Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 26 June 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
Advanced Skills Teachers and Special Classes in Mainstream Schools: Discussion
I remind members and witnesses to turn off their mobile phones or switch them to flight mode. Mobile phones interfere with the sound system and make it difficult for parliamentary reporters to report the meeting. Television coverage and web streaming is also adversely affected. The next item on the agenda is engagement with stakeholders on the provision of advanced skills teachers, AST, and special classes in mainstream schools throughout the State. We all agree every child should be given an equal opportunity to be educated in the environment that suits him or her best. With this in mind, we, as a committee, have prioritised the provision of AST and special classes in mainstream schools in our work programme. We wrote to a number of groups and organisations asking for written submissions. We received quite a number of those. We are going to have the opportunity to listen to, and engage with, a number of witnesses over the next few hours.
On behalf of the committee, I would like to welcome Mr. Adam Harris, CEO of AsIAm; Ms Lorraine Dempsey, communications and policy officer with the Special Needs Parents Association, who has been here before and who it is nice to see again; Ms Breda Corr, general secretary of the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education, who we have welcomed a number of times previously and who it is good to see again; Mr. Fergal Kelly from the Catholic Primary School Management Association; Mr. John Curtis, the general secretary of the Joint Managerial Body/Association of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools; and Ms Teresa Griffin, CEO of the National Council for Special Education, NCSE.
The format of this part of the meeting is that I will invite each of the witnesses to make a brief opening statement of no more than three minutes, which will be followed by engagement with members of the committee. If issues, matters or questions arise during that time, and if the witnesses feel they would like to come back to us at a later stage, please feel free to do so. If they correspond with Mr. Alan Guidon, the clerk, he will ensure we all get copies of that extra information which will be used in helping us formulate the report and recommendations that we will make to the Minister for Education and Skills and his Department.
Before we begin, I wish to draw witnesses' attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in to their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by me, as Chair, to cease giving evidence about a particular matter, and they continue to do so, they are entitled, thereafter only, to qualified privilege in respect of your evidence. They are directed that evidence only connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. Please respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name, or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I wish to advise witnesses that opening statements and submissions made to the committee will be published on the committee website after this meeting.
As you know, the meeting on Seanad reform is at 5 p.m. and, as we are both members of that committee, one of us has to go, and that is me today. Please accept my apologies that I have to leave to go to that meeting.
Mr. Adam Harris:
I thank the Chair and the committee for the invitation to attend today. I am the founder and CEO of AsIAm, an organisation working to build a more inclusive Ireland for autistic people. I founded the organisation based on my own experiences growing up with Asperger's syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum. I spent the first three years of my education in a special school, largely because when I was younger there were not autism classes available. As a result, my parents had to choose between sending me to a special school, far away from my local community, or sending me to a mainstream school, where I would not necessarily have the knowledge or support around me to enable me to access the curriculum. That is why I am passionate about ensuring every student who can access mainstream education with the help and support of an autism class has the opportunity to do so.
As an organisation, AsIAm firmly believes that many of the barriers that autistic people face in life come from how the world operates. On a day-to-day-basis, autistic people face barriers in terms of communication, sensory processing, predictability and, sadly, the judgement and attitude of other people. In recent years, Ireland has become much more autism-aware, by which I mean that most people can now point to someone they know who is on the autism spectrum. If not, they can cite numerous examples of autistic characters in popular media and culture. This is probably due to the fact that in recent years we have seen an important shift towards mainstreaming autistic people in school and the wider community. Indeed, according to the NCSE, one in 65 students in our school system now has an autism diagnosis.
It is important, however, that we do not confuse awareness with understanding. There remains a real lack of knowledge on how to support and include autistic people in all aspects of the community. School communities are not immune to this reality. Many autistic people now attend schools which have no formal training in how to support or meet our needs. Often, the way school is structured, the environment it takes place in and the social aspects of school life are not only not designed for autistic people but can be quite overwhelming and stressful, with dire consequences such as school refusal, bullying or mental health challenges.
Every day autistic people work to adapt to these challenging environments, which is why it is so important that the neurotypical, or non-autistic, world meets our community half way. That is why a well-resourced autism class, taught by a suitably skilled and qualified teacher, can play a vital role in ensuring so many autistic students can reach their personal potential and thrive.
I want to recognise the extraordinary work that already happens in many school communities. Indeed, I was fortunate enough to attend two extremely inclusive mainstream schools. The challenge, however, is to ensure that this is a universal experience. We can list many schools that are already doing this, but what is important is we should not have to. This should be something we do not need to comment on because it is really about the most basic indication of a child's right to education.
To that end, I would ask the committee to consider the following recommendations in its deliberations on this matter. Inclusion should not be optional. Naturally we want schools to open autism classes. We believe opening an autism class not only benefits the autism community but enriches a school community as well, as it includes students who think and do differently. Many schools choose to open classes but when no school in a local community is willing to do so, or when a number of families wish to access a particular school, based on family tradition or preference, that school should be obliged to meet that accessibility need, in this case an autism class.
Autistic students should face only the same enrolment processes as neurotypical students. For this to be a reality, it will require the provision of autism classes as some in our community will simply not manage at school without accessing one. We need to support school communities in changing their culture. We often open autism classes, or have autistic students in a school population, but never explore this aspect of diversity with the wider school community. We often create stigma by not discussing it, or by using offensive terms, such as "unit", to refer to an autism class. It is important to educate other students, parents and staff about this aspect of diversity. AsIAm provides workshops to students in second level and our experience is that, when students are equipped with the knowledge of how they can include, they warmly welcome and respond to it.
Quality is as important as quantity. At present, there is a wide variance in the quality of autism classes. Some are staffed by exceptional personnel, with advanced qualifications in autism, while others are staffed by those with little or no knowledge. Some school communities have worked hard to improve the sensory environment, educate their wider school and autism-proof their policies while others have chosen not to do this.
All teachers and special needs assistants assigned to an autism class should receive mandatory appropriate training prior to taking up their position. While this may seem obvious, it is nowhere near the reality today. Many staff do not access any training or are not able to access the courses they require until they take up their post. This is dangerous and puts autistic students at risk. We must ensure that the right supports are in place, sensitive to the needs of individual students. Every autistic student is different. The needs of every student will be totally different, as a result.
Some of the supports autistic students require may need input, training or therapeutic support from qualified clinical professionals such as occupational therapists, speech and language therapists or psychologists. It is important that this expertise is mainstreamed into an education system working to mainstream autistic students. In this regard, we welcome recent developments and policy proposals such as the in-school therapy service pilot
In conclusion, many schools have taken important steps to meaningfully include autistic students but this is far from universal. We must work to ensure that every school plays its part in meeting the needs of autistic students in a high-quality manner.
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
The Special Needs Parents Association exists to support all parents of persons with special needs regardless of their age or diagnosis. Our submission was put together from parents feeding back not just specifically on autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classes but also on other types of special classes. We are providing a platform for those minority voices. Parents' feedback was very consistent with reviews conducted by the National Council for Special Education in 2011 and 2015 on special classes in mainstream schools and students with ASD in schools.
There were several themes in the points parents brought across. One was the designation of special classes. While in the news we typically hear more about special classes for children with autism, there are children with mixed disabilities and specific speech and language impairments who require special classes. We endeavour to provide a platform for their voices. The composition of special classes should be determined in response to the needs of children with special educational needs within particular local communities, taking into account local demographics. In its report, the National Council for Special Education acknowledged that there are advantages to having special classes within mainstream schools. This will provide a continuum of special educational provision. As Mr. Harris outlined, the choice should not be between a mainstream or a special school. The development of special classes provides a halfway house to allow children to move along a continuum.
The need for autism specific special schools has been indicated by some parents. This is moving away from the inclusion model. We found that special schools are oversubscribed, particularly in the Dublin area. In the absence of additional special classes to support children in mainstream schools, this is becoming particularly problematic. Some parents of children with disabilities other than autism feel that while their child progressed in the mainstream primary school, once he or she reached post-primary school age, the environment proved too difficult. Down Syndrome Ireland did a study on this in respect of children who did not transition to mainstream secondary schools but had to transition into special schools. We would like a recommendation that further mixed special classes be considered at post-primary level to provide that continuum of support. These should be geographically spread out in order that children do not have to travel long distances and, in particular, can maintain peer relationships within their community. This is especially problematic if children are travelling on special school transport for between an hour and an hour and a half.
