Dáil debates

Friday, 1 July 2022

Education (Provision in Respect of Children with Special Educational Needs) Bill 2022: Second Stage


10:40 am

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I appreciate the opportunity to introduce and speak on this important legislation, the Education (Provision in Respect of Children with Special Educational Needs) Bill 2022. I fully recognise the importance of inclusive education for all children. It is my primary objective as Minister for Education to promote and support actions that will ensure the school setting is a welcoming and inclusive environment for all.

My Department is committed to delivering an education system that is of the highest quality, where every child and young person feels valued and is actively supported and nurtured to reach his or her full potential. We strive to ensure that all children have access to an educational experience that is appropriate to their needs and supports both their academic and personal development. Our policy, which is set out in the Education of Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 is that children with special educational needs should be educated in mainstream placements with additional supports provided as appropriate. Where children require more specialised educational settings, such as special classes or special schools, the Department and National Council for Special Education, NCSE, ensure the necessary resources and supports for such placements are provided in line with the needs of the child. The active collaboration of school communities to this end is essential and the importance of a welcoming and inclusive environment cannot be overstated.

Within this context, providing for an appropriate school placement for every child with special educational needs in a timely and supported manner is a key priority for the Department and the National Council for Special Education. The National Council for Special Education is statutorily responsible for planning and co-ordinating provision at both a local and a national level and advising the Department in this regard. The Department continues to work closely with the NCSE and other key stakeholders in relation to the requirements for special class and special school places and the more strategic and longer term requirements.

The legislation which I am bringing to the House today is an important step in ensuring that children with special educational needs are provided a school place appropriate to their needs. This legislation means a child-centred and child-focused approach is taken to the provision of special education classes. I am confident we all share a common goal to do everything within our power to ensure every child with special educational needs who requires a special class or special school placement is provided for as a priority.

The Department of Education currently invests more than €2 billion in additional provision for children with special education needs. This represents more than 25% of the Department's total annual budget. Access to education by every child with special education needs is designed to provide the appropriate and necessary supports to ensure the fullest potential of every child is achieved. For the coming school year, at least 315 additional new special classes have been sanctioned by the National Council for Special Education, catering for more than 1,800 additional students, bringing the total number of such classes to almost 2,500, providing for more than 14,000 students. While this illustrates the strong evidence of the progress made in meeting the needs of children with special educational needs in recent years, there is no doubt more work needs to be done. The National Council for Special Education advises that just over 100 children remain without an appropriate special educational need placement for the coming school year.

I acknowledge the excellent work of so many school communities across the country on special education provision. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and I have visited many of these schools and have seen first-hand the outstanding work being done every single day across the country. However, despite all efforts, there has been an inability to deliver the final number of places required as the number of children with special educational needs continues to increase. My Department and the National Council for Special Education will continue to engage intensely with school authorities to open new special classes. This legislation can also play a key role in helping us with those efforts.

Where efforts to work with schools to open new special classes are not sufficient to meet the demand for places, this legislation provides for a much shorter process than currently exists to allow for schools to be directed to open additional classes. The Department and I intend that the provisions within this legislation, once enacted, will be used to ensure that an adequate supply of special class places are available to students.

I confirm to the House that when a special class is established, the Department of Education provides funding for new staff. For example, certain special classes will consist of six students, one teacher and at least two SNAs. There will be support from the planning and building unit of the Department for any physical alterations required to the school building, a grant for equipment, enhanced capitation, support from the National Educational Psychological Service and a range of training courses provided by the National Council for Special Education.

Budget 2022 already provides for a significant increase in the number of special class and special school places for children. As a consequence, my Department envisages that the cost of providing additional special classes for children for the start of the coming school year will be met within the Department's existing budgetary allocation.

There are 12 sections in the Bill and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, will shortly set out for Members' information and consideration the provisions under each section of the Bill. The key provision in this legislation provides for a truncated Section 37A process, whereby the Minister can direct a school to make additional provision for children with special educational needs. It is envisaged that this new process can lead to a ministerial direction to be served on school within six to eight weeks of receiving a report from the NCSE setting out its opinion that there are insufficient schools places in a certain area. Where the existing section 37A process has been used twice already, those processes took between six and 18 months. This clearly underlines the need for a new, speedy and more time-efficient process. I appreciate that that is what we are setting out to achieve today.

I invite the House to note that the new shortened process will still allow two opportunities for school patrons and boards of management to make representations to the Minister ahead of a direction issuing. This is an important consideration and assurance for both school patrons and boards of management. In drafting the legislation, the Office of the Attorney General and my Department also took the opportunity to add additional functions to school patrons, schools and school boards. This relates to co-operating with the National Council for Special Education to provide additional capacity for children with special educational needs when requested, and compliance with a ministerial direction to open new classes or a direction from the National Council for Special Education to provide for a child with special educational needs. The legislation also provides for school admission policies to include a positive declaration setting out that schools will provide for children with special educational needs.

The legislation provides for an explicit function to allow the National Council for Special Education to manage and co-ordinate the admission of children with special educational needs in co-operation with parents and schools where necessary. This will reduce the burden on parents and I think we are all supportive of any mechanism or measure that will assist parents and guardians of children and young people with special education needs.

I acknowledge the significant work of the Attorney General and his officials, who worked with my Department to draft this important legislation in such a short period.

I express my sincere appreciation to the members of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science for agreeing to a waiver of the requirement for pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill given the urgency of the situation. I look forward to working with colleagues in both Houses to progress this important legislation and I thank Members in advance for their co-operation.

11:00 am

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

As the Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion, I am very pleased update the House on how this legislation is intended to work to support children with special educational needs to gain access to specialist class placements that can meet their needs. There are 12 sections to the Bill and I will set out more detail on the key provisions under each section.

Section 1 provides a definition in the Bill that any reference to the “Act of 1998” means the Education Act 1998. Section 2 defines "special class" for the purposes of the Education Act 1998 in line with the definition already set out in the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018. This defines a special class as a class that has, with the approval of the Minister, been established by a school to provide an education exclusively for students with a category or categories of special educational needs specified by the Minister.

Section 3 provides for an amendment of section 8 of the Education Act 1998 to set out additional functions for school patrons relating to special educational needs. These functions require school patrons to co-operate generally with the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, in particular by providing and operating special classes when requested to do so by the NCSE; ensure that the admission policy of the school accommodates the admission of children with a disability or other special educational needs; and comply with any direction given under section 37A to make provision for children with special educational needs.

Section 4 provides for an amendment of section 9 of the Education Act 1998 to set out an additional function of a school and amend an existing function. This function requires schools to co-operate generally with the NCSE, in particular by providing and operating special classes in accordance with any directions given to a patron or a board under section 37A and in accordance with any direction served by the NCSE under section 67(4B) to admit a particular child. The amendment to the existing function requires schools to establish and maintain an admissions policy which provides for maximum accessibility to school, including to students with a disability or other special educational needs.

Section 5 provides for an amendment of section 15 of the Education Act 1998 to set out additional functions for school boards relating to special educational needs. These functions require school boards to co-operate generally with the NCSE, in particular by providing and operating special classes when requested to do so by the NCSE; ensure that the admissions policy of the school accommodates the admission of children with a disability or other special educational needs; and comply with any direction given under section 37A to make provision for children with special educational needs and any direction served by the NCSE under section 67(4B) to admit a particular child. While the vast majority of our schools provide for children with special educational needs, it is worthwhile to make these functions explicit for all schools. That is why we are adding these new functions for schools, boards of management and patrons.

Section 6 provides for the substitution of the current section 37A of the Education Act 1998 to provide a shorter and truncated section 37A process. The substituted section 37A provides that where the NCSE is of the opinion that there is insufficient capacity in an area in relation to the provision of education for children with special educational needs, it shall prepare and submit a detailed report on the matter to the Minister. The NCSE report shall specify details on the existing provision in the area concerned; any relevant proposed or existing school building projects which may affect capacity; any schools in the area the NCSE considers could meet additional demand; which schools the NCSE considers should be requested to make additional provision; and such other matters as the NCSE considers appropriate. On receipt of a report, and where the Minister is of the opinion that a relevant person, defined as a patron, board or any other person with a vested interest in the school premises, should make additional provision for children with special educational needs, the Minister may issue a notice in writing. A notice shall set out the Minister's opinion that the relevant person should make additional provision for children with special educational needs and state the reason for his or her opinion, include a copy of the NCSE report, specify details of the measures to be taken by the relevant person, detail the resources to be provided to the school, detail any property arrangements to be made, including any arrangements in relation to the school accommodation, and direct the patron or board to share the notice with any other person to whom the ownership of the school premises is vested where that person is not known to the Minister.

The substituted section 37A also provides that a relevant person on whom a notice is served may make representations on any matter set out or specified in the notice within 14 days. After consideration of any representations received, and where the Minister remains of the opinion that a school should make additional provision for children with special educational needs, the Minister may serve a copy of a draft direction on a relevant person. A relevant person on whom a copy of a draft direction is served may make representations in relation to the draft direction within 14 days. After consideration of any representations received in relation to the draft direction, and where the Minister remains of the opinion that a school should make additional provision for children with special educational needs, the Minister may serve a direction on a relevant person. The direction shall set out the measures to be taken by the relevant person in relation to making additional provision for children with special educational needs, the period during which such measures shall be taken and any other relevant matters. The relevant person shall comply with such a direction.

The substituted section 37A also provides that all notices issued, representations received, draft directions and ministerial directions shall be published on a website maintained by or on behalf of the Minister. The Minister shall review this provision within three years of its commencement and shall furnish a report to each House of the Oireachtas of his or her findings and conclusions resulting from that review. A transitional provision is also provided for, which allows any work undertaken by the NCSE in preparing a detailed report under the existing section 37A process to be deemed a report for the purposes of section 37A (1), as amended.

Section 7 provides for an amendment of section 61 of the Education Act 1998 to require schools to include a further statement in the admission statement, which is part of their admission policy, setting out that the school shall co-operate with the NCSE generally and, in particular, in relation to the provision and operation of a special class or classes when requested to do so, and a further statement that the school shall co-operate with any ministerial direction under section 37A and any direction by the NCSE or Tusla under section 67.

Section 8 relates to section 67 of the Education Act 1998 which provides for the NCSE or Tusla to designate a school place for a particular child. To date, this section of the Act has not been commenced. Section 8 provides for the amendment of section 67 of the Education Act 1998 by removing the provision for an appeal by a school board against a decision of the NCSE or Tusla - "the Agency" - to designate a school place for a child.

The provision allowing a parent to appeal a decision of the NCSE or Tusla not to make a decision to designate a school place when requested by a parent to do so is also being removed. It is considered that this provision is not necessary given the option available to a parent to appeal a decision of a school board to refuse to admit under section 29 of the Education Act 1998 and the fact that it is expected that the NCSE will make a decision to designate a special class or special school place in situations where there are places available. Where there is a lack of places, this can be addressed through the section 37A process.

Provision is also made to allow a school board to make representations to the NCSE or Tusla where a school is directed to admit a child. Where the NCSE or Tusla, after consideration of any representations, remains of the opinion that the designation is necessary, it shall confirm the direction in writing to the board. A board shall comply with such a direction. It is my intention to commence section 67 once this legislation is enacted. This will provide an important new power to designate a school place for a child with special educational needs.

Section 9 provides for a minor consequential amendment to section 68 of the Education Act 1998 arising from the amendment to section 67. Section 10 provides for a minor consequential amendment to section 69 of the Education Act 1998 arising from the amendment to section 67. Section 11 provides for two amendments of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004, EPSEN. A minor amendment is made to section 14(1)(c) to ensure consistency between the additional function of a school board being provided for under section 15 of the Education Act 1998 and similar functions of a school board under section 14 of the EPSEN Act 2004.

The second amendment provides for an additional function of the NCSE to co-ordinate and manage, having regard to section 37A and Part X of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 1998, the admission of children to special classes and to special schools. This will allow the NCSE to play a greater role, where necessary, in supporting parents and schools with admission. To put this new provision into operation, the NCSE will need to engage with school authorities and parents. The provision may be particularly useful in particular locations and it should ease the burden on parents in terms of school admission.

Section 12 sets out details on the Short Title and the commencement of the Bill.

I look forward to working with colleagues in both Houses of the Oireachtas to progress this urgent legislation before the current Dáil term ends. With regard to possible amendment of the Bill, I ask Deputies to understand the very short timeframe that is available to us. It might not be possible to accept a number of amendments to the Bill. Where an amendment is accepted, it may be necessary for the officials to engage directly with Deputies to ensure its wording works in tandem with other provisions in the Education Act 1998 and other legislation. I commend the Bill to the House.

11:10 am

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I will pick up on the point just made by the Minister of State on amendments. We have submitted five amendments. If it is of assistance to the Minister and the Minister of State, I can send the amendments to them directly. If they are of use, they may want to consider them and make any technical adjustments that might be needed. If it is not possible to agree them in the Dáil, there will be an opportunity to do so in the Seanad. I appreciate the tight timescale. If it is of assistance, I can send on the amendments.

