Wednesday, 3 March 2021
Reopening Schools and Leaving Certificate Examinations: Statements
I am happy to be here to continue the discussions which some of the Deputies in the Chamber today and I had at the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science yesterday. I will share my time with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan.
The House will be aware of the significant announcements and developments in recent weeks about students returning to in-person learning and the arrangements for the State examinations in 2021. When I was last in this House, we were working intensively with education partners on both of these important objectives. I am happy that this work has ensured that we can move forward in the interests of students and school communities.
Earlier this week, we saw the return of approximately 320,000 students to their classrooms. Some 60,000 are the leaving certificate class of 2021 and approximately 260,000 are in the first four years of primary school. This was a positive day for many students, their families and school staff, and one which has been much anticipated.
Monday also saw special schools return to full in-class provision having operated on the basis of 50% attendance since 11 February. Special classes at primary and post-primary level have been operating at full capacity since 22 February. In total, this has seen the return of more than 18,000 children with special educational needs to the classroom.
In line with the published phases of the return to in-class, in-person teaching over the next weeks, we hope to see even more students return to schools, including 260,000 primary school students in the more senior classes returning on 15 March together with fifth year students at post-primary level. Subject to continued progress in maintaining reduced community transmission levels, the remaining post-primary students return on 12 April following the traditional Easter break.
The phased approach which has been building on the earlier phases when special schools and special classes reopened has been possible with the progress made across communities in bringing the community transmission levels of Covid-19 down. Like many Deputies, I was encouraged to see the Covid statistics being reported last night by the Department of Health, showing real and strong progress in the right direction. We need to maintain our efforts to contain the virus and I welcome the deputy chief medical officer's advice to school communities and more generally that we must stay vigilant so that we can get our students back to full in-school provision. Schools are planning for the coming phases and looking forward to welcoming all of their students back to their classrooms. We all have a duty and burden of responsibility to ensure that that will happen.
I acknowledge that a phased reopening is challenging for many people, with children of different age groups in the same families returning at different times. The purpose of this cautious phased return is to continue to limit the mobility of the population and curb the spread of the virus. I ask all parents to review the symptoms of Covid-19 to ensure that children with symptoms do not attend school and that all children know and understand the procedures in place in school. This has been supported by a recent public health campaign. Please continue to abide by all social distancing regulations and stay at home apart from essential journeys. Please help schools by not congregating at the school gates. We all understand how essential school reopening is and we need to give it the best possible chance to get all students back as quickly as possible.
We know that the Covid-19 pandemic has been challenging for children and adults alike and for this reason, the National Education Psychological Service, NEPS, has developed well-being webinars and toolkits for school staff. These contain information, guidance, tips and advice for schools on how to best support the well-being of all children and young people, including those with special educational needs, following this current period of Covid-19 school closures. NEPS has also produced and recently revised a targeted well-being resource, Supporting the Wellbeing of Students with Special Educational Needs Returning to School. NEPS psychologists have developed advice and guidance documents for parents and students to support the return to school, including advice on transition, coping and relaxation strategies, and managing stress and anxiety. Other resources for schools include guidance and advice for teachers to support students in the areas of behavioural regulation, managing stress and anxiety, as well as supporting teacher well-being and self-care. At local level, NEPS psychologists will continue to work with their assigned schools to support them to meet the needs of children and young people with a particular focus on those with the highest level of need as they settle back after this period of school closure.
Before turning to the leaving certificate, I will address some important points about the reopening of our schools to avoid any confusion. The Department of Education has confirmed with public health services that the enhanced, augmented public health schools teams will be available to fully support schools that are opening in this interim phase. Full contact tracing and bulk fast-track testing in the school setting will resume immediately for schools as they reopen. Principals in a school where there has been a positive Covid-19 case will continue to have access to a dedicated phone line seven days a week. Close contact testing has resumed in the community. Close contacts will now be tested at day zero and again at day ten. If the second test results in no detection of the virus, then staff or students may return to school. Detailed data about transmission of Covid-19 within school settings will continue to be published and made available to my Department and stakeholders during this phase.
The current public health advice is that serial antigen or PCR testing is not currently recommended as a public health measure to keep schools safe. This position is being kept under review by the HSE and an expert group is in place examining the use of antigen tests in schools and other workplace settings. I will continue to be guided by the advice of the public health authorities about all risk mitigation measures being implemented in the education sector.
Revised Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, guidelines for SNAs published on 7 January 2021 recommend surgical grade masks for all SNAs. Schools must provide medical grade masks to all SNAs and teachers in special schools and special classes and those staff who, by necessity, need to be in close and continued proximity with pupils with intimate care needs, including school bus escorts.
Schools may access the current PPE framework to procure the necessary PPE supplies. Funding is in place to support implementation of all infection prevention and control, IPC, measures, including all required PPE. There has been no reduction in that funding.
A number of temporary measures have been implemented to support the phased reopening of schools, including putting in place temporary flexible accommodations for high-risk staff to work remotely or carry out duties where they are not in close contact or providing personal care. Pregnant teachers and SNAs were facilitated to work from home as part of these temporary arrangements while advice for pregnant education sector staff is developed by occupational and public health doctors.
This week has also seen the return of the leaving certificate year students to their classrooms. They return with the clarity and choice the recent Government decision on the approach to be taken to their leaving certificate has provided. The work undertaken by the members of the advisory group on the State examinations in the lead-up to the Government decision was very beneficial in ensuring all voices could be heard and could have an input into the deliberations. Leaving certificate 2021 students are being offered a choice. They can sit the leaving certificate examination, receive grades accredited by the State Examinations Commission, SEC, to be known as SEC accredited grades, or both. Students can make this choice subject by subject. The candidate self-service portal will open next Wednesday, 10 March at 12 noon and will remain open until Tuesday 16 March at 6 p.m. Students will be asked to register on the candidate self-service portal and create their own account, confirm their subject entries and level and indicate whether they are taking the examination, opting for accredited grades, or both.
Providing for both accredited grades and conventional examinations is essential to ensuring a fair system, having regard to the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic and the loss of learning that has occurred for this group of students. The primary concern is to give students a choice and ensure they have a way to progress to further or higher education or on to work, recognising the particular circumstances of this year’s leaving certificate students. The work in ensuring students can choose to sit an examination or avail of an accredited grade continues intensively within my Department and the SEC and will involve continued engagement with the education partners.
The House will be aware that A Guide to State Examinations and Accredited Grades for Leaving Certificate 2021 was issued by my Department last week. It provides detailed information for students, their families and schools as to how the examination and accredited grades strands will progress. Several members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science referenced specific elements of the guide at yesterday's meeting. Significant further information and guidance will be issued to students and schools over the coming weeks.
There are differences to the arrangements in 2021 when compared with last year. First, a full suite of examinations operated by the SEC will be run, starting with the oral and practical components in the coming weeks, subject to prevailing public health advice. The examinations will take place in line with their traditional June timetable and that timetable has been published. The accredited grades system this year will ultimately be completed by the SEC, with my Department carrying out the preliminary stages of the work pending necessary legislative amendments. I intend to bring proposals for relevant legislative amendments to Cabinet shortly and to seek to have the relevant provisions drafted as a priority. Those provisions relate primarily to providing the necessary legal powers to the SEC, providing indemnity to teachers and schools and prohibiting the canvassing of teachers. I will be seeking the assistance of this House, the Seanad and the aforementioned Oireachtas committee in ensuring the relevant Bill can progress through the required legislative stages as expeditiously as possible.
Across both Houses, I am sure we are united in our desire to see our leaving certificate class of 2021 progress to the next stages of their lives in as normal a fashion as possible, acknowledging the challenges they and the education system as a whole have faced and continue to face in the midst of a pandemic. I acknowledge the work undertaken across schools communities in recent weeks, particularly in the lead-up to yesterday, to ensure so many students are now back in their classrooms with their teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and support staff. I am looking forward to seeing all students back in their classrooms over the coming weeks. I now invite the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to address the House.
Táim buíoch as ucht an deis labhairt faoi chúrsaí oideachais speisialta. Táim ag súil go mór le ceisteanna na Baill.
We are one year on from the arrival of Covid-19 in Ireland. The past 12 months have been unexpected, challenging and unprecedented for all parts of our society. I do not have to tell anyone that. We see it every day and we hear the stories from our communities. Everyone is making sacrifices for the collective good of society and the protection of public health. This is absolutely the right thing to do but that does not make it any easier.
The restrictions of the past year have impacted differently on different groups in society, but those who are more vulnerable or rely on dedicated services have been especially affected. This group includes students with additional needs in our schools. The impact of school closures has been severe on students who struggle to engage in distance learning. That reality is irrefutable. Young people miss out on vital learning opportunities and families fear regression and the loss of key skills. As Minister of State with responsibility for special education, but also as a parent and a public representative, I have heard these stories and I have taken them to heart. No one knows better than the young people and their families the impact that recent weeks have had. No one wants to see regression occur and I am in awe of the many parents and advocacy groups who campaign day and night to raise awareness of these issues and who seek to vindicate the rights of these young people. The Government must also seek to vindicate their rights and that is what we strive to do. Building a society with equality of opportunity for all does not simply mean that everyone should have the same supports. It also means those with particular needs are given additional, dedicated supports. This is how the human dignity and potential of each individual is respected and empowered.
Last summer we ensured all schools were given the necessary supports for a full reopening of our education system in September. We all saw the happy faces of our young people as they returned to school after many weeks of distance learning. Over recent weeks we have seen these happy young faces again as a phased return to school has begun. Nevertheless, not all students are back at school yet. Policy in this area is always based, first and foremost, on public health advice and it will continue to be so. However, the fact is students are best off in school. While remote learning supports may be necessary, no plan B is ever as effective as in-person, in-school education, and this is particularly the case for students with additional needs. I remain determined to ensure all of these students can return to the classroom as soon as possible.
From the start, I was determined that special education would be prioritised in terms of supports and a return to school. The arguments have been well made at this stage: the impact of closure is greatest on those who cannot engage in remote learning; special education remained open in many other European countries; and routine and in-person support is crucial for students with the greatest level of need. The Government’s position that special education must be a priority was set out clearly at the start of January. The Minister for Education and I have restated this on numerous occasions, as have other Ministers. Let me be clear that this remains the case. This is the basis upon which the Department of Education has engaged with all stakeholders on the reopening of schools. We have worked to find solutions that are in line with health advice and to assuage concerns. It may have taken longer than we would have wished but I know everyone welcomed the reopening of special schools on 11 February, initially on a 50% basis but now at 100% since Monday 1 March. In addition, our special classes reopened at both primary and post-primary level from 22 February. As always, I am grateful to all our teachers, SNAs, principals and school staff for their work and dedication in making this happen.
The progress made to date is important but we know there is more work to be done.
While health advice has stipulated the current phased and cautious reopening of mainstream education, many students with special educational needs in mainstream education are not yet back in the classroom. We must continue to work and engage in line with health advice to make this happen. I remain committed to a full return to school for students with special educational needs, as I have from the beginning. This process is not yet complete. It is essential that as a society we continue to make progress in curbing the spread of the disease to allow all our children to return to school as quickly as possible.
