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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 2 Apr 2015

Vol. 873 No. 3

Topical Issue Debate

Autism Support Services

I thank the Ceann Comhairle’s office for allowing me to raise this issue on World Autism Day. It is apt that we do so. Autism is a lifelong developmental condition with an autism spectrum going from mild to acute and severe.

Will Members who are not engaging in this debate please leave the Chamber and allow the Deputy continue making his contribution?

We are not really sure as to the prevalence of autism. Research by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, indicates it is one in 100, totalling 450,000 people in Ireland. Research from the United States indicates it is one in 68 people, a more alarming statistic. This is an issue on which we need to focus.

Apart from the day that is in it, another reason I am raising this issue is because quite a number of parents have raised concerns with me about intervention classes at primary and, particularly, post-primary level. Does the Department of Education and Skills or the NCSE collect information on how many children in schools have ASD, autism spectrum disorder, diagnoses? If the Minister for Education and Skills does not have that information today, will she communicate it to me later? If the information is not available, how can the Department plan for how many children it needs to cater? Will the Minister inform me if her colleague the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, has appointed an ASD expert to the national disability strategy implementation group, as decided by the relevant Cabinet sub-committee? Has the strategy been autism-proofed?

In some instances, where children have an acute form of autism, will the Minister consider that integration into mainstream education is not the way to go and they need special second level schools? Many schools in my area, as well as across the country, have long waiting lists. This is causing significant distress for families with children with autism because they have no school places for their children.

Our colleague, Deputy Michael McCarthy, published a Bill to have a national autism strategy similar to what pertains in Scotland. Will the Minister move on this issue? If the numbers are as high as indicated, this is a major issue on which we need to focus. Home tuition is available for many parents but many would prefer to send their children to special schools in severe cases or special classes in a mainstream school in the cases of moderate conditions. This is a particular problem for second level schools as they might not have the space, facilities and expertise to assist, support and teach children on the autistic spectrum.

When will the comprehensive policy on how best children with special needs can be supported be finalised? Will the House debate it when it is?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue on World Autism Day as it gives me an opportunity to outline the progress and current position regarding the education of children with autism. Having a debate on this can be discussed with the Whips.

World Autism Day provides an opportunity to raise of awareness of autism and to consider the challenges faced by children with autism and their families. The Government's commitment is to ensure all children with special educational needs, including those with autism, can have access to an education appropriate to their needs, preferably in school settings through the primary and post-primary school network.

The Department provides for a range of placement options and supports for schools which have enrolled pupils with autism to ensure wherever a child is enrolled, they will have access to an appropriate education. Children with autism can enrol in an early intervention class from the age of three and, if they are assessed younger, home tuition can be provided from the age of two and a half. Children with autism may be enrolled in a mainstream school and can attend all mainstream classes. In such cases, these children will receive additional teaching support through the learning support and the resource teacher and where appropriate will receive access to special needs assistance and assistive technology if required.

In respect of children with autism who cannot be accommodated in mainstream education, they may be enrolled in special classes or special schools where more intensive and supportive interventions are provided. This will normally include a pupil teacher ratio of 6:1 and special needs assistant support normally amounting to two special needs assistants, SNAs, for a class of six children. Progress in developing this network has been significant and in addition to the special school placements there are now approximately 625 special classes nationwide in mainstream schools, 95 of which are early intervention settings, 378 in primary schools and 152 at post-primary level. Other units will open in September.

The NCSE is at an advanced stage in the preparation of policy advice on the education of children with autism.

I expect that the NCSE final report, which is due to be delivered in the coming months, will reflect the broadest possible range of views, both national and international, and will provide recommendations which will assist the development of policy for future years.

This Government is committed to developing a programme of actions specific to the needs of those with autism for incorporation in the national disability strategy implementation plan. Last year, the National Disability Authority undertook a consultation exercise to find out how the implementation of the national disability strategy implementation plan can most effectively address the needs of people with autism. The National Disability Authority has been tasked to work bilaterally with each Department to develop time-bound actions to address the needs of people with autism for incorporation in the national disability strategy implementation plan. Officials in my Department are fully engaged with the National Disability Authority in the development of these actions.

I know the Deputy was looking for specific information about the number, which I do not have today so I will come back to him that. The Deputy also raised the issue of the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, which I will clarify with her in respect of an ASD expert for the National Disability Authority implementation group, so I will have to come back to Deputy Stanton about that as well. I know there is strong demand for special schools. We are constantly updating our data relating to children who need supports. Additional special units will come on stream this year. I held a meeting yesterday with some principals of special schools, although they were not specifically schools for autism. I know there is a lot of pressure on the special school in my constituency and I am aware this is the case in other parts of the country. We need to continue to identify the needs as early as possible to ensure we have appropriate provision. Early intervention is important and there is provision for that. There is evidence that the numbers with autism is increasing and is quite high.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive response and look forward to receiving the information she mentioned. In the north Lee area in my constituency there is a very long waiting list to get a diagnosis because without that, early intervention cannot happen.

