Priority Questions

Special Educational Needs

Charlie McConalogue


1. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills to address concerns over the long waiting times for Special Needs assessment by the National Educational Psychological Service; and if he intends to implement the new system of allocation of resource teaching hours allocation, that is currently being piloted on a national basis in September 2016. [11137/16]

I understand Deputy Thomas Byrne is substituting for Deputy Charlie McConalogue.

Deputy McConalogue has been appointed Fianna Fáil Party spokesperson on agriculture and I have succeeded him as the Fianna Fáil Party spokesperson on education. It is a privilege to assume this important role and I thank my party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, for my appointment. This role has had great resonance over many years in my party in terms of various achievements. Today, I will ask a series of important questions that were tabled before my appointment, the first of which relates to concerns about the long waiting times for special needs assessments. Is it the Minister's intention to implement nationally the new system of resource teaching hours allocation currently under pilot?

I congratulate Deputies Thomas Byrne and Carol Nolan on taking up their new responsibilities. Like me, they are new to the job, although Deputy Nolan has an advantage over us in that she has worked in the education system. I am sure, however, that Deputy Byrne and I will be fast learners.

With 506 pages in the ministerial brief, it may take some time to master it.

It is good to see a man from the royal county.

Support from the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, is available to every recognised primary and second level school. NEPS, in consultation with schools, prioritises children for support, consultation and-or assessment who have failed to make adequate progress despite an appropriate continuum of support being delivered for these children. Under its model of service, NEPS focuses on building school capacity by encouraging schools to engage in initial assessment, educational planning and remedial intervention for pupils with learning, emotional or behavioural difficulties. Teachers may consult their NEPS psychologist should they need to at this stage in the process. Only in the event of a failure to make reasonable progress in spite of the school's best efforts in consultation with NEPS will the psychologist become involved with an individual child for intensive support.

The support NEPS provides to schools and students is vital. The programme for a partnership Government has committed to invest additional resources in this area, with the objective of bringing the total staff up to 238 educational psychologists, an increase of 25% over the lifetime of the Government. This will allow NEPS to increase its level of support to schools.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has a statutory role under the Education of Persons with Special Educational Needs Act to provide me with policy advice on matters concerning the education of persons with special educational needs.

The NCSE identified that the current model for allocating resource teachers to schools is potentially inequitable because access to the range of professional assessments required for the diagnosis of low incident disabilities is not always readily available to those who cannot afford to access them privately. The council also advised that the current model can lead to unnecessary labelling of children from a young age.

The council has proposed a new resource teaching allocation model which will, when introduced, remove the formal requirement for diagnostic assessment to access additional support. A pilot of the model is taking place across a number of schools in advance of implementation in the school system generally. As the pilot is still under way, it will not be possible to implement the new model in all schools in the coming year. The pilot has been developed in order to test the model and to allow for the practical effect of the application of the new model in the 47 pilot schools to be evaluated.

A review of the pilot has now commenced. This will allow us to take into account the learning experiences of schools, principals, pupils and the views of parents over the course of the pilot. On conclusion of the review, a decision will be taken on the timeframe for the full implementation of the proposed new allocation model.

Before I call Deputy Thomas Byrne, I remind Members that there is no lead-in to questions under current Standing Orders. The Minister has two minutes for an initial reply and there are four minutes overall for supplementary questions and replies, with a one-minute limit on each supplementary question.

As this is my first day putting questions to the Minister, I do not expect to take up too much time. I am still learning the ropes in respect of procedure.

This is a serious issue and I am glad the pilot scheme is not being rolled out nationally yet. Learning support resource teaching should be based on need. Many schools would face significant reductions and pupils with special learning needs would have to do without support if this system was introduced on a national basis. If we used the analogy of medical care, it would be equivalent to basing the allocation of such care on general area demographics rather than patient need. Will the Minister outline when it is proposed that the pilot scheme will end, when the report relating to it will be submitted and when he will have results in that regard?

The reasons for moving to the other system are outlined in my reply. The council responsible for special education needs feels resources are required for children to be professionally assessed, but the parents of many children are unable to afford that. Therefore, some children's needs might be undetected. The new model takes into account not only children who have had an assessment within the school but also those who may be waiting for an assessment. Therefore, it looks at the whole school, the make-up in terms of children and the likely need. It avoids all the time and effort that goes into evaluation and puts the resource into the school. Obviously, the programme must be tested to see whether it will work and any transition will need to take account of the sensibilities expressed by Deputy Thomas Byrne. It is believed that a whole-school approach is better, and that the best approach is for the school to take special education seriously and integrate it right across its programmes. That is the thinking behind this pilot programme.

