Thursday, 17 November 2022
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Special Educational Needs
I, too, welcome the students to the Gallery. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, for being here. I appreciate that the matter I raise is not his area of responsibility.
I raise the issue of special school liaison teachers through the prism of the pupils, families and staff in St. Paul’s Special School in Montenotte in Cork. I have been engaging with its principal, Anne Hartnett, as I have been with other schools, on the non-sanctioning of posts of home school liaison officer. These schools have made requests to the Department and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, on the matter. It is important to put in context that these are special schools for a community within a community. No clarity has been given as to why these posts have been denied. Ministers have visited special schools, are fully cognisant of the need and do not disagree with the rationale and need for these posts.
I make my appeal on behalf of all special schools in the context of the real and urgent need for home school liaison officers and teachers. In the budget, we allocated close to 1,800 extra teaching posts. Surely we could make between 180 and 200 of these posts special school liaison teacher positions. This would leave the 108 special schools with 92 posts and only 90 are needed to give the support to the schools. I know the Department of Education has made a change regarding deputy administrative principals and allocating these posts is welcome and a help. However, it falls short of what is required.
Pupils deserve support and parents deserve to be empowered and have a scaffolding of support with them. As I said, special schools are not like typical schools because the pupils come from a range of communities. Some of them can live 50 km away or more. I know the Acting Chair has been very involved in her own area around this particular issue as well.
The child we are trying to assist and support here needs to be better supported. I hope by providing this particular post, we can do that. I look forward to the Minister of State’s response and I appreciate that it is not his area of responsibility. This is not only about Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, status. This is not about DEIS status, which the Minister, Deputy Foley, will refer to in response to parliamentary questions in the other House. I hope we will see common sense in this and ensure this post is allocated and given.
On behalf of the Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion, I thank the Senator for raising this very important matter. I stress that it is absolutely vital that every child and young person with special educational needs is fully supported in the education sector, whether this be in a mainstream or special class or special school. Significant investment and reforms have been made in order to ensure that this is the case.
The Senator outlined the case of St. Paul's Special School in Cork. A priority for this Government is to ensure that all children have an appropriate school placement and the necessary supports are provided to our schools to cater for the needs of children with special educational needs. This year, the Department will spend in excess of €2 billion, or more than 25% of the Department's budget, on providing additional teaching and care supports for children with special educational needs. This will bring the total number of special education teachers in the mainstream school system to 14,385 in 2022, which is an increase of 48% since 2011 when 10,575 were funded. Additional teachers are also being provided to support students enrolled in new special classes and new special schools for the 2022-23 school year. Provision has been made for 19,169 special needs assistants, SNAs, by the end of 2022, which will represent an increase of 81% since 2011.
For 2023, the special education budget will be substantially increased by more than 10%, meaning that in 2023 the Department will spend more than €2.6 billion on special education. This will provide for an additional 370 special classes, an additional 686 special education teachers and 1,194 additional SNAs. Budget 2023 also provides funding for additional staffing in both the NCSE and the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS. Both of these measures will ensure that our schools and students benefit from additional practical supports from special educational needs organisers, SENOs, NCSE advisers and educational psychologists.
It is important to note that the NCSE has a process in place for reviewing the level of supports allocated to individual schools. Where schools consider they may require additional resources, they can engage directly with the NCSE to seek a review at any time. This review considers the particular needs of the children enrolled in the school.
We have set out the extent of the additional funding being made available to provide more special education teachers, SNAs, NCSE supports and NEPS supports in our schools. Special schools receive significant funding and have been resourced to reflect their particular needs. However, both the Minister and the Department accept there are a range of additional challenges facing our special schools. These schools cater for children and young people with the most complex special educational needs.
The Senator is aware that the home school community liaison scheme comes under the DEIS programme. While special schools are resourced to reflect their particular needs, the scheme has not traditionally been part of that model. However, the Department recognises the importance attached to establishing and fostering positive links between the home and school.
Again, while there are no current plans to extend the home school community liaison scheme to special schools, the Department is actively engaging with the representative body for boards of management in special schools to address some of these additional challenges. This involves considering how additional school management posts, such as a deputy administrative principal, are allocated to special schools to help alleviate the administrative burden on school leaders. Consideration is also being given to addressing significant additional funding challenges that arise for special schools. In addition, the need to support home school liaison between our special schools and parents is also under consideration. The Minister and Department of Education are committed to continuing the engagement to address these issues facing special schools.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. In the context of the reply, it is disappointing that there are no plans to extend the home school liaison post. The Minister of State with responsibility for this area, Deputy Madigan, has been very proactive in her role, to give her credit. However, there is a real and urgent need in our special schools. As we all know, there are challenging behaviours, different family circumstances and a need for myriad supports to be put in place. This post, while not a panacea, offers a roadmap and pathway to students remaining in and returning to education. I hope the continuing engagement to address the issues will bring a resolution soon. I thank the Minister of State for his response and the Acting Chair for allowing me to speak.
On behalf of the Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion, I again thank the Senator for raising this issue and providing the opportunity to reassure the House that the Department is committed to ensuring all children can access an education suitable to their needs. I know the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, is pleased to have had the opportunity to visit a large number of special schools and special classes since she was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion.She has seen at first hand the excellent work that is done with, for and by students. Of course, there are significant challenges, as the Senator outlined. We all accept that. In particular, all those working in or supporting special schools and special classes see those challenges every day. The Minister of State is committed to continuing to work to ensure those school communities are supported in their vital work.
Senator Buttimer has raised some interesting issues and points. I will take them back to the Minister of State as soon as possible.