Dáil debates

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Special Educational Needs

9:30 am

Photo of Pádraig O'SullivanPádraig O'Sullivan (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for taking time to take this Topical Issue matter again. We are all familiar at this stage with St. Gabriel's Special School in Cork, which caters for children with profound intellectual disabilities and with a dual diagnosis, including autism. Its staff do great work and this needs to be recognised.

The picture of St. Gabriel's Special School I am about to pain is not a pretty one. We have heard this before because we have been talking about this since 2018. I first became familiar with the school on the election trail in January 2020. I and a number of other candidates visited the school and I promised I would return if I was elected. Thankfully, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, visited the school with me in the summer of last year before Covid restrictions were reintroduced. It is safe to say that she was also appalled at what she was confronted with.

There are only so many times we can talk about being appalled, only so many buckets that will collect water from leaking roofs and only so many electrical deficiencies in a building that one can say will pass health and safety rules. Children cannot access washing facilities and toilets because their wheelchairs will not physically fit through a door. That is how basic things are at St. Gabriel's. From the staff point of view, it is fundamentally wrong that we are asking them to work there every day. However, nobody can forget about what the children have to go through every day.

We see other new buildings across the country and massive extensions being added to mainstream schools. I refer to the Taoiseach's comments. He was not the Taoiseach at the time, but in April 2018 he visited the school. He pointed out that parents say they feel forgotten and that their children who should be our first priority are not. The Taoiseach was right when he made those comments. I am aware that a number of engineers and architects have visited the school over the last few months, so I am seeking an up-to-date report on that progress, what is likely to be the position in the coming months and the work that is likely to go ahead in St. Gabriel's during the summer.

9:40 am

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for attending. I am pleased the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is present as well. Perhaps they can have a conversation afterwards and the Minister of State can give the Minister an insight into the conditions at the school.

St. Gabriel's does incredible work. There are over 40 children at the school aged between four and 18 years with severe to profound learning disabilities. It plays an incredibly important role in Cork city and the surrounding area. Many children come from a fair distance to avail of the school's services because it may be the only place that is suitable for them. The building is completely unsuitable. It is cold and, in some respects, exposed. The staff, management, parents and the committee there have done incredible work in making the most of the building, but the fact is that it is long past its sell-by date. It used to be a primary school, Scoil Colm Ban, until the late 1990s when it amalgamated with Scoil an Spioraid Naoimh and the building became available. While that might have been a sensible temporary arrangement 20 years ago, the building is long past its sell-by date now. Ultimately, it will never be fully fit for purpose.

I received a response from the Minister which stated that the school had recently secured the use of additional space in an adjoining property, that this has the potential to offer valuable space for interim accommodation needs but requires remedial work, that engineers are visiting and so forth and that an application will be made. That is good and positive, but it is not the long-term solution. The long-term solution is a new building on a new site. I am seeking a commitment from the Minister that this is going to happen. My main request is that she tell the House that there will be a new building that is fit for the needs of the school on a new site as well as that she give an update on progress on the interim work, which is badly needed.

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputies for raising this matter as it gives me the opportunity to outline the position with regard to the accommodation needs of St. Gabriel's Special School in Bishopstown, County Cork. This matter has been raised with me by a number of public representatives, including my Cabinet colleagues and the Taoiseach.

St. Gabriel's Special School is the primary school under the patronage of the Brothers of Charity. The school caters for children and teenagers aged four to 18 years of age with severe and profound learning disability and those in this category with associated autistic spectrum disorder, ASD. The current staffing at the school includes a principal, eight mainstream teachers and 30 special needs assistants, SNAs, with an enrolment in 2021 of 43 pupils. St. Gabriel's Special School is currently accommodated in a former primary school building. Another former primary school building adjoins St. Gabriel's and St. Gabriel's has secured the use of some additional space in this property, as has been outlined. Both school buildings are owned by the Diocese of Cork and Ross.

This property has the potential to offer the school valuable extra space to meet its accommodation needs. Remedial work is required to the property to facilitate its use by St. Gabriel's. The Department has been liaising with the school regarding its accommodation needs. An architect and an engineer from the Department's building unit recently visited the school. It is intended that the visit will assist in identifying proposed works that could be undertaken in the building, taking account of the specific needs of the school. The Department is also engaging with the Diocese of Cork and Ross, as owner of the buildings, in this regard. The Department is committed to providing for the school's long-term accommodation needs and is considering all the options available. It will continue to engage with the school in this regard.

