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Micheál Martin: Reversing special needs assistants cutbacks is only fair

Even as Education Minister Ruairi Quinn “was doing the right thing on resource hours, he refused to back down on Special Needs Assistants”, writes the FF leader.

Micheál Martin

AS THE COUNTRY continues to respond to the economic recession and as we make our way back to sustainable growth, policymakers from all parties have to make choices based on our values and informed by our vision of what sort of country we want to live in.

So for example, when my party was preparing our alternative budget submission last autumn, we made a few important value judgements – we decided that education is going to be key to country’s future and therefore the education budget must be protected.

In fact the entire thrust of Fianna Fáil’s budget strategy in response to the crisis has been to find the fairest way of readjusting the nation’s finances.

We watched in dismay in recent weeks as these two key values – education and fairness were both undermined in recent weeks as Education Minister Ruairi Quinn announced his cuts to special needs provision.

Giving children with special needs a fairer chance at life has been a longstanding policy of my party. When I became Minister in 1997 there were just 300 Special Needs Assistants (SNA) in our primary and special schools. By the end of my party’s time in office, there were over 10,000 Special Needs Assistants, over 9,000 resource and learning support teachers and over 1,000 other teachers supporting pupils in special schools.

Motion calling for a rethink

When the Government decided to hit this area with further cuts, we objected in the strongest possible terms, dedicating our Private Members Business time in the Dáil to a motion calling for a rethink by the Minister on his cuts to resource hours and Special Needs Assistants.

Specifically, our motion called on the Government to take two specific actions. First, we asked Government to reverse its decision not to hire the additional resource teachers who will be required in September in order that special needs students do not have to endure a 12 per cent cut in their teaching hours.

Secondly, we called for the reversal of the Government’s decision not to hire the additional special needs assistants who are necessary to ensure students who require special needs help to participate in school do not see an average cut of 10 per cent in the hours available to them in September.

In response to the Fianna Fáil motion and following representations from the Taoiseach, the Minister for Education announced that he would reverse his decision on the employment of resource teachers, confirming that he would immediately hire the additional 500 teachers who were being held back to cater for additional demand in the autumn. The Minister has made the correct decision in this instance and we acknowledge that.

Unfortunately, even as he was doing the right thing on resource hours, the Minister refused to back down on Special Needs Assistants, clinging to the same discredited arguments about the number of hours remaining the same – the discredited argument he abandoned when he acknowledged his u-turn on resource hours.

Effect on children within same classroom environment

Our special needs children are a vulnerable group with the same rights of access to education as any other children. We also know that when special needs children do not get the additional help they need, it can also have an effect on other children within the same classroom environment. The choices we make in response to this crisis say a lot about the sort of society we want and the values we hold as a nation. I do not believe that the bulk of the Irish people agree that hitting special needs children with additional cuts reflects our belief in the importance of equality and education.

Minister Quinn has acknowledged his mistakes in the past when he accepted our criticism of cuts in DEIS schools and again last week on the issue of resource hours.

He can do it again on the question of Special Needs Assistants and I would ask him in the strongest possible terms to please think again.

There is a fairer way to recovery, a way that protects education spending and maintains services to our most vulnerable children. The Education Minister will have my and my party’s full support in choosing this fairer way and extending his u-turn to the area of SNA hours.

Micheál Martin is leader of the Fianna Fáil political party.

Cuts in teaching support for children with special needs ‘utterly unacceptable>
Tánaiste insists: We’re not cutting the budget for special needs teaching>

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Micheál Martin

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