Seanad debates

Tuesday, 20 February 2024

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Special Educational Needs

1:00 pm

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. Gabhaim buíochas léi as ucht teacht anseo. I appreciate that she always deals with areas of special needs with sincerity and honesty. I wish to draw her attention to a lovely school in a rural part of County Roscommon, Granlahan National School on the Roscommon-Mayo border. It is a small school which had 32 pupils in 2022-2023 and 39 in 2023-2024. The projected figure for 2024-2025 is 42. Therefore, this is a school with growing numbers of pupils which is important. They are all people who will be remaining in the area. They are not people who will be moving on.

The problem is that special education hours are proposed to be cut from 22.5 hours to 17.5 hours from September 2024. That is a 22% cut even though enrolment will increase by 25%. This has come as a great shock to the principal and the other teachers there as well to the parents of the pupils. The school never had as much need for this service and certainly does not want it cut because it will lead to all sorts of problems. The school has a number of pupils with a diagnosis and some incoming pupils are undergoing or awaiting assessment. In some circumstances they will have special needs and will need psychological services.

While I know Government is making a great effort to improve these services and ensure all children are looked after, and no doubt in some places figures are improving, there is a danger that some of the smaller schools could lose out as we have seen with what is about to happen in Granlahan National School. It would be tragic if some children in our system could not avail of those services. The teachers and parents have made a huge effort to ensure all children get assistance where they need it and the hours that they have are very valuable and valued. As enrolment is clearly increasing, we certainly cannot cut back on this service.

I will not prolong the issue. It is basic and down to earth. It is an issue that needs to be addressed. I hope the Minister of State will be able to provide some comfort that I can bring back to the school. I await her reply with interest.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this extremely important issue. I have noted the contents of his contribution.

The current model of allocation was commenced in 2017 on foot of a 2014 NCSE report. The model aimed to move away from a diagnosis-led system of allocation to an identified-need-driven system. This was to provide greater certainty to schools about the additional teaching allocation they would receive. A key attribute was that it provided schools with a greater level of autonomy in managing and deploying the additional teaching allocation to meet identified learning needs within the school.

The Department conducted a review of the model in 2022 to ensure that it was meeting the changing needs in special education. During the review process there was full consultation. The Department sought and listened to the views, concerns and issues raised by our education partners and schools with the existing model. The engagement with our key stakeholders, including staff representatives and management bodies, took place on a number of occasions in order to get feedback on the current model and to take on board the issues that needed to be considered for a revised model. All that feedback was brought into this current allocation.I wanted to set that out at the outset.

It is also important to say that overall there has been an increase in special education teaching posts throughout the country. We now have 14,600 such posts supporting mainstream classes, which is an increase of 1,000 since the end of the 2021 school year. We should also bear in mind that 98% of children, including those with special educational needs, are educated in mainstream classes. There has, however, been a limited change to the methods used to allocate special education teachers, SETs, to mainstream classes. The allocations to schools issued on 6 February arise from that review. Of all schools throughout the country, 67% have either increased their allocation or retained their previous allocation. Of those schools whose allocation has been decreased, and I appreciate what the Senator said about this particular school, 70% have reduced their hours by five hours or less, which is the situation for Granlahan National School, Ballinlough, County Roscommon.

The SET allocation is designed to distribute additional teaching resources across the entire education system as fairly as possible. The Department, along with stakeholders, is cognisant that the model needs to continue to evolve so that the SET allocations process takes into account new or improved data sources and other changes within the school system. This school has a significantly reduced level of students who have a standard ten, STen, score of 1, 2 or 3 in English and have special education needs in maths on a three-year average basis. These are the categories that get the highest level of support. There are no special classes in Granlahan National School. The Senator said enrolments have gone up slightly but they are relatively stable, although with a small increase. My understanding is this increase is not sufficient to counteract the significant reduction in teaching need as per the standardised test results.

The school can, however, engage with the NCSE to review this, and speak to the special educational needs organiser, SENO, to see if a conversation can be had around it. I would not like the message to be that there is a cut at the school. This is about fairness across the system in general and trying to match the greatest level of need with the number of teachers.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I appreciate the Minister of State's reply. There is nothing I can argue with as such. She is right. However, I said that while there is no doubt that there has been an increase in special education teaching posts throughout the country, it looks like some of these smaller schools could lose out. I appreciate that the school authorities can have conversations with people within the system, including the NCSE and others, but the school knows of people who are being assessed at present and that it will have more need for this service. If that is now being cut, when the school has a greater need for that service, I can appreciate the difficulty it is in.

I will certainly return to the principal to discuss what the Minister of State has stated. It is to be hoped we will be able to get a solution. I am sure the Minister of State will agree that none of us want a situation where any child will lose out. I appreciate what she said about minimum hours and so on but, as I said, for a smaller school that will have increased enrolments in the coming years, and is currently having people assessed, I see its point of view and the problem it has. I will take up the option indicated by the Minister of State to see if we can get a solution to this.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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We obviously do not want a situation where a school feels its needs are not being met in order for it to look after children with additional needs. We want to give the supports. The NCSE is there and the school should speak to it. If there are to be future enrolments, of course its allocation will be reviewed. Complex needs are now taken into account in two ways. First, those students who are performing at the lower levels in standardised tests, which indicate the greatest level of need for additional learning support and, second, pupils with more complex needs who have been exempted, or given the highest weight, are considered.

As I said, the SET model allocations will see 30% of schools having no change and 37% seeing an increase. Of those schools, such as the school the Senator Murphy mentioned, that have seen a reduction, 70% have had their hours reduced by five hours or less. The reduction at individual school level is being driven primarily by the change in demographics and reducing enrolments, especially in the primary sector, but that is always subject to review if there are increasing enrolments down the line.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Murphy for tabling this Commencement matter. I thank the Minister of State for taking all four Commencment matters today. We know she is busy and we appreciate her time in the Seanad as always.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 1.50 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 2 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 1.50 p.m. and resumed at 2 p.m.