Other Questions

State Examinations

Denis Naughten

Question:

6. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Education to outline the steps she will take to ensure that there is a leaving certificate examination in 2021; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [29740/20]

Leaving certificate 2020 was a difficult time for every student. Standardisation caused major concern. Some 6,000 students had their results upgraded. Almost one in 20 students have now applied to sit the examination in November. The students of the leaving certificate class of 2021 are now afraid that they will be messed around. Will there be a leaving certificate examination next June?

As Minister for Education and Skills, I am committed to ensuring the State examinations of 2021 operate as normally as possible, subject to the prevailing public health advice at that time. This commitment is shared by the State Examinations Commission, SEC, which has statutory responsibility for operational matters relating to the certificate examinations. It continues to be a priority for the Government to keep our schools open now that they have been reopened. The Department of Education and Skills has put in place a comprehensive range of measures to support schools in this effort.

The Department has ongoing engagement with the public health authorities so that schools can remain open safely and is working with the partners in education to ensure this is a shared objective. I am very pleased to confirm that, from the very beginning, it has been a shared objective. In addition, the Department has published a range of documentation and support material as part of the Roadmap for the Full Return to School for the 2020 to 2021 academic year. This includes the document entitled, Assessment Arrangements for Junior Cycle and Leaving Certificate Examinations 2021, which sets out the assessment changes for the 2021 State examinations. These arrangements take account of the disrupted learning experienced by students during this past academic year 2019 to 2020 and makes accommodation should there be any gaps for the 2020 to 2021 school year, as a contingency measure. The adjustments play to students' strengths by leaving intact the familiar overall structure of the examinations, while incorporating additional choice. There will be no change to the length of the written examinations. Project briefs for relevant subjects will issue earlier than usual and practical coursework will be submitted two weeks earlier than normal as a contingency measure. Teachers are being encouraged to plan and undertake these projects as early as possible in the programme of study.

These changes to the leaving certificate assessment arrangements for 2021 will provide reassurance to students, their parents and guardians and teachers and schools. As I said, it is the intention that provision is made through the assessment of the curriculum going forward.

A tremendous amount of work has been done by the Minister, her officials, teachers, support staff in schools, pupils and parents to ensure that schools opened in September and remained open. Under our projections, even if we go up to level 5, the modelling is that we will keep our schools open. I am concerned by the caveat in relation to public health advice. We will need to adapt and change the leaving certificate based on public health advice but I need assurance from the Minister for every single pupil who sits the exam next year that there will be a written exam and the structures will be made available to ensure that happens. We are 230 days away from the first English paper in the leaving certificate and we need assurances that the exam itself will take place and that students will not have to worry about standardisation as they did this year.

I confirm again to the Deputy that I am absolutely committed to ensuring the State examinations of 2021 will operate what we might call traditionally and as normal. This is a commitment shared, as I said, by the State Examinations Commission, SEC, which has statutory responsibility for operating the exams. We are moving in that direction, as the Deputy outlined himself. There is an absolute commitment from Government and, indeed, it became very clear at the weekend, from wider society also, that schools would remain open and it is a shared objective. Again it is a particularly strong shared objective with the partners in education. In recognising that commitment to move forward and to progress as normally as we can in extraordinary times, we are doing all we can to ensure schools will remain open and remain open safely. Accommodation has been made for the adjudication of the 2021 leaving certificate in terms of the exam paper, the wider choices and issues like that will be identified on the day for students.

I thank the Minister for that reassurance. It is important that whatever resources are needed are made available for the class of 2021. Some 2,820 students are going to sit a written exam this November because they unfortunately could not do so last June. What specific resources are being made available for those particular students to assist them and ensure they reach their full potential in the written exam? Are the resources being made available from their old schools or from the Department to assist them in preparation for that exam?

The Deputy is quite correct that more than 2,800 students have registered to take the exam in November. It is important that option was made available to students. They will also have the opportunity, when they have completed those exams, to take whichever of the grades suits or advantages them best, be it the calculated grade they received or the final grade they will get for the written exam. The exams are being scheduled at times to best meet the needs of the students, in that they are taking place in evenings and over weekends. Again, that is an accommodation for students recognising that they have perhaps moved on and are doing other things. It is a recognition that it is important that they would be accommodated in making the times most appropriate. Measures are also being put in place to ensure that these exams take place locally within their schools which are settings they are familiar with. All financial resources and supports required by the schools are being put in place for the benefit of the schools to allow them to do that.

