Wednesday, 10 June 2020
July Education Programme: Statements
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Cheann Comhairle as a chuidiú agus gabhaim buíochas leis an Choiste Gnó fosta fá choinne an t-am a ofráil inniu. Táim fíorbhuíoch as sin toisc go raibh mé ábalta Dún na nGall a fhágáil chun dul go dtí Teach Laighean ar maidin agus beidh mé ábalta dul a luí i nDún na nGall anocht fosta.
A Cheann Comhairle, today's session will focus on the provision of a summer programme and the steps I intend to take to support those students with significant special educational needs and those who are at greatest risk of experiencing educational disadvantage. Last week, when I was in the House, I was conscious that the Business Committee had also scheduled this full session on the issue of a summer programme. I am happy to be here today, in advance of bringing proposals to Cabinet, to hear further from Deputies on the topics concerned. On foot of the constructive engagement we have had in this House in recent weeks, I know Members will bring constructive suggestions and proposals to the House today. I have asked my officials to ensure that we will look at these proposals and will see how we can facilitate them. In introducing a summer programme designed to support children, especially those at risk of regression in their education because of the steps required to combat Covid-19, I will have the support of this House. It is worth reiterating that a lot has happened across the education and skills sector during the 13 weeks since schools, colleges, universities and other settings closed on 12 March. Between now and the end of August, the Government intends to do a lot more, including the provision of targeted supports through a summer programme.
I said last Thursday in this House that the pace at which issues have been identified and addressed over the past three months is a credit to those who work in the sector, the students and their parents. Specifically in regard to the summer programme, that intensity of work has continued over the past few days. I stated that I would return to Cabinet with more detailed proposals this coming Friday, in conjunction with more detail on the wider school re-opening planned for the end of August. I expect to be able to make further announcements at that stage.
Normally each summer the July provision operates to benefit more than 10,000 children with severe and profound intellectual disabilities and those with autism. I believe that it is essential that a summer education programme runs this year for those most in need. It will help children to reconnect with learning and assist their return to school in the autumn. An education programme will also help to reduce regression for those at greatest risk of this happening.
In developing proposals for a summer education programme to support children with significant special educational needs, my thinking has been informed by a number of core principles. The programme should contribute to the overall well-being of the child and the family. Supports must address regression and its impact on reintegration and transitioning to planned educational settings for next year.
A school-based programme and a home-based programme need to be provided. Supports should be targeted at those students with the greatest needs. Where possible, some degree of flexibility on the operation of the scheme, in terms of timing and duration, should be permitted while recognising the need for equity of summer provision as far as possible for those to whom it is provided. Those children who would normally qualify for the July provision programme should be included. Where possible, some expanded provision to include other children with significant special educational needs should be included, with a focus on those at greatest risk of regression. The programme must be of a high standard and as far as possible it should complement the programme of support being developed by the HSE. There is a need, as far as possible, to integrate the summer programme with a more general return to school in the autumn. The programme has to be operated in a way that is informed by public health advice, is workable and is offered in a way that ensures parents want their children to participate.
Normally in summer, school completion projects and DEIS literacy and numeracy summer camps are run in DEIS schools. From speaking to principals and teachers, I know some children at risk of educational disadvantage have found the remote learning experience challenging. However, SNAs, teachers and principals have stayed connected with their students and I acknowledge their role in this regard. We all share a genuine concern that children and young people who may have disengaged as a result of this experience may struggle on return to school. The learning loss that typically occurs for the students during the school summer holidays is likely to be significant. In the current situation, by September 2020 these students will have missed out on formal education since March. A summer programme aimed at those most at risk of educational disadvantage in order to rebuild that connection between student and school is vital.
I want a summer education programme to run, recognising that students with special educational needs and those at greatest risk of educational disadvantage need to be prioritised. I assure parents that in the coming days I will be in a position to give them a green light for their children to participate in a summer programme. The programme will be a stepping stone to help those who most need support. It will help children to renew relationships, retain connections with school and learning and help to support ongoing social development and well-being. These programmes can only run with the support of schools, principals, teachers, SNAs and other staff. I know the efforts those working in the education sector have made and the lengths they have gone to in order to support their students. I emphasise that any programme will be voluntary in nature and it will be a matter of individual choice as to whether schools or teachers feel they can participate. I ask those schools, teachers and SNAs who feel they can do something over the summer to help in this endeavour and I ask that they would choose to do this. I cannot pretend that this is a small request given the challenges we have all faced since the pandemic first arrived, but I know that for those who can their contribution to the lives of the most vulnerable children will be truly appreciated and hugely rewarding.
I also know that public health guidance to schools and the provision of appropriate supports will be important elements in ensuring that any summer programme can take place . I will return to the Cabinet on Friday to set out the shape of this year's summer programme. I know the positive impact a programme will have and I want to see it happen but we must do so in a safe way for all concerned.
Before I conclude I want to make some broader references. I can confirm that since I was last in the House, when I provided an update on how the work on calculated grades for this year's leaving certificate was progressing, the online portal through which schools upload school level marks opened. This happened on Monday, as planned. I was delighted, as I am sure was everyone else in the House, to see us enter phase 2 of the roadmap to the reopening of society. I want to see the maximum return to school possible in late August and September. I will also be updating the Cabinet on Friday on the planning in this regard. The Government and I are committed to the delivery of a summer programme and once I have brought proposals to the Cabinet on Friday I will be in a position to announce the details concerned.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle arís as an seans labhairt inniu. Táim cinnte dóchasach go mbeidh díospóireacht iontach dearfa againn maidir leis an gcéad bhealach eile fá choinne na dtuismitheoirí agus na bpáistí uilig leis na riachtanais speisialta, maidir leis na dúshláin atá le baint amach thar na míonna atá imithe thart, maidir leis an mbearna atá i gceist i gcúrsaí oideachais agus maidir leis an nasc idir an scoil agus an baile. Táim cinnte go mbeidh clár an tsamhraidh iontach cuiditheach agus tábhachtach do na tuismitheoirí agus na mic léinn agus an leanúnachais atá de dhíth ag achan am san oideachas, an bealach agus an t-aistear atá i gceist do dhaoine óga i dtreo an tsaoil.
Gabhaim buíochas le mo chuid oifigigh arís. Bhí siad ag obair go dian dícheallach thar na míosa seo caite ar chúrsaí a bhaineann leis an ardteistiméaracht agus ar chúrsaí eile a bhaineann leis an athrú a tharla de thoradh an méid a tharla leis an phaindéim Covid-19. Gabhaim aitheantas agus buíochas leis mo chuid oifigigh a bhí ag obair go dian agus ag déanamh obair difriúil a bhain leis na daoine uilig a raibh ag obair sa bhaile, ag obair sa Roinn agus ag obair ar son na daoine óga, cúrsaí oideachais agus an rannóg oideachais. Gabhaim buíochas fosta as an cheannaireacht a léirigh na daoine uilig atá freagrach as na páirtithe leasmhara éagsúla sa chóras oideachas, ina measc na daoine atá freagrach as na príomhoidí agus na daltaí uilig san áireamh, mar shampla sna ceardchumainn. Gabhaim buíochas leis na bainisteoirí fosta as an cheannaireacht a léirigh siad. Bhí siad iontach cuidiúil. Bhí comhráite iontach dearfacha thar na míosa seo caite agus tá dúshlán mór romhainn chun na scoileanna a oscailt i mí Lúnasa. Táim iontach dearfach go mbeimid ag déanamh fíor-iarracht i rith an tsamhraidh ar son na daoine óga sna bunscoileanna, sna réamhscoileanna, sna meánscoileanna agus sna hollscoileanna. Gabhaim buíochas do na Teachtaí uilig.
Táim ag roinnt mo chuid ama leis na Teachtaí Pádraig O'Sullivan, Lahart, Murnane O'Connor agus Flaherty. Tá 15 nóiméad againn agus tógfaidh mise tuairim agus cúig nóiméad as sin. Táim chun ceisteanna a chur ar an Aire freisin.
Táim sásta a bheith anseo agus cuirim fáilte go ginearálta roimh an mhéid a bhí le rá ag an Aire ach níl sé mórán difriúil leis an mhéid a bhí le rá aige an tseachtain seo caite nó an tseachtain roimhe sin. Tá easpa eolais fós maidir leis an scéim atá an tAire ag cur ar fáil don mhí seo chugainn. Tá a lán buairt i measc na tuismitheoirí agus na páistí maidir leis an easpa eolais sin. Tá an buairt sin sa mhullach ar an mbuairt, ar an mearbhall agus ar an strus atá ar pháistí agus ar theaghlaigh le trí mhí anuas de bharr na paindéime seo, Covid-19, toisc nach bhfuil na páistí ag fáil am scoile agus seirbhísí sláinte. Tá an caidreamh laethúil a bhíodh acu lena gcuid cairde, lena gcuid múinteoirí agus lena gcuid comhghleacaithe sa scoil in easnamh chomh maith. These students have been without the full school experience since early March. I accept that many teachers, SNAs, schools and parents have gone above and beyond what is required in the digital side of things but this is not a full replacement for the normal school environment. On a number of occasions, the Minister has asked teachers and SNAs to come forward on this. How many have come forward so far?
As the Deputy will be aware, this is a voluntary scheme. The July provision programme always was voluntary. It depends on demand so once we announce the guidelines on Friday there will be an opportunity for the parents to register with the Department in the first instance. That is the most fundamental part of this proposal. It is a scaled up proposal. It is not based on the July provision programme last year for 10,000 students. We are looking at doubling that. We are looking at the possibility of going a stage further and being more inclusive but the detail of that will be revealed on Friday. The information that everybody will want, particularly the parents, is not just the information on what is available and how to get it but it is also on how they can plan their summer around that. That information will be available on Friday.
