Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

School Staff

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Question:

1. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education if she will address the significant inequalities in pay, conditions and pension and other entitlements facing many school secretaries. [30312/20]

Tá ról ríthábhachtach ag rúnaithe scoile i gcomhthéacs feidhmiú na scoileanna. School secretaries are the backbone of a school. They keep them going, doing a number of jobs. They do not want to be in this situation where they are looking at industrial action, but that is the situation they are in, and one which has dragged on for too long. We heard from the Tánaiste last week, and some school secretaries took some encouragement from that, but we want to hear from the Minister, Deputy Foley, on how she intends to resolve this issue.

Aontaím leis an Teachta. I am keenly aware of the vital contribution by school secretaries to the school life of our communities, and I recognise the very important work they do, and indeed the work of the other support staff, in the running of our schools. I have met with Fórsa, which represents many of the secretaries working in our schools.

In recognition of their role, I have put special arrangements in place for the coming school year, whereby schools will be funded to employ a replacement secretary or caretaker in the event that staff, who are at very high risk of contracting serious illness from Covid-19, cannot work on the school premises. I have also extended the employee assistance service to all school staff, including secretaries.

On foot of a chairman’s note to the Lansdowne Road agreement, my Department implemented the 2015 recommendations of an independent arbitrator. The arbitrator recommended a cumulative pay increase of 10% between 2016 and 2019, and that a minimum hourly pay rate of €13 be phased in over that period.

The Fórsa trade union has tabled a follow-on claim from the 2015 agreement. Officials from my Department, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and school management bodies met with Fórsa on 1 October under the auspices of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC.

I am very keen that all parties resume meaningful discussion in the WRC with a view to reaching a mutually acceptable solution. In that respect, I have asked my officials to examine closely pay issues for secretaries and caretakers, as well as very important wider matters relating to their conditions of work, in consultation with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

The WRC process remains ongoing, and I support the continued engagement between all parties in an effort to reach a mutually acceptable solution.

The work school secretaries did was crucial in getting schools open, and they are playing an enormous role in keeping schools open. We all know from our school communities about the diverse work they do - for example, they take care of a child who is hurt, they deal with queries from parents, they organise the menu choices of a child for school lunches and so on - but, to be honest, they feel taken for granted. Some of the things mentioned have been necessary in the context of Covid-19, but this is not just a Covid issue. It is a long-standing issue that has been going on for some time. The reason it has progressed to the stage of potential industrial action, which school secretaries are reluctant to undertake, is that it was felt that the Government position was moving backwards. At least, under the previous Government, there was a desire to tackle the issues of pay equality, and not just the narrow issue of a modest increase in pay, to which the Minister referred. We need to deal with pay equality and pension entitlements to ensure the job of a school secretary is a decent job with proper pay equality. It is clear from the Minister's reply that she is not committing to that. Will she deal with all the issues and will they be included in the negotiations?

Deputy Ó Laoghaire should be under no illusion here. I absolutely acknowledge the invaluable contribution made by school secretaries to school communities. I am personally aware of it, having observed it over many years. Without fault, the work of school secretaries is invaluable. I want to reiterate that school secretaries deserve the best pay and conditions possible, given the vital role they play within our schools. However, this can be best achieved by utilising the industrial relations mechanism of the State, and that is why I would welcome all parties returning to the WRC.

The school secretaries have had plenty of acknowledgement. However, it is not acknowledgement that they are looking for - it is pay equality, decent pay, pension entitlements and improved conditions. They want to return to the WRC, and I believe that they are willing to do so. However, that must be on the basis of addressing the real issues they face. It is not enough to go into the WRC with the Department taking a very closed attitude that it is just going to deal and engage on the basis of the proposed modest pay increase for some that does not achieve pay equality or deal with the pension issues. It was a commitment of Fianna Fáil in opposition, and it was a commitment of the Green Party in its manifesto, to deliver pay equality and pension entitlements. I ask the Minister a simple, direct question. Is it the policy of this Government to deliver pay equality and pension entitlements for school secretaries?

