Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 30 May 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
Use of Reduced Timetables: Discussion
I remind members to turn their mobile phones off or switch them to flight mode while attending the meeting because they interfere with the sound system. They make it difficult for the parliamentary reporters to report the meeting and television coverage and web streaming will be adversely affected.
We are awaiting the arrival of one of the witnesses. I am sure he will be here soon. We will go ahead with the meeting, the purpose of which is to have an engagement on the current use of reduced timetables, to look at the impact on students and schools, and to look for recommendations regarding practice and monitoring because there is no current effective monitoring of the practice and it is difficult to obtain proper data for examination as to the impact of the timetables. It will be a very useful and interesting session. We have received submissions from certain other bodies and will hold another session on 13 June. Thereafter, the committee will discuss what it has heard and make recommendations to the Minister and the Department.
Delegates have been grouped thematically. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Patrick Reilly, mental health worker at Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre; Ms Lorraine Dempsey, information and policy officer of the Special Needs Parents Association, Mr. Adam Harris, who is yet to arrive, from AsIAm; Ms Maria Joyce, co-ordinator of the National Traveller Women's Forum; and Mr. Mark O'Connor, community engagement manager with Inclusion Ireland. The committee will hear their submissions first. We have had the opportunity to read the statements submitted before the meeting. We are also joined by Mr. Kieran Golden, president of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals; Mr. Pat Goff, CEO of the Irish Primary Principals' Network; Ms Breda Corr, general secretary of the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education; and Dr. Michael Redmond, director of research and development for the Joint Managerial Body secretariat of secondary schools.
I propose to take speakers from the group seated on the top tier first, followed by engagement with committee members, after which we will hear from the stakeholders seated on the bottom tier. The format of the meeting is that I will invite witnesses to make a brief opening statement. I ask them to stick to the maximum time of three minutes because there are several people to hear from and we want to afford members an opportunity to comment and ask questions.
I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the Chair to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Opening statements made to the committee will be published on its website after the meeting.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
If delegates wish to add to their submission at a later stage, they should send a written submission to the clerk to the committee who will ensure that it is circulated to all members. We will take all such additional comments on board when we are considering our findings and recommendations. I invite Mr. Reilly to make his opening presentation.
Mr. Patrick Reilly:
Pavee Point thanks the committee for the opportunity to make this statement. I am here to speak about the serious concerns of Pavee Point regarding the impact of the inappropriate use of reduced timetables on Traveller children and to make recommendations to the committee. The overall shocking and poor educational outcomes for Travellers were recently discussed at the committee. According to the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, 13% of Travellers complete secondary education compared with 92% of the settled population. We are concerned that the use of reduced timetables will serve to further reinforce these negative outcomes. Pavee Point has received several reports from Traveller parents about the inappropriate use of reduced timetables. These reports indicate that reduced timetables are being used outside of their original purpose, mainly as a behavioural management tool. However, other than the reports made to us, there is no official documentation available about their use.
It is clear that the use of reduced timetables is having a negative impact on the educational progression of Traveller children as well as a wider impact on their well-being. Parents report worries over children falling behind in their education and being frustrated when they do not understand what is being taught. Parents are not always equipped to support their children, but are expected to cover the hours when their children should be in school.
We have not received an adequate response on this issue from the Department of Education and Skills or Tusla. The question arises as to who is responsible for monitoring the use of reduced timetables. If responsibility lies with the individual school board of management, appropriate structures to ensure that the tool of reduced timetables is not used outside its remit need to be developed.
Pavee Point recommends that the use of reduced timetables be strictly monitored through a defined mechanism. When reduced timetables are implemented, a notice should be sent to the Department of Education and Skills and the National Council for Special Education. The notice must include clear rationale for the reduced timetable's use, its duration, a plan to support the young person to return to the school timetable and the child's age and ethnicity. The notice must be signed by the board of management and have parental consent. Parents must also consent to the data being used to document the use of reduced timetables.
The inspectorate should identify a mechanism to capture the use of limited and reduced timetables when carrying out school inspections, undertake an audit of the application of limited or reduced timetables for Traveller children, and publish its report. The Department of Education and Skills should issue a circular to schools advising that limited or reduced timetables may only be used in very limited and time-bound circumstances, publish disaggregated data on the basis of ethnicity in secondary schools to monitor participation and outcomes of Traveller and Roma students, put in place additional ring-fenced educational supports for Traveller pupils, and provide funding to independent Traveller organisations to advocate for Traveller education needs and address educational inequalities. The Department of Justice and Equality should develop a robust implementation plan for the national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy with clear targets, indicators, outcomes and budget lines, particularly to promote the inclusion of Travellers in education. In addition, it should replicate the new Traveller education pilot project throughout the country and ensure it is adequately resourced and sustained into the future.
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
I thank the committee for the invitation to present on this issue today. This is not the first time we have referenced the issue of restricted school timetables at the committee, but it is the first time that it is the sole focus of the meeting. This will allow us to examine the issue and seek solutions.
The issue of reduced timetables was brought to the attention of the Department of Education and Skills and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, in previous years, but few data are available on the prevalence of the use of reduced timetables in our educational settings. The latest figures from Tusla indicate that 117,000 post primary pupils have missed 20 or more school days in the past school year, but we have no idea how significant the figure is for reduced timetables or whether some schools are adopting this approach more frequently than others. The evidence we have is primarily anecdotal and comes from parents who contact us when the situation is imposed on them by a school. There are other situations involving a voluntary reduced timetable for the benefit of the pupil, and we do not take issue with such cases.
Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, does not proactively engage early on when children are on a restricted school timetable and restricted from accessing the school environment and curriculum by the school, but it will take action against parents when they are deemed responsible for restricting access.
Tusla has indicated that there is no legislation to support the use of reduced timetables and that the constitutionality of imposing a reduced timetable is questionable.
The main reason we have encountered for the use of reduced timetables is a school stating that it does not have the resources required to support a child.Most often referenced is a lack of a special needs assistant, SNA, to cater for the child’s needs. A child’s access to school is, therefore, limited by the availability of that support. This view is often in contention with the opinion of the special educational needs organiser, SENO, when he or she is contacted by a parent. The child is stuck in the middle of conflicting opinions and loses out educationally and socially. A child’s behaviour is typically the primary reason cited in these circumstances. Whether an SNA is the most appropriate support for a child where behavioural management is required is an ongoing question. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, has stated that reduced timetables should not be used as a behavioural management technique or as a method of de factosuspension or expulsion.
Article 24(2)(a), (b) and (d) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, stipulate that children with disabilities are not excluded from free and compulsory primary education on the basis of disability. The article goes on to recommend that "Persons with disabilities receive the support required, within the general education system, to facilitate their effective education". Article 30(5)(d) of the UNCRPD also provides that all states parties, including Ireland since we have now ratified the convention, should "ensure that children with disabilities have equal access with other children to participation in play, recreation and leisure and sporting activities, including those activities in the school system". The cost of reduced timetables to parents, as well as the emotional cost, is of particular concern. The risks involved include threats to employment. This is rarely a consideration when the school imposes reduced timetables but it is a reality for some families. The use of reduced timetables should be a last resort which is time bound, reported to the Department and monitored. The use of reduced timetables should trigger a multi-agency response. That should involve a holistic review of and response to the impact and risks associated with a reduced timetable for the child and family.
The key points we would like to get across to the committee are included in our written submission. One of those is that a child has a constitutional right to an education, regardless of where that education takes place. We propose that a supplemental scheme be put in place to support a child's education when he or she is on a reduced school timetable. The parents of a child in that situation do not qualify for home tuition payments. The lack of educational provision would put the child at a further educational disadvantage when he or she tries to reintegrate into a full school day.
We are not targeting schools for blame in situations where the use of reduced timetables is a last resort. The Department must, however, step up and support our schools appropriately. As we do every year when we present to this committee, we have to raise the issue of the lack of therapeutic interventions and the very long waiting list for child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, and children's disability network teams. This time last year, I mentioned to the committee that the last children's disability network team to be formed was in 2014. We are still in that situation today.
