Tuesday, 9 July 2019
Special Educational Needs: Motion [Private Members]
That Dáil Éireann: notes that:—each and every child has a right to education to enable them to live a full life and to realise his or her potential;further notes:
—annually, parents of children with special needs and autism face considerable difficulty securing school places for their children;
—there were 3,568 children awaiting a first assessment of need nationally at the end of March;
—there were over 850 children with special educational needs receiving home tuition while awaiting school placement in 2017/2018; and
—a recent survey of parents of children with special needs conducted by AsIAm found that:—35 per cent of parents said that they had applied to between four and seven different schools to seek a place for their child;
—54 per cent of parents felt that a lack of school places was the biggest barrier for their child in accessing education, in addition to a further 18 per cent saying that their chief obstacle was a lack of nearby schools or classes in their local catchment areas;
—91 per cent of respondents whose child or children were experiencing exclusion or extended absence from school said they were presently receiving no support from Tusla; and
—recurring problems will increase in the 2018/2019 school year and in Dublin 15 alone there is a shortage of 40 special school places for students with complex needs, including autism spectrum disorder;—the impact of disengagement from school is catastrophic for young people;agrees that:
—that when a child does have a place, children with disabilities are more likely to be placed on reduced hours;
—that the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 gives the Minister for Education and Skills the power to direct schools to open more school places for children with special needs where there are not sufficient places available; and
—that there has been no investment between 2016-2018 to recruit additional therapists in the Health Service Executive Service Plan under the national policy of ‘Progressing Disability Services for Children and Young Persons 0-18’, which causes extra gaps in education provision;—each child deserves access to education, and where appropriate, the State must provide education which supports the special educational needs of children;acknowledges that the National Council for Special Education has formally advised the Minister for Education and Skills, that there is insufficient special school and special class capacity in Dublin 15, but that further use of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 to address shortfalls in other areas has not yet taken place; and
—no school takes the decision to reduce a student’s timetable unilaterally; and
—there is currently no formal system in place for monitoring or reporting on the use of reduced timetables; and
calls on the Government to:—immediately use the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 in areas where there is a need to ensure that every child with a special educational need has that need met before September 2019;
—provide additional support mechanisms for parents to directly engage with Special Educational Needs Organisers, and to provide additional resources if required to ensure that parents concerns regarding school places are met;
—provide teachers with access to further undergraduate training in the area of special education needs;
—provide those who are working in the area of special education with further supports for continuous professional development;
—provide additional resources such as the National Educational Psychological Service and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services to at-risk children or children in need of assistance to remove the need for a reduced timetable as a response to emotional or behavioural issues;
—introduce legislation governing the use of reduced timetables;
—immediately introduce a mechanism that includes an appeals process to ensure that reduced timetables are monitored, including the reason that a reduced timetable is used, its duration, a plan to support the young person to return to the school timetable and the child’s age, gender and ethnicity;
—engage with schools and teachers representatives to address shortfalls in resources to ensure that schools have adequate provision to provide every child with an education; and
—create a plan to roll out in-school speech and language therapies nationwide.
I am sharing my time. Every child, including children with special needs, has the right to reach his or her full potential. I believe that education is key to realising that right. We must also remember that behind every child looking for a school place is a family, including parents and siblings. These people often have to fight for everything and not just for school places. A written response to a parliamentary question posed by Deputy Thomas Byrne last June advised that "enabling children with special educational needs including autism to receive an education ... is a priority for ... [this] Government". I really wonder if that is the case.
I know those are reassuring words because every child has a right to an education. In fact, this right is enshrined in the Constitution and that is the least that every child, including children with a disability, deserves. It is a given, or at least it should be. The reality with this Government, however, paints a somewhat different picture. A survey conducted by AsIAm found that one third of parents who completed the survey confirmed that they had been waiting more than one year for a school place. Nationally, more than 850 children with special needs received home tuition last year simply because there were no spaces for them in schools.
As the Minister is aware, school is not just about education. It is also about the development of social skills and those skills are developed within the walls of the school. In my county of Cork, 156 children were languishing on a list for placement last year. That has increased from 121 since 2015. It is further noted that in circumstances where spaces are provided it is often the case that reduced timetables are introduced as a means of dealing with challenging behaviour. That is not fair. Every child should be entitled to a full day in school, except in those rare circumstances where, in agreement with parents, that is not viewed as a good idea. In most cases, however, children need their full day in school, like other pupils in the class. The reality is that these numbers are likely to be much higher as the practice appears to go unregulated for the most part. We have no records and no data are collected. Imagine that in this day and age we have no way of ascertaining the gravity of this process as it is not monitored.
In fact, many schools make decisions concerning which children are placed on reduced timetables. Significantly, the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018, instigated by my party, Fianna Fáil, provides the Minister with powers to compel schools to provide a place within a school to children with special needs. This power, however, has only been used once so far, in Dublin 15. This Act needs to be implemented nationally with immediate effect. I would also like to see more contact between parents and the special education needs officers, SENOs, so that the SENO, the parents and the teachers can be on the same hymn sheet going forward. What chance does a child have to reach his or her full potential when the most basic of starts, that is, an education, is not being afforded to him or her? I hope sincerely that we will receive cross-party support for this motion. I hope that it will allow our forgotten children, often those children who have no voices of their own, to be recognised so that they get what they rightly deserve.
This is an important Private Member's motion being put forward by Fianna Fáil. It caters for those children and their families who find themselves faced with the most challenges in life. Every year, I and many of my colleagues find that parents of children with special needs and with autism face considerable difficulties securing school places for their children. This has led to the establishment of campaigns such as Enough is Enough - Every Voice Counts. Such campaigns have emerged in the areas of Dublin, Cork and Limerick in response to the difficulties experienced by parents in securing school places for their children.
I have certainly found such difficulties in my constituency of Kildare South. This evening I was reading back over some of the emails I received from parents in recent years and it was absolutely heart-rending and heart-breaking. Parents are unable to find a school place in their own county, let alone within a local school. One parent referred to being offered a place 35 miles from home and that meant a round trip of 70 miles. School is an important setting for socialisation as well as for any academic experience. The whole principle of schooling locally, where children get to know their neighbours, is very important.
We know that there are close to 4,000 children awaiting assessment to get a school place. That is a high number of children awaiting such recognition. I have come across situations where children did not have the requisite diagnosis when their names were on the list for a school. Their parents were told, however, that it would not be a problem while the diagnosis was awaited. It then became a problem when the child had the diagnosis, having gone through the whole process of buying uniforms, etc. More than 850 children with special needs across the country were receiving home tuition last year because a space could not be found for them in schools. The amount paid for home tuition for these children has increased by almost a quarter in the last two years. These children and their families are being left behind.
I have raised another situation, with which I am very familiar, with the Minister before. It concerns 12 children in Newbridge who were leaving an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit within their primary school but who did not have a place to go to at second level. Some 24 months before those children were due to leave their school we started a campaign and a lobby. Those 12 children left school in June 2018. It took until after the November break in that year to get a place within a secondary school. No home tuition whatsoever was offered during that time. Those children went for almost half a year without any type of school setting. That is absolutely wrong.
Through pressure from Fianna Fáil, the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 gives the Minister the power to compel schools to provide special classes where sufficient places are not available. So far, despite concerns raised by parents across the country, this power has only been used once and that was in Dublin 15. We believe that the Government must be far more active in its application of this power. The problems do not end when a child enters school. While Department of Education and Skills does not collect information on reduced timetables, reduced hours or exclusion, evidence from organisations such as AsIAm indicates that many schools have implemented involuntary exclusions or reduced hours for children with special needs. That is simply not good enough.
The Government must act to ensure that these children receive the education they are entitled to. It is simply not good enough to ignore the problem. Schools also must be provided with the resources to vindicate these children’s right to an education.
Going back to the experience in my constituency, quite early on in my mandate I conducted a survey of all the schools in the area, especially homing in on this specific situation. I was quite shocked by the results of that survey. It is very important that children of schoolgoing age can get a place in a school close to them or where their siblings attend. Some 15 years on from the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act 2004, progress has been made with resources and a greater knowledge of what is required in schools for all children, including those on the autism spectrum. I believe this knowledge is being whittled away year on year without the reduction in class sizes, with yo-yoing entitlement of schools to special needs assistants, and with no increase on ASD classes, when quite obviously the demand far exceeds the supply.
