Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan said at the Oireachtas education committee last month it is more likely to be September 2016 than next year before a new system comes in to give schools the teachers to work specifically with children with disabilities or learning difficulties. However, she has told the Irish Examiner she does not expect to be able to restore a 15% cut in resource teaching time in place since 2012 for children with disabilities. She has to provide extra teachers and classrooms for around 8,500 more primary pupils and 5,000 more at second level next year in Budget 2015.
“Because we need to cater for demographics, I don’t know that we’ll be able to do anything about the 85%,” she said.
The department has reduced resource teaching hours since 2011 for pupils with disabilities below those recommended in its own 2005 rules. Only a public backlash forced predecessor Ruairi Quinn in June 2013 to reverse plans to cut them to 75%.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation budget submission says special needs children get significantly less support than previously and it wants the 15% cut immediately reversed. A child with hearing impairment, for example, loses out on 36 minutes a week of the four hours of recommended weekly resource teaching. However, because of the growing school population, even keeping the cut to 15% has meant a cap on resource teacher numbers has had to be raised, with the availability of an extra 480 posts this school year meaning up to 6,225 can be employed.
Schools are given one-to-one resource hours for a child with more serious disabilities with a professional assessment report.
All primary schools get a separate allocation of learning support teachers for in-class and group teaching of pupils with more common learning difficulties, and their numbers are determined by school size.
A National Council for Special Education report to Mr Quinn recommended schools be allocated extra staff to cater for all pupils with special needs, instead of those with more exceptional needs needing a diagnosis. As a result, the Department of Education is profiling all schools, and plans to base allocations on each school’s number of pupils with complex special needs, but also on numbers with far below average reading and maths tests scores, and the social mix of pupils.
While a cap of just more than 11,000 special needs teachers may stay in place, the principle that children with disabilities would no longer need the label that comes with a professional diagnosis to get extra help in school was welcomed when the NCSE proposal was announced in June.