The review of the pilot has commenced, but I do not have a date for when it will be available. It will not be available for the coming September but should be available after that.

More progress could be made if additional resources were provided. The Minister has outlined some of the resources that will be provided - that there will be more educational psychologists and more resources for the NEPS in order to reduce waiting times for assessments. I see that as the best way to reduce inequality, give everybody a chance and ensure that whatever resources are available are directed on the basis of the need of the individual child.

In recent years we have got used to considering the best interests of the child, not the best interests of the demographic. It is acknowledged that there is an issue in regard to the tests. In some cases it is not a question of having the financial resources that people can have assessments done earlier, but rather of sacrificing everything else to pay for them

I understand that in the 47 schools in the pilot programme there has been a significant investment of support to ensure the resources, including special needs assistants, resource teachers and learning support teachers, are deployed in the best interest of the entire school population but that they are focused, in particular, on children with special needs. The schools are using the additional resources to cope and are doing so on the basis of a whole-school rather than carving it out. It is believed that is better and that it gets the schools to develop policies and practices that are good for inclusion of children with special needs.

While I understand the criticisms being made in regard to moving from the rigid allocation model to a broader one, it is believed a school will better serve its pupils if they are not faced with a long wait for assessment and if the proposed practice is integrated in a new way in schools, taking on board the advice of the council. This best practice advice is being piloted and, hopefully, that will allay the Deputy's fears.

School Guidance Counsellors

Carol Nolan


2. Deputy Carol Nolan asked the Minister for Education and Skills the funding he will allocate to increase the number of guidance counsellors in second level schools from September 2016; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10947/16]

The programme for Government contains a commitment to reintroduce guidance counselling to secondary schools.

The current budget provides an improved staffing allocation to second level schools for the purpose of enhancing guidance provision. This improvement takes effect from next September. It brings the basis of allocation from 19:1 to 18.7:1 for the 2016-2017 school year. This improvement of 0.3 in the pupil-teacher ratio, PTR, allocation is a restoration of 50% of the teaching resources that were removed when the allocation of guidance posts was brought within quota.

The delivery of the 50% restoration through a change in the staffing schedule will allow each school to determine how best to allocate the additional resources to meet the guidance needs of the school. The circular issued earlier this year by my Department outlining the allocation of teaching resources clearly stated that this additional resource is to complement existing resources in order to best meet the guidance needs of the school in line with the school's guidance plan.

At the time of the guidance cuts, all 195 second-level schools in DEIS were given targeted support by a more favourable staffing schedule of 18.25:1. This was a 0.75 point improvement compared to the current PTR of 19:1 that applies in non-fee-paying second-level schools.

That was a very important protection for the cohort of our schools in DEIS most in need of support. DEIS schools will also further benefit from the 0.3 improvement to the staffing schedule which will give them an enhanced allocation on the basis of 17.95:1 in respect of the coming school year.

In the next budget I will consider the best approach to further meeting the commitments in the programme for Government.

Guím gach rath ar an Aire, an Teachta Bruton, ina ról nua. I am a little disappointed that there is only 0.3% improvement in terms of staffing. The cut to the service has been a huge difficulty for schools and has put students at a significant disadvantage. We are talking about students of 17 years or 18 years of age who have career choices to make. These are children who need proper guidance and support.

I am disappointed that more support is not being provided and I urge the Minister to consider improving on the percentage increase mentioned, particularly in the case of disadvantaged schools. These schools need more resources. I welcome the restoration provided for in the programme for Government, but I would expect a higher percentage increase. The Education Act 1998 requires that students have access to appropriate guidance to assist them in their educational and career choices.

I may have misled the Deputy somehow. Some 50% has been restored. In other words, half of what was lost has been restored. The 0.3 relates to the pupil-teacher ratio. It refers to the improvement in the teacher ratio. Some 50% of what was lost has been returned to the schools and they have the discretion to allocate that resource as they choose. The guideline encourages them to use it for support.

I agree with the Deputy that support in the area of career guidance, educational guidance and personal and social development, which are the essence of the counselling service, is really important to pupils. That is why the programme for Government has reintroduced guidance counselling. It is also worth looking at how we can improve that. Having come from the enterprise brief, I believe access to career guidance can be considerably improved by giving better information from the industrial sector and by utilising people in other employments to supplement what is done by the school teacher within the school context. It is an area in respect of which I would like to think outside the box to develop career guidance, which is only a part of the counselling service.

I ask Members to proceed with questions rather than statements.