The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, has spoken about a range of placement options and supports for children that have enrolled as pupils with ASD, but what about the options for children who cannot enrol? What is their option? Is it to wait until next year? Will there be a place then? How long should a child have to wait until a place becomes available? From speaking to parents and schools, I have found that quite often they have to wait until another pupil leaves the ASD unit. Nobody knows, however, when that is going to happen.
Professor Louise Gallagher, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, has said: "We are running to stand still and I would worry that we are over relying on medication rather than being able to give them the full suite of services." Professor Gallagher has pointed out that a diagnosis of autism should be getting a child the required services, but in some cases it is actually shutting a child out of services. The lack of intervention with any diagnosed condition compounds the situation.
It is very difficult for parents to face a future for their child that they had not imagined. Sometimes cases are not presented until it is too late and behaviours can become entrenched. Interventions are always going to be more difficult, and we all acknowledge the importance of early intervention. Already parents of children with autism face a journey of having to fight for their children every step of their academic life. A place in a school in their environment must be a basic requirement.
I compliment my colleagues on tabling this Private Members' motion on special education.
Annually, parents of children with special needs and autism face considerable difficulty securing school places for their children. For those who are lucky enough to secure the place, I will focus on the problems some of those children might face when they enter the school system, normally at the age of four or five.
When they enter school the parents and teachers can notice quite quickly that some children may not reach a particular milestone, or that some children may need extra supports, be withdrawn, might not share and might be happier on their own. There is no doubt that we have fantastic teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs, who are trained to recognise these signs straight away. Children with ASD can struggle in mainstream, especially those without a diagnosis.
To the best of my knowledge - I am not sure about DEIS schools - normally most national schools receive funding to carry out two diagnoses per year. Recently I met the principal of a school for children with special needs. I believe he gets funding for more than that but he told me that it was like playing God. One is trying to weigh up the needs of one child against those of another. One is trying to assess whether the family may be able to go ahead and have it done privately. The principal said that he feels that he is playing God in this because he is trying to decide which child is worse and needs the assessment sooner than the other child to get the correct supports. I believe that all Members hear of many of these situations through our constituency offices.
I have received the statistics on children with special educational needs who are seeking an educational placement in a recognised school. The figures for Waterford are just four for last year, so it is one of the best counties in the country for having children placed. I do not have many people coming to me to say they cannot get their child into a specific school, but parents do say that when their child is in school and needs the assessment, they are waiting too long for it. On top of this, some parents try to borrow the money to have a private assessment done. If there is one thing we could focus on, this would be a very good one.
A school that is located as close as possible to the child with autism is very important. A child may have to travel by bus and might have a companion on the bus, but in some instances, especially in rural areas, the child might have to travel for one hour to get to the special school with the autism unit and it could be another hour home in the evening. This puts another two hours onto the day for a four or five year old. I am aware that we cannot put an autism unit in every national school in the State, but at the same time it is very important to look at geography when we are determining which schools receive these extra supports.
I will be sharing time with Deputy Scanlon. I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this issue of special needs access to school places, and on the issue of reduced timetables. Every child deserves an appropriate school placement within their community, and this includes children with special needs. All children are equal. Some children learn differently and require teachers who understand them. They require those teachers to have the necessary supports and need more environments that are friendly to their needs. Children with autism, for example, need sensory friendly environments and sometimes they need visual aids. These children equally need an appropriate school placement within their community, and this is true integration and true inclusion.
Every year, however, parents of children with special needs and autism face considerable difficulties securing school places for their children in mainstream schools or special schools. Some children over the age of six still have no place, and six of those children are in my county of Wexford. We are aware of more than 850 children with special needs in the State who received home tuition last year because a space could not be found for them in schools. Similarly, many schools have implemented involuntary exclusions or reduced timetables for children with special needs.
These children and their families are being left behind. I have dealt with numerous children and their families through my constituency office in Enniscorthy. Children are being denied their right to appropriate education, which is discrimination. There is a real underprovision of places. Children who have been diagnosed as requiring places in special classes or special schools are being told there are no places available in their area, and some of the children must travel up to 60 km to access a place. The gap in special needs provision leads to a two tier educational system.
Similarly, it appears that the practice of reduced timetables is a growing problem. The practice appears largely unregulated. There are no guidelines around its usage and there is no requirement for schools to report on the practice. Department inspectors do not collect widespread data on it. This means that children who need intervention cannot get it because the data are not available to identify where they are. Children end up underperforming, leaving school early and not meeting their potential.
The Government must act to ensure these children receive the education they are entitled to. Schools must be provided with the resources to vindicate these children's rights to an education. Schools that are not going to play ball - effectively, those schools that feel they do not have to provide the necessary supports - should have action taken against them. The Education (Admission to Schools ) Act 2018 gives the Minister for Education and Skills the power to compel schools to provide the necessary spaces for these special children and it should be used.
I want to raise with the Minister the issue of the rehabilitative training allowance, which I have learned is to be abolished. I have raised the matter also with the Taoiseach. This training allowance is for young people who have a disability and is worth €31.80 a week, for a maximum of four years. I acknowledge the HSE is struggling with a deficit but this is nothing short of scandalous. Rehabilitative training is essential for young people with disabilities in developing independence, and this payment is much-needed money for one of the most vulnerable groups of people in our society. To these people it means a job to get them out of bed every day to where they will be looked after well and where they feel wanted and supported by other people like them with whom they work.
Like the Minister, I have been around the Houses of the Oireachtas for a long time. He and I arrived here on the same day. This is the most mean-spirited cut I have witnessed since then.
I am proud to be a member of a party which is committed to the removal of barriers that prevent people with disabilities from participating fully in society and which recognises that adequate supports and services are required if these people are to live independently. They are entitled not only to dignity and respect but also to the choice to progress to education and vocational and mainstream services. I ask the Minister to use his influence, as I did earlier with the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach stated that he was not aware of the abolition of the fund. I ask the Minister to use his good offices for the sake of people who have no voice. The fund does great work and provides great help for those who benefit and for their parents. It is a reason for them to go to work every week. To do this for a minimum payment of €38 per week is outrageous and I ask the Minister to use his influence to have it reversed immediately.
Gabhaim buíochas leis na Teachtaí ó Fhianna Fáil fáchoinne an seans labhairt ar an díospóireacht seo inniu, go háirithe leis An Teachta Thomas Byrne fáchoinne an obair atá seisean ag déanamh ar son na rudaí speisialta fosta. Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach ar an gComhchoiste um Oideachas agus Scileanna, an Teachta O'Loughlin, fáchoinne na rudaí cuimsitheacha atá déanta sa choiste fosta. Gabhaim aitheantas leis an Teachta Funchion agus an Teachta Burton fáchoinne an obair atá siadsan ag déanamh ar an díospóireacht fosta mar thosaigh an díospóireacht tríd na rudaí speisialta ag deireadh na bliana seo caite agus ag tús na bliana seo nuair a tháinig mise isteach i mo phost nua. Tá sé iontach tábhachtach an chomhpháirtíocht agus an chomhobair atá le feiceáil sa Teacht seo agus tá sé iontach tábhachtach ar son an ábhair seo.
I thank Fianna Fáil for bringing the motion before the House. It comes here on the back of a great deal of good work that has happened in the House over the seven to eight months since I took up my current position. I thank the other Members who spoke, in particular the spokespersons, Deputies Funchion and Burton, for their continued vigilance on this issue. This is a challenging area. While we may say it is a challenge politically, financially and with respect to resources, it is a particular challenge for the parents of young people with special and unique challenges themselves. They are very bright, capable young people and autistic children and all their parents are looking for is a level playing field, fair play and the opportunity for them to realise their potential. I know that is exactly what everyone will articulate tonight. It is something that has been echoed by those Deputies who have already spoken.
