Insurance (Restriction on Differential Pricing and Profiling) Bill 2021: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to prohibit the discriminatory pricing of certain insurance premiums payable by certain persons to the extent that such pricing is on the basis that any such person is a pre-existing customer of an insurance provider, to prohibit the use of profiling techniques in the calculation of such insurance premiums to determine whether or not such customer or class of customers are likely, or the extent to which any such customer is likely, to renew the policy concerned, to restrict the use of such profiling techniques by insurance providers in respect of new or potential customers and to provide for related matters.

Dual pricing is used by insurance companies to identify customers who are less price sensitive and less likely to shop around in order to target them with artificially high prices. Companies do this by using opaque and complex pricing models and big data, without the knowledge of the consumer. Dual pricing is known to have a disproportionate impact on older and vulnerable customers. Its explicit purpose is to overcharge and price-gouge customers. It is now time to ban it and that is what my legislation will do.

In September 2019, I wrote to the Governor of the Central Bank requesting an investigation into the practice of dual pricing. In October 2019, I submitted a complaint to the Central Bank regarding the practice of dual pricing in the insurance market. I argued that dual pricing was deeply embedded in the market, citing research done by the Financial Conduct Authority, FCA, in the UK, regulations enacted in the US and analysis done by leading insurance consultants in the Irish market, including consumer samples that I gathered myself. The Central Bank agreed to launch an investigation on foot of my complaint. Its interim report published last December confirmed that dual pricing is endemic in the industry, with more than 70% of customers paying more than the true cost of their policies as a result. It is estimated that 2.5 million policy holders paid a combined total of €187 million more than the actual cost of their policies in a single year.

Insurance companies are using dual pricing to discriminate against, and rip off, their customers. Between 2014 and 2017, 20 US states banned the practice of dual pricing, recognising that its use is discriminatory. These bans were recommended by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, NAIC, a body governed by the 50 state insurance regulators. In 2015, the association recommended that any two insurance customers with the same risk profile should be charged the same premium for the same coverage and that is what is at the core of this legislation. It will apply to all motor and home insurance contracts, as provided for in section 2. Section 3 will ban dual pricing by requiring insurance providers to use only rating factors directly linked to risk to be insured, prohibiting the use of different rating factors for new and renewing customers. Section 4 will require insurance providers to inform customers of the rating factors used in the calculation of the premium offered. No longer will insurance providers be able to offer extortionate premiums without providing the basis on which they are calculated. Section 5 requires the Central Bank to draw up regulations for the proper and effective regulation of the provisions in sections 3 and 4.

Some people may have concerns that the Central Bank rather than the Dáil is best positioned to determine how dual ricing is removed from the insurance market but this legislation answers those concerns. It gives power to the Central Bank to make the regulations that will ban this practice. Section 5 requires the Central Bank to produce a code of practice that will assist the courts and the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman where an insurance company has broken these laws. Section 6 requires the Central Bank to publish an annual report assessing the industry's compliance with the provisions of the legislation and the code of practice referred to in section 5, with a copy of same to be laid before the Oireachtas. Section 7 will amend Part 1 of Schedule 2 of the Central Bank Act 1942 so that the Central Bank can sanction insurance companies that practice dual pricing and breach sections 3 and 4 of the Bill. Section 8 provides that the provisions of this legislation will come into operation no later than four months after its passage.

This legislation will ban dual pricing, end discrimination and bring transparency to the setting of prices. It will radically shake up the insurance market for the better. In Britain, the FCA found that a ban on dual pricing would result in savings of between €4 billion and €12 billion over a decade, increase competition and reduce the time customers spend switching providers. The practice will be banned in the UK no later than October this year. Irish consumers deserve no less. This legislation will require the industry to do what should be a given, namely to price fairly and transparently. This legislation has been in the making for many months. I commend staff of the Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers who assisted me in drafting this legislation. I also wish to thank stakeholders for their continued engagement, including the Alliance for Insurance Reform. Finally, I wish to mention my own staff, Mr. Paul McIlvenny and Mr. Simon Gillespie, who were instrumental in assisting me in the production of this legislation. In the coming weeks I hope, and expect, to enjoy cross-party support for this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move:"That the Bill be taken in Private Member's time."

