Special Educational Needs

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 205 No. 14

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Senator Mark Dearey: Information on Mark Dearey Zoom on Mark Dearey The other night I attended a meeting organised by the Down’s Syndrome Centre which highlighted an issue of which I had been aware, although I had not fully appreciated the hurt it was causing. An educational assessment for a child suffering from Down’s syndrome is provided at around the age of six years and assessments fall into four categories, “mild”, “moderate”, “severe” and “profound”. Educational provision for the child is then designed and delivered on the basis of the outcome of the assessment. A development going back a number of years but which only is coming to light now is that children who are designated with mild Down’s syndrome, that is, those who are least affected by the genetic disability, are being deemed as fit to enter into mainstream education. Although they are provided with special needs assistance in that system, they are not being given the kind of resourcing or educational expertise required to meet their needs. This need and the right to its being addressed are underpinned by section 7 of the Education Act 1998 which commits the [868]State to providing education as appropriate to the needs of the young person being educated. In this case, I refer to children with a baseline disability from which it is obvious they will never recover but with which they will live throughout their lives. The fact that their IQ might be deemed to be greater than 70 does not take away from Down’s syndrome being a baseline disability in the same way as is autism.

Autistic children are not deemed to be either eligible or ineligible for special education based on their IQ. If a child is deemed to be autistic, that baseline condition is recognised and educational delivery happens according to need as is consistent with the Act. This is not the case with many Down’s syndrome children. In a sense, the making of real progress has underlined my point. The work of early intervention teams and of parents with children from a very young age means that increasing numbers of Down’s syndrome children who come for assessment now cross that threshold and are deemed to have mild Down’s syndrome rather than being categorised as being moderate, severe or profound. Consequently, an increasing cohort is being categorised as being mild and because the educational needs of that cohort are perceived as being deliverable through the mainstream system, albeit with additionalities, these children are not being recognised as having a baseline condition and are not really receiving the educational delivery appropriate to their needs.

At a recent meeting on the subject, I heard some extraordinary stories in which parents spoke of keeping their children awake all night in order that they would underperform at the assessment. Another parent spoke of his unwillingness to allow his child to be assessed, of withdrawing from the process and making it unmanageable or unworkable. Contributions such as these were being made to the debate I attended the other evening and I found it to be quite disturbing that people would be so agitated that they would take such actions in the knowledge that it would have consequences for their children, who effectively would be kept at home, and for themselves. There is an undercurrent of deep dissatisfaction and a sense in which the State is not facing up to its obligations under the Act. There also was a recognition that resources are scarce and this may be a decision based on resourcing. That should not be a reason for the State to resile from its commitments under the aforementioned section of the Act.

I welcome the opportunity to make these points on the Adjournment and look forward to hearing the Minister of State’s response. It is critical that whatever else the response may contain, the baseline nature of this condition and its unchanging nature should be paramount, not whether someone crosses an IQ threshold.

Deputy Dara Calleary: Information on Dara Calleary Zoom on Dara Calleary I thank Senator Dearey for raising this issue. I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills who is attending a meeting.

I wish to make clear that the education of children with special educational needs remains a key priority for the Government. More than €1 billion has been allocated within the education system for this purpose this year. The Seanad will be aware that the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 requires that all children with special educational needs be educated in an inclusive environment with children who do not have such needs unless the nature or degree of the need is such that to so do would be inconsistent with the best interests of the child or the effective provision of education for children with whom the child is to be educated. The Department of Education and Skills therefore provides for a range of placement options and supports for schools that enrol pupils with special educational needs, including children with Down's syndrome, to ensure that whenever a child is enrolled, he or she will have access to an appropriate education.

[869]All primary schools have been allocated additional teaching resources to enable them to support pupils with high incidence special educational needs, including Down’s syndrome. Each school has been given such additional teaching resources under the general allocation model of learning support and resource teaching introduced in 2005. The new system was put in place in order that children with high incidence special needs, including Down’s syndrome, could get resource teaching support at school without the need for an individual assessment in each case. It appears that a significant percentage of children with Down’s syndrome have been assessed as having a mild general learning disability which comes under the high incidence disability category. Therefore, they are given additional teaching support from within a school’s general allocation of resource teaching support. In circumstances in which a child with Down’s syndrome has other associated needs and will fall into the low incidence disability categories, this may attract an individual resource teaching allocation through the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. Therefore, pupils with Down’s syndrome are entitled to additional teaching support in school either under the terms of the general allocation model of teaching supports, if the child’s educational and psychological assessment places him or her in the high incidence disability category, or through an allocation of additional teaching or care support or both if the child is assessed as being within the low incidence category of special need, as defined by the Department’s circular SP ED 02/05.

It also should be noted that a range of educational placement options are available for children who present with a diagnosis of mild general learning disability, including children with Down’s syndrome. The range of options includes mainstream school placement with support under the general allocation model, special class placement within a mainstream school, or a special school placement in a school that caters specifically for children with mild general learning disabilities. Senator Dearey will be aware that far from withdrawing support from children with special needs, the Government has provided for a dramatic expansion in special education supports. There are now more than 20,000 people in schools working solely with children with special needs compared with just a fraction of this figure a few years ago. This includes more than 10,000 special needs assistants, whereas there were only 300 in 1998. The system for accessing supports also has been improved with the establishment of the National Council for Special Education and its network of more than 80 local special education needs organisers.

I assure the Senator that the provision of appropriate educational intervention and support for children with special educational needs will continue to be a key Government priority, taking into account the overall level of resources available to the Government. Once again, I thank him for raising the issue.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke Senator Dearey may ask a supplementary question.

Senator Mark Dearey: Information on Mark Dearey Zoom on Mark Dearey My question focused on section 7 of the 1998 Act, to which the Minister of State did not refer. Consequently, I consider that my question remains outstanding although a number of issues were touched upon by the Minister of State, for which I thank him. I recognise that the Government has provided for an expansion in special education support needs. A particular emphasis has been laid on this issue by the Green Party throughout our term in government in tandem with our Government partners and this is to be applauded, if I may so do. However, I do not believe the question has been taken full on as it was intended.

My key point is that Down’s syndrome is a baseline condition, as is autism. Children with autism are not asked to cross such hurdles for access to specialised education in educational organisations that are tailored to deliver it, although children with Down’s syndrome are asked [870]to do so. There is a lack of equal treatment between the two baseline conditions. It is critical that the State recognises this is a condition that will not change. To refer to children with mild Down’s syndrome as also having mild general learning disability is very wide of the mark because such children have specialist needs. I believe parents desire that their children be educated within an integrated national or secondary school system, which would be fantastic. This response fails to recognise the nature of the disability and its impact on learning for the child with Down’s syndrome. I find the phrase “mild general learning disability” to be disrespectful, almost offensive, in terms of the real effect of Down’s syndrome on a young person’s ability to learn. I am not sure how to do this but I would like to ask the Minister about this again.

Deputy Dara Calleary: Information on Dara Calleary Zoom on Dara Calleary I will revert to the Tánaiste and ask her to respond directly to the Senator.

The Seanad adjourned at 12.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 23 November 2010.


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