The Minister's speech says: "Where possible, some expanded provision to include other children with significant special education needs should be included". That is different to what the Minister has just said in the sense of him wanting a vastly increased number of children to avail of this. The Minister's official written speech does not make that as clear as what he has said.
We can continue to have the conversation here about what the Deputy is looking for and the information the parents are looking for this Friday. We will have the guidelines on Friday. I am bringing them to Cabinet. We will have the final guidelines and details. It will be an expanded scheme. As the Deputy knows, last week I announced I wanted to include Down's syndrome in the scheme, and it will be included. We are also looking at incorporating school completion, for example, and expanding the literacy and numeracy programme we have in 70 DEIS primary schools into post-primary schools. We are looking at a massive increase in the capacity of that scheme, but it will rely on the volunteerism of schools and teachers. From soundings and the leadership we are getting from the likes of the Catholic Primary School Management Association, CPSMA, the INTO and the Irish Primary Principals Network, IPPN, at primary level, the indications are quite strong that there is a lot of goodwill and good feeling towards the programme. Ultimately, however, we have to know what the demand is so parents will have an opportunity to register on Friday.
It is very important that on Friday the Minister confirm that the same aims and objectives, in addition to the other objectives of the July provision scheme, are there. Addressing the shortfall in provision for the special educational needs of all children, particularly those who face disadvantage, must be an absolute priority for the current Government and the next one. What has happened in the past three months has not been the fault of the Government but comes on top of reduced provision and not enough provision in general for students with special educational needs. Their constitutional rights to education have not been vindicated.
I wish to raise two other issues with the Minister, and I hope he will take cognisance of them. I welcome what he said about the leaving certificate. That seems to be going relatively smoothly. On the reopening of schools, however, the Minister said he would update Cabinet on Friday. With respect, the Cabinet is the decision-making body of which he is a member, but updating is for the Dáil, to which he is accountable. We represent the parents and children. It is for the Minister to update us today so we can then tell the parents. The Cabinet makes the decisions; it does not get updates. I would like the Minister to update us. Furthermore, and I have said this to him privately, I would like him to make a declaration that schools should, where possible and when public health allows it, whether in the new term or otherwise, have some type of graduation or progression ceremony for sixth class and sixth year students. Some schools are doing so but some are not, and it would help if the Minister made a national announcement to encourage this.
The Deputy was here last week when I said we would be back again next Wednesday and I would bring a detailed submission and guidelines to Cabinet on Friday. That has not changed. I cannot determine when I am and am not in here. I am absolutely delighted to be back, and today is an opportunity for Deputies, as representatives of their communities and constituencies, to put forward advice as to who they want to see included. The Deputy knows that on Friday we will have the guidelines and a roadmap for the reopening of schools in August and September. He knows these things, so there is no point in coming in here making a song and dance about lack of information or saying we do not have this or that. He already knows this. It is important we are clear, and I will continue to engage here. Today I see all the same faces back again when I look around. They have made constructive suggestions, and I know they will do so again today.
As the Minister knows, I was a secondary school teacher for 15 years. I have taught the July provision so I understand how difficult it is to get staff during the summer months to cater for those children's needs, especially during this difficult period, with all the public health advice and all that will be attached to it. I have just three points to make to the Minister. If he cannot clarify any of them today, I ask that he consider them ahead of Friday's announcement.
First, can the Minister clarify if all students who ordinarily would have been eligible for July provision in previous years will be entitled to the same this year? I note statements from different groups, such as Inclusion Ireland, that there is a suggestion that this service would be restricted to children in special schools or units only and that children with diagnoses in mainstream schools may be omitted. If the Minister could give clarity on that, I would appreciate it.
Second, families who have sourced a registered teacher themselves are getting ready ahead of the summer. They go through the same song and dance every year. Again, these people may not have their children in special units or special schools. Will they be eligible for July provision, given that their children may not be in a position to attend a special school or there may not be a centre in a local school?
The third question relates to how difficult it is to get teachers and staff generally to sign up to this. Will the Minister consider retired teachers? They may not be registered currently with the Teaching Council but would have been previously. Will the Minister consider teachers who are undergoing training at present and who may or may not be registered with the Teaching Council? These teachers could fill a gap if there are difficulties in getting staff.
I would like written answers, please. Is the Minister categorically saying that the summer provision scheme, which is to replace the July provision scheme this year, is not only going to be awarded to children who currently attend special schools? Will there be provision for other students who have been in lockdown since March? There is too much confusion about the scheme.
All parents are struggling at the moment, especially those with children with additional needs. Without expansion of the scheme there will be no structure or routine in the lives of these children until September. That is something we have to sort out. I welcome the inclusion of Down's syndrome children but the Minister must admit there is major confusion and a lack of information. Many parents are constantly going through hardship. They are constantly ringing to know what is happening. The Minister needs to clarify this no later than Friday because it is unacceptable. Clarification on what is happening needs to be given. Parents and children need their routines. The Minister needs to come back on that urgently.
Special needs assistant allocations have been made for the coming school year 2020-2021. Although mainstream allocations remain unchanged, the same is not true for special school classes. I have been made aware of an unacceptable reduction of one SNA post in Carlow because of a lack of assessments to diagnose autism spectrum conditions by the HSE and private assessors due to Covid-19 restrictions. The demand for SNA testing cannot be gauged. What can the Department do to provide this resource to children who have really suffered under the restrictions? Will the Minister leave the allocation in place until testing resumes and then look at revisiting it?
There are many concerns about the plans to reopen schools. School staff, parents and students need certainty. There is talk that the schools may reopen in August. Will the Minister confirm when mainstream schools and special schools will reopen?
Another thing needs to be clarified. Will the State be providing financial support for English language schools that were closed due to the pandemic in March to enable them to reopen in 2020? I know provision has been made for the students, but what about the schools?
Will the Minister clarify how students taking part in post-leaving certificate courses who have yet to complete their practical examinations due to the coronavirus restrictions are to be graded? This arises where their teachers have received no instructions from the Department of Education and Skills to carry out predictive grading. These students are afraid they will not secure a place in third level. Students who are taking film courses in Carlow have contacted me. They have been unable to enter the school for the sound part of their examinations. As the Minister can imagine, this is not a test that can be taken online. The students need the special equipment. All in all, this is important. The PLC students believe they have been totally forgotten and there are real concerns here. I have major concerns on this too.
I wish to ask the Minister about the summer works programme. A school in Myshall was looking for emergency works. Those involved plan to half do the roof. If they partly do the roof, then next year they will have to replace the roof. Are the emergency works going ahead? Is there funding for the summer school works programme?
As the Minister well knows, two sections of our community have paid the greatest price in terms of safeguarding the public in the face of Covid-19. I am referring to the elderly and our special needs children. Some of the toughest calls that many Deputies in the House have taken in the past three months have been from parents who are despairing as their children flounder and regress academically. The House has reflected much in terms of the future care plans for the elderly, in particular those in the nursing home sector, but we have heard little on how we intend to address the imbalance and regression in special needs education during the past three months. I have had calls from parents of special needs children in Longford who feel abandoned, forgotten and bewildered. We urgently need a total recalibration of special needs education and sustained targeted investment in the sector.
It falls for me to tell the Minister that Longford parents are worried. We have seen a scaled-back return of respite services for special needs children in the county. We will be demanding a full and expanded programme of respite support in the county. I know the Minister is aware of the deficit in the special needs programme in County Longford.
I wish to draw the attention of the Minister to another aspect. I am referring to the situation at Gaelscoil Longfoirt where despite DEIS status the school does not have a home school community liaison co-ordinator to work with the disadvantaged pupils and parents there.
I know the Minister is very passionate about the sector and I admire some of the work he has done in the area. I appeal to him on behalf of the parents and pupils at Gaelscoil Longfoirt to intervene and address this situation for the new term.
I wish to raise an issue with the Minister before referring to July provision. It is an issue that I raised here last year relating to Firhouse Educate Together secondary school. We thought we had it resolved. A permanent site has been located for the school and the tendering process for building work has been gone through which is really exciting and also very important. A temporary site had been located to accommodate the pupils from the school in the interim period, pending the completion of the permanent school building. The Department has now rejected the temporary site for the school and wants the pupils from Firhouse Educate Together post-primary school to travel to City West which is 10 km away. This raises social distancing issues on the bus, on top of all of the arguments that I made this time last year. I ask the Minister to look at this and revert to me on it. The school needs four to eight classrooms. That is all that is required. The students are occupying the existing Firhouse Educate Together gaelscoil at the moment and there could be capacity within the area but the Department needs to initiate discussion and action on it.
On July provision, I welcome the inclusion of children with Down's syndrome. July provision is voluntary and perhaps some aspects of it could be made mandatory by the Department because it is a programme in which children with special needs thrive. I know that the Minister accepts that and will be issuing guidelines on Friday. I have already been contacted by parents from my constituency who have said that a number of schools have already said they are not doing it. Can the Minister to explain why? Can an explanation be given to parents? School building works are preventing some schools from offering the programme. Could the Department encourage boards of management to consider using community centres or other local facilities? I ask the Minister to provide an explanation, in writing if necessary, as to why some schools are saying no if there is a willingness on the part of teachers to voluntarily participate in the programme. Is it health and safety concerns or what is involved? Where do the teacher organisations stand on this issue?
I was vocal previously on the issue of planning for the reopening of the schools and wish to comment briefly on it again. It occurred to me when the Minister was speaking earlier about dates that it is three months since the schools closed. In all that time, as I said on the last occasion, schools have not had any direct communication from the Department on what they should be doing to prepare to reopen. We will see what comes out on Friday but as far as I am concerned, it is more than a few days late. I hope it is not a dollar short as well.
A dollar short.
