Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 25 June 2020
Special Committee on Covid-19 Response
Special Educational Needs: Impact of Covid-19 (Resumed)
I welcome our guests in committee room 1. They are: Ms Teresa Griffin, CEO, Ms Madeline Hickey, acting head of special education, and Ms Mary McGrath, head of operations, National Council for Special Education. We are joined, from the Department of Education and Skills, by Mr. Dalton Tattan, Assistant Secretary, inclusion division, Mr. Eddie Ward, principal officer, special education section, Mr. Brendan Doody, assistant chief inspector, and Ms Anne Tansey, director, National Educational Psychological Service.
I wish to advise our guests that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If witnesses are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a manner as to make him, her or it identifiable. We expect witnesses to answer questions clearly and with candour. However, witnesses can and should expect to be treated fairly and with respect and consideration at all times in accordance with the witness protocol.
I ask Ms Griffin to make her opening remarks and confine them to five minutes because we are tight for time.
Ms Teresa Griffin:
I thank the committee for inviting me here today. My name is Teresa Griffin and I am the CEO of the National Council for Special Education. With me today are Mary McGrath, head of operations, and Madeline Hickey, acting head of special education.
In terms of the impact of Covid-19, as an organisation we were able to move online relatively quickly because many of our staff already worked from home and most of us have the technology to do so.
We are delivering nearly all our services to families and schools online but this required a period of adjustment and changed processes.
In terms of the impact of Covid-19 on students with special educational needs and on schools, it is very clear that Covid-19 and the resultant closure of school buildings has challenged the education system to its utmost. It has had a significant impact on all students, their families and teachers. However, it has had a profound impact on many students with special educational needs and their families who greatly value the structure, individualised teaching, adapted curricula and intensive support given to these students in schools.
Many students with special educational needs are not independent learners. They are not a homogenous group of students who can take a piece of text or an article or a chapter of a maths book and work independently. Some need adult assistance with every activity and cannot be left alone for any period of time. Some cannot engage with learning in an online environment. All of them need more support and guidance, over and above that required by other students, to give them the best chance to reach their potential. They need an education that is differentiated to their abilities and needs.
To move a school-based education online overnight, without the planning, time, equipment and training required for all involved was very challenging, particularly for teachers, principals, students and their families. Online education requires access to technology but for these students it may also require access to specialist assistive technology, adapted curricular activities, therapeutic inputs and supports for families. From an NCSE point of view, we immediately began to develop resources that we felt could best assist parents and teachers in trying to support students at home. These resources have been broadly welcomed, in particular our seven booklets on promoting learning and positive behaviour at home; and our theme of the week material, but we recognise that many parents do not have access to technology, stable broadband, or time nor are they teachers themselves. We know that students with complex needs regress more over the normal, long summer break than typical students and also take longer to recoup or regain their learning. We were very pleased that the Minister was able to run summer provision this year and expand eligibility to include students with additional needs other than those typically provided for, namely, children with severe-profound general learning disability or autism. This is in line with our 2015 policy advice on the extended school year. Summer provision will enable students to re-engage with learning and assist the transition back to school. This is very important for students who have anxiety issues as well.
On the position with regard to 2020-2021,like everybody else, the NCSE would like to see a full return of all students to school in late August-September, provided it is safe. We are not public health experts and, therefore, cannot advise the Department of Education and Skills in this respect. We note, in the return to school context, that many special classes and special schools have much lower pupil-teacher ratios, often as few as six students in a class with a teacher and two SNAs and, therefore, social distancing issues may not be as challenging as in mainstream. We are working with Department of Education and Skills colleagues to prepare resources and supports that we think will be useful for both students and teachers in transitioning back into school. We are also working to ensure that our work resourcing schools as well as our teacher professional learning, in-school support, visiting teacher services can be delivered online, in a blended manner or in person depending on the situation in September.
We are very happy to clarify any matters in our submission for the committee.
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
I thank the committee for the invitation to attend today to engage with it on the plans of the Department of Education and Skills to enable and support special education provision while minimising the risk of spreading Covid-19 infections. I am assistant secretary with responsibility for inclusion in the Department of Education and Skills. Attending with me are other Department of Education and Skills colleagues, including Mr. Eddie Ward, principal officer in the Department’s special education section, Mr. Brendan Doody, assistant chief inspector in the Department’s Inspectorate and Ms Anne Tansey, director of the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS.
The Taoiseach’s announcement on 12 March last of the closure of all schools, colleges, universities and other training and learning facilities was the commencement of a series of challenges across the education and training sector as a result of Covid-19. The challenges continue to be managed by the Department of Education and Skills, the education partners and a range of stakeholders.
The interests of students and their families, as well as the safety of the staff in the sector, have been the paramount considerations throughout.
Advice and guidance was issued to the school sector following the closures. All schools were asked to work to minimise the impact on teaching and learning by continuing to plan lessons and, where possible, provide online resources for students or online lessons where they were equipped to do so. Schools were asked to be conscious of students who may not have access to online facilities and to consider this actively in their plans. Information was provided for teachers on a range of online resources to assist schools to provide ongoing support to students during school closures. Following the decision that they would remain closed after the initial period, more comprehensive guidance was issued to all schools on supporting teaching and learning. Specific guidance was also issued for those engaging with students with special educational needs and those at risk of educational disadvantage. Additional ICT grants and the creation of new resources have also been part of our response. There are many good examples illustrating how schools and teachers have developed innovative ways to connect with their students.
While most children have adapted reasonably well to the new circumstances, there is evidence that the absence of school and other supports is having a negative impact on the lives and well-being of many of those with complex needs and their families. The loss of the regular school routine, social interaction with friends, access to teachers, special needs assistants, therapy services and respite-type supports are presenting a real risk of regression in the learning, the social and emotional development and the well-being of these children. Furthermore, many families are reporting significant challenges caring for their children in the absence of these supports and routines.
Phase 4 of the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business sets out that educational institutions can open on a phased basis at the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year, with a limited reopening provided from phase 2 on 8 June last. Since the Government decision of 5 June, the Department has progressed plans for specific programmes and initiatives for children with special educational needs.
Summer Provision 2020 - Reconnecting with Education, is a significantly expanded programme for children with complex special educational needs and those at greatest risk of educational disadvantage. The summer programme includes a Department of Education and Skills-led programme involving school-based and home-based strands. It is focused on providing a foundation to re-establish relationships and a sense of belonging and connectedness to school, re-engaging with learning and support and the successful transition or reintegration of students with their peers into their planned education setting for the next school year. The programme also involves a Department of Health and HSE-led activity-based programme delivered in a school setting. In-school or home-based supports provided by teachers and SNAs will help to prevent regression among children with special needs.
To be eligible, a child must fall into one of the following categories: pupils with a diagnosis of autism; pupils with severe and profound learning difficulties; any child in a special class or special school; children transitioning into a special class from early years settings to primary school; and pupils in primary school mainstream classes who present with a number of disabilities. Comprehensive guidance and frequently asked questions for the programme have been published. Participation in the programme by schools, teachers and special needs assistants is voluntary and so far the response is very positive with 200 schools registered to run the school-based summer education programme. Some 36 schools, of which 35 are also running the school-based programme, have registered to participate in the HSE provision. It is estimated that 3,400 children will benefit from these school-based programmes. Almost 9,200 children are registered for the home-based programme.
Decisions on summer provision must be underpinned by public health advice. The Department has this week issued guidance to all primary schools to help guide them in running the summer provision. This guidance is informed by our engagement with the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, and the Department of Health. I thank the committee for giving the Department the opportunity to discuss these issues today. My colleagues and I are happy to take questions from members on this matter.
I thank the NCSE and Department for attending. Their submissions are very valuable and I thank them for their time. My first questions are directed to the NCSE and the remainder will be to the Department. In our previous session, we heard that a great deal of concern and frustration was expressed by the parents of children with Down syndrome. This is something I have experienced with constituents. These parents, on the basis of some of the announcements, expected that their children would be entitled to avail of summer provision. However, it has now emerged that children who are in mainstream secondary schools or who are transitioning from early years services to mainstream primary schools will not be able to avail of summer provision.
Is there any good educational reason for this? Is it in line with the 2015 policy position on the expansion of summer provision?
Ms Griffin stated that in light of the size of the units there might be greater capacity to ensure they return. There is a particularly acute shortage of units in large parts of the country, including Dublin, Cork and Kildare. There may well also be a number of other areas. Will Ms Griffin provide a brief update on the work the NCSE is doing with the Department to try to resolve the lack of spaces in units.
