Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 24 September 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
Interim Report on Reduced Timetables: Minister for Education and Skills
Apologies have been received from Senator Maria Byrne.
We will engage with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Mc Hugh, on the interim report on reduced timetables. We will deal with some housekeeping matters in private session afterwards. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I remind members to either turn off their mobile phones or switch them to flight mode as they interfere with the sound and broadcasting systems and make it difficult for the parliamentary reporters to report the proceedings of the meeting. Television coverage and web-streaming would also be adversely affected.
No. 1 on the agenda is, as mentioned, engagement with the Minister on the interim report on reduced timetables. I welcome him on behalf of the committee. Earlier this year it shone a light on a very worrying practice which had been hidden in plain sight for a long period, namely, reduced timetables. We held three stakeholder sessions, at which some of the evidence unveiled was, to be perfectly honest, quite shocking and appalling. While members of the committee welcomed the Minister's announcement yesterday that schools would be required to give formal notification to Tusla of the use of reduced timetables - one of the recommendations we made in the interim report - we will be seeking further information on the announcement and the proposed guidelines for notifications. It was quite ironic that the news was released yesterday prior to our engagement today, but we take it in the spirit in which we hope it was intended. I understand the Minister has to attend the Dáil to take two Topical Issue matters and that his time is tight; therefore, I ask both him and members to be very focused in the questions and answers throughout this engagement.
The format of the meeting will be that I will issue an invitation to the Minister to make an opening statement which will be followed by engagement with committee members. As the Minister is aware, the committee will be publishing his opening statement on its website following the meeting
I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite the Minister to make his opening statement.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus leis an gcoiste fosta. I thank the joint committee for its invitation and affording me the opportunity to speak about the issue of reduced timetables. I also thank the representative bodies who presented on the issue at previous hearings for their input and contributions.
The basic aim of the Government is to use our economic success to build a fair and compassionate society. Equality of opportunity is at the heart of our vision. As I stated on many previous occasions and reiterate today, each and every child has a right to an education to enable him or her to live a full life and realise his or her potential. I have made my position clear that all pupils enrolled in a school should attend for the full day, unless exempt from doing so for exceptional circumstances. Reduced timetables are not in any way a standard aspect of a child’s experience of school and must not be allowed to become such; rather, they are an exceptional measure. While it may be necessary in some circumstances to use a reduced timetable, for example, as a means of assisting the reintegration of a pupil into a school routine, such arrangements should only be put in place in limited and time-bound circumstances.
Officials of my Department have been working closely with officials from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla which is within the remit of that Department in the monitoring of and reporting on this practice to address the issues raised in the committe's interim report. A set of guidelines is being prepared jointly by my Department and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla. The purpose of the guidelines is to provide clarity for school authorities and parents or guardians on the reporting of reduced timetables in schools to ensure their use is limited to those circumstances where it is absolutely necessary and, where in the rare circumstances such usage occurs, schools follow best practice, with the interests of the student to the fore. As is normal practice, prior to finalising the guidelines, my Department, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla are arranging for a consultation process with education stakeholders, including the school management bodies.
Provision of support is critical and I want to highlight the investment the Government is making. This year’s education budget is €10.8 billion. This highlights the Government’s strong belief in and commitment to the power of education. Nearly €1 in every €5 of this year’s budget, or about €1.9 billion, is being invested in supporting children with special educational needs, including those with challenging behaviour, in school. This is the highest ever level of Government expenditure on special education. It provides for a continuum of special educational provision to be made available to children with special educational needs, including those with challenging behaviour, in order that, regardless of the level of need of the child, educational provision can be made for them.
The number of special education teachers has increased by 37%, from 9,740 in 2011 to over 13,400. The number of special needs assistants, SNAs, has risen by 51%, from 10,575 in 2011 to 15,950. Schools can now allocate additional teaching support to a child whose challenging behaviour is having a significant impact on his or her ability to learn in school. Children do not need a special educational needs diagnosis to access these supports and parents or guardians will no longer be required to have their child receive such a diagnosis. Schools may also access SNA support for children with additional care needs, including challenging behaviour. All schools can access in-school supports and continuous professional development through the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, to assist teachers in working with children who display challenging behaviour.
The number of specialist placements for children with complex special educational needs has also been significantly increased by the Government. Over 1,050 additional special placements have been provided in the new school year. There are now 1,621 special classes, compared to 548 in 2011, including 1,355 to cater for children with autism. Some 125 special schools, including a new special school to be established this year, also provide specialist education for students with complex special educational needs. These schools provide over 8,000 places compared to 6,848 in 2011.
I note that the committee questioned whether SNA support was the most appropriate in dealing with a child’s challenging behaviour. As committee members are aware, the view of my Department and that of the NCSE is that students need the right support from the right person at the right time to achieve his or her full potential. To that end, a preschool and an in-school therapy demonstration project is being undertaken in 75 preschools and 75 schools to provide in-school therapeutic support for students. In addition, €4.75 million was allocated in budget 2019 for the trialling of a new school inclusion model of support to include in-school provision of behavioural practitioners, psychologists and regional support teams to build capacity in schools to meet the needs of their students. The outcome of the pilot scheme will inform future policy and service provision, including the provision of behavioural support.