Bhíos ag caint le príomhoide le linn na seachtaine, and they asked me why children with special educational needs are never the highest priority for the Department, which is a fair point. If ever there was a time for them to be the priority, it is now. Children with special educational needs and those suffering educational disadvantage are those who have lost most from school buildings being closed and they should be number one on the Department's agenda. Parents are under unbelievable strain. Children feel, in many instances, isolated and incredibly frustrated. The lack of socialisation is particularly difficult. Tá sé deacair dóibh a thuiscint cén fáth nach féidir leo leanúint lena saolta mar is gnáth. Despite the best efforts of everyone, including teaching staff, they are swamped. We have all been inundated with heartbreaking stories from constituents who are at their wits' end.
The Minister may have seen the report on RTÉ News last week featuring such parents. Dúradar gur bhraith siad go raibh dearmad déanta orthu agus go rabhadar tréigthe. One parent who featured in the report, Ms Angela Hynes, described the impact on her daughter Zoe. She said that Zoe is biting her arm in frustration and is eating her clothes. She said that her daughter is no longer engaging and is "not the child she was nine weeks ago". She used to be able to spoon feed herself, thanks to the hard work and dedication of her teachers but now she has stopped entirely. That is just one example of the kind of falling back that is happening to countless children across the State. These children need support, specialised routines and care. Countless parents have been asking me if July provision was happening this year.
When I asked the Minister, he stated that it was happening or at least some provision would be made. I must say, though, that following on from my contacts with parents and teachers, I am becoming increasingly alarmed about the confusion that exists. From speaking to people in the sector, it seems that the Minister and the Department are not on the same page. A consultation with the Department suggested that the summer scheme would be for children in special schools and classes, excluding the 65% of autistic children in mainstream schools. That evening, the Minister contradicted that. Meanwhile, the public is still in the dark. There is not much detail.
The Minister is saying that Friday is coming, but today is 10 June. How will this be ready? The elephant in the room is that it might not be possible to deliver this on anything near the scale the Minister has discussed. I hope that he does, given how important it is. Right now, however, I am concerned that it will not happen in that way and that we could have a repeat of the SNA reallocation or the failed childcare initiative. I am seeking reassurance in this regard.
Schools are not signing up for this programme because they have no information and likewise teachers. I fear that the numbers will not add up for the ordinary programme, never mind the expanded programme. From what I have heard, only a few schools have signed up. Have more than five or six signed up at this stage?
Let us deal with the Deputy's first question on traditional July provision. Last year, 70% of the summer programme was home based. Out of 4,000 schools, 232 signed up. We will find out within the next three days - after formal contact with the schools and once we have got approval from the Cabinet - what type of feedback we will get from the schools. Our contacts with them so far have been quite positive. Schools will have issues until they know what the working protocol will be. In providing those guidelines, we will be guided by health advice at all times. We are discussing the safety of these children, many of whom have complex medical needs and profound intellectual disabilities. As such, we are very conscious of the work protocol.
As to ensuring there is confidence in the scheme working, it relies on its voluntary nature. Deputy Lahart raised the question of whether that should be changed but it is the nature of the scheme. The feedback we are getting from teachers, tutors and SNAs is that they want to be part of it. We will continue working closely with the sector. That is why we have been engaging intensively with the educational stakeholders. From next Friday, schools will know exactly what is happening.
I note the Minister did not contradict me. My understanding is that only five or six schools have signed up at this stage. More may come forward but I have similar concerns in respect of teachers. I have spoken to some who ordinarily participate but who are not prepared to do so now because they are unhappy about the lack of detail and feel uncertain.
Another issue for schools is that of insurance. Clarity must be provided in that regard.
The Minister asked us to be constructive. Where teachers are concerned, the Minister needs to look beyond the standard cohort of registered teachers. Retired teachers need to be considered. In addition, substitute teachers are concerned about losing their Covid payments. The Minister needs to consider that matter and ensure that they keep their payments so that they can sign up as well.
I asked about Down's syndrome children and the Minister has confirmed that they will be eligible. I hope it will not just be a small number and that we will be in a position to accommodate a large cohort. I have grave concerns, though, because I do not see the numbers adding up.
The Minister stated that, traditionally, the summer programme was delivered on a 70:30 basis of at home versus at school. Since I am running out of time, I will ask my remaining questions together. Is the Minister expecting that type of balance or does he expect it to be weighted more towards school? What is the date on which he expects the scheme to start? Will the Department accept late applications? Many questions arise around social distancing, hand-washing and so on but I am sure we will see those being addressed on Friday.
One of the most important elements of July provision is socialisation. Has the Minister picked up the phone and talked to the HSE about the summer camps it runs for many of the same children? Could the HSE stretch those camps out a bit as an accompaniment? In terms of special education, what provisions will be made to reintroduce children to social activities in the school environment in September, given that so many have been isolating at home since March?
I hope this works but from talking to teachers and parents, the job involved is enormous and it is hard to see the numbers adding up.
We need to establish what is the demand. Parents will have the opportunity to register on Friday, so that will give us an indication of the demand. From an information point of view, provision is not just broken down into school-based and home tuition. There are other school settings and settings outside of school where parents can come together in a group of ten in a community-based setting, such as Spraoi agus Spórt family centre in Carndonagh, County Donegal, Juniper Tree Autism Services in Athlone, Autism Support Louth & Meath, Early Start Education preschool in Rhebogue, Limerick, and Bagenalstown Family Resource Centre in Carlow. There are opportunities for parents to come together there as well. They also have the opportunity of home-based tuition which was 70% of provision last year, so if 70% went for home tuition last year it is going to be heavily weighted in that direction this year. I am confident and ambitious and I know the Deputy is ambitious as well, though he is being sceptical today. He will be familiar with Lower Glanmire national school in New Inn, which did it last year. I hope that the likes of the 232 schools that did it last year will do it again this year, but obviously they have to be confident in doing that themselves.
Mar gheall go bhfuil srian ar mo chuid ama, iarraim ar an Aire na freagraí a thabhairt i bhfoirm scríofa.
It is not often that a meeting is so emotional that it reduces me to tears, but two weeks ago I had just such a meeting with the parents' association of Rosedale School, a school for children with severe or profound intellectual disability in Galway city which was featured on RTÉ news last week. These parents are exhausted and heartbroken. Many of their children require 24-7 care which means the parents need to take shifts overnight to mind the children. The children in this school represent a tiny percentage of children with special educational needs, yet they are the most vulnerable and at risk. They feel completely ignored and isolated by the Government. Rosedale is not simply a school for these children, but their only social setting outside of their family home. They receive supports such as speech and language therapy and occupational therapy and they learn life skills and independence. The children have received no support from these services since Rosedale closed and the parents can see the detrimental effect this is having on their children's development and their children are regressing. They told me very clearly that their lifeline is gone. One parent said: “It has taken years of dedicated hard work and consultation with many multidisciplinary professionals to help my son regulate and engage to this level, and as is probably clear by now since March 12th my son's whole world has fallen apart.” Another parent said: “When I look at him now my heart breaks, I think he has regressed by about five years in the last number of weeks and it is unbearable for me to consider the implications any further delay in returning to his beloved Rosedale will have for him.”
The parents have told me they need a school-based summer programme and that an online programme will not work for their children. They need to know first when it will run and second what staff are available. Some SNAs have had their contracts moved to the HSE to enable them to work in children's homes. Will their contracts need to be reverted prior to the commencement of the summer programme? If the programme is delayed into August, what provision will be made for the required nurses who take their leave in August? These are not just schools for these children and families - they are their hospitals and their social settings, and they bring so much joy to these kids. One father said to me that while he knows his daughter has a life-limiting condition and does not like to say it, all he wants is for her to be as happy as possible while she is with them.
These parents are deeply concerned that if a second wave hits Ireland, these schools will be closed again. Can this service be reclassified as an essential service, given that the children's needs are more complex and their conditions are far more profound than children in other schools? The class sizes are limited to between four and six pupils, with many of the children having limited movement. The teachers have control over hygiene and are fully versed in infection control. Given the hardship on families, along with the regression of the physical, social and mental development of these children, can these schools reopen immediately? One mother described the big smile on her little daughter’s face when she sees the school bus coming. The Minister can put that smile back on that child's face and I urge him to do so.
I welcome the summer provision announcement from the Minister, but I along with many parents across north Kildare despair that the scheme might be another case of the Department speaking first and thinking later.
My head is bursting and my heart is breaking from listening to all the thoughts and worries of exhausted parents of children with special needs and what they have relayed to me over the past few weeks. I hear in their voices the realisation that the love they have for their children with special needs is not enough to provide the services they need. Some parents are anxious about children who are vulnerable from a medical point of view. A mother texted me after a long chat the other evening. She told me her son is high risk and has a high inflammatory disease, as well as Down's syndrome and a profound intellectual disability. He is tube fed around the clock and requires 24-hour care. She hopes the Department will be able to provide him with one-to-one July provision at home as she is terrified of him catching the virus.
I have spoken to the parents of children with Down's syndrome who welcome that they have been included in the scheme this year. It is very important that they be included in future years. I have spoken to other parents whose children attend special schools but do not qualify for July provision. I accept that is something for another Minister to decide, but I hope the Minister appreciates that I want to give voice to their concerns today.
We are coming out of lockdown, but for many of the parents I have spoken to, lockdown is how they feel they have been living their lives. They feel like they are in lockdown because they have been locked out by an outdated system with a stony face that seeks to confer a privilege on their children rather than the rights to which their beloved children should be entitled, such as health, care and education. They are not looking for the sun, moon and stars. They are looking for their rights and for the State to show kindness to their children whom they love. The Minister's press release had a headline and announcement, but I ask that he please put kindness in the story of the summer provision.
As the Minister knows, community-based activity is very important for most of these children. Has he investigated the negative effects of social distancing and the possible additional stress it might cause children? Do we have the capacity to provide one-to-one July provision at home for medically vulnerable children who need structure and stimulation? Parents like the mother to whom I referred need to know we are there to help her and her son.