Enabling children with special educational needs to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a priority for the Government. The Department's policy is that children with special educational needs should be included, where possible and appropriate, in mainstream placements with additional supports provided. In circumstances where children with special educational needs require more specialised interventions, special schools and special class places are provided for. This year, the Department will invest over 20% of its education budget, or €2 billion, in supporting children with special needs. As a result, the numbers of special education teachers, special needs assistants, special classes and special school places are at unprecedented levels. Since 2011, the number of special classes in mainstream schools has increased by almost 235%, from 548 to over 1,800 for the 2020-2021 school year. Some 199 new special classes have been established nationally for the 2020-2021 school year. Budget 2021 also provides for an additional 235 special class teachers this year, supporting the provision of over 1,200 additional special classes. An additional 990 special needs assistants brings the provision of special needs assistants to a record of more than 18,000. An additional 145 special education teachers brings the total provision to more than 13,000 in mainstream primary and post-primary schools, with an additional 23 special education teachers to be allocated to meet increased enrolments in special schools.

Notwithstanding the extent of this investment, I am acutely aware that there are parts of the country where increases in population and other issues have led to concerns regarding a shortage of school places. The Department's schools building programme is focused on providing additional school places to ensure that every child, including children with special needs, has a school place. This includes opening new schools and extending existing schools in areas where more school places are needed to meet the growing number of children living in these areas.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has responsibility for co-ordinating and advising on the education provision for children nationwide. It has well-established structures in place for engaging with schools and patrons. The NCSE seeks to ensure that schools in an area can, between them, cater for all children who have been identified as needing special education placements. It continues to work with and support the families who have a recommendation for, and are seeking to secure, a special school placement. A number of meetings between the Department, the NCSE and relevant stakeholders, including patron bodies, have taken place to consider how the demand for special school places in Cork can be met. The Deputies will be aware that new special schools in Cork and Dublin will be established for the 2021-2022 school year.

Photo of Pádraig O'SullivanPádraig O'Sullivan (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I commend the Minister on the work she has done up to now in respect of the delivery of special education provision in Cork, particularly in recent months. I welcome the new special school that will be based in Carrigaline. That will make a massive difference in Cork, where there are acute problems. However, I will return to St. Gabriel's and the specifics of that case. The majority of special needs schools in Cork, particularly schools that cater for dual diagnosis, are full. Therefore, the problem in St. Gabriel's is not going away. I understand that as far back as 2018, a departmental official said that the Department was committed to the provision of a new school building for St. Gabriel's, that a new site was required to facilitate this and that the Department was engaging with a landowner in this regard. It is three years since that statement so we must move this forward. As far as I am aware, consideration is being given to joining another education provider on a new site. If that arrangement is not working or progressing, we must think about how to progress with St. Gabriel's alone on a new site.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I do not have much to add to what Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan said. I can be critical of the Minister, but I commend the provision of the new school in Cork. That is very welcome and important. I will take this opportunity to point out that it is unfortunate that the medium- and long-term plans of another national school were discommoded in that regard. I urge the Minister to ensure that this school gets a solution. It is vital that the Owenabue Educate Together national school gets interim and long-term accommodation as well.

To return to St. Gabriel's, it plays a crucial role. There are few other options for those families and children. Ultimately, it needs a permanent solution. Interim solutions are welcome and if they can improve the building, that is great. However, it is not going to be the long-term solution. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan is right. There has been talk about other education providers and so forth, but this has been ongoing for years. Ultimately, we must make a decision.

Mr. Thomas and his team run a fantastic school supported by parents and staff but the site and buildings are not fit for purpose and are past their sell-by date. We need to move this on. We cannot keep waiting. It needs delivery. Will the Minister give us a sense of when we will know there will be a permanent site? I accept she cannot necessarily tell us what the site will be.

9:50 am

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I confirm that I am very conscious of the excellent work that takes place daily in the school and of the support provided by school communities, parents, guardians and all who are invested in the progress of the school. Notwithstanding the difficult circumstances of a Covid-19 environment, I fully acknowledge all that is achieved daily by the entire school community.

It is important to note that the Department of Education places an extremely high priority on provision and support for children with particular educational needs. For the first time ever, over one fifth of our budget, equalling some €2 billion, is being provided directly for the area of special education. That speaks to our commitment. I acknowledge, as have previous speakers, that our determination to progress issues specific to Cork is emphasised and underlined by the provision of a new school in Carrigaline. That is a positive step on which we will build.

On St. Gabriel's Special School, the Department is committed to providing for the school's long-term accommodation needs and is considering all options available. The Department will continue to engage with the school, the diocese and all necessary stakeholders in progressing the future of the school. An architect and an engineer have visited. That progress in recent months is positive because it can be seen visually on the ground that we are committed to advancing and expediting this as much as possible.

I thank the Deputies for raising the matter of the plans for St. Gabriel's Special School in Cork. I commit to expediting it as much as possible. The progress we have made in recent months is testament to our determination to do that in the shortest timeframe possible.