Ms Teresa Griffin:
When we looked at the extended school year, as July provision was then known, we found that access to the scheme should be based on student need rather than a disability category. The research is very clear that all students, irrespective of special educational needs, regress over the long summer break and that students with complex needs not only regress more but take longer to recoup what they have lost. It is almost impossible to generalise but the important thing is that students who need additional support over the summer or access to a summer programme should get it. It should be based on their individual needs rather than a category of disability. We thought the categorisation of disability with regard to access to the extended school year was open to challenge on equity grounds because we could not find any evidence base to support access simply for children with autism-----
Ms Teresa Griffin:
What we would say is that access should be based on the child's needs irrespective of age.
On the Deputy's question in respect of capacity, we have been working very hard with schools throughout the country on opening special classes and we have opened a significant number of special classes in recent years. For the coming school year we will open 190 special classes. We recognise that in some parts of the country there are pinch points. We have written to the Department to advise it of our concern about south county Dublin. In Cork, we believe there is an issue with regard to special school places rather than special class places. Generally, there are one to two places that can pop up from time to time but we work very well with the generality of schools on opening special classes. For a number of reasons, in some areas we have found it difficult to get schools to open up special classes. This can be because the school might not have space or an outdoor area to build in. There can be a number of reasons for this. It is disappointing that we have had to write to the Department to say that in south County Dublin there will be some areas where we will be unable to open special classes.
It is also disappointing. There is an issue with special school places in my experience, in Cork at the very least.
My next questions are for the Department. How many teachers and SNAs will be available to provide the summer programme?
I am aware of the process. Mr Tattan might say that it is demand-led but he is not giving me an indication. Does he have any idea how many teachers or SNAs are available to deliver the home-based programme?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
No. This is anecdotal but we would have thought there would be fewer available because of the challenges we have all had to face since Covid-19 arrived in the country. Schools have had to do quite unusual things that go over and above what they would normally do to ensure that continuity of provision for their students.
I appreciate that and common sense would have suggested to me that there would potentially be fewer. On that basis, the Minister comes in here and tells us that he wants to double the programme and he is talking about as many as 20,000 teachers. How was that prepared and planned for?
Teachers or SNAs are needed to deliver the programme. If the Department is talking about doubling the number of students who would be able to avail of the programme, there would have to be a concurrent increase in the number of teachers or SNAs.
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
We had evidence in that we knew there were schools out there in contact with the Department that were asking us and in some cases pleading with us, as well as parents pleading with us, to run the programme. At the time, we did not have the benefit of the health advice that came on 5 June and we were doubtful whether we would be allowed to do that for public health reasons. Once we had that advice, we moved quickly to supply that expanded provision for the categories concerned.
I recognise the importance of the programme being expanded and being as inclusive as possible but my concern is around when the capacity planning happened. What was the extent of the Department's capacity planning for delivering this programme?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
We had a lot of remote meetings. We had a lot of discussions, particularly with groups such as the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education, NABMSE, in particular, which would represent other special schools as well as many mainstream schools with special classes in them. NABMSE gave us a good gauge about the level of appetite there was for this.
This is an important programme and I want it to succeed but I fear that the preparation has not happened and that many students and families who want to avail of it will not be able to access it and will be disappointed. They have had their hopes raised and I fear those hopes will be dashed. I hope I am wrong.
I want to ask a number of questions on some of the related issues. Some of the guidance in the document the schools received denotes that a particular section will be updated with public health advice in the coming days to facilitate summer provision in 2020. We are still waiting on a roadmap. When does the Department expect that to be provided? When will we see a roadmap for the return to full education for whatever education will look like in September?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
There will need to be further engagement with the sector between now and the autumn. We can already see that the advice we have in the country is changing all the time and we have seen an acceleration of the roadmap. There will be further engagement on that and I would expect it will take several weeks before we call it because it is in our interest and in the interests of schools to call it closer to the time of reopening rather than now because-----
We were promised the roadmap 13 days ago. Is there a date for the publication of a roadmap, even if it does not contain everything and if it is still contingent on public health advice as everything is? We were promised a roadmap and there is no sign of one. When will a roadmap be published?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
We have had further engagement with our colleagues in the area of health, particularly in the HPSC and the Department of Health and we are getting the best advice available to support schools in this. That will help some of the planning. There are a series of engagements today with all stakeholders in the education sector to discuss the guidance for now and for the autumn.
It will, however, take several more weeks for us to have a clearer picture as to what matters will look like in September.
I thank our guests from the Department but I am disappointed with some of the answers. I very much hope that summer provision is a success and that as many people as possible can avail of it. I am concerned, however, that this may not be the case.
Ms Griffin highlighted provision in south County Dublin. What are the reasons for what is coming up again and again, which is a significant difficulty in the area? Can Ms Griffin outline why we are so short of places in south County Dublin?
Ms Teresa Griffin:
As stated, I think there are a number of reasons. We had a look at almost every school in south County Dublin, and the reasons can vary. Many schools just do not have the space and are using every classroom they have for classroom purposes. Other schools have no space outside on which to build. We have been working with many schools and getting some engagement on opening special classes, but there is a shortfall of in the region of eight classes in south County Dublin. The main reasons concern accommodation. Some schools would prefer upfront training for their staff. That can be provided, and we have explained that. That is what we did in Dublin 15 last year. It is, however, fundamentally a matter of a lack of space in the classes and the fact that schools are not automatically provided with rooms for special classes as they are built.
South County Dublin is a built-up area and heavily concentrated in population terms. There are proportionally as many children there who need additional support as there are anywhere else. As a result, I urge Ms Griffin and the Department to do everything they can in this regard. We still have difficulty with the Red Door school and so on, but I will leave that for the moment and go back to the overall issues.
On July provision, I ask Mr. Tattan to confirm a couple of things. I would like simple "Yes" or "No" answers. This is a voluntary scheme - correct?
The Department therefore relies on their availability and interest. Many of them have been both available and interested very often, and it is great to see the engagement so far. This year is different, however, with everybody experiencing their own knock-on effects of Covid, whether illness in the family, childcare arrangements or whatever. To confirm, this is a voluntary scheme. The Department cannot force people to participate.
As for the supports that were provided, we listened to Inclusion Ireland earlier and it seems parents had very different experiences of the level of support provided to their children - from provision in some schools being excellent to provision in others being minimal. Can Mr. Tattan talk about the overall background to this and the level of engagement with the Department and the different schools? Were we to go into a second lockdown, what is Mr. Tattan's forecasting? Could we be assured of a more consistent approach from education providers to children, especially those with additional needs?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
I will start and then hand over to my colleague, Mr. Doody. As stated earlier, we have issued a number of items of guidance and have had a very close engagement, particularly through the inspectorate in the Department, with schools to try to ensure that level of consistency. Where there has not been that consistency, we have taken steps to address that. I will ask Mr. Doody to come in.
Mr. Brendan Doody:
It is pretty obvious that moving a system online in one fell swoop causes very significant challenges for schools. In the period between the closure of schools and 16 June, the inspectorate endeavoured to contact as many schools as possible. To date, we have managed to contact approximately 60% of all schools. The idea behind the contact was supportive in the first instance, seeing what schools were doing to meet the needs of learners and seeking to find out the extent of the challenges in those spaces. Then the view was towards repackaging what the schools were telling us about what was working such that we would be able to provide guidance to all schools.
Over the recent period, we have worked with colleagues in other sections of the Department, including those in NEPS, to put several guidance documents into the system. We have provided guidance documents for schools to assist them in their work to support children with special educational needs. That includes separate documents at primary and post-primary levels. We have provided a guidance document to primary and post-primary schools to support them in their work with students who are most at risk of educational disadvantage. We put a guidance document together after being in contact with Youthreach centres. This is a very important sector for young people who are vulnerable and so on. More recently, we have put guidance documents together for schools to support their summer provision.
Okay. If this were to happen in November, for example, we could expect that schools will be ready. It is not just an online provision because one can pick up the phone or send documents. Parents might expect a more consistent response from schools in the future. I appreciate this happened suddenly and quickly and without preparation but we will never be in that situation again, so we might expect a more consistent response if it happens again.
Mr. Brendan Doody:
Yes. The idea behind the guidance documents is ultimately to share the good practice that we encountered and were told about in the school system, so that other schools which may not have worked to the same extent are able to see that many things are possible. There are many really good examples of schools adopting very innovative and creative approaches and finding solutions to the problems that were presented. Other schools can learn from those.
