Private Members’ Business.

Special Educational Needs: Motion.

I move:

"That Dáil Éireann:

deplores:

the manner in which the Government has withdrawn educational supports from schools in the middle of a school year, without adequate consultation with schools or parents and the negative impact this has had on special needs children being taught in mainstream and special schools; and the Government's failure to implement the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004;

considering:

the Government review has been fundamentally flawed from the beginning as it has not incorporated an independent appeals mechanism for parents and schools; and

the Government decision to abolish over 100 special needs classes last year has been recently called into question by expert research on special education published by the National Council for Special Education;

calls on the Government to:

freeze the current review of Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) in schools;

publish the National Council for Special Education's report on this issue without further delay;

implement the relevant sections of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 to give the independent Special Education Appeals Board the power to consider appeals of decisions taken by the Government review, effectively allowing a look back at decisions that have been taken to date;

review the Special Education Review Committee criteria for the allocation of SNAs in schools, which dates from 1993;

review the role of the SNA in schools in light of the experience of schools; and immediately publish a costed multi-annual plan for the implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 as committed to in the Renewed Programme for Government."

I wish to share time with Deputies David Stanton, Ulick Burke, John O'Mahony, Joe McHugh, James Bannon, Deirdre Clune, Olivia Mitchell and Kieran O'Donnell.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I congratulate the new Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Coughlan, on her recent appointment. The appointment brings with it the opportunity for a much needed rethink on the issue before the House tonight. The current strategy of the Department of Education and Science in removing special needs assistants throughout the education system is causing havoc and must be stopped at once. It is simply wrong and unfair and the Minister has an opportunity to right that wrong tonight.

It is time the Department of Education and Science started to listen to what is going on in schools all over the country. It is time that the voice of parents of special needs children was listened too. It is time for a fresh start. That start could begin tonight by this House accepting this motion and freezing the current review of SNAs. It must also start with a new attitude from the new Minister for Education and Science, which I hope we see tonight. This is an emotive issue.

Children with special educational needs were for far too long ignored within Irish education. In recent years we have come a long way. New legislation and new resources have made it possible to offer parents a chance that their child can be in a mainstream class like anyone else. Children with recognised mental, physical, sensory or intellectual disabilities have found a new home within our primary and post-primary education system. It is estimated that more than 190,000 children with special needs are in Irish education. As the school population grows and as further assessments are made that number will increase over the short to medium term. The demand is rising, not falling.

The choice is not between wanting more or fewer SNAs, rather, it is whether we want inclusion in Irish education. That is the fundamental choice and issue at the heart of this debate. One cannot have inclusion without SNAs. As the Government reduces the number of SNAs, so too does it reduce inclusion in Irish education. We do not have a choice if we are to respect the legislative and moral responsibility to include special needs children in our education system.

Yesterday, this State once again bailed out the banking system with mind boggling amounts of money. That money belongs to you and me and to future generations who will have to pay it back at some time in the future. At a time when we are recapitalising the banks, is it not morally indefensible that the Government stands over the abolition of SNAs to the most vulnerable children in Irish education? That is what is happening in mainstream and special schools all over this country. I want this debate to clearly set a marker for the National Council for Special Education which is currently reviewing the number of SNAs.

The Minister, Deputy Coughlan, and those who support the Government in this House should stop hiding behind the NCSE. They should stop running for cover as they let an unelected body make the wrong decisions over and over again. I regret saying this, but the truth is the performance of the NCSE at the most recent meeting of the Joint Committee on Education and Science was not only pathetic as key questions went unanswered, but highlighted that the review from the start was hopelessly inconsistent. On that occasion Government and Opposition Deputies and Senators spoke with one voice.

I expect authorities established and funded by this House to answer directly questions that Members of the Oireachtas want answered. That did not happen two weeks ago and it was an absolute disgrace. It is now time this House came together in supporting this motion tonight and stopping what is clearly a defective review. Ultimate accountability must be seen in this House and we should not allow a quango or an unelected body to make decisions of this magnitude in our schools. We are ultimately responsible to the Irish people for the actions we take and those taken by other bodies.

The Minister has the power to do something that her predecessor singularly failed to do — start listening to teachers and parents on the ground. How can the Minister, or anyone else for that matter, stand over SNAs being removed in the middle of a school year? Some schools have seen dramatic reductions in SNAs with four months to go before the end of the school year. A lot of time goes into developing relationships and trust with children with special needs and they often find change difficult and confusing. Halting the current review is essential in order that some credibility in the decision making process can be restored.

Our motion freezes the current review and demands that we revisit the SERC criteria of 1993 before re-establishing the review. Much has changed in 17 years and too many schools believe that a narrow and restrictive interpretation of the criteria is being made on a daily basis by the NCSE. Even in 17 short years much has changed in schools. Schools are more complicated and sometimes very challenging behaviour from children must be dealt with. How can the Government stand over the review when it has been proven to be so defective? In effect, the review was changed midstream as initially no appeals system was in place to challenge the decisions of SENOs locally. Now we have an appeals system that is not independent, as senior people within the NCSE review the decisions of local SENOs. How can anyone stand over the independence of that appeals system?

Any court in the land would drive a coach and four through any argument made by the NCSE or the Department of Education and Science on the question of the consistency of the report as it applies to children, when it manifestly changed on two occasions during the life of the review. There is a judicial review just waiting to happen and I would not like to be the Department of Education and Science in defending such cases, if and when they come before the courts. Our motion demands that where an SNA was removed to date it should automatically follow that a proper, independent review be held which would, in effect, allow a look back on the decisions already taken. This is the least we should expect from the system.

The failure of the Government to implement the Education of Persons with Special Educational Needs Act and to publish a costed multi-annual plan as promised in the renewed programme for Government once again highlights the priorities of the Department of Education and Science. The Act was supposed to be the legislative basis for supporting children with special needs in Irish education before it was thrown overboard by the Minister's predecessor. Deputy Stanton will speak further on this during the course of the debate.

We will also need special schools and indeed special classes within mainstream education for many years to come. Last year the Minister for Education and Science effectively knocked out over 100 special classes in mainstream schools before the NCSE was able to formally advise the Minister. The latest research from the NCSE on special classes and special schools paints a very different picture from the rationale for closure the Minister, Deputy O'Keeffe, painted to the House last year. What is most appalling about special schools, and their role within the system, is the dramatic reductions that many of these schools have experienced in SNA supports. Some have been subject to a 40% reduction in SNA support in the middle of the school year. In reducing the SNA supports to these schools, the Department is saying to their children that they should find a school elsewhere.

Yesterday, the Government saved the banks with billions of real money. As that was happening the SNA review continued all over this country, cutting back on people who make inclusion work in schools. Our young people did not create this mess, yet they are being asked to shoulder a heavy burden for the mistakes of others. How anyone can stand over the deliberate and systematic demolishing of special needs supports to our children is beyond comprehension. Tonight, we have a chance to make a stand. Deputy Coughlan, as a new Minister for education, has an opportunity to listen to Members, something her Department and her predecessor have not done. I hope we use the debate to begin that process.

It was an exciting time in the House in 2003. We had a fantastic debate on the EPSEN Act and for once there was hope that children with disabilities and special needs would be looked after. The then Minister for Education and Science opened his contribution to the debate on the legislation with a quote from John F. Kennedy who said: "Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation." The Minister went on to say these words applied to all of us but, in particular, to children with special needs and disabilities "who are at risk of being marginalised and suffering disadvantage because of their special educational needs". I agreed with him that early intervention and appropriate supports were vital if children with disabilities were to reach their full potential. All children get one chance at education and children with special needs, in particular, deserve that chance.

The Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, stated in 2003: "The EPSEN Act raised issues of fundamental importance to our society. It is essential we offer equal educational opportunities to all. Its purpose is to introduce clear and applicable legislation to ensure educational rights for children with disabilities are respected." He said it went beyond the Equal Status Act 2000 and the Education Act 1998. It was a time of great excitement. Many people were interested and there was significant debate and interaction. Despite the promises and commitments provided for in the EPSEN Bill and the previous Education Act and the great hope we had then, little has changed since legislation was enacted in 2004 and it remains largely unimplemented. When it was introduced, the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, said he would provide for a five-year timeframe for its implementation. He said it was "realistic, ambitious but achievable". Unfortunately, he was wrong.

Only a few sections of the Act have been implemented to date. It means sections 3 to 18, inclusive, and sections 38 and 39, which deal with the meat of the legislation, including the right to assessment, provision of services, preparation of individual education plans for children with special needs, appeals of decisions, allocation of resources, appointment of liaison officers, planning for educational needs, implementation of educational policy by the HSE, delegation of functions to principals, provision of mediation services and the duties of the HSE in regard to school age children, remain unimplemented. The initial five-year timeframe for full implementation by 2010 will not be met and a decision was taken in April 2009 to postpone indefinitely the implementation of the Act. The rights and needs of children with special educational needs are being put on hold while the State's resources are pumped into zombie banks. How could anyone say that this is fair?

The only two sections of the Act to have been implemented relate to the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and the Special Education Appeals Board, SEAB. The board was only established in April 2007. It comprises three staff and it has been allocated €330,000 over the past three years. The board has not been allowed to hear any appeals, yet the Government has pumped almost €330,000 into it. How can the Minister justify this? I have been informed that the board is carrying out research, preparing papers and so on, but its primary function under the legislation is to hear appeals.

SENOs have been given significant responsibilities when they visit schools. They are required by the Minister to adjudicate on the needs of children and whether they should have the support of SNA. No independent body had the power to review their decisions until recently, which is almost unprecedented, and it is unfair on SENOs that they have to play God in all these cases. Will the Minister allow the SEAB to carry out the functions the Act and the House envisaged it would? Parents have no recourse to an appeal, which is unfair.

A few weeks ago NCSE officials appeared before an Oireachtas committee and advised that at the end of February they established a review process whereby SENO decisions from that date could be internally reviewed by a senior SENO if an appeal was lodged within five working days. The timescale is extraordinarily short and the SENOs are acting as judges in their own courts on important matters. Between 20 and 30 appeals were received within two weeks. This clearly shows the significant demand for an appeals process and I hope the SENOs will allow for retrospective reviews of decisions taken. That should also be the case. The NCSE has also decided to establish an independent advisory committee but this will be a case of too little, too late for many children and their parents because I understand this will only be put in place next October.

Will the Minister examine the role and duties of SNAs because they should be clearly defined and updated? For instance, they examine the care needs of children. The criteria have remained unchanged but they are being implemented strictly and this has led to the cutbacks in schools. For example, if an SNA helps a child to turn a page in a book or points out where is the script, that is considered to be education and he or she cannot do that. It is that strict. We need to examine the role of SNAs because they perform a vital role in schools. Everyone would be happy if a fair and independent appeals procedure was in place. That is crucially important because that does not currently exist. In almost every other sector where decisions are taken, it is possible to appeal. For example, decisions on social welfare benefits and planning applications can be appealed but SENO decisions cannot.

All of us who were involved in shaping the EPSEN Act, including the former Minister, Deputy Dempsey, wanted to ensure an appeals process would be in place. It is bad enough that only a few sections of the Act have been implemented. The legislation needs to be implemented in full. I wish the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, well in her new job but I appeal to her to address this. She has a feel for what is going on in this area and I hope she will take this issue by the scruff of the neck and be fair about it, especially for children with real special needs.

When drafted, the EPSEN Act was entitled the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill and the Title was amended to widen the scope of the legislation and to soften it. As Deputy Hayes said, this issue affects the most vulnerable children. It is wrong and unfair for the parent of a child with special needs to be told that the SNA on whom his or her child depends is being taken away and the parent has no recourse to appeal or cannot talk to anyone about it. It is a case of "good luck and goodbye". That is most unfair. Perhaps the Minister would at least pursue that issue. If we achieve nothing else tonight but that, we will have achieved something good.

I commend Deputy Brian Hayes on bringing this timely motion before the House. I wish the Tánaiste well in her new portfolio as Minister for Education and Skills. This is the first test of her support for children with special needs. The appointment of special needs assistants to meet a child's care needs has been a significant development in education and a great benefit for children with special needs.

While the role of a special needs assistant is clearly defined in the Department's circular, 17/02, as it relates to the child's care needs, it also relates to the child's educational needs. Special needs assistants are recruited specifically to assist in the care of children with special needs in the educational context. Only when the child's care needs are properly addressed can the learning process take place. I urge the Minister to consider the damage already done by her predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, and to stop the review process now taking place as a result of which children are being denied their basic rights. Neither the Minister nor his Department were aware of the disruption caused within schools as a consequence of the reviews and cuts which followed. Special needs assistants play an indispensable role in meeting such needs as mobility, communications and medical procedures so that children can get the maximum benefit from education in their school.

If a child with special needs does not receive an appropriate education he or she will be marginalised within the school community and in society later. For a child, his or her school and parents, the loss of a special needs assistant in such an arbitrary fashion is fundamentally unfair. The loss of a special needs assistant could hamper the right of parents of children with special needs to fully participate in their child's education. Will the Minister adhere to the demands of the EPSEN Act 2004 which clearly identifies "that people with special educational needs shall have the same right to avail of, benefit from an appropriate education as do their peers who do not have such needs, to assist children with special educational needs and to leave school with the skills necessary to participate to the level of their capacity in an inclusive way in the social and economic activities of society and to live independent and fulfilled lives"?

