Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 13 June 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
Use of Reduced Timetables: Discussion (Resumed)
I thank Deputy Jan O'Sullivan for deputising for me earlier.
I remind members and witnesses to turn their mobile phones off or switch them to flight mode 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 have reached No. 6 on the agenda, which is our third session on engagement with stakeholders on reduced timetables. Two weeks ago, we had the first two of three sessions on this. On behalf of the committee, I welcome those who are witnesses and stakeholders today: Mr. Adam Harris from AsIAm; Mr. Bernard Joyce, chief executive officer, CEO, of the Irish Traveller Movement; Ms Caroline Keane, manager and solicitor with Community Law and Mediation, Limerick; Ms Orla Hanahoe, principal of Scoil Cnoc Mhuire; Ms Mary Byrne, head of special education with the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. We will take those witnesses first and then have questions from the members of the committee. Following that, we will hear from Dr. Niall Muldoon, Ombudsman for Children; Mr. Noel Kelly, Tusla; and Ms Mary Cregg, principal officer, social inclusion, and Mr. Eddie Ward, principal officer, special education, Department of Education and Skills.
The format of the meeting is that I will invite all the witnesses to make a brief opening statement. I ask them to stick to the maximum time of three minutes because there are quite a number of witnesses. There will then be an engagement with committee members. We will break this into two sessions.
Before we begin, 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 do so, 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. I advise them that any opening statements made to the committee will be published on the committee 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.
I call Mr. Adam Harris to make his presentation.
Mr. Adam Harris:
I thank the committee for its courtesy in inviting me today. There was an emergency on the previous occasion I was to be here and I appreciate the committee making the invitation available to me.
Reduced timetables are a daily reality for many vulnerable students and yet there has been a certain "do not ask, do not tell" culture, with devastating consequences for young people of various minority groups, and autistic students, and I thank the committee for looking at this issue.
AsIAm is Ireland's national autism charity. We undertake a range of activities with the aim of bringing about an autism-friendly Ireland. In recent years, there has been a number of significant advancements in the education system, with 86% of autistic students now attending mainstream school. This is, of course, to be welcomed, but permission to enter a building is not, in and of itself, inclusion. It is easy for us to pat ourselves on the back and think we are doing a great job without scrutinising the lived experiences of many young autistic people in the education system, particularly those who are out of school or on reduced timetables.
On a day-to-day basis, our young people adapt to a way of communicating, thinking and doing which is not their own. From a young age, experiences such as getting the bus, going to the supermarket or sitting in a classroom require problem solving, adaptation and a large degree of stress and anxiety. The principle of accessibility is part of both national and international law, yet this is far from a universal reality within the education system. Many autistic students are asked to communicate with those who are not trained to share in that communication, sit in environments that cause severe overload and suffering, participate in learning and social activities that are not clear or easy to understand, and be educated alongside students and staff with often little or no knowledge or empathy of their experiences. This is simply too big of an ask for many of our young people. While they are doing their upmost to adapt, the system seems unable or unwilling to meet in the middle and provide an accessible experience.
For a long time, AsIAm has been contacted by parents whose children are not able to attend school. In some instances, the correct provision, be it an autism class or a special school, is unavailable or there are not enough resources to support the child in school. In other instances, the school is not operating an inclusive practise in respect of autism, leading to anxiety, sensory overload and social isolation. Perhaps, most disturbing, there are children whose autistic behaviours are treated as matters of discipline in the same school policy designed for dealing with students who engage in such activities as smoking behind the shed.
We discovered over time that the issue of children being out of school was not straightforward. Often a parent could not answer "Yes" or "No" to the question, "Does your child go to school?" Such children may attend irregularly, with their levels of anxiety leading to long periods out; they may have insufficient support in a school; at times, a parent may have decided to insist on a reduced hours timetable; or they may simply not have a place to go to school at all.
What struck us throughout the process was the apparent indifference of the Department of Education and Skills to this issue. We do not know how many autistic students are out of school or, indeed, how many are on reduced timetables. The Department does not know because it has not asked and, as a result, schools have been left to their own devices on this issue.
As a result, we wanted to demonstrate that there was a genuine problem. We conducted a survey of the autism community in relation to absence from school and published our report "Invisible Children" during world autism month in April. The aim of this report was not to establish a definitive solution to the problem – this is a much bigger piece of work with no single answer - but rather to make the case for a need to look at this issue.
A significant cohort of our respondents, 17%, were students who were on reduced timetables. Some of these students were as young as four or five. In some instances, parents who did not wish to have a reduced timetable were threatened with a suspension or expulsion process should they not consent. In many instances, reduced timetables were a symptom of a lack of resources and knowledge.
I will make specific recommendations ,which AsIAm feels could assist this cohort of students. We call on the Department of Education and Skills to recognise that reduced timetables, while unacceptable, are happening. We do not feel a school ever has a right to place a student on a reduced timetable without a parent's consent. Equally, we strongly believe that schools should be given additional resources for the students who need it most. We understand that for some autistic students a reduced timetable works well and is the will of the parent. As a result, we believe there should be national guidelines on the practice and a keyholder identified who can sanction reduced hours. We believe that boards of management should have to record all instances of reduced timetables. We feel schools need to be provided with more support and more training to better support students on the spectrum, and that outside agencies, such as the HSE and Tusla, have an important role to play.
I thank the committee for its time and look forward to the members' questions.
It is not the first time we have heard about New Brunswick, Canada. There seems to be a good system in place there. We are looking forward to learning a little more about that. I thank Mr. Harris for his contribution and for respecting the time limit. It is appreciated.
I call Mr. Bernard Joyce and welcome him back before the committee.
Mr. Bernard Joyce:
This is our second time before the committee. As the director of the Irish Traveller Movement, the national Traveller-led organisation, I welcome the opportunity to present on the matter of reduced timetables.
There is an urgent need for a review of the widespread use of reduced timetables, as there is no requirement to monitor the practice by the Department of Education and Skills or Tusla. There are also no supports to monitor at local level. Members may be aware that there were 87% cuts to Traveller-specific educational supports in 2011. Since then, there has been an increased use of the practice of withdrawal of the visiting teacher service and resource teachers for Travellers.
Approximately 42 visiting teacher services were cut along with 500 resource teachers. That plays an important role in the context of the reduced timetables that were put in place.
Another obstacle relates to monitoring and the lack of Government support for the work of national Traveller organisations to progress Traveller education. Reduced timetables are of concern and represent an unacceptable practice to manage poor behaviour, in particular for pupils at risk of exclusion, including members of my community. It is critical that other approaches be considered and adopted. Where mitigating issues affect students' ability to engage, other options should be explored with all parties involved, including school personnel, students, Tusla and DEIS. A reduced timetable should never be used to improve behavioural, special and additional needs or on the basis of identity. The emerging practice of reduced timetables for Travellers, in particular, stems from low expectations for Travellers and feeds into the narrative that our young people will not, and cannot, accomplish their aspirations to become teachers, doctors or, indeed politicians. Our young people have always had these aspirations and we need teachers to believe in their aspirations and dreams for the future. There is also a potential for legal action arising from the misuse of the practice for Travellers under the Equal Status Acts and their provisions regarding "any practice that might be concluded as being discriminatory in nature". The Equal Status Acts cite four areas in which a school must not discriminate, three of which are relevant in this regard. These are access of a student to a course, facility or benefit provided by the school, any other term or condition of participation in the school and the expulsion of a student or any other sanction.
There are alternative approaches to the use of reduced timetables. In the UK, there is a comprehensive objective to apply stringent standards across schools on the use of reduced timetables. These criteria may apply for a proposed Irish model: only in exceptional circumstances should there be occasions where it is in the best interests of the pupil to have a temporarily reduced or part-time timetable to meet individual needs for a time-limited period, for example where a medical condition prevents a pupil from attending full-time education and a reduced timetable is considered as part of a re-integration package; a reduced timetable cannot be implemented without written agreement from a parent or carer and should only be used as a short-term measure. In the Irish context these criteria should also apply; information about children missing from education is essential and all schools should notify Tusla and DEIS of any reduced education arrangements; and Tusla and DEIS teams should monitor and review these cases. A further UK requirement is that an online procedure to report on the arrangement should be in place in each case and as it happens, with a proposed timeline agreed between parents and schools.
Among our recommendations, the Government should introduce legislation to control and monitor the use of reduced timetables and adopt mandatory protocols and guidance for all schools, including primary and post-primary schools. It should monitor and audit current practices across all schools with regard to reduced timetables or shortened days and refine the use of school attendance records as a means to shield transparency on the matter. It must monitor complaints taken under the Equal Status Acts related to the practice and report on its findings. The Government should introduce ethnic identifiers in proposed future regulated practices in schools and in respect of reporting and monitoring mechanisms for DEIS and Tusla. Education welfare services should have a monitoring role. This would be a welcome additional force to recommendations accruing where there might be greater monitoring applied. In their own guidelines to schools on behaviour, the education welfare services ask, "Does the school have a standardised way for staff to record matters to do with student behaviour?" However, this is discretionary. Finally, we recommend the reinstatement of the Traveller education advisory committee whereby issues affecting Traveller progression in education could be brought directly to the Minister with responsibility and the relevant Department. I thank the committee.
Ms Caroline Keane:
Community Law and Mediation, CLM, is an independent community-based law centre that works to empower individuals experiencing disadvantage by providing free legal information and advice, legal representation and education and mediation services. We do this primarily in areas experiencing social and economic disadvantage. Our engagement through our free legal advice clinics, community education, outreach and research with communities experiencing disadvantage in Limerick city has highlighted to us the use of reduced timetabling, shortened school days and in-school suspensions as particularly prevalent forms of school exclusion. We also run a child law clinic in collaboration with the Children's Rights Alliance on a weekly basis nationally. It has also been identified through those clinics that reduced timetabling practices are prevalent nationally. As the committee will be aware, these practices operate outside the formal school suspension system for which there is mandatory recording and reporting of suspensions and a mechanism to appeal. Based on our experience, these practices disproportionately affect some of the most vulnerable groups of children in Ireland. These include children from lower socio-economic backgrounds, children with disabilities and children from the Traveller community. These children have been identified in research and successive Government policy instruments as being at a significantly heightened risk of early school leaving. The consistency of the experiences shared by different organisations, including organisations and groups representing Traveller and special needs children, on the prevalence of these exclusionary practices among these groups raises concerns around equality legislation.