It has been acknowledged that there is a lack of ASD classes in post-primary schools. Inclusion Ireland did a study in 2014 indicating that the number of post-primary ASD classes provided is only a quarter of the number provided at primary level. Parents have been extremely vocal about the lack of provision of post-primary ASD classes, which they look for to maintain their children's placement in education. The Government has moved some way with the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016. When the provisions are enacted, the NCSE will have power to establish a special school class. As Mr. Harris indicated, it is not just about opening up a class but also about having trained teachers and a school that is practising an inclusion framework and is open to having children with special educational needs at that level.
For some time, parents have been very vocal in highlighting the lack of provision in certain geographic areas and particularly at post-primary level. These would have been frequently discussed as black spots around the country. Sometimes a particular principal might not have been very open to having a fully inclusive school while others indicated they did not have the appropriate funding or training and therefore did not want to open up special classes. Others may have had the attitude that it should be either mainstreaming or special school. A continuum of educational options is essential at second level and, where possible, the special class should be viewed as a base to which the post primary-pupil can revert as part of the range of supports to access mainstream education rather than solely remaining in a special class for the duration of their school experience. This can be particularly problematic for school leavers as they may not have the skills related to other employability schemes.
Teacher and special needs assistant training and core professional development have been raised consistently as a deficit in respect of teachers operating within special classes. The NCSE did research which found that 50% of teachers had no additional training in special education. This has an impact not only in special classes but also in mainstream education, where 24% of children with special educational needs are educated.
Teachers working in the units should be trained properly and have knowledge and understanding - not just an acceptance - of pupils with ASD and other special needs. They should certainly want to work in a special class. There has been some commentary that parents have picked up in the past, where teachers have said they do not want to work in those classes. They are the place where the youngest or newest member of staff is thrown, and there are remarks like "God love you". People should want to be working with our children.
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
Another issue that parents raised is that of ancillary supports in schools in respect of therapy. The deficits are well documented in terms of waiting lists for assessments for autism and also for actual intervention. In terms of special classes, the Department of Education and Skills still requires a diagnosis for a child to be enrolled in a special class. Given the huge delays on HSE waiting lists for assessment alone and diagnosis, it is very difficult for parents who feel a special class would be the most appropriate educational environment for their child.
The Department of Health and the Government have failed to invest in children's therapeutic interventions. Over the past two years, there has been zero investment in terms of the HSE service plan to fund additional therapists on HSE teams and disability network teams. Progressing disability services for children and young people aged up to 18 years was touted in 2009 as being the way to go to provide equity of access for therapeutic interventions for pupils regardless of where they lived, what type of disability they had and what school placement they were in. Unfortunately, there has been no investment in additional staff over the past two years. The last network team was established way back in 2014. It is now nine years since this programme was launched. The NCSE has found a significant way to circumvent this funding deficit with the HSE and Department of Health by being awarded €2.25 million for 31 new additional therapies. We welcome this new school-based initiative that we hope will be able to support children in the school setting.
I thank the Deputies and Senators. No doubt other witnesses will have specific directions for the committee that may be at odds with where parents are. Hopefully we will find consensus for the betterment of the education of our children.
Ms Breda Corr:
I have been here before so there is no need to go through introductions. Of the 200 schools represented by the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education, NABMSE, 40% are mainstream primary and post-primary schools with special classes. In preparation for this submission, we surveyed our members and referred to a consultation we had with them last year. At the heart of this submission are the best interests and education of the pupil and student. We welcome the recent publication of the comprehensive review of the special needs assistant scheme, where a new school inclusion model looks at providing the right supports at the right time to students with additional care needs. If this model is rolled out following a pilot, it will go some way to resolving the issues being identified by schools.
There have been other recent developments which we also welcome, including the report of the working group on nursing supports for special schools and the progress of the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill. There will be some issues with the regulations but we will address those at a later stage. As Ms Dempsey also indicated, while the focus of the committee's invitation for today's meeting seemed to be on the provision of ASD classes in mainstream schools, we must recognise that other classes may need to be set up in mainstream schools depending on needs identified locally. I identified eight issues but I will not go through each of them in detail.
They include planning for and setting up classes, training and information, clinical supports, resources, inclusion and transition planning, which is extremely important, curriculum, which is now in place, recruitment and staffing, and review of placement. On planning, I just checked with the NCSE and there are 1,057 classes at primary level and 397 at post-primary level. That speaks for itself. Schools should be given time to plan for the proper provision of these classes, including staff training, thus ensuring that the students are provided with an appropriate education. Planning for post-primary and the transitions should be done much earlier. The identification of the locations of special classes should form part of the forward planning brief of the Department of Education and Skills, which it is not at present, in the same way that schools are identified for towns.
On training and information, I will not labour the point previous speakers have made about training, but there are significant ongoing training needs. I am hoping the report will go some way towards that. There has to be whole-school training. I would love if the NCSE set out a programme of training for all schools that are setting up a special class, both before and after, so the school is not left to itself. There would be a specific training pathway. Schools should visit other schools that are models of good practice. I know a few of them and if anybody wishes to visit them, we will bring them to them. Training and placement in special education settings should be encouraged in all areas of initial teacher education. We are working with a specific college that is very keen to do this for post-primary. That is very important.
We all know what the clinical supports are, and I welcome the recently announced pilot. This will give a continuum of support, but there is a need for more therapists in the community. My fear is that there are not enough therapists being trained in the country. Incidentally, I had a discussion with Deputy Thomas Byrne previously about psychology. With regard to the set-up and resources, there are certain training costs that need to be renewed every two years. I told the committee previously that this is funded out of fundraising or capitation. That should not be done. We get an enhanced capitation grant and there is a little more for post-primaries as well, but that has been reduced over the years. A very strong recommendation is that we must examine the capitation overall but certainly in special education settings because the costs are higher. There is grant aid but perhaps it is time to review it to see if it is enough.
With regard to inclusion and transition planning, if a pupil is attending a special class in a mainstream setting, it should be the aim of the school to include the pupil in as many mainstream class activities as possible. This should lead to the full inclusion eventually. It might not happen but it should be attempted. However, the school requires resources. The NCSE has a fantastic publication, the "Inclusive Education Framework". That must be rolled out again. There are some other areas around transition but there should be a very definite plan or strategy on inclusion from the Government whereby all areas of the Government are working together.
Some of the good news is that there are some good new developments in the curriculum at post-primary level. Sometimes, however, we tend to forget about special education when reviewing things, such as literacy and numeracy, but junior cycle level two and junior cycle level one will be very good for pupils with special education needs. There are ten post-primary schools and two special schools involved in the review of the senior cycle, so that will be very good.
I will not go through the recruitment and staffing. Some schools have suggested that there should be more than one special class set up. That would get away from the isolation and would give support. All teachers in the schools should be included when allocating principal release days. Somebody will probably ask me what that means. All teachers should also be included when management resources posts are set up. Finally, schools that set up special classes want to provide the best resources in education for pupils and are very disappointed when it does not work out for the pupil. Any review should not be taken lightly, but they should be supported in that. If it is not the right place for the child, that must be reviewed for the child, not for the school.
Mr. Fergal Kelly:
I thank the committee for its decision to consider the matter of the provision of special classes and for the opportunity to provide this input to its deliberations. I also wish to thank our member schools and principals who have provided feedback to us for this submission.
The provision of a special class provides many opportunities and, indeed, challenges for schools. In my experience, special classes are a very positive development for a school in a whole-school sense. They provide opportunities for the pupils to achieve, prosper and integrate with their peers in a whole-school setting. Special classes also provide opportunities for staff to learn new skills and to take on other more specialised teaching roles in the school. Special classes in our schools provide opportunities for our school communities to enrich themselves in the knowledge, learning and support for pupils with special needs.
In terms of workload, I refer to the position of a teaching principal in circumstances where the challenge is often having to manage what are, in effect, two separate different types of schools with very different needs, challenges and expectations under one roof and making them gel together to make one successful educational facility, while also having a class and teaching full-time at the same time. Many of the significant tasks for principals are consulting the other professionals, creating and maintaining an appropriate physical environment for pupils, sourcing and purchasing associated educational equipment and technology and the increased administration that is often a feature of having a special class, such as policy formation, dealing with admissions, formation of support plans and so forth.
The CPSMA makes the following recommendations. Special classes are a positive addition to a primary school and our member schools strive to ensure that all pupils in their schools are provided with equality of access. However, given the increasing workload which this places upon principals and boards of management, the CPSMA believes that serious consideration should be given to ensuring that every principal of a school with special classes would become an administrative principal. Schools should, whenever possible, be encouraged and supported to establish special classes, rather than being compelled to do so. Adequate continuous professional development for teachers and SNAs working in mainstream schools with special classes must be made available on a whole-school basis. All of us have mentioned that so far today. We welcome the regional support teams proposed by the NCSE which will endeavour to support schools in this area, as laid out in the recently published comprehensive review of the SNA scheme.