What about the students themselves?

They are being accommodated in their schools.

That is the accommodation but what about resources to assist them in preparing for the exam? I am not talking about the physical accommodation but tutorials and assistance. These students have not sat in a classroom since last March.

I am afraid the time is up Deputy and we cannot go back on this. We must move on to Deputy Connolly.

Schools Building Projects

Catherine Connolly

Question:

7. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Education the details of the analysis undertaken in relation to the need for school capacity further to an application for a school extension at a school (details supplied); the findings of the analysis; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [29990/20]

My question is very brief and to the point. Merlin College in Doughiska, Galway is turning away students. It turned them away last year and this year as well. It has been refused an extension. What analysis has been done of the capacity of that school to continue functioning as a school when it is turning away pupils?

In order to plan for school provision and analysis of the relevant demographic data, my Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas and uses a geographical information system, GIS, using data from a range of sources, to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise. With this information, the Department carries out nationwide demographic exercises to determine where additional school accommodation is needed at primary and post-primary levels. Major new residential developments in a school planning area have the potential to alter demand in that area. In that regard, as part of the demographic exercises, the Department engages with each of the local authorities to obtain the up to date data on significant new residential development in each area. This is necessary to ensure that schools infrastructure planning is keeping pace with demographic changes as there is a constantly evolving picture with planned new residential developments, which the Deputy will appreciate.

Where data indicates 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 provision of a new school or schools. Under Project Ireland 2040, the Department continues to make progress to increase the infrastructural capacity in the schools sector in order to meet demographic and other demands.

Following an assessment of the Galway city school planning area in which the school referred to by the Deputy is situated, the Department is satisfied that there adequate capacity available or planned to cater for projected enrolments and therefore an extension to this particular school is not required.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I have the greatest of respect for the staff of the Department but something is very wrong with the analysis here. We have been through this with Educate Together in Galway, where there was a battle to show there was a need. Merlin College in Doughiska is a very good school with 650 pupils. Last year it turned away 70 applicants. This year it opened its admissions for next year and within two weeks it was oversubscribed. As of yesterday it had 135 applications for 120 places and there are still weeks to run on that. I do not understand what analysis has been carried out. This is a school in a city which is the fastest-growing in the country. It is one of five destined to grow more as outlined in the development plan. We know the school is oversubscribed and is struggling gallantly with a range of difficulties, including not having Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, status. It is simply asking for an extension to cope with the numbers. Will the Minister please address that?

It is my understanding that there are 11 other post-primary schools in the Galway city school planning area. It is also my understanding that the demographic analysis is correct in terms of using geographical information systems and using data from a range of sources which identifies where the pressures for schools places across the country will arise. With this information the Department has carried out a demographic exercise. In regard to what the Deputy is talking about, that is, the additional school accommodation needed, it is the view of the Department that sufficient places are available in the post-primary schools in the area to meet demand, although I appreciate the case the Deputy has made for the school in question.

The long-term projected enrolment in the Galway city school planning area is set to peak at 7,839 in 2024. On the completion of planned capital projects, there will be capacity to cater for 8,697 post-primary pupils which will also cater for additional housing developments in the area.

Those are a little like the figures in the budget, in that they are Monopoly figures. This school is turning away students. There is no capacity in the area and students have no other schools to go to. The welfare officer is at the school, trying to find placements for sixth class, and being told to go to Athenry. That is not viable because there is no transport. The school is turning away students.

This school was a public private partnership and the one positive aspect of that was that a contingency was provided for 33% future expansion. The capacity for extension was built into the planning for the school and the school representatives are now asking for that extension, given the numbers they are turning away. I understand that the Minister has to give me a standard answer, but surely she can commit to looking at this school because of the numbers being turned away. I have just read out the figures. The school is oversubscribed. It had 135 applications for 120 places and there are still two weeks to go. The school turned away 70 students last year. I simply ask for a review of the decision.

I do not take from the genuine case that the Deputy is making for this school, nor do I dispute the figures she has given. I must say that the Department, in looking at all the available options, is satisfied that sufficient places are available for all post-primary pupils in the school planning area, going forward. However, I will say to the Deputy that the planning and building unit of the Department is currently reviewing all 314 school planning areas to ensure that all pupils will have places, going forward, and the school in question will be a part of that review.

Question No. 8 replied to with Written Answers.

