When the Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn proposed a 10 per cent cut in resource teaching hours for pupils with special needs last year, the reaction from parents was furious.
"Over the past two years, our children have faced individual cuts of 15 per cent in their resource teaching time per week, and to ask parents to take another 10 per cent cut that would really affect their children's educational outcomes, it was just too much," says Lorraine Dempsey of the Special Needs Parents' Association, a national cross-disability support group. "It's like the straw that broke the camel's back."
It sparked a round of 13 demonstrations that took place across the country on June 26th, even after the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation called off its own protest when the Government announced on the day that it would scrap the proposal.
The parents clearly still felt they needed to make a point, but if the Government was surprised at the extent of the fury, it’s probably fair to say that some others were, too.
After all, total spending on special education rose from €468 million in 2004 to €1.3 billion in 2011, and now accounts for around 15per cent of the education budget.
But anyone in education circles will be aware that this is a system that is still playing catch-up.
Special education policy change
It was only from the early 1990s that government policy on special education changed from one that was almost entirely catered for by special schools to one where the majority of children with special needs are educated today in mainstream schools.
But parents were also catching up. As funding increased year on year, their awareness of special needs and what supports their children were entitled to also rose, particularly after the introduction in 1998 of “automatic entitlement” to a minimum level of support in the form of one- to-one resource teaching hours and special needs assistants (SNAs).
However, the department rolled back and eventually stopped this “demand-driven” basis for allocating resources by 2011.
As well as the 15 per cent reduction in resource teaching hours for children with rarer but complex conditions, ie low-incidence, since 2010, there has been a cap on the number of wholetime SNA posts since 2011 at 10,575, with approximately 2,000 of them working in special schools. (Although the cap remains in place, it was increased last month by 390.)
But with school populations and demand for resources still rising in the meantime, something has had to give.
The number of resource teaching posts, which had remained largely static since 2010, was increased by a recent Budget allocation of 455 resource teaching posts to just over 5,700.
But Dr Joe Travers, director of special education at St Patrick's College in Drumcondra, says this would have been effectively what a 10 per cent cut – if it had gone through – would have meant. "It was going to be 455 teachers who would not be employed."
The caps and cuts of the past few years, coming amid rising demand, has forced schools to spread SNA support much more thinly. According to the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), the number of pupils "accessing" SNA support in mainstream schools in 2010 was 13,000. In 2013, the figure is 15,000.
Catherine Cummins’s seven-year-old daughter Niamh, who has Tourette and Asperger’s syndromes, is in second class at a local mainstream school in Co Longford and is very happy there.
But her mother says she needs a full-time SNA and there is just one part-time SNA who is shared between four other children in the nearly 200-strong school.
Funding allocation challenge
When the school was forced to let go one part-time SNA last June, Cummins lobbied everyone she could think of to try to reverse the decision. "I might as well have not bothered. No one is interested," she says.
“The school is fantastic, absolute brilliant, but they can only do so much with what they’ve got.
“It’s ridiculous. If children who need a full-time SNA don’t have one, it can hinder them in accessing the curriculum and therefore stop them reaching their potential.”
While few would suggest that the special education system is creating any kind of artificial demand, it’s clear from talking to parents, teachers, academics and special education professionals that the challenge is how best to allocate a pool of funding that is, right now, effectively shrinking.
The ESRI estimates that 25 per cent of children in Ireland have a special educational need.
Not all of them need support at school, but for the purposes of allocating resources, the disabilities are classed as either “high-incidence” – mild but quite common disabilities, such as dyslexia or other learning or behavioural difficulties – or “low incidence” – complex but rarer physical, sensory or intellectual disabilities like cerebral palsy, deafness or autism.
The most frequent complaint is that children with low-incidence disabilities have to “tick the right box” of a set list of 11 disability categories in order get a set allocation of resource teaching hours (of between three and five hours a week), even if their educational needs are more complex in reality.
Mary Doherty from Dunshaughlin, Co Meath, who has a young son with Down syndrome, is one of a number of parents who have had to deal with the inflexibility of this allocation system.