Many smaller schools have access to part-time secretaries and caretakers. With regard to sensory needs, sometimes that includes better facilities in terms of sensory gardens and so forth. The increased administrative burden on schools and the workload could be alleviated by the provision of increased funding towards provision of ancillary staff where schools only have funding for part-time ancillary staff. The current system of management of bus escorts sees the Department provide a grant to individual schools from which each bus escort is paid. We call for bus escorts to be paid centrally by the Department of Education and Skills in a similar manner to SNAs.
Breda Corr has already spoken about the increase in capitation. In terms of resources and funding, we acknowledge the different rates for capitation, but we believe increased costs for schools due to special class facilities merit an overall increase in the capitation for each pupil. We strongly believe that funding for schools must be restored. We call for immediate restoration of the capitation grant in this year's budget to €200 per pupil and for the minor works grant to be paid every year as a non-discretionary payment by the Government.
I am old enough to remember therapy supports which involved occupational and speech therapists coming into schools. This worked very well for the most part, but they were discontinued in 2005 or 2006. It was a great opportunity for all partners - parents, therapists multi-disciplinary teams and educationists - to meet together in a school setting. We might look at this approach again. The NCSE's proposals have a positive approach to it and I look forward to reviewing it.
Mr. John Curtis:
The joint managerial body, JMB, represents the managements of over 370 voluntary secondary schools. Voluntary secondary schools of all denominations are extraordinarily inclusive and have a long history of putting those who are marginalised at the centre of school enterprise. Each school community reflects the spirit of a Christian family and the Government policy of integrating young people challenged with special educational needs aligns with the ethos of our schools. Young people get a single chance at education and the option of standing still in a changing landscape of new insight is not the way forward. Our principals and boards of management are, as ever, open to engaging fully with the Department and the NCSE on the continued roll-out and development of special class provision in our schools. The JMB works closely with the Department and its agencies such as the NCSE, the SESS, the NEPS and the State Examinations Commission, SEC. We also work in collaboration with the ACCS and ETBI. In 2013 the JMB proposed a new model for allocating resources on the basis of school profiling, a proposal which was eventually adopted as policy and implemented as the school profile model, which is proving to be very successful.
Such special education provision operates within a set of parameters: students with the greatest level of need require access to greater levels of support; schools need resources to facilitate early intervention; schools require stability in SEN staffing; there must be flexibility in response at both school and system level; schools need professionally delivered support to develop their capacity to provide for special educational needs; and there has to be external oversight of the use of resources to ensure equity and support best practice.
To support schools, the Department, the NCSE and the NEPS have published a number of advisory and guidance documents on special classes, but guidelines only get a school so far. The national challenge of mainstreaming virtually every child and young person with special educational needs demands a serious commitment to putting in place appropriate infrastructure, annual funding and human resources, but, particularly in the area of therapeutic supports, this has yet to materialise. The JMB is, therefore, heartened to note the recent launch of a proposed model of support for students with additional care needs and looks forward to engaging with the Department and the NCSE on its implementation.
Whether in special or mainstream class settings, special education provision relies on three guiding principles, the first of which is that all students, irrespective of their special educational needs, are welcomed and enabled to enrol in their local schools. As I said, voluntary secondary schools have, well in advance of any legislation or regulation, provided for the inclusive enrolment of, and an appropriate education for, all of their students, irrespective of their physical, sensory or cognitive abilities. Voluntary secondary school managements, therefore, continue to welcome the establishment of special classes within our schools. The JMB strongly affirms the provisions for designating special classes in schools under the forthcoming admission to school Bill and looks forward to engaging with the Department on the regulatory framework under which this provision will be made.
The second principle is that additional teaching supports are deployed and managed effectively by schools to support students with special educational needs. Effective deployment requires time, administration, equipment and expertise. In particular, the professionalisation of special education teaching must be extended to a much wider cohort of teachers than has so far been achieved. We ask the Minister to increase the number of funded postgraduate special education places in third level colleges.
A whole-school approach needs to be adopted by schools to the education of students with special educational needs. To achieve this, schools need to maintain and appropriately share records of baseline information, goals and progress. A raft of other administrative tasks associated with special classes include frequent meetings, reporting, assessment, co-ordination, planning, evaluation, crisis management, scheduling, parent support, liaison with external agencies and primary schools, accountability measures, NEPS requirements, SENO requirements, staff development and pupil testing, all of which are also associated with best practice but which make extraordinary demands on already overwhelmed principals and special education teachers. At a minimum, therefore, the JMB urges the Department to allocate a special needs co-ordinator post of responsibility to all post-primary schools based on the existing programme co-ordinator model of POR with time for duties. This would significantly enhance school-level capacity to comply with the new accountability measures comprehended by current policy, as well as reducing the erosion of student time, for which the allocation of hours was made in the first instance.
We in the JMB have a strong record of supporting the roll-out of special class provision at both school and system level. Inclusion represents a clear gospel value for our schools, but the State must equally ensure its policy of mainstreaming young people with complex SEN challenges is resourced and supported. To this end, the JMB has worked closely with the autism advocacy organisation AsIAm to jointly develop a set of resources to support families and educators of young people with autism in our schools. At the education conference in the last academic year the theme was special educational needs and we were delighted that Mr. Adam Harris was our keynote speaker. Following the conference, he has engaged with the JMB to help to support schools in understanding autism and special needs requirements in that space. Perhaps he might comment in more detail on it later today. We will, of course, continue to work closely with our management colleagues across the sectors and the Department and its agencies and look forward to engaging with the Oireachtas committee on this most important issue.
Ms Teresa Griffin:
I thank the Chairman for inviting the NCSE. At this point, I will highlight just a few points in the written submission forwarded to the committee recently.
The NCSE has a number of responsibilities in relation to special classes. We sanction special classes in mainstream schools; allocate teaching and SNA support for those classes; provide professional development training for teachers and principals in schools with special classes, something we have done since last year; and undertake research and provide policy advice for the Minister.
In recent years the NCSE has worked with many schools and sanctioned substantial numbers of special classes. We have moved from having 39 classes for children with autism in 2001 to 1,454 in the next school year. There are 264 classes outside those for autism. Of the total, 73% are in primary schools and 27% in post-primary schools, while 82% are for students with ASD.
Opening a special class happens in two ways. One is where a SENO identifies the need for such a class in an area and approaches all schools in the district to see which would be willing to open such a class. The other is when a school contacts a SENO and requests sanction for a class. There are a small number of cases where it has not proved possible to obtain school agreement to open a special class or where schools wish to take more time to consider opening a special class.
The reasons for this can vary. Sometimes the school simply does not have enough accommodation or space on its campus. Sometimes there can be concerns about the perceived inadequacy of the resources available and provided for schools. The final decision in each case rests with the board of management of the school and the patron if a change of building is needed. Therefore, the NCSE welcomes the provisions set out in the Education (Admissions to Schools) Bill 2016 which will give the Minister the authority to direct, after a process has been followed, that a special class should be opened. We think this positive development will help to alleviate some of the local issues. We hope this power will never have to be used.
I would like to highlight three findings from recent policy advice on special classes. First, the NCSE considers that the purpose of special classes needs to be further clarified. When we have been looking at policy advice as part of our work, we have come across cases in which schools state special classes are resourced for the more able students only, not for students with more complex needs. Second, we believe that because of the complexity of the post-primary set-up, with its multiplicity of classes, the current special class model may not be the most appropriate or suitable one for post-primary students. We want to do some more work on this issue. Third, our research has found that students who have been enrolled in special schools or classes rarely re-enrol full-time in mainstream education. This is a concern because students' level of inclusion in mainstream classes or their access to the full curriculum, or both, may be limited. Such inclusion and access are very important for the development of their social skills and getting them ready for life after school. We are concerned about this.
We are working with the Department of Education and Skills on the infrastructural, planning and broader issues I have mentioned. A short-acting joint working group of the NCSE and the Department is considering how to improve how we plan for short-term, medium-term and long-term physical infrastructure and school transport. The broader qualitative issues will be considered as part of a further piece of policy analysis and advice. Work on this aspect of the matter will commence later this year. In the meantime, the developing NCSE support service will continue to provide the professional development training that is badly needed by teachers and principals. It is providing in-school support for teachers of students with special educational needs, including ASD, in mainstream and special settings. As others mentioned, an in-school demonstration project in respect of speech and language and occupational therapy will be starting in September. I think everybody is very excited about the possibilities in that regard.
