Dáil debates

Wednesday, 6 July 2022

Education (Provision in Respect of Children with Special Educational Needs) Bill 2022: Committee and Remaining Stages

 

7:17 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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The allocated time for this debate is 45 minutes.

Sections 1 and 2 agreed to.

SECTION 3

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Amendments Nos. 1 and 16 are related and will be discussed together. I call Deputy Ó Ríordáin.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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There was an expectation that there would be a vote. I wonder if we could have a slight delay until-----

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I am on amendment No. 1 now, so-----

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I will just keep talking for a second. Deputy Ó Ríordáin is now entering the Chamber.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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That would be helpful.

Amendments Nos. 1 and 16 are related. Amendment No. 16 is consequential on amendment No. 1. Both are being discussed together.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I move amendment No. 1:

In page 4, line 15, to delete “The” and substitute the following: “Subject to the adequate provision of resources and supports, by the Department of Education and the National Council for Special Education, the”.

Due to the lack of time, I am happy to get the Minister’s response.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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You have time to speak to it. There are 45 minutes. It is up to the Deputy.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I am happy to hear from the Minister.

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I want to acknowledge at the outset the co-operation that has been forthcoming from Members of the House to this point, particularly from the Opposition spokespersons on education.

In relation to this amendment, the Bill provides for new functions of school patrons, schools and boards of management in co-operating with the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, particularly in the provision and operation of new special classes. The Deputy is seeking to amend a new function being placed on the school patron but has not proposed similar amendments to that function in respect of a school or indeed a board of management.

The Bill provides for school patrons, schools and boards of management to co-operate with the NCSE without any conditions being attached to such co-operation. Accepting this amendment, which relates specifically to school patrons, would result in a lack of consistency in the new functions of school patrons, schools and boards of management in co-operating with the NCSE.

I want to assure the Deputy that my Department and the NCSE are committed to resourcing and supporting schools to open new special classes. Some 300 additional special classes have been opened in the 2021-22 school year. At least 315 more classes are expected to open for the incoming 2022-23 school year. A relevant provision already exists in section 7 of the Education Act 1998, which relates to the functions of the Minister. Under section 7, the Minister is required to ensure that there is made available to each person who is resident in the State, including a person with a disability or other special educational needs, a level and quality of education appropriate to meeting their needs and abilities. Under section 7, the Minister is also required to provide appropriate funding to schools.

In relation to the specific wording of the amendment, without some clarity on what is meant by "the adequate provision of resources and supports", it may be difficult to define what is involved when engaging with a range of school patrons in an effort to provide additional special classes.

I have outlined a number of issues, including the need for consistency with other provisions in the Bill and the practical issue of the interpretation of the amendment. For those reasons, I regret that I cannot accept this recommendation.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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What we are trying to express here is the reality on the ground, which is that schools do not feel supported. I must strongly make the point that the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, saw fit to malign four schools, two of which are in my constituency and all four of which are Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, schools.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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That is not the case.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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Actually, what the Minister of State was said was not true. Indeed, she maligned them unfairly, without any evidence. She put forward an incorrect assertion that they were not engaging with the system in terms of what was expected of them. However, it is her form to punch down on vulnerable groups. I have not had the opportunity to engage with her on-----

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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May I have an opportunity to speak?

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I am speaking to the amendment.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I dealt with this-----

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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No, if the Minister of State could-----

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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-----from Deputy Ó Ríordáin in the convention centre.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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Well, you have not dealt with it with me.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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You and I remember that occasion.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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No, I am-----

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I am not going to take intimidating or intimidatory accusations from you.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Could I-----

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I am speaking to the amendment. I am giving call as to why I am-----

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I do not wish to stand up-----

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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You always personalise your comments.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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-----so strong about pressing this amendment.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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You remember your behaviour in the convention centre.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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The Minister of State will resume her seat. Both of you-----

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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Does Deputy Ó Ríordáin remember his behaviour towards me in the Convention Centre? I will not accept it.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I am now standing up. Both Deputies must resume their seats for a moment. The clock is running. Could we refrain from making personal comments, please? We are speaking to an amendment. Could we refrain from making the personal comments, and speak to the amendment?

