Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Special Educational Needs

9:52 am

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I commend the Deputies on bringing forward this Topical Issue matter. It is a very pertinent issue to me, as Minister of State with responsibility for special education. I appreciate all the work done by Deputy Bruton, a previous Minister for Education, who in fact kick-started the process of the school inclusion model, and thank him for that. I wish to reassure both Deputies that I feel this will be the gold-star policy change for special education in Ireland. I hope that, in time, other jurisdictions will look to this country and admire the model we have. I commend both Deputies on the work they have done in this regard. As they have correctly pointed out, this will be the transformative model for children with additional needs.

The pilot of the model, as the Deputies will know, started in community healthcare organisation, CHO 7, in Kildare, west Wicklow and south-west Dublin. As we all know, the pandemic, unfortunately, got in the way and schools had to close in early 2020 and early 2021. In March 2020, the HSE, unfortunately, had to take some of our therapists to use them for testing and tracing, which of course posed difficulties for the education sector in trying to retain its own therapists. In that regard, my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Foley, brought to the Government a memo on the recruitment of our own therapists by the NCSE. One of the challenges we face is to ensure that we have a sufficient number of therapists for the school inclusion model and that the HSE can use its own therapists. Both models are complementary; neither is in lieu of the other.

It is really important when we talk about the school inclusion model that we note its key elements. One is the continuing professional development and training for our teachers and SNAs. In that regard, we have set out a new SNA training programme in UCD. It was oversubscribed. I think about 3,500 SNAs wanted to avail of it. There are more starting again this year and there will be more early next year. That will be of critical importance to those SNAs. As Deputy Bruton knows from his time as Minister for Education, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has told us it will not be possible to continuously add on more SNAs year on year. At the moment we have 19,000 SNAs. That is an increase of 70% since 2011.

The ideal model is this multidisciplinary, wrap-around approach within the school environment. That will involve the other key element, namely speech and language therapists, SLTs, and occupational therapists, OTs, to have those in-school supports, which Deputy Bruton's colleague, Deputy Carroll MacNeill, has pointed out will make it more comfortable and convenient for the child within the school environment. That approach should be commended.

There are also the psychological and behavioural supports. When I have visited schools that have already rolled out this model - St. Martin de Porres National School, in Tallaght, is one that springs to mind - and other schools, they have said to me that the behavioural practitioners are imperative and badly needed within the schools. That is another key element of this.

There is also the front-loading of SNAs. We have already started that process with the special education teachers and we want to do it with the SNAs as well. The National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, expansion in respect of the well-being of children with additional needs will also be crucial, and we intend to expand that as well.


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