What is the position regarding school transport? It is not the responsibility of a school per se, but managing transport is one of the trickiest aspects of managing Covid-19. I would like to know whether any plans are in place to address the issue in the context of children. How does July provision cater for deep cleaning and the additional cleaning that will be required, given that some children have problems with spitting or dribbling and will have intimate hygiene needs in this new Covid-19 world?
I am sharing time with Deputy Emer Higgins, seven minutes and three minutes. I also want to allow some time for the Minister to reply.
I was elected by the people of Sligo, Leitrim, north Roscommon and south Donegal this day four months ago. The new Galway of the west issue is a new technological university for the region. I raised the fact that this would be agreed. Last week, I said the institutes of technology in Galway, Mayo, Letterkenny and Sligo would come together. I also welcomed the fact that Dr. Seán Duffy would be the executive project lead for the west and north west. He has significant experience of the IT, tourism and hospitality sectors. He has been very much involved in regional development for the past 20 years. His appointment was inspired. What has the Minister done to engage with the consortium? Is there a timeline for an application for a technological university for the west and north west?
The contribution prior to Deputy Feighan's had some more technical questions on which information will be provided on Friday. The Deputy asked about parents requesting home tuition. That is very much part of this scheme and we will have more detail on it. The protocol on work practices for the tutor coming into the house needs to be mapped out before that happens. I reassure parents that the home-based tuition that happened last year and in previous years will also be an option for this year.
On opening up and all that, I will be bringing a memo to Cabinet on Friday and we will have a roadmap.
Two Sinn Féin Deputies spoke about parents' fears of regression and the gaps that are very obvious in their child's education, something we have also identified in the Department. That is why we are very anxious to have this more expanded summer programme. It will also be a different summer programme where we will work very closely with the Department of Health. One of the pilot projects I was really anxious to progress in my time as Minister was the school inclusion model where we have teachers working side by side with the health professionals, including speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and physiotherapists. We will ensure that the co-operation between the Departments of Education and Skills, and Health over recent weeks will not be lost.
I assure Deputy Feighan that I have engaged intensively with the Connacht-Ulster alliance. My colleague, the Minister of State, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, has been very proactive. She has been to Galway a number of times. She has been to Sligo and has been up to LYIT in Letterkenny. Dr. Seán Duffy has been appointed as executive lead. I agree with the Deputy that he has the experience and skill set to drive it forward. I expect an application for the Connacht-Ulster alliance technological university to be submitted in quarter 4 of this year, which with time flying by will be very shortly.
I am delighted the Minister has stated that this will be submitted by quarter 4. It is very exciting, and I look forward to working with all the ITs involved to progress it as fast as possible. This is very good news.
When we look back at how we dealt with this crisis, we will be judged by how it affected the most vulnerable in our society. This is especially true of children with special needs. Their daily routine is vital to them and it is what they need to progress. School plays a vital role in that. Unfortunately, school closures have had a detrimental impact on children with special needs and their families. Sadly, some children have regressed since March.
The disruption that has been caused in people's lives shows how important this year's July provision is. It helps children realise their full potential. That is why we need clarity on this issue. The disruption and chaos in the lives of families with children with special needs need to be replaced by clarity and structure. The benefits of the July provision are enormous. It is fantastic that children with Down's syndrome, who have been excluded until this year, will be included in this year's programme. I raised this issue with the Minister, and I am pleased that he is widening the scope of the programme to include them. Will he confirm that on Friday he will bring clarity to the roll-out of this year's July provision?
I take this opportunity to raise an issue with Scoil Chrónáin in Rathcoole. A site provided by South Dublin County Council to the Department to facilitate the school's expansion is now the subject of a planning application for another school - a new school that has no fully approved long-term site. I ask for an urgent meeting with departmental officials to clarify the situation for both schools involved.
Yes, this might cover a lot of the other questions that have been raised on the summer programme. On Scoil Chrónáin, I will be happy to ask one of my officials to reach out to her in that regard.
There is anxiety and a need to bring clarity to the summer programme as soon as possible. I get that, the frustration coming from parents and the need for that clarity. That is why I am very focused on bringing a properly worked out memorandum to Cabinet on Friday. To answer Deputy Higgins, we will bring clarity to this on Friday. Parents will have an opportunity to register on Friday and we will make that process as easy and as simplified as possible. I have no interest in a bureaucratic process here. In the past it took six to seven weeks to register for the July provision. We are not doing that this year. We want to do it more quickly within the space of a couple of weeks. That is the position that I am finding myself in and I am putting pressure on my officials to make this happen in as speedy a way as possible.
On the Down’s syndrome issue raised by the Deputy, there has been an ongoing campaign by the Down’s syndrome representative groups and I know voices in this House, in my own party and across the floor have been voicing this for years. This is the right thing to do which is to be as inclusive as possible. It is also important that we bring clarity as to who can apply and will be covered on Friday. There was an issue last week as to whether, for example, 65% of autism students in the mainstream be excluded. They will not be excluded; they will be included. I will bring clarity to that on Friday as well.
Another question concerned any issue which may arise regarding supply of teachers.
On another question raised, if there is an issue with the supply of teachers we will look at other creative ways around this. Two Deputies have made suggestions regarding retired teachers. If that is needed we will look at every possibility because the expectation has been created now that this is going ahead. It is going ahead and will do so in a comprehensive manner but at the centre of this is the child. We will make it work and ensure that the parent has a choice to have a school-based setting, but obviously if the school does not volunteer to open that school option will not be there and the home-based setting will be an option as well.
I wish to raise with the Minister the issue of St. Brigid’s school in Mullingar and the students who have missed a large portion of the year now, many having special needs and various different issues to deal with in their own environment. Of those students who are reaching 18 years of age, could they potentially have a place in their school next year? Some of the students have been unable to get the grounding for the early leavers' programme. This would be very beneficial to them. I asked the Minister a parliamentary question in which he said he would be engaging with these schools. I know the huge value of St Brigid’s school in my own locality from working with the staff there. It instils confidence and well-being and gives young people a chance to make a great contribution to society afterwards to achieve their very best ambition in life.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus leis an Aire Oideachais agus Scileanna. I will try to give the Minister plenty of time to respond. I want to pay tribute to his work. All the Departments are learning on their feet here and it is important to acknowledge the work that is being done.
It is also important to outline the origins of the July provision for the House. In 1993, Marie O’Donoghue, the mother of Paul from Cork, challenged the Irish State and the Department of Education on the right of her son to an education. They won their case and from this flowed the right to July provision for children with autism and other complex learning disabilities. The Government has an obligation to provide support for these students with special educational needs and this is the purpose of the July provision.
On 5 June the Minister announced changes to the July provision scheme. These changes will completely change the purpose of the scheme and have caused confusion and distress to children and their families. He announced a primarily school-based scheme. On the Department's website it states that it is intended to be similar to July provision with a home-based strand, a school-based strand, and a health-led strand. This, in addition to contradictory briefings given to various voluntary organisations, has led to this confusion. In the school-based strand, as the Minister is aware, many schools do not have special classes in their schools for a variety of reasons, including a desire to immerse all children completely in the school community.
More than 400 schools are currently availing of the summer works scheme for renovations. Many have reported that they will have difficulty in staffing special classes. Many of the mainstream schools with special classes have never run July provision education due to the lack of staffing numbers. Will the Minister outline what consultation has taken place with schools; the budgets that have been agreed with schools for personal protective equipment, PPE, and daily sanitising; and the guidelines that have been offered to schools for the cleaning and sanitising of classrooms, the implementation of social distancing and the cleaning and sanitising of therapeutic equipment and multisensory rooms?
On the health-led strand, some 15,000 special needs assistants work in Irish schools. Will the Minister indicate how many of these public service workers have been redeployed to work with Tusla on a temporary basis to fill the health-led strand of this initiative? What other measures are envisaged under this strand?
The home-based strand, which must be provided by qualified teachers, has also been announced. Will the Minister confirm that the home-based July provision will continue for each child with autism and complex learning challenges who requires it? Perhaps the Minister will also outline what guidelines have been developed for the provision of such home-based services.
The terms of the July provision have been altered from their original purpose to meet different needs this summer. The programme was exclusively designed for the education of children with autism and other learning disabilities who benefit from an extended school year as per the Supreme Court judgment in 1997. The Department has extended the programme this year to focus on students and young people with complex needs, as well as those children with behavioural, social, emotional and sensory difficulties. The Minister also has stated children with Down's syndrome will be included. From speaking with SNAs, I anticipate that demand will far exceed supply. Some schools will not open for the July provision and there will be a struggle to find tutors. How does the Department hope to match demand with the number of schools that will open and with the necessary complement of SNAs and tutors for the summer programme?
My second question on SNAs has already been addressed by Deputy Murnane O'Connor.
With the summer holidays approaching, has the Department liaised with schools in the State with regard to additional requirements under the summer works programme? Apart from the fact that this is the best time for schools to carry out such works, it also represents a boost for local building contractors at a time they need it most. It should also be used as an opportunity for schools to refit buildings to accommodate social distancing and optimise the best use of the school buildings and playgrounds for reopening in August. Are additional resources available within the summer works programme to help schools adapt to social distancing and hygiene requirements?
Public health advice has changed recently to allow for the running of outdoor summer camps. Will the Minister now allow primary schools and teachers to welcome back sixth-class students in a socially distant and compliant manner before the end of the school year? I ask this while aware of the isolation and feelings of loss experienced by this cohort of children who are facing the transition to secondary school having had such an important step in that transition robbed from them by the pandemic. This follows on from a question submitted previously by my colleague, Deputy Catherine Martin.
