Effects of cuts to special educational needs highlighted

At a meeting last week in Cork TDs expressed concern when told of the effects of cuts to special educational needs services on children and parents, but offered little by way of promises to act. By Diarmaid Ó Cadhla.

A packed meeting organised by the Cork Special Needs Assistants and Parents (SNAP) campaign last week heard upsetting stories from hard-pressed parents, teachers and Special Needs Assistants (SNAs). Contributions from the floor explained that current arrangements for shared access were not working and were exposing children to actual danger. Unjustifiable hardships, anxiety and uncertainty face children, parents, families, SNAs and teachers. Insufficient hours with SNAs and a lack of continuity going into second level were highlighted as particular difficulties.

One of the most shameful aspects of the cuts must be that children now face regression rather than continued progress, as one should expect. The frustration of service users with existing schemes, and the inefficiencies within them, were also highlighted. The disconnect between parents and officials (SENOs) mean decisions are being made about children's futures without contact with those affected, including parents and SNAs.

Eoin Kelly of the Special Needs Parents Association gave the background to the campaign against cuts to resources for special education. All TDs present said they understood the predicament of parents, that they were listening and doing their personal best to defend services. Both Jerry Buttimer (FG) and Ciarán Lynch (Lab) added that they would speak with Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn, who they said was equally concerned. Mr. Buttimer asked for "non-adversarial politics" when dealing with these questions. Micheál Martin (FF) claimed he was a pioneer - in 1998 he said that children with special needs had “automatic entitlement to the level of teaching and childcare support which their condition requires”. Jonathan O'Brien (SF), the only panellist in the hall when the meeting was due to start at 8pm, suggested that budget targets needed to be extended over time.


In summary, all of the politicians were full-square behind the parents and the SNAs. Then, someone dared to ask the obvious question: "If the forthcoming budget contains cuts in services for special needs will you vote against it? Give us a 'Yes' or 'No' please." With that they jumped for cover: Buttimer and  and Lynch re-iterating that they would speak with the Minister, but will support the budget as they are obliged to. "That is what back benchers do," declared Mr. Lynch, "We all know that!"

Several speakers from the floor expressed outrage that their local TDs would not take their wishes on board - that they would put the interests of constituency voters second. But this is the nature of Irish politics: TDs play the game required by their own private clubs, the political parties, and they follow the 'whip'. In that context it matters little who is elected. The Dáil is dominated by the party system and this effectively prevents citizens exercising their right as decision makers.

A few things were apparent from the meeting. Fine Gael and Labour will support more cuts, as are expected in December’s budget. Mr. Lynch offered “the commitment by the Minister for Education to maintain the budget allocation for Special Needs Assistants". Fianna Fáil are playing both sides of the fence. Sinn Féin will oppose the budget, and say they are looking at alternative budget approaches.

All the politicians made their cases within an acceptance of the confines of the limits on current budget. In offering their ideas of better ways to fund the services needed the 'opposition' TDs did not consider that the people should be deciding budget allocations. Some offered simplistic short-term measures, such as suggesting that the 475 SNA posts 'on hold' be released. Fianna Fáil said that this would be budget neutral.

Last week’s meeting underlined one thing - to tackle these types of problems properly we must get organised to exercise political power ourselves. It is time to bring an end to the rule of political parties of vested interests, in whatever guise they present, left or right. It is time for the people to be empowered. Only the people, in popular conventions, will ensure that the rights of all citizens are respected, and will create a democracy that does act in our own interests.

The Special Needs Parents Association can be contacted by telephone on 086-8123458 or 087-7741917 or via their website. They also have a page on Facebook. They can be followed on Twitter as @SpNeedsParents

Diarmaid Ó Cadhla is national spokesperson for The People's Convention (CPPC) and editor of thefuture Initiative. @gratire.