Access strain for disabled students

Jan O'Sullivan: told Dáil Education Committee it is planned to have a service psychologist assigned to all 4,000 primary and second-level schools by the summer.

Teachers are being drafted in to fill staff shortages in the National Educational Psychological Service that are leaving pupils with disabilities unable to get access to extra help in schools.

Although a recruitment campaign should bring psychologist numbers in the service up to a target of 173, many of the 168 employed by the service are on maternity and sick leave, said Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan.

“We have seconded a number of teachers to the National Educational Psychological Service recently to cover maternity leave absences,” she said. “These teachers have the necessary qualifications and expertise to deliver the service. Obviously, they are teachers rather than psychologists, but we are doing something to fill that gap.”

Ms O’Sullivan told the Dáil Education Committee earlier this month it is planned to have a service psychologist assigned to all 4,000 primary and second-level schools by the summer.

However, Sinn Féin education spokesman Jonathan O’Brien said children are still waiting for professional diagnoses they need from a psychologist to access resource teaching hours.

The current system, which allocates one-to-one resource teaching only to children with a professional report, is to be replaced by a system that would give all schools a set number of special needs teachers based on their pupils’ needs.

Mr O’Brien said a school in Cork has six or seven students that it feels have a learning difficulty and need to be assessed by the service.

However, because it has limited access to a psychologist, like many other schools, only two or three pupils will probably be assessed this year, he said.

“This means three or four students will not have an assessment, leading to a delay in diagnosis and in targeting resources at those students. Some parents will have to get private assessments done, but these cost approximately €400,” he said.

The extra teachers given to every mainstream school under a new model proposed last summer by the National Council for Special Education would be based mainly on the number of children with more complex needs, numbers with low scores in reading and maths tests, the gender mix of pupils, and the social mix of the school.

However, Ms O’Sullivan decided last month not to introduce it for next September as there are still complex issues around it.

While ending the need for professional assessments to access extra teaching has been welcomed, the minister has said there will still be a cap on overall numbers. The number of resource and learning support teachers will rise by more than 700 to 11,500 by September, just to meet rising pupil numbers.

However, limits on those teacher numbers in place since 2011, mean one-to-one resource teaching hours for children with disabilities have been reduced to 85% of what they had been.

Irish National Teachers’ Organisation president Seán McMahon said those cuts should be reversed before revised allocation begins.

“The INTO will insist on a reversal of the 15% cut to special education teachers as part of any new system,” he told the union’s recent special education conference,” said Mr McMahon.

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