Ms Maria Joyce:
We also welcome the opportunity to speak today on this issue of reduced timetables as they impact on Traveller children. There are no clear policies or guidelines on how the practice of reduced timetables is deployed in Ireland. We also do not know how the use of such reduced timetables impacts on Traveller pupils or on children from other groups. This has become a major concern. We have raised these concerns with the National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy, NTRIS, steering committee and also directly with the Department of Education and Skills. No data or collated information is available on the practice of reduced timetables in schools. I will now outline some concerns raised by local Traveller organisations.
Traveller organisations have witnessed a major regression in Traveller education since the cuts to educational supports for Travellers during the recession. The issue of Traveller children on reduced hours has almost reached the point where it has become policy rather than an exceptional measure for a child with particular needs. It is resorted to far too easily and not as a last option. Evidence needs to be documented of the efforts made by schools to deal with a situation before putting reduced timetables in place and a range of safeguards are needed once that process is implemented.
Instead of placing Traveller children on reduced hours, we believe that schools need to look at the root causes of Traveller children's unhappiness in a system that does not recognise, value or celebrate their unique culture and identity. Reduced timetables have been implemented while young Travellers are placed on waiting lists for psychological assessments. As waiting times can be lengthy, Traveller children can then be on reduced timetables for prolonged periods without any additional supports. The schools have given limited resources as the reason for this practice when challenged by Traveller organisations. Reduced hours in school is often the complete opposite of what students need, however. In fact, what is needed is an increase in supports.
Challenging reduced timetables can often elicit a response involving a reference to poor attendance. This point appears to be contradictory. Local Traveller organisations are trying to support the young Travellers' attendance, achievement and attainment in education. It can be difficult to do that if reducing hours is seen as a direct response to addressing poor attendance. Such practices only add to the problem because the absence of children from school leaves them further behind academically and adds to resistance in respect of attendance. The children should be provided with extra one-to-one support, resource hours and some system that takes into account the child’s additional needs. Reduced timetables for Traveller children in primary school have a double negative impact. They are losing out on an education in primary school but are then expected to go into post-primary education and deal with increased subjects and multiple teachers during a much longer day.
It is a given that these children will fall out of the system. We see this as another form of segregated provision, albeit by a different name. Travellers appear to be placed in this situation disproportionately to the wider community. Regarding positive implementation of reduced timetables in individual cases, we can see how reduced timetables might support a young student with an illness or a medical condition. That could mean the difference between receiving an education or not. For Traveller children, however, this system is being put in place without reason or logic. Reduced hours are also being used to manage behaviour and that is feeding into low expectations.
Our recommendations include a proposal that an independent investigation be undertaken by the Ombudsman for Children. A clear picture of the nature and extent of the use of reduced timetables is needed urgently, including the reasons for and the consequences of the system in use. We also recommend that the Department of Education and Skills develop clear guidelines and protocols regarding this practice. The guidelines on the rationale for and appropriate use of reduced timetables should be developed in consultation with schools, parents and stakeholders. They should have a human rights and equality ethos and be given a statutory basis. The guidelines must also contain a clear outline of a complaints process if a parent is dissatisfied with the practice of reduced timetable as it relates to their child.
Ms Maria Joyce:
Schools must be obliged to return clear data on the use of reduced timetables. The segregated data on Traveller pupils is important in this regard. There is also a role for the Department of Education and Skills, the education welfare service, Tusla and the inspectorate. The broader recommendations regarding supporting the inclusion, participation and attainment levels of Traveller pupils are also of key relevance. Supports need to be provided to Traveller organisations and parents in addressing that situation.
I thank Ms Joyce. It is always helpful to get practical recommendations from our witnesses. Our final speaker in this session is Mr. Mark O'Connor, who is the community engagement manager with Inclusion Ireland. I call Mr. O'Connor.
Mr. Mark O'Connor:
Inclusion Ireland welcomes the invitation to speak here today about the current use of reduced timetables in schools. Evidence from our work suggests that the use of reduced timetables is a relatively common but hidden practice that impacts negatively on the education and well-being of children with disabilities and their families. In 2018, Inclusion Ireland published a discussion paper entitled "Shining a light on seclusion and restraint in schools in Ireland". One parent described her child missing a combined 100 school days in the same school year while another parent described waiting in the school car park as the phone would start ringing to collect her child as early as 9.10 a.m.
Some years ago Inclusion Ireland conducted a survey of parents who had a child on a reduced timetable. Almost two thirds of the children were in school for less than three hours per day, with a very worrying 12% only receiving one hour of school per day or less. A significant majority, 59%, of these children were on a reduced timetable for more than 12 weeks and this included some of the children who were in school for less than one hour per day. Several parents disclosed how they were forced to accept their child being put onto a reduced timetable or the school would move to expel the child. Other parents spoke of not agreeing to a reduced timetable and the school calling them as early as 9.10 a.m. at the slightest hint of an incident. When the parent arrived at the school, everything seemed to be fine with the child. Very few of the parents were aware of any assistance they could avail of when their child was placed on a reduced timetable. I refer to a section 29 appeal under the Education Act or the services of an education welfare officer.
Through our casework, parents tell us of the stress, shame and distress the child feels in this situation. We also hear about the great financial burden placed on parents by having to give up work and apply for a social welfare allowance such as carer's allowance.
Schools often cite a lack of resources or a child’s inability to cope with a full school day when suspending a child in this manner. Many teachers, however, have no specialist training nor are they required to have specialist training to teach children with disabilities. There is poor access to therapeutic services, including speech and language therapy. These therapies can assist children to address their sensory and communication needs in a more appropriate manner than through some of the behaviour that may lead to a reduced timetable. Possibly the most critical factor is the failure to commence parts of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, or EPSEN Act, that would benefit children with disabilities. It is shameful that parts of the Act have still not been commenced despite being passed by this House 15 years ago.
I have outlined some of the problems and causes and will now recommend a few possible solutions. These hidden suspensions via a reduced timetable must be ceased. All children with a disability or learning need must have access to an appropriately trained teacher. Teachers should have access to more robust undergraduate training in the area of special education needs and those who are working in the area of special education could also avail of significant continuous professional development. The HSE must be funded to recruit additional therapists as a matter of urgency to address the long waiting lists that have been mentioned. Children and schools should be able to access therapy on a universal basis through the new National Council for Special Education school inclusion model being piloted. Following a successful pilot stage, the model should be resourced and rolled out nationally. Schools must be directed to collect data and report on children who are suspended via a reduced timetable. The Oireachtas must review the Education Act 1998 regulations to allow for an independent appeal relating to reduced timetables before the cumulative 20 day period. The Department of Education and Skills must be asked to produce a plan to commence the 15 year old EPSEN Act. This will ensure children with disabilities are appropriately supported in school through assessments, appropriate supports and individual education plans. I thank the committee.
I thank the Chairman and everyone else for their attendance. Unfortunately, I have another meeting to attend so I will have to leave shortly and may miss the second half of the meeting.
A number of groups are represented, namely, Travellers and children with special needs. That is where the problem lies. I raised this issue in the Dáil last November and subsequently when groups representing Travellers appeared before the committee. It is wrong to say there is no clear policy on this. The Constitution guarantees the right to free primary education for every child. That is a clear policy and we have to start from the position that it must be implemented by the Government. I do not always agree with the Minister but in response to questions I have asked in the Dáil, he was clear that the policy could not be clearer and that this practice is not acceptable. Unfortunately, that message has not got out to schools. The Minister has made it absolutely clear that all pupils who are enrolled in a school should attend for the full day unless exempted from doing so for exceptional circumstances such as medical reasons. There are no ifs or buts. This is not acceptable and the practice that has been highlighted has to end. The Minister needs to state this more clearly and in a manner other than in written answers in the Dáil, although that is also a very clear way of setting out the position, in fairness to him.
There is no doubt that when this happens it is a suspension and should be followed up. Parents need to be empowered to know that the procedure is set out in section 29 of the Education Act 1998. Colleagues have asked me what the position is a number of times recently and it is very clear. When parents are asked to collect children early, they should ask for a statement from the school in writing. Schools will be reluctant to give one in writing because they have no grounds to make such a request. I would certainly ask for that if I were the parent in such a situation. A more drastic action, which parents might have to consider, is to ignore the call but that would be difficult to do because there may be a medical issue.
