the budget arithmetic. I suggest the Minister go before the committee and put before it all of the options he is considering regarding "savings" next year. It is very important that we proof these savings to ensure we are not always hitting the weakest and most vulnerable in society. The Minister always seems to have a fetish for hitting those on the margin, those in DEIS band one schools, with a disability, living in rural areas or on islands. It seems to make no difference to the Minister as long as they are not able to create a critical mass to upset his party colleagues. Thankfully, in the case of DEIS band one schools, there was enough of a voice to ensure he changed his mind.

I will give an example of the mindless decision-making that results in no financial saving in which the Minister seems to glory. We had maintained a situation where if we had eight pupils in an island primary school, since that school would be entitled to a full-time teacher and approximately 20 hours of general learning support teaching, we kept two full-time teachers in the school. Our belief was that there was no way to send children to another school down the road when there was water between them and that it was important to sustain island communities because they had become much more expensive to the State when they became unsustainable and one kept providing the service for an ever-dwindling population. The Minister has brought in a new rule whereby if the number drops below eight pupils in one September, it must increase to 17 to get the second teacher back. Is there any logic in this? Is there a good financial reason for it? Only five schools are affected, on Tory Island, Clare Island, Inishturk, Inis Meáin and Sherkin Island. Aranmore and Inis Mór each have two schools that are not qualified, while Inis Oirr and Inisbofin have plenty of children, yet the Minister creates this impossible ceiling below which if they ever fall, they will have to get back to 17 rather than eight pupils to get the second teacher back. His Cabinet colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for the islands, maintains that the Government has a positive, supportive policy on the islands. They go on about the culture and unique heritage of the islands, but an island without children has no future, as the Blasket islanders found out.

The Minister's total policy is to hit those who cannot hit back, are small or will be unable to create a big row. Thankfully, in this case, the outrage was so great on the part of so many that he was forced to row back on the decision made. One of my worries is that he will replace it with an equally bad one and that next time he will focus on some group that will be unable to defend itself and fight back. Under his stewardship not all parts of the country are equal. To put it bluntly, places where the Labour Party vote is strong and there is high Labour Party representation seem more equal than others. That seriously worries me.

That is rich coming from the Deputy.

I looked after everybody equally, as the Minister will see if he checks my record. That smear has been made many times before, but like so many of the smears made from the Minister's side of the House, it does not stand up to objective scrutiny. When we analyse his policies objectively, they are very clear as to which communities take the hit and are unfairly treated every time. If he does not believe me, I ask him to examine that mindless policy on the islands and reverse it tomorrow, as he reversed this decision in this instance.

I wish to share time with Deputy Cowen.

I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on this motion and congratulate Deputy McConalogue on putting it forward. We welcome the Minister, Deputy Quinn's, latest realisation that he made a mistake in signing off on an additional 12% cut in resource teaching hours but we are concerned that this latest U-turn has not been extended to the additional 10% cut in SNAs. It will come as a relief to parents and teachers that the Minister again realised that he made a mistake in targeting children with special needs for more cuts in September. However, this is not the full reversal of special needs cuts which the Minister wants us to think it is. While he has decided to reverse the 12% cut to resource hours, the 10% cut to SNA provision still stands. I invite the Minister to come to Enniscorthy, to St. Senan's primary school and to Scoil Mhuire in Wexford. These two centres for autism are finding it very difficult carry on because of the reduction in special needs assistants. The centres mounted a protest before the general election. They criticised the previous Government even though they had more SNAs at that time than now. The incoming Labour Party and Fine Gael Government promised them a significant increase in the number of SNAs. The Minister, Deputy Quinn, did not make that promise but his representatives in Wexford promised an increase in SNAs across County Wexford. This has not happened. A total of 22,000 children across the country who need SNAs will still see a reduction in support when schools resume in September.

The Minister has shown that it is possible to find money to protect crucial services for children with special needs when the will is there to do so. I ask the Minister to look at the SNA situation and to go back to the Cabinet to reverse the SNA cuts. It is very important that schools would be given the correct allocation of SNAs in the interests of the children and their parents. This Government seems to be obsessed with making cuts in the disability sector. I note the cuts in the care grant and the withdrawal of the mobility grant for new applicants. The Minister extended it to September but the withdrawal of the grant for new applicants is causing grave concern.

A meeting was held yesterday in my county attended by myself and by representatives of the Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin, and the Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe. We met people with disabilities who are very angry and annoyed that this Government continues to reduce the level of funding available to them. They outlined the ways in which these cuts have been made over the past two years. They outlined the difficulties encountered in having any reasonable standard of living. It seems to be an obsession with the present Government to cut funding to the less well-off and poorer people and to withdraw moneys from people with disabilities. I have a vested interest in this issue as my daughter has spina bifida and she uses a wheelchair. I have first-hand experience. We are fortunate to be in the VHI but I can see the difficulties faced by people with disabilities.

