Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 22 November 2022
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Autism
Autism Policy in Education: Discussion (Resumed)
Our next business is the consideration of autism policy in education. I welcome our witnesses to the meeting today. From the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities we are joined by the director, Professor Michael Shevlin, by its ambassador, Mr. Hugo MacNeill, by Ms Marie Devitt, the employment pathways co-ordinator, and by Ms Barbara Ringwood, senior occupational therapist. From Dublin City University we are joined by Ms Fiona Earley, autism-friendly university co-ordinator, and Dr. Mary Rose Sweeney, head of the school of nursing, psychotherapy and community health. Dublin City University was the first university in the world to have an autism-friendly campus. Well done. From SOLAS we are joined by Mr. Alan McGrath, executive director of delivery, and by Ms Roisin Doherty, director of learning support.
The committee has considered a large range of issues in its public meetings so far, focusing on assessments and children's education. It is natural for the committee to progress to discuss further and higher education, along with other issues concerning adults with autism. We look forward to hearing directly from the experts in the area of autism and higher education in our first session. We are interested in initiatives that are in development or are under way in supporting people with autism in their transition to higher education and apprenticeships. We are also interested in how we can better support people with autism when they arrive at third level education and how we can make their experience of third level more comfortable and inclusive. We look forward to hearing about anything else the witnesses feel might be useful to the committee in its consideration of our final report.
Before we hear from our witnesses I propose that the opening statements and presentations are published on the committee website. Is that agreed? Agreed. I invite Professor Michael Shevlin to make his opening statement on behalf of the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities, TCPID. I understand that the professor will use slides as part of his opening statement.
Professor Michael Shevlin:
I thank the Chairman. I thank the committee for the invitation and I look forward to telling members a little bit about what we do. Then we will look at the implications of this for youngsters with autism and their educational progressions and transitions, which are absolutely vital, as per every other youngster, but they often experience many more difficulties in that area.
Our centre was set up in 2016. We run a level 5 programme, which is the equivalent of the leaving certificate. Our youngsters have an intellectual disability and some also have autism. There is a dual diagnosis there every so often. It is an interdisciplinary programme, and this is why we have our senior occupational therapist here today, and we have educators and employment experts. We feel this is needed to provide the wraparound support and to enable the young people to become independent learners. Their education experiences have not always been the best. They have never been seen as successes and they have often been seen as the people who are, in a sense, left behind. We hope they move into employment opportunities, and we can demonstrate this, and opportunities in further education, and make successes of those opportunities in work.
The committee can see from this slide what makes the programme work. We have been working on this for the past six years. It is very much about having a structured college programme, as I have described, which has real ambition for the young people to ensure they become competent and independent learners. It is centred around the graduate, so it is very much people centred, which is based again on occupational therapy insights. It is also linked in with families, and we also have a business partner network, which members will hear more about later. The programme is about the combination of a university education with the business community, how those relationships are developed, and how they are fostered in this way.
In the second half of the second year our students do a work placement programme. They are supported in this employment and in different experiences to enable them to move on to a graduate internship. When the students finish their two years, they generally do a six-month paid internship and the committee will hear a little bit more about this later. The aim is to develop key employment skills. From surveying a lot of programmes that were designed to ensure people would be work ready, we realised that often the person missing from all of it was the young person. Our programmes are very much structured around how the young people see themselves, see their world, how they experience their world, and then to develop the skills, self-determination and decision-making that will actually help them in employment. That is the whole thing.
I turn now to what we provide. The idea is that the mentors for the young people are from within the business. We do not employ job coaches, which is the traditional model of supported employment, because we want it to be fully embedded within the business. We have online mentor training, and we have multiple meetings between Ms Ringwood, our senior occupational therapist, Ms Devitt, our employment pathways co-ordinator, and the HR team within the businesses. A skills profile is developed with the young person so that the people in the business community know what the young person is capable of. We encourage great ambition for the young people. There is ongoing support but the reality is the young people themselves are given meaningful tasks. It is real work. It is not tokenistic.
The business then provides a dedicated mentor who is like a buddy. He or she is not the team leader. There is management support for the process. There is HR support, which is vital. The team the young person is on is also supported. This is what we aim for. As members will see from the presentation, there is the TCPID team, the manager in the business, the mentee, and the mentor. It is very much a tripartite relationship. It is built and developed. A whole relationship of trust develops. If some issue happens that often appears to be insurmountable, sometimes people are not comfortable saying that something is going wrong, but we encourage that level of openness because that is the way we can really engage. Often it is just about a different perception of how the young person sees the world, or maybe his or her communication strategies are not necessarily what are expected within the workplace. We can solve that. It is not usually a major issue. We have never had to cut short an internship. Quite a few of the young people have ended up with permanent roles, either within the company they have worked with or with another company because the young person has developed the requisite skills. We now have four young people on internships in Trinity College. We see this as a very positive development.
I will now hand over to Mr. MacNeill to talk about the business partners and that element.
Mr. Hugo MacNeill:
One of the great things about this model is the combination of the student with the business partners. It is transformational.
It ties in with many things that are happening in companies as well as the diversity and inclusion agenda. It has a positive impact on the employees of the companies with which we work. Mr. David McRedmond, CEO of An Post, said that it had a humanising impact. Some of the people sitting on the front desk had Down's syndrome. What a message that sent out to the company's clients and staff.
The great news is that, when we present this to companies, there is considerable buy-in. We have gone from four partners at the start to more than 40. Behind each of the stories coming out of those is an employee and a family whose lives have been transformed.
Many of the companies are household names but, even though a large number of companies are involved, we are still only scratching the surface. Trinity College Dublin had a visiting professor from the US. He looked at this list and thought it was incredible. We have local coffee shops that help us out, which is great if that matches the capabilities of the student, but we are also seeing that students can do much more. The slide the committee sees shows the momentum. The slide only shows up to 2021, but the momentum continued to grow even through the Covid pandemic. We are excited about this and the potential is significant, but we also need to spread it well beyond Trinity and around the country. We have 20 students each year in first and second years, but there is demand out there and the feedback has been fantastic. We want to work with other universities and interested parties. Behind each of these employees is not only a young person, but also that young person's family, who realises that they are not the only ones who care about them. There is great potential for Ireland to lead in this field.
Importantly, the job placements are paid employments and the students are becoming employees. It is not only the right and moral thing to do for the State, but it is a good deal because it means these people are not on unemployment benefits. One of our students, Ms Margaret Hurley, said that she loved to grumble about paying taxes. She loved her job. Behind each of these stories is an individual.
Ms Fiona Earley:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to address it. I will give a brief outline of the DCU autism-friendly project.
In 2016, DCU declared its intention to become autism friendly after a meeting between Mr. Adam Harris of AsIAm and the then president of DCU. Between 2016 and 2018, research was conducted by Dr. Mary Rose Sweeney and AsIAm. It focused on the challenges and support needs of autistic students. A sensory audit of the physical environment from a sensory perspective was also completed. According to the findings, additional supports were most needed in the areas of communication, socialisation and managing the sensory environment of a busy campus.
The research created the eight principles of an autism-friendly university and DCU set out to implement the actions over the next three years. Since the project, the number of students disclosing an autism diagnosis has tripled. Alongside this, autistic staff began contacting the project seeking information, advice and guidance. This may indicate that autistic individuals feel more comfortable about disclosing their diagnoses now because of the ethos of the autism-friendly project and-or more autistic students are registering with DCU. A new principle was developed to establish how DCU would provide support to autistic staff.
Another key objective in this phase of the project is to address the sensory challenges of a busy and chaotic environment. Autistic students and staff described it as sensorially challenging and stated that it impacted on their ability to concentrate and socialise. Pursuant to this goal, DCU published the autism-friendly design guidelines. It is hoped that this will inform all higher education institutes' assessments and adjustments of current spaces across campus and provide guidance for future builds and retrofits. As the number of students disclosing is increasing yearly, there is a growing need for more supports and services, in particular sensory-friendly spaces, autism-specific academic and social supports, and mentorship programmes.
The early 2000s were when autism diagnoses spiked. Almost 20 years later, this "peak cohort" has progressed through primary and secondary level education. They now find themselves ready for a higher education that is sometimes unprepared for them. The autism-friendly university principles may, however, play a key role in supporting these students and staff and creating an opportunity for the more authentic inclusion of students and staff with their fellow learners and colleagues.
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.
I welcome all our guests and thank them for their presentations. Everything that has been put forward is positive. It would be worth reaching out to other educational institutions to provide something similar, where that is not happening. A lot of institutions are now becoming more aware of their responsibility to be inclusive. To what extent is that happening? I ask the representatives from Trinity College to respond first. Did Mr. MacNeill say 20 people are participating in the course being offered there, or is it 20 per year?
Professor Michael Shevlin:
There is a national organisation we helped set up called the Inclusive National Higher Education Forum, INHEF. There are a number of programmes throughout the country. There were quite a few more in 2014 but they disappeared because there was not sustainable funding. The big breakthrough has been the programme for access to higher education, PATH, developed by the Department. That is going to bring about dedicated funding for these types of programmes next year. We see this as very positive. This is the real breakthrough. This has not happened anywhere else in Europe that we are aware of, and we are part of Erasmus programmes. This is the first time dedicated State funding has been provided for young people with intellectual disability to attend higher education. That is a massive breakthrough.
There are programmes happening in different parts of the country. There are other colleges that want to begin a programme and we have been supporting them and each other. It is very much an emerging area. It is not well established but hopefully it will be now with the proper funding and the proper infrastructure and support. We have received support from SOLAS for our programme. That was a recognition of the type of work we were doing. The Deputy is right that this is a very positive story but it is emerging. The infrastructure needs to be in place in order that in any part of the country, young people and their families can begin to plan from when the youngster is about 14 years of age. That would be the ideal age for transition planning, so they actually have real options and it is not just a day service or some other parallel system where they never get into the mainstream.
Mr. Hugo MacNeill:
We think that is the real prize. There are a number of institutions and some have ceased their programmes. It is not because they did not put in the work but maybe because they were dependent on a key individual or did not have funding and moved on. If there was a map of this, we would see huge gaps at the moment. That is why we are so excited. This is a model that works and is cost-effective and transformational. We would love to work on this and have a map that covered all the country but that is not really there at the moment.
Professor Michael Shevlin:
We have a dedicated national schools co-ordinator, Des Aston. We have been linking with the career guidance sector, with ETBs, the City of Dublin ETB and other schools. It is slow work. We also work with the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA. We have made contact with them all to make them aware but all we can offer at the moment is our programme. That is why we need to develop capacity for young people everywhere in the country. We have a young person travelling from Cork at the moment to do our programme. We have people regularly coming from Carlow or Mullingar. Wherever there is a train, they are travelling up but that is because there is not anything where they are. The Athlone campus of TUS is part of INHEF and it wants to begin a programme. We would encourage that because we think it should be locally based, unless there is something we are doing that the person really wants to do.