The National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, works with both primary and post-primary schools and is concerned with learning, behaviour, social and emotional development. The Government has recognised the valuable input of the NEPS for pupils and schools. Over its lifetime it has increased psychologist numbers from a sanctioned level of 173 whole-time equivalents in 2015 to 204 whole-time posts, with a commensurate increase in investment, from €18 million to €20.75 million per annum in the period.
There are 190 posts in the system, with recruitment to fill 14 new posts and vacancies under way. Supports are also provided for DEIS schools, at an overall cost of €125 million for 891 schools serving approximately 190,000 pupils to improve attendance, retention and school participation.
Enhanced capitation payments for Traveller children in the system are provided, at a cost of €1.1 million. Actions are being progressed under the national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy to improve education outcomes for Travellers, including a pilot project to target school attendance, retention and participation, commencing this September. Additional supports have been provided to support this pilot project in the form of home-school-community liaison officers funded by my Department, in addition to Traveller education workers funded by the Department of Justice and Equality and educational welfare officers employed by Tusla.
In summary, I anticipate that the guidelines and notification system will allow us to monitor the use of reduced timetables and, ultimately, address the issues raised. If parents have concerns about the use by a school of a reduced timetable for their child, they can contact their local educational welfare officer who has statutory responsibility for ensuring the rights of the child to an education are upheld and will advise them on the most appropriate action to take. My Department will continue to work closely with Tusla's educational welfare service and the NCSE to ensure that where in the very limited number of cases a reduced timetable is deemed to be necessary, such measures will be used for time-limited periods only.
I again thank the committee for highlighting this issue. I am aware that it is an interim report and that the committee will be working on new proposals and suggestions in the not too distant future. I look forward to working with and hearing from it in that regard. I thank the groups and individuals who have contributed. As a Government, we have demonstrated and will continue to work to realise our commitment to ensuring all children receive the fullest possible education. I am also very conscious that there are challenges and that parents and children are facing them.
I thank the Minister for his presentation. I am glad that various charities, including AsIAm, and the Traveller organisations highlighted this issue for the joint committee and that we put the spotlight on it at the start of the summer because as I noted then, the practice is a national scandal and must end. I think everybody sitting around the table is in agreement. What the Department states in reply to parliamentary questions is correct. The practice is different and I hate to say it, but the guidelines differ from it. The guidelines open everything up and that will not be acceptable to Fianna Fáil. We must start from the premise that every child has a legal right to an education. We cannot start from the premise that this practice is allowed if procedures are followed. That is what I worry will happen.
The Minister mentioned challenging behaviour quite a number of times. The committee does not have evidence that challenging behaviour is the primary reason for engaging in the practice. In fact, we do not have much evidence at all and we certainly do not have evidence that challenging behaviour is the reason for it. It should not be because in replies to parliamentary questions the Department states reduced timetables can only be in place for medical reasons. Therefore, I am not sure from where the reference to challenging behaviour comes. It can be dealt with in many other ways. The guidelines also do not address the issue of Travellers being disproportionately affected by reduced timetables.
I have been criticised by some teachers for highlighting this issue. They say they operate in difficult circumstances. I have no doubt that many of them do, but we all have a role to play in the education system, regardless of whether we are policymakers, Ministers or teachers, to ensure each child's right to an education is upheld. I would worry about anything the Minister proposed that moved away from the words of the Department in replies to parliamentary questions about exceptional cases and involved a return to a school acting on professional advice. Doing anything else would be wrong.
The representative from Tusla was excellent at the last meeting. I was delighted when he was very clear that where it was not done in accordance with the guidelines, it amounted to suspension or expulsion. I do not think that is mentioned in the information that is required to be given to parents. We must take a really hard line if we are to take the issue, the needs of children and their right to an education, seriously. The committee has blown it up. Schools need to get the message that this is not the way to deal with disciplinary issues. The premise of the Minister is almost that this is a disciplinary issue when it cannot be. Under the law, as he has set out in replies to parliamentary questions, disciplinary issues do not come into it at all. Therefore, I do not know why challenging behaviour has been mentioned, unless, of course, it is a medical issue, but it does not look like that.
The Minister mentioned the special school that is to be established this year. Will he confirm whether it has opened and, if not, when will it open?
I am not entirely satisfied, but I am glad that action is being taken. However, it requires a change of mindset - even on the part of parents. For all the good work they do, some advocacy organisations seem to think it could be possible to do it in circumstanes even broader than those outlined by the Minister as long as there are guidelines. I would take a much harder line. I do not think it should be possible, except where there are medical issues, as the Minister mentioned in replies to parliamentary questions. If schools cannot cope with children with special needs, clearly the required resources and training are not available and it is up to policymakers and the Government, in particular, to make sure they are provided. The bottom line is that each child is entitled to an education and there are no "ifs" or "buts. I am afraid that this document brings in a lot of "ifs" and "buts" and does not address a number of the recommendations we made during the summer.
