Ar dtús ba mhaith liom rún an Rialtais a mholadh agus ba mhaith liom deis a thabhairt do mo chomhghleacaí, an tAire Stáit, deich nóiméad a thabhairt dó, fosta.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:
there has been a significant enhancement by this Government of resources dedicated to achieving better outcomes for children with special educational needs;
there has been no alteration to the criteria governing the allocation of special needs assistants, SNAs;
under the current criteria, the number of SNA posts has increased from fewer than 1,500 in 2000 to more than 10,000 in 2010;
there are more than 8,600 resource and learning support teachers in our schools;
in total, there are more than 20,000 adults supporting children with special educational needs in our schools;
investment in educational supports for special needs is now more than €1 billion;
the policy of inclusion of students with special educational needs in mainstream schools is recognised internationally as desirable and is supported in national legislation and in statements, reports and conventions that have emanated from such international bodies as the United Nations and the Council of Europe;
the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science has facilitated a recent exchange of views and information on the subject of SNA allocations; and
improved collaboration between the education and health sectors has been prioritised, with the appointment of a Minister of State with that specific responsibility;
commends the Government's determination, in a difficult economic environment with many competing demands for funding, to continue to prioritise investment for children with special educational needs by:
continuing to implement its long-standing policy of allocating teachers and SNAs to mainstream and special schools as required;
funding the provision of expert support, professional development and training opportunities in special education for principals, class and subject teachers, special class teachers, learning support and resource teachers and SNAs;
increasing the number of educational psychologists to provide support for every school in the country;
enhancing the capacity of the National Council for Special Education to co-ordinate the provision of services to children with special educational needs; and
in accordance with the Renewed Programme for Government commits to the development of, in consultation with stakeholders, a costed multi-annual plan to implement some priority aspects of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 focussing on measurable, practical progress in education and health services for children with special needs."
As this is my first substantive contribution to the House in respect of my new role as Minister for Education and Skills, I express my appreciation for the good wishes extended to me by colleagues on both sides of the House. I very much look forward to the challenge this portfolio presents and to playing my part in the development of education, training and skills policy over the coming months and years.
Our young people hold the future social and economic progression of this island within their grasp. Equipping them with the fundamentals necessary for the society and economy of tomorrow is a pivotal element of the work of any government. This Government's commitment to education, training and skills, and as the engine of that progression, is firm.
The approach on this side of the House is one that values the contribution and potential of all our young people according to their ability. It is for that reason I am particularly pleased to move the counter motion this evening. In Government, we have a strong and proud record on special education and I am glad that in my first full week as Minister for Education and Skills I have the opportunity to state my commitment to according a priority to special education during my tenure in Marlborough Street.
Needless to say, the debate also affords me the opportunity to correct some of the misinformation and misrepresentation that has accompanied public comment on special needs resource allocation in recent times. It is of some disappointment to me, but of little surprise, that the Opposition motion this evening is disingenuous. Its tabling, however, gives me an opportunity to assure all parents of children with special educational needs that their children continue to have access to an education appropriate to their needs.
I know that special education, and some of the points we are debating this evening, have also been discussed at a recent meeting of the Joint Committee on Education and Science. The committee has written to my Department following that meeting and I have requested that a response issue to it in a timely manner. This Government recognised many years ago that education for children with special educational needs in schools can only be delivered through consistent, ongoing, multi-annual investment in teachers, special needs assistants, assistive technology, specialist equipment, adapted school buildings and special school transport arrangements. We also recognised that outcomes for children with special educational needs can be enhanced by providing guidance, support and training to the professionals who teach them.
We have done much more than simply recognise these challenges, however. Over the past ten years in government, we have prioritised investment and delivered a full range of supports for schools and students. In fact, one ninth of my entire budget — €1 billion — is being spent in this area of education alone. This is the most significant statement of our level of commitment and, despite the current economic difficulties, funding for special education has not been cut. We know that children with special educational needs benefit from additional teaching support. For that reason, we fund more than 8,600 resource and learning support teachers in our mainstream primary and post-primary schools.