I have a question regarding one of the new categories of eligibility, namely, children transitioning into a special class in a primary school from an early-years setting. I see what the Department is trying to do there. I raised it with Inclusion Ireland. I wish to raise the case of children who have been in supported early-years settings and are now transitioning into mainstream primary school. I argue that they face a bigger and more difficult transition because they are transitioning not into a special supported class but into the mainstream. They arguably require more support than children who are transitioning into a special class. I want to press the case for children who have been away from the educational sector for six months and are now transitioning into mainstream school, which is difficult for anybody. Is there any way of reviewing what is being done to try to include this group of vulnerable young people, even at this late stage?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
A previous speaker referenced the NCSE policy advice from a few years ago and the move towards a more needs-based approach. We have sought to take a more needs-based approach here, although we still have the categorisation. The focus here is on those with the most complex needs. As Ms Griffin mentioned-----
I am sorry to interrupt, but if one accepts the point that the area I represent is already under-resourced in terms of the provision of special classes, the fact the child is not going into a designated special class may be because the class is not available, rather than a recognition of the child's needs. Does Mr. Tattan see my point? Going into a mainstream school is difficult anyway, but they may not have the additional support they need if they are just on the cusp of being able to go into mainstream and have been away from school or a structured environment for six months. Does the assessment of need take into account the actual provision and availability of classes for the child?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
The Deputy has spoken about a child who is transitioning into a special class. There could be a child with a recommendation to go into a special class. In that situation, he or she should go into a special class. It would not be considered appropriate to place him or her somewhere else. The idea is that children in special classes have a greater or more complex level of need than children in the mainstream. That said, there are very significant supports in the mainstream as well, both in terms of special education teachers and SNAs. There are supports for incoming students whether they end up in special schools, special classes or the mainstream.
The waiting list system was changed a couple of years ago, and with good reason. I wish to focus on young children whose parents assess that there is an intellectual disability but cannot get a formal assessment until the child is five for cognitive processing reasons.
How do we support those parents who feel their children will need to be in a special school, but they cannot get their name down anywhere? In my area for example, even if those places were available, how do they deal with the absence of the waiting list system?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
As Ms Griffin has mentioned, we have 190 special classes opening in the autumn. We have issues in a small number of areas. That is not to take away from the issues families in those areas face. We are working where there are shortages in Cork - I know the NCSE is continuing to do further work there - and in south Dublin where they have issues to report to us. A decision on that from the Minister is imminent. We expect to be making progress on the class issue and also the special school places.
I welcome the officials from the National Council for Special Education and the Department. I appreciate their presence today.
In my constituency of Kerry, principals and parents have raised the allocation of SNAs. I very much welcome the rollover of SNA allocation and SET allocation from last year to this year. That is very positive and progressive. Notwithstanding that, the needs of schools change every year. I could give a number of examples, but one in particular stands out. Following its notification of allocation, a school received applications from four students with additional needs and therefore it obviously would require further SNA support. However, it has been advised that the opportunity to give SNA support will need to be reviewed in the autumn. What exactly does that mean? What timescale is involved?
Ms Teresa Griffin:
We have received 950 applications for an exceptional review. Some schools such as the one the Deputy mentioned have experienced an increase in the number of students with additional needs and additional care needs and feel that their current allocation is not sufficient. We have received 950 applications. It is open to the school to make that application now. I am somewhat confused as to why-----
With the very new experience schools will have in August and September when children return given the Covid-19 stay-safe measures, is the Department considering appointing additional SNAs even on a temporary basis to accommodate children with additional needs and also the greater needs that will arise in schools because of the conditions in which we assume schools will be operating?
Ms Teresa Griffin:
At the moment we are allocating in line with the Department's policy. The Department has not indicated to us that it wants to take a different approach. If the Department indicates it wants to take a different approach or have a different range of criteria to use for allocation purposes, then that is something we could use.
Perhaps I could put that question about additional needs in a school to Mr. Tattan.
For example, I am very familiar with schools that have 30 students in mainstream classrooms and there would obviously be students with additional needs within that classroom setting. Bearing that in mind, and given the new measures that will have to be put in place to deal with Covid-19 and safety, will the Department look at providing additional SNAs in the school environment, even on a temporary basis?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
It is something we would have to consider. As I said earlier, the public health guidance is going to inform where we are and that will be based on the experience as we move through the summer. There may need to be changes in how both SNAs and special education teachers work with their students because of physical distancing, other restrictions and heightened concerns. Some of the children we are talking about have significant medical conditions as well so we have to take cognisance of all of that. Until we have that guidance, we are not going to know for certain how we will go about that but it is something we can keep under review.
I welcome that. I appreciate that previous speakers have raised the issue of the summer programme or July provision but I seek a little clarity on it. This morning we heard from Inclusion Ireland and its representatives told us that in the survey they conducted among parents of children with additional needs, 89% of parents very clearly said their children missed school and 78% said that homeschooling did not work well for them. One would anticipate, therefore, that there would be a significant uptake of this summer programme. The Minister for Education and Skills forecasted that when he suggested that between 20,000 and 24,000 students might take that opportunity. Last year there were 10,000 students on the programme and yet this year we are only looking at approximately 14,000. Why has there been such a divergence between the projected figure of 20,000 to 24,000 and the uptake of 14,000, bearing in mind that parents are crying out for an opportunity for students to attend such programmes?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
There could be a few reasons for that. To clarify, the figure of 20,000 to 24,000 relates to eligibility, so that is the potential universe of children who could benefit from the scheme as we have constructed it. Up until this year, July provision only applied to children with autism and those with severe or profound intellectual disabilities, and in a typical year there would have been a cohort of 15,000 and about 10,000 or 10,500, or two thirds, of them would typically take it up. The figure of 14,000 is not far off that. As the Deputy noted, one would expect there to be more this year but from talking to parents I know and others who contact the Department, some would have concerns for their children about going back now. They might think it safer to wait and see how things progress for Ireland on the Covid-19 issue through the summer and wait until the autumn. While the schools being closed is far from ideal, if they have put up with it for this length of time they may be prepared to wait a bit longer just to see. Some will have made that decision out of an abundance of caution.
It certainly did not help that there was, and remains, considerable confusion regarding the eligibility of students with Down's syndrome to participate in programmes such as this. Will Mr. Tattan clarify once and for all that, irrespective of the announcement on 5 June, which was hugely endorsed and welcomed, children with Down's syndrome who attend a mainstream second level school are not eligible to participate? Is that the case as it stands?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
I cannot speak to that but the Government decision and the announcement made on foot of it last Friday week was clear that the category was primary level only. We have had, and continue to have, engagement with Down Syndrome Ireland on this issue.
We believe there are arrangements. There were arrangements in place last year under a different scheme through which Down's syndrome children of post-primary age could benefit from summer activity, and that was funded through the Department. We are seeking to have something similar in place. We certainly have no intention of taking away something that was available last year.
I appreciate that but it is not the scheme as originally outlined on 5 June and not the scheme that had the basis of inclusion which was broadly welcomed on 5 June, and this is very disappointing.
We are very wary, even at this stage, that there will be medically fragile students not in a position to attend when schools open in August and September. Irrespective of the public health advice, we know there will be many categories of such students. What planning is in place to cater for them?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
There is a group within the Department planning for continuity of teaching and learning who will consider this matter, again, informed by the public health advice. We know we are going to need to contingency arrangements in place for the autumn for children whose parents will simply not be happy to have them back, regardless of what arrangements are in place around the public health considerations.
I want to refer to the issue of geographic disparity raised by Deputy Carroll McNeill. I am glad there was an acknowledgement we are short of eight special classes in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown region alone. One of the reasons given was a lack of physical space for these and I want to know if there is any plan to resolve this in respect of the capital programme or temporary buildings. It is an issue of unfairness that seems deeply inequitable, if not unconstitutional.
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
Obviously, there is a schools building programme. The challenge can be the time it takes to do that and the space available. The area with which the Deputy is familiar is very built-up and, therefore, there is more limited space than on greenfield sites or in more rural locations. That said, the work the NCSE has done and the work that was done in Dublin 15 showed that, sometimes, existing space can be made available in certain circumstances. Given the report is in regard to intake for September this year, the answer has to be within what is immediately available. That is not to say that forward planning is not important - of course it is - but in terms of the immediate issue for September, that has to be resolved through existing space being made available in those schools.