I welcome the Minister's appointment of Eamon Stack to chair the working group to review special education because such a review is required. I meet parents regularly and they are not very happy with the National Council for Special Education as they regard the assessment process for children for primary and secondary schools as way too slow. I think the Minister will agree that it is very difficult for those waiting to be diagnosed in order to be given the special facilities. I hope that Eamon Stack will rev up the national council so that it will make changes in its assessment procedure for children with disabilities waiting to go to school. I hope he will accelerate the assessment. The procedure is very slow and parents are concerned that this delay is a policy decision to ensure that fewer people will be in a position to avail of the facilities they require. The Minister made a major mistake in his announcement earlier in the week and the reversal of the decision is to be welcomed. In my view he needs to take control of his Department because his officials are coming up with hare-brained ideas that are not in the best interests of young people who want to be properly educated in mainstream education. Many parents of people with disabilities believe they should go to mainstream schools and it is only right that politicians would provide that facility.

I have spoken in the House many times in support of many Opposition motions relating to education, health, community employment schemes and the disability sector, among others. This Government has broken many promises - promises which it did not need to make - in the general election campaign of 2011. The main headline commitments were related to personal taxation and social welfare rates. The Government failed even in those commitments when one considers that in its efforts to widen the tax bands it has imposed the property tax and the imminent water charges without due diligence and without proper preparatory audit procedures. It has also failed in its commitment to social welfare when one considers the slashing of children's allowance and the debacle of the carer's, respite and mobility grants followed this week by the SNAs and resource teaching.

The most common thread and theme in the most common, callous, concerted and targeted cuts is that they have been directed at rural services and at the disability sector. We all know that Labour's heartland is in the cities and the major towns; its identification with rural affairs is minimal. The party has no history in that sector and it is not interested in creating one. How could it, when one considers the cuts dished out to rural transport, to rural Garda stations, to postal facilities and contracts, in rural community employment schemes and rural community welfare offices, in assessing rural agricultural buildings when examining the qualification procedures for third-level grants and, most severely of all, its efforts to amalgamate and close rural schools, the very heartbeat, foundation and source from which character-building emanates? They just do not get it. However, what troubles and annoys me and what I fear most is that it appears that Fine Gael does not get it either. We are told that Fine Gael is the dominant force and has put Labour in its place. In my view, Labour has got its way on all these issues.

I note the Government's attitude to the disability sector, rural Ireland, rural education, special needs assistants and the manner in which resource teaching hours are allocated. If this Government is committed to education, to the ideals of the Constitution which espouses equal rights for all our children, how can the Minister improve teaching resources for mainstream education but he cannot improve them for children with special needs? Last week the Tánaiste stood over these cuts and tried to tell our spokesperson that the Government had not made cuts in special needs hours. As he has pointed out today, 22,000 children - an increase of 2,000 - are seeking the services and the Minister proposes giving them the same number of hours. The Government and the Tánaiste say there have been no cuts in this regard but that is not true, it is simply not factually correct for the Minister to try to explain what is inexplicable. One could go so far as saying that the Minister is treating those children with special needs, their school principals, the school managers and school boards of management, with contempt, with arrogance and with absolute disregard for how they are feeling.

The Minister has admitted many mistakes since coming into office and he is to be commended on that. He has apologised to students on the issue of his commitment on third level fees made in Trinity College before the general election. He has apologised to students and their families for the manner in which the SUSI debacle was handled which was not to his satisfaction. He accepted responsibility. He has apologised for getting it wrong with regard to DEIS schools and for the pressure from his own party, predominantly.

The Minister apologised earlier today for the mistake he made in the allocation of resource teaching hours. There is a theme and a callousness in the manner in which the Government has singled out rural services and the disabilities sector. The Minister's performance confirms that. Despite all the apologies and attempts to rectify obvious mistakes made with the best intentions, things have not improved.

When I meet boards of management in my constituency, as I did last night, I see the passion they have for their role and the effort they make to continue against the tide to provide the services they want to see in their schools and the difficulties and the hardship imposed on them in trying to do that. The Minister would say that Fianna Fáil does not have form in this area but we do. We gave a great deal of funding for the provision of facilities, services and new schools. We have form by virtue of the submission we made prior to the last budget when we sought to ring-fence education funding. We said we prioritised funding for education and would move heaven and earth to meet the demands of our children, especially those with special needs. It has become clear to those in opposition that, unfortunately, the Minister has targeted in a callous manner the educational facilities and services that must be provided to all our children.

