I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon. I remind Senators that the contributions of spokespersons should not exceed ten minutes and those of all other Senators should not exceed six minutes.
Special Educational Needs: Statements
I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak on the allocation of language support and resource teachers for pupils with special needs in the context of the employment control framework. Since taking up his role as Minister For Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn has made it clear in his responses to questions and in his speeches at a number of education conferences that there is a difficult road ahead of us. He has made it clear also that he does not intend to suggest the resources available for education can be improved, that earlier decisions can be changed or that further difficult decisions will not need to be made.
The various budgetary and other measures implemented in 2011 do little more than halt the growth in overall teacher numbers from increased enrolments and higher retention levels at post-primary level. The significance of this position is brought into sharp focus when one considers that approximately one third of those working in the public sector are in the education sector. As a result of this fact, education will be protected as far as possible, but it cannot be excluded from the difficult steps that have to be taken towards recovery. The national recovery plan provides for consultation with the education partners on how best to achieve a further reduction in teacher payroll costs from 2012. My Department recently invited the education partners to commence a consultation process to work on identifying such savings.
Some Senators may be aware that the number of students staying in the education system as a whole in the 2011-12 school year will be significantly higher than previously expected. The increase is in line with the Government's objective of reducing the incidence of early school leaving nationally. It also raises a challenge for us, however, as approximately 160 additional mainstream teachers are required, primarily to facilitate these additional numbers. As a result of the restriction on the numbers employed in the public service which has been imposed under the employment control framework, it is not possible for us to simply recruit more teachers. Therefore, we had to apply some restrictions to the allocation of language support teachers to schools to manage within the fixed ceiling on teacher numbers.
On language support, it is important to recognise that, despite the restrictions applied, significant support is still being provided for schools. The level of support for any school is determined by the numbers of eligible pupils enrolled and the assessed levels of those pupils' language proficiency. This is done through an annual application process in the spring of each year.
The Department circular sets out a structured and transparent approach for the allocation of language support teachers. The arrangements mean that schools can qualify for up to four language support posts with the possibility of additional posts also being approved through the independent staffing appeals mechanism for schools with high concentrations of pupils in need of language support.
There are approximately 1,125 language support posts in primary schools and 275 at second level. These 1,400 posts are in addition to mainstream classroom teachers. They allow schools to withdraw pupils for varying amounts of time to concentrate on the teaching of English. The ongoing requirement for this level of language support in schools should start to reduce in line with lower levels of immigration and improvements in the levels of proficiency of pupils who have been in receipt of such support. The previous Government announced that this number would be reduced by 125 from September and by the same amount annually in the next three years, in other words, there would be a reduction of 500 posts over four years. Regrettably, we have had to take a decision to speed up this process. The result is that the number of language support teachers will be reduced by a further 125 posts from this September, leading to a total reduction of 250 posts this year. Most of this reduction will be at primary level, given that this is where most of the posts are based.
The reductions will impact in two main ways. First, schools where less than 25% of pupils need language support will limit that support to a period of two years. This change will affect about 2,500 students, all of whom have received support for two years. Second, schools that missed the deadline for the receipt of applications of 6 May will not be told until the autumn what support, if any, they will receive. In previous years applications were permitted all year round, but this year it will be very difficult to meet demand arising from applications received after the deadline, of which all schools were notified. Applications for part-time language support will also be considered in the autumn when a clearer picture will have emerged on how the Department is managing within the overall limits on teacher numbers.
My Department's approach has been to try as best as possible to minimise the impact for schools with high concentrations of pupils in need of language support, that is, greater than 25%. Pupils in these schools will continue to receive language support in the normal manner for up to three years. These schools can also make an appeal to the primary staffing appeals board for additional language support posts. In the past this resulted in some of the schools with very high concentrations having a total of up to five or six language support teachers. Owing to the constraints on teacher numbers, there will be a reduced number of posts available to the appeals board to allocate to these schools.
It is important that a whole-school approach is taken to language support. Schools should not regard the teaching of English as the sole responsibility of the language support teacher. All teachers, in particular, classroom teachers, have this responsibility.
On resource teaching hours, the House will be aware that these are allocated by the National Council for Special Education for students with special educational needs who require additional teaching support. The allocation of resource teaching hours is based on categories of special needs, up to a maximum allocation of five hours per week per child for children with the most complex special educational needs. The additional hours sanctioned for resource teaching collectively lead to the creation of whole-time equivalent teaching posts.
The number of resource teachers to be allocated in 2011 has increased by 350 posts on the number for last year to a total of 9,950. There will, therefore, be more resource teachers than last year and there has not been a cut in resource teacher numbers. However, arising from the fact that the rate of applications for resource teaching hours and posts had the potential to cause a breach of teacher numbers under the employment control framework, the allocation process was paused from the end of March this year. The pause was to ensure the available posts would be allocated on the basis of the needs of pupils and equity between schools and also to ensure the employment control framework was not breached.
Schools were asked to submit applications to the NCSE by 13 May and the NCSE has now considered the number of applications received to date. It has been calculated that, based on the number of applications received to date, an allocation of 90% of the identified resource teacher allocations can be made to schools in the first instance to provide schools with the majority of their allocations. This allows the Department and the NCSE to be in a position to cover late or emergency applications and account for any redeployment issues which arise. This proposal will ensure all schools and children who will be in receipt of resource teaching support will be treated the same. The effect of a 90% allocation would mean there would be a reduction of six minutes per hour for each hour of resource teaching allocated. Schools can make up additional time through the grouping and doubling of children and by more effective management of teaching time. If the level of demand turns out to be less than expected, the initial 90% allocation might be revisited and possibly increased.
The posts which have been built in to permanent primary schools through the general allocation model are not affected by this decision. Of 9,950 posts provided to provide resource teaching support in 2011, 3,760 are provided under the general allocation model and unaffected by this decision.
On special needs, it is important to note that, despite the financial difficulties, special needs support continues to be prioritised. Special needs support accounts for €1 billion of the Department's budget. We have managed so far to ensure there have been no cuts in the level of resources available for special needs. However, we must operate within limits which are still at an all-time high. Given the scale of increase in special needs spending in recent years, we have significant capacity to provide education for children with special educational needs. For example, spending on SNAs increased by a staggering 922% in the period between 2001 and 2009. We must ensure resources are directed at the areas of greatest need and that where resources are no longer needed, they are redeployed.
We will try to ensure the allocation of resources is equitable and prioritised. Schools have a major role in the management of these resources by ensuring they only seek resources when they are really needed, that the resources allocated to them are used to best effect and that they assist with the redeployment of resources to the areas of greatest need. Account will be taken of the particular needs of developing schools in the consideration of special needs resource allocations issues.
Our focus and that of my Department is to ensure we achieve the maximum from whatever resources we can make available to schools. It is only by taking the difficult but necessary corrective action on the public finances that we can have a sustainable basis for the allocation of resources to our schools into the future. I am confident that by good co-operation from all the stakeholders, we can focus on our common objective of providing the best possible education for all children within the limitations of the resources available to us in these difficult and challenging times.
