Deep inequality in special-needs supports laid bare
Shortfall in state assessments, which unlock help, causes unfair distribution of resources
‘There should not be a difference between people who can afford a diagnosis and people who can’t’
Some of the most socially advantaged areas of Dublin are getting nearly the highest allocations of special-needs supports, data published by The Irish Times today shows, highlighting a deep inequality in the education system.
The ability of middle-class parents to get a diagnosis of disability for their children through private practitioners gives them an edge over less-well-off peers who face long waiting lists for an assessment of needs in the public health service.
Former minister for education Ruairí Quinn said the current system of allocations was “clearly unfair and I believe it should stop”. He set up a working group chaired by former chief inspector Eamon Stack to recommend changes to the way the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) delivers resources. The group’s main advice, in a report published in June 2014, was that children with special educational needs should no longer have to depend on a formal diagnosis of disability to access extra learning support.
Instead, it proposed allocations be made on the basis of a school’s “educational profile”, comprising information from three areas: the number of students with very complex special educational needs; the results of standardised tests; and the “social context” of each school. Factors that would boost a school’s chance of getting extra resources would be, for example, a high number of students for whom English was not a first language, or below-average test scores in literacy and numeracy.
There was broad support for the new system from education stakeholders but, having carried out profile surveys at primary and secondary schools, Quinn’s ministerial successor Jan O’Sullivan delayed the introduction of the scheme. A pilot project is instead starting this month at 28 primary schools and 20 post-primary schools to road-test the new formula.
The decision means it will be left to the next government to implement a new, fairer way to meet the educational needs of children with learning disabilities.
The case for change is clear. Two years ago, the department compared two “middle-class” areas on the capital’s southside (Dublin 6W and Dublin 14) and two northside boroughs (Dublin 5 and Dublin 17) that it categorised as working class. Schools in the southside were found to have an hour of additional teaching support for every 6.5 children, while in the northside areas the figure was an hour for every nine children.
The analysis today shows the disparity between the two sets of areas has narrowed. However, the greatest recipient of resources remains Dublin 6W, with an allocation of one extra hour per 5.3 children in 2014/15. Dublin 5 and Dublin 17 were just above the national average of an extra hour per six children, while in Dublin 14 it was one extra hour per 6.3 children.
The gap is more stark if you compare an area like Dublin 11 (Finglas and Cappagh) with Dublin 6 (Milltown and Ranelagh). Schools in the former received one extra hour per 9.3 children whereas those in the latter received one extra hour per 5.6.
Such inequalities can have an impact on outcomes further down the line. Figures from the Higher Education Authority show just 28 per cent of school leavers in Dublin 11 progress to third level, compared with 99 per cent of school leavers in Dublin 6.
The two areas with the least resources per student were Dublin 9 (Drumcondra, Santry and Whitehall) and Dublin 15 (Blanchardstown, Castleknock and Mulhuddart). The allocation for Dublin 22 (Clondalkin, Bawnogue and Neilstown) was almost exactly the same as that for Dublin 4 (Donnybrook, Ballsbridge and Ringsend).
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Compromising children’s education
At a county level, Louth, Cavan, Meath and Waterford received the lowest allocations per student, while Roscommon, Limerick, Galway and Cork received the highest.
While it is difficult to read too much into this county breakdown, school principals say areas that have seen rapid demographic changes, such as an influx of migrants, tend to lose out because of difficulties in getting paperwork completed on time.
Frustration at the current system prompted a group of 15 principals at Educate Together primary schools in north Dublin to write an open letter last March criticising the NCSE’s role as “gatekeeper” to educational services. “We as principals are growing in frustration at the extent to which the NCSE’s support of schools is resulting in a compromise of the education of all children; those with and those without special educational needs alike,” they said.
One of the signatories was Fintan McCutcheon, principal of Balbriggan Educate Together national school, who became exercised over the issue some years ago when he discovered a school of similar size to his own on the southside, but with a much less diverse intake, was receiving “four times the amount of support hours”.
Last year his school got only one hour of additional teaching support for every 10 pupils. In 2015/16 allocations, however, there has been a significant jump and the school now sits close to the national average of an extra hour for every six pupils.
Why the change? “It’s not an indication that things are getting fairer. It’s an indication we are more vehemently playing the game,” replies McCutcheon. “I have dedicated a gigantic amount of my school leadership time in bringing parents through this process.” This includes making sure they make appointments with health professionals and where necessary seeking a diagnosis using school funds.
“We have been extraordinarily proactive with our families, first gently identifying a special need, and then taking them through the process through the public system or privately.”
Hard to access assessments
Resource teaching hours are allocated following assessment for 11 categories of “low-incidence disabilities”, including autism (five hours per week); speech and language disorder (four hours); hearing and visual impairments (3½-four hours); severe learning disability (five hours) and emotional disturbance (five hours).
Another signatory to the letter was Maeve Corish, principal of Donabate Portrane Educate Together national school, which might be seen as a major beneficiary of the current system. Last year the school, which is in a relatively middle-class catchment area, received one extra resource hour per three children, or 147 hours spread across nearly 500 pupils. In 2015/16 its allocation jumped to 175 hours.
Corish confirms many of the children receiving such resources got assessments privately but their parents had been “pushed into it because the service is not there”. “Every resource hour that we get we need; there is an individual education plan for every child.”
Having worked in very disadvantaged areas, she is uncomfortable with the current system. “I do think there needs to be a fairer way. There should not be a difference between people who can afford it [a diagnosis] and people who can’t. I know under this new model we will lose out. Will others benefit? The new model should give more equality but is it a cut in another form?”
That’s the question many others ask, including the INTO, which welcomed aspects of the reform plan but cautioned against simply shuffling very limited resources around. “We won’t tolerate it being used as an excuse for cutbacks. But if a convincing case can be made that this will help those most in need it would be very difficult to oppose that,” says spokesman Peter Mullan.
As for McCutcheon, he believes the “unbalance between socially disadvantaged and advantaged areas” won’t be eliminated without radical reform. “If it starts with the current situation it’s going to fossilise and institutionalise a lot of bad practice.”
There has been added investment in special needs education this year, including the allocation of 2½ resource hours a week to children with “mild” Down syndrome.
An extra 240 resource teacher posts are being allocated (totalling 6,454) across primary and post-primary in 2015/16. An extra 610 special needs assistants (SNAs) are being appointed this year bringing to 11,820 the number of full-time SNA posts.
In total, the annual funding for special educational needs stands at €1.4 billion or 15 per cent of the entire budget of the Department of Education and Skills.
However, major funding gaps remain, as highlighted by HSE figures last week showing more than 13,000 children and adults were waiting to be assessed to determine if they require speech and language therapy. Over 500 of these had been waiting for more than a year.
Corish, who has close dealings with a range of health professionals through her work, says “the provision is not there”. Pupils with special needs should be assessed at regular intervals but the National Educational Psychological Services (NEPS) is under such pressure that only priority cases get attention.
Other front-line operators like the Mater Hospital Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services are “out the door” with cases from community referrals, and thus have less capacity to respond to the needs of schools.
“If you go to the UK or to the North you will find a teaching assistant, a helper in the class, and it’s equitable across the board. I find it extraordinary that you have all these regulations here around playschools and then they turn four and you have a teacher with 30 kids, and it’s no joke,” Corish adds.
“Children should be educated in their local schools. But throwing a child into a mainstream class and saying we are not going to support them is not fair either.”