Investment in the special education sector must remain a priority. I urge the Tánaiste to immediately freeze the review process. The people who carry out the reviews are seen as departmental hit-squads denying children with special needs their entitlement to an appropriate education. The Irish Primary Schools Network suggests that approximately 10% or 1,200, special needs assistants will be made redundant for the sake of saving the Department approximately €30 million a year in response to the demands of an bord snip. Let us measure that sum against the development of a child with special needs, his or her improved confidence, ability to integrate into society and to be respected. Let us also measure the peace of mind given to the parents and families of such children. Let us compare the sum of money in question with those mentioned in yesterday's debate on the banking system. A total of 1,200 loans were brought into NAMA yesterday and 1,200 special needs assistants were made redundant by the Department. Will the Tánaiste reconsider what has been done? I urge her to instruct the NCSE to cease the reviews.

I am pleased to make a contribution to the debate. I commend Deputy Brian Hayes for bringing the motion forward at this time, which is appropriate as schools around the country are getting the result of the reviews on their special needs allocation and feeling the effects of the cutbacks. We heard at first hand in committee in recent weeks the harrowing stories of mainstream and special schools whose allocations have been cut drastically. Not only that, but the changes have to be implemented in the middle of the school year. Never before, even in the harshest of economic times, have teachers been taken away from pupils in the middle of the school year.

The Government amendment before us tells us that the criteria of the Department have not changed. If that is the case and all of the schools were reviewed less than a year ago when the present allocations were deemed appropriate, prior to the recent announcements, how could so many schools have lost so many posts? Members on all sides of the House are aware of such schools. It is difficult to come to any other conclusion than the fact that the purpose of the review was merely to cut numbers and to save money. As many of my colleagues have indicated, the review was ill thought out and no appeals process was in place until the review was half finished. There is no independent appeals board. The body that makes the initial judgments also adjudicates on appeals.

St. Anthony's special school in Castlebar will lose three special needs assistants under the review that has recently been carried out. Along with my fellow Deputies on both sides of the House I have attended meetings with parents, staff and children where we heard harrowing stories of the effects of the proposed reduction in the allocation of special needs assistants. Everyone acknowledged the progress the children had made in recent years and explained that to lose their special needs assistants now in the middle of a school term would do irreparable damage to the future of the most vulnerable in our society. Deputy Flynn has rightly acknowledged and articulated the need for the reversal of the cuts at St. Anthony's and has reinforced those arguments at a recent meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science. I hope that she, with the Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, considers that carefully when they casts their votes on the motion tonight.

It is ironic that the motion comes the day after this House voted billions for the recapitalisation of the banking system. The Government has rammed through megabucks to cover for the mistakes and greed of the most powerful and reckless people in society. Will the Government and its Deputies deprive the weakest, most vulnerable children in society who cannot speak for themselves when it would only cost a fraction of what was gifted to our most powerful last night?

I wish the new Minister well in her post. I appeal to her to bring fresh thinking to the area. This is an issue that transcends party politics. Progress has been made in recent years and the cuts will destroy that progress. We will not be forgiven if we do not shout "Stop" now.

I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Brian Hayes, for introducing the motion. I also congratulate my county colleague, the Tánaiste, Deputy Coughlan, on her new position as Minister for Education and Skills. As she is aware, we have 403 special needs assistants in County Donegal.

My colleague, Deputy Stanton, articulated a point about the EPSEN Act which I will not repeat but the Act is the cornerstone of any future system of integrated education in terms of special needs support. That is where the focus has to be. The Tánaiste should take that point on board. Any of the practitioners to whom I have spoken, be they special needs assistants, principals or teachers have indicated that the EPSEN Act is critical to getting a proper structure in place to facilitate special education.

Positives will emerge from the review but negatives will also be evident. The role of special needs assistants has to be reviewed. We should use them as a resource, not as the Government is currently doing in terms of budgetary cuts because there is insufficient money to retain the present complement of special needs assistants. We should also learn from their experiential learning and the valuable work in which they have been involved. Every time I meet SNAs in my clinic, I find they have a new angle, see new opportunities and see where the weaknesses are. The SNAs are critical to any review to be carried out.

Parents of people with disabilities or special educational needs are no different from those with a child that does not need support. They have the same aspirations, ambitions, hopes and dreams regarding their children getting an education. We need to specify that special needs supports are not just about care because we need to differentiate between care and education.

Dr. Robin Eames said at a sermon in Armagh approximately two years ago that education is what is left when everything else is forgotten. We are only passing through and must pass on the educational tradition. I reiterate that education is what is left when everything else is forgotten.

I thank my colleague, Deputy Brian Hayes, for bringing this important matter before the House. The withdrawal of SNAs and classes from schools with pupils whose integration into mainstream education is dependent on such provision is unbelievable and must be reversed this evening. To remove this help flies in the face of logic and basic decency. Is the Minister suggesting "the survival of the fittest" should become the new educational mantra? How exactly does the Minister picture the future of children left to cope in a school environment that is alien to their needs?

The Government has a shameful record of targeting the most vulnerable in society. However, even by its standards, the act of hitting out at highly dependent children is certainly the lowest of the low. What do we expect it from other than a Fianna Fáil-led Government that bailed out the dodgy bankers and builders yesterday?

Under the Constitution every child is entitled to an education. However, to achieve their full potential, some children need special help. The push to integrate special needs children into mainstream education has always been open to debate. With many being left to sink or swim in an environment that is not tailored to their needs, that debate is now intensifying.

Special needs classes in mainstream schools give children the chance to avail of the specific help they need while benefiting from the social and educational environment of the school. However, parents and students who availed of such special provision were given no warning of the cutback. The axe is falling in the middle of the academic year with no appeal mechanisms.

How can one ever begin to imagine the anguish of the parents we met and those in every constituency who have in good faith entrusted the education of their children to the State? They were assured by the Government that their children would be looked after within the system. As recently as last month, the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe said, "This Government has delivered for children with special needs." I am not sure whether he believed his own spin or whether he had totally lost touch with reality. The latter option would certainly appear to be the case in terms of the doublethink on the part of the Government. While SNAs are being withdrawn from schools, it is contended there is no question of posts being removed from schools where they meet the scheme's criteria. Numerous schools in my constituency of Longford-Westmeath have lost an SNA to the detriment of their pupil profile, which has not changed.

I am very disappointed with this Government. I hope the hypocritical politicians on the Fianna Fáil side, who were outside the gate this evening, vote for the Fine Gael motion. I compliment our spokesperson on education, Deputy Brian Hayes, on bringing the very important motion before the House.

Like the other speakers, I firmly believe all children have a right to education. I am sure Members on all sides believe this. It is the delivery of education to children with special needs, physical and mental, that requires support. The former Minister for Education and Science stated in the Seanad recently that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities places a strong obligation on Governments to provide inclusive education for all learners. He said it requires states to ensure that "persons with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability" and that "persons with disabilities can access an inclusive, quality, free primary education and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live". The essence of tonight's motion is ensuring inclusive education for all.

We have come a long way in terms of supporting children in obtaining their educational entitlements. That we have so many SNAs employed in our schools and a facility whereby children can gain access to and participate in mainstream education in addition to having their own special classes is evidence of this. However, the withdrawal of SNAs for children during the past academic year is the subject of tonight's debate. It was on the minds of those outside the gates of this House earlier today.

One should consider the role of SNAs in supporting children and young adults in school. Assisting pupils to board and alight from buses and assisting them with difficulties such as clothing and feeding sum up the role of an SNA.

The parents and principal of a child from whom an SNA is withdrawn should have a right to an independent appeal. The appeals process should be put in place. I appeal to the Minister to recognise that all children deserve an education and an opportunity to realise their full potential, regardless of where this lies for them. For some, this may involve a leaving certificate and, for others, it may just be an opportunity to gain valuable social skills, which is extremely important.

I appeal to the Minister to examine carefully the wording of tonight's motion. It is carefully structured and certainly spells out the need to implement the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, which has been neglected. It will go a long way towards ensuring full inclusivity for children.

As a parent, I know only too well the high price people with special needs pay in later years if, as children, they are denied access to education, therapy and treatment. Society pays a price also because, when children are deprived of an opportunity to maximise their potential, they end up in a range of institutional care situations, including prison, unfortunately. If they do not end up fully dependent on the State, they end up at least more dependent thereon than they should be and than they need to be.

Not alone could nobody make a moral case for what is taking place, nobody could make an economic case for it. A Government that reverses pay cuts for senior civil servants and sanctions pay increases for bankers should not target disabled children and children with special needs for the most penal of cuts.

Every scheme should be reviewed, but in this case it is not a normal, ongoing review; it is a review with an agenda. Unfortunately, nobody seems to know what the agenda is because there is zero transparency associated with it. Nobody knows what the review is trying to achieve and where it will end. Having got rid of special classes in mainstream schools, it seems the aim of the Government is now to get rid of special schools. Why? Does the Government seriously believe all the children now in special schools will survive in mainstream schools given that they are in special schools in the first instance because they could not survive in mainstream schools? Neither could mainstream schools cope with them; that is the reality.

Whatever chance the children have of surviving in special schools, they have no chance of surviving in mainstream schools without an SNA. The bottom line is that they will not survive. They will drop out, regress and become the statistics about which we do not want to know. They will become the statistics on homelessness and prisons. What are statistics for us represents absolute heartbreak for the children's parents. It is all in pursuit of a policy that we do not know anything about, since it has not been articulated. I now hear that the secondary schools have been informed that any school that has a teacher over the quota after September must either get rid of him or her, or an SNA. What school will get rid of a science teacher to save an SNA? The reality is that the SNA will lose his or her job and the child will lose his or her future.

The Minister cannot stand over what is going on. This review has no clear criteria, no benchmark, no published objective, no appeals system, no transparency and no accountability. It is really just a hatchet job on the most vulnerable in society and she must listen to the terms of this motion, and at least put a stop to it for now and have an appeals system put in place that has retrospection.

I compliment my colleague, Deputy Brian Hayes, for bringing this very opportune motion before the House. As a general observation, we have to come before this House too many times in terms of issues to do with special needs. I wish the Minister well and she has an opportunity to set out, in a defining moment, precisely what her incumbency as Minister for Education and Skills will be about. We have to look after people with special needs.

Many students and parents are here today from across the length and breadth of the country. Countless numbers of people are coming to me in my constituency, Limerick East, who are extremely worried about SNAs being withdrawn from their children. Inspections are ongoing, some of them have got the results while others have not. The Minister has to make a commitment tonight to put an appeals process in place and ensure that children can achieve their optimal capacity. As a parent, the Minister can appreciate that this is what is required. We cannot have a situation where if an SNA is withdrawn from a child, he or she will regress. The child will have been allocated the SNA, at the outset, to ensure that he or she could achieve optimal potential. Therefore, this is imperative.

On a final point, some €8 billion has been put into Anglo Irish Bank by the Government since 21 January this year. That is equivalent to the Minister's entire budget in one year. The Government needs to get its priorities right.

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:

"recognising that:

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?

Does it mean that they believe that we should not have ambitions for children to achieve independence or to make progress?

Does it mean that they do not consider that additional SNAs should be allocated where they are required? I appreciate that schools would like more teachers, more SNAs and more funding. However, resources must be targeted at those children who need them. Resources left in areas within the school system that are not in accordance with relevant criteria mean that these resources are not available for other deserving areas.

I wish to be clear on some key issues. The SNA scheme has been a major factor in both ensuring the successful integration of children with special educational needs into mainstream education and providing support to pupils enrolled in special schools and special classes. The SNA scheme will continue to be supported. The terms and criteria for the SNA scheme have not changed. Schools that have enrolled children who qualify for support from a special needs assistant will continue to be allocated SNA support. During the period of the current review, the NCSE has allocated over 1,300 new SNA posts to schools. This is happening at present. The NCSE has been processing applications from schools for SNA support all year, and this will continue. There is no question of posts being removed from schools where they meet the scheme's criteria.

In the course of recent discussions there have been suggestions that my Department had given a target to the NCSE for reducing the number of SNAs. That is absolutely not true and there is no foundation to such a claim. The NCSE has merely applied the criteria that have always existed. This could have resulted in additional posts, as it did in many schools. In other schools there was a reduction either on the basis that the children had left or their care needs had diminished.

As the Deputies are aware, the purpose of an SNA is to support the care needs of children with disabilities, not to create dependency. Therefore, a child with a disability in junior infants at age four or five can be different from one in fourth or fifth class, aged ten or 11, and very different from an 18 year old leaving school. I fully recognise that some children with disabilities will always need support in school. However, many children with disabilities develop independent living skills as they grow and mature. Does the Opposition believe that no children with special educational needs are capable of developing independence?

Do Opposition Members not have an ambition that looks beyond a disability and acknowledges ability that can lead to independence from SNA support for children with special educational needs?

That is not fair.

One of the reasons for the allocation of SNAs is to assist children to achieve independence. Where a child develops to such an extent that he or she no longer needs that support, that is something to be celebrated. There is a downside for the SNA, however, in that their role with regard to that child becomes redundant. That reality is, however, part and parcel of the work life of SNAs. Therefore, do the Opposition Members believe that this significant level of State investment should not achieve one of its main aims? The content of the motion proposed by the party opposite would lead one to believe, depressingly, that the answer to these questions is "Yes".

What do you believe?

Bad move. If the Minister wishes to play dirty, so can I.

I listened with great interest to the Deputies' call for a freeze on the current review of the SNA scheme. In particular, they were concerned that SNA posts are being withdrawn during the course of a school year. Are the Deputies asking the NCSE to leave SNA posts in schools where the children for whom the posts were allocated have left?

No, we are not.

Are they saying that if a child supported by an SNA leaves a school in October,——

That is very bad judgment, Minister, on your first day out.

——the NCSE should leave that post in place in the school until the end of the school year,——

Who wrote this rubbish?