For reasons that are still unclear, Down syndrome is not listed by the department as one of the 11 low-incidence disabilities, but parents can apply for resource hours on the basis of their children’s assessed IQ.
A child with Down syndrome who is judged by an IQ test to have moderate general learning disability would get 3½ hours, but someone with a mild general learning disability is not guaranteed any resource hours.
“I took my son for an assessment in January and, basically, if he did well in his assessment, I was told he wouldn’t get resource hours,” says Doherty.
She managed to get resource hours by getting a second diagnosis. “Children with Down syndrome have many complex needs, but not all of them [the children] would have them to such a degree as to get a second diagnosis.
“It’s those children who are falling through the cracks, and other children are only getting resources because of other diagnoses.
“You have parents running out hoping their kids will get a moderate diagnosis before they go to school, hoping they’ll fail this assessment,” she says, while other parents might desperately try to get their children assessed for any other possible disability, such as deafness or emotional disturbance.
“They spend the money going to all these psychologists to try to get a diagnosis just so their child will have help at school.”
The number of parents who regard assessments as the only way to guarantee resource hours has led to the National Educational Psychological Service being “swamped” with demand, creating long waiting lists.
Inequality in system
There is also evidence of inequity in the system. A recent Department of Education investigation revealed that children in wealthy parts of Dublin benefit from more resource teaching than their counterparts in disadvantaged areas, even though ESRI studies have shown that children in schools in working class areas are more likely to be identified with a special need.
Dr Michael Shevlin, a senior lecturer in special education in TCD, says that it is difficult to quantify what resources a child needs simply on the basis of a disability category.
“You could have a child with Asperger’s syndrome who would have very few support needs, but you could have another child with Asperger’s who would have enormous needs. So it’s a bit of a crude model to say you will get three hours or you will get five hours. What does that mean?”
But following advice from the NCSE, the Minister has appointed a working group to come up with a more flexible and more equitable system that allocates resource teaching on the basis of the profile of need in a school rather than individual diagnoses of disability. The group is expected to report back by Easter 2014.
But even if the Minister accepts any of the working group’s recommendations, he told the Dáil recently that any changes would be at least two years away.
Cutting resources by stealth
The other worry that is frequently expressed by parents is that any new model will be just a way to cut back on resources by stealth.
Educational psychologist Dr David J Carey is also sceptical, but for a different reason: "The establishment of this working group, in my opinion, serves one unique purpose: to see to it that no progress is ever made. We don't need working groups. We need legislation. It's simple."
In 2004, the government introduced the Education for Persons with Special Needs Act (Epsen), which, among other things, makes it mandatory that every child with special needs has an individual education plan (IEP). The Department of Education said that, due to the “difficult economic situation” and the multi-million euro cost involved (estimated by the NCSE to amount to €235 million a year over a number of years), the previous government deferred the full implementation of Epsen.
Carey, who published a book in 2005 entitled The Essential Guide to Special Education in Ireland, recalls how optimistic things felt at that time following the publication of the Epsen Act. "We were looking forward to changes and eligibility for services for children with special needs."
But his main sentiment today is one of frustration, mainly because most of the legislation is gathering dust. Without it, little hard progress will be made, he says. “It’s absolutely essential.”
Additional research: Alvean Jones
A 20-year history special education provision in mainstream schools
1993: Publication of the special education review committee (Serc) report, which kick-started the change in policy that would see most children with special needs educated in a mainstream school rather than in a special school.
1998: Then minister for education, Micheál Martin, grants all children with special needs an "automatic entitlement" to special support services.
2004: The Education for Persons with Special Needs Act (Epsen) is introduced. Among other things, it gives all children with special needs the right to an "individual education plan". It has still not been implemented.
2010: A cap is put on wholetime special needs assistant posts at 10,575.
2011: The Department of Education tells the National Council for Special Education it is no longer allowed to allocate resource teaching hours or SNAs on a "demand-driven basis".
2012: A 15 per cent cut in resource teaching hours from the levels of 2010 (levels recommended by the Serc report) is implemented.