We have been doing a lot of work to try to make sure there are special classes across a range of subjects and disabilities. I am not simply talking about ASD classes, even though they are important. As Ms Corr mentioned, this is not just about ASD classes. As part of the confidence and supply agreement, Fianna Fáil asked for legislation to ensure classes would be provided. Mr. Curtis has addressed a general comment made, that there is a real problem at second level. Clearly, schools in the voluntary secondary school sector see themselves as places of excellence and want to do really well. They are looking at league tables and trying to compete for students. Notwithstanding the issues mentioned by Mr. Curtis, there is a reluctance in the voluntary secondary school sector, in particular, to take on special classes. He can shoot me down if he wants. Perhaps he will, but I would like him to respond to what has been said. I would also like Ms Griffin to elaborate on her suggestion "the current special class model may not be the most appropriate or suitable one for post-primary students."
I thank all of the delegates for their presentations. Mr. Harris has said we need to "ensure that this is a universal experience" and pointed out that "inclusion should not be optional." I would be interested in hearing the views of others on that matter. I agree with Deputy Thomas Byrne that some schools seem to be reluctant. I do not think it is just about not having enough space. Inclusion is really important.
I have a lot of experience of being in special classes. Some schools are so welcoming and do it so well. I ask the representatives of the management bodies if they have a system that allows experiences to be shared. I can think of one or two really good principals who love having special classes and integrate them very well into their schools. They are very enthusiastic, but, unfortunately, there are others who resist in one way or another. I know that the management bodies have annual conferences. Do they encourage, at those forums or elsewhere, peer learning to facilitate principals who embrace special classes in encouraging other principals to do likewise? We need to get to a point where we will not have a shortage of places. In some cases, parents have to travel to get to a school that has a special class. Ms Dempsey might have a view on this interesting area.
I do not normally refer to my time as Minister, but I would like to mention that when I went to a school in Waterford in my previous role, a parent asked me to tell everyone to stop using the word "unit". I think all of the delgates have referred to that matter. I was delighted to see that all of the language was about "classes", which is very positive.
Ms Griffin has mentioned that very few children move from special classes or schools to mainstream schools. Would anyone else like to comment on this? Ms Corr might respond to the related point that special schools are, by and large, considered to be primary schools, even when they have post-primary students. Is there a way around this? It sometimes means that children who attend these schools have no access to the breadth of subjects available. Could they be linked with the nearest secondary school or something like it? It seems that an imaginative way of dealing with the issue needs to be found. If the number of children in the post-primary part of the special school is relatively small, it can be difficult to have enough teachers to cover a broad range of subjects.
I could ask all sorts of practical question, but I will leave it at that.
I thank the delegates for their presentations. I have a few questions.
I have a knot in my stomach when I talk about this subject because my daughter who has just turned 17 years has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome in the past nine months. I admit that the diagnosis saved her life. I did not think I would get her out of secondary school alive because of the experiences she was having, through no fault of mine or the school. We did not know with what we were dealing at the time. We thought there were mental health issues. I brought her everywhere from the age of 12 or 13 years, but her mental health got worse. Since her diagnosis, her life has turned around, although, obviously, we still have struggles. That is where the training comes in.
I have heard the delegates talk about the training of teachers. Even though my daughter is 17 years old, I am still learning how to respond to the different quirks in her personality and what triggers or does not trigger her. I am still learning about what to do when there is too much pressure. As a result of my daughter's diagnosis, I can respond to her in a way that alleviates massive amounts of pressure. When we did not have the diagnosis, I did not know with what I was dealing. If a parent does not know how to respond or how to begin to understand patterns or triggers, it is very difficult for a teacher in a special class or special school to do so. Obviously, my daughter's teachers were dealing with a lot of children and had to understand various patterns, personalities and triggers. I understand how difficult it is.
I cannot, therefore, imagine putting a teacher into a special class or whatever we are going to call units, although that is definitely not the word we use, who did not want to teach in that particular environment. It is not a bad reflection on the teacher, who perhaps does not feel that their skills or interests lie in special education. This is not positive for the child, teacher, school or the parents. As I learn, and as I look back on my daughter's life, I cannot believe I did not realise that was what it was. The first person I called was Adam.
There is also the matter of training. I am thinking of myself as a mother and what I needed to help my daughter on her journey. Kids are in school for a long time during the day and to be face to face with someone who does not have that understanding, awareness or training has a detrimental affect, which comes from the school setting and which I experienced with my daughter. It takes a lot for me to admit that I was having a negative effect on her but that was the reality. I would like to hear more from the witnesses about their thoughts on types of training. What is the uptake for training at the Middletown Centre of Autism? What about teachers accessing training as a requirement prior to entering the classroom, rather than when they take it up? Anyone of the witnesses can answer these questions.
Sensory rooms are an expensive, and welcome, feature in schools, however there is no funding to hire the occupational therapists to train the teachers on how to use them. How important is it to introduce and implement that?
The location of schools is important, and ensuring that children have access locally. Some children spend a long time on buses. I have recently been supporting a mother whose child is ten years old. He was expelled last October while he was in CAMHS, with no diagnosis. He was granted a place in a school but then there was a problem of securing an escort on the bus. We are now going into July. That child has had no schooling for a couple of months, and then attended school sporadically when the parent could make the long journey themselves to get the child to school. This will have a massive impact on the child's reintegration back in September. What supports are needed for schools to have open communication with Bus Éireann and ensure that the Department ensures that escorts are available? Witnesses might speak to some of the practicalities on that.
My next question is for Ms Dempsey. Have parents discussed, or do they have a position on, policies of restraint and isolation rooms? One mother is raising the use of isolation rooms with me at the moment. It has been argued in the past that isolation rooms should not be in use. I was contacted by a parent on the northside of Dublin about her child, aged seven years, who has no diagnosis. He was restrained by four teachers in school. She knew that if they backed off that he would calm down and that the practice of restraining the child was making the situation worse. I do not seek to blame the teachers here. I cannot imagine what that environment must be like if one is concerned or worried that the child might run out of school but I wonder what impact this has on the child. How do parents feel about these policies? How do they feel about expulsion while children are linked in with different services, and are then expelled. Are there options or avenues that are, or should be, taken first before a child is expelled from school?
I welcome the all witnesses. I particularly thank Mr. Adam Harris for his presentation and I also thank Senator Ruane for her contribution, which provided us with first-hand information of what it is like to live through that experience. I found it beneficial as I am sure we all did. The dreaded word, "resources" seems recurs in everyone's contribution. It is important that we acknowledge that much good work has been done and we have made great strides in this field. However, according to these contributions here, I am left with the feeling that we have so much more to do and there are so many moving parts that it is difficult to connect them all. There are the therapists on the ground who must let a parent know what a child's needs are by the time the child goes to school. I know a mother going through this. Her child has been in school for some time and is yet to be assessed. We can talk about training teachers but it is difficult because if they do not know a child's diagnosis, how are they meant to help them and progress that child?
Mr. Curtis and Mr. Kelly specifically referred to the role of the school principal. There is an ongoing campaign on the role of the school principal. These professionals are at the end of their tether because they are exhausted from both the teaching and administrative responsibilities. I know of several principals who have reverted to mainstream teaching because they could not cope with the workload. Unfortunately, their cry has fallen on deaf ears so far. There is campaign to get the Department and the Minister to acknowledge that something needs to be about the role of the school principal and its future direction. They are responsible for everything in that school from the point of view of legislation, administration, curriculum, dealing with parents and children, boards of management, the running of the school and so on. The role has got to the point where it is difficult to take this role on board on top of what they are doing. It is a big issue. If we are serious about tackling this issue, we need to look at resources but it is also essential that we look at the role of the school principal to improve the lot of our children going through the system with special needs.
I thank everyone for their presentations and for sharing their experience and knowledge of this area.
The Education (Admission to Schools) Bill, which just passed through the Dáil and is now before the Seanad, gives the Minister the power to compel the school to open a special class in a school through a process that is begun by the NCSE. That is slightly different from the calls that we heard when we were dealing with the Bill at committee, namely that the NCSE should have the power to compel. Do the witnesses have an opinion on the Minister's amendment? Do it adequately provide for this? The amendment also refers to insufficient capacity in an area. I never understood how that would be defined. Would it be one pupil or two, or ten? Does the amendment still give a school an opportunity to say "No"? How is that defined?
I have often raised management, leadership and learning, MLL, evaluations at this committee. Schools undergo two and a half days of MLL evaluation and then the inspectorate reports back to the staff on the Friday, for example. I am aware of a school which has many children with special education needs and that celebrates diversity in a good way, that the inspector asked the staff, almost as a criticism, if they had ever asked themselves why they have so many children with special educational needs. Apart from being a shameful comment, has it come to the witnesses' attention that these questions are being asked in schools that embrace diversity and are doing their best for children with special education needs? More important, is the question being asked of the school down the road, for example, as to why they do not have children with special educational needs? This might be something that we can push here but is this something of which the witnesses are aware? Can they link in with the inspectorate and ensure that if one question is asked of one school that the other question is asked of the other school?