I, the Minister and all in Government and our officials know that the return to classrooms for students with additional needs and their families is much more than just a return to learning. It is a return to structure, routine and support. Families know what is best for their children and their concerns must be at the forefront. Some families and school staff still have concerns about the return. All the decisions made by Government over the past year have been about meeting the twin aims of protecting public health and delivering essential services such as education in the most appropriate way for all students. In politics, we may not always agree but I know that everyone here is united in wanting to see our country emerge from Covid-19 restrictions successfully and as soon as possible.
In recognising that pupils with additional needs can find it harder to engage in remote learning, the Department has also put in place a supplementary support scheme to provide for some home-based one-to-one support for such pupils in advance of a full return to school. Such dedicated provision recognises that in-person learning is the best approach for students with complex needs. The supplementary programme for eligible pupils who are in third to sixth classes and post-primary school will now be extended by a further two weeks, which is an additional ten hours.
As part of an ongoing commitment to ensure dedicated provision for students with complex needs, the Department is engaging with stakeholders so that the supplementary programme can also be offered in schools to increase take-up. This dedicated provision for students with SEN in mainstream education is in line with our commitments as a Government since the start of the year in the form of dedicated support for those with the greatest needs.
In addition, schools are asked to ensure that special education teachers give particular focus and support to the engagement of those pupils with SEN who are in third to sixth classes and post-primary school. This will necessitate further collaboration between special education teachers and class teachers to establish current priority learning needs among those pupils. Schools know best how to manage their staff resources and we must trust and support them in ensuring that all students are fully supported.
I would like to restate my determination to provide an enhanced summer programme for children with special educational needs this summer modelled on the programme that was provided last year. An enhanced programme this year will provide a strong foundation to support students with additional needs following many weeks of school closures. It will also allow schools and staff to identify and address educational regression in students to ensure additional supports can be made available for these students and their families.
To conclude and not wind down the clock, my commitment to special education has been clear since my appointment as Minister of State with special responsibility in this area and I will continue to support my colleague the Minister in this endeavour.
There is no question that the best place to learn is in class in school. We have all done our best in recent weeks and during the last year with the home school hub, Seesaw, Jigsaw, Joe Wicks videos and all the rest. There is no substitute, however, for in-school learning. We in Sinn Féin are glad that the phased return to school is under way. In no small way, that is due to the hard work in very challenging circumstances of the entire school community, including teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, school caretakers, receptionists, bus escorts and indeed the students and parents. From the start of the year, Sinn Féin has advocated for a phased return to school, with children's special educational needs as the highest priority and that is what transpired in the end. That process still has some way to go, but we cannot just state that the job has been done when all children have returned to school. We must ensure that the reopening is safe and sustainable and allows us to keep schools open. It is no good if schools close again at some stage later in the year and, equally, it is no good if schools are not safe and people are put at risk. That aspect is as challenging, if not more challenging, than getting schools open in the first place.
I spoke to many teachers and school staff who have returned to school classrooms this week and in recent weeks. They are happy to be back, but they are rightly asking what changes are in place and what is different. The Covid-19 situation is very different now compared with before Christmas, when those teachers and school staff were last in schools. That is especially the case given the many new variants of the virus and the implications associated with those variants which have been found in the State. Anecdotally, staff are concerned that there does not seem to have been a great deal of change within their schools to take account of this new situation. Schools are calling out for guidance on ventilation, transport and serial testing for school staff. We must crack those issues urgently. We must also crack classroom sizes. It is incredible that we have not taken the chance during this pandemic situation to finally tackle this issue. If we are serious about tackling regression at primary and second levels and deal with this situation where children are losing out as a result, then we need smaller classes and additional teacher resources, including extra teachers for team teaching.
There is no doubt that the cohort which suffered most from these closures of schools was that made up of children with special educational needs. Those children have missed out greatly. From speaking to families, it is evident that this supplementary programme has serious issues. Families cannot find tutors to facilitate the scheme. The work needs to be done now. I note what the Minister said about the summer provision programme, but these kids have missed out enough. Frankly, the supplementary programme has been problematic. We must be proactive and begin planning now for a substantial summer provision programme. Caithfimid na hacmhainní a chur isteach chun déanamh cinnte de go bhfuil leor am agus go leor foireann ann, agus go bhfaigheann gach leanbh áit sa chlár seo a bhfuil á lorg.
We need a much-expanded programme for children's special educational needs. We must also go beyond just the DEIS schools which have traditionally availed of the DEIS summer schools. In tackling disadvantage, we should be asking all principals to submit the names of children who need an extra bit of help. We should start that process now so that we can identify the level of interest and associated capacity requirements. Disadvantage is most concentrated in DEIS band 1, but then it expands into DEIS band 2 and much beyond. To make a practical proposal for summer provision and the supplementary programme, I think there would be value in the creation of a centralised database of teachers and SNAs willing to provide tuition to families. Trying to find a tutor for a child now is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. It is impossible for many, and it drives people to distraction. That is something quite simple that could be worked on.
I have three questions for the Minister and I will allow her time to answer at the end. Pregnant teachers and school staff have contacted me because they are worried about only being permitted to work from home temporarily and that they will have to return to classrooms in the next few weeks. Will pregnant teachers and school staff be allowed to continue to work remotely while level 5 restrictions remain, at a minimum?
Turning to the issue of high-risk families, many will not be able to send their kids back to school next week or in the next several weeks because a member of the family has a medical vulnerability and the risks involved are too high. I raised this issue with the Minister on several occasions and these families feel forgotten. Will children with medically-vulnerable family members at home be facilitated with remote learning? That is especially important for sixth year students with medical vulnerabilities and-or in cases where someone in their families have medical vulnerabilities. Those students still deserve a choice in their leaving certificate examinations, and they should not be disadvantaged because they, or someone belonging to them, is vulnerable. Families will make different decisions regarding schools than they usually would in the context of an extremely serious pandemic. A common sense approach must be taken by the Minister and by Tusla regarding this matter.
Moving to the matter of the mock examinations, the Department has stated they should not go ahead but they are going ahead. That is the truth and that is what we are hearing. Some are being done on an optional basis, but those students choosing to not sit the exams are being told to remain at home. It has been suggested that these exams will influence the calculated grades. That is not right and not a good use of the precious teaching time left. Will the Minister make a definitive statement that these mock examinations should not be taking place? If she does, what will she do to enforce that stance? There is also much concern among music students because no real guidance has been provided in this area with only four weeks remaining.
The music exams will proceed. When we made our announcement we were clear that, to the greatest extent possible, oral and practical exams would be part of the written exams in June. There are three subject areas for which, on public health advice, will not be possible, namely, construction studies, engineering and physical education, PE. We have taken public health advice on all of this.
The music exams will proceed but specific requirements need to be put in place because, as the Deputy will be aware, students do not always take an individual approach whereby one student is playing an instrument, singing or whatever. Sometimes they are in a group, whether big or small, so specific public health advice is being processed for that and will be made available as quickly as possible. Public health experts and the Department are working on that but it is positive that music exams will take place.
As regards mock exams, the Department's guidance states they are neither recommended nor advised. Nevertheless, as the Deputy will appreciate, it has always been within the remit of schools to decide whether they would hold mock exams. Even prior to the pandemic, that autonomy has always rested with schools. We have advised in our guidelines that the maximum time be spent on in-class tuition and it is for that reason we have stated that they are neither recommended nor advised, although there is autonomy within schools in regard to mock exams, as always.
On the issue of high-risk family members, we held a full review in recent weeks of practices and mitigation measures within schools prior to their reopening post January, carried out by public health experts. We have been assured that the mitigation measures that need to be in place are in place and that any additions that needed to be made have been made. There is an acknowledgement, which I heard again last weekend from Professor Philip Nolan and which has been articulated by the deputy chief medical officer, Dr. Ronan Glynn, that schools are places of low transmission, which brings me to another point relating to students. According to both national and international experience, students are best served when they are in the education sector. It is advised, therefore, that all students return to school and it is in their best interest to do so. Schools are places of low transmission and it is outside of them that there is cause for concern.
Finally, on the issue of staff, the Deputy is correct that pregnant teachers are currently being afforded the opportunity to work from home. We are in a position to do that as there is a phased return to school and that will continue while we seek occupational health advice on how to progress. This has worked in other sectors as well. Once we receive the occupational health advice on the variety of parameters that can exist for different people, whether teachers, SNAs or whoever, who find themselves in that category, that information will be made available.
On the music point, I accept that the Minister is examining the matter but something urgently needs to happen. I emphasise the point in respect of high-risk family members. There needs to be a common sense approach from Tusla. What I am seeking in regard to mock exams, and I think students would like to hear the Minister say this, is that they will not happen. Will she say they should not happen?
I would like the Minister to respond to those two important questions, about music and mock exams, after my contribution. There needs to be clarity there.
On the issue of safety, what has the Minister done specifically to avoid a situation such as that in Claremorris Boys' National School before Christmas? She talked about autonomy. If a board of management, a principal and parents all agree it is not safe for children to attend a school because there are increasing numbers within the community, how does the Minister execute her duty of care? The concerns I have relate to the interface between the Department and the Minister, who is responsible for that Department, and the public health advice so that schools will not be caught in the middle.
When the Minister of State promised she would prioritise children with additional educational needs, she did not say "except for children with additional educational needs who attend a mainstream school". I can assure her that many parents to whom I have spoken share this view. Many students with additional needs in mainstream schools are struggling with remote learning, which is having a negative impact. Parents have put to me the risks posed by the supplementary support scheme. Given that tutors call to different homes, the risks are greater than they would be in a protected setting. Will the Minister of State revisit that decision and allow flexibility in schools to provide education when it is safe to do so? How much specifically will be invested in the supplementary support scheme for the enhanced summer programme and what will it look like? Parents need to know. Children with additional educational needs have been left behind.
I will allow the Minister time to answer those questions but I want to conclude with an issue I have raised with her many times, namely, the ancillary grant. It has not been sorted out, so there are still cases in schools where cleaners and secretaries are not being paid what they need to be paid or where their hours have been cut back, which is not right in the middle of a pandemic.
On the issue of children with SEN in mainstream education, it has always been our position that special education should be given priority in the reopening of schools. We know about the risks of regression for those who cannot engage in distance learning. We have said this repeatedly since the start of the year and this priority has not changed. The National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, has recommended a phased and cautious reopening of schools, and the Department always follows health advice and has done from the beginning. I am, however, determined that all students with special educational needs in mainstream education will return to school as soon as possible in line with public health advice. Junior infants, senior infants, first class and sixth class are back already, while from 15 March, there will also be third class to sixth class-----
On the issue of music, as I have articulated, we have made clear that music practical exams will continue but we are mindful that music has particular requirements and differing approaches are taken to the exam. It could be an individual exam or a group or an ensemble exam, or whatever it might be, so specific public health advice is required. We have previously taken public health advice and we need it subject-specific to the different mechanisms within music. That is progressing as expeditiously as possible and the decision will be available as a matter of priority.
