System must do better for children with disabilities

Access to free pre-school for children with disabilities depends on where they live because of inconsistent distribution of resources, reports Education Correspondent Niall Murray

System must do better for children with disabilities

IN the primary and second-level system, the National Council for Special Education has a role to allocate special needs assistants to each school depending on the number of children with disabilities and their individual care needs.

Although questions are regularly raised about the level of support given — particularly as a Government cap remains on SNA numbers despite growing pupil numbers — the policy is set nationally by the Department of Education and implemented by the National Council for Special Education.

However, in the pre-school year funded by the same Government, no such policy exists, four-and-a-half years after that early childhood care and education (ECCE) scheme was introduced.

With numerous Cabinet ministers in favour of extending the ECCE programme to a second year for all children, the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman believes it is not good enough that children with disabilities must depend on whatever resources can be spared locally to enable them to fully participate in the system.

“The difficulty with pre-school is that there isn’t any clarity as to what types of supports [should be provided] for children who have physical care needs. It’s very much dependent on what the HSE area are able to provide,” said an ombudsman official who has investigated a complaint around the issue. “It’s not statutory, it’s funding-dependent in each area and that’s one of the difficulties,” the official told the Irish Examiner.

According to a statement of its investigation — instigated early in 2011 — there was never any proper plan on how those children would be allowed to integrate. While there was an intention in the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs when the ECCE scheme was being introduced in 2010 that they should participate, no policy existed then — or now — to facilitate it.

But it has not been for the lack of discussion. In April 2011, a working group made up mainly of representatives from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Health itself concluded its work on how to support children with disabilities in mainstream pre-schools settings for the ECCE year. Among its conclusions — or so the ombudsman’s office tells the Irish Examiner, although the report remains unpublished over three years later — was the agreed need for adequate support for children with disabilities.

While the HSE and the working group — which met nine times between April and October 2010 — maintained that not all children with disabilities require support to improve their inclusion in pre-school, a robust and co-ordinated approach to assessing levels of need would be necessary, they decided.

The ombudsman says there has been progress in some areas, such as the recommended up-skilling and incentives for pre-school workers to acquire qualifications facilitating better inclusion. But one of the issues still to be properly dealt with, is about children with particular physical support care needs. “There’s a huge variation nationally in terms of level of support for children in pre-school settings. There isn’t any clear policy direction with this, and the approach is inconsistent around the country,” the ombudsman investigator said.

“We’ve had other complaints regarding support for children with special needs in pre-schools and this is a repeating issue,” she said.

WHILE there is no information available about what is happening nationally, Emily Logan’s office has had complaints from different parts of the country, which is probably not surprising given the findings of the working group over three years ago.

“The nature and extent of supports across the country varied considerably and arrangements for children with disabilities in pre-school settings was inconsistent and inequitable,” the ombudsman official said of the unpublished findings.

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Health have told the Irish Examiner that they and the Department of Education agreed last year that a sub-group of the inter-departmental cross-sectoral team on children’s disability issues be established.

Its work was “to review the report of the working group on the inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream pre-school settings, and to consider and recommend how best this cross-cutting issue could be further advanced, taking account of resources and the extensive reforms and other changes which have taken place since the report was completed in 2011”.

“The issue of pre-school supports is being looked at in this context,” the joint statement from both departments said. But while they say Ms Logan’s office is being kept informed of developments, her office is not satisfied with progress, having been led to expect a response from the sub-group at the end of last year. It wrote to them again to seek an update last month.

The ombudsman had completed its investigation of the Dublin girl’s case in March 2013, and recommended that the 2011 working group report be published. The Irish Examiner was told yesterday by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Health that the issue of its publication “will need to be examined having regard to the outcome of the review”.

“Representatives from the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs and Education and Skills, the HSE and the County Childcare Committees have participated on the sub-group, which has been chaired by the Department of Health. The review is in the process of being finalised with a view to reporting to the cross-sectoral team,” they said.

The lack of transparency in the background to this issue is also highlighted in the ombudsman’s statement. It was concerned about a lack of clear and comprehensive record keeping around the decisions.

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs told Ms Logan’s office that no records existed regarding the decision taken to introduce certain facilities relating to children with disabilities under the ECCE scheme.

And when, after the scheme had already started in 2010, facilities for children with disabilities were decided, no updated information on the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs website was provided, and no mention was made to information leaflets.