——as well as allocating another SNA to the child's new school? I believe the Deputies who have tabled this motion could not agree with that proposition.

With regard to SNA posts where a child has developed independent living skills, this is a more sensitive issue. I understand the calls for changes not to be made in the course of a school year. However, we must put the child and their development first. It is not generally in the interests of the child for the NCSE to leave an SNA in place where a child has developed independent living skills. To do so has the potential to impact on a child's personal development in a negative way.

It is, therefore, often better in that instance that the SNA move in a managed way out of their care role for that child, even if it is during the course of the school year.

The House must understand that while mainstream teaching posts are allocated at the start of a school year and remain for the full school year, the allocation of special needs assistant posts has never been tied to the start of the school year. This was to assist schools who may not have been able to access the relevant professional reports at the start of the school year or who had new pupils with special educational needs enrolled during the year. Accordingly, the addition or reduction of special needs assistant posts throughout the course of the school year has always been a feature of the SNA scheme. The NCSE has adopted a flexible approach where a school encounters particular transitional difficulties, for example, in the case of students with diminishing care needs where a number of SNAs are leaving. In such cases, it can allow a longer transitional time and I have asked the council to continue this practice and to keep its protocols in this regard under review.

It is important to ensure there is a consistent application of policy in the allocation of special needs supports across the country. That is what is happening at present, and I do not intend to freeze this review. While a small number of schools remain to be reviewed, the NCSE will publish the outcome of the SNA review to date on its website this evening. The overall position is currently as follows: 920 SNA posts were freed up as it was found that the students to whom the posts related had actually left the relevant school; over 1,300 new SNA posts have been sanctioned; and 733 posts were freed up because students had diminished care needs. While the overall number of SNA posts nationally is down 3.5%, this is mainly as a result of schools retaining posts when the child to whom the post related had left the school. There was no change in the level of SNA support in just over 1,500 schools. A total of 579 schools received an increase in their allocation of SNA support, while 832 had their allocations reduced either because the students had left the school or due to the student's development of independent living skills.

What about extra needs?

Approximately 900 schools do not have an SNA. These figures belie any contention that there has been a serious diminution of the levels of SNA support. They also highlight the inaccuracy of exaggerated claims that the review would result in thousands fewer SNAs being employed.

I will now address the concerns expressed by Deputies about the review process itself and reassure the House on this issue. I emphasise that every school was requested to inform parents that the review was commencing and to invite them to contribute, should they wish, either by telephone contact or by appointment during the review. Many parents participated in the process. In deciding the level of SNA support to be allocated to the school, the SENO visited each school and examined the professional reports for each child with special educational needs. The review process also allowed SENOs the opportunity to discuss with the principal, teachers and SNA the manner in which the care needs of the child arose in the school and to look at the school records and so forth. The SENO observed the student in the classroom and the schoolyard. To fully review the needs of all pupils enrolled in special schools, the council arranged for a team of two to three SENOs to visit each school.

I am aware, from the council, that some schools were concerned that the decision was only taken on the basis of the observations of the SENO in the classroom. The House will appreciate, from the process I have outlined, that the SENO considered the professional reports, discussions with staff and any school records, as well as direct observation before determining the appropriate level of support.

Since January 2005, the council has been committed to exercising its role in the allocation of additional teaching hours and SNAs to schools to support the education of children with special educational needs in a way that is fair, consistent and transparent. In carrying out this function, the council applied my Department's policy and has sought to obtain all relevant evidence in regard to a child's educational and care needs.

Each year, approximately 4,000 primary, post-primary and special schools submit in the region of 12,000 applications for teaching and SNA supports to their local SENO. Given the scale of the operation, it is inevitable that some schools or parents may seek to query the outcome of the decision-making process in regard to a child or a particular group of children. In certain cases, the school or parents may be in a position to provide additional information, such as new professional reports, which come to hand when the original decision has been made. The council will take the necessary steps to review the original decision in such cases and will alter the level of resources to be allocated to the school, if considered appropriate.

However, the council has recognised that situations will arise where no new information is available but the school or parent is not satisfied with the outcome. To address such cases, the council has recently introduced an appeals procedure whereby schools and parents may appeal a decision in regard to the allocation of teaching and SNA resources. Where that is lodged by the school, they will be permitted to retain the resources under appeal, pending the outcome of the appeals process.

What about the Special Education Appeals Board, SEAB?

The council will ensure that a senior SENO who has not been directly involved in making the original decision will process the appeal. In doing so, the senior SENO will uphold or alter the decision.

This appeals process has only just been introduced and is available to schools. I am aware that a number of schools have already submitted appeals in regard to the outcome of the review of SNA resources and these appeals will be processed following the Easter holidays. However, this process will lead to a greater level of clarity and more transparency around the allocation of teaching and SNA resources to schools for the 2010-11 academic year.

The council is now also in the process of establishing an independent advisory committee to process submissions from schools where, on receipt of an appeal, a board of management considers that the operation of the appeals process itself was deficient. This committee will comprise an independent chair, a representative of school management bodies and a parent. It is my understanding that this will meet in the autumn to review the operation of the appeals process following completion of applications for the next academic year. The committee will then submit a report to the council.

Will the Minister give way for a question?

We have limited time.

On a point of order——

Please, Deputy.

I am confident the introduction of the new appeals process will lead to a greater level of clarity on the resources. I would encourage use of the new appeals procedure by parents who are dissatisfied with the outcome of the review of their child's case. I note also that the original motion calls for a review of the SNA's role in light of schools' experience of the post and also calls for the SERC criteria for the allocation of SNAs to be reviewed.

As the House is aware, a separate value for money and policy analysis review is at an advanced stage in my Department at present. As part of this process, schools, parents, teachers, professionals and children have been consulted. Almost 100 schools have been visited by the inspectorate, NEPS and the council to establish the duties currently undertaken by SNAs. I expect to have this review completed in 2010 and the report will be published.

I support special schools and special classes, and they will continue to have a significant role in the education of pupils with special needs. I am anxious to examine ways in which special schools can act in a co-operative way with mainstream primary and post-primary schools to provide enhanced services to pupils with special educational needs and their parents.

In just over ten years, the Government has driven a complete transformation in educational policy for children with special educational needs. Whereas, ten years ago, most parents of children with significant special education or care needs had no choice but to send them to a special school, they now have three distinct choices available to them: the child can attend a mainstream class in the local school with additional supports as required; attend a special class in a mainstream school; or attend a special school. The needs of students can change as they get older and mature. The system now in place provides a continuum of education and options to enable students to move from one setting to another in line with their changing needs.

I am proud of the Government's achievements in providing for the education of children with special educational needs. I will continue to prioritise investment and ensure that additional teaching and care supports are provided. I will continue to expand the educational psychological service so that every school has a direct service from NEPS. I will continue to work with the council to ensure that services for children with special needs are provided in a co-ordinated and effective manner. I will continue to provide for expert support, professional development and training.

The SNA scheme has not changed. This is the scheme that has driven an increase in SNAs from 1,500 in 2000 to 10,000 today. The criteria that qualified children for SNA support in the past ten years continue to apply, and nothing has changed.

What of the SEAB?

I welcome the opportunity to contribute in support of the counter-motion. All Members of the House will acknowledge that many significant advances have been made in recent years, improving the lives of children with special needs and the lives of their families. There have been significant developments in special education since 1998 involving enhanced levels of provision, as well as new structural and legislative frameworks for the delivery of services to pupils with special educational needs. I emphasise that children with special educational needs will continue to receive an education appropriate to their needs.

While the Opposition may be critical of the decision to pause the full implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act at this point, the Government has re-stated its support for this process through its commitment in the renewed programme for Government. I make it clear, however, that the Government's commitment to special needs education provision is not constrained within the provisions of that Act. Services continue to be provided to children on a non-statutory basis. Therefore, although a number of provisions of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act remain to be formally commenced, appropriate education services are provided as a central element in the Government's commitment to supporting children with special educational needs.

This support is provided across a wide spectrum of initiatives within the education sector. At school level, in addition to the teachers provided in the classroom, significant additional supports are also provided to enable schools to cater for the needs of students with special educational needs. Such supports include resource teaching support, special needs assistant support, special transport arrangements, enhanced capitation and funding for the purchase of specialised equipment.

In recognition of the importance of co-ordinating disability services across departmental and agency lines, the Government established the Office of the Minister for Disability and Mental Health, headed up by the Minister of State, Deputy John Moloney. A cross-sectoral group has been established representative of senior officials in the education and health sectors to deal with cross-cutting issues. This co-ordinated working will ensure delivery of the most effective response for children living with disability and special educational needs on a daily basis. I welcome this initiative.

I know parents of children with special education needs welcome the availability of education placement options and that they appreciate the supports now available to support a placement in a mainstream class where this is in line with the child's ability. Their child can also either attend a special class or a special school if this is more appropriate to their needs. This has been made possible by a massive increase in investment, with €1 billion being provided for special education this year, and by a huge expansion in the number of staff working solely with children with special needs, with more than 20,000 adults whose sole role is to support children with special educational needs.

Further improvements have also taken place.

On a point of order, will the Minister give way for a question? We can read his script ourselves.

I only have two minutes left and there are important points I wish to make. For example, in the past year, more than 23,000 teacher training places in special education have been provided by the Special Education Support Service, a service established to provide expert support, professional development and training opportunities in special education for school staff. Some 100 teaching posts have also been provided at post-primary level to augment learning support services in post-primary schools.

The renewed programme for Government commits to the expansion in the number of psychologists in the National Educational Psychological Service to 210. This will facilitate the assignment of a NEPS psychologist to all primary and post-primary schools. The number of psychologists has already grown from 127 at the start of the current Government term to 157 psychologists currently in the service. Pending the roll-out of a full NEPS service, schools have access to psychological assessments through the scheme for commissioning psychological assessments administered by NEPS. The Opposition has raised the decision to close a number of special classes last year. I ask the House to recognise the factual position of special classes. This decision did not represent a change in policy but reflects the fact that teacher posts are allocated in line with pupil numbers. The pupil numbers in these classes were insufficient to retain the classes. I can understand the disappointment of some schools that this is the position. However, it must be understood that the majority of the schools accepted this position. Schools are also aware that every mainstream primary school has been allocated additional teaching support through the general allocation model to meet the needs of any pupil with special educational needs, including mild general learning disability. Some schools which appealed the decision to close the classes and which have provided substantial reasons to either retain the class or have the class redesignated, received a fair hearing. On appeal, 11 of the classes were retained and a further three classes were also redesignated to cater for pupils with other disabilities. The schools concerned had enrolled pupils with disabilities other than mild general learning disability in the classes.

I assure the House that the Government is very aware of the difficulties families of children with disabilities face. Its only objective is to support these families and the schools their children attend. I commend the amendment to the House.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Gilmore, Stagg, Wall and Ó Snodaigh, with five minutes each and ten minutes for Deputy Ó Snodaigh.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Recent months have been marked by the removal of special needs assistants, SNAs, from schools. We have all been lobbied by teachers but when the parents come and when it is about the child, that is when we should sit up and take notice. I commend Deputy Brian Hayes for tabling this motion which is well-intentioned and timely.

The most disappointing element of this year's budget was the 21% cut in funding for the National Council for Special Education Needs. This was the clearest indication of the intent of the Department of Education and Science with regard to children with educational special needs. The former Minister for Education and Science, closed 128 special classes in 2009. I listened to the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Haughey. Is he seriously saying there is no longer a need for special classes to the extent that 128 can be closed down? Some of those classes were retained under review and on appeal.

Our attitude towards children with special needs and their prospects, have changed beyond recognition. I accept that significant strides have been made in the education of children with special needs. The days of them sitting at the back of the class playing with plasticine are over and gone and they should stay gone.

A small group of adults with special needs recently graduated from Trinity College. Such achievements are few and far between but they achieved third level education and this is what should be possible for all children with special needs. Tonight's debate is about children who are still in primary school. The debate about second level education has to take place another time. Those in primary school desperately need assistance. The Minister makes a very clear distinction between teaching assistants and SNAs but we all know that SNAs perform a range of functions. They know the child, they are wedded to the child for whom they care and the child knows them. If special schools and special classes are being closed down, then the only other place for these children is within mainstream classrooms. It is not just a case of children with an intellectual disability. There are children who need additional help to achieve their best potential, so that they can come out of primary school, go on to secondary school and with the right type of supports, go on to third level. We must ensure that children who in the past were ignored are allowed fulfil their potential, play an active role in society and have a good, healthy life.

The Minister informed us that all of these schools were individually reviewed as were all the children. She said the senior special education needs organisers decided on the cutback in numbers but they worked in conjunction with the school, the teacher, the child, the parent and the SNA. That is not true. That did not happen.

I will tell the House about one little boy whose name is Jack. He is a typical child with special educational needs. There are a thousand such children around the country. Jack's disability is that he does not speak. His SNA learned sign language and adapted it to Jack's needs. She used sign language to ask him if he needed to use the toilet or if he wished to eat his lunch. She gave him a new lease of life through this communication. She learned sign language in her own time and she adapted it to his needs because he has a very specific disability. The principal of that school told me that Jack reached par with his classmates within months and his whole life brightened. However, his SNA was last into the school so she was first out. I do not believe the senior special education needs organisers went to the schools and asked what were the specific needs of the children. They did not do that. They went in and said that if the school had five SNAs they only needed four. Unfortunately, the four that remain do not have sign language and Jack does not know them. This is typical of what is happening all over the country.

I add my voice in support of the motion proposed by Deputy Brian Hayes. I compliment him on bringing this motion before the House. I also speak in support of the contribution which my colleague, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, our spokesperson on equality, has made on this issue over a period of time.