Every time I speak publicly on this issue, we talk about the resources we are applying. We are putting in almost €2 billion out of an overall budget of €11 billion. However, while €1 in €5 is going into special education, there continue to be many things we are not getting right. There is a great deal of work that still needs to be done. There is a communications issue for parents on the ground as to what schools are available and the way the model is established places the onus on parents to do all the running. When one is a parent, a great deal is going on in doing the job of parenthood already without having to do extra work when one's neighbour may not have to do the same running. That is why I want strongly to pursue the school inclusion model. We have established a pilot scheme and will invest €4.75 million in September to develop a model whereby the HSE will no longer work in parallel to the Department of Education and Skills. I want to see properly inclusive education in the classrooms.
We will see it in 75 schools in west Dublin, Wicklow and Kildare from September when occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, behavioural therapists, special needs assistants and special education teachers will start to work together to realise the full potential of students with special challenges. It is a challenge. We will evaluate the pilot and it will be up to whatever Government is in office at that stage to decide how to extend it and move forward. Having witnessed the model in practice and seen occupational therapists working together with classroom teachers, it is the way forward. That is not to say we will not get it right on the first attempt. I was at Robertson national school in Stranorlar recently and met a mother whose son is in a wheelchair and is attending the school, which has a great and inclusive model. However, when I started to explain how the pilot would work, she asked about the idea of including a physiotherapist as well. As such, we have to look at the entire cohort and that may include clinical nurses for complex medical challenges. That is where we are looking to go but we are not there yet. The only way we will get there is by working together to figure out a better way. For example, we are spending €207 million on school transport annually, of which 50%, just over €100 million, is applied to transport for children with special educational needs and one of the speakers earlier asked whether we were getting that right. There are students travelling one and a half hours to school, which makes for a three-hour round trip every day and we have to look at how to improve the system for them.
Legislative powers have been provided for and we have an Act that has been invoked in Dublin 15. Having worked with the schools in that area, I am of the view that we will make progress. For example, there were 88 pupils who were not going to get places last April. Since then, we have worked closely with stakeholders, parents and the local education and training board and have managed to follow through and ensure we have a special school in place. A principal has been appointed and the school will be set up in September. It will be at least a start to identifying the need. There are 40 other students on the waiting list and we have written to 18 schools in respect of them. One school has agreed to provide a classroom and we are engaging with two others. Another school has written to us formally today. If we can get those three schools over the line, we will meet the needs of 18 students and will be nearly halfway there. Hopefully, we will have another three schools buying into that opportunity, which is what this is. The schools I visit, such as Coláiste Gleann Lí in Tralee, that have special education at the heart of their learning and teaching are richer for it. Deputies are in and out of schools all the time and will know that. That message has to get out there. I am not a believer in the big stick approach to politics whereby we compel schools to build a classroom and give them a date and timeframe by which it must be done. It is not the way to go because schools will have reasons as to why they are not buying into this model. Those reasons may relate to continuing professional development for teachers and ensuring teachers have the proper training and support to carry out the job effectively. We are trying to meet those schools and to figure out the best way to ensure they get the proper supports. That engagement is ongoing. As far as Dublin 15 is concerned, the legislation has been invoked but there is a process to follow which is fairly detailed. The first part of that process is that the National Council for Special Education writes formally to me. Dublin 15 is the only area in respect of which I have received a formal letter from the council. I am aware that there are challenges in Cork and Kilkenny too. There are challenges in all these different areas. However, we are working on the basis that by September, we will have provided an adequate number of places for the children who are demanding them.
I refer to the legislative proposal for reduced timetabling, in respect of which important work with Tusla is ongoing.
It is very important work. Legislation may or may not be required. It is too early to tell but I know that is framed in part of the motion as well.
I am happy to support this motion on the understanding that we continue to make this a proper, all-inclusive conversation. I will do my best in that regard, through the relevant channels, my office and the officials who work with me in respect of this matter. There is no magic wand and no template from which we work because Ireland is actually leading the way. Canada is very much focused on putting special education at the heart of its inclusive education agenda but we are leading the way. When I was in Finland recently, I saw how it is looking at the Irish model. However, we must also think all the time about the parents who feel they are the ones who must push for this. We will do away with the idea of parents having to come up with a clinical diagnosis. This is behind having the school pilot model and looking at preschool through to primary school in order that we have the information as we go the whole way through. The Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills has been looking at this matter for some time.
Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis na Teachtaí arís fá choinne an díospóireacht seo. Níl an díospóireacht críochnaithe. Tá an t-ábhar seo iontach tábhachtach do na daoine óga agus na tuismitheoirí fosta.
I thank the Minister for acknowledging my work in this area. As he is aware, it is something I consistently raise and it is an area about which I feel strongly and passionately. I also welcome his honesty and frankness. It was refreshing to hear the Minister go off script and speak from his own experience about the issue. This must be matched with actions but I do welcome that and think it is a positive and welcome development.
Sinn Féin is supporting the Fianna Fáil motion. I thank Deputies Thomas Byrne and Murphy O'Mahony for bringing it forward. On 2 April, Deputy Ó Caoláin and I tabled a Private Members' motion to mark World Autism Awareness Day in which we called for the development of an autism empowerment strategy. This was unanimously supported. Key aspects of that motion involved acknowledging the inequity within our education system for autistic children and the fact that we have created a two-tier system that has led to so many children falling through the cracks. I remind the House, and possibly the Minister, that we are still awaiting the establishment of an all-party committee on autism, as recommended in our motion on 2 April. This is a matter we will continue to raise.
We support the measures in this motion and feel they must be acted on to tackle the challenges embedded in our education system children with additional needs face. Without appropriate training, how can teachers enter classrooms confidently and teach all children equally? Trainee teachers are consistently stating that they do not feel prepared and do not have adequate skills to teach children with additional needs. This should never be the case. A recent report based on a National Council for Special Education, NCSE, public consultation highlighted the fact that there is a great deal of concern regarding the level of training and knowledge of teachers who work with students with autism spectrum disorder, ASD, particularly as knowledgeable and experienced teachers are required to work with such children. There is also great concern about non-experienced teachers being given special classes and resource teaching hours and about the practice, especially at post-primary level, of using resource teaching hours were to fill subject teacher timetables, which is completely unacceptable. We fully support the recommendation in the NCSE's report to the effect that an ongoing programme of continuing professional development be designed and delivered for principals and deputy principals to allow them to focus on providing leadership in the context of the education of students with special educational needs in schools.
We have spoken about the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018. I understand from where the Minister is coming in that regard. However, rather than using an approach that punishes schools which do not implement this, although I get frustrated when I see some of the situations that parents and students face and the complete lack of empathy on the part of certain schools, perhaps we should implement a system of rewarding the schools that strive to be good examples, that are out on their own when it comes to this matter and that go above and beyond because this might lead to other schools coming on board if they realise that there could be a benefit from doing so. It is unfortunate to have to say this but sometimes, that is the reality. There is a lack of urgency when it comes to establishing the number of ASD classes required to meet demand. As a result, children are being left at home and left behind. I raise this issue on a regular basis. In the past two days, figures emerged in my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny which show that many children are awaiting home tuition, which would indicate that there is no ASD class for them. In the context of social aspects and seeing brothers, sisters and friends going to school, how does a parent explain that to his or her child? It is neither fair nor right. I do not care how often I have to say it. We have created a two-tier system and, as a society, we have nearly accepted the argument that children with additional needs and their parents should be happy to wait and battle for everything and that if they get what they need, even if it is October or November and school has started, that is fair enough and they should be grateful. We need to change that attitude.
I want to touch briefly on today's announcement that, from September, the rehabilitative training allowance, which is worth €31.80 per week per student, is to be scrapped for new entrants. This beggars belief and I cannot understand how anybody could stand over this type of move. The HSE stated:
This decision will bring equity to all persons attending HSE-funded adult day services and will be in line with mainstream vocational training services ... New entrants to training after September 1 will not receive the allowance. They will not be affected because as they will never have received this allowance.
However, if people know allowance is there, they will factor that in. It has been proven time and again that there is a cost involved if one has an additional need or disability. Even if one looks at our public transport system, one can see how people cannot access it if they have additional needs or disabilities. In such circumstances, it is unbelievable that the HSE could make a comment of this nature. I ask the Minister to look at this matter. I know it does not directly fall under his remit but he is a Minister and I ask that he examine this issue and bring the message back so that, one hopes, this decision, which will create financial inequity among school leavers with disabilities and which has been described to him as a slap in the face for school leavers with disabilities who are due to enter training this September, can be reversed. Adult learning improves health and well-being and equality of access to education is vital for health equality and life outcomes. Supports for adult learning are an investment, not a cost.
