Special Needs Education: Discussion with National Council for Special Education

I welcome the delegates from the National Council for Special Education, Mr. Sydney Blain, chairman, Mr. Pat Curtin, chief executive officer, Mr. Sé Goulding, head of operations, Ms Jennifer Doran, head of research, and Ms Mary Byrne, special education adviser. Members have asked that the council's presentation should focus on three areas: the report of the taskforce on autism and now the NCSE believes it has been implemented; the impact of financial cuts and the effect they will have on the provision of special needs education; and the current level of resourcing for pupils in mainstream education with low instance of special needs. I thank everybody for attending.

The format of the meeting will involve a brief presentation by the delegates on their findings, followed by a question and answer session. We also invited written submissions and received one from the Special Needs Parents Association, which has been circulated. I welcome some of the association's members who are in the public Gallery, Mr. Noel Cuddy, chairperson, and Mr. Eoin Kelly, vice chairman. I also welcome to the gallery representatives of Inclusion Ireland, Ms Siobhán Kane, Ms Fiona Lyons and Ms Valerie Monaghan.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice or long-standing rule of the Chair to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such as way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give this committee. If a witness is directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and the witness continues to so do, the witness is entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of his or her evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and witnesses are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person or persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I invite Mr. Curtin to begin his presentation.

Mr. Pat Curtin

I thank the Chairman. We welcome the opportunity to give our views on and experiences of special education as we were requested to do in the submission. The Chairman takes me somewhat by surprise in regard to the three areas she listed, which we were not specifically asked to address. We will be able to address them in the discussion but, unfortunately, our submission does not focus on them in particular.

That is all right.

Mr. Pat Curtin

Some of those areas would be addressed in any event in our submission which is before the members. With the Chairman's permission, I wish to focus the discussion on a number of key areas as we see them. First, I wish to touch upon the role and functions of the council, the EPSEN Act which is the underpinning legislation, the council's main activities and the current special education policy and the supports sanctioned by the council. I shall conclude with changes that will arise because of the provisions of the national recovery plan.

The council comprises a chairperson and 12 ordinary members who are appointed by the Minister for Education and Skills for a fixed period. It is supported by an executive of some 109 staff. The council has three key functions, first, to provide a local service to schools and parents to support children with special educational needs; second, to conduct, commission and publish research in special education matters; and third, to provide policy advice to the Minister for Education and Skills in regard to any matter relating to education of children and others with disabilities.

I shall describe in brief the EPSEN Act. As members will be aware, the Act is the principal statutory provision in the special education sector. It provides a range of statutory rights for children with special education needs, as defined in the Act. The EPSEN Act 2004 specifically provided for the phased implementation of the Act over a five year period. The council, as required on its establishment, submitted an implementation report to the Minister for Education and Skills at the end of 2006 which provided an action plan for implementation by 2010, together with indicative costs at that time. In 2008, the Department of Education and Skills indicated that in the context of the current economic climate a decision was taken in the budget to defer the full implementation of the EPSEN Act. Members will also note that the renewed programme for Government restated the Government's commitment to the full implementation of the Act and committed to the development in consultation with stakeholders of a costed multiannual plan to plan for the implementation of the Act, focusing on measurable practical progress in education and health services for children with special educational needs.

Discussions have commenced between the Department of Education and Skills, the HSE, the Department of Health and Children and our association to further the implementation of the EPSEN Act as circumstances permit. The sections of the Act commenced to date refer in the main to the establishment of the council, the right of children with special educational needs to an inclusive education and the obligation of schools to provide inclusive education.

I wish to signal an important aspect of the work of the council which is sometimes not highlighted, namely, research. Research provides new evidence, ideas and views to enhance the knowledge base of educational professionals and in so doing creates new thinking, provokes and challenges current thinking and instigates change in teaching practices and pupil outcomes. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, is building a store of research on special education and is actively engaged in disseminating its research findings to a wide audience. We can elaborate on this in our discussion later.

We are also required to develop policy advice. This is perhaps the aspect of our functions we have developed most recently. Under the EPSEN Act, the council is required to provide policy advice to the Minister for Education and Skills in matters relating to the education of children and others with disabilities. The NCSE is finalising policy advice for the Minister with regard to the future role of special schools and classes. It is expected this policy advice paper will be ready for submission to the Minister early in 2011.

We are required to implement current education policy on a day-to-day basis. Current policy on special education recognises the need for a continuum of support and provision for children with special educational needs. In accordance with current policy, children with special educational needs should be educated in a mainstream class, a special class in a mainstream school, a special class in a special school or a special school which has been designated for a particular category of disability. Also, a general allocation model applies and provides support at primary level. All mainstream primary schools are provided with a general allocation of teaching hours to support inclusive education. Under the general allocation model, additional permanent teachers assist schools to make appropriate provision for the needs of pupils with special educational needs arising from high-incidence disabilities and for children who are eligible for learning support teaching. High-incidence disabilities refer to those which occur with a greater frequency in the general population and include borderline mild general learning disability, mild general learning disability and specific learning disability.

The general allocation model does not apply to post-primary schools. The NCSE has no role in respect of the general allocation model but does sanction special needs assistants for children supported through that system where such support is warranted. Additional teaching resources are also allocated to primary and post-primary schools for the support of individual pupils with complex and enduring needs and who have been assessed as having a low-incidence disability. The number of hours allocated varies by category of disability. Post-primary schools are also given a specific individual allocation of resource teaching hours for children with high-incidence disabilities because the general allocation model does not apply to post-primary schools. There are currently 14 recognised categories of disability for the purposes of resource allocation. The allocation of teaching hours and special needs assistant, SNA, support is determined by the child's disability category and the nature and extent of his or her care needs. In 2009 and 2010 the NCSE sanctioned resources for approximately 16,600 children with low-incidence disabilities in primary schools. In the same year we sanctioned resources for approximately 17,500 pupils with both low- and high-incidence special educational needs in post-primary schools. Under its current remit, a major function of the council is the sanctioning of teaching and special needs assistant resources for schools. In sanctioning such resources the council is required to implement departmental policy while taking into account the special educational needs of children as identified in assessment reports.

It is the view of the council that the localised network of special educational needs organisers, SENOs, ensures the resources available for deployment to schools are allocated in an efficient manner and allows maximum interaction with parents and schools. SENOs made approximately 15,600 decisions on the allocation of resources to schools in 2009. An associated element of the allocations process was the identification by SENOs of the need for specialised education settings for children with special educational needs, for example, a special class setting.

As Members will be aware, in June 2009 and 2010 the NCSE was requested by the Department to conduct a national review of special needs assistant, SNA, allocation to schools. This review is now completed and a copy of the final report is attached to our submission for the information of Members.

With regard to recent developments, Members will be aware that the National Recovery Plan 2011-2014 states in respect of special education that there has been a significant increase in the number of SNAs in recent years and that it is intended to cap the number at 2011 levels and introduce a new system to facilitate the management of these finite SNA resources in a proactive manner. The council was formally advised by a letter from the Department of Education and Skills on 7 December 2010 that it has been decided to cap the number of SNAs at 10,575 whole-time equivalent posts. It is obvious that operating within a cap will require a significantly different approach to allocation by the NCSE and to the management of this valuable resource by schools. The council is currently developing proposals to manage this process to ensure the resources are assigned to support children with the greatest level of need. The council is strongly of the view that it is important that advances made in special educational provision during the past decade are maintained to the greatest extent possible to ensure children with special educational needs are dealt with in a manner appropriate to their needs.

