No timeframe given for full use of special needs law passed in 2004

EDUCATION Minister Batt O’Keeffe was unable to give a timeframe last night for full implementation of a law passed in 2004 to give educational rights to people with special needs.

Accused by Fine Gael Senator Fidelma Healy Eames of waging unjust war on children with special educational needs through the withdrawal of about 1,200 special needs assistants (SNAs) from schools, Mr O’Keeffe defended the Government’s commitment to special needs education which will receive more than €1 billion this year.

A FG Seanad Private Members motion last night called for a timeline for implementing the 2004 Education for People with Special Educational Needs (EPSEN) Act, which has only partially been put into operation. Senator Healy Eames said children’s rights are not protected as there is no statutory obligation to provide for the needs of a child as assessed in an individual education plan by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE).

She also sought clarification on the extra resources that will be provided to schools which have lost special needs supports, in light of the withdrawal of SNAs from schools. It is estimated that hundreds of SNAs have already been let go this month arising from a review of schools’ allocations being done by the NCSE since last April and promised to be completed late next month.

Mr O’Keeffe has rejected estimates that 1,200 SNA posts will be withdrawn, which are based on the outcome of reviews at 900 of the country’s 4,000 schools. These are the only figures yet provided by the NCSE, given to the Irish Examiner last July.

Mr O’Keeffe said that more than 10,000 SNAs provide for the care needs of pupils with disabilities but his department had asked the NCSE to review all SNA posts in schools.

“It had become clear that a number of SNA posts were in schools where the care needs of the pupils concerned did not justify such an allocation or the special needs child have moved on but the SNA remained in the school. The terms and criteria for the SNA scheme have not changed, schools which have enrolled children who qualify for support from an SNA will continue to be allocated SNA support,” he said.

However, while the revised Programme for Government of last October commits to implementing the EPSEN Act, the minister could only tell the Seanad that the Government is committed to its full implementation “at the earliest possible date”.

Independent Senator Joe O’Toole called on Green Party senators to use their influence to secure progress on special education resources.


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