I take issue with the idea that there is no clear policy. We cannot accept that position because children are entitled to go to school. This issue is clearly one for children with disabilities and children of Traveller ethnicity. I do not have much more to say but I hope that what we are hearing today will spur action that will help bring to an end these silent suspensions. They have to end. The Minister stated in November 2018 and again more recently in reply to a question I asked in the Dáil that he is engaging with Tusla on this issue. The relevant section of Tusla probably needs to be merged into the Department of Education and Skills.
I have no further questions. That is my position and the position of my party. It also seems to be the Government's position. Schools need to get the message. They obviously need support and services but the fundamental right to education is provided for in the Constitution. It is the only right in the Constitution that costs money and it is very clearly set down.
While that may seem to be the Government's position, it is simply not good enough for the Minister to set it out in reply to a parliamentary question or in a statement in the Dáil. Both he and the previous Minister should have issued a direction to all schools that this practice simply cannot happen. There is a lack of oversight and children are being placed on reduced timetables behind closed doors. These children are being denied their constitutional right to education. We need immediate clarity from the Minister in the form of a directive to schools stating that this practice cannot continue.
When students are put on a reduced timetable, how are the teachers selected and what training do they have in teaching children with a disability or behavioural difficulties? Are there cases where teachers are not present and the burden is placed on special needs assistants?
With regard to the monitoring, assessment and oversight that are required, during a whole school evaluation of management, leadership and learning, WSE-MLL, or an incidental drive-by inspection, do inspectors ever ask whether there are children on a reduced timetable and if they can see how that is being managed? If that is not the case, these questions must be added to the list to ensure inspectors know when they visit schools that this needs to be checked immediately. Apart from finding out what is happening in CSPE, English, history, Irish or physical education, are inspectors asking if there are children on a reduced timetable? I suspect not but I want the matter clarified.
Has the Department of Education and Skills issued guidelines on this issue? In studies or research that have been done, what is the maximum number of weeks that a child has been deprived of education? Can a child remain on a reduced timetable indefinitely?
When schools decide to put a child on a reduced timetable, how do they decide what subjects the child should be exposed to? I presume they are completely excluded from PE, art, music and any other subject that has a social element. They will not get access to physical education despite the childhood obesity crisis, or access to art, music or woodwork because schools will definitely not want to let these children into woodwork class. Is that what is happening? What we are doing is appalling from the perspective of the full development and well-being of our children.
Are children on a reduced timetable completely excluded at break time? If they are in school between 9 a.m. and 12 noon, do they not go on a break with the other children between 11 a.m. and 11.15 a.m.? If not, has the impact of this been examined?
Have the views of teachers been established through anonymous surveys? Is there a question on this in the surveys of students and teachers that are conducted as part of a WSE-MLL? Teachers should be surveyed on whether a reduced timetable operates in their schools and, if so, how they think it is working for the benefit of the students. These questions need to be included. I do not believe reduced timetables should ever be used. That is the issue but if they are continuing, they need to be tackled straight away. To be clear, I am completely against reduced timetables.
Has the Department done any research? The Minister says reduced timetables should not be used but he has not issued a directive to schools to make sure they are not used. What alternatives are available for children? Have these been considered? What do other countries do when an issue arises with behavioural difficulties? Surely they do not remove a child's access to education or to specific subjects.
What percentage of students who have been put on reduced timetables return to the full timetable?
Is it just a way of eventually getting them out of the school because it becomes so difficult for parents in full-time employment to manage the phone calls to come and get the child? It also makes the children feel so much less part of the school community that they move away. Do we know whether those on a reduced timetable get counselling, even from the guidance counsellor? It is just wrong on so many levels. What we should get from shining a light on this today is that the Minister will write to schools to put an end to it and research will done on putting in place proper alternatives to give support to children with disabilities and children who enter school already having a feeling of alienation and segregation, which is made worse by putting them in a room on their own without proper educational supports. The answer to how it is monitored or assessed seems to be that it is not. What can we do?
Deputy Thomas Byrne said two groups are involved but it is also being used on children who are not from a Traveller background and who do not have a diagnosis of special educational needs. There is a cohort of students for whom the reason is explicitly behavioural. There is no special educational support or special needs assistants, SNAs, for them. Suspension or a reduced timetable is seen as a behavioural tool for them.
There seem to be a lot of issues but one of the main ones is the lack of data, which has been mentioned. Who makes the decision that it is to the benefit of the child? In all of the reports I have seen I have never read about a case conference. A parent has never told me there had been a series of meetings where the student had been placed at the centre of the conversation, whether care workers, schools, youth clubs, educational support workers or Traveller advocates were involved. Somebody makes an assessment but on what is it based? How is it suggested this is to the benefit of the child? There might be extreme anxiety or a situation where a child might need to go home early on a particular day, but not as an indefinite action. Who is entitled to make this decision? Is it fair to say all parents agree to it? Do they agree to it because of the power imbalance and fear of losing the child's school place? The fact it is not reported to Tusla seems like a real manipulation. If the child was outright suspended it would be reported to Tusla. We see that some schools suspend more children than others, but a reduced timetable does not have to be reported. This is why we cannot collect the data. In some situations there seems to be a concerted effort to hide the fact that reduced timetables are being used as a way to mark the child as having attended in the morning and then ringing someone to come to get the child. This means no mechanism is kicked off.
We need to look at how schools are supported. While it is completely different from the education system, I worked as a community worker for a long time and supported women suffering from addiction. Many organisations and bodies were involved in supporting them and their children in school. We never made decisions on their lives without interacting with all of the other services involved in the child's care, whether dealing with behavioural issues or the support they received in the community. We made a full holistic needs assessment based on everything about the child's life and not just on whether it will make the classroom life a bit easier. Sometimes the benefit to the student is used in a way to make parents feel they are taking responsibility but the benefit is not measured.
We have had numerous reports on the misuse of resource hours. Children are put on reduced timetables while SNAs are writing to us in bundles about being asked to wash teachers' cars. Why are additional resource hours not being used to support the more vulnerable groups that need assistance in the school system? Mr. O'Connor stated two thirds of the people surveyed receive fewer than three hours of education a day. If we measure this over a lifetime, how many years of education do people miss? Have they reached the educational age of 12 when they move on from primary school? Issues with Traveller children and behavioural issues mostly happen in secondary school. How do we move forward? How do we enforce the collection and reporting of data? How do we create a system whereby all of the bodies involved in a child's life and care make that decision and that there is real consent on a child going or not going to school?
I welcome everybody here this morning. Based on the contributions we have heard so far, and I am conscious we are hearing only half of the story, it clearly indicates that we have a serious problem. Deputy Byrne said the policy of the Minister is very clear on what should happen, but the reality of what is happening is quite different. Based on the contributions I have heard so far, there seem to be very few guidelines on how schools are meant to act on reduced timetables. We do not seem to know the scale of the problem, which is difficult to understand. I am conscious that fingers are being pointed at schools and that we have not heard all of the contributions. We need to hear their side of the story on whether they have the infrastructure and machinery available to deal with the situation properly. This is where the Department comes in, to make sure schools in all sectors are properly resourced to deal with situations such as this. It is important that we do not lose sight of this point.
From the contributions we have heard so far, this seems to be a serious problem. There seems to be confusion as to when reduced hours are implemented, why they are being implemented, how long they are implemented for, what happens when a child is on reduced hours, who looks after the child and what is that person meant to be doing. From the contributions we have heard so far, there seem to be very few guidelines and little direction. I look forward to hearing the perspective and opinions of teachers and schools so that, I hope, at the end of all this we can put our heads together and get a clear direction on how we tackle the issue to the satisfaction of all concerned.
We have only reached the end of the first third of the hearing, so it is important not to jump to conclusions at this stage. However, it has been unsettling to listen to the witnesses speak about their experiences and those of the people they represent. As Deputy Byrne said, the policy is clear but in reality it is not happening. The absence of guidelines from the Department and the absence of monitoring by the Department and Tusla are concerning. We have to accept the reality that reduced timetables are in place. We will have an opportunity to hear more from the perspective of boards of management and teachers. Apart from the educational development of young people, social development is very important so that in schools we have the holistic development of children with their peers. When we set the terms of reference for this we said we would look at the impact of reduced timetables not only on students but on the whole school environment, and this is important to note.
If I were to put a question to the witnesses it would be on what other interventions they would like to see used or would suggest be utilised instead of a reduced timetable, particularly with regard to behaviour management issues.
Is there empirical evidence to back up the anecdotal evidence presented to us?