CLM conducted research in collaboration with Southill Family Resource Centre last year based on the incidents reported to us at our weekly advice clinics in Limerick and throughout the country. We then held a round-table discussion to which we invited representatives from a range of agencies supporting families in disadvantaged communities in Limerick city and county. The findings from the round table were consistent across the board. We found that the prevalence of these practices is widespread. All participants at the round table had experience of unofficial exclusions and reported that they took various forms including pupils or students being sent home from school, being put on a reduced timetable, for example, signing the roll and staying in a designated area in a school for two hours, and being removed from class and sent to alternative rooms. The view of participants was that the practice disproportionately affected pupils or students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, the Traveller community and those with a disability. It was further found that there was no consistency in the manner in which these practices were implemented. It might be done by way of a phone call or text message to a parent. Participants were consistently of the view that there was little or no consultation with parents, guardians or pupils prior to the implementation of a reduced timetable; rather, it was imposed by the school with the threatened alternative being a formal suspension or exclusion. Round-table participants expressed the view that parents or guardians were often uninformed about their rights as a parent or guardian in light of the impact of this measure on the pupil's or student's education. While our research was limited in its scope, the findings were consistent with research conducted by Inclusion Ireland, which found that only a small number of parents, carers or guardians understood what a reduced timetable was or understood the possibility of appealing it. Only 27% were able to say that the educational welfare officer was aware of a child being on a reduced timetable. Inclusion Ireland also found that there were issues with communication and the language used to convey information to parents, carers and guardians who were almost always not informed of their children's rights. This often results in misunderstandings between them and schools, which damages relationships further.
We asked participants in our round table to consider the impact of these practices on a child's rights to education. Participants expressed the view that the use of reduced school hours timetables deprives children of their full academic and social skills and often results in an impact on a child's self-esteem, compassion and ambition to succeed in life. One participant expressed the view that it can have a long-term impacts, limiting children's options for the rest of their lives. CLM would, therefore, like to make a number of recommendations on foot of our own experiences. CLM proposes that the joint committee seek legal clarity on the status of the practice of reduced timetables. CLM recommends that the recording of a shortened school day or reduced timetable be included in the annual mandatory statutory returns to Tusla on school attendance data, as required for schools by section 21 of the Education (Welfare) Act 2000. This data should be capable of disaggregation based on gender, disability and socio-economic background. CLM recommends also the elaboration and dissemination of national guidelines. We looked, for example, at Kent County Council's guidelines for schools as a model. Kent County Council requires that reduced timetables should only be used in exceptional circumstances and sets out stringent parameters relating to the use and implementation of the practice, including consultation and the consent of parent and an assessment of the impact and duration of the timetable.
We recommend the implementation of legislation to clarify the practice of reduced timetables, taking into consideration time limits; recording; reporting; alternative educational provision during exclusions, which is crucial; and greater consultation between the school, parent and appeals process. I thank the committee for this opportunity.
Ms Orla Hanahoe:
I welcome this opportunity to speak about my views on reduced timetables. I am a primary school principal in Cnoc Mhuire senior school, Killinarden, Tallaght. I have been principal for 11 years in my current school and before that I taught for ten years in a junior school. I have a diploma in special needs education. As part of this diploma, I spent time in various special schools, so I have extensive experience on the ground which I would like to share with the committee.
In my 11 years as principal, I have put reduced timetables in place for six children. This was always the last resort. In my experience and from talking to other principals, when a reduced timetable is put in place, it is always to act in the best interests of the child. Generally, the timetable is put in place because the child cannot cope with a full day in school and requires a lot of one-on-one attention for the time that he or she is in school. The child might not be succeeding in a large class and may need one-on-one or small group teaching, which cannot be sustained all day, because we do not have sufficient resources. We have an allocation of hours for special needs teaching. This is to cover everything, including children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, learning difficulties, assessed syndromes, speech and language difficulties, autism spectrum disorders, physical disabilities, hearing and visual impairments and children with exceptional ability. These hours have to be divided among all the children with needs in the school, including the child who needs intensive support. We have to ensure that the rights to an education and to special needs teaching hours for all children are not compromised because of the needs of one child. It is a matter of balancing resources.
I will provide examples of real cases in which reduced timetables were put in place. I hope this will illustrate the complex issues that schools face. Having listened to the witnesses from other schools speak, I should say that we have a process in place. We record these cases, consult the parents and the child would also be involved. In my school, we have very clear procedures in place in this regard, as we have with everything in the school.
Last year, we decided to put a child on a shortened day because of the difficulties he was experiencing in the afternoons. This included violent and aggressive outbursts in which other children and staff members were placed at risk. He used to run around the school, banging walls and doors, hitting other children he encountered, upending furniture and engaging in general out-of-control behaviour. A reduced timetable was put in place in an effort to reduce suspensions as he had been suspended for these outbursts. We wanted him to experience success in school and not end each day on a negative note. The reduced timetable was a temporary measure, which was reviewed every six weeks with the involvement of the boy's mother.
We had another child engaging in violent and aggressive behaviour and self-harm. He really benefited from a reduced timetable. He has been on a waiting list for child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, for approximately a year and was not getting any other supports. When he had one-on-one attention from the teacher or special needs assistant, SNA, he was manageable but when the adult stepped away anything could happen. The tension and apprehension in the class caused by his unpredictable behaviour was distressing for the other children. We eventually got him placed in a special school for children with emotional and behavioural needs. I am still in touch with the family and he is thriving. Now that he is not in the classroom, it is calmer because the threat of violence is gone. The children feel more secure and the SNA has more time to give to the other children in the class with SNA access. The teacher feels she is making more progress in the classroom because she used to spend a lot of time and energy with this child.
One of my colleagues has a child in her class on a reduced timetable all year around. The boy, who is in junior infants class, is the child of two addicts who had been neglected. Social workers were involved in the case. The boy had never seen a school building as he had only spent time at home and was not used to other adults or children. He came in afraid every morning and tried to escape. He was terrified. He punched, hit and kicked every adult and child he met. This was terrifying for him and all the other little four and five year olds in the class. The position was unsustainable as the whole school was in chaos every morning when the child arrived, which was terrible for him and the other kids. With the foster mother and social worker, a reduced timetable was put in place. The boy started on one hour per day before moving to 90 minutes, two hours and then three hours. I believe he is now coming in until 1 p.m. every day. He still cannot do the full day but the reduced timetable has helped him.
A child in sixth class in a neighbouring school was refusing to go to school. He had extreme anxiety about school and did not want to be there. Since he had missed so many days in school, an agreement was made with the child, parents and educational welfare officer that if he came in, he would be allowed to go home early every day. This got him in to school and eased his anxiety.
We do not have the resources to meet the complex and extreme needs of some children. We are, therefore, balancing this with the duty of care we have to all the children in the school. Reduced timetables are a minor issue. We need to look at what leads to a reduced timetable for a child. I urge the committee to focus on the other agencies which should be supporting schools and parents in managing the most vulnerable children, with a view to ensuring alternative placements are provided for children who cannot cope in a mainstream school. By the time a child gets to a reduced timetable, he or she has been failed. There are many layers involved and the issue is complex.
I firmly believe that the issue is not the reduced timetable. I agree that there have to be simple guidelines, not loads of paperwork for schools, but a checklist or such to have in returns at the end of the year with information such as the number of children on reduced timetables. It could be a nice, simple exercise for schools because we are flooded with paperwork. Something could easily be worked out. The committee needs to look at the complex factors that contribute to a child needing a reduced timetable in the first place and the lack of services and supports for children in need. The needs of one child have to be balanced with those of the other children in the school. I see quiet children who should be succeeding more in literacy, numeracy and everything else but do not get the necessary attention or time from the teacher because resources are directed to other children. I urge the committee to look at the big picture.
I thank Ms Hanahoe. It is always good to hear another perspective, in this the point of view of all of the children within a class and a school. I invite Ms Mary Byrne, head of special education in the NCSE, to make her presentation.
Ms Mary Byrne:
I thank the committee for inviting the NCSE to discuss the use of reduced timetables in schools. I am conscious of time and I will highlight a few points from our written submission. The NCSE uses the term "reduced timetable" to refer to school-based arrangements whereby students have a later starting time or earlier finishing time than other students, take fewer subjects than is usual for their peers, or do not attend school for the full five days each week.
In the past, we have reported concerns that, for a variety of reasons, a number of students with severe emotional behavioural disorders were not in full-time education because they were on reduced attendance as a way to assist the school to manage their challenging behaviour. We have also advised that some students with autism were on a reduced timetable and-or missed days from school because they could find it extremely difficult to cope in school due to extreme anxiety, sensory issues or social and communication difficulties. In some cases, these students can be marked present on the roll but still miss significant time from school, which is not officially recorded. There was little available information about this so the extent of the problem was not fully understood and, therefore, was not being fully addressed. We recommended that schools should be required to report these arrangements to Tusla to ensure that these students are in receipt of an education that is appropriate to their needs and to create an understanding of the nature, extent and impact of this problem.
One of our key responsibilities is to work with schools to ensure there are sufficient places in mainstream and special schools for students with special educational needs. We also provide advice and supports to schools on the education of students as well as providing professional learning opportunities for teachers. While we do not have a direct role in ensuring that students attend school, we support Tusla in discharging its responsibilities to ensure that all students, including those with special educational needs, attend school or otherwise receive an education. From time to time, information on individual students on reduced timetables is brought to our attention through, for example, revised school transport applications or engagement with parents. While we do not track this information because we do not have a formal role in ensuring students' attendance at school, when our special education needs organisers, SENOs, become aware that a student is on a reduced day or reduced timetable, they remind the school of its responsibility to report this to Tusla. Our SENOs also support parents, schools and students, where appropriate, to develop a plan for the student's return to full attendance.
We do not as yet have an informed view on whether the use of reduced timetables can be of benefit to students as, to date, we do not have sufficient evidence on which to base such a view.