Ms Marie Devitt:
They are incredibly receptive. There has been such a shift within employment and within companies. They are almost coming to us for a solution, saying they want to be more inclusive and asking how to do it. There is massive goodwill from companies wanting to offer opportunities to young people with additional needs and offer them a career path. Ms Ringwood and I work very closely with every employer, once they are a partner, to make sure they feel ready. That is the key. We want everyone to have a positive experience and a positive support network behind them. Ms Ringwood has such expertise in how to prepare the young person and what supports are needed within the organisation. There is a massive desire from the employment sector to be more inclusive. The companies just want the structures to do it. We can support them, to an extent, for our cohort and we have had huge success so far.
I would like to go to Ms Early. What she is doing is impressive. I welcome the guidance she has produced. Are other further education and training or universities doing what she is doing? Are they coming to her for guidance? Are they using the guidance that she has prepared? Are they reaching out for advice?
Ms Fiona Earley:
The guidance is the research on the eight principles of an autism-friendly university and it is run through AsIAm and DCU. In the past two years, other colleges and universities have joined the network to become autism friendly, which means referring to these principles as their benchmark of good practice. For example, Dundalk IT, Sligo TU, and the Royal College of Surgeons have joined the network, which means they are also referring to the research principles of what makes a university or a higher education institution autism friendly.
I am practicing my bilocation skills today. I am also a member of the education committee, which is sitting at the same time.
I apologise if this question has been asked but the Chair can redirect me if so. I wanted to ask the representatives of DCU about the practical steps. I want a better understanding of how this can be applied. Straight away, I am thinking of South East Technological University, SETU, which is a newly established university in the south east. I would like it to be involved in this programme and this initiative. How big of a challenge was it? What were the timelines? Was a quantum of investment required? How did DCU get staff buy-in? It is a worthwhile initiative and I want to see it in every university and higher education facility in Ireland. How hard is it? What are they being asked to take on?
Dr. Mary Rose Sweeney:
It was quite a long journey so there was quite a long lead-in time. I brought along a copy of the executive summary for everybody who is present, so they can read more detail on it. The question at the outset was essentially how to become autism friendly, which is a big question. We did some research to inform that and, therefore, we asked the students themselves what they wanted, what they needed and what challenges they were facing. We asked the staff how much they knew about autistic students and what their needs were in training. It was a whole-of-campus approach so we asked academic staff and support staff across every office and unit what they knew about autism and what they needed to know about it. We also asked the general student body how they supported their peers with autism. We asked the student union, the student class representatives and the student ambassadors. This was, therefore, a huge project that needed support from the ground up and the top down. That is what we had at DCU. It was great that we had all that support.
In terms of getting people on board, it is a matter of reiterating the message and repeating the needs of the students. That was not such a big ask because everybody wanted to support the students. That is what we are all there for. That started in 2016. There was approximately a year and a half of research to inform it, bring it all together and create a framework, which are the eight principles that are now synonymous with being an autism-friendly university. Each principle was underpinned by a set of a actions that were DCU-specific. Every HEI would have to look at that themselves and think about what they would need to do to underpin their principles. A lot of it is translatable and could be replicated in different HEIs, across different sector and settings. That has happened. Even a hospital contacted us after we launched this and said it needed similar principles in an emergency department where it is very busy. We have developed something quite generic but that can also be specific for each university. The lead-in time now would not be as long because we have done a lot of the foundational work.
It is hugely heartening that DCU has had a big increase in both students and staff who are happy to identify as being autistic. The consultation was probably a huge part of that in feeding into that inclusivity. Could Dr. Sweeney give concrete examples? If I went to DCU, what would I notice that is different from the way the university was before this process?
Dr. Mary Rose Sweeney:
The general ethos and the conversations about autism are positive. We are reducing stigma. The students told us at the outset that they felt stigmatised. They did not feel they could disclose even to the disability and learning support services, to their fellow students and to academic staff. That is changing now and people feel that they can disclose that. Disclosures have gone up and registrations with the university have gone up. Students are using the facilities of the project. Some of them know that it is part of the autism-friendly university project. Others do not even know that, but the project has been translated and embedded so well that they are not even aware that the sensory pods or the escape hatches, for example, are part of the project. A neurodivergent society has also been set up as part of this project. There are currently 44 students in that, and it has provided a huge social space for them to hang out and be in a chill space together where there is a lot less pressure to talk to or to communicate. They just go along and are part of a fun committee or society. Those are three practical examples. There are other less visible issues, such as the cultural shift, the conversation, the awareness and the fact that everyone is getting a little more familiar and comfortable with the whole concept of an autism-friendly university.
Dr. Mary Rose Sweeney:
Research is expensive to conduct. That was one of the big outlays and that was undertaken by the academic staff who were in the university and who do research all the time. That was an initial big outlay. Sensory pods are approximately €7,000 per unit and we need an awful lot more of those. Escape hatches are probably a similar cost. Those physical things are expensive. There are also the matters of embedding a culture, having conversations and raising awareness. In the case of staff training, there is a cost to the universities. It is not all about cost. Some of those physical things are expensive but it is not all about changing something physical.
I thank the witnesses for coming in and for outlining their work. I have a couple of practical questions, particularly for Ms Ringwood and Ms Devitt, regarding the practicalities of some of the business models. Like Deputy Ó Cathasaigh asked, can they give us some examples? If they are starting to work with a business, how many meetings would they tend to have with a business from the point of having identified them as a willing business partner about the practicalities of embedding a student in that business? What questions do people ask? What are their concerns? In this committee, we do not see anything wrong with asking questions. We ourselves did quite a lot of training before we started so that we would have the right questions and we would inform ourselves. It is a perfectly normal, natural thing to do. What are the concerns that people have? We feel that we might be able to imagine them, but what is their practical experience? They clearly have extraordinary momentum in respect of the business partners that are signing up with them. There are well over 40 or 45. Is that the universe or do some of those organisations have multiple students? Have all of those organisations stuck with the programme? Has there been any level of attrition with students coming out or with people being replaced? What does that represent?
I am interested in the mechanism for spreading it to the other universities, as has been stated by their colleagues. We might discuss with this with SOLAS or the Minister, who will be here later on. Can the witnesses tell us the practical story?
Ms Marie Devitt:
I will comment on the number of meetings, etc., for a new partner.
When new partners sign up with us, they do not have to take on a student or a graduate for a placement but 99% of the time, that is why they want to become a partner and want to get involved with us. There could be four, five or six meetings in advance of any concrete decision being made as to who will be placed where. There is a huge nervousness within companies about saying or doing the wrong thing or not being able to support somebody adequately but what gives them a great sense of security is that Ms Ringwood and I and our colleague, Ms Emer Murphy, make it very clear that we are the support network for the entire internship. I do the initial meetings, which explore whether a role might be available, and the company then goes off and discusses it internally. Then Ms Ringwood comes in. Once they have identified a role, we have further meetings. Ms Ringwood might want to talk to that.
Ms Barbara Ringwood:
Yes, those meetings are to support the company with any questions it might have. Often there is a lot of fear around understanding what either intellectual disability or intellectual disability and autism are, what that could mean, how the company should work with the person and what it can do. Often the company does not know how to pitch the post to the person or at what level the person might come in. That is why we have developed the skills profile as something that joins a CV in respect of skill sets and abilities. It is focused on the students' strengths and the way they can come in and then how and at what level the tasks can be pitched to support the person. Often there is an understanding of something, but doing it and the practicalities of it can be a challenge. The skills profile supports the company with that and takes away the fear as to where to start. We always ensure we tell the company that this is just a baseline and this is where the person is coming in the door. The students will demonstrate to the companies what they are able to do themselves after a period in learning. Each person learns at his or her own pace. That is part of what we do. Then the company meets the person. The student comes in and talks about himself or herself and why he or she wants a job at the company etc.
Ms Marie Devitt:
It is important to say we introduce the individual into the company as a fully rounded person. We will say, "This is a Manchester United supporter and it is important his or her mentor is also a Manchester United supporter", for example, or it may be a question of the type of music the person likes. His or her personality, skills and talents are all brought to bear, and we are there to ensure that this is a success from the start.
In answer to Deputy Carroll MacNeill's question about how many are kept on, we have a six-month internship to start, but very often that is extended in organisations. We have some company partners who have multiple graduates working with them. EY, for example, has six of our graduates permanently employed. CPL now has three. Grant Thornton has three. There are multiple roles within the one organisation. Once the scaffolding is in place within the company and within HR, it is very easy to add another graduate into a system that is already set up. It is really exciting for us because, while each team is a new team for us and needs individual supports, we know the ethos of the company and the type of graduate who might thrive within that organisation. Big open-plan offices will not suit everybody. We will know that. The beauty of this is that Ms Ringwood, Ms Emer Murphy and I will know our students for two years before they go out into the world. That is a level of in-depth knowledge we have. Only yesterday we were called into one of our partners for a review meeting because the team was getting very anxious and there were issues cropping up. Honesty is the most important part of this. The team told us that it was having an issue and asked if we could help. We met the team, the issue is resolved and that person's contract has been extended. It is really important there is that honesty. It is not possible to say the wrong thing. We need to know because we need to learn and to improve. For many of our young people, it is their very first job so they will not have experience of a workplace at all and they are learning as well. We learn from them and tweak and adapt and focus, as Ms Ringwood said, on the skills and the abilities. Every person is different and every situation is different. The business is unique and the person is unique. We just make sure all the supports are in place in that regard.
Ms Barbara Ringwood:
One big factor is the work environment and the culture. It mirrors the university in respect of sensory spaces and expectations within the roles the students go into. It is a matter of supporting the businesses to understand the demands of the role and how they can be adapted. A practical example would be the need to be socially engaged at break times. Does that need to happen? Are there other options, spaces in which to move around or quiet spaces? There may be a need just to take some time, to limit distractions and so on in the workspace.
Mr. Hugo MacNeill:
In response to Deputy Carroll MacNeill's question about the potential, it is huge. As maybe a simplistic aspiration, we would like every company of a certain size to ask itself if it could take on somebody with an intellectual disability or autism. In that sense there is huge potential.