On mock exams, I again confirm that our guidelines clearly state they are neither recommended nor advised. They are not part of the curriculum, and while schools have the freedom to run mock exams or not, we have made clear that the priority for schools should be in-person tuition and that mock exams are not recommended nor advised.
I have concerns that the Department feels we need to return to normal, when the issue in Irish education is that normal is the problem. At yesterday's meeting of the education committee, we touched on the analysis that, according to the Minister, her Department has carried out on the damage caused by the lack of in-class teaching, particularly for children in acute disadvantage, who need school the most. I emphasise "in-class" because teachers have been teaching and school workers have been working throughout this period.
There does not seem to be the same urgency or vision within the Irish education system. It is as if we just want children to go back and that will be normal. However, we need to acknowledge that not being in class since Christmas for certain cohorts of disadvantaged children in particular will be profoundly damaging. How will we address that?
Regarding special educational needs, I am delighted that the Minister of State is a convert to the concept of equality. This radical policy change from her is most welcome. I suggest to her a return to normal will be the problem. Many parents in my constituency, and I believe across the country, face this bizarre scenario that if they have a child with a particular diagnosis and they want to get a place for that child in a local school or beyond, they are handed a list of schools by the special educational needs organiser and told, "Best of luck." Again, a return to that scenario will not be good enough.
I ask that teachers, SNAs and other school workers would be considered key workers for the purposes of vaccination. I ask the Minister to advocate on their behalf. It is not necessarily possible to encourage a full successful reopening of schools without acknowledging that teachers, SNAs and other school workers are indeed key workers. It is not good enough just to open schools; we must keep them open.
I am glad the Minister has done a number of things on the leaving certificate. First, she has introduced choice. Second, she has listened to the student voice in all this. I congratulate the efforts of the Irish Second-Level Students Union, ISSU, in all this. Third, she waived the fee, as we asked her to do. However, we are all still awaiting the review of the leaving certificate of 2020. What is the status of that review? Just as the idea of going back to normal when normal is the problem, the problem with the leaving certificate is the leaving certificate - not just the pandemic but the leaving certificate. It is not fit for purpose. It is out of date and needs to be radically overhauled. What process do we have in place to recognise that going back to normal with the leaving certificate will be the problem?
We need a radical vision for repairing the damage and a catch-up fund which could include, as has already been articulated, the need to reduce class sizes. I acknowledge that the Minister was true to her word in passing on the pupil-teacher ratio cut to all DEIS schools, for which she deserves credit.
I ask the Minister to respond to the issues of the catch-up fund, the reality of families with children who have special educational needs, young people who are faced with an impossible situation trying to access school places for themselves, the leaving certificate and vaccinations.
The Deputy is correct in saying we touched upon many of these issues yesterday at the committee and I thank him for that opportunity. Regarding resources for schools, in the interest of balance I must say the Government has shown incredible determination to resource education at a time, as the Deputy has correctly said, that is not normal; it is far from normal. It is definitely a Covid-19 environment. In that respect more than €629 million has been made available, which is an unprecedented investment to tackle Covid-19 issues in our schools.
The Deputy spoke about a catch-up for students who have lost out in their education. I am very cognisant of that. The Department's inspectorate has done considerable work in garnering information on how it has impacted on students. The Deputy will be aware that on Monday I made a significant announcement about our DEIS schools with a one-point reduction in class sizes in the urban DEIS band 1 primary schools. In the previous budget I made significant progress in improving the pupil-teacher ratio for all schools. Regarding DEIS schools, I have extended the school completion programme, which is a very important programme for children in disadvantaged circumstances. We have included a further 28 schools in that respect. We have also increased funding for the school completion programme, and we have reduced the requirement from 700 to 600 to ensure additional deputy principals will be available in that environment.
As I told the Deputy yesterday, we will expand summer provision for children to assist with numeracy and literacy. I hope as many schools as possible will take up that opportunity over the summer. We will continue to introduce as many measures as possible to mitigate lost learning time.
I again confirm we have discussed what I have advocated clearly on vaccinations with the Department of Health on a number of occasions and we have formally written to it. We have asked for staff in the school community to be given particular consideration for vaccination.
The Deputy will be aware that the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, has undertaken a review of the leaving certificate senior cycle. To the best of my knowledge that is nearing completion and it is about to present those completed findings to me. That will be a springboard for further discussion and ultimate decision-making on the senior cycle.
We are committed to a review of the calculated grades process, as it was then, on completion of the entire process. The last stage of that was the opportunity we afforded to students to take the written exam in November, the results of which issued in February. The appeals process for that is ongoing. The Deputy will also be aware that in some instances litigation is pending, notwithstanding the verdict yesterday. When all of that is completed, we are determined there will be a review.
I thank the Ministers for their statements today. I welcome the return to school and the significant work they and departmental officials have done to achieve that. I completely understand the invidious position of Ministers regarding the return to school for children with additional needs in mainstream schools. I am disappointed the phased return as advised by NPHET has transpired in this matter whereby certain children will not return to school until 22 April. However, I appreciate the position the Ministers are in.
Now that our children have begun to return to the classroom, it is important to evaluate the health impacts, particularly the mental health impacts, especially for students in exam years. Has further consideration been given to funding for this provision within schools? I reiterate something I said yesterday and that Deputy Ó Ríordáin raised at yesterday's committee meeting. There should be a study on the effects this period has had on children with additional needs and what provisions can be put in place to support them, notwithstanding the items that have already been announced by the Ministers.
Our stated objective has been to keep our hospitals from being overwhelmed and to keep our schools open. We all remember the scenes in Italy last year with patients being treated in car parks and things like that. Given that the goal has been to keep schools open, there is a justification for having a conversation with the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, on vaccinating our teachers. Has the Minister had a conversation with NIAC or will she do so?
The Deputy raised the very important issue of well-being. I again confirm that this is a key priority for the Department. He will be aware that in the most recent budget, significant funding was made available for the provision of more than 110 guidance counsellors and 17 additional National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, psychologists.
That is a statement of intent from the Department recognising the importance of the provision of these services within the education sector. Equally, in anticipation of the return to school in September and ongoing now, the Department's NEPS psychologist team has provided significant toolkits, webinars and support mechanisms, including technology, to schools in that regard. The NEPS psychology teams have been providing online support and, at this stage, on-site supports as well. We will continue to work in that regard. As stated by the Deputy, this is a significant consideration for our schools and the education sector.
In terms of vaccination, I confirm that as a Department we have had discussions with the Department of Health on a number of occasions. We have made formal representation to that Department and have also raised the issue at Covid-19 subcommittee presentations by Brian MacCraith and others. On the importance of principals, deputy principals, teachers, SNAs, school secretaries and caretakers and others who work in the school environment, I want to confirm that as things stand staff are within the top one third of those for vaccination roll-out but we have requested that there would be further improvement in that regard.
I commend the outstanding work of the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, in negotiating a pathway for students to return to school on a phased basis. In working with all stakeholders, views were heard and accommodation made for all to accept the plan, with the safety and welfare of students, teachers and parents paramount. My inquiry revolves around the composite plan reached after protracted negotiations between student representatives, teacher unions and the State Examinations Commission, SEC. For the well-being and engagement of students, the merits and advantages of the State examinations written leaving certificate system and the SEC accredited grades must be fully explained and outlined to students and parents before the portal system opens next week. In my view, the advantages of selecting both options far outweigh reliance on one option and the message must be communicated clearly both centrally and locally. I suggest that the Minister give consideration to holding a question and answers session on social media, which might be helpful to ensure full comprehension of the system is available and meaningful to both students and parents. I would appreciate if the Minister would consider that.
In regard to the remit of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, I request an end to the anomaly in the resourcing of ASD students versus moderate general learning disability classes in our primary schools. Currently, the pupil-teacher ratio for classes with children with moderate general learning disability is 8:1 and two classes to one SNA. This contrasts with the ASD classes where the pupil-teacher ratio is 6:1 and one class to one SNA. These are unfair anomalies and they lead to discrimination between children with moderate general learning disability and raises our commitment to the inclusion of students with learning disabilities accessing mainstream education. This anomaly reduces the development chances of students. I would appreciate the Minister of State's response in this regard.
On ASD units in schools, I want to reassure Deputy Niamh Smyth that since 2011 we have increased the number of ASD units by 235%, from 548 in 2011 to 1,836. There are 197 new special classes in 2020-21, 189 of which are for ASD pupils. There are 12 early intervention classes. Some 113 of the new special classes are for primary schools and 64 are for post-primary schools. There will be 1,200 additional special class places in 2021. It is important to note that the NCSE also engages with schools to establish special classes.
I welcome the decision to reopen schools on a phased basis. I take this opportunity to thank our teachers and school management, who have put in enormous effort to ensure learning does not stop during the pandemic despite the difficulties in migrating from on-site to fully remote teaching environments. I also thank our students for their patience.
I am deeply concerned about the condition of some school buildings that children and staff will be returning to. Some are so dangerous they could potentially pose a more serious risk to the health and safety of students and staff than Covid. In my constituency of Dublin South-West, Tallaght Community School has been facing serious issues with its building, where there are damages beyond repair. The school has submitted applications for numerous grants, some of which have been rejected by the Department as the building is too unstable for upgrade. The Minister will be aware that Tallaght Community School, which was established almost 50 years ago, is the longest standing community school in this State and has served generations of the Tallaght community. Following my recent visit to the school, I am gravely concerned that the building will not remain standing for much longer without immediate intervention from the Minister and the Department. Some rooms have been closed. I appreciate the Minister's acknowledgement of my correspondence on this issue but I would be grateful if she would take the opportunity today to respond further and, perhaps, give a commitment to visit the school when the circumstances allow to view the building and to hear from the school management their proposal for a new building on the existing grounds.
I commend the Minister, the Minister of State and school staff on the reopening of schools. It has been great to hear young children back at school. My own view, as the Minister and Minister of State will be aware, is that all schoolchildren should be back at school. I share the view expressed in the editorial of The British Medical Journal, published last week, which says that school closures are not evidence-based and they harm children. We need to reflect on what the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, said a number of weeks ago when he said we may look back on this period and say it was a time when adults let down children.
I commend the Minister, Deputy Foley, on her statement regarding the reduced figures yesterday but I would urge her and the Minister of State to recognise that if we have an expedited improvement in the figures we should not remain stuck on the date of 12 April as being the date on which the remainder of schoolchildren return to school because 12 April is almost six weeks away. There are a number of children in secondary schools who want to get back to school. Parents are contacting me and they are very concerned about their children. They see them being lethargic and listless around the house and not going out, engaging or socialising. They are missing important developmental stages. I am aware that we have to be conscious of the public health concerns and public health advice but we must be sure we do not heap a further public health crisis upon our young people as a result of being too cautious when it comes to trying to ensure the disease is suppressed.
Again, I commend the Minister and Minister of State on the work they are doing. It would be great if we could get all children back to school prior to 12 April.
