Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 22 November 2022

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Autism

Autism Policy in Education: Discussion (Resumed)

Mr. Alan McGrath:

On behalf of SOLAS, I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak to it. SOLAS has responsibility for funding, planning and co-ordinating further education and training, FET. Through the 16 education and training boards, ETBs, and other providers, the FET system offers access to a wide range of learning opportunities and supports in every corner of the country and a learning pathway to take people as far as they want to go, regardless of background or formal education level. The FET system currently serves a base of approximately 200,000 learners per annum. SOLAS also has responsibility for and oversight of the national apprenticeship system and serves as the co-ordinating provider for craft apprenticeships. The National Apprenticeship Office, which is jointly managed by SOLAS and the Higher Education Authority, HEA, has recently been established.

The FET sector caters for many learners, including cohorts with diverse needs and those who require focused types of support to address their particular circumstances. FET continues to have a critical role in supporting social inclusion and providing access to education for the most vulnerable groups and learners in our society during the post-Covid period. The FET sector aligns to the range of inclusion strategies and international strategies that seek to progress the move towards social and inclusive models of provision over the deficit-focused, medicalised measurement models of provision for diverse learners.

Fostering inclusion of learners of all backgrounds is a key pillar of our FET strategy and the actions taken by the FET sector are shaped by this and the other strategies I mentioned. The sector continues to support the inclusion of learners with additional needs in several ways. FET programmes are available across the entire country to all learners, including those with additional learning needs. All of FET provision assists learners with a disability to participate in FET provision by adapting course content, resources and teaching methodologies to suit levels of ability. Each of the 16 ETBs is responsible for the identification of local needs and setting local priorities for its provision. It is discernible through qualitative information provided by the ETBs that there are activities being undertaken to support the needs of learners with autism. The ETBs report progress in designing inclusive programmes, with dedicated programmes specifically designed for autistic learners and, in some instances, for parents and carers of people with autism. Some ETBs have developed spaces and hubs specifically designed with the needs of autistic learners in mind. Others work with autism support groups, NGOs and charities to ensure staff are skilled in designing programmes and learning settings that meet the needs of learners with autism.

To meet the needs of all learners through an inclusive approach, the principles of universal design have been embedded across the FET system. Universal design for learning, UDL, principles and practices help practitioners to address variability in their learner cohorts and reduce barriers to learning by building flexibility, accessibility, learner voice and choice into the fabric of the learning interactions that they design. Applying UDL principles means offering multiple ways of engagement, representation, action and expression, providing accommodations to remove obstacles to learning, and providing where required one-to-one supports and-or assistive technologies to support differentiated learning.

SOLAS, with partner organisations Ahead and Education and Training Boards Ireland, ETBI, has published sectoral guidance for FET practitioners on universal design for learning in FET. This guidance is being embedded in the sector through continuing professional development, CPD, programmes, including a digital badge for universal design for learning from the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and Ahead's programme. A new digital badge in universal design in student services and engagement is also in development via a consortium of partners, including SOLAS, ETBI, UCD, the National Disability Authority and learner representatives.

In accordance with the relevant legislation, all FET providers offer reasonable accommodation to learners with additional needs. The nature of those accommodations varies depending on the identified needs of individual learners. Reasonable accommodations offered by ETBs include, but are not limited to, project support; one-to-one tutoring; assistive technologies; readers or scribes; note-takers; and sign language interpretation. In addition, specific FET programmes are provided for persons with a disability who require more intensive support through specialist training providers, STPs. A budget of €43 million is provided to education and training boards to support specialist training provision across the country. Over 3,000 learners avail of this support.

In 2022, over €36 million has been allocated to education and training boards to provide a host of supports, including guidance, an education disadvantage fund, a specific fund for persons with disabilities and psychological supports, as well as a general allocation learner support fund for all learners in all provision. Learners can also avail of one-to-one teaching on courses such as literacy, numeracy and digital skills. Other courses at levels 1 to 3 in our framework have smaller classes with a ratio of one teacher to three learners. Courses to support those transitioning from school pre-transition year level have team teaching, as well as dedicated teachers for groups of 12.

We are aware of the importance of suitable initial assessment of individuals seeking to engage with FET and FET programmes in achieving the best prospects of a successful learning journey. To help ensure this, issues are identified and appropriate supports are put in place if required. At a sectoral level, SOLAS has produced good practice guidelines and resources to promote a consistent approach to learner support at NFQ levels 1 to 6 in relation to literacy and numeracy needs. The use of these guidelines and resources is being embedded in the sector through the strategic performance agreements between SOLAS and education and training boards and annual funding requirements. Guidance supports are also available to learners to ensure they are informed in their access to progression in and completion of their FET programme.

I hope I have provided a brief overview of what we are doing in the FET sector. I look forward to speaking to the committee.