I am not convinced that the guidelines released to the media yesterday ahead of this meeting will ensure the use of reduced timetables is the exception rather than the norm. I welcome the Minister's statement, but when one looks at it, one can see that it is seven pages long, with the issue of reduced timetables dealt with in three very small paragraphs on the last page. In the rest of it it seems that the Department is patting itself on the back, stating, "Aren't we great in the Department of Education and Skills.? This is what we are doing." However, it is not tackling the issue. On the form use, will the Minister consider requiring a school to document the other measures taken to deal with an issue before a child is placed on a reduced timetable? I know that the form asks for information on the support the school has sought, but it needs to outline exactly what has been done.
Who has the right to say "No" or "Stop, we don't want this"? What happens when a parent says he or she does not want it to happen? What are the guidelines given to the school? What monitoring or reporting will take place during the time a child is placed on a reduced timetable? At the end of each plan, is there a requirement to notify all parties concerned of progress, regardless of whether it is being sought to renew it? Even renewing it is bizarre. Is there a requirement to report progress on how a reduced timetable is working?
According to the guidelines, the NCSE must be notified when a reduced timetable is agreed to for a student with special educational needs. Does the Minister intend to include or specify a further role or will it remain the case that the NCSE or the special educational needs organiser, SENO, must be notified and that is it, full stop? What is the role of the educational welfare officer or the SENO, particularly when it comes to renewals?
Regarding guideline K which stipulates a school must only consider an extension in exceptional circumstances and only with the further written consent of the parents, it should be made very clear in guideline A that the practice should only be considered in exceptional circumstances.
There is a mention here of when a reduced timetable might be used, but I think it should start in the key requirements, stating that this is only to be used in a exceptional circumstances. That should be reiterated to the school if it is considering it.
Would the Department consider making it a requirement not only to consult the parents or to get their written consent but also at least to have consultation with NEPS or another outside disability service provider relevant to the child in question? I am sure the witnesses read the Inclusion Ireland report, Education, Behaviour and Exclusion, in which it seeks that. I think it should be done. Does the Department intend to put a hard limit on the use of reduced timetables? Six weeks is given as a guideline and I think the word "ideally" is used. "Ideally" is not the word that should be used here because that leaves a lot of scope for abuse. I would prefer to see a hard limit. I think six weeks is an extraordinarily long time for a student be removed from school, to be on a reduced timetable, and to be isolated socially from his or her peers. Maybe the witnesses will look at that again. I notice on the information collected in the form - it may be an oversight - that there is no reference to gender. I see ethnicity but not gender. Is there a particular reason it has been left out?
What assurances can we be given that the teachers placed with these students have been given the robust training that they need? It cannot be a case of a teacher drawing the short straw and being told he or she will have the students on the reduced timetable because he or she happens to be free. That is not fair to the students, to the parents or the teacher. It is a disservice to all involved. What guidance is given to the school about what subjects the students will have access to? When one starts probing into a reduced timetable, there are questions of what teachers will be qualified and what subjects will be taught. It is very problematic.
Deputy Byrne referred to challenging behaviour. There is no definition of challenging behaviour and this is an ongoing issue across the world with departments of education. It leads to abuse of the term "challenging behaviour". There has to be training in challenging behaviour and resourcing of teachers, staff, schools and principals to address challenging behaviour. That means it is not child-centred, and instead of trying to support those children, they are just removed because of the so-called challenging behaviour that no one can define. Is the Department liaising with or does it intend to liaise with the Minister for Health and the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health to ensure that child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, and the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, are properly resourced to provide the necessary assistance? What interdepartmental communication has taken place since we discussed this in Joint Committee on Education and Skills during the summer? We must make sure that at-risk children are given the appropriate help.
I know that one recommendation in our interim report is that any guidelines relating to the use of reduced timetables must also outline the complaints process if a parent is dissatisfied. Parents must know how they can complain and the process must be in black and white. Where is that? The guidelines do not include that and I think that should be put in place. At the root of all this is the question of why schools are resorting to the use of reduced timetables, especially for children with disabilities. The Inclusion Ireland report stated that one in four children with a disability had been placed on a reduced timetable, with half of those being for more than 20 days. How can we ensure that every student with a disability or learning need has access to an appropriately trained teacher? How will schools be supported with these issues so they do not have to go to reduced timetables?
If the Department is going to go ahead with these guidelines, which I have a problem with because I do not think they are rigid enough, could we have an annual report on the use of reduced timetables? Everyone could see every year the gender, socio-economic background, ethnicity, if there is a disability, and the length of reduced timetables. We need to see that every year. I have raised the issue of the inspectorate's critique every year since I was inspected. The inspectorate has to be asked to remove the question of why there are so many students with special educational needs as a critique of a school, whereas schools that do not have many students with special educational needs should be asked why and what they intend to do about it. That attitude needs to be changed.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire agus leis na hoifigigh atá os ár gcomhair tráthnóna. This is an issue that, anecdotally, people would have had some sense of. Unfortunately, with regard to the Traveller community, there would have often been a tacit awareness that in many instances they were not getting the full benefit of the school places that they held down. Great credit is due to this committee and also to Inclusion Ireland and Technological University Dublin for the report. The committee and report have forced action on this issue. It is unquestionably the case that the mechanisms that exist were being abused in a way that frustrated these children's ability to gain an education and their full potential. There is no question that the level of the abuse in the examples that were given and the frequency or the time that people were out for is absolutely unacceptable. I am glad that there is movement now. There are difficulties, as has been outlined with regard to the guidelines. While it is an interim report, the Minister has, as I understand it, had sight of it. Does he accept what is outlined in that document and does he agree with the recommendations made in it? I particularly endorse recommendation No. 9, which outlines the need for additional psychological supports. The Minister needs to provide additional resources in the upcoming budget.
