Seanad debates

Tuesday, 5 October 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Special Educational Needs

2:30 pm

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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As someone with many family members who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and successfully come through ttreatment, thankfully, it is great news. I thank the Senator and the Minister of State.

In the minds of parents who do not have a child with special or complex needs such that their child needs to attend a special school, there is a perception that special schools have the ability to cater for all of these complex needs.There is the perception that these schools have staff who are fully trained and resourced to manage and respond to the complexities of the needs of the children, whatever matters arise. A parent who has a child with complex needs will probably have that same view. We come to it with a perception and the expectation that once the child commences education, he or she will be there throughout his or her education years, be fully catered for, that nothing that arises will be a surprise to anyone and that there will be professional and trained resource staff there to handle it. In the Joint Committee on Disability Matters last week we heard there is sometimes a preference among parents to have their child in a special school even though mainstreaming, a lack of othering and all of that is also important.

It is a shock to everyone to hear children with complex needs can be expelled from a special school. While I will not home in on any case, this is not something we would expect to happen. Expulsion, in the general understanding, comes with a stigma for the child that he or she has exhibited some allegedly deviant behaviour such that the school authorities cannot countenance having the child in the school anymore. It is a seriously reputationally damaging allegation to make against a child who is starting out in life, has little life experience and may be liable to make mistakes and stray into the wrong company, giving rise to the matters for which he or she is expelled. That is the stereotype we have in our heads about an expelled child but that cannot be applied to a child with special needs, who, by his or her very nature, may exhibit behaviour that is difficult or challenging as an expression of frustration, an emotion or a method of communication which professionally trained staff are trained and equipped to deal with.

Parents of a child with special needs who has been expelled from a special school find themselves having to find alternative schooling. Meanwhile, the child is cared for by a parent who may not be trained, has other responsibilities and has no respite care. It is not hard to see why it is draining and those parents may feel a sense of abandonment.

I acknowledge all that has been done by the Minister of State's Department and by that of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. The response from the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, has been really good when I have brought these cases to her. However, we need reassurances, given that these cases come up not infrequently, regarding the provision of education for children with acute needs, in light of the context of expulsions from special schools, where the behaviour that led to the expulsion is a manifestation of those complex needs. Are the resources sufficient? Is there sufficient planning? Is there enough training in the special school setting? If there are deficits, what plan do we have to campaign and combat that?

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I offer apologies from the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. I thank the Senator for raising this matter. Enabling students with special educational needs to receive an education is a priority for this Government.

The policy of the Department of Education is that students with special needs should be included, where possible and appropriate, in mainstream placements with additional supports provided. Where students require more specialised interventions, a continuum of education provision extends to include access to special school or special class places. This continuum is consistent with the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act. There are extensive supports in place in terms of additional teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs, to support students across the continuum of provision.

The level of investment in special education, at almost €2 billion, is at an all-time high. As a result, the numbers of special education teachers, SNAs, special classes and special school places are at unprecedented levels.An additional 269 additional special classes opened this school year, bringing the total number of special classes nationally to 2,118. The new classes provide 1,600 additional places, spread throughout the country.

Some 124 special schools provide specialist education for approximately 8,000 students annually. The Department has also established two new special schools in Cork and Dublin which are now open for the 2021-2022 school year, which I know will be welcomed by everyone. These schools provide specialist educational services for students who have the most severe or complex levels of disabilities or special educational needs.

The Senator may also be aware that the Minister, Deputy Foley and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan recently launched guidelines on the use of reduced school days. These guidelines aim to ensure the use of reduced school days is limited solely to those circumstances where it is absolutely necessary. They have been developed following consultation with the relevant education partners and give direction to school authorities on the process to be followed where the use of reduced school days is under consideration for a pupil.

I should also state that section 29 of the Education Act 1998 allows for appeals against the decision of a board of management of a school to suspend or exclude a student permanently, which speaks to the point made by the Senator. This is a necessary provision to safeguard the rights of all children in a school.

In accordance with section 24(4) of the Education (Welfare) Act 2000, "A student shall not be expelled from a school before the passing of 20 school days following the receipt of a notification under this section by an educational welfare officer." This section of the Act provides for the educational welfare officer to convene a meeting with the school and the parents and any other persons, as agreed, to attend to make reasonable efforts to ensure provision is made for the continued education of the student to whom the notification relates.

Where a student is expelled, section 29 of the Education Act 1998 provides for an appeal where a board of management, or a person acting on behalf of the board of management, normally the school principal, expels a student. To make an appeal, a parent, guardian or the pupil, if over 18 years, must complete the section 29 appeal form for expulsion or suspension. The Department does not hold the details on the number of children expelled from school and only has details on the number of appeals taken under section 29 in respect of expulsions. Since November 2020, there have been 32 appeals received in respect of expulsions from schools.

Through the work of the educational welfare officers and the special educational needs organisers, support is available for both the school and the parents at a local level. I thank Senator Seery Kearney for giving me the opportunity to address this issue.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State very much and I appreciate that expenditure is at an all-time high. The creation of the Minister of State position dedicated to special education and inclusion is a flag-bearer that this is a very big priority for us as a Government.

It is a surprise that the number is as high as 32, which is beyond what I thought it was, which was a figure in the early 20s. I acknowledge the creation of a school in my own home constituency of Dublin South-Central, which I appreciate.

We have clearly set out guidelines and our dedication to these children and it is important now we oversee and enforce it to ensure the children are at the centre of every decision made.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator very much for her comments. The Department is very aware of the educational needs of all children and of the need to ensure appropriate supports are available to each school where concerns about individual students are identified. The level of investment now in place ensures these supports are available. I will bring the Senator's concerns back to the senior Minister, and the Senator may be able to talk to her in person on this issue.