Zappone proposes evidence-based policies in educational services for children with additional needs


I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, and thank him for his comprehensive statement on the commitment of the Government and the extraordinary work of all the policymakers, civil servants and providers of services for people with disabilities. I commend Senator Moran on her introduction of this motion. It is an important debate. I welcome Mr. John Dolan, chief executive officer of the Disability Federation of Ireland, and our other guests in the Visitors' Gallery.

  This motion tabled by the Labour Party Senators is very welcome because it centres on what is a defining issue of whether we are living in a progressive State. The context to the motion and its two amendments is that Ireland is still approaching ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

We must think of all that we are doing in that context. We need to have this debate in order to find ways to ensure that students with disabilities and those with additional needs due to various impairments, some of which are exacerbated by the students' having being raised in poor conditions, are enabled in meeting their individual educational and other targets and flourishing as a result. Imagine children with disabilities flourishing in our classrooms. I try to consistently keep that picture in mind and I am always asking the question: "What kind of changes would need to be brought about to make that picture a reality?".

We have had budget choices in the past. Research by Inclusion Ireland shows that the resources available for children with disabilities have not increased in line with the increase in the number of children with disabilities. Hence, children with disabilities have less access to support services which would allow them to remain in mainstream education, even with the increase in resources. The increase in the number of children with disabilities has an impact on individual children. In particular, resource teaching hours available to individual children, according to the report, have been cut by 15%. Overall, individual resources for children with disabilities have been reduced, even though a lot of the headline figures that the Minister spoke about have increased. The level of supports and services needs to be increased and we must take account of this as we calculate how to reform our tax policies, especially as the economy is now slowly recovering.

  The issue is not simply increasing resources, dealing with cuts or returning to where we were before the bust, as encompassed by the motion and the amendments. We need to find new models to deliver better services. We need to use research and new innovations more efficiently in support of our legislative process in making decisions. Only by doing so will we develop new evidence-based policies and laws that will allow us to deliver services more effectively to those children and young people with disabilities and those with additional needs due to disadvantage.

  I wish to bring two policy proposals to the debate. First, I want to report on the result of an innovative early-intervention speech and language therapy service that was implemented by the Childhood Development Initiative in Tallaght west. This is very relevant to the implementation of the strategy Better Outcomes: Brighter Futures, to which the Minister referred in his speech. We know that thousands of young children are still waiting for years to access speech and language therapy. These early years are critical, as delays diminish the chance that these young children will catch up with their peers and flourish academically. The ability to communicate is so central to a child's development and his or her ability to fully participate in education. The model that was developed by the Childhood Development Initiative was designed to identify and assess children at a young age through raised awareness among early years practitioners, teachers, and parents and to ensure that children receive therapy where needed as quickly as possible. An independent review of the programme found that the early intervention service provided therapeutic support to children whose needs would not have been identified and who would not have received support through any other existing service due to their young age. The benefits of that early intervention are well documented. It is a programme that is relatively low-cost and that could be replicated in other areas by creating speech and language therapy services alongside the establishment of primary care teams or existing speech and language therapy services. It is not just about the money; it is about what works.

  I wish to raise the possibility of an extended school year for children with disabilities and children with additional needs. Students who have additional educational needs arising from their disability or other impairment often fail to meet their expected level of attainment during the school year. If that is not addressed, such children fall further behind and the probability that they will not become economically active or independent later in life increases. In several education systems around the world, the right to an extended school year during the summer months is in place to assist these students in narrowing the gap. In Ireland, there are July provisions, of which I am sure the Minister is aware, that provide special education for children with autism and those with severe and profound general learning difficulties during the month of July. Eligibility for extended year provision is impairment- or diagnosis-specific. Given the educational disadvantage that may arise from a variety of impairments, I believe we should look at this limitation and consider extending eligibility. I am proposing that the option of extending the limited right to an extended school year be examined and debated in this House as a result of this motion.

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