Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Special Educational Needs Data

Thomas Byrne

Question:

40. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills the special schools which have raised the issue of insurance costs with his Department; the number of schools which have contacted his Department; the total advance capitation released to date; the increased insurance costs reported by schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26831/19]

I am asking the Minister about the issue of insurance costs which, unfortunately, have threatened businesses and voluntary activity and are now threatening the system, particularly the special education system. It has been reported that 15 special needs schools have contacted the Department this year to inform it that they cannot afford to pay their insurance bills. I raised this issue last year and was very disappointed to see that it was still on the agenda and had not been resolved.

The work carried out by the 124 special schools is invaluable.  Since my appointment as Minister, I have had the opportunity to visit a number of the schools to see at first hand the work they do.

My Department is aware of issues related to very significant increases in insurance costs in some special schools through correspondence received from some special schools, discussions with the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education, NABMSE, and media reports. The increases appear to be due, in some instances, to an annual increase in insurance costs generally and, in some cases, an increase in claims against special schools.

Securing and maintaining adequate and appropriate insurance cover is a matter for the managerial authority of each school. My Department is working as a matter of urgency with the NABMSE and relevant Departments, including the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and the State Claims Agency to seek a resolution of the issue of increased insurance costs in special schools.

A number of options have been identified to address the issue.  They include the development of a group insurance scheme for special schools.  The NABMSE met boards and patrons on 6 June to discuss the matter and the options available.  An official from my Department attended the meeting. 

At this stage, the group scheme proposal appears to be the most viable.  The importance of all schools signing up to such a scheme was emphasised at the recent meeting and all school representatives who were in attendance were in favour of exploring the group scheme option.

Fifteen special schools that are experiencing difficulty in paying insurance premiums have contacted my Department directly. They report increases in the cost of insurance of between 30% and over 700% in the past two years. To date, my Department has advanced school capitation payments on an exceptional basis to two special schools, amounting to €36,860.  My Department is engaging with the other schools in that regard. However, it is not sustainable for my Department to continue to advance capitation payments as a way of meeting vastly increased insurance premiums. I know that this is a cause of concern for schools also and it is my hope a speedy and cost effective resolution can be secured for special schools which have been impacted on.

The Minister will forgive me for expressing my frustration. This issue was raised by me on 12 June last year. I took it from the reply given by the then Minister, Deputy Bruton, that he was dealing with it urgently, taking steps, meeting stakeholders and doing everything possible to deal with it. One year later we find that the insurance industry is being allowed by the Government to run amok and the response of the Department of Education and Skills is neither good enough nor quick enough. One school's insurance costs jumped from €3,000 to €26,300. I have no idea why that happened in two years. It is unsustainable and no school could ever meet that cost. Furthermore, the Government has refused to grant the increases in capitation we sought last year in the budget. I do not know what happened in that regard. I believe the then Minister, Deputy Bruton, felt Fianna Fáil would fight for and get this, but it seems that people at the higher levels of the Minister's party felt they did not want to be seen to give Fianna Fáil a win on capitation payments. The problem was left unaddressed and it appeared to be a case of "We will leave the schools without". There was an uncaring attitude on the part of the Government which was not willing to accede to the demand of the unions, Fianna Fáil and the Dáil on capitation payments. As a result, schools have been left in the lurch with these and other bills that they simply cannot afford to pay.

The issue of insurance costs for special schools has been raised with me by a number of Deputies. St. Teresa's special school in Ballinasloe was faced with an increased bill. It was not being facilitated by being able to make staged payments and had to pay the bill in one go. It did not have the money to pay it. This is an issue we are taking very seriously. There is a potential option that all of the special schools are prepared to buy into, namely, having one group scheme, rather than individual schools having to deal with insurance costs in isolation. Of the 124 schools, seven are hospital schools. I visited one of them recently in Crumlin. It is very clear that the expenses associated with special schools are over and above those of an average school. I agree with the Deputy that issue of capitation payments is outstanding. I am committed to doing something about it, obviously within the parameters of the budget to be announced on 8 October. I have no doubt that there will be a discussion between the Deputy's party and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in that regard, but as far as I am concerned, the issue of capitation payments is critical, not just for special schools but also mainstream schools.