Question put and agreed to.

I am pleased to be before the House to set out the work that myself and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, as well as our officials and indeed, the partners in education, have been engaged in over recent weeks to ensure the continued provision of education to our students throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. While schools are providing remote education at present, the resumption of in-person teaching and learning is a priority for Government and intensive engagement continues with the partners in education to do so as soon as possible. Just this morning, I convened a meeting of stakeholders from the primary and special schools sector. We are working together towards a staggered return for children in special schools and a return to school for those in special classes in primary schools and children who access special educational needs, SEN, supports in mainstream primary classes beginning on 21 January next. Schools will also have discretion to accommodate their most vulnerable students. I wish to acknowledge the engagement and work of all of the partners in education so that we are in a position to move forward in this direction from 21 January for the benefit of all of our children with additional needs. We also continue to work together to set out a pathway for the return of all children at all levels of schooling, subject to Government and public health consideration of what constitutes the safe movement of people. My officials continue to engage closely with senior public health specialists in this respect and direct communications in the coming days through webinars, videos for parent and written FAQs will supplement the significant levels of information and guidance available.

Since taking office, this Government has made the provision of education its priority. School, and education more broadly, is a hugely powerful and positive force in our young people's lives and it is vital that this is preserved for our students in these most challenging times and circumstances. International organizations, including the World Health Organization, WHO, and the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, have outlined the negative impact of school closure on children's health and well-being, as has the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI. For many children, school is not only a place of learning but also provide opportunities for social and personal development, healthy eating and physical activity. As the research of New Zealand education expert, Mr. John Hattie, has shown, school can be a hub of response and recovery, a place to support emotional recovery and promote social togetherness and this is as important as any academic gains.

It is for all of these reasons that Government and the Department of Education have invested heavily in schools to support them throughout this pandemic. In total, a package in excess of €437 million has been provided to schools to support their continued operation.

Funding has been provided for the employment of replacement teaching staff, special needs assistants, SNAs, and administrative staff, as well as for an additional 1,080 teaching posts at post-primary level. This includes 120 guidance posts, which have been provided to support student well-being. Provision has also been made to provide primary schools with additional substitute staff. In addition, significant additional measures are being adopted to increase the supply of teachers at both primary and post-primary level.

There has been a €75 million capital allocation to support schools to prepare their buildings and classrooms for reopening, including an uplift for schools with pupils with special educational needs, and €4.2 million to enable schools to employ aides to implement measures to deal with the logistical challenges schools face at this time, such as moving furniture, changing classroom layouts, setting up hand sanitiser stations and signage and everything else that is involved in schools' preparations with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic. An additional €52 million has also been provided to schools to put in place enhanced cleaning and hygiene measures to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission in schools.

The package also made additional provision for special schools and special classes in recognition of the particular challenges these schools and classes face in dealing with children with complex medical and care needs.

From a public health perspective, national data on the Covid-19 positivity of close contacts since schools reopened in September are reassuring. Schools have not been identified as amplification settings for the infection, meaning that transmission rates within our schools are low. In his letter on 5 January, the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, noted that the majority of cases of Covid-19 infection in children and adolescents occurred outside the school setting during September and through to December. This is in spite of the significant proportion of their time that children and young people spent in schools during this time period. All of the evidence shows that, through the hard work and dedication of school communities, supported by the Government, and through the resources provided to schools by the Department of Education, schools can and do operate safely.

We are all aware of the importance to children of keeping schools open. Nonetheless, last Thursday, the Government took the difficult decision to close schools to all students, pending further discussion with our partners in education. This followed a week of engagement between the education stakeholders, my Department and me. Last Monday, my officials and I met education stakeholders to discuss the planned reopening of schools on 11 January and to seek their views. My officials updated education partners on the latest public health advice available from NPHET and on their own engagement with public health experts earlier that day, both of which advised that a full reopening of schools on 11 January was safe from a public health perspective. At this briefing, a number of stakeholders shared their view that in the event of any school closures, specific accommodation should be made for certain cohorts of students, most notably students with additional needs and leaving certificate students. Interestingly, this was reiterated by many of the spokespersons on education at my meeting with them on the evening of Monday, 4 January.