Section 2 refers to regulations and guidelines and I ask for clarification about which it is. I do not view a regulation as being the same as a guideline. I would imagine a regulation as having much more effect. It comes to a point raised by Deputy Martin. Point E states that, ideally, the period on which a student is on a reduced timetable should not exceed six weeks, and a reduced timetable must not be carried forward from one academic year to the next. Ideally, it would allow some wriggle room. An issue with the guidelines as a whole is that if a school does not comply with the objections that have been set out by the Department, what are the consequences and the sanction? I do not see any and that is a difficulty. It will always be open to a school to try to point to the extraneous circumstances it has had to go beyond what the Department has in mind. How do we avoid that and ensure that schools do not frustrate the intention of the Department and that there is a sanction if a school is once again using some mechanism, either through this set of guidelines or any other way, to frustrate the intentions of the Department, the committee or the entitlement of these children to gain a full education?
I have a query relating to point H, a requirement to provide appropriate work to the student while not in school and to arrange for this to be checked. Instinctively, I am not sure if that is necessarily always appropriate. It may be appropriate in some circumstances, but I can imagine a situation where that might be the source of conflict or disagreement or that it might not be appropriate or aid the reintegration of a student into the class, which is intended to be the objective of having any kind of flexibility with regard to this. The purpose of any kind of flexibility is to enable reintegration. I have a query about whether that is appropriate.
There is no excuse for the fact that some schools allowed this abuse to happen, but this would probably have occurred in schools that were under significant pressure.
That has to be acknowledged and additional resources need to be allocated to those schools. There is no excuse for the manner in which the mechanism was used. A very robust line needs to be taken to ensure that procedures such as this are not abused in future.
I thank the Minister and his officials for coming before us. I agree with others that this is a very important issue that the committee has highlighted. There was very little public information on this practice and it was only when parents came across it with their children that they realised that it existed. It came to light when we looked at the transition of Traveller children from primary to secondary level. We realised that a very large number of Traveller children were being subjected to reduced timetables. There was very little knowledge about it.
Community Law & Mediation did a study on reduced timetables among children in Limerick, the city I represent. It established that only 27% of education welfare officers knew that a child was on a reduced timetable. It is crucial for that information to be conveyed and known. We need to have good data collection. We frequently heard in our hearings that there were no data. Cases of reduced timetables were not registered by schools because they were not considered to be either suspensions or exclusions. I understand from the Minister - he might clarify - that there will be much more comprehensive collection of data. The data need to be continually updated and shared. I agree with Deputy Catherine Martin who said they should be reported back to the committee. We need public reporting of how frequently this mechanism is used and why it is used. There needs to be intervention so that there is an alternative arrangement for the children in question when this occurs and the measure should only be used in exceptional cases.
On the issue of this being used in exceptional cases, in all of this parents need to have equal power in the relationship. It should not be a case of schools saying they need to remove a child for a period with the possibility of being suspended or expelled. There should not be pressure on parents. It should be a relationship where the parents are genuinely involved and have the power to say they do not want their child taken out of school. As Deputy Thomas Byrne said, education is a right. The Ombudsman for Children referred to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child - the right of the child to have an education. It is vital that that power relationship is changed.
The representatives of management bodies told the committee that they agreed that reduced timetables should be exceptional, time limited and apply only after consultation with parents. Parents' groups, Inclusion Ireland, AsIAm and the Traveller representatives all had a different story about this measure being used quite widely, with parents being phoned to come in to collect their child to be taken out of school. It was not planned or recorded. They did not feel they had any real power in the decision-making.
It is important that we have shone a light on the issue. It is important that we get it right. I hope the Minister will take note of the submissions we got. I have a question on the role of the inspectors in gathering the information. It should not be seen as negative for a school to be inclusive; it should be seen as positive. However, the data need to be gathered.
I agree that there must be consultation with the various educational partners on any proposals and the Minister has said he will have that consultation. How long will that consultation take? When will we have something final in place providing full information for everybody involved? The welfare of the child must be paramount. There need to be alternative supports and educational opportunities where it is agreed that it is in the best interests of the child. Everyone who appeared before the committee agreed with us that this option should only be taken in very rare cases and should not be something schools use to deal with children whose behaviour is perceived to be difficult.
I had a conversation yesterday with a parent whose child is six years of age and has access to one hour of school a day. That is what she has been offered. When she asked what she should do when she is in difficulty at home, she was advised to contact the Garda. I welcome that the Minister is here and I welcome the statement he made. It is important for him to acknowledge that his Department has failed children consistently. I join my colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, in acknowledging the work of this committee in shining a light on this issue.
The issue of data collection is key. It is shocking that we do not know how many children are affected by reduced timetables. Will the Department pursue an overhaul of its data collection, maintenance and presentation policy? If so, will this include an expansion of proper data management practices to other areas affecting children with special educational needs such as the provision of ASD special classes in post primary education? I note that the Minister's opening statement did not highlight the drastic difference in numbers between primary and secondary schools when it comes to ASD classes. I ask him to comment on that.