I welcome the legislation. It is something that we called for in a Private Members' motion several weeks ago. We have called for it in the Dáil on several occasions so it would be churlish not to acknowledge that it is a positive step. It will not solve all the issues but it will be a useful tool. It is illustrative that the Minister said that on one occasion, it took 14 months to conclude a section 37A process. This is not acceptable. It is clear that the process is excessive and needs to be truncated and condensed. I welcome the Bill and I thank the Minister and Minister of State for bringing it forward. I also thank Ms Martina Mannion and Mr. Martin McLoughlin for the briefing during the week to help us get our heads around what is a technical Bill. It was appreciated. There is a fair bit of detail in this legislation, which we must deal with in a relatively short timeframe. We appreciate the co-operation of the Department.

A number of issues need to be addressed. We support the Bill. Tá sé luachmhar agus tá ciall leis. Cuireann sé an próiseas chun cinn agus ní bheidh sé chomh fada agus a bhí. Níl an iomarca céimeanna ann anois, mar a bhíodh ann. Tá sé tábhachtach go mbeadh an próiseas seo sciobtha. Fundamentally, at the heart of this are children who have a constitutional right to an appropriate education. They are children who deserve the same chance that every child in the State is entitled to, which is to be educated in a suitable setting with suitable resources and to be able to reach their fullest potential. This is what this is about. We are debating this at a time when there are parents, particularly in Dublin but also in Kildare, Meath, Cork and other places, who do not have a school place for their children for September. That is not acceptable.

The Ombudsman for Children's report was published recently and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, accepted that it was discriminatory that the State did not have adequate places for these children. This is an unacceptable set of circumstances. I know it is not a situation anyone wants to be in and we have not arrived at this point deliberately. However, it is still the case that it is the failure of politics and policy that on 1 July there are parents who do not know where their children will go to school in September. This is something we need to work to eliminate entirely. This process can help in the short term but we need much more than this.

When debating the motion we tabled two weeks ago I highlighted the lack of planning on the part of the NCSE and the Department that has led us to this position every summer for the past five or six years. We need to ensure the NCSE and the Department are in a position to use the information at their disposal to make decisions at the earliest possible stage about school places the following September. One of the amendments I have tabled for Committee Stage is to require the NCSE to publish an evaluation of the adequacy of school places in the September of the previous year. Next September, I would like to see the Department and the NCSE publish their prediction of how many places will be needed in September 2023 and September 2024. It should not be just a matter of knowing the capacity exists. Parents want to be able to plan a year in advance and we need to get to this position. I believe the NCSE has the scope to gather this information. It has some of the information already. Working with the CSO, the HSE, Tusla, schools and the early years sector, it should be possible to make an accurate prediction.

I would like to see a situation where instead of speaking about special education next May, June and July, the discourse would be wrapped up by Christmas and we would have a picture of how many places are needed. Not only should we have that picture but it should be an accurate analysis. Any section 37A process, even the shortened version put in place by the Bill, should have begun and be well under way at that stage, so it would be all wrapped up and schools and parents would be in a position to prepare. That is how this should work. That is where we need to get to. I will table amendments in this regard. I am conscious that section 37A cannot be a political pressure release valve. This is a useful Bill but it is late in the day and it will not solve all of the issues for September. This will require legislation certainly but it will also require work on the ground, area by area, to identify places in special classes and special schools. I urge that we try to address this in advance.

This issue is fundamentally about planning. I believe the resources exist. In Dublin there are 800 or 900 schools and between 100 and 150 students who do not have a place. Is there capacity with adequate planning? Are the resources there? I am absolutely certain they are. I am not sure this is a budgetary issue. Budgetary issues absolutely have to follow, as resources will have to follow, and I will return to this but we need to get far enough ahead of the curve. Tá sé fíorthábhachtach go dtógfaimis an deis pleanáil cheart a dhéanamh luath go leor. Ba cheart go mbeadh an cinneadh déanta bliain roimh ré más féidir, nó sa bhreis air sin, dhá bhliain roimh don leanbh dul ar scoil, idir bunscoil nó meánscoil, ionas go mbeidh na spásanna ann. Ba cheart go mbeimid in ann brath ar an gcinneadh sin, agus ar an tuarascáil agus an léargas. Tá leasuithe curtha chun cinn agam ionas go mbeidh an NCSE ag tuairisciú ar na háiteanna a mbeidh gá leo.

The impression I have been given during the briefing and my first reading of the Bill is that consultation is being consolidated and many things that could happen subsequent to each other are happening concurrently. The INTO has analysis that suggests this is not the case and that some opportunities for consultation are not available. I will not offer a view on that at this point but I acknowledge that view exists and I will consider it further before Committee Stage, Report Stage and when the Bill goes to the Seanad. It is important that we get the balance right. We cannot allow consultation to drive the process into sclerosis and knot it up. We do not want to see that but it is important that we get the balance right. I know this would be the objective of the Minister and the Minister of State but it is important that we ensure it is the case.

A point that has rightly been made in recent days and weeks is that a school place is not just four walls. It is not simply a classroom. It is about ensuring there are adequate resources, the children are part of the school community and that there are physical resources and human resources, including special needs assistants, special education teachers and therapists. It is not in the remit of the Department but it is relevant in a whole-of-government approach. The Minister's speech identified the resources but did not mention therapists. The Minister mentioned special needs assistants, the planning and building unit, the National Educational Psychological Service and training courses.

That is all welcome, albeit I am not sure it is readily and speedily available, particularly when it comes to training issues. Therapies are an essential part of ensuring these children can thrive. The feedback I got from groups, including groups in Deputy Ward's area, is that access to therapies is going backwards. Parents have described the Danu special school in Dublin 15 as a school that is special in name only. Three years after it was established parents are still fighting for their children to receive basic supports so that they can be educated. One of the parents talked about it being an approach of containment rather than education. The HSE apologised to families who had a poor experience in trying to access care and information. I am sure none of that is the fault of the staff of the school. Fundamentally it comes down to inadequate therapies - speech and language, occupational therapy, psychiatry, psychology and physiotherapy.

In my experience the community disability national teams are going backwards. Parents do not know how to navigate it and feel lost in the system. It is a very serious problem and I ask the Minister to address it. Some of the amendments I will be tabling will address that to some extent. Obviously, I cannot propose amendments that place a cost on the Exchequer, but I am trying to address it as best I can. It is important that we get a response to that. People need to have confidence.

I welcome the announcement last night of a special school in my own area. It will not be open until January 2023 which comes back to the issue of planning. However, I welcome it and it will offer important places. I know the Cork ETB is a very professional organisation which I am sure will organise it well. It is vital that it is more than just the physical space.

11:20 am

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome this emergency legislation to shorten the notice period for schools being instructed to accommodate pupils with special educational needs. As my colleague Deputy Ó Laoghaire said, Sinn Féin has been calling for this for many weeks. While it will not solve every issue, it will be an important step forward. I commend the campaign by parents of children with special educational needs who have been tireless in their efforts to ensure their children's educational needs are met. I have met representative groups such as Families Unite for Services and Support, FUSS, and the Clondalkin Autism Parents Support Network in my area. I have stood with them on protests as they demand that their children's basic needs are met. These parents have to fight for services just so their children can reach their full developmental milestones. It is energy consuming enough to have a child with additional needs without having to go out and fight for what really should be a right.

We do not treat all the children of this island as equal. That is an abject failure of the flip-flopping governments of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael since the inception of the State. The State has a dark history of how we treat our most vulnerable. Unless we get it right for children with disabilities now, this dark history will be a dark future. This must not happen and Sinn Féin in government will ensure it does not happen. Until that happens, we will work with the Government in a practical way to ensure these solutions are delivered urgently for the children affected.

Everything possible should be done and must be done to ensure families get action as soon as possible. I am concerned at the Government's chaotic approach to this issue which is causing unnecessary stress for families who are simply trying to secure appropriate education for their children as is their human right. We have all heard the stories of parents trying to get special educational places for their children with some parents contacting more than 20 schools, desperate for a place. With each attempt, that child is moving further away from his or her community. Children with additional needs must be part of our school community not apart from our school community.

A recent report published by the Ombudsman for Children stated that the Department of Education is failing children with special educational needs particularly in black spots such as Dublin and Cork regarding the provision of suitable school places. I have said this numerous times but I will say it again. My area of Dublin Mid-West currently has 17 primary schools with 29 ASD classes. They accommodate 174 primary schoolchildren with ASD in ASD classes. However, the area has five secondary schools which accommodate 45 children. It is common sense to me that if 174 children with special educational needs are currently in primary school, we will need much more than 45 secondary school places. Unfortunately, common sense is not very common when it comes to this Government. Where was the forward planning?

Any more delays in providing these places are unnecessary and cannot continue. The Government must show the urgency needed to deliver solutions now. We will work with it to ensure this happens. I again met the campaign groups this week. I commend them on the pressure they have put on the Government to move things forward. This Bill would not have been discussed today were it not for them and their tireless campaign. While this Bill is not a panacea for all the problems children with disabilities have, it is a welcome step forward. As he outlined, my colleague Deputy Ó Laoghaire has tabled a number of amendments to improve the Bill and I hope the Government will take them on board. I commend families who have been working tirelessly to ensure fair treatment for their children.

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Bill. As has been said, a few weeks ago we tabled a motion which set out the major problems with this issue across the country. We all acknowledge the serious lack of investment in special needs education over the years. The provisions in the Bill dealing with special needs education go some way to dealing with that. The section 37A process gives a lever for a Minister to try to make things happen, which is welcome. Parents, particularly in a rural constituency like Sligo-Leitrim, trying to find a place for a child often have to travel long distances because the class in the local school is full. This means significant cost for the State because transport needs to be provided for that child. That happens regularly. Most of these children would like to go to the school where their siblings are but owing to lack of space they need to travel further. That is an issue.

That said, progress is being made. Last Friday, I was in Drumshanbo where the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, opened an excellent facility. It is very good to see progress like that happening. However, principals have a resistance to this because they fear they will not get the supports they need. They fear that there will be an enormous workload. While the facilities may be delivered, they fear they will not get the backup services regarding staff etc. In her contribution, the Minister said that the funding for new staff provided that for six students there would be one teacher and two SNAs. While that is all well and good, often those six children might need one SNA each. We need to acknowledge that and we need a more comprehensive system for families to apply to get that level of service put in place as quickly as possible.

The other services related to this have also been mentioned. We have a big issue with the community disability network teams. They are trying to play a role in this but in many cases, they do not have even half the capacity they should, which is a problem.

It will take time to sort out the issues. I believe we need to put a major emphasis on this, particularly here in Dublin where there is a serious problem. The absence of forward planning is the main problem we encounter. As was said earlier, despite knowing the number of children in primary school in a catchment area often the facilities in secondary school are simply not there.

That is one of the serious problems we have. The fact that planning is not in place for that is a problem. There is no adequate planning for primary school places. Children should not have to search around the country for a school place when they are within a year of needing one. That place should be available to them to ensure we can treat all children not just equally but adequately, particularly children with disabilities or different abilities. We need to ensure they are adequately catered for and looked after, not just in their first year or early years in school but throughout their school experience, because it should not be the case that when they have to go into secondary school, all of a sudden, they fall off a cliff and have to fight for services. I accept that the Minister of State is doing her best to make this happen given we are coming from a very low base.

We support the Bill. Amendments may be needed. I know the Minister mentioned in her opening speech that there may be issues with amendments because we have so little time for them, but if we co-operate, we can deliver something better for all our children.

11:30 am

Photo of Duncan SmithDuncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is good to see this Bill coming before the House, although it is a shame it is happening on 1 July amid a bundle of other legislation that is coming through the House at breakneck speed as we rattle towards the Dáil recess. I accept what the Minister of State said about amendments. We have two amendments that will be submitted in the name of Deputy Ó Ríordáin that I might send directly to the Minister of State in an attempt to improve this much-needed and important Bill, which has the capability to bring about quite strong structural legislative change regarding the progression of much-needed school places.

Will it be enough for 100-plus pupils waiting on places for this September? The answer is probably not, which is why I would like clarity from the Minister of State in her closing remarks about the proposal that has not been totally discounted, namely, the warehousing proposal involving centres of special education. Are they still on the table or will they not go ahead? We hope they will not because the plans outlined were totally inadequate.

All this is happening as emergency legislation at the start of July 2022 because we are and have been failing when it comes to providing special needs education. I am not just talking about pupils who do not have spaces for the coming September. There are 15,500 children and young people forced to leave their catchment areas, some travelling in excess of 100 km, to access education. We heard of a number of different cases over recent weeks. During the debate on the Labour Party's Autism Bill on Wednesday, we spoke about families who have had to go to 25 different schools to get a place, which is a real failure on the part of our entire system. Among students who have found a place, some have to operate on reduced timetables, which again does not meet their needs and is not equitable treatment of young people who at the very least need basic equality with their peers but are not receiving it.

This imbalance of rights needs to be addressed and this Bill has the capacity to do so, but it needs to be followed through not just with the Minister of State pushing and activating it but also with the schools and their boards of management and patron bodies getting on board. It is all well and good for Opposition spokespeople or Deputies to talk about how everything is a failure but it is the special needs educators who are saying it loudly as well. There was a very strong letter in The Irish Timesyesterday from Grace Shorten, who works as a special education teacher in a mainstream school, describing how she and her colleagues in her school and other schools do their best to meet the needs of their pupils with additional needs, with a great deal of time spent preparing, teaching and learning, and the extra work they do fighting with the Department and other State services for basic needs.