Listening to the Minister and the Minister of State, one would think there was no problem at all and that no cutbacks were taking place, that somehow, the concerns that are being communicated to us on a daily basis by parents, teachers and SNAs, were made up. They are not. Over the past week or more, my colleagues and I have received many heart-rending stories from parents about what is likely to happen to their child in circumstances where the SNA is removed. These are very real stories that are not made up. The Government needs to respond positively to them this evening rather than in the self-congratulatory way of its response.

It is somewhat ironic that this measure is being introduced to save money, apparently, something in the order of €27 million. This on a day when thousands of millions of euro of taxpayers' money is being provided to support the banks. The €27 million that it is proposed to save on the pay bill of SNAs, as it happens, is the same as the €27 million required to provide a pension for just one executive in one of the covered banks. I have received representations from parents and staff of Enable Ireland in Sandymount, which is only one of the many examples that have been brought to our attention. This special needs school will lose three teachers and five SNAs. Many of its students require assistance with feeding and the other tasks necessary for them to stay in school.

The logic that these cuts will somehow save money beats me because SNAs are relatively low paid. One SNA informed me that he was paid €442 per week. If he loses his job and returns to social welfare, he will get €382 per week not counting any secondary benefits for which he might qualify. These cuts are a false economy which will save, at most, €50 or €60 per post. This must be weighed against the loss to the schools, children and families concerned. The proposal needs to be reconsidered by the new Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Coughlan. She set out for the House what appears to be her Department's official line but she needs to think these proposals through. Before the vote is taken this evening, I hope she has second thoughts but, even if she does not, she should give serious consideration to what has been said this evening and respond positively to the needs of parents, teachers and, most of all, the children who rely on SNAs.

I thank Deputy Brian Hayes for the opportunity to speak on this issue, which I previously raised on the Adjournment debate last Thursday. The response on that occasion came in the form of a Civil Service script which did not refer to the central issue in my submission and was read by a Minister of State who had no connection with the Department of Education and Science or the civil servant who wrote the script. The script might as well have been e-mailed to me for all the heed paid to my comments. I hoped the Minister would have stayed in the Chamber on this, my second attempt to bring this issue to her attention but perhaps her officials will ensure she is made aware of my concerns. This is a vital issue for our most special and deserving of young citizens and the Minister's decision will determine the quality of the rest of their lives.

Great progress has been made in making provision for the education of special needs children generally. While parents continue to fight step-by-step for services, the objective of Government policy is that each special needs child can develop to the maximum of his or her potential. The decision of the Government and the former Minister for Education and Science to remove 1,200 special needs assistants from the educational system will be an unmitigated disaster for these special citizens. The progress they have made will soon be reversed in the absence of SNAs.

In the specific case of St. Raphael's special needs school in Celbridge, it is proposed to withdraw 4.5 SNA posts. All of the 47 pupils at this school have been assessed as being in the category of severe to profound disability. They are taught in classes of six students with one SNA to every two pupils. I have also been contacted by a Labour Party councillor in Castlebar, Mr. Harry Barrett, who has given me details on the situation in St. Anthony's special needs school, which is attended by 40 pupils aged between six and 18 years and currently employs 13 SNAs. It is proposed to remove four, or 33%, of the SNA posts from each of these special schools. This decision is not based on the needs of the children, it is part of a culling process to reach the target of disposing of 1,200 SNA posts. In both of these special schools, two SNAs are required to attend a child who needs to use the bathroom or becomes disturbed, leaving only one SNA to assist the remaining five children in the class. That will no longer be possible if some are removed, with severe consequences for the educational development and physical safety of the children concerned.

I appeal to the new Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Coughlan, whom I know to have a sympathetic understanding of children with special needs, to review the decision on SNAs and, in particular, to grant the appeal lodged to the special educational needs organiser in the case of St. Raphael's in Celbridge and St. Anthony's in Castlebar. Earlier this week, I presented to the Minister a collection of petitions on behalf of St. Raphael's in which parents set out in heartfelt detail how their special children would be affected. All have expressed fear for the future of their children and anger that the cull of special needs assistant posts was even contemplated. I ask that she read the petitions before she makes any final decision.

I recognise that the Government is strapped for cash but surely savings could be found elsewhere than from the most needy and deserving children. I rely on the Minister's humanity to correct this unacceptable decision.

I thank the Fine Gael education spokesperson, Deputy Brian Hayes, for putting this very important matter on the agenda. I wish the new Minister for Education and Skills well in her new portfolio but I am gravely disappointed that she has not stayed in the House for this debate. Many people have taken time off to follow this debate from the Visitors' Gallery and it does not augur well if she cannot make herself available for three hours tonight.

Expectation is relevant to this debate. Every parent expects that a mainstream education is achievable for their loved ones. That expectation arose when the position of SNA's came on stream. The work that parents and, in many cases, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters and neighbours have done over the years is now being supplemented in the classroom by the SNAs. The confidence this gave to parents was unbelievable and the bond created between the family and the SNA is of paramount importance if successful integration is to take place.

The pride that parents take from their children's performance is something that has to be seen to be believed. In some instances that progress would not be known to anyone but the immediate family but in others the integration process was such a success that the child developed to the point where an SNA was no longer needed. The common denominator is that the child, his or her family and the SNA worked together to ensure success. We should not forget the efforts of the teachers and boards of management.

I received a letter from a parent in my constituency which states:

Since my last communication with you via this forum a few changes have occurred. My eldest son's access to a SNA has been reduced and my youngest son is in danger of losing out on a much coveted place in one of our local primary schools because of the scramble for places for children with an intellectual disability.

What hasn't changed however is their diagnoses. One remains autistic with ADHD and the other with Global Developmental Delay and a moderate learning disability.

Having become accustomed to the "fight" over the past number of years i.e. access to speech and language services, occupational therapy, etc. I really feel at a loss as to why I and many other parents like me, must summon all our strength and resources to ensure our children be provided with an education that is entirely appropriate to their needs.

I, for one, am tired of the "fight" and look forward to a time when the savagery of the education cutbacks will no longer affect our precious children.

I realise this last paragraph is a statement that reflects the thoughts of many thousands of parents throughout the country tonight. Yet, I also know the expectation of all those parents is such that they will not give up the fight and will continue the battle, which is what this is seen as, to ensure their children will be given the opportunity of education, which should be freely given with goodwill by the Government. The SNA, special needs assistant, mechanism is good. It works and gets results. Why change a winning team? In many instances, the team includes teachers and SNAs. Most important is that the children deserve the service.

Throughout the State, schools, teachers and parents are unsure whether their children with special educational needs will have access to special needs assistants in the morning. A review has been ongoing and has already cut somewhere in the region of 200 to 300 special needs assistants, but the cuts figure could reach 1,200. We do not know the exact figure of how many have already been cut, because the Minister and representatives of the National Council for Special Education have been unable or unwilling to give us the figure.

As public representatives we have all had constituents coming to us concerned for the future education of their son or daughter with a special need. It should not be necessary for any parent to have to come to a public representative to make a desperate plea for assistance. This unfair and crude review by the Minister of State and the Minister for Education and Science of special needs assistants in mainstream and special schools will have a vast negative impact on vulnerable children. Special needs assistants are recruited specifically to assist in the care of pupils with disabilities in an educational context. The SNA plays an indispensable role in meeting such needs by assisting with toileting, feeding, personal hygiene, mobility, medical procedures, communication and in supporting behaviour modification such that the child can access and benefit from the primary school curriculum.

There is a concern that reductions in the numbers of SNAs in schools will cause increased and unmanageable levels of behaviour in classrooms resulting in disruptions to teaching and learning for all involved. If a child does not receive an appropriate education taking account of his or her individual strengths or needs, he or she may be marginalised within the school community and in society in general. There are implications for the mental health of children whose individual needs are not met and whose individual strengths are not developed. Their opportunities for success are not experienced and their anxiety is not managed.

Studies show that children with a learning disability are at a higher risk of mental health difficulties than children who do not have a disability. The reduction in the level of SNAs in our schools will remove the child from the hub of the teaching and learning process and dilutes the philosophy of our primary education system, which enshrines and espouses a child-centred curriculum for all pupils including those with special needs. I believe the legal entitlement for pupils with special educational needs to have the same right to avail of and benefit from appropriate education will be denied if there are reductions in the numbers of SNAs. An appropriate education is one which reflects individual strengths and needs and sets long-term goals and short-term objectives. It results from a collaboration among parents, school staff, other professionals and the child. An appropriate education recognises that if basic needs are not met, the child will not meet his or her potential.

Reductions in SNA numbers and the manner in which it has been undertaken will, I believe, make the legal entitlement of pupils to leave school with skills necessary to participate to the level of their capacity and in an inclusive way in the social and economic activities of society unattainable. Pupils' care needs will not be met and therefore personal growth and fulfilment will not be achieved. Levels of challenging behaviour will escalate resulting in increased injury to pupils and staff and pupils will be at increased risk of developing mental health difficulties. At the crux of this is the fact that children's lives are being disrupted. The damage done now will have a vast impact in the years to come.

The Minister of State and the Minister in absentia should note that serious questions need to be answered with regard to this issue. How many special needs assistant posts have already been lost in the past year? Will the Minister of State give us that information before the conclusion of the debate? How many more does the Minister of State anticipate or plan will be lost? Will schools which have lost an SNA or a special class be provided with additional special needs supports? What additional resources will be provided to schools which have lost special needs supports? These are questions that need to be answered. The pupils most affected by such cuts as well as their parents, teachers and school communities deserve no less than this information and what we actually require is the restoration of the posts already taken and a review of the additional supports that most assuredly must be invested in our education system.

The outdated review criteria and the absence of an independent appeals process speaks volumes of the motives behind this review. I speak of an independent appeals process. How is it fair that a child loses his or her SNA? Until recently, there was no way of appealing this decision. It is the case that there are opportunities to appeal now but only to the NCSE, National Council for Special Education. This is in no way independent and is patently unfair.

These cuts simply cannot be justified, especially given the context of large class sizes, some as high as 30 pupils to one teacher. Cuts have already been implemented such as that to the resource grant and home-school liaison teachers. A child with a special need in a mainstream class without adequate support would surely get lost in the system as many have done throughout the decades when no supports were in place. It is unacceptable to deny a child the chance of a proper education and a proper chance in life for the sake of a few million euro. Let there be no mistake about it, that sum of money could be found elsewhere as Deputies on the Opposition benches have outlined time after time. I have it to say that for a few million euro what is actually being done and visited on young people and their families in terms of the present and their futures is truly disgraceful. This is taking place in the context of the further robbery of the taxpayer this week as we witnessed here from what was outlined yesterday to prop up a zombie bank. It is nothing short of obscene.

The Tánaiste and recently appointed Minister for Education and Science must now start looking at the provision of special needs assistants as more than a financial matter. These are real children not numbers. They are vulnerable children at that and do not deserve to be shoved from pillar to post as part of an accounting exercise. Cuts to special needs support is not only heartless, but the move will seriously impair these children's education for years to come and will have serious knock-on effects in the future. It is yet another example of this Government's short-sighted cost-cutting measures. Special needs assistants are not a luxury that can be cut. They are essential and, I emphasise, an integral part of the education system.

Let us remind ourselves for a moment of the week in which this debate is taking place. The Minister's party calls itself a republican party. The proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1916, that we remember this week in particular, pledged to "cherish all the children of the nation equally". A child with special needs has a right to a decent education and a decent start in life as much as any other child and it is a bounden responsibility on Government to ensure that is delivered.

I appeal to the new Minister for Education and Science, who is the Tánaiste, and to the Government collectively not to proceed with further cuts to special needs support and to reinstate support that has already been removed. That commitment is the least we expect from this debate and, as I have already stated, there is a need then for a review not in terms of what cuts can be applied, but of what additional supports and resources can be provided to ensure that every child gets an equal start in life.

Deputy Flynn wishes to share time.

That is correct. I wish to share time with my colleagues, Deputies Paul Gogarty, Charlie O'Connor and Margaret Conlon.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. My job as a Government Deputy is to influence Government policy and to try to effect change to that policy where I believe change is required.

As Deputies will be aware, I represent Mayo and St. Anthony's special school in Castlebar has been very much central to this debate, both nationally and locally. There are two areas on which I want to focus in particular. I ask that the new Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Coughlan, focus on these two issues and effect change to the policy as it currently stands. I believe it is change that can happen without any great difficulty and I ask that she consider these matters carefully.

SENOs carry out reviews every year in special schools — they carried one out in St. Anthony's in September last. They carry out that review based on the criteria set out, and those criteria have not changed. It is exactly the same criteria that is being used in the national review being carried out at present. As a public representative, I find it hard to understand how, within a period of four months in which the same criteria were being used, such a change could have resulted in two SNAs losing their jobs.

My big problem with this particular issue, which I have articulated at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science, is that for a school to plan and organise its activities, and for parents, teachers and the children themselves to be able to have any sort of order in their lives, they need to know that when a SENO carries out a review, it is good for 12 months. That is not an unreasonable expectation. It is unacceptable to me that SNAs would be withdrawn from schools mid-year.

Towards the end of February an appeal process was introduced into the system. I will speak briefly about that shortly because the second change I want relates to it. We are now in a position where approximately 100 schools have asked to be allowed enter the appeal process. They must give five working days' notice to signal that they want an appeal in the first place. Then the SENO must give them their result in writing and they have ten working days to get the appeal forms out to them so that the school can act in that regard. After that, it takes 20 working days for another SENO within the NCSE to go over the appeal concerned.

