Thursday, 23 September 2021
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh (Atógáil) - Priority Questions (Resumed)
Special Educational Needs
81. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if her attention has been drawn to the significant impact of school closures on children with special educational needs; the steps she has taken to ensure that every child with special educational needs can catch up after these closures; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [45808/21]
The cohort comprising children with special educational needs is the cohort most affected when school buildings are closed, along with those who suffer educational disadvantage. These children were among the greatest victims of the lockdown. At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science in March, I raised with the Minister the devastating impact removing in-school supports from children with special educational needs as an element of the progressing disability model could have. I welcomed the pause put on those elements of the progressing disability model in special schools in April but I am now hearing reports from schools in my area that those elements of the progressing disability programme have resumed and that access to those in-school supports has been lost. How has this been allowed to go ahead?
I thank the Deputy for his question. All of us, especially myself as Minister of State with responsibility for special education, are aware of the difficulties children with additional needs have faced during the pandemic, not the least of which were the difficulties they faced in respect of remote learning. However, it is important to stress that supports were given at the time. There was enhanced digital communication, there were teaching and learning platforms and additional guidance was given to schools. We can all accept that it was not an ideal learning environment not only for children with additional needs, but for children without additional needs as well. For this reason, we prioritised support for this vulnerable group. It is important to stress that special schools and special classes were the first cohort of children to come back after the school closures. They were prioritised. We matched our words with action and action ultimately means funding. The first programme we put in place was the supplementary programme, which was available to schools and children between February and April of this year. Funding for this amounted to €10 million and approximately 14,000 to 15,000 children availed of the programme. It provided five hours of one-on-one tuition per week. This was important in ensuring the risk of regression was not realised because that can understandably happen. We also put in place an expanded programme of summer provision. We doubled the funding to €40 million this year. Some 34,000 children availed of that programme. We wanted children to be able to rebuild their confidence. We wanted them to be motivated and we wanted to promote their well-being and inclusion. We also have the new Covid-19 learning and support scheme, CLASS. This has €52.6 million in funding and is available to schools to help children with additional needs and to further their inclusion.
I thank the Minister of State. Much of her answer is irrelevant to this topic. While much of what she has laid out is good, the answer does not address the key point I raised which was that, from my contact with schools, it seems to be the case that the elements of the progressing disability model which we had understood to be paused have now resumed and that in-school supports for children with special educational needs are now being withdrawn. The Minister of State announced the CLASS programme, which could have greater funding attached but we will return to that another day, to recognise the disruption school closures had on the children who are most vulnerable. In the same breath, her Department is allowing children with special educational needs, who are at high risk of educational disadvantage and regression, to lose their access to in-school therapies. This is very much a question of these children's right to an education. Without adequate and timely access to resources, it will have an impact on their progression. They are back in school buildings and making up for lost time. Now is not the time for special schools to be losing their therapists under these elements of the progressing disability programme.
The Deputy's question may be more pertinent to the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, Deputy Rabbitte, in terms of the progressive disability scheme relating to special schools. I understand this had been paused for a period. The supports the Department of Education gives to special schools have continued and been enhanced during the pandemic. Extensive supports are available, particularly in respect of technology. The assistive technology scheme is vital for children with additional needs.
On therapy and in-school therapy, we will move towards the school inclusion model and expand that to two further community health organisation areas over the coming years. That will complement the existing therapy services children will get outside the school premises.
I will raise the matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. It is cross-departmental and does not belong exclusively to her. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, should be concerned about it and I urge her to speak to the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, as well and find out if this is happening in special schools. That is a key element of the Minister of State's portfolio and it is what I am hearing from schools.
This is International Week of Deaf People 2021. In a speech to the Irish Deaf Society yesterday, the Minister heralded the importance of making the educational experience enjoyable and inclusive for all children. However, there are deaf children in our country who cannot enjoy their education fully. One such child is 12-year-old Callum Geary from Cork, who attends St. Columba's unit for deaf children. Callum needs an Irish Sign Language, ISL, interpreter in his classroom to allow him access education. His family have been campaigning for this to be put in place, particularly under section 5 of the Irish Sign Language Act. It seems bizarre we expect teachers in Gaelscoileanna to have qualifications in Gaeilge, correctly so, but we expect teachers in special schools to learn ISL in their own time with very little support or criteria to be met. Will the Minister commit to resolving these issues and ensure deaf children like Callum receive the ISL interpreters they need to participate in education?
If the Deputy is aware of any special school that has a lack of therapy services as he outlined, he should let both the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and the Department of Education know of that. I speak to Deputy Rabbitte and to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, regularly and we have tripartite meetings on furthering the work we can do collaboratively. The Deputy is right that there has to be joined-up thinking between relevant Departments.
It is important to stress that we have an unprecedented sum of €2 billion going to special education, which is almost a fifth of the education budget and represents an increase of 50% since 2011. We now have 18,000 SNAs, which is a huge number. They are all clearly needed but it is an increase of 70% since 2011. We have about 13,650 special education teachers, an increase of 40% since 2011. There is more we need to do in terms of supports, but we are making inroads.