The Minister of State said that if a special class is created, the Department will give resources in terms of schools and special needs assistants, SNAs, and mentioned the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, being involved. This all sounds great if it is delivered, but the reality is NEPS and HSE services are so chronically underfunded and understaffed that children are languishing on waiting lists. We all have the discussions about waiting lists. Waiting lists do not exist in isolation. These children are awaiting special education provision. Children with serious mental health difficulties are not even placed on a child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, waiting list because they do not meet the criteria, which we all know are undefined and, to use the words of Grace Shorten in her letter, mysterious. If they do secure a place on the list, they could be waiting years and age out of the particular service. Very spurious reasons for rejecting applications for assistive technologies are given, denying a child access to a potentially life-changing laptop for the sake of saving the Department of Education a few hundred euro.

They are the realities of what special education teachers are experiencing. It is not about the work they are doing in the class, which is difficult, challenging, rewarding and of the utmost value. Rather it is about the fight they have after hours with the Department for basic services and the waiting lists across other areas. For this Bill to work, all these services and resources need to be put in place. The letter from Grace Shorten ended by talking about how this was the context in which the unedifying issue about the naming of the four schools by the Minister of State occurred. The naming of the schools was completely regrettable, should not have happened and should never happen again. If for any reason the Minister of State needs to interact with a school about this or any other issue, it should not take place in the media but should take place directly with the school. The Minister and the Minister of State have enough powerful levers to do that effectively. We need to move on from that and get this Bill passed. We will take the Minister of State at her word when she says she will engage with the amendments that will come through. Sinn Féin is bringing forward five while we are bringing forward two. I am sure there will be a number of others. We are not talking about dozens of amendments. There will be a small number of amendments and they should be given due time and consideration because we all want to make this work not just for the students waiting for places in September but all the students who will come on with additional needs in the coming months and years so that we are not here next July with other emergency legislation or longer waiting lists or having the same conversation again.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Like other speakers, I welcome this legislation. To a certain extent, it is unfortunate we need it but I must compliment the Minister and Minister of State on bringing forward legislation to enable them to put in place the structures to ensure no child is denied a place in an appropriate setting in school. I welcome the comments of the Minister of State that it is intended this legislation will work to support children with special educational needs to gain access to specialist class placements that can meet their needs. She also stated she looks forward to working with colleagues on all sides of both Houses to ensure this legislation is passed and put in place before the Dáil and Seanad terms end. It is welcome in that respect.

Having interacted over the years with the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, I welcome the recent appointment of the new chief executive, John Kearney, who I knew as chief executive of Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board and who served as a school principal. I know that public representatives and Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board have worked together over the years to ensure we got those additional autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units, special classes and additional resources. Mr. Kearney has been in the classroom and has led an education and training board.

The schools under the remit of Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board show a great attachment to equality and diversity in their provision to ensure children who need that additional support are given it to the best extent possible. Over the years, we have seen a very significant growth in the number of units and special needs classes at different schools.

I saw a figure recently where, since this Government has taken office, something like 1,165 additional special needs assistants have been appointed. That is a very welcome development. There are almost 20,000 special needs assistants in our education system at present, and they are necessary.

I remember my early days as a Member of this House where the big campaign for all public representatives at that time was to have special needs assistants appointed. It was a rare school that had even one. Thankfully, there have been much-needed improvements and all of us, regardless of what side of the House we sit on, endeavour to ensure every child gets that necessary support.

Only a few weeks ago we had the privilege of having the Minister, Deputy Foley, in Cootehill, County Cavan, performing the official opening of the Holy Family School there. That school was established on a voluntary basis back in the 1960s to serve the needs of Cavan and Monaghan children. One of the former distinguished Members of this House, my friend and former Dáil colleague, Dr. Rory O’Hanlon, was one of the half-dozen people who set about establishing that school and had it then put then under the remit of the Department of Education. It is now a model school in the delivery of special education and is a great source of pride to all of us who have worked along with the boards of management and with successive parents’ associations to have that new school in place. Thankfully, that school has marvellous facilities today. The Minister, in an inspirational speech that day, spoke about the need and the value of special education and what it does for children, families and communities.

Often in this House, through parliamentary questions and Topical Issue debates, I have raised the need to put those new facilities in place because we had seen a growth in the level of temporary accommodation over the years. Thankfully, we have that school in place today with the most modern and up-to-date facilities, which are good for the children and for the teachers delivering the service.

I welcome the comments of the Minister that she, her Department, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, "recognise the importance of inclusive education for all children". She stated it is a primary objective of hers as Minister for Education "to promote and support actions that will ensure the school setting is a welcoming and inclusive environment for all". She also stated that "providing for an appropriate school placement for every child with special educational needs in a timely and supported manner is a key priority for the Department and the National Council for Special Education". It is very important that key priority and strategy is implemented.

Deputy Ó Laoghaire referred to the shortage of therapists. Only yesterday I raised questions with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on the need to ensure we increase the number of places in universities and institutes of technology to train more therapists. We have all been campaigning with parents to have assessments carried out for children who need them before they can get a place in a special school or special class. I have schools in my area of Cavan-Monaghan that are looking for special classes and an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit.

I have one case where I have been in contact with both the Minister and the Minister of State where an early intervention class has been approved for a school but the school does not have the follow-on ASD class. Some parents who may have intended to send their child to the early intervention class may consider that, if there is no follow-on class, they are perhaps better going to the school that has both the early intervention and ASD classes. From that point of view, it is important children can attend a school as much as is possible within their local community and that siblings, where possible, attend the same school. This is a case where I met the principal, the staff, and some of the parents and it is one where we have the additional accommodation that is needed to establish the class. In such instances where a principal has a particular knowledge of special education, there are very supportive staff who want the class, and there is the extra accommodation, we should ensure such classes are approved without delay.

On the issue of DEIS schools and additional support for children, I welcome that €32 million extra has been allocated to the Department for the extension of the programme. I also welcome the inclusion of a number of schools in my constituency in the extended programme, but again, like others, I am disappointed with the appeals process. I do not know how this algorithm, which the Department and the officials quote, works. We have schools that are drawing pupils from the same community where one school in the town or parish has DEIS status and the other does not. One principal wrote to me and made the point very succinctly:

Disappointingly we have not been accepted to the DEIS scheme. We must not be regarded as having equal disadvantage as the other primary schools in the centre of town.

We have schools drawing pupils from the same catchment area but having different status. I say to the Ministers that whatever algorithm or model is used, it needs to be revised. The DEIS programme is particularly beneficial to many children and families. I sincerely hope in the context of the new census figures being available that index that is often quoted can be revised somewhat, that we have the Pobal HP deprivation index revised, and that we have a different model put in place.

I welcome today’s legislation. Like other Deputies, we all represent children who need access to special classes, and the more classes and units that are established, the better to meet the needs of those children.

11:40 am

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We are all here for the one reason. We want to see the spaces and places provided for some of our citizens, that is, children with disabilities. Up to this time, we have not had the necessary planning to deliver that. We all welcome this legislation and, if it streamlines the section 37A process, then that needs to be done because it seems to be a process that is far too long with far too many steps in delivering these places. We all know, however, there is a wider issue.

I welcome what the Minister said, that she is willing to work with people across the Oireachtas. Deputy Ó Laoghaire and others have tabled a small number of amendments tabled, and most of them relate to ensuring we have that planning piece in play. This is about ensuring we have a review system in September to see what places will be available for the following September. That is the piece we need to address to ensure the National Council for Special Education and the Department have all of the information required and all of the necessary steps are taken so that we do not end up in a situation, which often happens, where either schools or parents have to play the role of campaigners. We all commend them on that work but we would much prefer if they were able to get what they should be entitled to as of right and that we no longer fail these particular citizens.

I raise the particular issue of Scoil Náisiúnta Talamh na Manach in north County Louth where ten children with autism have been enrolled. The school is to open on 30 of August and, I believe, the school was requested on 26 January to have two classrooms specific to children with autism. At this time there has been a great deal of engagement with the Department by the school and by Síle Murnaghan, the príomhoide. The difficulty is it is one-way traffic. There may be very many disappointed children and parents now on the basis these classrooms do not exist. The school is willing, able and wants to deliver, so we need to ensure we see delivery in this case. This is just another example of where we are failing children with disabilities. I am asking the Minister and I will speak to her afterwards so that we might have an intervention to ensure we deliver for these children.

11:50 am

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

In April of this year, when the Ombudsman for Children report entitled Mind The Gap: Research on Barriers to the Realisation of Rights of Children with Disabilities in Ireland was published, the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, talked about how children with disabilities are not seen, not heard and not counted by the State.

These children and their families face so many barriers day in, day out. They must fight so many battles, whether that is looking for diagnostic assessments or delays with service provision. Despite having a constitutional right to an education, for too many children, it also includes battling for an appropriate school place.

We understand the rationale for bringing forward this emergency legislation and we will be supporting this Bill, although we believe the amendments are necessary and that more resources are required. I want to point out for the sake of all those children and their families, who have had to endure sometimes years without a school place, that this is an issue that has failed to be addressed for some time now.

It is thanks to the persistence of families, hard-working advocacy groups, all the disability groups, schools and the Ombudsman for Children, who ensured this issue is now on the political agenda and is considered a problem worthy of a solution, that we are here today. I commend each and every one of them for consistently raising their voices and for never giving up. No child or family should ever have to endure such stress and anguish again. They deserve so much better than that.

It is thought that approximately 100 children are currently without a school place for this coming September. Again, I will point out that this number is not exact. While data capture has improved somewhat over recent years, much more work must be done to ensure those data are centralised, up to date and exact. I hope the Minister can speak to this further. What, if anything, does the Department plan to do about this? Will the Minister follow the recommendations of the Ombudsman for Children's report that was published a very short while ago?

It is imperative the Minister and the Department recognise the extreme difficulties some schools face when seeking suitable resources for children with special education needs. Every school wants to provide every child with as high a standard of education as is possible. To do this for all children, in particular those with special educational needs, it is vital that appropriate resources are made available to schools. That may include specialised equipment, enough special education teachers, SNAs, suitable accommodation, sensory rooms, access to timely multidisciplinary assessment for children, assistive technology and software and wrap-around services such occupational therapy, psychology, speech and language therapy etc.

In the case where a school has a legitimate concern about a lack of resources to be able to meet the needs of a child or several children, what is the plan to manage this going forward? Schools must be supported when opening special classes. The reality is too many are not receiving the resources they need to deliver the education every single child deserves.

Every one of us in this House has heard from families whose children have been denied a school place. We have heard how difficult it is to get information, how special educational needs organisers are attached to schools and not individual children, and about the delay in receiving a diagnosis that then outlines what educational setting is best for a child. Every one of us also hears from schools regarding how difficult the process is to request resources and appeal the decisions that denied them those resources. We hear how time-consuming it is and how they wait months for a response only to receive "No" for an answer. Then, they must apply for an exceptional review and wait all over again to get the same answer, or an increase so small it makes no difference to their lived experience.

To truly end this emergency, places must be made available and resources provided as needed. There can be no other way. We know some schools have done much of the heavy lifting in the provision of special classes up to now. Schools have a disproportionately high number of children with special educational needs in mainstream classes in some areas, in particular DEIS and developing schools. All the while, we know some established schools in more affluent areas have no special classes at all. If we are to be able truly to resolve this issue, all schools should be treated equally and mutual trust and respect must be restored.

Significant damage has been done over recent days, which I will talk about a little bit later in my commentary. The ball is in the Minister's court to ensure any school that accepts children with special educational needs in mainstream classes, or that is opening a special class in September 2022 or later years, is provided with the resources it needs. We must remember that not all resources can be determined in advance. Flexibility must be provided to these children. This is not one-size-fits-all scenario. This is how allocations are currently decided and this has to change.

One of the major concerns I have around this Bill is that it does not appear to do anything to ensure children who require a place in a special class will be entitled to attend a school in their local community. The Ombudsman for Children estimates that 15,500 school-aged children have to travel outside of their school catchment areas to get to school. Families and advocacy groups have spoken at great length as to how important it is that children are educated within their communities. Children must often travel long distances to get to school each day. They drive past the local school their brothers and sisters and many children in their community attend. They are missing out on opportunities to make friends with children who live nearby and establish a support network. They are missing out on being part of the area and feeling valued and included. They are being denied a sense of belonging and identity to their community as a consequence. They then arrive at their school tired and anxious as a result of this long journey. It is not exactly a great start to their day. It is heartbreaking to think about this but that is the reality for 15,500 children and their families each and every day. How will this Bill seek to rectify this issue? Has the Minister any plans to address this? How will she ensure these children are able to attend their local school just like any other child?

While this Bill does not explicitly exclude post-primary schools, we know from the briefing note that the intention of the Bill is to address capacity within primary and special schools. Post-primary schools are not mentioned at all. If we think the lack provision of special classes at primary level is bad, the numbers at post-primary level are worse again. Will the Minister reassure us this Bill will apply to all schools and that all schools will be adequately resourced based on the needs of each child?