I move amendment No. 1:

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

"notes:

— the absolute commitment of this Government, and the Minister for Education and Skills, to protecting Government spending on supporting children with special educational needs – an area which has been prioritised above all other areas by this Government, despite the enormous pressures on all areas of public spending;

— that this Government has maintained the €1.3 billion annual funding for additional teaching resources and special needs assistants, SNAs, to support children with special educational needs, at a time when there is a requirement to make expenditure savings across a range of areas;

— that provision for SNA support for the coming school year will remain at 10,575 posts, which is unchanged since the introduction of a cap on the number of SNA posts by Fianna Fáil in 2010;

— that all children who qualify for SNA support will receive access to such support and all children who qualify for resource teaching will receive support at current levels;

— that the demand for resource teaching hours has risen by an unprecedented 12 per cent over the last year, while student numbers have grown by only 1.3%;

— that our response to this demand cannot simply be to continue increasing spending in an unsustainable manner – an approach previously adopted by Fianna Fáil-led governments;

— that it is has become apparent that significant inequity exists within the current system of resource teacher allocations, and that the model for allocating these resources is deeply flawed;

— that some children, particularly those in disadvantaged communities, are being further disadvantaged by the flaws in the current model;

— that the Government welcomes the publication of the recent policy advice provided by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, on supporting students with special educational needs in schools;

— that the Minister for Education and Skills has, as suggested by that advice, requested the NCSE to establish a working group to develop a proposal, for consideration, for a "tailored" allocation model, which would underpin a new allocation system for teaching supports for children with special educational needs based on the profiled educational needs of children in schools;

— that Mr. Eamon Stack, Chairman of the NCSE and former Chief Inspector in the Department of Education and Skills, has been appointed chairperson of that group, with a mandate to report to the Minister for Education and Skills, by the end of September, with preliminary views on how the allocation system may be reformed;

— that, pending the receipt of that report, the Minister for Education and Skills has decided that the 500 posts which have been held in reserve for late applications will be used immediately to ensure that individual allocations will be preserved at 2012-13 levels while the transition to a new model of allocating resources is under way; and

— that this Government is resolute in its determination to resolve the economic woes created by successive Fianna Fáil-led Governments and will continue to invest in building fairness and quality into our education system."

This evening's debate provides an opportunity to clarify some of the issues surrounding the allocation of supports for children with special educational needs for the coming school year. It also provides me with an opportunity to reassure all parents of children with special educational needs that their children will continue to receive the supports necessary to ensure that they receive an education appropriate to their needs. We must be very clear about the changes announced by the National Council for Special Education, or NCSE, last week. The NCSE announced the allocations to schools in two separate and distinct categories of support for students with special educational needs. The NCSE informed schools that 10,490 of the 10,575 special needs assistants in our education system would be allocated to schools for September 2013. This year, we will again provide funding for 10,575 whole-time equivalent special needs assistant posts. This is the same number of SNA posts that was available last year. As Deputies will be aware, particularly those opposite, there is a cap on the number of SNAs within the education system. It was introduced by the previous Fianna Fáil Government in 2010. The Government has not altered the cap in any way, shape or form since March 2011. Due to the economic situation, the Government is not in a position revisit the decision made by Fianna Fáil to place a cap on the number of SNA posts available. However, we have maintained provision. Unlike other areas of the public sector, SNA vacancies are being filled up to this number. The number has been ring-fenced as well as capped.

Schools had been asked to submit their applications by 15 March 2013 for SNA support for the coming school year. Having considered these applications, the NCSE was able to meet all requests and allocate 10,490 posts on the basis of the exact same criteria it used last year. For the benefit of Deputies opposite, some of whom seem confused on this point, I will be very clear. The allocation of SNAs was done by the NCSE on the same policy basis as in previous years. There has been no reduction in the number of SNAs available and, as a result, no need for me to make any changes to the allocation system in my announcement earlier today. There have been some references to cuts to SNAs this year both in the House and in the media. I repeat and confirm for the benefit of the House that there has been no reduction to the number of SNA posts which are available for allocation to schools. For the coming school year, 24% of schools will have an increased SNA allocation, 23% will have a reduced allocation and 53% will see no change in their allocations. This is evidence of children growing up, gaining independence, learning new skills and even moving schools. It is manifestly false to describe these shifts across the system as cuts to individual children. No child who requires access to SNA support will be deprived of it. There has been no change to the eligibility criteria this year.