Members should note that we received submissions from the Special Needs Parents Association, the National Disability Authority and the Disability Federation of Ireland. That is by way of background for our discussion and it will form part of our discussions and decisions toward the end of the meeting. I call Deputy O'Dowd.

I welcome the NCSE and the other distinguished visitors to our discussion. I place on record my appreciation of the work parents do for their children as well as that of the teachers, SNAs and everyone involved in the process during these difficult times. The council's conclusions are important. We must ensure maximum resources are provided in these difficult times and perhaps we could address the questions raised initially as well.

I wish to place on record my concern at the lack of transparency in the Department of Education and Skills at administrative level when I sought a copy of documentation under freedom of information legislation in respect of applied behaviour analysis, ABA, schools and related issues. The Department refused to give me a copy of the material, which is disgraceful. The Department of Education and Skills has frustrated at least eight of the eight or nine freedom of information requests I submitted. I received one and the remainder were refused. In the context of educational policy, if we are to move forward together as a society we must have a working relationship with the bureaucracy to get to the bottom of this issue and to deal with it most effectively. I am not referring to the political end of the business. It appears the Department of Education and Skills is frustrating the transparency of the decision making process. It should be accountable under the Act and what has happened to date is appalling and shameful. That is a fact. Having said that, I have only been spokesman for a short time but I was a teacher and I appreciate the work done by the schools.

Enlightened education management has made a huge difference. I have seen Down's syndrome children in mainstream schools making great progress. The changes in the integration of children with special needs in the last 20 years have given a new lease of life to these young people. They have friends and are not separated from the community. What must be done now to ensure those steps forward are maintained?

What must be done now to maximise the help and support these children need, regardless of their disability, with the finite resources now available?

I wish to associate myself with Deputy O'Dowd's comments. To add to his question, given the economic reality for the country for the next ten years, and the closing remarks in the delegation's presentation, the concept of a cap is entirely new. A fixed group of 10,575 people poses an entirely new management challenge to the council and to the schools in question. What is the thinking at present? Will each school have access to the pool of SNAs and how will resources be allocated? A former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, indicated some schools were economical with the truth when indicating their need for SNAs and when an SNA was assigned, he would stay on long after the specific original justification had disappeared. Could we hear the council's thinking on that matter?

Mr. Pat Curtin

Firstly, to address Deputy O'Dowd's comments on the ABA schools and the Department, we are a separate statutory body and we do not have responsibility.

It was just for the public record, so the Minister would hear, if she is listening.

Mr. Pat Curtin

To move directly to the challenge facing us, and the recent notification to the council about the imposition of a cap, we are grappling with putting together proposals to deal with it. Up to now, we have looked at each application as it arrived and evaluated it in terms of the need for SNA support in the context of what the school already had, what might be freed up in the immediate future in the school and in terms of additionality. This was without reference to a bottom line in terms of resources and, as evidence shows, resulted in an increasing number of SNAs over the years since the establishment of the council. Now we will operate within a cap and it appears the only basis we will be able to manage such a cap is to move to an annual allocation to the school. There will be a point of time where we will need to evaluate the level of SNA support required in a school and mediate that with the overall level of resources we have.

To clarify, are we talking about primary and post-primary schools?

Mr. Pat Curtin

Yes, and special schools as well.

So about 4,200 schools?

Mr. Pat Curtin

Yes. We must manage that task and it seems to us that we will have to move a system of annual allocation where we look at each school's supports on a yearly basis. We must find the resources to meet unexpected demands that may arise in schools but it will be done within the context of a cap. We are still in discussions with the Department over the precise details of reporting but we will have to report on a regular basis on the capped numbers.

Mr. Curtin is talking about a specific date. If I am a school principal and a special needs pupil is coming in, I would need to know if the resources will be available. It would have to be post-enrolment but before school commences.

Mr. Pat Curtin

Yes, the position at the moment is that the vast majority of applications for increased support, and the changed scenarios when pupils exit the school, mean the period between March and June is when the bulk of applications arrive with us. Until now we had to make a judgment call in terms of the policy parameters on whether the resource was justified or additional resources were need. Now we have the additional dimension where we must look at the spread and the most urgent need country-wide. We must look at how we manage our decision making so there is equity across a capped system. This is not going to be easy. In the last few days, we have been devoting a lot of energy to examining our data, and looking at how we can manage this. We will have to do it and the most definite response I can give to members is that we must move towards some form of an annual allocation. We hope to have a pool of resources. Looking at the SNA review, it illustrates the change that happens in schools at the end of each year. Each year about 900 posts move because of pupils changing schools and that creates a resource with which to meet the new demand.

Our experience in the last four years is that there is an insatiable demand for SNA numbers in particular. We have been able to deal with the teaching requirements but the SNA area is the one where we have had most difficulty. The most important thing is that the needs of the children are met. The council's main objectives are that quality teaching is available, that teaching resources are maintained and that individual planning can be improved wherever possible for pupils. We are aware that schools are making major efforts to apply individual planning and an even greater effort will have to be made in focusing on individual needs. We are also very much aware that the special education support service is providing a good deal of in-service training and development to teachers and schools in specific situations to help them cope with the range of needs arising.

Will Mr. Curtin please clarify an issue? When Mr. Curtin says that the cap transforms the way in which he allocates SNAs does that mean there will be an entirely new approach or will it be simply a modification of the existing approach?

Mr. Pat Curtin

It will not be a new approach in so far as SNAs will be allocated to deal with care needs within the school and to support a child with care needs participating in and benefiting from education within the schools. To that extent, it will be on the same basis.

A number of members are offering. To clarify, Mr. Curtin said in his submission there was a cap of 10,575 whole-time equivalent SNA posts. What is the present number of wholetime equivalent posts?

Mr. Pat Curtin

Because this is changing on a day to day basis, we are examining that issue very closely. However, it seems to us we have reached that cap.

I wish to raise a couple of issues. The first is related to what Deputy Fergus O'Dowd said about ABA schools. I hoped at this meeting the issue of ABA schools could have been raised and also a review of the report on autism but not many submissions were received. There appears to be a breach of the spirit if not a factual breach of the commitment in the programme for Government to protect 12 ABA schools, given that a person with a knowledge of ABA is not allowed make decisions and that such schools must employ mainstream teaching staff who are not au fait with ABA. It is very difficult for ABA teachers to make the transition to being a primary school teacher. Those who are teaching ABA in a certain number of schools cannot get the ABA methodology immersed throughout the schools and they are, de facto, no longer ABA schools. If we had some clarity from the Department it would have been helpful.

A Dáil vote has been called but we have a couple of minutes. My understanding from previous discussions with the National Council for Special Education-----

The Deputy must be brief and conclude because people like him are able to run across to the Dáil but in fairness-----

If the Chair wishes I will stop and continue when we get back.

