Seanad debates

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Special Education Provision: Statements


10:30 am

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, to the House.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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I am delighted that the Seanad has chosen to discuss this area of public policy. I think the Oireachtas can be proud of what we have done in the area of special education. Despite the very difficult environment in which we have been working in recent years, we have consistently increased the resources in the area. Since 2011, the provision in special education has been increased by about 43% and well over €1.5 billion of the education budget goes into special education provision, which is considerably larger than, for example, the allocation to higher education. We have made a very serious policy commitment to provide integrated opportunities for people with special education needs to succeed and to progress through education.

I do not want to spend too much time on the type of provision but basically we seek to have an inclusive and integrated model wherever we can. In excess of 60% of children with ASD are in mainstream classes, approximately 20% are in special classes within mainstream schools, and 20% are in special schools. That tends to be the distribution. There is clearly a hope that we can have as many as possible in mainstream education.

We now have more than 14,000 SNAs, an increase of 33% since 2011. We have approximately 13,500 special education teacher posts, representing a similar increase since 2011. Special classes are becoming more prevalent and the number has increased by considerably in excess of 100%, from 548 in 2011 to more than 1,300 now, which is a very substantial expansion. Initially much of that was at primary level, but increasingly we are seeing that move on to a very significant expansion of ASD units at second level. We have 124 special schools with about 7,500 students. As Senators know, the pupil-teacher ratio in special units is much more favourable at 6:1, with two SNAs. These are very specialist support areas. That expansion has required the Department to invest in facilities to back that up.

I know the Education (Admissions to Schools) Bill is yet to come to the Seanad. That Bill allows either Tusla or the NCSE to require a school to take an individual student. On Report Stage we will introduce an amendment allowing the NCSE after a number of steps to require a school, by way of ministerial order, to open an ASD unit or a special unit. That is a new power to ensure we can continue to expand the provision.

We may also make changes to the way we allocate money. In September, we introduced a new model for allocating resource teachers. The aim of the model was to frontload into schools the number of resource teachers they would need based on the profile of individual schools. We put in extra resources to ensure we could do that in a way that no school would lose. That is the first time we moved from the need to have a diagnostic report to trigger resource teaching. Instead we are gearing up the schools based on the expected profile of individual schools and not only does the school now have more resources to meet the need, but it has moved away from this labelling approach. While labelling was unnecessary in many cases, sometimes diagnoses are very helpful for teaching. The model has moved away from unnecessary labelling where it could be avoided. It has also promoted more of a whole-school approach to integrating special education. It gives school principals more discretion to decide whether one-to-one, group or mainstream teaching should be used to provide that extra support. I have visited schools using this new approach and it has been very warmly received. People tell me it is not only good for the children with special needs, but that it is good for the entire school and gives a much more integrated approach to delivery.

Senators will also be interested in the area of special needs provision. For many years this provision has been allocated very late in the year, often in June at the end of the school year. The system was that the Minister had to go back to Cabinet to get approval for a new financial allocation; it had not been built into the Estimates. This year, for the first time, we have built it into the Estimates and we hope to be able to announce the allocation to schools within the next few days, allowing for much better planning.

The NCSE is close to completion of its work to review the special need assistance programme to ascertain if we are delivering to meet the children's needs in the best possible way.They have done much work on this. The recent pilot which we announced on Monday gives an indication of the direction of their thinking. This year, for 75 schools and 75 preschools in the west Dublin, Wicklow and Kildare area, CHO 7, we will introduce a scheme whereby we embed speech and language resource and occupational therapy resource within a network of schools. They will service a network of 150 institutions including preschools, special schools and primary and secondary schools. Based on good exemplars, we believe that not only can better one-to-one support be provided, but one can develop programmes whereby teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs and parents can provide continuity between one-to-one sessions that a child might have with a speech and language therapist. That can transform the learning environment by establishing continuity rather than occasion access to the therapists followed by a long gap and a drop off and so on; it will integrate the therapy. While it is a pilot, it gives a direction of the thinking coming from the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, that we can do better if we bring new expertise to bear within the school setting on a professional partnership basis between the SNAs, teachers and parents with a professional, allowing us to better deliver to students' needs. That is in progress. Based on the success of the resource teaching model, which has been well received, we hope to develop it over time.

I mentioned the admissions Bill, to which we are making changes.