What will the Department do to address the lack of specialist training regarding special needs education for teachers in mainstream schools? Continuing professional development for special needs education is currently available for teachers. Will the Department open this continuing professional development to special needs assistants who are currently left out of such CPD programmes?
The Minister will know the Special Needs Parents Association has recognised the role of home tuition in supporting children who have fallen through the gaps left behind by the Department. Will the Department take any action to expand access to home tuition and home tuition payments for students on reduced timetables?
I thank the Minister. Much has already been said. We need to look beyond the reduced timetables. Other speakers have already mentioned why reduced timetables have become such a norm in so many schools. We need to look at pupil-teacher ratios. Teachers will say reduced timetables are being used because of the number of children they are trying to teach in a class. All of a sudden one disruptive child becomes a problem that needs to be removed so that the teacher can adequately teach the rest of the class. There is a major issue with classroom size and the ability of teachers to work effectively with children.
Based on how they are being used, if reduced timetables had existed when I was in school, there would have been very few people in my classroom. Something has gone wrong. Outside intellectual disability such as ASD etc., which is very widespread across all backgrounds, it is a socio-economic issue. The parents who are involved come from the most vulnerable families that one could meet. Irrespective of how much it might be written into guidelines, the power balance is not there. There are groups who have had a negative experience of the school education system. Travellers have negative experiences of the education system daily. Who effectively will advocate for a parent in this situation where they will say "No" to a school?
No matter how much we try to address the power imbalance in guidelines that everything needs to be black and white, there needs to be an advocate. There needs to be somebody, within the community or within the system, who is only there to support the family and the student in situations where this type of stuff is beginning to happen.
In Tallaght, there are two families that I support at present. One child has narcolepsy and that is why he is being sent home. The father rang me one day almost crying, stating that he does not know what to do. The child slumped in the classroom and the school rang for him to be taken home instead of waiting for him to come back around out of the condition that he has. They started sending him home every day at 10 a.m., one hour in, in secondary school. Now he has to re-engage. I will not name schools because it is not fair to do so. In another school, in west Tallaght, there is a child who has dyslexia, who has no behavioural issues and who loves school. They are trying to influence that child's mother to put the child on a reduced timetable because she struggles in some subjects in terms of dyslexia. This is how it is being used. There would be nobody left in the classroom if we were to keep allowing this to be implemented in the way that it is. We need to look at having a support service or a support person outside of the school community, not necessarily the school liaison teacher because he or she at one stage was a teacher in the classroom the year before or the year before that who, sometimes automatically, will understand why teachers feel they may need to do this.
When they report to Tusla, I wonder whether it is merely the filling of this form or is there some sort of supporting document? On ticking boxes, it asks whether there was parental involvement. How do we know what that involvement looks like for a parent and what support that parent received? Any school could tick many of the boxes on this form and send it off. It is not representative of the experience that the family and student have had over a period with the school. That is why I favour some sort of advocate who would exist within the Department or within the school system and who would be part of those conversations and a witness to the parental and student involvement in processes such as this. There will be medical situations. As the mother of someone on the autistic spectrum, I am aware there will be medical situations where it will be better for one's child to take him or her out for a period of time. I am talking about doing so for a few hours within one week, because a day is particularly difficult for sensory reasons and so on. I am not talking about six weeks, which is a long time. Consider how quickly one moves through a mathematics curriculum in six weeks. Sometimes a class spends a week in school on one part of the curriculum and it will have already gone three or four times' further along the curriculum than the child is able to catch up with. Parents in communities where there is high deprivation and low educational attainment are already under-resourced and cannot support their children at home to keep up with that curriculum. In many cases, the parents left school at 15 or 16 years of age.
I have one more question, which seems a little off-topic and has to do with children's allowance. Many children have been suspended or expelled from school over the past number of years and while I do not know where it came from, there is an idea that when one's child reaches 16 years, one must get the school to stamp a form to say that he or she is still in full-time education or one's children's allowance is stopped. This disproportionately affects working-class communities where on many occasions, because parents have refused reduced timetables their children have been expelled and the welfare system has come in and removed their children's allowance. Somewhere along the line, children's allowance, which was not set up as an educational payment, has been linked to educational attendance. It will disproportionately affect some of these families that are falling through the cracks in relation to reduced timetables, expulsions and suspensions. Such measures should not be the option but their families are also ending up in even worse positions than they were in because now they are attaching a social welfare payment to it. It is something the Department should look at. I do not know where that relationship originally developed from.
My main point is that there should be some sort of parent support worker or advocate who is engaged in any process that happens between a school and Tusla because of the distrust in institutions. When parents feel they have been targeted by institutions their whole life, it is difficult to go into a school and have a conversation with a principal in a suit. Parents end up agreeing with everything the principal says because they nearly feel inadequate to be able to put up some sort of advocacy for themselves and their children.
I thank Senator Ruane. I will make a few brief comments before I come back to the Minister.
I will taking up on that issue. Many parents have difficulties with their children having shorter school days. People have asked me on occasion what does "reduced timetables" mean. It means reduced hours within a school. Children are not in school for the recommended level of hours. Many parents, because of different issues, and possibly because of challenging behaviour and intellectual disability, are exhausted trying to deal with the system. I would agree that they need to have an advocate, such as a guardian ad litem, GAL, who would help support them with it.