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, let me be perfectly clear here what the issue is in terms of this argument.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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No, we are speaking to the amendment.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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Yes.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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That is okay.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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It is very difficult because schools sometimes feel completely unsupported in embracing issues, particularly when the actions of the Minister of State in the Department are part of the problem. That is what we are trying to achieve here. I absolutely stand over my comments. To be quite frank, only for the fact that we are focusing on children this week, the Minister of State with responsibility for special education would be facing calls for her resignation.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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We are speaking to amendment No. 1. We must speak to the topic. Does anybody else wish to make a contribution? I call Deputy Ó Laoghaire.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Although my amendment No. 7 has not been grouped with this amendment, both amendments seek to address the same issue and have the same objective. It is challenging for Members of the Opposition to raise issues in relation to resources, given the Standing Orders.

It has been well articulated by schools, parents and campaign groups that a special class does not just comprise four walls. It is the resources that go with it. This goes beyond the Department of Education. It is vitally important that adequate resources are put in where this power is being used. Obviously, there are schools that are reluctant to open special classes, whether for a good reason or for a bad one. My experience is that any school that has opened a special class has never regretted it. It has enhanced their school and their school community enormously.

I have never come across a school that felt it was a mistake but clearly there are schools that are reluctant. Some of them have reasonable grounds and others may not but whatever the reason, it is vitally important that when the power is used, the resources that are in place are adequate. As I outline in amendment No. 7, that goes to adequate special needs assistant, SNA, support, mental health support for schools and child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, to be fully staffed to support them in the community and an adequate number of qualified special education teachers but, crucially, access to multidisciplinary teams including speech and language therapists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists and nursing staff. Therefore, that access to therapy is vitally important.

This goes to the HSE and the Department of Health as well. We want to ensure that any special classes or special schools that are opened under this or any other powers or, indeed, voluntarily are a success. We want to ensure that schools, teachers and school communities feel supported and that they have the resources they need. For that reason, I support amendment No. 1, which has the same effect as my amendment No. 7. I should say I have no issue with amendment No. 16 either but that is not what I intended to address.

7:27 pm

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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At the outset, I acknowledge the work of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and our absolute determination to ensure appropriate provision for all students, irrespective of their abilities and capabilities, and ensure that all children and young people are provided for in the education system. The Minister of State is working extremely hard to make sure that becomes a reality and I am working very closely with her. Together we are committed entirely to ensuring there is proper provision for all of our students.

To specifically address the question around resources being made available, I want to be very clear to the Deputy that there is no question that the appropriate resources are not being provided to our schools. They are absolutely being provided. I assure the Deputy that the Department of Education and National Council for Special Education, NCSE, are 100% committed to resourcing schools to ensure they can provide for children with special educational needs. I am confident that is reflected in the work and what we see the length and breadth of this country in terms of excellent provision by schools in making the necessary provisions. As I said previously, my Department and the NCSE are working with schools to open at least 315 new special classes in mainstream schools for the coming year. Providing the necessary resources and supports is a huge part of this work. I will give the Deputy a flavour of the types of supports that are available.

Mainstream schools opening new special classes are informed in advance of the range of supports available both from my Department and the NCSE. The supports include the Department's planning and building unit being available to work closely with schools opening new special classes. The Department has a framework of contractors in place to facilitate necessary work in schools and all works, whether they involve reconfiguration, additional accommodation needs or whatever is required, are 100% funded by the Department of Education.

There is also the issue of staffing with the sanctioning of one additional teaching post at primary level or 1.5 additional teaching posts at post-primary and at least two SNAs for every special class of six children in place. There is a programme of professional support for schools with newly-established special classes, which is being developed by the NCSE. These supports include seminars for principals, four-day intensive training courses for teachers, two-day training courses for new teachers and whole-staff continuing professional development, CPD. The school is also linked with a NCSE adviser. There is, of course, the enhanced funding through increased capitation rates, a special class start-up grant and furniture and ICT grants. I want to be very clear about that.

We can see that so many schools right throughout the country are taking up the opportunity when it comes to provision of special classes. We already have 2,118 in place since the 2021-2022 school year and 2,433 will be in place for the 2022-2023 school year, catering for more than 14,500 pupils. Clearly, therefore, the supports are being provided. Again, there is a very open policy of working hand-in-hand with schools in terms of meeting and identifying the individual needs schools might have, but also putting in place the resources they require.

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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On the matters raised already by other Deputies and the response given by the Minister, I accept there has been a considerable improvement all round. The special classes are really exceptional when they get up and running and so on. What happens when a school is not happy and requires further supports or further SNAs, and school representatives come to Members of the House to raise the issue directly with the Minister and, of course, the decision on that is outsourced?