The following day, the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, Dr. Tony Holohan, wrote to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. In his letter to the Minister for Health on 5 January, the CMO advised that it was his view that while the experience in schools to date had clearly demonstrated that schools are, in themselves, a safe environment, the epidemiological situation had deteriorated to a point at which the significant levels of mobility and linked activity that the full reopening of schools would generate might pose an additional risk. In his letter, the CMO stated categorically that this advice was not based on a changed assessment of the risks in relation to transmission levels in schools. Rather, it was a reflection of the overall epidemiological situation and the absolute need to reduce mobility and movement within the community.

On foot of this advice, on Wednesday, 6 January, the Government made the difficult decision to close all schools with limited exceptions for children attending special schools and special classes and to facilitate partial attendance for leaving certificate students. Given what we know regarding the impacts of school closures on children and young people, this was not a decision that Government took lightly. It was clear, however, that the public health situation required a strong response which minimised movement to the greatest extent possible. Under usual circumstances, the daily school run involves nearly 1 million students, 100,000 members of staff and, of course, a significant number of parents and guardians.

Two limited and targeted exceptions were made, namely, for students with special education needs and for students in their final year of school. Students with special education needs were prioritised to receive in-person education as many students with special educational needs struggled immensely during the last period of school closure, experiencing considerable distress and loss of learning. This was also a challenging time for the parents, guardians and families of children with special educational needs. Furthermore, students in their final year of the leaving certificate cycle were prioritised for in-person teaching and learning to provide them with valuable confidence in the lead-up to their final examinations. These two limited accommodations were made while remaining mindful of the need to reduce movement within the wider community.

On Thursday, Dr. Kevin Kelleher, assistant national director of the HSE and member of NPHET, and Dr. Abigail Collins, public health specialist, facilitated a briefing for education stakeholders on the Government decision to reopen schools on a limited basis for children with special educational needs and leaving certificate students. In a meeting lasting over two hours, Dr. Kelleher and Dr. Collins reiterated their belief that schools are safe environments and that it was safe for both students with special educational needs and leaving certificate students and staff to operate schools at this time, utilising the preventative measures that are in place. Nonetheless, shortly after this briefing on Thursday, a number of stakeholders expressed their clear opposition to this plan and the Government took the decision to pause the limited reopening of schools pending further engagement with all partners in education.

Our renewed engagement with partners began the very next day and on Friday, my officials and I met with parents, students, unions, management bodies and principal networks. On Monday, 11 January, together with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, I met representatives of Down Syndrome Ireland, Family Carers Ireland, Inclusion Ireland and AslAm. These representatives brought with them the lived experience of students with special educational needs and their families and they were united in their view that remote provision simply does not work for many children with special educational needs. For these families, school is not just a building but a place to belong and to be accepted and a safe environment in which to thrive. All of these representatives expressed their very clear concerns regarding the impact of school closures on their children and young people. I share their concerns and my Department and I have continued intensive engagement with representatives of students, parents, teachers, SNAs, principals, and management bodies to discuss the best path forward for our children with special educational needs and for those in greatest need.

As I mentioned earlier, I am pleased to have made significant progress towards our goal in this regard. Following near-daily engagement with key stakeholders in the primary and special school sectors, we are working together towards a staggered return for children in special schools and a return to school for those in special classes in primary schools and children who access special educational need supports in mainstream primary classes, beginning on 21 January. We continue to engage with primary and post-primary stakeholders to work toward our ultimate goal of a return to school for all students.

I am pleased to note that the Minister for Social Protection has continued funding for the school meals programme at this time to enable school meals provision to continue. This mirrors the arrangements that were in place during the school closures in 2020, when the vast majority of schools in the school meals programme put arrangements in place to ensure that pupils most in need continued to receive food parcels. I am very grateful for the efforts of school principals, staff and all who work to make this possible.

Schools are being asked, where feasible, to make arrangements to continue with the provision of the school meals programme through a delivery model that suits their individual needs best. Community and voluntary support is also available to schools through the local authority community support network programmes to assist with deliveries. Contact information for these supports has been provided to all schools.