I thank the Deputy for his contribution. As for the different analyses of last week's contributions from the officials and what happened on Friday, basically what happened on Thursday was under certain health advice but Friday changed everything. On Friday, the NPHET advice was that schools will reopen and the school summer programme could go ahead. When we were given the green light, obviously everything moved into a more expansive phase also. My officials know where I stand on this. I want to be as inclusive as possible and I want to be as ambitious as possible but I am also a realist. I am aware that when one is relying on the voluntary effort of schools to open up, combined with the choice of parents as to whether they want to use the home-school programme or the school-based programme, one is dealing with a number of unknowns. The known aspect that we have is through a consultation. The Deputy asked what consultation there has been. We have consulted with the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education, NABMSE, which is the representative body for more than 126 special schools in the State. They have been very honest and upfront about where they see the challenges. There were discussions on the summer programme but they are also thinking of August and September. We have to balance the NPHET advice and the protocols we have on what can work, be it home based or school based.
We have to ensure parents have the confidence to send their children to schools if the schools should decide to open. The Deputy is correct to ask about the measures that will be in place in relation to hand sanitisers and equipment to ensure schools are clean enough. All those details will be provided on Friday through the guidelines. I will get back to the Deputy on the number of SNAs working with Tusla, because that number is changing all the time.
On the question around summer works, our protocol and protocol guidelines are developed in Tullamore in the planning and building unit. We have a budget for this year and that budget has not changed. The budget for the building programme was decided on last October. The Department is working closely with schools which are ready to go to tender or which are ready to go to construction. We are working through those. The Deputy's specific question was around summer works and he is correct in saying this is the time to get that work done, when the schools are vacant. That will go ahead in any schools that got funding for summer works for this summer. This is the time to do emergency works as well. I am glad to say that in the past number of weeks work has restarted on the Western Building Systems schools with which we had issues. Obviously, the workplace guidelines that construction workers work within in general apply within the education sector as well.
I wish to return to the issue of the summer programme. The reason I want to have an expansive summer programme is that we have identified, as has the Deputy and as have parents, that there are gaps in education. There is regression, and the Deputy will have had constituency representation on this and will have had direct contact with parents. Parents can see that there has been a regression in their son's or daughter's progress. Equally, schools have been very proactive in reaching out. I am hearing great stories. For example, in Scoil Mhuire, Glenties, the SNA has arrived at the house and waved in the window at the student over the past couple of months. Principals are staying in touch with parents, staying connected. However, it is no substitute for the physical presence within the school. That is why the focus of the summer programme will be on reconnecting. It is a focus on education. There will be a reconnection to ensure that the move back to school for many vulnerable students in August and September will not be as big a leap as it otherwise would have been.
I said last week that I would be in here today without the guidelines because I am bringing it to Cabinet this Friday, but on Friday parents will have the opportunity to register. That will give us an opportunity to see what the level of demand is. We are going to work very closely with those parents to make this happen.
I thank the Minister for the work he has done on issues I raised last week. The safe pass issue has been resolved, and I thank the Minister for that. I thank him also for his work on July provision because I understand that he has demanded, against the advice of his officials, a more expansive and more inclusive July provision and that might be the reason for the mixed messages in that the Department is saying one thing to advocacy groups, but the Minister is steadfast in demanding a better system. For that, I congratulate him.
I find it difficult sometimes to listen to Deputies in this House who with a straight face can almost bring one to tears with their advocacy for children, yet their political parties at the same time in a different room are advocating for the abolition of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. I want to put on the record of this House that this country has an appalling record on children's rights. As recently as this year we heard of the scandal in Scouting Ireland. The life chance one has is formed by one's childhood. That is the reason we have a Department of Children and Youth Affairs. It is under-resourced and it needs more support. A classic example is the way childcare is way down the list of priorities in the political system.
It is gross hypocrisy for people to come into this House and speak on behalf of children who are losing opportunities in school life and refer to how desperate the situation is for those children and their parents, while at the same time their political parties are trying to manoeuvre into a situation where we can abolish the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
Children with special educational needs are poorly served in this Republic because they fall between two Departments. I believe more than 1,400 children in my constituency are on a waiting list for speech and language therapy. I have a letter from a father who received a letter from the HSE telling him the waiting time for the intervention his daughter needs in Beechpark Services is five years. Children with additional educational needs are more likely to suffer unemployment, abuse and discrimination and they are also more likely to end up in addiction. Parents are saying they are exhausted because when they try to advocate for their children no one seems to listen and resources do not seem to be available. They are being forced to be almost full-time campaigners, which they cannot be because they have to be full-time parents. I held a meeting to discuss this issue in my constituency last October. There were several speakers and I expected about 20 people to attend, whereas 150 people showed up. All of them were exhausted.
I appreciate the efforts the Minister is making. Some of the comments made to me concern the acknowledgement that two months in the summer is too long for a child with additional needs to be without some kind of structure, such as the July provision scheme provided in previous years. Given children have been out of the school system for several months, surely a longer school programme or July provision scheme is now required. The Minister might be in a position to address that issue. There are also parents of children due to attend school for the first time in September. They are hoping the scheme could be expanded to include them because it has been difficult to acclimatise children to a school setting in the same way as happened previously.
What happens if a school says "No" to a request from parents? I am aware of a letter sent from the Saplings educational facility, which has, I believe, five schools for children with autism. A letter was sent yesterday to parents stating that due to the non-availability of suitably qualified and experienced full-time staff and the complex needs of pupils, the organisation will not be in a position to provide July provision. This matter again falls between the Minister's Department, the Department of Health and the HSE. It is fair to say that children with additional needs, such as autism and other complex needs, are very poorly served in our education system. They are also poorly served outside of the system.
The idea that we should put children, in a departmental sense, at the bottom of the list of political priorities as people jostle as regards Government formation is an outrageous suggestion. That needs to be stopped right now. The Minister will not admit this, and I know he is fighting an internal battle in this regard, but the approach of the Department is to outsource everything to the school and if the school says "No", there is not much the Department can do. Parents will tell us they get lists of schools from the special education needs organiser, SENO. The SENO will state the child has autism, provide a list of schools that may be applied to and then he or she wishes the parents the best of luck. Parents in my constituency get a list of schools located as far away as Drogheda. I know parents who have applied to school after school, and the schools have all found legitimate, or other, reasons to say "No". I mentioned last week that the Minister, under the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018, has the power to intervene and demand a school open a unit. It seems that in this programme for the summer months the Department is again outsourcing its responsibility. If a school says "No" to a request from parents, that is just the way it goes.
I appreciate that the Minister will give more detail on Friday.
As it is now early June and the programme is due to start in July, I would like to give some sense of reassurance to parents that if the Saplings Special Schools organisation to which I referred or another local school says "No", the Department will be in a position to step up and provide this resource for children which we all accept is greatly needed.
I appreciate the comments made by the Deputy. I do not know how much longer I will be in my current position. One of the things I have greatly valued during my time in the Department is that its officials are very open-minded and good to work with. There are times when we have differing opinions, but that is life and it brings discussion and an energy to the Department.
On the issue of the summer education programme, there has been intense and focused work at departmental level. That is not to take away from the other big issues that arose in recent months, such as calculated grades for the leaving certificate, the junior certificate cycle or dealing with all of the other conundrums for which, basically, there is no manuscript. One of the things I value and very much respect within the Department is its response to any issues or challenges that arise. We have a challenge to meet on this issue.
The Deputy is correct to ask about what happens if a school says "No". That has occurred in the context of July provision. A particular school with which I am familiar has a phenomenal reputation. It has ASD classes and a rich tradition of school inclusion, but it has never opened the school for a summer-based programme. However, it worked to ensure that tutors were provided for the students. A very significant stand-out figure is that under a traditional programme, 70% of July provision is home-based. That means that out of 4,000 schools, 232 would open. However, I am confident that as a result of engagement, not just at official level but also between the likes of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, the Irish Primary Principals Network, IPPN, the Catholic Primary School Management Association, CPSMA, and other umbrella groups, we will be in a strong position to try to facilitate parents as best we can.
The programme is voluntary in nature, but it is trying to give parents a choice. The parents to whom I, Deputy Ó Ríordáin and every other Deputy speak are under pressure. They have had a tough few months. I am a parent with three children and I know the stressed environment that arises from balancing working from home, such as trying to do a web exercise relating to the leaving certificate with departmental officials, with trying to help with Irish homework. It is difficult to jump from office to kitchen. I know the intensity of juggling home schooling and work. There are additional pressures for the parents of children with serious to profound intellectual disabilities. I get that. That is why I think Deputies will comprehensively facilitate this summer programme as best they can by using their contacts and network, whether in Glanmire, Darndale, elsewhere in Dublin or Letterkenny, to try to encourage people to show leadership and make this work. I believe we will do so.
I think we get the best results from these sessions when we ask questions and get answers. As such, I will ask the Minister some questions, invite him to provide an answer and then come back on them. I apologise in advance for interjecting or rushing the Minister. There are a lot of questions to be asked.
In the absence of any further clarity being provided today, I wish to go back to the statement on the summer education programme which was released by the Department last Friday. In it, the Minister is quoted as stating: "It gives us an opportunity to provide a vital additional support for some of the children with significant special educational needs and those who have been at risk of educational disadvantage since schools closed in March."
At primary school level, is this a mix of students who would traditionally avail of the regular July provision, with those at greater risk of educational disadvantage now being added? If that is the case, and I understand from the Minister's response that it is, how does he propose to meet the very diverse, complex and different needs of those students with the same programme, considering those students will have been off school for six months?
There are three strands, if the Deputy wants to break it down into specifics. There is a health-based strand, and I am working very closely with the Minister, Deputy Harris, and his officials are working closely with mine, with regard to children with complex medical needs. There are potentially 600 students in that category. I am meeting the Minister, Deputy Harris, at 3 p.m. to go through the work we have done and to come up with a roadmap for those children.