I have no problem with Deputy Gogarty being in possession when we return.

But not in the chair.

The Deputy has only two minutes if he does come back.

I will stick with the lesser issue. Will the National Council for Special Education clarify how it will make it easier for children to get to school? I do not know if members have seen the schematic sent around by Scoil Chiaráin bus. There is a circular way of deciding whether a child is able to get transport. In the schematic, for example, Bus Éireann, the Department of Education and Skills or the SENO do not inform schools of transport decisions or the status of applications. Students can arrive at school on the first day and schools do not know how they will get home again. I would be grateful for clarification on that issue.

On the Scoil Chiaráin issue, Deputy Ulick Burke asked during private session if he could raise that issue. I suggest we include Deputy Burke's comment when we resume. Deputy John O'Mahony and others have waiting to contribute.

Sitting suspended at 10.55 a.m. and resumed at 11.25 a.m.

Deputy Gogarty is in possession.

I wish to follow up on the transport issue. Three students who moved house during the summer are still unable to access school transport due to increased levels of bureaucracy among the National Council for Special Education, the Department and Bus Éireann. The issue is being fobbed off to the Department, Bus Éireann, etc. One of these pupils is a child in care and it is scandalous in the current climate that the Health Service Executive is paying for a private taxi and escort while a school bus passes the child's door. There seems to be a lack of communication between the Departments resulting in a very poor level of service for children. That issue needs to be addressed from the transport perspective. Any child should be able to access transport that is already available and we should not waste taxpayers' money in the current climate by duplicating that.

I raise two other points, the first of which relates to the cap on special needs assistant, SNA, places. My understanding is that there was due to be a cut of 500 SNA places this year. That was prevented in budgetary negotiations but at the last meeting in March, and I would like clarification on this from the NCSE, we heard that the idea was to examine where special needs assistants were being placed with a view to placing them in other areas where they were more urgently required. As far as I could see, under the programme for Government the cap did not result in a reduction in SNA numbers but more a reallocation of SNAs. I ask the NCSE representatives to clarify whether there has been a cut in the past two years. If there has been a cut, we need to examine that further.

I want to raise a key point. St. Joseph's Special School in Tallaght was examined on the last occasion as part of this committee's work. Both teacher and SNA posts were being removed from the school. I understood Mr. Curtin said on that occasion that a special appeals body would be set up by October. Is that the case and if not, why not? The Minister said in the Dáil that there would be movement in that direction. I realise there are time constraints and I will return to this issue if I may but we know there is no independent appeals process, which is scandalous. That criticism is on the record and it should be reiterated, although I will not go on at length about it. That criticism has come from bodies such as Inclusion Ireland and St. Ciarán's school, which is suffering now between teacher losses and SNA losses. Why is it the case - I ask Mr. Curtin to clarify that this is not a departmental diktat and it is the NCSE, as an autonomous body, that is doing this - that even though there is an appeals process lacking in independence, special schools do not have the right to appeal under the flawed system? Why is the council refusing outright to allow the authorities in special schools to make appeals? Special schools are specialists in their area and the authorities in those schools know what they are doing. If they were to make an appeal, it would be much different from an appeal made in respect of a child in a standard primary or second level school. What is the rationale for not providing for an appeals process for them? Does the council intend to change the current position and in all credibility can it stand over it? If it is the NCSE's decision, it is appalling and members of it should consider their position. If it is a decision that has come from the Department through subtle ministerial diktat, at least the Mr. Curtin should say that in order that we would know the Minister is playing games with special schools.

As Scoil Chiaráin was mentioned, Deputy Burke might want to contribute.

I appreciate that. I welcome the delegates of the NCSE. I support Deputy Gogarty in what he said about an appeals mechanism. Mr. Curtin said that every pupil would be evaluated individually, that a cap would apply and that this is in the interests of ensuring there is equity in the system. Those were his comments before we suspended. With the application of a cap, the provision of a degree of equity and an individual evaluation process, why is it the case that when a reasonable complaint was made by Scoil Chiaráin that there was no mechanism in place for it to appeal the decision to refuse its application? When Mr. Curtin last visited the committee, Deputy Stanton, to whom reference was made, said he had been told by the Minister in the Dáil that the NCSE would set up an independent appeals advisory body. Mr. Curtin replied that at this stage that is a further stage in the case where a school is unhappy with an outcome of an appeal and would have the opportunity to make a submission to this body. Mr. Curtin said that the first meeting of it would be held in October next year. Can he explain to the committee exactly what has happened and why is the council afraid to participate in an independent appeals process? While that is the position, there is no point in Mr. Curtin talking about ensuring equity in the system. If the council is applying a cap and Mr. Curtin is saying there will be equity in the system, the two are not compatible.

The Deputy's query relates to a meeting that he understood was to take place in October 2010.

That is correct.

The next speaker is Deputy O'Mahony to be followed by Senators Ryan and Ó Brolcháin.

I will be brief. I want to continue the focus and emphasis on an appeals process. Of the reviews that have been completed, how many appeals were there and how many were successful? Moving on to the application of a cap mentioned by Mr. Curtin and the fact that the capacity level have been reached, as we move into 2011, does that render the appeals process to be of no value? If all the SNAs are allocated and if an SNA appeals his or her allocation, does that mean the implication of overturning a decision on appeal would be to remove the allocation from somebody else who was granted it? The position was bad before but the implications of what will happen next year beggar belief. I would like Mr. Curtin to give numbers in this respect and to outline the implications of what will happen under the new set-up.

In the context of Mr. Curtin's comments on applying a cap, the council is developing proposals to manage this process with a view to there being a greater focus on those with the greatest need. In developing that model, is it the council's intention to engage with any of the stakeholders on what it might involve and perhaps to seek submissions on how it might work? If the council develops a model that seems to be unfair to some stakeholders and we end up having a further discussion on this, there might be merit in seeking submissions from stakeholders on how such a model might work in the new context.

I want to be associated with the concern expressed about the lack of an independent appeals process. Under the new scenario of a greater tightness of resources, it will be more important to have an independent appeals process in place. According to a submission from Inclusion Ireland, it appears that certain funding was made available in 2009 and 2010 for the establishment of an independent appeals body but no such appeals took place. Mr. Curtin might comment on that. It is difficult to accept there is no appeals process in place for special schools; it seems grossly unfair. Can Mr. Curtin clarify and attempt to justify the policy on that?

Can Mr. Curtin give an assurance that, irrespective of whatever else happens in future, the approach to cuts made earlier this year whereby the facility of an SNA was removed from children midway through the year will not happen again?

On page 2 of the executive summary, there is reference to discussions having commenced with the Department of Education and Skills, the HSE and the Department of Health and Children on the further roll out of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act and the commitment in the revised programme for Government to deliver on that. Can Mr. Curtin indicate what, if any, additional elements of that Act might be rolled out during 2011?

I thank Mr. Curtin for his submission. I wish to focus also on the appeals process issue and the establishment of the special education appeals board. At what stage is that at? As Deputy O'Mahony and Senator Ryan covered this matter, I will await Mr. Curtin's response.