On the point regarding the return to school, in this instance and since we reopened schools in September, we have abided by the advice of public health and NPHET. In this instance, it is their best advice that it should be a cautious and phased return to school, which I confirm again is largely due to the mobility of such a large number of people - 1.1 million. It was for that reason in the first instance schools were stood down. NPHET has confirmed that schools are places of low transmission. With the best will in the world, we would love to have everybody back as quickly as possible. There is a burden of responsibility on all of society to ensure we keep numbers and hospitalisations down. There is very positive news in that direction. People have done a tremendous job and we ask them to stick with that so that we can get children and young people back to school as quickly as possible.
In regard to Tallaght Community School, I will confer with Deputy Duffy as we go forward. I know this is a matter of particular importance to him and that he has raised it on a number of occasions. I can assure him that my officials will be happy to meet with him on the matter going forward.
I begin by welcoming the phased reopening of schools. I echo the call of many speakers that it be done in a safe way, with adherence to public health advice to ensure the safety of the whole school community, including pupils, staff, parents and other family members. Given that schooling is an essential service, will the Minister advocate priority vaccination for school staff? There is, naturally, some anxiety among pupils and staff returning to school when case numbers are still high. A robust testing and tracing service is needed in schools. What measures have been taken to ensure it is put in place? Is there a possibility of introducing a type of rapid testing?
The closure of schools for three months last year and again since Christmas has been extremely damaging for students of all ages and has affected some more than others. Students need to be in school not just for the academic element but also for the social interaction with their peers. I am hearing worrying reports from schools of a high number of referrals being made to child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, of students who have no prior history of mental health issues. A serious effort must be made to put supports in place for students returning to school to help them to settle back in and deal with the effect the closure has had over the past number of months.
Leaving certificate students returned to school on Monday and many are opting to sit their examinations if safe to do so. However, schools have not been given an updated list of due dates for project work or oral examinations. What is the delay in providing this information to schools? It should be done immediately instead of having students and teachers working in a vacuum. Oral examinations could have been done through Zoom. I would like to know what the hold-up is on this issue.
I welcome the fact that older and vulnerable members of staff are not obliged to return to school if they are concerned about their health. However, this causes another problem in terms of who will replace those staff. It was very difficult for schools to find substitute teachers prior to Christmas and it will be practically impossible to do so now. What provisions has the Minister put in place to fill this gap? What efforts is she making to encourage more young people to enter the teaching profession? The shortage of substitute teachers is nothing new. It has existed for a number of years across a range of subjects. Addressing the pay differential between those who joined the teaching profession since 2011 and those who started teaching before then would be one way to tackle it. Pay equity among teachers must be restored.
The allocation of SNAs was frozen last year in order that no school would be left with fewer SNAs than it had the previous year. Is it intended to continue that freezing of provision this year? If schools require additional SNAs, there should be a straightforward process for getting them and no threat that the whole school provision will be reviewed.
There has been much discussion about the return to school of children with additional educational needs. I welcome the reopening, at long last, of special classes and units in recent weeks. However, there is a cohort of students about whom I am very concerned, namely, students with additional educational needs who are in a mainstream setting. They have been left behind. What additional supports are being put in place to help those students, who have been unable, in many cases, to learn independently at home through the online system? Can children with special educational needs be allowed to return to school, where they can access online classes with the assistance of an SNA, instead of a teacher coming to the child's home in the evening, under the supplementary provision programme, when the child is too tired to do the work?
Finally, I would like to point out an anomaly between the pupil-teacher and pupil-SNA ratios in special classes compared with those applying in autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units. The ratio is 1:8 in a special class for children with moderate general learning disabilities, with an allocation of 0.5 of an SNA, compared with a ratio of 1:6 in an ASD unit, with two SNAs allocated. Can this anomaly be addressed? There has been an increase in the number of ASD units provided in the past number of years but there still are not enough places for all of those who seek them. Many children are forced to travel far from their home area to access one of these units.
I thank the Deputy for her questions. It had been planned that the front-loaded allocation model for SNAs would be rolled out to all schools from the commencement of the 2021 school year. Due to the disruption caused by the Covid-19 crisis, including the closure of all school buildings in March 2020, it was decided that the introduction of the model would be deferred. This will allow time for the necessary planning and training for schools.
Supplementary provision and summer provision will be of assistance to children with special needs. We are doing everything we can to ensure there is an option of supplementary provision being provided in schools. We are having an ongoing conversation about that with our education partners. The provision has been extended by two weeks for post-primary students who are not yet back in schools and also extended to pupils in third to sixth classes.
The Deputy referred to ASD classes in schools. We will have 112 additional special class places in 2021.
I have a number of questions but there probably will not be enough time to have a full and substantial discussion around all of them. The Minister, Deputy Foley, or the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, might give a response to me in writing on any points they cannot deal with today.
At the outset, it is important to state that absolutely everybody wants the schools reopened for all our children, particularly those with special educational needs who are at risk of regression while they remain at home. Absolutely nobody wants to stand in the way of that. At the same time, a thorough and substantial conversation is needed about what we can do to ensure that when we bring our children and young people back into schools, they, and their educators, are safe. I spent my lunchtime today on a call with scientists, epidemiologists and behavioural scientists from the Independent Scientific Advisory Group. A point they repeated ad nauseamwas that mitigation is the way to keep schools open and safe for all of their users. I have a number of questions for the Minister and the Minister of State in this regard.
The issue of uniform mask wearing, not only for secondary school students but also for primary school students, gives rise to a difficult conversation. However, if we strip away the emotion and just advance the science, it becomes very clear. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has advocated mask wearing for children aged six to 11, as have the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US and the World Health Organization. Yet we still are equivocating on the issue. This small measure would make a massive difference, but not on its own. We need to include conversations around ventilation. What is being done in other jurisdictions in terms of the prioritisation of ventilation is making us look a little behind not only the trend but the science. Ventilation incorporates natural ventilation, mechanical ventilation and air monitors. A report by the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on education recommended that air monitors should be installed in all schools this year. Another issue is that, bizarrely, we have one definition for what constitutes a close contact in a room outside a school and a very different definition for the school setting. Hygiene in schools is also an area of concern. Much great work has been done in this regard and the Minister will, rightly, mention provision under the structural funds, but we still have schools in this country where pupils do not have access to hot water. That is a very extreme example but it exists. More usually, we have antiquated buildings and overcrowded classrooms. While there has always been an inequality in this regard, it now represents a risk to the health of the children affected. What is being done about that?
The second issue I want to put to the Minister is one I have raised constantly. It concerns children and young people who have not been able to return to school since September because they have a family member with a severe underlying health condition. Those children have been getting an educational experience comparable with their peers since January but, as schools reopen, they will again be at a disadvantage. How will the Department provide remote learning options for those students, not as out-of-school learners but as students in their own right who cannot return to school because it is unsafe for them to do so? I have been asking this question since last September.
The issue of trauma is one on which I want to see the Department take a lead in addressing. There is a wave of trauma in young people approaching in the coming months and years as a consequence of their experience in this pandemic. The Department has allocated 19 extra National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, teachers and 110 guidance counsellors. There is a budget of €189,000 in 2021 for guidance counsellors but this compares with an allocation of more than €200,000 in 2019. We need to take this issue very seriously.
My last point relates to repeat leaving certificate students. We already had the conversation in 2019 about the importance of having the option of repeating the leaving certificate in enough time to allow students to apply for college the next year. That argument was had and hard won in 2019. We did not get the opportunity to have a repeat leaving certificate examination in time last year but we absolutely need it this year as a minimum requirement. There are any number of reasons that a sixth-year student might not be able to sit the examinations this year, pandemic-related and otherwise. It could be because of the loss of a loved through illness or many other reasons. We need to be able to provide a repeat leaving certificate option for those students in a timely manner.
I thank the Deputy for his questions. If I do not get the opportunity to respond to all the issues he raised, we will certainly revert to him.
Certainly, the Department can revert to Deputy Gannon.
I will first address the issue of mask-wearing for primary school students. The Deputy will appreciate that right from the beginning, as I have said on numerous occasions, from September to December through to now, everything we have done has been on the expert advice of public health officials. At any stage when they have asked us to put in place particular measures, whether halfway through or several weeks in or whatever, we have done so. One example was the wearing of masks for second level students. On their best recommendation that is what we did. They have not recommended mask-wearing for primary school children. Any child is of course free to wear a mask should he or she wish to do so. There is no equivocation on the issue. If it is the expert recommendation of public health officials, then that is exactly what we will do. However, as it stands it has not been their recommendation.
I acknowledge that, as the Deputy is aware, there is an expert advisory group studying the whole issue of ventilation not only in school settings but in all work settings. The group is due to make recommendations in the short term. Prior to the return to school post Christmas we had a full review from a public health point of view of all the measures that were in place in schools, including measures in respect of ventilation. No further recommendations were made other than the recommendations outlined in the full guidelines. Should that change on foot of anything from the expert advisory group, we will be directed by that.
Deputy Gannon made specific reference to the pupil-teacher ratio in classrooms and so on. I can confirm that, as the Deputy is aware, we successfully reduced the pupil-teacher ratio this year. It was an innovation of mine in the budget. I continue to look forward in that respect as well. I believe it is important we always continue to look at the reduction of the pupil-teacher ratio where we can.
The Deputy specifically raised issues around trauma, well-being and how children might be impacted by Covid-19. The National Educational Psychological Service of the Department is developing a range of workshops for the promotion of well-being and resilience in schools, and this includes trauma-informed approaches. The workshops will be available to build the capacity of school staff in primary and post-primary settings, including for school leaders. These workshops will be piloted in schools in the coming months with a view to being rolled out in September as well.
I welcome the Minister's increased supports for urban primary DEIS programme schools that are catering for our young people experiencing the highest level of educational disadvantage. The additional supports will assist four primary schools in Longford town, including St. Michael's National School, St. Joseph's National School, the Gaelscoil, Scoil Eimear, and Sacred Heart Primary School in Granard. Any additional investment in the DEIS education model is widely welcome. It is never more welcome than in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis because it is clear these students are among those who have missed out most on education and learning at this time.
I know the Minister has been a great advocate for the DEIS model. I understand there is a review under way into the criteria for accessing the DEIS model. It is a long-overdue review and I hope it will address several of the failings within the current system. For example, the four primary schools in Longford town as well as several of the six rural DEIS schools in the county have provided more than 50% of the student population to two of our secondary schools in Longford town. The excellent Templemichael College already had DEIS status. However, neither St. Mel's College nor Meán Scoil Mhuire have DEIS status. We have a situation where students who have come through their primary education with the obvious benefit and support of the DEIS model suddenly transition to secondary school and those vital supports stop automatically. That is most unfair to the children as we seek to give them the best possible start in their lives.
The Minister is also aware of the fast-tracking of the decarbonisation in the midlands. I am keen that we could look at affording DEIS status to the primary schools in Clontuskert and Lanesborough, which are within the immediate vicinity of the Bord na Móna and ESB facility in Lanesborough. I hope the Minister can take on board these things.