That 0.3% of the staffing schedule, in the context of the pupil-teacher ratio, is not enough. I do not think the 50% referred to is enough either. We are not meeting our obligations under the Education Act if we only put back 50% of teachers. I urge the Minister to look at it again to see if it can be improved on.

I do not disagree with the Deputy but we have come through a period when there were a lot of cutbacks in education. We are now trying to rebuild that and that means putting back resources as and when we can get them. I have to knock on the door of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to try to get money and there are demands from all the other services, including health. I appreciate the Deputy's concern and it would certainly be my intention to work to improve the situation.

State Examinations Reviews

Charlie McConalogue


3. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills his proposals for progressing with reform of the junior certificate; if students in schools that have not implemented the new junior cycle English curriculum will automatically lose 10% in their English examinations in 2017 if their teachers do not agree to engage with the new assessment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11138/16]

The new framework for junior cycle 2015 offers a significant opportunity to improve the experience for learners, to broaden the range of competences which they acquire and to facilitate more flexible teaching, catering to the different needs of students with ongoing feedback.

The Department has set out a schedule for the roll-out of this new approach across all subjects over a five-year period. Before the introduction of any subject, there is a process of development of detailed subject specifications by the NCCA. There is also a dedicated programme of professional development for teachers which includes guidance on teaching and learning methods, supports for the new methods and the assessment approach.

As the Deputy knows, English was the first subject and the three-year cycle started in September 2014. The first students emerging from this cycle will receive their new junior cycle profile of achievement in autumn 2017. The profile of achievement will record outcomes from a broader range of learning experiences across the three-year programme. It will include the outcome of the two classroom-based assessments as well as the separate final State-certified written examination. The final written examination result will incorporate the result of an assessment task based on the student's own written evaluation of his or her learning experience on their second classroom-based assessment task, and that is worth 10% of marks. It is intended that the profile of achievement will also include other learning achievements, including learning on short courses, other experiences and events and achievement in the area of well-being.

Students currently in second year who have not completed their first classroom-based assessment will, as agreed with the teacher unions, have the opportunity to complete this early in the first term of the coming school year.

It is a matter of deep regret that the ASTI has failed to deliver on the 2015 agreement with their leadership. Their continuing refusal to co-operate with the new framework is impacting on current junior cycle students of English.

I have also received a letter from the general secretary of the ASTI, dated 9 May, indicating that the ASTI looks forward to engaging with me on a number of named issues, including junior cycle reform.

I welcome the indications of the ASTI in this regard. If the ASTI requires further clarifications on any aspects of the published framework, I am happy to facilitate its request. My Department has already clearly signalled that it is willing to support the ASTI in revisiting this issue with its members. I intend to make contact with the ASTI to arrange for an appropriate engagement in follow-up to the letter of 9 May.

What will the consequences be for the exam results of those students in ASTI-staffed schools if this issue is not resolved? In support of the ASTI, the Minister's predecessors had a very bad approach and attempted to railroad through these reforms. We all know of the controversy of the past number of years in that regard. I am glad to hear the union is willing to meet with the Minister but if I was a parent of a junior cycle student, which I am not yet, I would be very concerned if this was not an urgent and a priority matter. There will be significant stress, even at this point, on students who might eventually miss out. Can the Minister indicate what exactly the consequences are and when he proposes to meet with the ASTI?

I appreciate the Minister is only two weeks into the job and needs a bit of time but this must be one of those issues requiring immediate and urgent attention because of the consequences, which I hope he will outline.

To be fair to the Department and my predecessors, a lot of work has gone into trying to accommodate the introduction of the junior cycle. I understand that detailed negotiations took place, which amended it and did away with some of the biggest concerns the teachers had about assessing their own pupils in a certified State exam. Agreement was reached with the two trade unions, the TUI and the ASTI. In the case of the TUI, it was accepted, but in the case of the ASTI, it has not been accepted. However, the door is always open to proceed. The new junior cycle is in the best interests of pupils and I welcome the willingness of the ASTI to discuss the matter.

It is a State-based examination. The examination board sets the outcome and it has assigned 10% of the marks to this written assessment of the student's experience. If the student does not provide that, it means those marks will not be available to him or her. It has been agreed that this need not occur until next year, so it is not a matter of immediate pressure.