We all know of the schools that cherry-pick and that do not provide for children with special education needs. Has any assessment been done of these schools? Do they also not provide for leaving certificate applied, LCA? Do they follow the league tables rather than the needs of children in their community? Is there a correlation between schools that do not provide the LCA and does not have many, if any, children with special educational needs and schools that provide the LCA and has many children with special educational needs? Is this something that the Department should look at? How can it be addressed?
I am curious about whole-school training. Has Ms Corr thought about what it would look like?
Mr. Harris said that teachers have been trained to deal with children and the different types of special educational needs that might present in the classroom and that they do a good job but classmates do not have an understanding. He referred to the attitude and judgment but it may arise because they have not been educated on it. I was delighted to read that AsIAm is providing workshops to students at second level in many schools. It is something that should be rolled out nationwide so it is not sporadic. Has thought been given to that? Is it something the Department might consider in order that every child is educated and that we can truly celebrate diversity because we understand how to celebrate it?
I apologise for being so late. I had to attend an event in my son's school in Kilkenny. One has to make ten of one's self sometimes in this job. I had to be there.
It is an area I have a huge interest in and I apologise if my questions have been asked. A key area is the lack of a uniform approach to the quality of the classroom and the equipment is available. In some schools the ASD classroom is a prefab tacked on at the end; in others it is good and state-of-the-art. In some schools the quality of education and teaching means these children have a fantastic experience while in other cases children go through two or three schools with ASD classrooms because they are not working for them. Sometimes we are afraid to say that but it is a big issue that needs to be addressed. What are the witnesses' opinions on that and what we could we do to change it? There cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach but should more measures be implemented? Some schools and teachers are very good so if children are in that area they are lucky but if they are not the attitude is that it is tough luck.
The transition from primary to secondary school is an issue that comes up frequently. Some kids seem not to get any resources at secondary school level yet they got quite a lot of assistance at primary school level. This has a detrimental impact on their education. Have the witnesses experienced this? There are students who do not qualify for additional supports for their junior certificate or leaving certificate exams even though one would have thought that having had a diagnosis since primary school they would get additional resources at second level but that does not seem to happen.
There will be an opportunity to ask further questions. I will ask the witnesses a number of questions. I agree with Deputy O'Sullivan regarding the lack of dedicated post-primary schools to deal with this issue. In her submission, Ms Griffin said that research showed that when students were enrolled in special schools or classes, they rarely re-enrolled in mainstream education. I agree but I have found there are students who come through mainstream education and then there is no place for them and they have to return to a special school, which is wrong. I attended the 50th AGM of KARE last night which caters for young people with intellectual disability in Kildare and west Wicklow. It has two schools, St. Anne's and St. Marks. I spoke to Pauline Dempsey, who is the principal of St. Anne's, who presented to the committee previously on the challenges principals face dealing with these issues, particularly in Kildare where we have a growing population. She spoke about dealing with children who have come through mainstream primary education and do not have places at post-primary schools. There are 62 special classes in Kildare but there are only 18 at post-primary level. The conversation was about the fact they will have a new building because the present building is subsiding. There will be extra classrooms in it for the children coming from special classes in mainstream schools. There will be 18 teachers who will deal with post-primary subjects so why not try to develop a post-primary special school? It would be the first in the country but we could do it as a pilot scheme there. Children would take junior certificate subjects. It would be a great scheme to pilot. We would have a post-primary special school that would be an option for those coming from a mainstream school. The best option would be for students who have been in mainstream education to continue in mainstream education but that is proving to be a huge issue. I imagine it is the same in areas where there is high growth in population.
I agree with Deputy Martin on the whole-school evaluation. It should take on board the notion of inclusive education, which is important. Mr. Harris spoke about students continuing to experience soft barriers in accessing schools of their choice, which is also my experience. Will he elaborate further on those barriers?
How is the NCSE aware of emerging needs for special education classes or schools? Is it satisfied there are sufficient ASD class places to meet existing demand, particularly at post-primary level? In my experience in Kildare, it seems to be ad hoc.Twelve students were leaving Scoil na Naomh Uilig but nothing was in place for them. Luckily, something was put in place but protracted lobbying was required for that. We had the meeting in Tullamore with the Department. I raised the issue with the forward planning unit. I thank the Department for an excellent presentation but there was no sense of how it was planning for children with special needs, whether autism, Asperger's syndrome or any other special need. That was the missing piece of the jigsaw in terms of forward planning. It is something that needs to be implemented.
I agree with the recommendation of the joint managerial body that the Department should allocate a special needs co-ordinator to all post-primary schools with designated times for duties. It would enhance the school capacity. I am interested in the other stakeholders' views on how they think that would help.
Ms Griffin mentioned the working group comprising the NCSE and the Department which is considering school transport and how it should be centralised in the Department. We have an issue with the mobility allowance which for some of the older students is a problem in terms of placement. There was a commitment to resolve that but there is nothing on it at the moment.
The submissions refer to the problems we have at post-primary level for certain areas because private post-primary schools are not funded to cater for special needs. Could Ms Griffin explain how SENOs are challenging private schools? It is an important factor.
I acknowledge that the submissions refer to the fact there is an insufficient number of NEPS psychologists to support children to access the curriculum and the whole-school environment. I am interested in Ms Griffin's comment on the waiting system used by NEPS to allocate service times to schools and how it relates to the increases in numbers at primary and post-primary level.
Senator Ruane referred to the benefits of using the services of Middletown Centre for Autism. Only 17 children from the Republic of Ireland were enrolled in the programme by comparison with 66 from Northern Ireland so I am just not sure that stakeholders are aware of the programme. We need to consider that.
That is pretty much it. I will now hand over to the stakeholders. If there are further questions that members wish to put them, they may do so. The delegates should bear in mind what I said at the start, that is, that if there is anything else they feel they would like to send in by way of written submission afterwards, they should feel free to do so. There were a number of questions. I call on Mr. Harris first.
Mr. Adam Harris:
I am going to try to address as many of those points as were relevant.
Deputy Thomas Byrne and the Chairman raised the issue of soft barriers. It is important that we examine the whole-community element. We have had the experience of families presenting at schools indicating they would like them to open an autism class or would like their children on the autism spectrum to be enrolled only to be told the school down the road is very good at that or that the school does not really do what they want. Often, it can be more subtle, however, particularly in very competitive areas. An example is league tables. The media have had very serious questions to answer in this regard since we have chosen to move people with disabilities into the mainstream school system. Every year, our definition of what constitutes a good or bad school is still based on how many people proceed to college. It is quite insulting to people who have disabilities. Quite often, it creates many soft barriers.
Until a couple of weeks ago, there was not a single secondary school offering an autism class in Dublin 2, Dublin 4, Dublin 6, Dublin 6W or Dublin 8, which essentially make up one side of the Liffey. We supported a campaign group in this regard. We really need to be educating parents whose children are not autistic in this regard. During the recession, we saw a real hardening of attitudes among those parents to the idea of a child with autism or another disability attending in class. Therefore, there is a real need to be met. While we need more autism classes, particularly at second level, I am particularly enthusiastic about making sure it is done in the correct way and that we have the community behind us when we do so.
On Deputy Catherine Martin's point on the training we provide, we have provided training right across the country to second level groups and we have had a very positive experience in that regard. We are developing this into a four-part online module for transition year this year. We plan to launch a suite of resources for primary school teachers to lead the conversation. If the Department wants to get behind the initiative, our door is certainly open.
I want to pick up on what Senator Lynn Ruane said about training. This is so important because, in sharing her story, she drew attention to the fact that we need to be mindful that this is not just about school places; it is ultimately about the whole trajectory of a person's life. At second level, unfortunately we are seeing more and more people dropping out of the school system and becoming invisible. When that takes place, we not only see a person fall out of school but also a person being cut off from the system completely and going down a particular pathway on which it can be challenging to turn around.
One of the most challenging aspects of determining what autism training should look like is that autism is sometimes counterintuitive. That is what makes it distinct from other disabilities. Often what is very good practice for a teacher in teaching most students is the worst possible thing to do with a student on the autism spectrum. A very simple example is eye contact. It might be normal to expect people who are not on the autism spectrum to make eye contact, but in order for a student who is on the autism spectrum to hear what one is saying, he or she might not be able to make eye contact. It is sometimes quite difficult for people to get their head around. Empathy is very important. This is particularly true at second level. Whatever about training just one teacher, it is important that we ensure all the teachers in the school - because we want the child to be integrated as much as possible - have a certain level of training and an understanding of some of the differences associated with interaction and behaviour.