The NCSE is the independent leader and it decides where a child is looking for a school place. It uses its special education needs organisers, SENOs, to support parents in getting access to the appropriate setting. If, for any reason, they do not get an appropriate setting, home schooling opportunities are available. Some 1,700 pupils avail of home tuition although generally children wait for a suitable school placement. We are taking new powers to support the NCSE in making sure that schools will develop. We are very determined that no school will turn away a child because of their special education need or decline to participate in providing a special unit if that school is the most appropriate location for delivery.

The other service which is key to this is the national education psychological service. Under the programme for Government, we have committed to expanding this service. It is a really important piece of the infrastructure. We currently have 180 whole-time equivalent psychologists in the service. We are steadily expanding the service with the development of well-being programmes in each school.

The final piece of the jigsaw is school transport. That is a very significant investment. About 12,000 children with special needs avail of the school transport scheme at a cost of €88 million. We make a significant investment there so that children have transport to the most suitable school.

It is an area in which we have done a lot. One of the ambitions for the future is to really focus to make sure that we also deliver on good outcomes. Our inspection service show very good methodologies being deployed. We need to ensure that as we deepen the resource commitment and improve its allocation that we see gains in children staying on more, developing their independence skills, and progressing to other opportunities. That is an area where we need to do more analysis and develop the methodologies to record that progress and establish good objective benchmarks for evaluating policy initiatives and alternatives.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister and thank him for his contribution. As the Minister noted, some good progress have been made in special education provision. Fianna Fáil is very proud of the part it has played in this along with others. It is vitally important that every child who goes through the school gates on their first day is able to maximise their potential so that no child is left behind.

My contribution here is on the provision of special needs assistance. I heard the Minister say that he expects to make an announcement on this in coming days which is very positive. In the past, late announcements caused serious problems as I am sure the Minister will be aware. It caused serious problems for boards of management, school principals, parents and for special needs assistants themselves. It was the case that allocations were not announced until some schools had gone on holidays. This was not satisfactory because boards of management had to be brought in during the summer holidays when people were away and it caused serious disruption. Special needs assistants did not know whether they would be allocated to a particular school for the school year ahead or whether they would have to apply elsewhere. Everyone was in limbo and it was not satisfactory. I welcome the Minister having looked at the area and am glad that he will make an announcement this week or maybe early next week. It is very positive and it would be uncharitable not to acknowledge that the Minister has taken on board the concerns of all the stakeholders in making that announcement.

I also wish to raise the delay in the construction of special needs schools. I understand that commitments and promises were made to construct ten schools for the start of the 2016-2017 school year. I understand that 70% of those schools have yet to move beyond the planning stage. That is disappointing. When we make commitments and promised to anyone, but especially to those in the area of special needs, it is important that we stand over those promises and deliver what we say we will. Will the Minister make a comment on the status of those ten schools and what stage of construction they have reached when he sums up the debate? As the Minister observed, the progress made in special needs provision is very positive. There is much more that we can do but much progress has been made of which we can be proud. Our children will be its beneficiaries.

I now turn to school transport. The Minister will not need me to remind him of the issues on this that all of us across the country encountered last year. From what I hear, it might be even worse this year.Perhaps when the Minister is summing up he might comment on his understanding of where the rural transport scheme is for all our students so that parents who had bad experiences last year will not have the same bad experiences this year. Perhaps the Minister might give them some confidence as they look forward to the new academic year. Will he also make a brief comment on capitation grants? I know it is not directly under the umbrella of what we are talking about today but one could say that the funding of schools across the board affects all children regardless. The capitation grants are becoming a serious issue for schools. They are stretched to breaking point.

The Department needs to step up and enhance its contribution. That would take the pressure off school principals who are stressed wondering whether they are going to have the finances to keep functioning in the year ahead. I refer to parents as well. They are hard pressed enough without having to put their hands into their pockets to make contributions to make sure the lights stay on and there is heating for their children at school. We might get some indication of the Minister's thoughts in that area as well. I thank him for taking the time to come here today. This is a good news story and great work has been done. Everyone in both Houses can be very proud of our contribution. However, we cannot rest on our hands. There is always more we can and should do. The ambition we have for all our children is that every child that goes through the school gate will maximise his or her potential by the time he or she leaves that school, whether that is primary, secondary or whatever level.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. I have read the press releases in respect of speech and language therapy, and occupational therapy. They are extremely welcome. I want to seek a comment from the Minister on what we determine as special needs. In the areas and schools that I most represent sometimes those special needs come in the form of trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, or behavioural difficulties due to the social environment. These are sometimes separated as if these are problematic students rather than actually displaying behaviours based on the conditions in which they are living.