Will any new spaces be available? With regard to the deficit of eight classes, will any of those be provided this year and is there a plan to bring that down to, say, seven or six in the coming school year?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
We have the report from the NCSE and we have had a further couple of rounds of engagement with the council to clarify aspects and issues around that in order to understand it. We expect we will engage with schools immediately over the course of the summer, as we had to do last year also in a different part of the city. We are hopeful that, within the schools that are being looked at, there is potential for that space to be provided for the next school year.
I want to ask about the reopening of special schools and special classes in comparison with all the other schools. As we know, in March, all schools in the country were shut downen masse, regardless of how many pupils were in a class or what type of distancing was present. I guess this was a blanket approach to dealing with an immediate problem. However, in reopening them, perhaps we can take a different view in cases where a very small number of pupils are being taught by one teacher. Is the Department engaging with NPHET or with the Department of Health to find a way to have a low risk or to take risk into account and, at the same time, provide what is a vital service for special needs children?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
Yes, we are. We have had very extensive engagement, particularly over the past few weeks, with the Department of Health, through the office of the Chief Medical Officer, and also with the HPSC, which provides the detailed technical guidance to the HSE that ultimately gets issued.
There is some very helpful work being done there which will help inform us on general things such as hygiene, distancing, school transport and specifically issues relating to special education. Within that there is an acknowledgement and acceptance that at times for those with children who are quite young or children with certain disabilities the distancing is not always either proper or appropriate and is not really possible. If they are going to be supported appropriately, the distancing we have all become familiar with in everyday life will simply not work in those school situations.
I have a question about distance learning. Children are seeking to be taught by teachers over video connections. The representatives of Inclusion Ireland told us earlier that they estimated from their survey that 11% of homes with a child with disabilities did not have equipment such as a laptop or tablet to connect to and receive that education. The total number appears to be approximately 1,500 families, which does not appear to be an impossible number to resolve if we were to provide those families with laptops or technology to allow them to access education. Is that something the Department is examining or will consider?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
It is something on which work has already been done. For example, there was an additional €10 million in an ICT grant pushed out to schools earlier in the year with advice to support children who would not have ready access to technology. Along with our colleagues in the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment we have also worked with some of the telecommunications providers to zero rate websites and so forth, and in the case of people who have packages which they might have been exceeding, therefore costing them more, to zero rate some of those too. A number of things have been done and there are further proposals in the pipeline to provide that support, particularly for those who simply do not have the ready access to the technology that is required.
I thank the witnesses for the presentation. My first question is about the summer programme. A principal contacted me to say that she was under the impression or she was told that the pupil-teacher ratio for the summer programme would 6:1. On that basis she encouraged four teachers from her staff to sign up to the programme, which they did. Then she got an official notification from the Department stating that the ratio would be 12:1. As a result, two of the teachers who had signed up for the programme will now no longer be able to do it. Will Mr. Tattan comment on that? Was there an official statement from the Department that it would be 6:1, and if that situation changed what was the reason?
I will read a message that was sent out by a school regarding July provision. I want to get the reaction from the Department to the message that parents are getting from schools. It states: "Due to lack of guidance and support from the Department of Education and for health and safety reasons the school has decided not to participate in the summer provision programme". That came from a primary school. I was a primary school principal and when a primary school principal is engaging with the parent body, one's language is very tight. One generally does not use any type of blame, one might say. However, this is quite stark. What reaction would the Department have to such a communication from a school to a parent body?
The third issue is transport for July provision. Certainly, in an urban context it might be easier to access July provision if it is school based, but it is obviously more challenging if one lives further from the facility. However, even in an urban context many people and children have to travel long distances in transport which is often provided but which I understand will not be provided in these circumstances.
I ask the witnesses to respond on those three issues - the pupil-teacher ratio, the statement from the school to the parents and the issue of transport.
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
I cannot say what impression they were under but we have been running this programme at primary level for a number of years and a ratio of 12:1 has been the standard. We have not changed that. Some months back, 72 schools initially agreed to participate. We put out a further request for expressions of interest and 210 primary schools wished to run the DEIS primary programme.
On the issue of the lack of guidance, I am disappointed to hear that a school does not wish to participate. We did issue guidance on this matter on Tuesday. This included a template which schools can use and adapt and some very helpful information on public health considerations. There is ongoing engagement with stakeholders and further guidance in this regard will be issued later today. All of that is informed by the advice we have been getting from the HPSC and our colleagues in the Department of Health. There is guidance. Obviously, we would have liked to have it out earlier than this week but it is there. We know many schools wish to proceed with summer provision and have been putting plans in place.
On school transport, this is again an issue of timing. We would have liked to have provided school transport in the normal way. Unfortunately, in order to do that, we need time to go through the procurement process. We were challenged this year because we were not advised that we could actually run this until early June Only in much more recent times have we known which schools would participate and the numbers and locations of children who wish to participate. We are making a grant available to parents. That will not answer the issues in every case but we hope it will be of some assistance in helping children to avail of summer provision.
I thank both of the witnesses. I want to go through some of the comments Mr. Tattan made in his opening address. I imagine that supporting special education provision while minimising the risk of spreading Covid-19 infections both during the summer programmes and as we reopen schools in autumn will require an increase in the amount of sterilisation of rooms and cleaning staff. How many more cleaning staff are the Department expected to hire between now and when the schools open in the autumn?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
It is schools that hire the staff. We have been clear, however, that where they need additional cleaning, hand sanitiser or PPE, schools can avail of this things and that we will reimburse them. That will be funded. We want to have procured facilities in place for schools coming back in the autumn so that they will not have to go through that reimbursement exercise.
I fully appreciate that it is the schools that hire the cleaning staff but it is the Department that allocates the funding. I have worked in many schools throughout Dublin. Most schools have cleaning staff for two hours a day. When we leave this Chamber, it will be sterilised before another group comes in. Does the Department anticipate an increased level of expenditure on the provision of cleaning staff, to be paid for by the Department?
That is excellent. On the second page of Mr. Tattan's opening statement it says, "Additional ICT grants and the creation of new resources have also been part of our response." Will he go through those funds? Is he referring to the €7 million allocated to secondary school and the €2 million allocated to primary schools or have additional funds been allocated?
That was not an additional grant. It was a grant that had previously been made available for schools that had high-performing or good ICT strategies. It was not an additional grant; it was just a grant that was brought forward. It worked out at €2,900 for a school of 160 students. That would pay for approximately three devices. A school of 750 students would have got approximately €17,000 from the fund, which would buy 17 devices. Clearly, that is not enough to bridge the digital divide in any way should the virus re-emerge in the autumn.
Is it anticipated that more money will be made available for that provision?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
We will have to see what the public health advice tells us but we expect that there will be at least some children who will not be able to come back to school in the autumn, particularly among those who are in the very high-risk category. They are very vulnerable children, as the HSE has categorised them. We will need to consider the technology piece as part of that.
The Department will have to give it real consideration. During the committee's first session today, a professor from the school of medicine in UCD talked about the expectation that the virus will re-emerge in August. We should be pre-empting that and having a budget available which can be used to support the students and their families who are affected.
In regard to the summer provision and, in particular, the DEIS aspect of it, much of the work that is going on seems to be concerned with the well-being of students. That is absolutely welcome because we are going to have a flood of children experiencing emotional distress and an expectation on teachers to deal with that. What supports and training have been given to the teachers and SNAs taking part in the summer provision who will have to provide that well-being support, and how far in advance have those supports and training been given?
Ms Anne Tansey:
We know that there has been an increase in anxiety among people across the country in response to Covid-19. That is a normal and healthy response to the challenges we have faced and it is being dealt with through the collective experience that has been utilised and the support that has been provided. It has been managed largely across our society. We know that the public health restrictions and school closures have rendered some families and children more vulnerable. We know that those with a pre-existing need have been rendered more vulnerable, as have those who experienced illness, bereavement or financial stress. The removal of the supportive school structure, which is a key protective factor in the well-being of many children's lives, has rendered some children more vulnerable.
Since the start of the pandemic, we have been providing guidance around supporting the well-being of children and young people while they have been out of school, as well as support for their teachers and their parents. That guidance has been issued via the Department of Education and Skills. What we are planning for in terms of the summer school provision is a training webinar that NEPS is currently developing which will be made available to all teaching and other school staff who are supporting the summer programmes. We intend to provide additional guidance in this regard and there will also be support from NEPS psychologists. That is the plan for supporting the well-being of our children and supporting the school staff who will be delivering the support to children.