I also want to mention reduced timetables briefly. I am of the view that everyone, including the Minister, agrees that what is happening in this regard is not acceptable. Where there are difficulties or struggles, it is not right to almost punish a student by telling him or her that he or she can only come into class from 10 a.m. until noon. In many instances, children are leaving early or coming in late and straight away they are labelled or people wonder what the issue with them is or why they are always arriving late. The children then have a fear of going into school and do not want to do so. This creates so many issues. There must be a far better way of dealing with that, possibly through working with NEPS and CAMHS to address issues.
As stated, I welcome the Minister's comments. I am of the view that he has a genuine interest in this matter. We will support the motion.
I thank the Deputies for bringing forward the motion. I want to take time to mention something that is nearly working in my own constituency. I am referring to a little boy by the name of Rory Kilduff. Rory has a place in Gaelscoil Ros Eo. He is five years of age and is very much looking forward to being able to go to school. However, he has a condition known as Vacterl syndrome. I will not go into all the details but it means that he needs a thing called a bowel wash. It must happen at 6 a.m. and he needs home-care support to get that. The staff in Gaelscoil Ros Eo have been fantastic so they are ready to take him into school but this is a little boy who will not be able to go to school on time and will miss out and fall behind. We have talked tonight about how being different marks children out and makes their lives more difficult. It makes it difficult for them to fit in.
Steps have to be taken to ensure children with additional physical or mental needs can be included and can live their full lives. To be fair to the HSE, it has been working on this case. The child in question needs someone to come to his house at 6 a.m. to provide home care support. I know this does not strictly fall within the Minister's remit. If this little boy cannot get the intervention he needs, he cannot go to school. He already has home help. This is just about changing the time. Like all the kids on his road, he wants to be able to go to school. His mother, Shona, has been advocating on his behalf. I have been advocating on his behalf. To be fair, the HSE has been advocating on his behalf. All we want is for this little boy to be able to go to school in September, to join his peers and siblings and to live a full life.
That is the purpose behind this motion. Nobody is disagreeing with it. A child should not lose out on his or her schooling or fall behind in school just because he or she has additional needs. In this case, we need a small administrative block to be removed to ensure this child can access an education and can live his best life. I am a mother. There are mothers and fathers in the Chamber tonight. We do not want our kids to grow up to be millionaires or whatever else. We just want our kids to be able to live their best lives. That is all Shona wants in Rory's case. I want to help her to achieve that. I know this is not strictly within the Minister's remit. I implore him to use any influence he might have to get us over this logjam.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this motion. I commend the Fianna Fáil Party on its introduction. Nelson Mandela once said that "education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world". According to the Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, "The State shall, however, as guardian of the common good, require in view of actual conditions that the children receive a certain minimum education". A significant number of children in Ireland are not receiving this minimum education. In some cases, they are receiving no education at all. These are some of the most vulnerable children in the State. Many children with special or additional needs remain unassessed and undiagnosed. They have minimal supports. In many cases they have no supports at all.
It has been said in this House on many occasions that the education system for children with special needs is broken. It is not working. We are failing these children, their families and their educators. We know very well from research that the earlier an intervention can be made in a child's life through multidisciplinary therapies, the higher the chance that he or she can develop his or her intellect and skills and realise his or her potential on a whole-of-life basis. I have attended many meetings with parents of children with additional needs who are simply beaten by the system. They are frustrated and hopeless because they have been unable to secure a supported school place for their children who desperately need such places. It has been pointed out to me that parents who wilfully prevent their children from going to school are pursued through the courts system, whereas parents in these cases who absolutely wish and hope to have their children educated in an appropriate and supported setting are left to wither. The State has a direct responsibility for the impact such circumstances have on these children, whose physical, social, emotional and mental development is stunted. This motion outlines that 3,568 children were awaiting an assessment of need at the end of March 2019. I received this figure recently in response to a parliamentary question I tabled. There are no figures available for the second quarter of 2019. The only legislative guarantee that is enshrined under the Disability Act 2005 is that a child must be provided with an assessment of his or her needs as a result of his or her disability, in addition to a statement of the services he or she requires. The existence of lengthy waiting lists makes it clear that we cannot get the assessment process right.
The recruitment of an additional 100 therapists was announced as part of budget 2019. At the time, Sinn Féin criticised this measure on the basis that it did not come close to addressing the crisis we were experiencing. In our alternative budget, we called for the recruitment of 600 additional therapists across all disciplines to assess, intervene and end the waiting lists and the exclusion of these children from their best chance in life. I understand from the reply I received to my parliamentary question that just 40 therapists have been recruited. The recruitment process is still ongoing. This is simply not good enough. We are now in the second half of 2019. The failure to deliver what was promised is contributing to a worsening situation. Many of the children who are languishing on these waiting lists - they are locked out of education and having their development inhibited because of lack of supports and services - have autism spectrum disorder.
As my colleague has mentioned, on April 3 last, Deputy Funchion and I marked World Autism Day on behalf of Sinn Féin by introducing a Private Members' motion calling for the establishment of an all-party Oireachtas committee tasked with developing an autism empowerment strategy. The Government made it known that night that it did not agree with such an approach. With support from the campaigning non-governmental sector, the will of the Dáil ensured the motion was passed. Why, three months later, are we still waiting for the establishment of this committee? It is most disappointing for me, for the advocacy groups, for the families and, most distressingly, for the children and adults living with autism that this proposition has not been advanced. It is not good enough. We have given the Minister and his colleagues a framework on which the lives of autistic children can be transformed. It takes the politics out of it and gets us all working together for the better good. I urge the Minister to put his weight behind it and get on with it. Time is of the essence for these children. Every day that is lost is crucial time squandered. I ask the Minister not to let them down again.
As we come to the end of this Dáil term and this parliamentary year, I am pleased that regardless of how late it is in the evening, the plight, the difficulties, the challenges, the possibilities and the potential of children and adults with special needs are being discussed again in this Chamber, with a specific emphasis on children and adults, particularly young adults, who are affected by autism and are perhaps on the autism spectrum. Before I make a political point about the economics of this issue, I thank the Minister, Deputy McHugh, for his kind references to Deputy Funchion and me. We have been raising these issues consistently over recent times. The point I would like to make at the outset relates to the budget. The capacity of the Minister for Education and Skills to do the many things the Members of this House are urging him to do ultimately depends on having a sufficient budget to carry out such things. The Minister's colleague and party leader, the Taoiseach, has said on a number of occasions he would like to see tax cuts in the budget that is coming up in October. I am not being party political when I say I think tax cuts would make no sense at this time. The amount that is available for tax cuts is so small that we would not even see the jam or butter being spread on the bread because it would be so thin. Many of us in the House would support the Minister if he were to decide that the best way to make a great leap forward in addressing the issues of children and families affected by special needs and autism would be to agree collectively that the money which could be used for tax cuts, which could be €500 million, should be used instead to fund services for such children. That would allow us, as a society, to make the great leap forward on which we all fundamentally agree.
In recent years, and especially this year, I have been struck by the massive increase in the population of children in my constituency of Dublin West. An increasing number of children is a wonderful thing for any country to have. We are the envy of Europe for this reason. However, we have an increasing number of children with special needs, as well as an increasing number of children affected by autism, partly because of this population increase.
We have an increasing number of children with special needs, as well as an increasing number affected by autism. There is nothing as heartbreaking as sitting, as I have at times, with parents of six, seven, eight and nine year olds who have been excluded from school. Last week, the parents of a six year old contacted me because their precious daughter is basically on a two-hour regime in her school, one of the best in Dublin 15, because the additional facilities, be it an individual special needs assistant, SNA, or some other special facility, are simply not available to the school.
I pay tribute to our teachers, patrons and boards of management. People involved in the governance and running of schools have been genuinely open. I am learning more about, for example, people affected by autism and children with special needs. As a society, 30 years ago we moved from a model of large institutions in which children often ended up and were then institutionalised for their adulthood. We rightly broke with that particular model for a long time. That was the right thing to do.