These students often end up in resource classes. A diversity of students end up in those resource classes. Some of them have diagnoses for autistic spectrum disorders, ASD, and different learning difficulties. There are, however, also students who are experiencing similar difficulties in school but do not necessarily come under that diagnosis. What will be the role of the occupational therapists at primary and pre-school levels? I am not sure if it will be at secondary level as well. Will they look at the holistic needs of the students in respect of mental health and how that is impacting their school? I recently spent the morning in Linn Dara school with students who are not in mainstream school any more. They spoke very passionately about their negative experience of school. I understand that schools are not resourced or trained to a level needed to deal with the level of difficulty that can be found in the classroom. There are so many different needs.

How can we piece all of this together so that we can meet such a diverse range of needs within the mainstream school? My own daughter went through secondary school with high anxiety. That resulted in many mental health issues. It was mentioned earlier that we do not want to be diagnosing people. However, the diagnosis that we ended up with in the end possibly saved her life. She is on the autistic spectrum. We got that diagnosis after she had endured what felt like five hellish years in a school system that she did not understand. She could not fit in or meet the requirements made of her in the classroom setting. Schools such as the one my daughter went to are underresourced in respect of being able to send children for educational psychology assessments as well as to occupational therapists and speech and language therapists. How can we increase the number of educational assessments of needs in children in such schools so that we can figure out the needs?

We do not want to diagnose everybody, but in some cases a diagnosis can actually improve the experience of that child within school. My daughter is now in Trinity College Dublin. She feels a great difference in disability service provision and what is being provided for her in respect of accommodation and being able to sit her exams on her own. If something as simple as that had been provided in the school system it would have made a massive difference to her performance during exam time. She now gets to sit in a room on her own without those small distractions that would sometimes distract people on the spectrum.

On the recognition of special needs resource requirements for kids with dyscalculia - I have brought this up with the Minister, Deputy Bruton in the past - I feel it is something that is not getting much attention in the same way as dyslexia does. We have a cohort of children in school that have a disability with mathematics. It is not about how it is being taught to them. It is not about their ability or how much work they have put into it. It is an actual disability. It is standing in the way of their progression into third level education because it is not being recognised to the same standard as dyslexia in respect of mathematics waivers at the leaving certificate.

Trinity College Dublin has a mathematics waiver, which is what allowed my daughter to go to college, but not all universities have mathematics waivers. To get a mathematics waiver, an educational psychological assessment is needed. If these were more available in some of the schools that do not have much resources - or the families do not have many resources - then we would see a much higher progression rate to third level, as indeed we would if we could recognise all the invisible disabilities that exist within second level education.

It is very important that we support children so that they are able to stay in mainstream school. However, there is a gap when they leave school. If they do not go to university, further education institutes do not have the same supports as the university sector. I was alerted recently to a girl who had been accepted into Ballyfermot College of Further Education. She has a disability. When she tried to follow the next step in her education, she was told that the college was not required to meet the needs she had to allow her to study there. In respect of further education, we can get children up to the point where they are 18 but we need to be able to enable progression into further education. The university sector does quite well in respect of having resources for dealing with disabilities. Community colleges, however, are not in that position.

In respect of the units - I do not like calling them that - I am currently working on a very alarming case. I will be in contact with the Minister, Deputy Bruton, when I have gathered the full evidence. A child in Cork or Limerick - I will have to doublecheck my notes - has been sent home from a school unit. There are only two children in that unit. I think it can cater for up to ten children. I will have to check my notes on that again. The unit said that it could not meet that child's requirements. It is a whole unit working with only two children. It should have the ability to work with many more children.

The unit told the mother that the child was not to come back to the special unit until he was medicated. These are teaching professionals and special needs professionals nearly forcing a parent to medicate her child so he would be able to come back to the unit. I wonder about the consistency across all the training in respect of people working in that area. There is much amazing work being done but there are also gaps and we are failing many children. This young boy, who is at the early stage of second level, cannot even access one of the units. What stuck me was that this unit cannot meet his needs when it is not even at full capacity.I wonder how it could meet the needs of all the children if it was at full capacity. I wonder how much we are supporting the special needs units in carrying out their functions for kids that need extra support.