Ms Anne Tansey:
We will be available for consultation. We may not be there on the ground but we are always available for consultation with our schools and we will continue to be available to support school staff to build their capacity to manage the situation. Our expectation around the well-being of children as they return to school is that some will be very happy, relived and excited to be back. There will be other children who experience some degree of anxiety but we anticipate that most will settle down quite quickly after an initial period. It is normal to expect some anxiety but most children will settle down. That is our expectation. We are also planning for and supporting teachers to notice those children who are struggling or are reluctant to come to school. There may be students who arrive with behaviour presentations that are different from normal and who fail to settle down. We will be working with teachers and school staff to notice and plan for how we might respond in order to support children if that happens.
I thank the witnesses for their contributions. The need for the summer provision, both to have it and to expand it, is obvious. The aspiration of the Minister to reopen the special educational needs provision as best as possible in September is a noble and correct one which I am sure everybody shares. However, I wonder if there is a Walter Mitty element about some of this in terms of matching aspiration with reality.
I had a few conversations before coming in here, one with Fórsa, which represents SNAs, one with an SNA and another with the parent of a child with special needs who is involved in the group of parents protesting against the cuts. Every one of them was just scathing. What Fórsa said is that the plans for the summer provision are laughable. Schools do not know about numbers in classrooms. They are not clear what to do with PPE. They are not clear what to do about feeding and washing where it is necessary to do those things for some children. They are not sure about deep cleaning, who is going to do it and whether it is going to be done. They are not sure about the type of protocols necessary in the home-provision section where SNAs, for example, would be going to people's homes. Should they be tested? Should they not be tested? Would insurance be in place for taking children out in cars? The impression given across the board is that the guidance and supports are just not there.
The SNA to whom I spoke informed me that SNAs feel very badly treated. She stated that he has been 17 and a half years in the sector. She said that, first, they were told they were going to nursing homes and then, when it was realised that in many cases rather than doing nothing, they work during the summer, often with the same children, they were told they were going to support the plan for the summer provision. They were told they would get €16 an hour, which would be much less than that after tax. They are getting no supports and they are badly paid in the first place. In her case, she said she is just not doing it. How does Mr. Tattan respond to those criticisms and the level of frustration that has been expressed?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
I will say a couple of things. We have been working with Fórsa on the temporary reassignment of SNAs to the HSE. More than 230 SNAs have been temporarily reassigned into the HSE and we are really appreciative of the flexibility that they have shown around that.
We also share some of the frustration in a sense because we would have liked to have this guidance out earlier. As I indicated, it is going out today. One of the stakeholders we will meet this afternoon is Fórsa. We are seeking to engage with people. I can understand some of the frustrations people feel in respect of these matters. Some of the issues Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned are included in the guidance that was issued on Tuesday and the remaining items will be going out today. We would have liked it to have gone out sooner but most of the substantive work around having summer provision only became possible when we had that public health advice at the beginning of the month, so most of the work-----
The HSE put out guidelines for its staff some considerable time ago. How can the HSE give the occupational therapists and its people who are involved in the provision of these programmes clear guidance on PPE, social distancing and other matters but the Department of Education and Skills is still scrambling to do it and there is all that uncertainty?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
We had very intense engagement with the HPSC and the Department of Health, and we are very appreciative of the support they have provided to us. The school environment is different to the HSE environment, and to other environments. Deputy Boyd Barrett can see that different sectors get different advice. The idea is that it is consistent but it has to be nuanced, tailored and appropriate for the sector that it is dealing with.
Does Mr. Tattan recognise that, come September, if, as Professor Paddy Mallon stated earlier, it is inevitable that we are facing a second wave, there will be a need to dramatically and quickly provide extra infrastructure, resources and staff - as we did for the health service via the Be on call for Ireland initiative - if we are to have any chance of meeting the eventualities we are likely to face, particularly in the context of special needs but also right across the education sector?
I thank the officials from the Department of Education and Skills for attending the committee today. We had a presentation earlier from Inclusion Ireland. Down Syndrome Ireland sent in several questions. While I know the issues have been raised before, on its behalf I would like to ask several of its questions which are still pertinent.
On the summer provision programme proposed by the Department, will the witnesses provide data on the number of children deemed eligible for the programme in past years? What percentage of these children actually availed of the July provision? If they do not have that to hand, will they come back to me and Down Syndrome Ireland on it?
We are still struggling with the Minister's decision. On 5 June, he had signalled that Down's syndrome children were to be included. We know secondary school children were not, however. Will the witnesses explain why that was the case?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
Based on previous years, in and around 15,000 is the estimate we would have of the number children who would be eligible for July provision as it would normally run. Last year, about 10,500 participated in that with 7,000 at home and about 3,500 in schools.
The announcement made last Friday week was clear. There are several categories such as blind, deaf or moderate general learning disability. Down's syndrome is in that group where the provision is for primary. Effectively the reason for that was built around and informed by a needs-based approach, looking at those with the greatest level of need. We focused on those knowing that the demand would be significant this summer but uncertain in terms of supply and ability for teachers and schools to meet that. We wanted to focus on those with the greatest level of and with the most complex needs and where the greatest level of risk of regression was. That is why it has been framed in the way it has.
It is difficult to quantify need or the experience of individual parents. I accept it is not an easy job. I can assure Mr. Tattan that it is not an easy job for the parents either, especially where they were getting buoyed up about their children getting some respite care but having their hopes dashed.
Parents are experiencing difficulties this year with a shortage of tutors willing to participate in the programme and with teachers in receipt of full salary without undertaking any additional work over July and August. Will the Department outline the incentives for teachers to participate in summer programmes, given that they are already in receipt of full monthly salaries?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
The main incentive is monetary in that for those teachers who choose to participate in it over the summer there is an additional payment. There is also additional extra personal vacation days. There are additional days that they can accrue and then take during the regular school year. They can do that as part of summer provision.
To return to the Down's syndrome point, on the post-primary side we are in engagement with Down Syndrome Ireland around the post-primary issue. There is a proposal there concerning the post-primary age children. We do not anticipate that they are going to be left out in the cold.
I understand that. I think Down Syndrome Ireland would much rather participate in a State scheme.
On school transport, there is a significant situation with public service obligations and how they are to be funded. What are the Department's visibility and thoughts on that with the school resumption in September?
On the future recruitment of SNAs, does the Department have any visibility on that, considering it will be a significant challenge this year with more children having to be home-tutored and the difficulties of social distancing in schools?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
Schools, like others, will have to adapt with recruitment and so on. Obviously, there are other ways to do that so it does not necessarily have to be in person. There are ways to get over that.
Ms Griffin spoke earlier about the allocation fees. The focus and the priority now is to get those allocations out to schools so they can do their planning in advance of the autumn.
I thank our guests here today. On 5 June the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, opened the summer provision programme for this year to include children with Down's syndrome, making no distinction between those attending preschool, primary school or post-primary school. Will Mr. Tattan explain how, over the course of the following week, the guidelines produced for the summer provision programme discriminated against certain cohorts of students with Down's syndrome? The guidelines are certainly not in keeping with the declaration made by the Minister.
The summer provision programme proposed by the Department of Education and Skills is leading to more and more confusion every day. Many parents report that even though their child at primary school may be eligible to participate in the programme he or she may not be able to avail of the opportunity as schools are not running the programme due to a lack of guidelines or maybe teacher or SNA unwillingness to participate. Is this the case?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
We issued guidelines on Tuesday and we are issuing further guidelines today. There are 200 schools registered that wish to participate in the programme and we will be putting out a further call to any other schools that wish to do it, given the flexibility this year whereby the programme can be run right into mid-August. We think the response is quite strong at this stage.
Is a bus transport service being made available? Deputies have been contacted quite a lot by constituents who worry there is no bus transport being made available for those attending the July provision services.
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
A grant is being made available to parents. Unfortunately, in the short time we had to organise it we could not go through a procurement process successfully and have it in place in time for next week. The grant is available to parents, but unfortunately we could not run the school transport scheme for the summer in the way we would normally do.
The budget for cleaning schools, and especially national schools, is at its best very low. I know this because I am on a school board of management and I see how difficult it is for us to meet annual budgets. Given the current Covid-19 crisis and the need to keep schools meticulously clean from September onwards, will the budget for cleaning schools be increased?