I hope my colleagues will leave time at the end for the Minister to answer.
I had hoped to be able to bring the Minister on a tour of my constituency when she was appointed. Unfortunately, I will have to do that virtually here today. I want to raise three school issues with the Minister. One is the issue of Clonturk Community College, which we discussed last September. I know the Minister was due to meet those involved but, unfortunately, because of the school reopening arrangements, the meeting had to be postponed. The Minister knows they are waiting for two items. The first is clearance to have additional accommodation for September so the school can take in an additional class. This relates to the issue of the demand in that area in general. The second is for a design team to be appointed to build the final school.
The second issue relates to St. Kevin's College in Ballygall which is at the stage of application for an extension. The school is waiting for direction from the building unit and is having some difficulty in securing the project. I would appreciate anything the Minister can do on that.
The third item is that of Meakstown. I cannot name a school there because there is none. It now has a population of 15,000. The census has been cancelled. We had hoped to use it to argue for a school in the area. I believe the Department should examine the need for either a primary or a secondary school and how such a school would interact with surrounding schools in the Finglas and Ballymun areas.
I will follow the lead shown by other members. I will be fast and put a few questions. I hope the Minister can respond to all of them at the end.
In Ennis in recent weeks we have had an immense problem whereby an inordinate number of students did not get a secondary school. They got no offer. We have five secondary schools with several patron bodies but the problem is the schools enrol individually. There is no cross-communication between the schools. This means some children ended up being offered four first place choices but others who may have sat beside them in the classroom have no school. I believe we need to look at a common application system in Ennis and I call on the Minister to respond briefly to that.
Yesterday, a primary school principal told me he called the dedicated Department of Education support line for principals relating to Covid-19 at 4.40 p.m. His teaching day was done. He is unable to be in and out all day trying to telephone the line. When he telephoned at 4.40 p.m. the line was closed. I believe there needs to be some flexibility and leeway in that regard.
The Minister of State at the Department of Education, Deputy Madigan, might be able to respond to my question on the unmet needs of children. I have been speaking on this a good deal at the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration recently. We have all spoken about teachers and special needs assistants going online. Joe Wicks has gone online on YouTube to show how we can exercise and stay fit during Covid-19. However, many CAMHS speech and language therapists and HSE staff have not. I know this does not come directly under the Department of Education but they support children with special educational needs. The services have not been offered online extensively. They need to be offered during this lockdown and any other lockdown although I hope another one will not materialise. The needs of children must be met.
This week 320,000 students returned to their classrooms for the first time since before Christmas. In our current circumstances, facilitating the safe return of so many pupils and staff has been a mammoth task. Yet, now that we have got to this point, our priority needs to be fully reopening our schools. It is crucial we never return to remote schooling as we have had to do.
Parents needs clarity. Parents have undertaken Trojan work and become master jugglers during the crisis that is this pandemic. They have not only been facilitating home school but have become emergency educators as well. Often they are double jobbing or triple jobbing.
The mood of the country has been low. For many people the reopening of schools this week has brought hope. Another thing that has lifted people's spirits this week is the prospect of the World Cup being staged in Ireland. I call on the Government to give serious consideration to backing the bid to give people, young and old, something to dream about in the months ahead.
In January we told students with special educational needs that their return to education would be prioritised. While we prioritised the return of special schools, the reality is that a young person with special educational needs between the ages of ten and 16 years attending a mainstream school is likely still to be waiting to get back in the classroom. That is simply not good enough.
We all accept this pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on children with special educational needs. Caregivers have no doubt done their best to help their children to keep progressing, but many parents are now confronted by their worst nightmare, which is their child falling behind. Last weekend, the chief executive of Ireland's autism charity, AsIAm, spoke out on this issue. He said the Department of Education had turned its back on these children at this last hurdle. We cannot make children with additional needs in mainstream schools wait any longer.
These students need to be prioritised and they need to be back where they belong, receiving the education they deserve. We need to get them over this final hurdle.
I take this opportunity to remind the Minister about the school building crisis in my constituency of Dublin Mid-West. There is a need for new school buildings for second level schools in Lucan, Rathcoole and Clondalkin and new primary school buildings right across my constituency. I look forward to working with the Minister to resolve this issue and delivering new school buildings to children in my area.
I will go as quickly as I can. I confirm to Deputy Flaherty that the DEIS identification model he referenced is currently being refined and worked through. There is significant investment in DEIS schools of more than €150 million every year. The Deputy articulated another very positive move yesterday in terms of DEIS schools and making specific funding available there, ensuring there is a one point reduction in the urban DEIS band 1 primary schools, that there would be an extension of the school completion programme, which is very important, an increase in funding for the school completion programme and, as I articulated earlier, a reduction from 700 to 600 in the number of students DEIS post-primary schools require for a deputy principal. In terms of the specific schools the Deputy mentioned, I am happy to follow up with him afterwards in relation to that.
Specifically in relation to the schools Deputy McAuliffe mentioned, I am happy for the Department to confer with him. However, specifically on Clonturk Community College, I can confirm that I am aware that there was a technical assessment carried out in relation to that school and we will progress it from there. I know it is a key priority of the Deputy's, as indeed are the others.
Deputy Cathal Crowe raised the phone lines for principals. The Covid-19 phone lines are operating on a seven-day basis and there are extended hours, to the best of my knowledge, until 8 p.m. However, I can confirm that and defer to the Deputy again in relation to it.
Deputy Higgins raised the school building programme. I want to acknowledge that there is an ambitious school building programme ongoing this year. We have more than 200 schools that will be completed despite the pandemic and we have between 140 and 145 which will begin construction by mid-June to July of this year as well. I am happy to work with her in relation to the school buildings in her own area and it was remiss of me not to say that to Deputy Cathal Crowe. He has articulated on an ongoing basis about schools in his area and I will certainly follow up on this with him as will my officials.
I would mention to Deputy Cathal Crowe that that is a HSE matter and I will pass it on to the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. Obviously the supplementary provision is in place, the supplementary programme which will assist in terms of supports.
I would say to Deputy Higgins that we have not under any circumstances turned our back on children with special needs. It has always been my absolute fervent desire that all children with special needs be made a priority and this was the case for the Minister, Deputy Foley, also but it is simply not a decision we can make on our own. We cannot make a decision that will go against public health advice when the public health advice has very clearly said we must take a cautious, phased approach. As we know, we already have junior infants, senior infants, first class, second class and, indeed, sixth years back in schools as well as all special schools and special classes. We hope to get the additional mainstream classes for children with additional needs back on 15 March and then finally on 12 April.
In June 2019 Jack was diagnosed with autism and sensory issues. He is four and a half years old and attends a mainstream playschool. Jack has never received any early intervention. Jack needed early intervention speech therapy and occupational therapy and has not received one hour of support. His official report states Jack must attend a mainstream school and mainstream primary school with full access to an SNA as he learns from his peers and it is critical to his development to be around neurotypical children. Jack's mother has already been informed that it is highly unlikely they will get access to an SNA as there are a number of children with much more significant additional needs than him.
The lockdowns have had a catastrophic effect on his progress and he has unfortunately regressed quite a lot. It was hoped that due to missing quite a significant period of his second year ECCE programme, and on the recommendations of his teachers and health professionals, that Jack would get an exemption and be allowed to complete another year of playschool. Unfortunately, this will not be the case and Jack has been refused an exemption based solely on his age. This is simply unacceptable. He deserves to have the best chance at education. Right now we have a child who was thriving in playschool but had precious important months robbed from him due to the pandemic. Multiple professionals have stated he is mentally, physically or emotionally not ready for the challenge of primary school. We are still in a pandemic; these are exceptional times and we have reacted to this with exceptional measures. I appeal to the Minister to intervene and deal with this case as an exception. I urge the Minister and the Department to change their mind and allow Jack to stay in his current placement and attend mainstream school next year, when he will still be six years of age.
The pandemic has also exposed a significant disadvantage that many children face on their educational journey. I recently held a meeting of community organisations in Dublin West and each and every one of them mentioned the issue of digital poverty and digital disadvantage. There is a significant cohort of students who have been disadvantaged during the past 12 months. Dr. Selina McCoy, a researcher with the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, said she found evidence of a digital divide between private schools and the rest of the school system during the school closures last year. This digital divide has had a direct but also wider impact when a subset of students lacks connectivity or must rely on inadequate access to services.
I welcome the Minister's initial answer to a previous question around the school completion programme. I worked for a school completion programme for 16 years and during the recession the service's funding was unfortunately absolutely savaged and it is simply not good enough for it to go back to where it was back in 2008, 2009 or 2010. We need significant investment for students in disadvantaged areas.
Finally, I raise the issue of substitute teachers and concerns from principals around the serious lack of availability in Dublin 15 and I presume in Dublin 7 and the rest of the State in the coming weeks as schools are returning and the advice that pregnant teachers may choose to return to school or continue to teach remotely. There were principals scrambling around last week making calls trying to get cover. What are the plans to help and support schools to face this problem, especially in the coming weeks as we return to full capacity?
On early intervention, that matter is under the remit of the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman. I can write to him about it. On SNAs in general, we now have 18,000. Their numbers have increased by 78% since 2007 and many children with additional needs simply cannot function at all without an SNA so it is very important they are supported and the Government does that on an ongoing basis.
On Jack's case, this is not about special needs which is a separate issue. I am talking about how his parent has been told he must attend mainstream school in September. The parent is looking for an exemption for the following year. I will pass on the details if it is possible as it may be easier.
I am going to try to take four and a half minutes back and forth with the Minister and ensure I leave two minutes for Deputy Mick Barry.
The return to school has been a double-edged sword for our society. On the one hand, there is the sense of joy and relief for children, their parents and teachers about going back but on the other, there is trepidation and fear. That is because we still have a high rate of Covid-19 infection in the community and these things are linked; they are not separate. We therefore need to be careful about the mantra that schools are safe without delving into what that means.
I have heard the Minister attempt to answer the question on whether vulnerable and pregnant teachers are expected back to school on 15 March a couple of times.
I am asking her to give me not a vague and ambiguous answer, but a "Yes" or "No" answer. Are pregnant and vulnerable teachers expected to return to school on 15 March?
I refer to the cohort of 500 families, known as the forgotten families, who were refused supports by the Department because they had vulnerable family members at home and did not send their children to school for the past ten months. They have been given no supports whatsoever. Will the Department continue to refuse to give these children supports, including online supports, at home? I ask the Minister to answer "Yes" or "No" to that question as well.
Has she read the report published by Parents United Ireland, entitled There is Nothing Positive about Positivity Rates in Schools? It shows that there was a tenfold increase in positivity rates from August to December of last year. If she has not read it, will she do so?
What physical improvements has the Department made in schools since they were closed in December? In other words, has it provided extra space for social distancing? Has it increased staffing levels, including teachers and SNAs? Has it improved ventilation in the 80% of schools that have poor and inadequate ventilation? What supports will it provide for parents and children who are fearful about returning to schools which have proved not to be safe?