We have been told by teachers and principals that there is a small but significant minority of students whose needs are so great that they are unable to manage a full school day. This could be due to school phobia or sensory difficulties or severely challenging behaviours and schools make the case that reducing the length of their school day enables these students to attend school for at least some of the day or week. The NCSE considers that, before reaching any decision on the appropriateness or otherwise of such arrangements, more information is required on the arrangements that schools put in place around reduced student timetables, including information on whether this includes a plan for the student’s phased return to full-time education.We consider the issue of reduced timetabling is an extremely important matter which, depending on the arrangements in place, could potentially negatively impact on the education provided to students with special educational needs. The overriding imperative must be that these students receive an education appropriate to their needs.
We welcome the committee’s examination of the issues involved and would be very happy to provide further assistance to the committee should it be required. The council has formed extensive contacts with New Brunswick over the past year and we would be very happy to assist in helping the committee to engage with our colleagues there.
I spoke on this issue at the last meeting and I get angrier every time I hear the issue played out. Nobody has mentioned the Constitution, in which it states that every child is entitled to a free primary education. We do not need guidelines from anywhere as the Constitution is the guideline and it is the law of the country. I have huge respect for the three witnesses from the voluntary sector but they need to take a harder line on this. I accept that guidelines need to be monitored but every child is entitled to a free primary education. Ms Hanahoe's example may fit in with what the Department of Education and Skills and the Minister said in the Dáil. Ms Mary Byrne and the National Council for Special Education are the people who advise on this matter and they have not endorsed it as they say they do not have the evidence to do so. I am grateful to Ms Byrne for saying this and I will listen to her very carefully on this matter. The Minister is very clear that this should not be happening but resources for schools, to ensure they can provide the education that is guaranteed under the Constitution, are the key issue.
When this committee makes its report, I firmly believe that we should take a hard line on this on behalf of children as they should not be denied their right to free primary education, by the schools or because of a lack of resources from the Department. The only people who are getting on to us about this are the families of children with special needs and their representative organisations. It affects Travellers and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, as it was said was the case in Limerick. It is utter discrimination and it is just an excuse. The boards of management and education and training boards, ETBs, should be reporting this back to the Department of Education and Skills and demanding that resources be provided to ensure children can be dealt with. I am grateful to the National Council for Special Education for the hard line it is taking on this and for saying it should not be happening. The Minister took a hard line in the Dáil and said it should not be happening but I am not sure he is doing anything to prevent it happening. We need to be uncompromising on the constitutional right to an education and I hope the relevant Government Departments take the same line, both in terms of what they say and the actions they take.
I agree with Deputy Thomas Byrne about the clear constitutional right children have to an education, which we need to put into our report. A common thread is that shorter hours or reduced timetables should not happen without an agreement with parents and engagement with parents is absolutely crucial. In the examples Ms Hanahoe gave us, the parents were consulted and they agreed that this was the best thing for their children.
I am shocked by the statistic presented by Ms Keane, showing that only 27% of people were able to say that the educational welfare officer was aware that a child was on a reduced timetable. The educational welfare officer should certainly be involved. The report into Tusla was a recommendation from Ms Byrne and I believe we will hear from Tusla later. There may be exceptional cases, as Ms Hanahoe and Mr. Harris suggested, where a child may not be able to cope with a full day but consultation with parents is crucial. The Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill 2016 is coming forward and this issue could be relevant to that. Data are completely lacking and it does not seem that anything is required to be reported. We need data as well as consultation with parents and we need the rights-based approach which Deputy Byrne proposed.
Does the experience of the witnesses suggest that there is an uneven application in respect of this issue? Do they believe it is a hidden issue? I am delighted that we have decided to explore it - we need to make strong recommendations. Do witnesses agree that parents should have an absolute right to be consulted and that data need to be returned? Do we need to ensure that this is not used in an inappropriate way and without consultation with parents, as seems to be happening? It appears to unduly affect children in certain categories, such as those in lower socio-economic groups, Travellers and children with disabilities. This issue is not in the public arena but it should be. As such, we are doing important work.
The operation of reduced timetables is appalling and it does a huge disservice to our most vulnerable children. There is a lack of support for principals and teachers in some very difficult situations, where they feel they are being forced into operating this. I do not know how this has been allowed to continue and how the Department, and Minister after Minister, have turned a blind eye to it. How are teachers selected to be with a student? What qualifications does a teacher need to be the one-on-one person for a child? Are there times where it is not a teacher but a special needs assistant, SNA, who is there? When SNAs are hired, are they informed that there may be occasions when they will be with the most difficult student in the school as part of their job? I do not believe this is part of the SNA job as they are supposed to support a child's education with the teacher in the classroom. In such a scenario, the SNA and the student would suffer.
What rooms are being used for children on a reduced timetable? How suitable are they? Did any details of them come up in the survey? Do the witnesses have any idea of the maximum number of weeks this can apply for? Ms Hanahoe said it was reviewed after six weeks but has a child been ever been on a reduced timetable for half a year, or even longer?
Are parents always informed of the option under section 29? What happens when the parents do not agree? There are many questions to be asked.
When Ms Hanahoe was speaking, the fact that we simply do not have the resources stood out. This lack of resources is appalling because it does a disservice to her, as a principal trying to run her school, and to all students, not just those with difficulties. What does she need? Is she aware of anything at all that the Department is doing to help? Ms Hanahoe outlined cases involving major behavioural difficulties. How does she choose the teacher? In the context of one case, she referred to the "teacher or special needs assistant" and referred to what happened when the adult stepped away. Is it the case that there is sometimes only an SNA and not a teacher? Has Ms Hanahoe ever received a communication from the Department on the operation of reduced timetables? During an inspection, has it ever arisen?
I thank our guests for their presentations. I am involved with a school. I visited two or three schools and I am really concerned. The practice is being used properly in some schools, as portrayed by Ms Hanahoe. It is of concern to all of us that the practice is abused or used as an excuse in others. Have our guests any suggestions? Currently, schools are supposed to comply and speak to the parents. They are also supposed to report to Tusla. There is a complaints process. If the parents feel there is improper compliance, they can complain to an inspector. Have our guests any further suggestions that would strengthen the case, especially in areas where parents believe children are not receiving a fair hearing. Maybe "hearing" is not the right word. I refer to areas where an excuse is being made. Are there any suggestions as to how the system can be strengthened to support the affected families?
I thank our guests for their presentations. They were powerful and quite shocking. What is happening must be so frustrating. Everyone agrees it should not be happening. Everyone also agrees about resources. There was a particularly powerful presentation on the challenges faced, particularly by teachers. As Deputy Thomas Byrne pointed out, the Minister will agree with us, yet the practice continues. It represents a collective failure of politics.
I apologise because I am due to speak in the Seanad in a few minutes. I will have to leave but I will read the transcripts of this meeting. I have a question for Ms Byrne. It is meant respectively because she does tremendous work. Her organisation recommends the reduction of capitation grants in schools with children on reduced timetables. I am concerned about potential unintended consequences. I understand why the argument is made but surely the issue is that schools facing these challenges need more resources. This comes back to monitoring in particular.
I hope this visit will be less controversial than my previous one. I promise to behave. I commend the committee on highlighting and examining this issue. It has been hidden in plain sight. This is a really important examination, as are the testimonies of those experiencing disadvantage, including Travellers, and those with autism. I refer to the impact of the reduced timetables. There are good ways of employing a reduced timetable but there are also significantly challenging ways. I agree absolutely with Deputy Thomas Byrne that all children have a right to education. We must keep that front and centre. As a guest, I hope that the committee bears this in mind. It is not a question of if but of how. It is important that the committee examine this. My first job, as a very wet-behind-the-ears community worker in Finglas, was with a youth encounter project. It was all about children at risk of getting into all sorts of trouble. St. Paul's is still going strong and it does incredible work. There are examples such as those in New Brunswick but we have very good examples on our doorstep of how we can connect with children who might otherwise be at risk.
I attended an event about Oberstown. It was very stark. More than half of the young people there were out of school, for one reason or another, be it because of reduced timetables or because they were excluded. The costs to their lives and society are considerable when we do not address this issue.
Deputy Thomas Byrne and I worked hard on giving the NCSE additional powers with regard to autism classes. I refer to admission to schools. Does the council need more powers to tackle this issue? Does it need more resources? The council should let us know because we are legislators. We would be willing to give more powers, if needed. There is consensus that the practice should be exceptional, considering it is necessary for every child to have an education.
Ms Hanahoe works in Killinarden. I am sure my colleague, Senator Ruane, had a role in her being here today. In an ideal world, what resources would Ms Hanahoe have? If she could have anything, what resources would she need to educate all the pupils on her role as desired, bearing in mind all the pupils' circumstances, strong examples of which were given? Where does responsibility lie for the data deficit? Is it with the Department, the schools or Tusla? What is the prevalence of the practice? Is it getting worse or better? Are there clear data on who in particular is affected by the practice? I would like to hear answers to those questions.
I have a few short questions. I will be specific about who I am addressing. Mr. Harris talked about the provision of additional therapies. Is he suggesting that it be offered during the school day? Should it be timetabled during school time for the students concerned? Mr. Harris also said boards of management should explore other options before recommending that an autistic student with overly complex needs be expelled or transferred to another school. Within the context of schools having limited resources, what is the impact on other children in a class considering that a third of the respondents in the survey said their child was on a reduced timetable due to a lack of resources? The area of resources is a really big one.
Mr. Joyce referred to reduced timetables in behaviour-management situations. Has he any alternative strategies that he would recommend or suggest should be taken on board?
Ms Keane talked about data that could be used. How would she propose using data on the use of the reduced timetables in regard to gender, disability and socio-economic background? How should they be disaggregated? Sometimes when we label too much or have too many boxes to tick, it can lead to further segregation and, possibly, more exclusion.
Was there any reason the Department of Education and Skills or other State bodies, such as NCSE, did not take part in the round-table discussion.? Perhaps they were not invited. I would be interested in knowing the reason.