There is a reason I am going through all of this — I am sorry to labour the point. However, it is Easter and given that many of these schools are in the appeals process and there are these periods of five, ten and 20 working days, if they get a successful decision at that stage, it would be fantastic. If, however, they do not, they must give four weeks' notice to their SNAs in any event for them to vacate their jobs by which time we will be at the summer period.

I am asking — it is not an unreasonable request at this stage in the game — that the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Science take this on board and adopt a reasonable approach. Schools are now notifying the NCSE as to who is leaving and what the enrolments will be by May of this year. It would be possible to carry out the next review in the summer for the next year, and in September schools can start the school year with the correct allocation. This is a timing issue. It would give much comfort to schools at this stage if they were told that the SNAs will be left there, this is the situation that will apply until the summer and we will look at the matter again at the start of the school year in the autumn.

Although there is much to say in the debate, the second point I want to make in the short time available relates to the appeal mechanism. I would find fault with the fact that the appeal mechanism was only introduced in February. I am lucky enough in that St. Anthony's special school is able to get into the appeal process, but there are many other schools. I speak for all special schools and, indeed, any school around the country which had its SNA withdrawn before the appeal process was in place——

——and which, as a result, finds itself in a position where it could not get into the appeal process in time.

I ask the new Minister, who is familiar with special needs, when she looks at it to give us a genuine appeal mechanism.

From what has been stated in the House, it seems unusual. We all spoke in tandem about this. We all felt exactly the same at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science. This is an issue above and beyond politics.

I understand the role Opposition Deputies must play and that they must bring these matters into the public domain. I feel just as angry and aggrieved as Members on that side of the House. Children with special needs in County Mayo are just as important as those anywhere else throughout the country and I feel equally strongly about it.

To be honest, I do not have any great difficulty with the review of SNAs. However, I would like to think that a genuine independent appeal mechanism outside of the NCSE would be available to people, particularly in the case of the last resort, as one would call it, which is the independent examination of the appeal process. I am not happy with that at all because it only deals with the process of the appeal as opposed to the in-depth detail of what constituted the issue in the first place.

The Minister, Deputy Coughlan, can start off her time in education in a constructive way by looking at these two issues and effecting change, which will not mean any great difference in terms of resources but which will mean a great deal to children with special needs.

First, I, too, take the opportunity to wish the new Minister for Education and Skills the very best in her new position. As an experienced parliamentarian — she is over 20 years in this House — she can make her mark in this area. Tonight's debate is the first opportunity she could have, and I would urge her to take it.

Although issues of banking and recapitalisation and the costs to services have been outlined, this discussion has nothing to do with the money that needs to be borrowed to support the banking system. Much as I am on the record as saying that it makes my skin crawl, and others' skin crawl, sadly, it is necessary in order to minimise the burden placed on the taxpayer and future generations. Otherwise, there would be no money available because the interest we would be paying on our overdraft would be so much that it would affect wages, services and also social supports. This has been discussed in great detail, for example, last night. There is not a pot of money that can be taken from NAMA and banking recapitalisation and spent on other areas. It is money being provided specifically by the European Central Bank to rebuild the banking system and, hopefully, although there is a risk involved, make money for the State that we can spend on the services that are needed. However, that is another debate.

I welcome this Private Members' session. In particular, I welcome the mature, balanced and co-operative approach that has been taken. There has not been any mud slinging or point scoring. I acknowledge the genuine sincerity of Deputy Brian Hayes and his colleagues, and the motivation behind this motion.

As the House will be aware, there is a Government amendment to which the Whip system applies, and the Government amendment will be taken first. That said, this debate is not three hours of wasted time. It is three hours of very valuable time that should not be forgotten by the Minister at a quarter to nine.

The points that have been raised already, and that will be raised in the summation, and the lessons learned should be taken on board, certainly in terms of how the current review is being rolled out. Maybe there are opportunities to go further than that. The National Council for Special Education may be autonomous in its day-to-day operation, but the Minister and her Department have the power to shape policy and its implementation.

This discussion follows on from a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science. As Chairman of the committee, I facilitated the meeting but I must acknowledge the major role played by Deputies Brian Hayes and Flynn in organising it. The committee meeting looked at a range of issues involving special education, specifically the special needs assistant, SNA, review in both special and mainstream schools with contributions from the principals of several schools, the trade union IMPACT and a delegation from the National Council for Special Education, NCSE.

The NCSE did not cover itself in glory that day and praise is due to Oireachtas Members of all parties whose questioning highlighted the glaring deficits in how the SNA review is being carried out. As a Member of a Government party, I do not have difficulties with a review that aims to ensure SNA support is allocated in areas where it is most needed and where it is not being used inappropriately.

A commitment was given to the Green Party under the renewed programme for Government that the roll-out of the Education for Special Educational Needs Act 2004, EPSEN, would continue starting with more investment for additional psychologists at the National Educational Psychological Service and that any money saved from possible job cuts in SNA numbers would be ring-fenced for special needs.

I was gratified to hear from the NCSE and from the Minister tonight that the remit is not to save money but instead to focus on allocation of support and that areas where support is no longer needed or not being provided appropriately would be reallocated. However, while I fully agree with the policy, I cannot say the same for its implementation. As other Members have pointed out, no appeals process was in place from the beginning of the review. The NCSE representatives could not give a rational excuse as to why they started culling mid-stream except for a vague allusion to Government policy. The Minister did not say there was a diktat from her, or her predecessor, to the NCSE.

The Minister, however, did say she could allow a longer transitional time and ask the NCSE to examine that. I hope that means action on the ground. As Deputy Flynn stated, those children who were to have had their SNAs withdrawn will get them back for the remainder of the school year.

There are disagreements as to the criteria used in allocating a SNA to a child. Taking away a SNA from a child, however, is callous, cruel and inhumane for the child who has built up a relationship with his or her SNA, a relationship of trust, confidence and dependence. It cannot just be broken midway through a school year. Although the SNAs may not be allocated the same time each year like mainstream teachers, to withdraw them in that manner does not make sense. It is better to wait for the few weeks of the summer break. The Minister has been advised posts are not allocated at the same time each year. She has the power to resolve this matter and I hope she carries this through.

That is, of course, if the removal was warranted in the first place. I was disappointed to learn from my discussions with parents and principals that there was no appeals process at the outset. Special educational needs organiser decisions from February are now to be internally reviewed but there will still be no independent review due until 2011 at earliest. The Minister stated an independent advisory committee will be established in the autumn. I hope this proves to be a powerful committee rather than just another quango and will allow schools make appeals, including those who did not get the opportunity in the first place. I see Deputy Stanton shaking his head in disagreement but I hope it is more than a sop and will influence the process.

The principal of St. Joseph's school, Tallaght told the joint education committee:

From the outset the SENOs seemed determined to achieve large staff reductions irrespective of arguments put by school staff, me or the board of management. They failed to seek the opinions of parents, staff, the principal or the board of management. They requested documents from outside professionals only, including psychological reports, occupational therapy reports and reports from consultant doctors but no signed reports from the teachers or the principal. The review lacked openness, transparency and proper consultation.

The NCSE said the 1993 special education review committee, SERC, criteria are a baseline level and that the service it provides is above and beyond this. While I may not be fully qualified to comment on this, I must point out the SERC criteria are from 1993, published prior to health and safety legislation, child protection measures and the EPSEN Act, and need to be updated.

The review process is a waste of money. If posts are being reallocated, then sacking a SNA immediately rather than leaving them on a panel in a specified geographic area does not make sense. One principal from a special needs school informed me in an e-mail that it may acquire up to ten SNAs through the new process but will still have to get rid of eight. He described it as, "What a Carry On". What is the point in getting rid of jobs when creating more? The process needs to be examined.

In November 2008, IMPACT made a submission regarding the value for money and policy review of the SNA scheme. It made suggestions for the more efficient use of resources and spoke of the need for clarification of the role of SNAs, professional qualifications and the basis of employment which would best facilitate any redeployment of staff as required. I welcome the agreement by the NCSE to discuss these suggestions with IMPACT. I hope the council and the Department of Education and Science will learn from them.

The Minister's wording of the amendment to the motion has done an excellent job in defending the Government's commitment to special needs. She has clarified SNA resources will not be cut but instead reallocated. More importantly, her contribution reflected some small movement forward from the Department's position at the time of the education committee meeting. I hope this is not just empty talk but will lead to a tangible improvement in services on the ground. I thank Deputy Brian Hayes for tabling this motion.

I appreciate the opportunity to make a brief contribution to this important debate. I congratulate the Tánaiste, Deputy Coughlan, on her appointment as Minister for Education and Skills. I wish her well in her new portfolio as over the next little while she will face some challenges including this issue.

I have no hesitation in complimenting my constituency colleague, Deputy Brian Hayes. I was going to say "friend" but it might get him into trouble.

That would get him into trouble.

I am a genuine admirer of the Deputy's work and I wish him well.

While I can only talk about Tallaght, I want to thank those from Kerry, Castlebar and Navan who have been corresponding with me on this issue, some of whom are in the Visitors Gallery tonight. As Deputy Gogarty and others have said, there has been a high level of co-operation in constituencies on the special educational needs issue. I, along with the other Members from Dublin South-West, Deputies Rabbitte and Brian Hayes, have signed correspondence together pointing out our concerns about this issue to the Minister. Regardless of our political differences, it is important we work together on this matter, something which the community would want too.

I have known St. Joseph's school in Tallaght for many years. Many of its ex-pupils come to me for many reasons. It is important we show our support for it. I have attended the public meetings and the education committee meeting with NCSE. I met today with many of the parents and children affected outside of the House. I did not go out to get my picture taken but, as other colleagues did, to meet the people there. It is important we do that and listen to them. I compliment our colleagues, particularly Deputy Flynn, on the education committee under Deputy Gogarty's chairmanship which did a great job on this matter. They did not spare anyone and got the job done on that day. It is a great shame they did not get the answers they deserved. Deputies from Dublin South-West met the chief executive officer and principal officer of the NCSE the previous day. I hope this does not affect the issue but I was not very impressed by their failure to answer questions. I consistently made the point, including during a long conversation with the Minister on Monday, that I cannot understand how this can happen in a school situation. I discussed this point with Deputy Finian McGrath, whom I regard as an education expert and who is a former school principal.

I am getting worried.

I cannot get my head around the idea that such changes can be made in the middle of the school year. In a "normal" school, if I can use that word and I apologise if it offends anyone, changing staff levels causes disruption. Doing so in our special schools is nonsense. I have consistently said to the former Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, and I now appeal to the Minister, Deputy Mary Coughlan, that this process must be stalled and reviewed.

Deputy O'Connor should vote for the motion.

I hope the changes proposed — let us call them cuts — will be reviewed and postponed.

Deputy Paul Gogarty made the point that we have been assured by the NCSE that it is reviewing the situation and that the conclusion may be that these schools will get extra staff. As the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Education and Science stated, that is absolute nonsense. I do not understand it. I ask the Minister in her first days in the Department to examine the challenge this issue presents.

Other colleagues have referred to the high level of co-operation across the floor. Private Members' business is sometimes difficult and with my hand on my heart I can tell Deputies that tonight's debate is difficult for me. The Government benches is a lonely place for such a debate in respect of the decisions we must take.

I hope the Minister will listen to the genuine concerns expressed. Let us not play politics; let us try to get the message across. I said I have a concern about all the schools but I have a particular focus on St. Joseph's Special School in Balrothery, which caters for pupils aged four to 18 with a mild general learning disability. I am told the pupil teacher ratio is 11:1. The school has 89 pupils and its staff includes an administrative principal. Without being patronising, I do not know if Mr. Brendan Hennigan is still in the Visitors Gallery but I wish to pay tribute to him. He has dealt with the public representatives in Dublin South-West in a very fair way. All Deputies have been to the meetings, as has the local mayor, Councillor Mick Duff, and other colleagues and Mr. Hennigan has acted in a fair way. He knows this is a difficult issue for me and I appreciate the correspondence and advice from him. The protest outside the Department of Education and Science was very demanding for him and I am glad we were able to help. There are 15 teachers in the school, including four teachers who provide special subject hours and 17 SNAs.

As part of the review of SNA posts in schools, the NCSE reviewed staffing levels and the level of care needs in the school. It advised the school four SNA posts should be suppressed with effect from 19 February. The principal, Mr. Hennigan, tells me that, following a review, the NCSE requested that SNAs should be reduced from 17 to 13 by 2 April. The board of management decided at its meeting on Thursday that it had no choice but to issue notice of termination to eight special needs assistants. They have been advised since to defer four of those terminations pending the outcome of the recent review. I support the principal, who makes the point that it is no way to run a school to take on staff and then make changes to the situation. I appeal to the Minister to examine this in a special way.

I wish the Minister for Education and Science all the best in her new role and I thank Deputy Hayes for bringing this motion before the House. I know Deputy Hayes from my time on the Joint Committee on Education and Science. He is genuinely committed to education matters. The education of children with special needs has been and remains a priority for the Government. The Government has put major resources into schools to enable them to meet the needs of these children. This amounts to €1 billion alone this year. In the past ten years we have witnessed major changes. The SNA scheme has been a key factor in ensuring the successful integration of children with special needs into mainstream education and providing support to the pupils enrolled in special schools and special classes. I am delighted to hear the Minister say that children with special educational needs who require support will continue to have it. It is extremely important we afford those children the opportunity to be the best they can possibly be.

All sides of the House have spoken about the review. The findings of the review are counter to the common public perception that the SNA scheme has been changed or altered in some way. It reiterates that the criteria for the allocation of SNAs remains the same. The Department of Education and Science is committed to the SNA scheme in its present form and the review was simply an exercise to ensure the resources available under the scheme are allocated to the schools that require such assistance in a cost-effective and efficient manner.