Another issue that must be discussed, which goes hand in hand with this, is the delays children face in accessing diagnostic reports that outline which educational setting will best suit their needs. Will the Minister please advise if her intention is to review the Disability Act 2005 and to seek to commence all parts of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004? Will schools be able to access timely multidisciplinary assessment as and when required?

Another major concern relayed to us by parents is that special classes be opened in appropriate settings. I know, and I am sure others have heard, of special classes that have been opened in kitchens, offices and classrooms that are too small. These were intended to be temporary but children have spent their entire primary school years there. They do not have the space. There is no quiet room, office for staff to work in or PE hall. They do not have access to a sensory room. How long will children have to spend in inappropriate settings such as kitchens rather than classrooms? These very legitimate concerns have been flagged by many schools and the question deserves a comprehensive response.

Will the Minister confirm that any other works required to make such spaces usable can be managed by a project manager provided by the Department of Education if schools require assistance to get projects over the line in time for September? Will she confirm that, where extensions are necessary for schools to be able to provide special classes, the Department and schools will be adequately equipped and resourced to ensure these can be built as quickly as possible? Again, I believe it is vital a project manager be provided by the Department to schools in this instance.

We know of schools that have been waiting one to two years for extensions to be completed. A number of schools are running into difficulty managing projects. Principals are spending much of their time chasing the Department, architect or builder. They are battling against supply chain issues, inflationary pressures and difficulties in sourcing tradespeople to carry out works. Will the schools be able to access full support from the Department, especially when such difficulties arise? I believe it is urgent given the timeframe of September 2022.

We know from parents, teachers and school leaders that many children with special educational needs are not currently in the right setting to meet their needs. We know this is caused by a number of factors including the lack of appropriate special places up to now, the fact we have too few special schools, and because children are waiting too long for diagnostic assessments not only to outline their needs but also to set out which educational setting is most appropriate for a child. Does the Minister have any plans to tackle this issue? Will she confirm whether it will be possible for schools to recruit all the staff they will need in time for the opening in September?

I have a number of questions relevant to this issue but I end by expressing my concerns around how four schools were publicly named and shamed on the Department's website and how this has been handled by the Minister of State over recent days. One of these schools is in my constituency. I understand the incredible work it does and the difficult scenarios under which that work is carried out, so I feel obligated to raise it here. This sort of thing is deeply frustrating and unhelpful. I will quote what the Minister of State said last Saturday:

They are not saying anything at the moment, they are just ignoring correspondence, that is not good for us, it’s a bit of a red flag so if we do not hear from them with a willingness to open a special class then we will move to section 37A process.

One of those schools is in my area so I feel obligated to raise this issue. Each of these four schools was able to show clear engagement to the Department. It is my view they have been misrepresented. One of the schools even had a visit from a Department official just one day before its name was published. Many of these schools already have a special class and have first-hand experience of being under-resourced. What surprised me most is the fact that some of the established schools nestled within the leafy suburbs of Dublin, which have no special classes at all, have not received the same treatment. I do not believe this is helpful in any way, shape or form. The relationship between the Minister, the Department and schools is vitally important to maintain and protect.

The school community is united in feeling angry and frustrated about how this was handled, as are the parents.

The Minister has to accept responsibility for this emergency. There must be an acknowledgement from her that the failure, time and again, to resource our schools properly is a significant part of the problem. She will say how much more money is being spent, but the reality is that it is not enough and the system is not working. Schools want to provide the decent level of education that each child deserves, and that goes a long way to explaining the lack of places at present. It is to be hoped this Bill will go some way to rectifying that. We will support it, but questions need to be answered.

12:00 pm

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Acting Chairman for facilitating my contribution. The debate on the Bill has moved more quickly than I expected.

This is a very important subject and it is welcome that both the Minister and the Minister of State are in the Chamber. The Bill, which Sinn Féin supports but which it will seek to amend, is welcome. The idea of children with a certain level of special needs being segregated is not on, but if we are going to have them in mainstream schools, we must make provision for that. There are shortfalls in staff and accommodation and those need to be met. I welcome some of the proposals in the legislation regarding the admissions policy, making provision for special classes and disability access and board of management co-operation, and the fact that the Minister has the powers. That is positive. However, I come back to the issue of resources. We can give directions as much as we like from this House and from Government Buildings but if schools do not have the resources to carry them out, those directions will be of little use. Overall, the Bill is welcome and the schools will have to comply and to have it in their admissions policies, which is positive.

With regard to special schools, progress has been made with SNAs, but the status of SNAs and the recognition of qualifications, their pay grade and so forth has been raised for a number of years. It is an issue that must be addressed. We cannot continue to put it on the long finger. SNAs provide a vital service in schools and there has to be support for that by providing a level of qualifications along with recognising the experience those who have been there for a number of years have brought to it and developed and who came in at a different level.

I wish to raise an issue regarding provision. A problem often arises when children move on to second level. I have a case in County Offaly. The child has now finished primary school. His father works 130 km away and uses the only car the family has. He works that distance away by necessity because he was transferred there recently. He has to travel 130 km to work and 130 km home or stay over for a couple of nights a week. If the child has a meltdown at school - perhaps that is not the appropriate word but it is the one I will use - there is no way to pick him up because the family has been told that the nearest school place is in Portlaoise College, a quarter of a mile up the road from my house. Logistically, this is a nightmare for the family and they are desperately trying to source a special needs place for the child in a second level school in Offaly. I am also dealing with a woman in Portarlington whose son is autistic. He has been told he has to go to Portlaoise, which is 19 km away. She is a single parent and has no options.

The Minister has told me she is taking a special interest in the Kolbe Special School. The building is desperately needed, but there is a situation there with regard to staff. The school is in contact with the Department regarding SNAs and therapists. I was contacted again by the school this morning and I want the Minister and senior officials in the Department to try to do something about the issue.

The last matter, which is off the subject of the Bill, relates to the school transport section in Tullamore. We used to be able to contact somebody and talk to a human being. One might have to contact the person five or six times a year or perhaps only two or three times. I spent a large amount of last Monday trying to reach somebody there by telephone. It was not possible. There is nobody to answer the telephone. No telephone is answered, there is no voicemail and there is no way of making a connection with a human being. That is not acceptable. The public cannot do it and Deputies cannot do it. I ask that somebody make an inquiry as to what is going on there. We need to be able to talk to an official there when there are serious matters.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Bill and this debate on it. I welcome how committed the Government is to delivering an education system of the highest quality, where every child and young person feels valued and is actively supported.

The key provision in the legislation provides for a shortened section 37A process, whereby a school can be directed to make additional provision for children with special educational needs. While efforts will continue to encourage more schools to open special classes, it is considered necessary to provide for a shorter section 37A process to enable the Minister to direct schools to open a sufficient number of new special classes to ensure that children have a special class placement for the coming school year. I welcome that the shortened process will allow two opportunities for school patrons and boards to make representations to the Minister ahead of a direction issuing.

The total number of special education teachers in the mainstream school system is 14,385 in 2022, an overall increase of 980 posts. Provision has been made for 19,169 SNAs by the end of 2022, which represents an overall increase of 1,165 posts and an increase of 81% since 2011. The issue for me, from working with parents, is the fact that children are not being assessed because of the waiting lists. Therefore, if the school does not have the child's assessment, how does it get a SNA? I am a little confused about that. While I welcome the increase in the number of SNA posts, I am worried about the number of children who are not being assessed and then the school cannot require a SNA.

I need to highlight this for the Minister because ASD classes in Carlow are something I am very passionate about and on which I have worked extremely hard. I wish to plead the case of Scoil Mhuire Lourdes in Tullow, County Carlow. The school has been in contact with the NCSE and the SENO on many occasions, through emails, telephone calls and meetings, regarding a special class for pupils on the autism spectrum in Scoil Mhuire Lourdes. I have been at several of those meetings. Each morning, siblings leave Tullow to trek to neighbouring schools that have ASD classes while other siblings go to Scoil Mhuire Lourdes. How is this fair? Why can children from the town of Tullow not be educated in their town, among their families, friends and community, instead of them leaving the town on buses and taxis to attend classes to support their needs? This really annoys me and I have spoken about it previously.

A case has arisen again this year in the school. A five-year-old child who has been awaiting an assessment since 2019 is struggling due to the level of need and is being left behind. The SENO is aware of the case. The mother has been told that there are no places in an ASD class for the child in the area and she is being asked if she would consider home tuition. Why should a five-year-old child with suspected autism be kept at home simply because there is no assessment or place available? In September, this child would have had no school place only for Scoil Mhuire Lourdes. The school will use the already stretched SNA resources available to support this child in the hope that she will be given the best start in her educational journey in junior infants. This school needs an ASD class, as do many other schools in Carlow. While I welcome this legislation, these are the daily cases I am fighting for all the time. Children who need special classes and who want to be left in their home town in Carlow and Tullow cannot do so. I am very concerned about this and I have huge issues with it. This system needs to be examined.

While the Minister is present, and I brought up this with her yesterday, I must again express my disappointment regarding some of the schools in County Carlow.

I welcome that some schools got DEIS band 2 status, but there is a boys' school and girls' school beside them, both used by the same families, where the boys' school was designated DEIS band 1 while the girls' school got DEIS band 2. They are in the same area, with the same families and same everything. The confusion and unfairness of this is unacceptable. There was an appeals mechanism. My understanding is some of the schools got their letters this week, which was also very unfair, in that the school year finished this week. I welcome the good work that is being done but there is a lot to do.

12:10 pm

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome this legislation and thank the Minister and Minister of State for progressing it so far. It is very positive legislation. I spent 16 years in the classroom. This Bill is good as it proposes to truncate the section 37A process and ensure that schools are fully adhering to the requirement to take in children with special needs. The EPSEN Act did a massively positive thing more than a decade ago. It ensured that children with special educational needs were schooled locally in mainstream education in the environment they were nurtured in. They were invited to play dates and experienced everything else that growing up and being a child is all about.

This legislation is positive and it will be very welcome, but I wish to speak about other matters. When I was home in County Clare yesterday, I visited a school on its final day of term. Its staff told me the money raised in their school's bake sale has been used to secure a private psychological assessment for a child in the school whose family could not afford it. It is very important to point out it is not so much about buildings, SNAs and staffing. The Minister, the Minister of State and the Department have very much stepped up to the plate, with a massive 60% increase in funding since 2011. That is unquestionable. It is about the pathways into special education intervention, such as NEPS and CAMHS. We need to build a capacity within schools.

When I trained in Mary Immaculate College, a parallel course operated beside ours. We were studying education while they were doing education and psychology. Yet, within the classroom environment, there is no pathway for graduates to fully utilise and apply the psychological skills they have. The progressing disability services, PDS, programme educational psychology graduates we have in schools need to be made an in-school resource for pastoral care, counselling and screening assessment. We can then, somehow, bypass NEPS and CAMHS to some degree.

I will commend St. Tola's National School in Shannon on being one of two schools in the country that has a multi-disability class. The body politic always talks about ASD units, and that is so important, but it is only one disability across a spectrum of disabilities. The model in St. Tola's is one we need to replicate throughout the country. I again thank the Minister and the Minister of State.

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I recently asked a parliamentary question regarding how many section 37A notices have been issued in counties Kildare and Laois in the past two years. The answer I received indicated the legislation has been used twice to date: in the Dublin 15 area in 2019 and the south Dublin area in 2020 in respect of primary school provision only. The legislation has not been used in Kildare or Laois. I am told it has recently been announced the process has been initiated for a third time in respect of the provision of special class places at primary and special schools in the Dublin region. The reply further stated that: "All parties would prefer to see schools volunteer to provide more places rather than places being secured on the back of an order or a direction from the Minister."

As far as I can see, there has been little effort to engage constructively with schools regarding the provision of places and no effort to listen to their concerns about why they feel they have difficulty in providing extra places. The dogs on the street will tell us that this is due to a lack of resources. Much more must be done to ensure there are enough students in training, enough staff in place and enough money to provide facilities. It very much looks like the Government is firefighting and keeping its head down until there is a crisis, then throwing inadequate solutions at the problem in the hope it will go away. It simply will not. Nobody is looking at the bigger picture. We need a comprehensive review of special needs education and a credible plan to address the concerns of schools, students and their families.

Two weeks ago, Sinn Féin tabled a motion in this House calling for a number of actions relevant to this debate, including the publication by the Government of the data it holds on the true number of children without an appropriate school place in September. It also called on the Government to bring forward emergency legislation to expedite the section 37A process. I am glad it has been shamed into action. I did not think the Government had any shame, especially after the segregation proposal. All children with special education needs must have an appropriate school place within a school community this September. The Government must undertake appropriate forward planning before the end of 2022 to ensure we are not again faced with children who have no appropriate school place in September 2023.

All children have a right to go to school. It is an all too common situation that, every summer, families are left with no school place for their child. Half-baked measures at the eleventh hour and proposals to segregate children into special education centres are an insult to students and their families. It is completely out of touch, it is failing them and it has to stop.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The context of this debate is the fact, confirmed by the Ombudsman for Children, that the State is failing children with special needs. The Department of Education is failing such children and it is an absolute scandal. The children still being failed the most are the more than 100 children who do not have appropriate school places for September. It is now 1 July and that is a matter of a small number of months away.

