Dáil debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh – Priority Questions

Special Educational Needs

9:10 am

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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61. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the details of her plans to encourage as many schools, teachers and special needs assistants as possible to facilitate the summer provision programme in 2022; if the early payment of all staff involved will be guaranteed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23692/22]

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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The summer provision programme is vitally important. Eight weeks and more is an incredibly long time for children who are autistic or have profound intellectual disabilities or other special needs not to have any contact with education. That is why the programme is so crucial. Very often, parents find that the programme does not last long enough or that they are unable to find a tutor or school-based programme. What can be done ensure the take-up of this programme by schools is increased and how can that be incentivised?

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this question around summer provision, which is on the minds of many schools, parents and families. It is very much looked forward to by children with additional needs and their families. We are encouraging as many schools as we can to participate this year in the summer provision programme. As the Deputy will know, all 4,000 schools are eligible to participate.

Last year, we established a review of the summer provision programme, which fed into the consultative forum. This dictated some of the new measures we have introduced this year to try to make participation in the programme more streamlined for schools. We have provided funding for a programme overseer, which should assist, and have helped with preparation time and faster payments for staff. We want to ease the administrative burden on schools and give them greater guidance materials on the programme content. We have also allowed the schools flexibility regarding when they can run the programme. It is at their discretion to decide whether it will run in July - it used to be known as July provision - or in August. That gives the schools some autonomy over their calendar.

Schools can also recruit staff final-year students who are graduating this summer, undergraduates or newly-qualified teachers. There is a centralised application process to reduce the administrative burden, which was a key concern raised last year. I am satisfied this will go a long way towards making the programme more attractive for schools to participate in. The Teaching Council and the Irish Primary Principals Network will promote the summer programmes as well.

Last year, we provided €40 million for the summer provision programme, which was double the funding from the previous year. We have matched that sum again this year. Approximately 48,000 young persons participated in the scheme last year and we are hopeful that a significantly higher number will participate this year.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the review of the programme. Some of the measures outlined will indeed assist. Last year, a significant number of schools contacted me about delays in providing details of the summer provision programme, which prevented them from being able to provide the programme to students. The timeframe meant they did not have time to prepare and organise summer provision. I wrote to the Minister of State in March urging her to release details of this year's programme as soon as possible because I was concerned that history would repeat itself. While nothing can done for this year, I urge the Minister of State to take seriously the matter being raised by schools and ensure the programme is advertised as early as possible next year.

I welcome the measures that have been taken. Have they been widely publicised and promoted to schools? We need to be as creative as possible to incentivise the greatest uptake possible. Has the Minister of State engaged with the trade unions and school management bodies about other forms of incentives? These could include expanding the hours available under home tuition and addressing the issues of late pay, additional leave and low levels of pay for SNAs. Has the Minister of State engaged with the unions and management bodies about ideas such as those?

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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The inspectorate reviewed SEN provision last year and provided a report which was shared with stakeholders and used to inform this year's summer provision. The findings from last year indicated primarily that the programme was very beneficial and successful. We wanted to build on that to inform this year's summer provision. Schools can have as many pupils as they have capacity for. The guidance materials went to schools after engagement with management bodies and unions that they should prioritise those students with the most complex needs.

As the Deputy knows, staff get an extra week's pay, which is a doubling of their salaries. One of the most important things about this is it is not about location; it is about the level of the child's need. We have seen an increase of 64% in special schools and special classes availing of this programme between 2019 and 2021.

9:20 am

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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The issue of lower levels of pay for SNAs, and their significant disparity, has been raised on several occasions. I urge the Minister to look at that because SNAs are very often crucial in providing the programme. A significant issue raised each year is that of the late payment of staff who volunteer their time to facilitate summer provision. This comes in the context of many schools and staff feeling very burnt out and feeling that the past two years have been very challenging. If we are asking teachers and SNAs to take up this programme, and I hope many will because it is vitally important, we need to ensure their goodwill is responded to. Last year, the Minister made a big deal about earlier payment of staff, but staff and teachers who were waiting for payment for work done in July still contacted me in November and December. The administrative hurdles some had to jump through were extremely stressful. I hope the online payment system will address those issues, but will the Minister make a firm commitment that staff will be paid by September at the latest?

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I understand that last year the majority were paid before 7 October, once they had fully completed their form. Most were paid by 28 October, while 76% were paid by 11 November and those in the bands by 25 November. As the Deputy mentioned, this year, for the first time, there will be an online claims system for schools to submit payment details for those staff taking part in the school-based summer programme. We hope this will provide for faster and more streamlined payments to staff. When they get paid will depend on when they submit their claims but, as there is this new online claims system, if they get the claims in as soon as possible we are working to pay them as they are received. As the process is streamlined and online, it will be faster than last year. There are also enhanced payments for special schools and special classes in order to get them more involved.