Education is the real pathway out of poverty.
My time working as a Special Needs Assistant opened my eyes to the impact that targeted special needs supports can make on young lives.
It also gave me a good grasp of the work that goes on in our schools. The perception that often runs through public discourse is that teachers have it easy with their long holidays and short working days.
It is in reality a huge challenge to take 30 students of whatever age & varying ability, maintain discipline for long periods and facilitate curriculum learning on distracted young minds.
I am particularly interested in the area of Special Needs Education and the way the State provides access to crucial educational supports on its terms alone.
Below are just some of the areas I will campaign on.
Pupil Teacher Ratio
The average class size at primary level in Ireland is 28, but a quarter of Irish children are taught in classes of 30 or more. Combining primary and secondary, the pupil teacher ratio in Ireland is 24 compared to an EU average of just 21.
Many primary schools in Dublin South West are under particular pressure given the local demographics.
The addition of 2,260 teachers as part of Budget 2016 is welcome but as with so many other areas, over 1400 of these additional teachers are required just to deal with the additional 14,000 students in the system.
There is real evidence to show that the younger the child, the greater the benefit derived from delivering smaller class sizes, and the more likely the child with special educational needs will have that need identified at the earliest opportunity.
Special Needs Education
Despite all the promise of the EPSEN Act (Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004) which among other things was to ensure that each child assessed with a special educational need should have a personal education plan, no such system is in place and there are no dates for implementation. The State appears to have abandoned the objectives provided for within the Act and at this point is in breach of its own legislation.
Special Needs Assistants
The addition of the Special Needs Assistant role has been a huge benefit to the education system as a whole and is one of the most positive developments in education over the last 20 years.
The number of Special Needs Assistants has been capped since 2011 – restricting the number to 10,600 – no matter how many children with a need for additional support entered the system. For the first time since the introduction of the SNA role, a child’s entitlement to support hours based on their assessed need was broken. In real terms the cap amounted to a very significant cut given the substantial increase in the number of children coming through primary and second level.
A special needs assistant starts on a salary of €20,869. The net cost to the State is just €18,720 after tax. Every time the Government wastes €100,000, 5 Special Needs Assistants could have been employed for 1 year.
But Government doesn’t just waste small sums, it wastes vast sums – €40 million for example developing plans for the Children’s hospital on the Mater site. Enough to employ an additional 400 SNA’s for 5 years.
The point being, it does not necessarily require huge additional resources to extend this vital support.
If elected, I have committed to donate 20,000 of a TD’s salary to local charitable organisations. However, if possible, I will use this portion of the salary to fund in full an additional Special Needs Assistant in a local school, for however long the next Dáil term runs.
Autism & Applied Behaviour Analysis
For years, despite all the evidence, the Department of Education has remained implacably opposed to the merits of the Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) model, a proven, evidence based teaching methodology for children with Autism.
If delivered at the right time, in the correct manner, ABA can have a transformative effect on a substantial cohort of children with ASD ensuring that many can fully participate in mainstream education and function without significant supports.
The Department favours what is known as the ‘Eclectic Model’ providing a range of teaching methodologies, rather than focusing on one. There is some merit in that approach, ABA will not suit all children with Autism, but for a substantial number the benefits are immeasurable. The result of the Departments on-going opposition is that ABA is now scarcely available anywhere in Ireland, having once been available to some extent in the 2000’s due to huge efforts on behalf of parents.
For the Department to continue to hold the position that exclusive ABA has no place in our Education system, despite the overwhelming international evidence, is misguided in the extreme.
I will do whatever I can to campaign for a reasonable roll out of exclusive ABA teaching where it is appropriate, particularly for children aged 2.5 to 6 years.
The constitution commits the State to providing free education for all of its children. Parents know that come September, it is far from free. Costs for Primary School students are put at between €400 and €500 per year, per child. The children’s charity Barnardo’s has long advocated that just €103m would provide education at primary level that was free in real terms.
“We calculate that the additional cost of free primary education is €103m per annum. That investment would enable all school books to be freely available, it would eliminate the need for voluntary contributions, it would cover the cost of additional classroom resources, and it would provide free transport for every child in primary school.”
Another €5 was added to child benefit as part of Budget 2016, giving parents back €60 per year, per child. The total cost of the child benefit increases over the last 2 years is €145m.
Again it’s about priorities – does it not make sense for the State to leverage its greater purchasing power to deliver a truly free education system while providing a saving for parents far greater than the additional €60 per year?