I reiterate that the best possible pay and conditions for school secretaries is a priority, and I am very keen to advance that process. Therefore, I am keen for all parties to resume meaningful discussion in the WRC, with a view to reaching a mutual acceptable solution. In that respect, I have asked officials from my Department to examine closely pay issues for secretaries and caretakers, as well as the very important wider issues referenced by the Deputy in relation to the conditions of work. That is to be done in consultation with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. As I outlined, the WRC process remains ongoing and I support the continued engagement between all parties, in an effort to reach a mutually acceptable solution. I believe that is possible, with the engagement and commitment of all concerned to become involved in the process, which is a well recognised one, and the traditional process used to advance issues and concerns on all sides.

State Examinations

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

Question:

2. Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin asked the Minister for Education if she will constitute an independent inquiry into the 2020 leaving certificate which would examine the circumstances leading to the cancellation of the exam, the design and implementation of the calculated grades system, the ensuing errors and omissions and the knock-on effect on the CAO process; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [30311/20]

The Minister said that while not her fault directly, the 2020 leaving certificate was a difficult process for all involved, not least for the students. Will the Minister facilitate an independent investigation into the entire 2020 leaving certificate, which would examine the circumstances leading to the cancellation of the written exam, the design and implementation of the calculated grades system and the errors and omissions in order that we can learn from this for the leaving certificate class of 2021?

The decision to adopt a model of calculated grades by my Department was a result of Covid-19 and the circumstances that prevailed at the time in question, which prevented the State from running the conventional leaving certificate examinations this year. The system of calculated grades is complex and sophisticated. It had to be developed from scratch, specifically for the leaving certificate and within an extremely tight timeframe, in order for students to get their calculated grade results in time. Results were issued on 7 September 2020, and this ensured that deadlines for the Central Applications Office, CAO, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and other jurisdictions’ college entry systems would be met insofar as possible.

On 3 October, I announced that 6,100 leaving certificate students would later that day receive details of improved calculated grades following the correction of errors found in the coding used as part of the calculated grades process. As part of the round 4 offers made by the CAO on 8 October, some 485 of these students received a CAO offer on foot of their improved grades. Each of these students will be able to take up his or her offer in the current academic year. I also announced on 3 October that I had asked for a comprehensive independent review of the design and implementation of the calculated grades process to take place when the process is complete.

I want the independent comprehensive review to consider key aspects of the calculated grades process. This will include the initial decision to adopt the calculated grades model; the question of whether the process met its objectives; the effectiveness of the process; how the process worked in terms of design and implementation; and the effectiveness of the governance and oversight procedures. Importantly, I also want the review to include the lessons that can be learned. The full scope of the review will be set out very clearly in advance.

That is to be welcomed. We do not need to fall out over words such as "investigation", "inquiry" and "review" but I would be interested in knowing who the Minister intends to charge with responsibility for overseeing the independent review. I am sure she will agree me that if the students of 2021 have to face the same type of system, which we all hope will not happen although we do not know what will happen in the coming months, similar mistakes should not be made. Is the Minister in a position to outline the nature of the process to appoint an independent individual to oversee the review?

I thank the Deputy. It is my intention that the review will be an independent expert review and that there will be an international element to it given the expertise required in this field. The terms of reference will be set out and made available well in advance. The review will consider whether the calculated grades process met its objectives. It will raise questions as to how effective the process was in its entirety. The scope will be clearly set out and agreed in advance, and it will identify lessons for the future. It will examine how the decision was reached to develop a calculated grades model for leaving certificate 2020 when it became apparent that the traditional leaving certificate examinations were not possible in light of the health and safety advice at the time; the context in which the calculated grades model was developed and the impact on stakeholders; the calculated grades model's design, development and implementation; and governance and oversight procedures. It will allow for a full opportunity to consider all aspects.