The Joint Committee on Education and Skills yesterday heard submissions on something I was unaware of. The discussion concerned sex education. Inclusion Ireland came before the committee to talk about people with intellectual disabilities and how the education system is impacting them. I was not aware that children in special schools with intellectual disabilities are taught at primary level right up to the age of 18. We have not even reformed the education system to recognise that young people with intellectual disabilities are not eternal children. They are going through teenage years and going into adolescence. They would like to potentially have relationships, go into the workforce or live with some independence. I wonder if this is an area the Minister has looked at when considering special education. We have special schools that are teaching at primary level right up to when the child is 18. We should create a system that allows children with special needs to go through the same age-appropriate education that kids in mainstream schools do, so that they have some chance to be at par with their peers when they eventually leave school or go into third level or further education.

Photo of Catherine NooneCatherine Noone (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I am speaking on behalf of my colleague, Senator Byrne, who is unavailable this afternoon.

I would firstly like to commend the Minister on the fact that almost €1.8 billion will be invested in special education this year, nearly a fifth of the overall education budget. This has increased by 43% since 2011.

Considerable work has already been undertaken, and is ongoing, in identifying the appropriate form and level of support for children with special educational needs. It is critical that the optimal form of support is provided. From September 2017 a new model for allocating special education teachers has been introduced for all mainstream primary and post-primary schools. The special needs assistant, SNA, scheme was originally conceived as a model to provide assistance to children with significant care needs arising mainly from physical disabilities, in order to facilitate their participation in mainstream education, where possible. In order to provide the best possible outcomes for children with special needs, for teaching and also for care needs, it is of the utmost importance that all special education schemes are monitored, regularly reviewed and revised, as necessary. The outcomes for pupils must be captured in a meaningful way to ensure that the most appropriate form of support is provided to pupils with special educational needs in educational settings.

I wish to address some points of concern raised by the Special Needs Parents Association. Its members have raised the issue of sports. They have also emphasised the importance of developing schemes based on children's needs rather than diagnosis. Ensuring that no child is locked out of a service on the basis that his or her diagnosis does not fit a disability service criteria is obviously an issue of concern for all stakeholders. The association is enthusiastically awaiting the roll-out of children's disability network teams across the country, which will cater for all children with complex needs, regardless of what type of school or preschool setting they are in.

The association's vision for children's disability services, under the national reform programme progressing disability services for children and young people, is to establish children's disability network teams to provide therapeutic children for complex needs. The vision encompasses the following: easy access to the services children need; fairness in providing services; and families, health services and schools working together to support children in developing their potential. This vision will ensure that instead of trying to find their way through a maze of services, parents and health professionals will easily be able to find out where a child should be referred. As much as any supports offered to children with special educational needs and disabilities are welcomed, there is some concern about disjointed policies, despite cross-departmental approaches.

The reconfiguration of children's disability services was launched in 2010, but the lack of investment in therapists, infrastructure and industrial relations issues have stalled progress for the past eight years, with no new teams being formed since 2014. As far as the Special Needs Parents Association is aware, no additional funding for therapists and support staff has been allocated more recently, but perhaps the Minister can respond to this.

Another issue of concern is that competition between different parts of the HSE in recruiting therapists will be compounded by yet another programme opening up posts. There may be a difficulty in getting therapists. This alone will create a gap in current services caused by recruitment delays and existing vacant posts, which are already hard to fill.

The universal therapy inputs into schools by building the capacity and knowledge of school staff. This will undoubtedly show benefits and schools will feel more supported. It is very positive that the Government is so committed to ensuring that children with special educational needs are given the opportunity to live independent lives and reach their full potential. Significant resources are committed to supporting children with special needs. This continued substantial investment in special education resources, which had been lacking for some years, has contributed to significant improvements, as the Minister has referred to. Considerable work has already been undertaken, and is ongoing. I wish the Minister continued success in that regard and thank him for attending.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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The Minister is very welcome. I want to begin, if I may, by speaking about special needs assistants. I commend the ongoing work and commitment of the Forsa trade union and its members, whose investment in this sector is second to none. I want to applaud Fórsa's recent announcement that it intends to establish a professional institute which will provide ongoing support training for special needs assistants. I think this is a really proactive move by the trade union movement, and shows its commitment to the sector and indeed to its members.