That is an extraordinary ambition. It is the right ambition to have. That is why I asked the question about what questions people ask. There are a lot of companies, as the witnesses have demonstrated in their response to me, run by good, decent Irish people who just want to do the right thing and become more inclusive but, through lack of knowledge, naturally, just do not know how to do that. It is a matter of that structure around the supports at every stage and answering honest questions. We could have a read across with so many other aspects of policy in that regard. There is a comfortable space where one can ask honest or stupid questions, such as they are or whatever it the matter happens to be and resolve difficulties in an open and honest way. It is matter of organisations understanding that the approach the witnesses are taking is the one to take. That is why it is so useful to go through it in detail today. It provides an opportunity to bring more and more decent Irish people, companies, HR managers and so on into this space.
I thank the witnesses for their responses. I might come back to how to spread this. I appreciate I am out of time.
You have caught me on the hop, Chair. I do not have any questions. I have observations more than anything else. We have heard from many witnesses over recent weeks and months that any service in the disability sector seems to be extremely restrictive. We have heard about opportunities for anybody with any form of disability. I hate using that word because it is a label. This is about equal opportunities and being able to get the opportunity even to access second level education. To be lucky enough to get into third level education is a wonderful achievement and definitely gives people a sense of self-worth. Like anybody, any human soul, when you know in your heart and soul that you have the potential to move forward yet you are prevented because of what could be the simplest little thing, like public transport or accessibility, and to have those tiny issues standing in your way of moving forward definitely would affect your mental health, never mind your self-esteem. As for the knock-on effect of that, as we always say, where there is an action there is always an instant reaction.
I hope the national access plan, if it is a good plan, will work. I have read through the statistics. The number of people registering has gone up from the low thousands and is nearly hitting the 20,000 mark now. It is probably due to the fact that more people may be engaging with the services. On this committee, it is very important for us to express that, with all the pathways that are there and with the colleges getting involved in this, we need to get it into the public domain. We also need a system whereby we can assist people rapidly with this because sometimes there is a very small window. Many people will not be aware of this and, once they are finished their secondary schooling, they think that is it and ask where they will go then. Those service users should always be involved in policymaking, and the same with the education sector or whatever other sector.
When you engage with and listen to service users, it can make it very easy for both sides to work together. A number of years ago, we on the town council brought in stakeholder service users, including those who were on wheelchairs and visually impaired, and we listened to them. We went away and came back with a plan with which everybody agreed, and the streetscape we came up with actually won a European mobility award. When there is buy-in from all sectors and people can work together, it is a win-win situation. I was very excited when we spoke about this in our private meeting. It is about time people get a chance to express themselves and everybody comes together. I have often sat on other committees at which there were five different Departments with five different plans to fix the same problem, instead of coming together and coming up with one plan to fix the problem.
I am very interested and excited to hear from the rest of the witnesses. Hopefully, this will get into the public domain and people will learn that there is hope out there. If we work together, the light at the end of the tunnel will get brighter and the horizon will become higher and brighter.
Mr. Hugo MacNeill:
Members can see why we are so enthusiastic and passionate about this. It is because we see the result of lives being transformed. We would love if every university and third level institution would do a programme like this. As Deputy Carroll MacNeill mentioned, every employer should ask itself whether it could take on a person with a disability.
I got involved in this six or seven years ago, before which I had not heard of the programme. I am a graduate of Trinity. I went to an event, held by the Chartered Accountants Ireland, where young graduates talked about how their life had been transformed by this programme and how they got into employment. Interestingly, parents stood up and spoke about how their son or daughter was not sitting in the corner with a Game Boy but were sitting at the dinner table and talking about how their day had gone. We then talked to the employers, who gave great feedback and they wanting to get involved. We are quite messianic about this, in that we want to spread the word.
The point the Deputy made at the end was really important. How do we get the word out? It can come though electoral representatives, through the Oireachtas and through people being advocates for us in what we are trying to do. There is enormous potential in this. Ireland is one of the world leaders in this regard but this is only scratching the surface and it could be magnified. There is a huge prize for this, in that individuals' lives will be transformed.
Dr. Mary Rose Sweeney:
I would echo those sentiments. When we launched this project in DCU, we had never had so much contact about a project. It was global, coming from Australia, America and Europe. People from Sicily were so interested and excited in this project that they came to the launch. Interest also came from families and prospective students. There is huge interest in these projects. This project contributed to DCU being ranked eighth in a global ranking for reducing inequality in higher education. That, in itself, speaks volumes about the importance of this work. It is about helping students to flourish. They have the academic skills to get through the CAO and onto these programmes but they need the support to thrive and flourish in the environment, which is what this is about.
Ms Fiona Earley:
It is not about universities such as DCU doing favours for autistic students or staff. The university has become more people-friendly. Anything we have done in the project has benefited every student and staff member of DCU. We need to encourage people with different brain types and communication styles to be part of policymaking and to become students, because we really need different types of thinkers in the education system. We in DCU have seen that when the principles are applied, they encourage inclusive and different styles of thinking, which benefits the whole of society. It is not about favours. We as a university are benefiting from having more autistic students and staff feeding into our policies.
Mr. Alan McGrath:
On the further education and training system, we can talk about the specific individual supports we are providing, which are required, but at a systems level, we are looking at how to make the system accessible, by removing hurdles at source, if you will. You can, for example, integrate literacy and numeracy supports into the provision and make sure the programme is accessible to a person who has additional requirements in literacy or numeracy. You can develop and make available assistive technology supports, which are available to every learner but within that, you are supporting the person who has additional requirements.
One of the areas we are working on is a consistent learner support services framework. That is about when a learner speaks to whosoever he or she needs to about the supports he or she requires directly or indirectly from someone outside the system, and how do we apply consistency across the education and training system. There is a lot of work ongoing. That is then married with individualised and more intensive supports, where required, such as were mentioned by the representatives from higher education. Hubs are being developed in further education and training. There are sensory gardens and spaces for people, as well as supports. There is a pilot initiative in one of the education and training boards about supporting parents and carers of learners with autism. There is a wraparound piece and an intensive, individual piece. However, at a system level, we are working to make the system much more accessible for people with diverse learning needs and that is an important piece of this.
I apologise for being late. We have had many people come to our committee who are dealing with early learning and the early years, when a family finds out their child has autism. It was very aspirational of us to want to get to a stage where we are now discussing with and meeting people who are contributing to the lives of adults with autism. It is amazing and their work is inspirational. Hopefully, people will look at them and say "God, these guys did it. They are in a big institution. We could try something similar."
Autism touches many families and people do not know what to do to help. Many big organisations have people with autism. Hopefully, they will look at these projects and think that it will not just help an individual, but it will help all of them to be more inclusive. All their staff will benefit, as will all of us. Obviously, people with autism and their families will benefit hugely. The programme is great and, without sounding patronising, it is wonderful. Families watching this committee will think it is great that there is a pathway for their son or daughter and that they can have such an experience. It is really heartening. Let us know if there is anything we can do as a committee to sell the good story. We would be delighted to help in any way we can.
Ms Marie Devitt:
In response to Senator Ardagh, I refer to what Ms Earley said about different thinkers in universities. We are finding that with employment as well. Different types of thinkers within companies are adding much essential value to society. We have a graduate in an IT team within one of our partner companies, who is working on developing greater accessibility on their systems. His expertise is able to inform them, from a user point of view, of what tweaks to make. There is such a demand for companies and education to reflect society. While it is great to hear "thank you" and "well done", our young people are actually adding enormous value to society. They have been overlooked in the past, but they have so much to offer and so many skills.
They are an essential reflection on the world of today. As Senator Ardagh said, it is great to see parents having ambitions for their children from a young age and planning for that. It is equally great, however, to see what these young people can bring to society and what they can offer, which is significant.
I have one follow-up question regarding what the Minister, Deputy Harris, announced recently in Trinity College Dublin, TCD, in respect of access and funding, how to spread this and what the model is in this regard. There is an initial tranche of funding, but what do the witnesses think needs to happen now to take this model and extend it? I do not want to see money spent just on transient things like iPads or whatever else. As important as that is, I want to see a structure that will enable better inclusion and supportive pathways for people with intellectual disabilities, and including autistic people who may not otherwise be able to access the world of work easily as part of that group. How do we, therefore, spread this funding?
Professor Michael Shevlin:
-----dedicated resources. We have a good steering group and good relationships with all the different colleges involved. We have emerging colleges that wish to get involved and we also have colleges that had a programme now saying they would love to have another one, when established and sustainable, and then there are also situations like ours that are reasonably established. It is still, though, very much early days in this respect. INHEF needs independent funding and support to allow it to have a co-ordinator in place who would organise some workshops and supports for all the different colleges at different levels. We do not have the capacity to do this ourselves. This is-----
Professor Michael Shevlin:
There have been some initial discussions, but it has not progressed beyond that stage in respect of what the mechanism would be to make it happen. In other words, this would address how the funding would be distributed, who would have charge of the process, what it would look like and what would be the role in this context. We have a good idea of what INHEF itself could do-----
Professor Michael Shevlin:
-----and it has produced a strategic plan. Much has happened in respect of building the trust and relationships the way we have with businesses. All of these endeavours will now want some kind of employment dimension. We can support them in this but we cannot do all of it. We need support to do this.
Mr. Alan McGrath:
It sounds a little bit like us and them now, because the higher education institutions are funded through the Higher Education Authority, HEA, while the further education and training sector is funded through SOLAS. There is this demarcation. We have, of course, worked with Professor Shevlin and his team in setting up the work they do. As Professor Shevlin mentioned an emerging area, we are starting to see good practice starting to happen in education and training boards in further education. What we need to do now is to look at the best practice in this regard, as the Deputy said herself, and see how we can make this a bit more national at the system level. I am sure there is a way to work together on because we have done so before. It is just that the funding mechanisms for the higher education and further education sectors are slightly different at present.
As usual, my timing was terrible. My apologies, I walked out of the meeting at the worst possible time. What we have heard is very positive. I am not a member of this committee and I have just imposed myself on it. Probably similar to others here, I have skin in the game. I have an interest in this issue in relation to my son. This is why I take what has been said here in a very positive light in the sense that I am not entirely sure what his trajectory is going to be. I spoke before about how well he is doing in school and the incredible efforts being made by the school as its staff learn as they go along. I talk about moments and completely underplay what some of these moments look like. I do, therefore, realise some of the issues involved. This is accepting that we are dealing with a situation where it is necessary to almost have a bespoke solution for every individual we are talking about.
At this committee, like many other forums before, we have dealt with the lack of services and the early interventions that are not occurring. When it comes to adult services, then, we have heard about whatever services there are before people just tip over the edge. The witnesses' organisations, therefore, are dealing with this aspect of this situation that is missing, for the most part. As positive as these developments are, we are still talking about small numbers. The big issue here, and everyone has alluded to it, is making this endeavour bigger, better, faster and in a more sustainable format. This is what we must do. We know the need we had even five or ten years ago is not the need we have today. The numbers of people coming through are frightening.