There are more than 10,000 SNAs in our schools, carrying out very valuable work dedicated to helping children achieve their potential. The scheme costs in the region of €300 million annually. Such a review process is imperative in the present climate of constrained resources. In every scheme it is important to have a review, to examine how services are delivered and how money is spent in order to see if we can do things in a better way. As well as SNAs, we have more than 8,600 resource and learning support teachers. More than 20,000 adults are in schools with the sole role of providing support to children with special educational needs.

In my former occupation as a teacher, I witnessed at first hand the benefits the SNAs, resource teachers and learning support teachers brought to schoolchildren they assisted. The SNA scheme has ensured the successful integration of children with special educational needs into mainstream education, thereby promoting inclusivity. Is that not what we all want for all our children? I have witnessed pupils who required support and assistance throughout their school life but also those who needed support for a time. This may have been a short or medium period or longer. They grew and matured into independent learners. It is extremely important that the reduction in support as the child matures is done in a managed way so as not to disadvantage the learner. Taking support and security away from a child completely is not the way to do this. It does not benefit the child.

Having referred to the SNA posts and their withdrawal in mid-year, it is important to say that not all SNA posts are allocated at the beginning of the school year. New children may arrive at school with special educational needs or some children may have updated professional reports. It is important to have a continuation of a flexible approach to allow children have support when needed and allow the posts to serve the interests of children. Withdrawing them in the middle of the school year does not serve the children well.

Anyone who believes they have grounds for appeal should use the appeal mechanism. It should be an independent process. I listened to what the Minister said tonight and I hope the independent appeals committee will be truly independent. If it is to be impartial and to deliver results, it must be so. As previously stated, special education remains a key priority for this Government. Despite the ongoing economic difficulties and competing demands for funds, the renewed programme for Government announced in October 2009 commits to further investment in the development of services for pupils with special educational needs, a significant achievement at a time of reduced public spending.

The Government has ensured that additional supports for children with special educational needs are in place in schools throughout the country. Our policies and level of investment have delivered more teachers, special needs assistants, specialist equipment, assistive technology for children with special needs and specially adapted schools. So much has happened in the past ten years. I welcome the increases in NEPS psychologists, which is hugely important. Every primary and post-primary school in the country should have a NEPS psychologist. The Government is committed to no further increase in pupil-teacher ratios in primary and second level schools over the lifetime of this Government and to providing 500 extra teaching posts during the next three years.

The Government's investment in special needs provision speaks for itself. It has transformed the ability of schools to provide for all children but we can do more. Investment must continue to be made. The Government will continue to provide support to children with special educational needs. Those children who require support should and will get it. We will continue to provide investment to ensure schools are in a position to welcome all students and to provide a fully inclusive education to those students.

I wish to share time with Deputies McGinley, Neville, Breen, Doyle, Barrett, Tom Hayes, Catherine Byrne, Naughten and Terence Flanagan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I recall when this House debated the then Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill 2004. At that time, Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Green Party believed it did not go far enough. However, the Minister at the time, Deputy Dempsey, was clear that he wanted legislation that was achievable within a particular timeframe. EPSEN was at that time seen as a massive breakthrough for children with special educational needs. Unfortunately, it has been a huge disappointment to the children, families and schools involved. It has not lived up to the expectations created at the time.

In my view, based on my experience of meeting families with children with special educational needs, part of the problem is a lack of progress in regard to the provision of the multi-disciplinary approach, one of the fundamentals of the EPSEN Act which provides that the health and education services, schools and families come together to discuss what is needed for a particular child following which the services are provided. However, this has never happened. I have yet to meet a family who have had a full multi-disciplinary meeting with all of the relevant people dealing with their child. I do not believe that is happening.

The removal of special needs assistants from a number of children has added to the difficulties. Again, I have rarely met a parent who wants his or her child to have a special needs assistant if he or she does not need one. No parent wants their child to have a special needs assistant in the classroom unless he or she really needs one. The quick withdrawal of SNAs has caused immense difficulty for many children.

I disagree with those who have welcomed the announcement in respect of NEPS. I continue to encounter people facing huge difficulties obtaining NEPS assessments. I am also encountering difficulty having special education needs organisers, SENOs, recognise private assessments, for which families have often borrowed money. I again want to reiterate the point that no independent appeals system exists. I know of one SENO who was sent out to review the decision of another SENO, both of whom work in the same office and are the only people working in that office. This cannot possibly be an independent system. That is the reality of the situation.

I want also to make the point that I firmly believe SENOs should have to respond to representations from public representatives.

Parents get in touch with us when they are at the end of their tether. We are often their last point of call. The system is so bureaucratic they do not know how to get through it. I believe SENOs should have to deal with public representatives. I do not mind having to ask parents to sign a letter to prove I have been in touch with them. However, if I have all the information in respect of a particular child, it is from his or her parents I am getting it. The system needs to change.

Speech and language therapy is another area where people are falling through the system. The Minister of State will be aware that a huge number of our speech and language therapists are on maternity leave. As a result, children are not receiving the full therapy allocated to them. I agree with Deputy Conlon that everybody wants inclusivity. However, children cannot get it without the supports they need.

We all understand the difficulties and challenges facing families in this day and age in terms of raising and educating children and the extra challenges and difficulties experienced by families who have a child or children with special educational needs. What a joy, relief and sense of satisfaction it must be to these parents that their child with special needs can participate in mainstream education with their brothers, sisters, neighbours, cousins and so on. However, this is possible only through the availability of special needs assistants. I compliment those who have taken up that vocation. It is more than a job; it is a special skill which requires special people who are dedicated, committed and trained to carry out this work. There are more than 400 special needs assistants in my county. If this scheme is abolished a significant number of them will lose their positions and parents will suffer as a result.

I received a letter from a parent of a child with special needs. The child is in junior infants, has autism and is non-verbal. Also, he has little awareness of his own safety. For example, he is not aware of the danger of traffic on roads and needs to have an adult with him at all times to prevent him running across a busy road. A review was carried out in February and in March the principal of the school was notified that the child's special education hours would be reduced by 50%. This means this child will not have a special needs assistant assigned to him on the schoolyard at play times nor will he get the help he needs to eat his lunch. The parents are extremely annoyed and believe this decision to be grossly unfair. The letter states. "Our son's needs have not changed since he started school last September so we do not understand why or how the support of an SNA has been taken from him." This is being replicated many times not alone in County Donegal but throughout the country. How devastating it must be for the parents, teachers and in particular special needs assistants who want the best for children, to have this privilege withdrawn.

The Minister and I have been colleagues for a long time. We have soldiered together. I know she understands the difficulties facing such parents and will be sympathetic to them. I ask the Minister, as she begins her reign as Minister for Education and Skills, to carry out a complete assessment of this scheme and to restore this service to as many people as possible. All we want for these children is the same opportunities afforded to their siblings and peers.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I congratulate Deputy Brian Hayes on his initiative in bringing this motion before the House.

The current strategy in the Department of Education and Skills in removing special needs assistants throughout the educational system is, as Deputy Hayes stated, causing havoc and must be reversed at once. This decision is simply wrong and unfair and must be reversed. People who require special needs assistants are vulnerable. They are people with less life opportunity than the majority of the general population. Special needs assistants provide these people with an opportunity to achieve their potential which is limited by their difficulties. We have seen the effects of allowing these children to reach their potential. People with special educational needs can, without assistance, suffer social and personal difficulties in their lives. It is unacceptable to deprive people, through the removal of this service, of the opportunity to reach that level of fulfilment in latter life. The Department should seriously rethink its attitude in this regard. Children with special needs were for far too long ignored by the education system.

We then changed that and recognised that those with special needs can be assisted, their life opportunities can be improved, the difficulties experienced by people who have such limitations can be overcome and they have an opportunity to live a better life. Many people with special needs who have been assisted went on to live very fulfilling, productive lives, but without the opportunity of guidance at a vital stage of their lives they would not have a chance to do that. The two areas in which the Minister of State and I are interested, namely, mental health and well-being are influenced by our opportunities in life at an early age, from infancy to school-going age. The input at that age is vital for life opportunities. The Minister should seriously consider the approach she is taking in reducing the level of service to people who are extremely vulnerable.

My office, like that of various other Deputies, has been inundated with calls from the distraught parents of children with special needs. Prejudice and social stigma often affect the lives of children with special needs and their families. The introduction of the SNA scheme has helped to break the cycle of that stigma. Everybody has reaped benefits from the integration of special needs children into mainstream classes and it has fostered a real sense of tolerance and respect for difference. Removing that security and emotional stability now is a retrograde step and I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, who is a genuine Minister of State, to ensure this is changed and to call off the review.

I cannot understand why the previous Minister has moved the goalposts in the middle of the school year. If a child was assessed and a supporting case was put forward last September which acknowledged the required support, how can one justify removing the support a few months later? Last month there was a backlog of cases for SNA positions and resource and support teachers in my constituency of Clare. I am glad to say the position has now been filled. I raised the matter on the Adjourment.

However, the uncertainty continues for many families. I am aware of several cases where SNA supports were removed from children in mainstream schools and, as a result, the parents transferred the children to a special school because they could not cope without their SNAs. Thankfully they are now doing well in the special school. However, the parents concerned feel the rug is about to be pulled from underneath them and, for the second time, a number of SNA positions in the school are on the verge of being axed. The father of a special needs child attending St. Vincent's School in Lisnagry spoke to me recently and said if it happens he does not know how his child will survive.

There are 261 SNAs employed in schools in Clare and, as previous speakers said, they are doing valuable work. If these positions are axed it will affect the overall development of a special needs child, in particular during the vital early years when early intervention is essential. The previous Minister for Education and Science claimed that there is no question of SNA posts being removed from schools where they continue to meet the scheme's criteria. However, the kernel of the problem is the strict evaluation criteria under which the review is being conducted takes no account whatsoever of the child's needs, in terms of access to the curriculum. Instead, it only serves to further stigmatise the child by focusing on his or her disability.

The dreams and hopes of parents and their special needs children will only be realised if they are given a fair chance. I appeal to the Government Deputies, many of whom spoke during the debate, including Deputies O'Connor, Conlon and Gogarty, to vote with their consciences. I support the motion and call for an end to the plans to cull special educational needs assistance in schools.

Like Deputy Breen, I am heartened by some of the comments made by Members of the Government parties regarding the recognition of what this motion was about, namely, freezing the review until such time as we review the role of SNAs and the criteria involved. The Government's amendment to the motion states the criteria has not changed, but the feeling out there is that the implementation of the criteria has changed. This is against a background where last year 100 special classes were closed which directly affected 500 pupils. There has been an increase in mainstream class sizes, in which there has been no arrest since. I will give the Minister, Deputy Coghlan the benefit of the doubt; she has only been in the job for a week. The Fine Gael motion to freeze the review recognised that to allow schools to keep an SNA where the pupil had moved on was wrong and I hope she takes that correction in the spirit in which it was intended. That is from where we are coming.

Circular 07/02 states that: "Children who need additional education arising from their disability should consider applying for extra resource hours...[A] balance must be struck between allocating necessary care support and the right of the child to acquire personal independence skills." We are splitting hairs over what care attendance is and the role of the SNA, which is why we have called for revision of the criteria and the role of the SNA. What is education? What is care? Is turning a page for child who does not know he or she has to turn a page part of his or her education or care?

I am a member of the board of management of St. Catherine's special national school in Wicklow. We met the representatives from the Department who will come to conduct a whole school evaluation next month. I made the point to them that their evaluation is based on the current class structures, which comprise six children in each class with more than two SNAs. If the SNA review continues, in most cases it will be put back to a baseline of two SNAs per class, with every appeal having to be made on an individual basis.

One mother whose child is on the autism spectrum said:

To suggest a change in the education provision at this stage in his school life flies in the face of all we know about students with autism and their requirement for routine, structure and transition. If integration with his mainstream peers is to be pursued as discussed at a previous meeting with the SENO then SNA provision is essential for this child in its planning and implementation.

I cannot understand how any human being can justify, in the middle of a school year, the withdrawal of a service which affects children with special needs. That kind of behaviour never ceases to amaze me. I dealt with this issue for 30 years in the 1980s, the 1990s, the 2000s and now in 2010, fighting for the rights of children who should have automatically received a proper education in order to fulfil their special talents and give them a chance in life. To this day we still do not have a situation whereby a parent can go with his or her child to have him or her assessed, a place found and the appropriate medical assistance given in addition to schooling, such as speech therapy.

I will use my time to give an example. In the 1980s two parents came to me about their son. They had gone everywhere to have the child properly assessed; he was four or five at the time. They were told their child was mentally handicapped, and to put him into a mental institution and have another baby. The parents concerned did not accept what they were told. Eventually, a unit in Donnybrook, through the good office of Deputy Kenny who was then a Minister of State at the Department of Education with responsibility for special needs, became available. The child concerned is now 33 years of age and is a qualified architectural technician. He has battled all his life, and unfortunately he is now unemployed as a result of the state of the building industry.

