Cuts blamed as special needs children miss school

Mon, Nov 28, 2011, 00:00

ALMOST THREE months after what should have been his first day at school, five-year-old Tristan Dowd remains at home in what his parents say is a direct consequence of cuts in special needs assistants.

When a psychologist judged that Tristan, who has Down syndrome, needed full-time care in the classroom by a special needs assistant (SNA), his mother, Patricia, presumed this would be provided by the State.

However, the local Niall Mór School in Killybegs, Co Donegal, was informed by the Department of Education that Tristan would have to share an assistant with another child with Down syndrome, also aged five.

Neither boy has started school because their parents and the principal share fears for the boys’ safety if left unsupervised for any period.

Following two big demonstrations by educators and parents in Dublin earlier this year, the Government promised to provide special needs assistants for every child requiring them, despite cutbacks. However, the principal at Niall Mór, Michael McGuinness, said this was not the reality.

“We want both of these boys in our school. It is their right to get an education like any other child but with only one SNA between them it is just not possible.”

He said the only reason Tristan and the other boy, John Kremer, had been left without an assistant each was because of State cutbacks, as both were deemed by psychologists to need one.

Typically, a school principal includes a letter of recommendation from a psychologist when applying for a special needs assistant.

A special educational needs organiser is then sent by the department to assess the child, and a decision is made directly by the department.

Patricia Dowd said the organiser had agreed that Tristan needed a full-time assistant because of his difficulties with verbal communication, as well as toilet-training and motor skills.

“There is no way Tristan could sit in class without his SNA there,” Ms Dowd said.

“He is not properly toilet-trained, he needs to use sign language to communicate. To be honest, it is safety more than anything. At home, if we leave the door open for a second, he is gone.”

John’s mother, Debbie Kremer, said: “It is appalling and very frustrating as a parent.

“If he was a typical child being held at home from school, they would be prosecuting us parents for neglect.”

While the case of John and Tristan appears to be relatively rare, it is not unique. In another Donegal school, in Ballyshannon, Reece Gillespie remains mostly at home for want of a special needs assistant.

Reece is also five and, like John and Tristan, has Down syndrome. He was judged by a psychologist to need full-time special needs care. He attends school for one hour a day, which is all the care his school can afford.

His mother, Patricia, says he has begun to regress on improvements made with an SNA in playschool last year.

“What can he get done in an hour, really? He is going back on everything and he has no routine any more. He does nothing for most of the day,” she said.

The department said applications for assistants were still being considered in some cases. While 10,575 assistants’ posts were being provided nationally, 475 of these had not yet been assigned and would be allocated over the academic year, it added.