On Ms Hanahoe's remarks, it is always good to listen to another perspective. Coming from a teaching background, I saw evidence of what she was talking about. I concur with my colleague Deputy Thomas Byrne that every child should have the opportunity to have a school education.
That is not taking away from the importance of understanding the situation teachers and other pupils have to deal with and how they are affected. I am interested in hearing a little more about the resources that are needed in helping parents to manage their children. Sometimes parents have their own complex needs and we also need to help them with their parenting skills. Sometimes we can do this through schools.
I share Senator Gavan's view on the possible reduction of capitation grants. It certainly could put children at a disadvantage in an already stretched environment. It is not something I would like to see happen.
I, too, want to ask about the role of parents if timetables were to be reduced. In Ms Byrne's experience, do parents engage fully in a process aimed arriving at a mutually acceptable decision? Obviously, we want parents to be consulted at all times, but does full engagement take place? As I have dealt with parents and teachers in these situations, I am interested in hearing Ms Byrne's perspective.
I will go back to the panellists in reverse order. I ask Ms Byrne to respond first.
Ms Mary Byrne:
A number of the questions have revolved around the supports schools have or need. I draw the attention of the committee to the fact that the Department and the Government have approved a pilot scheme for a new school inclusion model to be carried out from September in one area. It is based on recommendations made by the NCSE that students with behavioural, communication and sensory difficulties and so on require the appropriate supports at the right time. To put some of the appropriate supports in place, we will have a range of supports provided in the pilot scheme area. For example, the NCSE will have speech and language therapists and some behavioural practitioners and occupational therapists available. We will be trying to work with the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, the HSE and other services in the area to see what model of support we can put in place in schools to build their capacity to work with students with the most challenging needs. The project will be evaluated and it will be very interesting to see the outcomes for students and whether fewer of them will need to be on reduced timetables. It is a really important project which is of relevance in this area.
It is not just in Ireland that we are hearing about an increase in the number of children on reduced timetables. It is a phenomenon in a number of countries. It is also important to stand back and look not just at the reduced timetables. Ms Hanahoe referred to this issue. It would be really good to look at what is driving the increase and the reasons behind it. Given that we know that it is an international phenomenon, perhaps Ireland might play a part in setting up an international research project to look at it. We were thinking funding might perhaps be given to the Educational Research Centre or an agency like it. We are not on our own in dealing with this issue.
Schools have a responsibility to ensure those teachers with the greatest experience and qualifications are working with students with the greatest needs. While undoubtedly many schools try to do this, we are sometimes disappointed to hear of instances where that is not the case and particularly about how teachers are deployed to special classes. We are sometimes told that principals find it hard to get their experienced teachers to take these classes, sometimes because they are not confident enough or believe they do not have the requisite skills. However, they are not really reasons not to give the class to the most experienced and most qualified teachers.
I was asked about three specific things I would like to address. Senator Kelleher kindly suggested we might need more powers and resources to tackle these issues. Actually the NCSE considers itself to be only part of the picture which is much wider than students with special educational needs. While we have given consideration to whether our organisation should be collecting these data, we believe we could get an inaccurate picture. We would only obtain information on students with special educational needs; it would not be right for us to collect information on other students. We need a comprehensive approach to data collection and believe schools should be enabled to report centrally in order that we get a composite, comprehensive picture across schools and students.
The recommendation on the capitation grant and the reduction in it were brought up by two or three members. We did suggest the Department might consider it. What we had in mind was that while, of course, schools needed to be supported, perhaps the Department also needed to consider a disincentive for schools that might be over-engaging in the practice of having reduced timetables. It was in that context that we made the recommendation. I was asked about the role of parents and whether they were fully engaged in arriving at a mutually acceptable agreement. I do not know the answer to that question because we do not have the data.
On the very last point, to my knowledge, the NCSE did not receive an invitation to engage in a round-table discussion. We generally engage in such discussions.
Ms Orla Hanahoe:
I was asked quite a few questions and I am trying to recall all of them.
It comes down to resources. To put the matter in context for the committee, my school is in one of the most marginalised communities in the country. It is a tough place and we face really complex issues every day. Number one is class size. I am in the senior school where the pupil-teacher ratio is 24:1. In the more middle-class school down the road and every other school it is 26:1. That is not much of an advantage. There should be a smaller class size. I am working on an initiative with a group of DEIS school principals to have a maximum class size in the most disadvantaged schools of 15:1 in junior schools and 20:1 in senior schools. In our school, if we had smaller classes, we would have more time for relationships. A lot of this stems from relationships and the connection a child can have with the teacher. Where there are a lot of children with complex needs in the class, we definitely need a smaller class size.
Staffing is a significant issue. There is a crisis in teaching. This year I have been unable to fill one post. I have had about five teachers in the post all year because we cannot get teachers. I am sure the issue has been reported on by the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, and so on. I have been using student teachers. I might find a teacher for one month here or there and I am having to split classes. Deputy Catherine Martin asked how I decided which teacher should teach each class. I am lucky in that it is a small enough school of 170 kids. Therefore, I know the kids and the teachers. It is about matching personalities and judging who will work well with whom and be the most experienced teacher to teach the most challenging class. However, we are struggling to find staff. I have two temporary and two permanent posts vacant. My advertisement has been up for one week and I have only received ten applicants for the temporary posts. It is the last day of advertising for the permanent posts and nobody wants them. Teachers are not choosing to work in schools like mine. It is a challenge and I want the best teachers to teach the children. Once we get teachers into a DEIS school, although they might be afraid, they generally love it and stay because they get such satisfaction from dealing with the children and seeing them progress. The Department is probably aware of it, but there is a teacher recruitment crisis. There is not a great choice.
Another issue is the waiting lists for child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, and speech and language therapy.
Many behavioural difficulties stem from speech and language difficulties and the waiting list is about eight months. If the parent does engage, he or she might get a block of therapy and must then wait for another six months. There are long waiting lists for occupational therapy. When we get to work with the occupational therapist, we realise what helps a child with ASD. One child who loves pressure wears his coat half the day and likes to carry piles of books around. We find out what works for him. We need a multidisciplinary approach. In an ideal world, I would love to have access such as a hub with a psychologist, occupational therapist, speech and language therapist and clinical psychologist working to serve disadvantaged schools in particular and serving in the schools because it involves the capacity of the parents as well. Sometimes they do not have the capacity to attend appointments so we experience missed appointments. I use my home school liaison officer with many of these children whereby she would have picked up the mother, driven her to the appointment, waited for her and held her hand. Getting therapy is a significant process in itself.
What we find beneficial in our schools is access to a counsellor. We get a counselling grant from Tusla and have a counsellor who comes to our school two days per week. That has helped a lot of our children with emotional and behavioural difficulties because they have somebody with whom to talk things through and help them with bereavements and tragedies they face.
It is all about early intervention because by the time a child gets to secondary school, it is very hard to pull him or her back. I know what the secondary school in our area faces. There is open drug dealing during the day and children are going into that secondary school on drugs. I have come across children in sixth class who were taking drugs as well, so it is a significant social issue in our area. It is not a simple process.
We would never have an SNA working alone with a child. A team is generally involved. We would need to have two adults with some children at all times. These children would be very difficult. They would be in and out of the classroom with the SNA. The SNA might see that they are getting a bit fidgety and difficult and bring them out, do a job or go to another room but it would be in the classroom. We have no special rooms. In-class suspension is something we do to avoid suspending children. It involves children spending time out of their own classrooms with another teacher. That sometimes helps because they want to get back to their own class. It keeps them in school and learning and engaged. It makes them want to be with their peers so that is a strategy we have found to be very beneficial.
Is there anything anybody wants to ask me about? I feel that our school is struggling. There are so many issues to face. It involves the complex issues of our particular area. There are DEIS band 1 schools but then one has what we call DEIS plus schools that need even more resources than the more privileged or middle-class schools. That needs to be taken into account. I am sure members will have found that it involves very disadvantaged communities so they need to be targeted first and need to get more resources than the rest of the schools.
Deputy Catherine Martin and I taught in DEIS schools, so we have that experience as well. There will be an opportunity for a supplementary when everybody is finished. I thank Ms Hanahoe. What she has described is harrowing but it is realistic. It is a true picture and that is what we need to hear.
Ms Orla Hanahoe:
We have so much to think about. We are trying to engage with parents who do not really have the capacity. We are trying to help them and get them to appointments. I have huge empathy with the parents with ten or 11 year old boys who might be hitting them at home. These are parents who are trying to manage them or their sensory needs and who have no education themselves so they need more support as well.
Ms Caroline Keane:
Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked about the engagement or consultation with the parents. I can only speak from my own experience. We run two clinics per week in areas in Limerick with very high early school leaving, with the rate being as high as 46% in one area. This is far higher than the national average of 12.5%. We are dealing with parents who might have had a very poor educational history in terms of their own experience with schools. Ms Hanahoe mentioned that the capacity of parents to engage with the school can also be an issue at times. Yesterday, I met a parent who told me her son has been on reduced timetabling for four months and she does not know the reason why. There is no formal communication around this. It is a practice that has slid into existence but she does not know the reason why. There is no piece of paper - no form or letter. There is no way to appeal this. Sometimes the balance of power is such that she knows that if she does something to challenge or appeal this, the alternative might be a form of suspension or formal exclusion so what she has is almost better than nothing. It is almost as if the parent accepts that this is better than nothing. As Deputy Thomas Byrne said, when a child has the right to an education, better than nothing is not enough. The child has the right to five hours and 40 minutes at primary level or six hours at secondary level. If the child is not getting the capacity to have that education, better than nothing is not enough.
A piece of work must be done around particular areas where, as Ms Hanahoe identified, capacity issues with parents exist. I know there are some pilots running in Limerick. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan and Senator Byrne might be aware of the ones in Corpus Christi school, Moyross, and Le Chéile national school in Roxborough, where they are working to have all those services within the same footprint. The child will enter the early school years and into primary school level and the speech and language therapist and the physiotherapist will be on site. Moreover, all the services the family will need to support that child, including supports for the family, will be on the one site. The instances of "do not attend" or "did not attend" for some of these services were so staggeringly high that they thought they would bring them to the schools and consequently, they are building that footprint in Limerick with the Le Chéile model. I also know that Corpus Christi school, Moyross, is doing a lot of work to support parents in terms of parenting capacity because it recognises that it is not enough to address the issue at the child's level. This is generational. We see generation upon generation in particular areas where early school leaving is part of the fabric of the family and the area in which it lives. That engagement piece is significant in terms of the parents' capacity to support their child. That is a significant issue.