I am happy to welcome that and we are happy to work with the Minister. She inherited this situation. She has had successes. Opening up the schools has been a success. To a large degree, yesterday was a successful day for the Minister.

On the staffing schedule the Minister announced yesterday, involving a reduction in the pupil–teacher ratio to 25:1, which is welcome, will the arrangement apply to DEIS primary schools? They have a different staffing schedule. The worry we have is that if the arrangement does not apply, the senior end of a primary DEIS school will have the same staffing schedule as a mainstream school. I acknowledge it is beyond the scope of this question but perhaps the Minister could revert to me on whether the reduction in the pupil–teacher ratio will be passed on to DEIS schools, which have a separate staffing schedule. If not, there will be absolute equalisation between DEIS and non-DEIS primary schools at the senior end. The Minister will agree that this is not something we could support.

As the Deputy is aware, the full staffing schedule has reduced from 26:1 to 25:1. There is unanimous agreement that this is a very positive step forward to the benefit of our schools.

With regard to the DEIS schools, the Deputy is correct that there are different bands. In the junior cycle, there is a ratio of 20:1. It is 24:1 at the higher end, that is, in third, fourth, fifth and sixth classes. Where juniors and seniors are together, it is 22:1. It varies. A substantial DEIS package of €5 million has been made available as part of the budget. Aspects of that will include the school staffing schedule.

Special Educational Needs

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Question:

3. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education the status of the development of clear guidelines on when and the manner in which children with special educational needs can integrate within mainstream classes during the school day and the way in which that will be managed. [30313/20]

An issue seems to be arising in schools across the State whereby families are being told either to choose between the unit and the mainstream if their children are in an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit. I understand that this is not required or appropriate. It is happening in the absence of guidance. There is limited guidance provided, amounting to four lines in the roadmap. Will there be further guidance to ensure this is not happening?

I thank the Deputy for his question. Children with special needs should receive their education in placements that are appropriate to their needs alongside their peers wherever possible unless such an approach would be inconsistent with the best interests of an individual child or other children in the school. This is provided for in section 2 of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004.

On the guidelines the Deputy mentioned, guidance has been sent to schools. A summary of it was published on the website www.gov.ie on 11 September. It relates to special education, in particular. Pupils in special classes should continue to interact or integrate with mainstream classes. The guidelines do not prevent this. Schools will continue to do their best in the interest of the students. If the Deputy has concerns about a certain school, he may write to me about it and I can revert to him. To the greatest extent possible, schools should be trying to integrate children with special needs.

My Department supports a continuum of learning through a range of dedicated supports in line with the needs of the child. These include the provision of teachers, special needs assistants and psychological support from the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS. In addition, there are specialist supports provided by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, which has published guidelines on setting up and organising special classes for primary and post-primary schools. The teachers should be aware of those. The guidelines advise that students enrolled in special classes should be included in mainstream classes, to the greatest extent possible, in line with their abilities.

The overall aim of the continuum is to ensure that every child is supported in the journey towards realising their potential through education in an inclusive and caring school environment. Pupils in special classes should continue to interact with or integrate with mainstream classes. However, the number of mainstream classes with which each special class pupil integrates should be minimised in order to maintain pod grouping to the greatest extent and to assist with contact and tracing mechanisms, should this become necessary.

I am glad to hear it is the Minister of State's firm belief that children with special educational needs should not be denied the opportunity to be part of the mainstream class and to have the associated interaction. My concern is not that it is the Department's intention that it should be otherwise; it is that what I describe is happening. Not every parent is necessarily willing to bring it to the attention of the school they are dealing with that they are unhappy with the way things are being handled. I have come across parents who are worried and special education teachers who are concerned about parents who are effectively being told to choose between ASD units and mainstream education and about the use of the excuse of Covid. I accept that Covid undoubtedly makes matters more complicated but the objective still needs to involve children benefiting from the unit and also being part of the mainstream inasmuch as that is possible.

The guidance does not prevent what I describe but there is not enough detail on how the circumstances are to be managed. The NCSE needs to take a more assertive approach in ensuring that existing guidance, in addition to more substantial guidance, is applied.