In his response to a question, Mr. Curtin touched on the training of teachers and SNAs. The number of special needs assistants expanded rapidly in the period 1998 to 2008. Will Mr. Curtin indicate how teachers and special needs assistants are equipped to deal with the varied needs of children in the educational process?

I welcome the delegates. I have three main points, one of which relates to mainstreaming in education. I have a particular interest in this area as I am the father of a child with special needs and I am also on the board of Autism Ireland. There is great difficulty, particularly in regard to the ABA schools. There is a huge number of blockages in the mainstreaming of children in that there does not seem to be a tie up between local mainstream schools and ABA or other special schools. I refer in particular to ABA schools. It is difficult for parents to achieve the mainstreaming of children and the level of blockage and bureaucracy is extraordinary. This needs to be urgently addressed. Having regard to one of the key purposes of setting up the ABA schools under a pilot project, now we are trying to bring them into a Department of Education and Skills model which my colleague, Deputy Gogarty, said is threatening the basis of the ABA school model in the way it is being set up. It needs to be carefully managed. The key point is the huge level of difficulty and the huge onus that is put on parents to achieve everything. It is brutally unfair that parents who already have great difficulty looking after those children have further difficulties heaped on them through massive levels of bureaucracy when trying to achieve the things they are supposed to be able to achieve quite simply. That is a fact; that is what parents feel. The level of support is technically there but, in reality, the amount of form filling, bureaucracy blockage, appeals to boards of local schools and so forth is enormous. It is brutally unfair.

With regard to the ABA structure, ABA schools are encountering great difficulty getting principals on board. Quite simply, the level of skills required for such principals is difficult to find, certainly at primary level. Indeed, they are also difficult to find at second level. In addition, as my colleague Deputy Gogarty said, the skills needed to implement ABA and to teach at the same time frequently cannot be found in the same person. There are huge difficulties and challenges. I hope they can be overcome in future years.

Finally, the conclusion of the executive summary speaks about the difficult economic circumstances and says there will be a fight to maintain what we have in education provision. There is a huge poverty of ambition in that conclusion. The EPSEN Act is within the programme for Government and I hope it will be in the next one. I do not believe a rights based approach to education should be predicated on the economic circumstances of the day. It is a fact that great achievements were made in economies which had less money than ours. A great deal can be achieved with regard to bureaucracy in particular. The level of bureaucracy that is heaped on parents and families where there are special educational needs has nothing to do with the financial situation of the day.

When does Mr. Curtin believe the EPSEN Act can be fully implemented? Will it be 2018, 2020 or never? We must have ambition in achieving the best we can for our children, particularly children with special educational needs. It is not good enough to say one is trying to maintain things as best one can, with the implication that one will not be able to do so. That is an appalling conclusion to the document. We need something better.

I have two questions. One relates to the reference Senator Ó Brolcháin made to ABA schools. Where do students graduate to after the ABA school? Does the NCSE provide support up to the age of 18 or is there an age limit to the provision of support?

Mr. Pat Curtin

There is a wide range of questions to answer. I will first try to clarify the issue of ABA centres. The council understands that 13 centres were part of the ABA pilot scheme, which was funded by the Department of Education and Skills. The council has been advised by the Department that these centres have been granted recognition as special schools for children with autism. Up to last week three principals have been appointed in those schools.

The council has not been involved in the resourcing of those ABA centres up to now. That matter was dealt with directly by the Department. As they become recognised as special schools we will be involved in resourcing them on the same basis as we resource other schools and subject to the same policy parameters. As these schools are now established as special schools, in the period to next September we will get our local people to become familiar with them to ensure that by the next school year we will be able to address the resource issues in the schools as we move forward. The NCSE was not involved in either the setting up or the ongoing support of the ABA centres or with regard to the transitional arrangements that have been agreed. They were departmental matters. However, we look forward to becoming involved with these schools and to operating within the overall policy parameter.

It appears to have been misinterpreted that I represented a cap as being something that could develop equity. In applying the cap we have the task of trying to ensure that equity prevails in the system and that our decisions across the country are equitable as we work within that policy framework. That is the enormous task facing us in the coming year. However, it must be recognised that there has been an enormous increase in the number of SNAs in recent years. It is a significant resource that must be managed properly and directed at children who need it most and at the schools that are supporting children with the highest levels of need. That is the situation and task that will confront us.

With regard to our ambition for the future of maintaining the levels, perhaps some weeks ago the council would have been saying it had much higher ambitions. However, the council must also be practical in its focus on the future. There will be little opportunity for increased resources, so maintaining and utilising the resources to the best effect must be a primary concern for the council.

The appeals issue was also raised.

Mr. Curtin, there is a vote in the Dáil so I will have to suspend the sitting shortly.

Mr. Pat Curtin

There is continued confusion about the appeals-----

I am sorry to interrupt, but I am conscious that the five witnesses have come to attend this meeting. We have two colleagues on the committee from the Seanad. From my point of view, although I cannot speak for others, I would be happy if the witnesses put their comments on the record and they would not be disrupted by the division in the House. We will return as soon as possible. Is that acceptable?

Mr. Pat Curtin

That is fine.

That is acceptable to the Chair. Will one of the Senators take the Chair? Mr. Curtin, the questions raised by the Deputies and Senators are required to be answered. We will have a record of the replies despite our absence for the division. Is it agreed that Senator Ó Brolcháin take the Chair temporarily? Agreed.

Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin took the Chair.

Mr. Pat Curtin

I will deal with issue of appeals, as it was the subject of discussion when representatives of the NCSE last appeared before the committee. There was confusion then and there appears to be continuing confusion about, first, the provision in the EPSEN Act for a special education appeals board which is quite independent of the council and which, under the EPSEN Act, had a very specific role with regard to the key provisions of that Act. Those provisions, by and large, have not been implemented to date.

Therefore, the special education appeals board was not a matter for the National Council for Special Education. It was a matter for the Minister for Education and Skills. I understand it was established but, as a result of the deferment of the implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004, there was no flow of appeals which might be appropriate to that body. That is my understanding. We do not have a direct involvement in the matter.

Before I invite my colleague, Mr. Goulding, who is the head of operations of the National Council for Special Education, to elaborate on aspects of the council's appeals system, I reiterate that we made efforts, within the resources available to us, to provide for an independent review of decisions that were contested. Such independent reviews needed to have a basis in the policy framework. The reason for appeal had to be that the policy was not implemented. When we engaged in recent years with special schools, in particular, we found the policy parameters that had been set, in terms of the resources available to such schools, were far exceeded in most cases. We saw this as a problem. We are continuing to engage with the Department and the management bodies by examining the new scenario that needs to be dealt with if these schools are to be resourced adequately. In the meantime, we have used the categories of children that are included in schools, rather than the straight line policy of the designation of schools, as the basis for resourcing. Many schools are above the policy guidelines. We cannot entertain appeals with regard to staffing levels that are above the guidelines. I ask Mr. Goulding to give figures for the appeals system and some more detail. As the council's head of operations, he deals with schools on a regular basis through SENOs and senior SENOs.

