Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Covid-19 Pandemic

Francis Noel Duffy

Question:

30. Deputy Francis Noel Duffy asked the Minister for Education the measures in place to ensure adequate heating and ventilation in view of Covid-19 guidelines in schools temporarily accommodated in prefabs. [39982/20]

I thank the Minister for taking my question. What measures are in place to ensure adequate heating and ventilation in schools temporarily accommodated in prefabs in view of Covid-19 guidelines? Schools are doing their best to ensure students are in the safest environment possible. As advised by the Department, teachers are encouraged to keep windows and doors open to allow for ventilation. However, without adequate heating infrastructure, this often means teachers and schoolchildren are left extremely cold.

Practical steps for the deployment of good ventilation practices were provided to schools in August in the context of reopening for September 2020. This guidance has recently been reviewed and was circulated to the education partners for their feedback. The updated guidance has now been published.

As for good ventilation practices in schools, it is important, particularly as we get further into winter, that we achieve an appropriate balance between good ventilation and comfort in schools. The overall approach for schools should be to have windows open as fully as possible when classrooms are not in use - for example, during break times, lunchtimes and at the end of each school day - and partially open when classrooms are in use to achieve appropriate airflow. It is worth noting that windows do not need to be open as wide in windy or cold weather in order to achieve the same level of airflow into the classroom. This will assist in managing comfort levels in classrooms, including in prefabricated accommodation, during periods of colder weather.

As part of managing comfort levels in classrooms, schools should check that their heating systems are set according to the recommended manufacturer's guidance levels to maximise the available heat to the school. In addition, heating should operate for extended periods during colder weather to counteract as best as possible the impact of windows being open - partially when classrooms are in use and fully when not in use - in order to maintain an appropriate balance between ventilation and comfort levels.

The issue of capacity and availability of resources to accommodate students comfortably brings me to my next point about the broader challenges schools have faced adapting to Covid-19 guidelines. Some schools have had to undertake significant remedial works in a short amount of time using the limited minor works funding and are still struggling to accommodate students in appropriate teaching environments. Can the Department advise whether minor works grants will be available next summer to conduct works outside of Covid-19, whereby the minor works grant can be used for typical summer projects that normally use this funding? The minor works funding is primarily there to allow schools to maintain their buildings. Covid-19 will mean that schools have effectively lost this funding for two years.

The minor works grant has been paid twice this year into schools. It was paid in August and will be paid again in December. It gives schools the autonomy to do what needs to be done or whatever they might specifically identify within the school that requires work. This can be a very wide capacity of work. It can be limited to one area or can be finance that is disbursed into a variety of projects within the school. That is a very positive movement for schools, and the uptake of it has been exceptional and has been greeted very positively by schools. Of course, if there are other works to be done, there is also the emergency works scheme and the summer works scheme, but to date there has been no question of funding not being made available to schools for work that needs to be done.

Unfortunately, for many schools the minor works grant does not allow them to adequately accommodate schoolchildren in adherence to Covid-19 guidelines. Many schools have had to undertake significant structural changes to ensure that students arrive to a safe environment. I have witnessed this. Will the Department support schools, particularly DEIS schools, in undertaking significant remedial works necessary to accommodate students safely in cases in which the minor works grant is not enough? This is having an impact on Sacred Heart Senior National School in Killinarden, as I am sure it is in other DEIS schools across the country.

Regarding the minor works grants, we are talking about an allocation of €75 million in August and €15 million now in December. A school with 1,000 pupils, for example, would have received €110,000 in the first tranche last August.

There is substantial funding going into schools. As I stated, more funding is to come in December. However, I will take the details of the specific case raised by the Deputy. Obviously, where there are other extraordinary measures we ask schools to revert to the Department in order that we can consider individual cases. I wish to be clear that there has been a general acceptance without contradiction that the amount of money - now in excess of €500 million - that has been provided to schools for a variety of works, such as minor works, provision of payment for PPE or whatever else is required in the schools, has been quite remarkable.

Schools Building Projects

Brendan Smith

Question:

31. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Education when approval will issue in respect of a building project for a school (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40010/20]

My question relates to Coláiste Dún an Rí in Kingscourt, County Cavan. The school opened in August 2016 and has already exceeded its capacity. The projected attendance at the school was 450 but, after five years, the current enrolment is 530. The indications are that the enrolment numbers will continue to grow. It is a highly regarded school that has been very successful. Cavan and Monaghan ETB, the school, the board of management and the wider school community are very anxious that the application for additional permanent accommodation should be progressed by the Department as soon as possible. I appreciate the opportunity I had to discuss the matter with the Minister some months ago.

