Its a lovely sunny day here in Oldcastle. Its warm and there are fluffy white clouds in the sky, the birdies are singing and all seems at peace. Except its not. In an hour’s time I will be collecting my daughter from her school bus 13 miles away. Normally we’d then head straight back home for the evening. But today we will be driving to Mullingar to assemble for a protest at 5pm. Its not my idea of fun on what promises to be a lovely summer’s evening, marching in a protest – another protest – with my daughter in her wheelchair, but once again we have to. This is the third summer in a row we’ve gone marching and protesting. And I wouldn’t mind that too much (have always fancied myself as a bit of a rebel) but we are marching over the same issue – the right of children with special educational needs to receive full support in their educational career.
Yesterday Ruairi Quinn, Minister for Education, announced he had reversed a decision to cut resource teaching hours to children with special educational needs by 10%. When making that announcement, Minister Quinn said he regretted if the parents of these children had gone through anguish as a result of the announcement of the cuts which had been made last week.
A few people have said to me yesterday and today that we should be delighted at the reversal of these cuts. And don’t get me wrong, I am. But there is so much more that we are still fighting for – or against. Here is just a quick list:
* There is still a cap on Special Needs Assistants despite a bigger demand.
* The 15% reduction in resource hours in school has not been reversed.
* HSE recruitment embargo means waiting lists are getting longer and several children are not accessing the clinical supports they need.
* Children with Down Syndrome are not automatically getting resource hours in school.
* Siblings with autism have to share a tutor and now receive half the tuition they were originally granted during the month of July.
* Children with Down Syndrome, Fragile X and other neurodevelopmental disorders are not entitled to July provision.
Add to that battles that I am hearing of on a daily basis from other parents such as the HSE not sanctioning wheelchairs for growing children due to lack of money, problems with school transport to the only schools suitable to meet a child’s needs, horrendous waiting lists for occupational therapy and speech & language therapy owing to the HSE embargo on recruitment and to hear a senior Government minister regret any ‘anguish’ caused by cruel and savage cuts and you might understand why it makes me fume.
Anguish, Minister Quinn? You don’t know the bloody half of it.
I read in this morning’s Irish Times that the Dept of Education is proposing to increase class sizes: School class sizes set to increase So they are planning to have more children in each class, both at primary and second level. The population of the Republic of Ireland has increased by 341, 421 in the last five years (source: CSO ) and as Sean Flynn points out in his opinion piece in today’s paper, Ireland’s primary school class sizes are already among the most overcrowded in the EU: Quinn faces reality check in education reform drive. We have all seen primary schools with a number of temporary classrooms (or portacabins if you want to be blunt) in use in order to accommodate increasing numbers of pupils. So our population is on the increase and our school buildings already cannot cope physically, yet our Dept. of Education is going to create larger classes.
Hmmm. Can’t see how that is going to work. It is widely accepted that smaller class sizes leads to better quality of education for children. Certainly a teacher can give more attention to each child if s/he is teaching a class of 20 rather than one of 25, or 30. And that is before you consider the issue of children with special educational needs. There have already been protests and campaiging (some of which you can read about in previous posts on this very blog) on the issue of cuts to SNA positions and in resource hours. Children with special needs – of whatever kind they may be – have a right to receive an education. Many children with special needs are now educated in mainstream schools, and that is a good thing. But only if they get the extra help they need. So how will that happen if there are going to be more children in the class, and less help for those children. The answer is very simple: it won’t happen. Children with special needs will not receive the extra help they need. How can they when their SNA is gone and the teacher has more children in the class?
Ireland, as you may have heard, is not in the best of health economically. All government departments are being forced to make savings and Ruairi Quinn, the Minister for Education, has said that he will deliver on the required cuts. I don’t envy him his task. As he rightly pointed out at last week’s MacGill summer school, education’s share of national funds has actually contracted in recent years. Fifteen years ago 19% of the exchequer’s gross expenditure went on education. It currently accounts for 16%. Yet our population is increasing. I wholeheartedly back Minister Quinn in his call for a national debate on the importance of and priority we give to education but I don’t believe enforcing cuts and changes that are only going to negatively impact on the education of a generation of Ireland’s children is the first step.