One can imagine how many children are now adults living in institutions today who should never have been in such places, simply because they were not given their constitutional right to proper assessment and education. I do not give a damn who is in government; this is an issue which should be dealt with once and for all. Parents should not have to march on the streets in every passing decade to demand rights for their children. It is bad enough to have a child with special needs. Let us make life simple for them. Their parents should be given rights in order that they do not have to go to court to fight for their children's rights. For goodness sake, the Minister should deal with the issues. The country is not so broke that we cannot look after a limited number of children with special needs.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

I commend Deputy Brian Hayes for tabling this important motion. The review of SNAs being undertaken by the NCSE is having a huge impact in my constituency, Tipperary South. Pupils with special needs and other pupils in their classrooms have been affected by the removal of much needed supports. I refer, in particular, to Ballingarry national school, St. Patrick's, Ballylooby and St. John the Baptist's in Cashel in the constituency. However, I would like to instance the craziness of this issue in Fethard, County Tipperary, where an SNA earning €225 a week was notified a few weeks ago that she was not needed anymore. She was put on a FÁS scheme to be trained as a secretary for which she is earning €280 a week. The country is full of redundant and unemployed secretaries but this lady was working as an SNA and costing the State much less. That is crazy and unacceptable and this is what is wrong.

As Deputy Barrett said, if the needs of those who need only a small helping hand were met, it would be of huge benefit to them when they attend secondary school. The value of this support cannot be calculated and it is deplorable that the Government can stand over these cutbacks. The country is not broke. Billions of euro were found yesterday to give to the banks. The Government has plenty of money to waste left, right and centre. Shame on us to allow a Government to stand over a situation in a society that we are supposed to be proud of where children with special needs have to beg for basic help and education.

As a mother, I am reminded on a daily basis of the challenges that face us as parents to raise our children in a loving environment where understanding, love, and caring all play a vital role in their well-being and education. When parents hold their son our daughter for the first time, an overwhelming feeling of joy and love sends a message to this new life that they care for him or her, he or she is special and he or she is their responsibility. Deputy Brian Hayes tabled the motion to remind us all how precious our children are, especially children with special needs.

In the old days when in excess of 50 students was the norm in classrooms, many children who were unable to cope for whatever reason were left behind. Many were told they were not paying attention and they were put in corners and even called "dunces". In other words, they were told they were stupid. As a result, many children were lost into the abyss, never knowing they were special, but they only needed a helping hand. Many left school not able to read or write with some ending up in industrial schools where their childhood was lost forever.

Today, thanks to the thousands of dedicated teachers across this country, life in the classroom has changed for the better. Going to school has become an important and enjoyable part of a child's daily experience. The classroom has become a happier place but, for the parents of the 184,818 children with special needs, the new challenge is the threatened loss of that one special person in the classroom who can give their child the additional care and attention they need to deal with and overcome their learning disabilities and receive an education like every other child. Children with special needs need someone to take their hand on that first day in school and make them feel safe and special. They need a helping hand to the bus, to the classroom and to the bathroom. Children with special needs need someone to look out for their welfare, concerns and interests.

That is why specially trained SNAs are invaluable. Special needs children develop a special bond with their SNA and rely greatly on their support and care at school. The loss of this person from their lives in unimaginable. Children and parents alike will suffer greatly from the loss of SNAs. This will mean that a new generation of children is likely to be lost as they fade into the background of mainstream classrooms, where their special daily needs will no longer be catered for. Both special schools and mainstream schools will be affected by these cuts. Normal classroom routines will be disrupted and additional pressure will be put on teachers. Children with special needs in mainstream schools struggle even more, and without their SNA, they are at risk of being left behind. I implore the Minister to freeze cuts to SNAs and to recognise the invaluable work they do, without which many children and their families will suffer greatly.

I thank Deputy Brian Hayes for tabling the motion. A parent's world collapses when he or she is informed that his or her son or daughter has a learning disability. Parents want to do everything they can to address, or at least mitigate, the impact of the disability. One of the biggest decisions many families have to make, depending on the level of disability, is where a child with special needs should attend school, for example, whether the child should attend a special school, a special class in a mainstream school or attend a mainstream class. The supports available in each setting following discussions with the school at least in part determines where the child is educated. Fundamental to the decision taken by parents is the objective that they want to ensure their child is able to integrate and function in society and to ensure he or she has maximum independence in order that he or she has every opportunity to maximise his or her potential.

An SNA is allocated to a pupil to help him or her integrate into the school environment and to meet his or her needs. My office, no more than any other Member's office, is inundated by calls from parents throughout my constituency who outline how services have been withdrawn and the impact that is having on their children. However, it also has an impact on the children who have been determined by the Department and the SENO to require an SNA and the supports need to remain in place. They are also affected by the decisions that have been taken and their supports are being undermined.

Due to the cutbacks, in one school an SNA is looking after both a leaving certificate student and a junior certificate student. Two weeks ago mock certificate examinations were taken in the school but the junior certificate student could not sit hers because she was told no one was available to assist her. She was the only child who did not sit her mock examinations the same week as everyone else. Where is the integration in this case? The family is being encouraged to dissuade the child from doing transition year along with her peers. She is being denied the choice of transition year, even though her family is anxious that she does it. She comes from a large family and all her siblings have done transition year. The reason for this is she will turn 18 years in fifth year and no support will be provided for her in sixth year. As a result, she is being told she cannot do transition year with her classmates with whom she has gone through three years in secondary school. How is she being helped to integrate into society? The experts believe this child requires support but she is being denied it because of the decisions being taken by the Department of Education and Science. The Government could find €40 billion for Anglo Irish Bank. Surely it can find the small amount needed to ensure that child retains her dignity and that every other child in the education setting who needs them is given the supports he or she requires.

I thank Deputy Brian Hayes for tabling the motion. I also thank those in the Visitors Gallery who have travelled from different parts of the country to be present.

Last year the Government introduced 32 cruel education cutbacks in the budget, which included reducing by 200 the number of primary and secondary schools and axing special needs teachers and 100 special classes. As a result, young people were forced to pay for the mistakes of this Government. Two schools in my constituency, Dublin North-East, were particularly affected — St. Kevin's and the Donahies community school. Surplus students were moved into those classes because the teachers were made redundant. The classrooms, which were already full to the brim, have become unworkable for the teachers concerned.

We on this side of the House do not believe the Government when it talks about its policy of inclusion. It is withdrawing educational supports from classrooms for reasons of cost saving. Inclusion will only work if children with special needs are supported with adequate resources rather than cutting down on special needs assistants, who are very much needed in mainstream classrooms. The increase in class size and the withdrawal of special needs assistants is proof that the Government is not being honest and that it is making decisions for cost-saving reasons.

Last September, I visited St. Helen's special needs school in Portmarnock with which Deputy Reilly would be familiar and I spoke with the children there. They pleaded for the retention of the special class comprising seven students who need the help and extra supports they were receiving. They are absolutely lost since they were put into a mainstream education class. That is a shame on the Government.

The Tánaiste, who is the new Minister for Education and Skills must consider the situation, freeze the current review of special needs assistants and publish the NCSE's report on the issue without further delay.

Reference was made to the figure of 1,200 yesterday in that the first tranche of 1,200 developers moved into NAMA. We also have the situation whereby 1,200 special needs assistants have been made, in effect, redundant. As a result of that decision, many pupils have lost out on their hope for extra help and support in the future. As Deputy Naughten said, we can come up with €40 billion to put into a dead bank but we cannot come up with a few million to ensure that these cuts do not happen.

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to the debate to which I have listened intently this evening. I recognise that the issue is one of great concern not just to Opposition Deputies, but also to Government Deputies. It was one of the first occasions in my time in the House to hear the spokesperson who tabled the motion being praised by Government Members. That is an indication of the concern on this side of the House.

As Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills with responsibility for special education and also with responsibility in the areas of disability and mental health under the aegis of the Department of Health and Children, it is difficult to accept that we are being dishonest and that what is happening is due to the implementation of cost-saving measures. The opposite is the case. It causes me great concern when that message is spread. People have come to me in my constituency on the matter. As the Tánaiste outlined, there has been no alteration of the criteria governing the allocation of special needs assistants. The clear impression has been created that this is a cost-saving exercise.

I was taken by the point made by Deputy Enright that many of the teams are not fully staffed by professionals. That is especially the case with speech therapists. I do not wish to use the term "scarce resources" in the same breath as saying we are trying to save money but we are trying to spend the allocation we have to ensure we deliver the best levels of support. I do not intend to use my few minutes to go through the categories of funding and percentages but it is important to outline that €1 billion is allocated to special education, one ninth of the overall education budget. I reject the allegation that what we are doing is trying to supply money to save the banks. That is far from being the case.

I refer Deputies to the fact that in the renewed programme for Government the commitment to special education has been further established. The Tánaiste referred to the major improvements in this area. I accept that. I urge Members to believe in our commitment to special education, and to the disability sector. I have initiated a value for money review. Such reviews are often considered as an attempt by Government to fill a black hole somewhere. I have given a commitment to the disability sector in terms of the review on practices and services. Whatever the outcome of the review, there will not be a reduction in the €1.6 billion that is spent on the sector. Any savings that are secured will remain in the sector.

I recognise the level of funding the Tánaiste specified and to which she is committed. Her commitment was that the Government's investment in special education would continue. The commitment by both parties in the coalition, which is in the renewed programme for Government, is open and transparent. It refers to the expansion in the number of psychologists employed directly by the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, which would ultimately allow for the assignment of a NEPS psychologist to every primary and post-primary school in the country. Particular emphasis will be put on special needs units, classes and special schools. Surely that is evidence of continuing commitment to special education?

Children with special educational needs will continue to receive an education appropriate to their needs. The National Council for Special Education will continue to allocate teaching and special needs assistant resources. Rather than reading them out, it would be worthwhile for Members to go through the details of the counter motion to see the level of commitment on staffing levels to which Deputy Conlon referred. I refer Members to the commitment of €1 billion and the continuing commitment of the Government through the renewed programme for Government that special education remains a priority.

I wish to share time with Deputies Michael Ring, Bernard Durkan, James Reilly and Brian Hayes.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The special needs assistant scheme has been a major factor both in ensuring the successful integration of children with special educational needs into mainstream education and in providing supports to pupils enrolled in special schools and special classes. However, we should provide additional resources rather than cutting back on the scheme.

The National Council for Special Education published its report today in which it considered 2,913 schools. There has been no change in 1,500 schools but there has been a decrease in the number of special needs assistants in 832 schools. That is an official report from a Government agency. I carried out a survey in my constituency in the past month to which I received a big response. I wish to refer to the response of a principal from a school near my home.

Among our 98 pupils we have a half-dozen or so who require the assistance of a SNA.

We have three SNAs — two full-time and one infant-hours working here. They are run off their feet catering for the increasing number of children with special needs: two with spina bifida, one paralysed on one side of her body and three others with serious medical and behavioural issues.

A scenario has developed where the SENO allocates more children to have their care shared among the same number of SNAs. That appears to satisfy the "child has access to an SNA" but I wonder when the system will collapse under the strain?

We had a full review headed by [the] divisional inspector conducted here on March 24th 2009 and are still awaiting a report on same.

The appeals system is most unfair. The appeals advisory committee should have been set up before the reviews commenced. It will be set up next October. The system is not working. I will hand over to my colleagues. It is a pity we did not have more time. As someone who worked with children with special needs, I had a lot to say on the matter. What is happening is unfair and mean in the extreme.

Two minutes is a very short time. I compliment my colleague on bringing the motion before the House. Three Ministers have spoken in the House tonight but none of them addressed the problem of the appeals mechanism that was set up under the 2004 Act. This is wrong. If an Act is passed in the Dáil, it should be implemented. The Government is breaking the law by not putting in place the appeals mechanism.

It is a disgrace that families from all over the country, including SNAs, parents and children, need to come here tonight to fight for their rights. The Government should prioritise education, including special needs education. That it is not doing so is wrong. It is wrong that we do not look after the most vulnerable.

Deputy Barrett spelt out the circumstances that obtain very clearly. The children with special needs need support and help from the Government. Any Government that would not give them support, money or the backing they need must be held to account. For too long, children with special needs have waited. In the past few years, they got some small support from the Government. However, what does the Government do the first time there is a downturn in the economy only attack the most vulnerable. It is wrong and the backbenchers on the Government side know it. That is why they should side with Fine Gael and the Labour Party and tell the senior Minister and her Government colleagues that we are not taking any more. It is wrong to have parents worried about their children's future and that a Government would not give them the support they need.

The Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, and the backbenchers have an opportunity to support us tonight. Doing so will send out the right message. If the Government can find money for the banks, it can find money for SNAs and special educational needs.

I thank my party colleague, Deputy Brian Hayes, for tabling this motion. I support in full the expressions of the various Members of the Opposition. To fully appreciate the position of special needs children, their parents and friends, one must consider the circumstances that obtain from the time the parents suddenly realise their child has special needs, be they profound or otherwise. From this moment, parents set about, in every way possible, to give that child an even break. They do not always succeed but they make valiant efforts to do so. They go to the ends of the earth to find a means of doing so and they scrimp, save and make great personal sacrifices.

The State has a certain responsibility in addition to parents. It is ironic, given that there seems to have been ignorance of certain events in society, that people who took risks with the future of the people and the country seem to be absolved of all responsibility. It seems very harsh that, at this time, the Government is deciding to take it out on the vulnerable, the children with special needs and their parents and friends. What an appalling vista to unfold in front of us at this time.

This is regarded as a caring and compassionate nation. I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, who is a decent man, and the Minister to visit some of the schools affected, such as St. Raphael's in Celbridge. I challenge them, having visited the mainstream schools, met the children and talked to their parents, to return to the House to tell us they do not care.

I, too, commend Deputy Brian Hayes on tabling this motion. Some 350 SNAs have been removed already. There is no independent appeals process and parents cannot seek justice for their children. The cynical former Minister for Education and Science asked Senator Healy Eames in the Seanad whether she really believes that, where a child is developing independence and confidence, he should continue to receive support he does not need, support that could inhibit his further development. No parents believe that outrageous assertion.