Mr. Mark O'Connor:
To be clear, there are guidelines. The National Educational Welfare Board published a book on developing a code of discipline in schools. It is very clear on a child being denied any part of the school day. It is regarded as a suspension. These are suspensions that go on for a period. The same guideline will refer to rolling suspensions or inappropriate use suspensions. The guideline has not been applied in the manner I describe but it is quite clear.
Before he left, Deputy Thomas Byrne stated that parents often ignore the call. I know of one parent who phoned me and who had ignored the call. That parent was reported to Tusla for not picking up the child. It was deemed to be a welfare issue affecting the child.
With regard to teaching, there is possibly a systemic training issue. A recent survey by the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland indicates 5% of respondents had a postgraduate qualification in special education. Only 22% had attended continuing professional development, CPD, seminars in special education in recent years. That is a bit of an issue. The Teaching Council is quite clear that a qualified teacher is qualified to teach all children and does not need any additional qualification.
I am not aware of the inspectors asking the questions that were mentioned. Perhaps they do. I am aware of a child who was on a reduced timetable of only three days per week because the school was allocated an SNA for only three days. There was part access to an SNA. The child did not have toileting or behavioural issues; it was purely a matter of resources. By the time the child came to us, he or she had missed out. The child's case was referred to us in April and he or she had been on the reduced timetable since September. This was a significant period. It just took a meeting with the school to say this was not right and had to change. It changed.
There are absolutely no data. There are data collated on suspensions and expulsions but none on what I am referring to. The guidelines are very clear. These are suspensions but there are no data collected so we do not know the full extent. We can base our view only on what we hear in our case work and the survey we carried out. We had 101 respondents to a short survey we carried out in respect of a different submission. Each had short school days.
Senator Ruane referred to the benefit of inclusion. The evidence base is very clear. The best way to include a child is to have him or her in the school as much as possible. We had a call this week from a parent in circumstances where the school proposed a shortened school day. There was no striking out on the part of the child but he was becoming agitated and crying at a certain point in the day. He was in an autism class and was not allowed to go out and play with his peers in the mainstream classes. He wanted to go out and mess with the big bunch. The parent said there were no physical issues that would prevent him from doing so. He quite liked the company of other children but, because he was not allowed out, he resorted to crying and so forth. That is the reason for the proposal for a short day.
Senator Gallagher asked what can be done for schools. In the vast majority of cases, schools are trying their best and, more than likely, are doing what they are doing as a last resort. We have spoken about the outside stuff, including the therapeutic supports and mental health supports. NEPS assessments point to approximately two in 100 children. If there is a third child in a school who could benefit, he or she may be in a bit of difficulty. Through our casework, we have been made aware of these issues. One family spoke to me about a psychologist and speech and language therapist who came in from St. John of God, carried out a full assessment and presented a behavioural plan that would work really well for the young chap in question. It was not implemented, however, and the short school day continued.
On the Chairman's comments, we have spoken about all the supports. They would be really helpful for schools and pupils. Actions taken should not be hidden. If a school is going to suspend a child, it should be done in the official manner. At least at that point, the pupil or parent has recourse through section 29 of the Education Act. The data should be collected in order that we know the scale of the problem. I have already said that perhaps something around the EPSEN Act is required. The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland has been very vocal and asked that the Act be implemented and that the staff be given the training and resources. It said it would be only too delighted to get involved.
With regard to empirical evidence, I am only aware of an internal survey we carried out. I am not aware of any robust research in the area. That is all I wanted to say.
Ms Lorraine Dempsey:
Deputy Catherine Martin asked several questions. I might be able to answer some of them. She asked what other countries do. The educational system of our nearest neighbour, the United Kingdom, is managed by borough as opposed to central Government. Each borough has a standard policy for reduced school days, with a very basic, step-by-step approach to how the decision is made, the factors taken into account, and the process by which it is monitored. It is essentially what we are looking for in an Irish context.
Interestingly enough, only a few weeks ago a former Minister for education came to Ireland from New Brunswick in Canada and met our Minister, Deputy Joe McHugh, at the behest of the NCSE. New Brunswick has a fully inclusive education system. It does not have special schools and special classes but it still grapples with the issue of restricted school timetables, which I found very interesting. One reason cited is the lack of investment in its inclusive special education system over the past couple of years, when the former Minister was not in power. It is very interesting that a very different educational system, which involves full inclusion, also experiences our issue. That system has wraparound supports in the schools. We have not heard from fellow witnesses from the school side but I would hazard a fairly concrete guess, on the basis of anecdotal evidence, that where there is a lack of capacity in the schools with the additional supports, there is probably more use of reduced school timetables, particularly in schools dealing with students who exhibit challenging behaviour, whether it is due to socio-economic circumstances or arising from a disability or another factor.
Deputy O'Loughlin asked what interventions could be used. I will not reiterate the point on the lack of support to schools, which I am sure colleagues are going to start screaming about. While the Minister has made a directive of sorts and has indicated his views in parliamentary questions, schools are just not listening. As Deputy Thomas Byrne indicated, that might be slightly unfair on schools that are constantly repeating, along with organisations representing people with disabilities, that a lack of appropriate supports and investment in schools is causing an issue. It is our children who are ultimately being affected by this.
Senator Gallagher asked about the scale of the matter. We do not know and need to find this out in order to address the matter.
There was a question about what a restricted school timetable looks like. There are a few aspects. We take no issue with some of them. For example, every junior infant in most schools has a reduced timetable. They are in for short days for the first two weeks while they settle in. Children with additional needs might have further restrictions. They might be in for ten minutes on the first day, 20 on the next, half an hour on the next and so on. We do not take issue with that because it may be part of the child's transition plan for entering the new school setting.
However, how does it appear where a parent does not agree with it and where it is more punitive in nature? The child does not arrive in the middle of the day. He or she usually arrives at 9 a.m. and is taken home at 9.30 a.m. or he or she comes in for whatever hours the school has dictated that he or she be there and then is taken home. As a result, the child does not come in for segments of the school day by choice as to what subjects he or she might like.
On the other side of it - and, again, we do not take issue with this but we would like far more supports for these children - are the children who are on reduced school timetables but it is voluntary and due to major mental health issues such as anxiety. In dealing with those children, there is a reduced timetable where they would select, perhaps, one subject one day per week or it might be two or three days per week and they would come in just for that subject. It is voluntary and planned, and is in the best interest of the child. My concern is that those children do not have any other educational supports for the other days and, with regard to the home tuition scheme, we would like to see something for those pupils whether it is voluntary or involuntary to fulfil what is a constitutional obligation of the State. While we might argue about whether there are concrete guidelines, there is still a constitutional obligation not to fail these children.
Deputy Catherine Martin asked about teachers' backgrounds and training. We have repeatedly addressed the issue of core teacher training in respect of special educational needs. Restricted school timetables are not something only seen in mainstream schools. They are also in special schools. Special schools are deemed to be the most specialist educational settings. A child might start off in mainstream school and end up in a special school. However, where a child ends up on a restricted school timetable in a special school and that is not successful and leads to suspension and possibly expulsion, that child has nowhere else to go because he or she has already gone the route of speciality. Again, special schools would cite the lack of wraparound supports for those schools being able to deal with a child's difficulties and being able to support and reintegrate the child successfully back into the school.
We are repeating many of the same themes that go beyond restricted timetables, but they play a large part in this phenomenon. We still do not know, bar anecdotally, how big it is.
Ms Maria Joyce:
The right of every child to an education is clear in the Constitution. What is also clear is the State's failure to ensure that every Traveller has the right to equality of education in terms of access to, participation in and outcomes from it. There is a policy on suspensions but reduced timetables are being used as another form of suspension without calling it a suspension, as has been said, to ensure the school does not have to deal with the fallout from it. There is a hidden practice of suspensions through reduced timetables which is significantly impacting on particular groups of children in the education system. One of those groups is Traveller children. Where there are behavioural issues they must be addressed, but let us be clear that it is not the behaviour of the child that is an issue in all instances. There are low expectations feeding into that and some teachers have said that it is about low attainment levels and the child's struggle to engage in the class. That should be further resourced. It should not be reduced timetables which put the child further back in respect of attainment levels. We see this practice in primary school in particular.