There is also the traditional July provision, which 10,000 students availed of last year, and that has been the average for the past couple of years. Some 70% of those were based at home and 30% were based in school. I want to add to that July provision and, in particular, I want to ensure that those with Down’s syndrome are included as they were not included before. That is additionality to the July provision which is going to be new. I want to re-emphasise that there are many students with specific disabilities in the mainstream. They are not going to be excluded and they will be included also.
The third strand is disadvantage, which I know is the Deputy’s specific concern. We are looking at school completion and literacy and numeracy at both primary and secondary level. There are 70 DEIS schools in the literacy and numeracy programme and we want to add to that. That is another area of additionality.
With that additionality comes a great expectation that the Minister is placing on the teachers and SNAs who will be expected to deliver the programme. I want to talk further about the supports they might be offered. There was a lot about well-being in the Minister's opening contribution on this programme. What exactly does that look like in terms of the well-being programme in the schools? If teachers and SNAs are being asked to run the programme, are they equipped to support young people with such complex and diverse emotional needs?
We know SNAs and teachers do an incredible job but these are not normal times. Some students who come back in late August or September will need access to counselling as they will have experienced trauma, and we have all heard of some very difficult cases in the last while. When they return to the summer programme, will they seek that support from the teachers? Will counselling be available? I am particularly thinking of the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS. Will NEPS be available in the schools? Will it be able to triage the most difficult cases? It is not just a question of having guidelines from NEPS but of having NEPS on the ground to triage the most difficult cases.
NEPS has continuously been directly involved with the schools since 12 March and, in fact, it would have had a significant role in determining the cancellation of the leaving certificate in terms of the impact on well-being and mental health of students. NEPS has a critical role. Part of the weakness and the negative we in the Department have identified is that, because of the regression, it is about reconnecting with the schools. From engagement with parents, including individual engagements I have with parents, I know parents want to see a stepping stone. This is a stepping stone to re-engagement and reconnecting with the school in August and September. If students need counselling support or any other support, that range of supports is there through NEPS and will be provided.
It is very important that NEPS will be providing that support because it is a concern many schools have.
I want to discuss a document the Minister will be familiar with and I was disappointed we did not get more information in his opening address today. The Minister is to take part in a call with DEIS schools on Friday. On Tuesday, they received this document containing the guidance for the summer programme. There is a lot of very welcome detail in that which I wish we had got today. I will try to outline some of that detail and, for the benefit of Members, I will read a little of what is involved. Page 4 of the document the Minister gave to the schools on Tuesday states that the optimal time for delivery of the summer programme is as close to the official reopening of schools as possible. The time close to reopening will also coincide with the leaving certificate results in mid-August.
Do we have a date for the leaving certificate results to ensure that they do not overlap with the summer programme? Will extra resources be provided on the ground because DEIS schools, in particular, will be stretched around this time?
There will be further clarity on the range of openings. One thing I have identified, as have my officials and the team with which I work, is that as the summer programme has a home-based strand and a school based strand, there could be different starting points. Registration starts on Friday and one will have a very simplified process. I do not want a bureaucratic process in terms of conveying basic information to the Department. We want to start that process. We are looking at July but obviously there could be an overlap into August, potentially, for some of the school-based programmes.
The Minister's comments differ somewhat from what is in the document. On page 5 of the document, under the heading of physical, social and emotional well-being, it states that students should be supported to be healthy, stay physically active and eat nutritious foods. There is a lot of guidance on well-being. These measures to support young people may be sufficient for the general support of all students but do they dig deep enough to support the complex, emotional and behavioural issues with which principals know students will return? As teachers try to deal with these issues, what emotional supports will be offered to them?
At some of the schools I have contacted over the last couple of days to seek guidance about this particular session, I have been told of students who have been in their rooms for the best part of three months, who have not really gone outside, have piled on weight and who have emotional issues. Some of them have experienced traumatic events in their own homes. Teachers will face the brunt of all of that as soon as this programme starts. How will the teachers and SNAs be supported, as they will be the first to come into contact with these students on their return to the school environment?
There always will be individual examples and cases. In the main, since 12 March schools have stayed connected and have not closed. While school buildings have closed, the education has not closed. Parents of children with special needs have seen ongoing engagement, be it the SNAs or principals staying in touch. Maybe that did not happen in all cases but in the main, that is the feedback we have received. The physical presence in the school is what has been missing and that is why we want to reconnect. We feel that this measure is a stepping stone for a lot of children who potentially have regressed. It is also an opportunity for parents to acknowledge assistance. One parent to whom I spoke this morning could not praise the SNA highly enough in terms of providing an ongoing connection. The measure is about reconnection. Yes, we need to be mindful of any gaps or teachers who need support because while we all have come through this pandemic, some of us have been affected in a more negative way than others, especially those who have lost loved ones.
The Minister used the phrase, "in the main". It is not just the exceptional cases, however, where these schools are experiencing trauma. The only document given to the schools on Tuesday highlights some real problems that are not just happening in one or two individual cases. They are being reported from schools across the board. They include a lack of digital voices, students not having access to the necessary technological skills, students not having appropriate space or facilities in which to work at home and the lack of scaffolding or learning that would take place in classrooms. As these issues will arise in almost every school on its return, it is important that we factor that in for all schools. I will supply my remaining questions in written form to the Minister.
I have two questions for the Minister. My first question is on the July provision. He has stated numerous times that the provision depends on teachers and SNAs making themselves available for a period. What is the uptake? I was contacted by a parent from Lucan who is in a very difficult situation. Her school cannot accommodate the July provision due to remedial works taking place and no SNAs or teachers have made themselves available. I am sure everybody will understand what has happened over the last 13 or 14 weeks.
Children with special needs have been in their home environments and their routines and structures have been completely lost. This is causing incalculable stress not only for the children but also for their parents. The Minister has stated that 70% of the July provision is home based but parents and children need to get out of the home. If a school is closed or cannot make accommodation available, where else can the July programme be provided to parents such as those I mentioned?
The details of the scheme will be discussed on Friday and I will provide the information at a public level. With regard to the specific concern of the parent in Lucan who does not have a school opened in the general area, and perhaps never had, we call it home-based tuition but it does not necessarily have to be in the house. It can be as creative as possible. There is a lot of evidence in this regard. The relationship between the tutor and the student is important. There will be protocols, including health protocols and guidelines, on how it should work. I do not want to speculate today. I will wait until Friday to announce what it will look like. There are options for that parent in Lucan. It is about ensuring the subsidy can go directly to parents to ensure they can decide what is best for their children.
My next question is on the pupil-teacher ratio. I am not being parochial but to give an example, in Scoil Íde Catholic primary school in Clondalkin the number of pupils has changed slightly since last September, which means it will lose a teacher next September. The Minister can understand that in September schools will be under serious pressure because of the ongoing public health emergency with regard to physical distancing. In this situation, some of the classes will have gone from the recommended 26 pupils per teacher to 35 pupils per teacher. This will not be possible in September. There needs to be more teachers and resources and not fewer in September. Will the Minister make a commitment that there will be no reduction in teachers in September, particularly given the situation over the past six months, which has been traumatic for teachers and pupils? There should be more resources and not fewer in September.
The pupil-teacher ratio and the allocation of teachers are all part of the budget and I will not change the budget midway through the year. I get the Deputy's point and it was raised quite extensively in the House in discussing the challenges we will encounter in August and September with regard to extra resources. This is why I am engaging very closely with education stakeholders to ensure the roadmap we will provide on Friday for school reopenings will incorporate some of the concerns the Deputy has raised. With regard to the school looking to retain the teacher, there is an independent appeals process and I suggest the school goes through that.
This debate is quite problematic. Huge numbers of parents of children with additional needs are watching and interested in this issue. They fight their whole lives for their children and they need to know what will happen with regard to the July provision. We have scheduled a special session of the Dáil to debate it and every answer to every question is that the Minister will reveal it on Friday. I do not understand why we are having this debate now if the Minister is not able to give us answers so we can have a back and forth about the provision as opposed to the Minister saying every time that he will announce it on Friday. This is the Dáil and the Minister is meant to be accountable to the Dáil.
That is a matter for the Business Committee. I was here last week and I was here two weeks before that. I am second to the Minister, Deputy Harris, as the most frequent ministerial visitor to the House. I am happy to be here again today but last week I said quite clearly with regard to coming here today that the memo on the roadmap would go to the Government on Friday.
To respond on the needs of the parents, the Deputy is correct in saying that parents want certainty and clarity on this. I will ensure that once we issue the guidelines on Friday, not alone will they have clarity but they will also register. This is Wednesday.
I refer to the broader point that Deputy Gino Kenny raised about pupil-teacher ratios. Does the Minister accept that if schools are to operate properly in a post-coronavirus world or in a world where the coronavirus persists, the pupil-teacher ratio will have to come down, we will have to invest in our education system and we will potentially have to make infrastructural investments to facilitate social distancing, the safe operation of schools and so on? There is a coming together of the needs of children in schools, the need to protect against a renewed pandemic in future and the issue of the environment because teaching jobs are low carbon but high quality. Does the Minister not see that there is now a strong case, although there always was a case for it in reality, for dramatic reductions in the pupil-teacher ratio?
We have 70,000 teachers in the primary and post-primary sectors. The pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools will decline naturally because of demographics. Speaking as a former school teacher, the fewer pupils one has in a class, the better the teaching environment for the teacher. That is a given but the challenge we have in the annual budget is deciding how much money will go into certain areas. This is an example of one of those conflicts. I remember last September and October arguing back and forth with the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe on the need for more money for education. There are choices between third level education, special needs education so on. We are spending €2 billion out of €11 billion every year on special needs education but it is still not enough. The pupil-teacher ratio should also be lower. Commitments were given during the election to that effect and we all agree we should work towards that.