We have reached another crossroads. In the Dublin West constituency, hundreds of parents have been at a series of meetings attended by Deputies Jack Chambers and Coppinger, as well as the Taoiseach, and most local councillors. We have listened to personal presentations by parents whose hearts are often breaking. Their physical capacity to facilitate their precious children is also almost at a breaking point. I can think of few things as heart breaking as the parents who told me that their six, seven and eight year olds were either excluded from school - effectively expelled - or whose hours were cut to just a couple of hours a day. What does it mean to parents who are told that their child will only get two hours?
I commend the WhatsApp groups that parents have set up, as well as the AsIAm organisation. These have been tremendously helpful to many Members. The latter is an organisation of young adults and students who, in many cases, are on the autism spectrum. Their wisdom, their thoughtfulness and the way they have set out what they have to say about their experience has been a learning experience for everybody.
Early intervention does make a difference. During my long time teaching at third level in the DIT, Dublin Institute of Technology, now Technological University Dublin, I encountered many adults who as children were diagnosed as being on the spectrum. Through resourcing, education and other supports, however, they were able to go on through the education system. In many cases, their superb intelligence then became available to the rest of us. I know that this is not everybody affected by special needs. However, it is some people and it is important that society should be in a position to celebrate, acknowledge and recognise this.
I am pleased the special school in Dublin 15 will go ahead. There has been tremendous co-operation from the school which will host this special facility. We need to look at our language again. “Special classes” is the right way to describe a facility which a child may use for a period. However, that should be alongside an inclusive model where the child is a full participating member of the broader school society.
I heard about the trek that many parents had to make, some to as many as 14 schools. I am glad we are putting that behind us. What does one say to any parent who has to go to 14 different schools, finding the answer in all of them is “No”? It is difficult if it is their first child. For many younger parents, the last time they were in a primary school was when they went to school themselves.
I welcome the positives and thank Fianna Fáil for raising this issue. The Labour Party will fully support this motion.
The Minister made a point in his introduction that provision has been made for up to 15,950 special needs assistants in total for 2019. At the end of May, we had press statements from the Department that there would be an increase of 800 SNAs in the next year. This is only a part of the story, however. Many SNAs at the end of May had their hours cut for next year. Some SNAs lost their jobs at the end of May. In some cases, it was to make way for SNAs on lower hour contracts. One SNA told Cork’s Evening Echo:
Many jobs were fragmented to .5 or .88 of a day, meaning people losing up to a fifth or more of their income. On the same day, many newspapers ... said ‘800 new jobs have been created’ with no mention of the job losses. It added salt to the wounds of those [almost 300 SNAs] ... who found out that they had lost their jobs via a website.
Another SNA, Frances Linehan, who works as an SNA in a DEIS school in Cork, told the same newspaper:
Special educational needs organisers, SENOs, are coming in and cutting people’s hours and this is affecting people’s income, as well as the continuity of care for the children in need. Parents are in the dark about this as well – they have no idea that SNAs are being split between so many children within schools.
It is important that the other side of the story is put on the record in this debate.
The Minister mentioned the pilot programme that will begin in September. It will involve 75 schools in the Kildare-Wicklow area, using an inclusion model with SNAs allocated new tasks in the course of their working day and week. This will involve taking on new responsibilities with speech and language, and occupational therapy. This new approach can be positive and I hope it will be. However, it will have to fully recognise the challenges that SNAs will face and the new responsibilities that they are taking on.
Specifically, there needs to be training for SNAs if extra responsibilities are to be taken on and there must be a renegotiation of pay rates. If SNAs take on extra responsibilities, they must be paid fully and properly for same.
There has been an unfortunately long history of SNAs being treated poorly in their job security, wages and conditions in the workplace. I encourage every SNA to stand up for himself or herself, as so many of them have done, and I encourage them to join a union. More than that, I encourage them that, school by school, area by area and nationally, they should get organised to improve the rights of workers who provide such a vital service to our young people but who have been treated poorly in many cases.
It is deplorable to see how some children with special needs are treated as they look for occupational therapy services and speech and language therapy. I saw one young child in County Galway put on a panel of 99 children. It was said clearly that 15 children will be taken care of in a year, but we know that if a child is not seen between the ages of two years old and eight years old, there is less of a possibility of helping that child. I encourage every parent to ensure they have an assessment of needs form for their child because when parents go looking for assistance, it is often not even filled out.
We need a root-and-branch review of this. To be fair to teachers, we need to be sure that a large proportion of time in the teacher training colleges is put towards making sure this is addressed. There are some new ideas and the Department should be open to letting parents try out new ideas because I have seen some of those ideas in practice and they have worked out well.
This is not the Minister's fault and I am not blaming him because he has not been in his position for long, but I have said this to teachers before and I will say openly now that I believe that the lack of speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, and all of that means in years to come we will see a "Prime Time" programme on the way those children were, in my opinion, neglected. I have seen parents having to go to the Four Courts to try to get the best for their child and to get some of those services. It is a sad day when that happens. Parents want to help their children and every one of us wants to see our children doing well, especially children with autism, and what is happening currently is not the society we should allow to manifest. We should be there to help those people. I know and understand there are problems with getting speech and language therapists, but we have to address this problem because of the difference between letting a child live a normal and fulfilled life and not giving him or her the start he or she requires.
As we enter the school holiday season, for some children with autism, nothing will have changed. According to the National Council for Special Education's recently published policy advice on autism in 2017, there was and still is a significant body of children with autism within the community who do not go to school at all and will this month see no difference in their usual day-to-day schedule now that school is out for most other children.
I will read into the record a part of the Minister's speech as supplied because it is very interesting and it seems to just be stuck in there. He said:
In relation to the use of reduced timetables by schools, my Department of Education and Skills has the firm view that all pupils who are enrolled in a school should attend for the full day, unless exempted from doing so in exceptional circumstances. Reduced timetables should not be used as a behavioural management technique or as a de facto suspension or expulsion, nor does any provision exist for the use of reduced timetables for particular pupils. Where schools apply a shorter school day in relation to a child, such arrangements should only be put in place in exceptional circumstances in order to assist a pupil to return to school, for example where a pupil has been experiencing an absence due to a medical or mental health related condition. Any such arrangement should be a transitionary arrangement, which is designed, for example, to assist the reintegration of a pupil to a school environment. In making such arrangements, school authorities should be mindful of the best interests of the child and of the child's right to a full day in school.
On the next page the Minister goes on to address something completely different.
The Minister is not a bystander in this. He is the Minister who is responsible and he can make these things happen. He has to take control of this and that is what has to happen. It is all right to say these things but the Minister can make it happen and that is vitally important.
While it is unfathomable that there are children in this State who do not have any schooling, there remain persistent reasons behind this statistic. According to the AsIAm survey, in some instances, these students have simply been failed by the State in terms of inadequate levels of autism or special class provision, despite the obligations on the State under the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 to provide an appropriate school place for every child.
The survey also found that in other instances, students have a school place in theory. They appear on the roll book and, from the point of view of the officials, all is well. The reality, however, is totally removed from this. These students may be reduced to a partial school day by the school they attend, despite the fact that this is illegal. These students may be suspended or expelled, not for negative behaviour in the traditional sense, but literally because they are autistic and go unsupported in school. They may irregularly or almost never attend school due to overarching anxiety or a lack of suitably trained teachers, but they continue to be enrolled as normal. There were more than 850 children with special educational needs receiving home tuition while awaiting a school placement in the 2017-2018 school year, and while these children are receiving an education, they are still excluded from the community and isolated from other children their own age. If those children were asked whether they would prefer to learn at home or with other children, they would undoubtedly say they would want to attend school.
I commend the incredible survey work carried out by AsIAm, which provides much of the basis on which this motion and our contributions work, as it is the most comprehensive policy document on the issue of autism and special needs education to date. There is no single action or solution that will address this crisis, and that is the difficulty the Minister has. The Department of Education and Skills has clearly failed to adapt the school system appropriately to be autism friendly and has allowed for there to be a lack of regulation around how schools treat autistic students and their families.
