Dáil debates

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Ceisteanna - Questions

Cabinet Committees

4:10 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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1. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [20609/22]

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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2. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [20611/22]

Photo of Pádraig O'SullivanPádraig O'Sullivan (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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3. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [21795/22]

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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4. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [21856/22]

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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5. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [22932/22]

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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6. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [22942/22]

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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7. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [22979/22]

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on education oversees implementation of the programme for Government commitments in the area of education. This Cabinet committee last met on 13 May 2021 and discussed topics including special education policy in schools and the increased demand for places at third level in 2021 and 2022. It will meet again shortly. I have regular engagement with Ministers at Cabinet and individually to discuss priority issues relating to their Departments.

In addition a number of meetings have been held between my officials and officials from relevant Departments since the establishment of the Cabinet committee in July 2020. On 29 March, we announced ambitious plans for a reimagined senior cycle of education where the student is at the centre of his or her senior cycle experience. An expansion of the DEIS programme was recently announced, which will benefit 347 schools. Some 310 schools will be included in DEIS for the first time and 37 existing DEIS primary schools are being reclassified and will be eligible for increased supports. This will mean a €32 million increase in the Department of Education's expenditure on the DEIS programme from 2023, which will be the largest-ever single investment in the programme.

Last week, Government decided that income-contingent loans for fees would not form part of the future funding model for higher education. We have instead committed to a multi-funded model which will be a mix of additional Exchequer investment, employer contributions through the National Training Fund and student contributions. It is intended to provide additional funding to the €2 billion annual spend on higher education in Ireland through the annual budgetary process. Government will also progress measures to reduce the cost of education for students and families through changes to the student grant scheme and student contributions over time.

Since 2019, five technological universities have been founded. The most recent was with the establishment of the South East Technological University this month which saw the dissolution of Waterford Institute of Technology and IT Carlow and the creation of a stand-alone university in the region.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The system for allocating special education teachers is crude, it is not fit for purpose, and it is letting down our children with special needs.

This fact was underlined for me this week by the principal of Rathmichael National School in my area. It has just lost a special education teacher because of the crude way in which the allocations are made. The school is appealing the decision, and I hope the Minister will consider that appeal. The principal pointed out that the figures are crudely based on the number of children coming in with a diagnosis in junior infants and those leaving in sixth class. What is not taken into account is that many children identified as having special needs are not identified until later. Often, the school must help with that being done and with the children going through the system. The assessments can take up to two years.

Something I did not know is that some parents, because of the long waiting lists, then get private assessments but, incredibly, those private assessments are not counted in the HSE's figures because the two systems do not join up. That seems crazy. The same principal pointed out that children with slightly less severe but nonetheless special needs are ignored, essentially, because they do not have assistance and are not identified. This issue must be addressed. We need a system for allocating special education teachers and support that is based on the real needs of the children and not on crude calculations.

4:20 pm

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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Last Friday, hundreds of parents of children with disabilities protested outside the Dáil. There were also protests in Cork and Enniscorthy. These were organised by Families Unite for Services and Support, FUSS. The hashtag used was #LetsMakeAFuss. The speeches we heard were extremely powerful. We are talking about parents forced to make a fuss and to struggle to get, or to try to get, what their children deserve as a basic right and need. They really should not have to have protests, to take court cases against the State and to try to pressurise for just their basic rights. These parents, however, feel they have no choice because their children are being utterly failed by the State in respect of the extremely long waiting lists, inadequate supports and absence of support in our schools.

I raise the particular issue, that in all of Tallaght there is only one secondary school with an autism class. Thankfully, there are now many primary schools with autism classes, but we are getting to a point where students will graduate from primary school and want to be going on to secondary school, but where there is only one such secondary school. Surely that does not make any sense and we need to expand the number of schools with autism classes.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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I also raise the issue of better services for children with educational needs, in particular for children with autism. I was glad to join the Families United for Services and Support protest outside the Dáil last Friday. I heard some powerful testimonies from parents and from young adults who had been failed by a system that simply could not provide them with the supports they needed to ensure their right to an education was vindicated. This is a serious matter. We are seeing an inconsistent level of services being provided for children with autism across the State.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of visiting the wonderful Rainbow Club in Mahon in Cork. The Taoiseach is familiar with Karen and Jon O'Mahony and their great work in providing supports to parents and, crucially, to children from a young age right through to teenage years and beyond. These wonderful services are being provided for about 1,000 children each year now. They are picking up the pieces and filling the gaps that exist in the State system, where we are seeing a lack of joined-up thinking and co-ordinated services, particularly for children with autism and autism spectrum disorder, ASD.