Reduced timetables should not happen in any shape or form, except for clear medical reasons with clear guidance and protocols on a statutory basis. If there are issues and challenges the school must address them with the parents and whatever agencies and support services are available. That is not happening. There is no rationale for putting the majority of Traveller children who are on reduced timetables on such timetables. It should not be happening. We are hearing that it is the first port of call for some schools, although not all schools, with regard to Traveller children.
One of the case studies we provided in our submission was about a young Traveller girl in sixth year. She was effectively the last man standing in terms of her cohort of four or five friends and relations who were Traveller children who had dropped out by that stage. A request was made to the school to let her sit in with the third year canteen where there was a cousin and three other Traveller girls who were doing their junior certificate. It was refused. In the follow-up discussion with the mother and the principal the only alternative on the table was putting her on a reduced timetable, which the mother said was not an option. She wanted to get her child to leaving certificate and the best opportunity for that was being in the classroom for the full day. Subsequent to that, the four Traveller children who were in the junior certificate year and in the canteen the mother had asked the school to let her daughter sit with were put on reduced timetables. There were no behavioural issues. As there is one school in that same location that is putting excessive numbers of Traveller children on reduced timetables, the Traveller children in other schools are seeking to be transferred to it to get the shorter timetable. That is also a product of the lack of expectations from the education system with regard to Traveller children.
There were questions about the lack of data and numbers and on how schools reached that decision. In some ways we are equally at a loss on that. The schools are saying that data are not being collected. We have been told that the inspectorate does not ask about reduced timetables. If the Minister is stating at national level that this practice is unacceptable but the schools are employing it to excess with particular groups of children without just cause or they are opting for that as the solution rather than working out the rest of the issue, that is incredibly unacceptable and must be addressed. It must be stamped out. Schools must be held to account where it is not being addressed.
As regards Traveller children being put on reduced timetables in primary school, those children will be lost to the system in terms of trying to then engage with a secondary school system where there is a history of educational disadvantage, marginalisation, discrimination and racism. Those children will not get to junior certificate or leaving certificate. We see that borne out across the board in the statistics. It must be seriously addressed.
Section 29 on the procedure for suspensions is in place, but it puts the onus back on parents. The onus should not be on parents. Schools should be held to account in this regard. In terms of assessing the scale of the current situation with reduced timetables it is important that an independent investigation is undertaken by the Ombudsman for Children that looks at the numbers, the scale of it, the reasons for it and the consequences for the children who are put on those timetables.
Yes, resources are needed. There have been widespread cuts in resources, particularly in Traveller education. We have seen the consequences of that, as the committee heard in the earlier meeting in March. Currently, albeit anecdotally, the transfer rate of Traveller children from primary to secondary is only 80%. That is unacceptable and must be addressed. Resources must also be provided to support the families and the local Traveller organisations in trying to stamp this out, while also engaging with schools to do it.
I thank Ms Dempsey and Ms Joyce. I should point out that parents are the primary educators of the children and we will not achieve anything without parents working with schools. It takes a village to rear a child so everybody must come together to try to solve the challenges.
Mr. Patrick Reilly:
I will try not to repeat what has been said. I will start with the point made about confusion in regard to who does the reduced timetables. That confusion is already adding to the stress of the parents and children because there is no clear rationale for their use.
Senator Ruane spoke about data. I would like to hear from others on this issue. To my knowledge this is collected in primary schools and published but not so in secondary schools. It makes sense for it to be collected and published in secondary schools when this is already happening in primary schools.
Deputy Martin asked who decides children's school subjects and why these are chosen. It is important to know the "who" in that question as well as the "why". These are a couple of points that I wanted to make without repeating earlier ones made.
I thank Mr. Reilly for his presentation and for his brevity.
We are now going to move to the second part of the engagement. I welcome our four stakeholders. I ask Kieran Golden, president of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, NAPD, to make his presentation now, please.
Mr. Kieran Golden:
Good morning, Chairman, Deputies, Senators and fellow invitees. The NAPD is very grateful for the opportunity to make a submission to the Joint Committee for Education and Skills on the use of reduced timetables in schools. Members of our executive were invited to forward comments on areas they regarded as relevant to this particular submission. I am also speaking in my own capacity as a principal of a community school. I was in school yesterday and I will be in school first thing in the morning.
School timetables are first and foremost about ensuring that our students access the curriculum as prescribed by the Department of Education and Skills. The primary goal of our timetables is to meet the needs of all our students - I am stressing all of our students. Effective timetabling is all about supporting all of our students to reach their full potential. Effective, clever and strategic timetabling can facilitate our students to access the additional resources that are provided to us by the Department through the allocations model. In many schools they have very effective and creative use of team teaching which can meet the needs of all of the students in the classroom. Again, effective timetabling can also be used to reduce and minimise possible disciplinary challenges as well.
However, in exceptional circumstances, consideration may have to be given to reduced timetables to help with a variety of challenges. These range from students with serious and significant medical issues, or a student who is reintegrating or coming back to us after a long period of absence. I have sat opposite students with serious issues around mental health, and to ask such students to come into school for a full day would have been very difficult for them. One does everything one can to help a student and their parents to get that student back into school in a meaningful way. There are times as well where behavioural issues are so significant that it is not just impacting on the rights of the child, but on the rights of the other students in that classroom as well.
Reduced timetables should only be considered and agreed in consultation with school management, the students themselves, the parents and guardians, and very much in consultation also with external agencies. The external agencies I am specifically referring to are those that advocate for their students such as the education welfare officer; Tusla; the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS; special educational needs organisers, SENOs, under the National Council for Special Education, NCSE; and, if a school is fortunate enough to be one of the 75 schools involved, the national behaviour support service, NBSS, supporting behaviour for learning, which is a wonderful resource for school, or, equally, if a school is fortunate to access the services of the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS.
There are times that a reduced timetable may be used, and the goal of the timetable should always be about the child and getting them back into school. As to management of reduced timetable, it is on a continuum and it is the last option, where everything else has been considered and all other resources have been used. I fully agree with Mr. Reilly that real conditions and parameters are needed around the use of a timetable. Specifically, there is a start and end date; reviewing on a daily basis through use of things like report cards; and, regular meetings with the parents. Then one decides what is best for the individual child and where we are going with this. This is very much at the end of the continuum.
I am very conscious as a school principal that the impact of disengagement from school is catastrophic for our young people. Once a child is marginalised, it has significant impacts, not just on their individual well-being, but on their life chances, not just for that child but very often for their whole family as well.
The idea of reducing a timetable should only be used in very exceptional circumstances and in the best interests of the child. It should clearly indicate a plan that will point to a transition for that young person back into school or, where appropriate, a lateral movement to another placement that will serve the very real specific needs of that individual child.
I thank the committee again for the opportunity to speak here and I will answer any questions later on.
Mr. Pat Goff:
A Chathaoirligh, Deputies and Senators, on behalf of IPNN, I welcome the opportunity to talk about the issues around the reduced timetable. I also speak as a principal who operated reduced timetables and I hold up my hand and say that. I will not repeat much of what Mr. Golden has said, because he could have been looking at my script as to the content of his.
IPPN are in favour of reduced timetables but only in very limited circumstances, be that medical or as part of an overall plan for a particular pupil and if it is of benefit to the pupil, who has to be at the centre of it. Points were raised earlier about parental consent. Every teacher and principal I know would say straight out that where the home and the school are working together, there are better outcomes. If there is not agreement there, this cannot happen.
The second point relates to the Constitution; why are principals and schools operating a system that is, in theory, against the Constitution? By and large, principals are fairly law-abiding in how they go about their work. They are faced with a dilemma on a daily basis, which is part of the problem we have. The dilemma is to balance the rights of that individual pupil and rights of the other pupils in the class. This is one of the constants we have. Some children do not operate well in a system. That is just a fact of life for those particular pupils. Yet, we insist on shoehorning them into the systems we have in schools, simply because that is the system that we are operating.
As to supports, as was mentioned earlier, as a school principal, part of the problem we have is that we cannot wait two years to get therapeutic supports. Sometimes we have special needs assistants, SNAs, who will support those pupils, but the SNA may not be the right person. We do not have the behavioural backup.
There is a new model being proposed by the NCSE which we look forward to, where there are going to be regional support teams. That might help but it will not be the be all and end all. From an IPPN point of view, the reduced timetable has to be for a very specific purpose and timeframe.