Significant work is also being carried out by school communities during this period of closure to ensure the learning of all students is supported at this time. As a contingency measure for the possibility of partial or full school closures, the Department has provided a suite of guidance materials to help schools to support pupils and students learning remotely.

Guidance has already been provided to all schools and agreed with the education partners advising all schools of the requirement to provide for the continuity of teaching and learning in the event of school closures. This guidance was first circulated to schools in the initial period of school closure, and was subsequently reviewed and agreed with the partners in education. Final guidance in respect of primary and special schools was published in October 2020 and final guidance in respect of post-primary schools was published in December 2020.

In accordance with this guidance, schools should seek to provide regular engagement with pupils and students. In a primary setting this should, ideally, be on a daily basis; in a post-primary context, teachers should, as far as possible, engage with students as per the normal timetable. There should be a blend of guided and independent learning tasks and experiences. Remote teaching should involve both direct teaching by the teacher and the assignment of independent learning tasks for completion by the students. There should be appropriate and engaging learning opportunities. Teachers should ensure that the chosen learning tasks give pupils and students an opportunity to demonstrate their learning in a clear and concise way. Regular opportunities for feedback should be given to students.

Schools should ensure that two-way feedback between teachers and parents and guardians is encouraged and supported. Schools should provide manageable and accessible opportunities for all pupils to regularly share samples of their work with the teachers throughout each week. Teachers should ensure that work received is corrected and relevant feedback is provided.

Support for SEN pupils involves special education teachers continuing to engage with the pupils on their caseloads. Class or subject teachers should differentiate teaching and learning in line with their pupils' needs to minimise disruption to their learning and progression. Further guidance to schools in respect of children with special educational needs and students experiencing educational disadvantage has also issued.

Planning for leaving certificate examinations in 2021 and consideration of all the issues arising is under way by the State Examinations Commission, SEC, and my Department. This work is being assisted by an advisory group of key stakeholders, which includes representatives of students, parents, teachers, school leadership and management bodies, the SEC, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, the Higher Education Authority and the Department of Education, including the National Educational Psychological Service.

The advisory group meets regularly, and I am committed to continuing to meet, consult and engage with this stakeholder group on all matters relating to examinations. The advisory group is considering all the various issues regarding the holding of the 2021 examinations, including the issues emerging relating to public health, and will continue to do so. All partners are committed to acting in the interests and well-being of students, who are at the heart of this process.

A number of adjustments to assessment arrangements have already been made at leaving certificate and junior certificate level, taking account of the disrupted learning experienced by students during the 2019-20 school year and further possible loss of learning time in the 2020-21 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.

I am aware that some from the student cohort have called for the examinations to be curtailed, delayed or perhaps even cancelled with others suggesting that alternatives should again be used in 2021. Let me be clear on this point; my Department and I are listening to the students on this and to the other stakeholders involved.

The advisory group has met several times already and a further meeting is planned shortly. My Department is continuing to engage in direct bilateral consultation with stakeholders this week, including student representatives. The Department engaged directly with the Irish Second-Level Students' Union, ISSU, on Tuesday evening, and I spoke briefly with Reuban Murray, the president of ISSU, yesterday evening. In addition, a meeting with ISSU is scheduled for tomorrow morning.

The Government has also prioritised continued operation of school-related construction sites, as this is critical to enable the State to sustain the operation of schools in the current academic year and to deliver additional school accommodation requirements that arise in September 2021 to meet mainstream and SEN school places requirements.

These are very difficult times and difficult decisions and choices needed to be made. I am very grateful for the co-operation and leadership that the entire school community has shown in working together to enable education provision to continue safely and effectively during the September to December term. We hope to see the virus coming back under control and being more manageable as we move into spring and summer. My focus is on working to get schools open and to sustain this opening through until the end of term, working with our partners and with public health.

When I met Opposition spokespeople last week, several Deputies indicated that they wished to work collaboratively as we face the challenges currently before us. I thank them for that. As public representatives, we can ensure that how we face the challenges is informed by the broadest range of views and perspectives and I look forward to hearing the contributions of Deputies.

I again express my thanks to all in the education sector, including the Opposition spokespersons, for their ongoing work and support for all the children and young people we serve in the education sector.