The State is failing many more children with special needs than that. In reality, as regards what should be done, the State is failing the thousands of children who have to go to school outside their local communities on a daily basis. Every day in Dublin, for example, taxis criss-cross each other throughout the city to bring children to their schools. It is an absolute scandal. The Government has responsibility for it, as do previous Governments. The bottom line point should be that all schools in the State that receive State funding should have to provide for the education of all children with additional special needs. All children should be served by their local publicly-funded school. There should be no basis for that not to happen where resources are provided and no situation where there are requests or whatever. It is a basic thing that schools provide education for children in their local area, including those with special needs, which means resourcing special classes.

I pay tribute to the campaigners, parents and many different groups of activists who have been fighting for the rights of their children. Part of the reason we are having the debate is the Government feels under pressure on this issue. Hundreds of parents have attended meetings throughout the country about the needs of their children and have spoken out, very powerfully, about the crisis they face. We have to remember these parents are fighting for their children's rights on a day-to-day basis. They are not just fighting when it comes to the Department of Education and schooling, but also in getting the necessary therapy from the HSE and so on. Their lives are often difficult enough without taking time to join protests outside Leinster House or the GPO, or to go to local public meetings, but they do so because they are determined to fight for their children to get the education and healthcare they deserve. These parents have created an environment where this has become a major political issue and the Government has been under pressure.

It is worth tracing the pretty inglorious recent history of how the Government has attempted to deal with this scandal in the past couple of months. We have to go back to May, when the Minister of State announced that the Government was considering establishing special education needs centres as an emergency response to the shortage of school places for children with special educational needs. That went down very badly, understandably, with parents, activist groups, and organisations such as AsIAm and Inclusion Ireland.

They rightly said this was a very bad proposal to effectively warehouse children with special needs, separate to our schools, which went against the idea of mainstreaming and integration that we wanted to have. Inclusion Ireland responded that, "this 'emergency' plan seems like ten steps backwards on the path to inclusive education. Inclusion Ireland was not contacted or consulted in any way about these measures". AsIAm stated, "The lack of appropriate school placements is due in part to the culmination of a lack of forward planning, forward thinking and coordination by a number of key stakeholders." That proposal appears, thankfully, to have been dropped.

However, it is difficult not to see what happened at the weekend, in respect of the naming of schools, in that context. There is growing pressure from below from parents, activists and kids who have simply had enough and are demanding appropriate education. The Minister came forward with a very poor proposal that was shot down very quickly and then there seems to have been an attempt to effectively punch downwards at schools, principals and teachers, to distract from the Government's responsibility in the regard and its failures.

That led us to the situation over the weekend of the naming of four schools, all of which were DEIS schools and the Minister of State's claim that the decision to name the schools had been made because they were "not engaging at all" with the Department and were "just ignoring correspondence". What she stated was not true. We have been in touch with one of the four schools, which said that it has a paper trail of engagement with the NCSE officials that goes back to October 2021. The school said that the last discussion with officials on the ground was about progressing the plans for special needs classes and the officials are on the record as telling the school that they were happy with the level of engagement on providing these classes. The school already provides a moderate-needs class and is working towards a new building to provide more in September 2023, yet, with no warning, the Minister of State named this school and three others.

The only explanation for this is that it was designed to distract from the failures of the Government and the Minister of State. Notably, when the evidence emerged in the correspondence that had been responded to and the engagement that was taking place, she changed what she said. She said from her perspective, they were "ignoring the import of the correspondence". That is obviously quite different from "just ignoring correspondence". It is quite a different statement in reality. I raised this with the Minister of State during parliamentary questions yesterday. I gave her two opportunities in the questions I raised to apologise to the schools and she did not take those opportunities. I encourage her, in terms of putting this behind everybody and moving forward, hopefully, on a more positive basis, to withdraw the false allegations, apologise to the schools, the principals and the teachers, and proceed to provide the necessary resources.

I will give an example of the very real, ongoing crisis that parents and their kids face. I have raised the example with the Minister of State a couple of times because it seems to be striking. Throughout the country, we have a problem in access to special education classes and getting places for kids, but she seems to have a particular problem in terms of post-primary schools in Dublin 24, where the ratio of primary schools with special education classes to post-primary schools with special education classes is significantly less than and wildly out of whack with the national ratio. We have 17 primary schools offering special education classes, but only two post-primary schools with special education classes, from September.

Throughout the country, the ratio of 2.3:1 or 2.4:1, whereas it is a fraction of that in Dublin 24. There is also a nationwide crisis because an absence of summer programmes . This creates a real crisis for parents over the summer, especially those parents who cannot access in-school programmes. The Tallaght Parents Autism Support Groups surveyed its members in terms of those who have managed to secure a home tutor. Approximately 50% have not yet been able to secure a home tutor and 35% say home tuition does not work for their child. Only one in five says that home tuition worked for their child and they were able to secure a home tutor.

Regarding what needs to happen, we first need to have a centralised place where all the information is contained. We need a centralised database of all the needs of children for special education, to avoid a situation in which, months away from a new school year, we realise that there is a crisis and that 100 children do not have special education classes. That simply should not happen. It is very possible to plan to avoid that.

The NCSE and the Department do not have access to a national database on which they can project the numbers and location of children who will require special education facilities. It is not that such information is not available. Clearly, it exists in different discrete places. It is not that many of our public servants are not working extremely hard with those children and the families to provide what they need; it is that the State has not bothered, over years, to think it necessary to compile such a database in order that we could know, in advance, the numbers and the needs facing schools each year, instead of lurching from crisis to crisis.

The final issue is resources, which are at the bottom of much of this. The most compelling reason we have children with special education needs without access to education, many of whom also do not have access to the necessary healthcare and other services, is years of Government neglect. In the vast majority of cases when dealing with education, schools are not to blame for the shortage of spaces. The Department and a lack of Government funding are responsible.

An important context is that Irish schools are overcrowded and underfunded. It has been mentioned that when the NCSE or the Department identifies a space for a special class, it may actually be a school library or room that will be vacated by a teacher who will then operate from a corridor. Very few schools are sitting on suitable spaces and refusing to accommodate special classes. The four schools that were named and shamed illustrate this. They have special classes and are doing important work in providing inclusive education for their communities. We, therefore, we need the resources to ensure that parents and children get the properly-planned, spacious and adequately-kitted-out classrooms to which they should be entitled. This is best done by allowing schools, teachers, principals, parents and students to discuss and articulate their needs and then undertake to meet those needs, in a timely and wholehearted way, rather than doing special education on a shoestring and having the diversionary approach of pointing to or attempting to blame particular schools for problems that are mostly the responsibility of Government.

Today, we are moving to begin the process of speeding up the section 37A process. Many other processes need to be speeded up, as well. We need to speed up the review process for schools that challenge in adequate staffing in their classrooms and access to assessment and therapies for children. More than 34,000 children were waiting more than a year to access a community health service up to the end of September 2021. Can the Minister of State, please, act to speed that up immediately? The services that children were waiting for spanned several disciplines, including psychology, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, ophthalmology, audiology, dietetics and CAMHS. Can access to them be speeded up? Can the waiting lists for assessments and therapies be speeded up? Children are waiting years for specialist services.

Can we speed up the reorganisation of disability services for children? This reorganisation currently has the look of simply rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. We have a situation where one quarter of the staff positions on the new child disability network teams remain unfilled. Can we please speed up the filling of those posts? A recent Inclusion Ireland survey found that more than a half of children with disabilities were not in receipt of any service or therapy. Can we please speed up dealing with that? Can we have an emergency session of the Dáil next Friday to deal with it?

The OECD reports every single year that Irish classrooms are overcrowded and underfunded. While the Government will counter that we have more special education teachers and SNAs than ever before, the population in our schools is growing. The identification of children with special needs and the number of children with special needs is growing. We have a scandal as it stands and there is a complete failure by the State to provide for the education of children with special education needs. We need to address that and we need to know that problem will not go away. It will get worse unless the key thing is done, that is, resources are put in place. We must work with schools to resource them and ensure there is a suitable place for all young people. We must ensure everyone gets the education and healthcare he or she is entitled to.

12:30 pm

Photo of Paul McAuliffePaul McAuliffe (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I acknowledge the presence of the Minister and the Minister of State in the House, although I feel like we are in the wrong seats. The difficulty is that for some children, there is no seat in schools and for some children and schools, we have not been able to vindicate the constitutional right to an appropriate education. The difficulty we have is that the Department of Education does not provide education; it funds and provides for the governance of education but it does not run schools. We have a voluntary system of education, with some schools run by trusts such as Le Chéile or organisations such as Educate Together. Each school has a voluntary board which runs that school.

It is our job in this House to vindicate the right of children to an education. If schools are unwilling to provide that education, we need to take measures, such as section 37A, to ensure that right is vindicated. We have seen that section 37A has not worked and, therefore, the House is today vindicating the right of children with special needs to secure a place in schools in a timely manner. I welcome that and that we are doing it in an emergency way before the recess because disability rights are human rights. We need to make sure we do our job in this House to vindicate those rights.

I know many people work in the education sector who will struggle with the Government instructing that this must be done. I know that because for the last three and a half years, I have worked closely with school principals, SENOs and parents. The Ministers of State, Deputies Madigan and Rabbitte, have both met parents in my area who have advocated this measure. I understand the complex dynamic between schools and parents. At the centre of that are the children and we need to focus on them. This will be a challenge for education and for schools, particularly DEIS schools because they have an awful lot on their plate. There are many complex factors from outside the classroom coming into DEIS schools and principals have to juggle all of those things.

DEIS schools also want to provide ASD classes. I do not want the message to go out that schools with DEIS status do not want to take on the challenge of an ASD class. I cite the example of the Minister coming out to Virgin Mary Girls' National School in my area after it decided to open a new class. The principal would tell me the school does not have the treatments and therapies available to fully support these children. From the conversations I have had with her, I know that is true. However, before the children had those places, the parents did not have those treatments and therapies either. If we can get children into schools, we will have a far better chance of ensuring the HSE delivers the treatments and therapies for those children in schools, as it must do. Once we get children into schools, they are in the place where we can support them with measures such as the school inclusion model. I welcome this legislation and urge the House to pass it as quickly as possible.

Photo of Michael MoynihanMichael Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Bill, which seeks to truncate the section 37A process. In recent weeks, we have seen the build-up to this legislation coming before the Dáil on a Friday afternoon. We have also seen the challenges that are out there. It took huge pressure as families went public to say they did not have a place for their children in September. This has been a challenge across the spectrum in recent times. This is enabling legislation and it is important to have these measures placed on a statutory and legislative footing. However, we need to step back and consider the challenges that were in the system, which did not have sufficient places.

We are duty-bound to ensure the Department looks at the system for meeting special educational needs and so forth, which has been built up over the past 20 to 25 years. We must ensure that when new schools and school extensions are built, special education units, places and facilities are put in place. We must target this and ensure people with additional needs and special needs are welcomed into the education system with open arms. The SENO support service and the NCSE grapple with this daily. That is hugely important and a spotlight should be shone on it. We have seen many instances where school authorities, which have built up substantial teaching expertise over the years, know that a child has additional needs but the child is not allowed an SNA because of the system. When they appeal those decisions, they are asked for new information. The school authorities and parents must fight throughout the year to get additional needs within the school services. They know that additional support is needed in particular classrooms. It should not be the case that schools have to fight right through the year to get services and maybe have an appeal finally granted in March or April. That system needs to be streamlined.

In some instances, there is an attitude in the system. Members of this House are duty-bound under the Constitution to provide proper educational facilities right across the spectrum. There are many challenges as regards therapies and so forth that are needed. This is an enabling Bill to make sure we have school places. We should look at the NCSE to see if more staff are needed to make sure there is a more streamlined system and that decisions are made and appeals dealt with in a timely and appropriate fashion.

Photo of Martin BrowneMartin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

This Bill is the direct consequence of poor preparation and a lack of forecasting with respect to the schooling needs of children with special needs. The Ombudsman for Children’s latest report into the matter pointed out: "This situation is a clear failure on the part of the State, which has an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the right to education of every child." It also noted that there are real issues with forward planning.

We are here today, while the Government struggles to deal with the consequences of its own inaction, to ensure we are not again faced with children having no appropriate school place in summer 2023. According to a study by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, titled Growing Up in Ireland, the number of students with special educational needs relative to the total student population is in the region of 25%. If the needs of one quarter of a school’s population are not being provided for, or even collated properly, there is a fundamental problem on the part of the Government and the Departments.

There needs to be a lot of reflection by the Government on these statements and the figures that accompany them. All children have a right to go to school. It is all too common that families of children with special educational needs face a summer of stress, not knowing whether their child will have a school to go to in September. We cannot forget either the panic that parents experience when unable to get a timely assessment of needs. This is at a time when they need to make arrangements for their children’s schooling, but face the obstacle put in their way by the Government’s failure to fulfil its commitments under the Disability Act 2005.