It is shocking that we are again more than one year on discussing this issue and that when it was raised first by the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education, NABMSE, and other organisations, it was not dealt with as a matter of urgency. There is another issue for the schools attached to organisations under section 38 of the Health Act. There was supposed to be a general agreement in respect of them, namely, the State's general indemnity scheme. I do not know if that issue has been sorted out for that cohort of schools. What is the position in that regard? We have got to take this issue much more seriously. The solicitor Gareth Noble stated in the media this week that the Department of Education and Skills had stepped off the playing pitch in the area of special educational needs. In my experience there is considerable truth in what he said when we look at this issue and a range of others which include children being denied their constitutional right to an education, children being denied the supports they need, constant announcements that have little or no basis in reality and an utter failure to use the special powers Fianna Fáil inserted into the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill to force schools to open special classes. They have not been touched and children have been left at home with home tuition grants, if they can receive them. The Minister has to get to grips with the issues in the area of special education.

The Deputy knows the figures for the levels of investment in special education. One euro out of every five goes into special education. I refer to a sum of €1.9 billion out of a budget of €11 billion. The sum invested in school transport is more than €207 million, of which 50% is in the area of special education. We have moved into a new era in the past ten years in special education. There are things we are getting right and others that we are getting wrong, but there are ways by which we can improve. The Deputy is correct to say there is special provision in respect of powers I can invoke as Minister. I will talk about that issue when we come to deal with a later question in the context of my frustration and disappointment that some schools are not taking up the option of providing extra classes.

As regards where we are going in special education, the people who provide the inclusion model in schools are enriched by it. The students also come out enriched by it in terms of the experiences they share.

A question was asked about the HSE in the context of the general indemnity scheme. A number of special schools under the patronage of organisations that are funded by the HSE to provide health and personal social services on its behalf under section 38 of the Health Act experienced increased insurance quotes when the funded bodies were delegated bodies in the context of the general indemnity scheme under the State Claims Agency. The effect of the delegation was that the special schools under the patronage of the organisations concerned needed to seek separate insurance cover. There is a discussion ongoing in that regard.

Schools Establishment

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

41. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans in place for an additional secondary school in eastern areas of Kilkenny city in order to meet the high demand for secondary school places for the 2019-20 school year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26791/19]

My question is related to the demand for secondary school places, particularly in Kilkenny city. It is an issue we come across every year. What are the Minister's plans to open an additional secondary school in the eastern part of Kilkenny city to meet the high demand for secondary school places?

I thank the Deputy for the question. In April 2018 the Government announced plans for the establishment of 42 new schools in the next four years - 2019 to 2022, inclusive. The announcement follows nationwide demographic exercises carried out by my Department to assess future need for primary and post-primary schools across the country. While the announcement did not include a new post-primary school for Kilkenny city, although it does include a new 16 classroom primary school for Kilkenny to be established in September 2021, the requirement for new schools is being kept under ongoing review and, in particular, will have regard to the increased roll-out of housing provision as outlined in Project Ireland 2040.

Officials from my Department recently met personnel from Kilkenny County Council when the council’s plans for housing in the Kilkenny area in the coming years were outlined. Further engagement is planned in that regard.

Where demographic data indicate that additional provision is required, the delivery of such additional provision is dependent on the particular circumstances of each case and may, depending on the circumstances, be provided through either one or a combination of the following: utilising existing unused capacity within a school or schools; extending the capacity of a school or schools; or the provision of a new school or schools. In that context, as the Deputy will be aware, building projects for five post-primary schools located in Kilkenny are included in my Department's school building programme.  Building projects for Kilkenny will provide additional capacity in the order of 600 additional places above September 2017 levels: Kilkenny CBS - 73 places; St. Kieran's College - 35 places; Pobail Scoil Osraí - 166 places; and Kilkenny city post-primary chool - 334 places. Significant works to improve and expand facilities at Presentation secondary school are also planned.