The lack of forethought shown by the Minister and her Department over whether schools needed to close was very disappointing. There should always have been a plan B in place if schools needed to close. The Minister had nine months to organise this. Instead, we had half-baked plans cobbled together over the course of 24 hours, which collapsed just as quickly. In such a context, a letter sent to parents yesterday in which the Minister played the blame game for schools not reopening was an inappropriate use of communication with schoolchildren and their parents to make political statements.

School staff have been working extremely hard to provide remote learning at such short notice and there has been a lack of clear guidance and supports for teachers. I hope the Minister has learned from recent weeks and is now urgently planning on how schools can reopen safely as soon as possible.

The top priority must be children with special educational needs. I welcome that the Minister has just announced that special schools and special classes in primary schools will reopen on 21 January. Last week when the announcement was made that special schools and special classes were to open on 11 January for SEN students, the students concerned and their families were delighted that for once their needs were being taken into account and prioritised without their having to fight tooth and nail for that to happen. We all know how badly they were affected by last year's closures with many of them receiving little or no support for the three months of school closure. Children experienced academic, social and emotional regression and took weeks to settle back to school in September. When the announcement came that schools were not to reopen, they were absolutely devastated. I welcome that they will now open, but I ask the Minister to provide clarity on it.

There are 30,000 students with additional needs in our schools. One third or slightly more are in mainstream classes in mainstream schools. Will autistic spectrum disorder, ASD, units be open? What supports are being provided for the children in mainstream schools? Mainstream schools in other jurisdictions are open to cater for students with special educational needs. This is happening in the North, Britain and across Europe, and it needs to happen here.

It is also vital for the Minister to engage with the HSE and the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, to see if school staff can be placed higher on the priority list for the Covid-19 vaccine. Staff in special education urgently need clarity on when they will receive the vaccine given the importance of their role.

The Minister and her Department have left leaving certificate students in limbo for far too long. It has been an extremely difficult 12 months for sixth year students. They lost an enormous amount of learning time in fifth year and now have to contend with the chaos of the Government U-turns of the past week. For months my colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, has asked the Minister to lay out the contingency plans in place for the leaving certificate class of 2021.

It is disgraceful that the Minister has yet to do so and that sixth-year students across the country have been let down so badly by her and her Department. They have been given no clarity and they have not been listened to. I urge the Minister to listen to the students and to take their concerns seriously. The mock examinations are coming up in the next few weeks and the deadlines for some projects are this week and next, while oral and practical examinations are set to take place soon. Students need clarity on if, when and how these aspects of the process will go ahead. Any project deadlines due this month must be extended. That is the least that can be done to ease the pressure on the leaving certificate classes.

If the Minister had spoken to students, she would know that the changes made to the leaving certificate papers this year go nowhere near far enough. Much more radical changes are required, at the minimum. Perhaps even more than that aspect of the situation, the Minister needs to take seriously the level of learning loss experienced by current sixth-year students. They lost three months last year, and now this month as well. From speaking with students, I know that it has been profoundly difficult for them to catch up.

The Minister must be transparent and honest with students. She must accept at this stage that there is a question over the provision of traditional leaving certificate examinations this year. It has not been a traditional 12 months for sixth-year students. This is not an issue which can be allowed to drift into the spring. Students are calling out for clarity on this issue now. I hope, therefore, that the Minister's Department is exploring all the options, including those put forward by the students themselves. This is an urgent situation and the Minister must communicate with students in a clear and considered way her contingency plan for this year's leaving certificate examinations. That is the least these students deserve.

I have several questions. As many children struggling badly now will not benefit from the special schools, I ask the Minister to provide clarity on special units and students in mainstream schools. Will all SNAs and staff who must be in close proximity to children get surgical grade masks? Will it also be ensured that staff at high risk are given the option to work remotely and are matched with children whose families want them to learn remotely?

I thank the Deputy for the issues she highlighted. I must differ with her, however, regarding many of the points she made. The Deputy referred to a lack of planning. That is absolutely and utterly untrue. I hope the Deputy is aware of the efforts being made by schools to ensure children are catered for in these current circumstances with remote and online learning. They are in a position to do that because of the extensive planning and engagement which has taken place to provide clarity and guidelines to schools concerning those elements. Moreover, in respect of guidance on remote and distance learning, guidelines for the continuity of learning were issued to schools earlier in the school term and then procedures agreed by all the partners in education were issued to schools.