In the first instance, I appreciate the Deputy's acknowledgement that the return to school is a positive step. I think all of society regards it as a positive for students. All studies, both national and international, acknowledge that students do better when they are actually in school.
On the issue of the acknowledgement of schools being safe, it is very important to point out that this is not a mantra of the Department of Education alone. I am sure the Deputy has heard many experts, including the deputy chief medical officer, Dr. Ronan Glynn, and Professor Philip Nolan, clearly articulating that schools in themselves are places of low transmission. When schools were stood down, it was because of a mobility issue in terms of 1.1 million people moving around in society rather than a reflection on what happens within schools or the mitigation measures that exist in schools. On the issue of mitigation measures in schools, a full review of all those measures that are currently in place in schools took place in advance of schools returning after Christmas. All of the measures that are required are in place. That has involved spending of in excess of €62 million on PPE and hand sanitiser and €52.2 million on ensuring there is enhanced cleaning from four to six hours per day in schools. All those mitigation measures have been highly complimented by all those who have an interest in what is happening within schools.
On the issue of children with high-risk family members at home, I again refer to the national and international studies that tell us that children are best cared for when they are in school settings. I remind the Deputy that schools are places of low transmission. It is the recommendation of all the experts that children are served better when they are in school. Schools are places of low transmission. It is outside of the school setting that we must look to. I understand how difficult it can be for children with high-risk family members, but those children are best served by being in school.
I have three questions for the Minister. She is not a supporter of a policy of open access to third level education, but does she think it fair to force students to compete against each other for limited college places in a pandemic year? For two years in a row, the State has been unable to organise a traditional leaving certificate. Given that this exam is out of date, unacceptably stressful and biased against students from lower-income backgrounds, does she not think it is time to abolish the leaving certificate and adopt a policy of providing open access to third level education?
There were more cases recorded recently among second-level and third-level students aged 16 or over in a period of less than three months than among any other group in the State with the exception of health workers. From a purely health and safety perspective, would she not agree that these should be the last students to go back to school rather than the first?
On the point made by the Deputy in respect of the leaving certificate, the NCCA is carrying out a review of the senior cycle. It is my understanding that the NCCA has almost completed the review. It is being refined and will be presented to me and the Department. We will study the review. It will be the springboard for further discussion and, ultimately, decision-making with regard to the senior cycle and all that it entails going forward. It is a very important body of work. Our experience with Covid-19 has in its own right been shining a light on the senior cycle. I anticipate that the report will be with me imminently.
On the issue of the leaving certificate and access to third level, third level is not within my remit. It is within the remit of the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris. All issues in respect of access to third level and places at third level are for his consideration.
On the issue of the choice that is being made available to students this year, it is right and proper that students have the choice of an accredited grade system and also have the opportunity to take the written exam. I encourage all students to avail of that opportunity to the maximum extent possible. I think that is the best choice.
I welcome the fact that primary school classes up to second class are back to school, which is so important, as are leaving certificate students and, of course, students in special schools. However, there are still questions to be asked. Do schools have sufficient PPE? Do they have adequate staffing provision? Are sufficient supports available to children who are still home-schooling? Those are questions that I am still being asked.
I wish to highlight a case that came up in my virtual clinic this morning. I was asked why a 17-year-old with Down's syndrome cannot go to school for partial attendance with an SNA in order for the SNA to do work online with the child or help the child with work in an empty classroom that can be sanitised but, under the supplementary provision programme, another teacher can go into the child's home in the evening when the child is tired. The child's parent is looking for answers on that issue. I ask the Minister, Deputy Foley, or the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to come back to me on that issue.
I welcome the comments of the Minister regarding class sizes because it is a significant issue. I know she mentioned DEIS schools. I will come back to her on that issue because it is a significant bugbear for me. I welcome that she is considering reducing class sizes because that is so important.
An issue that has been raised with me a good few times recently is that of the lack of emotional counsellors and therapists. This is a glaring gap in supports in schools. I appeal to the Minister to roll out such a service as soon as possible to assist schools to meet the needs of children who have suffered so much in this pandemic. It is so important, particularly for leaving certificate students. I ask the Minister to respond on that issue.
Another issue that needs to be considered is that of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units. What is being done in that regard? I welcome the indication by the Minister that she is working on them, but more needs to be done. Demand is outstripping supply. Can more ASD units be put into more schools? In my area of Carlow, classes were recently sanctioned but no extension was allocated until recently, yet there are many schools that would love to accommodate an ASD unit but do not have the space to so do. This will be a significant issue for schools that do not have the space to build an ASD unit. I ask the Minister to consider that issue.
I need to raise the issue of DEIS schools because I have significant concerns in this regard. I know the Minister welcomed the millions of euro that are being put into DEIS schools, but I wish to ask her about disadvantaged schools. I know that announcements in this regard refer to funding for disadvantaged schools. I have brought this issue to the attention of the Minister on several occasions. There are no DEIS schools in Tullow or Carlow town, for example.
Although I welcome the funding going to DEIS schools, other disadvantaged schools out there are barely surviving for the want of funding and yet we are not getting the review we have been promised. The situation is unacceptable.
I will give the Minister an example from Carlow town, where a boys' school and a girls' school are side by side. Members of the same families go to the two schools. The boys' school has DEIS status but the girls' school cannot get that status, despite the fact that children from the same family are attending the two schools. There is not one primary school with DEIS status in Tullow town. It is unacceptable. For all the funding that she is announcing for disadvantaged schools, I ask the Minister to look at the disadvantaged schools that apply for DEIS status every year and keep being refused. It is unacceptable. I plead with the Minister to look again at DEIS schools and conduct a review as soon as possible because there are many disadvantaged schools out there that are not getting funding.
I rise to talk to the Minister about some of the specific and significant issues in the constituency of Cork East. I have been raising these issues for the long number of months since the Minister's appointment to Cabinet. The issue of school capacity is an enormous problem. It is welcome that we are seeing a return to school for students around the country, particularly for leaving certificate examination students. I pay tribute to them and their parents given all they have gone through in the past number of months. It has been exceptionally difficult, as we all acknowledge, and particular words of tribute must be paid to them.
The situation in my own constituency of Cork East must be acknowledged. For a number of years we have been awaiting news on progress in regard to the Carrigtwohill school complex, which requires the building of a new secondary school and two new primary school buildings. I am pleading with the Minister to get an answer on that project because I have been waiting long enough. The constituents and community of Carrigtwohill are extremely frustrated. We must bear in mind that there are 4,000 homes zoned for development in that region. There is already a chronic lack of school places for secondary school students and we are desperate for the help of the Department of Education. I have been flagging this issue for months and I need answers.
I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for facilitating today's statements. I commend them and their Department on the work and stakeholder engagement undertaken to reopen schools. It has been an incredibly difficult time for students, parents and staff. The impact of the closure of schools must be recognised. However, it is far more important to have clarity over the schedule for reopening because of the speculation that runs amok on social media during an information vacuum. In these dark days, which are, thankfully, getting brighter, people need to know that we are again moving towards a greater sense of normality. The reopening of schools is not to be understated as part of that journey towards normality and it comes as a relief to many.
On the issue of the leaving certificate examinations, the Minister may be aware that I compiled a survey of leaving certificate students last Month. In Mayo, we have more than 3,500 students enrolled in the senior cycle, 1,800 of whom are in fifth year and 1,700 are in sixth year. I received more than 500 responses, indicating the seriousness of the issue. The majority of respondents supported calculated grades using standardised continuous assessment or the option of a scaled down exam. A worrying issue was the impact of remote learning, with roughly two out of five respondents stating that they had insufficient broadband and three in five stating that they found remote learning a negative experience. The outcome of the work that the Minister has done on the leaving certificate and returning students to school falls broadly in line with the views expressed to me. I know the Minister and her Department are working hard on these issues and it is important to recognise that work in the Chamber. Will the Minister provide some clarity on the remote learning issue?
I thank the Deputies. Deputy Dillon asked about the leaving certificate examination and remote learning. I thank him for raising those issues and I appreciate this is an area of considerable concern to him. I acknowledge the work he has done in engaging through his survey of students and all of that. He is correct that it was most definitely the preference of students that there would be an opportunity not only for clarity on the leaving certificate examinations in 2021, but that there would also be choice. There will be an opportunity for students to opt for what this year we will call the "accredited grade" or the written exam. I hope as many as possible will take the option of the written exam. The choice mitigates the concerns of leaving certificate students about the loss of time and acknowledges that loss of time. Five months were lost last year, as were the two months after Christmas at the start of this year.
In the broader context of remote learning, I acknowledge that terrific work has been done by teachers to bridge the gap when it was not possible to fully reopen schools. I also acknowledge, as teachers and school communities would also acknowledge, that students are best served when they are in school. Considerable efforts have been made and the situation has improved dramatically from the experience of March 2020.
Deputy O'Connor raised an issue about Carrigtwohill. I sincerely acknowledge that I know this is a matter of enormous interest to him and his constituents. It is an issue he has flagged on numerous occasions. I reiterate that it is a matter of high priority for my Department. I have clearly articulated to the Deputy on a number of occasions that we are working on it as a matter of priority. We will continue to place the highest priority on the delivery of accommodation in Carrigtwohill.
Deputy Murnane O'Connor raised the issue of well-being. I acknowledge, as I did previously, that the issue of well-being is a matter of huge concern for the Department of Education. We made significant funding available for the provision of more than 110 additional guidance councillors and 17 National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, psychologists in the budget last year. During and after the lockdown, a significant number of webinars and well-being toolkits have been made available to schools. We have made training available for staff on the return to school to ensure that a positive well-being approach is being taken to the Covid-19 experience. I acknowledge that the well-being approach, even outside the context of Covid, has always been a priority within schools.
I confirm to the Deputy that there is absolutely no shortage of funding for personal protective equipment, PPE. There have been no cuts to funding for PPE and, in fact, in excess of €61 million is being made available for the provision of PPE.
I confirm that the DEIS identification model is close to refinement. It is an important aspect of the education sector. As the Deputy said, there can also be disadvantage in other schools. The matter is progressing and the model is being refined.
This time has been unbelievably challenging for children with additional needs and their parents. More than 20,000 children with additional needs in mainstream classes were promised a return on 21 January. The Minister wrote to school principals on 11 January to say the return of those children to school would happen but it did not. Those children were assured priority all along and have been completely forgotten about. The provision offered for students with additional needs is for special needs assistants to come into their houses in evenings and at weekends. It is understandable that very few students, if any, will want that.
Parents who have children with additional needs have contacted me and want to know why their children were suddenly dropped as a priority from the return to school policy. They were promised priority. It is not acceptable to wait until the middle of April, nor is it acceptable that we leave our children with additional needs until last. We should be putting our children with additional needs first. We are talking about a return to school but it is important to remember that many children, on returning to school, will be sent on a bus and driven past the schools of their brothers or sisters.