Currently, neither the State nor the schools in which SNAs are based are providing the desired level of ongoing training. Perhaps it would be appropriate to ask the Minister to consider whether he could provide public funds to Fórsa to invest in the workings of its new institute. It would be the sort of innovative approach that I would certainly call for. Fórsa's SNA institute will allow workers to underpin their experience and qualifications with up-to-date training in order to move a sector where precarious employment is still growing towards professionalisation. There is a core of 60% of SNAs surveyed by Forsa who have been employed in the sector for over a decade. However, of those surveyed, 82% still say that they would be interested in further training. This demand must be met in some way, and obviously Forsa feels it needs to step in.

As the Minister knows, Sinn Féin has consistently called on the Government to make a number of specific changes concerning special needs assistants. The State's record on publishing the annual SNA allocation in a timely fashion has been very poor over the last several years. In fairness, the Minister has referred to this. Each year, SNAs employed by the State have been left in the lurch as to whether they will have a job after the summer. It is just not a situation that can be tolerated. I welcome the Minister's indication that this year, I take it by the end of this month, people will know. That is progress. I need to acknowledge that. To be fair, however, while it is a step in the right direction for the workers themselves, the Minister needs to look for his Department to do this by the end of March each year to give people adequate time to plan. The Minister is clearly aware of the issue, and I would welcome a commitment to moving that deadline forward in future years.

This also speaks to the issue of job security. The level of job security afforded to special needs assistants is just not satisfactory. As the Minister knows, at the moment they cannot apply for new jobs because they may still have one. They cannot get the relevant documentation to apply for work or to prepare to do so, because they just do not know what their situation will be. There is no security and no certainty, and any steps the Minister can take to improve that situation, including an announcement this week, will be very welcome. I stress that SNAs have a relationship with their assigned students. We want that security and continuity to be there in order to strengthen their bond.

We also want to establish a procedure for schools' grievances to be heard. Last May, 558 schools were looking to appeal their special needs allocation under the new resource model. Their principals closed their doors for the summer not knowing how they would prepare for the following year. I do not think any of us would accept that as a satisfactory situation.

I welcome the Minister's Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016, not only because it will make progress with regards to removing the baptism barrier, but also because it will attempt to deal with children with special needs being denied access to local schools.The National Council for Special Education has found that several schools are using restrictive admissions policies to deter students with special needs from seeking admission. Some schools are telling parents they do not have the resources, and others are advising parents to go elsewhere for schools better suited to cater for their needs. This is unacceptable. I am sceptical about the motive behind these refusals. The Minister's Bill would enable powers to ensure a school would open a special needs class for children where deemed necessary. I very much welcome this.

There is a crisis regarding autism spectrum disorder places and units across the State. There are parents frantically applying to every school in their county to try to secure a space for their child. Some schools could be up to an hour and a half away from their home or from where the child's siblings go to school, but this is the reality for parents with children with special needs. Could the Minister outline whether any proposals are in place to deal with this issue?

I would like to deal with the urgent need for NEPS psychologists in our schools. I acknowledge the Minister referred to this in his speech. In 2017, 619 schools across the State did not have access to a NEPS psychologist for the purpose of carrying out an assessment. That is just shocking. It flies in the face of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004, which gives a statutory right to children to receive assessments in a timely manner. The schools need greater resources from the State to provide these invaluable services. If they do not get them, the State will essentially be forcing the parents and children into the private market to access services that they cannot go without. Those parents who cannot afford to have a private assessment carried out risk having their child left behind.

Photo of Maire DevineMaire Devine (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister and his statement on speech and language therapy and occupational therapy provision.

I am speaking on behalf of constituents in Dublin South-Central, my area, whose population of people with disabilities is above the national average. The recent RTÉ programme showed parents and children at St. John of God special school, Islandbridge, and how they are suffering. Many of the children have had little or no access to occupational therapy or speech and language therapy. These children cannot gain access to mainstream education because their needs are too severe. One child, from Dolphin's Barn, Dublin 8, has received no therapies despite having severe needs. We were downhearted when we heard this pretty horrific story.

As we know, the therapies are vital to educational development. One parent featured in the documentary explained she is worried her child will not be able to look after his own basic needs, such as washing and feeding himself. It must be a discrimination issue. Those who can afford it are substituting therapies that the school should provide with private interventions. Why would they not when the therapy is not available in the schools? The schools should be providing the therapy, not private operators. It is unfair and a dangerous way to limp around the crisis.