Mr. Sé Goulding

I will give members a sense of the scale of the appeals process. In 2009, we processed approximately 9,000 applications from schools for resource teaching and SNA supports. The committee was informed at our last meeting that a national review of SNA allocation was under way. We introduced our appeals process in late February 2010. By the beginning of this month, we had received 155 appeals of which 27, or approximately 15%, were withdrawn on receipt of a formal notification of the rationale that underpins these decisions. Some 108 appeals have been processed. In the vast majority of such cases, the allocation that was made in the original decision was not changed. In five cases, the appeal resulted in the school receiving an additional level of SNA allocation. In two cases, the appeal resulted in the school receiving a lesser level of SNA allocation. To some extent, that shows the level of appeals we have received. While there may have been quite a demand for an appeals process, the number of appeals we have received in the last eight months is just 155.

Do I understand correctly that two schools which appealed on the basis of a reduction had to endure a further reduction on the basis of that appeal? Is that what Mr. Goulding is saying?

Mr. Sé Goulding

That happened in two schools. In some cases, schools may have appealed after no change was made to the allocation, but they considered that additional SNA supports were required. Like any appeals process, this process revisits the original decision. In this instance, decisions were altered in seven cases. The school received an additional allocation in five cases and a reduced allocation in two cases.

If the two schools in question had not appealed, would they have retained what they had originally been allocated?

Mr. Sé Goulding

The decision that was originally made would have applied until the next review took place, or the next application was received from the school. I accept that for the time being, they would have retained what they had been allocated.

That sounds extraordinary. It almost threatens schools not to appeal.

Mr. Sé Goulding

I would not regard it as such. The cases in question accounts for between 1% and 2% of the 155 appeals.

I would like to return to my original point. Given that just seven of the 155 appeals were successful, I suggest we would be as well off not having an appeals process in the new context, which involves capping. Would Mr. Curtin agree with that?

Mr. Pat Curtin

I have indicated clearly that we have entered new territory in our dealings with the allocation process. We have to examine it and decide how the shape of any appeals process should be changed. Some mediation on a change to the overall cap number at national level will be required. We should not give the wrong message when we talk about the cap. We are dealing with a very high total resource. There is considerable movement from year to year. Space is provided to deal with a significant level of demand. I would not like to under-estimate the level of difficulty that will be associated with this matter. In addition to focusing on the provision of SNAs in schools, we must bear in mind that additional teaching resources are also provided to the schools attended by these children. One must focus on the combination of the additional teaching resources going into the school and the SNA resources provided to it. A significant proportion of the totality of the education budget is being used to fund the level of resourcing going into special education. It is only right that this means of supporting children with special educational needs is provided, as it is needed. It has to be acknowledged that a significant resource is being provided. Like all resources, it will have to be managed carefully in the future.

I would like to refer back to Mr. Curtin's comment that under the 2004 Act, certain appeals are not appropriate to the special education appeals board. Is he saying that none of the 155 appeals referred to by Mr. Goulding could have been taken by the special education appeals board, even if things were functioning correctly?

Mr. Pat Curtin

I am saying that as things stand, they could not be taken under the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004.

Under the legislation, they would not have been appropriate to the board.

Mr. Pat Curtin

They would not. At our last meeting, I expressed the view that members of the council, including me, would have been happy if provision had been made for appeals to be considered as part of a completely independent process, separate from the council. Under the 2004 Act, the board has very specific functions in relation to particular provisions of the Act. It cannot fail to comply with those provisions. The resourcing levels have not been provided.

I would like to refer again to the 155 appeals about which we are talking. What steps does the National Council for Special Education take to try to ensure some level of independence from the actual initial decision?

Mr. Sé Goulding

I will set out the steps of the appeals process. When a decision is issued, the school is informed that it has the right of appeal. The school can signal electronically, by phone or in writing that it is considering submitting an appeal. The process is largely time-bound, obviously, because the decision needs to be implemented. If the school intends to appeal, we generally receive confirmation of that within a week or two weeks. In such circumstances, the SENO who made the decision is asked to issue the rationale for it in writing. Equally, the school is asked to signal the aspect of the decision it is appealing. The appeal might not relate to the totality of the resources - it might relate to the resources provided to a particular child or group of children. After the school has submitted its appeal, it is referred to the senior SENO in the area, who revisits the case. They would replicate the process by visiting the school where appropriate, and in most cases, that occurred. They would have met with the principal, the teachers, the SNA and other professionals as necessary, and they would have revisited a decision and given a new decision in the case. In doing so, they would have determined whether the original decision was appropriate. That generally took place over a four to six week period.

Less than 5% of appeals were successful. That is a low rate of successful appeals. Some 60% of social welfare appeals are successful.

Mr. Sé Goulding

I agree with Senator Ryan. Equally, a significant number of the appeals were referencing their non-acceptance of policy related to the decision rather than the decision itself. In not accepting the decision, they were continually referring to the fact that the policy was wrong. As our chief executive, Mr. Curtin, stated earlier, we are required to work under specific policy parameters. Perhaps that, to some extent, explains the tensions which can arise at school level between the SENO and the schools.

I will make an observation and then ask a related question. When St. Joseph's school came before the committee on 11 March last, the principal stated:

There is a conflict between the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and the Department over the role and duties of the SNAs, and that must be addressed. Where are the written criteria described in the care needs that the NCSE quotes to us when representatives arrive in our schools? Circular 07/02 is used as the basis on which this review is also being carried out. The care needs on the first two pages of the circular are quite specific but some of the nine duties listed by the Department of Education and Science as being acceptable, realistic and applicable to SNAs are being ignored by the special education needs organisers, SENOs, coming to the schools and not being afforded the value they deserve.

First of all, can I get clarification? It seems the NCSE has sorted it out to some extent. Is it no longer the case that the SENO who made the decision reviews the appeal?

Mr. Sé Goulding

It is not the case in any situation where a SENO will process an appeal if he or she has made the original decision. What we have stated in our appeals process is that if fresh information is submitted by a school - in many cases, some of the appeals may have stated there is an additional report that was not to hand - it immediately becomes a revised decision rather than an appeal. For the process to work properly, it must look at the information which was to hand at the time of the original decision. In such cases, we ask the SENO who made the original decision to consider any fresh information which a school may provide subsequent to the original decision and then he or she would revisit it and revise the allocation if necessary.

Is it still the original SENO who makes the final decision?

Mr. Sé Goulding

No. The original SENO will arrive at a decision.

Mr. Goulding is stating the SENO is making a new decision.

Mr. Sé Goulding

If fresh information is received, just as in any other situation where an appeals process did not exist. If a school has additional information, it will be provided to a SENO. In such cases, the SENO will revisit that decision and the SENO will revise if necessary.

Mr. Curtin stated on 11 March last that the NCSE, within its capability and staffing allocations, does not have the authority to establish an independent board and that because there 11,000 decisions are made every year, they cannot all come before the board. There were not that many - there were 155 appeals before the board. Mr. Curtin stated that the NCSE was putting in place a system whereby another member of staff who was not involved in the decision could review it, and the other member of staff is now reviewing it.

Mr. Pat Curtin

On the clarity, there are two issues running side by side. There is the question of a decision being made. In some instances when those decisions are made, immediately subsequent to that further information comes to light. There is another professional report. This does not require an appeal of the decision. It means a re-look at the decision by the key staff member who is the same person, and that happens.

