Dáil debates

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Report of Joint Committee on Education and Skills: Motion


4:00 pm

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann shall consider the Report of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills entitled ‘Report on Training and Supports for Providers of Special Needs Education and Education in DEIS Schools’, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 24 October 2018.

As Chair of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, I am delighted to have the opportunity to move the motion and open the debate on this matter. The report arose from several contacts and requests made to me and other members of the committee, identifying the problems regarding the adequacy of training and supports for providers of special needs education and education in DEIS schools, as well as in schools that, in the opinion of the committee, may deserve DEIS status but did not receive it. Having considered the matters, they were given priority by the committee and several stakeholders were invited to make a written submission outlining their views. That led to the committee agreeing to hold a public hearing to examine in more detail the points raised in those submissions. I wish to thank the stakeholders who gave oral evidence to the committee, namely, Ms Deirbhile Nic Craith, director of education and research, Irish National Teachers’ Organisation; Dr. Anne Ryan, senior lecturer in education, Marino Institute of Education; Dr. Gene Mehigan, principal lecturer in education, Marino Institute of Education; Ms Noreen Duggan, principal of Scoil na Naomh Uilig in Newbridge; Ms Pauline Dempsey, principal of St. Anne’s special school in the Curragh; Ms Breda Corr, general secretary of the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education; Ms Teresa Griffin, CEO of the National Council for Special Education; Ms Madeline Hickey, director of the special education support service for the National Council for Special Education; and Dr. Áine Hyland, professor of education, University College Cork. There were very worthwhile exchanges with each of the witnesses.

The report deals with two distinct topics which the committee agreed to deal with together: training and support for providers of special needs education and education in DEIS schools. In the course of the hearing, several themes of particular concern to the committee emerged. These themes are highlighted in the report and form the basis for the eight key recommendations relating to both topics.

All Members recognise that attendance at mainstream schools by children with special educational needs results in significantly better outcomes for students and, indeed, the wider community in terms of inclusiveness. Of course, it is accepted that special schools have a role to play for some students and their families. However, simply providing these places will not have the desired result without sufficient supports and resources being made available and qualified personnel in particular. It is essential that all members of the education community be fully and appropriately trained in order to ensure that the best interests of every student are at the centre of any decision and that any student who so wishes and whose family so desires should have the opportunity to attend a mainstream school, either within an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit or in a mainstream classroom with the appropriate resources. The committee was told that there is a significant problem regarding teachers attending appropriate training courses. This is due to several factors. One of particular concern which could be dealt with by the Department relates to the lack of substitute teachers available to facilitate the release of teachers to attend the training.

I wish to specifically mention the issue of schools which are granted ASD units but do not receive sufficient resources to kit them out. Last Friday, I visited a primary school in Rath, County Laois, which caters for almost 250 students. It has two ASD units. The Department sanctioned a fantastic ASD unit which is almost fully built. I commend the Department on the quality of the build. It will make an incredible difference to the 12 young people who will be in the two units. However, the Department has not sanctioned any funding to kit out the unit, which will be ready in two to three weeks. There are, for example, three padded areas: two for break-out areas from the separate units and one for a sensory room. The padding will cost a significant amount of money but the Department is refusing to pay for it because several years ago the school received a small grant of €6,500 for another sensory space. I saw the latter space last Friday. It is little more than a cupboard. There is no way that anything could be transferred from it. I have submitted parliamentary questions on the matter and spoken to the Minister's office about it this week because I have no doubt that school is not the only one in that situation. It is important that we refer to such issues.

The provision of a special needs assistant, SNA, in the classroom is essential to assist the student and support him or her in achieving his or her full potential. However, we must remember that the SNA is not responsible for the delivery of teaching or instruction, which are solely matters for the teacher. It is appropriate for the SNA to work with the teacher to differentiate or adapt the curriculum to suit the needs of individual pupils.

In addition to the many challenges facing teachers and SNAs, the committee feels their role is constantly being challenged with the significant volume of paperwork and circulars emanating from the Department. The principal focus of teachers and SNAs must always be on the student and his or her educational progression and personal development. This should not be diluted by dealing with a burden of administrative duties, yet many students with special educational needs still find themselves in classrooms with too many students and insufficient supports to allow them to make progress and achieve the goals to which they aspire. This creates a highly pressurised and frustrating environment and can result in students and teachers being injured at schools. Reports of such incidents have been brought to my attention and that of other members of the committee. It is shocking and unacceptable for everybody. One school referred to the adequate number of clinical staff to support the needs of certain students and said that, despite an increase in student numbers, it has had to reduce the number of hours clinical staff are available due to insufficient funding. The lack of adequate and appropriate supports for students and schools will obviously result in a negative experience and outcome for them, their families and the wider school communities.