I shall now turn to the emergency works grant budget. Some emergency works may need to be completed because of Covid-19 or just general emergencies. Some schools in west Cork, including Dreeny national school near Skibbereen and Scoil Mhuire na nGrást in Belgooly, need this grant aid scheme. Are these funds affected this year? Is the budget the same as last year or what is the story?
I would appreciate that. It is of vital importance to these schools and to many more out there.
I have other questions but they do not relate to the crisis we are in at the moment. Perhaps Mr. Tattan will get his colleagues to contact me on one further query, if he cannot answer now. The calculated grades system, which replaced this year's leaving certificate exams, was the best solution to a difficult dilemma during the Covid-19 crisis. Like everything else, however, it has its flaws. One of the concerns with leaving certificate students in my constituency is a case where a student had studied a European language outside the school. This student did not have a tutor or teacher and was not attending grinds. The student was able to study on his own and performed well in the subject at junior certificate level, but has had no track record on the subject in the school since then. How will this subject be graded under the calculated grades system? It was brought to my attention that no provision was made for this situation in the calculated grades system. The student in question will not have a European language, and therefore will not be able to meet the criteria for university and will not be offered a place in the college. Is it possible to make provisions for students who are in this situation by taking into account results achieved at junior certificate level?
I have hay fever or an allergy. My question specifically relates to the Department of Education and Skills. What criteria must be met in order to have a full reopening of schools in September? Parents need to know whether they will need a childminder for one, two or five days per week.
I know that, but obviously certain criteria must be met. What are they? We are told that the decision will be based on science and that it will not be a question of reading the tea leaves or of what is politically expedient. What are the criteria?
What constitutes adequate PPE? Can children safely be in the one space at the one time? We should know now where we are going on these issues. There is a significant amount of PPE in the country, with a sizeable stock warehoused very close to where I come from in east Clare. Availability of hand sanitiser should not be a difficulty. I am sure it would not be beyond the capability of a State that built Ardnacrusha in a couple of months to install taps in some schools under the summer works scheme. When will the criteria be made known? I hope there are objective criteria. When will we know what they are and whether they have been met?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
That is our hope. We believe the advice we have moves us a long way towards that. We need to engage with primary and post-primary stakeholders to plan for that and ensure we can have that in place. We know there is a sweet spot. It is currently in our interest to wait and see whether things continue to improve in the manner they have thus far - which is very positive - and only finalise at that point. Obviously, things could change, as other members of the committee alluded to earlier. We need to allow a certain amount of additional time to see how the situation develops in order to ensure our advice for September is as accurate as possible.
The impression I got from Mr. Tattan's response to Deputy Ó Laoghaire on summer provision is that the Department did not expect to be able to proceed with it and that is one of the reasons more hours are not available. That is concerning. The advice received was not what the Department expected. Suddenly, it was possible for summer provision to be made available. The Department found out in June that the programme could be provided, but there was not enough time to plan for it before it was due to commence. I am very keen to avoid a similar situation in September for every secondary and primary school in Ireland.
Although it may have come as a surprise to the Department that it was going to able to provide summer provision and that might explain the difficulties in that regard, the Minister was asked about the programme on several occasions in the House in May and at all times he anticipated that it would be provided.
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
We had considered that some form of summer provision might have been possible but we did regard it as likely to be far more modest than the proposals and what the programme has actually amounted to now. We expected that there might be nothing possible in the home environment because we felt that in the absence of the sort of advice that became available in early June it was very unlikely that teachers or SNAs would be willing to go into homes or, equally, that families would want outsiders coming into their homes in the absence of very clear advice on that. Similarly, with schools, we expected the provision to be quite limited and we were engaging with the HSE just on those with the most complex needs, which was a relatively small cohort, to provide some additional support there.
We are obviously very pleased that the advice is the way that it is. We have had some time to come with an expanded programme, and that is recognising the gap in provision that there has been. We do believe, from the response that we have got, that we will have a good programme concerning both the home and school-based aspects.
I thank the Acting Chairman and I thank the Department and the NCSE for coming in.
My first two questions are for the Department and the NCSE and concern children who cannot be diagnosed due to the delays caused by Covid. I am talking specifically about autism spectrum disorder, ASD, and also in general. What provisions are in place to provide either resource hours, a place in a special school or an ASD class? I refer to children who everybody knows will probably need an ASD class, a specialist school or resource hours from September. Unfortunately, they cannot receive such support because they do not have a diagnosis, which was already an issue in this area. Given that no children have been diagnosed over the last few months due to Covid, what plans are in place? I would hate to see children negatively impacted.
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
I will start and then I will pass over to Ms Griffin. In recent years we have changed how we allocate special education teachers in the mainstream. In the past the requirement would have been a formal diagnosis and then a certain number of hours based on a disability category. We have moved away from that since September 2017 to the special education teacher allocation model where, based on a profile, schools are allocated that based on complex needs, on a baseline, on standardised test scores and one or two other factors That builds a picture of that school and we resource the schools based on that profile. That followed advice that we received from the NCSE and detailed work, which Ms Griffin may want to touch on. Effectively, what that means is that a child does not need a formal assessment. The resources are available in the school and will be there waiting for September.
Children who are occasionally on waiting lists, say for the HSE or others or are working with the HSE disability teams, again, it gets picked up that is complex need and it gets factored into the provision for the school. Occasionally things change. I mean a child might move over the course of a year and move to a school. That, of itself, could, depending on the child's needs or the numbers of children there, significantly change the make up of that school. In that situation there is an outlet for the school to apply for an exceptional review and get additionally, if merited.
One must have a specific diagnosis on paper if one is looking for an ASD class place. I know one cannot apply for a place at a particularly school in Kilkenny unless one has a diagnosis on paper. I mentioned resource hours but I also mentioned an ASD class and special schools. What happens if one awaits a diagnosis that has been delayed due to Covid and one's child is due to start school in September? Will such children be accepted into that school or will they have to wait and maybe start late in October or November?
Ms Teresa Griffin:
This situation is no different from the situation right around the country where for years the NCSE highlighted the fact that families have been unable to get hold of therapy and diagnosis.
Some resources, for example, placement in a special class or special school, is dependent on a diagnosis. The situation has exacerbated because diagnoses have not been taking place over the past number of months.
My second question relates to SNAs in a particular preschool. There is only one ASD preschool in Kilkenny and as such Ms Griffin will probably be aware of the preschool I am speaking about it. The preschool can cater for 12 children but it has only nine children enrolled, with diagnoses in respect of three other children delayed owing to Covid-19. Every year, this preschool is inundated with queries. This time last year I was dealing with a number of parents who were hoping to get their children in there. It is not the case that there is a lack of demand or need for this service. The preschool has been advised that if it does not have ten children enrolled by the end of September it will lose an SNA. It will definitely be able to fill all of its places in the months ahead but it currently cannot do so owing to Covid-19 and delays in diagnoses. I would welcome a comment from Ms Griffin.
I would appreciate it if Ms Griffin would do so.
On the expansion of the summer provision programme, year-on-year there is much discussion and general agreement on the need for this provision to be made available to all children with additional needs rather than it being ring-fenced for children with autism and every year we end up in the same situation, although I acknowledge that the programme being provided this year caters for additional children. We are all aware of how difficult the current situation has been on children with additional needs, parents and families. There is no point in us applauding those people and saying that they are doing great work and that we have empathy with them unless we are prepared to take action to help them. As I said in an earlier session, we can do this by expanding the summer provision programme to cater for all children with additional needs. During that session, I noted in the opening statement of Inclusion Ireland a comment that the NSCE feared Inclusion Ireland could be in breach of the Equal Status Act because such provision is not being rolled out. I would welcome Ms Griffin's views on that. I would also like to hear from the departmental witness why this programme cannot be rolled out to all children with additional needs. Why can such a plan not be put in place? For as long as I have been a Member of the Dáil, this issue has come up for discussion every summer. I understand that things cannot be done overnight, but can we at least make a start on putting a plan in place? I believe we need such a plan in place for this summer. This would show children with additional needs and their families that they are as important as everybody else and they matter. There is no point in saying we have empathy and we understand that things are difficult; people want to see action.