I wish to acknowledge the Deputy's personal interest in moving this issue forward and his engagement with me on the matter on several occasions. I can confirm that the Department is in receipt of an application for additional school accommodation from the school authority referred to by the Deputy. The application is currently being assessed and, once it is completed, the school authority will be informed of the outcome.

When capacity issues arise, they may not be as a result of a lack of accommodation. They may be driven by certain other factors, such as a duplication of applications if pupils have applied for a place in several schools in the area. Another factor may be that pupils are unable to get a place in their preferred school but there are places in other schools in the town or area. Some towns or areas have single-sex schools and although places may be available in such schools, they may not be available to all pupils. There is also the issue of external draw, that is, pupils coming from outside the local area. The true extent of any capacity issue will only become known once these issues are discussed with the relevant school authorities.

Similar to the process adopted in advance of the current academic year, my Department is engaging with patron bodies, including the patron in question, to identify particular capacity requirements for the forthcoming year which may necessitate action.

I was closely involved with former Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, a predecessor of the Minister's, in getting the school approved for Kingscourt. There was much cynicism that there was no need for a school in the area. The projection at the time by the Department and the vocational education committee was that an enrolment of 450 would be adequate capacity. Thankfully, the current enrolment is 530 and the projected enrolment for 2024 is 815. Thankfully, there is substantial employment in the area. There has been significant growth in population and each of the feeder primary schools has recorded a growth in enrolment in recent years. With the continuation in movement of population to the area and in light of the number of houses being built there, it is evident that the feeder primary schools will continue to grow, which will provide more and more students for Coláiste Dún an Rí. I had the opportunity to visit the school some months ago after classes had finished for the day and I saw at first hand the pride that the principal and all the staff take in ensuring that the best possible educational services are delivered to all students attending the school.

I am aware that when the school opened in 2016 it was to cater for 400 pupils and its current enrolment is 530. There has been significant growth there. I know the application has been with the Department since April 2019. For the information of the Deputy, discussions are ongoing with the ETB to agree the long-term projected enrolment for the school. I am informed that this process is very close to completion. I am aware that the application the school has made is for 11 general classrooms and eight additional specialist rooms. On the positive side, the discussions with the ETB to finalise the projected enrolment so that we do not find ourselves in a similar position further down the line in terms of capacity and enrolment are nearing completion.

I thank the Minister. At the request of Councillor Clifford Kelly, the chairman of the board of management of Coláiste Dún an Rí, I met the parents association and some of the school staff. The pride they take in their school was clear, as were the precautions they put in place. Every safety guideline they have been given by public health and the Department regarding the provision of education at the present time has been implemented very strictly.

Councillor Kelly has been a powerful advocate for the school for many years. I have worked closely with him and other public representatives and the local community. John Kearney, the CEO of Cavan and Monaghan ETB, and his colleagues, along with Fergal Boyle, the principal of the school, and his staff colleagues all work together as a team. They are determined to get this application over the line to have that additional accommodation provided.

I am aware of the long-term projections the ETB provided in its application. I did some homework on the matter and I have to say the projected enrolment of 815 by 2024 is relatively conservative. I have no doubt that the people who provided the Department with the application are absolutely solid and that additional accommodation is needed. I would appreciate it if the matter could be advanced as soon as possible.

I appreciate the work that has been done to date. The Deputy referenced many individuals who have contributed to the development of the school. The fact that its enrolment went from 400 to 530 and is now projected to rise further is testament to the hard work, determination and generosity of so many who were willing to work on a common agenda, namely, the betterment of education provision in an area. I wish to acknowledge that. The Department is currently finalising with the ETB the projected figures. They will be adjudicated on as quickly as possible. I thank the Deputy for his determination and focus in moving this issue forward.

Commencement of Legislation

Pauline Tully

Question:

32. Deputy Pauline Tully asked the Minister for Education the position regarding the Education of Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 which, despite being a central pillar of the national disability strategy, has never been fully commenced, meaning that children with disabilities cannot access assessments with a right of appeal or individual education plans on a statutory basis; if she is satisfied with the lack of progress in respect of the Act; the action she will take to fully commence the Act; the timeframe for this action; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40164/20]

I ask the Minister of State to outline the position in respect of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004, more commonly referred to as the EPSEN Act. It has never been fully commenced despite it being a central strand of the national disability strategy. Children with disabilities and learning needs cannot access assessments with a right of appeal or individual education plans on a statutory basis. Do the Minister of State and the Department have any plans to fully commence that Act?

Several sections of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 have been commenced. The commenced provisions include those establishing the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and those providing for an inclusive approach to the education of children with special educational needs. As the Deputy stated, the remaining sections of the Act have not yet been commenced. However, the Government has continued to invest in the area of special education support.