We can learn from our mistakes, if you like, by looking at the reasons schools ask for extra support and looking at the response from the appropriate agency or, indeed, Department that refuses to grant it. When questions are asked here, the replies Deputies get are usually just a Department blurb. I would like to see much more than that happen.

I refer the Minister to School of the Holy Spirit in County Kilkenny, which asked for support and was refused, as have many other schools. Schools are not just asking for the sake of asking; they are asking for a reason. They believe the supports are needed. Some other method of response in terms of the allocations has to be put in place. Certainly, some other method of appeal has to be put in place.

Likewise, we must look at the DEIS schools. I refer to Scoil Mhuire Gan Smál and St. Joseph's National School in County Carlow. The young girls attending school are not under the DEIS system and the boys are. Who reached that decision when they are all on the same campus? We must question the decisions that are being made. We have to seek the answers from the Department or whoever is making those decisions as to why that is the case. No one in County Carlow can fathom why the decision was made to make one school a DEIS school and not say that the other one is the same. The chairman of the board of management contacted me on that case. Quite frankly, the response back from the Department is not good enough. More questions are being asked as to why the appeals are not fair-handed and why the original decisions, in fact, are not fair-handed. There is a glaring example of that in Scoil Mhuire Gan Smál and St. Joseph's National School. I ask the Minister to maybe explain that process to us and also explain what she is going to do about that particular case. It is essential for me as a representative for that constituency to understand why that has happened. I cannot understand it.

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I very clearly outlined the significant resources that are being made available to schools. The special needs organisers and the NCSE work hand-in-hand with schools where there are issues and difficulties or challenges in terms of opening up or providing provision for children with additional needs. We work individually with schools to ensure that all issues or challenges can be met.

As I said, very significant resources are being made available in terms of staffing. In terms of teaching staff, we have one teacher and at least two SNAs for six students at primary level and an allocation for 1.5 additional teaching posts, with the least two SNAs for six pupils, at post-primary level.

Equally, I acknowledged the availability of the planning and building unit and that any reconfiguration of rooms and additional building work that is required are 100% funded by the Department. There is a programme of professional supports available to schools for newly-established special classes, whether that is the intensive training course for teachers, seminars for principals, two-day training course for new teachers, whole-staff CPD and, of course, the availability of the NCSE special adviser. As I said, there is the enhanced capitation rate, special start-up grant for special classes and furniture and ICT grant. I already outlined all of that.

Specifically with regard to DEIS, although it is not part of the discussion this evening, I will be very clear that the model employed for DEIS, and the appeals process, was applied fairly across all appellants using an objective, data-based approach.

The results are the results. They are fairly and evenly applied across the country. Indeed, I note with regard to Carlow that there were approximately 13 schools that were successful in their applications. The model is open and transparent and it is an even-handed and fair application of the Haase and Pratschke, HP, index. There is no question of unevenness in that respect.

7:37 pm

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I have to disagree with that, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Section 3 agreed to.

Sections 4 and 5 agreed to.

SECTION 6

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Amendment No. 2 is out of order.

Amendment No. 2 not moved.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Amendments Nos. 3 to 9, inclusive, amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 9, and amendment No. 17 are related. Amendment No. 17 is consequential on amendments Nos. 6 and 9. Amendments Nos. 3 to 9, inclusive, amendment No. 1 to amendment to amendment No. 9 and amendment No. 17 will be discussed together.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I move amendment No. 3:

In page 5, between lines 26 and 27, to insert the following: “(2) Where, following consultation with the Minister and having regard to any information provided to the Council by the Minister in relation to any planned additional provision of education for children with special educational needs and available lands and buildings, the Council remains of the opinion that there is insufficient capacity in an area for the provision of education to children with special educational needs, it shall prepare and submit a report on the matter to the Minister.”.

I will give an overview of my amendments, and my colleagues will want to speak on theirs. First, in consultation with the Minister, which I appreciate, I am happy to accept the amendment to amendment No. 9.

Amendment No. 3 inserts, "Where, following consultation with the Minister and having regard to any information provided to the Council [the NCSE] by the Minister in relation to any planned additional provision of education for children with special educational needs and available lands and buildings, the Council remains of the opinion that there is insufficient capacity in an area for the provision of education to children with special educational needs, it shall prepare and submit a report on the matter to the Minister."

