Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Special Educational Needs
I am grateful to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for allowing this matter to be taken. I congratulate the Minister of State on the progress that has been made on special education, which is truly transformative. We now have four times as many special classes and twice as many special needs assistants, SNAs. We have moved from individual models of assessment and expensive gateways to support to one that is much more of a whole-school approach.
The final game changer for me is the proposal developed by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, of what is called the school inclusion model. That brings a range of therapeutic supports to an extended number of schools and preschools. It has been piloted very successfully. A pilot was adopted because at the time, there were constrained resources and it needed to be road-tested to ensure it was the best approach. I would strongly argue that this is far better than the previous health-based approach involving referral to the health system. It is accessible. There are no appointments and no risk of no-shows. It is a team approach, integrating the resource teacher or the special needs teacher and the SNA. It encourages learning and growth within the school as to how to adopt proper therapeutic approaches to supporting children who need it. For pupils, it is delivered in a familiar setting and addresses real constraints that teaching and SNA support alone cannot achieve.
We need to move swiftly and I would like to know about the evaluation. What are the criteria and outcomes of assessment? How long will it take? Will the NCSE be at the heart of that evaluation? What approach will be taken to extending to new areas? This is urgently needed and will help address what all of us know is a crisis in early intervention access because people will have access to therapeutic services within the familiar school-based system.
I am very pleased to be able to discuss this matter along with my colleague, Deputy Bruton, and I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House.
The difference between the provision of supports for children with special educational needs in their schools and their having to go somewhere else after the school day finishes is transformative for the children, for their convenience, for how natural it is for them to stay in their own school environment and for the comfort with which they can access additional services. Anything we can do to make children more comfortable and less different, whether in terms of special educational needs, support services or play therapy for any child in school, and to the extent that we can support them within the familiar environment of their own school, we should do to make things better.
There is so much really good work being done in this area, and I thank the Minister of State for all her work and engagement. In my area, Dún Laoghaire, we have had 11 additional special educational needs classes, bringing the number up to 43. That is a huge increase since the general election. I thank not only the Minister of State for her work on that but also all the schools in my area, which have engaged with the Department and come up with creative solutions. We have more in train. This has made a significant difference for parents, particularly parents of three- and four-year-olds, who have been struggling to know where they will send their children and how they will be able to get them class places. It has taken an awful lot of pressure off them and made a massive difference, as has the additional number of special needs assistants. We have now had an additional 2,165 in this two-year period, and I thank the Minister of State for her work in securing the budget to deliver that.
As my colleague, Deputy Bruton, said, this pilot model is a real opportunity to deliver services in a much more natural and convenient and, I believe, effective way. We would love to hear an update on the pilot, how the Minister of State thinks it is going, the prospects for its roll-out into other areas and, indeed, nationally for further testing, and any possible timeline for that.
I commend the Deputies on bringing forward this Topical Issue matter. It is a very pertinent issue to me, as Minister of State with responsibility for special education. I appreciate all the work done by Deputy Bruton, a previous Minister for Education, who in fact kick-started the process of the school inclusion model, and thank him for that. I wish to reassure both Deputies that I feel this will be the gold-star policy change for special education in Ireland. I hope that, in time, other jurisdictions will look to this country and admire the model we have. I commend both Deputies on the work they have done in this regard. As they have correctly pointed out, this will be the transformative model for children with additional needs.
The pilot of the model, as the Deputies will know, started in community healthcare organisation, CHO 7, in Kildare, west Wicklow and south-west Dublin. As we all know, the pandemic, unfortunately, got in the way and schools had to close in early 2020 and early 2021. In March 2020, the HSE, unfortunately, had to take some of our therapists to use them for testing and tracing, which of course posed difficulties for the education sector in trying to retain its own therapists. In that regard, my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Foley, brought to the Government a memo on the recruitment of our own therapists by the NCSE. One of the challenges we face is to ensure that we have a sufficient number of therapists for the school inclusion model and that the HSE can use its own therapists. Both models are complementary; neither is in lieu of the other.
