Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 27 October 2016
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
Children with Special Educational Needs: Discussion
On behalf of the joint committee, I welcome from the special education section of the Department of Education and Skills Mr. Dalton Tattan, assistant secretary, and Mr. Jim Mulkerrins, principal officer. I also welcome from the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, Ms Teresa Griffin, chief executive officer, and Ms Mary Byrne, head of special education. The delegates will brief the committee on the proposed new model for allocating teaching resources for children with special educational needs and provide an update on the pilot scheme of the new allocation model in a number of schools in 2015-16 and the recently published policy advice from the National Council for Special Education on supporting children with autism spectrum disorder in schools.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. If they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Submissions and opening statements submitted to the committee will be published on its website after the meeting.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite Mr. Tatton and Ms Griffin to make their opening statements, after which members may ask questions.
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
I should mention that we are joined in an observer capacity by Mr. Colm McGarvey and Mr. Terry Reynolds, both of whom are assistant principal officers in the Department's special education section.
I thank the Chairman and members of the joint committee for the invitation to attend and brief members on the proposed new model for allocating teaching resources for children with special educational needs and provide an update on the pilot scheme of the new model which took place over the course of the 2015-16 school year. Members will be aware that the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has a statutory function under the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 to provide the Minister for Education and Skills with policy advice on the education of children and others with disabilities or special educational needs. The council provided policy advice in 2013 which concluded that elements of the current model for allocating special needs resource teaching supports were flawed. In particular, it reported that the existing allocation system was inequitable, as children in less well off areas could experience delays in accessing support because of delays in accessing assessments which were required for the allocation of resource teaching hours; that the general allocation model used to allocate learning support teachers was inequitable as it took little account of the differing needs of different schools, as allocations were made on the basis of the number of mainstream teachers in each school; that there was a real risk that children were being diagnosed as having a special educational need for resource allocation purposes rather than such a diagnosis being required for health reasons; and that there was a spectrum of ability and disability within every category of special educational need and that the existing system allocated the same level of support for students within certain categories of special educational needs, even though one student might have a greater need for support than another with the same disability.
Following the publication of this policy advice, the NCSE established a working group which was chaired by Mr. Eamon Stack to develop proposals for a new model based on the policy advice. In 2014 the working group recommended that the existing special needs teacher allocation model be replaced by a new model to allocate supports on the basis of the profiled educational needs of schools. It proposed that the allocation of additional teaching supports to schools in the future be based on two components. The first is a baseline component provided for every mainstream school to support inclusion, prevention of learning difficulties and early intervention. The second is a school educational profile component, which takes into account the number of pupils with complex needs enrolled in the school, the learning support needs of pupils, as evidenced by standardised test results and the social context of the school, including disadvantage and gender. The combination of a baseline allocation based on school size and profiled allocation would give a fairer allocation to each school, which recognises that all schools need an allocation to provide special needs support, but which would also provide a graduated allocation to take into account the actual level of need and pupil mixture in each school. It is intended that the new model would replace the existing system of the general allocation model or learning support allocations, combined with NCSE allocations, with a single profiled allocation model for schools.
In February 2015 the then Minister for Education and Skills announced that she was not proposing to change the way in which teachers were allocated to schools for children with special educational needs for the 2015-16 school year. In taking this decision she was guided by the advice given in the NCSE working group's report, which recommended that sufficient time be allowed for consultation before the new model was implemented. A number of the education partners had also suggested a pilot scheme of the model be implemented. To maintain momentum behind the NCSE's proposal, the Minister established a pilot scheme of the new allocation model, which took place during the 2015-16 school year. Following a selection and invitation process, 47 mainstream schools, including 28 primary and 19 post-primary schools, participated in the pilot scheme. Schools in various parts of the country and of different type and size participated in it to provide for the broadest possible representation. The pilot scheme was developed to test the new model in a number of schools and allow for the practical effect of its application in pilot scheme schools to be gauged.
It also allowed us to take into account the learning experiences of schools, principals, pupils and the views of parents over the course of the pilot prior to the full implementation of the new allocation model. Throughout the pilot the Department gathered information from the participating schools. This information was gathered using surveys, information and training days, self-reflective questionnaires and a formal review undertaken by the Department's inspectorate. A review of this pilot has now been finalised by the inspectorate. In summary, the review found that the new model has been positively received by schools and parents; schools indicated that they welcomed the increased flexibility and autonomy provided by the model to allocate resources based on need; most schools believe the model allows more scope for team-teaching, targeted interventions, mix of in-class and group work, with less focus on withdrawal and one-to-one teaching; schools welcome the move away from the unnecessary labelling of children in order to secure resources and welcomed that they no longer need to wait for diagnosis; and that this facilitates intervention at an earlier stage based on the schools identification of need. In addition, schools indicated a belief that they were broadly well supported in meeting the needs of children with special educational needs. Most schools acknowledged that over the course of the pilot their whole-school approaches had improved and that they were targeting students more effectively. Schools reported improvements in their planning for students, better collaboration between classroom and support teachers and better tracking of student progress.
As part of the recent budget announcements for 2017, the Minister for Education and Skills announced that following development and piloting over the past number of years a new model for the allocation of teaching resources for children with special educational needs will be implemented from September 2017. An additional €18 million will be provided in 2017 to provide for approximately 900 resource teacher posts. The additional provision, which is being made for 2017 to support this model, will ensure that it can be introduced successfully; that it can provide additional resources to meet the needs of children and schools; that these resources will be placed in the schools where the needs are greatest; and that it can ensure a successful transition from the existing model to the new model without too much disruption for schools. Allocations will be made to schools which provide a baseline allocation for each school, while also taking into account each school profile, including the number of pupils with complex needs in the school, the extent of learning needs in the school as evidenced by standardised test scores and an allocation which takes account of disadvantage and gender for each school. While schools will have greater discretion as to how they can distribute resources under the new model based on the individual needs of pupils, it is intended that there will be no reduction in allocations made to schools in respect of pupils previously in receipt of a low-incidence special needs allocation.
Engagement with education partners, parents and disability representative bodies has been ongoing regarding the development of this new model and will continue until its introduction. Further details regarding implementation of the new model will be announced in the coming months. I will now ask Ms Teresa Griffin, chief executive officer of the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, to make her opening statement on the council's policy advice on supporting children with autism spectrum disorder in schools.
Ms Teresa Griffin:
I, too, thank the Chairman and members of the joint committee for the invitation to attend this meeting. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, takes seriously its role of providing the Minister for Education and Skills with independent, expert evidence-informed policy advice on the education of children with special educational needs. It is one of our key roles. In preparing this particular piece of policy advice on supporting students with autism spectrum disorder we reviewed an extensive range of relevant national and international research. We commissioned two specific studies to establish the most up-to-date position in terms of research to evaluate practice in our schools and to identify good practice in other countries. We attended national and international conferences and we consulted widely, with over 30 meetings held with students, parents, education partners and stakeholders, including the HSE.
We visited ten schools and we had 16 presentations made directly to council members from parents, teachers and academics. In terms of findings, we established that 14,000 students or one in every 65 students enrolled in Irish schools has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, ASD. This school prevalence rate of 1.55% is substantially higher than previously reported in Ireland but it is in line with more recent rates reported in the UK and the US. We found that 86% of students with autism were enrolled in mainstream schools, with 63% in mainstream classes, 23% in special classes and 14% in special schools. We found that in schools students with autism are generally well supported. There has been considerable improvement in provision since the 2001 position set out in the report of the task force on autism. For example, we now have over €300 million specifically being invested in supports for children with autism, including, teachers, SNAs, grants and so on. There are 2,500 teachers specifically allocated for children with autism. There are 950 special classes for children with autism and 69% of students with autism need and have access to SNA support. There are 20 special schools specifically for students with autism, although many more special schools enrol children with autism.
We found that students with ASD have access to an appropriate curriculum. There is generally a good and improving range of placement options available. Obviously, there are some things about which we remain concerned, particularly the continuing soft barriers to enrolment and our inability to require schools to open special classes as needed by the children in the community. This can lead to a delay in delivery of sufficient specialist provision where a special class is needed. We found that support for students with ASD is generally good at primary school level but that provision at post-primary level requires further development. In terms of what was established by the research, there is an awful lot of research in this area but its quality is variable. Some interventions are recommended without a clear evidential basis, which is very worrying for parents and teachers. The research supports an education system that is flexible and responsive to students, who can have very different needs and respond very differently to interventions. Our policy advice identifies some 34 evidence-informed interventions that may have some affect on some aspects of autism for some students. While that statement seems very weak, children with autism are very different. Two children with an identical diagnosis can respond very differently to interventions. That is as strong as we can make it.
