Thursday, 21 October 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Special Educational Needs
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I will always endeavour to respond Topical Issue matters that are relevant to me. This matter is partly the responsibility of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. The special education element comes under my remit.
I recognise the challenge that schools are facing regarding the wider issue of substitution. I will come to the special education issue in a minute. The Department has put in place a range of measures to provide enhanced substitute cover in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. These include a major expansion of the primary schools substitute teacher supply panels, which now employ almost 380 teachers and provide substitute cover to over 2,500 primary and post-primary schools across the country. Further work is under way to enhance the operation of the panels to help with substitute teacher supply.
The national substitution portal service for primary and post-primary schools, subseeker.ie, is operated by the Irish Primary Principals Network. The Teaching Council and the Minister, Deputy Foley are working closely on this. The council has emailed 111,000 teachers asking if any of them are available for substitute work. I understand that 70,000 of those 111,000 teachers work full time and 40,000 work part time. Therefore, there should be capacity among those 40,000 teachers for some of them to be available to work. They have also allowed for teachers who were on a career break to carry out unlimited substitution work. That provision did not exist previously.
In addition, those who are job sharing will be in a position to carry out substitute work on the days of the week when they are rostered off. That is another new measure that has been introduced. There are also some new initiatives relating to student teachers completing their professional master of education studies.
They may be in a position to fulfil short-term substitute vacancies.
All of those measures are extremely important but specifically around special education teachers, there has been a bit of misperception and there has been no withdrawal of any provisions. Effectively, special education teachers will be used for the purposes for which they should be used. During Covid-19, as a measure of last resort, where teachers were in a difficult position, a special education teacher could be used to cover teacher absences and where teachers were unavailable. We now have a successful vaccine roll-out and there should be a reduced level of absenteeism compared with the past. We should see those teacher absence levels reduced and there should not be an issue around using special education teachers in that way. It is really important to me as Minister of State with responsibility for special education that those special education teachers are only used for the hours for children with additional needs, as the Deputy has said.
In the recent budget we allocated 980 new special education teachers, with 620 of those for mainstream, new and developing schools, and 360 of them for special classes. They have a pivotal role in looking after children with additional needs.