The committee notes that an increased capitation grant is paid to special education schools, but the evidence given to it clearly suggests this is still insufficient. Consideration may be given to the provision of such supports separate from capitation grants. I acknowledge that the State is investing a significant amount of its budget in providing support to special education, yet there are still glaring gaps in the service.

Moving on to the delivering equality of opportunities in schools, DEIS, element of the report, the introduction of DEIS was certainly very welcome, but a number of the contributors to the committee pointed out that there are still challenges within schools despite the scheme. No matter what, there are disadvantaged children in every school, regardless of whether it has DEIS status. Therefore, we must consider how we can support those who are disadvantaged in schools that do not have DEIS status. DEIS was originally aimed at addressing the educational needs of children and young people from disadvantaged communities. This was a very welcome initiative and has resulted in significant success. Therefore, the introduction of its successor in 2017 was widely anticipated. The committee will monitor its effectiveness. There is certainly dissatisfaction in regard to how schools were accepted into the DEIS scheme.

DEIS 2017 aims at providing a vision for education to become more fully a proven pathway to better opportunities for those in communities at risk of disadvantage and social exclusion. It plays an important role. We can never forget that, but we need to have more resources under the scheme. DEIS sets out a number of objectives and actions to support children at greatest risk of educational disadvantage. These are to implement a more robust and responsive assessment framework for identification of schools and effective resource allocation; to improve the learning experience and outcomes of pupils in DEIS schools; to improve the capacity of school leaders and teachers to engage, plan and deploy resources to their best advantage; to support and foster best practice in schools through inter-agency collaboration; and to support the work of schools by providing the research, information, evaluation and feedback to achieve the goals of the plan. No DEIS scheme can succeed fully, however, unless other elements of the education experience complement and support it in achieving its goals. The problem with many such schemes is that they can be interpreted too rigidly and can fail some of those whom they are supposed to help. I accept that such consequences are unintentional but this appears to be the case based on the evidence to the committee.

All schemes and the guidelines governing their implementation and operation must have inbuilt flexibility to develop in response to the ever-changing needs to achieve their ends. In addressing the issues highlighted by the committee in producing this report, the outcomes will be universally beneficial by ensuring that the needs of the students are met, school staff on the ground can manage resources appropriately, and the State and all our communities will get value for their money.

The committee's report makes a total of eight very reasonable and practical recommendations based on the evidence put to it. The Minister has provided an overview of progress made under DEIS Plan 2017 arising from recommendation No. 8. I certainly welcome this. I do, however, wish to place on the record of the House the other recommendations. The first is that the committee recommends that the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 be put into effect fully. The Act puts in place legislation to give children with special educational needs the right to graduate from school with the skills necessary to participate, to the level of their capacity, in an inclusive way in the social and economic activities of society and to live independent and fulfilled lives. Parts of the law have been brought into effect but not those that would give a statutory entitlement to provide students with a full assessment of the supports needed to allow them to participate in education and to have the necessary resources provided in accordance with an individual education plan. It is imperative that they be brought into effect.

The second is that the committee asks the Minister for Education and Skills to consider the merits of establishing a two-year pilot co-teaching-for-inclusion project at primary level. Third, the committee recommends that the Minister for Education and Skills put in place measures to address issues affecting schools that were raised in the course of the discussion, including the shortage of school places, facilitating children with challenging behavioural issues, injuries to staff and other pupils, staff-pupil ratios and substitute cover.

Fourth, the committee recommends that the shortage of specialised school places for post-primary children with autism and other special educational needs be addressed as a matter of urgency. An issue in Kildare took 18 months to resolve. This will happen on an ongoing basis, so addressing it is an absolute priority.

Fifth, the committee recommends that the training of staff, from teachers to bus escorts, be made compulsory and that consideration be given to the provision of a separate fund for this training to be made available by the Department of Education and Skills so as not to impact further the funding of schools. Sixth, the committee recommends the standardisation of nursing and clinical supports throughout the educational system. Seventh, the committee recommends that the findings and recommendations on supporting students with special educational needs in school be examined and implemented where practicable.

The Minister has addressed recommendation No. 8 in correspondence but I will put it on the record. The committee recommends that an update on the implementation of the five goals identified in DEIS Plan 2017 prior to the publication of the report be provided to the committee. The committee believes supports should be pupil-centred and made available to students who are disadvantaged, rather than providing only for children who attend a DEIS school.

I would be grateful for some clarification on the apparent focus on allocating funds based on students who reside in an area of high deprivation as a proportion of the total enrolment. The support should be associated with the student and should not be limited by virtue of geographical location alone.