Parents who may have been frightened by reports of cuts need have no fears that their child will be denied access to an SNA. All eligible children have been allocated SNA support by the NCSE for the coming school year.

What about the 10% increase in demand?

Given that we have allocated 10,490 posts, 70 posts remain for allocation during the school year while additional posts may be freed up during the year where pupils do not enrol in schools or where care needs diminish. My Department will also provide further clarity to schools in the coming months on the role of SNAs in schools in accordance with the recommendations contained in the recently received NCSE policy advice and the recommendations contained in my Department's value-for-money and policy review of the SNA scheme.

Resource teachers are fully qualified teaching staff who provide additional support for children with learning difficulties or special educational needs. While they are a separate and distinct category of educational support from special needs assistants, allocations of resource teachers are made in tandem with SNA allocations to provide certainty to schools on their staffing levels. The Government has also protected the number of available resource teaching posts in our education system. As in the case of SNAs, the overall number of available resource teachers has not been reduced by the Government in any shape or form since March 2011. However, the demand for resource teaching hours has dramatically increased which has posed challenges for the allocation model in recent years. Last week, the NCSE advised me that demand for resource teachers had risen over the last year by some 12%. Indeed, there has been an increase in the demand for resource teachers by 25% over the last four years, while demographic growth has meant an increase of only 5% in the overall school population in the same period. In effect, we have been asked to do more with less in terms of how we deploy the extensive resource teaching provision in our education system.

This morning, I announced that I was authorising the NCSE to allocate resource teachers to students with special educational needs on the same basis and at the same level as last year. I also announced the appointment with immediate effect of Mr. Eamon Stack to chair a working group, which has been established to develop proposals for a new model for allocating resources and supports in schools. The working group has been established by the National Council for Special Education, which is chaired by Mr. Stack. The working group, which will include parents, will begin its work immediately. It will report to me in September with preliminary views on how to reform the system of allocation of the substantial additional educational resources for pupils with special educational needs. I have also asked the NCSE to urgently probe the reasons for the unprecedented 12% rise in applications for resource teacher support this year. The rate of increase compares with an annual 1.3% increase in the number of students attending school. I have grave concerns about the scale of the surge in demand for resource teachers this year relative to the growth in the student population. It is very important to obtain a clear understanding of the underlying causes for this unprecedented level of increase.

The NCSE has recently provided me with a comprehensive report on supporting students with special educational needs in schools. In its report, the NCSE has acknowledged the State's significant investment in providing supports for students with special educational needs over the past decades, which has transformed the ability of schools to educate such pupils. However, the report also makes clear there are significant disadvantages to the current system. There is evidence the current model used to allocate resources is deeply flawed. It is creating an inequitable distribution of resource teaching hours. Pupils with special educational needs in some schools in better-off areas get more support than those from disadvantaged areas. For these reasons, I accept the advice of the NCSE on the need to develop the new allocation model to which I have referred.

The additional costs associated with the allocation of additional posts will have to be met from within my Department's budget and will create significant budgetary pressures which will have to be addressed by the Department in budget 2014 and beyond. I reassure parents that children will not be disadvantaged while we move towards the new model which will ensure greater fairness and quality of education for children with special educational needs. This is an area that I have passionately defended since coming into office, despite the claims of the Opposition Deputies, during which time I have succeeded in protecting the very substantial funding currently spent in the area.

Some €1.3 billion will be spent this year in support of children with special educational needs. It is equivalent to the amount the Government spends on the Garda Síochána or the on the entire higher education system. Media commentators over the weekend remarked that, ten years after the Special Olympics were held in Ireland, we were starting to regress in terms of our provision and support for those with disabilities. I can appreciate why some people feel that way and I acknowledge the sentiments. However, that analysis is a little simplistic. We must be honest with ourselves and give a true account of the situation. For too long, the supports given to those with special educational needs in this country were far and few between. That was wrong and it was right that this should change, but in 2013 we spend €1.3 billion on supports. Much progress has been made but sometimes one gets the impression that nothing has changed. This level of investment represents approximately 15% of the entire educational budget of the Department, which is €8.3 billion. It is quite simply an enormous sum and it has been ring-fenced during the four difficult years since Fianna Fáil decided to inextricably link our country's fortunes with the gambling debts of bankers and property speculators. We heard quite a lot about it today. This week's revelations about the goings on in Anglo Irish Bank during that period are a timely reminder of why the party opposite has no credibility on handling this country's public finances in a trustworthy manner. Quite simply, the recklessness of Fianna Fáil in government has jeopardised all the social advances this country has made in the past 20 years. This Government is working hard to ensure this does not happen.