We have made 11 recommendations which were sent to the committee. I will take this opportunity to highlight a few of them. We identified a need for further investment in teacher professional development so that they have the expertise to identify students' needs and to be able to select and use evidence-informed interventions appropriately. We recommend that teachers should have a minimum of three years' experience post-probation before being appointed a special class teacher because these classes have children with the most complex needs. We found significant difficulties with the lack of consistent and sufficient access to therapeutic supports. Investment in both health and education supports services is needed. We have raised concerns about two educational support schemes. We were unable to establish a robust evidential basis which justifies the Department's early intervention scheme being limited to certain categories of disability nor could we establish a robust basis for the Department of Education and Skills extended school year, also known as the July provision scheme, being limited to students with ASD. We have advised the Department that it should seek legal advice in respect of the potential and equitable nature of these schemes. We are also concerned that the current extended school-year scheme - July provision scheme - might result in potentially unsafe environments for students and staff. We recommended that the current scheme be replaced with a safe, social summer day activity programme that is available for all students with complex educational needs. I will now hand back to Mr. Tattan.
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
I again thank the chairperson and members of the joint committee for the invitation to brief them on the National Council for Special Education policy advice on supporting children with autism spectrum disorder in schools.
In the latter part of 2013, the Minister for Education and Skills formally requested the NCSE to prepare policy advice on the educational provision for children with autism spectrum disorders, in line with the NCSE’s role under the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act. Following consultation, terms of reference for the review were confirmed in October 2013 and the Minister requested that the NCSE would review the timeframe for the completion of this work to see whether there was scope for a completion date before the end of Spring 2015. The review was substantially concluded within the timeframe specified and following consultation with the Department of Education and Skills further consultations were arranged with a number of other Departments and offices, which further informed the review. The NCSE submitted the draft report to the Department in September 2015 and the report was published in June 2016.
The Department has been long aware of the significant increases in ASD prevalence in recent years. International studies have placed prevalence rates in the past at about 1% per cent of the population.
However, evidence gathered to support the development of the current policy advice indicates that prevalence rates are significantly higher than that and the NCSE has advised that for planning purposes, the Department should now consider a prevalence rate of 1.55% or one child in every 65. The NCSE acknowledges that some of this increase may be linked to changes in diagnostic practices, service availability or just greater awareness of autism spectrum disorders. In any event, it was considered timely and appropriate that the Department would review its approach to the education of children with ASD in Irish schools.
Educational provision for children with autism in Irish schools is currently informed by a range of published research including the report of the task force on autism of 2001 and An Evaluation of Educational Provision for Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders of 2006. These reports, while still relevant and important, cannot be considered current. It was timely and necessary to take account of national and international developments and best practice which has arisen in the intervening period. Also, it is necessary to take account of what is presently working well in our system and what needs to be improved. As the NCSE has outlined, the new policy advice includes a number of conclusions and findings. In particular, the NCSE has found that students are generally well supported in schools with an appropriate curriculum, extensive teacher and SNA supports, an improving range of educational placements supported by improved accommodation and equipment, improved teacher knowledge and understanding and a generally good standard of provision at primary and post-primary levels. These findings are largely based on evidence the NCSE gathered in consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, including schools, parents and students themselves. The Department acknowledges the findings and conclusions of the NCSE and, despite the recognition that students are largely well supported, sees no reason for complacency. As such, the Department will continue to strive to ensure that all children with special educational needs, including children with autism, will continue to receive the supports they need in order to access and participate in their education.
We take seriously the NCSE's concerns as outlined in the report. In particular, the Department acknowledges the concern that its early intervention scheme remains limited to certain categories of disability. Both the Department and the NCSE were centrally engaged with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in the development of that Department's AIM programme for the inclusion of children with disabilities in the mainstream preschool provision, which is the ECCE scheme. While this scheme now provides for supported access for children with disabilities, the Department will review its policies in respect of early intervention classes. The NCSE has also expressed concerns regarding the Department's extended school year scheme known as July provision. These concerns are that the scheme is inequitable as it is not more generally available to other children with complex needs. The NCSE has also identified some concerns that the current extended school year scheme can result in potentially unsafe environments for both students and staff. The Department acknowledges these concerns and has raised the issue with colleagues across a range of Departments with a view to exploring more equitable and secure options for the future. However, the Department is acutely aware that parents place a very high value on July provision and I assure parents that there will be full consultation on any proposals regarding the scheme.
The NCSE's report includes 11 key recommendations which focus on improvements which might be considered to the range of provisions which are currently available for children with autism in schools. The report's key recommendations focus on the development of teacher knowledge, skills and understanding of autism, the use of evidence-informed interventions according to student need, the need for better-resourced multidisciplinary health teams for children with disabilities, including children with autism, and the July provision scheme. The NCSE estimates that implementing the school-based recommendations in the report would cost some €20 million per annum. Since the report was received, the Department has convened an implementation group with representatives of the NCSE, NEPS, the Inspectorate and external representatives to develop an implementation plan to ensure that the NCSE's recommendations are fully and appropriately considered and that a timetable for implementation is prepared. Some of the recommended actions are not straightforward and their successful implementation will require considerable planning. Many will require additional investment. The Department will fully engage with its partners in other Departments and agencies and will consult with relevant stakeholders as appropriate throughout the implementation process.
The programme for a partnership Government recognises that education is the key to giving every child an equal opportunity in life. It contains a commitment to examine the adequacy of current special education access and funding provision. The NCSE's policy advice is a significant step towards fulfilling this commitment. However, further work is needed if we are to be sure that we are fully meeting the needs of children with special educational needs, including those with autism, in our schools.
I thank Mr. Tattan and Ms Griffin for that very informative presentation. I requested the list of schools from the Department and took the liberty of phoning a few of the principals yesterday. In general, they were pleased with the new approach, which they feel is more proactive and equitable. It allows them to make decisions themselves based on the best possible opportunities for the children in their schools and that is very welcome. I will invite questions from the members but first I will kick off with a few of my own. I will take three speakers at a time and then responses.
I have had an opportunity to look at some of the recommendations over the last few days. I noticed that one of them related to the provision of early childhood development specialists to support children and families from preschool to the transition to primary school, which is hugely important. I would like to hear the Department's views on the recommendation and about who would employ and pay these specialists. Preschool education is often seen as the Cinderella of the education system in terms of supports and resources. I would like to know what the thinking is in this regard.
I support the NCSE recommendation on the provision of multidisciplinary health supports to assist children with complex special needs but the reality is that very often children are on long waiting lists for speech and language and occupational therapy etc. Has the Department been in contact with the Department of Health or the HSE to come up with a multi-agency approach, which is vital, and a strategic plan to address this issue which continues to be a very serious problem for children with special needs?
Teacher education is hugely important. Speaking to teachers on the ground, I often find they are overwhelmed and do not feel they have adequate support or resources themselves in terms of their own education. I am very conscious of that. There is a centre in Middletown, County Armagh, which the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement visited and where the members saw absolute best practice and were very impressed. The then committee wrote to the Ministers for Education in Northern Ireland and in the Republic to ask that the pilot teacher training scheme be implemented generally. Has there been any contact in that regard? The possibility of visiting the Middletown centre is something this committee might consider. I wonder if the Department has plans to look at utilising the resources they have there?
I was taken aback to see in the policy advice document that resource teaching hours were sometimes given to teachers in post-primary schools purely because of spare capacity as distinct from there being any expertise in the area. I am concerned about how widespread the practice might be. Is there a system in place to monitor resource teachers' relevant training? I note the recommendation that there is a need to develop mandatory programmes for all special needs assistants. Is it the case that a significant number of special needs assistants working with children with autism do not have specialised training? Again, that is an issue of importance.
On a more general note, the Minister announced in June that 860 new special needs assistants would be appointed by the end of 2016, which is very welcome. However, there was an article in The Irish Timeson 9 October stating that almost 400 special needs assistants were waiting to be vetted by An Garda Síochána. If the Department is to implement these recommendations, which I welcome, how does it propose to rectify this situation? It will clearly delay the introduction of new staffing.
The NCSE has referred to the need within the existing model for a diagnosis to be made before resources can be provided and the inherent danger of unnecessarily labelling a child. Does the Department have any indicative figures of possible wrong diagnoses? I support the new model, in that it will stop that practice.
I have a fear that sometimes children are labelled incorrectly, perhaps to secure funding and resources. Are there any steps in place to deal with identifying children and reassessing a diagnosis?
There seems to be little joined-up thinking regarding the provision of post-school education and training or adult services for young adults with autism. These young adults will still need support, suitable training and work placements as a prerequisite to securing a decent future for themselves with viable options. I fully agree that this requires a multiagency approach. Do the Department and NCSE have any insights to determine how it could be progressed effectively?
I note the comment on the fact the NCSE is sometimes waiting for schools to develop special classes. I am very conscious of schools that have been in contact with the Department. They have the required number of students, that is, six, but their applications have been turned down by the Department on the basis that neighbouring schools have adequate provision. Having contacted these schools, I know they do not and instead have waiting lists. I am concerned about that issue, because my understanding is that the reality is different in my constituency. I visited a school last Monday in Coill Dubh in Kildare which has consistently looked for special classes over the past two or three years but has been refused.
I will now call on members. Deputy Daly was the first to indicate.
I welcome the delegation from the Department and the NCSE and thank them for their presentations. As witnesses alluded to, the journey began in 2013 with the former Minister, Ruairí Quinn, and I was in the clock tower when we heard one of the first presentations on the new model. I commend the former Minister for his ambition to grasp this nettle. It is a very difficult issue.
