Tuesday, 17 November 2020
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Disability Support Services
Míle Buíochas a Aire Stáit agus a Sheanadóir Byrne. Anois beidh an dara ní i dTosach Suíonna againn leis an Seanadóir Martin Conway, which relates to the need for the Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion to outline her plans to carry out a review of visiting teacher services for visually impaired students at second-level.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, to the House and it is good to have him here to put this Commencement matter in context. do not know what the visiting teacher for the visually impaired is. When I was a young boy back in County Clare with a visual impairment and attending mainstream schools, a visiting teacher used to come once a year. He was a very nice man by the name of Tim O’Connell from County Cork and he liaised with the family and the teaching staff to see what structures and services were needed to ensure that I would prosper in education at that time. Back then this involved arranging typing lessons, which might seem somewhat trivial but it was groundbreaking for me at the time. I had more or less forgotten about the visiting teacher programme until I received an email last April or May during lockdown from a parent who was very frustrated by the lack of contact from the visiting teacher with her regarding her adolescent child who was starting secondary school. I started probing then and discovered that the programme had evolved successfully since my days in school but, unfortunately, there has not been a great deal of consistency in the continuity, standardisation and updating of the service with the latest in ICT, various supports and so forth.
I discovered that the system was reviewed a number of years ago but this was done within the Department with the stakeholders and the National College of Art and Design, NCAD, at the time. Various bodies were involved in this review, which was effectively about delivering the management of the service. I am looking now for a fundamental review of this service. This service enables people who are blind and visually impaired to avail of mainstream education because for too long they have had to attend a special school for the blind and visually impaired people in Dublin. We are all trying to achieve and create fully integrated mainstream education. The visiting teacher from that perspective is very important. I want a review and evaluation of the visiting teacher programme. That needs to be independent of the Department and headed up by an academic to include, of course, representatives of the Department and the visiting teacher programme, but also representatives from organisations such as the National Council for the Blind and representatives of parents. This evaluation and review is important in trying to bring standardisation and the visiting teacher programme to a new level, where proper integration with the other support services that are available is fine-tuned and standard as opposed to being excellent in Cork, for instance, but not so good in Meath. I have discussed this with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, in a conference call. I want the review to happen now with a tight timeline for it to come back with recommendations. I am very happy to engage with the Minister of State’s office regarding the structures of this review as it is important.
I thank the Senator for raising this very important matter. The visiting teacher service for children with hearing and visual impairments in Ireland provides support for the education of children who are deaf or hard of hearing and for children who are blind or who have significant visual impairment.Support is provided for parents in schools at the preschool stage and at primary and post-primary school levels. An independent review of this service was concluded in 2013-14 by two UK-based specialists in hearing and visual impairment. Their report, "Review of the Role, Organisation and Management the Visiting Teacher for Children with Hearing and Visual Impairment (VTHVI) Service, Ireland", was completed and published in June 2014 and it is available on the Department's website.
The 2014 review of the service recommended that: an appropriate structural framework be developed with clear lines of governance and a new management and leadership structure be developed to ensure that the direct management of the sensory support service is undertaken by a person with a specialist qualification in the field of either visual or hearing impairment.
Following the publication of this review of the services, in February 2015, the then Minister for Education and Skills announced the establishment within the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, of a new support service to assist schools in supporting children with special educational needs. The visiting teacher service for children who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind or visually impaired was transferred to the NCSE with effect from that date, consistent with the recommendations of the review of the service.
Since that time the visiting teacher service has been managed by the council. This change was designed to ensure that schools can receive a better and more integrated service from the new support service. It also meant that the visiting teacher service could be incorporated into the overall support service provided through schools by the NCSE, including the services provided by special educational needs organisers, the special education support service and the national behavioural support service.
The service offers longitudinal support to students, their families and schools from the time of referral through to the end of post-primary education. Professional oversight is provided by the sensory specialist lead with specialist qualifications in the area of sensory disability. Operational oversight is provided by the sensory operational lead.
During the school closure period, the visiting teacher service continued to support parents and pupils remotely, while a range of additional resources have also been available online.
The NCSE is also continuing to improve the services. Continuous professional development is provided for visiting teachers, which includes access to the relevant postgraduate programmes for teachers of students who are blind or visually impaired. The NCSE is also seeking to further integrate the services within its regional teams to provide greater levels of support and training for schools. Accordingly, at this time there are no plans carry out a further review of the support service for the visually impaired. In conclusion, the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, thanks the Senator for giving her the opportunity to outline the important and sensitive work that the NCSE support service does for families with children who are visually impaired.
I thank the Minister of State for delivering the reply from Deputy Madigan, but it does not commit to a review or an evaluation. I accept the work that was done by the previous review and it was appropriate that the service was transferred to the NCSE, but we need to evaluate whether the taxpayer getting value for money from this particular service. The visiting teachers cannot be expected to be at the top of their game when it comes to ICT and the range of services that are there. Are there proper linkages and service level agreements with various other stakeholders that can help in that support structure? We need another review and evaluation - and not a review of the management of the programme, because I am quite happy that it is being managed in an appropriate way. However, I am not convinced at all that it is delivering the results that it could achieve and the benefits it could derive for young people. It is performing well, but it could perform much better. The Minister of State has committed to carrying out an evaluation and a review to me privately, but that is not contained in the reply, which is disappointing. I would like to know whether she is going to stand by the commitment that was given to me that a review and evaluation would happen.
I thank the Senator again for raising this important matter and I understand and appreciate his disappointment at the reply and a lack of commitment to a review of the delivery of the results. The Senator has expressed his view that there is good work being done, but it could be done better. I will certainly raise his concerns with the Minister of State after this Commencement matter has been completed.I will endeavour to have her contact him on this very important matter.