In a rare political move, Finian McGrath’s bill will be allowed proceed to committee stage when it comes before the Dáil on Friday, meaning Fine Gael or Labour TDs will not be called to vote it down as happens with most non-government legislation.
Most children with Down syndrome in mainstream primary schools qualify under Department of Education rules for weekly hours of one-to-one resource teaching in addition to classroom teaching, but only because they either have a moderate learning disability or they also have another qualifying disability. For 20 to 30 more who start school each year but who have a mild learning disability, special needs teaching comes from set hours each school must share out to all pupils with less severe learning difficulties.
Mr McGrath’s bill would add Down syndrome to the list of disabilities for which individual resource teaching is automatically provided, regardless of a child’s level of learning disability or whether they have another disability.
“This is a victory for parents and Down Syndrome Ireland who have campaigned on the issue. I hope the bill passes in time to benefit children from September,” said Mr McGrath, whose daughter, 25, has Down syndrome.
A spokeswoman for Education Minister Ruairi Quinn said the Cabinet decided yesterday to allow it go to the education committee. “We are adopting this approach in the context of work the National Council for Special Education is doing to find a new model of allocating resources to schools in relation to special educational needs,” she said.
The department has been defending a High Court case in which parents of a child with Down syndrome are challenging the current policy.
The Down’s Syndrome (Equality of Access) Bill was published last July by Mr McGrath. A report from Children’s Ombudsman Emily Logan last May criticised the department’s response to previous complaints about the policy. The NCSE is expected to present recommendations to Mr Quinn in the next two months on a revised system of allocating resource teaching hours to schools for children with disabilities, which could entirely replace the current system in place since 2005.
Down Syndrome Ireland had been calling on the Taoiseach to allow Government TDs a free vote on the bill before yesterday’s Cabinet decision, and has been lobbying Mr Quinn for over a year to remove the restrictions on resource teaching.