There has, therefore, been intense discussion and negotiation with everybody in the education system concerning providing consistent planning and guidelines for the situation in which we find ourselves. Schools adapted flexibly and resiliently during any short-term closures experienced between September and December and they are doing likewise now. There is also agreement where there is considerable oversight from the Department regarding how schools are faring in this respect. I reject out of hand, therefore, what the Deputy has said on this point. She is doing a disservice to the partners in education, including the teaching unions, the managerial bodies, the parents and students when she rejects the amount of time and effort they have put into planning for the closures we face now. Their work has been exemplary and I acknowledge their co-operation.

Turning to the issue of special schools, we have made the announcement regarding those schools. The Deputy raised the specific issue of special classes and children in mainstream classes. Children in special classes and in mainstream schools are to be facilitated under this plan. I again acknowledge the incredible engagement of all the partners in education to achieve the shared objective of facilitating, on 21 January, the opening of the special schools, the special classes and children in mainstream schools. Provision has also been made for vulnerable students.

On the leaving certificate aspect, I again take issue with the Deputy's comment on what I would have learned if I had spoken to students. I deal with students on an ongoing basis. Students are very much anchored in all the discussions we have in the Department regarding any planning we do, whether that concerns schools reopening or examinations. The Irish Second–Level Students Union, ISSU, is represented at all those engagements. I have spoken with representatives from that organisation several times personally and in the context of stakeholder arrangements. I also spoke with the president of ISSU, Reuben Murray, yesterday. I am very well placed to deal with students. I have taught all my life in the education sector, I deal with students on a daily basis and am familiar with their needs and I absolutely reject the suggestion that students are not involved as part of the partners in the education process. They most certainly are.

The Deputy also referred to projects and related matters. Guidance has issued on extended deadlines for projects and the extension now available is available because of the extensive planning, work and engagement with all the partners in education to ensure that leeway would be given regarding dates for the completion of projects. That leeway was given as students returned to school in September, and we are availing of that leeway now, again as a consequence of considerable planning.

Reference was then made by the Deputy to industrial relations issues concerning teachers and SNAs in respect of public health and guidance etc.. Measures regarding the conditions for those who work in the school community and for those students attending classes are all guided by public health advice. Whenever the public health authorities asked us to change our procedures or processes, we have done that, whether that concerned masks, schools transport etc.. We will continue to do that consistently. All measures which need to be in place to facilitate any aspect of the running of schools for any members of our staff will continue to be in place and will continue to be flexibly added to, changed or amended as required by the direction of public health authorities.

The Minister seems to be absolutely oblivious to the stress she has caused, not just to the families of the children in our education system but also to the workers in that education system. I urge the Minister to reflect on that aspect. Now is not the time for the trademark arrogance that we tend to expect from the Government. It is a time for engagement and perhaps a modicum of humility would also not go amiss. It might be alien to the Minister but I urge her to engage, open her ears and to listen to people who are trying to be constructive.

The views of many pupils, their teachers and school communities were ignored. That is what they told us. They told us that they felt that they were ignored and left until the last minute. We only have to look at the series of announcements, U-turns and repeat announcements to know that what was required was engagement. I note the Minister stated she met representatives of Down Syndrome Ireland, AsIAm and other advocacy groups. I note also the timing in that regard, which came after all the announcements, the resulting outcry and parents being forced onto the public media, where they do not want to be. Perhaps next time, planning and engagement is what the Minister needs to do and what needs to happen, not when the Minister is forced to do it but as a matter of course.

Many outstanding issues must be addressed, not the least of which is a contingency plan for the leaving certificate examinations. We all know it has been an extremely difficult time for leaving certificate students. I made a media appearance with one of the Minister's colleagues last week and he advised that if there was a need for a contingency plan, there would be one. That fundamentally misunderstands what a contingency plan is and what such a plan is for. Now is the time to put a contingency plan in place to ensure that choices are going to be available for those students in sixth year. Now is also the time for the Minister to provide leadership and reassurance to people, because that is what she should be doing.