The very reason the Ombudsman for Children's report was initiated was that complaints were made to his office in relation to children with special educational needs being unable to secure appropriate school places at both primary and post-primary levels in a timely manner and close to their homes. I have raised this matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and An Taoiseach. I raised concerns of parents in Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary, as an example of children being forced to travel considerable distances from their homes to avail of the schooling they need. This is because of the lack of ASD units in the area. On each occasion, I was told that there is nothing to see here, that every option is open and to move along. That is not what many parents in the area have told me.

It is time for the Government to get its house in order, listen to the needs of parents, properly provide special educational needs organisers in each area and assess the needs of communities rather than delaying matters until it gets to the tipping point nationally that we have seen recently.

12:40 pm

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome this Bill on the provision of education for children with special needs. I thank both Ministers for being in the House today. It has been well outlined that we have a significant problem with providing the educational pathway for children with special needs and disability. We all want to provide, inasmuch as it is possible, the opportunity for children to be offered education in mainstream schools, where possible, and close to their homes and siblings, where appropriate.

I note the Minister of State's invocation of section 37A in order to try to move the school capacity issue along. That was probably a difficult decision for her to make, but it was necessary.

We can all acknowledge the challenges families are facing, particularly those who need special education for their children. We have parents who are burnt out and acting as family carers, particularly for children with a profound disability, but even for those with a mild sensory disability, it is a difficult challenge for parents. The children want to be included among their peers. No child likes to be excluded, regardless of his or her sensory perception of the world. Children want to be with children generally and do better in that situation, but they often need specialist one-to-one care.

We have to give a big hand out to teachers. I have engaged with many teachers and schools. My experience has been that teachers predominantly want to offer the best possible opportunity to every pupil in their school and their frustration is largely born of a perceived lack of resourcing. We have significant problems and the Government is doing what it can in terms of additional funding but the requirements are there for additional places and supports.

I will read a letter from my colleague in the Regional Group, Deputy Naughten:

Minister Madigan has on more than one occasion told the Dáil that where schools were collaborating and there was a willingness to open the special classes, they should be given the space and time to do that.

Despite that approach being taken, the Department and the NCSE are not supporting schools that are willing to establish special classes.

For example, St. Comán’s Wood Primary School in Roscommon Town has been refused a special class for children with multiple and complex disabilities.

This is despite the school having the numbers for such a class and despite the fact the application was supported by both the HSE's senior psychologist in the child disability network team and the local SENO.

I note there are 25 special classes in mainstream schools for children with multiple disabilities throughout the country.

There are two in Clare, five in Cork, two in Donegal, four in Galway, eight in Kerry, one in Louth and three in Mayo.

Not one has been sanctioned for County Roscommon. [Indeed, not one has been sanctioned for my own county of Waterford. Regarding Roscommon, he said:] Despite the fact that a board of management has identified a need, supported the school in making the application and received the endorsement of both the HSE and the SENO, the Department of Education is not willing to support the establishment of this special class.

This raises a serious question as to exactly what is going on. If we have people allied to the school sector who, through the pathways, recommend special classes and the Department does not support them, that situation needs to be looked at.

I will talk about the provision of SNAs. A number of schools have been on to me about trying to increase the number of SNAs. In one case, a school in west Waterford was on to the Department many months ago outlining a difficult disability case that was coming into the school and its needs for support, and requesting an additional SNA to help the child. They were told to bring the child into the school, let him or her enrol and then make the application in September. This child is in a wheelchair and has particular issues around bathroom and all of that. They do not have the wherewithal. I think an appeal was put in on the case but, as far as I know, nothing has been heard. This outlines the frustration of teachers and teaching management. We must have a better pathway to engage on these individual issues. Like so much in Dáil Éireann, it is not rocket science. It requires people to sit down, communicate and understand the needs from both sides of the House as to what is possible in terms of reporting.

I pay tribute to the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon. His report flagged a number of issues which have been discussed widely in this House, not least the need, as far as possible, to provide educational places close to children's homes. We have approximately 15,500 children attending special education. Funnily enough, what is happening in special education mirrors the difficulties in accessing disability services such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy. We have families in Waterford being sent to Dungarvan for occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, etc., twice a week. That is a round trip of 60 miles two days per week, or 120 miles in total, and the cost goes into family budgets. That is approximately three gallons of petrol, which is an additional €30 per week or €120 per month of net after-tax revenue to support that simple activity to move children along. It points to the need for a more joined-up approach.

The lack of psychological assessments has been widely raised. The Ombudsman for Children highlighted that there are 4,000 delayed appointments. I have been in contact with large schools with in excess of 350 or 400 students and they get an average total of appointments for psychological assessments of two per year. If up to one in four children is on the autism spectrum, we can see straight away that children are being excluded from a pathway to specialised supports. We have 1,500 children in home tuition. Look at the pressure that puts on a family member. It usually falls on the mothers and fathers but sometimes it falls on the siblings, who end up acting as semi-carers in a home.

I point to the fact of increasing and worsening trends in the autism spectrum in Ireland and, unfortunately, that is mirrored across Europe. The current assessment is that 25% of the student population may be somewhere in that range. Are we doing enough in this country to look at the potential problems that are causing this? ASD was not as prevalent 25 or 30 years ago. The data tell us that. We must start looking at research into food, genetics, environment and probably even water provision because there is something going on in the country that is leading to an increasing number of children suffering, requiring special educational needs, having attention deficit disorder, etc. The Ombudsman for Children pointed this out in another way, saying we are probably being more reactive than active. I ask the Department to engage with research bodies to see if there are common themes in terms of public information and public health we could look to try to mitigate this rising trend.

I know this is a difficult space for the Government and that it is allocating nearly a quarter of its educational budget to the provision of special needs education, including school places.

This is not a new problem and it will not be sorted in the next year or two. I commend the work of both Ministers and what they are trying to do in what is a very difficult space but we need clearer lines of communication between schools and the Department and we need better assessment with regard to accessing early intervention services, because that will be key if we are to have an impact on this problem.

12:50 pm

Photo of Pádraig O'SullivanPádraig O'Sullivan (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister and Minister of State and thank them for bringing forward this new legislation. As they will be well aware, many of their colleagues in Government have called for this intervention for some time so it is very welcome.

I will begin by speaking to the Bill and what it does. It is going to empower the National Council for Special Education to take action. As other Deputies have mentioned, the spirit of the existing legislation relies on a collaborative approach with schools. That worked in many instances but it is patently clear that it did not in many others. I have pointed here before to areas in Cork I am familiar with, large towns of 30,000 people, where there is only one ASD class, while small villages with a population of 300 or 400 might have three or four such classes. That imbalance is clear for all to see. It is good that the proposed legislation will allow the NCSE and the Minister to intervene to ensure there is appropriate provision for children locally insofar as that is possible. That is to be welcomed.

To keep to the spirit of the legislation and to use these extra powers, the NCSE will undoubtedly require more resources, staff and finance to ensure it can implement the change needed. Mr. John Kearney, the head of the NCSE, came before the Joint Committee on Autism last week. I also met him a number of weeks ago. While he is new to the job, it is clear that he relishes the challenge ahead and wants to make a difference. We need to ensure the NCSE is properly resourced if it is to implement the changes we are calling for.

In his presentation to the committee, Mr. Kearney spoke at length about that local provision I spoke about earlier. I do not have a figure but perhaps the Ministers could come back to us regarding the potential savings on bus services alone if we were to provide for children in their own communities. It is a big gripe of mine. I know of one child in my home county who travels from Mitchelstown to Bandon for an ASD class. Another family I have become familiar with travels from Macroom to Kinsale. If the NCSE is empowered to implement this legislation in the spirit in which it is drafted, it will improve the quality of life and quality of education for those children with special educational needs.

I will speak about wider issues facing children with special educational needs that are separate from the Bill. Therapies were mentioned here again. There is no easy fix to this problem, as some Deputies might suggest. There is a severe shortage of qualified psychologists, physiotherapists and speech and language therapists, not just here but right across the world. Some of this is down to the fact that not enough people are qualifying in these areas but some of it is down to certain people not wanting to work for the HSE. I know of a special school on the north side of Cork city in which the part-time physiotherapist has a caseload of 500 children. That is not manageable. Additional physiotherapists have been advertised for but it has not been possible to hire somebody. Meanwhile, the Rainbow Club across the water does not have a problem filling the posts it advertises. It is clear that there are issues within the HSE with regard to hiring for certain roles. To keep with the spirit of this legislation, both the Department of Education and the Department of Health really need to push to get those jobs filled. At present, one in four or one in five HSE jobs is unfilled. We really need to push the boat out and get those therapists into schools.

The in-school provision model is being trialled in community healthcare organisation, CHO, 7. This trial has been under way for over two years now. It would be great to see a report on that. Is it envisaged that it will be rolled out across the country? How is the pilot scheme faring? Many of us here, on both the Government and the Opposition benches, regularly call for therapies to be provided in schools, where possible. I would like to see how that is performing and to know whether it will be implemented right across the country.

As the Ministers will know, I was a teacher myself for 15 years. There were three ASD classes in my school when I was teaching there and I will be straight, hold up my hands and say that, while I did teach in the ASD hub from time to time, I never really felt my teacher training qualified me to cater for some of the needs presented to me as a staff member. There needs to be more focus on providing additional training modules for those qualifying in our teaching colleges to ensure they are prepared to cater for children with exceptional needs. There is also a need to provide professional development for existing staff because, whether we like to admit it or not, an awful lot of newly qualified teachers go into these ASD classes and special classes. Some teachers are reluctant to do so because of that lack of training and experience and, if I am honest, an ignorance and an apprehension that are sometimes unfounded. The provision of better training in our teaching colleges would assuage some of those concerns.

We talk about inclusive education and a real model of inclusion. That is precisely what this Bill is targeted at providing. As I have said, we need to implement the legislation to the fullest and in the spirit it is meant to ensure that all children, irrespective of need and ability, get to experience that real inclusion we talk about here over and over again.

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Before I speak on this Stage of the Bill, as we are coming up to the end of the Dáil term and as I therefore might not have the chance to address issues regarding special education again, I want to remind everyone here that we are not really discussing process, procedure or provision here. We are talking about our children and, more specifically, children with special educational needs and their right under the Constitution to an appropriate education. They are citizens of our State. I will also mention their parents who are, in a great many cases, exasperated, exhausted and despairing of ever getting a proper school place suited to their child’s needs. They feel they are hidden within the numbers and statistics. A place is not sufficient for children with special educational needs. They need a place that is appropriate.

I thank my colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, for meeting with parents in my constituency of Kildare North a couple of weeks ago. One of those mothers who has had to assert herself and go into battle against the State to vindicate her child's right to an education put it to me that she feels we are going backwards instead of forward. She said it feels as though the State is trying to hide our children with special education and segregate them in centres, as was proposed, instead of giving them their chance and their right to an appropriate class place. She spoke about her child standing at the door with her while the child's siblings went off to their ordinary school. We all have photographs of our children's first day at school. All these parents want is to be able to get that photograph of their child with special educational needs heading off to school with their school bag and lunch box just like every other child.

This is where we are, which is why the Government simply must do what my colleague, an Teachta Ó Laoghaire, has been looking for and work with the NCSE to make sure parents are not left waiting until the eleventh hour to find out if their child will get a place. The shortfall for 2023 has to be looked at and addressed now. Section 67 of the Education Act 1998 must also be amended to allow the NCSE to designate a school place for children. We can all imagine how this would benefit those parents who are hard-pressed and very worried about this issue.

The insertion of section 37A into the 1998 Act is welcome but leaving it this late is less than satisfactory. As we all know, and as parents know, it is an arduous process. It is time-consuming and involves a lot of collaboration and deep consideration. I regret we are at this stage with the Bill and with regard to the range of services and specialties required, whether therapists, SNAs or the children’s disability network teams. For some of them, almost a third of posts are still unfilled. I welcome that both the Minister and the Minister of State have stayed for the debate. Let us make sure we are not back at this stage again next year.

1:00 pm

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is my understanding that a special educational needs organiser, SENO, has now been put in place in County Laois. I welcome that. However, in County Offaly we are still waiting for one. I received a response from the NCSE on this matter a number of weeks ago, which was quite definite in its language. It stated a SENO would be put in place by early July at the latest. I then received a subsequent response, which was not as definite. That concerned me. It stated, more or less, that it was hoped or envisaged there would be a SENO in place by July. It is vital a SENO be put in place in County Offaly as soon as possible. A number of schools have contacted me about this. I have been inundated with calls from parents of special needs children, who are very concerned, and have had meetings with them. I ask that that be done as soon as possible. SENOs play a critical and very important role in planning for children and allocating resources to them as soon as possible. Children are being failed by this delay. I do not understand why there is such a delay. I hope that by the end of July at the latest we will have a SENO in Offaly. I would like an update on that issue if possible to see where things are and to inform my constituents and the schools that have contacted me.

It is very difficult for children with special educational needs in the education system because they cannot access speech and language or occupational therapies at an early point when they begin school. In many cases they are left on long waiting lists. Laois-Offaly has one of the longest waiting lists for speech and language and occupational therapy in the State. Many frustrated parents have come to me about this issue who cannot get a response as to when their child will receive a block of either speech and language therapy or occupational therapy. That adds to the frustration and upset these parents have to go through. It is unnecessary. As many parents have said to me, they have to fight for everything all the time. These parents are worn out fighting. They just need more assistance and more communication. I understand there is a lack of therapists and that recruitment remains an issue but we have to communicate with the parents. We have to let them know how things are going or if there will be more speech and language therapists and occupational therapists, which are needed, in Offaly. I ask that that be given top priority.