As Fianna Fáil spokesperson on education and skills, I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for his opening remarks.
Personally, I am glad the supports for children with special educational needs are the first education issue to be considered by the new Seanad. For a long time the needs of children with special needs were not addressed in any meaningful way by the education system. Special schools did great work, but opportunities for inclusion in the mainstream education system were virtually non-existent. As with other services for persons with disabilities, the record of the State for decades was poor. However, it must be said the previous Government chose to prioritise special education and while there are still inadequacies, there is no doubt considerable progress has been made. In 1996 and 1997 there were only 250 special needs assistants employed in our primary and special schools. By December 2010 this figure had risen to in excess of 10,000. A decision was taken in the last budget to cap rather than reduce the number of special needs assistants, SNAs, while cuts were being made in staff in many other areas. The number of resource and learning support teachers was also increased dramatically by the last Government to more than 9,000 at present compared with 2,000 in 1998. There are also more than 1,000 other teachers supporting pupils in special schools. As the Minister of State pointed out, altogether there are in excess of 20,000 adults working solely with pupils with special needs in our schools. Sometimes when we talk in terms of thousands we can lose sense of what it really means. To put this figure in context, in 1998 there were only 21,000 primary teachers in the entire education system. Now, there are almost as many people working solely with children with special needs. The progress made by the last Government was therefore significant. However, I realise far more must be done and I hope that when resources permit, further advances will be made in services for children with special needs. I appreciate that in the context of the current economic environment the Government, as was the case with its predecessor, will have difficult choices to make. However, I hope sincerely that Ministers will do everything they can to protect the advances that have been made in supports for children with special needs in recent years.
I realise there is a good deal of concern about potential future cuts in this area. With due respect, I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, for being here today. I realise the Minister, Deputy Quinn, had originally intended to be here but for good reason he was kind enough to attend the funeral earlier of the former Minister, Brian Lenihan, as were other Members of the Cabinet. I realise he could not make it today. However, I point out that there have been many recent U-turns in the education area and they are causing a good deal of concern. In opposition, the leader of the Labour Party stated:
Now is not the time for cuts in education. Labour would reverse the cuts in special needs classes, reinstate the school book grants for our schools, lift the cap on post-leaving cert courses and keep universal access to third level education.
Of course the recent revelations about the second Lisbon treaty referendum highlighted the fact that the Labour Party leader is prone to stating what he believes is politically popular while secretly planning to do the opposite. In the first three months in government the shallowness of the Labour Party's commitment to education has been exposed as each commitment has been backtracked on one at a time. Understandably, this has caused a great deal of concern among students, teachers and parents throughout all levels of education. Apart from the obvious reversals, the considerable amount of doublespeak from the Minister for Education and Skills is a cause for concern. Instead of being upfront about the consequences of the employment control framework for the allocation of resource teachers in the next school year, the Minister, Deputy Quinn, has tried to pretend that it is not really a cut because the 10% of posts he is holding back may be allocated to schools in September. He is not guaranteeing anyone that they will be and he seems to be trying to fudge the issue and cause confusion. This is causing much concern among schools throughout the country. The Minister would do a better service to all concerned and to his own credibility if he were straight up with people about his intentions in this and other areas of education.
I assure the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, and Members on the other side of the House that Fianna Fáil intends to be constructive in opposition. When we are given the right information and kept informed about what is really going on we will support measures in the national interest. We are simply keen to see the right thing done and our leader has demonstrated this to date. However, we need more clarity from the Government about what is intended.
Last year the Minister, Deputy Quinn, called on the Government to cease the review of special needs assistants that it had commissioned because he did not want the resources to be reviewed and he considered the review to be offensive in itself. However, some weeks ago he published the same review commissioned by the last Government. There is no indication yet of what he intends to do with it. It would be better for all concerned if there were some clarity from the Minister as to what he intends to do.
The issue of language support teachers is the other half of the debate before us today. As the Minister of State correctly pointed out there have been many improvements in this area in recent years. There are now almost 1,600 teachers working in the area of assisting children with English language needs, many multiples of the number five or six years ago. I acknowledge that the last budget provided for a cut in this area and it is only fair to accept responsibility for that. However, when the budget was announced for 2011 the proposed reduction was for 125 posts from this September. We have learned that the Minister, Deputy Quinn, intends to go further and double the cut in the number of language support teachers to 250 in a few months. Since the start of the year schools have been planning for the initial cut and preparing for how they would allocate resources but the short timeframe announced for a double cut is especially harsh.
As I stated, special education is an area in which great progress has been made but it is not always seen as an area of great political significance. When the last Government chose to prioritise special education over cuts in class sizes in general, the political and media interest was in what was going on in terms of class sizes as a whole. In fairness to Members on both sides of the House who supported the work that was being done, the tendency was for credit not to be given for the work that was being done. This goes back to our history of not prioritising the needs of people with disabilities as much as we should have.
I thank the Minister of State for being here. Fianna Fáil is genuine in its commitment to people with disabilities. We will do everything we can to help the Government to protect services as much as possible in the next three years. We wish the Government all the best with its work.
Tá cineál slaghdán orm freisin. Tá rud éigin i mo scornach. Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit. Déanaim comhghairdeas leis as a cheapachán mar Aire. Gabhaim buíochas leis as teacht isteach inniu. There is a novel by a Russian named Nabokov calledInvitation to a Beheading. The main character invited finds out it is his own beheading. I was listening to Senator Power and I was amazed because I thought Fianna Fáil had changed. However, it did not take the Senator long to revert to type. There is no easy way here. We are running on empty at the moment. We are held up by the kindness of strangers but I use the term “kindness” in inverted commas. Nevertheless, it is a certain type of kindness.
Putting forward proposals for a reduction in language support teachers and resource teaching hours may appear to have the same effect as an invitation to a beheading. However, the reality is different in this case. The Minister of State has clearly outlined the context in which these changes in language support and resource teaching are to take place, including the employment control framework and the fact that 160 extra mainstream teachers will be needed next September. Where does the Fianna Fáil Party believe this money will come from? It can be argued that the figure of 1,400 language support teachers was not done on any meaningful evaluation in the first place. In fact, in 2007 the then Minister, Mary Hanafin, announced an extra 200 language support teachers.
I do not hear the Senator saying they were not needed.
Fan nóiméad. Does the Senator wish to talk or will she let me talk?
Senator D'Arcy to continue, without interruption.
Go raibh maith agat. That increased the language support teaching in some schools from two to six. However, it was 2008 before the then Minister of State, Conor Lenihan, introduced guidelines for the assessment of needs in respect of language support teachers. It was another case of putting the cart before the horse and throwing money around like snuff at a wake without proper evaluation. That is why we are now faced with a shortage of funds. Wilful waste leads to woeful want.
We did not hear complaints at the time from Members opposite.