Next year, the Department will invest approximately €2 billion in the area of special educational needs. That is one fifth of the Department's budget and an increase of more than 50% since 2011. Since the EPSEN Act was enacted, the Department’s policy on supporting children with special educational needs has changed and evolved on foot of evidence-based policy advice from the NCSE which takes account of international perspectives. Significantly, the focus of special needs education provision has changed from a model that is diagnosis-led to one which is driven by the needs of the child. This is a substantially different view from the one underlying the EPSEN Act. The levels of investment by the Government in special education have increased to facilitate the underlying reforms required to implement and embed the needs-based approach. This change is evidenced by the introduction of new allocation models for special education teachers and special needs assistants.

The Deputy may recall that I recently published my action priorities for the coming years. One of those key objectives as Minister of State with responsibility for special education is to carry out a review of the EPSEN Act. This review will take into account the extent of additional investment made in special education services since 2004 and the move towards a needs-based approach. I will also work with colleagues in the Government to ensure there is a joined-up approach and a continuum of support for all children with special educational needs.

As the Minister of State mentioned, some aspects of the Act were commenced, such as that providing for the establishment of the NCSE.

I understand the NCSE prepared an implementation report back in 2006 that set out the sequence in which the remaining provisions of the Act should be commenced and estimated a level of investment, at that time, for their implementation. It was planned to implement the remaining provisions by 2010 but a decision was taken in 2008 to suspend that implementation. I am not sure exactly why that was done. It may have been to do with the level of investment that was required. An independent appeals element was established in the form of the Special Education Appeals Board, but when the term of the inaugural board was up, no new board was formed. It just seemed to end at that point and there were elements that were supposed to commence which did not.

The Minister of State outlined the level of investment that is in place and pointed to changes that have been made. There has been much speculation around when the Act will be fully implemented and calls by a number of representative groups, on behalf of children with special needs, for a full commencement. Will the Minister of State undertake to publish a plan indicating whether the remainder of the Act is to be implemented or if something will be put in place? We need to know exactly what is intended to be done.

The Deputy will appreciate that I only recently published my action priorities. As I said, one of those priorities is to conduct a review of the EPSEN Act in its entirety. The premise of the review is that in the 16 years since the enactment of the Act, we have moved substantially away from the diagnosis-led model to a needs-based model. One of the reasons that some provisions of the Act were not commenced was a cost consideration. The NCSE and the Department estimated that, over a period of years, it would have cost some €235 million per annum to implement and commence all Parts of the Act that have not yet been commenced. My review will involve an assessment of the areas where special education needs policy has evolved since the introduction of the Act and a consideration of how best to progress aspects of the Act on a non-statutory basis. I will also be looking at new challenges in the area of special educational needs that have arisen since 2004.

The failure to implement the Act fully or put something similar in its place runs contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Under Article 4 of the convention, the Government is obliged to ensure that children with a disability are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of their disability. We need to provide a more inclusive society in all aspects of life and that includes education.

The new Oireachtas Joint Committee on Disability Matters, which was established last month, has a very important role of overseeing the full implementation of the convention. At a recent meeting of the committee, I asked a question about the future of the EPSEN Act. The representative of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission replied that it was the view of the commission that the Act was outdated and not fit for purpose. The representative of the National Disability Authority, however, said that the Act needs to be fully implemented in order to fulfil our role under the UN convention. Which view is correct? I accept that the provisions of the Act will need to be updated to reflect, as the Minister noted, that 16 years have passed since its introduction. However, it remains the case that, where it is practical, we need to integrate children with disabilities into mainstream education. We know mainstream provision does not suit all children with special needs but, where it does and where children choose to avail of it, we must ensure they have the support to allow them to access mainstream education.

I have two questions concerning certain things that are happening at this time. The first relates to the new model for the allocation of special needs assistants. My experience is that where schools experience a sudden relative increase in the number of children with identified special needs in a classroom, the model is not responsive enough. It was previously the case that if a child with autism joined a class, he or she would be guaranteed to be assigned an SNA. That does not seem to be the case at the moment. In addition, there is a still a bias against girls in the allocation of SNAs and special education teachers. I have never understood the basis for that bias and I still do not understand it. Will the Minister of State comment on that issue?

Second, the Minister of State mentioned some of the changes that may be coming under the progressing disability services programmes, including the establishment of disability teams. A significant concern of special schools is that they will lose their multidisciplinary teams under these changes. Can the Minister of State give a commitment that this will not happen as the progressing disability services initiative is expanded throughout the country?

Taking Deputy Tully's questions first, the review I intend to conduct of the EPSEN Act will be a review of the legislation in its entirety, including the Parts that have been commenced. It is my view that section 2, which relates to inclusive education, still stands. It states:

A child with special educational needs shall be educated in an inclusive environment with children who do not have such needs unless the nature or degree of those needs of the child is such that to do so would be inconsistent with-

(a) the best interests of the child as determined in accordance with any assessment carried out under this Act, or

(b) the effective provision of education for children with whom the child is to be educated.

