Time for Quinn to prove that education is truly for everyone

DEAR Minister Quinn, Let me congratulate you first of all, if that’s not impertinent, on the great start you’ve made in the Department of Education.

It has been like watching and feeling a breath of fresh air to see you challenging some of the long-accepted myths around Irish education. You look like a man who’s willing to make a fresh start, and base it on some fundamental principles.

You’ve probably already discovered, if you didn’t already know, that there are a lot of vested interests in the system. And it may have come as a bit of a shock to discover that your department, which the rest of us believe is responsible for the education of our children, actually has a very hands-off approach to education.

Over the years they’ve hived off all sorts of stuff — psychological services, education welfare, pre-school education — you name it. It’s almost as if the department regarded the system as consisting of union-organised teachers in school buildings, and not much else.

One area where they really object to being involved, as you probably know already, is in the area of education of people with intellectual disabilities. That’s a key reason why you’re about to be involved in controversy about the cutting of special needs assistants. Your department has never believed in them, and never wanted a rational planned way of organising and managing a decent system of support.

In fact, your department’s attitude to special education can be seen in the way that they have fought the families of people with an intellectual disability all the way to the Supreme Court.

And they’ve used the outcome of such cases to try to establish the principle that they will have nothing to do with the education of adults with an intellectual disability (that’s to say, anyone who has reached the age of 18). They’ve never had a problem funding and supporting education for young adults — provided, of course, that they don’t have an education disability (in other words, the more young people need the support of the system, the less likely they are to get it). But perhaps the most cynical thing that has happened over the years was that all the while the system was regarding the education of people with a disability as a nuisance, they were actually legislating for it. Or pretending to, anyway.

When he moved the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act in 2003 (it’s known as the EPSEN Act) the Minister for Education at the time, Noel Dempsey, quoted John F Kennedy: “Let us think of education,” he said, “as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.”

And he went on to say that “we must ensure that all children are given the opportunity to give expression to their private hopes and dreams. … (this bill provides) a structure which will guarantee the rights of children to the greatest possible extent and ensure that parents are central to their child’s development at every step of the process. ”

And indeed, it was a fine piece of legislation. Its long title said it was a law aimed at ensuring that people with special educational needs “shall have the same right to avail of, and benefit from, appropriate education as do their peers who do not have such needs, … (and) to provide for the greater involvement of parents of children with special educational needs in the education of their children …”

The most important thing established by the EPSEN Act, as you know Ruairi, was the right of every young person with special educational needs to an individual education plan, and the right to appeal if the plan wasn’t appropriate for their needs.

Plans would be based on independent assessment, and would be quite specific as to the supports needed by the child. Although the Act contained some qualifying language about the availability of resources, the qualifications weren’t as draconian as in other similar measures.

There was only one small snag. It was the very last section of the Act, section 53 (2), right down there on the last page, page 37. It said “This Act shall come into operation on such day or days as the Minister may appoint by order or orders either generally or with reference to any particular purpose or provision and different days may be so appointed for different purposes or different provisions.”

The act was passed in 2004. But Noel Dempsey never signed all the commencement orders necessary. He was succeeded by Mary Hanafin, who made numerous speeches about special education but never signed them either. Her successor, Batt O’Keeffe, somehow overlooked the relevant commencement orders too. And so did the next minister, Mary Coghlan.

Some commencement did take place – for example the National Council for Special Education was established. Five years after its establishment the Council appeared in front of an Oireachtas Committee, and prefaced everything it said by pointing out that under the EPSEN Act its representatives weren’t allowed to question or even express and opinion on any aspect of Government policy. But you are, Ruairi. I’m guessing that if you think for a moment about special education, you’ll come to the conclusion (you may already have) that we’ve had too much lip service and too much hypocrisy.

ALL those promises of rights and entitlements, fine language about the hopes and dreams of people with an intellectual disability, have left a legacy of a chaotic and under managed system. Your own department has just produced a “value for money” report on the system of special needs assistants, and that report is being used to argue for yet more cutbacks.

The value for money report didn’t talk about the hopes and dreams aspect — value for money reports never do. But you can — you can deliver where all your predecessors have failed. And it won’t necessarily cost an arm and a leg either.

It might mean starting from scratch, however, with a proper strategy to give real meaning to the rights your predecessors promised but never delivered. When there was money, they threw money at the issue, creating loads of posts of special needs assistant, but never properly organised. It would have made more sense back then — and it still would — to sit down with the schools and develop a system that had a proper management structure and proper flexibility built into it. In most countries, the special needs assistants work for the school, rather than the pupil, and that is what gives consistency and an ability to plan to the system.

Of course, redesigning the system is a medium-term project — you have to begin by reassuring parents that you do really want to see their children included in a system that is capable of responding to their needs.

I said at the start Ruairi that you feel like a breath of fresh air. You believe that education is for everyone. Putting a proper base under the EPSEN Act, and finally getting it commenced after years of failure, is the way to prove that.

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