I spoke yesterday evening to a principal in a DEIS school for whom I have tremendous respect as a person deeply committed to resource provision. He described as "just about right" the provision whereby schools with fewer than 25% of pupils in need will receive support for two years while those with a higher concentration of disadvantaged students will receive support for three years.
I welcome the increase in the number of resource teachers for 2011-12 by 350. Well done to the Minister. The 10% reduction in hours in regard to low incidence learning support can just about be managed. The general allocation model remains unchanged. In other words, it is not the pupil who is allocated the hours but the school. As a school principal for many years I have seen how the hours can be used, as the Minister of State said, to provide team teaching, group resource teaching and so on, in addition to individual tuition. In fact, it is a better model. I sat down yesterday with my senior management team and teachers to discuss the reduction in our school's allocation from six hours to 5.4 hours. That reduction can be managed. As I said, these allocations are not in respect of individual pupils but in respect of particular schools. It is up to the school to make provision as it sees fit.
We must provide value for money throughout the public service. Some people are focused on how the Department of Education and Skills can get value for money. However, the priority is to provide value for money for the recipient of the service; we must provide that value. If we think like that we may be able to change the mindset.
I welcome the decision that the pupil-teacher ratio will remain unchanged. Class sizes are highly significant in terms of education outcomes. The stabilisation of pupil-teacher ratios will be of particular benefit to children requiring language support and those who need additional resources. For some categories of special needs — such as dyspraxia and emotional behavioural difficulties, particularly ADHD syndrome — it can be argued that class sizes are even more significant than the provision of resource hours, though the latter is clearly essential. Smaller classes better facilitate language development for pupils who require support.
The bottom line is that resources are limited. The Minister, like King Lear, is contending with the fretful elements, and a steady hand is needed. He has made rational decisions in attempting to conform with the employment control framework. Moreover, there may be a gift in the dysfunction. Although the categorical imperative to reconsider and restructure the entire system, as a consequence of the profligacy of earlier Administrations, is a challenge to school management, it can lead to as a new model where it is possible to provide for pupils rather than simply seek to secure value for money. The Minister is obliged to implement the framework and I commend him on the good job he is doing within that constraint.
The Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, pointed out that the education sector accounts for one third of employees in the public service. The report of an bord snip nua indicated that the pupil-teacher ratio at primary level, if all the adults are counted, is 12:1 and that spending on special needs increased by 922% in the period to which the Minister of State referred. In the current financial difficulties one must ask the awkward questions about what is happening.
Some of the answers are provided in the 2009 national assessments of mathematics and English reading. Pupil characteristics associated with higher test scores include high attendance rates; positive ratings by teachers, parents and self; positive mathematical self-concept; enjoyment of reading; and not being in receipt of additional support in school. When I was a member of the National Economic and Social Council there were concerns that much of the expenditure in this area was not yielding results. Lower pupil performance, which we in this House are united in seeking to correct, was found to be linked to several demographic characteristics such as the following: low familial socioeconomic status; parental unemployment; membership of the Traveller community; speaking a first language other than English or Irish; living in a lone parent household; and being part of a large family. A study conducted by the Educational Research Centre at St. Patrick's College in Drumcondra found that the problem in regard to language support is not being successfully addressed. At a time when money is in short supply we must seek solutions that work. We hear many complaints about class sizes of 30 and 40. If the average class size is 12, where is the misallocation of resources? We must examine these issues.
A recent study by the Royal Irish Academy suggests that part of the problem is on the teacher training side and that the problem cannot be addressed by focusing solely on additional assistance to children. The report indicated that 80% of mathematics teaching at second level is done by people with no qualification in the subject. That places additional stresses not only on teachers giving instruction in a subject outside their area of qualification but also on children. That should be examined. In Finland, which we admire so much in this regard, it is compulsory for teachers to have a masters degree in the subject in which they provide tuition. It may be the case that when teacher training was absorbed into the universities many decades ago, it should have been made compulsory for teachers to have a qualification in the subject they are engaged to teach. Such an approach would be fairer to pupils and would reduce the need for emergency interventions. In my own third level college up to 7% of students now require one-to-one counselling. All the evidence is that resources should be focused at the beginning of the education process and that teacher training must be urgently addressed, particularly in the area of mathematics. I commend that to the Minister of State.
This is the first stage of a comprehensive public spending review. It has been a problem in Irish education for some time that the tradition of an máistir and an múinteoir has been ignored in the breach. In Ireland people get promoted out of the classroom.
The list of the 100 most highly paid people in education put together byThe Irish Times on 10 November 2010 does not indicate whether anyone included — on salaries up to €112,000 — has been in a lecture hall lately. This is a problem at all levels and an bord snip mentions 37 management allowances paid to teachers. In teaching the real place one should be is in the classroom with one’s students. Moreover, the report on third level education by the Comptroller and Auditor General has found that academic pay has fallen to being as little as 40% of the total pay budget at third level. This is because at that level one definitely is promoted out of the classroom and becomes a more important person, with a title that includes words such as “strategic”, “initiative”, “infrastructure” and so on to make one feel even more important.
At this time of scarce funds one must question whether money is being spent where it should be, namely, in the classroom and whether Irish education has lost its focus. Moreover, despite the warning in 2004 from the OECD not to become managerialist, Irish education has become so, as people avoid the classroom, which is extremely expensive. The important place for them to be is in the classroom with their students. That is where the focus should necessarily be. A poem about some of the restructuring in Irish education was written recently in my own college. It includes the lines:
to control the costs, they increase the staff
of the Treasurer's office by a quarter, then a half.
That is a problem of bureaucracy. The chorus is:
The people at the top know better than you
what you should think and what you should do.
It is very important that we get back into the classroom and question vogue and trendy items on which a great deal of money was spent but for which, as the assessment study shows, the results are not impressive. Moreover, as the international ratings show, we are declining in the league tables from a position gained by a system that was our pride. There is much work to be done to refocus Irish education from the excesses of the Celtic tiger era, its managerialism and expenditure on things that ultimately had little to do with education and to bring the focus back onto pupils. I commend the Minister and Minister of State for anything they can do in that regard.
I extend a warm welcome to the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, and thank him for coming into the Chamber to discuss the allocation of language support and resource teachers for special needs pupils in the coming school year.
Before addressing the issues to be raised, I am honoured to be a Member of the 24th Seanad and proud to have been nominated by the Taoiseach to this esteemed position. I am a native of Blackrock, Dundalk, County Louth, where I have lived and worked most of my life. I am delighted to be joined in the Seanad by two other Members from Dundalk, namely, Senators Terry Brennan and Jim D'Arcy. It is my intention as a Senator to serve both the people of Dundalk and County Louth and the people of the country with enthusiasm, loyalty and dedication. I have always tried to achieve the highest standards in the course of my work as a secondary school teacher, including as a resource teacher, and as a mother to my five teenage children. I am also extremely proud and honoured to have the distinction of being the first ever female Member of the Oireachtas from County Louth.
