Dáil debates

Thursday, 19 May 2022

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

School Admissions

4:20 pm

Photo of James O'ConnorJames O'Connor (Cork East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for Education for being present in the Chamber and the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this Topical Issue matter. I was extraordinarily honoured to welcome the Minister to the Cork East constituency. I wish to convey my gratitude and thanks to her and to her officials and advisers who travelled to the constituency for a very successful visit. We had an engagement with secondary school principals on issues around inbound children who are coming from the conflict in Ukraine and staying in Ireland. Those issues are quite serious for schools and they have to deal with new challenges. This is a matter of great concern to many principals throughout the country, especially in the case of Youghal in east Cork, a concern that was highlighted to all those from the Department who attended the meeting.

What has taken place in Ukraine is an extraordinarily tragic event in its history and it is absolutely harrowing to hear the stories from many people who have come to my constituency office to explain the circumstances. They have had to flee their homes. They have left loved ones behind and do not know how they are in terms of whether they are being affected by conflict on a day-to-day basis. It is extremely traumatic for the children involved. I compliment the work done by the Department of Education and by school principals, school communities, boards of management and school staff in dealing with this extraordinary and unprecedented event that nobody expected to happen, following on from very difficult years of Covid. The Minister has acknowledged this and I thank her for doing so.

In terms of the secondary school capacity in Youghal, they have been doing very good work there to try to host the new students who have arrived. They are expecting approximately 70 into one school, which is very much an outlier on a national basis. What is interesting from looking around country, and in terms of the feedback we are getting from some of the research we have done throughout the constituency and further afield and from talking to those in education, is that schools are very much seeking additional supports when it comes to special educational needs, SEN.

What is absolutely crucial to communicate to the Department of Education and the Minister is the requirement for a degree of certainty around planning for the new academic year. Decisions could be made swiftly about what additional supports will be coming down the line. It is very difficult to make decisions when one is a Minister in a Department that has gone through extraordinary challenges with Covid-19 and now with this conflict. These decisions take considerable time, preparation and work. I acknowledge the work that has been done. However, it is important for the new academic year that decisions be made, especially in the run-up to the Dáil recess, to give schools a little bit of certainty around planning for the employment of staff in the coming year and the additional SEN supports that are required.

The documentation for children with additional and special needs who are coming to Ireland from Ukraine has been highlighted to me. Some of that documentation is not being recognised here when it comes to the supports that are required. We have to be very conscious of that as well.

In the wider context, the Department has had to deal with a new situation extremely rapidly and it has been very challenging. However, it is important to make these points and I thank the Minister for being in the Chamber to hear them.

When it comes to the provision of additional capacity and space, it is important that the temporary units be made available. These have been very successful in some schools where they have been put in. They have gotten considerable positive feedback. We need to see a degree of speed and see processes being expedited to provide the additional temporary units for the new academic year.

The whole situation is extraordinarily traumatic and very saddening. Some areas of the country taking in larger numbers than others need a little bit of further assistance and help. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising the matter. It gives me an opportunity to present the most up-to-date information to the House. I will say to the House, as I did to the Deputy personally, that it was an excellent visit to east Cork. I very much appreciated the opportunity to meet the schools and school communities on the ground and have very positive engagements. We are very appreciative of that. I acknowledge that many of the points raised with me on the day with regard to issues did not pertain to my Department. There was an absolute acknowledgement, in terms of the resources for English as an additional language, EAL, or additional hours required by schools to meet the demands of having additional students from Ukraine, having already been met by my Department. I gave a commitment on the day that will continue going forward.

As Minister for Education in the Department of Education, I acknowledge that our schools throughout the country have done great work in welcoming Ukrainian children and young people into their communities. I have witnessed this excellent work first hand when I have visited many schools, including in the Deputy's constituency. The Department of Education published figures on Monday which show that almost 6,000 students from Ukraine have enrolled in primary and post-primary schools. The Department has allocated additional resources as required for these enrolments, including teaching hours for EAL. All schools who enrol Ukrainian students are eligible for additional EAL support.

The Deputy will appreciate the scale of the response needed when more than 30,000 Ukrainians have arrived to date. This was why the Department moved quickly in the early phase of the Ukrainian crisis to establish regional education and language teams, REALTs, throughout the country to co-ordinate school enrolments for Ukrainian families. They have been a key element of the Department's supports for all schools, establishing relationships with each community response forum and with the Tusla education support service, TESS. Other agencies are also linked into these teams, including the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and the inspectorate.

All school management bodies have nominated representatives to liaise with each REALT. The primary role of REALT is to build on existing regional education support structures and the initial focus is on assisting families in securing school places, when they are ready to engage with the school system. It is important that it is when they are ready to engage. REALT will also support schools in the area to meet the needs of these children as they emerge, to advise and support the Department in developing new capacity where required and to co-ordinate the provision of education services to schools and families across their defined area. The Deputy will recall that there was a very positive endorsement of the work of REALT in our engagement with school management.