If the condition is acute, I think special schools are the way to go. The difficulty is that sometimes these schools are a long way from the homes of the children and travelling to and from these schools can be very problematic and can add to the stress and pressure. Could the Minister carry out a national examination of the location of special schools and see where there are areas where there is demand but no school in order that children will not have to travel, leading to more expense in the form of taxis and buses?

Could the Minister come back to me on autism-specific teams? I know this is possibly crossing over into health. This is a problem because this area is a cross between health and education. It also involves other areas such as enterprise and employment and environment as people get older. This is why we need a strategy to pull it all together rather than it being a case of who does what. Certain provisions of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act were geared towards children with special needs, but much of that Act has been parked and has not been developed or brought into force. Will the Minister tell us her plans regarding bringing that into force?

I note that under the Disability Act, when a child was diagnosed, the diagnosis was to include information about what the child would need. I understand that the Department of Education and Skills is saying the assessor cannot and should not specify exactly what the child needs. This is completely against the spirit of the Act and I ask the Minister to change that.

The NCSE will furnish me with a report soon with advice on the education of children on the autism spectrum. This will advise me regarding where gaps exist and what needs to be done. I think the Deputy will be aware that I visited the Middletown Centre for Autism in County Armagh with the Minister from the Northern Ireland Executive last week. The Deputy and I were members on the committee when the centre was being set up some years ago. We need to be aware of the very good work being done in that centre in terms of the support given to schools and individual families. I met a set of parents from County Kildare who were very pleased with their child's progress because of the intervention in the centre.

I know there are issues relating to special needs that cross over between my Department and the Department of Health and Children and I have discussed them with the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch. We need to continue discussing these issues.

The NCSE developed a new model for support for children with special needs. We are unable to proceed with that in September but we hope it will be ready to proceed in the near future. In advance of that, I pulled together some of the supports that are available for children with special needs in the NCSE. I acknowledge that there is more to be done across Departments in terms of support for these children.

Teaching Contracts

I thank the Minister for coming to the House today to update us on the recommendations in the report by Peter Ward. As the Minister is aware, following on from the Haddington Road agreement, it was agreed that a special committee would be set up to assess the very real problem within our primary and secondary school system of part-time and fixed-term contracts for teachers. The situation has become so chronic that it is estimated that 35% of all teachers teaching in secondary schools are on fixed-term or part-time contracts and cannot get permanency. The figure at primary level is estimated to be lower at 9%.

The Ward report made some very significant recommendations after a very thorough assessment of the problems and the type of solutions that could be put forward to address them. Peter Ward also recommended having specific timelines and suggested that most of the recommendations should kick in from this September. Will the Minister update us today and assure us that these recommendations will be acted upon and implemented?

The period for gaining permanency through contracts of indefinite duration, CID, is four years for most professions. The Ward report recommended that from this September, after two years in either fixed-term or part-time employment in a school, a teacher would become eligible for a CID. Will the Minister confirm whether this will be the case?

The Ward report also recommended that any teacher employed on a CID should hold an employment status equal to that of teacher who is permanent. He recommended that teachers who qualify for a CID on the basis of two years employment in accordance with his recommendations would be liable to redeployment in circumstances where their subject or subjects become surplus to the school with which they have the CID. This is to ensure that there continues to be some flexibility for schools to manage their affairs.

The report makes a recommendation in respect of teachers replacing teachers on career break or on secondment. Up to now at secondary and primary level, someone who has replaced a teacher on career break or on secondment does not qualify for a CID, even if they have been there for a number of years. This is very unfair. Some secondments and career breaks can last for five years, yet people who take up those positions have not been in a position to qualify for a CID.

It is crucial that another recommendation is delivered this September.

I am speaking of teachers on contracts of indefinite duration and for less than full-time hours who subsequently work additional hours. I am asking that in such cases teachers be entitled to a contract in respect of the additional hours after one year. That is a fair proposal and it is important it is delivered on this September. I hope the Minister is in a position to update the House on the current status in this regard.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue as it gives me an opportunity to provide an update on the implementation of the recommendations of the expert group on fixed-term and part-time employment in primary and second level education. As stated by the Deputy, the Haddington Road agreement provided for the establishment of an expert group to consider and report on the level of fixed-term and part-time employment in teaching, having regard to the importance for teachers of employment stability and security and taking account of system and school needs and Teaching Council registration requirements.