If parents have concerns about particular schools, they should contact the NCSE. If schools have difficulties, they can contact the NCSE or the Department. As I said, the guidance is very detailed and clear. I have said clearly today that pupils in special classes should continue to interact or integrate with mainstream classes. Obviously that number will have to be minimised. What is being said is that at primary school level, for example, this may mean each special class pupil integrates with one mainstream class only, and at post primary school level it may mean special class pupils attending only those mainstream classes necessary for their subject participation. There are a number of guidelines. There is the continuum of support guidelines for teachers laid out by NEPS. There is also the inclusive education framework, which is published on the NCSE's website. There are also the traditional guidelines, a specific part of which is on moving between mainstream and special settings. There are a number of guidelines and I ask the schools to ensure that they try to abide by them.

It is welcome there is a very clear message but it is certainly my experience that special education teachers in particular feel the guidelines are not adequately clear and that the NCSE needs to be more assertive.

Yesterday's budget included provision for 1,000 special needs assistants, which I welcome, and it follows similar measures in the previous years. However, the manner of the allocation of these special needs assistants will be crucial. It will involve the roll-out of the new allocation model. There are concerns about this, especially schools whose profile changes significantly from year to year as do their needs. The review kicks in too late for them to benefit within the school year. I am not expecting the Minister to get into the granular detail of it right now but if this model is to be rolled out, will there be significant consultation with stakeholders, including parents, special education teachers, schools and school patrons, in advance? Many people have legitimate concerns about the manner of allocation of special needs assistants and special education teachers.

I assure the Deputy I am acutely aware of the sensitivities about special education. This is why when we are in a position to front-load the new special needs assistants model in September 2021 - we could not do it this year because of Covid - we will, in tandem, be rolling out the school inclusion model. As the Deputy knows, through investment in the budget, I am in a position to recruit extra therapists, occupational therapists and speech and language therapists. We are extending this to two other community health organisation areas apart from the pilot project we did. The pilot project covers approximately 150 schools and this will cover 200 schools. We intend to roll this out over the next two to three years. It should provide some reassurance to parents. The one thing we do not want is to make any transition without bringing everybody along with us. It will be a wrap-around service in the schools and will include special needs assistants. Overall, it is fair and much more equitable way to deal with the issue.

Special Educational Needs

Denis Naughten

Question:

4. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Education the steps she will take to cater for the increasing numbers of special needs pupils at primary level; if she has assessed the impact of the curtailment of supports for such children as a result of Covid-19; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [29741/20]

Over the past three weeks, I have brought to the attention of the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health, the chief executive of the HSE and the Minister for Defence the scandal whereby existing front-line therapy staff, including occupational therapists, physical therapists and speech therapists, whose intervention can make a real difference to children's progression in our education system, are sitting in back offices making phone calls as contact tracers asking people whether they have been to the pub. I want these staff returned immediately to the vital role they play in supporting children.

We understand the HSE's position, particularly with Covid and the accelerating pandemic, that it had no option at the time. I am not defending it but I understand why it had to take therapists and use them to tackle Covid through contact tracing. What we did is ask the NCSE to recruit therapists directly. This is what we will do. Recruitment is now under way. It will be very necessary for the school inclusion model I mentioned earlier. We have already had an interim evaluation and I will get the final evaluation at the end of the year. It has been a great success for the children. I am glad the Deputy has asked about it because it will be a revolutionary part of looking after children with special needs. We have shown it has increased their listening skills and confidence. I really think the Irish model will be the envy of many in the world when we get to roll it out, and I am determined to do this over the coming years. I reassure the Deputy that all therapists are now being recruited directly through the NCSE, so we will not be in a position where we have to rely on the HSE.