I understand that but it still is a matter of deep regret that students' exam results will be put in peril if the Minister and the ASTI do not sort this out. The 10% in question will be missing from next year's results and that is a matter of deep concern. It needs to be sorted out by September at the very latest, so we need to get the skates under everybody. I am glad the ASTI has offered to engage and I encourage it to keep at the Minister and the Department for their own sake. I hope, and expect, the Minister will ensure the issue is resolved because of the potential consequences for students. They do not need that stress because of differences between the ASTI and the Department. The leaving certificate is far more significant than the junior certificate but the junior certificate has its role and those who are studying for the junior certificate at the moment see nothing else. They should not have this hanging over them.

I agree that this is disappointing, so late in the day. This process started in November 2011 when the NCCA published its document Towards a Framework for Junior Cycle, which was very much welcomed as a hugely positive approach, to move away from rote learning and the final examination to value a broader range of experience. Much work was done to get that agreed. It has been agreed by one union and I hope the ASTI can also come to an agreement. It is to the benefit of pupils and it is also to the long-term benefit of teaching to be able to facilitate this approach to learning.

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

Carol Nolan


4. Deputy Carol Nolan asked the Minister for Education and Skills the sections of the EPSEN Act he will progress; when he will decide if individual education plans are a mandatory requirement; and if he will enforce compliance with the time limits required under the Disability Act 2005 and the regulations in terms of the assessment of need. [10948/16]

A number of sections of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 have been commenced, including those establishing the National Council for Special Education and those promoting an inclusive approach to the education of children.

Under the programme for a partnership Government, I will initiate consultation with stakeholders on how best to progress sections of the Act which were introduced on a non-statutory basis.

At present, all schools are encouraged to use education plans. The departmental inspectorate's advice is that the majority of schools are now using some form of individual education planning for children with special needs.

In line with circular 30 of 2014, schools are required to put in place a personal pupil plan, including a care plan, for each pupil availing of SNA support. While it is awaiting the full implementation of the EPSEN Act, the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has published a number of policy advice papers which make recommendations aimed at developing a better or more effective alternative to the current resource allocation model and moving the system towards the ultimate implementation of the EPSEN Act. As I said to Deputy Thomas Byrne, the alternative model is being piloted in 47 schools. The ideas that will come out of that pilot will be used to make progress with the implementation of the EPSEN Act. The implementation of the Disability Act and the timeframes for assessments of need under that Act are primarily matters for my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris.

I understand the Minister's point about the establishment of the NCSE, but surely there should be a mandatory requirement for an individual education plan for each child. I am very familiar with classroom planning, having worked as a teacher for 12 years. I am aware that class plans and subject plans are mandatory, but it seems to me that the arrangements are looser in the area of special education. I have worked with teachers in the special education sector, just as I have worked as a learning support teacher. Most teachers are excellent, in fairness. I am interested in the connotations in this regard. We talk about inclusivity and equality in education, so why not make this a mandatory process? It would make far more sense to do this in tandem with the work of the NCSE and everything else that is happening. The assessment of need, for example, ties in with education to a significant extent. I have spoken to the Minister of State with responsibility for disability issues about this issue. As the assessment of need includes educational need, it is an intrinsic part of education. For that reason, I believe both Ministers should be working on it. The compliance rate in counties Laois and Offaly at the moment is just 9%. These assessments tie into the education area because they have an impact on a child's education.

As the Deputy knows, the EPSEN Act sets out very distinct statutory requirements around assessments, plans, services and appeals, etc. Essentially, the system is evolving to the point at which all of these clear legal requirements can be met. A pupil plan must be in place before a special needs assistant can be allocated to a school in respect of that pupil. The Department is using the existence of a personal pupil plan as a condition for accessing some of the key supports that may be gained by a child. We are doing our best to roll this practice out. We are piloting the new allocation process, which involves new approaches to teaching special education within our schools. We are hoping that as these pilots evolve and we learn from them, we will be in a position to implement the statutory requirements. It takes learning to move from one to the other. Work is needed at school level if the service is to evolve. In fairness, there has been a huge increase in the allocation of resource teachers and special needs assistants in recent years as Governments have been putting in place the infrastructure to underpin the personal planning approach.

I thank the Minister for his response. I appreciate that efforts are being made. I would stand firm in my view that not enough is being done. I believe these plans should be mandatory. I would like to see a commitment from the Government to a higher rate of compliance with the requirement for assessments of need, particularly in counties Laois and Offaly, which are failing miserably to meet the targets set out in the Disability Act. It is not good enough in this day and age. We talk about equality and inclusivity in education, but we need action rather than lip service. Many of the plans and templates I have seen are based on a deficit model, which lists the child's needs and failings. It has been suggested that individual education plans, which include the child's strengths, should be made mandatory. That is where we need to be coming from. Society creates barriers for children, especially children with special needs.

