In my opinion: Taoiseach must create a Department for Children
For generations, many children in Ireland have been appallingly treated. The abuse of children and the theft of their childhood is both tragic and shameful.
Even now in 2011, there are still children in inappropriate institutional care as well as children with disabilities, children with special learning needs who, in spite of best efforts, fall between the cracks. Where politicians and civil servants see statistics, principals see children.
To begin to right this wrong, our next Taoiseach should create a new government -- a Department for Children with full cabinet status to take charge of all areas currently under health and education that are relevant to children.
In a short time, the profile of children in our classrooms has changed radically. There are increasing numbers of children in schools suffering from neglect and depression, displaying violent behaviours, attention disorders and emotional disturbance.
Add to that the growing numbers of those who are trying to cope daily with family trauma, dysfunction, generational unemployment, as well as alcohol and drug addictions.
The child should be at the centre of all health and education services. Often, it is the parents of those children most in need of these services who are least aware of the existence of these services and least able to access them.
Take for example speech and language therapy, where diagnosis and intervention between the ages of two and four can make a difference. Far too often children with speech and language difficulties are first diagnosed in junior infants, then put on a waiting list for speech therapy which may not start for up to two years, by which time the child is struggling in class and feels self conscious.
Every child born in Ireland should be tracked from birth. If computerised tracking of every calf, cow and bull can be done by the Department of Agriculture, why isn't similar technology already in place to make sure that no child misses out or gets lost in the system?
Irrespective of the lack of resources, most principals and parents acknowledge that the role of the Special Education Needs Organiser (SENO) has had a positive effect in addressing teaching and care support for children with special education needs.
Imagine a scenario where the SENO's role is expanded to that of a 'HENO' -- a Health and Education Needs Organiser. The role of the HENO would be to coordinate and collate the various developmental checkups, vaccinations and screenings for sight and hearing.
The HENO would also arrange psychological and psychiatric assessments where signs of special educational or behavioural needs are identified by the public health nurse, the child's GP or parents.
All the evidence shows that such coordination, together with early diagnosis, not only serves the child's needs best but is a far more effective and cost-efficient means of delivering supports and services.
The only way that the health and education needs of children can be met effectively would be to create a whole new Department for Children.
The Children Minister (with full cabinet status) would integrate the health and education services for children to ensure that no child will fall between the cracks of two departments. This is the least our children deserve.
Sean Cottrell is Director, Irish Primary Principals Network