State Examinations

Pauline Tully

Question:

9. Deputy Pauline Tully asked the Minister for Education if the State Examination Commission will stand over the leaving certificate results of students that sit these exams in November 2020; her views on whether the leaving certificate examination in November 2020 will be comparable to previous years considering students having been out of school for several months, many were unable to finish practical examinations and are unable to take oral examinations; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [29868/20]

Will the SEC stand over the leaving certificate results of students who choose to sit the exams in November of this year? Can those exams be comparable to those of previous years, considering the students have been out of school for months, unable to undertake practical exams in several subjects and oral examinations and course work have not been finished?

The SEC which has operational responsibility for the State examinations, has informed me that some 2,800 candidates have applied to sit the November 2020 leaving certificate written examinations. These exams will commence on Monday, 16 November, subject to public health advice.

To ensure comparability with the calculated grades system, the examinations will be based on the normal question paper format, content, structure and duration as in previous years. Candidates will be graded on the basis of their written papers only, except for five subjects where project work had been completed prior to school closure last March and these marks will be included in the grading of these subjects.

The marking of the November examinations will rely principally on the expert judgment of the SEC chief examiner and members of the senior examining team, based on the content of the examination papers and the demands of the marking scheme. This expert judgment approach will ensure that the standards applied in the marking of these examinations will be fair and valid for these candidates who form a small subset of the overall candidature for leaving certificate 2020.

The SEC sets out the national standard for the leaving certificate and other examinations and operates independently of my Department.

Leaving certificate candidates sitting the written examinations in November who opted to receive calculated grades will be credited with the higher subject grade achieved between the calculated grade and the written examination. These results will have the same status as the leaving certificate results for previous years.

The 2020 applicants to the Central Applications Office, CAO, will have their final leaving certificate results forwarded to the CAO, using their best results of the November examinations and their calculated grades, where applicable. They will receive any relevant CAO offers that their results indicate as a deferred CAO offer for 2021-2022 school year.

I thank the Minister. Was the main reason not to proceed with the exams in July and August that the SEC would not stand over the exams? What is different now? It would not matter whether the exams were held in July and August or are held in November and December because the same issues apply. Students have been out of school for months and have had little or no teaching. Their course work may not even have been finished in some subjects and little revision was undertaken. Project work was not completed, orals were not taken and practical exams in some subjects did not proceed. How can these exams be comparable to the leaving certificate exams in previous years?

I believe no assistance is being given to students who are undertaking these exams. The Minister did not reply to Deputy Naughten when he asked about that. I have previously asked a parliamentary question about this matter and was told that absolutely no assistance has been given even though students have been out of school since March.

I want an answer to the question I asked about what direct supports will be provided to students to prepare them for these exams, considering they have been out of school since last March. That is a basic request.

I thank both Deputies. To put their questions in context, the prevailing circumstances of the pandemic at the time meant that it was not possible to house the traditional exams as they are normally experienced. The Deputies will recall that in April, the written exams were deferred until July. On 8 May, a further decision was taken because of the pandemic that it was not possible for those exams to be sat in July and the calculated grade model was introduced. That model was first mooted by students and, following consultation with partners in education, it became the agreed model. The importance that the 2020 students would be afforded an opportunity to have a pathway forward to take up whatever opportunities in life they wished was recognised. The only mechanism to do that at the time was the calculated grades process. That was the reason the calculated grades process was introduced.

As the Deputy outlined, the students who will undertake the leaving certificate exams in November have already left school and it is not possible for the schools to re-engage with them. It is in the interests of the students that they would have the opportunity to choose between the calculated grades process and the exam process, and that is why the November exams were put in place. That was a part of the original agreement in May and will be the process, going forward.

The Minister did not answer the question about the SEC. I thought that one of the reasons the exams did not proceed in July and August was that the SEC would not stand over them. It has been a tough year for the leaving certificate class of 2020. Those students have been out of school since March and did not get to sit their exams. When they got their results, there was a mixed reaction, and most felt dismay when they received their teacher-allocated grades. Many were downgraded in up to three subjects and the points for many courses went up. It has been a very tough year for those students and we need to ensure that they are not disadvantaged in any way as they go through the years because they were the 2020 leaving certificate students. We need to learn from the mistakes of this year for our current sixth year students to ensure they get the fairest possible system to sit their leaving certificate exams.