That sums up the approach in regard to special education in general in a nutshell. I will be using it as the premise on which I conduct my review.

I understand Deputy Ó Laoghaire has tabled a later question specifically relating to the provision of SNAs. I will check out the bias to which he referred in regard to special needs provision for girls. On the allocation of SNAs, it is always open to schools to engage with the exceptional review process if they feel they have not received a sufficient allocation of SNAs. The numbers were frozen for this year and there was no impact because of Covid. I secured an allocation of €14.7 million in the budget to allow for the immediate replacement of an SNA who is absent for any reason.

School Transport

Michael Moynihan

Question:

33. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Education if she is satisfied that her Department is working with parents to address the transportation needs of pupils with disabilities; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40092/20]

My question relates to the Department's arrangements for working with parents to address the transportation needs of pupils with disabilities.

School transport is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of my Department. In the 2019-20 school year, more than 120,000 children were transported in over 5,000 vehicles on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country, covering more than 100 million km at a cost in excess of €219 million in 2019.

The Department is very conscious of the specialised nature of transport provision for children with special educational needs and this is reflected in the approach that is taken. In the current school year, there are more than 14,500 children availing of special needs school transport, which is an increase of 5,300 children since 2013. The Department funded the school transport scheme in 2019 in the amount of just over €219 million, with 53% of that allocated to the transport scheme for children with special needs.

The purpose of the special needs transport scheme is, having regard to available resources, to support the transport to and from school of children with special educational needs. Under the terms of the scheme, children are eligible for transport where they have special educational needs arising from a diagnosed disability and are attending the nearest recognised mainstream school, special class, special school or unit that is, or can be, resourced to meet their needs. Where practicable, my Department will consider the provision of specific or individual transport arrangements in circumstances where travel in the company of other children is not deemed feasible. In addition, there is a facility within the special needs transport scheme for the appointment of a school bus escort where a child's care and safety needs while on school transport are such as to require that support.

All eligible children are exempt from school transport charges. A special transport grant towards the cost of private transport arrangements may be provided at the discretion of the Department in certain situations where, for example, the child's care or medical needs are such as to make the provision of a transport service impracticable. While the closing date for receipt of applications for school transport in general is the last Friday in April of any given year for the following school year, my Department accepts applications all year round for the special needs transport scheme. As the Deputy may be aware, public health advice issued to my Department in late August recommended that all post-primary transport services operate at 50% capacity. That recommendation is being implemented across all special education services on which post-primary children travel. The special education transport scheme is providing for the transportation needs of pupils with disabilities.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I have in mind two cases that have been brought to my attention which are probably a reflection of general issues with the scheme. In one of those cases, a pupil who was travelling to post-primary school for the first time applied for special transport and was accommodated on the taxi service that was being run to and from the school in question. Unfortunately, due to the child's needs, the arrangement did not work out and the parents have been doing the school run themselves. They have tried to switch from the taxi service to the special grant that is available for children with special needs but are finding it hugely difficult to get their application processed and obtain clear guidance on the matter from the Department. There should be some mechanism within the Department to deal with such applications. The Minister outlined the funding figures and the changes that have happened.

However, it is a specialised type of transport for children who cannot travel with other children, for whatever reason.

With regard to the case the Deputy referred to in respect of a special transport grant, I will outline exactly how that works. The special transport grant towards the cost of private transport arrangements may be provided at the discretion of the Department in situations where: Bus Éireann is not in a position to provide a transport service; where a child's age, behavioural difficulties or medical needs are such as to make the provision of a transport service impractical; an escort is considered necessary and the provision of such support is not feasible; or the cost of establishing or maintaining a service is considered prohibitive. Obviously, I am not familiar with the individual case, but if it meets any of the criteria, and perhaps it does,-----

-----the Deputy might give me the details and I will ask my officials to investigate and expedite the matter. There is a clear acknowledgement in the Department that in some instances it is necessary for the special transport grant to be paid.

I thank the Minister and appreciate her offer. I will take it up immediately.

The other issue relates to children who have attended a special school which is the nearest special school to them. However, their needs would be better met in a special school that is further away from them. The decision of the parents to transfer their child to the other special school is supported by documentation from consultants, professionals and people who assisted the parents in making the decision. It is also supported by numerous reports. The parents have sent all that to the Department of Education, but the Department has been reluctant to go outside the terms of the scheme or outside the nearest school issue.

I put it to the Minister that there should be flexibility in the Department when a decision that is outside the norm or not within the criteria of the scheme is supported by expert psychologists' reports and other information. There should be a mechanism there, as there is in other Departments with regard to force majeure and so forth.