Most important, I acknowledge the commitment of all involved in the provision of education for children with special educational needs and those who teach and provide support in DEIS schools throughout the State. Without them, many children would not have been given the opportunities they have had to date. I pay tribute to secretarial and support staff in schools on their dedication. Their significant contributions are often overlooked. The committee is considering examining this formally.

The report and its recommendations highlight a number of specific issues that speak for themselves. While addressing some of these may be under way, I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

4:10 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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The Ceann Comhairle has advised me that if the House agrees, the next two speakers may now be heard, followed by the Minister's reply and the wrap-up contribution. Is that agreed? Agreed.

4:20 pm

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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5 o’clock

I will speak on a number of the recommendations. I thought it was apt that two of the Topical Issue debates today were on delays in speech and language services for children and a special school. In general when we speak about special education, children with additional needs constantly seem to be treated as second-class citizens. As much as some people might disagree with this analysis it is the case because they must battle for absolutely everything, whether it is speech and language services, occupational therapy, a place in a preschool, a place on a bus or a place in a school, and we seem to accept standards for children with additional needs that we would not accept for other children, such as long delays and travelling distances to and from school. We are supposed to tell parents and children they should be grateful they finally got a school place after battling and, in many cases, having been stressed for the previous two years. It is just not good enough. We speak about it an awful lot in the Chamber. I want to apologise to anyone who has heard me speak on the topic previously because I will pretty much say the same thing I have always said but I hope that at some point it will be taken on board and listened to. It is an area in which I have a very strong interest. I feel it is completely unacceptable that we treat children with additional needs in this way.

The main areas I want to focus on are recommendations Nos. 4, 5 and 8. Recommendation No. 4 is on the shortage of specialised school places for post-primary schoolchildren with autism and other special educational needs. The committee asks for this to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Coincidentally, last week my office received a call from a lady in my constituency who highlighted this very matter. There are two autism spectrum disorder classes available in County Kilkenny at post-primary level, one is in Kilkenny city and the other in rural Kilkenny. The school in rural Kilkenny is the one in Ballyhale visited by the Minister yesterday. That is it for any child who has come along really well through an autism spectrum disorder class at primary level. When it comes to secondary school they are extremely limited with only those two schools. There are issues of geography. It is completely unacceptable. It is a very serious matter. It is a live issue in my constituency and I am sure it is the same for many Deputies.

Recommendation No. 5 is on training for staff, including teachers and bus escorts, to be made compulsory and that consideration be given to the provision of a separate fund for this training to be made available by the Department of Education and Skills so as not to impact further on the funding of schools. I fully support this recommendation. It is similar to a matter I raised in a parliamentary question to the Minister earlier in the week on having a specific training course for teachers to teach in either special educational schools or autism spectrum disorder or special classes. This will always be met with issues regarding inclusiveness, and everybody wants inclusiveness, but in some situations this could be very good because not only would we give the very much needed and required training but it would provide an opportunity for people with a specific interest in the area and in working with children with additional needs. We should look at this.

During Question Time, the Minister stated he did not mind looking at the area and I hope the recommendation in the report means that he will do so. We have seen a very significant increase in autism spectrum disorder classes and we must meet this with the required training and give teachers an opportunity. Many special needs assistants, who have worked in the field for years, would love to progress and teach in a special education school or class. Unfortunately, at present, they are met with many barriers. We need to examine these practical issues. I do not like to be negative and criticise without stating what we should do and this is an area we can look at. A large number of special needs assistants would like to progress and training should be made available. The training should also be made available to people in general with a specific interest in special education.

With regard to recommendation No. 6, a witness who attended one of the hearings made the point she was initially employed as a nurse for 26.5 hours for three children and this was reduced to 24 hours despite the fact she was then caring for 24 children. She went from caring for three children to 24 children but the number of hours was reduced. She was unable to take a lunch break and was working a further nine hours for which she was not paid. This is completely unacceptable. We cannot have these situations. This will not be sustainable. There is no way that even with the best will in the world anybody can stay in a job working under these terms and conditions. We would not accept it in other sectors so we should not accept it when it comes to special education and children with additional needs.

Recommendation No. 8 is on DEIS. I agree with Deputy O'Loughlin that it can be a great system, particularly in recent years when we have seen the high impact of cuts, many children going to school hungry and not being able to afford lunch, and the impact of poverty on children but we need to figure out a way to have the resource follow the child. Many children who are not in DEIS schools are struggling and impacted. In a small number of non-DEIS schools children may have access to the school completion programme. It is primarily in DEIS schools but it is in a few other schools also. The vast majority of children do not have access to these services. They do not need the services of Tusla but if we could figure out a way for the resources to follow the child or expand DEIS to include other schools it would be extremely valuable.