It is the same SENO.

Mr. Pat Curtin

It is the same SENO.

That is my point. One can be pedantic about it, but the SENO is reviewing the same case with new information.

Mr. Pat Curtin

The SENO is looking at making a decision on a redefined set of circumstances which is the reasonable and efficient organisational way of looking at such a system. Even that final decision, following review, is open to appeal. If the school feels that it is an incorrect decision, that is a decision in itself that would in other circumstances be open to appeal.

In terms of dealing with children with special educational needs, it is a feature of the ongoing system that additional information comes to hand. The child who needed a certain level of special needs care at the beginning of the year may need more or less at the end of the year, and there may be evidence to support that. The allocation and deployment of the resource requires a constant look at that issue, if we are to support all of the children with the greatest need. The council is grappling with that difficult task and trying to ensure that there is transparency and equity in the system.

Just in case a division in the Dáil is called again, can I get a "Yes" or "No" answer on whether special schools have the right to lodge an appeal?

Mr. Pat Curtin

Special schools which are not over the policy allocation would have the right to lodge an appeal.

Are they informed that they do not have a right to lodge an appeal because they are over the policy allocation?

Mr. Pat Curtin

Yes. They would be so informed.

Mr. Sé Goulding

There are 105 special schools resourced through the council. There have been a small number of these special schools which are dissatisfied with the level of allocation following a review. In all of the cases received to date, they were significantly in excess of the policy parameters which would apply. For example, there was one school with 20 pupils, five teachers and 13 SNAs where there was a significant level of appeals submitted on the level of supports provided to that school.

It was a special school. Obviously, it would have more children with more special needs.

Mr. Sé Goulding

The policy parameters would have applied in that case. These would have determined that there would have been a lesser level of support. The council, in allocating supports to the school, would have recognised the level of need in the school and in that circumstance, the school received the additional allocation.

The school was not allowed to appeal.

Mr. Sé Goulding

To construct an appeals process around policy, the policy would have had to be strictly applied in the school. In the cases where we received a small number of appeals, as I stated, the schools concerned would have been significantly in excess of the policy parameters which should have applied.

Mr. Goulding is stating that the council does not look at the need once one reaches the threshold.

Mr. Sé Goulding

No.

They cannot appeal. The council cannot send something to the Minister stating that this school exceeds the policy threshold but it really needs these SNAs because the council has looked at the school's appeal and there is validity in it. The council does not do that.

Mr. Sé Goulding

The council had allocated a level of support, both in terms of teacher and SNA, in excess of the applicable policy parameters, which the council considered would meet the needs of the children and which would enable the school to meet the special education needs of the children. The school itself considered that it was insufficient.

It was fighting to have its appeals processed.

Mr. Sé Goulding

That is why, as was mentioned earlier,-----

It was being sent a "Please go away" letter like most of the others.

Mr. Sé Goulding

No. We have reverted back to the Department on this issue. The Department, in looking at the area of special schools, has put in place a set of transition arrangements. It issued a circular to schools in the middle of last year and it is looking at the resourcing and role of special schools because two thirds of special schools had children who fell outside the designation of the special schools. As Mr. Curtin mentioned earlier, when we looked at the resources of schools, we looked not at how the school was designated, but at the profile of children in the school, and in that regard, looked at both the teaching and the SNA supports that were required.

I think the Department is trying to stipulate the way special schools should operate not in the interests of the child, but in the interests of the way the Department is structuring special schools. The Department is not allowing parents the choice to have their children dealt with in the manner they feel to be best appropriate. The NCSE is merely implementing departmental policy in this regard.

Would Mr. Goulding clarify what he stated a moment ago about two thirds of special schools?

Mr. Sé Goulding

For example, a special school for children with mild general learning disabilities, which would be signalled and recognised as a school as such, may have had enrolled children with autism, children with moderate general learning disabilities and children with behavioural disturbance. It was not formally recognised that there was such a range of children with special educational needs who required a special school setting. In order that the council could plan to meet the special educational needs of children - in the context of the possibility that there might be additional places available for them - we are examining, in conjunction with the Department and the special school sector, what will be the future for some of the schools in question.

I thank Mr. Goulding for his reply. If a school has a designated category of children with a particular learning difficulty or need and if its admissions policy is that it will accommodate children who fit into that category, I presume the council will prescribe the appropriate staffing levels and teaching skills that will be required. However, if the designated category to which I refer begins to become mixed - as a result of children with other learning needs or whatever entering the school - I further presume that this will distort the type of teaching service which can be provided to the children in that category. If my presumption with regard to the council's operational methods is correct, will Mr. Goulding indicate who is responsible for deciding on the admission to the school in question of a student who does not fit into the category to which I refer but who, for example, has autism? Will the principal of the school make the relevant decision?

Mr. Sé Goulding

To some extent, these are some of the issues that are being considered during the transitional arrangements process. The reality is that the children have already been enrolled. It may not be recognised in a school's admissions policy that such children can enrol but the fact is that they may already be enrolled. The resourcing of schools was determined by the profile of children already enrolled rather than on the basis of the profile of those who could be admitted under schools' admissions policies. There are approximately 6,000 children and in the region of 1,000 teachers and 1,700 special needs assistants in special schools at present.

I apologise for my late arrival. However, I have been following proceedings on the monitor and am aware of the matters that have been discussed.

I agree with the way in which the council operates in this regard. It is important that it should deal with the reality of the existing position in schools. If a principal agrees to admit a particular pupil, then the council must assess the position and provide the appropriate SNA support that will be required.

As our guests are aware, when we discussed this matter some months ago, we engaged in a major debate regarding the independence of the appeal process. Reference was made earlier to files being reviewed by SENOs when new information is received. Everyone is aware that under the appeals mechanism certain members of staff within the Department are responsible for reviewing the decisions made by colleagues. It is critically important that there be an independent appeals process. I thought that point was made on the previous occasion on which we discussed this matter. I am open to correction but I had understood that, by October, action was to have been taken in respect of establishing an independent body to review decisions made under the appeals process. Perhaps our guests will clarify the position in this regard.

I wish to raise a matter which has been brought to the attention of Mr. Curtin in recent weeks and I want to seek his opinion on it. I refer to the case of a particular child in Mayo who has serious special educational needs. There is a general allocation of SNAs at the school the child attends. Two SNAs are required in order to cater for the needs of the child in question. There is a special unit within the child's school and the general allocation of SNAs for this was four. That allocation was then reduced to three. The key issue is that the SNA who was specifically trained to deal with the child to whom I refer was made redundant. Is it possible to allocate specific SNAs to deal with children who have serious educational needs? It should not matter whether an SNA with specific training was the first, second, third or fourth person to be recruited by a school. If he or she is responsible for dealing with a particular child, his or her services should be retained while the child in question remains in the school.

At a previous meeting of the committee, Mr. Curtin stated that the independent appeals board would be established in October. Was he referring to October last or to October 2011?