I reiterate that the reason the exams did not take place at the traditional time, which would have been June, or the deferred time, which would have been July, was because of the prevailing circumstances at that time. It was not possible at the time, under public health advice, for exams to take place. For that reason, the calculated grades process and the opportunity to take the written exams in November were introduced. I am not clear on the Deputy's point. Is she asserting that the exams in November should not take place? I think it is right and proper that the opportunity is afforded to students, should they wish to avail of it, and they can then choose between the calculated grades process and written exams process, whichever benefits them most.

The marking of the November exams will rely principally on the expert judgment of the SEC chief examiner and members of the senior examining team, based on the content of the exam papers and demands of the marking scheme. This expert judgment approach will ensure that the standards applied in the marking of these examinations will be fair and valid for these candidates, who form a small subset of the overall candidature for leaving certificate 2020.

School Staff

Patrick Costello

Question:

10. Deputy Patrick Costello asked the Minister for Education her views on the upcoming loss of a teacher in a school (details supplied) and the progress or lack thereof in reducing class sizes in view of the Covid-19 pandemic; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [30223/20]

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I wish to express my support for St Louis Infant School where some parents in my constituency send their children. They have written to the Minister seeking reassurance on the imminent loss of a teacher. They have said that they would usually accept this reluctantly, but given that we are in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, they are very concerned about the implications for class sizes caused by the losing of a teacher. Given yesterday's budget, will this school be able to retain its teacher?

I thank the Deputy for his question. The staffing schedule is an allocation mechanism that uses enrolment bands to determine the number of classroom teaching posts allocated to a school. This is a long-standing arrangement, as the Deputy will be aware, for allocating teaching posts to our primary schools in a fair and equitable way based on their respective enrolment. The staffing schedule operates in a clear and transparent manner and treats all similar types of schools equally, irrespective of their location. For the 2020-2021 school year at primary level it operates on the basis of one classroom teacher for an average of every 26 pupils, which is historically the lowest level. I am very pleased to say, as the Deputy himself has mentioned, that under budget 2021 as announced yesterday, that this will be further reduced to a ratio of 25:1 from September 2021.

The staffing arrangements for primary schools also include a provision whereby schools experiencing rapid increases in enrolment can apply for additional permanent mainstream posts on developing grounds, using projected enrolments for the following September. The school referred to by the Deputy was allocated a temporary teaching post on this basis as the school had indicated that it was expecting an enrolment of 334 students in September 2020, which was a projected increase of 39 pupils. My Department has recently received an enrolment return of 277 pupils from this school as at 30 September and it is clear that the school has not experienced a growth in enrolments. Instead, its overall school enrolment has gone down from last year. This school is 57 pupils below what it had indicated as its projected enrolment for September. The school has submitted an appeal to the primary staffing appeals board which will be considered at its meeting later this month which is the usual process, as the Deputy will be aware. This process is ongoing and the school will be informed of the board's decision in due course.

The school is looking at an average size of 30 pupils in a class, which is significantly above both the 26 that we started with and the 25 which will be enabled by budget 2021. I underline again the issues on room capacity, the need for social distancing for health and safety reasons in a pandemic, and the loss of teaching time caused by the loss of a teacher and exacerbated by school closures, which increase the health and safety risks. I hope that the appeal will take into account the realities that this school is facing, the overly large class sizes that it is now going to face, and the health and safety issues that school has highlighted. I hope that the promise of budget 2021 will also reach this school.

This is an issue that is arising throughout the State with schools that are just narrowly missing out on the school census. These circumstances change. Some are related to Covid-19, like Glasheen school near me, where many of the parents may work in hospitals and universities, who may perhaps be international and who may not be there next year. Many such schools have lost out. They may be in old buildings where breaking up classes is not an option. I know that additional teachers are mentioned in the budget specifically for this purpose but the issue of the many schools that have lost out on teachers needs to be dealt with urgently.

I thank both Deputies. As I have already outlined, the school staffing schedule is 26:1 and will in the future be 25:1. I acknowledge, as referred to by both Deputies, the current situation with Covid-19 and I confirm again that a substantial package of measures was put in place to ensure that schools could operate as advised under the safe schools reopening plan. A package in excess of €375 million, which has been increased in recent months, was made available. Among the package of supports was minor works programme funding, which was given to schools so that space could be reconfigured within schools and general purpose areas reimagined as required to give the additional capacity. Equally the substitution panel was introduced for the primary schools so that in an instance where a teacher was unavailable to work, a substitute would be available immediately and classes would not have to be subdivided.