I hope we look at the recommendations. The Minister has a genuine interest in the area and he wants to see progress. He comes from a rural constituency so he knows what it is like for children who are faced with long journeys and long waiting lists. I hope we will see action on some of the recommendations. We cannot just keep talking about it and saying how bad it is. We do point out small bits of progress here and there but it is not enough and they do not meet demands. It is not acceptable that there are only two autism spectrum disorder classes at post-primary level in County Kilkenny. It is completely unfair and puts children with additional needs at a disadvantage. I hope the recommendations are taken on board and that we see action in the near future and not in five or ten years' time when we have discovered a whole new set of problems.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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I thank the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills and committee members for producing this very valuable report. When I told somebody today the report was coming before the Dáil, that person, who is on two boards of management, asked me to ask that boards of management and patrons of schools are specifically included in the training opportunities available because there are a number of difficult points. When parents apply for a place in a primary school at very junior level they are told by special education needs organisers, SENOs, to ask for a place in every primary school in the area and told that it would be great if the parent gets a place. Very often, they cannot do so. We need information and support for parents on getting access to an educational place.

Boards of management do not necessarily understand the criteria. They definitely need training. They also need training because, as the Chairman is aware, many issues involving a child with severe behavioural issues go to board level for action by the board and I am concerned about this. The behavioural issues may be very severe and may involve actual or perceived threats to staff or other children in the school. This can sometimes result in the child effectively being excluded from school.

There is an epidemic of this practice in the UK and we do not want to go down that route. We need to think about such exclusions because this is a difficult issue for everybody. The same issues clearly arise all over again at secondary school level. I refer, for example, to a child attending secondary school who is on the autism spectrum and has not progressed in a way that might have been expected or perhaps still suffers from severe behavioural issues. While there are no easy answers, there are practical measures that need to be considered.

I also am aware of a number of children who have transitioned from primary school and are now in their first year in secondary school. They are on the autism spectrum but also have difficult behavioural issues. In Castleknock in my constituency, which is the Taoiseach's home area, there has been no prescribing consultant psychiatrist in the child and adult mental health service, CAMHS, based there since two months before Christmas. The Minister may be aware of what that means. It means that a child with ADHD, panic attacks or other severe behavioural issues cannot be prescribed the medicine that may be essential to him or her to help manage his or her behaviour while attending school.

I raised a Topical Issue matter on this issue earlier in the week to which the Minister for Health replied. It was indicated that other staff could be allowed to prescribe medication. I agree that prescribing medicine in these circumstances is really important for children but it is also important that senior staff are involved in decision-making. The medicine prescribed can have important effects on the lives of both the child and his or her family. We are just developing knowledge in this area and not every school has access to this knowledge.

I commend all the people who work in special needs schools and in schools, as well as all the genuine efforts being made to integrate the children. Reference was made to ASD classes. As Minister for Education and Skills, my colleague, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, dropped the term "unit". Children were sometimes being asked when they were getting out of the unit, as if they were in a place that was somewhat special, so the language was changed. Recommendation No. 6 on standardising nursing and clinical supports is a good solid recommendation. It also is a very ambitious recommendation. I worked for a long time with the Daughters of Charity in Castleknock, the Navan Road and much of the north side of Dublin and I saw big changes in the model on the HSE side. The schools were then left to pick up the nursing support side.

I do not think that situation has ever been fully addressed, except where there is a full special needs school. That needs to be looked at because parents want their small child, with special needs, to be mainstreamed into our educational system with other children as far as possible. That is understandable and good but definitely requires appropriate nursing and clinical support. There needs to be co-operation between the medical and social services and the schools, regardless of whether we are talking about DEIS or non-DEIS schools. In the greater Dublin area, however, the only school parents can often get their children into are DEIS schools because, in practice, they may have more vacancies. The Minister's officials will be able to tell him about that.

Parents raise another issue with me all of the time. Children, in Dublin and elsewhere, are obliged to go on long bus journeys every day. Some children may like and enjoy that. It is, however, very demanding on a child on the ASD spectrum who might have particular sensitivities to lights, movement, noise or traffic, to have to be on a bus for an hour or an hour and a half twice a day. I am sure it is something the educational experts have factored in. Parents usually welcome their child being in a special school but it is a very long journey.

As Minister for Social Protection, I carried out a review, with the chief medical officer of the Department, on the domiciliary care allowance. It was changed at the time to specifically include the behavioural disorders that many of us have only learned of in relatively recent years. I am not sure those behavioural disorders are fully accounted for and recognised by the Department of Education and Skills. The Department of Education and Skills recognises autism spectrum disorders now but perhaps 20 years ago it did not. Behavioural issues, therefore, need some expert attention. In the UK, many children are being excluded from school and much subsequent analysis suggests that some of those children have behavioural issues that could be helped were they to receive expert help.

