Wednesday, 29th May 2013
I welcome the Minister to the House and am pleased to participate in this debate this evening. There are many valuable proposals in the report by the NCSE, Supporting Students with Special Educational Needs in Schools. I note and support both the report and this motion’s strong commitment to providing access to mainstream education and the benefits which often accrue not only to children with disabilities but to society as a whole. The normalisation of disability is a vital step towards achieving a fair and egalitarian society. Indeed, ensuring access to mainstream schooling is in line with our obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which specifically recognises the needs of disabled children. It goes on to say that the education of such children must be done in a manner that is conducive to their achieving the fullest possible social integration and individual development. That is something with which we would all agree.
With the UN Convention in mind, I read the NCSE report with great interest but was disappointed by its finding that certain school enrolment policies and practices were less than fully inclusive and that such policies had created barriers to enrolment for students with special education needs. As a firm believer in the right of all children, irrespective of any specific educational needs, to access their local schools if they so wish, I encourage the Minister to give serious thought to how this can best be remedied. I question one section of the motion, although it is perhaps unintentional wording, regarding the entitlement of schools and their patrons to develop their own enrolment criteria. It is vital that the school application process be carried out in the most fair and transparent manner possible. The exclusion of any child from a State-funded school on any discriminatory basis is, for me, unacceptable, be it on the grounds of educational needs, faith or family history. I also believe that on this occasion the Government is right in tempering the language of the motion. The Minister must examine and give serious consideration to the recommendations of the NCSE report but to call upon him to introduce these recommendations in a wholesale manner, without due diligence, defeats the purpose of such a report, which aims to inform Government policy.
In particular, I am conscious of the concerns expressed about the report’s conclusions that Down’s syndrome should not be reclassified as a low incidence disorder, given these children often require more intensive support than others in the same classification due to the variety of additional difficulties associated with Down’s syndrome. While I note the report’s insistence that the proposed allocation system will allow for individualised assessment of children with and without Down’s syndrome, I am concerned that this does not conclusively address whether Down’s syndrome children will be entitled to resource hours. While I do not doubt the veracity of the report’s finding, further review by the Department may be useful in allaying the fears of parents.
I hope the Minister will provide clarity and reassurance for parents and children. September will be upon us before we know it and many parents are concerned. I support the call for the implementation of the EPSEN Act 2004, specifically to priorities access for children with special needs education to an individual education. It is well overdue and I put my trust in the Minister.