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
I thank the Deputy for the question. We have been doing work on it. The NSCE policy advice dates back to 2015. We agree with the council and we want to move to a needs-based provision for the summer, which would be much more in accord with other reforms we have made across the special education sphere over the past number of years, moving away from categorisation to a needs-based approach. We were doing quite a bit of work on that this year, looking at it in a more activity-based programme, which is, again, in line with what the NCSE had recommended. We had taken that work to a certain point and had had a number of engagements on it with stakeholders and other Departments that also fund or support summer-type provision. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 crisis largely derailed that work. What we have done for this summer is a programme that is an expansion on previous years but we recognise it is not a panacea. It is not what we would ultimately like a summer provision programme to be but it is more equitable than what other schemes might offer. This programme allows other groups to be involved and it has, as far as possible, had regard to that needs-based approach in informing the groups that we came up with as eligible.
My final point is in regard to those people who on leaving secondary school were due to transition from children's services into adult services and for whom, as for all of us, everything was turned upside down in March. Many of them may have concerns regarding transport. I accept this is not a matter that comes directly within the remit of the witnesses. Could interim services or, perhaps, an interim programme be put in place for them for this September-October?
Many will not be able to move directly to adult services because of everything that has happened and the uncertainty that exists. People came to me in February and March to ask about transport and then all of this happened. Everything is up in the air for those families, and they have had a difficult few months. Can anything be looked at in terms of an interim measure before people transition if there is going to be a gap?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
We are engaging with the Department of Health and the HSE on this matter because it has been raised with us. Our default position is that people should transition. A child who is in his or her final year of school and who would normally transition into adult day services with the HSE ought to make that transition. We have done other things.
Mention was made of calculated grades. What we sought to do there was not to put students into a holding or repeat position. We found a mechanism through which they could progress to the next stage in their lives. We do not believe that it is appropriate to deal with this group differently. They also should move, transition and progress with the next stage of their lives. We recognise that some of the normal things which would happen to support that transition have not been possible since March. We will continue to engage with the HSE as a way to support children in making that transition successfully.
I will take ten minutes. I thank the witnesses for their presentations and for all the work that has been done over the past number of months in respect of this matter. Mr. Tattan stated that 200 schools have registered to run the summer education programme. How many schools in Cork have offered to run the it?
Will fewer children be accommodated? What is the reduced number? Schools face significant challenges because there is a different set of rules in real terms for trying to manage these programmes. Can we have some idea of the reduction that has occurred?
Some programmes would normally be run during the summer months or they would have been run in recent months. A reduced number of children will now be accommodated. What percentage reduction are we talking about?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
Last year, 232 primary schools participated in July provision and this year 200 have registered. We will put a further call out for more that may wish to avail of it. We are not far off the numbers for a typical year.
On the DEIS side, we are up significantly. Before the crisis hit, 72 schools had registered to run the summer literacy and numeracy programme in primary schools. That number is now 210. The post-primary scheme is a new initiative - it was not run in previous years - and 34 schools have signed up to participate in it later in the summer.
I would appreciate that. I refer to access to and the availability of broadband.
The past number of months has been a very challenging time for parents. On average, taking, for example, 100 families that have children who require special support, what number were not able to get any assistance over recent months because of various problems, such as access to broadband or support services?
Ms Teresa Griffin:
The NCSE has not carried out research in respect of this, but Inclusion Ireland referenced the fact that 11% of their parents said they did not have access to technology. We know anecdotally that the difficulties are not simply about access to technology or broadband, although if people do not have technology they cannot use the online supports. The issue is also with regard to the fact that many of these students find it very hard to engage online and learn online. This is because many of these students need explicit teaching. They do not learn incidentally. They need very good, experienced teachers to teach them and bring them through various new routines and new learning. It is very difficult for parents and the children themselves to do this online.
I fully accept that and I was not referring to it being used for educational purposes for the child. I am talking about support for parents. Should we be doing much more in this area to make sure that parents have access? Where there are difficulties in getting access to information and supports should we have a particular programme to help parents?
Ms Teresa Griffin:
Mr. Tattan referred earlier to grants that were made available to schools to enable parents who do not have access to technology to get access to technology. Certainly, in planning for a future situation where school buildings are closed or for children who are medical fragile and not in a position to return to school if Covid is still an issue, this is one of the things that will have to be taken into account by the Department.
I will move on to SNAs. In recent years, the number of SNAs in primary schools has increased by more than 5,000. In view of the changes that have occurred because of the new challenges posed by Covid, what increase, percentage-wise, do we believe we need to start planning for? The other aspect of this is whether we need to put in place additional training for people working in the area. As I said earlier, there is a new set of rules for dealing with the challenges in the educational system. Is there a need to devise additional training in this area?
Ms Teresa Griffin:
It is one of the things the NCSE has been focusing on with regard to the resources we have provided over the summer for parents and teachers. We have highlighted apps of the week and themes of the week. We have issued brochures on the promotion of positive behaviour at home and the promotion of learning at home. These have been some of our more popular measures. Over the summer, and for the summer programme, we are looking at trying to develop resources for teacher professional learning with the themes of calmness, safety and social connectivity. We are looking at perhaps having a resource on getting started and the time at home.
Fundamentally what this crisis has shown is that there is a digital divide and a learning divide. Some teachers were able to get into Microsoft Teams immediately and others were not. There is quite a lot to reflect on and a lot to learn from. In the context of continuing professional development, in the next year we will be looking at online learning.
We have a huge number of young people, many of whom are highly qualified in different areas and not necessarily just in childcare. More than 50% of young people no longer have a job and the next 12 months will be challenging for them. Should we devise a training process for some of those who want to volunteer to come into this area which does not have adequate capacity for training at the moment? Should we be looking at that?
I thank the witnesses for attending today and for their submissions. I want to try to understand the July provision for those with Down's syndrome and I have read the submission from Down Syndrome Ireland carefully. The parents of Down's syndrome children are upset and I feel they have to right to be upset. We all know the pandemic has been extremely difficult for children and families with complex and special needs with the loss of routine, attending classes and one-on-one contact with teachers and SNAs. That could not have been avoided but it still would have had a huge impact on many children, not only those with Down's syndrome but any kids with complex or additional needs.
The Minister announced on 5 June that he would open the summer provision programme for this year to include children with Down's syndrome and he made no distinction between those attending preschool and primary school and those attending post-primary school. As an elected representative from Waterford, I was contacted by various parents and I went back to them and said that kids with Down's syndrome would be included in the July provision. The parents were extremely happy and they felt this would have a great influence on their kids before they went back to school. However, we have since learned that July provision will only be made available for those students with Down's syndrome who are in primary school. I am trying to understand why that is so. Is it because of capacity issues and that the Department would not be in a position to provide the July provision to kids who are in first or second year? These children might only be aged 13 or 14, they have transitioned from sixth class and they are now going into first year in secondary school but they will not be able to avail of the July provision, which is really necessary for many of them. The transition between primary and secondary school can be very difficult. I am a mother of three children and I know it is a huge step for any child to take. I am thinking of the case of a child with Down's syndrome who has been in mainstream school and will now be moving on to first year in secondary school in September when please God the schools will reopen. Why was that decision taken? Is it purely a capacity issue that the Department felt there would not be enough teachers, SNAs or school capacity to deal with this?
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
It was not a capacity issue but it was based on where we felt the greatest needs were. We felt we had to come up with a list that was achievable and could be easily understood and that schools that wanted to participate in it could deliver on it. That is effectively what informed the approach we took. We have looked at children with the most complex needs and at those at the greatest risk of regression. We engaged with Down Syndrome Ireland, both before and since then and we are meeting with it again tomorrow morning. There is a proposal in place that ensures that for those who are at post-primary school age, provision can be made outside this scheme that is still focused on the summer and with a good degree of flexibility, which is probably in tune to a greater extent with the NCSE policy advice around this area than the July provision scheme as it has traditionally run.
I welcome the fact the Department will be meeting Down Syndrome Ireland tomorrow because my main concern is around the pupils. It is not only for those with Down's syndrome but it is for those in post-primary school mainstream classes who presented with the following disabilities: Down's syndrome; deaf or most severe hard of hearing; blind or most severe visual impairment; moderate general learning disability; and diagnosis of severe emotional behavioural disorder.
This cohort will be allowed attend only if they are in primary school. My concern, however, is the sixth class pupils who have not been in school since the start of March and who are expected to transition to secondary school in September. It is difficult enough to transition from sixth class into first year if one does not have any other issues, but these pupils leaving sixth class have to try to deal with having been out of school since March and then attending secondary school in September without having had the advantage of July provision for those few weeks. This is really important. Could the Department look at it again? Obviously, a child in second, third or fourth year is more used to being in secondary school. For some children going to secondary school, it might be their first time ever going on a bus. They might have been able to attend primary school in their local area but might have to go on a bus to secondary school. I believe there will be so many challenges for these kids heading into secondary school because of Covid. They may not see some of their friends who they have been in school with again. Could the Department be flexible on this?