Amendment No. 4 relates to timing and states that, "such a notice shall issue no later than the 31st of March". The idea here is that it is unfair not to give a school enough time to open in September. Our contention is that later than 31 March would be too late.

Amendment No. 6 states, "Prior to preparing a report under subsection (2), the Council shall consult with the Minister...". This relates to consultation, and it is important. In the briefing that was afforded to us by the Minister, and we very much appreciate that, this Bill is about truncating the process so we do not have an elongated process. However, it is still important that we have a list of those who we should consult. It is similar with amendment No. 9. The Minister has proposed an amendment to that amendment and we accept that. The other amendments are similar to that as well.

I have given a broad sweep of what we are intending to do here. It is mainly about consultation and making sure the school is given the best opportunity to open in September. The timeline would be important there. We are accepting the amendment to amendment No. 9.

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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With regard to amendment No. 3, I must point out that the primary aim of this urgent new legislation is to truncate and streamline the current section 37A process. It is generally accepted by all stakeholders that the current process is too long, and I know the Deputy is of a similar view, as is the House. On one of the two occasions the section 37A process was used, it took 18 months to conclude.

I note that this amendment is the first of a number of amendments the Deputy is proposing which seek to reintroduce existing provisions and steps from the current section 37A process into this new legislation. The Deputy's amendments aim to extend the shorter section 37A process provided for in the Bill, and would have the effect of delaying the issuing of a ministerial direction to a school. Assuming that this legislation is enacted in the coming weeks, these amendments together would have the effect of preventing the use of the new shorter section 37A process to address the immediate challenge facing us of providing places for children with special educational needs and requiring an appropriate place for the coming school year.

There is already a significant level of engagement between my Department and the National Council for Special Education, particularly in the last two years, with regard to the forward planning of special educational needs placements. A significant level of information is shared by my Department's planning and building unit with the National Council for Special Education from the geographical information system. I am therefore confident that the NCSE will have a significant level of information from my Department which can be considered before the NCSE decides to prepare and submit a report to the Minister. As this amendment goes against the primary aim of the Bill, I cannot accept it.

Regarding amendment No. 4, I understand the intention of the amendment. I assure the Deputy that it will be absolutely my intention that any future section 37A processes commence in a timely manner and well in advance of the beginning of a new school year. I know that this would be important for parents and children with special educational needs, and for the schools that might be subject to notices under section 37A. However, while understanding what the Deputy is trying to achieve in this amendment, the amendment does not allow for any flexibility in how the section 37A process could be used, and the flexibility in the process is important. There are situations which may arise where a Minister may need to issue notices in April or the month of May in advance of a new school year in September, and I do not want to preclude that being a possibility. The biggest reason for needing the flexibility relates to a situation where there may be a delay in a cohort of children being diagnosed and receiving a recommendation for a special class or special school placement or, indeed, regarding students coming from abroad and arriving in the month of April.

The amendment would suggest that for five months there would not be an opportunity for us to progress. Assuming that the legislation is enacted in the coming weeks, this amendment would have the effect of preventing the use of the new shorter section 37A process to address the immediate challenge facing us in providing places for children. Therefore, I cannot accept the amendment, but I assure the Deputy that I am committed to ensuring that any section 37A process commences in good time. However, I do not believe we should restrict ourselves in the manner intended by the Deputy should an unforeseen circumstance arise where the section 37A process may be required for a small number of children or young people in a small circumstance, as it were.

As regards amendment No. 5, as mentioned previously this is another amendment which seeks to lengthen the section 37A process. This cuts across the primary aim of the Bill, which I know the Deputy supports. The amendment would require the Minister in every instance to consult with stakeholders before specifying what resources the Minister considers appropriate to provide to a school to assist the school in making additional provision for education for children with special educational needs. The amendment does not provide a defined timeline for this consultation and the details of the range of stakeholders to be consulted are not provided. I assure the Deputy that the Department and the National Council for Special Education are committed to resourcing and supporting schools to open new special classes. Under the proposed new section 37A process, after the issuing by the Minister of the initial notice schools will have two opportunities to make representations, including representation in respect of resources. The Minister will also be required to consider any representations before moving to the next step in the process. Assuming this legislation is enacted in the coming weeks, these amendments together would have the effect of preventing the use of the new shorter section 37A process, which is what we are seeking to achieve here. In fact, amendment No. 5 has the effect of extending the proposed section 37A process and, therefore, I cannot accept it.

