Tuesday, 7 July 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Special Educational Needs
I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate her on her appointment. The summer provision programme for 2020 is hugely important because it assists, in particular, children who have profound learning difficulties, such as autism and so on. I welcome the fact 5,000 more children will participate in summer provision this year than did last year. The Minister knows children with disabilities have been profoundly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and those children and their families have had a difficult time as a result.
St. Mary's special school in Drumcar, County Louth, is wonderful. I am aware of an eight year old child who goes to that school. A bus goes to that school during normal school times. The family of the child was delighted to hear that summer provision would apply to the school but the problem is there is no public bus or bus provided by the school for summer provision. The family is being asked to pay €35 each way for the child to get a taxi to the school.
I am not blaming anybody and people are very happy that summer provision is happening. A small number of families do not have the money and cannot afford to pay €35 in taxi fares. The problem is that, given their financial position, the family cannot beg or borrow that money. I accept that home provision is available but it is not suitable or possible for this family unit.
I ask the Minister to look again at the regulations for the small number of families who want their child to attend the special school they are used to attending. The school in question is approximately 15 miles away from the family home and there is no way the family can pay taxi fares or afford to go into debt to do so. It is not possible for the family to pay €70 and they cannot borrow that amount.
I will be happy to hear the Minister say in reply that she will consider the issue. I would say a very small number of families are affected but it would assist them and give them great happiness if their child was able to participate, for the first time in months, with the other children whom they were with pre-Covid-19. The child in question is profoundly disadvantaged, non-verbal and autistic. It would be a considerable boon to the family if he could attend at summer provision.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Before I address the specific issue, I would like to provide the Members of the House with an outline on the extent of the school transport service.
School transport is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department. In the 2019-2020 school year, more than 120,000 children, including 14,200 children with special educational needs, were transported in over 5,000 vehicles on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country, covering over 100 million km at a cost of more than €219 million in 2019.
The purpose of my Department's school transport scheme is, having regard to available resources, to support the transport to and from the school of children who reside remote from their nearest school. With regard to transport for the summer provision programme 2020, given the exceptional circumstances in planning for delivery of the programme and the shorter than normal timeframe in which to plan the school transport services, in addition to the expansion of the programme and coupled with the social distancing requirements as per health advice, the Department, unfortunately, was not in a position to provide school transport for the programme this year. However, my Department will provide grant funding to support families with the cost of transport arrangements for those children who are eligible for school transport and have been approved to participate in the summer programme.
The grant payment is based on the distance that a family resides from their child's school of attendance. The calculation is based on four trips per day - home to school and school to home, morning and afternoon - multiplied by the number of days a child attends school for that programme. The current rate of grant is 39.12 cent per km for the first 6,437 km travelled and 21.22 cent per km for each km travelled thereafter.
Families who are already in receipt of the special transport grant for children with special educational needs will be paid as normal following completion of the summer provision programme 2020. Families who currently avail of a transport service will be contacted by the school transport section following the completion of the summer provision programme 2020 in regard to the arrangements for payment.
Families who are not in a position to make their own transport arrangements in order to avail of a school-based programme have the option of contacting the special education section of my Department with a view perhaps to inquiring about the home-based programme.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, affording me the opportunity to provide an outline of the extent of the school transport scheme and to respond to the issue raised.
That is the same reply that I received earlier from the Department. I acknowledge the intent of what the Minister has said but I reject its content. I do not find that acceptable and I want to stress that these are children with exceptional needs, as I know the Minister acknowledges. There is no way the family in question can pay the bill and recoup the funding. I absolutely acknowledge that the scheme is there but this family cannot get €1,500 to pay for it. Home provision is not suitable to this family unit and there are reasons for that. This child will be left in a difficult and unacceptable situation.
I know the community welfare office service is available but one does not want to reduce people to going to a community welfare officer and putting out their hands to beg for something to which they are entitled. I ask the Minister to look at this matter again.
I do not know how many similar applications the Department has received or how many people are affected.
I have three constituents who attend schools in Louth who are affected by this. I ask the Minister to look again at it and see if there is some way of looking after them. It is unacceptable to them and to me that the Department cannot find a way in these exceptional circumstances where there is no public bus. They have no way of getting there without the taxi and they cannot pay for it.
I appreciate that the Deputy acknowledges the existence of the grant option and indeed the merits of this programme of which I am very supportive. I am not aware of the specifics of the three cases the Deputy mentioned. Perhaps he might make them available to my Department and my officials will take a look.