This Government has been absolutely committed to protecting the level of investment being made to support children with special educational needs at a time when there has been a requirement to make expenditure reductions across a range of areas. It is an area of spending that has been prioritised above all other areas by this Government despite the enormous pressures on all areas of public spending. The level of expenditure provided means the majority of pupils with special educational needs can continue to be educated in an inclusive environment in mainstream schools along with their peers. I am pleased to be in a position to maintain the allocation at existing levels. I want to ensure that support for children can be maintained while we move towards the new allocation model recommended by the recently published NCSE policy advice on supporting children with special educational needs in schools. I commend the amendment to the motion to the House.

I am delighted I attended the debate from the beginning. My contribution reflects my experience working as a resource teacher for 14 years before becoming a Deputy. I speak with expertise rather than scratching the surface, which is often what happens when debates take place here and people do not know much about the issue but know that it is sensationalist to say something. I chaired a meeting on behalf of the NCSE in May and I invited 166 Members of the House and all Senators to hear about the report on special education in Ireland and the advice the NCSE gave to the Department of Education and Skills on how best to serve the needs of young people with special educational needs in our education system. Some ten Members attended and it is hypocritical to hear comments and to see press releases from Opposition Members. I do not include Deputy Charlie McConalogue because he attended the briefing and I appreciate that he took the time to do so. I heard speakers who did not cross the door of the briefing contribute to this debate. At the meeting, we had the chance to have a mature discussion on how best to serve people with special educational needs in Ireland and on the best way to supply service delivery in light of the restrictions on the amount of money available.

The Minister has already said there is a commitment to keep the amount of money, €1.3 billion, for special educational needs, which says something about the commitment of the Labour Party, in coalition with Fine Gael, to protect people with special educational needs. Talking about special needs assistants and resource teacher hours is not what it is really about. It is about much more than that and how best to serve the young people who come through the doors of our schools to ensure their educational needs are met appropriately in order that they have the best chance in life. That may be a child in a school in Ballymun or in Letterkenny but if the child has a genuine learning need, it must be assessed and appropriately met by the skills required to give the child the best possible chance in life.

The current model of providing half the resources through a general allocation model and the other half through educational psychological assessments is not the way to provide resources so that every child in the country reaches its full potential. Ballymun lost its only special needs assistant, SNA, the other day and I am disappointed about it. If a teacher recognises a child in Ballymun has a learning difficulty, given the limited resources the State must work within, the child may not get the appropriate psychological assessment to have his or her needs assessed. Meanwhile, other schools are under the same constraints and someone else may be in a position to pay for an educational psychological assessment. If so, the child is assessed and the child's needs get attention and the resource hours follow. That is great for the individual but not every parent in the country can pay for an educational psychological assessment.

At the briefing, the NCSE recommended a way forward to meet the needs of every child with special educational needs in the country in an equitable and accessible manner, by removing some families' purchasing power. It recommended a move towards a more creative, innovative and professional way to ensure every child with special educational needs is assessed appropriately. I commend what the NCSE has recommended, which involves profiling schools. Schools with a larger proportion of disadvantage, such as being oversubscribed in respect of Travellers or being located in a disadvantaged area, will be assessed on the basis of the need in the community the school is located in. Even though some of the schools in my area are DEIS schools, they have fewer resources than schools in other areas. That is a problem. One of the recommendations in the NCSE report is to change the model. We are giving out about the model, which is broken.

Anybody who attended that meeting and who genuinely and wholeheartedly cared about our special educational needs children in schools would know this is the way forward. It is a much more accessible, appropriate and equitable way of dealing with the limited resources we have.

To conclude, it is a bit rich to come to the House and talk about cuts in this, that and the other. What everybody here really wants is for the individual children, both those we know and do not know, who go to our schools to reach their full potential. The model we use, which has been in place for a very long time, does not use the money and limited resources we have to do that best. The model that is being proposed will be worked on by the advisory group. There are two parents in that group, so the advice of parents will be heard. I welcome that decision. This will hopefully provide for a better model to ensure that everybody who has a learning need will have that need met to ensure they have the best chances in life.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this motion. First, I welcome the decision by the Minister for Education and Skills to sanction the 500 additional posts that are required to maintain the current level of resource support for children who need it most. This is a crucial decision, but the announcement that preceded it should never have happened in the first place. It caused huge upset and anger among the most vulnerable and hard-working parents in our communities who are already struggling daily to ensure the maximum level of support for their children who have special educational needs.

