Disabled children ‘deserve full rights to education’

A new way to give schools extra staff to support children with disabilities should not preclude the Government from giving those pupils full rights to adequate education, a parents’ group told TDs and senators.

The Special Needs Parents’ Association (SNPA) is among the majority of education groups that welcome the planned use of a range of schools data to decide support teacher numbers, instead of those with disabilities needing a diagnosis before their schools get resource teaching hours.

It is likely to come into effect in 2016, although it might still be in place next year, using numbers of pupils with complex special needs and with lowest reading and maths scores, and the social mix of schools.

However, SNPA chairperson Lorraine Dempsey said this should not be used simply to allocate the existing 11,000 special needs teachers, and a 15% cut in hours should be addressed in this month’s budget. The number of resource teachers has been capped by the Department of Education since 2011, and children only receive 85% of weekly resource teaching hours recommended in 2005.

“The full implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 has not been realised a decade on, thus undermining the once envisaged framework of rights for children with special needs,” she told the Oireachtas education committee.

She said it was not only well-off parents who are ‘queue-skipping’ in the current system by paying for private assessments rather than facing long waits to get sanction from the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) for resource teacher hours. “Families from all socio-economic backgrounds were trying to find ways to fund the diagnoses needed to qualify for supports. The St Vincent de Paul were helping parents to pay up several hundred euro for psychological assessments, knowing the impact for their child of not getting support in education was significant,” she said.

While most stakeholders welcome the move recommended by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) to profile schools’ needs to determine allocations, principals raised concerns about the kind of information they are being expected to provide for a department survey to determine the social mix of schools.

Irish Primary Principals’ Network director Sean Cottrell said its hotline has never had so much anger on its helpline about having to ask whether they receive family income supplement or other social welfare, if they have a mortgage or live in local authority housing.

“It’s particularly an issue in areas where everybody knows everybody. It breaks the relationship of trust between school and home,” he said.

NCSE chief executive Teresa Griffin said the system is not ideal but it would be valid, although concerns have already been flagged about schools fearing what happens if they give an honest account but others exaggerate their level of disadvantage.

“We looked for an objective way and whether there’s one source of information that could give us this information independently and objectively. But we were also told in consultation that it’s important to include the voice of principals,” she said.

Ms Griffin said the Educational Research Centre, which is compiling data for the Department of Education can check if there are any apparent imbalances.

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