As we know, there has been a section 37A review of ASD autism classes in the south Dublin area. Many parents and multiple advocacy groups like Involve Autism and Autism Equality Dublin Bay have expressed their great disappointment at both the approach and the outcome. At the end of the process, there are approximately 140 ASD special classes in Dublin 24, which is an increase of approximately 60 places on the position prior to the commencement of the process. In Dublin 6, there were zero classes and that continues to be the case. Likewise, nothing has been provided for early intervention or secondary level. Parents who experienced exclusion and discrimination are being further excluded. As part of the process of engaging with schools with a view to opening new autism classes, the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, openly admits that the Department of Education does not have an inventory of school accommodation. This is damning.
The approach taken by the NCSE and the Department to the 37A process was disappointing to say the least. They did not engage with schools and the schools were only inspected after the mandate. They disregarded where the lack of places was, which will mean more children leaving their communities on buses and in taxis. Apart from the ethical issues, in south Dublin alone, more than €63,000 is spent every single day just transporting children around south Dublin in buses and taxis. It is absolutely bonkers to be spending that sort of money on children with additional needs to bus them out of their communities. This approach of anywhere will do for children with autism and additional needs must stop. The Minister must apply the section 37A process to these areas again, specifically Dublin 6 and Dublin 6W, which were left untouched by the process and where there are more than 6,000 primary school children. I appreciate the Minister may say they are still in a legislative process, but as none of the schools in these areas are in the process, she should be able to act and finally stand up for children with additional needs. Will the Minister start a new section 37A process for areas in south Dublin, in particular Dublin 6 and Dublin 6W, which have been left untouched by the previous section 37A process?
Deputy Andrews made a number of assertions and 23 seconds is not a lot of time in which to try to respond to everything. I take umbrage at the statement that we or the Department do not care about children with additional needs, because that is far from the truth. In recognition of that, for the very first time this Government has appointed a dedicated Minister with responsibility for special education, which is the position I have held for some months.
The section 37A process has so far been successful in getting special classes opened. We have confirmed a potential additional 66 special classes that will open by September 2021. ASD special classes in general have grown by 235% between 2011 and 2021. We are also doing everything we can for children with additional needs in mainstream classes that are not yet back in school. Some of them are already back at school. We have prioritised children with special needs by getting special schools and all special classes back. Some children with special needs in mainstream classes are back and there are more to come on 15 March and again on 12 April. The difficulty is that NPHET had advised a cautious phased approach and we simply were not in a position from a mobility perspective to have everybody back at school. It is wrong to assert that we did not want everybody back, because we did, and that is what we are doing, but we have to take a phased approach and that is what we are doing at present.
Absolutely. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Regional Group. I compliment the Department of Education and both Ministers, Deputy Foley and Deputy Madigan, who are present to listen to what is being said. It has been an unprecedented challenge for everybody in education. Mistakes have been made, but I have yet to see any particular aspect of Covid where mistakes were not made along the line. The main point is that a lot of lessons have been learned.
I am a member of the Joint Committee on Disability Matters and one of the areas of concern to me is special needs education. I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, on joining us last week and giving us a very comprehensive one-to-one engagement on the issues relating to Covid and special needs education. I could point out things that are wrong, but she has been told today about lots of things that are wrong. On a positive note, in Tuam in my constituency, St. Oliver's Special School has been built. It is a €6 million investment and I hope it will be opened in the coming weeks. It is a great ray of hope for parents, children, families and staff in Tuam. I compliment everybody involved in the project. I look forward to seeing the school up and running. I had a sneak preview of the layout of the school and it is ideal for education in these Covid times. I look forward to the school opening.
In the time remaining I will concentrate on the fact that one of the lessons we need to learn is how we improve the situation and make sure that buildings are correct and that a holistic approach is taken to education when we are faced with a challenge. We should be thinking about the leaving certificate of 2022 now and how we are going to deal with it. I hope we will be past Covid, but the students will have had a legacy of a lack of school time. How will that be addressed going forward? We must plan for the future for next year's cohort.
Autism units are non-existent in some areas. I urge the Ministers to look at the issue right throughout the country. We do not have any autism units in schools in Loughrea in my constituency. It is important we prioritise existing schools to make sure they get their fair share of services as well. Rosedale School in Galway has had a tumultuous time in the past 12 months. Everybody involved, including parents and teachers, want to make sure the school will get as much support as it can because of the huge amount of reparation and catching up that remains to be done. While remote learning is good, it is not available to everyone, and until it is, we cannot rely on it. We must make sure we bridge the gap in that regard.
My final comment is directed at the Minister, Deputy Foley, and it is on the school building programme. We have a number of school building projects in Galway. The Gaelscoil complex in Athenry needs to be fast-tracked to make sure we get the school communities out of the current poor accommodation and back into modern facilities. I make the same point about the national school development in Tuam, the new Trinity Primary School, which will amalgamate three schools. The latter project must be fast-tracked. A design team must be appointed as we need to get on with the work. It takes too long to get these projects going. An extension is needed for a school in Athenry which has a plethora of prefabs all over the place. I know the tenders are back and I urge the Minister to make an appointment as soon as possible once the report on the tenders arrives in the Department to make sure the project gets going.
The management of this crisis has been enormously difficult for the Minister, the Department and teachers and parents around the country. It is probably one of the biggest impacts that has been experienced by many people. I have no doubt the cost of the closure of schools will continue for years to come as a result of the lack of education and socialisation and due to the mental health issues that have been created among this generation of schoolchildren.
It has been indicated the leaving certificate examination is likely to change in structure this year, but the structure remains very nebulous for many. Parents and students have been contacting me to ask what the story is with the structure of the leaving certificate. They want to know if the Minister will give details so that parents, students and teachers can get their heads around how to prepare for the examination. As far as I understand, there are no details about the music examinations that are to be held during the Easter holidays and what exactly they will entail.
The Easter holidays are just around the corner for students.
Practical examinations in geography are another outstanding issue that students do not yet have their heads around. These issues are up in the air for students and, as a result, students are not able to focus their energy on proper study for these subjects.
I want to speak about the Irish language. There have been reports to say that the oral element of the Irish language will be reduced in content. As seo amach, ní bheidh an méid marcanna céanna ag dul don Ghaeilge mar gheall ar an teastas iomlán agus is botún mór é sin. Tá go leor scoláirí ag críochnú ar scoil bliain i ndiaidh bliana sa Stát seo agus tá siad in ann scríobh agus léamh na Gaeilge, ach níl siad in ann í a labhairt. An rud is tábhachtaí d’aon scoláire teanga atá ann ná cumas labhartha agus níl sé ann anois. Ba cheart go mbeadh níos mó marcanna ag dul don scrúdú béil sa Ghaeilge.
Will the Minister give some detail to the 20,000 students with additional needs who have not been able to return to school, from third class upwards? It is bizarre and shocking that we do not have these children back in school. That needs to change. These are the children who most need to return to education. I understand that no detail of dates has been given about that. My instinct is that tens of thousands of students will not return until after Easter. They will have been off school from 20 December until after Easter and they will return for just a few weeks after Easter. That will have an outstanding cost to them in the future.
Deputy Tóibín raised an issue about the leaving certificate. I want to make clear that guidelines have been sent to schools about all aspects of the leaving certificate with dates for oral examinations and coursework. It has all been made clear to schools. For example, oral examinations will take place between 26 March and 15 April. The final assessments for the accredited grades process will be completed by 14 May. It has been clear that music, oral examinations and other work have been proofed by public health services. We have made it clear that there are only three areas where such assessment cannot take place, due to public health advice, including construction studies, engineering and physical education. We have made it clear that music examinations are taking place. As I said earlier, there are a number of aspects to music and students have an option to do an individual performance where it a vocal performance or they are playing an instrument, or there might be an ensemble or larger group. Further public health advice about that is pending.
I can come back to the issues raised by Deputy Canney. Both the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and I have met with the parents of pupils at Rosedale School. I have spoken with the principal of Rosedale, who was well acquainted with the issues facing it for the leaving certificate in 2022. Considerable accommodation and work was provided for the 2021 leaving certificate. That has stood us in good stead this year, with alterations to papers, latitude for coursework and project work, and a similar opportunity will be availed of for the 2022 leaving certificate and in future.
I will make a number of points and observations, with a few questions at the end, and I would appreciate a response from either the Minister or Minister of State. Other Deputies have spoken about regression and how we quantify regression in the comings months. I understand, from both the Minister and Minister of State, that there will be expanded summer provision this year, which is welcome but I believe there is justification to quantify that regression. Will the Minister or Minister of State confirm if the Department will do a report about that? Quantifying the regression, whether it is for people with special educational needs or for mainstream cohorts, is important. It leads on to my second point regarding Professor Ferguson and the establishment of his committee. A number of speakers here have addressed the role that rapid antigen testing could have in second level schools and primary schools. There are merits to that not just in a school setting but also in wider society. I take the Minister's point that Professor Ferguson's committee is to do a report on that and present it to Cabinet. I believe there is a role for rapid antigen testing not just in a school setting but in many settings.
The third point I would like to raise is about PPE. I thank the Minister for her clarification about that. She clarified it again yesterday at the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. A myth was peddled by a number of Opposition Deputies that PPE funding was slashed. In fact, it has not been and I am glad that the Minister has put that to bed once and for all.
My last point relates to autism spectrum disorder service provision. A number of speakers have spoken about it today. I welcome the work that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has done in prioritising assessment of needs but that has obviously created greater demand. Will the Minister expand on her section 37A powers, how they could be utilised and how they need to be justified when making that decision?
I acknowledge the significant background work to get students back into the classroom. It did not happen overnight. There was significant relief in many households when students returned to the classroom. The phased nature of the return has been a challenge for many families, with some siblings in school and others out, as well as for teachers' families. There is a particular concern that SNAs and teachers who may be pregnant are at higher risk and that the vaccine is not an option for them. What provision will be made to cater for these higher risk people? I draw particular attention to SNAs who may be providing more up-close and personal care for people. They would be at a higher risk not necessarily due to a condition but because of the type of work and personal support they are providing. That needs to be taken into consideration.
Many bus drivers will be working short hours, more irregularly and for lower incomes. If they are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, there will be a tax implication as they return. They are concerned that because the pay is so low and the tax take will hurt, it will hardly be worth their while. I ask the Minister to engage with the Minister for Finance to clarify this and make sure that it would not be an impediment for bus drivers.
Substitute teachers lost out during the lockdown, not just because of pay but also because of increments and pension entitlements that they would have expected to accrue at the time. They were probably the only school workers who were losing out. I ask the Minister to examine this one-off incident to see if it can be addressed so that they can regain those entitlements, otherwise they will end up with a large buy-back for their pensions and issues with increments.
First, I will address autism spectrum disorder units and the fact that many parents are trying to access a service that simply is not there. If the assessments were updated, the system of autism spectrum disorder units would be swamped. We need to address our future plan for that. I ask the Minister to give special consideration to children with special needs, even those children who are at home who cannot access supports because of the voluntary nature of an SNA or a teacher compared with teaching at home.
