Thursday, 30 July 2020
Opening of Schools and Calculated Grades: Statements
We had a good debate on Tuesday evening during which we addressed some of the issues that related to the return to school and I will not go into some of them on this occasion. It was a good debate on an important issue related to the funding of education, the pupil-teacher ratio and overcrowded classrooms. I appreciate that Deputies felt the need to protest tonight over speaking time arrangements but I regret that a vote on that motion was the casualty of the protest and that the protest was felt to be more important than the vote.
In any event, I have a number of questions and I will allow the Minister time to respond before the four minutes have elapsed. The first question is on special education. There is a lot of concern among people involved in special education at this moment in time. This includes families but it also includes teachers and special needs assistants. The concern is that there is an inadequate focus in the roadmap on the fact this is a category of students who have lost out the most in many respects from the lack of school-based education. They feel they have fallen behind and that they deserve additional attention but there are no additional resources. What is more, and the Minister has not quite responded to this as yet, it appears that door has been opened to using special educational teachers as substitutes. It is in black and white in the circular that for teachers in mainstream classes schools may use other non-mainstream teachers to cover absences. In addition to this, the role they are expected to play in remote learning and the fact there are no additional resources for them lead people to be concerned that special educational teachers will be pulled from pillar to post and that the children in need of their attention will lose out. This is quite serious and it needs a response from the Minister. More than just respond to it, the Minister needs to address it. There is a need for additional resources and special education teachers should not be used as substitutes in any circumstance and they should not be used as a stopgap. That was a practice in the past and it was being rooted out. It cannot be allowed to be reintroduced.
There is also an issue with regard to special needs assistants. The Minister has spoken about the additional SNAs who will be available to cover absences and this is welcome but there is no SNA substitute panel so it will be difficult for schools to identify SNAs. This also needs to be addressed.
I will touch briefly on the next issue. I am not sure whether anywhere near enough substitutes have been identified. I made a point during the debate on Tuesday with regard to 500 unfilled absences last year and that 200 substitutes would not be enough to cover what was required last year and I do not see how it will be enough for this year. Tonight there was a report on Virgin Media in which a young man who has cystic fibrosis, Benat Broderick, was interviewed. He was very concerned about his education. I have to say I am very concerned about children who are high risk and immunocompromised and, where the children themselves are not but their family members are, I am concerned about them.
There is no mention of that in the roadmap. My concern is that, unintentionally, a form of educational apartheid could take place over time. That cannot be allowed to happen. We cannot allow them to be isolated and unconnected with education. There must be dedicated resources for remote learning, but we also need a strategy beyond that because socialisation is important as well. We must give that further consideration. While there must be, first, dedicated resources to remote learning, we must go beyond that.
Finally, the Minister disputes that this could have been published earlier. I disagree. Many of the resources were always going to be necessary in terms of staff, space and so forth. The Minister said it had to be up to date with the public health advice. The fact is that the public health advice is from June and there are some concerns that with regard to matters such as masks and the like it is not up to date at this point. Will that be re-evaluated on a continuous basis?