I reiterate that the appeals process that is in place is working independently. The adjudication from that appeals process will be issued in the next number of weeks.

School Staff

Violet-Anne Wynne

Question:

11. Deputy Violet-Anne Wynne asked the Minister for Education her plans to ensure reduced class sizes in schools, particularly in a school (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [30213/20]

I thank the Minister for attending this morning to answer these questions. The announcement yesterday that the class sizes will be reduced by one point is and will not be ambitious enough. Sinn Féin’s alternative budget proposed two points. Recent figures also released to my colleague, an Teachta Ó Laoghaire, show that 1,300 schools throughout the State have class sizes exceeding 30 pupils, and, disappointingly, 38 of these are in County Clare. Will the Minister confirm her plans to reduce teacher-pupil ratios in schools?

I thank the Deputy. As she will be aware, under the programme for Government there is a commitment to seek to make further progress in reducing the pupil-teacher ratios in primary schools. The budgets of 2016 and 2018 improved the staffing schedule by one point on both occasions to its historically lowest level ever of one teacher to 26 pupils. I was delighted to build further on this progress yesterday by announcing a further one-point reduction in yesterday’s budget. The staffing schedule for the next academic year now stands at one teacher for every 25 pupils, which is a historically low figure in this country. This measure will help ensure better teacher retention in primary schools while also ensuring that fewer pupils are required to retain or recruit a teacher. The key factor for determining the level of staffing resources provided at individual school level is the staffing schedule for the relevant school year and pupil enrolments on the previous 30 September.

There is no change in the current school year to the staffing of the school referred to by the Deputy in the question submitted by her. The school staffing schedule for 2021-2022 will be published next year, and at that stage, schools will be able to establish their staffing arrangements for the following school year. The staffing process, as I have outlined earlier, includes an appeals mechanism where schools that might not be satisfied have an opportunity to submit a staffing appeal to independent appeals board. The published appeal criteria include the specific criteria for small schools, and schools are entitled to make such an appeal to the independent board.

I appreciate that we are making a step in right direction but the Minister has to admit that we are not going far enough. Our class sizes are too big and our school buildings themselves are bursting at the seams in many parts of the country. One case that I have been asked to bring to the attention of the Minister is Clooney National School in County Clare. The principal contacted me and relayed to me that because of the enrolment figures for 2021, the school is due to lose a teacher. He also conveyed to me the worry that this is causing him and his staff with the anticipation of what is coming next. I hope the Minister will agree with me that there have been many challenges in getting our schools reopened and this has been a topic on all teachers' and principals' minds. I hope the Minister will also agree that the principal, Mr Greene, should not have to be worried or be concerned about how we will be able to maintain social distancing next year if he loses a teaching post.

I thank the Deputy and reiterate that there has been an unprecedented financial package allocated to the schools sector in recent months which is in excess of €375 million. This is unprecedented and never before were resources of that nature allocated to the education sector. This underlines the determination and commitment of the Government to recognise the great importance of the role played by the education sector in our society. That commitment was continued yesterday, as referred to by the Deputy, with the opportunity to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio from 26:1 to 25:1. Substantial progress has been made in recent years, given that in the 2019-20 school year the average pupil-teacher ratio was 1:15.

The EU class size is 1:20. We are slowly but surely making our way towards that ratio.

I would assume the package that was introduced yesterday will positively enhance all schools going forward. In regard to the school referenced by the Deputy, there is no change to the staffing of the school in the current school year. When the staffing schedule for 2021-22 is published early next year I am sure that the school referenced by the Deputy and other schools will be able to establish their staffing arrangements for the year going forward.

School Enrolments

Cormac Devlin

Question:

12. Deputy Cormac Devlin asked the Minister for Education if her attention has been drawn to the recent change in enrolment policies issued by a religious organisation (details supplied) and the impact it will have on parents; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [28353/20]

I thank the Minister for taking this question. I would like to speak to the sibling-first policy and the impact it will have on many parents. This came as a surprise to parents and families, particularly those hoping that their children will go to the same primary school. I understand this change impacts on Catholic schools and does not impact on other school patron bodies. One particular family that has been in contact with me has a child already in fifth class and other children hoping to attend the same school. The sibling-first policy will have an impact not only on their family and quality of life but on areas of their life.