I echo AsIAm and other organisations which have been calling for reform and ask the Government to address adequately and comprehensively the range of outstanding issues such as the need for more autism classes, improved infrastructure, better teacher training and an obligation placed on schools to be fully inclusive. On the subject of an increased number of autism classes, I am sure everyone here feels like its Groundhog Day as we have been calling for increased classes for many years and still there is a chronic underinvestment in this area. We also need reform in the way statutory services, such as Tusla and the HSE, deliver for children with special needs. These services have failed in their respective roles to provide the support to prevent students falling out of school or to help them to return. Over 91% of parents surveyed by AsIAm said that their child or children were experiencing exclusion or extended absence from school while not receiving any support from Tusla.
Most important, and something which this motion attempts to address, is the issue of waiting lists for children to get their first assessment of needs, with in excess of 3,568 children waiting nationally at the end of March. It has been said that the assessment of needs system is in disarray, with flagrant disregard for the statutory time limits. Proposals to bring in a new operating procedure involving a 90-minute assessment have rightly been met with criticism by therapists, parents and unions.
Better teacher training is needed to ensure that teachers are adequately trained to deal with children and autism related issues. It has been brought to my attention that there may be issues relating to the interview process that schools use, where it has become political in some jurisdictions, depending on who is on the board of management etc. That is failing our children as well and it needs to be addressed. I have been notified that some SNAs have had difficulty getting an interview at all, despite having a degree, adequate experience and everything else. This is always possible with the management structures within our schools. Some teachers may need additional supports to carry out further training, and this should be provided by the Department as well.
I end by echoing the sentiment by Inclusion Ireland that 13 years after the Disability Act 2005 was brought into law, it is time to admit that it has been a failure and it is time to admit that the Government has failed the children of this State by not defending their right to education.
They have a right to an assessment of need, not the right to wait on endless waiting lists. They have a right to an early intervention, which is imperative if children are to enjoy positive outcomes and if we are to see children with learning disabilities and special needs start life on a level playing field with children everywhere else.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this motion tonight. It is far too common for issues with special needs education to arise. The assertion from the Proclamation read by our forefathers to cherish all the children of the nation equally is definitely not carried through today. Education is just another aspect that brings unnecessary difficulty in the lives of special needs children and their parents. More than 3,567 children were waiting for assessment of need at the end of March this year. The immense pressure that is left on parents to find adequate education for their children is an added stress for them.
The Government must engage with schools and teachers to address the shortfalls in resources on many fronts. I am on the board of management of my local national school. In particular, there is an extreme shortage of SNAs for our Irish teaching schools and this must be addressed to protect our Irish language and give those with physical disabilities a chance to learn the language.
Integration between children and children with special needs has major benefits in the learning and understanding of every child. Disengagement of special needs children has a catastrophic effect on them and where they have a place in school, it tends to be on a reduced timetable. This simply is not good enough.
Carrying on from that, the Government needs to revise the general capitation grant. The grants cover the day-to-day running costs like heating, lighting, insurance, general upkeep and the purchase of teaching materials. It is totally insufficient to cover the current cost of schooling and forces schools to go out with buckets collecting money on the side of the street. This is not what schools' boards of management should be doing, but they have no choice. The Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, has demanded that the Government fully restore the primary school capitation grant to the 2010-2011 level of €200 per pupil. The minimal increase of the capitation grant by €9 in last year's budget does not go far enough. The INTO general secretary, John Boyle, said the increase was already spent due to rising insurance and energy costs, and is only a plaster on the wound.
Another issue in primary school education is the pressure that is put on teaching principals who cannot cope with both the duties of a teacher, with homework and all the paperwork that goes with teaching, as well as the paperwork in the role of a school principal. The Government needs to look into this urgently as the workload becomes too great. This is again an issue that disproportionately affects rural schools with a small student population and only a handful of teachers in the school as a whole.
I support Fianna Fáil's motion calling on the Government to ensure that every child with a special education need has that need met before September of this year, so we can truly live up to the Proclamation and cherish all the children of the nation equally.
I am happy to speak on this important motion and I compliment its authors. It is appalling to note, as the motion does, that nationally 3,568 children were awaiting a first assessment of need at the end of March and that in excess of 850 children with special educational needs were receiving home tuition while awaiting school placement in 2017-2018. Tá an tAire imithe. The Minister is gone now.
Last year, I and my colleagues in the Rural Independent Group highlighted these and similar matters during the debate on our own motion on this issue. I also sought to highlight some of the broader challenges in the provision of SNAs. The lack of job security and an exhaustive application process are among some of the obstacles preventing the full participation of special needs assistants in schools. SNAs are still being treated by the Department as optional extras instead of being seen as vital members of the school teaching staff. The Minister for Education and Skills has left to be replaced by the Minister of State at the Department of Defence, and we know how he looks after his personnel, so we do not have much hope in that area.
Despite all the rhetoric around the Government’s commitment to increasing the number of SNAs, it has done practically nothing in facilitating the SNA as a permanent member of staff. They should be an integral part of the school. It is because of this that schools, and in particular, principals and boards of management are telling us that they have to spend a significant amount of time making applications each year for SNA support for their schools. The primary principals are struggling with their workload when they are teaching principals. That is why I again call on the Government to provide job security to SNAs by providing permanent employment contracts.
I am also calling on it to review the SNA supplementary assignment panel arrangements, as substitute work should be taken into consideration to enable all SNAs to gain entry onto the panel. It is absurd that an SNA’s service in a substitute capacity, covering for maternity leave, sick leave, career breaks, job sharing, etc., does not count towards obtaining the required one year’s service that allows an SNA to become a member of the supplementary panel. That is shameful, downright wrong and a blackguarding of the people. That must change.
At present parents are operating in a vacuum with regard to obtaining certainty around the assignment of an SNA for their child. That kind of stress is totally unacceptable. The children with special needs need these supports and the SNAs must be supported. I hope that the Minister seriously takes on board these suggestions and will move to adopt policies to address the deficits that have been identified in the SNA system.
I am sure people come to the Minister of State's clinics as they come to ours. I hope he will listen. However, he will not listen to the Defence Forces personnel and their spouses. When he tells us stories about ships going into dry dock instead of telling us the real truth of what is going on, I do not expect much here.
I thank Deputies O'Loughlin and Eugene Murphy, and their Fianna Fáil colleagues for providing us with the opportunity to talk on this very important motion this evening. Early assessment of needs is vital. Many families cannot afford to pay for this themselves, are on the public waiting list and have to wait too long. The longer the children are without assistance, their needs increase, especially for autistic children. The July provision is very helpful for autistic children when they are off school. It allows them to develop social skills. Routine is very important for these children. It provides an opportunity for respite for the parents. I hope the Minister of State or someone is listening to me because it is very important. Children with Down's syndrome are being excluded from the July provision, for which they should qualify. It is important for the Government to seek to redress this very sad deficit because these children need assistance and would benefit greatly from the July provision.
Another area of concern for many parents and students is where schools apply to the State Examination Commission for reasonable accommodation for students sitting their junior certificate or leaving certificate examinations and who need a scribe or a reader. Why is the Department cutting back on these reasonable accommodations? The schools are finding it very difficult to get these reasonable accommodations, especially for children with dyslexia or dyspraxia who are suffering because of the Government cutbacks. I am asking the Minister of State to do something about this. It is good to have the opportunity this evening to ask him for this.
There is another idea that is being used in Kerry. The South Kerry Partnership has developed a very important model for children and people who have a deficit and are not fully physically or mentally well. They can benefit from social farming. Children and teenagers are taken out to a farm by farmers who are committed to this and get a few bob for it.
It is very good for children and many of them would benefit from nature, seeing what happens when a sheep has a lamb or a cow having a calf, and all that happens on a farm. It is a wonderful idea. It is being developed by South Kerry Partnership and I am asking the Minister of State to explore this because it would help many families.
I thank Deputies O'Loughlin, Thomas Byrne and Murphy O'Mahony for tabling this motion. I welcome the opportunity to speak on it. I thank the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, for his responses to my recent parliamentary questions in this field. I was a bit alarmed to think that rules or regulations for the boards of management of single sex schools precluded them from applying for ASD units. I was very comforted that the response said they were not. It is important for any parent with children with autism or varying needs, listening to this debate to realise that their schools are not precluded. That is set out in the Minister's response to me which stated:
Individual school boards of management are responsible for the establishment of special classes. It is open to any school to make application to the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) to establish a special class.