When I was elected two and a half years ago I believed the main objective of this Government was to ensure the return of our economic sovereignty. While I still believe this is of the utmost importance, it cannot be at any cost. While we must work hard and make extremely difficult decisions about the economy, our core objective must be to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our society are protected through what will be the most difficult era in our history. The welcome announcement by the Minister, Deputy Quinn, must not be the end of the debate but the beginning of a new and more focused debate on the services available to children with special educational needs.

Over the weekend I was contacted by parents who have children with special needs. Their frustration with the entire system is obvious. There is a feeling that their child is seen as a number and not a child with a specific need. One parent informed me that her child might not get access to resource teaching in September because the child was not diagnosed before a specific date. He might get some support next November if he is lucky. This child has Asperger's syndrome and struggles with social interaction. School will be a daunting enough experience for him next September and the fact that he might not have the support he needs only makes the situation worse.

The first element of the debate must focus on what the level of resource requirement will be ten or 20 years hence and why we are experiencing such a huge surge in applications for resource hours. Is it because of a much improved understanding of educational difficulties and how can they be addressed on a one-to-one basis? Are other factors causing a huge increase in the number of children being diagnosed with conditions on the autism spectrum? The next step in the debate will be to determine what other supports these children will need, such as speech therapy and occupational therapy. At present, such services appear to vary in availability across the country. When a child needs these services, they need them immediately. There are still too many children waiting for these services, and as the months and years pass the effectiveness of such supports lessens.

Money spent now on the education of children is money spent wisely. It gives them a greater opportunity in life from an earlier age. Without such essential supports to help children with intellectual disability, they could become frustrated and alienated and if school becomes unmanageable for them, it might prompt them to leave it early. That brings a new set of problems and challenges for the country. I have no doubt we have young people within our justice system who became very frustrated by the lack of supports in our schools and did not have the specific skills to cope.

Another matter that must be addressed is the issue of students with intellectual disabilities who are leaving school. Every year we see parents under huge pressure as they try to access services for their school-leaving son or daughter at a time when providers of such places are struggling to maintain current services. Last year we were assured that this would not happen again this year, but I am again being contacted by concerned parents seeking to secure a place for their son or daughter next September. We must establish clear mechanisms so parents are not faced with this uncertainty every year.

In conclusion, I welcome the provision of the 500 additional posts, while acknowledging that it will make budget decisions even more difficult in the future. However, we must never lose sight of the fact that these children only have a brief window of opportunity to address these educational difficulties, and talk of banking collapses and financial crises will not give any solace to them when they reach adulthood. If there is to be a social dividend from forthcoming budgets, it must always be targeted at the most vulnerable people in our society, including children with special educational needs.

It is very unfortunate that, once again, we find ourselves discussing this issue. I am the first to recognise that over the last two budgets the Minister has protected the budget for special education under very difficult circumstances. I believe that reflects his personal feelings about the issue and his priorities. However, I will discuss that later, because there is an issue here that goes beyond the Department of Education and Skills and I will expand on that.

Unfortunately, we are now discussing another cut that was announced last week in the education sector. We have been in this position previously with regard to DEIS and changes in the pupil-teacher ratio in further education colleges. I hope that as a result of this debate, which to my recollection is the third Private Members' motion on education cuts, we will learn a lesson. The lesson that not only the Minister but all of us must learn is that we cannot continue to make announcements and then carry out a review of what the impact of the announcement will be. That happened with DEIS. There was an announcement of the withdrawal of legacy posts and supports for DEIS schools. There was a huge public outcry about it. In fairness, the Minister listened, ordered a review of the decision and partially reversed it. Again, however, that reversal had to be within the education budget and the savings had to be found elsewhere. Schools were hit with an additional cut in their capitation grant.

That also happened with the increase in the pupil-teacher ratio for further education colleges. The Minister announced it and I was very critical of him during that period. In my view, we more or less washed our hands of it and ordered a review to be carried out by the chief executive officers of the vocational education committees, VECs, and the principals. We told them it was up to them to ensure that the impact of that policy decision on the number of courses would have to be limited as much as possible.

That said, I welcome the announcement today, and particularly the announcement that a working group will be established under the stewardship of Mr. Stack. The group will consider developing a new model for the allocation of resources to children with special educational needs. The current model is not one that we should continue to use. There are concerns about it, as we have seen from the report. I was not at the briefing but I met the NCSE separately and discussed it then. Deputy Lyons referred to some of the issues in respect of how it is being used. If one has the means to pay for the assessment, one can get the resources faster. We have all seen situations where those who need the resources should get them regardless of their income or wealth. That is something every Member of the House would like to see happen. The inclusion of parents in the working group is positive and welcome. The fact that the group will start its deliberations immediately and report to the Minister by September is a very positive part of the announcement he made today.