Under the provisions of the Education (Admissions to School) Act 2018 all schools must have drafted new school admission policies. These new policies have been approved by the respective patrons and are now published on individual school websites. They will apply for admissions to schools from September 2021 onwards. The Act requires schools to set out clearly their selection criteria in their admissions policies. Schools and their patrons have discretion in regard to their admission criteria and how they are applied once it is non-discriminatory and deemed to be fair. If a school wishes to include a selection criterion for siblings it can do so, as it is permitted under the Act. The criteria are to be applied by schools and the order of priority is a matter for school themselves.

Patrons of schools, including the Archdiocese of Dublin, are not required to consult or seek approval from the Department of Education and Skills in regard to their selection criteria. However, the archdiocese has informed the Department that its position is that the siblings, step-siblings and-or children of the parish remain in the first category for the allocation of places. The Department's main responsibility is to ensure that schools in an area can between them cater for all pupils seeking places. Parents have the right to choose which school to apply to and where the school has places available the pupil should be admitted. However, in schools where there are more applications than places available, a selection process may be necessary and may be carried out and this may result in some students not obtaining a place in the school of their first choice.

I thank the Minister for that clarification. I understand that the policy primarily impacts on oversubscribed schools. That said, I think the sibling-first policy would impact negatively, particularly for the boards of management in terms of voluntary contributions for the schools and the issues facing principals as well in allocating places. While I appreciate the Minister's response and request that she forward it to me, I ask that further consideration be given to this issue in regard to schools in Dublin because it is going to be a surprise to parents come September 2021.

I will forward the information to the Deputy. I would like to reiterate the obligations here. The Act requires the schools to clearly set out their selection criteria in their admissions policies and provides that the schools and their patrons have discretion in regard to their admissions criteria and how they are applied once it is non-discriminatory and fair. If a school wishes to include a selection criterion for siblings, it can do so as it is permitted under the existing Act. The criteria are to be applied by schools and the order of priority is a matter for the schools themselves. The patrons, including the Archdiocese of Dublin, are not required to consult or seek approval from the Department of Education and Skills in regard to their selection criteria. The archdiocese has informed the Department that its position is that the siblings, step-siblings and-or children of the parish remain in the first category for the allocation of places, notwithstanding the points made by the Department in regard to oversubscribed schools. I will ensure the documentation requested by the Deputy is provided to him.

Question No. 13 replied to with Written Answers.

Special Educational Needs

Denis Naughten

Question:

14. 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; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [29739/20]

This is a similar question to the one I asked earlier and so the Minister of State does not need to repeat the answer.

The Deputy should just read the question.

I prefer to avail of the 30 seconds to ask a question. I pointed out earlier how the lack of access to speech therapists is having a direct impact on the education not just of the children with a learning disability but of other children in those classes as well. What is the Government going to do to ensure that speech therapists are taken away from contact tracing and returned to doing their work?

The Deputy has raised two questions today, neither of which were in regard to the questions he tabled. Speech and language therapy provided by the HSE is slightly outside of my remit but nevertheless within the school inclusion model we have put in place a pilot project in 150 schools and we now have received investment to roll that out in 200 schools. We will be using speech and language therapists in respect of whom recruitment is under way. We will also be using occupational therapists and crisis and behaviour specialists as well. This will revolutionise the school setting for children with special needs.

On the recruitment of therapists, owing to the Covid pandemic many therapists were redeployed to the HSE. I reassured the Deputy earlier that from my perspective within a school environment the NCSE is allowed to recruit these therapists directly without having to rely on the HSE therapists who are I understand being taken up with contact tracing. I will raise the issue with the Minister of State with responsibility for disability and the Minister for Health. I am not privy to the minutiae of whether these therapists are still being retained in contact tracing within the HSE or whether the majority of them have returned to their work. I can understand why they were redeployed in the first instance but obviously we do not want it to be to the detriment of children with special needs who need these services.

Within the school setting, which is my remit, I can reassure the Deputy that the school inclusion model, for which we have received funding for over 80 therapists in yesterday's budget, will be expanded to other community health organisation areas, on top of the already selected community health organisation areas. We hope next year to cover another three and perhaps another three the following year, which would be nine in total. That is the ambition. It would be groundbreaking for children with special needs in the school environment and it is something I am determined to do.