Deputy Catherine Martin raised the length of time and whether there was any measurement with regard to that. Last week, a family came to me whose child entered secondary school and is just about to complete second year but has been on a reduced timetable since the child's second month of first year, so we are looking at two years. The child is going into his junior certificate year having been on a reduced timetable for two years. There is no one particular issue. It is the culmination of lots of different issues. Again, for the parents in this case, it is almost an "it is better than nothing" approach. This child does not have any particular identified need but has disciplinary issues. Home tutoring was suggested as a possible solution to this family but the family consists of two adults and seven children living in a two-bedroom house. How does home tutoring work in that scenario? Where is the capacity to facilitate that? No doubt, that is part of the problem that this child brings to school with him. There is so much overcrowding that he is bringing that to school with him.
There are different layers as to why this practice happens. As for looking exclusively at it on the basis of a child with a disability or a child from the Traveller community or from a particular disadvantaged background, there are so many different layers. Children are now coming to school from hotels and do not have the capacity to go home and do their homework or get a good night's sleep. Homelessness is a significant issue with which we deal in our law centres in Limerick and Dublin. It has a massive impact on a child's ability to complete a full school day.
This relates to the Chairman's question about the data that are collected. This is a critical issue.
There could be other alternative education provisions that could be identified if one knew the basis on which the child was on a reduced time timetable. Issues such as disability or a particular economic or social background might be very evident. Something like hidden homelessness goes under the radar and perhaps a child might need that support because of particular circumstances at the time. That answers the question as to how the data could be used.
On the round-table in Limerick, it was organised locally and invitations were sent through the Limerick citywide children and youth forum, which is made up of representatives of services which support families across the city and county. The Department is not a member of the body. Our hope is we will be able to extend it further. It was a small piece we did last year. Unfortunately, we have limited resources.
Mr. Bernard Joyce:
I will give feedback on some of the comments made.
We welcome Deputy Thomas Byrne's comment on there being a constitutional right to an education, as stated and as we have been stating for a long time. Participating in full-time education is a fundamental right and it would be wrong to deprive anybody of it. That is why we are here. The outcomes for Traveller children, children with autism and for others owing to socio-economic reasons are such that they are leaving school without completing the leaving certificate, or the junior certificate for that matter.
To respond to other issues raised, we have been contacted by parents across the country who have told us that their children are on a reduced timetable, that they are unaware of what recourse they have or the procedures or legislation in place. While we know that there are remedies available, it is left to parents to address the particular issue. That is not the right approach to take.
I am looking at a submission the Irish Traveller Movement made some considerable time ago in April 2011 on education cuts. There is a connection between the cuts made and the reduced timetables that are impacting directly on Traveller children today, as we have heard in the discussion on resources. The removal overnight of the resources put in place to support, enable and encourage parents and schools will have a significant impact, as we are seeing. We have lost a generation of young Travellers at primary and post-primary level, which has been a regressive step. One of the recommendations is that there be an audit to see why the cuts took place to assess fully if they were justified or carried out in a disproportionate manner. I understand this has not materialised.
We lost 40 visiting teachers who would link with communities and schools. They would be very helpful.
On resource teachers, I estimate that there were 500 at the time of the cuts and then they were gone. It was fundamentally wrong in every sense to do this to the most vulnerable, marginalised and socially excluded group. The opportunities for young Travellers today are being limited as a result. We, therefore, need to address the issue of school resources. It is not about blaming schools but about looking at how we work with the system in which these resources have been cut to improve provision. It is also to ensure that where there are reduced timetables, there is a very clear rationale they are in place.
We need to look at putting resources in place to ensure every single child will have access to a full education within the system. As things stand, we are not achieving this. People are beginning to seek advice and support from community law centres and NGOs to have these issues addressed. We have made some clear recommendations. There has to be a reframing to ensure this issue is eradicated with immediate effect. I do not accept for one minute that a child should be put on a reduced timetable. It appears to be based on identity and expectations as opposed to anything else. There are reasons for this, given that some schools have mentioned Traveller children. It is disproportionate. We need to examine the issue without waiting to discover what is international best practice. Ireland has to step up to the plate and develop best practice in order to shape Europe's response. The Departments need to collaborate to ensure a strategic co-ordinated approach is adopted. The task now for everybody, including all of the political parties, is to work together to that end.
Mr. Adam Harris:
I will deal with the Chairman's questions.
On boards of management, one of the concerns AsIAm.ie has had for some time is that they are often asked to make significant decisions on opening autism classes, suspensions and expulsions. The role of a board of management is to oversee the activities of a principal and hold him or her to account from a governance point of view. We are concerned that very few boards of management have a representative of parents with a child with special needs or include a person with that expertise. That is worrying and something at which the patron body should look.
Whatever comes out of the process on reduced timetables, it has to be more than a recording exercise by a principal; it also has to involve a degree of sanction and approval.
On the impact on other children, there is no doubt that schools that are inclusive and enrolling students with disabilities and other needs should be resourced appropriately. The evidence shows that in the vast majority of cases having a child with a disability in a class has a positive educational impact on other children. In a survey we conducted in April of attitudes to autism among 1,000 people selected at random the most open cohort was the 18 to 25 year age group. The reason is those surveyed had sat in a classroom with people with disabilities.
On the therapies piece about which I was asked, it was in reference to the piece about which Ms Byrne had spoken on the in-school therapy pilot scheme and the proposals for the reform of the SNA scheme.
To pick up on what Ms Hanahoe said about there being bigger overriding issues, one of the challenges in mainstreaming is that some expertise may have been lost in the process. When a child attended a special school, he or she was able to access a lot of people with advanced knowledge and from therapeutic backgrounds, etc. Mainstream schools do not currently have that resource.
Deputy Thomas Byrne referenced the Constitution. It is a point with which we very much agree and which we raise frequently, with the broader issue of illegality in the context of the Education Act, for example.
This relates to another area of the Constitution, namely, the parent as the primary educator. The parents in our community play a central role in advocating for and supporting their children. Our experience, however, is that they have the least choice and input in their child's education compared with other parents. One of the key reasons parents cite the reduced timetables is that they wanted their child to go to an autism class or a special school and that was not possible. I was asked whether there is usually a good engagement between parent and school. Unfortunately, in many instances the engagement has been appalling. I would use the word "manipulative" to describe the way parents have been handled, being told what would happen if they did not consent to this.
When we make the legal argument another factor is in play, namely, the UN convention, which is clear in stating that it is never the obligation of the child to somehow adjust and adapt to fit into the school. The onus is on the member state and its agencies, in this case, the school, to adapt to meet the needs of the child. When, for example, an autistic child is struggling and, as a result, experiences a meltdown and loses the ability to communicate that is not a choice. That is happening because of the environment and the experience the child is having being inaccessible. We need to consider this from an accessibility point of view and realise that the onus has to keep going back on to the State.
I am concerned that when instances such as that happen the policy that tends to be operated is a code of behaviour, not an accessibility policy about how to support the child in this instance. For example, families frequently get in touch with us because the use of a behaviour contract is being put to children as young as nine and ten years. Children are being asked to sign documents stating, for example, that they will respect personal space, be mindful in their tone of voice or will not get agitated if there is a change of plan. It is the equivalent of asking a child to sign a document stating it will no longer be autistic. These are fundamental accessibility needs and they are not being recognised.
In our written submission, we outlined the reasons that parents said their children were on reduced timetables. Resources come up, particularly in the lack of autism classes, but there are also issues such as lack of teacher training, the sensory environment and staff not having training in communication. There are deeper cultural issues that have to be recognised.
Deputy Catherine Martin asked about numbers. In our survey, 47% of the young people on reduced timetables had no engagement with their SENO. I have the numbers on Tusla and numbers for how long the reduced timetable has been in place but I do not have them with me. I can send them on without a problem. We found that reduced timetables tend to be the first step towards a suspension or an expulsion. During the research process for this, we tried to use freedom of information requests to get numbers from the Department on suspensions and expulsions of children with disabilities but there are no data. That goes hand in glove with this issue.
A question was asked about qualifications. We still see many instances of newly qualified teachers being placed in autism classes or in additional teaching roles that are not appropriate. The message that must go out is that it is not a case of choosing to be a special educational needs or mainstream teacher, our system now is that a person is a teacher and has to be willing to teach whomever they are called upon to teach, particularly as they become more experienced.
There is a deterioration in the accessibility of school buildings for autistic students. There are beautiful new buildings around the country but they have a lot of light and glare, and multi-purpose spaces are being used with a lot of sensory activity at once. Even the bright vibrant colour schemes pose fundamental accessibility issues. While physical access is considered, autism-friendly design is not being embedded in the construction of autism classes or schools.
There is no doubt the problem comes back to training again and again. Even though people with disabilities have been attending schools for some time, teachers are still completing their education without any discrete awareness of conditions such as autism. Mary Immaculate College in Thurles has become the first teacher education college to teach a compulsory module on autism. This needs to be explored more fully. In terms of continuing professional development, CPD, what is the uptake of schemes such as the Middletown Centre for Autism's training programme? If it is low, why is that the case? I understand from the teachers' unions that they are very keen to be able to access more training. A key priority in addressing this issue has to be to identify what sort of training is needed and how it can be delivered in a way that is acceptable to everybody.
Dr. Niall Muldoon:
I am delighted to be invited to appear before this committee. As the committee is aware, the Ombudsman for Children's Office, OCO, is an independent human rights institution established under the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002. In light of these statutory functions, I welcome the committee's decision to examine the use of reduced timetables and to shine a light on this issue.