The previous committee reviewed the model and invited delegations from the Department and other bodies to appear before it. There was a universal welcome from members, the unions and parents' councils, and other organisations were all very supportive. It is a very good news story and a positive development in the education field. The Department and the NCSE, in particular, can be enormously proud of the work they have done on behalf of children with special learning needs. They have progressed very far with very little anxiety having been created among parents and teachers so far.
That said, there has been some anxiety, of which the witnesses are well aware. Teachers in particular have expressed anxiety. As politicians, we had to face many groups through the INTO. Different schools were called in to express their fears. Change is always difficult. What were the negative aspects of the pilot scheme? Witnesses alluded to the positive aspects, of which there are many. What aspects of the programme are the Department and NCSE considering changing based on the pilot scheme?
In the clock tower all those years ago, I referred to standardised testing. It is funny how teachers regarded it as a punishment. If children attain a STEN of eight, nine or whatever, teachers saw that as leading to a punishment and that resources would be taken away. There is no accounting for how people will react. There is no standardised testing for junior or senior infant classes - I understand it only begins in first class. How does the scheme adapt to junior and senior infant pupils and prepare for their needs? Standardised testing, which they are not covered by, is one of the fundamental models of the allocation system.
The backbone of this is teacher training. From my time as a principal and teacher, I always had a policy that sometimes less can be more. By their very nature, parents want more and more resources. The reality is that in some schools teachers who find it difficult to teach can end up teaching resource classes. Children in mainstream classes may have a very good classroom teacher. Attending too many outside classes is not always the best for children. I was delighted to see that 63% of children with autism are in mainstream classes, which is very positive and encouraging.
The heartbeat of this programme will be teacher training. How far have the training colleges come, since my day, in addressing special needs learning? How confident are the witnesses that the professional development for teachers is adequate?
I thank the witnesses for their expositions and engagement with us, not just today but with the political system in general. A number of issues have arisen and it is important that they are teased out. Under the new model, will it be the case that no school will lose out in the allocation of resource and learning support? Does the increase referenced in the budget go beyond demographics and is it connected to this scheme?
The issue of unnecessary labelling has been mentioned. Clearly, that labelling is professionally carried out - "labelling" is not a great word to use but it is what was said. Is it the case that professionals are unnecessarily labelling children or is it simply not desirable that we use labels in the allocation of resources?
Post-primary provision was very carefully described by Ms Griffin using very judicious language. She said it requires further development. In terms of approving provision in primary schools, special classes and autism schools have been established. Many autism schools were established by parents who put in a significant amount of work. Some of the parents are now trying, as the Chairman mentioned, to get provision for their children following their 18th birthdays and into adulthood. We are falling off a cliff in terms of post-primary provision. What is actually being done about that? What post-primary education is in place?
In terms of preschools, I do not think there has been any mention of the Department of Health. Special needs assistants are part of the issue. The Department of Health and HSE are in charge of the system. I find it totally bizarre and disjointed that they decide what SNA resources children will get in preschool. I ask that the responsibility be removed from those bodies and dealt with properly by the Departments of Education and Skills or Children and Youth Affairs, which administers the ECCE scheme. The ECCE scheme is very disjointed. I could not believe the situation pertaining to SNAs when I first came across it. In my county the HSE is involved in their allocation.
It was mentioned that the there is an increase in the prevalence of autism. It is also noted that this may be due to increased diagnosis. Is that actually the case? Is the Department aware of any other issues? Parents and neighbours are aware that there seems to be an increase, and the figures show that. People wonder about causes and reasons. The witnesses have not been definitive in attributing the increase to better diagnosis.
The Department referred to the July provision. The Department also said it was unable to establish a robust evidential basis which justifies the Department's early intervention scheme being limited to certain categories of disability. I would like the witnesses to expand on that, and also the view that legal advice should be sought. Does that mean some children are losing out and if they took a court case to seek early intervention they would succeed?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
Most of those questions probably fall under the remit of the Department while some asked by Deputy Byrne might fall under the remit of the NCSE. The pilot scheme, schools, multidisciplinary approaches, SNAs and necessary labelling were raised by a number of committee members.
Teacher training was another strong issue that came through as well. I ask Mr. Mulkerrins to respond to the comments and questions.
Mr. Jim Mulkerrins:
We have observed that some members do not have the NCSE's opening statement. If that is the case then I apologise. The NCSE provided us with it and I think our statements were issued through the Secretary General's office. I wish to express sincerest apologies to the Chairman and members for the omission.
Mr. Jim Mulkerrins:
A number of questions have been raised, which I will separate into questions for the NCSE and questions for the Department. I will deal with the questions that are appropriate for the Department starting with the Chairman's questions.
In terms of multidisciplinary supports, members will be aware that the Programme for a Partnership Government includes a commitment to make provision for speech and language therapy through schools. We have commenced that work. We have raised the matter at a cross-sectoral meeting, which is a high level group comprised of ourselves, the Department of Health, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the HSE. We raised the matter at the last meeting of this group and another meeting is due to take place shortly. We have appointed Mr. Terry Reynolds in the Department of Education and Skills, who is seated behind me here, to take the lead on that and a lot of progress has been made. The HSE is currently doing a mapping exercise to provide us with details of where all of the resources are and the costs, etc. We expect to be able to progress the matter in the coming weeks. I am not saying we will have it finalised but at least we will make some progress having identified where the resources are to be found. The Chairman can be assured that progress has been made.
The Chairman mentioned teacher education, specifically the Middletown Centre for Autism. As she will know, the centre is a significant project for the Department and is jointly funded by ourselves along with the Department of Education in Northern Ireland. Until reasonably recently the investment by the Department of Education and Skills focused on teacher training and training for other professionals engaging with families and children with autism. We have recently extended the initiative to provide second tier services for a small number of children who simply have not responded to the first tier services.
The Middletown Centre for Autism has been reviewed a number of times with the most recent review concluded in the past few months. The reports are excellent and the joint inspectorate review highly commended the project. We continue to fully support it. We are fully aware of its benefits and the strategies deployed. In particular, we are fully aware of the confidence that the project has given parents. We have had a number of difficult cases where families had a number of children with autism. The parents found it difficult to manage and cope but once the Middletown intervention was provided anxiety levels were significantly reduced and we have been very enthused by the outcomes. We shall continue to provide support to the project.
In terms of resource teachers and monitoring relevant training, the Department is conscious that under the current model, when we allocate resource teachers, it is not down to the Department who gets the job and whether it is the right person in the school, and whether it is the person with the appropriate skill set and training. The NCSE has made recommendations in its autism advice. It has made a number of recommendations in previous advices on the skill set and qualifications that resource teachers should have.
In the context of the development of the new model and particularly in the context of the pilot, the Department developed a whole set of guidance on the matter. We did so because we are conscious that not just the resource teacher but the classroom teacher and the principal should have access to the appropriate levels of training. We have comprehensive guidance that we trialled through the pilot. The Chairman may have heard from some of the principals that she spoke to in recent days that they found the resource to be very positive. We have fed in the feedback generated by the pilot into our deliberations and we are tweaking the guidance that will be provided to all schools.
We are also in the process of developing the inclusion support service within the NCSE. The service will include the special education support service. We are hopeful the service will have a clearer and more focused approach to the development of the appropriate skill sets for teachers who deal with children with special educational needs, including children with autism.
We are conscious of the deficits in training for SNAs that have been identified. It is a complex issue that has been raised on a number of occasions, specifically in the report on SNAs compiled by the committee's predecessor. Currently, provision is made in the funding provided to boards of management to provide tailored training for their SNAs. We have had a number of discussions with the management body for special schools which is called the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education, NABMSE, and others on this particular issue. We are conscious of the matter. It does not form part of our current model because the model is about resource teachers in mainstream schools. There are recommendations in the autism policy advice on training for SNAs so we are conscious of the matter. In the event that boards of management are not suitably equipped for this then we will consider it in the context of the implementation of those policy advices.
We are aware of the dangers of labelling children. The possibility that children have been wrongly diagnosed crops up on my desk quite often. Parents and schools have let us know that they believe a diagnosis given to a child might not be accurate. This risk is exacerbated because there is a requirement in the current model that a diagnosis will be available in order that a school will attract resources. On introduction of the new model that requirement will be gone but the assessment will still be necessary. An assessment will be necessary for a number of other schemes, including the SNA scheme. It is also necessary to inform schools and the people who work with children what the difficulties are and how best to address them. We believe that the removal of the requirement for a diagnosis in order that a school is provided with the resource to support the child will somewhat diminish the incidence of inappropriate diagnosis. We have discussed this matter on numerous occasions with our colleagues in the Department of Health. They take the same view as us that there are always risks associated with schemes that are diagnosis driven. By and large, misdiagnosis is not a huge problem. Often times, a misdiagnosis can happen because of a confluence of evidence provided to the diagnosing professional that might have been accurate at the time but leads to a conclusion that ultimately will not play out. One of the areas in which we witnessed this in the past was when children were diagnosed with emotional behaviour disturbance in advance of them joining school. In the past we had a diagnosis requirement that suggested the child constituted a danger to himself or herself and possibly to others as well. We were anxious, in the case of a four or five-year old child that it is impossible for a diagnostician to say how a condition will play out in the classroom because the child simply has not been in the classroom. We were anxious, as we included in our SNA circular, to see how a child might be impacted in the classroom before we made specific decisions about the resourcing requirements for that child. In particular, we were anxious that children would be given an opportunity to demonstrate it and that teachers would be given an opportunity to deploy the continuum of need programme by the National Educational Psychological Service for those children. We found that the initiative was quite successful. A lot of children just settled in irrespective of the fact that they had a diagnosis. It is the case that some children will have a diagnosis. That diagnosis may be correct but it may not necessarily generate a need for additional support and over a period some diagnosed conditions will simply disappear. That is true of some children but, unfortunately, not all children with autism.
