Thursday, 29 April 2021
National Autism Empowerment Strategy: Motion [Private Members]
Táim buíoch as an deis labhairt anocht faoin dul chun cinn atá déanta againn le déanaí. This week marks the final days of national autism awareness month. It is appropriate that we take stock of the progress that has been made and the work that still has to be done. Having listened to the sincere views of Members this evening, I believe we are all committed to ensuring the rights of all children are fully vindicated. We know that education is a right for our children. The right of autistic children to access education is no different. Education is about empowerment and ensuring that a child can reach her or his full potential. It is the greatest tool of social mobility that we have and, as Nelson Mandela said, education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.
Since my appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion, I have met teachers, SNAs, school staff and families who are committed to the values of education and work day in and day out so that the educational rights of children with additional needs are fully vindicated and validated. The Government is also rightly playing its part. Tonight's motion is an opportunity to remind ourselves of the work done to date and what still needs to be done. In 2004, the EPSEN Act demonstrated that the Government was committed to a new approach to special education. These foundations have been built upon over the intervening years. Today, supports for students with additional needs are offered more and more on a needs basis rather than a diagnostic one. This guarantees that support will be provided to all students with additional needs whether they are in a position to access a diagnosis or not.
Since 2011, the number of special classes in mainstream schools has increased by almost 235%, from 548 to 1,836 for this school year of 2020-21. Of these, 1,567 special classes cater for autistic students. A total of 197 new special classes have been established nationally for the current school year, of which approximately 189 are new ASD special classes comprising 12 early intervention, 113 primary and 64 post-primary ASD classes. This year we are recruiting an additional 1,000 special needs assistants, bringing the total number of SNAs to a record high of more than 18,000. We have announced three new special schools over the past two years, the first new special schools in many years, demonstrating the important role that these schools play in the education system and our commitment to them.
I also secured a dedicated school reopening package for special education consisting of enhanced cleaning and PPE for schools catering for students with additional needs and the recruitment of 17 additional NEPS psychologists. Significantly, I secured a budget of more than €2 billion for the area of special education, which represents more than one fifth of the total annual budget of the Department. I want to build on this progress because I know there is still so much work that needs to be done. We are recruiting an additional 400 teachers dedicated to students with additional needs across mainstream schools and special schools to ensure that inclusion is at the heart of our education system. We are progressing the school inclusion model, with the aim of providing important therapy supports in school settings for the first time ever. This promises to be a transformational moment in mainstream special education and as part of the roll-out, I have secured funding for 80 additional therapists to be recruited by the NCSE. We are working to create 1,200 additional special class places for this September for those students who need them. The resources have been secured for this and the intensive engagement with schools across the country is well under way. I have also ensured that, from this year, arrangements are in place for facilities for special classes to be included in all new school builds. The NCSE is also developing a five-year forecasting tool that incorporates population demographics information from the Department's forward planning section. These forecasts are shared with the planning and building unit to include planning for special class accommodation in all major projects.
NEPS, along with the inspectorate, the NCSE, the Middletown Centre for Autism and the Department have developed best practice guidelines for schools on supporting students with autism. These guidelines are currently being finalised and an implementation plan will be developed to support schools with their implementation in the coming years. This will be a resource for schools to support the needs of students with autism and will assist school staff to understand the varied needs and nature of those needs as well as to identify whole-school and individualised approaches to intervention. This progress is important to acknowledge.
It is also important to take stock of where we are, 17 years after the passage of the EPSEN Act in 2004, given the increased investment and development of policy since then. We know that several sections of the Act still remain to be commenced by the Minister for Education and, as a result, I state my commitment to a full review of the provisions of the EPSEN Act to see where updates are needed and how its provisions can be best enacted to meet the needs of young people with additional needs. I can also confirm that the Government is committed to consulting stakeholders on how best to progress aspects of the EPSEN Act on a non-statutory basis. This work will help us guarantee that special education provision fully meets the needs of young people in Ireland.
Ensuring that the voice of the child is at the heart of policymaking in this area is something else to which I am fully committed. I recently met with Emma, a young woman from my constituency, who spoke about her own personal experiences of education as an autistic person and the importance of hearing autistic voices at the decision-making table and learning from their experiences. She spoke very eloquently, as did others, and she is correct that empowerment is at the heart of education and gone are the paternalistic days when rights and protections were handed down from on high as though they were gifts or favours. In the 21st century, it is vital that the voice of a young person is heard as part of policymaking. I will work with officials to explore new ways of ensuring that this is the case. As part of this, I am pleased to announce that a new departmental consultation group is being formed with advocacy organisations in the area of special education. This new forum is vital in giving a voice to young people with additional needs as an important partner in education.
It is important to recognise that the past year has been an incredibly difficult period for young people with additional needs. Covid-19-imposed school closures have had the greatest impact on young people who need in-person education. Many of these young people were not able to fully participate in remote learning. I have heard countless stories from young people and their families about how this impacted their lives with the fear of regression and loss of key skills a constant feature of this period.
The Government, at my urging, confirmed that special education was a priority as part of school reopening. We have said all along that special education is an essential service and that students with additional needs do best in school in-person. Although it took longer than we would otherwise have wished, special schools and special classes reopened in advance of the wider education system. Supplementary provision was put in place to provide one-to-one in-person education for students with additional needs in mainstream education.
Special education still remains a priority for this Government. As part of this prioritisation, I am committed to the provision of an expanded summer programme of special education this summer. This programme will build on the expanded programme that was in place last year and ensure that as many students as possible with additional needs will be able to benefit from in-person education over the summer in order to prevent regression, build key skills and confidence and make up for the missed time earlier in the year. We are also working with school bodies and staff representatives so that take-up of this year's summer programme is as large as possible for the benefit of all. Work on this is at an advanced stage. I hope to announce further details on this matter soon.
This Government's commitment to special education is clear from the resources that have been allocated and the progress that has been made. As ever, our focus is and must always be the young people themselves. Over recent weeks and months we have heard the voices of these young people and their families speak about their experiences. We must now make sure that, post Covid-19, Ireland is a place where the needs and rights of young people with additional needs are to the fore more than ever. This will be my mantra.