They are under extreme pressure and I ask the Minister to review that.
I also wish to raise the issue of parliamentary questions submitted to the Department of Education. If these questions were answered comprehensively, the Minister and Minister of State might not have had to face so many questions in the Chamber today. For example, I asked about St. Senan's National School in Kilmacow and a school in Ballyragget in the context of a change of status or an amalgamation. If the information was given to Deputies who ask questions, that would relieve the pressure on schools and reduce the number of parents who are approaching Deputies to ask them to pose the questions in the first place. I have asked a number of parliamentary questions about these schools but have not received a comprehensive response and I am deeply disappointed by that. I also asked a question relating to the CBS primary school in Kilkenny in the context of a change of status and, again, the question was not really dealt with at all. The school is trying to plan for the future in what is a growing part of the city. I ask the Minister to address those issues as they relate to those three schools.
On the western environs of Kilkenny city there is a real sense that development is going on but the eastern environs should not be left behind. The amalgamation of St. John's school in the eastern environs and the provision of more secondary school spaces are both absolutely necessary. I contacted the Department on these matters but there is no plan for the future in place. I would like the Department to assess the school places that are available in Kilkenny. I would also like to see a plan for the future being brought forward. In terms of the availability of school places now, as parents look towards September, a significant number are under huge pressure. This has been going on for the past number of years in Kilkenny city in particular. We do not have enough places and we cannot get answers from the Department or the schools. Parents are being fobbed off and it is simply not good enough. This is about communication and information. Can we please have the relevant information in response to parliamentary questions and can we have a comment on planning for the future?
I thank my colleagues for sharing time. I thank the Minister and Minister of State for their work over this challenging period on designing the return to school. Inevitably, it will never be quick enough for any of us but we are delighted a start has been made. I also thank all of the staff of the Department of Education, the teachers, staff of schools throughout the country, the unions and all associated with engineering the pathway we now have. It is great to see at least some children back in school at this early stage and it is to be oped by April we will see all children return to the classroom.
In terms of vaccinations, I note that NPHET has acknowledged that all those who are essential to education should be in the first third of people vaccinated, and that is certainly welcome. I would ask that they are as high up as possible within that third because obviously we depend hugely on them to educate our children. The developmental aspect of their work is so important and we need them to be in a position to attend school. Within that, I ask the Minister to contact the Department of Health to see if some can be further prioritised. I refer here to the teachers in mainstream education who deal with children who, for a variety of reasons, are not capable of wearing masks. I am not talking about people who have an objection to wearing masks or who have an ideological view that masks to do not need to be worn. I am talking about children, some with autism, who may not be in a position to wear masks because they become very agitated and so on. I am referring to a small number of teachers and SNAs who should be further prioritised within the group of people deemed essential to education under the vaccination programme. I ask the Minister, along with her colleague the Minister for Health, to impress upon NIAC the importance of prioritising this group within the larger one.
Understandably, the focus is very much on this year's examination students, but Deputy Canney alluded to the fact the current fifth year students have had much reduced face-to-face learning opportunities, and I agree with him. Such learning is obviously a very important aspect of the leaving certificate cycle. I ask that in early course the Minister signals her intentions with regard to those students. Is it envisaged they will be given a choice as well? I know we are a long way out from leaving certificate 2022 but now is the time to acknowledge the fact they will not have had the same level of preparation as others in years gone by and that something must be done for them.
This has been an extremely difficult and stressful time for students, parents, grandparents, teachers and all involved in education. The general secretary of the TUI has stated the preference of all teachers is to return to face-to-face teaching and learning, but there is an understandable anxiety in the school community, particularly with regard to possible new strains of the virus.
Concerns have been raised over the fact that some special needs students will not be returning for almost another six weeks. Parents of children with special educational needs have been in touch with all of our offices to express their grave dissatisfaction at the lack of opportunity or even clarity being given to them by the Department of Education. I ask the Minister to clarify the situation for special needs students as the Department's repeated assertions to the contrary are not addressing the concerns of parents and their children. Does the Minister think it is right that students with additional needs in first or second year will potentially have to wait until 12 April, almost six weeks from now, before they can get back into the classroom? If the Department prevents students with special needs from attending school for another number of weeks, what immediate schooling supports can be put in place in advance?
Leaving certificate data will not include the use of the historical performance of schools data, the issue which caused most controversy in 2020. The data on the junior cycle performance of the leaving certificate class of 2021 is likely to be used, but will the Minister explain how we can be certain this method will work effectively? To avoid awarding the same percentage marks to two students, they may include up to two decimal places, but this could be very troublesome. Like last year, teachers are asked to provide evidence of student attainment, including limited assessment up to 14 May and to use their professional judgment in awarding estimated marks. Will the Minister outline the level of additional supports and training that will be provided to teachers for this purpose? The report I have read refers to the fact that any efforts by parents or others to influence teachers marks will be treated very seriously and this will be covered by forthcoming legislation. Will the Minister elaborate on this point? The guidance document appears to advise schools against holding the formal sixth year parent-teacher meetings between 1 March and 28 March. I also ask the Minister to deal seriously with the bus driver issue.
A calculated grades system was introduced in 2020, and while there were many teething problems, it showed us that there may be other ways to assess our students rather than cramming six years of learning into two weeks of final exams. Perhaps it is time to reform the leaving certificate, which might mean students being assessed on a staggered basis using a broader range of assessment methods such as projects, team work and portfolios instead of facing a single set of summer exams. The State's advisory body on the curriculum has been reviewing the senior cycle during the past year. On foot of that, are we likely to see any changes to the leaving certificate structure?
I have a large number of questions for the Minister who may not have time to answer them now. They come from parents and teachers in Cork South-West. I will put them to the Minister and perhaps she can reply to me later. Will she outline the steps being taken to review the ranking of front-line teachers on the Government's vaccine plan and when any outcome arising from the process will be published? Will the Minister confirm that flexible measures for high-risk and pregnant staff will continue until the Easter break? Will she confirm the date on which the expert review group examining the issue of rapid antigen testing in schools is likely to report?
Will the Minister confirm the date on which the expert review group examining ventilation issues in schools is likely to report and the date on which the expert review group on the mandatory use of face masks in primary education is likely report? Will she set out details of what grants will be provided to primary schools for cleaning and sanitisation from Easter to the summer this year? Will she confirm that a refund will be issued for school bus tickets issued last year? Will she confirm that plans are in place for school transport provision in the coming year? I would also like some information regarding SOLAS motor mechanic apprentices. They completed phase two of their apprenticeships in December, but they are still awaiting their official results and cannot progress to the next phase.
Gaelscoil na Laochra in Birr, County Offaly has been waiting since 2015 to move to its permanent premises, which is partially occupied by a mental health service. This issue has dragged on and it is very unfair on the pupils and staff. We need an intervention by the Minister, as well as more co-operation between the HSE and the Department of Education. The Gaelscoil na Laochra school community has waited for this move to happen since 2015. I raised this issue with the previous Minister, but I am hopeful that this Minister can get to grips with this situation and help to resolve this issue. Given Covid-19 and the lack of space in the current premises the school is using in Sandymount Haven in Birr, the move to the permanent premises needs to go ahead. Can the Minister urgently intervene?
I raised the prospect yesterday of extra teaching staff being hired given how much time leaving certificate students have missed in schools. Those students missed five months in school last year and two more months this year. The Minister stated that 1,000 posts are being provided. My understanding, however, is that those 1,000 posts were on track anyway, even if we never had Covid-19. Some teachers will also be leaving the profession, so that figure will not really be 1,000 extra teachers. I appeal to the Minister again to provide extra supports, in the form of extra teaching staff, to schools to help our leaving certificate students. It would be a pragmatic solution and it would alleviate some of the stress these students are under.
I will zone in on two areas in my short time and I would appreciate a reply. The Minister of State will remember the debacle last year with the July provision. A service was eventually provided. What is the position regarding that service this year? It took seven months last year to make repayment regarding the agreed travel allowances, and even then the figure was disputed by the Department. Will the Minister clarify the agreed figure per mile? I understood that 39 c was the agreed rate per mile. Why are we arguing over something like that when there was an agreed rate? I would like the Minister to answer that question and then I will ask one more question.
Regarding the July provision, we are working on an enhanced programme for this year. We are obviously very concerned about the regression of children with special needs. Last year, some 24,000 children were eligible for the programme and about 14,000 actually partook. We hope this year to expand the programme even more, including the time allowed and also by expanding the categories of children with special needs who are eligible. All children in special classes in special schools are eligible to apply and children with SEN in mainstream classes as well.
I did not use my minutes to make statements or to waste time. I asked a specific question. Perhaps the Minister of State could answer me in written form regarding why it took so long to make the repayments for travel and why less money was given. I would appreciate that, because it was a specific question.
My second question, and I do not whether the Minister or the Minister of State will answer it, concerns DEIS schools, and two in Galway in particular. I wish I did not have to raise this issue on the floor of the Dáil. I have written letters about this issue, raised it with the Taoiseach and written to the Minister about it. It is a simple question. I will use the example of the two specific schools in Galway which are spending hundreds of euro each week sending out packages of hard copy materials to pupils who do not have computers or the Internet at home for one reason or another. Can specific financial provision be made for that situation? It would be a drop in the ocean, but it would mean a great deal to the students and the schools concerned. I have 30 seconds left and I am leaving it to the Minister to answer that specific question.
No, but the Deputy's question concerns making specific funding available to schools and in the last year some €100 million was made available to schools. In December 2020, some €50 million was made to schools. That was ideally with the notion that schools, as I have seen on the ground myself, would then be able to purchase laptops and tablets, or whatever the facility might be, which could be loaned out and made available to students. That initiative has worked very successfully. The money could also be used for other platforms and equipment needed within schools. No student should be lacking access to laptops or tablets or whatever is needed because those resources should be in the schools and be able to be loaned out, as I have seen operating in many schools.
Parents will have paid in advance for transport to schools which were shut through no fault of their own or the Minister. In any event, the buses were not running and they did not burn any fuel and did not incur any costs. Will that money be refunded?
I thank the Minister. Last week her Department sent out a circular asking two questions regarding children returning to school. One was entirely reasonable. It asked parents to certify to the best of their knowledge that their child does not have an infectious disease. The second question asked if the parents could confirm that they have adhered to all medical advice since the child's exclusion from school. This document was drawn up in September for children who were excluded from school because they had been a close contact or confirmed as having Covid-19 and were then returning to the school. It does not, however, make any sense in the context of children who were never excluded from school and are now returning because the school was closed. Will the Minister confirm that she will amend that form to avoid confusion?
Those forms were sent as a matter of best practice. The Deputy will be aware this is happening in different settings where the workers, or those who engage in a particular area of work, such as in this instance school students and staff, are obliged to fill in forms to state they do not have Covid-19 symptoms. The Deputy will also appreciate that not only the Department but the deputy chief medical officer and others have articulated the importance of students, teachers, parents and guardians of children providing this type of information to the schools regarding not sending children to school if they have symptoms of Covid-19.