Many opportunities in the education area have been missed. In my constituency in north County Dublin, we have many shovel-ready projects, including an Educate Together school in the Malahide and Portmarnock area. In Swords, for example, there is a chronic shortage of school places at primary and secondary level. It is the same in Skerries, Balbriggan, Malahide and Portmarnock. Siblings are being sent to schools miles apart because of the lack of places. Other children go to feeder schools and are then denied access to the secondary schools of their choice because of the lack of places.

There are projects that are ready to be started, classrooms that can be built and new schools to be delivered. Not only would this deliver necessary school places, it would also bring employment to north county Dublin. I implore the Minister to ensure these projects are funded. I also speak directly to the Ministers from my constituency to ensure these projects are delivered as a matter of priority.

I absolutely welcome the announcement the Minister has made on the reopening of special schools. It is very timely because we have heard from the parents, families and advocates of children with special educational and additional needs, and we rarely hear from them.

Will she confirm, as I have asked for, that there is a contingency plan, or a plan B, for the leaving certificate examination and will she publish that? One parent told me that although she was devastated at the U-turn by the Government on the reopening of special schools, it was good that "they are actually talking about our children". She said that the parents feel their children are finally on the agenda. Lines of communication have been opened. Will the Minister confirm that those lines of communication will remain open and that advocates for SEN children will have access to the Department and to her office?

With regard to the vaccine roll out, will the Minister ask the NIAC if it will prioritise people who have no option but to have close contact? There are people who have no option but to have close contact in the course of their work with the students and children they care for. Perhaps she will ask if those people will be prioritised with vaccinations.

I ask that she would publish the NPHET advice on working in a school environment for all the people who work in schools. It is not good enough to just say "They are safe". People want to see the advice and any risk assessments that are done.

The Labour Party has tried to be as reasonable and as constructive as possible in these most trying of times, particularly in the education space. We know there is no easy decision for the Minister to make. We appreciate that she was faced with a difficult scenario last week. We appreciate the efforts she has made to listen to education spokespersons who spoke to her on Monday with concerns we all have about a cohort of students who will be severely and profoundly affected by school closures. We appreciated that she gave us an opportunity to share our views with her, otherwise the only opportunity to speak to her would have been today.

The Minister made an effort to open schools for those with additional needs and for those sitting the leaving certificate. For particular reasons this did not work out and she reversed that decision, which I felt was the right thing to do because there was no way we could open schools until the schools were ready to open. A number of things have happened, however, over the past days that have made it really difficult for the likes of myself to maintain that goodwill. The Minister's letter, sent to each school in the State to be passed on to students, was ill-advised. It has been described to me as "political" and "divisive". The Minister's Cabinet colleagues decided to descend on the media over the weekend to try to make liars out of the trade unions regarding consultation. While it is welcome that today there seems to be a move toward the reopening of schools and special schools for those with additional needs, it is unfortunate that the announcement was release within minutes of us having this debate. It would have been better for us to have a little bit more detail. If the Minister is earnest about her wish to engage with Opposition spokespeople, it would have been worthy of her to have a discussion with us so that we could show leadership to make these difficult decisions happen. On additional needs, is she advocating for those staff, teachers and SNAs who work with young people who have additional needs, to be prioritised for the next round of vaccination?

I will turn to the leaving certificate. The Minister is quite right that there is a huge amount of stress and anxiety among the student body. The Labour Party was the only party not to call for the cancellation of last year's examination because we were unconvinced that a replacement system would be fair. We have more time now, however, and a lot of the issues that were rolled out last year were reversed by the Minister, and we are supportive of this, especially the school profiling element. We would suggest to her that an early decision on this is necessary, which we suggest should be February. Notwithstanding what she is saying, and what various voices are saying, the level of uncertainty is intolerable for junior certificate or sixth year students having lost 11 weeks of tuition in the past academic year, and for the month of January this year. If we are honest with ourselves, the Minister knows that it is much easier to close schools than it is to reopen them. With the numbers circulating around and the death count rising, it is unlikely schools will reopen before the mid-term break or St. Patrick's Day or beyond. We all mention disadvantage. In my submission to her I raised the issue of 16 year old students who have no legal requirement to be in school and the fact that they maybe lost to the system, and many have been lost to the system.