Again, to refer to the previous case the Deputy raised, there is considerable flexibility and an acknowledgement in the Department that one size does not necessarily fit all. For that reason, as I pointed out with regard to the special transport grant and the various criteria, the criteria are quite wide in terms of eligibility and making provision for personally providing transport for children based on their specific needs or Bus Éireann's capacity. With regard to the nearest school and issues that might arise there, a review of the entire transport scheme is pending.

On the case referred to by the Deputy, I would be pleased if he would give me specific details about the individual concerned and the needs required. I will give a commitment that we will examine the individual case.

Special Educational Needs Staff

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Question:

34. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education if a high-risk SNA can work from home during the lockdown restrictions if the management team of a school agrees to same. [39977/20]

I am not sure whether the Minister or the Minister of State will reply to this question. I have a specific case in mind, but it applies to the broad issue of school staff and high risk versus very high risk. As I have pointed out previously, very high risk is a very high threshold and many people who are severely immunocompromised with conditions such as leukemia and others are deemed high risk. They are concerned. In some instances, schools want to offer them more flexibility, but they are not permitted to do so at present.

I can take the question if it relates specifically to SNAs. My understanding is that it does.

The same principles apply, so I will take whatever reply the Minister of State has.

There is an occupational health service provision specifically for teachers, and that would include SNAs, as essential workers. Those who are at very high risk can take Covid leave, but those who are at high risk should be at work. That is the position. Every school has a lead worker representative whose role is to represent staff. Somebody should not miss work for Covid reasons if he or she is high risk. It is only if the person is at very high risk that he or she should not work.

The person could ask the occupational health service providers, Medmark Occupational Healthcare, to review his or her status if he or she has concerns. Medmark Occupational Healthcare has a process in place for staff who have health concerns, which the Deputy enunciated. There has been comprehensive and intensive engagement with education stakeholders, including school management bodies and staff representatives, to ensure that schools open safely. Each school has a Covid-19 response plan and included in that are practical steps to minimise and prevent the risk of infection. That is the status in that respect.

It is important to stress, as I have stressed to the Deputy on a few occasions, that when we reopened the schools we put aside €14.7 million specifically for SNAs, caretakers and school secretaries so there would be an immediate replacement of those SNAs. Obviously, their role is essential. I thank them for all the work they have done to date in keeping the schools open and, in particular, looking after children with special needs because those children simply cannot function in a school environment without an SNA present. Their work is vital.

I will speak first about the case I have in mind, although anonymously with regard to the brass tacks. This SNA is high risk. I would deem the person to be very high risk in the ordinary meaning of the words, but the person has not met that threshold with Medmark Occupational Healthcare. The person's doctor, principal and the board of management agree that it is not safe for the person to return to school. However, due to the process in place, the person must go in every day and potentially risk the person's health in doing so or the person would have to take the decision to take a leave of absence. The principal was more than happy for the person to be paired with a medically vulnerable student - it would have suited everybody in the equation - to learn from home and for the learning to continue online in the instance of high infection in the community. I believe there is a rigidity in that regard. The overall philosophy regarding where one can attend and where it is safe for one to attend is right, but there is a rigidity in terms of the harder cases. I will return to that in my final contribution, but we need to consider it.

I appreciate the sentiment of what the Deputy said. That is one of the reasons we provided €30 million in the school reopening plan for personal protective equipment, PPE. PPE is critical for the role of the SNA and for the SNA to carry out his or her functions not just adequately but safely. Often the SNA moves from room to room and he or she needs a medical-grade mask when he or she is within 2 m of a child with special needs.

I understand what the Deputy is saying about the rigidity of the process, but, as I said in my initial contribution, the person can ask Medmark Occupational Healthcare to review the person's status. I imagine that Medmark Occupational Healthcare should take into account the views of the board of management and the principal of the school to sustain that status. It may well be the person is very high risk as opposed to high risk and, therefore, is not in a position to work in the normal course of events.

I am glad the Minister of State referred to PPE. It is still my view that all SNAs should be provided with the medical-grade masks mentioned by the Minister of State. For the vast majority of SNAs, the instances in which they will be moving to within 2 m of children or outside it occur very frequently throughout the day. It is the easiest and most sensible thing to do.

The problem with the Medmark Occupational Healthcare process and the appeal, and I understand that very few have been successful on appeal, is that they are related to the same criteria and the same categorisation. Very high risk is a very high threshold. High risk is a broad category ranging from mild asthma to leukemia, liver failure and other similar conditions. The fact that somebody gets a review does not necessarily mean that it takes an overall view of this individual member of staff and says it would probably be better, in the circumstances, if the person was at home. It only refers to whether the person has one of the conditions that qualifies the person as very high risk. Ultimately, it does not change matters.