Senator Ruane made a point on mainstream schools. While the RTÉ programme showed disabilities at the extreme end, I have been dealing with a young mother with a 14 year old boy who has not gone to school for two years. He has been diagnosed with autism. He has depression because he has been out of school for two years. He was sent to the school in Blackrock but he has not attended for two years because he feels it is not fit for him in that he is not severely disabled. Fitting into a mainstream school would really be possible but no school in his area will accept him unless acceptance comes with a package of support. Obviously, his social skills and development will suffer, and his depression is increasing. Unfortunately, he has been on Prozac for the past year. We need to support such people in mainstream schools when a disability is not so severe as to warrant going to a special school. There does not seem to be a plan for that.

The Minister hopes officials from his Department will meet management of the special needs schools in Dublin. Parents say they feel their children have been abandoned. Did the meeting happen? If so, could the Minister give an update on the next actions that are likely?

The story highlights again the undeniable truth that parents should be involved at every level of decision-making about their children. This is why I am nagging and not letting go in advocating parental voices on each and every board and decision-making table. In the past day or two, I have been trying to ensure the HSE steering group making policy for children with complex needs does as Seanad Éireann wishes and allows a parental voice on the board.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senators for their contributions to the debate. I will try to deal with each issue in turn.

Senators Ó Domhnaill, Gavan and others acknowledged the earlier allocation of special needs assistants. This is welcome. Fórsa was very keen to see this done. It makes for better planning. Whether we can bring the date back to March is probably an open question. We allow applications to go beyond March. We try to assess the applications that are received in a timely way and we then try to turn them around as quickly as possible. I will consider whether we can do it even earlier but the purpose is to ensure we leave enough time for people to make their application and enough time for the school to absorb.

I will have to get back to Senator Ó Domhnaill on some of the specific skills. He did not mention the schools involved. In general, when the Department publishes an indicative year for a school, for planning purposes, it does not constitute a promise that a school will be built in that year. It may be listed for 2019 for the purpose of planning but each project depends on land acquisition and planning permission. These matters can divert the progress on individual projects. Many of the delays have been because of difficulties with land acquisition and planning applications. Alternatively, adaptations had to be made because of roads and all sorts of other factors. While the Department gives an indicative year, it should not be construed as a promise. That is not the context.

On school transport, the policy continues as it is. There are those who are accommodated on a concessionary basis, but it is a concession. The requirement on the minimum distance from the school, which must be met if one is to be entitled to school transport, remains. That has been a bedrock of policy for a long time. Representatives always come to me or the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan. He is always asking whether the rule could not be bent a tiny bit to accommodate individuals but the truth is that if one changes the rule, it sets a precedent. There are 4,000 schools and catchment areas. The whole system is very difficult to manage if there is any small change. That has been the difficulty. We devote €120 million to the programme so it is not that we are not spending the money. We are. Many children are being accommodated.

Addressing capitation grants is part of our confidence and supply agreement, as it is part of the programme for Government. In the first two budgets for which I have been Minister for Education and Skills, I have had to give priority to matters such as reducing the pupil-teacher ratio and tackling disadvantage. I felt these were of greater priority in the shorter term if we were to meet real challenges. I recognise fully that capitation is a problem for schools.

Senator Ruane raised a number of issues concerning our capacity and the way we cater for special needs. The move away from regarding diagnosis as essential towards the front-loading of the school with the teaching resource is designed to try to be more flexible in addressing problems of every origin, including behavioural problems.The teaching professionals can look at that child, his or her learning needs as they identify them and seek to cater to that child appropriately. That is a more flexible way. It allows the school to lead learning as best they can to cater to that child.

I fully acknowledge that in some cases diagnosis gives a huge insight that they perhaps would not have had and that it can be helpful, but the system that was there was that diagnosis was a gateway and if one did not get the diagnosis, the child would not get through the gate. In terms of freeing up NEPS time to do the diagnosis where it adds value, as opposed to ticking a box on a form to trigger a provision, it is a win win. It frees up the supports from NEPS to do assessment where it is needed, as in the example of Senator Ruane's own personal experience which she cited. It can make a huge difference but we do not want to make it a requirement.