I thank the Minister of State. I understand her remit. I have taken up this issue with the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health, the chief executive of the HSE, the Minister for Defence and, today, the Minister of State, who are the five people in authority across this area. I am making a very simple request, namely, that Defence Forces personnel or retired Defence Forces personnel be asked to do the contact tracing work, inquiring of people about their movements over the last number of days, such that therapists can return to providing front-line services to schoolgoing children. The service may not be provided in the school but these are schoolgoing children and it has an impact on every pupil in a class. Will the Minister of State, as part of the co-ordination that takes place across Government in regard to the disabilities sector, commit to ask that this action be taken immediately?

I can give a commitment that I will bring the Deputy's concerns to the attention of the Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities and the Minister for Health. I want to be clear in regard to the school inclusion model and the therapists within a school environment.

They are not in lieu of a service that should be provided by the HSE. They are a complementary service which should enhance the child. As I mentioned to the Deputy earlier, we can see from the interim evaluation we have got back from the pilot demonstration project that it has had a beneficial effect on children in terms of their listening skills and improving their confidence.

I will go back to the Deputy's substantive question when he asked about school places and the absence of those in certain pockets around the country.

I did not actually ask that question. It was with regard to Covid-19.

It is actually about the increasing numbers of special needs pupils at primary level as well as about Covid-19. I will mention briefly that, obviously, substantial supports were given regarding Covid-19. With regard to Dublin, the letters of second notice of section 37A under the Education Act 1998 are going out today to 26 different schools to ensure they provide special class places because it is something I want to eradicate completely.

I will come back to the Minister of State's earlier reply when she talked about additional SNA supports. I welcome that additional resources are being put in there. The specific point I will put to the Minister of State is that the SNA exceptional need review took place over the summer. The results of that were available to the Department at the beginning of August. The schools, however, were only informed more than six weeks later in October. They must either go and recruit those SNAs or, if they were unfortunate enough not to succeed, go through the independent appeal process. In practical terms, this means that although the Department decided in early August that schools needed additional SNA support, those SNAs will not be in place until after the Hallowe'en break and until after the longest term in the year. Does the Minister of State believe that is an acceptable situation?

It is important to stress that the allocation of SNAs for this year was frozen. It will remain unchanged until September 2021 and then the front-loading allocation system will kick in. No SNA was taken away from any school. The Deputy is right that there is an exceptional review process. That is available for schools if they need to challenge the fact they need additionality in terms of an SNA. It was very clear, however, and I and the Department worked closely on ensuring no SNA would not be replaced in terms of the school reopening. A significant investment of €14.7 million was put in the school reopening plan for the special education sector to ensure there would be no absences of SNAs, and if there was, that they would be immediately replaced. They have a critical and crucial role in terms of children with special needs being able to interact in a school environment. We now have an unprecedented 18,000 SNAs throughout the country. I will also review the exceptional review process mechanism to ensure it will be streamlined in a more paper-friendly way, as it were, for the schools.

School Staff

Paul McAuliffe

Question:

15. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Minister for Education if the feasibility of pairing students of very high-risk families to very high risk teachers via an online learning platform will be examined; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25941/20]

Like other Deputies, I congratulate the Minister. I am sure, however, she would be the first to tell me to congratulate those in the school community who allowed and facilitated the return to school. It has made a huge difference in the lives of many families. Unfortunately, however, many people have not been able to return to school. They include those in the very high-risk category, both teachers and families. Will the Minister consider an online platform that will pair those two groups of people to allow both to return to the thing they love, that is, the school community?

As the Deputy will be aware, my Department has published guidance to support schools in making adapted education provision for pupils who cannot return to school because they are medically certified as being at very high risk due to Covid-19. It is important that pupils in these circumstances maintain a meaningful connection with their class and school to continue their learning from home successfully. Schools have discretion to manage and redistribute their teaching support resources to best meet the learning needs of these pupils. Supports may include a teacher who is also certified as very high risk to Covid-19 who cannot themselves attend school and may be in a position to provide remote teaching to very high-risk students.

The Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, and HSE have also published guidance on the return to school for at-risk groups. It outlines that children with immediate family members, including parents, in both the very high risk and high risk categories can safely return to school, and it is important for the child’s overall well-being that they would choose to do so. This is consistent with public health advice internationally regarding at-risk family members. The priority is that the household continues to follow all current advice on how to minimise the risk of coronavirus through regular hand washing, cough etiquette and social distancing. I am also reassured by the public health evidence to date since schools have reopened that supports the international position that schools are low-risk environments for Covid-19 and are not key drivers of transmission in the community.