It is important, no matter what, to remember that schools are not only a place for academic learning. They are a place where children grow socially and develop social skills. It is a place where they also develop emotional skills. Children who are not in school for full days are losing out on that. I am aware of a school in my own area where eight children did not have any school for six months and then got a second-level placement. These are children with intellectual disabilities. Last year, they only started school in November. They straight away went onto a reduced timetable for every single day. When they started this year, in September, they were told that there would be a reduced timetable for the next two years, that is, for each one of the 167 days of the school year. That is not good enough.
The Minister spoke of the financial investment in special education, the number of the special teachers and the number of special needs assistants, SNAs. While that is acknowledged, it is not only about the funding that is invested. It is about the outcomes for the children. That is the most important part of it.
In the draft recommendations the Minister has made, I note that the Department will have full consultation with educational stakeholders. I would ask that the Minister ensure that a copy of the interim report that we have made is sent with that consultation request. It is important that we as a committee have the opportunity for our voices to be heard. This was a cross-party committee. We were all shocked by what we learned. We acknowledge that the topic is multifaceted but we feel strongly that it has to be taken out of the shadows. We intend to have further engagement. That is why we brought out the interim report.
We appreciate the Minister coming today to engage with us on this issue. We wanted that to be part of where we as committee need to go next with this. Education is the constitutional right of all children and cannot be undermined at any level in terms of unregulated practice. I call the Minister. I am conscious of his time.
I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for their contributions. There were a number of questions but there were a number of suggestions as well. That is helpful. As I stated at the outset, this committee did quite a bit of the heavy lifting around this issue. When one considers that the committee submitted its interim report in June - I propose to take the Chairman's last suggestion first - it would be important to keep the committee involved right through the consultation. I am happy to provide a copy of the committee's report to the stakeholders. In fact, many of the committee's suggestions and recommendations frame these guidelines.
On top of that, in response to Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's question on a timeframe, I would like to work within quite a tight timeframe on this consultation. It will be up until 18 October. We are looking at this year to try to get something in there and get something working for the new year or the new term. Let us work together on that. I would be happy to include the committee on that.
On Deputy Thomas Byrne's questions, first of all,every child has a legal right to education. The Deputy spoke about the evidence and the lack of evidence. Let us face it, the committee was working on anecdotal evidence but the Department was working on anecdotal evidence as well. The idea of this exercise and of these guidelines, is to find out the scale and the nature of the issue we are dealing with here.
That will determine where resources will flow thereafter and how practice will be shaped. The Deputy mentioned behavioural issues and there are medical and mental health issues. As I stated previously, the position of the Department is that all pupils who are enrolled in a school should attend school for the full day unless exempted from so doing for exceptional circumstances, such as medical reasons, and that reduced timetables should not be used as a de facto suspension or as a behavioural management technique. That is what was happening, it was being used as an intervention in such cases. That is still very much the case and my position has not changed. There will be a process and guidelines. The principal will inform Tusla and if reduced timetables must be used, there must be a reason, as well as an outline process and continuum explaining that this part of the reintegration. We are going to be very clear and transparent around that.
The Deputy also mentioned issues regarding when a special school in Dublin 15 will open. As far as I am aware, the training for the entire team has been completed and consequently we now are in a position to start. I will inform the Deputy as soon as I have that information readily available but we are on the cusp in that if it does not happen next week, it will be the following week. One demand from the parents was very clear. As they want it done in a phased process, that is something we are adhering to as well. The Deputy also made a point about resources and training. As there is no point in having a guideline on reduced timetables if we do not put adequate resources, training and support into schools, that will come hand in glove.
Deputy Catherine Martin referred to scepticism. When one embarks on anything new that has been basically left out and where there has been a gaping hole, it is a case of figuring it out and doing so properly. That is why the consultation with the key stakeholders will be so important. I mention in particular the parents' council. Members spoke about empowering parents. Their voice will be really important in that consultation. The Deputy asked what will happen when the parent says "No". That parent will be empowered, will have a right to say "No" to a proposed reduced timetable and will have the right to state this is still a de facto suspension. If parents are not satisfied, there is a process to deal with this by appealing directly to the Department through section 29 of the Education Act. We must be very clear and continue to empower the parent in that regard.
In terms of the consultation with NEPS, the guidelines are underpinned by the principles that a reduced timetable or reduced day should never be used as a sanction, offered as an alternative to a sanction or used as a behavioural management tool. It should be applied proportionately and should last only as long as is necessary to facilitate a return to school on a full-time basis. The guidelines should be read in conjunction with relevant guidelines from Tusla, including developing a code of behaviour, guidelines for schools and a statement of strategy for school attendance. Other resources include information on NEPS and support from the Department. It is important that lines of communication are always open. We are all trying to achieve the aims set out in the school inclusion pilot, whereby we have the HSE and the Departments of Education and Skills, Children and Youth Affairs Health working hand in glove together. That is why we will be informed by the school inclusion pilot.