I hope that is the same with those specific requirements, for example, where there is difficulty with maths or numbers that the school can respond flexibly. The NCSE has its own support service which we have now expanded and it is available to back up and build the capacity of a school to run the new resource teaching model. Where there are particular problems, that resource can be called upon by the school to assist. It is in a growth phase, it has only recently been established but we see a role for the NCSE in building capacity within the school. That is the model we are moving towards, building capacity with professional assistance, not within the school but assigned to the school in different ways. If there is an individual child whose needs cannot be met, and Senator Devine mentioned such a scenario, the NCSE will look at that and do its best to accommodate that child if he or she is brought to our attention.

Senator Ruane raises a valid point that the disability supports in further education are much weaker than in higher education. As we move to develop further education as a pathway, and I am very keen to develop apprenticeships and traineeships as a more solid, respected and supported pathway, we need to devote more attention to disability supports. That is something to take away from the debate. I refer to the question of the curriculum in special schools only going to primary level and how young people would be equipped to live independently. I am sure the special schools have appropriate curriculums and not just on the academic side but I will have to get back to Senator Ruane on that.

Senator Noone raised an issue on the progressive disability team. This is a development within the health service rather than my own Department.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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It is related to the issue that Senator Devine raised regarding St. John of God special school. As I understand it, the HSE is reconfiguring and moving to a model where it is seeking to have a range of supports within the community and that it would support the children with disabilities in the community, regardless of whether they are in a special school or not. That is the model it is developing for general disability support but at the same time it is working with us in developing an in-school model where we not only deliver some service within the school, but build the capacity of the school to extend that service. That can be a win win.

In the short term it might be said that there is competition for a scarce number of therapists, but if therapists can be put into an environment where the value of their interventions is added through training teachers and SNAs to have better programmes in the gaps between these sessions, then we can have a win win. We can have a greater impact on the children from the same number of therapists and if it proves itself of value in this pilot it will impact on the model as we move along. It is deliberately a pilot but it is a pilot in which the HSE is fully embedded. We can learn together on that.

Senator Gavan made a number of points on Fórsa and the development of SNAs. I fully expect that the NCSE will recommend training development for SNAs. In line with the professional development service for teachers and the various service providers, it is flexible. It uses education centres and some outside providers so I have no doubt that any development being done by Fórsa can be assessed by the Department and the NCSE as a potential partner in developing appropriate training programmes. The model, as can be seen from the pilot speech and language model, will be one where the speech and language therapist will not be just providing therapy to an individual child, but will be building the capacity of the teacher and the SNA through training, to extend and integrate that work. This model is a clear signal along the road that Senator Gavan's members are advocating, who want to see further training and believe they can be part of a better delivery. That is what we are trying to do.

The issue of job security is pertinent. It is inevitable with SNAs to a degree because they are often allocated to particular children and as that child moves on there is a question as to whether that post is available. This is one of the issues the NCSE will be looking at in its assessment. If this post is attached to a child it is not guaranteed to the school so there will always be some level of redeployment elsewhere. The positive is that in the last number of years we have been adding about 1,000 SNAs per year. We have been able to accommodate most of those who wanted to be redeployed to another place. We have been able to accommodate them so the system has worked relatively well. However, I take the point Senator Gavan is making. It is an issue I do not have an immediate solution to because some of these are linked to an individual and his or her child. I thank Senator Gavan for his support on the issue of how we give a clear signal on a legislative level to schools that soft barriers or any barriers to a child with special educational needs is not something we support.

I refer to access to ASD places. I agree that there are pockets where we have difficulties and the NCSE is addressing them. The bigger picture is that we are accommodating an awful lot more children. As I have said, the number of ASD units has grown rapidly. They consist of six children per unit and the pupil equivalent has gone from 3,200 to 8,000 in the last seven years. We have substantially expanded the number of places for intense support for children on the ASD spectrum and those are distributed right across the country. There are some 1,325 in different schools. However, there will inevitably be problems, for example, sometimes they will not be in the local school because they are specialist units, typically with six students assigned to them and it is only when a certain threshold is reached that the opening of a unit can be triggered. I admit that there are problems in accommodating people's needs as quickly as we would like. That is why home tuition can sometimes be an inevitable bridge. The bigger picture is that we are continuing to expand and the legislative power is being taken to require these units to be opened.