I had a feeling the Minister would respond on those lines. I raised this for several reasons. First, there is a large population on the east of Kilkenny city. The Minister raised housing, which is something that I was going to bring up. The has been more development of houses there, which is very welcome and, hopefully, it will be allocated by September, but it will increase the population on that side of the city. Many children there go to primary school on that side of the city but must then travel to the other side for post-primary schooling. They do not qualify for school transport, which is an ongoing issue, because they are regarded as living within reasonable distance, although practically it is a long distance to walk. I also raise the matter as we have an excellent Educate Together primary school but no Educate Together secondary school. Parents who have chosen to educate their children in that ethos have no option to continue that at second level. There are limited co-education secondary schools and, therefore, parents who send their schools to a primary school of mixed gender rarely have the opportunity to continue this at second level.

It is important that we continue to keep this under review and that, as new planning applications come in, there is communication between the Department and Kilkenny County Council officials. As we plan for the future, it is not about annual or two-year plans, but a ten-year investment of more than €8.4 billion in capital expenditure. We must consider whether capacity exists where schools have the opportunity to put in applications under the additional school accommodation scheme; whether there are solutions within existing infrastructure; and whether we are looking at a future where additional capacity will be required through new schools.

Circumstances change, and do so quickly. This happened recently in the Ashbourne area, as Deputy Thomas Byrne knows well.

I keep raising it. I have raised it approximately 15 times.

We can have all the long-term planning forecasting but it is important that Deputies, Senators and councillors have their ears close to the ground to keep us informed. I appreciate the Deputy raising it today.

The issue has become more prevalent in recent years. I welcome the Minister's statement that it will be kept under review but we will keep raising it. Schools in Kilkenny city are fully subscribed and even have waiting lists. People are also having to travel outside the city and then encounter the problem of school transport where they are seen as having chosen a school that is not closest to them, and, therefore, do not qualify for free travel. They must apply for concessionary tickets. The Minister knows what a nightmare that is. That is part of why this is a problem.

The Educate Together system deserves a secondary school and parents and children who have had the experience at primary level deserve to continue that into secondary school, if they wish.

It also gives an opportunity for additional autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classes, which is something I raise here as often as possible. There will be three new-build secondary schools - the schools themselves are not new - such as Coláiste Pobal Osraí, the CBS, and the technical school. It should be impressed on them that they must have ASD classes. Information on this seems to mixed. The NSCE would have schools believe that they must have these ASD classes whereas the schools themselves seem to think differently.

Considerable investment has gone into the existing stock.

On transport, we cannot have a conversation on a different plan for transport and then consider where schools are to be located. We are in the same position with secondary schools now as we were when primary schools saw their demographics increase. Unfortunately, while we managed to maintain the capital budget in education as best we could during the difficult years, there are always legacy issues. The Deputy mentioned Kilkenny CBS, which sought an additional 73 places in its 2017 enrolment. The appointment of consultants to progress the new building project will commence this week. There is movement on several of these matters and I will be happy to share this information with her.

Information and Communications Technology

Thomas Byrne

Question:

42. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his views on the low completion rate of the consultation requested in circular 38/2018 in education and training board, ETB, schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26832/19]

Will the Minister comment on the low uptake and compliance with the consultation required in circular 38/2018 on the use of smart devices in schools? Responding to a question I tabled earlier this year, the Minister stated he did not have the information on the implementation of this circular, and what schools have or have not implemented it. I, therefore, contacted every ETB in the country to learn the state of play on the consultation, something that the Department ought to have done. The picture is not happy. I would be grateful for the Minister's response before I go into details.

Circular 38/2018, which issued to schools last year requires all schools to consult with teachers, students and parents in developing policy for the use of smartphones and personal devices in school. This requirement to consult will be underpinned in law once the student and parents charter Bill is enacted. I will publish this Bill in the autumn. Schools are not required to report to my Department on the implementation of circulars and my Department is not aware of any issues in the implementation of this circular in ETB schools.

Decisions on the use of smartphones and other such devices in schools are taken at local level by the board of management, which have responsibility for the direct governance of a school under the provisions of the Education Act 1998.

My Department recognises the requirement to safeguard children from the negative impact of using digital devices. It is also important that we continue to work together to raise awareness to the benefits of new technologies and to recognise the value of digital technology to enhance teaching and learning for all students while also safeguarding our children online.

