Parents of children with special needs say it will not be acceptable for the Government to dilute their education supports by failing to provide more special teachers next year to cater for a growing school population.
Special Needs Parents Association (SNPA) chair Lorraine Dempsey questioned the level of priority placed on children with a range of extra needs when the Department of Education made no provision in its 2019 budget to increase the number of special teachers.
The department provided an extra 900 special education teachers in 2017 to support the introduction of a new system of allocating them to primary and second-level schools, with another 100 posts provided for schools this year.
But despite increasing numbers attending primary and second-level schools next year, and continuing growth for at least another seven years at second-level, no additional special teachers were sanctioned by outgoing minister Richard Bruton in October's budget.
As reported in today's Irish Examiner, the challenges that will result were highlighted by department officials to Mr Bruton’s successor Joe McHugh when he took office a week after the budget. It will be made particularly difficult by the fact that next summer will see an end to a guarantee that schools would not lose any of their resources during the first two years of the new allocation system.
This could lead to hundreds of schools having fewer special education posts in September if a review of their profile means staff have to be moved to those found to need more special teaching hours. The formula used to decide a school’s allocation is based on factors that include overall enrolments, but with a strong weighting given to issues like the number of pupils with complex needs, overall scores in standardised tests, the gender of children attending, and a school’s disadvantage status.
Ms Dempsey said everyone understood the potential for changes in individual schools from 2019 when the new allocation model was introduced, and it is inevitable that some would be unhappy about losing teaching hours on that basis alone.
“We’ll just have to accept that if [the new model] accurately reflects the needs of children in schools,” she said.
But, Ms Dempsey said, using the same calculation tools as in 2017 should almost certainly result in a rise in the total number of special teachers needed across the country's 4,000 schools.
“If the number is more than the 13,300 who are currently in schools, we’ll be clearly able to see it. It could be a couple of hundred teaching hours a week, across the system, or it could be thousands,” she said.
The SNPA chair said schools are spending the first two years of the new system to establish how to deploy their special teacher hours for the best benefit of children.
“Diluting those hours would be unacceptable when we now have a system that is based on the individual needs of schools. We don’t want to then be told that this is not sustainable from a financial point of view,” she said.
“For the Government not to give provision for demographics, it shows a lack of focus on special education, when there is a known prevalence for special educational needs and for children with complex needs,” Ms Dempsey said.