Seanad Éireann - Volume 188 - 07 February, 2008

Special Educational Needs.

  Senator Frances Fitzgerald: Once again, I am talking about families who have to go to court, but in this case I know the number involved. There are 150 families awaiting a hearing who have taken a case against the State to obtain services for their children. Why is the Department of Education and Science allowing this situation to develop? It is extraordinary that 150 cases await court hearings at present. How has the Government and the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin, allowed a situation to develop whereby parents feel they have no choice but to undertake legal action to obtain an appropriate education for their children? These cases involve children with special needs. Why has this situation been allowed to prevail at the tail end of the Celtic tiger and why does the Department believe this is the way for parents to obtain services for their children?

No parent wants to go to court or engage in a media scrum outside a court building while trying to fight for educational equality for his or her child. No parent wants to risk the financial safety and stability of the family unit in taking such cases. However, parents often have no choice. It appears the approach adopted by the Minister and her Department has created this environment of stand-offs rather than engagement and consultation with parents. Everyone in this House [752]knows that parents of children with special needs have better things to be doing than fighting court cases, getting legal opinions and taking on the cost of such cases.

Today in this House we heard statements on the 70th anniversary of our Constitution, a document which recognises the role of parents as the primary educators of their children. The hands-on experience, knowledge and in-depth understanding every parent has of his or her child is ignored by the Department, however, when it comes to autism. If the Department were to put as much time and resources into providing sufficient, adequate and appropriate educational facilities for children with autism as it does into court cases, the country would be much better served.

The Minister and her Department should accept some responsibility for their part in the overall cost of the various court cases. In the recent Ó Cuanacháin case, for example, the family’s legal costs should be met by the Department of Education and Science. Those costs were only incurred because of the Department’s failure to address and meet the educational needs of Seán Ó Cuanacháin. The case lasted as long as it did because of the legal arguments put forward by the Department and while I do not want to dwell on costs, one must ask how legal costs of this magnitude developed in the case in question.

There are 150 cases concerning special needs education awaiting a court hearing. The Minister must address the question whether every case will be taken in the manner of the Ó Cuanacháin case or whether we will see proactive engagement by her Department so that parents do not have to follow the legal route. Is the Minister of State, Deputy Trevor Sargent, as a member of a party in Government with Fianna Fáil, who raised this issue when in Opposition, happy to see what is happening at the moment, whereby children are not getting the treatment and services they need and their parents must go to court on their behalf? It is appalling.

We have a major problem with disability and it emanates from the Disability Act 2005. I ask Deputy Sargent and the Green Party to pay attention to that fact. An implementation plan for the education of persons with special educational needs is lacking. I do not detect a seriousness on the Government’s part. The eye has been taken off the ball in providing services to people with special educational needs.

The Minister of State must explain to the House why this situation has developed and inform Members whether 150 other families will be forced to go through what the Ó Cuanacháin family went through. Will the Minister for Education and Science put in place a model of education which includes applied behavioural analysis, ABA, to meet the needs of children with autism?

[753]  Deputy Trevor Sargent: I thank Senator Frances Fitzgerald for raising this matter. She notes correctly that, as a former school principal, I have a particular interest in autism and special education and have worked with many of the families, as she has. It sickens me to the pit of my stomach that people who face such considerable challenges must take on the onerous task of going to court.

The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin, regrets she cannot be in the Seanad today but has asked me, knowing of my personal interest in autism and special education, to read her reply on her behalf.

The Government recognises that parents of all children with special needs make great sacrifices and is determined to ensure all children get the support they need to reach their full potential. There is no doubt the record of the State over decades, in providing for children with special needs, was very poor and we are still playing catch up. Significant advances have been made in recent years, however, improving the lives of children with special needs and their families.

Approximately 17,000 adults work solely with children with special needs in mainstream schools. This compares with just a fraction of this number a few years ago. The procedures for accessing extra support have been improved with the establishment of the National Council for Special Education. Parents and teachers have local special educational needs organisers to work with them and help them obtain the appropriate support for their children.

A sum of €900 million will be invested in special education this year, which is an increase of 40%, or €260 million, on the 2006 figure. Further improvements in services are on the way with the roll-out of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 and the implementation of other commitments in the new programme for Government.

With regard to specific provision for children with autism, the Government believes that as each child with autism is unique, he or she should have access to a range of different approaches to meet his or her individual needs. This view is informed by advice received from international experts on autism, the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, and the inspectorate. An analysis of research, including the report of the Irish task force on autism, also supports this approach, while autism societies in other countries also caution against relying on just one method. By enabling children in special classes to have access to a range of methods, including ABA, the Government is doing what it has been advised is in the best interests of such children.