Children with disabilities often have care needs that cannot be met by the class teacher. For that reason, we continue to fund more than 10,000 special needs assistants in our schools. Pupils attending special schools or special classes attached to mainstream schools, benefit from having smaller class sizes. For that reason, we fund lower pupil-teacher ratios — in some classes there may be no more than six pupils with a teacher and a minimum of two SNAs. We recognise that some children with highly complex needs have greater support requirements and there is flexibility in the system to enable individual SNA posts be allocated. I am aware that some school principals have recently been critical of the teacher and SNA ratios recommended in the SERC report. It is important to recognise that these ratios represent the minimum allocation of both teacher and SNA supports to special schools and special classes. The flexibility of the current support mechanisms facilitates the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, in tailoring individual levels of support to individual pupils' needs. Schools are not restricted to SERC recommended levels of support. I want to clarify that.
In all, there are now more than 20,000 adults in our schools whose sole role is to support children with special educational needs. As well as teachers and SNAs, we continue to provide assistive technology, specialist equipment, adapted school buildings and special school transport arrangements. We have responded to the need to provide teachers with continuing professional development in special education. This has been a key priority in recent years. Establishment of the special education support service, SESS, to provide expert support, professional development and training opportunities in special education for school staff has been significant. Last year alone 23,602 training places were provided. This training is designed to ensure a quality teaching service in our schools, one that promotes inclusiveness, collaboration, and equality of access for students with special educational needs to educational opportunities. In addition, more than 300 teachers have availed of places on post-graduate teacher training programmes related to special educational needs.
Despite the ongoing economic difficulties, and in spite of competing demands for funding, our renewed programme for Government commits to further investment in the development of services for pupils with special educational needs. This is a significant statement of intent at a time of reduced public spending. The renewed programme provides for 500 teaching posts in schools over the next three years over and above additional posts that will arise due to demographic increases. I am pleased to advise the Dáil this evening that 100 of these posts, at post-primary level, are being used to improve the learning support service in post-primary schools.
The renewed programme commits to the expansion in the number of psychologists employed directly by NEPS to 210. This will ultimately allow for the assignment of a NEPS psychologist to every primary and post-primary school in the country, with particular emphasis on special needs units, classes and special schools. There are currently 157 psychologists employed within the service. This is an increase from 127 at the start of the current Government's term. In the meantime, this Government continues to ensure that all primary and post-primary schools have access to psychological assessments, either directly through the assigned NEPS psychologist or through the scheme for commissioning psychological assessments administered by NEPS, which supports the cost of assessments provided by a panel of private practitioners.
I know the education sector is disappointed that the current economic difficulties have prevented the full implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, EPSEN, and I share that disappointment. However, the renewed programme re-states the Government's commitment to the full implementation of EPSEN at the earliest possible date. A significant number of sections of the Act have been commenced, principally those establishing the NCSE and those promoting an inclusive approach to the education of children with special educational needs. In the interim, I am committed to developing a costed multi-annual plan to implement some priority aspects of the Act, focusing on measurable, practical progress in education and health services for children with special needs. This process will require consultation with the education partners as well as the Health Service Executive, HSE, and the Department of Health and Children. My Department has already commenced discussions with the HSE and the Department of Health and Children about the realisation of this plan.
The office of the Minister of State with responsibility for disability and mental health is aware of the need to co-ordinate disability services across both departmental and agency lines. For the first time, the Government has established an office, headed up by a Minister of State, with specific responsibility for disability and mental health. An integrated approach has been adopted by the education and health sectors under the auspices of a cross-sectoral team to target additional resources to areas of greatest need. This co-ordinated approach will ensure delivery of the most effective response for children living with disability and special educational needs on a daily basis. The HSE will continue to work with funded specialist providers and in co-operation with the education sector to address the health related needs of children with special educational needs in the context of the resources available. Progress is being kept under review by the office of the Minister of State with responsibility for disability and the cross-sectoral team.
We are also enhancing the capacity of the National Council for Special Education to co-ordinate the provision of services to children with special educational needs. The NCSE has appointed 12 senior special educational needs organisers to co-ordinate the work of the locally-based special education needs organisers, SENOs. Sanction has also been given to recruit further SENOs to improve the service the NCSE provides to children, parents and schools.
I have outlined the substantial commitment of the Government to providing for pupils with special educational needs. However, this does not mean that resources allocated to schools are left in those schools ad infinitum, even when the relevant pupils have left. I note the Opposition motion calls for a freeze of the current review of special needs assistants in schools. Does this mean the Members believe SNAs should be kept in schools even when the children have left?