It is very difficult for a school when staff and other pupils have to deal with a situation like that. It is not always easy. Nobody wants to see children being expelled from school or being excluded. Equally, no one wants parents to be told that their child can only be in school for an hour, that a parent has to be on the premises ready to intervene, should that be required, or be available to stay in the school if the child cannot be taken home. I am sure the staff in the Department have probably discussed this at great length. I like the idea of a nursing presence. That was always available in the specialist primary schools attached to the traditional institutions which provided care for children with intellectual and other disabilities. It makes a lot of sense to have qualified, experienced and skilled nurses available. I appreciate that it would probably be expensive. It is something, however, that needs to be examined and considered.

I return to my experience in the then Department of Social Protection during the examination of the domiciliary care allowance. By consulting with various people with great experience in the field in a range of different countries, it was possible to make vast improvements in who qualified for the allowance. That took some of the pressure off of the families and gave them an acknowledged support. I think the same thing is happening in the area of schools. We are at the beginning of further and better developments. I know many special needs assistants, SNAs. They give enormous support to children and are very important in the life of a school, both for the other children and for the school staff. There should be a focus on providing much more training capacity and opportunities to SNAs because many of us are aware of the great care they give to children. I refer also to school secretaries and the care they too give to children and to children with special needs in particular. If they can be included in the positive developments to come, that would pay major dividends in developing our understanding of how, as a society, we can best respond to special needs. That would be to everybody's benefit.

4:40 pm

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Tá áthas orm deis a bheith agam labhairt ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo. It is nice and quiet here on a Thursday. It is a good place to be to think properly and listen to individual contributions.

I welcome this opportunity to address the House on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills report on training and supports for providers of special needs education and education in DEIS schools. I thank all the committee members and its Chairman, Deputy O’Loughlin, for their deliberations and report on this matter. I will follow up on the provision of autistic schooling services in County Laois which Deputy O’Loughlin raised with me. I join with her in acknowledging the witnesses who presented to the committee and their invaluable contributions. We are in such an evolving space with special education, particularly when one considers the trajectory of funding from 2011. That in itself is a sign that there has been change and there will be more. We need to be in a position to adapt to that.

The topic is significant and worthy of the full consideration of the House. The matter at its core relates to our most vulnerable children and young people with special educational needs and those who are educationally disadvantaged. The committee identified the topic of training and supports for providers of special needs education and education in DEIS schools as one of its priorities. It undertook a consultation process with a broad range of education stakeholders. A key component of the committee’s report recognises the need for greater inclusion and diversity in the educational system for all children, based on their individual strengths.

The committee made eight recommendations. The recommendations include the full implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act, compulsory training for all school staff, standardisation of nursing and clinical supports throughout the education system and that an update on the implementation of the five goals identified in the DEIS plan 2017 be provided to the committee.

Ensuring children with special educational needs are supported and given the opportunity to reach their full potential is a key priority for the Government. The Government’s basic aim is to use our economic success to build a fairer and compassionate society. Equality of opportunity is at the heart of our vision. Notwithstanding the fact that not all the sections of the EPSEN Act have been commenced, several significant developments have taken place in recent years regarding the provision of supports for children with special educational needs in schools. This includes significant levels of additional investment, combined with a number of reforming measures.

My Department continues to seek to improve provisions by implementing the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, policy advice recommendations, including the policy advice on supporting students with special educational needs in schools published in 2013. It also seeks to bring into effect many of the good ideas contained in the EPSEN Act on a non-statutory basis initially through policy developments across a range of areas.

During the worst years of the recession, when public spending was cut across the board, we not only protected supports to children with special educational needs, we increased them. In 2018, my Department invested more than €1.75 billion in this area, one fifth of my Department’s overall budget and up 42% since 2011 at which point €1.24 billion was invested. This additional investment has provided for an increase of 38% in the number of special education teachers allocated to schools from 9,630 in 2011 to almost 13,300; a 137% increase in the number of special classes from 548 in 2011 to 1,304; and a 42% increase in the number of SNAs available in 2011 with 15,000 SNAs working in our schools at the end of 2018. That figure will come close to 16,000 this year.

A range of other supports are also provided for children with special educational needs such as special school transport arrangements, assistive technology supports and additional teachers in special schools. My Department is committed to a number of measures across the sector to ensure training and upskilling teachers and other professionals working with students. We will continue to examine all avenues of training and not just the traditional routes. There are many good people looking after children in the school environment, as well as acting their guardians. We need to ensure they get equal access to training.