This is linked to Senator Lynn Ruane's point on restraint. I am still quite concerned about the autism-proofing of school policies. It is still the case that families get in touch with us relatively frequently about children experiencing sensory overload or having meltdowns. That is being addressed by the school system through schools' codes of behaviour. My difficulty is we are addressing autistic people's needs is the same way we are addressing the issue of the guy smoking behind the school shed. Therefore, there is a real need to autismp-roof our policies if we are to support people properly. This extends to stimming. I have seen a lot of physical restraint used to stop people from stimming, which is an important means by which autistic people self-regulate. It should be encouraged as opposed to prevented.
The final point on which I wish to pick up is that of Deputy Funchion on the difference between supports at primary level and supports at second level. The student voice is particularly important in this context. Often as one becomes a teenager with autism, one becomes much more aware of one's differences, and one can feel much more self-conscious. I walk down the corridors of secondary schools sometimes and see posters about LGBT issues, mental health and intercultural matters but we are still not talking about autism. It can feel like a very isolating experience. Sometimes how we provide supports can highlight the person more and make him feel less comfortable. He might not want an adult sitting beside him and might not want to get called out of class to go to a resource teacher.
In the course of our work at university level, we found that many students choose not to disclose autism when they go to university or in adult life because of how they were supported at school. Therefore, we really need to start listening to how people want to be supported and to be more mindful of it.
We are very excited about the partnership we have with the Joint Managerial Body because there is so much good practice. We are hopeful that, by developing this resource, we will be able to provide a free online module at whole-school level for teachers to understand the empathy element. I hope we will be able to use this to bottle the good practice that is happening in pockets around the country and to help to make it more universal.
Mr. John Curtis:
Let me follow on from the point Mr. Adam Harris made on good practice in the system. There is considerable good practice in the system and in our schools. We aspire to having all our schools inclusive in every way, especially in the context of special educational needs. In our organisation we did considerable work over recent years just to support schools in that space. We have special educational needs advisory groups. We have a DEIS advisory group set up this year, again to help schools in this space who are looking after children with special educational needs. On occasion, we can be under-resourced. Ours is the under-resourced sector; everybody knows that.
Incrementally, we are all dealing with the challenges special educational needs bring to us. There is now fantastic work being done. The new special educational needs allocation model is working very well. It will be re-examined over the next couple of years. The NCSE is very much engaged with Mr. Eamon Stack, who has done marvellous work in this sphere, in the context considering long-term needs apropos SNAs or inclusion support systems for schools. It is an incremental space. We are all learning and we are all developing. There is marvellous work being done in schools.
I was struck by something when listening to Senator Lynn Ruane. When I started as a principal, in 1995, I did not know what Asperger's syndrome was. Therefore, we are all in that educative space. It is important for our schools and teachers that we up-skill ourselves. In the context of up-skilling people who would be able to take on the responsibility in our schools, I was in touch with somebody in one of the third level institutions only this morning. That individual said the institution is very oversubscribed and does not have the places for people who want to up-skill and train in the area of special educational needs and autism. That is fantastic in some respects because it would not have been the case four years ago. There is growing awareness of our responsibilities and needs in the system. Since we deal with schools, we see at first hand that there is fantastic work being done on the ground. Can we improve it? We certainly can. We are very excited about some of the projects we are engaged in. Mr. Adam Harris's project is just fantastic. It has been very educative for us also as educators in the Joint Managerial Body. We are still on that learning path ourselves, and we will continue to try to improve.
On good practice, the need for mentors was mentioned earlier, as was the fact that there are principals really taking this on board. Ms Noreen Duggan of Scoil na Naomh Uilig appeared before the committee. Her school is a really good example. The issue, however, is that we need to give the resources to a school if we want somebody therein to demonstrate good practice to other schools. Resources and backup are required to put that into place. That is an important aspect.
Ms Breda Corr:
With regard to Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's remarks, I agree with Mr. Adam Harris that inclusion should not be optional. It should at least be attempted in all cases. Some people do it very well. We were asked about the sharing of experiences. Our annual conference is open to everyone, or to all our members. Operating out of education centres in a number of areas are support groups of principals. In the south Dublin area, in particular, I am very aware of it. It extends down as far as Wicklow. Those concerned have done it themselves, and special schools and special classes go. I have not used the word "unit" since I was challenged last year in here, or I have used it very little.
To address the breadth of the subject, all special schools are classified as national schools. Many years ago we suggested to the Department that some of the specialist teachers would be shared between primary and post-primary. Those teachers might not have full hours in a secondary school and could easily do hours elsewhere. However, the problem with those hours is that they have never been increased. Specialist teachers are working on junior cycle level one or level two. Some primary school teachers in special schools have applied to the support services but they are ineligible for employment, despite being the most skilled people to teach levels one and two.
Deputy O'Loughlin spoke about the pilot scheme. There is a school in a completely different part of the country that is operating as a post-primary school, catering for students aged 12 to 18 years. A sister school caters for students up to the age of 12 years. The school operates as a post-primary school as much as it can. As a school for mild special educational needs, it is not in the same league as St. Anne's or-----
Ms Breda Corr:
That school is in Cork. It operates for students aged 12 to 18 years, so it is distinct. It does not cater for younger children.
Senator Ruane asked about training. Mr. Harris goes into schools to talk to pupils, but teachers often need to know what to look out for. They might not know that a student has Asperger's syndrome. Similar to Senator Ruane, I have known a person who was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome at age 16 but the principal of the school did not tell the other teachers the pupil had been diagnosed. It is almost exactly the same story as that recounted by Senator Ruane, and it created a very difficult situation for that student. I would love to see whole-school training, but it would involve closing the school. If the teachers have to access training, they have to be substituted for, which, as we all know, is impossible at the moment. That makes it extremely difficult, especially in special education. To attend the courses funded by the Department, which are advertised by way of a circular early in the school year, a teacher must be teaching in special education. One cannot apply for it unless one is teaching in special education, even if one wants to.
I can speak about the escorts at another stage. The problem with the bus escorts is that they are employed by the school. As a part-time job that is paid by the hour, it can be difficult to find suitable applicants. Furthermore, escorts receive no training. We are working closely with the Department on that issue.
On the issue of the closing of the school, I was curious as to how Ms Corr envisages training taking place. Can it be done over two days, when the school is closed, or can the Department issue a directive to schools that it should be done on the two days before school commences again after the holidays? That could apply to every single person working in a school community.
Ms Breda Corr:
Special needs assistants, SNAs, have to do 12 days or 72 hours of training. They come back either at the beginning or the end of the school term. There are particular things that may need be done in the school during the school year as well. The problem arises if someone is not willing to come in before or after, or the particular kind of training required might not be available during the summer. It depends on what the training is. It could be manual handling or behaviour-type training such as management of actual or potential aggression, MAPA, training, involving the identification of triggers. People might not be available during the summer. They may not be employed by the school for the summer.
I am thinking of post-primary because that is the area I have experience in. Teachers have to work 167 days, and if they work certain days it can impact on their holidays. Training could be carried out during the year. Schools could allocate two days in October or November. I presume that training would apply not just to teachers and SNAs but also to caretakers and office staff.
Ms Teresa Griffin:
On that issue, schools which have brand new designated autism classes are allowed additional school closures to facilitate whole-school training. It does not necessarily happen at the beginning of the year, but it is agreed. All school staff can attend this training, which is provided at the moment.
I apologise for reading more than I normally would in response to members' questions. The National Council for Special Education only assumed responsibility for this issue last year. In terms of special classes and the training that is provided by the special education support service, SESS, there were 4,696 training days given to special class teachers last year. For special education some 21,339 days were dedicated to training. It is not a question of the training not being in place. There are also principal seminars where the principals of schools which are opening new special classes get together. I attended such a seminar two weeks ago when some 120 principals met in Portlaoise. There was a general presentation in the morning, and the afternoon was divided between primary and post-primary schools. I attended the post-primary element. The presenter emphasised the need for kindness, to have a kind heart and to created the required atmosphere of empathy around the school, and the important role of leaders in doing that.
Deputy Byrne asked why we have concerns about the appropriateness of the current model at post-primary level. In our consultation processes around special classes we found that the hours allocated for special classes are used as timetable fillers. For example, a woodwork teacher may only be timetabled for 17 hours a week but is employed for the full 22 hours. Five hours of the special class would then be given to that teacher, regardless of whether the children were doing woodwork. We were concerned about that. In other cases, schools decided that the hours would be spread out across as many teachers as possible, believing that it promoted inclusion. However, it actually promoted a disconnect that hampered continuity in terms of what the children were studying. We have identified this issue but do not have the answers at this stage. We have to do more work in this area, which is why I raised it as an issue. Post-primary schools are very complex because of the range of subjects and levels, between junior certificate level one through to leaving certificate honours level.
