Thursday, 12 May 2022
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Special Educational Needs
70. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the availability of special needs teachers and accommodation in all primary and second-level schools throughout the country; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23751/22]
My question seeks to ascertain the availability of accommodation, special needs classes, special needs teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, etc. in all schools throughout the country at both primary and secondary levels.
I thank the Deputy for his question. I know he has an interest in the area of special education. As he knows, the most recent budget allocated €2.2 billion to the area, which is over 25% of the entire education budget. That is in recognition and acknowledgement of the importance of special education. The Government respects the fact that this is an area that needs funding, support and care.
We have at present 14,385 special education teachers. That is an increase of 48% since 2011. Our complement of SNAs has increased by 81% to over 19,000. The role of special education teachers is obviously important for our children. They provide additional teaching support for students with special educational needs enrolled in mainstream classes in primary and post-primary schools.
That special education teacher model was rolled out a couple of years ago and we have based, to a certain extent, the SNA front-loading model on that. It takes account of the profile of the school. There is a baseline component, gender is taken into account, as is geography and the socioeconomic background of the school. The special education teachers and the SNAs are available to children when they go into a school and there is no delay in children getting the resources they need. Obviously, if a school believes that its special education teacher allocation is not sufficient it can, in exceptional circumstances, have that allocation reviewed. It is important that schools do that if they believe they do not have sufficient resources for their children.
In terms of the schools building programme, under Project Ireland, the education sector will receive a total of €4.4 billion.
I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive reply. By way of a supplementary question, will she outline the extent to which there is an awareness of the increased demands arising from increases in the population, both natural and indigenous increases as well as increases in the number of refugees who have to be accommodated in the country. Are sufficient resources readily available to ensure there is a smooth transition between the demand and the requirements in terms of the availability of the necessary accommodation and staff?
I will answer the Deputy's follow-up question in a moment, but on the capital budget, €4.4 billion is available for the period 2021 to 2025. Schools can also apply for additionality in terms of accommodation through the additional school accommodation scheme.
On demographics, population increases and provision for those coming from Ukraine and other migrant children as well as children with additional needs, it is very important we have sufficient capacity over the next ten years. The Department will initially consider spare capacity within schools themselves to see if they have room. We will then consider the schools building programme and the expansion of projects, including an integrated approach for primary and post-primary schools. The Department will also consider the additional school accommodation scheme or the building of new schools, where needed.
I wish to ascertain the relationship between the upcoming need at all levels and the response. To what degree are the efforts co-ordinated between the two to make the provision available on time, to ensure there are no delays and thus avoid any negative consequences?
I acknowledge the work the Minister of State is doing in this area. In respect of the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and its appeal system, is the Minister of State aware of the length of time it takes for appeals to be heard? Furthermore, very often when appeals are upheld, nothing happens and schools are told they must go through the whole process again. I suggest the NCSE may not be fit for purpose any more and may need to be overhauled.
I also ask the Minister of State to comment on the need for special schools, especially in my area of east Cork where children with special needs are travelling very long distances, in some cases between 40 km and 100 km, to special schools because of the lack of same in their local area.
In response to Deputy Durkan, the forecasting model, particularly in the context of special education, is critical. Indeed, for all children, not just those with additional needs, that geographical information system is important in the planning and building unit. It is important there is capacity there, that we know current demand and can anticipate future demand when planning for schools. We must now take into account Ukrainian children, but we do not know, as yet, how many we are going to have in the future.
Deputy Stanton and I have spoken many times about the NCSE. It will comfort him to know I recently met the new CEO, Mr. John Kearney, who is going to be very much concentrating on operational issues. A lot of work needs to be done there in terms of engagement.