I was honoured to receive a nomination to contest the Seanad elections from Inclusion Ireland, the national association for people with an intellectual disability. I take the opportunity to commend Inclusion Ireland and all disability groups for the tremendous work they do to improve the lives of people with a disability. As a mother of a child with special needs, I am well aware of the lack of services for people with a disability. I intend to use my time in the Seanad to raise awareness and address disability issues on an ongoing basis. I reiterate the recent "Prime Time Investigates" programme on carers highlighted the urgent need for improvements in this regard.
I have been a secondary school teacher since 1981 — I do not admit this to many — and in those 30 years I have seen great changes in the education system. Although 30 years ago innovations such as interactive white boards, the Internet, let alone broadband, and DVD players had not been invented, how many schools have access to such luxuries today? The previous Government continually promised huge investments in ICT and broadband and Internet connectivity in every classroom. Despite such promises, on leaving school in June 2011, I still had not been provided with an Internet connection in my classroom. Despite 50% of the marks in the leaving certificate in music being available for technology, a survey I carried out in 2008 while studying for a masters in music technology showed that only 54% of music classrooms had one computer, while 16% of music rooms had none.
The programme for Government underlines the Administration's commitment to building a knowledge society and declares "Education is at the heart of a more cohesive, more equal and more successful society, and it will be the engine of sustainable economic growth". I fully subscribe to this sentiment and believe education is the key for young people to achieve their full potential. Despite the economic recession, there are clear and tangible objectives for education in the programme for Government, particularly with regard to literacy, curriculum reform, school management and ICT. Importantly, there is a holistic view of education as a cycle of lifelong learning, that is, from the cradle to the grave, from preschool through primary, secondary and tertiary levels, as well as adult learning. As Labour Party spokesperson on education in the Seanad, I look forward to working with the Minister in the achievement of all the objectives set out in the programme for Government.
As the Minister of State noted, the number of students staying within the education system in the school year 2011-12 will be significantly higher than was expected in previous years. This increase is welcome as it meets the objective to reduce the incidence of early school leaving nationally. However, to keep up with the increasing numbers of students remaining within the formal education system, it is predicted that approximately 160 additional mainstream teachers will be required. The recruitment embargo across the public service has meant it is simply not possible to recruit more teachers to accommodate this increase and consequently the Minister has had extremely hard decisions to make.
There are approximately 1,125 language support posts in primary schools and 275 at second level. These 1,400 posts are in addition to mainstream classroom teachers. The teachers concerned allow schools to withdraw pupils for varying amounts of time to concentrate on the teaching of English. The phased reduction in the number of language support teachers was one of a number of measures introduced in the 2011 budget by the previous Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government. It proposed a phased reduction of 500 language support teachers over a four year period and these changes were due to become effective from September 2011 with a proposed reduction of 125 such teachers. However, owing to the embargo on recruitment and other constraints placed on us by the EU-IMF bailout deal negotiated by the previous Government, it has been found necessary to accelerate this programme and increase the proposed reduction to 250 language support teachers this year. While I am sure the decision to accelerate the proposed reduction in the number of language support teachers to increase the number of mainstream teachers was not taken lightly, as a teacher I can completely understand the unpleasant reception to be anticipated by this announcement. However, it is important to realise the Minister has sought to ensure the most disadvantaged and vulnerable schools will be protected.
The change will have little or no impact on schools with a high concentration of pupils in need of language support, that is, greater than 25%. The new allocation rules will only affect schools in which less than 25% of the school population require English language support. Students in such schools are eligible for language support for a period of up to two years, rather than three years. Consequently it should be noted that the 2,500 students affected by this change in the allocation rules have already received support for two years. Moreover, it should be noted that it is not envisaged that schools will be obliged to lose any more than the 500 teachers proposed by the previous Government who were already intended to be lost. The Minister is taking a long-term view that by accelerating the process now it will help Ireland to recover faster and better.
There is better news with regard to resource teachers. Resource teaching hours are allocated by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, for students with special educational needs who require additional teaching support. As the Minister of State has pointed out, the number of resource teachers to be allocated for this year has increased by 350 on last year, to a total of 9,950 posts. Therefore, it is important to note that there will be more resource teachers than last year and there has not been a cut in resource teacher numbers despite reports to the contrary.
I understand the Minister has difficult choices to make. The allocations proposed in the context of our changed economic circumstances are difficult. I ask the Minister to prioritise special needs education and to ensure that in the difficult decisions he has to make, the most vulnerable of our citizens are afforded the most protection.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House and I wish both him and the Minister, Deputy Quinn, continued success in the Department of Education and Skills.
I congratulate Senator Moran on her maiden speech. I call Senator Mary White who has six minutes speaking time.
I told the previous Acting Chairman that Senator Reilly may speak ahead of me.
I am calling Senator White.
I am here to facilitate other Members this afternoon but I will take the opportunity to draw the attention of Members to the inoperable circular from the Department of Education and Skills with regard to language support resource teachers and full-time and part-time resource teacher posts. Our Lady's boys' national school in Ballinteer has 23 extra resource hours for children with special needs in mainstream classes. The school is two hours short of a full-time post. Next September, three children on the autistic spectrum will start in junior infants. As of yet, the school is not aware of the level of support these children will receive. This school has a very successful autism unit. Under this inoperable circular, the principal of the school has had to contact five other schools in the locality who might have lost hours from their permanent resource posts and allocate hours to them out of the 23 extra hours. This could mean that five resource teachers will end up visiting Our Lady's boys' national school. It is possible that the children with special needs will be taught by several different teachers. This is farcical. Senator Barrett spoke about statistics and figures and this is all very logical and mathematical but at the coalface of education many of these situations are inoperable and useless because they do not take into consideration the situation in different schools.
The success of integrating boys with special needs in mainstream education is due to the ongoing support they can access in the school from the teacher based in the school. Children with special needs have to be removed from the mainstream classroom outside of their allocated resource time so that the resource teacher can look after them. Every class in every primary school in the United Kingdom has a teacher's assistant. Senator Barrett referred to the investment in education. We must look after the education needs of all our children to ensure our country will have a fair and equal society. Children with special needs are as entitled as the rest of us with all our faculties to develop their potential. This farcical, inoperable circular is hitting not only the neediest children but all children.
I wish to share two minutes of my time with Senator Michael Mullins.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon on his elevation. I know he is already doing a fine job.
Having listened to my colleague, Senator D'Arcy and others who have experience in the field of managing schools where numerous special needs teachers have come and gone, I stand here as a person who benefited from an integrated education service, as a person with a severe disability. Senator D'Arcy talked about the kindness of strangers but I would like to put on the record of the House the kindness of teachers. I know there are many teachers who go out of their way, above and beyond the call of duty, to provide special needs assistance and it is remarkable that this is not recognised at all. We have made significant progress since the early 1990s when I left school with regard to the provision of special needs assistance and resource teachers. We are living in a completely different climate. This country is effectively bankrupt. We are, to a large extent, benefiting from the kindness of strangers and we have to be realistic. I agree with a cut of 10% in hours, once the cut is prudent and directed in such a way as to have the absolute minimal impact. The Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, today outlined in great detail how this is being achieved and how it will be achieved for 2011 and 2012. The Government needs to be commended. Although there will be a cut, it is so properly and efficiently channelled that it will have negligible effect. It will not really have any effect.