With regard to amendment No. 6, I accept the importance of engagement with all education stakeholders and special educational needs advocacy groups on special education classes and special school places.

In fact, I was very happy that the announcement of all this was supported by at least four of the advocacy groups, who welcomed this urgent legislation and asked that it be enacted as soon as possible. Amendment No. 6, however, would require the NCSE in every instance to engage with a range of education stakeholders before preparing a report under section 37A. The NCSE and the Department have ongoing engagement with education stakeholders on the provision of additional special classes and special school places. It is envisaged that the NCSE will have engaged with schools that might be considered under any section 37A process on a number of occasions before any such process would commence and, therefore, it would not be an unexpected development for the schools involved, and wider education stakeholders, for those particular schools to be considered under a section 37A process. As outlined in this amendment, it will have the effect of extending the proposed section 37A process and for those reasons I cannot accept the amendment.

I fully appreciate the intention of amendment No. 7, but there are a number of issues with it. I assure the Deputy that it is my intention, and that of the Department and the NCSE, to provide appropriate educational resources to schools providing additional special classes. The Department and the NCSE can only make this commitment in respect of resources under our control. It is not the function of the Department or the NCSE to provide a number of the resources highlighted in the Deputy’s amendment. These resources are under the remit of other Departments and State bodies. This amendment and other amendments proposed by the Deputy relate to the core functions and role of the NCSE and their staff, in particular, the special education needs organisers, SENOs. Most of the amendments relate to the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act. Given the pace at which this urgent legislation has been drafted, and how quickly it is now progressing, I suggest that we need more time and space to consider the issues being addressed in the Deputy’s amendments. The current review of the EPSEN Act might be an opportunity for us to consider these matters further.

I apologise to Deputy Ó Laoghaire. I thought amendment No. 7 had been moved.

7:47 pm

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I think it is in a different group.

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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No. It is amendment No. 7 straight through to amendment No. 17.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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It is with amendments Nos. 3 to 9, inclusive.

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I apologise. I assumed Deputy Ó Ríordáin moved all of them.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I moved the amendment for Deputy Ó Laoghaire.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Only one amendment needs to be moved, but we are speaking to all of them, namely, amendments Nos. 3 to 9, inclusive, and amendment No. 17.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I am satisfied I have addressed amendment No. 7 in the previous group.

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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That is grand. For the reasons outlined, I cannot accept amendment No. 7.

On amendment No. 8, when the section 37A process is being used, it must be open and transparent. This is important for everyone involved. Openness and transparency must be at the heart of it for the schools involved and, in particular, for the parents of children and young people with special educational needs, their representative bodies and advocacy groups. Deputy Ó Ríordáin’s amendment seeks to remove that openness and transparency. I assure him that the section 37A process will continue to be an option of last resort. The preference remains for all parties involved to work together collaboratively to provide additional special classes. The Department and the NCSE will continue to engage with school authorities in a collaborative manner to provide additional special classes and special school places. It is through this engagement that the vast majority of additional classes are successfully provided for at present. However, where schools do not co-operate with the NCSE, and there is an identified need for additional provision in a particular area, it may be necessary to use the section 37A process. It is not intended that this will be a surprise development at any point for any school involved. To ensure the continued openness and transparency of the section 37A process, I cannot accept the amendment.

I appreciate the Deputy has agreed to the new wording relating to amendment No. 9. On amendment No. 17, as I have said previously, in drafting this urgent legislation the Office of the Attorney General and the Department were anxious to ensure that the general purpose and objective of the legislation was reflected in the recitals section. I understand the purpose of what the Deputy suggested in his amendment. I agree it is vitally important that all organisations and individuals tasked with implementing the provisions of the Bill consult and work with parents of children with special educational needs. In recent times the Department has had significant engagement with special educational needs advocacy groups and representative bodies on a range of education matters. A special educational needs stakeholder forum is now operating, which is positive and helpful, and is leading to excellent co-operation and consultation, as it should. As I said previously, I am pleased, as I am sure everybody in the House will be, to acknowledge a number of the advocacy groups have welcomed this urgent legislation. It is also at their request that it be enacted as soon as possible. I confirm that myself and my Department are committed to continuing to work with parents, their representative bodies and advocacy groups on the implementation of this legislation and on special educational needs provision and policy into the future.

