Seanad debates

Thursday, 8 February 2024

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Special Educational Needs

9:30 am

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. I thank the Minister of State for taking this on behalf of the Minister for Education today. I am very conscious that there has been a lot of attention this week on the Department of Education's failure to properly plan for secondary school places in certain areas, in greater Dublin, Kildare, and Wicklow. We have a long-running issue regarding the massive shortage of special school places and special class places right across the country. We had the damning report from the Ombudsman for Children in 2022.The report describes a Department of Education that actually has the information with regard to the number of children who need places, yet despite this is responding to rather than having a concerted effort to plan for the children who we know will need special needs education over future years. I am also conscious that in November of last year, the Minister for Education said that over the next three to five years all post-primary schools will be required to provide special classes. What about the children who need special school classes or places now? In particular, what are the Department and the National Council for Special Education doing to match the current demand for special classes and special school places with the places that are actually available?

Currently the system is not working. Many parents of children who have additional needs are applying to 15, 20 or more schools in a desperate bid to find a place for their child. Every time, they have to provide an original birth certificate. That is €20 a pop. When it turns out that they do not get a place, many of them turn to their SENOs because they have had a long-running relationship with them. Many SENOs tell them to just keep applying and to appeal the places they did not get. That is a nonsense. Parents are having to blindly navigate a system and there is no proper system in place to match where there is demand for places and where there is available supply. At the heart of this are families, parents who already have to navigate enormous challenges such as a fight to get assessment for their child. We know there are thousands of children out there waiting for an assessment. They have another battle to get the right therapies and make incredible efforts to shield their children from those stresses of trying to find services. Overall that is an enormous amount of emotional wear and tear in trying to do the very best for their child. I know there is some excellent work being done by the NCSE and by some SENOs on the ground but there is no consistency. Parents and their children are bearing the brunt of a dysfunctional system.

These questions have been asked before. We know the Department of Education issues a standard reply that the local SENO should offer tailored guidance and provide further information on suitable class vacancies to the student's parents but in many instances we know this is not happening. How do we have a situation of families having to go the effort of applying to 20 plus schools? I know that expanding the number of special school places and special class places is not easy. There are challenges there. Really what I am asking about here is the low-hanging fruit, ensuring there is a real-time system of matching parents who need to find a place for their children for this September with the available places that happen to be in the greater Dublin area. These children are eligible for the school transport scheme. It is far from ideal that they have to travel far from their communities but still that scheme is there and they can travel. The reality is that parents are in the dark and do not know who to apply to.

I think in particular of one child, Naoise Ó Faoláin, who was attending a local school, and has had to travel across the city to Ballsbridge for the last number of years. His school is not a feeder school for any school. He is left in complete limbo. He cannot get a place in the area where he lives and the school he is attending is not a feeder school for anywhere in the city. His parents are scrambling to find a place for their child for this September and have no place. He is one of many thousands of children across this country. We are asking for the low-hanging fruit, for a system of matching to be put in place while the bigger challenge is tackled of ensuring there are enough special school places and special class places being rolled out.

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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On behalf of the Minister I want to thank Senator Sherlock for raising this matter this morning. A priority of this Government is to ensure that all children have an appropriate school placement and that necessary supports are provided to our schools to cater for the needs of children with special educational needs. It is important to remember that the vast majority of children with special educational needs are supported to attend mainstream classes with their peers. To support children with more complex needs, special classes in mainstream schools and special schools are provided. In 2023, the Department spent over €2.6 billion on special education and further progress will be made this year as an additional €113 million will be allocated to providing support for children with special educational needs.This includes funding to support children with special educational needs in mainstream classes, for new special classes and new special school places, for additional special education teachers and special needs assistants, and for the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS.