Not only are we expanding NEPS but as I said to Senator Ruane, the move away from requiring assessments as a gateway to get a service, to using assessment as an added value to ensure teachers are best informed of what a child needs, is in itself freeing up NEPS resources to be deployed more effectively.We are making progress on the number of schools covered and the way in which we cover them. We are continuing to expand NEPS. We are currently giving priority to disadvantaged schools, which I am sure the Senator would accept is a sensible approach but we will seek to expand that.

Senator Devine raised the issue of St. John of God special school. I hope our new model will help the situation there. It is one of the schools within the area where the new pilot will apply. We will have 19 speech and language therapists supporting a range of schools, including special schools, and this one will be among them. The position generally, as I understand it, is that while on the education side there are 92 children there, we have 16 teachers, a principal and 30 special needs assistants. That is our provision. Until this pilot we had not been providing speech and language therapy but under this pilot we will be providing speech and language and occupational therapies. I understand the provision of these therapies has been made to the overall range of services provided by the St. John of God organisation in the catchment. While some resources are assigned to the school more are assigned to the St. John of God's overall range of services, which have to cope with some of the difficulties referred to in terms of unfilled posts. That is a short-term problem but I certainly hope that school's inclusion in our pilot will be of help. My Department has had meetings with those in the school and this is one positive response that I hope will help that school.

Senator Devine raised the issue of children with very particular needs. There is no doubt they present challenges to the school system. We have been in the business of teaching and providing special needs assistants for children with those needs. We recognise that if we are to cater for some children, we need to find a way of building a new partnership with other providers such as speech and language and occupational therapists. If this model is successful, we can consider other potential specialisms where we could have professional partnerships between teachers, special needs assistants and parents in the school and those professionals. I hope this approach will open up a new route to catering more fully to a wider range of needs within the school setting. That could allow more children to successfully progress through the school.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has looked internationally to see if there is a bolt-on model that would represent best practice for dealing with children with special needs, but there is not one. No one is putting their hands up and saying our model is a world leader. Many are looking at what we are doing and saying we are in a pretty good space in terms of the way in which we approach the challenge. How one gets the best model for integrating children with special needs into a school system on an integrated basis presents a challenge in every education system. I look forward to the work of the NCSE. It has just been received in my Department and is being assessed. Obviously, we will have to go to Government to bring it to the next level. The NCSE has put a great deal of work into this to help us design a model that would have the confidence of parents, which Senator Noone rightly pointed out is very important, and to provide us with the evidence to suggest this route is the right one to take.

I thank Senators for their contributions. While this area does not get national attention, it is a challenging one that deserves attention from the Oireachtas. It is an area where we do many positive things and prevent many problems that might otherwise develop and, thereby, allow people fulfil their potential, which is the goal that motivates all of us in the education area.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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That concludes statements on special education provision.

I welcome to the Distinguished Visitors Gallery this afternoon James Connolly, a retired brigadier general born on 1 November 1923. James is now in his 95th year and he is very welcome. He was commissioned by President Douglas Hyde in 1945. He served as a pilot and at one stage was head of the apprentice school in Baldonnel. He participated in many United Nations tours in the early 1960s in the Middle East. His grandfather was James Connolly, one of the leaders of 1916 Easter Rising. His father, Roddy Connolly, son of James Connolly, was at various times a member of Dáil and Seanad Éireann. His aunt, Nora Connolly O'Brien, along with her mother, the wife of James Connolly visited him the night before his execution. Nora was an Independent Member of Seanad Éireann as a Taoiseach's nominee, appointed by Seán Lemass in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Today, I understand our colleague, Senator Dolan, will be presenting him with a copy of Forgotten Patriot - Douglas Hyde & the Foundation of the Irish Presidency, by Brian Murphy. James - or Seamus - is Senator Dolan's Uncle Seamus, having been married to Kitty, now deceased, Senator Dolan's mother's sister. Today, James is accompanied by five of his six children, Jessica, Joanna, John, Shay and Roddy, as well as Shay's daughter Nicola. On behalf of the Cathaoirleach, the Minister and our colleagues in Seanad Éireann, I welcome you to the Upper House along with our distinguished colleague, Senator Dolan, and wish James, in particular - and his family - a very happy visit to this, your Parliament and our Parliament. I hope you have an enjoyable day.

Sitting suspended at 5.10 p.m. and resumed at 5.35 p.m.