When Dr. Ronan Glynn was before the Covid committee he told me that regardless of the categorisation by Medmark Occupational Healthcare, each person must be treated as an individual with his or her own specific set of circumstances.

We need a bespoke approach in the minority of cases where the Medmark process proves to be too blunt and people are at the higher end of high risk but do not qualify for very high risk.

I appreciate the sentiment expressed by the Deputy and the fact that he has a particular person in mind in this regard. I stress the fact that, in addition to the Covid-19 response plan, which each school has, schools also have at least one lead worker representative whose role is to represent staff and people in the predicament the Deputy outlines. The role of an SNA in particular is crucial. We have grown the amount of SNAs by 78% since 2011 and one of the things we want to ensure is that every SNA is in a position to look after children with special needs, so it is of particular importance to me that they are adequately protected. Deputy Ó Laoghaire mentioned medical grade masks. Obviously, SNAs should be wearing those or surgical masks where they are within 2 m or a proper visor of suitable quality for a healthcare setting, if it is not practical to wear a mask for any reason. That should protect them from getting infection or infecting somebody else.

Question No. 35 replied to with Written Answers.

School Uniforms

Mick Barry

Question:

36. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Education if she will consider initiating an investigation into allegations that females in a school (details supplied) were asked not to wear certain items of clothing due to them allegedly being revealing; if she will report on measures taken to counter sexist attitudes in schools; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40068/20]

The question is to ask the Minister if she will consider initiating an investigation into allegations that females in a school were asked not to wear certain items of clothing due to them allegedly being revealing; if she will report on measures taken to counter sexism in schools, and if she will make a statement on the matter.

In the case referred to by the Deputy, the Department of Education has made initial contact with the school and is engaging further to establish the facts in this case in order to provide a report for my attention.

It is important to note that decisions on school uniform policies are a matter for the school's board of management at local level. Schools are advised to consult with parents and students when drafting a policy on uniforms. My Department provides funding and policy direction for schools. It has legal powers to investigate individual complaints where the complaint involves a refused enrolment, expulsion or suspension, in accordance with section 29 of the Education Act 1998. The Department's role is also to clarify for parents and students how their grievances and complaints against schools can be progressed.

With regard to the broader question posed by the Deputy, I agree that there is no place for sexist attitudes in Irish society, including in our schools. The Department has been working along with other Departments and agencies to support the full implementation of the National Women and Girls Strategy 2017-2020. The vision of the strategy is "an Ireland where all women enjoy equality with men and can achieve their full potential, while enjoying a safe and fulfilling life". The overall goal of the strategy is "to change attitudes and practices preventing women's and girls' full participation in education, employment and public life at all levels, and to improve services for women and girls, with priority given to the needs of those experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, the poorest outcomes."

It is the aim of the Department that every child has access to equitable education and that each learner feels safe and happy in the school environment, at every stage. The curriculum at both primary and post-primary levels aims to foster inclusivity where equality and diversity are promoted. Attitudes towards gender are primarily explored in the social, personal and health education, SPHE, curriculum. This is addressed in an age-appropriate manner from primary level through to senior cycle. At each level, multiple strands of the SPHE curriculum examines gender roles and stereotyping and their adverse effect, in particular regarding gender effects. As a part of the curriculum, students explore and deepen their awareness of stereotyping and its influence on attitudes and behaviour.

The school in question is being asked for a report. Are the school authorities alone being asked to supply the report or is contact being made with the student body to get a report and information back from it? Something happened in that school. Would a petition come forward to be signed with thousands of names for no reason? It appears that protest took place in the school, including boys coming into school wearing leggings and skirts in solidarity with the girl students. People would not do this for no reason. It is not credible to say that nothing happened or that it was a misunderstanding. I am raising a question about that. I think questions need to be asked and information needs to be got, not just from the school authorities but from the student body itself. As part of the report, I would also like to know if any of the boys who took part in the protest were suspended, how long they were suspended for and why.

It is important that in any incident that pertains to a school that each school is given the time and space to address the situation as it arises and to make a determination. My Department has already engaged with the school and it will continue to engage with it. A report will be furnished to me once that engagement is concluded. The engagement is in the first instance with the board of management, which has responsibility for the day-to-day running of the school. Deputy Barry will be aware that the board has autonomy in the running of the school. As I outlined to the Deputy, the Department primarily has control over the policy and funding of a school, and in particular instances where an individual complaint involves refused enrolment and expulsion or suspension. In terms of the current report, the initial engagement with the school involves a determination of what occurred, how it occurred, who was involved and who was impacted. When the report is available to me, I will study it in due course.

