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Priority Questions - School Staffing

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 752 No. 2

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 3.  Deputy John Halligan Information on John Halligan Zoom on John Halligan  asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn  if he will confirm the [277]number of 475 special needs assistants posts which were withheld last September that have been allocated to date; the criteria that was applied to these remaining posts; if and when the remaining posts will be allocated; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3232/12]

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn The Deputy will be aware that the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, is responsible through its network of local special educational needs organisers for allocating special needs assistants, SNAs, to schools to support children with special educational needs. Some 10,297 of the total 10,575 SNA posts available for allocation have now been allocated to schools by the NCSE, leaving 278 posts available for allocation between now and the end of the school year for cases such as emergencies, acquired injuries or new school entrants with care needs. SNA posts are allocated to schools to provide for the care needs of pupils with special educational needs in accordance with the criteria set out in my Department’s circular 07/02 and NCSE circular 01/02/2011. The NCSE has the capacity to continue to make allocations in respect of valid applications arising before the end of the school year.

Deputy John Halligan: Information on John Halligan Zoom on John Halligan While I welcome any progress made in the allocation of special needs assistants, the Minister may be aware that 800 applications were made for the aforementioned 475 posts. It was envisaged that 300 of these posts would be filled prior to Christmas. I do not understand the logic of delaying the allocation of posts given that no new SNAs were made available for new children coming into junior infants this year. Why do we not allocate the remaining posts?

In regard to the NCSE and its role in reducing the number of SNAs, will the Minister consider an independent appeals system for parents who are unhappy with how resources and SNAs are allocated? There are differences of opinion and parents perceive a lack of transparency and inconsistency in the allocation of SNAs and the appeals process.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn The Department does not allocate resources because this is the responsibility of the council. Given that it is a specialist council which draws on professional inputs, I will not second-guess it as a politician nor will the civil servants in my Department who lack the necessary qualifications to second-guess it. I regard the appeals system as independent and the Department has no role in either the allocations or the appeals. I will consider the Deputy’s suggestion but I am not convinced that a case can be made for an independent appeals body nor do I think that simply because there is a reserve of SNAs they should be allocated. It is only January and we have six months to go in the school year. Students with special requirements may still enrol in schools and if we had already allocated the SNAs we would not be deploying resources responsibly.

Deputy John Halligan: Information on John Halligan Zoom on John Halligan I am reasonably satisfied with the Minister’s answer and I trust he will do what needs to be done. From my conversations with other Deputies and people from my constituency, it appears there is staggering inconsistency in the appeals process. The parents perceive the process as not being independent. I welcome that the Minister may consider the matter over a period of six months but I ask him to give a commitment to fill all the available SNA posts.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn I will not interfere with the professional assessment of people who are charged with making decisions on allocating resources. The fact that they have provision for 10,575 posts does not mean they have to allocate all of them. If they did so they would be applying different criteria. People who were refused SNA resources six months ago could find [278]that SNAs were allocated in cases where the need was professionally assessed as being less pressing. That would be the essence of unfairness.

 4.  Deputy Brendan Smith Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith  asked the Minister for Education and Skills Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn  his views that following his decision to allow schools to manage guidance provision within their standard allocation that schools are now faced with the situation whereby they either cut career guidance and counselling services or introduce reduced subject choice; if he will confirm if schools are still required to provide an appropriate level of guidance provision; if he will outline what he deems appropriate guidance to be; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3110/12]

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn Guidance is a whole school activity and under existing arrangements each school is expected to develop a school guidance plan as a means of supporting the needs of its students. These requirements have not changed and my Department’s forthcoming circular will make this clear and point schools to the relevant documentation and guidance available to support such work by schools.

The budget measure is a requirement for guidance provision to be managed by schools from within their standard staffing allocation from September 2012. Schools will have autonomy on how best to prioritise their available resources to meet their requirements in terms of guidance and the provision of an appropriate range of subjects to their pupils. Decisions on how this is done are best determined at individual school level. I am confident that schools will act in the best interests of all students when determining how to use the teaching resources available to them.