It is also important to acknowledge the enormous work schools have undertaken to ensure they are safe places for their pupils, and the Department has provided a suite of guidance to support schools in this work following engagement and consultation with all of the education partners in the development of this guidance.

I welcome that the possibility of online remote learning pairing is an option for those very high-risk teachers and students. I am speaking, however, about those people with a rare disease. I have had the pleasure of working with many of them. Rare diseases are awfully misunderstood. There is often not a huge degree of knowledge within general practice, and often the patient becomes the expert in that disease relating to other international bodies. While I understand that returning to school is the best possible option in the broad scheme of things, we must understand that in circumstances where we all juggle risk in every part of our day, we make risk calculations. We must trust parents of people with a rare disease or where there is a family member with a rare disease that returning to school is not safe. We must trust those families to make that decision. I urge the Department to be flexible on this point. It is not about opening the floodgates. It is about trying to trust those families.

I will reiterate clearly from the outset that both the international and national evidence to date is clear that schools by their nature are safe environments. There is also an absolute recognition that the resources and measures required as part of the roadmap for the safe reopening of our schools have been put in place. I absolutely acknowledge a huge debt of gratitude is owed to the school communities in ensuring those measures are being implemented. All the expert advice available to us at the minute reiterates time and again that schools are safe environments. I acknowledge the role played by everybody to ensure that is the reality. Equally, I acknowledge that even as late as last week the evidence has shown there has been no material difference in terms of the rate of Covid-19 since before students returned to schools and once schools opened in this past month.

I reiterate that the Health Protection Surveillance Centre and HSE have published specific guidance regarding the return to school for risk groups. It outlines that children with immediate family members, including parents, in both the high risk and very high risk categories, can safely return to school, and they make the point it is important for the child's overall well-being that he or she does so.

I take on board the point the Minister makes and the genuine way in which she approaches this. I wish to raise the case of a specific person, Ms Jann Rynne, who was, sadly, diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, CLL, in 2011. She has been cocooning since February. Two of her older children have moved out of the home and are living with another family member. They have made the decision as a family not to allow the two younger children return to school. They are doing so because, internationally, CLL patient organisations record that 90% of CLL patients who contract Covid-19 are hospitalised and, unfortunately, 37% of patients with CLL who contract Covid-19 pass away. That is a calculation that family must make. We are all making those calculations. I ask the Department to do everything it can with this case and others.

I acknowledge there are individual circumstances. I am not aware of the individual circumstances of the case referenced by the Deputy.

I appreciate that there is anxiety and anxiousness around Covid-19 but I reiterate that everything we are doing in our schools is underpinned by the best public health advice available to us. I reiterate also that the Health Protection Surveillance Centre and the HSE have published guidelines on the safe return to school, particularly for children who may have family members designated to be at risk or at very high risk. It is their recommendation that schools are safe places and that in terms of the health, advancement, socialisation, academic development and all the other aspects of a child's well-being it is in their best interest that they would return to school and be catered for within the school environment.

We have time to squeeze in Deputy Brian Stanley's question. He might pose it and we will go to the Minister for the response.

School Staff

Brian Stanley

Question:

16. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Education her plans to ensure that school secretaries employed by schools are properly remunerated for their work. [29972/20]

The question relates to the position of school secretaries. Currently, they have to sign on the dole during the summer, at Easter and at Christmas. They do not have set rates of pay, sick pay or pensions and they are left in a precarious position. The previous Minister agreed that they would use the facility of the Labour Court to resolve these disputes and try to find a way out of this but that has changed. What will be done for school secretaries who played a crucial role over the past seven months in terms of keeping schools going? They are the kingpin of the school in many cases and we cannot continue to treat them the way they are being treated.

I reiterate that I appreciate the very valuable contribution made by school secretaries and other support staff in the school environment. I have witnessed it and I am very conscious of it.

I have met with Fórsa, which represents many of the secretaries working in schools.

In recognition of the school secretary role, I have put in place special arrangements 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. I have also extended the employee assistance service to all school staff, including secretaries.

On foot of the chairman’s note to the Lansdowne Road agreement, the Department implemented the 2015 recommendations of an independent arbitrator.

Fórsa 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 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, as the Deputy is aware, and I support the continued engagement of all parties in an effort to reach a mutually acceptable solution.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.

Members will be very sad to hear that we do not have questions today on promised legislation.

The Ceann Comhairle will have to try to hide his disappointment and compose himself.