The reality of the Government's approach to children is that there is an inability and unwillingness to implement the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act. There are children with disabilities in institutions with no independent inspectorate and they have no protection. As Deputy Ring suggested, it is a case of billions for the bankers and cruel and crass cuts for our children.

Having produced SNAs, having done the good thing and put in place a service that was not available when my children were young, the Government should not cut the service. I have two children with disabilities. Both live independent lives because I could afford the resources to help them do so but the Government is depriving parents and children affected today, and those of the future, of the same opportunity. Not alone is it cruel, unkind, immoral and unethical, it is also penny wise and pound foolish. For many of the children in question, retaining the SNAs could be the difference between an independent life and a life under State care. Not doing so is reprehensible. The Tánaiste, wherever she is, should leave the kids alone and give them back their future.

I thank all the members of the public from all parts of the country who have taken the time to attend this debate.

It is an absolute disgrace that when the Minister for Education and Science completed her speech, she left this Chamber. Not only did she refuse to listen to the Members on this side of the House, she also refused to listen to some of the very fine and constructive contributions made by her backbenchers and other Members on the Government side. Deputy Gogarty referred to a meeting of minds. I very much regret that the Minister chose to walk out of the debate in the manner she did tonight.

Three hours were allowed for this debate in our Parliament. The reason people are in the Gallery and elsewhere in the House to listen to this debate was summed up very well by Deputy Wall, who asked why parents of children with special needs must fight for everything. That is exactly what is happening in 2010 although we believed we had surmounted the problem in the past ten or 15 years. Parents must fight for everything.

The Minister's speech tonight was a cut-and-paste version of the speech on this topic given by the former Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, in the Seanad a month ago. Line for line, it is the same, and it was written by some civil servant.

I repeat the allegation that this is a cost-cutting exercise. We now have the evidence. Three hundred and fifty posts are gone this year and the review is not over. In the past three months, I have been asking the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, for this information. The joint committee could not even obtain it. Why is the Dáil treated like a complete doss-house? That is exactly the way in which the Government and its unelected quangos treat this House. Why could the information not be given to me and other colleagues over the past few months?

Suddenly tonight, by miraculous intervention on the NCSE website, we have the information. What an affront to the Parliament and the elected Members of this House. As Deputy Stanton said, none of the three Ministers referred to the Special Education Appeals Board, set up under the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, and to the fact that €330,000 has been spent on it to date. They have not used this information because they are afraid to ask independent people outside the NCSE to examine decisions that have been made. That is a fact.

It is available and they are not using it.

I am proud of our achievements regarding special needs in recent years. We have taken people to the top of a mountain and have shown them the opportunities on the other side. However, the Government is making sure they go down the same side of the mountain.

The motion before the House simply asks that we go back to basics and get the criteria right. We recognise it is 17 years since the SERC put criteria in place and that much has changed. We recognise that the independent report, available on the NCSE website, shows the complication in schools today. Children from complex and varied backgrounds are entering school communities and all kinds of behavioural issues must be contended with. The notion that we can put children into very simple boxes — the mild, the acute and the rest — is not valid. Children come in various forms. We have come a long way in 17 years and the motion, by way of the review we propose, seeks to redress the problems that arise.

I, as one of the Opposition spokespersons on education, have not mentioned the school in my constituency because it would lead to the charge of my being parochial, but I will speak about St. Joseph's Special School in Balrothery in Tallaght. The four people who were given their marching orders last week under the NCSE review are present in the Gallery. They are great people and do an extraordinary job. We are now making the people who do an extraordinary job redundant. We are breaking the relationship they have with those children and that school community and we are going to put them back on the dole. What about that for joined-up Government?

In the same school, at the very first public meeting we had on this, a very brave man stood up and said: "I can't read or write, I have two children in this school, and by God what happened to me will not happen to them." What we have done to special needs people in this country is the result of years of neglect. Bear in mind the extraordinary story Deputy Barrett told during the debate, as regards how an intervention can change the life of one person. This is not a matter of whether we want more or less SNAs, but rather of recognising that there cannot be inclusion without SNAs. That is exactly what this motion is about.

In conclusion, I believe the NCSE is doing the Government's dirty work for it. I believe the NCSE has been told to cut back. We know that 353 have been cut back, so how many more will there be by the end of the year?

We know this is happening. At a time when more children are coming into schools with all the variety of assessments that are needed, how is this possible at this stage that we have less? I do not believe the propaganda from the Government and I very much hope, even at this late stage in the debate, that some backbench Members will abstain on the Government amendment tonight. That, more than anything else, will send a positive signal to the effect that the policy of the Government and the NCSE is wrong for children, education and the future of this country.

Amendment put.
The Dáil divided: Tá, 77; Níl, 68.

  • Ahern, Dermot.
  • Ahern, Michael.
  • Ahern, Noel.
  • Andrews, Barry.
  • Andrews, Chris.
  • Ardagh, Seán.
  • Aylward, Bobby.
  • Blaney, Niall.
  • Brady, Áine.
  • Brady, Cyprian.
  • Brady, Johnny.
  • Browne, John.
  • Byrne, Thomas.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Carey, Pat.
  • Collins, Niall.
  • Conlon, Margaret.
  • Connick, Seán.
  • Coughlan, Mary.
  • Cregan, John.
  • Cuffe, Ciarán.
  • Curran, John.
  • Dempsey, Noel.
  • Devins, Jimmy.
  • Dooley, Timmy.
  • Fahey, Frank.
  • Finneran, Michael.
  • Fitzpatrick, Michael.
  • Fleming, Seán.
  • Flynn, Beverley.
  • Gogarty, Paul.
  • Gormley, John.
  • Grealish, Noel.
  • Hanafin, Mary.
  • Harney, Mary.
  • Haughey, Seán.
  • Healy-Rae, Jackie.
  • Hoctor, Máire.
  • Kelleher, Billy.
  • Kelly, Peter.
  • Kenneally, Brendan.
  • Kennedy, Michael.
  • Killeen, Tony.
  • Kitt, Michael P.
  • Kitt, Tom.
  • Lenihan, Brian.
  • Lowry, Michael.
  • McEllistrim, Thomas.
  • McGrath, Mattie.
  • McGrath, Michael.
  • McGuinness, John.
  • Mansergh, Martin.
  • Martin, Micheál.
  • Moloney, John.
  • Moynihan, Michael.
  • Mulcahy, Michael.
  • Nolan, M. J.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
  • O’Brien, Darragh.
  • O’Connor, Charlie.
  • O’Dea, Willie.
  • O’Donoghue, John.
  • O’Flynn, Noel.
  • O’Hanlon, Rory.
  • O’Keeffe, Batt.
  • O’Keeffe, Edward.
  • O’Rourke, Mary.
  • O’Sullivan, Christy.
  • Power, Seán.
  • Ryan, Eamon.
  • Sargent, Trevor.
  • Scanlon, Eamon.
  • Treacy, Noel.
  • Wallace, Mary.
  • White, Mary Alexandra.
  • Woods, Michael.

Níl

  • Allen, Bernard.
  • Bannon, James.
  • Barrett, Seán.
  • Behan, Joe.
  • Breen, Pat.
  • Broughan, Thomas P.
  • Bruton, Richard.
  • Burton, Joan.
  • Byrne, Catherine.
  • Clune, Deirdre.
  • Connaughton, Paul.
  • Costello, Joe.
  • Coveney, Simon.
  • Crawford, Seymour.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Creighton, Lucinda.
  • D’Arcy, Michael.
  • Deasy, John.
  • Deenihan, Jimmy.
  • Doyle, Andrew.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • English, Damien.
  • Enright, Olwyn.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Flanagan, Charles.
  • Flanagan, Terence.
  • Gilmore, Eamon.
  • Hayes, Brian.
  • Hayes, Tom.
  • Higgins, Michael D.
  • Hogan, Phil.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Kenny, Enda.
  • Lynch, Ciarán.
  • Lynch, Kathleen.
  • McCormack, Pádraic.
  • McEntee, Shane.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • McGrath, Finian.
  • McHugh, Joe.
  • McManus, Liz.
  • Mitchell, Olivia.
  • Naughten, Denis.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Noonan, Michael.
  • Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • O’Donnell, Kieran.
  • O’Dowd, Fergus.
  • O’Keeffe, Jim.
  • O’Mahony, John.
  • O’Shea, Brian.
  • O’Sullivan, Jan.
  • O’Sullivan, Maureen.
  • Penrose, Willie.
  • Perry, John.
  • Rabbitte, Pat.
  • Reilly, James.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Sheahan, Tom.
  • Sheehan, P. J.
  • Sherlock, Seán.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Timmins, Billy.
  • Tuffy, Joanna.
  • Upton, Mary.
  • Wall, Jack.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies John Curran and John Cregan; Níl, Deputies Paul Kehoe and Emmet Stagg.
Amendment declared carried.
Question put: "That the motion, as amended, be agreed to."
The Dáil divided by electronic means.

Yesterday, in this House, we saw unprecedented action from the Members opposite in the way they voted through billions for the banks. Yet, they are unable to vote through tonight's motion from Fine Gael for funding for special needs assistants. I want to show the people in the Gallery how the Members opposite care about special needs assistants. As a teller, under Standing Order 69 I propose that the vote be taken other than by electronic means.

As Deputy Kehoe is a Whip, under Standing Order 69 he is entitled to call a vote through the lobby.

Question again put: "That the motion, as amended, be agreed to."
The Dáil divided: Tá, 77; Níl, 68.

  • Ahern, Dermot.
  • Ahern, Michael.
  • Ahern, Noel.
  • Andrews, Barry.
  • Andrews, Chris.
  • Ardagh, Seán.
  • Aylward, Bobby.
  • Blaney, Niall.
  • Brady, Áine.
  • Brady, Cyprian.
  • Brady, Johnny.
  • Browne, John.
  • Byrne, Thomas.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Carey, Pat.
  • Collins, Niall.
  • Conlon, Margaret.
  • Connick, Seán.
  • Coughlan, Mary.
  • Cregan, John.
  • Cuffe, Ciarán.
  • Curran, John.
  • Dempsey, Noel.
  • Devins, Jimmy.
  • Dooley, Timmy.
  • Fahey, Frank.
  • Finneran, Michael.
  • Fitzpatrick, Michael.
  • Fleming, Seán.
  • Flynn, Beverley.
  • Gogarty, Paul.
  • Gormley, John.
  • Grealish, Noel.
  • Hanafin, Mary.
  • Harney, Mary.
  • Haughey, Seán.
  • Healy-Rae, Jackie.
  • Hoctor, Máire.
  • Kelleher, Billy.
  • Kelly, Peter.
  • Kenneally, Brendan.
  • Kennedy, Michael.
  • Killeen, Tony.
  • Kitt, Michael P.
  • Kitt, Tom.
  • Lenihan, Brian.
  • Lowry, Michael.
  • McEllistrim, Thomas.
  • McGrath, Mattie.
  • McGrath, Michael.
  • McGuinness, John.
  • Mansergh, Martin.
  • Martin, Micheál.
  • Moloney, John.
  • Moynihan, Michael.
  • Mulcahy, Michael.
  • Nolan, M. J.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
  • O’Brien, Darragh.
  • O’Connor, Charlie.
  • O’Dea, Willie.
  • O’Donoghue, John.
  • O’Flynn, Noel.
  • O’Hanlon, Rory.
  • O’Keeffe, Batt.
  • O’Keeffe, Edward.
  • O’Rourke, Mary.
  • O’Sullivan, Christy.
  • Power, Seán.
  • Ryan, Eamon.
  • Sargent, Trevor.
  • Scanlon, Eamon.
  • Treacy, Noel.
  • Wallace, Mary.
  • White, Mary Alexandra.
  • Woods, Michael.

Níl

  • Allen, Bernard.
  • Bannon, James.
  • Barrett, Seán.
  • Behan, Joe.
  • Breen, Pat.
  • Broughan, Thomas P.
  • Bruton, Richard.
  • Burton, Joan.
  • Byrne, Catherine.
  • Clune, Deirdre.
  • Connaughton, Paul.
  • Coonan, Noel J.
  • Costello, Joe.
  • Coveney, Simon.
  • Crawford, Seymour.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Creighton, Lucinda.
  • D’Arcy, Michael.
  • Deasy, John.
  • Deenihan, Jimmy.
  • Doyle, Andrew.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • English, Damien.
  • Enright, Olwyn.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Flanagan, Charles.
  • Flanagan, Terence.
  • Gilmore, Eamon.
  • Hayes, Brian.
  • Hayes, Tom.
  • Higgins, Michael D.
  • Hogan, Phil.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Kenny, Enda.
  • Lynch, Ciarán.
  • Lynch, Kathleen.
  • McCormack, Pádraic.
  • McEntee, Shane.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • McGrath, Finian.
  • McHugh, Joe.
  • McManus, Liz.
  • Mitchell, Olivia.
  • Naughten, Denis.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Noonan, Michael.
  • Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • O’Donnell, Kieran.
  • O’Dowd, Fergus.
  • O’Keeffe, Jim.
  • O’Mahony, John.
  • O’Shea, Brian.
  • O’Sullivan, Jan.
  • Penrose, Willie.
  • Perry, John.
  • Rabbitte, Pat.
  • Reilly, James.
  • Ring, Michael.
  • Sheahan, Tom.
  • Sheehan, P. J.
  • Sherlock, Seán.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Timmins, Billy.
  • Tuffy, Joanna.
  • Upton, Mary.
  • Wall, Jack.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies John Cregan and John Curran; Níl, Deputies Paul Kehoe and Emmet Stagg.
Question declared carried.