As a Deputy for Laois-Offaly I have raised this issue since I was elected in 2016. It is now 2022 and the same issue is being raised. The Minister will have heard about this from other Deputies in the constituency as well. There is an ongoing problem and we need to see some progress in that regard. We need to get to the bottom of why there seems to be a problem recruiting therapists. There also seem to be problems with vacancies on the children's disability network teams. There needs to be an in-depth review into why there are issues and why staff do not want to take up those positions. That is the only way we will be able to move forward and get to grips with the situation, which is having a negative impact on children.

In this State every child is entitled to a high-quality education. That is clearly stated in the Education Act of 1998. The Proclamation of 1916 stated every child should be cherished equally, but the gaps here are gaping so much that each and every child is not being cherished equally. There is so much disadvantage and so many negative impacts on children because of the lack of forward planning, consultation or communication with other agencies and bodies. It has also been pointed out there is a blatant lack of co-ordination. There should be more co-ordination between the services and the schools. The schools might need to become a point of contact, while involving the parents. That is vital.

We have an independent education plan process. I remember drawing up individual education plans as a teacher many years ago. Those plans stressed the importance of collaboration, but there is a breakdown in collaboration because there is no co-ordination between therapists, schools and parents. We need to bring all of that together but it has to happen soon. It cannot just be talked about. It has to become a reality. In the Ireland of 2022, we cannot leave children behind and children, unfortunately, are being left behind. If they happen to have special educational needs or come from a disadvantaged community, they are certainly left behind. That must be addressed if we are serious about inclusion. Fine words are thrown about this Chamber all the time but they are not matched with action. We need to get the basics right. Access to therapies is a basic thing and a basic right. We ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities a number of years ago. Ireland was one of the last countries to do so. Yet services are not being brought up to standard. I appeal for that to be done.

Another outstanding and ongoing issue in my constituency of Laois-Offaly, which is causing much frustration and upset for parents, is the lack of school places. I have dealt with many parents of children who are pleading for action on this issue. I have written to SENOs from other counties who are serving County Offaly while we wait for a SENO to be put in place. There is huge frustration and anxiety around this issue. I have spoken to parents of children in my offices in Birr and Tullamore who tell me their child will have to travel 30 km to 40 km if they cannot get a school place at second level or cannot be facilitated. It is very unfair on a child who has enough to cope with and contend with. Expecting that child to go on a bus and travel 30 km to 40 km every day is so unfair and so wrong. This is definitely happening in other areas of the country as well. It has to stop. We need planning and some urgent action over the summer recess. I hope those children will be accommodated and catered for by the end of August, and before that if at all possible to give people time to plan for the transition. These issues need to be taken on board and dealt with very quickly.

The challenges in respect of appropriate school places are linked to the lack of planning. AsIAm, which does fantastic work in this area, has stated:

Today’s crisis is a long time in the making. The lack of appropriate school placements is due in part to the culmination of a lack of forward planning, forward thinking and coordination by a number of key stakeholders.

On 31 May 2022, it was reported that the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, indicated these proposals were at an early stage. However, in the same article and in others it was also reported these plans were no longer in train. At a meeting last week, campaign groups outlined their concerns to the Minister of State and Department officials, who told them the proposal is at an early stage and no decision has yet been made on the matter.

Speaking after the meeting, the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, said the proposal was in its infancy and there had been a lot of misinterpretation or misperception of what it is meant to be. It was reported that the proposal has now been abandoned due to the lack of support from campaigners as well as the concerns of the Government. A sense of urgency is needed with regard to school places and forward planning.

The Ombudsman for Children has also raised concerns about this issue. Dr. Niall Muldoon noted he initiated this report for two reasons. It was initiated in anticipation of the review of section 37A. We hope the report will be released and that appropriate school places will become a reality. When we see all of these organisations and the Ombudsman for Children raising the alarm, it is time to take long overdue action.

1:10 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am glad to be able to speak on this legislation. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Business Committee and everybody involved in the House and the Bills Office, as well as everyone who organised, acquiesced to and supported today's sitting. It is important. I thank both the Minister for coming here and staying here, which is important to those of us in groups which normally speak at the end. We appreciate that. The Bill represents, in the Government's own words, emergency legislation that will be enacted and aims to ensure there will be school places for more than 100 children with special educational needs in the coming school year.

However, despite this Bill and the hype surrounding it, the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, were unable to guarantee that all children who require an appropriate school place that meets their assessed needs will have one in time for September. The Irish Times addresses the subject, calling it a grave shortcoming, and points to a sloppy policy approach to a long-standing problem which is having an impact on Ireland's most vulnerable children. Sin rud uafásach. How could the Cabinet, in good conscience, approve this Bill last Tuesday? It aims to compel schools to open special classes within six to eight weeks, but it will only provide places for some of the children. How can schools with inadequate resources be compelled to open places?

While the Rural Independent Group will not stand in the way of the Bill, we believe its introduction underlines an utter lack of engagement by the Department, coupled with a lack of special educational resources for all schools. I have been on boards of management of different national schools and set up a naíonra, a childcare unit. The Department of Education is far behind. I salute a principal in Clonmel, Mr. Ryan, who set up two special needs classes in school. He led the way in Cluain Meala. It is a town the Minister of State knows well. That was at preschool level. There are no places at national school level, in the biggest inland town in the country. Thanks to the people in Caisleán Nua, my own village, the teaching staff, and the whole board, as well as in Burncourt, An Chúirt Dóite, units were set up, but people have to travel 15 or 20 miles. There is also a class in Clerihan, which is just down the road from Clonmel, but there is no service in the town. Such issues have to be looked at.

I believe in the old adage that a spoonful of honey is better than a barrel of vinegar. The Minister of State's rough, tough language during the week, with the naming and shaming, is not the way to go. There are many complex issues involved. As we heard from Deputies who know the area, those schools offer different aspects of special education. To give their names to the press and threaten them is a retrograde step. Ní neart go chur le chéile. We must bring people together and try to unite the communities. It is a daunting task for small rural schools. Thankfully, we are addressing that now and people understand the special needs requirements. They do not understand the minutiae but they understand the need and have accepted it, whereas maybe they did not ten years ago. We must work with campaigners in the area.

The process can be unwieldy. There is a long waiting list for children to be diagnosed. There are a plethora of different issues affecting the most vulnerable children. They, their parents, their siblings, seanmáthair and seanathair are affected, as is their whole family and the wider community. If a diagnosis can be made, it lessens the load. People know where they are going and what the requirements are. It lets them focus their attention on the diagnosis they have got. We must work with the schools and the special educational needs organisers. We need better engagement by the Department.

The school principal and board of management in Caisleán Nua and many other places have to face issues. My colleague Deputy Nolan, an iarpríomhoide scoile, would know much more about this than I do. They must become builders, designers, architects, foremen on sites and, above all, ag glaoch ar an nguthán. They are on the phone night and day to try to get builders, to engage with architects, to get extra sites and extra space, and to bring the school community, teachers, SNAs, colleagues and the whole board with them. It is a daunting task. I salute them all. It is not easy or simple. The architects need to step up to the plate. The Department of Education needs to loosen the shackles. We have a team of excellent architects in Tipperary and Thurles.

Writing letters to the Department is like writing to Disneyland, though at least you get a reply from Disneyland. There is no engagement. It might come back six months later to say it did not get the letter. All is not well in the building and design section of the Department. That needs to be sorted out. They are public officials. They have a job to do and should put the children with special needs first. Our children are entitled under the Constitution to proper education. The existing process can take up to 18 months, but any solution must be inclusive and equal for all children. This Bill is not fully inclusive. It does not offer the hope these families deserve. Campaigners continue to argue this. Many more children than the maximum number covered in this Bill are not included in its scope.

The Education (Provision in Respect of Children with Special Educational Needs) Bill 2022 will allow the Minister to direct the school to open a special class within six to eight weeks of receiving a report from the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, setting out in its opinion that there are insufficient school places in certain areas. Carrick-on-Suir is a great town but has no provision in its schools. I have raised it in the House. It is frustrating to raise it, then get a reply from the Taoiseach, Tánaiste or whoever is sitting in for them that everything is being done and the Minister is dealing with it, but that is not actually happening. People have to travel 30 km or 40 km to get to school. They may not have transport, as we have heard from other Deputies. It is a daunting task, a turas uafásach, for those daoine óga. It is awful. There should be something near them.

The current section 37A process can take between 12 and 18 months to get a school place. As I said, the short-term process set out in this Bill allows for two opportunities for schools and patrons to make representations to the Minister. They will make representations. They make them to all Teachtaí Dála, Seanadóirí agus daoine mar sin. We must get engagement. It is a two-way street. If the community, school board, principal and all the teachers decide to take this road, they should be welcomed with open arms. We must support and nurture them, not frustrate and delay them by obfuscating and making the process more difficult. This is about children with special needs. I hear a lot nowadays about different types of education and how we must be open and transparent.

Yet, we cannot deal with this first, the children who have special needs and who have been waiting for their diagnoses forever, and when they have a diagnosis they then have the challenge of a fight all the way. My late brother, Dr. Eddie McGrath, was a paediatrician of some renown. He fought like a tiger for children with many special needs so they would get their rightful place. He asked me to get elected to try to further the cause of these particularly challenged children. They are entitled to it and they deserve it. They deserve to be treated equally, rightfully and properly. I ask the Minister and the Minister of State to please look to the Department officials to see what can be done.

Mar fhocal scoir, perhaps the Acting Chairman, an Cathaoirleach Gníomhach, will allow me to wish well an Offaly man atá ina chónaí i dTiobraid Árann, Mr. Kevin Langton, a principal of the school, who is celebrating his 50th birthday today. He is an excellent, hard-working and diligent múinteoir.

1:20 pm

Photo of Cormac DevlinCormac Devlin (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We join the Deputy in wishing him a happy birthday.

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very important Bill. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to the House to hear the very important views of all of the Members, both the Government and Opposition. Every Member in this House feels very strongly on the subject we are discussing here today. I have no doubt there is not a Deputy who has not been contacted by parents of children with special needs about their education, their future education, and their education in mainstream schools. It is also about services, and often the lack of services. I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, on the work she has done in this area over the past two years.

As the Chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, I have worked very closely with the Minister and the Minister of State. We have seen substantial progress in the past two years from the Department of Education in and around the provision of school places for children with special educational needs. I have seen this at first hand and it includes the opening of more than 300 new special classes for 1,800 students this year and a further 315 classes planned from September.

I welcome deeply the legislation before the House today. By its very nature, the section 37A process identifies schools that have not agreed to open special classes. Often, they must be named and be brought to task. They must be challenged for what they might not be doing or for the way they might be going about their business. This legislation seeks to reduce the timeframe of the process to within six or eight weeks. This will result in more schools being served with section 37A notices. It will increase the amount of special class places, which I very much welcome.

It is interesting to hear some Members in the Opposition speaking about the lack of places. I am aware that families often must travel long distances to get access to special needs education, especially in rural Ireland where I am a serving Deputy. Some Members in the Opposition are saying we should name and shame schools and then also saying they want more and more classes. This is what we are doing here. We are creating more places for more special needs children. That will be the result of this Bill.

I am very much aware of the special needs provision in my county. I was with the Minister, Deputy Foley, recently in Enniscorthy at St. Senan's National School. They have a fantastic special needs unit there and they have been doing fantastic work there over a long number of years. It is the same with St. Aidan's National School and many other schools in my constituency. I will not name them all but a considerable amount of fantastic work is being done. One must salute the principals, the teaching staff, the special needs assistants, and all of the people involved in providing that special education. Unfortunately, we have a high number of pupils who need special education. They deserve the same chance as anybody here in this House would get in their education. We should give them every opportunity to have that chance and they should get every opportunity to have the same access.

There are, however, significant challenges, especially around the area of diagnosis. Once a child is diagnosed, it is then about the backup. Once a person gets into the system, he or she is very well looked after. The problem is getting into the system and being part of the system. There is a long waiting list to be diagnosed. I would like the Department of Education, the HSE, and the Department of Health to work more closely together on the services that are provided for children with special educational needs. I appeal to the Minister and the Minister of State that they would work more closely with the other Departments and with the HSE.

We have spoken about the special educational needs organisers, SENOs, and the very important job they do. They are ? under severe pressure. I would like to see an increase in the number of SENOs. In fairness, the Government has committed on the special needs assistants front. When I was in Government in 2011, it was a very big political hot topic at the time. Over the years of the Government in 2011 and this Government, the number of new SNAs who have entered the system has been fantastic. They do a fantastic job. Many children would not be able to go to school every day without the help of their special needs assistants. I applaud the Government for its work and commitment on that, and for what they have invested in the SNA system over many years.

