Ruairi Quinn paraded out of Government Buildings flanked with Labour backbenchers to announce Cabinet approval to keep resource teaching for children with disabilities at current levels in the autumn.
But it was parents up and down the country whose anger and frustration at feeling the brunt of another cut to their children’s education that forced Labour TDs to bend the minister’s ear; or to contact party chairman Colm Keaveney, who raised his concerns in an emailed letter that the minister’s office had not received on Monday, more than three days after being sent.
Mr Quinn said yesterday that, on reflection, he might have reacted quicker. It was unease, he said, at a 12% rise in children qualifying for resource teaching hours that warranted Cabinet provision yesterday for extra funding to keep up with demand.
But, as reported by the Irish Examiner last week, his officials knew for at least three weeks that schools would be told a week ago. Moreover, the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) gave them an early indication of the level of demand for resource teaching in mid-April, over two months ago.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation welcomed yesterday’s decision that will see 500 resource teachers provided for schools in September, to ensure they give at least the same level of one-to-one extra tuition for 42,500 children with disabilities, 4,000 more than this year.
But the issue does not dispel disquiet on the provision of special needs assistants (SNAs). Impact, the union representing 6,000 SNAs, said providing more resource teachers will bring relief to parents whose children need them.
“But it doesn’t provide any additional care for those children starting class in September,” said Impact deputy general secretary Kevin Callinan. “This is the service provided by an SNA, and any reconfiguration of resources now must not compromise the availability of SNA services to those children that need it in September.”
He said the growing demand referenced by Mr Quinn is only going to increase in line with overall rises in children of school-going age.
“That means the current allocation of SNA time is not going to meet the demands of this or future years.”
Mr Quinn was also careful to say the extra €20m a year would be needed only if current levels of resource teaching provisions are continued for individual pupils.
This might not be the case if the review chaired by the former chief inspector of the Department of Education, Eamon Stack — now the NCSE chairman — suggests some other formula of allocating the resources.
Another area this review should look at is communication between the council and Mr Quinn’s department, and within his department.
Why, for example, is the so-called surge such a surprise to the minister when the NCSE must have had a backlog of applications since it told schools last year that no newly diagnosed children would be eligible for resource teaching if their cases were not made to it by early last October, just five weeks into the school year?
NCSE chief executive Teresa Griffin told the Irish Examiner last week that one factor may have been more schools getting applications in on time this year to avoid such later cut-offs. That is one explanation.
Lorraine Dempsey, who chairs the Special Needs Parents Association, offers some more.
“There are children moving from autism units and from special schools into mainstream schools and classes, a sign that moves to integration are working, but also meaning they now qualify for individual resource teacher support,” she said.
“There are also more children now on waiting lists for special schools, but who are attending mainstream schools in the meantime and getting resource teaching there.”
It is to be welcomed that parents’ voices will be heard on the working group on special needs allocation. Hopefully they can help ensure the work is focused more on education delivery than on message management.
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