In the overall approach to dealing with educational funding we must ensure administration costs and wastage are cut and we must ensure cuts in the essential key element — teaching in the classroom — are kept to an absolute minimum. This will be achieved in the programme of work outlined by the Minister of State today, coupled with what is detailed in the programme for Government. The programme for Government has an ambitious objective with regard to education but it will be achieved and of this there is no doubt.
I thank Senator Cummins and the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas for their ongoing work to ensure the House and its procedures and literature are accessible for me in order that I can perform my work and have access to the same information as all other Members.
I join in the welcome to the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon. I compliment him on the great work he is doing. As my constituency colleague I hope he might be able to help me out regarding a little difficulty I will mention.
I acknowledge the progress made in recent years in the area of investment in education and special needs. Unfortunately, the previous Government did not quite keep its eye on the ball and we now find ourselves in a most difficult financial situation and, inevitably, cuts will have to be made right across the board in all Departments. It appears that education will not remain unscathed.
I want to ensure that whatever else happens, the system will be fair and the most needy will benefit most. A school principal in my home town raised a concern with me. He is principal of a DEIS school which has a very high proportion of disadvantaged pupils and where 50% of the student population is classified as being from a disadvantaged background. I am very concerned that the number of learning support teachers is being cut by three. It was allowed four additional teachers because of the disadvantaged nature of the school. The numbers have been cut by three out of a total staff population of 28. That is an 11% cut and I can see it causing severe ongoing problems for the school. A large proportion of the student population have exceptional needs. The teachers face major challenges without getting the support that they need. This cut is much too severe and will cause problems. There is a speech and language unit within the school which is taking in pupils who have a maturity age of two and a half. Many pupils have severe disabilities and come from very disadvantaged backgrounds.
I want to ensure the investment we make as a Government in primary education is targeted at people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Unless we do that, we will face serious difficulties in the future. Such children will drop out of school early and if they do not get the one-to-one care and attention they are currently getting, I can see major problems developing for such pupils. They are being cared for and taught in a very secure environment, are getting one-to-one attention and are making great progress. If we remove three teachers from the school, it will be a step backwards. I ask the Minister of State to consider the issue.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber and echo the sentiments of my colleagues. Language support teachers and resource teachers for special needs students provide services to those most in need. We discussed investment in education and how much it has increased in recent years, but we must remember that it is not a niche interest or a luxury addition to our education system. It is an essential part of the education system in raising the standards of educational attainment.
We are a multicultural nation. Immigrant families helped to build the wealth in our society that has been wrongly squandered and these families continue to contribute to our economy and society. If they are to play a full role and contribute to our society and economy, there is an onus on us to support them, remove barriers to participation and treat all children equally and on the basis of need. Communication is the most basic tool to which any student should be entitled.
The intercultural education strategy 2010-15 clearly shows that while some immigrants are leaving Ireland, there is still a significant inward flow of migrants. The recent profile of migrants has changed, with an increasing proportion between birth and 15 years old. While the previous Government planned to reduce the total number of language support teachers from 1,400 to 900, staggered over four years, the new Government, which promised so much change, will now implement half the cuts by September.
While the Department may claim that the changes will have little impact on schools with high concentrations of pupils in need of language support, in schools where fewer than 25% of pupils need language support it will be limited to two years. The needs of the school rather than the needs of students seems to be considered, but the basis of need should be dependent on individual students. A student in need of language support will still be in need of it regardless of the overall percentage needs of the school, something which is critical and which we need to consider in greater detail.
Other changes to education will also limit the availability of resources to schools and their ability to meet the needs of children that arise throughout the school year. A growing number of primary schools have begun to feel the full force of budgetary revisions over teaching posts, even though enrolment levels continue to rise. General morale in the classroom will inevitably suffer, and teachers, despite their best efforts, will find it increasingly difficult to do their job. The general secretary of the INTO recently stated: "This series of cutbacks, which includes cuts already signalled for Traveller children, special needs children, disadvantaged children and pupils in gaelscoileanna, will compromise educational outcomes for children and severely test the ability of schools to develop a really inclusive education for their pupils." This comment comes from a leading teaching organisation, a body which is not party political but draws on the experience of thousands of teachers and puts the needs of students to the fore. She also added:
Every aspect of the curriculum will be affected. Where children lack the basic language skills to interact with the curriculum it is obvious that the national priorities like literacy and numeracy will be compromised. Where additional help is not provided to compensate for a severe poverty children will not reach their full potential.
These concerns are not held by teachers alone. They are also shared by the leading children's charity, Barnardos, which said:
There is real concern that a new generation of children living in Ireland will experience educational disadvantage as a result of cuts in English language support teachers. Any further cuts to the provision of this support will seriously impact on the future lives of these children who will most certainly fall behind in their education if supports are removed.
Already Ireland has slipped back in terms of the OECD education rankings in literacy and mathematics and unless this issue is addressed, serious damage could be done to the international standing of the Irish education system. On reading levels, Ireland has slipped from fifth place in 2000 to 17th place, the sharpest decline among the 39 countries surveyed. This figure highlights the major flaws in how the school curriculum is being delivered. Similarly in mathematics, Ireland has fallen from 16th to 26th place between 2006 and 2009, the second steepest decline among participating countries. Ireland is now ranked as below average in mathematics.
National priorities like literacy and numeracy will be compromised by the cuts in resources. Children will not reach their potential. How can the Minister of State justify cuts to essential frontline services in light of the very worrying figures, in particular when in almost every classroom a significant percentage of pupils have special educational needs or do not speak English as their first language? These cuts dilute scarce and precious supports to schools that are working in the areas of greatest need. They single out the most vulnerable and least politically vocal for attack. They will reduce educational outcomes for children and their eventual productivity as citizens. Most importantly, they will increase the cost of expensive later interventions.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach as an deis cúpla focal a rá i dtaca leis an díospóireacht tábhachtach seo ar na hacmhainní atá ar fáil ón Stát agus ón Roinn do scoileanna agus, go háirithe, do mhicléinn a bhfuil riachtanais speisialta foghlama acu. Creidimid uilig, ar ghach taobh den Teach, go bhfuil sé tábhachtach na háiseanna ceart a chur ar fáil do dhaoine nach bhfuil, b'fhéidir, in ann foghlaim chomh maith céanna le duine eile sa rang céanna.
I am glad we have the opportunity today to debate special needs education and the provision of same from a learning support point of view, the SNA provision in schools and the allocation from the Department. It is the responsibility of everyone who serves in public office, especially at a national level, to ensure the provision of services for the most needy in society. The 1916 Proclamation states we should cherish all children equally. By extending those words we must ensure children who have special needs, in particular, are perhaps cherished more equally than others, if that is appropriate.