I also recognise that the Department today decided to provide an additional 500 teaching posts to meet the increased demand for resource hours. However, that does not deal with the issue of SNAs.

The Minister stated that he is working according to the cap set by the Fianna Fáil Administration. That is correct, but the reality is that we are not dealing with the same number of people in need of the help of special needs assistants. When the Minister says every student who needs access to a special needs assistant will have such access, we should ask ourselves whether it will be of a reduced kind. That is the question that parents want answered. While we all know children will have access to the resources needed, will it be at the same level as previously enjoyed?

Let me address the announcement made last week. Questions need to be asked as to why it was made. I understand we know the number who require additional supports provided by resource teachers. Last year, the number was 38,400 pupils and this year it is to be 42,500. We knew in advance there would be increased demand for resource hours and research teachers, yet a decision was made last week to make the announcement. It was reported in some media - perhaps the Minister can clarify this - that he asked the NCSE to hold off on the announcement for three weeks. I do not know whether this is the case, but perhaps the Minister can clarify it.

There certainly needs to be a change of focus, because the Cabinet and Departments work in isolation in respect of funding. The Minister for Finance and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform give each Department a set figure within which it must work every year. It is up to the Minister in each Department, including the Minister for Education and Skills, to work within this budget. This is a flaw in the system. One should consider how the Scandinavian countries dealt with their education systems when in recession. They took funding decisions on a collective basis. Finland, when coming out of recession following the break-up of the Soviet Union, made a collective governmental decision not to decrease the budget for education. The country has reaped the benefits in that it now has one of the best education systems in the world.

It is unfortunate that the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform give each Department a set budget within which it must work. This creates a silo effect. Each Department must scramble to find savings and make cuts. There is no cohesion and no one taking a step back to determine what is best for society as a whole. Every Minister is thinking about how he or she can save money in his or her individual Department. That is not the way to proceed.

There are questions to be asked about why the decision was made last week. I do not understand why the Minister made the announcement last week and reversed it today on foot of the huge public outcry over the weekend, although the reversal is to be welcomed. The reversal does not excuse the fact that the wrong decision was made in the first instance. It caused considerable anxiety. The trouble with this way of engaging in politics is that people are now wondering whether they just have a temporary reprieve. The Minister stated that further savings would be required in the budget for next year. Some €44 million was originally intended to be cut from the education budget next year, but this sum will obviously be increased to make up for the announcement made today. There is real fear that the reprieve is only temporary.

We need to reassure people that the State will do what is required for children with special educational needs, because it is their right. We cannot continue to make announcements and then hold up our hands and say we were wrong and will carry out a review. We must stop operating in this way; we need to know the impact of policy decisions before we make announcements. One way we can do this is by budget-proofing announcements before they are made. I have never been a Minister and do not know how the Department works but I am sure the Minister is presented with a number of options for making savings and that he must then make a decision as head of the Department. I am sure an impact analysis is carried out on each option. The Minister must have some idea of the consequences of decisions. Reversing announcements and carrying out reviews is not the right way to operate.

I have commended the Minister in the past as he and the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, have introduced some very progressive Bills. The Bills pertaining to Quality and Qualifications Ireland, the education and training boards, and further education and training were very progressive and reforming and will benefit generations to come. All of this good work gets lost when we make decisions such as the one that was made. Tonight, we are discussing special educational needs. Families with children with such needs are worried about what is coming down the line. They worry that the reprieve is temporary.

I do not know whether the Minister has determined where we will find the money. When there was a reversal in respect of DEIS, there was a decrease in the capitation grant for the schools. Has the Minister made a decision on where he will make the budgetary savings as a result of today's announcement?

In his contribution, the Minister referred to disgraceful Anglo Irish Bank telephone conversations that have been publicly aired. This is absolutely despicable stuff. It frustrates and really angers people to see the economic state of the country resulting from poor decisions by bankers and former Governments. Ordinary citizens are bearing the brunt of the decisions. I hope we will all learn from this. We cannot continue to do business as we are doing, namely, by making announcements, reversing them and then proceeding to reviews. There ought to be long-term planning for the education system. We need to consider a collective, cohesive approach from the Cabinet in this regard. I would love to see every Minister recognise the importance of education to economic recovery. As a result of importance being attached to education, I would love to see a collective decision made by the Cabinet to protect the education budget. This is done elsewhere and I do not see why we need to continue operating as we are. At present, two Ministers allocate the budget and the others must make cuts. It is almost like a scene from Oliver Twist in that Ministers are being forced to return to the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to say, "Please, sir, I want some more". It is the wrong approach.

