Wednesday, 24 May 2023
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Special Educational Needs
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kieran O'Donnell. It is great to have the opportunity to debate this issue regarding the Minister for Education's need to review the process of assessment of the criteria for people seeking the assistive technology grant. It is a very serious and significant issue, with the Ombudsman for Children having received more than 1,800 complaints, 30% of which related to education, and my understanding is that the majority were about this particular issue.
This concerns the ability of people to access technology. The assistive technology grant gives the opportunity to children to engage appropriately within the class setting. If we have a situation where the grants are being denied, as is the case at present, then the ability of these kids to reach their full potential is lost. I am deeply concerned about what is happening at the moment. There has been a lot of speculation and talk about these issues and we need to move forward, if possible.
A parliamentary question was tabled in 2021 and the reply set out that the criteria special educational needs officers, SENOs, were using were outdated, and they were using criteria that went back to a circular published in 2002 instead of a circular published in 2013. Because of their ability to go back to this circular from 2002, they are disproportionately taking the grant from children who need technology, and that has knock-on implications for them going through the entire education system. There are children in the third or fourth centile who are not getting the grant. It is beyond belief that children who are in such need of this technology are not able to get the grant.
The bar in the circular has been set miles too low. The reason they are going back to the circular of 2002 is to limit the grants being given out for financial reasons only.That is a really poor statement to make about an institution like the Department of Education. What we are talking about here is the need to have a grant which is available for kids so they can get their technology at an early stage and can go through the education system. There are so many issues about this. It limits the potential for a child to reach his or her full potential. It is shocking that we are limiting the ability of that child to become what he could become in adult life. There is also a huge issue around the fact that if one gets the technology, it stays with the school. I know of a student in west Cork who had the technology in primary school before she left to go to secondary school. It is now the month of May, and she has not got her technology for first year yet. She has gone through a portion of her secondary school education with no technology. It is like taking the glasses away from a child who is visually impaired, and saying, "Go to the classroom". For that reason, that family and that child are totally disenfranchised when it comes to her ability to reach her full potential.
We also have an issue around the schools. Primary and secondary schools need to have an understanding of the technology itself. This is only the grant. One can still use the technology in the school. This is only about the financial means to get the technology. If one has the means to have a computer or iPad at home, the technology is on our phones at this stage. Speech, text and all these issues are on one's phone. We need to have an education policy put in place for the schools, because the schools do not realise what this is actually about half the time.
The other significant issue we have is that, unfortunately, the State Examinations Commission board will only determine when one can use that technology within weeks of one starting one's exam. To put this in context, a student in Bandon who got her technology in first year was told just yesterday that she can use it for her junior certificate, which is starting in a few weeks' time. If she was told "No", she would have lost her ability to do her junior certificate. It is beyond belief.
I thank Senator Lombard for raising this important matter. I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. Enabling children with special educational needs to receive an education is a priority for this Government. This year, the Department of Education will spend in excess of €2 billion, or over 25% of its budget, on providing a wide range of schemes and supports for children with special needs. I am pleased to say we have secured an additional €2 million funding in budget 2023. This represents an increase of almost 60%, or about €5.5 million, in funding this year versus about €3.7 million which was eventually spent last year. This increased allocation supports my Department’s commitment to ensure that a full range of resources, and not just teachers, are available.
The assistive technology scheme is provided by the Department of Education to supplement the overall approach to providing funding to schools for digital technology and equipment to support children for education purposes. All equipment provided under this scheme supports children who require essential specialist equipment in order to access the school curriculum. We see assistive technology as a critical enabler for those with special educational needs to gain the maximum benefit from a modern, technologically focused education system, and this increased allocation shows the continued commitment to ensuring that a full range of resources, not just teachers, are available to support children with needs.
There has been a large increase in demand for assistive technology in 2022 over previous years, so that the number of applications has risen by 44% to 6,845. There has been a substantial increase in the number of applications received, but it is important to note that the success rate has remained consistent. Senator Lombard has drawn attention to the Ombudsman. I followed up with the Department on that. The Senator might give more details on that. The current success rate is 72% consistently per year, as it was in 2022. That means that 28% are not recommended by the special educational needs organisers, SENOs.
With regard to the application process - Senator Lombard made reference to this earlier - the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, through its network of local SENOs, is responsible for processing applications from schools for special educational needs supports, including applications for assistive technology. The SENOs make recommendations to the Department where assistive technology is required operating within the departmental Circular 10/2013. Senator Lombard made a reference to a previous circular; he might elaborate on that.
I want to go to the core of Senator Lombard's question. I wish to confirm that the Department of Education is currently reviewing the scheme to ensure that it is working as effectively as possible for these children, and that the resources are allocated appropriately as we move from a diagnosis-based system to a needs-based system. The review is ongoing and is expected to be completed by autumn 2023. I would suggest, respectfully, that Senator Lombard follows up with a submission of his own to the Department on this particular matter. There appears to be a lot of detail. It is all about children reaching their potential, and we do not want a delay in them getting the assistive technology. This process will have a consultative element and relevant stakeholders will be invited to participate. I certainly feel that Senator Lombard very much falls within that category, as his colleagues do.
As I have mentioned, this scheme is part of an overall approach. In April 2022, the Department of Education announced the digital strategy for schools to 2027, and associated grant funding for all recognised primary and post-primary schools for digital technology infrastructure. By way of a quick overview, as part of this strategy an ICT grant will be provided to schools, with €200 million committed over the period of the strategy. This approach facilitates multi-annual planning by schools to allow them to plan effectively for all of their children. The Department also funds broadband connectivity to all recognised primary schools and post-primary schools through the schools broadband programme at an annual cost of €13 million. Senator Lombard made reference to education for the teachers and the schools themselves. It is an integrated approach. Once schools get direct ICT funding on ICT, it is a question of how they can use that to assist our children. There may be situations where a child needs specific further supports through the assistive technology. It is an integrated approach.
I thank Senator Lombard for the opportunity to talk about the assistive technology scheme. It is such an important mechanism for providing technology for children with more complex needs. I look forward to the Senator's follow-up.
I welcome the opportunity to make a submission to this review. The review is something we have been calling for and talking about for so long. There are many issues here. The idea of going back to a circular, which came out in response to a parliamentary question in 2021 or 2022, needs to be explained and taken apart. It is out of date, and not fit for purpose. However, the real issue here is that we need to have a body of work in place to make sure that children reach their full potential. Technology has changed dramatically in the last five years. There needs to be a body of work to educate teachers and the Department of Education about what is out there. I think they are behind the curve on assistive technology, and the need for it. That I have students who are still awaiting the approval of the State Examinations Commission for the use of assistive technology for their junior certificate exams, even though they have spent the last two years using it, is a sign of how out of date this is. The other issue about the technology is whether it will be for the school or the child. It is bizarre. I know of a child who is nearly finished first year with no technology, even though she had it for her previous time in school.
Once again, I thank Senator Lombard for bringing up this important matter. For parents and everybody else, our children's education is probably the most critical thing in their lives. By way of overall summary, the schools get ICT funding and broadband funding. They are supposed to cater for the needs of the children in their school. There may be situations where it is not possible to cater for the needs of specific children. That is where the SENOs come in. They look at the assistive technology scheme for individual cases.
The Senator made reference to departmental Circular 10/2013, which they are supposed to look at regarding that requirement. However, there is a review of the scheme under way. We are looking to have that concluded in the autumn. It will be going out for engagement with stakeholders. I suggest that Senator Lombard, regarding interaction with individual schools and pupils, would continue to survey his schools to see how they feel about the scheme, and that could feed into his submission to the Department.