That is what we are trying to do in this regard. We are trying to ensure that the information we have includes the scale and extent of the issue and to find out if there are resource deficiencies or a weakness within the school system. We are not informed at the moment because we have only anecdotal evidence. What we are trying to do is to ensure we get the process right first. That is why the guidelines will be so important, as will be the consultation with the educational partners and members' continued observations, in ensuring that the parent and the young person will know what the transparent process is. We are not starting from scratch or a blank page but we have a very complex issue where parents and students naturally feel aggrieved on the one hand and we have issues in schools on the other hand, where members of boards of management, principals and teachers will state they do not have adequate resources to work through the situation. It is about informing ourselves of the scale and extent of the issue. That is the reason I do not want to see this used as a behavioural mechanism. I acknowledge it is being used as a tool for dealing with behavioural issues and as a sanction at present and I want to move away from that.
Deputy Catherine Martin also asked about the higher limit on the use of reduced timetables. While six weeks is a long time, a plan must be put together. Senator Gavan referred to one hour a day. It is not acceptable that one could have one hour per day over a period of six weeks. There must be a progression. It could be one hour a day on the first day and then there must be a progression towards reintegration within that period. Six weeks is the one that has been suggested for the consultation. The feedback varies on whether that period is appropriate. We are open to receiving feedback on it.
There is no reference to gender but there is a reference to ethnicity.
It is something to consider for inclusion. The Deputy also referred to the need for more consultation and suggested an annual report. The data we receive will be important in informing the Department as to where resources are needed and where they should be directed. She also raised the issue of capacity, which is something of which I am very conscious. We must ensure there is sufficient capacity and support under the new model for schools. I have already covered the Deputy's point on the need for the complaints structure to be transparent.
Deputy Ó Laoghaire spoke about anecdotal evidence, which I have covered. The Department is working on anecdotal evidence on this particular issue. I accept and agree with many of the recommendations in the guidelines, most of which came from the report. The Deputy referred to regulations versus guidelines. No matter what issue one is dealing with, it is usually, in the first instance, covered in guidelines and circulars that are given to schools. Once we have a system in place whereby Tusla is informed when a reduced timetable is being introduced, that information will be recorded and will form part of the data.
On the scale and nature of resources, the Deputy referred to reintegration, process and flexibility and there being no excuses as to how things were done in the past. I agree there is no excuse for allowing a situation to emerge where a child is being disadvantaged in his or her constitutional right to an education. That is an issue which we are all working to resolve. There is no specific sanction where a school is not complying in this regard but I intend to ensure we are informed as to the scale and extent of the resourcing need.
If extra resources are needed in these areas, we will certainly do that.
Deputy Jan O'Sullivan observed that 27% of education and welfare officers were aware of schools using reduced timetables and highlighted an information deficit in that regard. She said a more robust collection of data was required. The Deputy spoke about parents' consent and an equal power relationship but I also talked about the voice of the child. She mentioned different groups having a different story, the importance of getting this right and the role of the inspectorate. The Deputy will be aware that the specific role of the inspectorate in the Department of Education and Skills is to examine the quality of learning and teaching. The inspectorate will continue, in the context of the work, to evaluate the effectiveness of schools' implementation of specific interventions and initiatives and to provide up-to-date information to the system. On the timeframe, the consultation period ends on 18 October.
Senator Gavan made a reference to one hour per day, which is unacceptable, and not having a plan as to how to reintegrate that student back into education. Data collection is key, and that is a gaping hole. We do not have those data and if the practice was and is being used as a behavioural tool, that is not acceptable.
I referenced the social inclusion pilot because the Senator also mentioned autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classes, the difference between primary and post-primary and where the investment is going. We have 4,000 schools. Currently, we have upwards of 1,500 special classes. Some schools are providing up to four classes. Others are providing one class. If we do a quick mathematical summary of that, less than 25% of schools have special classes. It is an enormous challenge to try to get that right. As the Chairman pointed out, we are investing a great deal of resources - one out of every five euro - in special education but we still have a long way to go. Parents today are having difficulties accessing special classes in preschool and primary school and at post-primary level. That is a major challenge that we want to meet head-on.
The Department of Health has a budget of €17 billion and the Department I preside over has a budget of nearly €11 billion. I see enormous potential for much greater collaboration between the two Departments.
Mention was made of behavioural issues. The school inclusion pilot will look at speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, the potential for physiotherapy, even though it is not in the pilot, but also to have a behavioural therapist in the school. We are trying to get from where we are now to a place where there is much more joined-up thinking and integration at an interdepartmental level and between State agencies.
Senator Ruane's contribution on empowering parents was very interesting. She referenced Tallaght, although she did not want to highlight any school in particular. I have fond memories of Tallaght, having done my teaching practice in St. Mark's school, in Springfield. The present-day classrooms are in a different country to the classroom I was in back in 1993 . I went in as a student teacher, stuck to the subject area and got on with it. It was a different scenario to the classrooms I go into in either primary or secondary schools. There is much more complexity. If something is needed in terms of empowering parents in their decision-making as to what is best for their sons or daughters, we will have to be open to that.
The Senator referenced medical situations. Perhaps there could be a reduced timetable for a particular day. We have to be open to all the new ways of thinking in terms of how we deal with complex issues. I refer to the notion of having some sort of support for parents to help them make the decision.