The Department has not done the work on this, so I have. I asked the ETBs, and, insofar as they have responded, the picture is pretty poor. According to Longford-Westmeath ETB, approximately half the secondary schools have not undertaken the consultation. The response in the Limerick-Clare ETB was patchy, and in Waterford-Wexford it is approximately half and half, some of which have done this. In Carlow-Kilkenny ETB, one school has completed the consultation. Kerry, Cork and Kildare-Wicklow are better than most ETBs and, for the most part, they appear to have implemented the circular. In Tipperary, only one school has implemented the circular. The Louth-Meath ETB, in my own area, has not given me the full information. However, I know that in one school where this has become an issue, Ratoath, the circular was commenced this year, almost a year after it was issued. Listening to people at a meeting last night, including the Minister's colleague, Deputy Regina Doherty, there was utter dissatisfaction over how this is being implemented.

Schools feel lost on this - they do not have the Department's support on implementation of circulars on digital learning - and parents feel utterly lost because they are worried about smartphone addiction. We have seen what has happened in recent months with stories about phones and what is on them. The Department is not helping. Fianna Fáil would ban smartphones in schools up to junior cycle.

It is a circular; it is not underpinned by legislation. That is why I continue to push ahead with the student and parent charter. It is important. The main reason for introducing this legislation is to give both parents and students a voice on their participation in the education system. I am aware of the public meeting which took place last night in Ratoath and was briefed by my colleague, Deputy Regina Doherty.

I have asked my officials to contact and engage with the ETB to see whether we can make progress on this very difficult issue.

If the Minister agrees, I will be happy to speak to him privately afterwards about this issue. I have only been able to get the information from a number of ETBs. Obviously, I cannot get it from the voluntary secondary school sector or the primary school sector. Studies have shown that mobile phone use in school has a negative impact through cognitive overload, increased distraction and altered memory and learning patterns. We have seen adopted in some schools a digital only approach whereby there are no school textbooks. The problem in some of them is that there is poor implementation of the replacement, that is, notes. This is a huge issue in schools and the Department has not got to grips with it. Frankly, what happened last year was that the then Minister, Deputy Bruton, was looking for a headline for the newspapers during the teacher conferences and announced the circular. Once the circular was published the following month, that was the end of it and nothing more was heard from the Department. Some schools and ETBs literally threw the circular in the bin and the Department was not able to tell me this until I obtained the information. I question the seriousness of the Department on the issue. I also question its seriousness on the parent and student charter Bill which was announced as if it were law at the end of 2016. A teacher came up to me at the meeting in Ratoath last night and told me that it was law. It is not. I had to tell her that it was not even written. There is no use in announcing it again three years later. It needs to be implemented and introduced.

I will be happy to speak to the Deputy afterwards about last night's meeting to see how we can deal with the issue. The student and parent charter is something on which I have been working very intensively since I was appointed. We will publish it in the coming months. It is important that parents and students have a voice with regard to the circular that was sent. It is not subject to law; it is just a circular. I will contact the ETB about the school that was discussed by the Deputy and that was the subject of the meeting last night.

The Deputy referenced my predecessor, Deputy Bruton, who will head an all-Government approach to the use of mobile phone technology and smartphones to try to introduce proper safeguards and safety measures to protect young people. There is a responsibility on the Government, citizens and parents, as well as on the companies to act responsibly. They are the ones with the algorithms, data and information to spot online bullying. We have to ensure this will happen. The world in which we live is different from the one in which the Deputy and I went to school. He went to school a few years after me. Everything in life is about balance. Technology is part of the new world, but it is about balance. I am a traditionalist when it comes to getting back to basics and books will continue to be a fundamental part of children's education. Old teaching techniques will remain a fundamental part, but the world is changing. In the work we do in this House we have embraced technology in the past decade.

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

Joan Collins

Question:

43. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he has investigated setting up an ASD specific school in an existing school (details supplied). [26795/19]

Has the Minister investigated establishing an ASD specific school in an existing school that is not being used, namely, Scoil Colm on Armagh Road in Crumlin, Dublin 12? I am raising this issue on behalf of the Dublin 12 campaign for ASD inclusion. They are a group of parents who are campaigning for the establishment of ASD units, classes and specific schools in the area and accreditation for the community as being ASD inclusive.