Returning to the positives, I will go through them in the order the witnesses spoke about them. I was taken with the idea of independent learning mentioned by Professor Shevlin. This is not to take away from day services or whatever else, but this approach gives people the facility, for the want of a better term, to be all they can be, with all the difficulties that exist. What is impressive about the work placement element is that it looks to be real. I get the worries that employers would have in this context. In fairness, I would not be overly worried about them offending people like my son, if he was in there. The likelihood is that he would offend them. I refer to where the filter does not exist and he will point out the obvious that everyone else would let go. I understand, however, that there is an element of people having to get over these worries and fears. The important aspect is that this is a win-win situation across the board. I was interested to hear there are problems and that they do arise. All we need in this context is to ensure we have decent communication and an element of truth and getting to the point.
It was mentioned that what is wanted is in-business supports, not job coaches. Will the witnesses go into some detail regarding how this would work? Will they tell us about some of the bad situations and how they are rectified? While "bad" is probably the wrong term, I would like to hear about the difficulties. This is accepting what Mr. MacNeill said in the sense of seeing if it is possible to get an advantage and a win in any of this for a family, which would be absolutely huge. Regarding all these endeavours, we need to involve more than ten people over two years. Those are only the first of my 15 questions.
Ms Marie Devitt:
Regarding the in-business support of mentors, typically, the first thing to be identified would be the team going to take the young person. Often, it is the HR team itself that will take on a young person for a role. Mentors often volunteer for the role, but sometimes it involves discussion with managers. What is important for mentors is that they are given the time by their managers to dedicate to supporting the young person to settle in during the early days. This will affect the day-to-day work of mentors. We learned yesterday that sometimes, this negatively impacts the day-to-day work of staff members. This work, therefore, sometimes needs to be shared out across two or three mentors.
We provide training. An online training programme is available to all our partners. Equally, we also provide the occupational therapy expertise and link consistently. The key attributes of being a good mentor are simple: kindness, patience, understanding and empathy. Mentors do not have to be brilliant at delivering presentations or anything like that. This work is really about the day-to-day stuff, that is, the incidental learning and settling in.
One extremely interesting issue that has cropped up recently and across several internships concerned food and canteens and the young person going into the organisation where there is a huge array of free food, how exciting that is and then the controls regarding how many meals or coffees someone can have.
One company rang us to tell us it was very concerned because our graduate had already had three double espressos and it was only 9.30 a.m.
Ms Marie Devitt:
Exactly. That kind of learning is as important as the skills. We have had to go in a number of times. These are young adults so if someone wants to have ten espressos in a day, he or she just needs to know about the health issues.
Some companies have paid for topping up a card for food for the young people, which they do not do for other employees. One young man goes into the canteen regularly and asks to have it put on his tab. His mother rang to say she did not realise there was a tab in the office. Out of kindness, the manager was paying for the food but what that meant was that the young person did not understand that this had to be paid for by someone. There is incidental learning like that involving people acting a certain way out of the goodness of their hearts and in the belief they are doing the right thing. However, they should treat people with autism the same as they treat other employees. They should treat them as adults and not cocoon them too much.
The point I failed to make earlier is that people want their children to have the skill sets they need to be able to operate. The witnesses are trying to build a framework whereby they can be themselves but be themselves in society and play a part. That is a benefit all round. It can be difficult to put all that together.
Ms Barbara Ringwood:
One thing the Deputy highlighted is communication styles. Direct communication is honest communication. That can be a struggle and is something I have had to have conversations with workplaces about in the sense that you will get direct communication and they will say when something is going well.
Ms Barbara Ringwood:
Yes. That is about them understanding that because that person is not going to change and you cannot ask them to be something they are not, so it is about them being aware of differences in communication styles and being open to that and how the good and the bad are as important as each other. We have a habit of just talking about what is really going well. Even if something is not going well 10% of the time, for one of our guys, that 10% of the time when something is not going well needs to be communicated. Often the follow-up that we do is more important because as much as you can prepare for someone to go in, you cannot predict every outcome. It is about going back in, following up and addressing the little things that are popping up.
Mr. Hugo MacNeill:
To respond to the Deputy's question about rolling this out, it is a pretty small amount. If the INHEF was the body to do that, it would be a couple of full employees. People like us would be helping and supporting them in the background. It is relatively small and the prize is so big. Going back to the earlier point, it is a good investment. It creates taxpayers rather than people who are dependent on day care centres.
I agree completely. Obviously, Trinity College has the capacity to deal with the small number with which it is dealing but that can be very easily expanded without the centre having to change. It is a win-win across the board. Faster, quicker, better goes without saying.
Ms Roisin Doherty:
I will comment on the Deputy's first point where he talked about a path for every learner. We hope that in further education, through working with the school and linking to the ETB, there would be a path for every single learner. We are working with learners with profound disabilities. These are people who want to do a PhD through apprenticeships so I would say to anybody watching who is a parent to contact his or her local ETB and set up a one-to-one guidance with one of the 270 guidance officers available across the country. They can offer the young person an opportunity, whether through a one-hour programme or a 40-hour programme. It could be in someone's local community, a local training initiative, a PLC, an evening course or community education. That service is open for any age group from 18 onwards but in cases such as Youthreach, it can be brought down to a younger age group. A guidance process is available to guide someone on his or her pathway as he or she goes through life. This process can start at any age and progress to various different programmes and apprenticeships.
The Deputy mentioned supports. I am delighted to say that a budget of €36 million is allocated to the education and training boards for supports across ETBs. Within that is a general allocation fund to provide whatever support the learner needs, be it bus transport or one-to-one tuition. Everybody's needs should be met through that particular fund. It has increased significantly over the years. The principle of universal design is a mindset approach to say that the system must be universal. That brings in all those aspects of universal design but if the funds are not available to back that up, there are difficulties. It is a case of hearts and minds as well as making sure the funds are available. I hope this answers the Deputy's question. I can certainly go into more detail.
I accept what Ms Doherty is saying about funding. There may be a need with regard to flexibility in how that can be spent. The pay and conditions of personal assistants must be dealt with at a ministerial level. My final question concerned in-house supports. What supports are available for someone who may need a bit more of a foundation to provide the framework? Could the witnesses talk about the capital piece?
Dr. Mary Rose Sweeney:
I brought along the list and I have a copy for everybody in the audience. Students need access to multidisciplinary assessment first and to get a diagnosis because many students coming into the university system do not yet have that, so resources for that are important. I mentioned sensory pods earlier. These are places to go and defuse if people need to do that. They cost about €7,000, which is not a huge spend. Every university probably needs five or six of them. These are designated quiet spaces where people can go to a low-sensory environment with others so they are not isolated in a pod on their own.
Having rooms around the campus where that can happen is also very important. They need a designated education psychologist who can help them to achieve and attain to their highest ability with their learning styles in mind and to help them to develop strategies for that to cope with the academic workload, assignments, deadlines, competing priorities and things like that. Life skills were mentioned earlier and a life coach-type person could be there to support them with the day-to-day stuff such as the five coffees and not just having pasta, rice and potatoes on a plate but getting a balanced diet and that sort of thing.
Dr. Mary Rose Sweeney:
Yes, you have smells and all of that. Counselling and psychotherapy for stress management is really important and preventing burnout is also a huge issue for these students.
Funding is needed for the neurodivergent societies to allow them to increase both the range of activities that they are doing and also the membership. That is a really lovely space for students to go off and have fun, bonding, to go away for weekends and do all the things that many other societies have enough funding to do.
The summer transition programme is also important. It allows the students to come in during the summer to get a sense of the university before all the bustle and noise and the over-sensory overwhelming environment starts. That would be really nice. We did that before in DCU approximately 15 years ago. It was successful and something that the students loved. Their families contacted us about it afterwards. That just comes down to funding. We can put that in place.
We also really want to do more research on things like helping the students to access physical activity in the campus. Everyone knows that physical activity is really important for your health and to help de-stress but these are things that are currently overwhelming for students. To go into a gym, there are flashing lights, pieces of silver, noise and booming music. We need to find ways to help students to engage with physical activity. There are a lot of things we can do but much of it comes down to having funding to do it. We could really improve their lives on campus if we had.
Apologies. I was listening in. I was sidetracked by other things. It is great to see the initiatives that the organisations represented are taking. It is great to see them here and it is useful to hear the shortcomings that they see in the system. Up to now, we have been focused on the area of supporting children and young people in primary and secondary school but autism is not something people have as a teen or young person, they have it for life, so it is great to see the strides that are being made.
What is the key ask or changes that need to be seen here? It is hugely overwhelming for anyone to transition from secondary school to third level but for someone with additional needs and challenges it has to be huge. If we had a magic wand, what are the things that should be fixed?
Ms Roisin Doherty:
That is a brilliant question. For SOLAS, and the Department and Government, it is about a whole-of-life, whole-of-systems approach so that someone is not going through every system trying to get the supports that they need. I was talking to colleagues about life-event planning where events are planned across Departments for your life so that when you are transitioning from one school system to another that those transitions are put in place and you do not have to start again from scratch. They have that system in Estonia where they look at planning across departments for life events. That would be really good because then it would be just that someone is transitioning from primary to secondary to further and-or higher education and to employment and those are all seamless together.
Ms Fiona Earley:
I echo that point. In general, it would be more autism awareness acceptance across the educational journey of the autistic student. That means their educational journey within a university, whether it is getting the bus into college, going to the canteen, how lessons are delivered, how communication is delivered and in general, more awareness across all campus.
Professor Michael Shevlin:
There has been significant progress in many areas as the committee has heard this morning. We are very aware that the systems were not designed with these young people in mind so all kinds of anomalies arise and it is about how those are tackled. For example, our students are not entitled to a SUSI grant, so then we have to find workarounds all the time. That is where we try to streamline the systems so that these things happen. I was thinking about the implications of what we do for other young people with autism. There is a cohort who come to college and can avail of the supports but there is also a cohort who come to college and do not succeed and the numbers in that cohort can be very substantial. Research from two or three years ago found that up to 25% of young people do not make it through. Where do they go? We have learned that a pre-transition programme might be needed. It does not have to be two years like ours – I do not think that would be necessary – and it might vary depending on the types of areas but it would focus on the life skills and transition enabling so that the young people begin to understand how they can interact with different environments. The summer transition programme is a great idea. It is so that people get used to an environment. It would need to be flexible. That would make a big difference.