The group was established and chaired by Mr. Peter Ward SC, who consulted extensively with all the stakeholders and interested parties. The report noted the high level of casualisation of employment, particularly in second level teaching where 35% of teachers are fixed-term, part-time, or both. The equivalent figure in primary teaching is 9%. An over-reliance on fixed-term and part-time employment has implications for the security of employment of teachers and has led to concerns about the future attractiveness of teaching as a professional career, with implications for the quality of the education provided to pupils. The report of the expert group was published in September 2014. At the time of publication, I gave a commitment to implement the report with effect from September 2015.

The report recommends a suite of measures which will lead to more job security for fixed-term and part-time teachers. It recommends seven changes should take place from the commencement of the 2015 school year. These changes would allow fixed-term teachers to acquire permanent status more easily and quickly. The report also provides for extended redeployment arrangements that give school management more flexibility in redeploying teachers in the event of mismatch between teacher qualifications and the curricular needs of schools.

At the time of publication, I gave a commitment to implement the report with effect from September 2015. Following consultation with the education partners, circulars 23/2015 and 24/2015 detailing the arrangements and procedures for the implementation of the recommendations of the report were published on 27 March. These arrangements and procedures, as set out in these circulars, are for implementation from the commencement of the 2015 to 2016 school year. Copies of the circulars are available on my Department's website. The circulars address issues such as the granting of an initial contract of indefinite duration, in respect of which the timeframe has been reduced from three years to two years, and the other issues raised by the Deputy. There was extensive discussion of these issues with the various stakeholders in education prior to publication of the circulars. My understanding is that it is accepted that the recommendations are appropriately captured in the circulars. However, I have not yet had any feedback in that regard and would be interested in any feedback in that regard from the Deputy. The intention is to implement the recommendations fully for the next school year.

I welcome that the Minister has published the circulars and that there will be some movement in terms of implementation of the key recommendations this September.

The Ward report also makes medium and long term recommendations and, in particular, calls for the putting in place of a structured process for the medium and long-term planning of teacher provision with a view to better matching the qualifications of teachers with the subject requirement of pupils. What is the current position with regard to that recommendation and what are the Minister's plans in this regard? The difficulty is that there does not appear to be any planning in relation to ensuring we have a supply of teachers in key subject areas, in respect of which future demand is likely to be high. It is important that recommendation is acted upon.

Another key issue not addressed in the Ward report is newly qualified teachers being probated, which is a disincentive to current students considering a career in teaching. Many newly qualified teachers are finding it exceptionally difficult to get the level of hours required to ensure they are probated. The Minister will be aware that to be probated, a newly qualified teacher requires a minimum of 100 days teaching in at least two 50-day blocks. I am aware of many teachers who after three or four periods of part-time teaching still have not managed to be probated. This issue needs to be addressed. The Department needs to grapple with how it can assist students in this regard.

Another issue which is making the profession less attractive is qualification allowances. The incentive previously in place to ensure teachers continued to upskill and engage with further education courses has been abolished. That decision should be reviewed by the Minister. Overall, the profession has not been appropriately valued in recent years. It is important the outstanding measures to which I have referred are addressed by the Department. I welcome that the recommendations of the Ward report will be acted upon or implemented this coming September.

The medium-term recommendations are still under discussion. I have made it very clear that I intend to implement all the recommendations. In terms of opportunities generally, the Deputy will be aware that owing to growing demographics, additional teachers are being employed each year. This provides us with an opportunity to address many of the issues raised by him.

The probation of newly qualified teachers is an issue on which I would be concerned to ensure we make progress. Overall, it is important this report was as precise as it was. Mr. Ward did a great job in terms of identifying the issues that need to be addressed and what needs to be done in that regard. I again thank Mr. Ward and the other members of the group for their work. I also thank the education partners for their contribution to implementation of the report's recommendations. The attitude in Ireland to teaching is largely positive. People very much prize it as a job. This is evident from the number of people who apply each year to become teachers. We need to ensure this continues.

The next Topical Issue matter is in the name of Deputy Dan Neville.

As the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, is currently in discussions with the Ceann Comhairle, I would like discussion on this issue to be postponed until after the Easter break.

That is fine. We will move on to the next Topical Issue matter in the name of Deputy Ellis.

Housing Finance Agency Funding

In raising this issue I am not criticising the Housing Finance Agency which does a very important job. The HFA's handling of funds with responsibility and care is crucial to its success. However, these funds need to be accessible. It is important that worthwhile projects are not delayed because of the lengthy HFA application process. I have met many of the large approved housing bodies, representatives of which told me they found the process of applying for funding for social housing projects more difficult and protracted than necessary and that in some cases it had forced them to seek funding from commercial banks.

Currently, we have a major crisis in terms of a shortage of affordable rental housing for low-paid people and those out of work. This has driven up rents and increased homelessness, which in the end is very costly to the public purse. The Government is only now recognising this but is doing its best to put in place money to tackle the crisis. The European Investment Bank has made €150 million available through the HFA for social housing projects. This money is vital to increasing our social housing stock as soon as possible, to stem the tide of tenants into homelessness, to end the static condition in emergency accommodation and to lower rents across the rental market.