It is important to note that equal access to education is a fundamental right for children under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNCRC, which Ireland ratified in 1992. Two of the main articles provide that all children must be able to enjoy their rights without discrimination of any kind and that children's best interests should be treated as a primary consideration in all actions concerning them. I believe that the current invisibility of the use of reduced timetables in Irish schools is a real and serious concern that is impacting on how we as a country can say with confidence we are upholding the rights of all children fairly and equally. I am aware that schools sometimes use reduced timetables as a positive intervention in exceptional circumstances for the purposes of supporting children at a particularly difficult time in their lives when a full day at school may have become an insurmountable challenge. In these circumstances, schools use reduced timetables to facilitate a child to continue with their education to the maximum extent possible until such time as they are able to return to school full time. This can be understood as a child-centred practice that is underpinned by a commitment to acting in the best interests of the child concerned. Some of Ms Hanahoe's examples were very good. In our experience, their use in these exceptional circumstances rarely causes difficulties and tends to involve a partnership between the child's parent or guardians and the school. However, even in these circumstances it is essential to be cognisant of a potential inequality in the negotiating position of the parents and the school. Therefore, safeguards need to be put in place to ensure that the use of a reduced timetable for the purposes of supporting a child is time-limited, in the best interests of the child concerned and put in place without any pressure having been placed on the child's parent or guardian to agree to it.
Simple safeguards in these circumstances could be a clear, shared and agreed understanding between the school, the child and the parents. It should include the rationale for the reduced timetable, informed consent that has due regard to the views of the child and a formal, written agreement between the school and the child's parents. If there are other parties involved with the child, they should have input to specific details about how long the reduced timetable will be in place and dates for reviewing its use.
I am more concerned about what I consider is the inappropriate use of reduced timetables as an informal suspension in response to behaviour by the child that a school is finding difficult to manage in the classroom. This type of response by schools often occurs in the absence of policy or guidance and may not be recorded within the school and its use is not overseen by any external agency. This means one child or a group of children could be missing significant amounts of education that cumulatively could be far more than a formal suspension. We have heard examples of that today. As we all know, excluding a child's access to education is seen as an extremely serious sanction to the extent that there are specific safeguards under Irish policy and legislation regarding its use. Deputy Byrne mentioned that.
At the moment the use of reduced timetables is invisible. It is not listed as an option. There are no guidelines on its use, no guidance on recording its use and no external monitoring of same. Therefore, the oversight of its use is in individual schools. It is also impossible to determine if some cohort of children are more adversely affected than others but, as we heard, children with disabilities, children with emotional and behavioural difficulties or children from a different cultural background such as those in the Traveller or Roma communities or those in disadvantaged areas are likely to be the main recipients of reduced timetables. Anecdotal evidence would suggest they are. It is important that we do not underestimate the impact of prolonged reduced timetables as an exclusionary measure on children. It may make children feel unwanted by the school community, they may be perceived as different by their peers, they may stop seeing school as a positive place and they may even drop out of school. It can also be very disruptive for family life. If parents expect their child to be in school for six or seven hours but have to pick up the child after one hour, that changes the family dynamic.
What do we believe is needed? In our view, national policy and guidelines need to be developed that set the following out clearly: what a reduced timetable is; the exceptional circumstances in which it is permissible for schools to use reduced timetables; the circumstances in which it is not permissible for a school to do so; the information schools must provide to guardians, parents and children about reduced timetables; the procedures schools must follow when seeking to place a child on a reduced timetable, including the process for engaging with the child’s parents and the children themselves; and the procedures for recording and reporting any event to another organisation. Time limits should be a part of that and review times should be put in place quickly. At the last meeting last week, the joint management board talked about a two-week limit. The national policy and guidelines must also set out the procedures schools must follow to facilitate guardians and children to raise concerns and complain about the reduced timetable and to use the appeals process. That is standard and fair justice.
In this regard, we suggest that consideration should be given to providing appropriate statutory underpinning for the use of reduced timetables. In addition, further attention needs to be given to monitoring the use of reduced timetables nationally. In this regard, I note the current absence of data, including data to clarify the extent to which the practice of reduced timetables is being used by schools; the number of children who are being placed on reduced timetables and the groups of children that are more likely to be placed on reduced timetables. As we are looking to see whether there is a discrimination happening, we need to know those figures.
I acknowledge the huge efforts that have been made by teachers to balance the rights of all children within schools in those circumstances. I have met the special needs principals who are putting huge efforts into this as well. Where it is the case that schools are using reduced timetables as a behaviour management intervention, attention needs to be given to strengthening the supports available to schools through the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, the national behaviour support service, the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and all the other auxiliary professions mentioned by Ms Hanahoe, such as occupational therapy, OT, speech and language therapy, SLT, the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, and counselling.
Mr. Noel Kelly:
On behalf of Tusla, I thank the committee for this opportunity to address it on the matter of reduced timetables. Tusla's educational welfare service, EWS, which I represent, supports every child and young person’s right to education and the right of every child to attend for the full school day unless exempted for exceptional reasons. The key legislation related to school attendance, as referenced by Deputy Thomas Byrne a few minutes ago, is outlined in the Education (Welfare) Act 2000. In order to assist schools to comply with their obligations under this legislation, the National Educational Welfare Board, which preceded the Tusla educational welfare service, along with Tusla, have provided two resource booklets to schools, namely, Developing a Code of Behaviour: Guidelines for Schools, which was issued in 2008, and; Developing the Statement of Strategy for School Attendance, which was issued to all schools in 2015. Hard copies of these have been issued to all schools and soft copies are available online.
Under the Education (Welfare) Act 2000, schools are obliged to submit reports on school attendance to the educational welfare service in the following four key circumstances: if a student has been suspended for six or more consecutive days; if a student has reached 20 days' cumulative absence during the course of a school year; if a principal is concerned about a student’s attendance, a decision which a principal can make at any stage or if the board of management of a school intends to expel a student.
Guidance has been provided to schools on reduced timetables and suspensions. This refers to the question Deputy Thomas Byrne just asked and I will quote from both of these guidelines which say the following:
Exclusion of a student for part of the school day, as a sanction, or asking parents to keep a child from school, as a sanction, is a suspension. Any exclusion imposed by the school is a suspension, and should follow the Guidelines relating to suspension.
That has been clear in both of those guidelines since 2008.
Under section 29 of the Education Act 1998, parents have the right to appeal any suspension and Tusla's educational welfare service is available to advise and support parents should they wish to make such an appeal. Tusla educational welfare service is aware that reduced timetables are being used in some schools but our awareness, like other witnesses, is informed by anecdotal information, information from representative groups and information from parents who contact us seeking support with their child. There is a lack of hard data available to gauge the extent of the use of reduced timetables, as in many cases, as said previously, it appears to be unrecorded and unreported.
We recognise that as some other witnesses have said, schools face many complex needs on a daily basis and Tusla educational welfare service is aware that in certain exceptional circumstances, the use of a reduced timetable may be beneficial for a student. However, any such arrangements should be short-term in nature, have regular scheduled reviews, be in the best interest of the student, have an accompanying education plan, have an accompanying plan for full integration and be agreed by the school, the parents, the guardians and the student.
Tusla educational welfare service is working with our partners in education and our parent Department to address the issue of reduced timetables. We have prepared a proposed response, which we can share with members later. I thank the Chairman and members for the opportunity to make this brief opening statement.
I now move to the Department of Education and Skills. We have Ms Mary Cregg, principal officer in social inclusion and Mr. Eddie Ward, principal officer in special education. Ms Cregg is going to make the opening statement.
Ms Mary Cregg:
I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to address the committee on this important issue. I want to open by stating clearly that the Department’s position is that each and every child has a right to education, to enable him or her to live a full life and to realise his or her potential. The Education Act 1998 sets out the function of the Minister to provide for education. The Act places a responsibility on boards of management to manage schools for the benefit of all students and provide an appropriate education utilising the resources made available by the State.
The position of the Department of Education and Skills is that all pupils who are enrolled in a school should attend for the full school day, unless exempted from doing so in exceptional circumstances. Reduced timetables should not be used as a behavioural management technique, or as a de facto suspension or expulsion, nor does provision exist for the use of reduced timetables for particular cohorts of pupils. Where schools apply a shorter school day in relation to a child, such arrangements should only be put in place in exceptional circumstances in order, for example, to assist a pupil to return to school, where he or she has been experiencing an absence due to a medical or mental health-related condition. Any such arrangement should be a transitionary arrangement, which is designed to assist the reintegration of a pupil to a school environment. In making such arrangements, school authorities should be mindful of the best interests of the child and of the child's right to a full school day.
Early intervention and whole school approaches are the most important strategy in managing emotional and behavioural difficulties. The Department has put in place a suite of resources, including special education teachers and special needs assistants, to support the inclusion of pupils with special educational needs or behavioural issues. The National Council for Special Education and the National Educational Psychological Service provide training and guidance to schools around the inclusion of pupils with special educational needs, including around the management of behaviours that challenge.
The Department recognises that this is a complex issue and is investing heavily in supporting children with special educational needs, with €1.9 billion being spent in 2019. Since 2011, the number of special education teachers has increased by 37% to more than 13,400. Provision for up to 15,950 special needs assistants in total has been made for 2019, an increase of 51% since 2011. The Department also provides a number of resources to DEIS schools and funds the DEIS programme to the tune of €125 million. The DEIS programme supports attendance and retention, including the home school community liaison scheme, which is part of Tusla’s integrated educational welfare service, comprising the school completion programme, and the statutory educational welfare service.
The Department of Education and Skills is aware that the Traveller representative groups have highlighted inappropriate usage of reduced timetables in the context of poor educational outcomes. The Department is committed to working with Traveller and Roma groups to achieve educational outcomes that are equal to those of the rest of the population and a number of initiatives are in place to try to address the current gap. I wish to assure the committee and those present that the Department of Education and Skills is working with Tusla educational and welfare service and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to support schools, with a view to ensuring that the use of reduced timetables is limited only to exceptional circumstances where it is necessary. To that end, we are looking at an assessment of the data which are available and are working towards producing joint guidelines, which will clarify the sort of situations referred to Ms Hanahoe here, which may be appropriate. That process will involved consultation with stakeholders. I assure the committee that we are addressing this issue in conjunction with our colleagues in Tusla.