I am aware of something in UCC that might be helpful for some young people with disabilities for when they transition out into the world. Again, they do not have to be massive. They do not have to be two years; they can be three or six months or a year, depending on what the young people want to do. Sometimes they are settled. They might be doing their course in further education so where do they go next? If it is not a vocational-style course, real issues can arise about what it equips them for. That is when you find families and supporters trying desperately to find whether people will help them. If some of that was designed into the system with full funding there and the potential to apply for that funding then you would begin to see these young people thriving and beginning to make inroads into their own lives then.
Mr. Hugo MacNeill:
There should be limited and targeted funding to help spread the network around the country. We are not talking about a huge amount and it would repay itself by creating taxpayers. That would be if we had a wish and then it is how we make it a reality but the good news is that it would not be a huge amount.
I will just make a couple of comments in the time left. The prize is big. It is not by accident that our guests are here today. We felt the conversation would work with everyone together and one ask I have is that the conversation would continue with the Minister. I think they are the components. We have SOLAS, which looks after further education, a European-acknowledged project in Trinity that is working and the DCU world. We have the components and groundbreaking work is being done across the various sectors.
It just needs to be expanded across the country. I believe the will from Government is there. That conversation will happen between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. if members wish to look in as many of the questions will be based on the conversation we have had here because it is working. As Deputy Ó Murchú said, I have skin in the game, I have a strong knowledge of this and I have a young autistic son. I personally want to ensure that he and others have a future and even with a third level education, it gives a lift to me to know that possibility is there but it needs to be worked on and expanded. Following on from today, I would like to see that conversation going further. Whatever support is needed, I know that all of the members here will support this in whatever way we can cross-party to ensure that it happens. We will be publishing a report at the end of March with our views as a committee and with whatever recommendations we feel are required for whole-of-life supports for young autistic persons. I strongly believe that this will form part of it. There needs to be that pathway going forward, for the funding to be put in place and a pathway for all young autistic persons.
The summer transition is very important and I was talking to a young autistic lad from my local area who started in Trinity College Dublin in September. He goes around to national schools speaking to young children and tells them how it has affected his life. I know that he came to Trinity over the summer and went around the college to familiarise himself etc. It is a fantastic initiative. Earlier our witnesses may have heard that we passed a report on the summer programme, which is more for younger children. Have our witnesses any comments on third level, where there is a three-month gap where young autistic persons are at home, or have they any thoughts on that?
On the companies referred to, I was looking at a screenshot of them and there are many national companies such as CpL and An Post, which I worked for myself. As our guest speakers said, the opportunity is there. Would all of these companies be willing to work with this if it was replicated in every university or further education institution in the country? Would all of those companies be willing to expand on the numbers that are working with them at present from our witness organisations?
Ms Marie Devitt:
I am interested to talk about a graduate employed by EY in Cork. He did the course with us here in Dublin but he lives in Cork. EY was able to place him in its Cork office. There is very much a willingness to support employment with other links. The key is that we develop the partnership with the companies for our cohort and it would be up to the other universities locally to make introductions and to navigate the relationship themselves with that.
Professor Michael Shevlin:
EY is developing what it calls a playbook, which is like a manual on how to employ people with intellectual disabilities within businesses based upon our model. That will hopefully be coming out early next year. It will have all of the different learning and be very practical and clear about what needs to happen to ensure that young people can succeed within an employment framework. Hopefully that will be out early next year; it is almost complete and ready to go. That will be a real step as that company has committed, along with other companies, to share its learning. As Ms Devitt said, the young person in Cork is employed now permanently. The company has offered this facility for Limerick, Galway or anywhere else it is based, so there is quite a number. It is just that levering that support requires that extra little bit of resourcing, as we said about the Inclusive National Higher Education Forum, INHEF, for someone like that to link colleges to the different networks. There is enthusiasm there and EY also wants to develop this on a European basis. There is enormous potential there.
Either Dr. Sweeney or Ms Early made a comment about a shortage of funding for certain sensory needs. The Minister announced enormous funding for all third level institutes earlier in the year. Would I be right in saying that funding is not sufficient?
Dr. Mary Rose Sweeney:
It is not sufficient. We are trying to tap into that but it would not be enough to meet the needs of all of the universities currently.
I wish to make a comment on how we grow the overall framework at DCU. The engagement so far has been organic in that people who are interested in that area reached out to us with organisations such as AsIAm. We have done good work with it to support it to get up and running. It would be nice to see a more coherent, strategic or systematic approach to all of the higher education institutions, HEIs, in embedding this type of an approach. If the committee could think about how that might happen it would be good.
With regard to the summer programme, which is more based on special schools and primary schools, do our witnesses have any views on a programme in further education? There are three months where autistic persons are not in school. Are any projects in place at the moment?
Ms Roisin Doherty:
There are further education programmes available all year round and all of the time and it is just a matter of contacting one’s local education and training board, ETB. There is a diversity of different programmes. Some young people may not want to sit in classrooms all of the time and may want to do something such as working with horses, with beauty or with engineering. That host of different options is available. ETBs also have enterprise engagement officers who link with all of the local companies. It is a question of using that link also to ensure that every opportunity is availed of.
There is also the linking with the 750 placement officers who are available in the Department of Social Protection who are linking in, again, at local level with employers and getting a net together at local level to ensure that, in particular, it is working. To answer the Chairman’s question, there is summer programme provision available all the year round in various different programmes and we very much welcome that.
It was interesting in recent weeks that the Minister of State with responsibility for disability said there was going to be much more engagement with students at second level in respect of what they want to do after they finish second level and that there is not going to be this assumption that they just go in to a day service. This is welcome, is way past time and needs to happen so that more options are offered. The work and what we have heard about today is exemplary, needs to be expanded and is to be applauded.
I will be very brief and I am not picking on any individual here but I can remember in my former role as spokesperson on mental health that DCU was the very first educational body to bring me in as a spokesperson to meet with the students inside. It was so open and normalised and we had pizza. I can see how that has moved and progressed, perhaps not as fast as we might have hoped. Certainly, this is very encouraging. If there is any kind of support that we can provide we are also here to help because as Ms Early said at the outset, this is a no-brainer and is a win-win for everybody. Hopefully, we will push this idea as far and as hard as we can. I thank the Chairman.
I know we have touched a great deal on the question of summer provision but I believe there is capacity there if we could get more third level students involved in summer provision. The greatest way to come to terms with autism is to make it part of mainstream life where people come face-to-face with it. Many of the people in the room are fortunate in that they have relatives or family who have a diagnosis. If we were to do an initiative across third level, obviously with the people who are studying therapies, and the Department has made provision now that they can come in, that would also be very fulfilling for students. We could do recruitment across third level institutions to get students to be a volunteer – they would obviously be paid - and to get involved in the summer provision. It would be a very significant opportunity because they would bring back that learning experience, the value and the added skills to their peers in college. That would be a great window and opportunity to let these people get involved.
It is something the Department should try to pioneer at third level. It is a huge opportunity. Regardless of what career people go into, such an arrangement would open up many opportunities for them and teach them great life skills. Whether a person becomes a CEO or a professional tennis player, he or she will deal with people with autism. We are better now at diagnosing it. The more people there are with the skills to identify autism and to assist people with autism, the better. That would be a huge asset. The Department might look at running a recruitment campaign across third level for participants in the summer provision next year.
I thank all our witnesses. It has been a very informative discussion. If any of them want to submit any further information or proposals to the committee, they are welcome to do so through the clerk for circulation to members. The discussion has been very beneficial. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, will join us for our next session and I expect many of our questions to him will be based on the conversation we have had in this session. I thank the witnesses for all they have done, are doing and will continue to do. As was said, the prize we are aiming for is big.
I welcome everyone to the second session. I remind members of the constitutional requirement that they must be physically present within the confines of the place where Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House, to participate in public meetings. I will not permit a member to participate where he or she is not adhering to this constitutional requirement. Therefore, any member who attempts to participate from outside the parliamentary precincts will be asked to leave the meeting.
I welcome the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Simon Harris, and his officials, Mr. Enda Hughes, principal officer, and Mr. Aongus McGrane, assistant principal officer. Before we hear from the Minister, I propose that we publish his opening statement on the committee's website. Is that agreed? Agreed.
The committee is grateful to the Minister for taking the time to meet us today. We are all very aware of his commitment to the issue of autism. We are interested in hearing what the Department is doing to encourage autistic people to enter third level education and how they are supported on their journey through college. I invite the Minister to make his opening statement.
I thank the Chairperson and committee members for inviting me to attend today and providing me with the opportunity to update members on some of the work under way by my Department. Many members will already know, and as the Chair has alluded to, this issue is a major motivating issue for me. It is one on which the country has been making significant progress. We are improving educational services for people with autism and autistic people. We have seen this through primary and secondary school, although I accept that more work needs to be done. I have a real concern, one which the Chair and I have discussed many times, about the cliff edge that many autistic people and students with an intellectual disability experience when they leave second level education.
While there are examples of good practice - the committee heard about some of those earlier and they are services that we are all very proud of - there is an onus on us to ensure all autistic students and persons have an opportunity to reach their full potential and access the third level education system in a way that works for them, be that through further educational training, the apprenticeship programmes or through higher education.
Third level education and the transition to third level can be an overwhelming process for any student. It is a very big change in life and one of life's milestones. We have to acknowledge that for a person with a disability, and often for autistic students, it can be extremely daunting. Suddenly leaving a familiar environment and the routine of that familiar environment in one's town or community and perhaps arriving in a very large institution can be daunting. It is important that we put the supports in place, at a very practical level, to assist people in those environments. That is why I am pleased that over the past two years, the Department has specifically funded nine autism-friendly rooms. We are also funding tactile way-finding maps. Again, autistic students and persons with a disability are being dropped in a very large university and told to find their way around. That can be an overwhelming experience, so providing people with way-finding maps to help them navigate the campus in a practical way that works for them is important.
I am particularly pleased that took a new policy and funding step forward in terms of pathways and access for autistic students and students with an intellectual disability earlier this year. In August, I launched the fourth national access plan, a Strategic Action Plan for Equity of Access, Participation and Success in Higher Education. An additional €35 million will be provided to deliver the targets in the new national access plan or NAP. I am delighted many of the committee members were with me on the occasion of the launch of the NAP. We have made huge progress in increasing participation rates in higher education across levels. Our target under the last national access plan was 8% for people with disabilities. We have surpassed that, with current figure standing at 12.3%.
Behind the headline figures lies another truth, namely, that the level of access we rightly celebrate has not been achieved across all parts of society or the disabled population to an equal level. Our new national access plan endeavours to change that further and the plan names three priority groups. These are students who are socio-economically disadvantaged, students who are members of the Irish Traveller and Roma communities and students with disabilities, including people with intellectual disabilities and autistic people. There are a number of new groups on whom we have never focused in terms of targets and calling out, including those in the care system and those with intellectually disabilities.