I sat on the Joint Committee on Education and Skills in the past four years when the party of those of us on this side of the House was in Government. The now Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, also sat on it and I often heard him refer to the real need to provide for people with special needs. I agree with him. After he became Minister, he was called upon to reverse the decision of the previous Government to reduce learning support teaching staff by 125 from this September. The Minister outlined in a statement, on 3 May this year — in answer to a parliamentary question and I understand also through the media — that he could not roll back on the decision to proceed with the first-year reduction of some 125 posts which had been targeted in budget 2011. I can accept that the Minister is going with the budget decision, but it is alarming that he would go further than that, particularly given his genuine background in protecting the most needy in society. I would expect nothing else from the Labour Party. It is alarming nonetheless that the Government has now decided to double the reduction target set out by the previous Government, thus ensuring 250 posts will be taken out of the resource learning complement which will be available to schools from September this year.
The other issue of concern is that of special needs education and the assistance available for this from the Department. We all appreciate that Exchequer resources are very limited this year. It was in this context that in last December's budget a decision was taken to reduce spending across several areas. The provision of special needs education was ring-fenced in that budget. Perhaps we will get some clarification on this matter from the Minister of State. While I do not want to dwell on the point, it appears that an allocation of 90% of what was available this year for next year will not meet next year's projected demand when one takes into account the projected pupil numbers and the increasing demands being placed on pupils as a result of increased class sizes. In this respect, no consideration is being given to small rural schools.
The Minister of State said that where less than 25% of pupils needed language support, it would be limited to two years. If one takes the example of small rural schools throughout the country, however, very often there may only be one special needs pupil who requires additional language support in a cohort of 50. While the Minister of State and the Department recognise that there will be cutbacks, it would appear that they will be greater in small rural schools. Can the Minister of State clarify that matter?
We on this side of the House cannot agree with the decision being taken. We appreciate that fiscal demands on the country are creating difficulties, but we cannot understand why the reduction is being doubled. In other words, 250 learning support teachers are being taken out of the system this year instead of the 125 agreed by the previous Administration. In addition, why is this year's allocation only 90% of last year's figure? I understand that additional special needs posts are being provided to the appeals tribunal so that it can allocate such posts where there is a genuine need. One would expect that allocation would be met anywhere in case of genuine need, without having only 90% of this year's allocation being available next year.
As pupil numbers are growing, particularly in urban schools, one can appreciate that the demand for special needs education will also grow considerably in those areas, particularly with class sizes also rising. I am wary of the Department's position and I am saddened that provision for the least well-off and educationally disadvantaged is being attacked in this way. I appeal to the Minister of State to examine alternatives rather than trying to make cost savings in special needs and learning support teaching staff.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am a parent of a 19 year old with special needs who has moved beyond the education process and is now engaged on a Brothers of Charity work programme. There is no doubt that costs need to be managed within this wide-ranging area. Senator Reilly rightly pointed out the position up to 2009, including the OECD report. In the past nine or ten years, the solution was to fire money at the problem, providing school assistants for children with special needs. The problem was that we had special needs assistants in schools who were not qualified for anything other than taking such children to the toilet. We must give a better service and when we are providing special needs assistants in schools they should impart knowledge and support to the children involved.
In an urban school with 800 pupils, for example, there may be five or six with special needs and two assistants to care for them and support them in the mainstream environment. We should use trainee teachers in such circumstances or those who have just started work. It would also help trainees to gain experience in schools. Above all, there should be a programme of service delivery to support those children and their parents. Such a programme should be co-ordinated across the country, rather than being hit and miss. Unfortunately, we put thousands of special needs assistants into schools with no programme or purpose to support them.
I was involved in the mainstreaming structures but that was a disastrous programme in recent years. We mainstreamed children with severe intellectual disability in primary schools where they had no support. In addition, they probably had no chance of ever getting such support. We set about closing down some of the special needs schools and now find that we have had to reverse that decision. As a result, children are going back into special needs schools because they get better support. For example, they may have classrooms with only five or six pupils and two or three special needs assistants. My child benefited from her time in a special needs school. She would not have had a snowball's chance in hell in a school with 34 other children in the classroom; it would not have been possible. While I welcome the input from the Minister of State, I ask him to consider managing our services better. Delivering a quality service might improve our OECD ratings.
We have been paying €1.6 billion annually to 42 service providers throughout the country. They are supposed to deliver a service to 65,000 young adults with an intellectual disability. About 11,500 of them are in full-time residential care. While I know some of the services we get for that €1.6 billion, it is an horrendous amount of money. I understand that the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, has launched an investigation into some of the organisations involved. We have chief executives within those organisations who are paying themselves salaries of between €200,000 and €400,000 a year. If we are seeking value for money, we should examine those areas and recoup some of the vast sums of money we have been firing at service providers. There are very few religious brothers and sisters left in charitable organisations but many lay people have made a fine business out of providing services for people with intellectual disabilities. We should undertake a serious root and branch investigation into services that were created on the back of the Celtic tiger in recent years, and bring costs back into line. I know of a preschool recently where a special needs assistant was getting €19.20 an hour to support a child with severe autism who needed support while the person running the preschool was getting €50 a week to have the child present. There is a great imbalance there. In such a case we need to ensure the preschool is supported financially to care for the child and the special needs assistant perhaps needs to be paid a little less. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House and I hope he takes some of those views on board.
Le cead an Tí, ba bhreá liom mo chuid ama a roinnt leis an Seanadóir Crown. Senator Crown has advised me that he will need one minute of my time to make his contribution, but I might allow him two minutes for safety.
As there are not many more speakers, Senator Crown might wish to take the time available to him to speak.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. The Minister of State is welcome to the House. Like my cousin and colleague, Senator Mullins, I, too, am happy to welcome a person from my own neck of the woods and to wish him very well in his brief.
This is an important debate. It is increasingly difficult to have these debates in the sense that we all want to affirm the profound importance of investment in education and, in particular, the importance of the maintenance of resources and services to people with various kinds of special needs, whether they be resource teachers, special needs assistants, or language assistance teachers to assist children with their English language skills. Just as we can always say with certainty that investment in education is never wasted because of its importance to our economic revival, apart from the overwhelming and important requirements of human dignity and recognising the role of education in the flourishing of each human being, we can also say that with regard to the needs of children for whom English is not their first language and is in effect a foreign language, we are in the zone of the stitch in time saving nine. Money spent in language support is about various issues but most of all it is about the maintenance of standards. If we do not have investment in language support, apart from the damage that will be done to the children, there is also the question of standards in our education system, and quality in our education system is key if we are to restore and maintain competitiveness. All these issues are fite fuaite lena chéile.