The position of the Department of Education and Skills is that a reduced timetable should not be used as a behavioural management technique or as a de facto suspension or expulsion. How has the Department checked? Is Ms Cregg telling me that the Department believes schools are only using reduced timetables in exceptional circumstances? Is the Department aware that Traveller representative groups have highlighted inappropriate use of reduced timetables? Is that the only source of the Department's awareness? It is shocking that the groups have had to bring that to the attention of the Department. Many others are suffering due to abuse of the reduced timetable option. When did the Department last communicate with schools to clarify the position that it should only arise in exceptional circumstances? How has the Department been checking that it is only being used in exceptional circumstances?
Tusla has outlined how guidance has been provided to schools to the effect that the exclusion of a student for part of the school day as a sanction or asking a parent to keep a child from school as a sanction amounts to a suspension. The Department maintains the measure cannot be used as a de facto suspension but yet guidance has been provided to schools that a reduced timetable amounts in fact to a suspension. Can the Department explain the position? Either it is happening or it is not. If it is, how many section 29 applications have been made? How many parents have appealed such moves? My fear is that parents are not being informed. I believe parents of the most vulnerable and of students from disadvantaged areas who are being subjected to reduced timetables are not aware of their rights. I believe they are unaware of how to challenge such a measure. What are we doing for parents to ensure they can advocate properly for the right of their children to education? What supports are in place to ensure that children are getting their right to education?
Does the Department check what happens when a parent disagrees? What if a parent disagrees but then the child is put out? What happens then? Are children being put on reduced timetables against the wishes of their parents? Why is the operation of reduced timetables in schools not included in whole-school evaluation of management, leadership and learning, WSE-MLL, inspections? I understand it is not because I asked the question two weeks ago. How easy would it be to add a question on this when an inspector comes for three or four days to a school? An inspector could ask whether a school operates a reduced timetable and ask for all the facts, including how the students go on the reduced timetable. The students and parents are surveyed as part of the WSE-MLL inspections. Why not add a question to those surveys? When inspectors meet the boards of management as part of the WSE-MLL process, are board members asked how many reduced timetables they have approved and why? Have inspectors formed the view that all the members of the board of management are okay with the measure? Are they simply going with the wishes of the principal? How well informed are board members on this?
What is the plan now? The Minister has said he is not happy with this but we need more than that. The Department has assured us it is working with Tusla with a view to ensuring that the use of reduced timetables is limited only to those exceptional circumstances where it is necessary. What does that mean? Can the Department break that down for me? What are we going to see? What is the plan? How is the Department going to address it and stop this practice? How is the Department going to support principals like Ms Hanahoe, who has spoken of a health and safety danger? Ms Hanahoe has outlined how there is danger with the behaviour that she is trying to manage in her school. That is unfair on students and principals and it is not safe. What is the Department putting in place? What is the greater plan? For violent and aggressive outbursts there has to be a better option than reduced timetables. I simply do not understand how the Department has been blind and deaf to all of this. It fell to us to shine this light. The best thing that has happened is that the light is being shone on this. Did it really take until June 2019 to shine a light on the use and misuse of reduced timetables? Did it take this long to shine the light on the dire need to resource our teachers, principals and schools to provide the education to which every child has a right?
I agree with Deputy Catherine Martin. This committee has uncovered an illegality that is ongoing. We need to hold further public hearings. I will be suggesting that Mr. Hislop, the chief inspector, comes in. We need to bring back Ms Mary Byrne and her colleagues as well because not only has the Department been deaf to this but it has been warned. It was specifically stated by Ms Byrne today that in 2012 and 2016, the Department was warned about this. Clearly, it has done nothing except issue the legal position, which is that it is not acceptable. The Department has stated that clearly on the record on every occasion. In fairness to Ms Cregg, who is relatively new in this role, she took the hardest line on this issue. She takes the view that it should simply not be happening at all. In practice, that is not what is happening in schools. Children are being denied their legal and constitutional rights on a daily basis. By the way, if anyone is watching - I imagine there are people watching - my advice is to ask for the decision in writing from principals. Oftentimes, according to colleagues throughout the country, when a parent asks for an announcement in writing of the reduced hours, it simply does not happen. It is not acceptable that parents are getting telephone calls.
We need to keep on this because there are two sides to it. The first is that this should not happen. The second is that to prevent it from happening, we need the resources to be put in place.
I have great respect for the Ombudsman for Children but I do not think he has hit the nail on the head on this issue. I believe this is an illegality and it must stop. A harder line from the Ombudsman for Children would be helpful. Dr. Muldoon has been clear but he has not been as clear as the Department or the National Council for Special Education. The Ombudsman for Children is an independent officer so it is not my job to tell him his role. However, if the Department is saying this should not happen at all except where there is illness and we know that it is happening from the groups, then I would certainly encourage the Ombudsman for Children to take a fresh look at this. The committee needs to hold further public hearings on this to get to the bottom of it. The resources issue is obviously the big elephant in the room but the Constitution provides guarantees. The only right that encompasses resources in the Constitution is the right to primary education, and second level education follows from that. The right to primary education implies resources. There is nothing else in the Constitution. There is no right to healthcare in the Constitution but there is a right to education. I accept the point made about cuts for Travellers. We in the committee hear that point. The point is not aired all the time but we hear about resources for children with special needs all the time and we hear about the DEIS system. This is an illegality and I believe we should perhaps ask the Oireachtas law service to look at this from a legal point of view. We should get in the chief inspector, the Minister and the NCSE to go through in more detail the advice given. If that could be provided to us, it would be useful. Ms Byrne said that she was advised on the matter in 2012 and 2016 and I would be interested to hear more about that.
At the outset I wish to apologise to the witnesses. I had to go out earlier for another meeting. This is the second day on which we have heard presentations from witnesses on this area. I have come away with the conclusion that the system, as we have it, is failing the children concerned, as well as the parents of those children. It is failing the schools and teachers as well.
I can see that in many ways the finger is being pointed towards the schools. That is unfair. The schools do not have the necessary resources to address this issue. Ms Hanahoe made a presentation earlier. She drew a picture for me outlining the problem. As Mr. Joyce said, we know what the problem is and now we have to try to find a solution to it. That is not simple.
The previous two speakers alluded to another point. It is the fact that this has been going on for so long but it is only now that we are having a conversation about it. That is alarming. I appreciate that Ms Cregg outlined the Department's case but it is not convincing based on the evidence we have received from the witnesses. It is all well and good to talk about the right of a child to education but it is a different matter entirely to ensure the child gets that education.
That clearly is not happening.
My sympathy goes to the children and parents, but I also have sympathy for schools. Clearly they are at the end of their tether in trying to look after not only this area but also many others within a school. Resources are a serious problem. It is the elephant in the room. If we are serious about tackling the issue, the Department needs to give leadership. At the very least, there is a need for guidelines on when and how reduced timetables will be used. As Deputy Catherine Martin said, it is shocking that in June 2019 we do not seem to have them, although I appreciate the issue is very complex. It is not in the gift of the Department to have all of the solutions; it is a cross-departmental issue. These sessions have been useful in shining a light on the problem and we now need to move on to try to find a solution. The Department needs to show more urgency in providing guidelines and solutions to this problem than it has heretofore.
Clearly there is a breakdown between what is supposed to happen and what actually happens. We have shone a light on the problem, but we now need to be very specific about what needs to happen. Mr. Kelly from Tusla has said there is an obligation to report to the National Educational Welfare Board and that partial exclusions are suspensions. On the other hand, Ms Keane told us that based on the information in her survey, the educational welfare officer was only aware of 27% of cases, which clearly is a breach of what is supposed to happen. Are schools informed that they are supposed to report to the National Educational Welfare Board on suspensions? That indicates a breakdown.
I wish to ask the departmental officials the question Mr. Harris raised earlier about data. Does the Department have data for suspensions and/or reduced timetables broken down by children attending DEIS schools, children from Traveller or Roma families and children with special educational needs? Based on what Mr. Harris said, I think it probably does not.
At our last meeting we heard from the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, the Irish Primary Principals Network, the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education and the Joint Managerial Body Secretariat of Secondary Schools. They all agreed with the delegates present that it should only be in exceptional circumstances and as a last resort. However, that does not seem to be the reality. The policy is that it should only happen in very special cases, but in practice it is much more commonly used. Again, that shows a breakdown. Will the Department insert an extra field into the requirements of the primary online database, POD, returns schools make to oblige them to identify reduced timetables? I am not sure if suspensions are already covered; they probably are. This would mean that they would have to return the information.
Ms Cregg mentioned that guidelines were being drafted. When will they be ready to be communicated to schools?
Based on what has been discussed and at previous meetings, will the delegates look seriously at the reporting mechanisms, the rights of parents and, more importantly, children? Obviously, the committee will make a report. I ask the delegates to look at their own obligations to ensure we will address what in theory should not be anything like the problem it is but which in practice, from what we have heard, appears to be much common than it should be.
I thank Mr. Kelly for the clarification that a reduced timetable should be considered to be a suspension and recorded as such. It is the first time we have received that clarification.
Further to Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's question about data, it seems clear that the Department has not been collecting data for reduced timetables. Why are they not collected?
At our meeting two weeks ago we were advised about the lack of availability of home tuition for children on a reduced timetable and that they were missing out. Could home tuition be made available in those cases? The submissions we have received today and two weeks ago highlight the need for a multidisciplinary and cross-professional approach to the care of children at risk who are on reduced timetables. I am interested in hearing comments on that issue. I know that Ms Cregg in her submission indicated that representations had been made to the Department. Deputy Thomas Byrne also raised that issue. Why have those recommendations not been implemented? It is very useful to know that the NCSE is undertaking a pilot project, but I am conscious that it is only for children with special needs and that other groups are also isolated and excluded. Could a pilot scheme be introduced to address the needs of other children who are excluded?
