Thursday, 21 October 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Special Educational Needs
First, I welcome that the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. At the beginning, I thought that the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, was going to answer all the questions. It is becoming a feature that Deputies are submitting their questions and are not getting the replies and a Minister of State-----
That is why I welcome her being here. That is why I said it.
I am not here to have a go at the Minister of State. I want to express the frustration of parents whose children are losing special education hours. One parent who contacted me said that her son lost two days of special education teaching this week. The loss of one-to-one teaching to help him with social skills and extra reading will leave him further behind and regressing. This parent makes a strong point that mainstream autistic children are often forgotten about. Special needs assistants and special education teaching hours make it possible for them to get to school.
Another parent this week told me that a special education teacher was put in to cover for five days for a full-time teacher who was out sick, meaning that this young boy missed five days of special education teaching. Normally, these hours would be banked for future use if the special education teacher could not fulfil the hours that week. It is a seriously worrying trend in mainstream schools at present due to the shortage of substitute teachers or where teachers are absent and a special education teacher is used to teach the class.
During the peak of the pandemic when this used to occur, the school was allowed to bank these missed hours when a special education teacher was in a classroom to ensure that the hours lost were not at the expense of the children who rely on the special education teacher for resource hours. This practice now appears to have been revoked and I seek clarification on that. Vulnerable children are losing out on vital resource hours with no option to make up lost time.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I will always endeavour to respond Topical Issue matters that are relevant to me. This matter is partly the responsibility of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. The special education element comes under my remit.
I recognise the challenge that schools are facing regarding the wider issue of substitution. I will come to the special education issue in a minute. The Department has put in place a range of measures to provide enhanced substitute cover in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. These include a major expansion of the primary schools substitute teacher supply panels, which now employ almost 380 teachers and provide substitute cover to over 2,500 primary and post-primary schools across the country. Further work is under way to enhance the operation of the panels to help with substitute teacher supply.
The national substitution portal service for primary and post-primary schools, subseeker.ie, is operated by the Irish Primary Principals Network. The Teaching Council and the Minister, Deputy Foley are working closely on this. The council has emailed 111,000 teachers asking if any of them are available for substitute work. I understand that 70,000 of those 111,000 teachers work full time and 40,000 work part time. Therefore, there should be capacity among those 40,000 teachers for some of them to be available to work. They have also allowed for teachers who were on a career break to carry out unlimited substitution work. That provision did not exist previously.
In addition, those who are job sharing will be in a position to carry out substitute work on the days of the week when they are rostered off. That is another new measure that has been introduced. There are also some new initiatives relating to student teachers completing their professional master of education studies.
They may be in a position to fulfil short-term substitute vacancies.
All of those measures are extremely important but specifically around special education teachers, there has been a bit of misperception and there has been no withdrawal of any provisions. Effectively, special education teachers will be used for the purposes for which they should be used. During Covid-19, as a measure of last resort, where teachers were in a difficult position, a special education teacher could be used to cover teacher absences and where teachers were unavailable. We now have a successful vaccine roll-out and there should be a reduced level of absenteeism compared with the past. We should see those teacher absence levels reduced and there should not be an issue around using special education teachers in that way. It is really important to me as Minister of State with responsibility for special education that those special education teachers are only used for the hours for children with additional needs, as the Deputy has said.
In the recent budget we allocated 980 new special education teachers, with 620 of those for mainstream, new and developing schools, and 360 of them for special classes. They have a pivotal role in looking after children with additional needs.
I thank the Minister of State. I am aware there is a problem and a bit of a crisis in the 3,300 schools around the country and they are finding it very difficult to get substitute teachers to cover absences. I raised the matter last week with the Tánaiste. A particular school had cover for one absent teacher and could not get other cover. This is happening in many schools. The Tánaiste spoke to colleagues in Blanchardstown and Castleknock, where the same thing was happening and there was a possibility of closing classrooms because a teacher could not be procured. I do not know if the special education teachers are moving to cover that problem.
Will the two boys I spoke of get those hours back or get resources from a special education teacher? One boy lost five days this week and two days last week. It is a key issue. Will the Minister of State confirm that will happen?
On the question of substitution in general, I have outlined the measures being taken. There is the question of hours being lost. One of the schemes we introduced is the Covid Learning and Support Scheme, CLASS, at €56.2 million, which is to help children who lost time during Covid-19. That is in addition to the summer provision and the supplementary scheme at Easter. If children with additional needs have lost hours, as the Deputy mentions, although I will not comment on individual cases, it should first be brought to the attention of the principal of the school. He or she could liaise with the Department if there is an issue and they cannot work it out internally within the school. The case could also be brought to the attention of a special education teacher.
As I have said, there should be sufficient substitutes. The Minister, Deputy Foley, has looked at this in terms of expanding substitution and the substitute portal so as to make teachers who are job-sharing, those on career leave and in other schemes available. It is about getting more people, and particularly those part-time teachers, to register on the substitute portal so they can assist. No child should be losing hours.
There must be a way of working this out. I suggest the people affected contact the school and if there are any issues, the Deputy can let me know so I can follow up also. The National Council for Special Education has local special educational needs organisers on the ground. I know the matter is very close to the Deputy's heart and I heard her bring it up with the Tánaiste. If there are any issues, she could speak to me again about it.