Mr. Pat Curtin

To clarify, the proposal at that time was that we were introducing an appeals system and we stated that we would establish, if necessary, a body which would review decisions and which would accept admissions from schools regarding the operation of the appeals system as it was rolled out. As matters transpired during the year, we received little or no reaction from schools in respect of the appeals system. Two or three of the special schools have continually reverted to us with regard to the system but others had their appeals dealt with. I was happy that there was a level of independence when it came to examining appeals and some decisions were overturned. The efficiency of the decision-making in the context of implementing policy was confirmed in those appeals when they were reviewed. This provided us with lessons as to how we would instruct people to ensure that policy parameters were applied.

Under the relevant legislation, we are required to implement the policy of the Government of the day. It would be much easier for front line staff if they had carte blanche to do as they wished. Unfortunately, that is not the position. In the context of dealing with schools, principals, parents and professionals - who do not have responsibility for allocating a particular resource - they are obliged to provide a certain level of resources relating to people’s wish lists or agendas of advocacy. As people who are paid from the public purse to do a front line job, we are obliged to implement Government policy as fairly as possible. That places us in a difficult position.

With regard to the issue of establishing an independent appeals mechanism by October last, at the previous meeting at which this matter was discussed I stated that we would consider establishing a group to review the overall appeals system. I made it abundantly clear at that stage that this group would not be reviewing individual appeals or making decisions on individual cases. In considering that and in taking into account the level of resources available to it and the pressure being exerted upon it to establish such a review process, the council decided that the group to which I refer should not, as yet, be set up. We are still open to establishing such a group which would be charged with reviewing matters or putting forward views on how a different appeals system might operate.

In the context of the SNA review, as a number of members stated earlier, the situation with regard to how we operate in this regard has changed as a result of the cap. We will be obliged to consider the entire appeals process within the context of a new system of allocation.

There is a clear conflict of interests in this regard. In my view, the main stakeholders when it comes to children with special needs are their parents. There is a clear difficulty in that if a parent wishes to make an appeal, he or she must do so through the school attended by his or her child. However, schools are not obliged to supply information on the outcome of appeals to parents. I accept that this is a matter for discussion with the NCSE. If a parent wishes to make an appeal, there is a clear conflict of interests because he or she is obliged to submit that appeal through the school attended by his or her child and that school will be funded by the NCSE. Schools in this position will not want to annoy the NCSE and in some instances will be reluctant to make appeals. The policy must be changed in order to ensure that parents will be in a position to make independent appeals to a body established to deal with such appeals.

At the previous meeting at which this matter was discussed, Mr. Curtin stated that the first meeting of the independent appeals group "will be in October of next year". Given that he stated this in March, I presume he was referring to October 2011.

No, he was referring to October of this year.

Mr. Pat Curtin

Absolutely. I have no desire to mislead anyone in respect of this matter. October 2010 was the month to which I referred. In light of our experience with the appeals system and given the demand for such a review, we did not establish that review group for the appeals process. I was at pains to explain to members on the last occasion that I could not envisage the allocation of SNAs and appeals of those decisions being appropriately dealt with by a group of people who were at a distance from the pupil, the school, the care needs and the particular situation in the school.

The NCSE is required to provide resources to the school to meet the needs of pupils. The school has discretion in the deployment of those resources to the maximum effect, including through group teaching and other arrangements within the school. It is about resourcing to the school and the school making a judgment on whether it needs to appeal for a particular level of resources and whether it feels the decision discriminates within the policy framework.

Does Mr. Curtin not think the parents are being disenfranchised in this case?

Mr. Pat Curtin

I cannot understand how they might be disenfranchised. I am not aware of any case where a parent has gone to a school. If there was evidence of a student being disenfranchised by the school not processing such an appeal, the council would review it.

On the previous occasion when Mr. Curtin appeared before the committee, we had a significant debate about the lack of independence of the appeals system. We understood it was not independent and the committee was dissatisfied with that. Members were at pains to point out that it should be independent. Mr. Curtin held out very much against setting up the review body and now we do not even have that as an option, although we were not satisfied with that either. When we discussed the issue, a review of SNA numbers had been carried out and a large number of appeals were in the system at the time. It is difficult for a school when it goes through this procedure. It has nowhere else to go whereas if the review body had been set up, it would have been busy. The council should consider doing this as a priority. Will it be taken on as priority?

It is like President Mugabe saying no one is protesting about the conditions in Zimbabwe. That is because people have no faith in the system. They do not appeal because they have no faith in the appeals system and, therefore, the council does not receive many appeals. Mr. Curtin is using that as an argument to justify not setting up an independent process where people can make submissions, which is absurd.

Mr. Pat Curtin

I am not sure that is a valid argument in so far as the council has been conscious to ascertain the views of the broad set of parents. In that regard, we commissioned an independent survey of parents about their views on the special education system. I will ask my colleague, Ms Jennifer Doran, to outline the key results of the survey.

I refer again to the child specific SNA issue before we move on.

Mr. Pat Curtin

It would not be proper to go into an individual's details.

No, but I gave a general outline.

Mr. Pat Curtin

I refer to the principle of the allocation of SNA resources to schools. If a child is allocated a full-time SNA and the school is allocated a full-time SNA on the basis of the needs of a particular child, it is expected to deploy the assistant to meet the child's needs. With regard to the overall employment issue in the school and who is recruited, trained, developed and retained or whether staff numbers are reduced, that is a matter for the school to be dealt with through industrial relations agreements. I appreciate there may be difficulties about a trained person not being retained in a school. The council has no role in this. Should a child have such needs and be progressing with the assistance of one SNA, the Deputy will accept that is a major resource for any child allied to the level of teaching and the size of classes in the school. If an issue arises and then there is a suddenly a requirement for two SNAs on top of the teaching resource to manage the child, it would be most unusual because the school would have other SNA resources that may supplement the full-time SNA at particular times. It may be understandable that the assistance of another SNA may be required at certain times. However, in the context of our resourcing policy, this is important to understand. There is an issue for the school to resolve in terms of its employment arrangements and whatever agreements are in place with the Department or trade unions generally in the employment of SNAs. It is not a matter for the council.

I understand Mr. Curtin's point but he must recognise there is a legal issue in this case. The union and the Department were involved and the board of management of the school did not have the authority to retain the SNA it wanted even though the SNA had been specifically trained. It is interesting that in the child's previous school, the same SNA was specific to that child. However, when the child moved to the new school, she became part of the general allocation. When a child with a severe special need presents, can the council make a child specific SNA appointment rather than appoint from the general allocation? I did not have a problem with the general allocation for the school; it was the specific individual.

Mr. Pat Curtin

The SNAs should be appointed to the school and this is the policy because of the need to train and retain SNAs in the school. Advice from the Department and others to schools is not to create a dependency on a particular individual but to rotate SNAs and to develop training across a range of SNAs in the school. That is good and practical practice in a school.

And 99 times out of 100 that works well but there is always an exception.

Mr. Pat Curtin

I can appreciate the difficulty a school may have because of arrangements with other groups and stakeholders. Unfortunately, that arrangement has to be negotiated and dealt with through the stakeholders and the council cannot solve it by giving additional resources over and above that agreed to the school just to solve an administrative problem, which is not of our making.