The Housing Finance Agency is in place to source funding for social housing projects by approved housing bodies like Focus Ireland, Respond, Simon or the many other excellent groups that are seeking to build homes now. It was set up by the State to help these bodies to fund projects and has done so, but many groups in the absence of schemes like CAS are finding the HFA's application process prohibitive. It has done great work in the past but it needs to reform some practices in order for it to be fit for the challenge today.

This is not risky business. We are talking about providing homes in a time of unrivalled demand and applicants that have proven themselves as diligent and responsible housing providers. Unfortunately 120-page applications and protracted processes have led to some groups going to commercial banks which despite improved regulations in the wake of the economic crisis have proven easier to get credit from albeit they are a little more expensive in terms of interest.

It is in the interest of the Government for the HFA to be lending the EIB funding it has received to tackle the housing crisis. We need the Minister to work with the HFA to look at how commercial banks are lending and to find a middle ground which will be responsible but also accessible.

I am in contact with many of the housing agencies and the difficulties have not been brought to my attention. The Deputy raises a very important issue. The Housing Finance Agency is a public limited company and in that context the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has no function in the lending decisions and practices of that agency.

The main function of the Housing Finance Agency is to advance funds to local authorities to be used by them for any purpose authorised under the Housing Acts and to borrow or raise funds for these purposes. All of the issued share capital of the agency is beneficially owned by the Minister for Finance. The agency operates as a company and is therefore subject to usual accounting disciplines. The legislation under which it was set up enjoins it to at least break even in its operations and it operates without Government subvention.

Until recently, significant levels of capital funding were available to approved housing bodies through capital funding schemes, namely the capital assistance scheme the Deputy mentioned, and the capital loan and subsidy scheme. However, in recent years the approved housing body sector has had to shift from capital-funded programmes of construction and acquisition to more revenue-funded options and this has been a challenging process for the sector. The use of standard leasing agreements and loan finance from both commercial lending institutions and the Housing Finance Agency has allowed the sector to cope with this shift.

The Housing Finance Agency, in accordance with section 17 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2002 is empowered to, and does, provide lending facilities directly to approved housing bodies. Approved housing bodies can apply directly to the Housing Finance Agency for loan finance to buy or build new units to be leased for social housing purposes with lease payments used by the approved housing body to remunerate their borrowings from the Housing Finance Agency.

Each approved housing body wishing to draw funds directly must be deemed a qualifying body on foot of an assessment by the Housing Finance Agency. This is to ensure that the approved housing body is capable of managing all aspects of a social housing scheme from design and construction stage all the way through to rent collection and maintenance over the life of a project. Particular attention is paid in the assessment to financial and governance arrangements. Once an approved housing body has made it through the pre-qualification assessment, applications for lending are made to the Housing Finance Agency on a project-by-project basis and are assessed by the Housing Finance Agency's credit committee.

To date, 11 approved housing bodies have achieved certified borrower status with the Housing Finance Agency. It is anticipated that the remainder of 2015 will see continued growth in the level of lending in this area.

There seems to be a significant bureaucracy in terms of accessing funds. I did not realise it was so messy until recently. There is no doubt the approved housing bodies are doing great work, but we have a major crisis with housing and homelessness. Some 45 new families join the homeless list every month. The plan was to deliver something like 7,400 units this year, 5,000 of which were to come from the rental market or leasing. The reality is these houses are not available. We can talk about getting 5,000 units as part of a plan, but where will they be found?

We need to ensure that the housing bodies are delivering and that there are no obstacles to them accessing funding. However, there seems to be a bit of an obstacle. There is certainly some money there but accessing it seems to be a big problem. I am asking the Minister of State to look at this to see if it can be improved. She should talk to representatives of the HFA to see how the bureaucratic system in place can be speeded up. People are crying out and hundreds of people are staying in hotels throughout the country and particularly in the Dublin region, which is unacceptable. Any bureaucracy that is put in the way needs to be dealt with.

I draw the attention of the House to the very substantial allocations given yesterday to the local authorities, including €65 million across my constituency, Carlow-Kilkenny. That will address 44% of the local authority housing list. That is one of the biggest allocations I can ever remember. They have also offered the local authorities the flexibility to do that under a lease, buy or build scenario. I expect to see considerable work in that area over the course of this year.

I accept what the Deputy has said and I will discuss it with the Minister to see if housing agencies are experiencing particular difficulties. I am sure the Minister, Deputy Kelly, is in constant contact with the housing agencies. I will certainly speak to him about this and inform the Deputy of any areas of difficulty or pressure they may be experiencing at this time.

The Dáil adjourned at 2.40 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 15 April 2015.