The question of whether inclusion should be optional arose. The NCSE is very strongly of the view that it should not be an option. Schools exist to educate all the children in a community. A society would not find a proposal to refuse to educate red haired children acceptable, and in the same way schools should not be able to pick and choose. Schools should be for all children. The fact that it is perceived as being optional is part of the issue. It is part of the culture of some schools which see themselves as academic. That barrier should be removed, and it should be made very clear to schools that they are actually providing a resource for all of the children in that community. Schools should be told that they cannot pick and choose.
In terms of whole-school training, I have said already that an extra day off is provided. We are hopeful that our new schools NCSE support service, when it is fully funded and up and running, will include parents as part of the training provided, because we believe that continuity between home and school is essential.
That is one of our aspirations, as opposed to realistic aims, but we hope to be fully up and running in the next few years.
It was mentioned that perhaps teachers should be trained before they take up their special class posts. This is something the Department funded a number of years ago. Special permission was given to schools to recruit special class teachers in April and May, or in May and June if it was a primary school. A two-month training programme was put in place for all new special class teachers. However, the learning from this was that teachers need to engage with kids to make it real. We have moved away from that and gone to the other extreme. We may need to revisit that approach. The training was certainly very positive but it fell away because unless one comes across a number of children who have, say, autism or another level of need, it is hard to put it into practice. It was interesting, however.
We are very concerned that the policy of restraint and isolation rooms may still be being applied. We highlighted this a few years ago in our autism policy advice. It definitely should not be allowed in schools. Schools using restraint are in a very uncertain space as to how appropriate it is for them to do so, certainly without the proper training, certification and so on. Schools should not go near that area.
Deputy Catherine Martin raised the definition of capacity. The issue is that, depending on the special class, a minimum number of students is required to establish a special class. For example, with children with autism, one might need one child to establish a special class, whereas with other children, seven or eight might be needed, depending on the disability. This is set out.
To respond to the Chairman's questions, we are absolutely concerned about there being insufficient places at post-primary. We have struggled with this issue, which is the reason we asked to be given the authority to open special classes. However, we are happy that the Minister or some entity will have the authority to do so. Once it is known that someone has this authority, we do not believe schools will tilt against it because they know that eventually they will not win. There are very significant challenges around planning for post-primary because of all the soft barriers that can be put in place. However, in case members conclude that the current position is all bad, it is not and we are successfully making inroads. I spoke at the afternoon session of the 2016 conference. The chairperson of the JMB at the time gave part of his presentation for the following year's conference over to the fact that it was unacceptable for any JMB school to refuse to set up special classes or baulk at doing so. Regarding the setting up of a post-primary special school, there is an issue with school holidays. Post-primary schools have much longer school holidays, which parents do not always welcome. It is a matter of striking a balance.
Regarding forward planning and how we are improving, we have set up a working group to examine how the National Council for Special Education and Department could improve planning for special classes. The forward planning section is now a member of that group. We hope this will lead to a much more coherent structure for forward planning. How do we identify classes? Essentially, the SENOs would be aware of the number of children coming through special classes who would generally need to go on for further special classes, but it is not an exact science. Some students will go on to special schools. Ms Corr of NABMSE and I did some research a few years ago that showed that the most frequent reason given was not a student's academic ability but social pressures and communication issues. Parents believed their children would feel more comfortable fitting in at post-primary level. This area is a concern, but one which the NSCE has highlighted.
Regarding how SENOs are challenging fee-charging schools, they are not because the Department's policy is that special classes should not be established in fee-charging schools. The SENOs are not doing anything in that regard. There are a number of reasons for this. I do not speak on behalf of the Department, but there is one reason of which I am aware A special class opened by a school might have three children. Let us say it is autism. It should have six children which means there are then three empty spaces. Our SENOs will then say: "One, two, three, you are going to that school." In a fee-charging school, the position is slightly difficult. Do the fee-charging schools make those places available free of charge to the children? It is a little more complex and something the committee might need to think about a little more.
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
I will answer the questions in no particular order. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan and the Chairman queried the primary status of special schools. One of the aspects that has not been discussed is how the children in special schools view themselves. My personal experience is that my daughter set up a campaign for lockers because she saw her twin had a locker in her post-primary school when she went to visit on an open day. She saw all the major differences in facilities between her twin's school and her own and questioned why she did not have those facilities in her primary school. She did not know it was a primary school but she could perceive all the differences between the two settings. Perhaps there is a bit of work to be done on this.
Despite having the designation of primary school, the special schools where they run from three years of age right through to 18 years could have a little more awareness about the environmental set-up within those schools, particularly for those who are of post-primary age. The children need to feel they are growing up. If they are in a school that also has special preschool classes, those schools need to distinguish between the three year olds, the seven year olds and the 16 year olds in the school. If the status cannot be changed for practical reasons, there are practical steps the schools can take to create a sense of self-identity around being a post-primary pupil. Furthermore, when there was a surplus of staff in special schools and prior to perhaps 2009, when there were reviews about additional staffing such as SNAs, there were special schools that were doing dual placements whereby while one school would be funded - that is, the student would be on the roll - they would also access the mainstream primary and post-primary schools for part of their school programme, and perhaps an SNA would accompany the students to the mainstream school setting. All this was rolled back once the numbers were reviewed. The school may not have capacity to have that local arrangement with the special school, which may be where the pupil is designated as being registered. Again, dual placement or its efficacy is something that possibly could be studied. Someone else on the panel mentioned bringing post-primary teachers in to perhaps support certain modules being taught within special schools.
In some respects, Senator Ruane should have been sitting on this side of the room. She mentioned many fundamental issues that parents are voicing because she is now finding herself in that personal space, and I wholly empathise with her. As a parent, I am in a similar position at present with one of my children. Senator Ruane specifically mentioned restraint and isolation rooms. We are talking about special classes. This is a serious problem. We cannot quantify it because the Department is not collating any data on the number of incidents involving restraint or the use of seclusion or isolation rooms, sensory rooms or other rooms or closets - call it what one will. It is the misuse of a space for a purpose other than that suggested by the name the space is given. There are parents who, under anonymity, have gone to the press and highlighted what their children's experience has been in the school setting. There are parents who have been in contact with officials from the Department of Education and Skills without anonymity and who have set out their children's experience of what they consider to be abusive behaviour in schools.
There is a big issue with section 29 proceedings. Someone mentioned the use of disciplinary processes for pupils with additional needs or challenging behaviours in the same way as they would be used with any other pupil, without taking into account the sensory overload or the lack of behavioural support plans. Even when there are behavioural support plans in place, they may not be used.
Mr. Harris mentioned a teacher staring a pupil down. A parent contacted us a couple of years ago to say that properly informing staff is impossible at post-primary level. The parent had printed out laminated information sheets for 12 teachers and put them in their pigeonholes in the school office but the sheets were not given to the teachers, some of whom specifically targeted the pupil and told him to keep his eyes on them. That was a primary trigger for aggressive outbursts by the pupil. That highlights the need for awareness and training. We need data on the use of restraint, isolation rooms and injuries arising therefrom in regard to the pupils we are not tracking. The Mental Health Commission reviews the use of and collates data on the use of restraint within mental health settings but that is not done in schools funded by the Department of Education and Skills. That is a big gap.
As co-chair of Inclusion Ireland, I was involved in a formal gathering and survey a couple of years ago of parents whose children had been restrained and put in isolation rooms to see how prevalent it was because the Government is not getting those data. There is huge risk involved in those practices. We are a very short step from a child dying due to prone restraint practices such as a child on the floor being suffocated by four adults leaning on his or her back to restrain him or her. The State has an obligation to get data on this issue and have formal protocols in place. The National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, has a continuum of behaviour approach which mentions restraint and seclusion being a last resort but the Department building advice includes separate rooms within buildings. Parents are concerned as to how those spaces would be used. I reiterate that any space may be used for those purposes. Children have been locked in cupboards in schools on purported health and safety grounds and to protect the child but such actions traumatise children, whose parents then take section 29 appeals against schools which are not fit to provide an education to the child.
Resources for therapeutic supports in schools were mentioned on several occasions. I must labour the point that there is an estimated deficit of 900 health service therapy staff to scaffold supports around pupils, in particular those with more complex levels of needs who attend our schools. That is scandalous. The official response received to parliamentary questions from public representatives regarding waiting lists and the lack of therapeutic supports is that disability services for children and young people are being rolled out across the country. That is not the case and those services are is not being funded. There has been zero funding for the past two years. No additional therapists have been funded. Other Departments are trying to fill that gap and need.