Despite the fact that we must be realistic about the economic challenges we face and we are aware of the cutbacks, we can and must continue to insist that a special case will always be made for education. It is clear from the Minister of State's speech, and we knew this in any event, that a special case has been made for education over the years. As he pointed out, a third of our public sector numbers are tied in with the education system, €1 billion euro has been spent on special needs and there has been a tenfold increase over a decade in the provision of education for those with special needs, but now tá an crú ag teacht ar an tairne. We are at a time of crisis and there is a danger that mistakes will be made because of the need to stay within the employment control framework and so on.
A particular issue to which the Irish National Teachers Organisation has rightly drawn attention is the impact on resource teaching caused by a fall-off in the provision for language support teachers. Schools have been forced to utilise the resources of their learning support teachers and, as the INTO has rightly pointed out, this is not a viable long-term solution. The Minister of State will know that a learning support and resource teacher caters for children with learning delays or with a high incidence disability such as mild general learning disability and dyslexia. These resource teachers add to the support given by the class teacher and every primary school has this support. The main aim of this learning support is to help pupils with learning difficulties to improve their literacy and numeracy skills to a set standard before they leave primary school, but if there is any diversion of resources away from learning support, it is a deeply flawed approach. This is happening. Schools are eating into their learning support hours to make up for this fall-off in provision and that is a serious problem.
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment in Interculturalism Education in the Primary School: Guidelines for Schools points out:
Education not only reflects society but also influences its development. As such, schools have a role to play in the development of an intercultural society. While education cannot bear the sole responsibility for challenging racism and promoting intercultural competence, it has an important contribution to make in facilitating the development of the child's intercultural skills, attitudes, values and knowledge. An intercultural education is valuable to all children in equipping them to participate in an increasingly diverse society. Equally, an education which is based on only one culture will be less likely to develop these capacities in children.
This highlights a second issue, namely, that failure to provide adequate language support teachers for minority ethnic students can lead to such students failing to obtain sufficient results leading to unemployment and ghettoisation in society.
A staff of approximately 1,400 provides language assistance and a staff of close to 10,000 provides resource teaching. The Minister of State said that approximately 90% of the identified resource teaching allocations can be made to schools, but in terms of the position of leaving schools waiting until the autumn to find out their precise allocations, I wonder what impact that will have on school planning and so on. The business of timetabling, preparing and planning in schools is already difficult and I wonder whether unnecessary and avoidable chaos is also being introduced into school timetables and into the smooth operation of schools.
In welcoming the Minister of State and wishing him well with his brief, I point out that with regard to the key issue in terms of focusing on competitiveness and the need to maintain investment in education, we must not apologise for making a special case for education and specifically for those with special needs. We must also have regard to social cohesion and issues such as intercultural harmony, the prevention of racism and so on. All these issues are tied in. I regret very much the speeding up of the rate of the cuts in the allocation of teachers who teach English as an additional language and I do not believe it will have a happy outcome.
We have heard much about the primacy of education in developing the smart economy and at the same time we have heard of the inevitable decline in spending and resourcing which will occur as a result of our bizarre decision to conduct this unprecedented massive reverse Robin Hood foreign aid programme from some of the poorest people in our society to the some of the richest people in Europe who were foolish enough to think that Irish real estate was a clever way for them to spend the money over which they had fiduciary responsibility. As a result of that, we must be doubly smart in trying to squeeze the most we can out of the resources we have.
I know many teachers and it is my definite opinion that this is a profession that is under siege and which has a very low morale right now. Teachers are working very hard in increasingly difficult circumstances. They see themselves being a very easy target for cutbacks. There are all kinds of metrics which work in favour of reducing the resources which apply to them and at the same time we are told that if we are to save our country and its economy, we must have a fundamental reinvestment in the structures of education in the country. It is one thing to deplore and regret what is going on but it is another to try to look at creative solutions to see if there is anything we can do.
My question for the Minister of State and his other colleagues in the Department is whether we are certain we are using the resources available to their maximum efficiency. Are there many people employed by the Department of Education and Skills who contribute to the total numbers which are limited by the employment control framework who are not doing mainstream teaching jobs? What is the percentage of qualified teachers in the Department of Education and Skills who are teaching compared with those who are not? Is it possible that some of them could be redeployed to some front line teaching activities either as a full-time change of occupation or with some method of apportioning a certain number of weeks of the year for educational activities for a certain number of hours a week?
Even more radically, if we really are caught between twin millstones, as appears to be the case, one of which is a relatively large public service comprising people who, in general, are diligent in their duties but who are also, in most cases, performing tasks that may not be the most productive for society, are there people in administrative grades in education, the HSE, the Department of Health and elsewhere who could be redeployed to educational support activities? I am not advocating a cheap solution to stop us hiring teachers. We have 800 people at grade 8 level within the HSE who, in recognition of the fact that there was a certain level of overstaffing at that level, were offered by the previous Government the option of taking early retirement packages. Very few took those packages. Given that people signed up to permanent and pensionable jobs, have a reasonable expectation that their contracts will be kept and in respect of whom we have an ethical obligation to ensure their contracts are not terminated, is it not possible that we have an opportunity to suggest to them that we will let them stay in the State's permanent and pensionable employ while strongly offering them the opportunity for redeployment due to the circumstances of our current emergency? Many people with high educational qualifications in administrative jobs elsewhere in the public service could be redeployed to educational support activities, thereby freeing up our professional teachers for mainstream teaching activities. Will the Minister of State consider these two possible solutions to the problem?
Consider the big scale. I am reminded of the late Senator Everett Dirksen in America, who stated: "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you are talking real money." If we are only discussing a shortfall of 125 or 160 teachers or reducing the numbers by 500, these numbers could be met through creative redeployment within the public service. I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Minister of State for their time.
Like others, I welcome the Minister of State to the House. He might know that, last week and before that, many Senators raised the issue of the protection and rights of children on the Order of Business. Recently, we discussed the Ombudsman for Children's report on children's rights. She is advocating for those rights. As repeated in the Chamber, she stated that lawmakers should stop and listen to children. I would say that we also need to act and ensure we provide for children.
I agree with Senator Mullen that eating into learning supports is deeply misguided. It is also economically wrong and socially unjust. The State has a fundamental responsibility to ensure every child has an equal opportunity to the education he or she deserves. I am a parent of a four year old and my wife is pregnant; we are due our second baby this week. Like any parent, I would be concerned if a child did not get the kind of support he or she needed. The Minister of State would accept this concern as well and the Government will try to do its best, but we are discussing cuts, namely, taking away from the most vulnerable and depriving children of the education they need. It was a disgrace that, under the previous Government, many parents needed to take the State to court to get their children the education they deserved as a right.
We must make a comparison. On the one hand, we are borrowing money from the IMF to repay billions of euro to speculators and gamblers while, on the other, we are stripping schools of special needs assistants, SNAs. Families and citizens feel aggrieved by this injustice. It is morally, socially and economically wrong for us to deprive children of the education they deserve.