We are also conscious that there may be a gap in adult services and particularly for children with autism. There is a high level of support throughout the schools system. We are aware of the fear, and other members have raised this matter as well, that when children approach the end of their school period there will be nothing for them or insufficient cover for them. We have discussed the matter with our colleagues in the HSE, particularly in terms of children who will move into residential care. It is an ongoing discussion. It is an area that the Department does not have full control over but, with that said, we are conscious of the need for additionality in terms of providing after school care, that may not necessary come from us, but also in terms of suitable transition programmes, work programmes and that kind of thing. Our colleagues in the further education section have some programmes for children with a disability. There is also the disability access route into further and higher education. I agree with the Chairman that a bit of planning must take place. We are conscious that time is moving on. It is something that we can now consider in terms of the roll-out of the new model, how children will be assessed and moved through the system, and a planned move into work and further education.
I think I have covered all of the Chairman's questions.
To respond to Deputy Jim Daly, I am glad that there is a perception that the new model has been universally welcomed. Teachers have expressed some anxiety about the model and the Department is in regular contact - at least weekly - with the trade unions on the matter. In particular, we have held a number of discussions with the Irish National Teachers Organisation in recent days and the response has, by and large, been positive.
The Deputy asked about negative aspects of the pilot scheme. While there were very few negatives surrounding the pilot scheme and the model itself, there are ongoing concerns about the quantum of supports and resources provided. It is axiomatic that the more supports the Department provides, the better it will be for all children, whether they have special educational needs or are developing typically. However, there is a limit to the pot of resources available. While concerns were expressed about the capacity of schools to do co-ordination work and so forth, these issues apply to the current and new models. The latter is essentially a new and better way of deploying the resources available to the Department for allocation to the National Council for Special Education to be provided in schools. By and large, few concerns were expressed in that regard.
Some of the concerns expressed were interesting. Principals and teachers recognised that the new model would bring about a new relationship with parents who would no longer look to the National Council for Special Education for the provision of a quantum of resources for their child and would look instead to the school for this. This will necessitate a new level of engagement. The pilot schools were up for this, which is very positive and speaks very well of management and personnel in schools. In point of fact, our guidance provides a significant degree of support for schools in terms of that level of engagement. I do not regard this as a negative; rather, I would characterise it, in a positive way, as a concern.
An issue was raised about our use of standardised tests in calculating the new resources to be provided for schools. The argument made is that if one uses standardised tests, the schools that have improved standardised test outcomes may believe they are being punished for performing well. There are two sides to this argument. The Department must take the view that every school that receives additional resources does its best with these resources and that if all schools are doing their best and one school is not performing as well as another, it will need additional help. That said, there is a legitimate concern in this regard. Our aim is to try to introduce the new model in such a way that no school will lose additional resources. If that is the case and a school has a concern that it is being punished for achieving improved standards, the reality is that it is not being punished because it will not lose out as a consequence of the improved standards. It may well be that the school's profile indicates that it needs a certain quantum of resources and that if its current allocation is higher than this quantum, it will, in the vast majority of cases, continue to receive it.
We have a piece of work to do on outliers. With the additional 900 posts provided for us in the most recent budget, a very substantial resource, we will, by and large, be able to protect current resources for all schools which would otherwise lose resources. I hope this will allay concerns. There is, however, a concern that there may be some significant outliers. For this reason, I will not give a commitment that this will be true in every case. Once we have studied the outliers and engaged in a re-profiling exercise, we will have a better indication of the position. We will need to complete the exercise a number of times to get the number right.
Deputy Jim Daly referred to teacher training and the provision of comprehensive guidance. The guidance we have provided will provide teachers with significant additional skills to understand the needs of children they are identifying for the provision of support. Much of what we are doing in the new model is giving legitimacy to a number of good practices that were already in place in schools under the old model. We are providing resources for named children under the old model. For good reasons, many schools were using these resources to deal with other children who were falling through the cracks because they had not received a diagnosis and everyone knew they were falling behind. Under the new model, this can be done legitimately. It is intended that schools will take the appropriate decisions on how to support children.
I have indicated that the National Council for Special Education has provided us with autism policy advice recommending enhanced training for teachers. We are examining this advice and also conscious that the Teaching Council of Ireland has a number of provisions on this matter.
Deputy Thomas Byrne asked whether schools would lose out. I believe I have answered that question. While we cannot yet state for certain that no school will lose out, other than those with very significant additional resources, we cannot state with certainty that this will be the case. We will examine the matter in the coming months.
The resources provided for us are substantial. As to whether they match demographic changes, they far exceed them. Demographic changes would probably require approximately 200 or 220 additional posts, whereas we have been allocated an additional 900 posts, substantially more than what would be required. This is a measure of the Government's commitment to the new model.
An issue arises with labelling. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked whether professionals were mislabelling or if it was simply the case that the recommendation was that labelling was not necessary. The latter rather than former scenario applies. It has never been the case that labelling should have been a requirement to generate additional resources. Schools are well placed to determine the learning needs of pupils and do not necessarily need to be told that a child has an emotional or behavioural disturbance or similar issue. They see this in play and generally know well how to cater for it. The labelling was essentially an administrative requirement for the Department. The first step in the new model is to dispense with this unnecessary requirement.
Parents have expressed a concern about what has been described as the post-primary cliff. We are conscious of this issue and working to support children through the transition into further and higher education and work. There has been a substantial improvement in the number of special classes at post-primary level. We are following up on the level of growth in primary schools in the past ten years and this is translating into special classes in post-primary schools. There are issues about support levels in post-primary schools and the quantum of resources available to them will be enhanced under the new model.
While the relativity between primary and post-primary level will remain, there is a requirement for post-primary schoolchildren to develop independence, where possible. Children tell us this themselves. While there are anxieties in schools and parents may also be anxious about this, many post-primary schoolchildren would like to lose their special needs assistant, if possible. We provided for this in the 2014 circular on special needs assistants in which we made provision for children having plans which between fourth and fifth class should include how their dependence on a special needs assistance would be reduced as they transitioned into post-primary education. This is a difficult and contentious issue, but we are mindful of the needs of children and young adults as they develop. We received a strong message from them that they did not necessarily like to be tied in these circumstances.
I will briefly address the resources available from the Department of Health for preschool education services. The National Council for Special Education and the Department worked hand in hand with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to develop the latter's enhanced early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme and the access route - the AIM programme - which ensures children with disabilities and special educational needs can be included in ECCE schools. Significant additional resources have been provided for this purpose. While the Health Service Executive continues to operate a number of preschool classes, we expect this to reduce over-----
Mr. Jim Mulkerrins:
They are care assistants rather than special needs assistants. The HSE is not allocated special needs assistants from the National Council for Special Education. The Department also operates a number of special classes. We have 127 early intervention classes for children with autism in mainstream schools. As the AIM programme progresses, we will be able to ascertain over time whether it has been sufficiently successful to enable us to lower our dependence on that type of structure, as well as the HSE structure, and try to move the children in these classes into the AIM programme, like all other children with disabilities. This is a work in progress and I expect it will take four or five years to mature to allow us to identify how it has been working.
Ms Griffin will answer the question on the increasing prevalence of autism. We were asked a question about equity in July provision. We are conscious that we are making such provision for children with autism but not for every child with special educational needs or disabilities. The autism policy advice includes a recommendation, which we expected, based on the approach being inequitable.
It is argued that it is potentially inequitable and that, whatever the provision might be in the future, it should be opened up to children not just with autism but also to those with complex needs. We have commenced discussions in this regard with our colleagues in the cross-sectoral team that I described earlier. It is unclear where we will go with it. We are conscious that parents, while not necessarily wedded to the idea of a July provision, recognise that it is a high level of support and would not like to lose it without it being replaced by something of equal value and significantly better merit. One of the arguments about July provision is that it is not really what parents want, and I have had a number of discussions with parents' representative groups on it, but because it is available, it is all that is available. If we were to change it to something that parents wanted, that might be more suitable and result in better outcomes for children with autism. In doing that, we will examine whether and how it might be extended to cater for children with complex needs. We have had a number of discussions with some autism representative groups as well and they have suggested that providing activities like summer camps might fit the bill. We are still at the exploration stage though.
I did not just express concern about the July provision. Ms Griffin stated that the Department's early intervention scheme is being limited to certain categories of disability. She then spoke about the July provision.