These teams will ensure that clear, accessible information flows are in place between schools, local education support services and national support structures. The Department is committed to providing every support possible to all those fleeing war in Ukraine and seeking protection in Ireland. These teams will provide critical support in aligning current school capacity with the placement of Ukrainian families as much as possible.

The Department's data show that there is generally good capacity across the country, albeit there may be capacity pressures to be managed in some areas. Many resources for teaching, learning and inclusion of Ukrainian pupils have been published to date, including a central repository of information and continuing professional development, CPD, resources for school leaders and teachers to support cultural and linguistic diversity, which is available on scoilnet.ie. A helpline for school principals is also in place. NEPS has delivered a series of well-being webinars via Education Support Centres Ireland to further support schools. It will develop further advice and resources as needs emerge and its psychologists are actively engaging with school principals to provide advice and support in this initial stage of welcoming children and young people.

Schools that have enrolled students from Ukraine can apply for additional English language support and hundreds of schools are already receiving this support. Included among the wide array of resources available to schools is information on free digital tools, including apps that can assist with text and voice translation. These resources are particularly useful in terms of making forms and documents accessible to all and for assisting with communication between schools and parents. Further information is available on the website of the Professional Development Service for Teachers. Further information on the Department of Education's approach to supporting children and young people from Ukraine is available on the Department's website and is updated regularly.

Photo of James O'ConnorJames O'Connor (Cork East, Fianna Fail)
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I acknowledge the contribution that has been made. I certainly will go through it and feed that back to the schools with which we are engaging and are in discussions. I appreciate the time and effort the Minister is putting in into this. It cannot be understated how much of a challenge this is for the Civil Service. We face considerable criticism but this a very unique and new challenge we have to deal with. I emphasise the need for urgent and rapid progress to be made on planning for the new academic year to give the schools that degree of certainty about what new departmental measures will be taken and to perhaps look at what is happening at present and try to refine and improve on it for the new academic year. It is very important and will give schools certainty about what they will need to do around staffing provision and additional accommodation. Getting those processes under way is a matter of urgency.

I am pleased to hear the Minister reference REALT. The decisions around placement and enrolment of children have been brought to my attention.

Some schools tell me that it is difficult since REALT is in communication with them, but the placement of children is left up to schools and individual communities. They would prefer more fine-tuned engagement in that area to some extent. I would appreciate it if the Minister could take that up.

One other matter of great importance is the provision of home school liaison, which is funded through DEIS. It would be nice to see this looked at, especially in Youghal. I know there has been much engagement on that topic. I hope the Government might consider providing further funding over the next months for what was a very successful further enhancement of the DEIS scheme. I commend the Minister on the work she did. We would love to see that being implemented in Youghal. That is important to me.

The issue of translation is arising. We need to see translators recruited, hopefully permanently, to work directly with schools and children, and also to have counselling services for children who have gone through extraordinary trauma because of what has happened in Ukraine. That process of moving to a new country, to surroundings they are not familiar with, and obviously what happened prior to their departure is all deeply concerning and has been raised with me. Perhaps the Department of Education could work with other Departments to look at that and raise those points. I thank the Minister for being here.

4:30 pm

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I reiterate to the House the Government's commitment to welcome people fleeing the war in Ukraine and seeking protection in Ireland. That welcome is extended across society. The Department's primary concern is to ensure children and young people of schoolgoing age from Ukraine are provided with appropriate educational opportunities. I acknowledge, as I did at the outset, the tremendous work that our students, school leaders and staff are doing and continue to do in welcoming Ukrainian children and young people into our schools over the past three months. I acknowledge the professionalism and care and welcome that they give to Ukrainian families every day. Specifically, as I have outlined, a suite of resources is being made available to schools and being drawn down by them. I have seen that first-hand, whether that includes English as an additional language or additional teaching hours and additional teaching posts as required, depending on the numbers that arrive to our schools. That has been acknowledged.

We are currently seeking to roll out the English for speakers of other languages, ESOL, project, which is where we are putting in place additional language tutors for those who do not have English as a first language. That resource will be available to post-primary students and adults. A community and family approach is being taken to accessing language. Regarding planning for the new school year, all the requirements that schools currently have for additional staffing and resources are being provided for. The Deputy will appreciate that it is a fluid situation. Families continue to arrive at different times and they will continue to arrive over the summer. Whatever resources are required in September will also be put in place. The Deputy referred to counselling and NEPS facilities. NEPS psychologists are on the ground working with schools. All resources required to ensure that children and young people are adequately, suitably and appropriately catered for in schools are being put in place. That supplements the excellent work taking place in school communities.

I have visited many counties and there has been positive feedback on REALT. Schools are not required to take students if they do not have capacity. It is REALT's function to find appropriate accommodation in appropriate schools where there is capacity or to make alternative arrangements. As I said earlier, we know that we have great capacity in some areas and less in others. We are working closely with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to ensure that, if at all possible, accommodation matches capacity in our schools. I appreciate it can be difficult to do that.