Deputy Brendan Smith: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith I thank the Minister for his reply. There is widespread concern, as the Minister is aware from correspondence to himself and to all Members of the Oireachtas, about the difficulties facing this service in schools. As we all know, the career guidance and counselling service does not just offer final year support; it is used throughout second level, whether that is five or six years, and in many instances pre-secondary school as well. That support is absolutely necessary. I recently spoke to a person who had returned to the classroom as the deputy principal of a second level school after working elsewhere for a number of years. That lady said to me that the school did not have a disciplinary problem, but there were a large number of young students bringing family problems with them to school. The first person to speak to in that school about difficult personal or family issues is the career guidance counsellor.

The service has grown incrementally and progressively over the past 25 years in particular. More than 90% of career guidance counsellors have participated in continuous professional development courses, and an excellent service is being provided to our young people at second level and in further education colleges. Does the Minister accept that retention levels at second and third level are very much influenced by the availability of good advice and guidance to young people right through second level and when they go on to further education or third level in regard to course choice? There is empirical evidence available — both nationally, from some of our own institutions such as the ESRI, and from the OECD and others — that it is an extremely important and worthwhile investment.

The people who have been in touch with all of us as Members of the Oireachtas and as public representatives have outlined clear reasons for their concern that the career guidance counselling service will be dramatically downgraded due to the decision to include the teachers involved in the general teacher allocation from 2012.

[279]Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn I have heard the arguments and I have met representatives of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors. I understand the difficulties associated with the modern world in which we all live. Many regular subject teachers have told me that they would probably be the first to notice a difference if a pupil was experiencing external pressures. I am talking about pastoral care rather than career guidance, which deals with course and career choices. If a student is a B+ student in whatever subject the teacher is teaching but his or her performance or behaviour in the class starts to deteriorate, that subject teacher, in many cases, is the first to notice a change. He or she may be the first to ask Jimmy or Rory what is troubling him, and he or she may well refer him to the counsellor at that stage. The school is a totality and, in law and in the corporate spirit of the school, has a pastoral responsibility for the welfare of its pupils. The guidance counsellor certainly has special skills, if he or she has the qualification, but most if not all guidance counsellors start life as secondary school teachers in the same way as those who continue to be subject teachers.

We are, unfortunately, in a position in which I must do more with less, and one of the most efficient ways of doing this — I received advice in this regard — was to allocate the ex-quota component of guidance counsellors into the mainstream secondary school allocation. I am sorry I was not able to be here for yesterday’s debate on this, but I will repeat what I said on Tuesday night: 42% of the 730 secondary schools in the country have no specialist guidance counsellor who is exclusively there for that purpose.

Deputy Brendan Smith: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith My understanding is that en enrolment of 500 pupils entitles a school to a guidance counsellor for 22 hours per week, which is a full-time post. This is graduated downwards for smaller numbers of pupils. If a school has an enrolment of 200, it is entitled to eight hours of career guidance and counselling. My understanding is that service is provided by an appropriately qualified person. Thus, it is incorrect, unless I misunderstood the Minister — I do not want to misrepresent him — to say that in some schools the service is being provided by non-qualified career guidance counsellors.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn I may have misled the Deputy. I will obtain clarification on this. The information from the briefing I got, which I placed on the record of the House on Tuesday evening, was that 42% of secondary schools do not have a designated full-time guidance counsellor. That is not to say they did not have people with guidance counselling qualifications who are delivering a portion of that service as well as teaching a subject.

Deputy Brendan Smith: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith Can I——

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn I will get clarification for the Deputy.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt Sorry, Deputy.

Deputy Brendan Smith: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith Even though——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt I have to move on. There are many Deputies who want to ask questions, and Deputy Crowe is next.

Deputy Brendan Smith: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith It is my priority question.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt The next question is Deputy Crowe’s.

Deputy Ruairí Quinn: Information on Ruairí Quinn Zoom on Ruairí Quinn I will write to the Deputy on that matter.

[280]An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt We have gone way over time.


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