On the broader issue of sexism in schools, I think it is fair to say that young people in general, including teenagers, have been ahead of the curve in Irish society on social issues. They were ahead of the curve on LGBT rights, including gay marriage. They were ahead of the curve on abortion rights. I think they are ahead of the curve on sexism in schools as well. They ask many legitimate questions about policies in school, including policies on uniforms, sport in schools, subject choice, the rights of trans students in schools and how seriously some school authorities take the question of sexist name calling. Overwhelmingly, the victims of sexism in schools are girls and non-binary people, although boys can be affected by sexist stereotyping as well, for example, school bans on long hair and the wearing of earrings, among other issues. What measures have been taken and what measures does the Minister intend to take to address this issue, which I believe is a feature within the school system?

I concur with Deputy Barry on the importance of the student voice, which is immeasurable in the school community. Testament to that is the manner in which the student voice is very much integrated into all actions within the Department in terms of consultation with the education partners. Deputy Barry will be aware that the student voice was a critical one in the calculated grades process. The student voice was represented at every step of the way. In the first instance, the proposal on calculated grades came from students themselves. That is equally the case in curriculum reform. The student voice is embedded in the consultation process that is undertaken by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, and in other initiatives of that nature.

The entire curriculum that is provided in schools is considered to be for all learners, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, gender or orientation. It is the aim of the Department that every child has access to equitable education and that every learner feels safe and happy in the school environment at every stage of their experience of the school environment. The curriculum at both primary and post-primary levels aims to foster inclusivity where equality and diversity are promoted.

I am sorry, but we must move to Question No. 37.

School Staff

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

37. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Education her views on whether cleaners are critical staff in the running of schools; her plans to provide pension rights to long-service cleaners; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40006/20]

I wish to ask the Minister whether, in her view, cleaners are critical staff in the running of schools, and if that view will be reflected in how she approaches pension reform for long-service cleaners. Cleaners have always played a central and vital role in schools but, with Covid, their importance has increased. Does the Department have any plans to move cleaners into the public service pension scheme to reflect their critical role in the health and safety of children?

I recognise the important role cleaners play in the successful operation of schools in every year, but particularly so in the Covid-19 context.

I am very conscious of the superb work done on an ongoing basis by the cleaners in our schools.

Currently each school is required to have a Covid-19 response plan for safe operation through prevention, early detection and control of Covid-19 in line with public health advice. Cleaning is an important aspect of infection prevention and control measures in schools to minimise the risk of transmission of infection. Significant additional funding has been provided to all schools for putting in place additional cleaning, and funding is provided on a per capita basis.

As the Deputy may be aware, cleaners are employed directly by schools using the ancillary grant mechanism to schools. In education and training board, ETB, schools, cleaners are employed directly by that board. The provision of a pension is therefore a matter for the respective individual school or education and training board. Schools and ETBs, as employers, are obliged to provide access to a personal retirement savings account.

In line with the Government Roadmap for Pensions Reform 2018-2023, the Government has committed to developing and implementing a State-sponsored, automatic enrolment, supplementary retirement savings system by 2022. Under automatic enrolment, employees without personal retirement savings who meet certain age and earnings criteria will be automatically enrolled into a State-sponsored, quality-assured, supplementary retirement savings system, with freedom of choice, as always, to opt out.

To say we give schools the money and they are responsible for this is an abdication of responsibility. Whereas they are not legally defined as such, these people are certainly public servants. It is argued that they are not employees of the State, despite the fact that the body that employs them on a long-term basis is funded by the State. The third reason put forward is these people have not made public sector pension contributions throughout their working lives but they have not been given the right to do so. Like many others, these are undervalued workers inside our public services. I call on the Minister to review the position.

I reiterate that I do not for one minute underestimate the value and importance of the work of support staff, and particularly the cleaners that the Deputy mentions. Cleaners are nonetheless employed directly by schools using the ancillary grant. It is the current operation. In ETB schools the cleaners are employed directly by the board. The provision of a pension is therefore a matter for the individual school, if these people are employed through the school and a capitation grant, or the individual ETB if the people are employees of the ETB.

I also reiterate that schools and ETBs, as employers, are obliged to provide access to the personal retirement savings account. Equally, as I have outlined, there is the roadmap for pensions reform, with a mechanism anticipated to be in place for 2022 for the automatic enrolment of people into a scheme. That should come on stream with an option to opt out.

We have heard all those arguments before. We heard them in the cases of school secretaries and caretakers. Recently the Government finally agreed to sit down for talks to regularise the pay, conditions of employment and pension provision of school secretaries and caretakers, which is a welcome development. I look forward to an outcome that they have waited on for a long time.

These people are critical components of the educational system and they deserve to have this rightly reflected in work and pay conditions. The position for long-term service cleaners in schools is very similar. They are long-term employees of the public system and they do not currently have access to a public service pension. We have many cleaners in schools who have been there for decades. There is an unfairness within the system because they are not entitled to pension rights in the way other workers are. I ask the Minister to look at this position to see if it can reviewed.

