This week in the Dáil, I spoke on a motion on special needs education. A summary of my contribution can be read below. The video of my contribution can also be viewed below.
I owe a degree of thanks to the parents of Dublin West who over the past year have mounted a series of public campaigns through public meetings, social media, and through reaching out to journalists to explain the story of their lives and their children’s lives. I would also like to thank those who contributed to the comprehensive motion on special needs education this week in the Dáil. I believe the speakers gave a genuine flavour of the distinct problems, at different stages, in various parts of the country. It is important to have a comprehensive understanding, as this is a whole-of-life approach for both the child and for the family of the child. We must become more realistic in acknowledging that, because I believe there has been a running away from that approach. We sometimes believe that if we partly address a problem it will be enough, and we will not hear about the issue again. I would also like to give a specific mention to AsIAm, a group of young adults affected by autism. AslAm has been lobbying on this issue and is very much a part of what has been happening in the UN, in terms of the contribution being made by people such as Greta Thunberg.
Opening Additional Places
The Minister corresponded with several schools in Dublin West and will be aware of the shock of some schools, and the willingness of others, at being asked to provide additional special needs provision. Some of these schools are DEIS designated schools that are not massively well-resourced in dealing with children who have specific needs. I find the refusal of the Department of Education and Skills to put in place a proper school’s budget very strange. No school should be asked to give up two of its resource rooms, which happened when the Minister’s officials visited two schools in Dublin West. He will be aware that such rooms facilitate special teaching. Schools in Dublin West often have hundreds of children in need of special teaching and these rooms are important. It is reasonable to request that schools who have space construct additional facilities, but the Department needs to provide the schools with additional fund for this.
Scoil Mhuire in Blakestown in Dublin 15 is a DEIS school. The principal of this school set out the resources needed in terms of grants, to equip a special education room. The school is to receive a set-up grant of €6,500; €2,500 for loose furniture and equipment and €5,000 for ICT equipment. The Minister will be aware that if he and his wife wanted to upgrade their kitchen and all the electrics therein, they would not be able to do it with such a small amount. Schools want to meet the requirements set for them, but they are unable to do so with these small grants.
In one of the rooms I visited, there were floor to ceiling windows. I am sure that the Minister’s officials are aware that it is not appropriate to have such windows in an autism adapted room, which is supposed to be a sensory and safe environment. He will also be aware that replacing full length windows costs an awful lot more than the grants being provided. This demonstrates a need for detailed discussion between the schools and the Department of Education and Skills regarding what is required and how it can be funded. The grant for tables or chairs is approximately €2,500 per classroom to cater for six children plus a teacher and, possibly, one or two SNAs. The reality is that it is not possible to provide the type of specialised furniture required with that level of grant. If the Department knows of companies that will provide it for that amount, the Minister should identify them to the schools.
According to the Minister in response to many parliamentary questions I have tabled on training for people wishing to work in the ASD environment, the Teaching Council is the body responsible, but it does not recognise people who have specialist ASD training. The Department passes the buck to the Council, which passes it to the schools, which, in turn, passes it back to the Department, such that we are going around in circles. There are people who want to train and work in this area. The Minister has proposals to bring this area into the programme for the Degrees in Education, and he needs to progress those proposals. There are people who were home tutors last year and would like to be home tutors this year but neither the Department nor the special education needs organisers, SENOs, have yet communicated with them in that regard.
Partial School Places
The Minister should declare that two hours per day in a primary school is not a full education. It is not possible with the kind of immersive programme we have for primary education, particularly at junior and senior infants, and first class level, for a child to be in a school environment for only two hours per day. In many cases, parents are required to be in the school for those two hours as well. This is not a provision of service. It is a patchwork, which is not good enough for people’s precious children. They only get one chance at education.
I commend the Minister for the interest he has shown in this area and his desire to improve it. We need to make serious provision for this area in the upcoming Budget, as many companies are making a lot of money in Ireland and paying no tax. The Minister and his colleagues in Government should increase funding for the education sector so that a full education can experienced by everyone, including those with special needs.
We are making progress. The Dublin West model is one that could be used in the future. When Minister for Social Protection, I initiated a review by the Chief Medical Officer of the Department of the domiciliary care allowance paid to families of children with autism on a monthly basis. As a consequence of the changes, the demand and payments per annum increased by approximately 20%. The same is waiting to happen in the education sector at primary level, but even more so at secondary level. As a country, we have focused on provision at primary level, but the Minister will know that the resources at secondary level are only 30% of what they are at primary level. The children who complete primary level must be able to move on to their next level of education. We must ensure an inclusive education for all.
Watch the video of my contribution can be viewed here: