I thank the office of the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this extremely important topic. Moreover, it is highly topical, given the announcement by the Minister last week of the postponement of the implementation of the new model for allocation of resources hours and learning support. This announcement has created much worry and anxiety for a number of people. I acknowledge that it is important to get this right and note that my colleague, Deputy Colm Keaveney, previously sought to highlight a number of concerns shared by Members on this side of the House about the new model, as proposed. I reiterate that it is important to get this right, as the current scheme has many inconsistencies with regard to learning support, which is simply allocated to the school which has discretion to decide which children receive the specified hours. Moreover, in respect of resource allocation, some children wait anything up to two years for a diagnosis. Consequently, it is important that the model be tweaked and that we get it right.
It is important to reflect the true realities of what is going on. The Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, should note that the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act 2004 stipulates that a child with special educational needs shall be educated in an inclusive environment with children who do not have such needs. The Minister of State's senior colleague recently addressed the annual conference of the Irish Primary Principals Network, IPPN, and used the quotation:
I could be anything at all with half the chance. But today, I am going to change the world.
Does she realise this is also the ambition of Down Syndrome Ireland? At the conference she also spoke about research which showed that early intervention was often the key to improving educational outcomes and stated she was aware that children's education was about much more than reading and writing. Down Syndrome Ireland is extremely concerned about the proposed delay and I understand the Minister may have been meeting representatives of the organisation today. However, I met representatives and parents in my constituency during the week who spoke emotionally and frankly about their experiences of their children's diagnoses. On the diagnosis, one parent has written:
It's mild. I should be rejoicing and celebrating; my glass is half-full, my daughter has a chance, she has "good cognitive scores". They tell me this means she has a good IQ ... [She] is an exceptional child, she went through junior infants, senior infants and first class with no learning support and no resource teaching. Her teachers over the years consistently say that Anna brings a very positive dimension to the class. But now she has developed emotional and behavioural issues; it was only when she did poorly in a sten test at the end of first class that she qualified for limited learning support this year. She needs extra help.
While she needs such help, unfortunately, she is not getting it.
I met another woman - I will call her Mary to avoid revealing her identity - who told me her son's diagnosis had changed from mild to moderate and that he had been moved from his local national school which could not meet his needs to a special school outside his community. A woman I will call Emily has a daughter who is three and a half years old and has just been given a mild diagnosis, even though she suffers from significant speech delay. She is non-verbal and her mother is extremely concerned and worried. Her perception is that she is being punished because she gave so much support to her child that she was given a mild diagnosis.
I will conclude by asking two questions. In the period during which the scheme is being reviewed will the Minister abolish, straightaway, the misconceived label of mild learning disability for Down's syndrome children? This is a well recognised medical condition with multiple disabilities and which is recognised as an intellectual disability. Second, the system is flawed, as children with Down's syndrome are not treated equally. A child with Asperger's syndrome and a high IQ is eligible for resource hours, which is right and proper. Surely, however, it should be the same for a child with Down's syndrome who is deemed ineligible if his or her IQ is in the mild learning disability range. There must be equality and fairness.