Mr. Jim Mulkerrins:
As well as the 127 early intervention classes for children with autism, the Department has a couple of early intervention classes for children who are deaf or hard of hearing as well. There is questionable benefit in early intervention for children generally, that is, those who are typically developing, other than the ECCE-type provision. There is questionable benefit, therefore, in extending what the Department is currently doing in its preschool classes. The point is addressed properly through the new access and inclusion model, AIM, where early intervention will be available to all children with special educational needs and disabilities through the ECCE provisions, supported by additional investment in that area.
Ms Teresa Griffin:
I think Mr. Mulkerrins has addressed many of the issues raised. The Chairman asked about who employs the early childhood specialists and pays for those schemes. Under the access and inclusion model, AIM, that Mr. Mulkerrins has just spoken about, which the Department of Children and Youth Affairs runs, for the ECCE preschool year, the Better Start agency has been sanctioned to employ 50 preschool specialists. They go into preschools and examine the applications, for example, where children are looking for additional supports. They also provide advice to preschool leaders in respect of children with disabilities and how to support them. That is the employment model the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has adopted. We were quite neutral on it. We just thought they were needed and did not mind who employed them.
There were a couple of issues that we had identified in terms of adult services. Parents were telling us that when their children were going to school, they knew what provision was in place, but that there was a dearth of information when the children reached 18 and 19 years of age and they felt like their children were falling off a cliff or through so many cracks and that what was available was not quite appropriate. That is why we recommended that there needed to be a multiagency approach. An awful lot of money has been invested in developing potential and giving children hopes and options, but we now need to ensure that the appropriate options are available to them once they leave school. That was a particular issue that we had identified.
On the Coill Dubh situation, it would be quite unusual that we would turn down a special class. We turn them down where there are plenty of options in the area, but I will have to examine that particular case.
Ms Teresa Griffin:
It is a particular issue where we know that there are children who might be coming out of a special class in primary school and want to attend post-primary school but we cannot get a school to open up a special class for them. The situation is improving, but we need the power to require it of schools. Schools are there for all children and should not be able to opt out of providing for certain categories of children.
Deputy Jim Daly asked if there was anything better being done now in teacher training colleges to prepare teachers for inclusion. This year we commissioned a review of what is provided in initial teacher training to see what exactly is being covered in the courses. It is not until we have evidence of what is happening that we will appreciate if there are still gaps. Special education is now a compulsory module in teacher training, but we do not know what is being covered in the module. It varies from college to college.
We have also spoken to the Teaching Council, particularly about the right of children to an education that is appropriate to their needs. When it is examining and sanctioning training courses, it must be cognisant of the rights of children with educational needs to a differentiated education that is appropriate to their needs and it needs to ensure that teachers coming out of initial teacher education are prepared better.
On unnecessary labelling, we are aware, because they have told us, that professionals, where they can make children fit a certain category of disability in order for them to get a resource, even if those children do not theoretically meet the requirements of the actual label, will make them fit into that category of disability. It is really bad that a child would be labelled simply to get an educational resource.
Ms Teresa Griffin:
No. Let me say that this is not just an Irish phenomenon. It is quite international. In America it is known as "diagnosis for dollars" or "diagnosis for services". Many of the diagnoses are subjective. If a child is not a normal, typical, developing child and the only way of getting a resource is to label the child, people will do that. We have concerns about it and say that it is unnecessary labelling for resource purposes. As there can be confusion about it, it needs to be stated categorically that under the new model we are still referring to the need for assessment, but it is assessment to inform teaching and learning or assessment to inform parents about how to better support their children. It is not necessarily to have a child labelled as having an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, or as having an emotional behaviour disturbance. Labels are for life. I have stated it at this forum before. When we apply for a visa to go to America, we are asked if we have ever been diagnosed as having an emotional or behavioural disturbance. I do not know what happens if the answer is yes, but I would not like to lie to the US authorities.
Ms Teresa Griffin:
Yes. It is completely inappropriate for a label to be attached to a child for the allocation of educational resources. Equally, we are very strong in our position that children must be assessed in order to help inform their teaching and learning and to help parents. That is why I say it is unnecessary labelling. There is a better way of allocating resources that is without the need to label children, unless it is clinically needed for the treatment of their health.
A question was posed about post-primary provision. We have concerns about this. For example, the special class model was the model used in primary school situations and it was transplanted to a post-primary situation. Post-primary schools are more complex than primary schools because there are multiple courses and teachers, etc. We have been told that, for example, some of the professional development courses were still aimed at primary teachers. Post-primary teachers would attend them and find that what was being taught was not age appropriate. We feel that professional development needs to be focused on the needs of post-primary students, because their needs are quite complex. Once they hit puberty, there can be a whole load of things going on in their lives as well as the fact that they have additional needs.
Given the additional complexity associated with post-primary schools, we also feel that the Department could consider allocating an additional number of hours to them to allow for greater co-ordination across subjects and year groups. That is a particular difficulty, especially given that post-primary schools are so much bigger than primary schools. We also think there needs to be a more effective use of resources. The Department needs to put an end to the practice of filling teacher timetables. If additional hours are allocated to a post-primary school, it is completely inappropriate for those hours to be given to, for instance, a French teacher where French is not being taught. The teachers who are allocated resource teaching hours should be able to understand how these children learn, identify what they need and know how best to support them. These hours should not be used simply as a timetable filler.
Those were the issues we had about post-primary and that it does need to be developed a little bit more.
With regard to increasing prevalence of ASD, Deputy Thomas Byrne made reference to the underlying reasons. We asked this question when we were doing the consultation around our autism paper. While it is a worldwide phenomenon that the prevalence is increasing and we are now in line with the UK and the US, the reasons for that are broad. First of all, there is greater awareness on the part of teachers and parents of the triggers that would identify a child as being different. Parents and teachers are much more willing to identify children for assessment. Professionals are also much more aware of the fact of autism. Broadly speaking, one cannot say that the human genome has changed but there is certainly something happening out there in schools posing a very significant problem, not just for the education system but also for the post-school system. I was in a school yesterday and in which children's behaviour was being discussed. The teachers were saying these children were not autistic but there was something completely different about the behaviour of some children now than was the case ten years ago. They do not know what it is but children can certainly react aggressively within a split second. This is being said by teachers who are very well skilled and well qualified in dealing with behaviour. They say that there is something about the behaviour. What it is I cannot say as I am not a professional and I do not know.
Reference was made to categories of disability and legal advice. I am not going to give the committee a legal opinion one way or the other. We would say to the Department that it has restricted access to certain schemes on the basis of the category of disability. We believe there is evidence out there that children can benefit. In other jurisdictions, for example, access to an extended school year is done on the basis of need as opposed to categories of disability. It is much broader than being simply just autism or severe profound general learning disability.
Ms Teresa Griffin:
On that particular issue it is. I was going to discuss the July provision but we are equally concerned about access to early intervention when early intervention has been clearly recognised as having a beneficial impact on children who have special educational needs. The Department should look at it and take legal advice on whether it is equitable and whether it meets the legal standards to have early intervention schemes that are only open for children with autism and more latterly for children who are deaf. The Department must look at that and legally proof these schemes.
I thank Ms Griffin for her presentation. I have been crossing off questions as they have been asked, she will be glad to hear, as there were a good few. I welcome and acknowledge the substantial work that has gone into this new model and indeed into the report on ASD. When it comes to children with special educational needs there is, unfortunately, the element of schools cherry-picking students and I believe we need to do something to end that discrimination. The league tables are becoming the top priority. I am aware of cases where siblings who attend a certain school are told, when the younger sibling has a special educational need, that he or she would be better off going to the other school. I am also curious about the whole school evaluation and the management, leadership and learning review - and I do not know if this has arisen as an issue - in a school which may have a lot of children who have special educational needs. As part of the review or at the end of the evaluation the school is often asked if they have questioned why they are not achieving great grades as a whole school. I wonder if the schools that do not take in children who have special educational needs are asked why they do not have a lot of children who have special educational needs. I believe that question needs to start appearing on inspection reviews to guarantee equality of access for all students and to end that cherry-picking.
Is assessment wholly dependent upon the standardised tests or will the learning support departments - or the support teachers as they are now called - have a whole suite of tests to help identify the needs? I definitely welcome the 900 new resource teachers in 2017, but is there a contingency plan if the new model reveals that demand outweighs the supply?
I understand that the schools would be required to provide annual reports on how the new model is working. Is this something new and how does it fit in? I am very aware that school managements are under severe pressure. I completely acknowledge that the reports would be needed, but is there an amount of liaison needed to help with management and middle management etc.?
