Thursday, 30 June 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Special Educational Needs
Not for the first time, this question has been overtaken by events. However, I will take the opportunity to ask the Minister of State another question. What is the current state of play with regard to children without places in a special class or a special school in the Dublin area and in the State generally?
The Deputy's question was about the emergency legislation which was published yesterday and will be before the Dáil tomorrow. Regarding Dublin at present, I answered that question at a press conference with the Minister, Deputy Foley, the other day. Currently, there are 56 children who do not have a special class place in Dublin and there are 49 children who do not have a special school place. By virtue of the fact that we will have the emergency legislation in place, we expect and hope to be in a position to have placements for those children for September. Obviously, however, I cannot guarantee that. We hope the schools will volunteer. We prefer schools to volunteer rather than do it on the back of an order or a direction from me. In circumstances where that does not happen, we would have no option but to use section 37A. That is now truncated and streamlined through the new emergency legislation.
However, schools will still have two opportunities to make representations to the National Council for Special Education. That is important because they will get a say and be able to make representations as to why they think they should not open one. A direction can be issued within six to eight weeks of the NCSE sending me a detailed report advising of a lack of provision in a certain area. Also, the Education (Provision in Respect of Children with Special Educational Needs) Bill provides for amendment of section 67 of the Education Act 1998. That section had never been commenced. It means the NCSE can designate a school place for a child. That would be of great benefit to parents seeking a placement for their child.
The Minister of State was absolutely right in acknowledging that there was a lack of forward planning. It appears to me that we have not moved beyond that and that we are still in that situation. She is also right that most schools open classes of their own volition. It has been my experience that any school that has opened such a class has never regretted it. However, that is not the point. The point is that for those schools that refuse, we are allowing this to creep into the eleventh hour. That is the problem. The experience of parents is that every September they get the message from the NCSE and the Department that there are adequate places in their locality, but it turns out by the following April that this is not the case.
I urge the Minister and the Minister of State to convene the NCSE this coming school year, ensure a decision is made early in the year to analyse where the shortfall is for September 2023 and begin the section 37 process then.
It is important to point out there is a new explicit function in this legislation allowing the NCSE to manage and co-ordinate the admission of children with special education needs in co-operation with schools where necessary. That will reduce the burden on parents. What happened on occasion was children who were in a mainstream school were then going into a special class but the NCSE was not being informed about that. The NCSE was under the impression there would be six vacant places in a special class, for example, when in fact there may only have been three. That anomaly has now been addressed. There is an obligation on all schools to notify the NCSE regarding who exactly is attending a special class. The special educational needs organisers, SENOs, who are on the ground will collaborate and make sure there is a very tight engagement between the schools and the NCSE so we can make sure that every child has a placement.
In Cork at present we have 414 special classes and a number of special schools, as the Deputy knows. We are endeavouring to make sure that every child has a placement in September.
As the Minister of State mentioned Cork, I will take the opportunity to once again raise the issue as it relates to Ballincollig, which is not in my constituency, where there is a significant shortage of post-primary special class places.
To return to the issue in Dublin, the Minister of State has identified two cohorts, namely, those who require places in a special class and those who require them in a special school. Finding solutions for those children who require places in a special school in September could be more complex. What is happening regarding that? The section 37 orders in play relate to the opening of classes in mainstream schools. What is the proposal for special schools? Is the Minister of State confident places will be available in such schools? Will she ensure all resources required are in place? This is crucial. I am sure the Minister of State understands it is not just about four walls. It is about ensuring there are adequate resources - we will debate this further tomorrow - and staff in place in a timely way for any special places that are open.
As the Deputy knows, every special class will be provided with one teacher and two special needs assistants, SNAs, for six children at primary level. At post-primary level, it is 1.5 teachers and two SNAs for six children. Primary schools also receive a mainstream capitation rate of €183 per student. There is also an enhanced capitation rate of €720 per student enrolled in a special class giving a total capitation rate per student of €903. Where a school is making the arrangements for the opening of a special class, the school can, while progressing the recruitment of additional staff sanctioned for that class, reassign an existing mainstream teacher who has experience or an interest in special education provision as the special class teacher. That may present a more practical arrangement for a school to facilitate the opening of a special class in a timely manner.
As the Deputy is also aware, grants are available, including a starter grant of €6,500 to open a special class, a €2,500 grant for furniture and a €5,000 ICT grant. The support of the NCSE is ongoing on all occasions. Training is also available for teachers.