I welcome the announcement, like everyone else, of the change heart by the Minister and of the provision of 500 additional teaching posts from September. However, there is a caveat, which is a concern. I come from an area with one of the highest birth rates in the country. That is the profile of three counties on the periphery of Dublin where class sizes are higher than anywhere else because the preceding year's enrolment is used to calculate special education needs provision. An area with that profile is at a disadvantage all the time. Pupil-teacher ratios can be different from class sizes and when an area has the highest class size in the country, that creates an additional concern.

Special education needs provision over the years was disgracefully unmet, even during the good times. I recall that during my previous tenure as a Member in the 29th Dáil, I asked a series of parliamentary questions about how much had been spent fighting parents in court. Parents were routinely in the courts seeking appropriate education for their children and over the preceding three years €20 million had been spent fighting them. They played a major role during the time of perceived plenty trying to develop services because people will no longer accept that children with special needs are second class citizens.

In addition to the issue of the number of teaching posts, the conflict between the Department and the HSE in the provision of speech and language therapy and occupational therapy places is a major issue. I came across a case in recent days where children are taken out of school and marched to a clinic. If they do not live in the HSE catchment area, they are not provided with a service, which is not good enough. This dispute means children are paying the price. It is a disgrace that adults are rowing and children are losing out. This needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency. I intend to send a note to the Minister and to the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Alex White, about this case.

The terminology used by the Government refers to the amount spent on special education needs but we need to use different language and refer to the money invested. When money is invested in children at an early age, a significant return is generated. There needs to be an early diagnosis of needs in order that the window of learning opportunity is grasped as early as possible.

I am concerned that an historical model is used to count class sizes. In an area with an expanding population, there should be a means of predicting that the growth will continue if it has been the pattern because a disadvantage is currently in built into the system. The State is then trying to play catch-up with therapy services as was demonstrated to be the case when the posts were announced earlier this year. The area that was due to get the lion's share was Tallaght, Kildare-west Wicklow and, therefore, the disadvantage was doubled. I routinely meet parents who are almost permanent lobbying for essential services for their children. Will the Minister examine the historical counting of pupil numbers because in an area with the highest birth rate, this results in an unfair disadvantage?

I also welcome the Government's announcement that it has rowed back on what would effectively have been a cut. The Tánaiste suggested earlier this week that this was not a cut because the amount allocated was the same as last year but, as the Minister acknowledged, there is much greater demand and significant additional numbers of children are entering primary education. The requirement for SNAs and resources to support children with special needs must increase, therefore, to keep pace in order that there is not a de facto cut in the provision and supports for them. I welcome the fact that the Government has acknowledged this.

I do not wish to crow because I take this issue seriously but this is yet another victory for people power. The Minister recognised this saying there was intense lobbying of Labour Deputies, in particular. The INTO and the Special Needs Parents Association had also planned protests tomorrow and against that background the Government parties changed their mind. People should take inspiration from that because there is a clear pattern that where unfair and unjust cuts are opposed in a determined way by them getting out on the streets and organising a broad coalition to say, "That is not acceptable. We are not putting up with this and we intend to fight it", it can yield results. It yielded results regarding the planned cuts to DEIS schools provision, the plan to sell off Coillte's harvesting rights and in special education needs provision. I do not say that glibly or flippantly.

The Labour Party has employed a logic since entering government in imposing what the Minister often frankly acknowledges are unacceptable cuts to justify that approach by saying it is better to be in government to do what one can rather than to be on the outside protesting about it. This issue shows that is not true and we are better off fighting externally through people power, as the parents of children with special needs have done, to force Governments to accept the cuts are unjust.

The problem with this tremendous victory, which is a welcome acknowledgement by the Government that what was proposed was unacceptable, is that the Minister has admitted he will have problems elsewhere in his budget. Overall, education cuts will still occur against the background of the Government's commitment to the troika. That is also unacceptable. I do not know where the Minister will make the cuts but it is difficult to imagine them being anything other than unpalatable and unacceptable whoever is hit. I cannot see how cuts would be good to any element of the education budget. Sometimes the Government tries to package cuts as reform but in reality, particularly in education, I cannot see how they can be justified. The Labour Party should not be a party to these cuts and its Members should be out with the people.

They should be out on the streets fighting this injustice and arguing that we should not be paying the debts that were incurred as a result of the type of disgusting behaviour in which, as we have now explicitly seen, these bankers were engaged. This is the flipside of the activities of these gangsters in Anglo Irish Bank. Why are any cuts acceptable against that backdrop?

Debate adjourned.