The NCSE strives to bring about improved educational outcomes for students with special educational needs by developing schools’ and teachers’ capacity to provide a relevant and meaningful school experience for students through a multi-tiered continuum of support which is inclusive and responsive. This is achieved by providing supports to schools; by giving advice to educators, parents and guardians; by undertaking and disseminating research into special education; and by providing policy advice to the Minister for Education and Skills on special education issues.

The NCSE aims to support the professional development needs of teachers and schools in the teaching of children with special needs in as flexible a way as possible. The establishment of one NCSE support service, incorporating the special education support service, SESS, national behaviour support service, NBSS, and visiting teacher service with a special education needs organiser service, provides a more integrated and coherent support structure to support schools, parents and students. The NCSE provides a range of supports to teachers, parents and students in the area of special educational needs. This includes continuing professional development, CPD, for teachers which includes school-based seminars, NCSE designed and delivered seminars; NCSE supported courses; online courses; e-learning and book borrowing schemes. The NCSE support service also provides support for schools, groups and individual teachers, including school visits, phone support and email support. CPD courses are available through Middletown Centre for Autism, while college and university courses are provided at postgraduate level such as applied behavioural analysis, deaf-hard of hearing and visual impairment.

In 2017 in all areas of special educational need, the NCSE delivered 7,211 courses or events in CPD. More than 15,600 participants, school management and teachers, received CPD outside of school and over 22,200 participants received in school support through visits and presentations. The concept of co-teaching, or team teaching, is already in evidence in my Department’s policies and supports for inclusive education. There is experience of this both in special educational needs and DEIS. Team teaching encompasses a range of models which have to be used in a way that is appropriate and meaningful to the individual school context, as well as acknowledging the roles of the teachers and students involved.

The professional development service for teachers provides CPD support to teachers on an ongoing basis for team teaching and also has had involvement with student-teacher projects in this area. Section 39 of the Teaching Council Acts 2001 to 2015 provides for the council to review and accredit programmes providing continuing training and professional development for teachers. In the Education (Amendment) Act 2012, section 39 was amended to enable the council to regulate for conditions for renewal of teacher registration, including attendance at programmes of continuing education and training. These amendments have yet to be commenced.

Under section 38 of the Teaching Council Act, all initial teacher education programmes have been reviewed and accredited by the Teaching Council for registration purposes. The criteria and guidelines for programme providers, published in 2011 and revised in March 2017, is an important document which must be observed by all providers of initial teacher education in order that their programmes are recognised for the purposes of teacher registration. Inclusive education is a mandatory area of study for all student teachers who are undertaking programmes of initial teacher education at primary and post-primary levels in Ireland in accordance with the criteria and guidelines.

The graduate teacher is required to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the factors that promote and hinder learning, the impact of pupils’ backgrounds on learning and the need to provide for the holistic development of the learner, particularly through differentiated approaches. It is widely accepted that the issue of training and supports is much broader than teacher education. Students can benefit when all staff in schools and people with whom they interact have been trained in whole-school approaches to inclusion.

The 2018 comprehensive review of the special needs assistant scheme, which set out to ensure the scheme is achieving the best outcomes possible for children with special educational needs, recommends the development of a national training programme tailored to the needs of school communities. This will include training for special needs assistants to ensure school staffs have the requisite skills to meet the needs of students' care needs arising from significant medical, physical, emotional, behavioural, sensory and other significant difficulties with engaging with learning. The full report of the SNA comprehensive review also contains a recommendation on the provision of nursing and clinical supports which was informed by the report from the working group on nursing supports for students with complex medical needs. The Department of Health and my Department are tasked with agreeing and delivering the health and education supports required to meet the complex needs of students in special schools and classes.

In response to the comprehensive review of the SNA scheme I have undertaken to develop proposals for the implementation of the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, recommendations and I will bring to the Government shortly a proposed implementation plan for the policy recommendations of the report for approval. I acknowledge the Connacht-Ulster branch of SNAs that I met in the past two weeks who raised the matter and asked when we would advance the issue. I am glad to say we will be doing it as a priority very shortly. The issue of complex behavioural needs was also examined as part of the comprehensive SNA review. My Department is currently working on the development of guidelines for schools on the specific matter of the use of restraint and intervention. Before finalising this work, the Department will consult with stakeholders and training will also be considered as part of this work.

With regard to the recommendations in the committee report relating to issues affecting schools raised in the course of the committee's consultations with stakeholders, I have recently requested the NCSE to develop advice on the educational provision that should be in place for students educated in special schools and classes and to make recommendations on the provision required to enable students in special schools and classes achieve better outcomes. The advice will also look at international approaches. The NCSE has been asked to complete and submit its report to the Minister not later than June 2020.

