Special needs plan to precede Down bill

A system giving schools power to decide how much special needs teaching pupils get is likely to precede the passing of a bill that would give automatic entitlement to resource teaching to all children with Down Syndrome.

The Cabinet decided on Tuesday that it will not oppose the second stage of Independent TD Finian McGrath’s bill, due before the Dáil tomorrow, allowing it go to committee stage.

Current policy means 20 to 30 children with Down Syndrome who start school each year do not get an individual allocation of one-to-one teaching. This is because they have mild, rather than moderate, general learning disability or because they do not have another qualifying disability.

While the Government move was initially welcomed, the likelihood is that the Down Syndrome (Equal Access) Bill will be superseded by a new system of giving special needs teaching supports to schools before it ever becomes law.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Ruairi Quinn said his position is that the facilities sought by Mr McGrath’s bill will be rendered moot under the new allocation model.

She said it is expected that this system would remove the requirement for diagnosis for the allocation of resources; and give schools resources in line with their levels of need to support children with special educational needs.

Under 2005 Department of Education rules, children with Down Syndrome who are not given resource teaching hours — which have to be sanctioned by the National Council for Special Education based on a formal diagnosis — instead get learning support from the general allocation of special needs staff all primary schools get.

The spokeswoman said the new system is expected to remove the distinction between high- and low-incidence special education needs, and the separate allocation mechanisms for each.

Mr Quinn expects proposals from the working group in six to eight weeks, but has previously signalled it will be at least September 2015 before any changes can take effect.

Mr McGrath said he has received support from Government backbenchers anxious the bill be adopted.

“We need this implemented quickly because these kids are growing up and only get one shot at education, so I hope this isn’t just a political ploy ahead of the local elections,” he said.


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