There are always exceptions. I appreciate Mr. Curtin's general argument but I would have thought the council would be conscious of that, particularly in dealing with special needs children. Everybody will not always fit the parameters the council works towards. There will always be exceptions and there should be flexibility in the system to deal with that.

Mr. Pat Curtin

Members will appreciate that the solution to this problem - and I accept there is a problem in that situation - must lie with flexibilities in regard to employment rather than additional costs to the State in these circumstances.

If only that were possible; legally, it is not.

Mr. Pat Curtin

We are all faced with doing things that did not seem possible a short while ago and managing within that. Deputy Mary Wallace resumed the Chair.

It is terrible if it comes down to cost. Reference to the number of SNAs centralises the debate as to whether that is how we achieve outcomes for children. Resource teaching, speech therapy and other ways of helping children must be brought into the debate. There are innovative ways of helping existing schools to help themselves. I have been involved in a pilot project to place a speech therapist in a particular school which is turning out to be a very efficient use of resources. There are ways of saving money by being inventive and by looking outside the box to some degree in this difficult time. I do not think that money can be used as an excuse for achieving outcomes; we need to look holistically at outcomes and not just simply bring the debate down to how many SNAs are available and how many have been cut because if that is the only measure of success we are missing the point as regards both parents and children. I think this is an important point.

Mr. Pat Curtin

I agree it is an extremely important point and a point of view that would be very strongly shared by the council. It is important that members of the committee understand that it is not just the views of an executive, as the council membership is very broadly based in its experience of special educational needs. The members of the council examine these issues in some detail.

The National Council for Special Education has had reservations about the focus being purely on care needs when it is primarily an educational body in an education system. We need to focus on the continued availability of first-class teaching in our schools. International evidence would show that, in general, top-class teaching is the key to success in the end, along with the availability of teaching resources. It is recognised, of course, that those children with very high care needs require some support to be able to participate and benefit from education but there needs to be quite a focus on the teaching and the availability of sufficient teaching resources, the quality of the teaching and a focus on individual planning.

I did not answer the question about the future of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act and what might be implemented. The council acknowledges that schools in general have made significant progress towards implementing individual education planning, in the absence of a statutory provision. It is an exemplar of where progress can be made towards the ambition of the Act without the statutory requirement. The council in its implementation report acknowledged that proper individual planning requires additional resources in schools but without that additional resourcing, schools already have made significant progress and are engaging in that individual planning. It is encouraging to see the use being made of teaching resources by the schools and this needs to be a continued focus.

In my concluding remarks I will identify the points we wish to raise with the Minister. Senator Ó Brolcháin might wish to raise the issue of the parents to whom he has referred on several occasions.

Ms Jennifer Doran

Last year the National Council for Special Education was very anxious to hear the views of parents, given that the council has been in existence for five years and the system had changed dramatically prior to that time. We surveyed a number of parents who are in receipt of resources from the council. A total of 1,400 parents responded to the survey. We examined issues such as the assessment process, access to the system, supports and services received from the school, and the general overall satisfaction of parents with the system. In general, the parental satisfaction rate was 70% to 80%. The highest satisfaction rate was with regard to the school, that their child was in the right school and was making good progress, that the school welcomed their child and what the child was learning was appropriate to his or her needs.

Two areas of dissatisfaction were noted. With regard to finding a school place, approximately 20% of parents surveyed found this difficult. The process of applying for resources was found to be difficult for 45% of parents surveyed. This was a quantitative survey so it was difficult to get a sense of which issues they found difficult. However, some of the open-ended responses indicated that they found the waiting times for assessment to be quite prolonged. According to some parents, the co-ordination between health and education supports seemed to be missing and they were forced to do much of this co-ordination work themselves. A perceived lack of resources was noted by a number of parents.

In trying to interpret these findings, given the nature of the survey, the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, has increased the number of educational psychologists and we hope this will go some way towards addressing the waiting lists for assessments.

As regards the co-ordination of services between health and education, the NCSE has been working with the assessment officers in the HSE for children in the age bracket nought to five years. They are working to identify these children coming through the system. We have been alerted to them at an earlier stage and we can work with the HSE to identify those children and to ensure an earlier assessment and an earlier application for resources.

These are some of the key features. The report will be published on our website and its findings were presented at a research conference held last year. It is very important to seek the views of the parents and to note their responses so that we can address their issues. We hope to continue to consult parents for their views as a continuing feature of our research programme.

Senator Ó Brolcháin spoke about outcomes. The council and the executive are very concerned about outcomes. There has been almost a fascination with inputs into the system of special education over the past number of years and in response, the council has two studies - an ongoing longitudinal study called Project Iris, which is tracking more than 60 children over three years, to study the outcomes for these children. This is a qualitative piece of research which tracks their progress across all school settings, primary, post-primary and special schools. It will also survey the views of the schools with regard to outcomes. In addition, we have advertised for and awarded a contract to survey how other countries measure outcomes. It is very difficult to measure outcomes in a general education setting but in special education it is further complicated by the fact that academic outcomes will not always be a key feature for all of our children with special educational needs and we wish to ensure that we have systems in place to look at both academic and non-academic outcomes. We are looking to see how other countries track and monitor outcomes for children with special educational needs and we are hoping that this piece of research will dovetail with our longitudinal piece of research to achieve a better understanding and be able to make recommendations and offer policy advice as a result of having a better model for tracking the outcomes. We would like to see a better emphasis on outcomes and the reviewing of outcomes, as opposed to constantly looking at inputs into the system.

The delegation has answered all the questions from members. I suggest that the committee notifies the Minister of the discussion. We will forward a copy of the Official Report of the proceedings to the Minister. We will include the submissions received and we will seek a reply from the Minister regarding the points raised. Are there any items which members wish me to draw to the attention of the Minister?

Yes. I suggest we specify that because parameters have been set by the NCSE for an appeals process which then prevents certain schools from making an appeal, given that this is unfair and that the NCSE suggested it is as a result of the transitional arrangements in place with the Department with regard to how children are allocated to special schools and which children should be given a place in such schools, the Minister should conclude the transitional arrangements as quickly as possible and try to place as much emphasis as possible on parental choice and the needs of the child. I also suggest the Minister consults with the NCSE - even if the parameters are not being met - in order to allow a level of dialogue and an appeals process for special schools. Even if the parameters are not being met, there may be information coming to light in the appeal. It is at least a courtesy to allow an appeal even if the chances of succeeding, under the current transitional arrangements, are quite low.

Has Senator Ó Brolcháin an emphasis he would wish to specify?

I would like the Minister to consider establishing an appeals process allowing a parent to appeal directly to the NCSE. Obviously many parents will want to go through the school. In cases where parents are frustrated or have other issues, they should be allowed to appeal directly to the group. Clarifications have been given about the independent appeals committee. I believe many members here today would like to see that set up, while appreciating the comments of the chairman. I have great respect for the work of the NCSE and I was certainly heartened to hear about the reports mentioned by Ms Jennifer Doran.

I thank the representatives of the NCSE for attending this important session. I thank all members for their contributions today and wish them all safe travelling and a happy Christmas.

The joint committee adjourned at 12.45 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Thursday, 13 January 2011.