It is really important when we talk about the school inclusion model that we note its key elements. One is the continuing professional development and training for our teachers and SNAs. In that regard, we have set out a new SNA training programme in UCD. It was oversubscribed. I think about 3,500 SNAs wanted to avail of it. There are more starting again this year and there will be more early next year. That will be of critical importance to those SNAs. As Deputy Bruton knows from his time as Minister for Education, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has told us it will not be possible to continuously add on more SNAs year on year. At the moment we have 19,000 SNAs. That is an increase of 70% since 2011.
The ideal model is this multidisciplinary, wrap-around approach within the school environment. That will involve the other key element, namely speech and language therapists, SLTs, and occupational therapists, OTs, to have those in-school supports, which Deputy Bruton's colleague, Deputy Carroll MacNeill, has pointed out will make it more comfortable and convenient for the child within the school environment. That approach should be commended.
There are also the psychological and behavioural supports. When I have visited schools that have already rolled out this model - St. Martin de Porres National School, in Tallaght, is one that springs to mind - and other schools, they have said to me that the behavioural practitioners are imperative and badly needed within the schools. That is another key element of this.
There is also the front-loading of SNAs. We have already started that process with the special education teachers and we want to do it with the SNAs as well. The National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, expansion in respect of the well-being of children with additional needs will also be crucial, and we intend to expand that as well.
I thank the Minister of State and congratulate her on her very accurate appreciation of the benefits of this model. I remember when Eamon Stack, then chair of the NCSE, developed this. He was like a child, so enthusiastic was he about the impact it would have on special education. There is an opportunity to drive this and make it, as the Minister of State said, unique. There is no other best-practice model. This is the best-practice model that can be developed. It does not need assessment by anyone other than the NCSE to see that it is achieving its goals. The key is to make sure we move as rapidly as possible to deliver this and see no obstacles put in its way.
I absolutely concur with my colleague, Deputy Bruton. I keep thinking about this child-centred focus from the perspective of the child and the child's needs. Speech therapists, occupational therapists and psychological supports should be brought into the child's school rather than the child having to be othered or made different by travelling to another place. I keep thinking this is a little like children in hospital with ongoing additional health needs who have to turn up again and again to multiple different types of appointments, whether neurology, endocrinology or anything else. I refer to complex cases in which the child is constantly taken out of his or her routine. Children should wake up, have their breakfast, get to school, come home and have as normal a day as possible. For any child with additional needs, whether educational needs or health needs, as a State, we need to think about this from the child's perspective and deliver the services in the most natural and convenient way for them that will achieve the best outcomes and be minimally disruptive to them.
This is a fantastic model and, as Deputy Bruton said, the evaluation is clear. What is really exciting about it is being able to deliver it more broadly as quickly as possible.
The important point to note, which I may not have mentioned yet, is the fact that the pilot has recommenced in CHO 7 this term. We have plans for expansion of that. The independent evaluation is critical, and I am very satisfied so far with a report we have received on the confidence children with additional needs have gained from availing of the school inclusion model and the fact that they have reached most of their targets in a way in which they had not before. It is important, as both Deputies said, that children get the right supports available at the right time in order that they can achieve better educational and life outcomes. That is what we all want. Special education should never be a partisan issue. It is something we all care about. We in the Government have demonstrated that by providing more than €2 billion, which is over 25% of the entire education budget, dedicated solely to special educational needs.
As for the school inclusion model and the next steps involved, a memo to the Government will be brought in the coming weeks, we hope. That will ensure we continue to roll this out into other CHO areas across the country. I hear both Deputies' enthusiasm for the school inclusion model. I am very grateful they have brought the matter before the Dáil because it shines a spotlight on it and the really good work we are doing. The model provides a framework for teaching, care, training and therapeutic supports that will facilitate the greater inclusion of children with complex needs in education. The Department has received funding of €6 million from the Government in 2021 for recruitment of therapists, including OTs and SLTs.