The following week I asked for a breakdown of where those schools are located in order to build a database of the geographical spread of these schools. There are 131 early intervention schools, 743 primary schools and 322 post-primary schools. Many parents, particularly in my constituency of east Galway, have to travel up to 20 and 25 miles to access the fantastic ASD unit in Carrowbane. It is disappointing that children are displaced from their communities, friends and families. It is a hardship for parents to have to travel such a distance. It is very important that we look at the geographical spread. In Athenry there are two fantastic secondary schools being built. An ASD unit is going into one of them. We should be doing that in every large town where we are developing schools to ensure that when children with ASD and autism make friends they are not discommoded when they go to post-primary and have to try to build up those links again. Parents, teachers and support workers have worked very hard to ensure that there is that level of social engagement. It is disappointing if the school in that parish or community is not available to them that they have to travel.
It is very difficult to get the bus link or route established for people who do not meet the definition of the nearest school. Those are some of the challenges that we face. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Halligan, has responsibility for this. Last year St. Jarlath's school in Tuam presented a challenge. It has been fixed but it took several weeks for children coming from a particular area to get the school run working.
In his opening statement the Minister talked about the preschool sector and how important it was to have that and early intervention. We do not need a diagnosis. We are gathering the information. Since the inclusion of the access and inclusion model, AIM, we know how many children are attending preschool and that there is an uptake of 99.8% in the early childhood care and education, ECCE, model. We know what is being flagged through the preschool officer and the public health nurse and what the children need when they get to national school. That is why it is a bit amazing to think that of the 3,305 national schools only 743 are making the classes available. There is a lot of work to be done there. While I welcome the announcement of the 156 additional classes, I am very conscious that we are not even a quarter of the way to accommodating the needs in everybody's community. I compliment my colleagues on tabling this motion. There will be much comfort for parents to think that this is being debated in the Dáil and that their voices are being heard and we are trying to work to ensure their children are supported.
We should salute the teachers, the SNAs and parents who do incredible work for children with special needs. I happened to be part of a conversation in recent weeks where an individual said to me that those people expect everything. I told that person that those people, parent or parents, teachers and SNAs go way beyond their call of duty to help to make things better for their children or their pupils. That is only right because according to the Constitution we are supposed to cherish all the children of the nation equally. I acknowledge that there are improvements and things are happening.
I compliment Deputies Byrne, O'Loughlin and Murphy O'Mahony who have done a lot of work on this issue. We need to speed things up and take away the roadblocks because parents of children with special needs have to work their way through a lot of roadblocks. I know several parents of children with special needs very well. The day starts for many of those families at 6 a.m., getting the child or children ready. It is a difficult process, we all know that. They have to get that child onto a bus. I know of one case where the child spends a certain number of days at home and two or three days in care. The transport is provided from the home but not from the centre to the school. That type of thing should not be happening. It is deeply frustrating and upsetting to parents of children with special needs. Schools cannot put special classes in place for those children if they do not get the finance. I know of parents who drive 18 or 20 miles to a school to ensure that their child with special needs is facilitated. We need more units and to try to keep children in their own communities.
Some parents recently had to go to court about July provision. While they did not win their case, the court made it quite clear that special provisions were to be put in place to assist the parents of Down's syndrome children. The goalposts have changed and we as legislators have to deal with this issue. Many of those special needs children need that provision during the summer months. Parents say they slip back a long way if they do not have that type of provision. As far as I am aware autistic children have that provision but Down's syndrome children do not.
It is important that we pass the motion and that we vigorously pursue the issue. Some 900 children last year had to receive home tuition because they could not secure places in schools and the figure is rising. We must rectify that. It is great to have home tuition and I welcome the funding for it, but I am sure we would all agree it is better for children to mix with other children and be part of a national school process. We need to do much more and recognise that the matter must be dealt with. If we are to treat all the children of the nation equally, we will have to work harder and, if necessary, put more funding in place to ensure that all children will be provided for, if possible in their local school.
I share Deputies' views that children with special educational needs should be supported to access the education system. The education system is for every child, irrespective of his or her level of needs or ability. As a Government, we fully recognise the importance of an inclusive and all-embracing education system and never is it more important than in the case of children with special educational needs. Government policy on supporting children with special educational needs aims to ensure that all children with special needs can have access to an education appropriate to their needs. Policy is to provide for inclusive education and to ensure the maximum possible integration of children with special needs in ordinary mainstream schools. Where pupils require more targeted intervention, special class or special school placements are also provided.
Significant levels of financial provision are made each year to ensure that all children with special educational needs can access education. The Department of Education and Skills spends approximately €1.9 billion, or almost 19% of its total educational budget annually, on making additional provision for children with special educational needs. The main supports the funding provides for are more than 13,400 special education teachers in mainstream schools providing additional teaching support for pupils with special needs, more than 15,000 special needs assistants supporting care needs, 125 special schools and more than 1,450 special classes in mainstream schools, an assistive technology scheme to provide assistive technology supports and equipment, and special school transport arrangements.
Teacher training and continuing professional development, CPD, in the area of special education are also an important component of ensuring that children with special educational needs can be supported in schools, as has been reflected in the motion. There have been substantial developments in recent years, both in initial teacher education, ITE, and in CPD for serving teachers, to support teachers’ knowledge and understanding of the specific needs of children with special educational needs. In fairness to Deputy Rabbitte, she highlighted that while there have been significant developments over the years, we need to go further, as other Deputies have also noted. Inclusive education, including the education of children with special educational needs, is already a mandatory part of the standards for ITE. The Teaching Council’s accreditation process for ITE programmes is the mechanism through which the council can satisfy itself that its standards are being met through a given ITE programme.
A range of additional training and supporting educational provisions are also provided to schools by the support services of the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. The remit of the NCSE is to develop schools' capacity to support students with special educational needs and to promote a continuum of educational provision that is inclusive and responsive. The NCSE support services provide additional professional development supports for teachers who teach children with special educational needs. In this way, the NCSE fulfils a vital role in enhancing the quality of teaching and learning in the area of special needs provision. CPD and other in-school supports provided by the NCSE are designed to enable teachers to adopt evidence based approaches to teaching students in special and mainstream classes and special schools. The focus of professional development is on enhancing teachers’ understanding of the nature of the special educational need and the learning and teaching implications for each individual student and teacher; enhancing teachers’ use of a variety of interventions and teaching approaches for students based on the assessed needs of students and taking account of empirical research; and enabling teachers to assess, plan and implement effective and differentiated teaching strategies with a view to meeting the needs of students through individualised planning.
Where a child experiences challenges that affect his or her education, schools may also seek support from the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS. NEPS works with schools through the DEIS continuum of support framework. The NEPS model of service works through a problem-solving and solution orientated consultative approach to support schools to meet the needs of individual pupils. NEPS sanctioned psychologist numbers have grown from a base of 173 whole-time equivalent posts in 2016 to 194 posts at present, of which 186 psychologists are in place. This represents the highest number of psychologists employed in NEPS since the service's inception in 2000. The Government remains firmly committed to the maintenance of a robust and effective educational psychological service. As part of budget 2019, the Minister announced the provision of an additional ten psychologist posts to NEPS from next September, bringing the overall number to 204 posts. Recruitment for 2019 and 2020 is under way to fill both existing vacancies and provide for new posts to realise the target of 204 posts.
The motion calls on the Government to engage with schools and teachers' representatives to ensure that schools have adequate provision to provide every child with an education. Section 20 of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 provides that one of the functions of the NCSE is to advise the Minister for Education and Skills on matters relating to the education of children and others with disabilities and to consult voluntary bodies and stakeholders in doing so. Under A Programme for a Partnership Government, the Minister for Education and Skills also committed to consulting stakeholders. The NCSE has published a number of policy advice papers in recent years that have made recommendations aimed at developing a better educational services for children with special educational needs. Policy advice reports include the NCSE policy advice on supporting students with special educational needs in schools, published in 2013; the report of the working group on a proposed new model for allocating teaching resources for pupils with special educational needs, published in 2014; and the comprehensive review of the special needs assistant scheme, published in 2018. In developing such policy advice papers, the NCSE consulted widely with stakeholders, disability representative bodies and parent bodies. In bringing forward proposals for the implementation of the recommendations contained in these reports, the Department of Education and Skills also consults widely with education partners and stakeholders.