This Government has been able to continue to meet the needs of children with special educational needs attending our schools and to increase provision to address emerging needs in this area. The Government will continue to prioritise investment in the area of special education support. I assure the House that the education of children with special educational needs remains a key priority for this Government.

With respect to the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, programme, inclusive education is a fundamental principle of our education and training system. It is vital that all learners have the opportunity to benefit from education in order to help them fulfil their potential in life. DEIS is my Department's main policy initiative aimed at tackling educational disadvantage in primary and post-primary schools. The DEIS plan for 2017, launched by my Department in February 2017, contains five key goals and 108 actions to achieve those goals. In line with the recommendations of the report, my Department has recently submitted an update to the committee on the implementation of that DEIS plan for 2017. There are now 896 schools participating in the DEIS programme, with my Department having invested over €125 million last year in the range of additional supports provided to DEIS schools, such as DEIS grants and enhanced DEIS book grants. Additional funding of approximately €81 million in 2018 was provided by the Government for the school meals programme and the school completion programme. A number of years ago Deputy Burton was keen to ensure that aspect of funding could be protected, which I acknowledge.

The current level of funding provided to DEIS schools highlights the Government's commitment to ensuring education becomes a proven pathway to better opportunities for all learners, especially those at risk of not maximising the benefits of education. DEIS schools receive financial resources in the form of a DEIS grant, as well as an enhanced book grant. They also have access to literacy and numeracy supports, priority access to professional development and the Centre for School Leadership, enhanced guidance allocation, access to the Incredible Years and Friends for Life programmes, as well as access to the school meals programme, the home school community liaison scheme and the school completion programme.

My Department has introduced an objective, statistics-based model for assessing which schools merit inclusion in the DEIS programme so that all stakeholders can have confidence that we are targeting extra resources at those schools with the highest levels of concentrated disadvantage. The rationale for allocating resources and supports based on a school's level of concentrated disadvantage is based on the existence of a "multiplier effect", whereby students attending a school with a concentration of students from disadvantaged backgrounds have poorer academic outcomes. Research by the Educational Research Centre, ERC, and the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, indicates a strong evidence base in the Irish context that the social class mix of a school matters, providing a rationale for prioritising supports for schools that cater for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Students in schools with high concentrations of peers from lower socio-economic backgrounds have lower achievement levels than those in schools with a more socially advantaged intake, all other factors being equal. There is strong evidence of such an effect in DEIS post-primary schools and in urban DEIS primary schools, especially band 1 schools.

The latest report published by the ERC on 7 January on the evaluation of DEIS at post-primary level indicates significant positive trends in achievement at junior certificate level. However, more work needs to be done as indicated in last week's ESRI report on the impact of the revised leaving certificate grading scheme. At the heart of the DEIS initiative is the requirement and opportunity for schools to determine their own needs, set their own targets and use resources as they think best to target those students most at risk of educational disadvantage. I have listened closely to Deputies' comments on a targeted approach in order to get the highest impact and get support services to those most in need. The new DEIS identification model will have an impact not only on the assessment of schools for inclusion in the programme but also on the scaling of resources to allow for more graduated levels of support. This in turn will allow for the ultimate objective of allocating resources to best meet the identified need of individual schools.

I thank the committee for its contribution and observations. I have had meetings with leaders in the school system while touring around to different schools, including special schools, and I know there is always room to do more. There are weaknesses but there are also strengths. We must ensure we can continue to engage with stakeholders. The committee's work involved reaching out to the people who matter and who have the experience and knowledge, which is really important. I thank the committee for doing it.

There has been an enormous influx of representations from colleagues around the House because of pressure to seek additional support for autistic young people. I have already spoken this week about the language we use in the area. I will not use the word mentioned by Deputy Burton but we must figure out a better way of getting our vocabulary around these issues so we do not create stigma and alienation in a school environment. I know from the representations I have seen that there is pressure to provide the required classes for pupils on the autism spectrum.

This does not just affect the greater Dublin area and it also has an impact on the Acting Chairman's county of Kildare, Meath, Wicklow and the rest of the country. I acknowledge what Deputy Funchion described in her constituency. A complex process of consultation is required and as the Deputies mentioned, the onus is on parents to find a place. There can be complications and there may be better ways of facilitating information flow, such as through training boards of management or giving schools more of a roadmap on how to help. It is difficult enough for a parent of a child with special needs without that parent having to go through the harsh reality of fighting for a school place. There will be a big demand down the line but we must figure out a way of meeting it.