Other choices are available, outside the frame of reference of the Minister and Fine Gael, as to where resources could come from to enable us to do those things. They could come from the Apple tax and many other areas.
I will raise a concrete question which illustrates a point about a potential post-coronavirus environment. The Acting Chairman, Deputy Lahart, mentioned Firhouse Educate Together secondary school, which has fought a long battle to get appropriate accommodation. It has received promises that it will have a permanent building from September 2022. It had arrangements in place for temporary accommodation starting in September this year but that is no longer possible due to the coronavirus because the Gaelscoil currently using the accommodation believes it needs the extra space. The Department is telling Firhouse Educate Together secondary school that it cannot be facilitated and it will have to move to Citywest. It is not viable for a school in Firhouse to be based in Citywest. The school has a high proportion of students with additional needs who would have to travel daily back and forth to Citywest. The Department needs to step in and step up to ensure that Firhouse Educate Together secondary school is able to have a secondary school in Firhouse from September.
I know the Acting Chairman has raised this issue as well and I am conscious that Deputy Brophy has raised it on a number of occasions. I am aware of the issue and my officials are examining it with a view to finding a solution.
These past weeks and months have shown the best attributes of the Irish people and demonstrated beyond doubt that we are a caring and empathetic nation. From the first incidences of Covid-19, front-line staff across the country took on the challenge of doing all in their power to preserve well-being, while supporting industries ensured the continuation of our supply and distribution chains in food, energy and allied care services.
The Government announced significant funding to support the reallocation of health services and to provide business and welfare support payments as the lockdown period became a reality. How noble we as a people might appear in rising so stoically to such a challenge. However, we have in our midst families who struggle every day to manage difficult and sometimes impossible care burdens as a result of their children exhibiting the most challenging behaviours with complex learning needs. These children require significant and sometimes specialist educational intervention.
This summer's educational programme is a vital support for such families and children as they struggle to maintain their place within the learning curriculum. I welcome any efforts of the Department directed towards the programme this year. The Minister might comment on the possible staff resourcing that will accompany it.
Notwithstanding this year's July provision programme, I wish to highlight to the Minister the challenges facing the ever-increasing number of schools in which such specialist teaching interventions are required. The number of early-going and even secondary school children with behavioural issues who may be deemed to be on the autism spectrum is increasing. Catering to these pupils' needs requires the resources of the Department, and in many cases the resources provided are not adequate to meet the needs presenting at these schools. Many schools are reduced to two or three possible psychological assessments of students in any one calendar year under the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS. Many parents are forced to consider private psychological assessment because of the two-year wait time in NEPS, but this private assessment may be considered as an invalid reference for the special educational needs organiser, SENO, whose role it is to allocate special needs assistant hours to pupils meeting the departmental criteria.
I spoke recently to two sets of parents who have gone through this process where the evaluating person who gave the assessment was considered an invalid reference because the assessment was not carried out through NEPS, yet they are qualified to give, and do give, NEPS reports. Schools I have been in contact with have reported that their SENOs allocate a total number of hours and leave it to school management to decide how these hours are to be distributed. This is a wholly unsatisfactory situation, with gross understaffing in respect of NEPS psychologists and many SENOs acting more like accountants than childcare experts when considering the allocation of SNA resources. Not alone are the allocation hours of SNAs inadequate in many schools, but no provision has been made to provide sensory rooms for younger age groups in many schools. Such rooms are a significant component of teaching, instruction and socialisation activity for such children. I have met many parents who are at their wits' end trying to secure evaluations of their children as well as the necessary school resourcing to ensure their children can remain in mainstream education and acquire sufficient learning to achieve their full potential. I have no doubt but that the Minister's email inbox also has many such requests and examples of such situations. I ask that his Department adopt a similar proactive response to that which has been marshalled against the threat of Covid-19 in order that our schools and teachers can deliver a front-line standard of education that addresses the needs of those who most need it.
As part of the Minister's schools portfolio, will he update the House on his thoughts on the planned status of school secretaries? As he knows, many school secretaries work for meagre wages and cannot avail of sick leave or pension rights. How can we value our teaching establishments if we do not value those who are intrinsic to the service delivery on offer, who care, who support teaching management and who contribute so much to safe school services? These are our front-line staff too and they have been conveniently pushed to the background and overlooked. They say it takes a village to raise a child. It is now time to provide equitable pay to these villagers who do so much to oversee the safe and cherished care of all our children.
In discussing the equity and economic benefits of providing educational support for all our students, I wish to highlight that Waterford remains the only city region without a university. The economic consequences of the south-east regional brain drain were plain to see long before Covid-19 arrived in Ireland. Without this strategic component delivered, this region will remain an economic outlier for years to come. A south-east university was flagged as an essential component of the Government's 2040 development programme. It has not seen the focused attention of the Minister's Department, which is required to solve the roadblocks in the proposed TU amalgamation process. I, like many others, look on at the ability of the Department to assist the Munster TU programme with capital supports and industrial relations expertise while reflecting on the fact that one of the highest-functioning institutes of technology in the country, namely Waterford Institute of Technology, has not received a capital funding programme in over 15 years. In addition, a refurbishment programme first requested over three years ago has still failed to materialise. I know change is possibly coming to the seat the Minister occupies. I ask that before vacating it, he set this as a priority project for completion by his Department seniors in the shortest time possible.
Soaring rhetoric on the educational and economic imperatives of this project are no substitute for capital moneys invested to make it a reality. I would welcome the Minister's comments on all these matters.
I thank the Deputy for his contribution. He asked a question around resources that will go into the summer programme. Obviously, it is a demand-led scheme and is based on volunteerism. Last year, the July provision cost a little over €16 million. We are looking at an expanded scheme this year. This involves bringing in other groups. We will be looking to add significantly to the €16 million investment. Certainly, financial resources will not be a barrier in respect of this new summer programme. The challenge lies in the supply of schools in terms of school openings and teachers and tutors coming forward, as well as the availability of SNAs.
Teachers and SNAs have been highly engaged. Obviously, on the basis of his contribution the Deputy holds SNAs in high regard and I agree with him wholeheartedly. There are 17,000 SNAs in the country and they are the epicentre of every school. Students know them by their first names and on a highly personal basis. A report was completed during my term as Minister on what needs to be done for SNAs in terms of status and ensuring they get the proper professional qualification and recognition. Those recommendations need to be implemented because they are really important.
The Deputy also mentioned school secretaries. This is something for which I campaigned when I was in opposition and on the other side of the House and I wanted to see it brought to a conclusion during my term. That did not happen and at present, the issue of school secretaries and caretakers is with the Workplace Relations Commission. I hope progress can be made. It will be a budgetary decision for an incoming Government. There are a series of choices. In any event, I agree with the Deputy on secretaries and the responsible role they play. As someone pointed out during a previous debate, they are the glue of the school and are really important.
As for the priority of university status for the south-east region, we are on the same page. Whether it is a university for the south east or the north west, if we are to really focus on regional development, we need to have a university in the south east. I have spoken to officials in the higher education section of the Department in recent weeks. There is momentum at the minute. The application is being made ready and I believe we will be in a strong position for a university in the south east towards the end of the year.
I am happy to speak briefly on the July education programme. As we know, the scheme provides funding for an extended school year for children with a severe or profound general learning disability or children with autism. Where school-based provision is not feasible, 40 hours of home-based provision may be granted. I was shocked to read reports earlier this week that many disability organisations and parent representatives have expressed alarm at proposals outlined to them at two separate briefings with officials from the Department of Education and Skills. As I understand it from the reports, they were told that new limits would be placed on children accessing the programme this year. Given that more than 10,000 children with autism or a profound intellectual disability avail of the two-week scheme every summer, this is highly concerning. I have highlighted this issue, along with the wider lack of classroom provision across midland counties for children with autism or a special needs diagnosis, many times on the floor of the House. Information provided to me by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, on the allocation list for special classes in primary and post-primary schools for the academic year 2019-20 shows that only ten new places were being provided for all schools in Laois and Offaly in addition to a further nine in total for Longford and Westmeath.
This becomes even more stark when one considers that Offaly has almost 40 primary and post-primary schools that have a requirement for special classes. The allocation that has been provided is clearly insufficient and will not match the level of need or demand that currently exists. This situation will only be compounded by the proposed changes to the July education programme. The Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 can assist in addressing this issue where the NCSE is of the opinion that there is insufficient education provision for children with special educational needs in an area. In that context, I ask the Minister to review the situation in Laois, Offaly and the midlands under the relevant sections of the Act. As a parent and former Gaelscoil principal I believe that all children, including children with special educational needs, have a right to an education in line with their abilities in order to live full and independent lives.
I also understand that the situation previously was that the allocation of home-based provision to siblings for July provision was reflective of the school grouping principle, that is where one teacher is allocated to a class of six pupils at the appropriate educational level, primary or post-primary. Accordingly, it was considered appropriate, as in a school situation, that a tutor can provide tuition at the appropriate educational level to more than one sibling at that level simultaneously in the home. Is it the case that issues around insurance or indemnity for tutors attending homes in the current situation has contributed to the difficulties the programme is currently facing?
The Deputy spoke about school places for children with special educational needs. What has happened here is that this is not just a Dublin or Cork based issue any more. Obviously there was a lot of pressure last year in Dublin 15. I did enact the legislation to which the Deputy referred but critical to that legislation was the co-operation of school authorities. We had a tremendous focus on the ground, engaging with the principals. I want to acknowledge, in particular, Monsignor Dan O'Connor who was pivotal in ensuring that we got the extra places. There may be issues in Offaly or other parts of the Deputy's constituency with regard to places. Obviously, school principals may have reservations and concerns about what this would look like and whether they would have the proper resources to create the best environment for their students. It is about having that leadership at a local level as well. Enacting the legislation is one thing but having a spirit of co-operation on the ground from management authorities is also critical.