The other issue raised is that this is silent suspension. In my own time in school - and I have been 32 years as a school leader - it would have been easier for me at times to suspend a pupil than to use a reduced timetable. It is not that it is an either-or situation in the sense that putting a child on a reduced timetable was an easy way out. In fact sometimes it was a harder way out in that with the suspension, one followed one's guidelines. The National Educational Welfare Board, NEWB, guidelines were mentioned earlier and were like a bible for every school principal dealing with these issues. If most school principals could avoid suspension, they would do so at all costs, for the good and self-esteem of the pupil. These are some of the issues I have.
As to there being no official recognition of the extent of the problem, that is because nobody is asking. With the primary online database, POD, it is very easy to create an extra field and put this into it. We make returns to Tusla every year, and it would be very easy to create an extra field if we wanted.
I am not sure that the Department wants to get the figures on this. It is a dilemma that schools and principals are faced with.
Ms Breda Corr:
I must be a frequent flier. I should almost get air miles. My submission to today's meeting says that this must be couched in two things. First is the code of behaviour, which was mentioned by Mr. Goff and others. Those guidelines recognise that every school has its own unique character. Special education and special schools would look at those in that fashion. They are not the first port of call. Second is the Education Act and the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004, as well as the right of the other children to be educated, as Mr. Goff noted. We have received legal advice on that some time ago and there is no provision in law or Department of Education and Skills circulars for the use of the reduced timetable or the reduced day. For some pupils, the school day is too long. The shortened school day could be for medical communications or behavioural difficulties and may be necessary temporarily. When someone calls me about this I will ask what else they tried, and they will tell me they tried everything. They do not want to suspend the child but to keep him or her in school for some part of the day. There are also health and safety concerns which we will discuss. People want a positive school experience. Sometimes pupils need one-to-one support, which was alluded to earlier, which may not be in the school's resources. The last reason for use of a shortened school day would be for medical reasons, and there being no access to a school nurse would be an important factor. Crucially, the decision to use a shortened school day should be focused on the well-being of the student concerned, should be discussed and agreed in advance with parents and the multi-disciplinary team, if there is one, and should see a decrease in occurrences of undesirable behaviour where that is the cause. If it does not, then other options must be examined. It should only be used in exceptional circumstances and include a timeline and plan for increasing the time in the school and for the pupil eventually to attend for the full school day. It should be constantly monitored and reviewed. This is the advice that comes from our own group of principals. I have always advised that the reduced school day should only be for a short period and that everything else should be tried and documented. Sometimes the reduced school day for pupils with special educational needs is the only option they have to get their constitutional rights.
I always try to come with some solutions. The same solutions have probably been repeated for several years. I return to whole-school training in the areas of positive behaviour support. This should be used for all school staff, including bus escorts. There ought to be an annual training fund for schools so that they can access that as it is a very expensive form of training which is quite hard to get. I note that the new school inclusion model, which is in some of the area in which Deputy O'Loughlin and I are based, includes a new national training system for special needs assistants, SNAs, which I welcome as we have sought that for a long time.
I also recommend that we finally implement as absolute policy the recommendation of the NCSE policy advice where there is a reduced pupil-teacher ratio for children with special serious medical needs. Substitute cover for special education is another issue which arises. The first day of absence is never covered and it is very difficult for schools to break up a class of children with special education needs. I also mentioned posts of responsibility. We welcome the appointment of administrative deputy principals for schools with 15 class teachers, but we think an examination of the needs of these schools should allow consideration for further school management supports. My submission also refers to the new school inclusion model which refers to a new national nursing support and increased access to the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS. At last, after many years where we, the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education, NABMSE, and other education partners looked for the guidelines on challenging behaviour, an expert group is in existence which is working on those. They should be published for the next school year. That is very important.
Some school buildings are unsuitable for purpose, particularly for special schools. Members of the committee will have seen this for themselves. They cater for pupils between four and 18 years. However, the needs of a child at 4 years are completely different from those of someone aged 18. That should be considered when applications are made to improve school buildings.
Last night I was at a garden party at the Phoenix Park school which has made a sanctuary nurture garden. It is a school for pupils with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties. They remarked on the difference the garden had made, for which they had not received any funding. It was all from sponsorship, fundraising and other sources. That is a serious concern. We do need other things apart from teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs.
Dr. Michael Redmond:
The discussion so far has rightly focused on the needs of vulnerable individuals in our systems. Schools are probably the most complex structured and heavily regulated institutions in the State. Within that a secondary school timetable has to answer the questions of who teaches what to whom, and when and where for hundreds of students at any given time. School timetables end up like a locked-in jigsaw. Secondary schools have limited flexibility to design a bespoke timetable for any particular student who needs a range of so-called practical subjects, for example, where these happen to run concurrently.
We should at this point distinguish between a reduced curriculum and a reduced timetable or school day, as these are not always the same thing. A student can be studying a reduced number of subjects but still have other learning opportunities that provide for a full day every day, and the new junior cycle framework allows for this.
Schools do not take the decision to reduce a student’s timetable unilaterally or lightly. In my experience, these decisions are taken in consultation with parents or guardians and the professional services, where they can get them. For every student who has a reduced timetable developed for him or her, there can be a long back story of efforts, interventions, creative solution seeking, professional engagement and encouragement provided by his or her school. This approach is almost always a last resort. The consequences of reducing the school day can be to reduce the breadth of the curriculum and interrupt continuity of tuition in some subjects. Therefore, decisions to reduce a timetable are often taken as a trade-off. It can be unrealistic and unfair to force an adolescent into the straitjacket of a full-on timetable and socially intensive school day when she or he is clearly not able for it for a period of time.
A concern arises, however, where a reduced timetable may be put in place instead of a more effective strategy. Why would a school contemplate this, even with the agreement of the parents? The answer, as many people have observed this morning, lies in the failure of the State to provide a wrap-around, professionalised therapeutic, psychiatric and behavioural therapy service to students. It is virtually impossible to get timely and recurring access to an occupational or speech and language therapist or a specialist in emotional and behavioural support. School principals find themselves landed in the roles of counsellor, psychotherapist, behaviour management specialist, family mediator and decision-maker well beyond their fields of expertise or qualification.
The promised NCSE framework for supporting students with additional care needs is being trialled but it cannot come soon enough. Meanwhile, many principals have a sense of being abandoned to care for students in crisis and still ensure that the educational experience and outcomes of the majority in our overcrowded classrooms are protected. There now exists an opportunity to resource properly the NCSE strategy for supporting students which will eliminate in most cases the need to reduce a student’s school day.
I thank our guests for their presentations. My questions are a follow-up to my earlier questions. I recognise that much of the issue is caused by schools being under-resourced or because the proper supports that ensure children have the well-rounded education they deserve are not in place due to a lack of investment.
Who decides which subjects a child has access to in his or her curriculum? What are the criteria? Is a child entitled to learn English and Irish but not other subjects? I refer especially to second level with its broader curriculum, given that in primary school all the teachers have the same subject-related training whereas it differs in secondary school. After it has been decided or, perhaps, agreed that a child has been put on a reduced timetable, are the parents given any information in that regard? The teachers have spent time with the child, have taught him or her subjects and know how he or she is progressing. What happens if a parent disagrees and does not want the child to be on a reduced timetable? I ask because Mr. Goff and Mr. Golden will have experienced the issue as principals. In that scenario, what would happen for the parents and the principal?
Is a clear plan for the transition back to a full timetable given to parents? A plan could include details of how the transition will work and a roadmap to return the child to a full timetable. Does the Department write to principals to ask whether they operate a reduced timetable, how many students are on it, how a decision is made, whether the parents have agreed and what supports are needed to help the child return to a full timetable? I refer to an assessment of the supports and of how the timetable operates. If my son or daughter was put on a reduced timetable and I was in full-time work, I would not be able to collect him or her from school. Would he or she have to sit in the office with the secretary and wait to be collected? If so, that is segregation because the rest of the school would see the child sitting in the office. It cannot be good for the office staff either if there are behavioural difficulties and the child has to wait in the office for two or three hours. Even the best-behaved students would misbehave if they were left for two hours in an office. What would happen in that scenario? I cannot believe that a school would call at 9.10 a.m. or 9.30 a.m. and say it is time for a child to go home.