Mr. Eddie Ward:
To clarify, students in sixth class are covered by the programme that is planned and will be able to do their programme in their school if the school offers the programme. Alternatively, if the school does not offer a programme, they will be able to avail of the home-based programme.
Mr. Eddie Ward:
Yes. There is actually a more enhanced range of options for them this year than was available last year. In addition, if a tutor is not available to them in the home-based strand, they have access to an SNA, should that be the choice of the parent. Again, if the school is offering a HSE programme, there is a chance, depending on the level of the child's disabilities, that he or she could be included in that strand. What we have tried to do is expand the range of options and have a suite of options that are flexible and available over a significant period of the summer.
I thank Mr. Ward for the clarity on that. It is most welcome.
I wish to ask about July provision. I think the expectation is that 70% of the provision will take place in the child's home. Is that because not enough schools have come on board or the Department does not have enough staff, or is it the norm?
We had Inclusion Ireland before the committee earlier. It cited transport as a major issue. Does the Department share its concern in this respect and, if so, what needs to be done to address it? We know that public health information is evolving day by day and week by week, and I know there will be very many challenges with children when they return to school in September and October in respect of transport. Up to last week we were hearing that a bus that would normally take 50 pupils may only be able to take 14, so there will be huge challenges. I imagine there will be many challenges with children with complex and additional needs as well. I suppose it is very hard to plan for that.
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
It is hard to plan for it at the moment but, again, we have had this engagement with the HPSC, and part of the advice it is giving us concerns school transport. Our focus in getting the advice has been primarily on being ready for the summer provision next week and being able to give guidance to schools. There is help in that too in terms of our planning towards the autumn. We are hopeful about the guidance on public transport, and there are moves afoot more generally in that regard, so changes are happening there too and we will be able to draw on them. This underlines the point I made earlier about the guidance coming in a timely way - not so early that things radically change before schools reopen but with still enough time for schools to plan for it.
My final question returns to the earlier point I made about parents of Down's syndrome children who were under the impression that, regardless of what stage their child was at in school, they would be able to avail of July provision.
How many additional places would be needed to accommodate students with Down's syndrome who are currently excluded? Have the witnesses any idea? Is it possible that this could be considered for 2021? I welcome the fact that the primary school students are included this year but I feel for children in secondary school and in preschool who have not been included.
Mr. Dalton Tattan:
I do not have specific numbers on the post-primary element but I know Down Syndrome Ireland have figures on that so when our engagement with them continues tomorrow we can discuss that.
"Yes" is essentially the answer to the question about 2021. The work we were doing this year has been interrupted by the circumstances relating to the crisis but we have been doing a lot of engagement with stakeholders and with other Departments on the July provision scheme, mindful of the advice that we have got from the NCSE. We want to move to that needs-based, activity-centred model that the NCSE has advised on. That is the ambition that we have and we hope to pick up on that work as soon as possible as we move into the autumn. We will plan towards change for 2021.
There are seven minutes left so I will take them myself. I will put seven on the clock and we will finish then. I want to bookend a number of issues raised. The first one is the issue of the special classes, which I will come back to Ms Griffin on. She stated earlier there was a problem with some schools rolling out special classes and mentioned south County Dublin and Cork. She said that the reasons for that were varied but two of the main reasons, as I think she put it, were a lack of space and a lack of outdoor areas. Were they only identified this year in respect of those schools or have they come up year-on-year in the same schools?
Ms Teresa Griffin:
The situation we are highlighting this year is that we have been unable to get agreement from sufficient schools to open special classes. In that area, for example, we are opening 13 special classes. We have been unable to get another eight. When we look more closely at the situation, we see that some schools simply do not have enough space. They just cannot expand.
I heard that earlier. My question was more specific. Regarding the schools where it was identified that there was a problem with a lack of space and outdoor areas, was that only identified this year or has this been known for a long number of years?
Ms Teresa Griffin:
This year we have identified a shortage of places for sufficient students. We, as an organisation, foresaw a number of years ago that there would come a time when we would not be able to open up sufficient spaces. We have been working with the Department on strategies around that. This has not just come up this year-----
Yes. Have those schools made applications for additional space, for example, buildings or increased capacity in outdoor areas? Is there joined-up thinking there where a problem is identified such as a lack of space or outdoor areas and the problem has to be resolved? Have those schools identified those problems in the past and made applications for funding to resolve them or is it a new problem that has been identified only this year?
Ms Teresa Griffin:
Some of those schools are getting extensions and we know that a couple of schools would have special classes in a couple of years when the buildings and spaces are done. Others would not. Between ourselves and the Department we have put a process in place so that when we identify three, four or five years ahead that there might be a shortage of places, we then contact the planning and building unit. We have been working together to try and improve that process so that in future this situation with regard to spaces should not arise.
I want to move to Mr. Tattan and the issue of the summer provision programme. A number of the speakers earlier mentioned this. Did he read the submission the committee received from Down Syndrome Ireland?
What screams from almost every line in this submission is frustration from that group.
I do not get a sense of acceptance of that frustration from Mr. Tattan. He talked about process and putting a plan in place. I want to go back to some of the comments made. I can sense the anger not just from the organisation but from many parents also. The organisation refers to “up to 1,000 parents of students with Down syndrome around the country were completely blindsided when the Department of Education published guidelines on June 12th.”Does Mr. Tattan accept they were blindsided?
Mr. Tattan is from the Department that is rolling out the scheme, the summer provision programme, so he is entirely relevant. This is a submission to this committee. Mr. Tattan is before the committee as lead officer in the Department. This organisation is saying that when the Department published its guidelines, the parents felt blindsided. Therefore Mr. Tattan's opinion matters. They were either blindsided or they were not.
That is the question I asked. At least Mr. Tattan has answered the question.
It went on to refer to the clear restrictions on who could access the programme in July and August 2020. It stated:
The Guidelines state that that the scheme is not open to the majority of post-primary school students, nor to students transitioning from preschool into mainstream primary schools. As a result, despite the lip service paid to promoting an inclusive education system, those children heading to mainstream primary school will be penalised rather than supported...
Does Mr. Tattan accept the assertion that those children will be penalised rather than be supported?
He does not believe. Ms Griffin might be able to answer a question that was asked earlier, but she did not get a chance to come back. Inclusion Ireland claimed that this could potentially be a breach of the Equal Status Act. Does the National Council for Special Education agree with that?
The NCSE accepts that it was open to challenge. Inclusion Ireland claims it could be in breach of the Equal Status Act. I will go on to quote something else in the Down Syndrome Ireland submission:
There appears to be a complete disconnect between the Minister and officials in his Department, and it is students with Down syndrome who are caught in the middle. It's shocking and deeply distressing for all concerned.
I think Mr. Tattan needs to have a greater appreciation of that distress and the shock that these parents and this organisation are articulating. He said he is meeting its representatives tomorrow, which is good. However, there needs to be a much deeper appreciation from the Department, which I am not hearing from Mr. Tattan and I have not heard from any of the responses today, of the perception of a disconnect, the perception of children being left behind and the perception that this has been deeply distressing for the children involved and for the parents of those families.
An Teachta Funchion put it well earlier. We have heard promises of changes for years. Despite all the rhetoric - we heard more of it today from Mr. Tattan - that we are going to see more changes and that we are moving in the right direction, the organisations that represent these children do not feel that pace is quick enough. Down Syndrome Ireland states it is shocking and deeply distressing for all concerned that there is this perceived disconnect. Does Mr. Tattan agree with it on whether there is a disconnect?
I find it shocking that an organisation that represents children with Down's syndrome is stating that there is a disconnect, that there were difficulties with its parents being blindsided and that children are being left behind, and yet the Department has a polar opposite view. Something is seriously wrong when an advocacy group is so strong and compelling in its statement and yet the Department takes a polar opposite view. It is a matter we will need to take up with the Department when the sectoral committees are established. Once and for all we need to resolve this issue for that organisation. I wish the representatives of Down Syndrome Ireland the best when they engage with the departmental officials tomorrow.
I thank the witnesses for appearing before the committee today.
Is it agreed to request that the clerk seek any follow-up information and carry out any agreed actions arising from the committee? Agreed.