Special school transport was mentioned. It is a big issue, in particular for children with autism spectrum disorder, ASD, who require time to prepare for any changes. The Special Needs Parents Association met with the special school transport section a couple of years ago on this issue and was given an outline of why the process takes several months. Decisions are made in late August on which bus and bus escort will be on each route and collect each child but the process begins in March due to the enrolment application processes within schools and the Government tendering processes. It is hugely problematic. I said goodbye to my child's bus driver this morning, said to them they had my phone number, asked them to find out who would be on my route and to let me know that the night before it recommences. My daughter does not have neuro-developmental needs or require social stories. However, a child who badly requires preparation through social stories needs to know the colour of the bus, who will be on it and what the escort looks like in order to avoid a total meltdown on day one. Some parents have total meltdowns the night before the first day or even second, third or fourth year of their child's school experience as they do not know who will be driving the bus or at what time it will arrive. That is a serious practical issue in terms of trying to be child centred. I ask the committee to consider taking up that issue.
Capacity within the National Educational Psychological Service was mentioned. It has a role in terms of evaluating individual pupils with special educational needs and whole school support but is severely underfunded in terms of capacity and the growing school population. Although it does not come under the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, support service, it is a cog in the wheel which makes everything work well.
On teacher training and the use of sensory rooms, it is one thing to fund a sensory room but it is another to know how the equipment in the sensory room should adequately be used. For example, without an occupational therapist to demonstrate to teachers of mainstream as well as special classes how to use the equipment, the sensory room just becomes a play zone. Schools are missing out on therapeutic benefits. Parents have significant difficulties with therapy recommendations being given to a school but not carried out, which leads to a breakdown in school placements. There is nobody apart from the parent to advocate for the children who end up at home but do not qualify for home tuition as they are still technically on the school register. For some children, particularly those who do not have special educational needs, there is a meitheal process whereby various agencies collaborate to try to get the child back into school. There should be a robust process specifically for children with special educational needs in cases of whole school placement breakdown whereby agencies are obliged to sit around a table to get the child back into school when that is what the parents want and the removal of the child from the school was not because the parents did not want their child to attend it but, rather, wish for their child to have a quality educational experience that will not traumatise him or her.
Mr. Fergal Kelly:
I will dip in and out on various issues that were raised. Deputy Funchion raised the issue of the lack of a uniform approach whereby different schools have different levels of resources. I was recently in a school in County Westmeath which has great resources, including fantastic classrooms, well resourced sluice rooms, sensory rooms and sensory garden. Other schools may have a prefab for those purposes. Inequality of resources leads to difficulties. I checked this morning - I am open to correction - and noted that a grant of €6,500 is available for the cost of furniture and general equipment for the setting up of a new special needs class. A grant of €6,500 was available when I was part of a school community that opened a special class in approximately 2006. The inequality between schools requires further consideration. Some recently built units have fantastic resources.
I was very struck by Senator Ruane's description of her experiences. Sometimes it takes us a long time for parents to get to know their children. It obviously takes a school time to get to know the children in a special class, how they function, what their triggers are and how to deal with those triggers. It leads back to the issues of time, resources and training.
Senator Gallagher referenced difficulties for principals. I wish to return to the situation in regard to bus escorts. The day of a school principal may begin at 7.30 a.m. with a call to say the bus escort is sick and cannot travel on the bus and the bus will not travel without the escort. Principals have to deal with significant issues and make decisions on them, which is difficult. A further difficulty was caused by a shortage of teachers last year. That caused further complications for principals and boards of management in terms of getting a trained substitute with the necessary expertise for a teacher who was ill or could not take his or her special class.
They are some of the issues. I mentioned that where an autism class is embedded over a period of years, there is no doubt it enhances the education of the students. I still have in my mind the image of a school I was involved with. One sixth class boy was a non-verbal child. Yet, he was integrated with 30 robust sixth class boys. The care and attention they showed that boy because they had grown up with him was extraordinary. The special needs unit was part of their school life. The empathy they showed the boy when he integrated was a joy to behold. That is the model we are keen to see prevail.
Mr. Adam Harris:
I wish to pick up on Deputy Martin's point on training. One aspect can be considered in terms of whole-school training. Certainly, we are looking at this approach in the context of our modules. We need to consider the roll-out of child protection training this year by the Teaching Council. The council created an online module that teachers were able to access. That could then feed in to a staff meeting for reflective time. That might be an efficient way of doing it. It might work around the difficulties of substitution.
The Middletown Centre for Autism provides expert training. Aside from the individual work carried out one-to-one with students the centre does a great deal of work training teachers and parents. Much of that is valuable within schools. It may be worth engaging with the centre at some stage and perhaps inviting representatives to speak to the committee.
I wish to make two final points picking up on the discourse. The first relates to sensory processing, which has been mentioned numerous times. Significant work remains to be done on the sensory accessibility of schools, especially new school buildings. I visit many schools in the course of my work. I find that new schools are less sensory-friendly than older buildings because they are large buildings that echo with large open spaces where people congregate in multi-purpose spaces. This area needs to be looked at. The sensory world is sometimes addressed as a fluffy issue but in fact it is fundamental to an autistic person being able to participate.
The question of the use of restraint needs to be looked at urgently, especially documentation and monitoring. Let us suppose we were talking about neuro-typical students and incidents involving a teacher using physical restraint but they were not being documented and not always explainable. I believe we would be talking about referral to the Teaching Council for that sort of behaviour. It is concerning that we do not have the same concern because it relates to students on the autism spectrum. Perhaps we simply presume that it must be the student whose behaviour warrants it. This area needs to be looked at.
Mr. John Curtis:
I wish to comment briefly in the context of our engagement with schools in our sector. There is extraordinary positivity among schools. I know that at least one of the fee-charging schools has actively campaigned to have a special needs class set up in the school. That school has not been accommodated yet. Perhaps things might change in that area as well.
We are into an evolving area. We talk about language. It is indicative of where we are. We have come from "unit" to "classroom". I was talking recently to someone with considerable experience in this field. He said that in his school they have tried to use the special classroom for mainstream classes as well. In a sense it is important for the optics of what goes on in the school. The idea is to think about the context of what special classrooms are, what they might be and what they might not be.
I will come back to the point Ms Griffin made in the context of specialisation. This is why we believe it is so important that there should be someone who has special responsibility for special educational needs. Since the complexity of timetables in post-primary schools makes it difficult to manage, we have to go back to training. The more training that is available for people, the better. This could include, for example, diploma programmes and so on. That should be looked at.
Ms Dempsey made a particular point about therapeutic supports. In essence, the National Council for Special Education is looking at a new model around special needs. Work is being done around this. This will be a wrap-around model for the pupils in our care in many different ways, but it is important that we fund therapeutic support in terms of speech and language therapy and occupational therapy. It is especially important in the context of the psychological services. We have difficulty in schools in accessing support around child and adolescent mental health services. There is scope for considerable work to be done in these areas. This is exciting and great work is being done and I believe it will continue.
Ms Breda Corr:
I wish to make two points, one of which is around school transport. I had a meeting yesterday with school transport personnel. A nine-step process is involved to apply for school transport from one end to the other. Things have changed a little in school transport. Unlike last year, applicants can now trace the application. At least that is better. That is going live shortly.
We spoke yesterday about training bus escorts. I have ploughed this furrow several times before the committee. I am hoping for a positive response. Again, the person who gets on the bus sets the mood for the day, etc.
Another point has been talked about in recent years which I hope will come to fruition. I am referring to the Department of Education and Skills challenging behaviour guidelines. They will not be especially specific because no school is specific but they will be in place. We have been asking for these for several years. I hope they Department can push on with that now.
That is something we will bear in mind in our recommendations and report.
I thank all the deputations for their valuable time and contributions. It was an interesting and informative debate. The deputations have given us much to think about. We have heard important information from the point of view of the lived experience as well as the practical side of things in order to make our report and recommendations to the Minister.
I thank Mr. Harris, Ms Dempsey, Ms Corr, Mr. Kelly, Mr. Curtis and Ms Griffin. I wish to acknowledge Ms Susan Carpenter, from CPSMA, Ms Geraldine Graydon, from the Special Needs Parents Association, Ms Deirdre Matthews, from the joint managerial body, Mr. Daniel O'Driscoll and Mr. Gaibhin McGranaghan, from AsIAm, and Alan Flattery, from NCSE, in the Public Gallery. We appreciate your time and interest. This is something the committee has spoken about on several levels. We really appreciate the opportunity to get information, to listen to you and your written submissions. We would appreciate also anything else you wish to forward to us afterwards.