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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In his contribution, the Taoiseach referred to DEIS and the overhaul that system had about six or seven weeks ago. It was positive and progressive. These reviews happen every few years and the last one occurred in 2017 or 2018. Therefore, the model the Department of Education uses to determine deprivation and the need to intervene in a school context is based on Pobal and census figures dating from 2016. The review is good and welcome, and most schools in County Clare and around the country that have had their designations changed welcome what happened in March. It does not, however, fully take into account transients, those in rental accommodation who move every few months. Living in one home for many years is simply not the case for many families. Equally, many schools I can think of in Clare had 50 or 60 pupils, all with English as a first language, at the start of this academic year, but that situation has now been flipped on its head. I know of one school that has doubled its enrolment, and where those with English as a first language are the minority. Therefore, DEIS needs to be reviewed in this context. There must be a mid-term review of the programme at the end of this summer so we can again examine new designations for the start of the 2022-2023 academic year.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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Last week, the psychotherapist, Stella O'Malley, was invited to address an Education and Training Boards Ireland, ETBI, conference for principals and deputy principals on managing gender issues in schools. Ms O'Malley is an extremely controversial figure among the transgender community in Ireland and internationally. Why would that not be the case, when she recently messaged on a gay rights advocacy group, which excludes trans people, that "I don’t think you should have any empathy, and I haven’t asked anybody to have any empathy and I don’t think you should have empathy or sympathy". There should be no role for views such as this in sex education in our education system. This highlights the need for legislation on objective and factual sex education in schools. It has been four years since the introduction of Solidarity's Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill 2018, which has been blocked with a money message by the Taoiseach's Government on Committee Stage. Will the Taoiseach stop blocking this Bill now?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all the Deputies for raising these issues.

Deputy Boyd Barrett referred to the system for allocating special needs teachers and the broader issue around assessment, and so forth. My sense of this situation is that we have a more direct route to dealing with special needs in education through the National Council for Special Education. The allocation of resources happens much faster in respect of delivery in the school. The same does not apply in the health service. It seems to be far more opaque regarding the allocation of resources in the health service and the follow-through in that regard in terms of delivery on the ground, if I am honest about it, and I am not happy with that. We must increasingly use the school-based model for therapists. As the Deputy is aware, a pilot scheme was developed some years ago, and that has been effective. The progressing disabilities services, PDS, model is diluting the level of provision in special schools. To be fair, that policy was announced about ten years ago, but it has been slow in the delivery. Some good centres have been created, but the model of a multidisciplinary team on a school campus is one I would like to see more of. That said, there has been a significant expansion of special needs provision in schools for the past 20-odd years, manifested in the thousands of special needs assistants and resource teachers in our schools. Those are the facts. There has also been the creation of autism classes. More needs to be done, however, and it is particularly the case in this area of multidisciplinary teams.

Additionally, and Deputy Murphy raised this issue, I do not want any court cases or protests. There should not have to be protests or court cases in respect of children with special needs. I brought in the Education Act 1998 and automatic enrolment for children with special needs, also in 1998, which was the first time children with autism had a special pupil-teacher ratio, or that any children with special needs had such a ratio. That brought in special classes within mainstream schools and then children within the mainstream classes themselves. Those developments have not followed through at post-primary level. It is crazy there is only one school in Tallaght at post-primary level with an autism class. I envisage a greater role for the ETBs in the provision of special education, especially at post-primary level. Every secondary and post-primary school should play its part in respect of providing for children with special needs. A proper second level curriculum must be provided and there should be an intake of pupils by all schools. This should certainly be resolved based on catchment area. It cannot be left to just one school to provide in this regard. In any event, given the needs of post-primary autism, one school will have a limit to what it can do because of issues with progression, space and facilities.

There have been some very good examples where post-primary schools have embraced this. Recently in Cork, the ETB started a new special school at post-primary level and it has turned out to be a significant success. The ETBs need to play a stronger role across the country in being the patrons of new schools, at post-primary level especially, and to make sure children have rightful progression from primary to post-primary. The same sort of revolution has not happened at post-primary level as has happened at primary level over the past 20 years. That needs to be corrected. That may mean some strengthening of existing legislation that obliges schools and gives the Minister powers to direct schools to take children in.

Deputy Bacik has also raised this issue in the context of the Rainbow Club. I am glad she visited it. It is an example of what can be done outside of the box or outside formal structures to create opportunities for parents and children. It has been a fantastic success over the years. They seem to have an easier capacity to recruit specialist therapists also, even though their facilities are not optimal, if I am honest, as regards the hall and so on in Mahon. They have made a big impact.

On DEIS, I take Deputy Crowe's points about how one assesses deprivation, disadvantage and so on in the modern era, particularly with a much more mobile population. The older designations may not apply to some more mobile residents in a given area. Currently 884 schools and more than 180,000 students benefit from the DEIS programme. The Minister recently announced the expansion of the programme benefiting 347 schools. Some 310 schools will be included in DEIS for the first time, and 37 existing DEIS primary schools are being reclassified and will be eligible for increased supports. That means in the 2022-2023 school year there will be 1,194 schools in the DEIS programme, serving in excess of 240,000 students. That is one in four students in a disadvantaged scheme, to give additional weighting and teacher allocations and supports to the schools. That is a €32 million increase in the Department's expenditure on the DEIS programme from 2023 onwards, the largest single investment ever undertaken by a Government in the DEIS programme. The programme was started by Fianna Fáil many years ago. I am glad to see it is getting such an expansion.

In response to Deputy Barry, again I am not aware of the individual concerned but there has to be proper understanding and empathy in issues pertaining to trans people and the whole LGBTQI community. Legislation is one dimension but the most important dimension is the curriculum reform that is currently under way by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.