We want, and I would argue that we need, a truly inclusive third level system where a person's background, experience or gender or whether he or she has a disability has a bearing on his or her ability to attend or succeed. The plan will measure access but it has, for the first time, put a specific emphasis on participation and the successful conclusion of higher education. It can be a little flattering to the figures to say it is great that this number of people accessed high education. While I do not in any way underestimate the importance of that, just as important is what happens when people
access higher education. What does their journey look like? Do they manage to successfully complete higher education and can they fully participate like all students? What happens when they leave university?
I am particularly delighted that we have introduced a new funding stream under the programme for access to higher education funding or PATH 4. We have been working on this for a while. It is a new fund that will be rolled out in two phases over a four-year period, with overall funding of €12 million. I thank everybody for the widespread engagement on this to allow us to map out a realistic and phased approach. I assure the committee that in our plans the involvement of autistic people and their advocates will continue.
Phase 1 of PATH 4 is up and running. It is directed towards advancing universal design and inclusive practices. It means every university will get a pot of money to underpin what we call universal design learning, which will have a benefit for all students but perhaps a particular benefit for autistic students. I am delighted to confirm to the committee that we have now received 19 project plans from universities and higher education institutions that want to access and draw down this funding. The Higher Education Authority and the National Disability Authority are currently assessing these plans and their alignment with our goals to create more inclusive and autism-friendly college campuses. Some projects and work packages of HEIs include activities to support autistic and neurodiverse students as well as projects that will assist the readiness of HEIs to develop inclusive learning environments. I am pleased to confirm that all of that funding will be allocated next month.
Overall, these projects will lessen the feeling that persons arriving in a university campus might have if they are autistic and feeling lost without the supports that were available to them in secondary level education. Let me clear, however. This is a good thing for our entire student population. It will benefit everyone, which is the magic and beauty of universal design. This will help build the foundations we need. It will support student success for all students and learners in higher education. It will be of particular benefit to students with special educational needs, including students with autism or autistic students. This is basically about how we can make the campus inclusive, autism friendly and work for everybody. That funding is place now, projects plans are being finalised and funding will be firmly allocated next month.
Phase 2 of this new fund is the bigger piece in many ways. It calls on all of our universities to put their thinking caps on, get creative and think about how they develop courses for students with intellectual disabilities and autistic students. The fund calls on universities to do this in collaboration and partnership with local organisations, taking on board the views of disabled people in their community. We have put a pot of €3 million in place every year over three years for universities and colleges to pitch their best ideas. I am very pleased we have been able to do this.
The committee has just heard from representatives of the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities. This fund is inspired by that centre, as am I but I would also like to be inspired by the more than the Trinity centre. I would like to be able to point elsewhere in the country and say it is great that something like what happened in Trinity is now happening in "X" or "Y" college. I accept that resources will be required to make that happen and to stimulate the conversation. We want colleges and universities to come forward and respond to the challenge. We now have the funding so the question is what will colleges and universities do to make their institutions able to provide programmes that support autistic students and students with an intellectual disability. This initiative has the potential, if we get it right, to be a game-changer in unlocking that potential.
As the committee will know, we have what we call the fund for students with disabilities in both higher and further education. The programme provides funding to institutions to assist them to offer supports and services to eligible students with disabilities, including autism, so students can access fully, participate in and successfully complete their chosen course of study.
It also supports students from Ireland to study on approved courses in EU countries and the UK, including Northern Ireland. Overall, the number of recipients receiving funding from this in higher education has increased. A total of 11,800 students received the funding in the academic year 2017-2018 and that number was 15,145 in the academic year 2020-2021. Of this, 9% of students declare autism as their primary disability when drawing down from the fund.
I am going to take the rest of my prepared statement as read, other than briefly to talk about apprenticeships, given members will have heard from my colleagues in SOLAS earlier. We want to make the apprenticeship population much more diverse as well, and I would be interested in this committee's input through its work because, by the end of this year, we will have in place a new access committee under the auspices of the national apprenticeship office that will look at what we need to do to ensure every member of society, including autistic people and people with disabilities, can participate in apprenticeships. Apprenticeship provides an opportunity to target and widen the recruitment pool within the public sector and to meet the targets that need to be met in terms of Government commitments to increase the statutory target of 3% of employees with disabilities in the public service to 6% by 2024.
That was a brief synopsis of a number of initiatives that are under way. The PATH 4 is an indication of the scale of our ambition to create a more inclusive third level education system and reflects our policy intent to provide funding to develop specific courses and programmes to meet the needs of autistic students and students with intellectual disabilities. I am very much looking forward to working with this committee, that is, not just hearing members' questions today but also implementing in the work of our Department any recommendations that might arise.
I always give credit where it is due. The Minister stated "There has been a bit of a cliff edge for autistic people when it comes to the end of the traditional secondary school education", an issue we discussed in the previous session of the meeting. He is correct, and we will welcome anything that is positive, but some of the earlier witnesses spoke about funding. The Minister referred to €12 million, and there was a reference earlier to about €3 million a year.
In respect of funding for students with disabilities, he went on to state, "It also supports students from Ireland to study on approved courses in EU countries and in the UK, including Northern Ireland." In the first part of the meeting, we discussed getting out all that information and improving that. We have heard at all levels here that the ideas are there but that it is about access to the idea or solution and outlining what is available. How can we ensure that, beginning at, say, secondary school? Is there any programme whereby each secondary school can say to children who have some form of autism that there are opportunities? I have worked with volunteers, as have my kids, at summer schools of more than 200 students each year, and I know that information is not trickling down. The UK is now out of the EU on foot of Brexit. We are due to visit the Milltown Centre for Autism, the only 32-county specialist centre funded by the Department of Education and its counterpart in the UK. What will happen to the funding there if we try to cover it on an all-Ireland basis?
Witnesses who appeared before the committee earlier made reference, as did the Minister, to getting all the universities and colleges on board. He may not have a figure but I think he mentioned 19 institutions so far as being part of the pilot project. Is it going to be easily accessible for universities and colleges to enter this programme? We need it to be flawless and we need it to happen rapidly, within the next two years. Children are being left behind once they get to secondary school and they are not aware of it. The apprenticeship side of it excites me, but it is about how we can bundle all this together. We need to start in secondary school to make people aware of what is there and what is coming.
I should have said in my opening comments that the first thing I am conscious of when attending a meeting of the Joint Committee on Autism is the breadth of the spectrum, which the Deputy reminded me of when he talked about students who transition from second level to third level, and we can all think of examples of this in our lives and communities. For autistic people, just like any of us, there is not an homogenous grouping, so the pathways, challenges and barriers can differ. This is not the case with every disability but with autism, there is a significant spectrum. I am conscious, therefore, that there are people, perhaps some of whom are listening to this meeting, who are doing very well in second or third level education. I am also conscious there will be people watching this meeting, and perhaps their parents and loved ones, who might, exactly as the Deputy suggested, feel as though they have to battle for everything, whether the place in primary or secondary school. Maybe, just maybe, things might be becoming better for their child in secondary school now. He or she might be in third, fifth or sixth year and the parents might be wondering what will happen when he or she leaves school. As I should have highlighted, that is where my focus is at the moment, namely, on the student who experiences that cliff edge. I know from my time in the Department of Health that, all too often, the conversation with the State is sometimes reduced at that stage to a conversation just about the health service. I am not suggesting the health service is not important, but it has to be a broader conversation we are having with those families. It cannot just be about the respite place or the daycare place, both of which are very important for many families, but it also has to be about what the young person wants to do, what makes him or her tick, what his or her motivation is and what he or she is passionate about.
That is where our PATH 4 programme kicks in, whereby we ask the colleges whether they can put in place specific programmes to help that student reach his or her full potential, and tell them we will give them money. The Deputy is correct that this has to happen quickly, and I am pleased to say it will. Phase 1, which I talked about, comprising the initial €3 million, is in place now, with 19 HEIs having told us what they want to do in terms of universal design. Those plans are, rightly, being put through the wringer of the National Disability Authority and the Higher Education Authority. Subject to them making sense and being approved from a policy point of view, they will get funding next month, so that is happening. Phase 2 will kick off next year and that is where the universities will start submitting their ideas for how they could put in place a programme, centre or service within their university for students with intellectual disabilities and autistic students.
On the all-island question, I am very pleased that everything that existed pre-Brexit continues to exist post Brexit in terms of education provision. I think we are united in that regard and much work has gone on to make that be the case.
I agree with the Deputy in regard to signposting. My Department has just concluded a review of career guidance structures, while the Minister of State with responsibility for special education, Deputy Madigan, and the Department of Education are examining specific guidance supports for students with a disability. There is much work that needs to be done in that regard, and while I do not wish to pre-empt the committee’s report, I would be surprised if that were not a focus. We in the Houses often argue about what should be available but is not, which is a valid argument, but sometimes things people do not know about is available, and we need to knit that together, so I agree with the Deputy in that respect.
I thank the Minister for attending. I echo some of what he said in his opening statement. Progress is being made and steps are being taken in the correct direction, and it is worth again acknowledging the work the witnesses from DCU presented earlier in their principles for an autism-friendly university. In regard to funding, if I understand the Minister, 19 project plans have applied for what is initially a €3 million pot. I doubt he will be in a position to announce which institutions applied for funding, but within those 19 applications, are we capturing a broad cross-section of HEI buildings?
Is it a competitive process? What quantum of funding are we providing for each of the projects? Are we saying to these 19 institutions that they are all assured of funding or that only a certain amount of funding is available? We do not want to create winners and losers here because if we do that among the project plans, we do it to the student body and we do not want that.
This applies to this phase but also to the second phase. I am slightly concerned about an approach whereby we ask people to bring us their ideas. Are we scaffolding these ideas and are we helping the HEIs to structure the ideas? Are we acknowledging the excellent work that is already being done, for example, by the likes of DCU and helping it apply it to its individual context? I do not think anybody would argue that they have the perfect remedy in place already, but we should be trying to structure and scaffold in such a way that we can take learnings from one another and not try to redesign the wheel on every single phase. I will leave my questions at that.
I join with Deputy Ó Cathasaigh in commending DCU on its work on an autism-friendly campus. I know that is something that runs very deep in DCU.
Everyone gets funding in phase 1 of the €3 million programme. Similar to yesterday, we announced the student assistance fund or mental health funding, and people get it in proportion to the number of enrolled students. I have a list and I can provide the Deputy with it. All 19 publicly funded HEIs get a proportion of the €3 million. Many of them are already doing very good work on universal design. I spoke at a conference at Atlantic Technological University, ATU, Sligo in recent months. It is taking a real leadership role. This money will take existing plans to the next level and support and supplement work that is already under way. I will provide the breakdown of that for the interest of the committee.