I ask the Minister to give information to the providers of July provision. Yesterday I spoke to a representative of a school that takes in 90 children for July provision. At this stage the school should be organising transport for the children, SNAs, teachers, physiotherapists and nurses. School authorities should not be worrying about the conditions of the scheme and whether it will go ahead but this information is not available to them. The July provision is 20 days of fun and music for children with complex needs who have been isolated at home since early March. When autistic children are about to leave school, they are reassured for weeks beforehand but on 13 March these children left school and did not come back. They were left at home with their parents, many of whom were trying to work from home as well as mind other siblings and they were also expected to take care of their child with additional needs. Many of these children are non-verbal. They are unable to express how they feel or understand what is happening.
Who is responsible for the summer provision? Is it the Department of Children and Youth Affairs or the Department of Education and Skills? The July provision programme is not open to preschool children.
A simple solution this year might be an extension of the access and inclusion model, AIM, programme because the SNAs involved, who already know the preschool children, could maintain a sense of community for them as they transition to the next level of preschool. Preschool does not have access to the July provision programme. The scheme would be relatively inexpensive to run, with typical wages of between €13 and €16 per hour. Perhaps the Minister would consider using social care students, student occupational therapists, student physiotherapists and student SNAs to accommodate preschool children this year.
Simple questions are being asked by providers. They are seeking three SNAs per class. Since there is no swimming or horse riding this year, can children have home economics and music therapy?
Some of the behaviours being witnessed are shocking. Some children have not gotten out of bed since March. They will require more effort on buses. Home-based provision should still be an option in extreme cases. HSE respite care needs to be reopened as soon as possible. For the parents and guardians who took Covid seriously, it is time to reopen and give them the break they need.
People require answers now. There has been ample time to prepare a plan and inform providers of what is happening. What about a simple extension of the AIM programme? Where the transition is concerned, the people who have been with those children all the way up the line know the children. It is not only the children who need a break, but also the parents. There are enough people available to provide this service if we just take a simple approach to it.
I thank the Deputy for his contribution and his proposal. We are keeping the conversation line open on early intervention classes, and there will be more detail on same on Friday. I agree with his point about the transition from preschool to primary. We are engaging on it and will provide more clarity on Friday.
He raised a range of issues concerning needs and schools knowing what the score was. No one more than I wants to get that information out there as quickly as possible, but the guidelines will be out on Friday. Parents can register and schools that are interested will be able to let the Department know.
The Deputy asked who was responsible. The Department of Education and Skills is responsible because we signed a cheque for €16 million last year. My Department is responsible for the continuation of this specific summer programme and the expanded July programme, but the Department of Health is involved where complex medical needs students are concerned and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is involved in terms of school completion. There is a wide interaction between a number of Departments.
I wish to share time with Deputy Fitzmaurice.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a chuid oibre agus a dhúthrachta Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil a chroí san áit cheart agus go bhfuil croíthe fhoireann na Roinne san áit cheart freisin. Tá an t-uafás ama tógtha agus ní raibh sé ceart nach raibh ghuth na ngasúr le cloisteáil in aon áit. Invisible Children is ea teideal na cáipéise a chuireann síos ar chomh deacair is atá sé ó 2019 go dtí an lá atá inniu ann áit a fháil i scoileanna agus is é an cúlra atá leis seo. Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil an cáipéis sin ag an Aire. I thank the Minister. I will not repeat that in English, as I have thanked him and his staff in Irish.
In April, I was contacted by the Galway Autism Partnership about July provision. As such, the Department was on ample notice. The Department is under stress and a great deal of effort went into dealing with the leaving certificate, but children with special needs were invisible. Indeed, they and their parents have always struggled to be visible, which was repeated verbatim in this document as regards July provision.
I thank the Minister for his written speech. I have listened to all of the contributions and the Minister discussed the three stands. Despite all of that, however, I am still not entirely clear. While I appreciate that he forewarned us last week that the announcement would be this Friday, I am not sure how the message could change so substantially between now and Friday that he could not give us more detail today.
All I can ask at this point is for the Minister to give absolute clarity on Friday. I am not clear on this so I cannot explain it to people. I am not sure if the July provision is going ahead as is with the extension to children with Down's syndrome in addition to the other courses. Is priority being given to children with special needs, autism and Down's syndrome? Can I go home and say to the people of Galway that they can rely on the July provision going ahead?
I will quickly mention a few other items. I will be writing to the Minister about them but I am seizing this opportunity. If we do not learn from this situation we are simply going to repeat the mistakes of the past. The NPHET committee was not adequate and did not have a broad enough range of experience to look at this issue. There should have been a voice from day one for nursing homes, though that is separate from the Minister's brief, and a voice for special needs.
I refer to universities. I have a letter from a young student who is doing a Master's in medical device design in the National College of Art and Design. It looks like a wonderful course, but it includes a summer project. He and his colleagues do not know if they will be doing that summer project. That is a matter for the Higher Education Authority, HEA, but it is a simple matter that could be clarified very quickly as there are very small numbers involved.
I reiterate that children with special needs are not visible in general. On top of the burden of coping with the Covid crisis, when the schools eventually reopen they will be facing a loss of SNAs. That is despite the Minister's assurances in a statement made in April where he said: "As part of the decision to defer the new allocation model, I am also confirming that no school will receive a lower allocation of SNA support". I have received representations, as I am sure have other Deputies, stating that even if the SNA has not been lost, a substantial number of hours are lost.
Déanaim tagairt do scoil i gcroílár na Gaeltachta, sa Ghaeltacht is mó sa tír. Ní mór dom a rá gurb í an Ghaeltacht is deise sa tír. Tá an scoil seo ag streachailt anois mar go bhfuil na huimhreacha daltaí gasúr nó dhó níos ísle ná an ráta atá leagtha amach. Beidh sí i dtrioblóid. There are no taps in this school. It is trying to prepare for living with Covid and now one of its teachers may be lost. Let us stop this nonsense. Let us have some practical sense and say that as Covid has done enough damage, we are not going to reduce the teachers of any school in the country at the moment, even if they go below the numbers by one or two students. It is not possible. They are going to have to spread out. That particular school has no sinks or taps and the boys have to use the girls' toilets, for various reasons. If that school lost a teacher it would be in serious trouble.
I thank the Minister for coming in to answer questions. I concur with the previous Deputy on a few of the issues she raised. There is a fear that some children with autism have gone backwards because they were not getting their educational needs met. We have to make sure that those people in the community, many of whom are silent, get proper representation and the proper educational system they deserve. There is trepidation among parents, teachers and SNAs that this has not been handled well. Every Deputy is looking for clarity on the July provision. I am not going to labour the point because the previous Deputy has outlined it very well.
School transport is also an issue. I know this is the Minister's area but the Minister of State, John Halligan, would have been involved as well. Will the same problems throw up their heads for school transport? What types of provision will be laid out in school transport from September onward? Is there going to be social distancing or physical distancing?
Will there be problems given the number of buses? Will all of this be sorted out in the meantime?
I refer to SNAs. I have been contacted by a number of schools and my understanding, based on the principals who called me, is that whatever the allocation was last year will be the same for the coming year. What happens if there are extra children who need SNAs in those schools? There is something called an exceptional measure, but principals have to go around in rings in October to fight their case. For one year at least, why would the Minister not give clarity to school principals in particular? Things are difficult enough for them.
In fairness, a lot of good has been done and many things have been handled very well. This is not about having a go at anybody. It is about at least providing peace of mind for those children who may need SNAs starting off in September and now do not know whether they will have them. I ask the Department to change the rules that mean what schools had last year is what they will have next year, and it is tough luck if they have more children but they can apply for exceptional measures. We all know people have to go through appeals and back and forth to fight for services. For God's sake, this September, given the circumstances our country is in, the Minister should outline a clear vision for principals, who have enough on their hands at the moment trying to plan how they will make sure there is safe physical distancing and children adhere to the rules in schools. They are planning for SNA allocations already, and the Minister should at least provide them with some clarity.
I thank both Deputies for their contributions. If we went with last year's July provision, we could announce it and everything would be out there. The reason there has been a delay is because we are incorporating two other Departments, the Departments of Health and Children and Youth Affairs on the disadvantaged side. Deputies can tell their constituents that children with severe and profound intellectual disabilities will qualify. Children who were eligible for July provision last year will qualify again this year. In addition, children with Down's syndrome will be included. We are considering a number of other areas to try to be as inclusive and responsive to the gaps Deputies identified in terms of regression.
We want to utilise the time this summer for the summer programme to act as a stepping stone to reconnect with schools in September. Parents are worried about regression, the gaps in education and disconnection from schools, their peers, SNAs and teaching staff. There are challenges therein and a confidence issue because we are opening up as a country and people are making small steps towards going back to business premises and shops. These steps are slow and there are concerns and fears on the part of the education community, which I acknowledge. That is why we are working with stakeholders.
We have consulted AsIAm, Down's syndrome representatives and Inclusion Ireland. Their voices have been critical to ensuring that we have a comprehensive programme. On Friday, we will have the guidelines and information available to parents who will be able to register from that point. I am hopeful and confident about July provision, and I know everybody in the House is ambitious for our most vulnerable community. We will work together to make this happen.
Deputy Fitzmaurice is correct that schools need more certainty, as do SNAs in terms of their job security. The front-loaded model deferred for a year because of Covid-19 will be introduced in the 2021-22 school year. If there are specific examples of students who need SNA support this September, there is a mechanism for them to appeal on those grounds.
That concludes statements by the Minister for Education and Skills on the July education programme, as well as questions to and answers by the Minister. The Dáil will suspend for 20 minutes in accordance with the order of the Dáil today. After that we will move on to the annual transition statements on climate action and low-carbon development with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.