I apologise that I missed the first presentation because I was attending a meeting of the Business Committee and trying to multitask. Nevertheless, I have read the submissions and was present to hear our guests' responses to members' questions.
This is an important issue. It has been hidden but we are shedding light on it. People know a great deal about many educational issues but very few know about the issue of reduced timetables. Do all our guests support the returning of data to the Department? Mr. Goff stated it would be easy enough to put an extra field on the pod. If it was a recommendation, would they support it? One of the most important steps seems to be that the Department should know the extent of the matter.
Mr. Golden stated the use of reduced timetables should be by agreement with parents. Is it always decided by agreement with parents? Are there discussions with parents, or is it just the phone call which Deputy Catherine Martin mentioned? As Ms Dempsey stated, sometimes parents understand and agree that a reduced timetable is appropriate for a child who might have particular health issues or where the parent recognises that attending school all day is a difficulty for the child. Do our guests agree that reduced timetables should be used in consultation with parents at all times?
My next question might be more appropriately directed at the Department rather than at our guests. When a child is not given his or her constitutional right to attend school for education, what right does he or she have to an alternative outside the school? It seems a corollary that if a child is not receiving his or her educational support in school, he or she should receive it elsewhere.
There seems to be a general agreement that a reduced timetable should be a last resort, that is, that it should be rare and used only where other interventions have been made. According to the first contributions, however, it seems to be fairly widespread. While there may be an ideal of how it should operate in schools, it seems there are schools where that is not the case and where children are regularly put on reduced timetables. I would like there to be clear information about when and how it happens, who is consulted and whether the Department knows. It should not be murky and hidden. Rather, it should be clear and public, and there should be alternative support for the child.
My first questions, about sharing data by agreement, are probably most suited to Mr. Goff and Mr. Golden.
I am heartened by what our guests outlined is the procedure within their schools. I appreciate Mr. Goff's and Mr. Golden's points and their experience, given that they have been school principals for a long period. On the face of it, there seems to be a conflict, although that might be too strong a word, between their contributions and those we heard earlier. I am heartened that when reduced timetables are implemented, it is a last resort, subject to agreement with the parents. According to the first presentations, however, it seems that is not always the case. Our guests might comment on that.
I stated earlier that the finger is being pointed in schools' direction, which is unfair. We have learned in the meeting that schools do not have the necessary machinery or infrastructure to do the job properly. The system is failing not just the parents and children involved but also the schools, teachers and principals. The Department appears to be turning its back on the issue, given that it does not seem to want to know the scale of the problem, not to mention try to address the problem, which is worrying. Based on what we have heard in the meeting, it is clear the finger is being pointed in the correct direction, namely, at the Department. It is within the Department's gift to find a solution, which we all seek. As Mr. Goff outlined, a simple measure such as a pod, returned every so often with information on the scale of the problem and on how it is being addressed, would be a natural first step. As a committee, I am sure we will take that on board and include it as one of our recommendations.
Our guests spoke of the impact of reduced timetables on the child, which is an important issue. Children nowadays are under more pressure than ever. Being segregated in any way would have a serious impact on the child's future well-being, which we must be conscious of.
I am heartened by the fact that it is a last resort and that, by and large, it is done in consultation with parents.
I thank our guests for their contributions. I am a lot wiser that I was before the meeting. We will have to follow the issue up with the Department to get some direction. We need to find the extent of the problem and then to implement measures to address it.
Deputy Jan O'Sullivan raised some of my points. There does not appear to be any disagreement regarding the collection of data in this area. It is about how we do it. We do not have a clear pattern of how it is being used because we cannot record it. What are the interventions that happened before the point of last resort? What did they look like for the child, the family? Were they specific to an individual child or was there a blanket approach? We are doing ourselves a disservice by not having information about, and knowledge of, what had been put in place up until that point. Other schools may have been implementing different types of interventions which have worked. Without being able to collect that information we are not going to be able to look at other practices or schools that do not have reduced timetables. A child should never miss out on school but in cases of disability and special education, there may be medical reasons and different interventions from special educational needs assistants, SENOs. A huge number of parents said they had no interaction with their SENOs. What work is the SENO doing in the context of collecting the information relating to the families they support?
I am at a loss as to why there are no historical data on Traveller children or children from different socio-economic backgrounds in the context of special educational needs or long-term supports in school. I wonder what the data on Traveller children would look like. They are a particular cohort where special needs cut across every school. I know of one kid in Tallaght who was given an iPad in school every morning and he sat in the classroom on his iPad. There was a low expectation and an acceptance that the child might not continue, maybe because his siblings had not continued. That was at primary level but I also know of a girl at secondary level whose teachers did not invest in her as she prepared for junior certificate because she was going to be married when she turned 16. They assumed that one thing negated the other in this case, rather than accepting that she wanted to do her junior certificate and continue with her education.
How do we resource special education so as not to have reduced timetables and so that buildings are adequate and special assistants are in place? What about the cohorts for whom we do not even have a medical background or a sociological analysis of why reduced timetables are being used? We need to collect data on all schools for why reduced timetables are being used. Teachers have to be accountable by showing what they have put in place, following which we would be able to see what is working and what is not. I do not assume that teachers have not tried other methods but I wonder if they tried them in isolation or before they worked with the wider services. Research by AsIAm found that some parents had no interaction with their school in giving consent. Reduced timetables were as a result of the beginning of disciplinary procedures, and not just because of medical or other reasons. This ties into the code of behaviour but also into questions of how we manage difficult behaviour, especially for children who have experienced huge trauma in their communities before they even enter the classroom. We need to adapt teaching to deal with this because teaching can look a little different in those communities. I left school very young and a reduced timetable was forced on me but I was at home doing drugs. That was not the best thing for me and the school might have sat down with me and learned that I was really stressed and frustrated. Do we try to do what is best for the student in the long term and when he or she re-enters the community? Something might seem to be the best thing for a student in a certain situation but it might not be the best alternative.
We need to be able to give mechanisms to schools to show them what is and is not being done and what the outcomes are. What are the steps to be taken, the outcomes and the follow-ups for children who have re-entered school? It is only when we have the necessary knowledge that we will see the patterns and the solutions.
I completely accept the bona fides of everybody who is here and they have made an important contribution to the discussion. I accept that, in some instances, a reduced timetable is better than expulsion or suspension. Keeping a student within the school system is better than having him or her outside it, especially in the cases of illnesses. As my colleagues stated, data collection is vital and it is important to quantify the needs in order to get the extra supports needed from the Department. It is very difficult for teachers if there are extreme behavioural issues and we have to consider the impact on other children in the classroom. We cannot ignore it and it is an issue for everybody - the whole school community, families and the community in general. Extra supports should certainly be provided. It is regrettable that there is no access to home tuition for children on reduced timetables for a certain time - it should never be for a prolonged period. What are our guests' views on that?
Ms Corr referred to additional resources and training for schools. Both are hugely important. In a lot of cases, teachers and school staff are not equipped to deal with situations. If more investment was put into training at that point, it would yield a better outcome for all of us. Deputy Catherine Martin spoke about parents who were working and have to take their children from school. Many parents may choose to stay at home while their children are young, hoping to get back into the workforce when the children go to school. It is a reasonable expectation but, all of a sudden, it becomes very difficult for them to do this.
Similarly, if children who travel to school by bus have a reduced timetable, there may be no car at home or a parent may have to go to work in the car and it may be extremely difficult for the other parent to collect the child. All of these issues have to be considered. We are hearing conflicting things about guidelines, whether they should be more robust and whether they should be made in collaboration with parents and teachers or whether the school should make the decision. It should be a collaboration in all cases but there should also be an appeals mechanism for parents. If there is a single entity collecting the information and providing the guidelines, which more than likely would be the Department of Education and Skills, there should be a clear appeals mechanism for the parents.
Mr. Pat Goff:
A number of points were raised. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked if we would support returning statistics. We would support this, 100%. Schools and principals feel they have nothing to hide. We would rather be transparent and open about everything we do. Deputies Catherine Martin and Jan O'Sullivan asked if it is always in agreement with parents. I would be very surprised if a child was put on a reduced day at the first meeting the principal and teacher has had with the parent. Normally we would have been working through an individual education plan, IEP, for that child. As was pointed out earlier, if the reduced day is not a last resort, it should not be used. I would say there would have been many meetings prior to a meeting to discuss reduced timetables. The question then arises as to whether there is still conflict or whether a parent agrees with it. Unfortunately in such cases, the only alternative for the school is a suspension. That is possibly what would have happened if there was not a reduced timetable in that case.
