I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, for taking this debate. The issue of appropriate supports for children with disability in the preschool year appears to fall between the remit of a number of Departments. The Department of Education and Skills is responsible for children with a disability attending mainstream schools. I refer to a very welcome initiative in recent years which is the provision of special needs assistants. I have been pursuing this issue as have other Deputies, including my constituency colleagues, on foot of representations made to us about individual cases. I refer to last week's debate on a Private Members' motion tabled by Deputy Troy. While there is some momentum to address the issue, it still seems that no particular Department is willing to take ownership of it.
To put the problem in context I refer to a letter I received from the HSE on foot of representations I made about an individual case. The HSE letter in reply reads: "There is no obligation for a service under the ECCE grant to take a child with special needs if they cannot provide supports." In other words, they can simply refuse to take a child and that child will sit at home instead. The Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, will be aware that this issue is a long time on the agenda. In the 1996 report to the Government by the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, it was stated on the issue of preschools that it should be the responsibility of the Department of Education to provide high quality appropriate preschool services to the children with disabilities. The Minister of State might well reply that she was not in office on that occasion and she may wash her hands of that report but the National Disability Strategy Implementation Plan 2013-2015 states as an aspiration to improve supports for children with disabilities in the preschool year. It stated that the outcome desired is to improve school readiness and learning for children with disabilities and that one of the key indicators will be to have more than 50% of children in preschool year in receipt of appropriate supports. The flip side is that almost 50% of children with disabilities are not receiving the appropriate supports and I suspect that a substantial minority of those children who are not getting the appropriate supports are unable to avail of the preschool year and consequently start at a disadvantage in their formal education in the primary school system, behind their peers by virtue of a learning or a physical disability.
I take my hat off to many of the community providers of early childhood education who through their own resources are providing funds for special needs assistants or other supports needed for these children. The system is too ad hoc. One child who cannot avail of the preschool year is one too many, but regrettably there are many children. I cannot quantify the number but perhaps the Minister of State can do so.
I welcome the cross-departmental endeavour under way but I remain to be convinced that somebody is taking ownership of the issue, even if not to the extent outlined in the National Disability Strategy Implementation Plan 2013-2015, which has a timeline to have this issue addressed by September 2016. It is feasible to have this issue addressed if there is a willingness to so do, by September 2014, in order that children with disabilities would be on the same footing as any other child and available to take up a place in early childhood education.