As the Deputy mentions, many workers of long standing are contributing very positively and in a vital way to the school environment, especially in the Covid-19 pandemic. I know from personal experience that these people work on a very generous basis in a willing and positive way. They often go above and beyond the call of duty. I recognise this work, which I have seen for many years.

As it stands, cleaners are employed by schools through a grant mechanism or directly by an ETB. We will see how the automatic enrolment supplementary savings process works in 2022. As I mentioned earlier to Deputy Ó Laoghaire, everything is under review, but there is an acknowledgement that this is how it operates currently.

Special Educational Needs

Patrick Costello

Question:

38. Deputy Patrick Costello asked the Minister for Education her plans for autism-specific schools and autism-specific services within mainstream schools; and the preference of her Department going forward. [39666/20]

I am curious to know the plans of the Department for autism-specific schools and the unique services they can provide for the children who need them. My concerns are of course with the dedicated campaigners for an autism-specific school and inclusion in the Dublin 12 area. Deputy Bríd Smith has been very supportive of them and would love to hear the reply to this question.

I thank the Deputy. My Department's policy is to provide for the inclusive education of autistic students in mainstream schools to the greatest extent possible.

As we know, autism is a spectrum condition, so some autistic students require relatively little support in school and are largely independent in their learning, while others require significant levels of support. There is therefore not one preferred educational approach for autistic students and rather there is a range of provision, sometimes described as a continuum, which takes into account the assessed educational needs of individual students. All students with special education needs are served by this continuum of provision, ranging from full-time enrolment in classes in mainstream schools with or without additional supports to a special class in a mainstream school to full-time enrolment in special schools.

This continuum is supported by significant investment by the Government at €2 billion or 20% of the total education spend. This funds the provision of additional teachers, special needs assistants and other supports required to enable children with special needs to access education. My Department's policy is that new special schools are be designated as "community special schools" and resourced to serve those children within the community who require special school placement rather than be limited to any specific category of disability.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has been asked to provide policy advice on the future of special schools and classes and the advice is expected before the end of the year, as I mentioned earlier to Deputy Ó Laoghaire. The evidence-based advice will take account of local and international perspectives, including the views of stakeholders. In the meantime, my Department will continue to support the current continuum of provision, which includes special class and special school places.

There is specialised provision for children in autism and there are now 1,836 special classes in place compared with only 548 in 2011, so there has already been significant progress.

I thank both the Minister and Minister of State as they have met representatives of the campaign group and made time to do that. It would be beneficial to meet the group again and see the site it proposes for use. There is an empty school building and the group has engaged with the owners. These people have found a patron. They are putting all the pieces together and it would be a really positive move for the Minister and Minister of State to meet the group.

There are several schools in the area and two health centres that could provide speech and language and occupational therapy. These are the multidisciplinary supports that the children who would ultimately use the school would need. The NCSE report indicates a lack of provision in the area already.

There is an opportunity to create that community of which the Minister of State speaks. It would be a community and education hub where all the children and parents could be together across the road from each other and the other services they need. There is an amazing opportunity here. I encourage the Minister and Minister of State to meet the campaigners on the site and see the proposed school if at all possible.

I thank Deputy Costello for allowing me to speak on the matter. We had a virtual meeting that involved the Minister of State and it was made clear that she would visit the proposed school and the community.

That is imperative now, because as the Minister of State herself said, a report expected before the end of the year. We are almost at the end of the year as it is 1 December today. There is not much time left to do this and for the Minister of State to get some idea and, we hope, to make some promise in respect of what she has said previously,which is that the future of special needs education should be in community designated special needs schools. This unit is a model for a community-based special needs facility, as was stated by Deputy Costello, and this is because of the engagement of the community, the parents and the families of the children. It is absolutely outstanding. The Minister of State has witnessed this at the meetings, and it would be a big plus and an absolute necessity for her to try before the end of the year to go down and meet the parents, the kids and the community in respect of the autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit in Crumlin.

I thank the Deputies for their contributions, and they are correct in saying that I have met with a number of different groups in respect of the issue of ASD units and special classes. Indeed, in Dublin 6W there are four special educational needs, SEN, classes and four ASD classes, in Dublin 8 there are eight SEN classes and eight ASD classes, and in Dublin 12 there are 17 SEN classes and 17 ASD classes. The Deputies will also be aware that I have triggered the section 37A mechanism of the Education Act 1998, and on 2 November we issued the second section 37A notices to schools, compelling them to open special classes where they have the capacity to do so, and it is the view of the Department that there are at least 25 schools that would be in a position to do so. The NCSE, in fairness, has already opened 197 new special classes this year alone without having to use the relevant legislation, so it always tries to work with schools collaboratively.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.