I very much welcome this legislation. It will give families considerable relief. There has been a lot of criticism over the past while. The Minister and the Minister of State, as political representatives, must do a job, and often they have to make some very difficult decisions along the road and journey they must take. I welcome this opportunity to speak on the Bill and I welcome the legislation.

Photo of Paul DonnellyPaul Donnelly (Dublin West, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Bill, which ensures all children with special educational needs will have access to special classes. Sinn Féin had called for this previously.

I thank all of the parents and students in Dublin 15 and Dublin 17 who worked tirelessly to ensure those children who had no school places for September were given a voice. Hundreds of worried and concerned parents turned up to a meeting in Dublin 15 in May because the NCSE had failed to ensure proper planning for the educational needs of these students. It should once again be highlighted that this is not just a problem for 2022. The numbers are deeply concerning for the next number of years. In Dublin West, for example, only 20% of students in fifth, fourth and third classes will have access to a school placement if the current situation continues.

I also highlight the issue of a behavioural therapist position for the Danu Community Special School. It is a disgrace that requests to date have fallen, and continue to fall, on deaf ears. I welcome the additional proposed resources, including special needs assistants and the enhanced services from the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, but there is still a significant concern around the supports such as occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, and behavioural therapists. One can understand how parents, teachers, principals and school staff are deeply sceptical that these classes will be fully resourced. The evidence to date shows this has never happened.

A special class is more than a classroom, a teacher or an SNA. We must move to multidisciplinary teams supporting students, teachers and school staff.

The children are not just failed by schools and the educational system but also by the HSE in the provision of services from the very beginning of the assessment process. We hear it time and time again, whether it is the assessment itself or access to services afterwards. Every child deserves a school place and school staff must have the resources to ensure each student gets the highest-quality education and their school journey is a positive experience. That is most important. This is not just a room. It is about their education. It is about giving them the most positive experience.

I conclude with something else that needs to be raised. The recent interview on national radio was deeply unhelpful and caused huge anger. I spoke directly to the principal of Scoil Bhríde Buachaillí, a boys' national school. He totally refuted the assertion the school had not engaged with the Department of Education and the NCSE and also disputed the perception that was created that the school was refusing special classes, because it is totally incorrect. The school already has a special class with six students and operates in very difficult circumstances with limited resources and, indeed, must pull other resources to maintain students in the special class. It is important to get facts right. It is important to support the schools and support students and parents throughout the entire process from the assessment right through to a positive experience in school.

1:30 pm

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The State has failed to provide special needs school places in their local area to every child who needs them. It has also failed to provide the resources to ensure those rights are vindicated properly in schools. More trained staff, sensory rooms, equipment and access therapists are needed. One third of vacancies are in the CDNTs that were set up, we were told, to get over the problems faced in other areas, like the CHOs and so on, and that has failed. We were also told by the NCSE last Tuesday at the Joint Committee on Autism that approximately one third of its vacancies are for therapists and supports. The council is being impacted in the same way so that it cannot provide the services that are necessary. We know this from reports from schools in my own area that are trying to access services to come to the school and support them where they need assistance. Without that support, children are being sent home from school because the school cannot support them in the way they should be supported. That is a failing as well from that point of view.

However, I welcome that this is being brought through. It has been brought to the Dáil today as a result of the pressure of another 100 children or more potentially being unable to access places in schools. We do not know whether it is going to have a big impact in the next three months but there should always be co-operation between the schools, the Department of Education, the NCSE, the Minister and Ministers of State, parents, teachers and principals to ensure services are provided to the schools, such as mainstream posts, classes and special school places. For example, I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister regarding Our Lady of Hope School on Armagh Road, Crumlin because it does not appear to have set up a board of management. That is a problem there. As far as I am aware, it was supposed to let the Minister know if there is no board of management or if it cannot set one up. That is a difficulty for parents if they want to intervene and play a role in supporting the school as well as for the teachers and SNAs there. There are many problems we must try to resolve here but I support the legislation. I welcome it and think it can, and will, play a role in the future. However, it is one part of the process and from speaking to parents, resources are the most important part of it.

It has been mentioned that the Ombudsman for Children said the Department is failing our children. There are black spots, notably in Dublin and Cork. He also said the system can fail in its response but that such failings occur is not acceptable. His report estimates as many as 15,500 children must travel outside their local school catchment area every day to access a school place. Meanwhile, 1,500 students are receiving home tuition, which the report recommends should only be used temporarily and as a last resort. The Ombudsman goes on to say approximately 4,000 children are currently waiting for a diagnostic assessment to qualify for a school place in the first instance. How many children, therefore, have not had their assessment and are waiting for a school place that we do not know of? These children need to be given access to a psychologist via the available State services to establish whether they need a special class or a school place in the short term. The ombudsman then said the decentralised nature of our education system means it is largely up to individual schools to decide whether they will provide school places for children needs. He states there is a "need to recalibrate the balance between central Government oversight of education and schools' autonomy".

I wanted to cite that to back up what I am going to raise now. I sent the legislation over to the support groups in my constituency to see what they had to say about it and they came back to me with their assessment. The Dublin 12 Autism Support Group said:

We welcomed this step as a more streamlined process with prompt timelines between the Ministers Department corresponding with schools. Currently the 37a process is a long winded one and the longer the time spent with paperwork the longer there are children without appropriate school placement.

It's our view that improving the 37a process should also involve improved supports to schools to encourage & support them adequately and not getting the school to open classes as a tick the box exercise which appears to be the current system at least in the last few years.

To do this, the group says schools need proper resources :

Trained Staff

Sensory rooms & equipment

Access to therapists.

Secure outdoor areas

[A previous speaker said that once you get into the system you get the service you need; that is absolutely not the case.]

Support the school throught the year and for the dept of ed to respond to schools in a timely fashion.

For forward future planning it is great to have a 5 year forecast but it's pointless when you have no data for all autistic children weather it is special schools, classes or mainstream.

The Ncse & the Department need to ensure the primary school mainstream children with AEN are to included in the planning of secondary schools.

This is failure we might be facing in the next year or two because that is the situation we are facing in Dublin 12.

D12 Campaign for Inclusion stated:

Our lady of hope Needs a behaviour therapist for september we can not continue to expand the school with no onsite therapists.

We have 17 primary schools & 8 secondary schools in Dublin 12.

Of the 17 primary schools in Dublin 12, 11 currently have an ASD Special class or an Early intervention class or both.

There are 6 primary schools with no autism classes. Two are in the process of building works in order to open an autism class and that leaves 4 schools with no classes.

There are 8 secondary schools in the area, 4 have autism classes with some schools who have 2 classes in their buildings.

In Dublin 12, there are now three Early Intervention Classes, thirteen Autism Classes at primary level, and six Autism Classes at secondary level. This results in 18 Early Intervention places, 78 primary level places and 36 secondary level places, for a total of 132 places.

The campaign finishes off by making an appeal to the Minister and the CEO of the NCSE, Mr. John Kearney, " to finish our area & use D12 as an example to mirror. We want each school to open a class with proper training & supports". Since the opening of Our Lady of Hope School the campaign feels it has been left behind a little bit.

If these schools were resourced with the proper mainstream classes etc., with the resources, it would make a significant difference and would be an example of how the system could work.

I also got reply from Involve Autism D6/D6w, which made a some very important points. Its response stated:

What is proposed in the Bill and the current non-streamlined system regarding the collection of information from the SENO, parents etc., is not a robust manner in which to collect accurate data in relation to the demand for classes and appropriate placements. NCSE need to maintain a centralised system to support applications for enrolment, for data collection, for planning and reporting and to support appropriate child placement...

Any room in the area approach = More kids leaving their community

Are "area wide" reports are appropriate? The South Dublin "area wide" approach was a disaster for some areas, as the same communities and schools came forward, while others did not. This has resulted in more children on taxis and buses out of their communities. As an example South Dublin transport costs for children with disabilities this year has been €72,704 every day, an increase of 15% on the previous year at €63,579.

The 37A process yielded little for D6/D6w and the surrounding areas of South Dublin, e.g. D14, D16, D18 and DLR will these now be focused on as large established non DEIS schools should be the schools that are asked to open classes in the first instance. Schools who have an established AEN infrastructure should be the ones that are focused on firstly to open classes thus ensuring that children can attend their local schools in their local community.

It continues to cover a few other things about parental advocacy and enrolment policies.

This feedback is more important than our own voices and our interpretation of it. It this is coming from the actual parents themselves who are actively involved in trying to get the places and resources for their children. I welcome that the legislation is coming through. I will support it with progressive amendments proposed by different parties. I thank the Minister of State for staying in the Chamber for the time it has taken to debate the Bill.

1:40 pm

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this legislation and I have listened with interest to the contributions made by Members from all sides of the House. I believe almost 20 spoke. I appreciate that as I am sure does the Minister.

As Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion, I am committed to making a difference for students who have special educational needs as part of an inclusive education system. Children with special education needs should be supported to access the education system. The Government fully recognises the importance of an inclusive and all-embracing education system. Never is it more important than in the case of children with special education needs. I fundamentally believe that the most vulnerable children in our society must be prioritised.

I have made it clear that I believe every single school should provide special education and that is where we need to get to as a society. I know we are not there yet and that is the reality facing some families in this country at the moment, but that is where we must get to. I believe we will get there. We have to as there is no other option.

Government policy on supporting children with special educational needs aims to ensure that all children with special needs can have access to an education appropriate to their needs. Our policy is to provide for inclusive education and to ensure the maximum possible integration of children with special needs into ordinary mainstream schools. Where pupils require more targeted interventions, special class or special school placements are also provided.

This year, the Government will spend in excess of €2 billion, or more than 25% of the Department's budget on providing additional teaching and care supports for children with special educational needs. This represents an increase of more than 60% in total expenditure since 2011. Where does that money go? It goes into increasing the number of special education teachers and SNAs. I thank them for all the fantastic work they do throughout the school year in teaching and caring for children with additional needs. It also goes into increasing special classes. These classes are vital in supporting the development and potential of children with special educational needs. The budget also goes into supporting special schools. Visiting these schools is an important part of my job.

I wish to discuss the recent progress in opening new classes in Dublin. In addition to the figures provided earlier, in recent weeks an additional eight primary schools have agreed to open special classes for September. This has reduced the number of children requiring a special class placement in Dublin from 80 to 56. We know that more placements will come on stream, hopefully in the coming weeks.

The NCSE estimates that approximately 50 children require a special school placement in the Dublin region for the coming school year. I am confident that initiatives being progressed by my Department and the NCSE will deliver the necessary special school placements on both the north side and south side in Dublin during the coming school year. I mention Dublin only because the NCSE has assured me that we have appropriate placements for every other child outside Dublin county and city. While these last two developments are welcome, we need to do more and that is why I believe this new legislation is so important.

I recently announced that I was initiating the section 37A process for a third time regarding the provision of special class places at primary and special school level in the Dublin region. As I have said before, I felt I was left with no other choice but to take substantive action. I believe this is a necessary step to try to ensure that every child gets the supports they need and access to a school placement. Obviously, all parties would prefer to see schools volunteer to provide more places rather than places being secured on the back of an order or a direction from the Minister. I have heard the contributions of Deputies today about resources which were mentioned on a number of occasions. It is really important that schools get the resources from the Department and the NCSE to allow them to open special classes. I will make sure that is done.

I am particularly glad about the provision in the new section 37A in this Bill that ensures any work carried out by the NCSE in preparing a report under the existing section 37A process can carry forward and be regarded as a report for the purposes of the new section 37A. The section 37 process is one of the tools available to me as Minister of State with responsibility for special education to ensure that adequate suitable education provision is made for children with special needs and it is not a substitute for advance planning.

I am also glad to include section 67 of the Education Act in the Bill. This provides a power to the NCSE to designate a school place for an individual child in a special class or special school. It makes complete sense to commence section 67 as the NCSE is best placed to know about the students who need special school and special class places. It has also already worked with the schools directly to open these places.

Some Deputies also mentioned the support available to schools that open a special class. Where schools open a new special class, the Department’s planning and building unit can arrange a technical site visit to schools, as appropriate, to confirm the suitability of the classroom to support the establishment of special classes.

Additional staff are sanctioned in respect of new classes, generally one teacher and two SNAs at primary level and 1.5 teachers and two SNAs at post-primary level for each new class. In addition, the NCSE provides a range of supports to schools that open new special classes including: a seminar for principals; a four-day intensive training course for teachers; a two-day training course for new teachers; whole staff training; and linking the school with an NCSE adviser.

The legislation is of immediate benefit in the short term for the provision of places for September 2022. I thank all the Deputies who contributed to the debate and for sharing their views on this important legislation. No doubt this debate will continue as the Bill progresses on to Committee Stage next week.

I also thank stakeholders and the special education consultative forum in particular. This is made up of parents and advocacy groups who are working with the Department to ensure that children with special educational needs can access education placements appropriate to their needs. I am very aware that listening to the voice of parents and those representing children with disabilities is essential to ensure that what we deliver meets the needs of the children.

I look forward to seeing this urgent legislation progressing over the coming weeks, being enacted and being available as another measure to ensure that we can continue to work to plan and provide an adequate number of special class and special school places for children.

Question put and agreed to.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ar 1.50 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 2.21 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 1.50 p.m. and resumed at 2.21 p.m.