Donohoe’s comments over supports for special needs children ‘dangerous’

Minister for Finance warned there are now ‘more special needs assistants than gardaí’

The Special Needs Parents’ Association said it is troubled by the language used given the State’s obligation to provide education to all young people. File photograph: Getty Images

The Special Needs Parents’ Association said it is troubled by the language used given the State’s obligation to provide education to all young people. File photograph: Getty Images

 

Parents of children with special needs have criticised “dangerous and insensitive” comments by Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and his officials over the rising cost of education.

Briefing material released under the Freedom of Information Act shows Mr Donohoe warned prior to Budget 2018 that “there are now more SNAs [special needs assistants] than gardaí”.

He and his officials also warned of “rapidly escalating costs” that now mean special education costs “more than the higher education [SYSTEM]”.

Lorraine Dempsey of the Special Needs Parents’ Association said she was troubled by the language used given the State’s obligation to provide education to all young people.

“I’m concerned about the language of comparing this spending to gardaí or universities. It’s dangerous and insensitive,” she said.

She said the Government departments should seek to better understand the factors driving the increases in numbers seeking support instead of making “alarmist comments”.

“The only alarming thing is that a Government department has not anticipated these increases. The child population is increasing, there are medical advances and better diagnosis,” she said.

Despite Mr Donohoe’s concerns, last month’s budget provided for an increase of almost 6 per cent in the wider education budget to just over €10 billion, including funding for an additional 1,090 SNAs.

Other records released under Freedom of Information also show Mr Bruton faced a battle to secure additional funding beyond what was initially offered by Mr Donohoe.

Fianna Fáil’s education spokesman Thomas Byrne said while the number of children with autism was increasing, it was not out of line with other countries.

“This is happening worldwide - that’s not overdiagnosis. We see it every day. We need to check what we are spending, of course, but we must ensure that every child’s constitutional right to education is fulfilled,” he said.

Spending on special education has grown by almost half a billion euro since 2011, a rise of almost 40 per cent.

During this time, the number of SNAs has risen from just over 10,000 to almost 14,000.

Special education support groups and experts say demand for support is rising due to better diagnosis, a rising child population and more medical complexities.

Records show that, prior to last month’s budget, Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton warned that the financial allocation on offer for next year was not enough to meet basic demand for special needs services.

“There are real pressures in 2018 which need to be accommodated. We cannot meet these pressures and deliver any new initiatives for schools within these figures,” Mr Bruton’s briefing note stated.

“This has serious implications in sensitive areas where there are growth pressures such as school transport and special needs,” the document stated.

“It will also mean slowing down previously announced policies, particularly in areas such as curricular reform, primary languages, economics, science, agriculture and computer sciences and PE – all of which are critical to meeting the needs of a changing society and economy.”