I agree with the Deputy. The way to implement this Act is to increase the number of resource teacher posts. The number in question increased by almost 2,000 between the 2011 and 2016 school years. There has also been a substantial increase in the number of special needs assistants. An additional 1,500 special needs assistants have been provided. This infrastructure will support the delivery of the service that will underpin the personal planning. The Deputy and I are both keen to see that service delivered. The allocations I have mentioned are being used to help schools to develop personal plans. We are using the advice of the council, which is the expert in special education, to try to put in place a model that will successfully support children in these schools. There is a lot of work going in here. Continual increases in the resources being invested will be needed. I have committed in the programme for Government to a review of this area with a view to trying to improve it.

Apprenticeship Programmes

Charlie McConalogue


5. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills how he will double the number of apprenticeships by 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11139/16]

Ireland needs to develop a highly valued apprenticeship path in new areas of opportunity while also meeting the growing demands in certain traditional areas. This approach is central to our ambition to facilitate the growth of modern manufacturing and service sectors. The new programme for Government plans to accelerate the work that was initiated by the previous Government by putting in place a specific plan to realise the ambitious apprenticeship target that has been set. Registrations in the 27 existing apprenticeship trades are increasing following a number of years of decline. The number of registrations has almost doubled since 2012 and now stands at 3,153. There is an expectation that this number will continue to increase as economic activity continues to grow in traditional sectors.

When a comprehensive review of the Irish apprenticeship system was undertaken in December 2013, the key recommendation was the establishment of an apprenticeship council. As Deputies are aware, this happened in November 2014. The council's first task was to issue a call for proposals for new apprenticeships from industry bodies and education and training providers. More than 80 proposals were received, all of which were evaluated against a set of criteria. The council assigned category 1 status to 25 proposals which were deemed to be at an advanced stage of design, planning and collaboration. It is working closely with the groups to develop these proposals into sustainable national apprenticeships. It is envisaged that up to nine of them will be in a position to move to enrolment in 2016, with the remainder being rolled out in 2017. The council is working with those involved with the proposals that were given category 2 status to develop a pipeline of new apprenticeships. The timing of further calls will also be considered. The achievement of these ambitious targets will require commitment from a number of key stakeholders and will depend on strong employer demand. I am confident that we will deliver on our targets and that learners, employers and our economy and society will benefit strongly as a result.

The Minister has outlined the work of the Apprenticeship Council. The programme for Government contains a commitment to doubling the number of apprenticeships and providing a total of 31,000 places by 2020. We sincerely hope that is much more than simply an ambition. I would say it is not enough to set targets. The number of apprenticeships is led by the level of demand from those who want to qualify in certain trades and from the industries that require apprentices. Speaking of industries, are there any plans or prospects for the State and for State bodies to take on apprentices and to offer them apprenticeships? It is certain that there would be demand in various State organisations, such as the Office of Public Works, OPW, for the provision of apprenticeships. Will the Minister comment on that?

Traditionally, apprenticeships were solely demand-led and were confined to the traditional 24 trades. As I said in my initial reply, it is exciting that proposals have been made in respect of 80 new trades by a new batch of employers who are willing to participate. While the roll-out of these proposals will depend on the willingness of employers to take people on, we must also develop the training modules to support them. Partnerships are being forged between various agencies, including education and training boards, private training bodies and institutes of technology, which are developing these programmes. The first batch of 25 programmes will come on stream in the next academic year. We will back that up with a further 35 programmes from category 2. If we can make such a move, I expect that we will double the level of participation in traditional apprenticeships while developing a whole new area of apprenticeship. This will allow us to become more like countries like Germany.

We all admire the way in which the industrial sector there has partnered with the education sector to develop a strong route of apprenticeships which is highly valued. I believe we need to develop such a model here.

That is certainly the direction in which we want to go. As the Minister said, apprenticeships are highly valued.

In terms of the traditional apprenticeships, there are severe shortages at the moment at a time when we do not need shortages. Is there anything specific being done to address that deficit in traditional apprenticeships?

I would certainly support State bodies getting involved. If one goes back through the full list of over 80 proposals, there are State bodies involved. These are very significant and important sectors of industry.

The take-up in traditional apprenticeships has doubled since 2012 and we are planning for a very substantial increase in the take-up of those. We are planning for the additional spaces to be taken on. I hope that growth will continue and it will be supported by my Department. The real thing is to try to broaden into new areas of apprenticeship as well so that it can become a valued route for people to support the technical skills that we need in modern manufacturing and services. Coming from my old job, it is a very important area that we can develop.

I remind Members that supplementaries are given by way of questions.