In 2024, the number of teaching and SNA posts in our schools will increase by 774 teachers and 1,216 SNAs, added to deliver up to 2,700 new places for children with special educational needs. This means there will be more than 41,500 qualified and committed people in our schools who are focused wholly and exclusively on supporting children with special educational needs. It is important we recognise the work they are doing. Substantial work is being done, demand is increasing and the Government is increasing the facilities available, the staff and the required additional classrooms and temporary extensions to schools as appropriate. A message should not go out suggesting the system does not work. It is working and that is a testament to school principals, boards of management and the 41,500 qualified and committed staff who provide this service.

I accept there is unmet demand. There is not a Member of the Oireachtas who would not agree on that. All Members have these issues in their areas, and what the Senator said chimed with what we all know. Nevertheless, we also know fabulous facilities are being provided in many places, and I wanted to put that on the record of the House lest people thought we were going to ignore it.

The NCSE has responsibility for the planning and co-ordinating of school support for children with special educational needs, and over recent years the Department and the NCSE have introduced a number of strategic initiatives to plan for and provide sufficient special classes and special school places. These initiatives are bearing fruit, with almost 1,300 new special classes sanctioned and seven new special schools established over the past four years. The Department of Education engages intensively with the NCSE in respect of forward planning for new special classes and additional special school places. The forward planning work is well under way for the 2024-25 school year. This work involves a detailed review of statistical data in respect of forecasting demand for special class places, analysis of available school accommodation, consideration of improved data-sharing arrangements and a particular focus on the provision of special classes at post-primary level.

As a result of the forward planning, two new special schools are being established for the current school year in Cork and Dublin, with further capacity being expanded in 11 other special schools. This will bring to four the number of special schools established in Dublin in recent years, in addition to the ones that were already there. In December 2023, the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, announced the establishment of a further four new special schools for 2024-25, in Enfield, south Kildare, Gorey and Limerick. This will bring to 11 the number of new special schools established nationwide in recent years.

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for the reply. I welcome the work that is being done. It has been a scramble, but I will wholeheartedly support every expansion of special needs places. Having said that, there is a big difference between announcements and delivery. Even in Dublin 7, we have seen a delay in the opening of a new special school. These things happen. As adults, we can wait, but children cannot. Weeks and months matter, not least for a child with an additional need.

We need to ensure their families will be helped to at least find those places, and that process is not working at the moment . There needs to be a clear message from the Department of Education to the National Council for Special Education and to SENOs throughout the country - indeed, to the Department itself - that we need to do better. We need to ensure there will be active management of the places that become available with the families who need them. All too often, families come to me and tell they are being left in the dark. It is not good enough that a family has to go to the effort of applying to 20-plus schools. That is a complete waste of time.

I sincerely ask that in this window between when there is a shortage of supply and a mismatch between where supply is coming on board and where the children are on the one hand and the expansion of places to every school in the country on the other, a process of active management of those places be put in place, because parents are not experiencing that on the ground.

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I agree with the Senator's remarks on the feeder school. The child is attending a school that is not in his locality and when it comes to secondary school it becomes an issue. I am aware of that issue myself. Much of the focus in recent years has been on primary schools and the focus now needs to be on secondary schools as well because we have lots of children leaving primary school and there is not a place for them in secondary school. This particular issue is being experienced at both school levels.

Along with the two new special schools that I mentioned, 390 new special classes, 254 at primary level and 136 at second level, have been sanctioned for the current school year. A total of 71 of these are in County Dublin; 48 primary and 23 post-primary. That is a significant number in the Dublin area.

I note the Senator's reference to the pressure on parents of families. It is phenomenal. With this in mind, the number of SENOs will increase from 73 to 120, and this will increase the number of teams available to parents and schools throughout the country from ten to 20. This will result in all SENO grades assigned to a county undertaking caseloads and working directly with parents as well.

Photo of Niall BlaneyNiall Blaney (Fianna Fail)
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Before we start the next Commencement matter, I welcome Dwayne Edgar to the Public Gallery, along with Senator Fitzpatrick. Dwayne was responsible for setting up the Inner City Running Club. He is very welcome to the proceedings this morning.