I agree on home schooling but it also needs to be monitored. We would not like to see home schooling take the place of school.
Mr. Pat Goff:
However, it should be more easily accessible. In a situation where, for example, I ring the Deputy and she either refuses to come or cannot come, in primary schools 60% of our principals are teaching principals so they do not have a choice; they have to teach a class anyway. They have limited secretarial support. The child would either have to continue in class or move to another class. That is in respect of primary school. On the decision as regards subjects on the reduced timetable, a lot will depend on the purpose of the reduced timetable. Sometimes, break time in the yard is the trigger for some pupils. We would be looking at that as part of their behaviour plan; if the trigger was taken out of the equation, maybe the afternoon would be different. Those would be the various issues we would be dealing with. It is a constant dilemma.
Mr. Kieran Golden:
I have had the privilege of being involved in senior management for the past ten years. In the past five years in particular, we have become more and more accountable, which is a good thing. Principals and schools are accountable. Parents should not be under the illusion that some individual made a decision and that is it. We are accountable to our boards of management. I am accountable to the board of management in my school. It is the old Donald Rumsfeld phrase, "compliance, compliance, compliance." Schools are now very compliant places. Parents are perfectly entitled to ask the question and appeal it. They can ask for more detail. Some points were well made by my colleagues here in that regard. We are accountable for what we do, thankfully. We do not have to make decisions in isolation. That protects all of us.
I will bring some of the questions together, if that is okay, rather than trying to remember who asked which one.
Mr. Kieran Golden:
Another form of accountability for schools is the inspectorate. This year alone, my school has had a whole-school evaluation - management, leadership and learning, WSE-MLL, incidentals and subject inspections recently, as well as a DEIS evaluation. There are incidental inspections and special educational needs, SEN, evaluations. Timetables are checked. I refer to school timetables, not individual timetables. Every child is entitled to 28 hours' tuition at second level. An inspector will go through the timetable methodically and will check that the students are getting 28 hours' tuition. The post-primary DEIS evaluation is very forensic. They look for very specific data, including how many suspensions a school has had in the last four years in respect of male and female students; the number of expulsions of male and female pupils in the last four years; and the number of students, male and female, on reduced timetables. For my own school, I was able to say that we had zero in the last four years. Anecdotally, I will tell the committee why. About six years ago I had a student going into the senior cycle who was extremely challenging. I know exactly what Senator Ruane is talking about in terms of communities. Our school is a sanctuary and a safe place for our kids. It is an important place for them. For a variety of reasons, this particular boy was extremely difficult. We went through all the options of what kind of supports had been offered to him. He had been referred to a student support team and had worked with a guidance counsellor, a learning support teacher and the educational welfare officer, EWO. We had worked the parents on numerous occasions. He had that one significant adult, which we all know about. We had teachers trained up in the check and connect intervention model who met the student. However, we were coming towards a point where he was getting extremely difficult for other kids as well. The EWO persuaded us to try a reduced timetable. It was an absolute disaster. The student ended up being totally disengaged and disaffected with school and it was almost his pathway out of school. We were almost formalising that and telling him his behaviour was too difficult. Four weeks later, another student came into the office and asked to try the timetable the first boy had. It is not necessarily the right way. We have to ask ourselves what the behaviours of students are telling us and we must hear what they have to say. I could not see a reduced timetable working at post-primary level, although I take the point about having a conversation with the pupil and finding out which teachers he or she gets on well with. There are nine periods in a school day. The student might tell us he likes Ms Ruane, she is sound, he does not like Ms Martin, and he likes Ms O'Sullivan. He is with Ms Ruane for period 1, will not go to Ms Martin for period 2, and will be with Ms O'Sullivan for period 3. Where will he go in period 2? Coming back to compliance, the issue for us is safeguarding. Who is going to mind that child for the 40 minutes? We have a duty of care. Am I going to ring his mum and ask her to come up for 40 minutes? It is this issue around compliance and it is just not workable in terms of having a kid in for one class and out for another. The other issue, then, is where we find the teacher. All the teachers are timetabled. The timetable is done by the end of June. We cannot free somebody up to mind somebody, and the pupil deserves to be minded. On home tuition, where does the parent get the right teacher to mind the child and give good quality learning and teaching at home or wherever it might take place? I am not going to get on the soapbox about teacher supply but I think we know that.
Is it something at which we need to look? Has there ever been a recommendation following a DEIS inspection? Is it the case that a suggestion has been made that there be a reduced timetable? It would be interesting to know if the inspectorate has ever followed through on this issue.
To clarify, this is not an accusation that is being levelled at the school. The Department is, however, letting schools fly solo on this issue and giving them zero support. It is quite happy not to have the data.
Ms Breda Corr:
The Deputy asked two questions about the report given to parents and the plan for transition. In our schools we sit down and it is almost like an individual education plan in deciding the plan to go back to school. It takes in what is to be done in week one, week two and week three, for example. Sometimes this happens because of a suspension and the pupil is being reintroduced to school. Sometimes a suspension is an alternative to getting extra resources. Sometimes people will take action under section 29 to see what comes out of it. We would certainly welcome data collection. We are saying it is fairly widespread, but we must confirm this and where it happens. It would be very useful to have the information as we would then all know where we stood. I am glad to hear of the supports people are hearing about and the right supports should be available at the right time. Sometimes the special needs assistant is seen as a support, but sometimes there must be behavioural support available or services such as occupational therapy. I am really looking forward to seeing the school inclusion model. I am very aware of what is being done as the personnel are located in the Kildare Education Centre. It is interesting as they are helping teachers to help the students. It is a very good model and I would love to see it rolled out throughout the country. I am also dying to see more training provided for schools. Some parents in our schools are aware that if there was a reduced timetable, they could move to a section 29 scenario. Sometimes that is the way they go because they know that is from where additional resources will come. That is not right as they should be given and people should not have to fight for them.
Dr. Michael Redmond:
I was principal of two DEIS schools in Dublin for over 15 years and we came to the conclusion, with parents, that reduced timetables were the right approach to take. This was having gone through a sequence of interventions until the end, as the committee has heard. I was never happy about them and parents were never happy either. Although the students initially thought it was great, later they hated the reduced timetables. It is very important to remember the student's perspective; although it sounds like a bit of a holiday or that there is daylight in their day, what do they do? The answer very often was nothing and it led to their souls and spirits sinking. Their engagement with life in general just dipped. There is a recurring theme in this conversation that the reduced timetables are an answer to the question of a student's profound and enduring misbehaviour and the consequences for everybody else in a classroom. From where does it come? It is only now that we are beginning to really understand the insights into behaviour management. When I was a principal in the 1990s, things were open and shut, but there was no National Behaviour Support Service, for example. We were on our own and when that happens, we work out justice for the majority, rather than the individual, in spite of all of our best efforts. Now things are much better, despite the increased pupil-teacher ratio, which has not improved since the cuts were made during the recession.
There is a worrying theme emerging in this conversation. I was here before to speak about school costs and it was the same theme. It concerns parent power. The Constitution can state all it likes about parents being the primary educators of their children, but the power differential is palpable when a young mother is sitting in a principal's office. It is more often than not the mother who is there. It is something that really needs our serious attention. What emerges very often when things go well for the family is that the principal has given power to the parent. In other cases, the parent needs to claim it and is not in a position to do so. That is something that is deep and profound and it results in bad outcomes for families, students, children and teenagers. It is something that is worthy of greater attention. It is easy to be a giant in a land of pygmies. Certain teachers, school principals and boards can behave like giants when they do not have the constitutional or even moral authority to make life-impacting decisions on children and, by extension, their families without justification. There is a justice and power element to be examined and we must drill a little further into it.
That is a point well made for us on which to finish. I thank all of the delegates for coming and presenting to us. We can all be glad that we are shining a light on the subject, on which a discussion needs to be had. As I mentioned, we will have another session on 13 June when we will engage with officials from the Department and Tusla, among others. At the end of the process we will discuss the matter further and issue a report with recommendations. I thank everybody for giving of his or her time, insights and practical recommendations which are appreciated.