Seanad debates

Monday, 5 July 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Special Educational Needs

10:30 am

Photo of Eileen FlynnEileen Flynn (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to the House.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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It is lovely to see Senator Flynn in the Chair. As we are approaching the recess, I wish her the very best of luck with her impending arrival in September.

I, too, welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to the House. When she was last here to address another Commencement matter I tabled on this issue, I was delighted. I noted at the time that July provision was to become summer provision and that the budget for summer provision had been increased. That is important. This provision is not a luxury for families who have a child with complex additional needs; it is a necessity. Many of us have heard the stories of the struggles of parents and their children who lost out so profoundly during the Covid lockdowns. There is no doubt that their development was very much hindered. Many children regressed in the home-schooling environment and their parents were at their wits' end trying to support them, but they were powerless to help. I welcome that besides special needs schools, DEIS schools were invited to participate in this programme.

We need to ensure that children who need this vital service can access it. We need to ensure that every child and family is supported and that those who lost out most during the lockdowns are now given the support they so desperately need. Having welcomed the announcement that July provision was moving to summer provision and that the funding was to increase from €20 million to €40 million, I was dismayed when a number of parents from south Kildare contacted me to say their school was not running a programme and they could not access places in any other school. I was disturbed to hear that the DEIS school and the two special schools in Kildare were not running programmes. I contacted each school and I received feedback from some schools, but not all. I have spoken to some principals in regard to this matter, but generally the take-up of the programme has been very low. This is disappointing. This is not about the funding that has been provided by the Department, but about the outcomes. It is about ensuring that every child has the opportunity to participate.

Last Friday, I was contacted by the group, Special Needs Schools and Classes, in relation to a survey it had conducted, which found that 60% of the schools their children attend do not offer any in-school programme for the summer. That is unacceptable. As a State, we have a duty to care and support the most vulnerable in our society. I note that only 26% of DEIS schools are running numeracy and literacy camps this summer. This is not right. We have more than 4,000 schools in the State, made up of 3,038 primary, 729 post-primary and 140 special schools. Every school that is eligible to participate should be running a programme.

I ask the Minister of State to detail the current state of play in counties Kildare and Laois as regards this year's summer provision programme and to outline the provision that will be made for those children who cannot access the service through their own school.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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Before I respond to Senator O'Loughlin, I congratulate Senator Flynn on the passage of Second Stage of the Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill 2018 in the Dáil last week. It is important Traveller culture and history is embedded within the education sector.

I thank Senator O'Loughlin for raising this important matter. The needs of children with special educational needs and children at most risk of educational disadvantage are a huge priority for the Government. As correctly pointed out by the Senator, these children were adversely impacted by Covid-19 and the closure of schools. The Government provided guidance and support for schools throughout this period and put in place a supplementary tuition programme for these children in March this year.

In May 2021, the Government announced a package of supports to allow primary and post-primary schools to offer a summer programme for students with complex special educational needs and those at greatest risk of educational disadvantage as a Covid-19 pandemic response measure for summer 2021. As mentioned by the Senator, the funding is not the most important issue, but it is important to note that the funding for this year was doubled from €20 million to €40 million, a 100% increase on the allocation for summer programmes in 2020.

The programme was developed following extensive engagement with education stakeholders, parents and advocacy groups. It was important to me that any impediments or barriers to schools participating this year would be removed because we wanted to increase the uptake from last year. We wanted to maintain children's connection with education, build their confidence, increase their motivation and promote well-being for those who are at key transition stages. We also wanted to help to ensure that they continue their education journey in September, either in school or in further and higher education or training.

The programme on offer this summer includes a new two to three week summer programme to all primary schools and an expansion of the existing programmes in special schools and classes and in DEIS schools. Similar to last year, children with complex needs entering primary school next September are also eligible to participate in summer programmes. As I said, there was extensive consultation with education stakeholders and advocacy groups. The Senator will be aware that the closing date was 25 June. To date, almost one quarter, or 968, of the schools eligible to participate in the summer programme this year have registered their interest to provide 1,346 programmes over the summer.

In regard to Senator O'Loughlin's local area, there are 35 schools in Kildare, 29 of which are primary, five are post-primary and one is a special school. In Laois, there are 24 primary schools taking part. The summer programme is important this year. As I mentioned earlier, Covid has had an adverse impact on these students. We are concerned about regression and the loss of key skills. That these students can avail of a summer programme is very important.

It is important to note that 34,000 children will benefit. That is a 161% increase on 2020. The programme is voluntary, not mandatory. As I said, we have removed the impediments to allow schools to volunteer to participate in the programme for all children.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for the response. As I said, I was delighted to note the increase in funding. I agree with the Minister of State on the need to remove barriers to encourage schools to take part and also in regard to the need for children to maintain connectivity with their places of education. However, at this point we need to move from the opt-in, opt-out model of summer provision. This is a vital community service and no State body, be that a school or otherwise, should be able to opt out of supporting vulnerable children.This would have to be negotiated with boards of management and trade unions but the children who need this have to be a priority.

More work needs to be put into the home-based summer programme. For every child who needs that programme, their homes may not be the best places to deliver it. Overcrowding or anything like that has to be taken into consideration when that programme is being offered. We need to progress this programme and ensure that every child who needs this gets it.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I understand what the Senator is saying. However, it is important to note that the summer provision is an additional service provided by schools. Teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and support staff work hard all year so it is not something we can mandate. All we can do is ask and encourage schools and, as I said, remove those barriers. This year we allowed flexibility in the time so that it is no longer the July provision and the service can also be provided in August. They are paid in advance, there is a centralised application process, there are arrangements to have greater guidance and there is also a provision to recruit final year and professional master of education, PME, students so that we can have more of a staff base in place to assist schools. There is also a home-based programme for those children who do not participate in school. On the DEIS supports, a hot school meals programme will be provided for the summer provision as well as school transport.

Sitting suspended at 11.42 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.