With regard to the ASD report, which is a great report, I have looked at similar policies in Northern Ireland and in the UK and I have noticed that the one thing that is not in this ASD report, which is in those other reports, is a definition for what ASD is. Why is that definition not there? It would be very helpful. I may not have seen it in this report but when it comes to supporting children who have autism, around break time for example, does the Department see a need to recognise the sensory overloads that can happen at that time and the need for quiet spaces, as may exist in other countries' schools, and how would that be resourced in a school? I very much welcome the whole school community approach and that it is not just about the teacher; it is the caretaker, the driver and the man or woman who works in the canteen. I welcome that there will be training in that area also. When the appropriate curriculum is being considered for the 63% of children who are in mainstream and doing the traditional junior cycle or leaving certificate, is it still not the case that the child fits the curriculum rather than the curriculum fitting the child? I am aware of a child who is on the spectrum and who was doing music as a subject for the traditional leaving certificate. Three months into the course the teacher discovered that the child had a severe reaction to classical music. The curriculum obviously does not suit the child and yet that child wants to do music as a subject. There are elements there with the curriculum. Part of the curriculum at leaving certificate applied, LCA, and transition year, TY, is gaining of work experience. Sometimes children who are on the spectrum find it very hard to fit in there or to find relevant and suitable work experience. Are there support mechanisms when it comes to TY and LCA?
I commend all the members of the NCSE and thank them for their attendance. I acknowledge they have done substantial work on the report, which I appreciate. I do, however, have some concerns and I speak as somebody who taught as a learning support teacher and as a school principal. I feel there are gaps that need to be addressed first. I wonder are we jumping on too soon to something instead of fixing the little gaps and closing the little chinks in the system. My first observation is on resource teachers. The 900 resource teacher allocation is welcome but I submitted a parliamentary question to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the information I received was that to restore the 15% cut to resource teachers, 1,118 resource teachers are needed. I want to make the point that while there is a lot of work being done here and we are moving in the right direction, there are gaps and there are things I will question.
There is an appeal process for the schools around their educational profile and for parents who may wish to appeal. That process needs to be very robust and needs to be fair to both schools and parents. With the educational profile, weighting is given to the standardised testing scores. This is the second issue with regard to weighting and the school's profile. On looking at the research done on inclusion and the index for inclusion, which was a great piece of work, I question whether we are moving towards a polarised system in which we have schools that will be like special schools because they will have a huge cohort of children who are achieving low standardised scores.
Those are the schools that inevitably will secure more resources. Other schools, which are victims of their own success to a certain degree and do not have children scoring so low, will have fewer resources. Therefore there will be a tendency for parents to push towards the schools that have the resources. Are we moving away from the whole notion of meaningful inclusion? We have to embrace diversity, including diversity of ability. I am questioning that element of the model as well.
As a principal and learning support teacher, I was very frustrated at times over the procedures one had to go through to get resources for a child. On the inclusion-support service the document specifies that two stages of the continuum of support must be engaged with before the support could be accessed. At first I thought it was positive, but then I read the document outlining the requirement for the two stages. That will cause terrible frustration for teachers. They put problem-solving strategies in place and have meetings with their support teachers. That is an unnecessary layer. If a school needs to access that service due to exceptional circumstances, it should not be put through the whole rigmarole of going through two steps of the continuum of support. I am speaking from personal experience, as well as having spoken to teachers and principals on the issue.
I would be concerned if there is a move away from assessment by NEPS. There is a need for assessment and a need to produce an individual education plan for children. While planning is mentioned in the document, I saw no specific mention of IEPs. Is there a change in thinking on that? Is this a gap-filler until the EPSEN Act is implemented? In terms of cost, would we not be better off if we were to try to implement the IEP dimension of the EPSEN Act? Schools already have classroom planning and subject planning. Why not put planning in place for children with special needs? Many teachers are doing that already and it is recommended. Would it not be better to focus on that element of the EPSEN Act and put that in place?
Does the NCSE intend to provide more up-to-date costing for the implementation of the EPSEN Act in full? Does the NCSE intend to provide a breakdown of costs associated in terms of implementing various aspects of the EPSEN Act, such as if we were just to focus on the IEP aspect? Has the Department requested this? How much would it cost to implement specific provisions such as the individual education plan? We need to focus on that area.
I read the document in detail. It mentioned the involvement of the SENO in preschools and in data collection for children with complex needs. While I welcome that approach, there are serious problems at preschool level. I have received complaints that the waiting time in my constituency for children to get assessment of needs is between 12 months and 18 months. Should the SENO not be involved in a more constructive role at that level rather than data collection? We might be skating round the edges and not dealing with the problem at the centre of that.
Those are the concerns that struck me immediately on reading the document; obviously there are many more. Did the Irish-medium schools involved in the pilot express concerns over the resources as Gaeilge for SNAs?
One of the advantages of being almost last to speak is that many of the questions have already been answered. I welcome the witnesses and thank them for the informative and helpful presentations. It is very encouraging to hear that there has been such positive feedback from the pilot to date.
School principals raise the issue of class size as an impediment to identifying children with special educational needs. Is that the elephant in the room when it comes to identifying children with difficulties? Some rural schools are concerned that they might lose out under this new scheme. Is that fear well founded? School principals, especially those who are also teaching, believe this may increase their workload. Is that fear warranted?
The final sentence of the second presentation stated: "However, further work is needed if we are to be sure that we are fully meeting the needs of children with special educational needs, including those with autism, in our schools." What exactly is meant by that? What further improvement is needed?
There is a big reorganisation of local therapy services called "Progressing Disability Services for Children and Young People". What links has the Department of Education and Skills made with that health service reorganisation? It would probably not be wise to split the education therapies from the health-related therapies because it is being done on a geographical basis.
How soon will we have a policy, a model and funding for post-18 education for children with autism? I have personal experience of this. I was the chief executive of Cope Foundation, which was patron of what was the CABAS school. Suddenly we had two children and then ten children moving from the secondary school during the dark days of the recession. As an organisation we just decided we would find a way to do it because we could not allow those young people, in whom there had been considerable investment, suddenly to have nothing in terms of their education. This policy is urgently required. I know the Department is catching up with the secondary schools, but the post-secondary school situation should not just be down to local activism and people taking responsibility locally.
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
Deputy Catherine Martin asked about the soft barriers schools might use in admissions, the use of standardised testing and the use of annual reports. Our desire is that we would use that as way of linking that to better educational outcomes. On the ASD report she asked about a definition for autism. She also asked how we can ensure that the curriculum is appropriate to the needs of those in mainstream who have ASD.
Deputy Nolan spoke about the continuing gaps, the restoration of the 15% on the research teacher hours, the continuing need for assessments, IEPs, the EPSEN Act and the experience of Irish-medium schools in the plot.
Senator Gallagher asked if class size could be an impediment to identifying children with special needs in rural schools.
Senator Kelleher talked about our links with the health sector on "Progressing Disability Services for Children and Young People". She also asked about the adult services piece.
I will ask Mr. Mulkerrins to deal with the issues relating to the Department. There are also some NCSE issues there.
Mr. Jim Mulkerrins:
Deputy Catherine Martin asked about cherry-picking, something we are very conscious of under the current model. We have been aware all along that some schools put up soft barriers to the admission of children with special educational needs.
We have also been aware that, as indicated in the ESRI's report and various others, there are various special educational needs or various categories of disabilities that are more commonly found in some areas than others, particularly disadvantaged areas, which is the reason we have included the disadvantage element in the criteria used in profiling schools. Part of the reason for the high concentration of children with special educational needs in particular schools is often location or the soft barriers put in place by schools where parents have suggested their child might be better off in a school in which there are more resources or smaller class sizes. We are conscious of this. In particular, we are conscious that there are children who cannot get into certain schools because they have a special educational need and that barriers are being put in front of them. This is an issue we are considering in the context of the forthcoming school admission policies legislation. We have been in discussions with the NCSE and other departmental colleagues on the issue and there may be an opportunity for us to address it in that way. There are a small number of schools that might be reluctant to open special classes, again for similar reasons, and we are looking at opportunities to provide the NCSE with greater authority to encourage schools to be forthcoming in opening special classes.
I note Deputy Catherine Martin's point about siblings. A number of cases in which that has been happening have been brought to our attention. The Deputy also made a point about whole-school and other evaluations and whether in that regard we should question schools about the reasons they do not have children with special educational needs. The Deputy's point is well made and it is one we will raise with the inspectorate. There is a working group overseeing the introduction of the new model and we have received representations at a high level from the inspectorate. We will put the issue raised by the Deputy on the agenda for the next discussion. I cannot guarantee that it will be discussed, but it seems to be a sensible suggestion.
On whether teachers will have tests available to them to identify needs, the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, has been working hard in the development of the model and the pilot scheme on the development of the guidelines about which I spoke to ensure schools will be provided with the skills the need to identify needs. There are assessment tools provided for teachers, in respect of which, as part of the pilot scheme, we held a number of workshops with principals and various other teachers. We worked through a number of examples and the schools involved appeared to be very happy with that approach. Again, some tweaking will be required, but once all of the guidelines have been agreed to, we will forward them to the committee and the Deputy can then judge for herself whether teachers will be appropriately equipped to do what is required.
Ms Griffin will respond to the recommendation that schools be required to produce annual reports and on the definition within the report of ASD, the need for quiet spaces and so on. On the need for quiet spaces, we have had ongoing discussions with various parties in which various names such as "time out rooms" have been suggested, to which rooms children might go in the event of a meltdown. However, we need to be careful about the language we use to ensure we are seen to be supportive such that they are spaces in which children's senses will not be overloaded. We are strongly of the view in the Department that excluding a child and placing him or her in isolation, particularly unsupervised, is not an appropriate answer to a child in a meltdown.