The Department of Education and Science has supported the use of ABA for many years and training is provided for teachers in its use. The Department does not accept, however, based on [754]research, advice and best practice, that it should be the only method used. While ABA can address certain needs, in particular behaviour, other methods, such as treatment and education of autistic and other communication-handicapped children, TEACCH, and picture exchange communication system, PECS, are just as important, particularly in developing children’s communication and speech skills. It is important children have access to a range of methods so their broader needs can be met.

Hundreds of children with autism are integrated into mainstream schools and hundreds more are in autism-specific classes. More than 275 autism-specific classes have been approved throughout the country while more are being set up. A testament to the scale of progress being made in this area is the fact that the number of such classes has increased by more than 40% in the past year alone.

There are a maximum of six children in each special class, with a teacher and at least two special needs assistants, or SNAs. Extra assistants are provided where the children need them. A child can have his or her own SNA if required. Children in special classes have the benefit of fully qualified teachers who are trained in educating and developing children generally and who also have access to additional training in autism-specific approaches, including ABA. The level of such training available to teachers has improved dramatically in recent years and is a major priority for the Government. Children in special classes also have the option, where possible and appropriate, of full or partial integration into mainstream classes and of interaction with other pupils.

The Department of Education and Science and the National Council for Special Education have been working hard to ensure that all children with autism have access to a range of approaches in special classes. A number of years ago before this extensive network was in place, some centres were approved for funding under the ABA pilot programme. The Government is committed to long-term funding for these pilots subject to agreement on certain standards, such as appropriate qualifications for staff and the type of educational programme available to the children. Discussions have taken place with Irish Autism Action with a view to advancing this commitment as soon as possible. Other centres are seeking to be funded under the pilot scheme. However, now that a national network of special classes is available, new centres will not be brought into the pilot programme. We are determined to ensure that each child has access to the autism-specific education being made available to schools throughout the country.

It should be noted that the Department of Education and Science does not initiate legal cases. From time to time, there are references in the [755]media to the Department “dragging” people through the courts. This is absolutely not the case and the Department does not take any decision to defend cases concerning children with special educational needs lightly. Every effort is made to resolve the issues without going to court and cases are generally only litigated where no potential settlement is acceptable to both sides and the Government’s authority to decide issues of policy is at stake. It is the right of individuals to proceed with litigation if they so wish. In those circumstances, where the Department believes that the education provision available is appropriate, it must defend the case.

The number of cases taken against the State has shown a downward trend in recent times that is partly attributable to the substantial improvements made in services for children with special needs. There are 74 live cases involving children with special educational needs in which the Department of Education and Science is a named party, some 47 of which relate to children with autism.

The Government is committed to expanding the services for all children with special education needs, autism in particular, and I assure the House that this will be a priority for us in the months and years ahead.

  Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I thank the Minister of State. I note his statement that he was sickened by parents, as the media commented, being dragged through the courts. The Department may not believe it is dragging people through the courts, but the parents believe they have no choice. That is the reality. Will the Minister of State ask the Government to pay the Ó Cuanacháin family’s legal costs because it brought what was effectively a class action?

The Minister of State mentioned that the Department defends cases only where policy is at [756]stake. Will he review the policy so that it will not inevitably mean that parents will be brought to court? The Department’s policy may need to be reviewed instead of asking parents to change taking action. Measures could be taken. Will the Minister of State give the House a guarantee that the people in the 74 other cases will not face the same experience as the Ó Cuanacháin family?

  Deputy Trevor Sargent: I would very much like to be able to give the guarantee requested by the Senator. On reflection, she would appreciate that I cannot pre-empt the outcome of a court case.

  Senator Frances Fitzgerald: Defending the cases is the issue.

  Deputy Trevor Sargent: We are discussing costs. As the outcome of this debate will testify, I will make the Senator’s case strongly. I met the individuals concerned in Wicklow for whom it is an issue of considerable distress given the outcome and costs facing them. I will make the Senator’s sentiments clear and revert to her directly.

Policy decisions, which are the Government’s prerogative, can sometimes be at issue. This is not to say that policy is not kept under review. The best advice can change as determined by educational development, psychology and case histories. It is not to say that policy does not change, but I cannot say which policy changes have come about as a result of legal actions. While it is no comfort to families that have gone through the trauma, the evidence presented in court is listened to carefully and could have an impact on policy. However, I cannot be specific without the details before me.

  Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I thank the Minister of State.

  The Seanad adjourned at 1.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 13 February 2008.