Ms Mary Cregg:
The Department reinforces that this is a complex issue that needs to be addressed across the board. We are aware that exceptional circumstances apply. A reduced timetable should only be used as a last resort at the end of a process involving consultation with the parents. It should only apply in exceptional circumstances. In its inspection of a school the inspectorate seeks to support it by making a quality assessment of the teaching and learning and the learning experience and outcomes. That is the context in which the school inspection takes place. In DEIS school inspections schools are asked how many times reduced timetables are used, but that is a relatively recent development. When the issue arises in schools, inspectors are able to challenge whether it is the best process to see if everything else has been followed before it is put in place. From the school inspections where it has been raised, it appears that the process has been followed, but that is in a school as opposed to an individual context.
Ms Mary Cregg:
It is in the context of whether resources have been applied appropriately and whether the resources available from the Department have been put in place. For example, the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, is available to support schools, where necessary. Obviously, the NEPS will propose that early intervention and whole-school approaches are the best way to tackle issues associated with emotional and behavioural difficulties. The NEPS will support the building of teachers' capacities to manage such pupils' behaviour within the classroom. About 80% of the work of the NEPS is individual casework with students. Its staff are available to support schools. Other processes need to be followed in the context of the school's statement of strategy on school attendance.
Tusla has issued guidelines on what should go into a school's attendance strategy. It is important, in that context, that when a school is looking at the attendance of a child, the statement of strategy is taken into account.
Ms Mary Cregg:
Returning to some of the other issues, Tusla's educational welfare service has a role in supporting school attendance. As Mr. Kelly mentioned, the educational welfare officers are available to support parents. Regarding the date on section 29, perhaps we can follow up on that and respond in more detail to the committee. On the extra field in the primary online database, POD, it is important to look at where school attendance data are returned to Tusla. Turning to the guidelines required, the first thing we need to do is look at the existing evidence, whether that is section 29 appeals, school returns mechanisms or the inspectors' evaluations. We will be working closely with Tusla on this. The second thing we need to do concerning these guidelines that would be put in place is to include the sort of elements referred to here. Aspects to be considered would be that those guidelines would be time limited, based on international best practice and subject to a review process being put in place. The important aspect is the notification to Tusla so that it is in a position to monitor situations where reduced timetables are being put in place. That will also form part of the guidelines that we will issue.
Mr. Eddie Ward:
I recognise that the issue of reduced timetables is a major concern but I will also comment on special needs issues. The Department's approach in recent years has been driven by evidence-based policy that has come from the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. We heard some of those details from Ms Byrne this morning. Our approach in the Department since 2012 has been very much about putting the resources in place. Those resources include additional teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and a variety of supports. Special classes and the number of people on the ground have increased substantially. Almost 20% of the total education Vote is now being used on special education. That is the thrust of the way that we intend to go.
Mention was also made of therapeutic supports in schools. A pilot is under way and that will be evaluated. If the evaluation is positive, the intention is to plan for a more extensive roll-out into the school system so that all schools will have access to therapeutic support in areas such as occupational therapy, speech and language support and behavioural support. We recognise that there are gaps and we will continue to address that through evidence-informed policymaking. We will evaluate as we go through the process.
This debate and discussion are very informative and helpful from our point of view. It is good that we know what is happening on the ground. The inspectorate does give us feedback. Its focus is on teaching and learning in schools and the use of departmental resources. It is also very helpful, however, when we hear feedback from stakeholders and people at the coalface, such as the school principal earlier.
I thank Mr. Ward. He referred to evidence-based policymaking. I understand that there is much evidence here, but based on the fact that data have not been collected, I believe there is not enough evidence to go forward.
I do not need an answer because I think we need to follow this up ourselves. I challenge Ms Cregg on her statement that there is process. There is no process. The Minister has been very clear that reduced timetabling is not acceptable bar exceptional circumstances where medical reasons have been given. That was the example cited. It has been clarified that the only process is the suspension process. On the evidence-based approach, I echo what the Chair has just said. Ms Byrne told us today that there is no evidence that this is beneficial. The National Council for Special Education has not done the research and does not have evidence on this. The council has also warned twice that this may be a problem but there has been no answer from the Department.
Regarding the answer referring to the process, I also have questions on that aspect, as well as where the parent and the child fits in and if the best advice has been taken on board. I asked when the Department last wrote to schools outlining its position. The Department's position is that reduced timetables are not to be used as a behavioural management technique, yet they are being used as such. My other question, therefore, which I again asked earlier, is what supports are being given to schools to help manage violent and aggressive students.
Mr. Ward mentioned listening to the stakeholders as being very helpful. One thing to take away from today's meeting is that there is a child in Ireland who has been on a reduced timetable for two years. Some inspection or other has missed that and the Department has missed that as well. One child is one child too many. It is disgraceful that a child has been placed on a reduced timetable for two years. That needs to stop.
On a point of clarification, Ms Cregg mentioned that school principals report to Tusla on the issues that we have discussed. The Department, however, seemed to be out of the loop on that. Will she please clarify that?
Ms Mary Cregg:
Tusla has the statutory role in respect of attendance. I will defer to Mr. Ward perhaps and let him elaborate on that aspect. The educational welfare officers, however, are in the field. In cases where reduced timetables are put in place, if we look at what happens in other jurisdictions, we can see that the attendance officers are involved and informed when a reduced timetable is put in place. That is something we are looking at and we work very closely with Tusla's educational welfare service on that issue. I will clarify what processes are involved when I spoke about that topic earlier. This involves the resources that have been deployed to the school being used appropriately.
To give an example, in a DEIS school, questions about the process would include asking if the home school community liaison officer has been involved, if the school completion programme has been involved, and if every effort has been made to ensure that the child can stay on in the school before a reduced timetable is put in place. That is where I am coming from on that issue. On the timeline that Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked about for the guidelines, a process of consultation will need to take place with stakeholders, but we are aiming at actioning this with our colleagues in Tusla as soon as possible with a view to addressing it as soon as we can.
Mr. Noel Kelly:
I want to respond to a number of the issues raised by the members as well as some of the comments from other presenters. First, schools are aware that they have an obligation to report suspensions. It is very clear in the legislation and it is also very clear in the guidelines. As recently as 2015, those guidelines were issued to all schools because they were requested to develop and submit a statement of strategy on attendance. As of today, only 86% of schools have submitted those statements, despite my Department having two staff working full-time reminding people about that. I will state to Senator Gallagher that while we do not want to point the finger at schools, and the vast majority of schools do try their absolute best to comply, a small percentage do not.
The reporting of suspensions happens at the end of the school year. If, therefore, we are to do anything about intervening, that is not going to work. To follow up on Ms Cregg's point, what we are proposing to do is based on the fact that, at the moment, if a school intends to expel a student, it has to submit information on such an intention to Tusla before doing that. That information has to come into us and be logged in our office before our educational welfare officers are able to intervene. We have a high success rate. Last year, more than 300 intentions to expel resulted in only 180 expulsions. We managed to stop about 120 of those intended expulsions by working with the school and the families. We are proposing something similar in regard to reduced timetables. That is despite the fact that I have clearly stated that a reduced timetable is a suspension. We are going to be developing a reporting form that schools will have to submit to us if there is an intention to put a student on a reduced timetable. Whether that is going to flush out all of this is another question.
It is clear from listening to all of the evidence, both the previous day and today, that much of what is happening is underground. It is not being recorded, not being reported and not being written down. We will also take seriously our responsibility to inform all schools and parents. I will be proposing that in the first term next year, we get an information leaflet out to all parents regarding this issue. We are also redeveloping our website. It will have a frequently asked questions, FAQ, section where parents can log in and see their rights in respect of reduced timetables. I have also just finished doing some work with the Children's Rights Alliance. It is updating its information sheets for parents and students and they will also be available. There will, therefore, be multiple sources available for parents.
On reporting mechanisms, I suggested that a referral form be put in place rather than the end of year report. Schools will have access to that and they will be obliged to submit that form to us.
Mr. Noel Kelly:
Not really. We are stating that what is happening is a suspension but we want to find out if this is happening. I am hoping that once we have raised awareness of this issue, the practice will cease or will only continue, as we have all suggested, in cases where it is appropriate to support the child.
Again, we will ask for information about whether it has been sanctioned and about the plan.
On the collecting of data and the availability of home tuition, more information needs to be shared. I fully support the Department but it cannot issue home tuition to somebody on a reduced timetable because the school is the provider of education for those children and, technically, they attend school.
To respond to the question on suspensions and give a sense of the data, our records for the past ten years show that approximately 0.3% and 3.8% of primary and post-primary school pupils, respectively, are suspended every year. A question was asked about students with special educational needs. We collect data on the special schools, where the rate of suspension and expulsion is far higher. While the population of special schools constitutes only 1.4% of the student population, they account for 28% and 22% of primary school expulsions and suspensions, respectively. There is evidence to suggest that suspensions and expulsions are more common in the case of children with special needs. As a result, the support aspect we discussed needs to be considered in that regard.
I hope I have addressed all the questions I was asked.
Dr. Niall Muldoon:
To respond to Deputy Thomas Byrne, I reiterate that reduced timetables should be a last resort, used only in exceptional circumstances. As Mr. Harris noted, there has been a history of "don't ask, don't tell" and, therefore, we have not collected the information. We must remember that in its inspections, the school inspectorate only asks whether reduced timetables are used in special schools or DEIS schools, which suggests the presence of discrimination. Why is it not asked of every school? Anecdotally, I know that some principals use reduced timetables to force children out of school, which has a psychological impact. It affects all schools, although it may not be as widespread in some.
Resources and training are very important. We must recognise that special school principals are responsible for children from four to 18 years of age. Even though the schools are classed as primary level, their principals deal with children throughout that age range. We must give them the special resources they need in those circumstances. From our point of view, we have received a minimal number of complaints on the issue because there has never been a formal opportunity for parents to complain, but provision for that will have to be made in the new system.
I thank Dr. Muldoon and all our other guests. We must wrap up now because a vote will take place in the House soon. It has been an informative meeting, as were the two sessions we held last week. As far as I am aware, we are the first committee on education to consider the matter. It is important that we have agreed to shine a light on it. While there have been some suggestions from members which we will consider in private session, we will consider issuing an interim report and returning to the matter in the autumn, when we will invite further stakeholders to appear before the committee. It is clear there are many issues. We must work together to try to address them and to support children in the school systems.
As there is no other business, the meeting is adjourned.