I was not suggesting it as a reaction. I have been a teacher and know of students who would opt to avail of such a space because, perhaps, a canteen environment might not suit them. I was not suggesting quiet spaces be used for time-out or as punishment but rather that they be available where a child has identified a need for them.
The document refers to the provision of training for the whole school community. That is welcome as it is essential that the view is not taken that only teachers should provide learning support.
Mr. Jim Mulkerrins:
The difficulty in the past with the recommendation that training only be provided for the teacher working with a child was there was no guarantee that the same teacher would be working with the child the following year. There is huge movement of teachers such that teachers with particular skill sets are moving away from the children who need them the most. The whole-school approach is preferable. In taking it everybody in the school understands the context for a child with autism.
It is acknowledged that it can be hard for children with autism to gain work experience during transition year. We will be happy to raise the matter with our colleagues in the curriculum section of the Department.
There are a number of recommendations in the autism policy advice provided that will be considered in the coming months. It will take time to have many of them implemented as there are some cross-departmental issues. We have appointed an implementation group which is the responsibility of my colleague, Mr. Colm McGarvey. It has met a number of times and is taking a thematic approach to the implementation of the recommendations. The issue raised by the Deputy will be considered in that context.
The implementation group might also look at the position for leaving certificate applied students because many schools have adopted a policy under which students will only gain work experience one day per week. It is vital that children on the autism spectrum have support available one day every week.
Mr. Jim Mulkerrins:
We will consider the issue in the context of implementation of the recommendations.
I acknowledge Deputy Carol Nolan's welcome for the allocation of 900 posts and her observation on the gaps in the system. To respond to her question to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the need for an additional 1,118 posts to reverse the 15% cut, the model is intended as a better way of distributing and deploying the resources available to us, be they increased or, in the event that we experience another economic crash, depleted again. This is simply about having a better, fairer and more equitable way of managing resources. There is concern which we acknowledge about the effects of the 15% cut applied across the system in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The provision of 900 posts is substantial. I am not suggesting it is intended to reverse the 15% cut, but it is greater than the provision that would have been made based on demographics alone. It has been acknowledged in our consultations that schools, at least, feel that they are well supported by the Department. There will be further discussions on the reversal of the 15% cut. We will deal with that issue when it arises.
On the need for the appeal process to be fair to schools and parents, we are anxious to have a robust and tight appeal process in place. Two issues arise in this regard. Schools may be concerned that they are receiving allocations based on a profile that is not an accurate reflection of a school enrolment. For this reason, we will have an appeal process to review the data provided to ensure the calculations made are correct. Where they are not, we will remedy the situation. We also recognise that there will be a number of schools which, even though they have been profiled correctly, may still struggle under the weight of difficulties they are experiencing. It is intended that the inclusion support service will be robust and have the capacity to provide support for these schools. It has been mentioned that there will be a requirement for schools to complete a number of stages of the continuum process before they receive additional support. The intention is that the inclusion support service will have the capacity to understand what the difficulty and build a response to it, whether by providing additional support or providing additional in-house training for those working with the children involved. It could involve either option, but until such time as the stages of the continuum process are completed, it will be difficult for the inclusion support service or those working with a school to understand what the difficulty is. It is not always about the provision of additional resources. Sometimes it is about utilisation of the resources available in a better way. Either way, the inclusion support service will have some capacity to act, including in the national behaviour support service which is well resourced and highly regarded in the post-primary sector and provides significant additional support for schools experiencing severe problems, notwithstanding the other resources put in place.
With regard to the standardised tests, we acknowledge that there is a concern being expressed. There are two answers to this. It is likely that schools in more disadvantaged areas are going to have a higher concentration of children who are underperforming in standardised tests. Those schools are also likely to have access to other supports such as enhanced pupil-teacher ratios in the event that they are in band 1 or access to school completion, home school liaison and all of the other supports provided under DEIS. In addition, they are more likely to have a larger pot of resource teaching under the current model and that will continue under the new model. Our intention is that such schools will not end up being ghettoising. Our intention is that through an open admissions structure, all schools will be encouraged to enrol children within their own communities and that there will be no bypassing of the nearest school. Of course, that is something we will have to keep a very close eye on over the roll-out of the model.
Mr. Jim Mulkerrins:
The Senator asked if NEPS was moving away from assessment and the answer, clearly, is "No". The intention is that NEPS will continue and, as it develops over the course of the coming years in line with the commitments made in the programme for partnership Government, retain a significant assessment role. What it will be moving away from is assessment simply to inform the allocation of resources. That is clearly better and fully in line with the recommendations of the NCSE and its 2013 policy advice and the Stack report in 2014. This will be true for the HSE also. The HSE has indicated to us in the past that it uses approximately 125 whole-time equivalent psychologists just to carry out assessments for educational purposes. Clearly, those resources will now be freed up to carry out clinical assessments in order to understand better the clinical needs of children and to provide the necessary therapeutic interventions. We regard this as a very significant positive.
I was asked about the need for IEPs. We have had ongoing conversations with stakeholders, including school management bodies, and have moved significantly in the direction of IEPs. We included that in our 2014 special needs assistance circular. There is robust provision in the new model for planning for the needs of individual children and for that planning to feed into the annual reporting to be provided to the NCSE. We have not hung our hat on any language around IEPs. While we have referred to it as "personalised pupil planning", the Department is kind of indifferent at the moment about what it is called. Many schools do it already, as has been acknowledged by the questioner, and the chief inspector has said that the Inspectorate has noted in a number of whole-school evaluations that schools which carry out individual planning for children tend to be those which have the best outcomes for children. As such, we know that a lot of good work is already going on and that planning templates are available. Our colleagues in NEPS have planning templates that they provide for schools. We are not, at this point in time at least, being directive in terms of what a plan should look like. What we are concerned about is whether it is the right plan for the child and has been developed in consultation with the relevant people within the school and the parents of the child so that everybody knows the efforts that are going to be made on his or her behalf. As to whether we need to do anything in terms of EPSN for this, we have taken significant strides in terms of getting it into schools. Having it underpinned legislatively would not necessarily improve that situation.
I was asked whether the NCSE would provide up-to-date costs on the introduction of EPSN. It is our view, based on the advice we have received, that we cannot implement EPSN piecemeal. We cannot take the IEP section of it and implement that without implementing all of the rest of it. Implementing all of the rest of it is problematic as it is expensive. The costs are not just for the Department. In 2006, when the estimate was made, the projected cost was approximately €235 million for the Department and approximately €500 million for the Department of Health.
Mr. Jim Mulkerrins:
It is quite substantial. As we move forward and look at the significant increase in the numbers of children who have been diagnosed with special educational needs and the growth in population generally, the cost of implementation will significantly increase. We are trying to bring about the best elements of EPSN on a non-statutory basis at the moment and that approach seems to be working well with schools. Schools are happy to implement IEPs. The pilot schools were very positive about how they were introduced in the context of the new model. We have had a positive experience on that. In terms of the role of the SENO, Ms Griffin might address matters.
We have had an ongoing engagement with Irish-medium schools. We recognise that there are difficulties in Irish-medium schools. We did not get any significant feedback and certainly none of a negative nature from Irish-medium schools in the context of the pilot. We are aware that some Irish-medium schools tend to have difficulties, in particular those which are not in Gaeltacht areas, in recruiting SNAs with an appropriate level of Irish. I am not quite sure what we can do about that given the rapid growth in SNA numbers. It is something we could consider in the context of training. There is funding available to boards of management for training SNAs, but that does not immediately address the issue. It is something we will take into account.
In terms of individual education plans, I am saying that while there is no doubt that a great deal of work is carried out, the wrong perception is being fostered. When one looks at a teacher who has to plan for yearly, monthly and fortnightly schemes, that is mandatory. Such planning is not mandatory for children with special educational needs. That fosters the wrong perception. That is where I am coming from. I do not doubt for a second that teachers are doing their best. However, it is about perception and respect for children across the board.
Mr. Jim Mulkerrins:
I understand that. I am not too sure that making it mandatory would improve things but I take the point that if it is mandatory for other areas, it seems to ignore somewhat the needs of children where it is otherwise. However, a mandatory element is included in the circular for special needs assistants. Again, we are trying not to be too directive towards schools. It is in the circular and, over a period of time, we will be stronger in terms of our enforcement of it. In terms of introducing the new model, it will be there and it will be a requirement. It is something that will be looked at in the context of annual reports from schools, which is a new development. We do not want, however, to introduce the new model in a way that makes it difficult or controversial for schools. We want schools to welcome this. We believe in the context of the pilot that they have been welcoming of it. However, I take the Deputy's point fully and we will look towards strengthening those provisions over the period.
In terms of the EPSN Act, Mr. Mulkerrins said it could not be implemented on a piecemeal basis. I have a reply from the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, which shows that several sections of the Act have been implemented.