In the Department's work and especially in the special needs area, there is a deep awareness that the inclusion model is working. There is a need for special classes but there are also elements of choice and mainstream participation. There is an awareness in the officials with whom I work that we must continue to prioritise the issue. A change in legislation came into effect last December on the ministerial role with respect to special classes. This is something we will monitor closely.

4:50 pm

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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I will not take 15 minutes but I would be happy to share it with other Deputies if they wish. Nelson Mandela stated that education is the most powerful weapon we have to change the world. We are really trying to make the world a little bit easier for those pupils who face challenges because of special needs, as well as their parents and those who are born in disadvantaged parts of society.

It is a battle and it can also be a battle to break out of the cycle of poverty and inequality.

Deputies Funchion and Burton have spoken about the challenges facing parents of children with special needs, which are significant. While parents have all the love in the world for their new baby, they face a fight every step of the way in terms of absorbing a diagnosis of autism or some other form of special needs or intellectual or physical disability at a later stage, trying to make sense of it and then trying to get an assessment, figure out what is available and get the supports. Finding a school place at primary and secondary level is a significant challenge, which is unacceptable. I have had experience of special education needs organisers, SENOs, telling parents to do the round of schools when the SENOs know whether there is capacity in them, and most of the time there is no capacity. SENOs then suggest to parents that they make section 29 appeals. Those who are there in a supportive capacity to help parents to get over these challenges should be doing far more than that. What then happens is that parents come back to us to look for support around section 29 appeals.

A principal of a special school spoke about that process. It was heartbreaking listening to her. Her school is overcrowded. Funnily enough, the children who go to this school have fewer resources and SNA support than they would in mainstream schools but the SENO recommended that all the parents in question, and we are talking about children who had finished in an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit, apply to this school. Three of them were granted. Two of the children left that school after a number of months because the parents realised the school was nearly dangerous for their children to attend. We need training and support for teachers and ancillary staff, including SNAs. I take the point Deputy Burton made regarding boards of management so that they have a better understanding of the matter. We need a rethink of how SENOs operate. I have no doubt there are excellent SENOs out there but it is not good enough for them simply to recommend that parents take section 29 appeals and then nearly wash their hands of the matter when it comes to trying to find a place, particularly when children start in an ASD unit in a primary school and nothing is done about providing an education after an eight-year period. Thankfully, the situation relating to Scoil Na Naomh Uilig in Newbridge was resolved with the help of the Minister, but we need to rethink the whole area.

What the committee tried to do, and I am sure I speak for every Deputy and Senator in the Houses of the Oireachtas, was recognise and put in words the need for future inclusion and diversity in the education system for all our children based on their individual needs and strengths. For some, this relates to special education while others may come from a disadvantaged background and may need extra supports in school. We need a more pupil-centred approach. It should be a given that students in need receive the supports they require to give them an equal chance at every stage and to allow them to get the very best educational outcome for them to become full citizens, go on to some kind of further education if they need to, have a positive role in society and be fulfilled and fulfilling citizens.

The Minister said in his response that the Government has been able to continue to meet the needs of children with special educational needs attending our schools and increase provision to address emerging needs in this area. I accept that work is being done but I do not think we are continuing to meet the needs of children with special educational needs on so many different levels, for example, the provision of an adequate number of ASD classes and supports at second level. Transport is a very significant issue in terms of collecting children, bringing them to their place of education and bringing them home. Every year, there are so many calls from distraught parents because the Department has told them that while there is a place for their child, the Department cannot give him or her transport. In some cases, it will provide a grant towards providing the transport, which certainly goes nowhere near meeting needs. On an individual basis working through the system, we have been able to deal with some of those after a period of time. In my situation, it took six weeks before we were able to get transport. There is much more that needs to be done.

When the Minister talks about DEIS, he spoke about the objective statistics-based model for assessing schools. We made the point that this is not working and that there are schools that are being left out and children who are being disadvantaged because they are being left out of this system when they need it. I appreciate that, in his final comment, the Minister said that he will not only look at assessment for schools and inclusion but also the scaling of resources to allow for more graduated levels of support. I accept that this might mean something for disadvantaged children in schools that do not have DEIS status.

I thank the Minister for his engagement. The committee appreciates the time he has taken. This issue will never go away. There will always be needs, vulnerable and disadvantaged children we must help, or children with special needs we must help through the Department and linking with the Department of Health, especially with regard to the provision of nursing staff etc. As we go on, we continue to refine the system and make it better for those who will need to access all of these extra supports and resources we can offer. I thank the Minister and all the members of the committee who contributed to this along with all the stakeholders.

Question put and agreed to.

The Dáil adjourned at at 5.45 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 29 January 2019.