I thank the Deputy for the question. Ensuring every child has access to an appropriate school placement is a priority for me and the Government. Considerable progress has been made in recent years in growing additional provision for children with special educational needs through increased enrolment in mainstream and special classes and special schools. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, through its network of local special educational needs organisers, plays a central role in advising on the nature and mix of provision required, co-ordinating and supporting the establishment of the necessary number of places to meet local need, including in the area referred to by the Deputy. It is open to any school, including special schools, to make an application to the NCSE for the establishment of a specialised provision and, where sanctioned, a range of supports, including capital funding, is available to the school. My Department works closely with the NCSE in that regard.

While progress has been made in recent weeks, further work is required to ensure every child has a suitable school placement for September. Every school has a duty to open special classes and other specialist provision sufficient to meet the needs of the local community. Following the commencement of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018, a power has been created to allow me to compel a school to make additional provision for special education. As the Deputy is aware, the power has yet to be invoked, but if we meet challenges, we will have to keep a very close eye on this issue.

The NCSE has advised my officials that there is a need for some additional specialist education provision in the Dublin 12 area for the upcoming school year and that it is continuing to work with parents and local schools to ensure there will be sufficient special school and special class places for pupils who will require them in the Dublin 12 area in September.

I thank the Minister for his reply. In Dublin 12 there are nine ASD classes, with a maximum of six children attending each class. The classes range from early intervention preschool classes up to and including sixth class. The children remain in the ASD class until they are integrated into a mainstream classroom, where they have the benefit of learning among their peers, while having the security provided by the ASD class and experienced staff. Unfortunately, not all schools cater for ASD classes from junior infants to sixth class, which can be very stressful for the children involved. There are long waiting lists to access ASD units in Dublin 12. Children with moderate to severe autism are unable to access mainstream classrooms and require autism specific schools where they can have their individual needs met. Scoil Colm on Armagh Road in Crumlin would be a perfect setting for an ASD specific school. Dublin 12 has an established special school, Scoil Eoin, which is situated beside it. There are 134 children in the school which, unfortunately, does not take autistic children. The school could link closely with Scoil Colm to provide a specific school.

I again thank the Deputy. This type of information on the ground is invaluable to the officials who work on the issue. The Deputy is correct that there are nine autism classes, one early intervention class, eight primary autism classes and five post-primary classes. Out of a budget of €1.9 billion, €300 million goes directly to support services for young autistic children in primary and secondary schools. I encourage the Deputy to continue doing what she is doing and give us information. She has personal contacts and knowledge at local level and may believe schools need more information. Every special school and school with special classes are further enriched by providing for inclusion. If more information is needed for these schools to let them know how invaluable it could be in a local area, I will be happy to do it with my officials.

I welcome the Minister's response because parents of children with autism in the area must go outside it to look for classes. One parent cannot even get his child into a school. For children with moderate to severe autism who are unable to cope in a mainstream setting, an ASD specific school will fulfil their educational needs. Scoil Colm is run by the Edmund Rice Schools Trust. The parents have met the trust to discuss the possibility of the school becoming an autism specific school and it is very open to considering it. The door is open and we will keep pushing it as much as possible. There is plenty of land available to build a new ASD specific school, but we have identified Scoil Colm, a large area behind which could be developed as a sensory garden. There are many opportunities. It is situated right beside a health clinic with GPs, public health nurses, speech and language therapists and occupational therapists. There is a huge opportunity to develop the school which is not operating as an autism specific school with the support of Scoil Eoin. I have also tabled Parliamentary Question No. 65 to ask the Minister to meet the parents to examine this issue.

The NCSE, through its special education needs officers, SENOs, and its network of resources on the ground, constantly engages with principals and different school patrons to identify and determine needs. We have to examine existing capacity. Are some schools willing to invest more and put in additional classes? That is an ongoing challenge. We have 124 special schools nationally and seven hospital schools. We have choices to make all of the time regarding where investment will go. I reiterate that the NCSE is the agency on the ground identifying needs. There will be a constructive response if a need is identified. Regarding a national breakdown of students attending mainstream schools, 63% of young children on the autism spectrum attended mainstream schools, 26% attended special classes in mainstream primary and post-primary schools and 11% attended special schools.