Mr. Jim Mulkerrins:
The legal advice we got was subsequent to the implementation of those sections. For example, the ones that were implemented already were the ones that included statutory provision for the NCSE and a number of other relatively minor provisions. We then sought advice and that was that the rest of it needed to be done in one lump or none. As such, we are caught on the horns of a dilemma with that. It is something on which we are engaged in consultation because EPSN does not stand alone. The Disability Act is a sister Act and there are issues about the roll-out of that also. Therefore, we need to know what our colleagues in the Department of Health are thinking. We have had a number of conversations with them and it is an ongoing dialogue.
Senator Gallagher mentioned a couple of issues which I would like to address. He asked if class sizes were an impediment to identifying children with special educational needs. I do not think so. Of course, we would all like class sizes to be smaller and that would be easier. As to whether it acts as an impediment, we think we are providing schools with the tools to be able to identify children who are falling behind. Of course, it has always been the case that children may not be faring well in a large class, which might be missed by the classroom teacher. However, providing these additional resources and requiring proper planning will encourage teachers to assess the whole class and to identify at an earlier stage those children who are beginning to struggle. The earlier one identifies this, the greater the chance the child has to catch up and perform at a higher level without necessarily having a label or diagnosis. Some children will fall back into line with the class while others will need ongoing support. Class size is not the significant thing. The capacity of the teacher is a far more important factor here and it is the focus of the Department to ensure that teachers are equipped with the skills to identify those children.
In terms of rural schools, there was a concern that rural schools might lose out. We considered rural schools because we are conscious that there are a significant number of small rural schools with small class sizes. In addition, they might have multiple classes in a room and there are all sorts of difficulties and context with that. We have been conscious in the development of the model to ensure that rural schools are protected by and large. Our ambition is that no school will lose out and that includes rural schools. We believe that when we have the final work done on the model, the concerns that have been expressed to the Senator will have diminished somewhat.
In terms of teaching principals and an increased workload, during the last consultation that we had with the principals participating in the pilot scheme I was prompted by the director of operations in the NCSE to ask a question that had not occurred to me. I asked all of the principals what they welcomed from the model. Their universal answer was the significant reduction in the current administrative burden on principals because of the application process and the uncertainty that the current model gives them in terms of what their allocations will be in the coming year. In the way the current model was configured, schools might only have learned in May the first round of allocations. Now, schools will know from the beginning of the calendar year in January what they will get next September. They will not have to go through a tortuous process with no certainty at the end of it that they will get the resources, notwithstanding the fact that they have procured assessments and signed all of the documentation. That uncertainty was a burden, as was all of the work around it. When the principals said that, I asked them how would they rate that in terms of its importance. They replied it was of paramount importance and was the most significant issue in terms of the introduction of the new model.
A number of people did say to us that there were additional burdens. For example, the new engagement paradigm in terms of how principals engage with parents and the new language to be used is a bit of a worry, and maybe also the requirement for an annual report. The principals felt all of that was in the ha'penny place compared with the savings made in terms of the administrative burden. We are conscious that there will be burdens for teaching principals in particular.
In respect of autism, we said that further work is needed. Having the autism policy advice is step one. We have a number of years to implement all of the recommendations, or those that can be implemented. Some recommendations can be introduced fairly quickly in teacher training for example. Some of the stuff is already in place. A lot of progress has been made already with early intervention stuff under the access and inclusion model, AIM.
In terms of the July provision, clearly we are not going to pull the scheme and introduce something in its place immediately. We must carry out a lot of consultations with parents and schools on whatever change happens. The work is going to be in implementation. There will be ongoing engagement with stakeholders, both the education partners and in particular parents, to ensure that gets carried out.
I apologise for leaving but I had to go to the Seanad. Before I left I had passed over most of my questions to my colleague.
While the allocation of 900 teachers sounds fantastic, where will they come from? What dialogue has taken place with the teacher training colleges to ensure these posts can be filled? In other areas of Government policy there have been great announcements that funds are available but the reality of filling those posts is a different issue. What forward planning is being done to ensure a sufficient number of people are trained sufficiently to fill the posts?
I wish to mention standardised testing for children whose first language is not English. Perhaps this question has already been asked. I am not just speaking about Irish speakers but refer to children who do not speak English as their mother tongue. Did the research take into consideration their situation? Some children may come from a different culture etc. but have specific needs. That aspect would have to be considered when assessing their educational needs.
Mr. Jim Mulkerrins:
In respect of where 900 teachers will come from, we are not aware of a shortfall in willing candidates to take up these position. In fact, we have substantially increased teacher numbers on the special needs side over recent years. There has not been a difficulty in terms of recruitment. Many of these teachers will be newly trained teachers and they may not necessarily be the teachers who end up in this particular role. Schools will be encouraged to ensure that the roles are filled by people with the most experience. Indeed, the NCSE has included the recommendation in its autism policy advice. As we talk to schools we will further encourage them to ensure that the teachers who are assigned to work with children with special educational needs have the highest levels of training. We recognise that under the current model there has been a deficit in this area. We will try to remedy the situation in the context of the new model.
Mr. Jim Mulkerrins:
They will be replaced. We are talking about 900 additional posts.
I take the point made about standardised tests. Another question was whether we take account of children who do not have English as a first language. I do not know the answer, quite frankly, but Ms Griffin might be able to answer.
Ms Teresa Griffin:
In terms of the working group, I was going to mention this in the context of the question that was asked about schools being taught through the medium of Irish and the availability of documentation as Gaeilge. I know of a person who was a principal of an Irish-medium school who is now an inspector. He very much took into account the needs of Irish speakers and people who were native Irish speakers, as opposed to Gaelscoileanna. He differentiated right across. A lot of thought has been given to how we can measure people for whom English is not their first language, in terms of Irish at least.
We have made a number of recommendations on standardised testing, including the need to future-proof it and making sure it is appropriate for use in the model. The Education Research Centre is starting work on analysing the current standardised tests and seeing how they can be modified to make sure that they can be improved and brought up to date. Ireland is now a multicultural society and the needs of all children will have to be taken into account in the Department's work when preparing the next round of standardised tests.
What resources will be made available? Mr. Mulkerrins mentioned the difficulty of finding people outside of the Gaeltacht areas with a proficiency in Irish who are also SNAs. I refer to the resources available to an SNA who works through the medium of Irish, particularly when compared with a SNA who works through the medium of English. We may say there are limited resources available in English but they are much less as Gaeilge. Will steps be taken to increase the level of resources available to those who work through the medium of Irish?
No. A person who works in schools with a child with autism will need resources to be made available to him or her as Gaeilge if they are working in an Irish-language-medium school or in a Gaeltacht school. There tends to be less resources available. What planning will take place to ensure that language-specific resources are available to the people who work through the medium of Irish?
It is worth looking at the matter again. Sometimes a translation can be very literal and does not work for the child concerned. Sometimes it is good to generate it through the medium of the language. I know that An Chomhairle um Oideachas Gaeltachta agus Gaelscolaíochta, COGG does fantastic work. It would be great if it was given specific resources in the area. I suggest the Department uses someone who is a native speaker or a teacher who can work from the base language and translate back to English. The measure could act as a double-whammy because the Department would get extra English resources as well.
Let us say one is trying to teach French. If one took a French textbook and translated it into English as an English-speaking teacher one would say it does not hit the spot. It is the same for Irish speakers who have Irish as their first language. Something that is generated initially as Gaeilge from the cultural background of the Irish language is quite different from a translation.
Ms Teresa Griffin:
We debated whether or not we should have a definition. We referenced the US diagnostic and standardisation manual and stated the main criteria included. We did consider it, but we were aiming for a much thinner volume. Initially we thought we would have 20 pages but we are up to more than 100. Things fell out and this was one issue.
With regard to the reporting requirement, we really did not want to add to the administrative burden for schools. We wanted to reduce the administrative burden and we were delighted with the feedback Mr. Mulkerrins got from the principals that we succeeded in this. We have suggested to the Department that the reporting requirement should be built on what is available at present. All schools issue reports to parents and perhaps we can develop an IT package whereby all this would be brought together and then reported on a whole school basis.
Quiet spaces were hugely controversial. We absolutely believe there needs to be quiet spaces and we emphasise in our report the need for them. As there are 4,000 schools we cannot state there is one way of doing it, but we know there are very successful models in schools, from having beanbags at the back of classrooms to ear protectors. Certainly it was a point very well made to us by one student. When we asked what she would like her school to do for her she said she really wanted a small cupboard to sit in. We must be very conscious of the fact we do not have quiet spaces just as a reward. There is a balance but we are very conscious of the need for this.
Senator Kelleher asked about progressing disability services and whether there are links between health and education. There very much are links between health and education on the ground, but it varies from place to place as to how successful they are. With regard to how soon a post-school model can be put in place, this is something for consideration by the multiagency working group we have suggested should be put in place.
I thank the witnesses for appearing before the committee and giving of their time. It certainly has been a very informative and productive session for members on an issue of huge fundamental importance to all of us, not only to children with special needs and their families and teachers, but to communities and society as a whole. The new model the witnesses have outlined to us is a very positive step forward towards ensuring children with special needs have equity in their education and that they can access the resources they need in a very fair way. It also gives schools a fair degree of flexibility and independence in how they use their resources, which is very much to be welcomed. I thank the witnesses and we look forward to being in contact with them again at a future date.