This Bill provides for a new function of the NCSE to co-ordinate and manage the admission of children to special classes and special schools. Where the council decides to take on this role in a particular area, it will be done so only after consultation with parents and schools. I am confident that if the council decides to take on this new role in specific areas, it will be of significant assistance to parents, children and young people. I am satisfied that the legislation promotes the need for all parties to engage with parents of children with special educational needs regarding school admission and other matters. For that reason, I do not believe the Deputy’s amendment is necessary and, therefore, I cannot accept it.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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I will briefly speak to amendment No. 7, which gets to the heart of the issue, in the sense that it is not enough to just have the power to compel schools to open special education classes more rapidly. The resources have to be in place so these classes actually work for children, teachers and schools.

I hear the Minister's objection, which is twofold. One part of it is that some of the resources being referred to are from the HSE rather than the Department of Education and, second, she thinks it will delay the process or whatever. What is outlined in the amendment, which is a good one tabled by Deputy Ó Laoghaire, is that a report would have to be produced to indicate whether the necessary resources are in place to provide children with an adequate education or not. It is about saying it is just not good enough that a room, library or cupboard will be turned into a special education class so a box can be ticked stating we now have another special education class. That is the point. If the schools, principals or boards of management say, when they very clearly have the resources, that they still do not want to open special classes, that is not on. They should be directed to open such classes, but the resources have to follow. I am hearing that in many cases the resources do not exist and, therefore, we are just talking about a classroom that is not providing what we need.

I hear what the Minister is saying but I will make two comments in response. If the objection was that some of this stuff is not provided by the Department, she could have addressed that by means of an amendment to remove those elements, but that does not hold water because we are only talking about a report here. It is appropriate that we, the Department and the NCSE should have a holistic view of children's education, which, of course, includes resources for therapists, etc., that are allocated by the HSE rather than the Department.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I partially addressed his matter in the previous amendment, but I will take the opportunity to discuss it. I will be brief because I am anxious to move to the next group of amendments.

The Minister may say there is no question of resources not being in place but we hear from schools - maybe more so special schools than special classes but the legislation relates to that - that resources are not being put in place.

The primary issue is typically the availability of therapists. It is not the only issue. Certainly, there are issues with the provision of SNAs in special classes and special schools. However, there are issues with the provision of therapies, in particular. I know that it falls outside the remit of the Department of Education. It may not be the case with motions and so on, but it is not unusual for legislation to refer to different Ministers and to cut across different Departments. It is vitally important and integral to ensuring that these children can reach their full potential that they have access to therapies. Currently, they do not have such access. It is particularly important for children who are in special classes or special schools. As I am sure the Minister and the Minister of State agree, early intervention is essential to ensuring that children are in a position to progress and potentially to move from a special school to a special class, or from a special class into a mainstream class. Without the adequate provision of therapies, that will not happen. What I am asking the Minister for in relation to this report is to ensure that confidence can be given to schools where they are opening a special class, and to ensure that the schools can be encouraged to do so on the basis of that.

7:57 pm

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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It is not in any way our intention to prolong the process. The briefing that the Minister's Department provided is very clear. It is trying to truncate the process and is trying to take simultaneous steps along the way rather than sequential steps. What we are saying here is very much that schools can prepare if it is something that needs to be utilised. The Minister has said she does not want to be in a position to utilise it unnecessarily and it is not the best way to go. Schools have to prepare. If a school opens a special class for the first time, it changes the dynamic of the schools. It is a good and positive change. It is something that will benefit everybody, but schools have to be empowered to embrace that change. They need to know how to change properly and well. That is what our amendments are trying to achieve. We are in no way trying to exhaust the scenario or to make the Bill in front of us redundant because it effectively does what the previous Act would have done. I wish to make that case strongly. I appreciate where the Minister is coming from on the issue of the 31 March cut-off and emerging situations. I can appreciate that the Minister wants the leeway to engage with schools in the months of April and May. I am happy to withdraw the amendment. However, I wish to state that the point of the amendment is that we are not in a situation where schools have no time. I think the Minister will accept that it would be better, in the majority of cases, that such a decision or such an introduction be made well before the month of April. I can appreciate that the Minister would want the leeway within legislation to be able to act in an emerging situation. On that basis, I will withdraw amendment No. 4.