The second point Deputy Ó Cathasaigh made on sharing good practice is a vital one. I want to assure him in that regard. We must be honest with each other. There are relatively low levels of support available for students with an intellectual disability or an autistic student in higher education compared to what they are perhaps used to in school. I am not saying there are not challenges in school, but we are not where we need to be in higher education. That is why we decided to put in place this fund to try to rectify that. As step 1, we carried out a mapping exercise to find out what already exists. We did find that ten higher education institutions were already running various provisions for people with intellectual disabilities and autistic students, to varying degrees of success and intensity. The call is going out to universities to see what they are doing and to see if they could do more. When they look at what they are doing and given that we have them thinking about it again, they can look at how they can step up and do what they are doing in Trinity or show the commitment that DCU has shown, to give two examples. There have already been workshops where we are bringing people together. I did not intend to give the impression that we are leaving people to their own devices and wishing them the best of luck. We are very much bringing people together and explaining that the policy intent is to increase the number of students with an intellectual disability and the number of autistic students getting in and successfully completing higher education. We let them know what is already in place around the country. Those with something in place are asked to enhance it or do more, and the nine without anything in place are asked to do something. Of approximately 19 publicly funded higher education institutions, ten have various programmes and we are asking the other nine if they can now do something. That is not on the never-never; these are projects that we want to be in a position to fund for the next three years, starting in the next academic year in September 2023.
I welcome the Minister this afternoon and what he outlined about PART 4 funding. It looks like it is being taken seriously and that the colleges are pre-empting and implementing the PART 4 funding and adhering to the policies in that regard. How long will it take to broaden that out to the 19 projects? Unless people with autism and disabilities reach their full potential as much as they can in primary and secondary school, they will not be able to go to third level. Has there been much progress on the provision of courses for speech and language therapists, physiotherapists, or occupational therapists? Are there plans to increase the number of places on accredited courses in the next year or two in order for people to gain those qualifications? Unless we put in the structure at that level to assist children developing to the best of their ability to go into the workplace or to college, the work that has been done by the witnesses will not impact where it should.
A point was made about apprenticeships. The target is to increase the percentage of employees in the public sector from 3% to 6%. It would be very good if that was achieved. I welcome the fact that the Minister is looking at that area but I believe it is the foundations that we must put in place. Unless we have the speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, and physiotherapists on the ground to develop and support these people, they will not have the opportunities to go to further education or the places will not be attainable by many students in secondary school.
I agree very much with Deputy Collins’s analysis. The answer to her first question is that these are programmes we want to start funding from next September. What we are trying to do is effectively set up three-year pilots and then at the end be able to evaluate what worked, what did not work and what could be improved. That is the timeline.
On the second point, Deputy Collins has reminded me that one of the things I intend to insert in the criteria of consideration of the products we fund is opportunities after people complete the programme. I am conscious that the committee heard from Trinity. I see Hugo MacNeill in the Public Gallery. One of the successes of the Trinity programme is the employment piece at the end. We must do a lot more on education, but we also have to do a lot more in employment. Education is good in and of itself, but what appeals to me is where we see a programme in place that has an employment opportunity at the end and partnership with industry, that could be very good. That is something I would like to build in.
Deputy Collins is 100% right about therapists. I have a little bit of good news for her on this. In September 2022 we reached an agreement with the Department of Health on workforce planning for doctors for medicine. We agreed to increase the number of medicine places through the CAO by 200 over the coming years. We provided 60 in September and another 60 are due to be provided next September. We have now agreed with the Department and with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to do the same on therapy posts. That is absolutely vital. I am very much aware that there are issues with retention, but there are also issues to do with training enough people, which we are not doing currently. It is easy to create college places in some areas, but where a clinical placement is required, it does require my Department to do its bit in getting the universities to provide the place. It also then requires the HSE to provide the clinical placement. That is why we have to work across Departments. What I am saying this afternoon is that it is my intention that we would bring forward proposals on workforce planning for the therapies in advance of the next college year. Without pre-empting that work, I imagine that it will be a bit similar to medicine and that we will try to build on the process each September and take a multi-annual approach. We should build on the success of the medicine programme we worked on together.
On apprenticeships, the intention is to increase the number of people with a disability working in the public service between now and 2024. Those figures are clear. The beauty of the apprenticeships is that we get the public sector to take on more apprentices - we have a target of 750 public sector apprentices a year by 2025 - that gives us a great opportunity in terms of access and inclusion to make sure that we in the public service are doing our bit to make sure students with disabilities and autistic students are getting onto those apprenticeship programmes too. We will be setting up an access to apprenticeship committee next month and there will be an opportunity to delve into how we can use apprenticeships to help people with a disability get a start in the workplace. The public service must be a leader in this and not just lecture others to do stuff.
I am delighted to see that there are plans to extend the number of doctors and therapists, but more work is required.
Any young person going to college or doing a course wants to be free to travel, and to leave the country if they want, and they have a right to freedom. Has the Department considered offering to pay for courses for students for two or three years, or whatever is needed and, in return, they would have to stay in Ireland and work for six or seven years? That could solve the retention problem. The State would pay for the course and their education and they would give a commitment to stay in the country. Our biggest problem is that people stay for a year, see how difficult it is and that there is not enough staffing in the CDNTs and they are seriously enticed to go to other countries that have better services. Has any thought gone into something like that?
Not that I am aware of in my Department, but I am pretty sure people working in the health service, for example, would be the policy responsibility of the Department of Health. I will take the Deputy's suggestion back and seek the view of the Department on it and come back to her.
I welcome the Minister. In the first part of the meeting, we heard about many positive initiatives being taken. We heard from SOLAS, DCU and the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities. Great work is being done and it must be replicated around the country, especially the model that is being offered in Trinity College. Specific funding supports must be provided to do that.
There must also be equity in the system. We just heard that students undertaking the programme in TCD are not entitled to the SUSI grant because it is level 5 in a higher educational institute, but they would be entitled to it if they were doing the course in a PLC. They are also not entitled to the reduction of €1,000 in fees. That is something simple that could be rectified, and it must be addressed.
Following on from the point made by Deputy Collins, one of the biggest issues we all hear about is the waiting time for assessment and then for the required therapies and interventions following the assessment. The CDNTs are not fully staffed. I submitted a parliamentary question to the Minister in July, asking about the number of additional places available in universities for those who wish to study occupational therapy, physiotherapy and speech and language therapy. In his reply, he indicated that an additional nine places had been secured in physiotherapy for September 2022 and an additional eight places at level 6 for physiotherapy. He did not refer to any others. Is the Minister saying that they are the only additional places that were made available this year, because that seems very low? We hear there is a big shortage of places. Deputy Collins talked about retention being a significant issue and that it is something the HSE must address, but there is a need for all of these professions across the board, not just in children's disability services but also to assist older people, and in the community services and supports that are being offered to disabled people. I welcome the fact that there is ongoing engagement, but I hope it will be dramatically increased next year.
I thank the Deputy. I presume if that was the answer to the parliamentary question it is the full factual position, but I will double-check for her. It is worth stating the role of my Department versus the role of other Departments. I effectively see my Department as a bit of a service provider from a public service point of view. A line Department can come to my Department and say it needs more places in medicine, nursing and speech and language therapy and then it is up to the Department to work with that Department to try to provide those places. I have written to every member of the Cabinet at least once, but probably more than once, to make them aware of that. Workforce planning is something I genuinely think the country needs to get a lot better at.
What I am saying today is not just that people are sitting down having conversations about it, but that we picked medicine last year and we made very good progress, in fairness to colleagues in the Department of Health. They identified that there was a need for at least 200 more undergraduate places in Ireland and we got agreement to put those in place over the next five years and an agreement on funding. Crucially, we got the clinical placements too, because we cannot train a doctor without that. We are now going to do the same with therapies. The Deputy could ask me to create 100 more engineering places today. I do not mean to be flippant, but we probably could. We could fund the universities and they would create the places but, as she will be aware, every place must be matched with a clinical placement and that is why it requires that working-together piece. We have a very active piece of work going on now on therapy places. The Deputy referred to nine places. In medicine, the number of extra places created was in single digits in September 2021. This year, the number of extra places was 60 and next year it will be at least another 60. It is an example of how we can begin to scale it up if we put a focus on it. I assure the Deputy that therapies and nursing are priority areas. They have been chosen for that exercise. My colleagues are engaging intensively with the Departments of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, and Health on those issues.
I will take a look at the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities and access to supports. The Deputy is correct to highlight the anomaly that if one is doing a level 5 in one place, one gets support but that one would not get it in another location. We will see if we can move on that in the months ahead. In general, we find that sometimes students with a disability are accessing other supports as well and, therefore, I need to look at it all in the round. I would like to do a lot more on registration fees in the years ahead. The registration fee this year was tied to the €3,000 registration fee for the free fees initiative. Many tens of thousands of people did benefit, but I accept that some did not. We will look and see if we can build on that in the next budget.
The Minister has dealt with the issue to some degree in terms of workforce planning. We all accept the need for physiotherapists, occupational therapists, psychologists and speech and language therapists, but from what he said, there probably has been a failure in the Department of Health or wherever else to come forward and say it needs certain services. I acknowledge what the Minister said about the medical programme and what is being planned for the future. Does he foresee a situation in the next four or five years that we will have enough throughput to give us what we need as regards these particular positions that are needed for disability services and in other areas?
The short answer is that I do, but I always caveat it by saying that training people is only one part of the jigsaw in meeting the needs of the community. It is true that my Department has a role to play, as does the university sector, and the technological universities, but the training of enough people is only one part of the jigsaw.
In fairness, the Minister referred to retention. We all know the issues regarding conditions. At least if we have that part done, it means we will have something positive in the years ahead. We must bridge the gaps in the short term.
In the presentations made to us we heard about the Trinity centre and the fabulous programme from the point of view of work placement and job activation. It is about providing that trajectory for autistic people, accepting what was said earlier about the wide spectrum and the fact that everybody is coming from a different place. I find it incredibly positive. In fairness, Ms Doherty from SOLAS spoke about the fact that we could use some of the services that are out there in social protection and also within the ETBs from the perspective of enterprise engagement with more companies. What we want is for all educational institutions and universities to engage to a greater degree, but I accept that some of them have done a decent amount of work.
PATH 4 does two things. It is a universal design from the point of view of making sure we have best practice from a capital point of view and making people comfortable. It also provides a universal design in learning, we are giving people the framework and protections. It will not come as a shock to the Minister that a number of personal assistants, PA, have been in contact with Deputy Munster and myself, in particular from O'Fiaich college in Dundalk and the Drogheda Institute of Further Education, DIFE, and other institutions across the board. Their pay and conditions are abysmal. I know the Minister is aware of the issue. From our interactions, I think it is something he wants to bring to a head. It is an issue we must solve as soon as possible. We are all talking about providing a framework for autistic people and people with disabilities and sometimes this is the framework or the scaffolding that can help someone to get through third level.
