Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 23 May 2023

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Autism

Autism Policy: Discussion (Resumed)

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, and the committee members for the invitation to be here today. I look forward to engaging with them on issues they might wish to draw to our attention. I am accompanied today by a number of officials from the Department of Education: Martina Mannion, assistant secretary with responsibility for special education and inclusion; Frank Hanlon and Martin McLoughlin who work as principal officers in the special education section; and Jill Fannin who is a principal officer in the teacher education section.

I sincerely acknowledge the work of the committee in bringing an increased focus on the needs and experiences of children, young people and adults with autism. Although this committee was not established too long ago, I know that it has had many meetings and engagements with stakeholders and I hope that this work has been beneficial for the committee.

In the area of education, I thank committee members for their interest in special education matters and in particular for the report on the summer programme 2023 published by the committee in November of last year. I acknowledge the work the committee put into delivering this report and I also acknowledge the people and groups who have contributed to this report and its recommendations, including parents’ advocacy groups.

The Department has also been preparing intensively for the summer provision for 2023. I am delighted that the recommendations align with and support how we have further developed the programme. I am happy to say that these efforts are bearing fruit, with more schools than ever having signed up to run a summer programme this year. This year, we have introduced several new initiatives aimed at increasing the number of children and schools that avail of the programme, including the appointment of a national co-ordinator, a new portal for staff recruitment, increased resourcing for schools running the programme as appropriate and allowing group tuition arrangements under the home programme. We continue to work towards the successful roll-out of the programme this summer and we have already seen positive developments. In particular, we have seen a 50% increase in the number of special schools running a programme this summer.

However, I continue to be ambitious, as I know committee members are, for the programme for the years ahead. I want to continue to ensure we get more schools offering the programme each year. I know that is also a clear aspiration of the committee. I am happy to provide further updates on the summer programme during our discussions today.

I know that the committee is interested in the issue of teacher education. I fully accept the importance of providing strong initial teacher education and professional learning opportunities for our teachers. First, however, it is important that we continue to provide sufficient teaching and special needs assistant supports for our students with additional needs. I am determined to ensure that our newly qualified teachers are better prepared to teach all of our students, including those with special educational needs. In March, I published an initial teacher education policy statement which sets out a vision for initial teacher education to the end of this decade.

Through the actions in this policy statement, I have asked that the Teaching Council and my Department work towards requiring that all student teachers spend at least one placement in a special education setting. This target will require significant engagement with higher education institutions and schools. It is very important and will have a significant beneficial impact for our students into the future.

Regarding the continuing professional development of our school staff, I note that the committee has rightly referred to the important and significant role being played by the Middletown Centre for Autism. The centre was established to support the promotion of excellence throughout the island of Ireland in the education of children and young people with autism. The centre’s role is to complement and build on existing first-level services, such as those available through the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. The centre offers a wide range of specialist research, information and resources on evidence-informed approaches and practice-based professional learning. Both the Department and the NCSE have been provided with additional funding to recruit more advisers. We are committed to continuing to work closely with the centre and looking to expand the range of supports and services it can offer.

Committee members will be aware that the assessment of need process is provided for under the Disability Act and that responsibility for the process lies with the HSE. Schools are now required to assist in the completion of an assessment of needs by providing existing school-based information contained in a student support plan. Assessment is a fundamental element of teaching and learning. In finalising the assessment of need process, we have had extensive consultation with the education partners and with individual schools. I am very grateful to all those who contributed to this process. The Department of Education and the NCSE have put in place comprehensive supports to assist schools in completing the educational component of the HSE’s assessment of need process.

Turning to the NCSE policy advice on special classes and special schools, it is important to highlight that the Department of Education’s policy in respect of supporting children and young people with special educational needs remains very clear. Based on a child-centred approach to the provision of education, we want to ensure that all children and young people with special educational needs can be provided with an education appropriate to their needs.

I am happy that the vast majority of children with special educational needs are educated in mainstream classes. In recent years, there has been a very significant increase in the number of children and young people being diagnosed with special educational needs, particularly in the area of autism.

We have responded to that by providing additional supports in mainstream classes, as well as the special classes and special school places necessary to meet the emerging needs of those children and young people. The Department received policy advice from the NCSE on special classes and special schools in recent months. That policy advice will need to be considered fully so that, long-term, a more inclusive education system can be delivered while also ensuring current demand from parents for special classes and special schools can be supported and met.

It is the Government's position to see therapists reinstated to all special schools. Their value within the special school setting cannot be highlighted enough. However, I understand the committee has heard first-hand from the HSE at a previous meeting, there is a lack of supply for these professionals, not only in Ireland but in mainland Europe. My Department is working with the HSE and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, which has the lead responsibility on this matter, to ensure this critical service is returned. We are all working on increasing supply in this field.

We have come a long way in ensuring that children and young people with autism can access an appropriate education. There is strong evidence to support this. I provided some of this earlier. However, we are collectively ambitious that we should continue to do more for our students. There continues to be so much to learn in relation to how we support children and young people with autism and it is important that my Department, relevant agencies and support services continue to review and adapt our policies, programmes and supports as required.

I look forward to engaging with committee members during today’s meeting and addressing any questions that they might have.