Seanad Éireann - Volume 161 - 24 November, 1999

Adjournment Matters. - Special Educational Needs.

Dr. Henry: I thank the Minister for taking this matter. Mr. Justice O'Hanlon, in a judgment handed down in May 1993 in the case of O'Donoghue v. the Minister for Health and others, said that a child was entitled to basic elementary education. The remedial teaching facilities in St. Brigid's primary school, Haddington Road, are not sufficient to allow its pupils to receive such an education. Many of these children come from disadvantaged areas and this must be taken into [496] account when assessing the remedial teaching service which should be provided in any school.

It has become a joke to suggest that everyone who resides in Dublin 4 is rich and that it contains absolutely no areas of social deprivation. However, the statistics relating to St. Brigid's are quite frightening. A total of 63 per cent of the children are classified as members of disadvantaged families. A large number are drawn from the inner city, including large areas of Dublin 2, where the unemployment level is approximately 70 per cent. This seems unbelievable but many people living there are unskilled and disadvantage within families passes from generation to generation. That is why this school is seriously in need of help.

The school has 11 teachers. It shares a remedial teacher with St. Mary's boys' national school, which is on the same site. It shares a home-school liaison officer, has no resource teacher, no Department funded secretary and no caretaker, yet people on CE schemes are being withdrawn from schools, such as St. Brigid's. It does not have a school hall or computer room. A large number of children are in need of remedial teaching. A total of 30 children in fourth class or below require immediate help with languages. There is no help for children once they leave fourth class. There is no help for students experiencing difficulties with mathematics and 80 children are considered to be in need of such help.

I compliment students from Trinity College, Dublin, who run an outreach programme which provides home help for children in this area and it is avidly taken up by them. It is not as if they do not seek help. While children are encouraged to take up mathematics and science – and I regret the drop in numbers taking up science subjects at leaving certificate level – these pupils will never reach that level even though they are capable. There is a huge variation in the numbers of children who sit the leaving certificate. Among unskilled manual workers 52 per cent sit the exam but only 79 per cent achieve five passes. A total of 79 per cent of higher professionals sit the exam but 92 per cent pass five or more subjects. An enormous effort is put in by those who try to stay in the education system in order to get somewhere. I dare not mention the number of disadvantaged children who reach third level because it is too depressing. Such children take up 3 per cent or 4 per cent of university places.

I want to look forward for these children. It is not just that we want them to be literate. We hear continuous reports that it is high technology jobs that will be available in Ireland but nothing will be available to these children if they do not get a better education and participate in the intellectual revolution which has taken place. For that reason, this matter is a priority.

Perhaps its address is the reason this school did not get help earlier. Perhaps it is thought they are in a better social position but that is not the case. I felt I had to bring this matter to the attention of the House because a number of the teachers [497] from the school and parents who have children there approached me and asked if I would bring it to the Minister's attention. They have repeatedly tried to have meetings with him but failed. I look forward to hearing the reply on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science.

Mr. J. Doyle: I support Senator Henry. I know the area particularly well, having represented it for a number of years. The high percentage of unemployment there is historically related – many of the old businesses in the city were lost and the parents and grandparents of these children worked in these businesses. New firms did not set up in that part of the inner city and, unfortunately, there is still a high rate of unemployment there.

The integrated area plans for the city are interesting and have one common thread that, in these areas of social exclusion and deprivation, children leave school at 15 and 16 years of age without any qualification for life and fall into a life of crime and drugs etc. It is important to look after the schools in the area and I strongly support what Senator Henry has said.

Mr. Dempsey: I thank Senator Henry for raising the matter and Senator Joe Doyle also. I am pleased to be here in place of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science. As a former teacher I have some sympathy and understanding for the matter under discussion.

One of the priorities of this Government when it took office in 1997 was to improve the level of educational support given to pupils with special educational needs. The policies implemented over the last two years demonstrate the Government's unprecedented prioritisation of this area. Senators will note, in particular, the decision earlier this year to extend the remedial teacher service to every primary school in the country with effect from September 1999. Since then an additional 160 remedial teacher posts were sanctioned to primary schools to ensure that all schools with a pupil-teacher ratio of 10:1 or more have access to a remedial service. That has brought the total number of remedial teachers to 1,463.

Remedial education at primary level is a matter in the first instance for the ordinary class teachers. Fully qualified primary teachers are trained to identify a variety of reading problems, including those which are accompanied by perceptual difficulties. The class teacher is ideally placed to provide the first line of assistance and support to pupils with special needs. The majority of pupils with remedial needs would, therefore, be helped within the scope of the normal teaching service.

However, it is acknowledged that remedial teachers constitute the main additional resource for addressing the problems of underachievement in primary schools. Remedial teachers are a particularly important resource in catering for children with less serious learning difficulties, [498] such as literacy and/or numeracy, by directly teaching individuals or small groups on a withdrawal basis.

Where individual pupils are concerned, it is important that the educational response takes a variety of forms. This educational response must be tailored to meet the needs of the individual child. Many children with less serious difficulties are capable of having their needs met in ordinary schools on a fully integrated basis with the help, where necessary, of a remedial teacher. In other cases the support of a special resource teacher may be the most appropriate response. Alternatively, where a child's needs are more serious, the most appropriate solution may involve placement in a special class attached to an ordinary school or placement in a special school dedicated to particular disabilities.

A comprehensive agenda for the future development of education services for special needs children was clearly identified in the report of the special education review committee. That report made recommendations on the future thrust of education provision for children with special needs. The Department of Education and Science has proceeded to implement the outstanding recommendations of the review committee.

All national schools in County Dublin have the services of a remedial teacher, either on a full-time or shared basis. St. Brigid's girls' national school shares the services of a remedial teacher with St. Mary's boys' national school, Haddington Road, Dublin 4. Rather than proceeding to make allocations on an ad hoc basis, it is the intention of the Minister for Education and Science to launch a completely revamped approach to targeting resources at schools serving disadvantaged communities. In addition, the Minister will examine ways in which to create a more consistent way of allocating and utilising remedial teachers, of whom there are now almost 1,500 in the system. A considerable start was made earlier this year where all allocations were made in line with professionally established criteria relating to workload and impact.

Senators will also appreciate that a review of the remedial teaching service indicated the need to reform key elements of its operation within schools. Action arising from the report is currently being considered and new guidelines for the operation of remedial teachers will shortly be finalised.

In the meantime, I assure the Senators on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science that the needs of St. Brigid's girls' national school will be given every consideration in the context of the additional allocations being made by the Department. I assure Senator Henry who provided some facts and figures, particularly in relation to the high level of unemployment in parts of the catchment area and that 53 per cent of the pupils come from disadvantaged areas, that they will be conveyed to the Minister directly.

[499] Dr. Henry: I thank the Minister. As a teacher the Minister will understand that the children who fail at primary school level, through no fault of their own, have no future and the social implications must be taken into account. For example, it is not coincidental that the areas of greatest [500] educational disadvantage in this city have the highest rate of teenage pregnancy and many other problems.

The Seanad adjourned at 10.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 25 November 1999.