I am reminded of when I was a youth worker in Letterkenny. When parents would approach me informally about something that was happening in primary school, they were looking for my advice and advocacy. It may not have been right all the time but they were reaching out and had a level of trust. That goes back to all the different informal places, whether it is community groups, youth groups or whatever. The Senator may have hit on something that I have experienced in terms of helping parents make that decision. I would like to explore that further.
We received a note five minutes ago that they were waiting for the Minister in the Dáil Chamber. I assume he received it also. We will excuse him if he needs to attend the Chamber or he can continue.
We had waited to get this date with the Minister. It was less than satisfactory but we were asked that if the Minister needed to go to the Chamber to try to accommodate that. We agreed to that. I ask that the Minister might come back in, say, a month's time or following the consultation because members will have follow-up questions. I agree with Deputy Thomas Byrne about the officials staying - I appreciate they cannot respond - to hear further comments seeking clarification. We will release the Minister-----
No. They are not allowed. We will release the Minister to attend to other duties. I thank him for attending and for his contribution.
Do any members want to comment further or make observations based on what the Minister has said?
The more I look at the document that is written, it does not look like the type of document that normally emanates from the Department of Education and Skills. That may be because it emanated from Tusla but it does not look like a circular the Department would issue. I say that without disrespect to anybody. It does not appear to be written with the same level of precision one normally associates with Department of Education and Skills documents or circulars. They are normally extremely precise. This document needs to be much clearer as to the circumstances in which these reduced timetables can happen and the procedures thereafter. In terms of No. 4, the key requirements, that mixes up the reasons for this with the procedures. The procedures are long and drawn out and could be easily reduced to bullet points in terms of doing this or that.
The form does not require any evidence as to the necessity for the reduced timetables when that is a key requirement, according to what the Minister said today. From my reading of it, that is not required to be provided. The form also refers to a right of appeal. I am not clear on that right of appeal. The only appeal I am aware of would be under section 29 in terms of appeals against suspension or expulsion. To what does that refer?
The document would do well to quote what the gentleman from Tusla - I do not recall his name-----
Noel Kelly. He was superb. He was very clear that this was a suspension or an expulsion where these reduced timetables were being brought in in an unorthodox fashion. It would be useful for the document to remind school authorities of that also.
There is also a section 5 on this about supports available to schools.
I am not sure it is required to have a plug for the Department of Education and Skills or another body. We know everything that is done but the document needs to take the form of a circular. It does not appear to be written in that way, although it may have been rushed. I do not mean any disrespect because to be fair to the Minister, if the document is read in the way I would like it to be read, it can be considered to be very strict. However, if it were more precise, it would help everybody. I do not mean to be facetious or to be nitpicking but we all agree-----
-----this is an important issue and we have to get it right. If a private meeting with the officials is available, I would welcome that in order to discuss this. I hope that would be of help and that it would not be an inconvenience to the Department.
That is fine. I was not sure if the Minister was talking about a capacity issue for an annual published report because I was about to say that has to be done and we need to be able to see that report. The form does not leave much room for detail. It asks whether a plan has been developed to support the student's return to full education and provides for a "Yes" or "No" answer. I would like to see the plan and Tusla should also see it. There is a lot of box-ticking and little detail available. We want this to be child centred.
I emphasise a point on which the Minister did not respond and while I accept the officials cannot respond, I hope it will be taken into account. I am not sure bullet point H makes sense. I am not sure if additional work should always be provided or if that would always be suitable. What are the consequences if a school does not comply? It is not immediately clear to me that it would be possible for the Department to enforce this requirement.
There has been some discussion of resources. When the previous round of additional DEIS designations was announced a few years ago, no new schools were added to the DEIS band 2 category. While many of those schools are much less resource-intensive than DEIS band 1 schools and would not require the same reduced pupil teacher ratios, but they would avail of school completion and home school liaison supports. That is a resource that needs to be looked at again. In many instances, good work done with school completion and home school liaison would prevent some of these issues arising as the relationship between the family, the child and the school would be maintained in a much better way. That is a point that needs to be considered.
To take up Deputy Thomas Byrne's point on cases where a parent does not agree with a decision on reduced timetables and it effectively becomes a suspension, there should be some intermediate step between this and a section 29 appeal. The decision should not have to go straight to a section 29 appeal where it would become confrontational. I do not know whether there is a role for education welfare officers. Senator Ruane mentioned advocates but maybe an education welfare officer could have a role in advocating for the child in such circumstances. I agree that some avenue other than a section 29 appeal must be available to parents who do not agree to a reduced timetable.
This is very important for children with special needs. I agree with Deputy Jan O'Sullivan that there should be a middle ground. The only reason I wanted to mention this in terms of a suspension or expulsion was that it prods people into acting because it highlights how serious this is. If this is done incorrectly, a child will be suspended or expelled and that is a whole different ball game from the school's point of view.
The joint committee will suggest that reduced timetables be classified as a separate category and not recorded as a form of suspension because the latter is viewed as a sanction or punishment when that is not always the case.
I thank the officials from the Department. We will be in contact about the possibility of members meeting officials to discuss some of these issues privately. It would be useful for us to have a conversation. I thank the members for their valuable contributions. We will suspend briefly to allow the next witnesses to take their seats.