It is not just about access, as the Minister said, it is also about being able to make the journey.
The way the Deputy describes the programmes is much better than the way I describe them. That is exactly what it is - it is universal design from a capital point of view in terms of campuses and then universal design in learning. I am going to steal that, if that is okay. That is exactly what we are trying to achieve at phase 1 and phase 2, with phase 1 now under way and phase 2 from next year, and they are pilot projects for three years.
On personal assistance hours and the situation with personal assistants, PAs, in general, I want to publicly acknowledge that this is an issue the Deputy has raised with me on many occasions, particularly in regard to his own encounters in O’Fiaich College, O’Fiaich Institute of Further Education Dundalk and other parts of Louth, and he does raise it with me on a regular basis.
I would never say that. The Deputy can be dogged but I am sure that is a badge of honour. I do not have a note in front of me and I do not want to misrepresent the situation. My understanding, from memory, is that there is due to be some engagement through various fora at the start of next month in regard to the matter. I will confirm this to the Deputy in writing. I am very happy to meet a delegation very shortly after that, as I indicated, and I will get the Deputy a note to that effect.
Without getting involved in the industrial relations process, and respecting its independence, I very much value the work that is being done and I know how important the work of PAs is across our third level system.
It is great to listen to the Minister. This committee is very apolitical, which is good, and the people on it are passionate. Our conversation in the last session shows that we can work together on this. Some of the committees can get heated but this is about trying to get as much information as possible and getting that information into the public domain, so everybody benefits from it. I am glad I am part of this committee. I thank the Chairman and the Minister for that.
At a recent meeting, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte, indicated that there would be a lot more work done with disabled students at second level about planning for their future, rather than just assuming they are going into a day service once they leave school. I hope the Minister will be part of that conversation and that preparation will be done at further and higher education institutions to accommodate what we hope to see, which is an additional number of students progressing to further education.
I thank the Deputies and I acknowledge the point. The only hope we have of making progress on this vital issue is to pull together. I very much appreciate that is the way in which this committee is doing its work. I have been following its work and I am delighted on a personal and professional level to see the existence of this committee.
This all has to come back to joined-up thinking, which brings me to Deputy Tully's point. The short answer is “Yes”. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is right to highlight that one of the key issues is planning and, from my Department's perspective, it is about engaging with students at a much earlier stage, rather than having this last-minute cliff edge, worry or anxiety. As I have said before, all too often the conversation the State has is reduced to one just about the health service at that stage of a student's life. The health service is extremely important, as is this committee, in the context of looking at health and all of the challenges that need to be addressed. Looking at the education piece is also key. They are complementary. I know of examples in my own constituency and community of people engaging with the health services and the education system. The question has to be “What do you want to do after school?”, and then it is about how we kick in to make it happen.
I hope the committee has got impression, as I am sure it did from engaging with my colleagues in SOLAS earlier, that the benefit of further education is its depth and breadth across the country. There is further education in every community in Ireland. They are up for it and there is a can-do attitude in that sector, as the committee knows. It is to signpost what is already there and, where there is a gap, to try to develop the service. To involve the younger person and their family at a much earlier stage is key to that. My Department, at official level, sits on those groups and is actively working, and we are ready to do whatever is required.
We have all dealt with the issue of the cliff edge that can happen after secondary school, whatever about the issues beforehand. Obviously, the positivity from the earlier meeting was the fact there was a framework that will work for a good cohort of students who are autistic. It is a case of making sure that parents do not have to fight multiple battles. It is that piece of the Minister interacting with disabilities and with that part of the health system from the point of view of providing for the needs as required. Reference was made to the benefits whereby, if this works properly, we get someone into the education system and we then get them into employment. That is a benefit to them, to their families and also to wider society.
The other point I would go back to is that made by Roisin Doherty. Can we look at something with regard to expanding that engagement from a work and, hopefully, from a job activation point of view, as done by Trinity College, by engaging with more companies and using social protection, but also in particular by engaging with the enterprise engagement officers, if that is the right term? I accept that this may not come within the Minister’s bailiwick.
We can certainly look at that. There is a need for everybody to pull together. I will offer two views that are slightly beyond the remit of my Department but I speak as somebody with a real interest in this issue. We have a model that I was involved in when I was in the Department of Health, where we started in-school therapies. It seems to be working quite well in the schools that it has been in, and I happen to have one in my own constituency. It seems a very sensible way of proceeding. To go back to Deputy Joan Collins's point about trying to make sure people can get through the school system and reach their full potential so they are ready and harnessed to go onto the next level, that in-school therapy piece is valuable.
The second point is that under the comprehensive employment strategy implementation group, there is a steering group to progress one of the actions, and that action is to provide access to all school leavers requiring specialist supports to an appropriate transition programme. We are on it and so are several other Departments, and there are two pilot projects or demonstration projects, one in Galway and one in north Dublin. To me, that also sounds like a sensible way to proceed.
If I am to be self-critical or collectively critical, we sometimes run the risk of having more pilots than Ryanair. If we know that something makes sense and if there are many examples of good practice, we should act on that. This is the reason I push for Path 4. I know that what they are doing in Trinity College in the centre for people with intellectual disabilities is changing lives and I know what they are doing with the in-school therapies is changing lives. It sounds to me like this demonstration project on specialist supports for those leaving school in Galway and north Dublin will do the same. What we have not been very good at doing over the years in Ireland, and I am not just talking about this Government, is establishing what is best practice and rolling it out. I am hoping that one of the things that might come from this committee is a bit of a shove to say there are things that we know are working well, here is what we have and identify it, and can we ever get on with making sure there is equity of access. I really think that could be transformational. The students in the Trinity centre for people with intellectual disabilities today are getting such a top-class experience but we want that to become the norm in the third level system. The places with in-school therapies are better than those that do not have them. That should become the norm. Members get the point.
It is good to have the Aire here. To echo my constituency colleague, I commend the Minister on the work he has done in this area. I look forward to hearing the exchanges today. I will have a number of questions for him and I will come back to him with those.
I thank the Minister for the work he has done in this area. I know it is something that is personal to himself. As I said, it is great to see the funding that has been put in place in the various universities. I concur with other members and with the Minister that the reality is that when we have a model that is working and is seen to work, and we heard that at our previous session, we need to replicate it rather than looking for new proposals. My view is that the funding is working and we need to roll it out across all of the third level institutions.
With regard to Trinity College, it is great to think a university in our own country is the first in the world to have an autism-friendly campus.
Work to make Leinster House an autism-friendly campus is ongoing. I hope that will be in place in early 2023. The project has been agreed by the Houses of the Oireachtas. The diversity officer is working with AsIAm to have that in place within the next couple of months. If autistic students in primary, secondary or third level education come to Leinster House, we will have proper supports in place. It was unacceptable that we did not have them heretofore.
Funding has been provided to the universities. The Technological University of the Shannon campus in Athlone in my area has started working on this, but when will we see a situation where this is the norm in every third level institution, as it is in DCU? We need to strive towards that.
Deputy Ó Murchú referred to the additional places required in September 2023 in speech and language therapy and occupational therapy in order to fill the 800 posts that are fully funded by the Government but are vacant across our CDNTs. Unfortunately, it will be four years before those students enter the workforce. I agree that we need some form of scholarship, perhaps with the HSE funding colleges and the students then working in the system, but we will have a shortage for four years. There has been some discussion of looking abroad to bring professionals to the country, but are we considering an approach whereby people from the teaching and medical professions could undertake a one-year course in speech and language therapy or occupational therapy to try to fill the gap? Have there been conversations in that regard? It will be four years before the extra places funnel through to the system. Unfortunately, though, we do not have four years to wait. There are severe shortages now. As Deputy Flaherty knows from our home area, there were only four staff in Longford's CDNT only a couple of months ago with hundreds of people on the waiting list. What other work is being done?
The short answer is that work is being done. The Chair is right, in that the way to fix this is to train enough people in our own country. I am confident that we will make meaningful progress on that quickly in terms of creating places, but the Chair is also right that it will take a number of years to train that first year student. I am conscious that most of these professions, if not all, are independently regulated by a variety of bodies, including CORU, and rightly so. The Department of Health is examining this matter and we stand ready to assist in innovative ways. There could be graduate entry programmes where people with professional qualifications in one area wished to convert to or upskill or reskill in another. Another approach has to do with how the FET system is used. For example, a role called speech and language therapy assistant is available in the FET system. When I was in the Department of Health, the role of psychological assistant was created. This provided additional supports to people who did not need to see a psychologist or psychiatrist, with the assistant seeing them instead. The assistant would determine how many he or she could assist and provide them that access. Instead of everyone being put on a waiting list to see one or two people, there were more immediate actions. FET has a role to play in terms of other grades that can broaden the spectrum of people that are available to assist. I am conscious that these are policy decisions for other Departments, but my Department and sectors are willing to assist with innovative solutions to try to get the situation moving.
That is positive. Earlier, we passed a report on the 2023 summer programme. We are seeking changes to ensure that, at a minimum, every special school has a school-based summer programme, avoiding the unacceptable situation of more than 6,000 children with higher needs not getting a summer programme. One of our proposals to the Department of Education was to expand the range of professions that could participate to child psychologists, speech and language therapists, and occupational therapists. Another proposal was for third level students in psychology and those therapy areas to be deemed eligible to work on the summer programme and to be employed in it as part of their work placements. Professionals who were training to become speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and psychologists would be working with the kids in the gap period during the summer. Perhaps there could be a conversation on these positive proposals between the Minister's Department and the Department of Education.
It sounds logical that people training in those areas would, if they wished, participate and try to help out in what is an extraordinarily successful programme but one that needs the changes and improvements the Chair is referencing. Obviously, it is a policy decision for the Department of Education, given that it is that Department's programme, but we will engage with the Department on any way we can assist. If the Department of Education decided it wished them to take part, I imagine it would be a matter for individual students, but many students would feel they would benefit greatly from participating in such a project. We will seek the Department of Education's views on the matter, but this is ultimately a policy decision for that Department.
I refer in particular to what we discussed with DCU, Trinity and SOLAS during our first session. A further conversation needs to be had with those groups. I strongly believe that we should replicate what has already been successful instead of looking for new proposals. The model works. It provides employment in a large number of companies. We were shown a list, from which we saw that many of the companies involved were nationwide, meaning that the model would work in all colleges.
If there are no further questions from members, we will adjourn.