Those facilities include the option to split the pre-school year over two years for children with special needs, allowing them to attend, for example, two days a week in the first year, and three days weekly in year two. Alternatively, but also requiring application before starting the ECCE programme, an exemption can be given from the upper age limit where a child is developmentally delayed and would benefit from starting primary school at a later age.

“The Office of the Children’s Ombudsman is of the view that it is incumbent on a public body to communicate clearly and specifically the terms of any scheme,” its investigation statement says.

Although it acknowledges the “unusually pressurised circumstances” in which the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs operated to get the scheme up and running in a short period, the ombudsman’s office was critical of the poor communication record throughout the early stages.

“There was a very short time-frame in the run-in. We communicated with the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs at a relatively early stage when people contacted us about clear communication of what would be provided for children with disabilities,” the investigator said.

But the case investigated and the wider issue involved also raise serious questions about the formulation of public policy as it relates to inclusion of people with special needs.

“It’s also about planning and how they are going to plan for those children when developing any scheme. Children with disabilities should be considered as part of that process. There was inadequate planning,” the official said.

Time line

Emily Logan: Her office investigated the case and found the family had not been told about the girl’s entitlements.

Concern being publicly raised today by the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman emerge from its investigation of a case in which the family of a profoundly deaf girl was not told about her entitlements to spread the service over two years.

The main criticisms in relation to the specific complaint focus on planning and communication by the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, which introduced the scheme in 2010.

The girl, from north-east Dublin, began attending pre-school in September 2010, but was unable to attend for all the hours being funded because of lack of support and other reasons connected with her disability.

September 2010: The girl started free pre-school year (15 hours a week), but was provided with only six hours a week of special needs assistant support from HSE.

The girl was profoundly deaf as a result of an early congenital infection with cytomegalovirus. She was without speech, had impaired fine motor and gross motor skills, and experienced concentration and behavioural difficulties. Her communication consisted of physically showing her carer what she wanted and she was not yet potty-trained.

She had been assessed for the HSE and allocated the maximum hours of special needs assistance available, which were capped due to constraints on its budget to try to offer some support to all children who needed it. Although not satisfactory to her mother, having such a scheme was more organised than in some HSE areas, according to the OCO.

February 2011: As the girl had only been able to attend two days a week because of the shortfall in the level of support, her mother asked the OMCYA to fund a second year of pre-school for her.

March 2011: The OMYCA refused funding, saying additional-year funding was only available on a case-by-case basis in the first year of the scheme’s operation, which started in January 2010.

Following contact from the mother, the OCO communicated with the OMCYA, which said it would make enquiries about her attendance. The returns it had from the girl’s pre-school said she had been attending five days, but it would seek clarification, with a view to providing pro-rata funding for her to attend two or three days a week the next year.

April 2011: The girl’s mother appealed the initial decision of the OMCYA, but it again refused, without explaining — as it already had done to the OCO — the possibility of pro-rata funding for a second year.

June 2011: After communication from the OCO, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs — which took over the OMCYA’s functions — contacted the pre-school about the girl’s actual attendance levels. On confirmation of her reducedattendance, the DCYA told the mother her daughter would be funded to attend pre-school three days a week for a second year. It also apologised that previous letters had not advised her of the facility for children with disabilities to attend on a pro-rata basis over two years.

September 2011: The girl commenced the second year of pre-school under the pro-rata scheme, attending three days a week. Because her pre-school had moved from being open five days a week to four, the school-day at this provider was longer than in year one, so she benefited from a slightly higher level of attendance over the two years than she might otherwise have received.

September 2012: The OCO concluded its investigation and found that the OMCYA’s actions had adversely affected the child by creating uncertainty around her entitlements under the ECCE scheme over a two-year period.

“It appears that the level of support provided for her was insufficient and as such, she has been adversely affected,” the OCO investigation found.

It did not make a finding of maladministration regarding the HSE’s actions, noting that policy approach on pre-school support had not yet been resolved at departmental level.

While the actions of the Department of Health’s Office of Disability and Mental Health was found not to have adversely affected the girl, the OCO says it had serious concerns regarding the ongoing lack of co-ordinated, cross-sectoral approach in respect of provision of supports for children with disabilities in pre-school, which may have an adverse affect on such children.

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