Following consultations with education partners, a new model for allocating special education teachers to mainstream schools was introduced from September 2017. Under the new allocation model, schools are provided with a total allocation for special education teaching support based on the school’s profile. Schools are front-loaded with resources to provide supports immediately to those pupils who need it without delay. This means children who need support can have that support provided immediately rather than having to wait for a diagnosis. It also means that under the new allocation model, children do not have to be labelled with a particular condition to qualify for extra teaching assistance. It gives greater freedom to schools to give extra teaching help to the pupils who most need it, irrespective of their diagnosis. As recommended by policy advice, the new allocation model moved from a diagnostic based allocation process to a needs based process, whereby schools will allocate resources from a set profiled allocation based on the individual needs of pupils. The Department will also consult education partners in respect of the implementation of the recommendations contained in the comprehensive review of the special needs assistant scheme.
To further support schools, schools will also receive a 5% increase in capitation from September 2019. Over the course of the school year 2019-2020, an additional €10 million will be allocated to primary and post-primary schools, of which €4 million will be allocated in 2019. This increase is the beginning of the process for the restoration of capitation, which is one of the actions included in the Action Plan for Education 2019.
Tonight’s motion also called on the Government to create a plan to roll out speech and language therapies in schools nationwide. Speech and language therapy services are currently provided for children who require this service by the Health Service Executive. However, a demonstration project to provide in-school and preschool therapy services has also been taking place over the course of the 2018 and 2019 school year. The project has been developed by the Departments of Education and Skills, Children and Youth Affairs and Health, along with the Health Service Executive, and it is being managed and co-ordinated by the National Council for Special Education. The purpose of the project is to test a model of tailored therapeutic supports by providing speech and language and occupational therapy within educational settings. This innovative pilot will complement existing HSE-funded provision of essential therapy services.
I thank everybody for their contributions and for raising these matters. It has provided an opportunity to outline to the House the Government’s commitment to ensuring children with special educational needs are provided with every opportunity to fully participate in and benefit from the education system. I confirm the Government will not be opposing this motion.
When we speak about special educational needs, we know early intervention is critical to the success of any work done with young children. Due to the appalling waiting times that parents experience for a crucial assessment of needs, pupils tend to fall behind, feel excluded and, in some cases, be confined to reduced timetables. It appears the use of reduced timetables is a growing problem, although this practice appears to vary across the country. Some principal teachers opt to impose a reduced timetable as a response to a child's challenging behaviour when there is a lack of available learning supports for the student and others must use it as a disciplinary method. We know this happens throughout the country.
A survey conducted by AsIAm indicates that half of parents of children with autism have been waiting for more than a year for a suitable school place and that hundreds of children are being excluded from school altogether. This online survey, which received 300 responses, indicates that a third of parents have been waiting one or two years for a school place, with one in ten waiting between two and three years and 7% of parents waiting for more than three years for a suitable place. The practice of reduced timetables appears to be largely unregulated and there are no guidelines. There is no requirement for schools to report on the practice and the Department's inspectors do not collect widespread data on it. This means the real scale of the use of reduced timetables is unknown. In some cases, parents have withdrawn their children from a school in the absence of appropriate supports. Some children are on partial school days and have even been advised to seek home tuition instead. Others have been suspended or expelled from school. We all know of such cases in our constituencies. These children are invisible, and for the most part, as they do not show up on official statistics, they are being left out of the education system. Children end up underperforming, leaving school early and not coming close to reaching their potential. They are, effectively, left behind. Teachers end up teaching pupils of different academic status with no cohesion whatever.
The fact there are no data available on the practice of reduced timetables is particularly worrying. Nobody is monitoring the issue and therefore there are no targeted resources or interventions. I listened attentively to the Minister of State talking about the HSE's intervention in the critical assessment of need. He mentioned speech and language and occupational therapy, as well as physiotherapy. We meet parents in our offices and clinics on a daily basis who are exasperated and frustrated about this. In some cases they are in trouble with the school authorities. The school may not be able to cope because of a lack of support and the parents get into trouble because children do not meet the designated number of days on which they must attend school. It comes down to the important assessment of need and not having the required interventions in place.
I disagree with much of what the Minister of State said towards the end of his contribution when he argued the HSE is rolling out sufficient schemes to provide speech and language therapy. That is not my experience on the ground and my feelings are probably echoed by a number of my colleagues across the House. These children are not getting the interventions and they are being left behind. Parents are struggling to either get these children to school or keep them there because these crucial supports are missing. We speak about autism and learning difficulties but needs are not being met.
This is an opportunity to commend the work of special needs assistants, SNAs, throughout the country. They work tirelessly and are completely committed to the very special work they do. They are poorly treated in terms of job security and permanent contracts; they do not have these and can only aspire to getting them. It is very difficult for them and they suggest they are undervalued and do not have sufficient job security. There is a problem because qualified SNAs cannot get contracts or jobs despite feeling very passionate about the work they do. Those people are worth their weight in gold in communities as not everybody can do the job. Those who go for that training deserve the support and recognition in the form of proper contracts for a very specialised job in the education system.
I highlight the work of the Holy Family school at Cootehill, County Cavan, which is an exemplary model of a school dealing with special education. It has had to do its work against a backdrop of very poor resourcing until now. It is fortunate as it will get a new school building but it is an exemplary model of special education delivery that anywhere in the country could look to. Bailieborough community school is another secondary school that has provided an autism spectrum disorder unit relatively recently and at least it allows those students to feel part of the mainstream community comprising their friends and siblings. I ask that the Government try to replicate that model of special education across the country.
I thank my colleague, Deputy Thomas Byrne, for his work on the motion and all the Deputies who contributed to this very important debate tonight. As the Minister, Deputy McHugh, said earlier, special needs education has expanded much in recent years, which is to be welcomed. Despite that growth, there are still very significant hurdles to be overcome.
Much of the work of the Committee on Education and Skills in recent months has centred on barriers to children receiving a full education, including socio-economic grounds, minority backgrounds and the particular challenges of special needs education. There is certainly wide political agreement that these barriers should be removed and every child must have their rights vindicated. This motion, which Fianna Fáil was pleased to bring forward tonight, aims to ensure that the Minister for Education and Skills would have a more hands-on approach over the coming months in the run-up to September. I acknowledge that the Minister has met teachers and written to schools in Dublin 15 but the matter of special needs school places has not been tackled as the national issue it is swiftly becoming.
I acknowledge the comments from the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, in his response about recognising that the inappropriate use of reduced timetables by schools has an adverse effect on a child's education. It is for this reason that the development of guidelines and a mechanism for monitoring the use of reduced timetables are now being fast-tracked by the Department. It is welcome and was one of the recommendations made by the committee last week in a report we sent to the Minister. We absolutely appreciate that he has taken on board what the committee has recommended in that regard.
The powers under the Education (Admission to Schools) Act should not be seen as a last resort to be deployed in the weeks before the school term begins, as the Minister, Deputy McHugh, said. Fianna Fáil believes those powers should be used when it has become clear there is upcoming demand that would not be met by schools without intervention. This would allow schools the time required to place the full suite of measures in place that are needed by children. In the case of children with special needs, the requirements can be complex and putting them in place within a limited deadline would add extra complication to the process.
The Minister must be willing to step in when the problem starts, not when it has got to the point where it can no longer be ignored, as was the case in Dublin 15.
Every year, Deputies of all parties and none spend the month of September addressing the issues which inevitably arise as parents strive to ensure their children receive an education. Some of this could be avoided by working in the coming months to address the problems before they arise and I hope the Minister adopts this approach.
There is one remaining aspect of the motion I want to address and that is the development of the plan to see in-school speech and language therapies delivered nationwide. Far too often, we focus on maintaining what we have rather than being ambitious for the future. I welcome the pilot project that the Minister has announced as a response to our motion relating to the provision of speech and language therapies which will have numerous advantages in our schools and I look forward to that being rolled out and seeing the response for it.
I am going to give the last word to a mother, Ms Elaine Sears, who contacted me some time ago about her child, Daragh, who could not get a place in a primary school. She said that Daragh is a very capable and happy boy who loves learning and being around other children and having him in school is very important for his communication and developing social skills. He has autism. He is different, not less, and he deserves to have an education that is not going to be a daily struggle for him and his family.