I welcome this and it is a very positive development to be commended. However, for James who started school in September 2018 and who was referred by the early intervention team to the Galway and Roscommon autism spectrum disorder service in Athenry and placed on a four-year waiting list for occupational therapy and speech and language therapy, the announcement will not have an impact. His access to these vital supports is now being delayed for a further 12 months because therapists are doing contact tracing. As a result, James will be in third class before he accesses these supports, which will help him to participate fully in school. This is having a devastating impact on James and on 1,048 other children on this waiting list in these two countries alone. It also impacts on the education of up to 136,000 pupils throughout County Roscommon and County Galway who are sitting in classes with these children. This does not lead to effective integration. It is welcome but we need to address the HSE problem also.

I hope I adequately answered the question with regard to the HSE issue. The Minister of State with responsibility for disability will deal with access to services in the HSE. My particular remit is with regard to the school environment and making sure we have adequate therapists recruited for the school inclusion model. It is a complementary service to the HSE. It is not in lieu of it or does not substitute for it. The substantive question was about special places or special classes. The NCSE forecasting is very important. It plans the establishment of special classes and special school places on an ongoing basis at local and national level. It has developed closer links with the Department regarding longer-term forecasting and is developing a five-year plan that incorporates population demographics information from the Department to the planning section. These forecasts are shared with the planning and building unit to include planning for special class accommodation in all major projects. The planning and building unit recently confirmed, at my instigation, that accommodation for special classes will be introduced and included in all new school builds. It is very important that people are aware of this.

I welcome the reply from the Minister of State. The difficulty is that she is correct, as her remit is about the education system and the Minister of State with responsibility for disability is in charge of another aspect of it. What is happening is this issue is being passed from Billy to Jack. We took Defence Force personnel away from contact tracing and we left speech and language therapists doing contact tracing over the past seven months. Take Liam for example. He turned five last month and had his first block of speech therapy sanctioned in March. He did not have any session before he started school in September. As Liam was not sanctioned a special needs assistant in a school, his older sister must translate for him. These issues have come across because speech therapists are doing contact tracing and no one has replaced them over the past seven months.

Will the Minister of State intervene and ensure the front-line therapists who could help Liam are doing the job they are trained for? Will the Minister of State ensure his older sister, Eva, can be a normal child in first class and not a special needs assistant for her brother?

Clearly, many of the issues Deputy Naughten is raising are under the remit of the Minister for Health and probably the Minister of State with responsibility for disability as well. I accept what Deputy Naughten is saying. We cannot have delays that are in any way going to adversely affect a child obtaining speech and language services. That is a separate matter to the school setting, as I have said. I do not believe it is a case of being passed from Billy to Jack. These are separate environments and places. The therapy in the school setting is not in lieu of any services that should be provided to a child by the HSE.

A significant investment was made in the budget yesterday with €4 billion going into health. That amount is unprecedented and should help alleviate some of those issues. The special education budget alone has seen a 50% increase since 2011 and the allocation has gone from €1.2 billion to €2 billion. Deputy Naughten mentioned SNAs. There has been a 60% increase since 2011 and we now have 18,000 SNAs. We have made significant progress but obviously there is a great deal more that we need to do.

That is much different.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Question:

5. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education for details of the guidance for those at high risk; if schoolchildren who have medically vulnerable parents will be facilitated with remote learning; and if she will revise the Medmark process for high-risk school staff. [30314/20]

I read last week's guidance on remote learning. There were some issues with it, including the heavy reliance on special educational teachers. I was especially disappointed that the document continued to ignore any facilitation for children and staff who have high-risk parents at home and cannot attend school as a result. These parents have been asking for guidance for months. Some schools have acted of their own volition to put in place remote learning for these children but the Department continues to refrain from acting or giving guidance in writing. It is causing great anxiety.

The Department has published guidelines to support schools in making adapted education provision for those children who cannot return to school because they are medically certified as being at very high risk to Covid-19. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre and the HSE have published guidance on the return to school of at-risk groups. The advice confirms that the vast majority of children can return to school and it is important for the overall health and well-being of children to attend school. This guidance provides that children with immediate family members, including parents, in the high-risk and very high-risk categories can return to school and that this is important for the child's overall well-being. This is consistent with public health advice internationally on at-risk family members.

