Support for pupils with special needs to be cut


The Department of Education is to cut special teacher support for children with mild general learning disabilities in 119 national schools across the country, it was confirmed today.

Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe said 534 children in 128 primary school classes will be affected when the move is implemented in the next school year. The pupils will now be taught by mainstream teachers in regular classes.

While Mr O’Keeffe said today he did not know exactly how much money the measure would save annually, it is understood to be in the region of €7 million.

The minister wrote to the schools yesterday to inform them the positions were being cut due to the falling numbers of pupils with special needs in the classes. At present, each class has to have nine or more pupils requiring special needs assistance to qualify for extra support.

A spokesman for Mr O'Keeffe told The Irish Timesthat under the Department’s general allocation model, “all national schools receive additional teaching support to enable them to meet the needs of pupils with high incidence special needs ”.

Mr O'Keeffe said today 50 of the schools earmarked had four pupils or less in their special needs class. When the children are moved to mainstream classes, they will still have special needs assistants and access to a resource or support teacher, the Minister told RTÉs News At One.

“There isn’t any massive change,” Mr O’Keeffe insisted. “There are hundreds of similar kids right around that have been integrated into mainstream classes.” He said in many instances, the schools have decided to mainstream the children themselves.

Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) general secretary John Carr said he was “shocked” at the "indefensible" decision. "On a day when €8 billion is being provided to bail out banks the Department of Education is axing €7 million in funding to special needs children,” he said. "The decision was made purely on financial grounds.”

The move, which he claimed “came out of the blue without warning or discussion”, has caused further anger amongst INTO members and he called for it to be reversed. Mr Carr said the union will seek a meeting with the Department of Education to discuss the matter.

Fine Gael’s education spokesman Brian Hayes claimed the “unforgivable” move was an “attack” on the most vulnerable pupils in the school system. He said “additional and unsustainable pressure” will be put on existing mainstream classes, which would “inhibit the rights of all children to a decent education”.

Labour’s equality spokeswoman Kathleen Lynch accused the Department of abandoning children with special needs. She said Labour has supported educating children with special needs within the mainstream school system "Ending vital services for these children is inexplicable, but denying them the opportunity to flourish in school is unforgivable,” she said, adding that their classmates would suffer and a further burden would be placed on overstretched mainstream teachers.

Sinn Féin’s education spokesman Senator Pearse Doherty said the cutbacks were “shameful” and “unjustifiable”. He claimed the assertion that the needs of children with special needs can be met in mainstream classrooms was “a lie”. 

Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay said it was “both unbelievable and unacceptable that, no matter what our economic difficulties might be, we are not making a special effort to protect children who need additional support - and who ought to be entitled to that support as a right.”

Independent MEP Kathy Sinnott warned the Department it may face a legal challenge, arguing that a child’s right to an appropriate education contravenes the Constitution. “If the Government goes ahead with these cuts in the new school term and children find themselves without appropriate education and the right to develop educationally then the Department of Education could once again find themselves in a legal battle.”

Inclusion Ireland argued the cuts were a “retrograde step” that will cost the State more in the long term. The organisation’s chief executive Deirdre Carroll said she was aware of many adults with a mild intellectual disability who were failed by the school system and are now without jobs, education or support from disability services.