The Minister of State will be aware that Ireland subsidises private education to the tune of €30 million per year. I have no difficulty if people have money to put their children through private schools. That is fair enough, but the taxpayer should not be footing the bill when we are enforcing cutbacks in schools. We cannot divorce the situation of the SNAs from the overall situation of cutbacks at primary and secondary level. For example, class sizes have increased in recent years. In some schools, classes comprise 30 pupils or more, which will have an impact.
The Government and the country need to take a step back and ask whether we are on the right course, making the right decisions and getting the best use out of our money. There are many arguments about how and where to cut. In a Republic that claims it wants to cherish all of its children equally, surely their education is the last place we should start cutting.
It is appalling that children who deserve and need extra support from the State are not getting it because of cutbacks. Much can be done. For example, €30 million is being spent by the taxpayer to subsidise private education. In the context of the Finance Bill, which we will debate this week, we can table propositions on how to save money and raise income. Taking money from education is morally and economically wrong. Every euro one invests in education benefits the economy tenfold, as it leads to a properly educated workforce in which everyone has an equal opportunity.
The argument is that, although we appointed SNAs and provided money, a programme of service delivery was not in place. Saying that cuts will help to improve literacy levels is a little like saying that disease will be alleviated if we cut the number of hospital nurses. It does not stack up. Rather, it scapegoats people and does not deal with the reality of the issue. I understand how difficult it is for newly elected Government Members who stood on a promise of not cutting education, of protecting the most vulnerable and of ensuring we reverse many of the cuts made by the previous Government.
What about qualified nurses?
While I understand it is difficult for members of the new Government to make these cuts, surely the Members opposite must recognise that cutting back on education and on the rights of children is the wrong thing to do. It is morally wrong and I cannot understand how any party, especially the Labour Party, could stand over cuts that will impact on children's right to education and may increase class sizes.
Will the Minister of State reflect on these concerns and ensure children do not become victims of austerity in the forthcoming budget? He will be aware of the impact of austerity measures on families and children. We all see it and know it. Our State must protect its citizens, in particular its children. Will the Minister of State reflect on what will occur when we remove money from education and SNAs from classrooms? We will deprive children of the education they deserve as a fundamental right. I am sure the Minister of State knows this is morally wrong.
I am speaking as someone who worked for seven years with a special needs children's charity as a paid staff member. For the 20 years prior to that, I worked for the charity as a volunteer. I also speak on behalf of a Minister who would not engage in any activity that would compromise or damage the chances of any child, particularly one with special needs, of achieving the very best in life or of reaching the pinnacle of his or her talents.
All Government decisions are being made in a difficult context. We inherited an economic disaster, one which the Financial Times recently described as “the longest and deepest recession ever experienced by any OECD country”. We have inherited, as described by Senator D’Arcy, a disaster of wanton profligacy. A recent report produced not long after the election concluded that despite the repeated advice of the Department of Finance, in particular at election time, previous Governments decided that whatever spending was required to placate and encourage an electorate to support that Government would be spent.
We inherited that legacy, aptly described by my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, in response to a debate on education in the Dáil last week as follows:
[W]e do not live in a world in which you [Deputy Boyd Barrett] would like to live but in one where this Republic has lost its economic sovereignty. We have lost control of our cheque book. Every fortnight the governor of the Central Bank must report to Frankfurt to state that our fortnightly returns, in terms of revenue and costs reductions, are meeting targets. Otherwise, the money that pays the Deputy's and my salaries, and those of everybody else who works in this building, will not come out of the ATM. That is where we are. Michael Collins, the first Minister for Finance of this State, had more room to manoeuvre than his successor as Minister, Deputy Noonan, has today.
The Minister went on to say that we had lost our economic sovereignty. It is a reality he does not like and one I do not like. It is not productive at this point in time to go into the history of how we have arrived in this place but the challenge and the ambition of the Government is to regain our economic sovereignty as quickly as possible. I thank all Senators who contributed to the debate, a number of whom have specialist knowledge and experience in this area and all of whom spoke with much passion for what is a difficult subject to discuss.
The allocation of teaching resources to schools for the coming school year takes place within the framework of the programme for national recovery and the EU-IMF programme of support for Ireland. We would not be engaging in any process that might be even seen to compromise the educational rights of our special needs children unless we had explored every other option available to us, not alone within the Department of Education and Skills but across all Departments. The reality is that we cannot breach the fixed ceiling on teacher numbers within our schools. The recovery plan provides for a net reduction in teacher numbers in 2011, notwithstanding the need to provide additional posts to meet demographics.
The number of students remaining at school to complete their second level education is at its highest ever, which is a good thing and something of which we should be proud. However, accommodating the increased number of students poses a challenge. We have had to reduce the number of language support teachers to remain within the fixed ceiling on teacher numbers. That is the reality.
I want to emphasise once again that significant support continues to be provided to schools by way of language support resources. This teaching support is provided on a clear and structured basis and resources are deployed on the basis of pupils' language proficiency. The 1,400 language support posts are in addition to mainstream classroom teachers and are available to address the specific learning needs of the children requiring language support. The changing pattern of immigration at national level and increased levels of proficiency should result in a reduced level of demand for language support in the coming years.
Senator Ó Domhnaill stated that the 90% reduction in resource hours would disproportionately affect small rural schools. I do not know how he arrived at that conclusion. It is my understanding that the 90% reduction applies equally across the school population, irrespective of school size or the number of pupils therein. In regard to language support teachers, it is imperative that all teachers realise they have a genuine role in supporting migrant children in gaining English language proficiency. This is not the sole remit of the language support teacher but is the responsibility of all teachers, the majority of whom are already doing so or willing to do so. Schools also have flexibility in regard to how they deploy their language support teachers to meet the needs of pupils that require language support.
I reiterate that there has been no reduction in the overall number of resource teaching posts. The number of resource teachers to be allocated for this year has increased by 350 to a total of 9,950. There will, therefore, be more resource teachers than last year and there has not been a cut in resource teacher numbers. This is a case of demand for support increasing as opposed to a reduction in actual number of posts. The fact that demand for resource teaching is increasing and that the rate of applications has potential to cause a breach of teacher numbers under the ECF means that the Department had to consider and adjust the allocation process. That is the reality. Some 90% of the identified resource teaching allocations are now being made to schools to provide them with the majority of their allocation while also preserving enough capacity to deal with later applications and ensure the Department can remain within its ECF obligations. The proposal ensures all schools will be treated the same. If the level of demand turns out to be less than expected, the initial 90% allocation may be revisited and possibly increased.
The reality now being imposed by the ECF leaves no option but to adjust the special needs resource allocation process in the most equitable way possible. By allocating 90% of valid applications at this point we are making contingency for future allocations and ensuring the resources are being allocated as fairly as possible across the school system. All areas of Government will have to manage on reduced resources. The challenge will be to ensure the resources are being provided and are used to maximum effect to achieve the best possible outcome for all pupils in our schools.
When is it proposed to sit again?
At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.