The best way to protect against Covid-19 is for households to continue to follow all current public health advice on how to minimise the risk of infection. This includes regular hand washing, cough etiquette and social distancing. It should be noted that the public health evidence regarding the initial return to school is positive and highlights that schools are relatively low-risk environments for Covid-19. This is confirmed on a regular basis.

My Department has in place an enhanced occupational health service, OHS. The current OHS provider is Medmark Occupational Healthcare Limited. Medmark has a process in place for school staff with health concerns about the risk to them of serious illness from contracting Covid-19 through workplace attendance. The risk categorisation is comprehensive and follows the same process that is being applied across other sectors.

To date, more than 1,700 teachers, SNAs and school staff have been accessed by Medmark under this scheme. A person who is not satisfied with the outcome of this process may apply to have the case reviewed by a further panel of medical experts. The Department has developed and prepared a comprehensive response to support the well-being of school communities. NEPS is working with schools to support them to meet the needs of their pupils, especially pupils who are anxious at this time.

When I raised this with the Minister previously many of these parents were anxious. Part of the difficulty here relates to how broad the high-risk category is. The very high-risk category is extreme and specific and obviously there are particular provisions for that category, but the high-risk category seems to take in everything from mild asthma to leukaemia. Many parents are highly vulnerable and their children are seriously concerned about them. The situation is even more grave now than it was at the time I first raised it with the Minister. Many families do not feel comfortable and do not believe they have adequate guidance. They do not feel heard.

Some of the issues relate to the evaluation of high risk. The Minister made reference to the guidance. Again, the guidance deals with children who are at high risk but there is nothing for those who have parents or close relatives with whom they are living who are at high risk.

I absolutely appreciate that this is an anxious time for everyone across all sectors of society. We must acknowledge as well that everything that can be done is being done, especially within our school environment. All the measures that need to be put in place within our schools have been put in place. The resources that were necessary have been put in place.

It is a tribute to the manner in which those aspects are being implemented by school communities throughout the country that we can say schools are safe places. This has been confirmed nationally and internationally.

I appreciate the categorisation of at risk and very high risk. That categorisation is implemented by Medmark. Medmark is following the same strategy or categorisation that has been implemented throughout the public service. We are no different within the school environment. It is best practice to follow what is being followed by others on the front line, including our nurses and doctors.

That brings me on to the latter part of my question relating to Medmark. There is increasing anxiety among school staff. I have raised with the Minister previously the fact that I believe there is a need for greater leadership and communication on the situation in schools. Schools may be relatively low-risk environments and children may be less likely to transmit the infection, but they are not without risk. School staff have significant concerns, especially those school staff who are at high risk.

The Minister mentioned Medmark and said that 1,200 or 1,300 school staff have undergone this process. One key issue raised by the representatives of school staff is the review process. Dr. Ronan Glynn said before the Covid-19 committee that there has to be an individual approach. A uniform approach will not work. Everyone's public health considerations are different. In how many cases has the initial decision by Medmark been overturned by the review panel? I told the Minister's office that I would raise this issue. Of the 1,200 cases referred to, how many went for review and how many took a contrary view after that review by the panel?

Deputy Ó Laoghaire is correct. It is only right and proper that there would be an opportunity for a review of any decision. That mechanism is in place. It is an independent review by medical experts. Individuals who wish to have their case reviewed have the opportunity for that and to provide, if they wish, updated or new medical evidence that may be assessed.

In the first instance, some 1,785 people applied to be considered within the process. A total of 913 were categorised as very high risk, 802 were classified as high risk and 70 were categorised as normal risk. A total of 327 applied for a review of the classification. Of that 327, some 16% were placed into different categories.

Again, the process that is being employed here is being employed across the public sector. We are no different within the education field. The classification has been applied to those who are on the front line, including nurses and doctors, etc.