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputies for the points they have raised and for the amendments they have put forward. I absolutely accept in good faith the manner in which they were all made. I think we have a shared objective here, which is to realise the maximum potential for all students, and in this instance, particularly for students with additional needs, and the provision of special classes or placements in special schools for them. I have referenced the various issues with the amendments that have been proposed. There is an absolute priority here in streamlining the section 37A process. We know that it has been used in two previous instances. On one occasion the process lasted for more than 18 months. It is imperative that the process should be streamlined and the legislation enacted as quickly as possible. That is also the view of the advocacy groups. I know that the Deputies are aware of that. Through what we are doing today and as we move forward with it, we are ensuring that the process will take no more than six to eight weeks.

On the provision of resources, I have outlined very clearly to the House that significant resources are provided by the Department of Education. I also wish to state that this is a step-by-step process that is undertaken with the schools, the NCSE and the special needs organisers working on the ground. It is a step-by-step process where schools are worked with collectively and individually to ensure that they have the confidence and the ability to open special classes or to provide fo additional places in the special schools. Again, I wish to reiterate that significant resources are provided by the Department of Education, including the provision of additional teaching staff, with one teacher and at least two SNAs being provided for every six pupils in a special class and 1.5 teachers and at least two SNAs being provided for every six students at post-primary level. As I have said, all of the works in terms of reconfiguration from a planning and a building point of view are resourced by the Department, and equally, accommodation is 100% funded by the Department. Additional grants are also provided by the Department, such as the classroom start-up grant, the furniture grant, the ICT grant and improved capitation funding in recognition of what is happening in the schools. Training is provided for staff in schools opening special classes, and there is liaison between the school and the relevant NCSE adviser. As has been referenced, there are some aspects that are not within the remit of the Department of Education, specifically in relation to amendment No. 4. I appreciate the good faith in which Deputy Ó Ríordáin has brought the amendment. In an ideal scenario, 31 March would be the cut-off point. Indeed, that is our intention. However, as I have outlined, there will always be exceptions. It will not be workable for us if there is a lack of flexibility, with a period of five months when we cannot engage with schools on provision for exceptional cases as they can arise. There are limited circumstances, as we know, in which issues can arise and impact a school's engagement with the NCSE. It could be a case of delayed diagnosis. It could be a student is arriving from abroad. Indeed, a number of such students have recently arrived in Ireland. It is for that reason that we have included the provision. I appreciate that the Deputy has acknowledged those points in his withdrawal of amendment No. 4.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I move amendment No. 4:

In page 6, line 5, after “person” to insert the following:

“, such a notice shall issue no later than the 31st of March preceding the new school year and shall not be issued during the months of July and August”.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I move amendment No. 5:

In page 6, line 15, after “Minister” to insert “, following consultation with stakeholders,”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I move amendment No. 6:

In page 6, between lines 36 and 37, to insert the following:

“(4) Prior to preparing a report under subsection (2), the Council shall consult with the Minister, bodies representatives of patrons, national associations of parents, recognised school management organisations and recognised trade unions and staff associations representing teachers.”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I move amendment No. 7:

In page 7, between lines 35 and 36, to insert the following:
“(11) (a) The Council shall publish, concurrent with the giving of such a direction referred to in this section a report outlining the adequacy of resources provided by the Department, the NCSE, and the HSE and other relevant organisations to the Schools, and stating whether in the council’s view if the resources meet the needs of the school community and the children in the Special Class or School.
(b) These resources shall include, but not be limited to:

(i) adequate SNA support;

(ii) access to Multi Disciplinary teams incl Speech and Language Therapists, Psychiatrists, Occupational Therapists, Psychiatrists and Nursing Staff;

(iii) Mental Health supports for pupils in schools and CAMHS fully staffed to meet the needs of all children with emotional and behavioural disorders; and

(iv) adequately qualified special Education Teachers.”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Amendment No. 8 not moved.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The time permitted for this debate having expired, I am required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the Dáil of 5 July 2022: "That amendment No. 9, as amended, and the amendments set down by the Minister for Education and not disposed of are hereby made to the Bill; in respect of each of the sections undisposed of, that the section, or as appropriate the section as amended, is hereby agreed to in Committee; the Preamble and Title are hereby agreed to in Committee; the Bill, as amended, is accordingly reported to the House; Fourth Stage is hereby completed and the Bill is hereby passed."

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Bill will now be sent to the Seanad.