We need to begin talking about post-Covid education in Ireland and what that vision will be. Are preparations being made to repair the profound damage being done by school closures, which are not the Minister's fault or the Government's fault notwithstanding the fact they did not take NPHET advice in December? Can we speak to or focus on young people in disadvantaged backgrounds, in poverty, and with additional needs? Can we have an investment or a post-Covid vision of radical investment in individual tuition, reduced class sizes, resources for schools or for individuals in mainstream schools who are profoundly disadvantaged, who have been damaged and who will be damaged by the continuing school closure?

I will reiterate my three points for the Minister. On the announcement made today on additional educational needs, the detail of which I have not read, I hope it will be worked out and successful. I am sincere in that but I want her to speak to vaccinations. On the leaving certificate, will she make her intention absolutely clear in February? It is very hard to find the Government convincing that the junior and leaving certificate examinations will continue as she has said. My third point was on disadvantage. Can we have a conversation about a radical package to redress the damage that has been done by school closures, and that when the schools are reopened we do not pretend this damage does not exist?

An tAire has 40 seconds, which I will hold her to, if she wants to respond to some of that.

I am responding to both. I will take the opportunity to respond to Deputy Ó Ríordáin first. I acknowledge the engagement that has been forthcoming from the Opposition spokespersons on education, which I appreciate.

On the specific point of consultation with the unions, I want to be very clear that I most definitely engaged with the unions on Monday of last week. I engaged with all the partners in education on their concerns and issues around the reopening of schools. Engagement with all the partners in education has been ongoing since I took up my ministerial post on 27 June. Had that engagement not been possible, we would never have achieved the reopening of our schools. The reopening of our schools was on the back of very considerable engagement, agreement and support within the partners in education for the processes that were being undertaken by the Department.

On the issue of staff, teachers, SNAs and vaccinations, the Deputy will be aware that I initially raised this with regard to the need for the school community to be included on the priority list. I was very pleased when that actually happened. We have re-engaged with the task force in seeking consideration of the need for the school community, as front-line workers, to be accommodated as quickly and as urgently as possible. Those discussions will continue.

On disadvantage, I acknowledge the Deputy's specific interest in the area and the many proposals he has brought forward in that regard.

I think the Deputy will acknowledge that there has been considerable investment by the Department in terms of disadvantage-----

I will stop the Minister there.

-----and that is ongoing.

Deputy Ó Ríordáin ran out of time and I cannot be unfair to other Deputies who will come in later. If Members want answers to their questions, they will have to leave the Minister sufficient time to respond. I call the Minister of State.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the important matter of special education during the current restrictions. We are all conscious of the importance of abiding by the public health guidance and limiting our movements as part of the efforts to tackle Covid-19. The current period of restrictions comes at a very grave time for our country and is designed to reduce transmission while also allowing our essential workers to do necessary work to support our vulnerable communities. We are profoundly grateful for everything they do. It is important to recognise the essential services and supports that continue to be required.

As the first dedicated Minister of State with responsibility for special education, I remain committed to ensuring that students with special educational needs receive the supports they need at this time. I am pleased that there is a commitment to work towards a return to school for students in special schools, those in primary school special classes and those with special educational needs in mainstream primary classes from 21 January. I have always been determined to ensure that the educational and personal development of students with special educational needs are fully supported as we continue to combat the spread of Covid-19. I was very happy that the calls for in-person educational provision for students with special educational needs by me and others were recognised and accepted by the Government. That commitment to achieving agreement to bring this about never wavered. It is now vital that we continue to work with all stakeholders in education, including post-primary education, to ensure the remaining concerns are addressed in order that a partial return to school may begin from 21 January. The driving concern is, and must continue to be, the well-being, in the fullest sense, of the children who rely on specialist provision to receive their education and to progress. I am pleased that today we can provide them and their families with some certainty of a return to routine, with a staggered return for children in special classes and schools and provision for children with identified needs in mainstream classes.

My Department is very conscious of the fact that closing schools has hugely adverse consequences at individual, family, and societal level and that the effect on children with special educational needs can be even greater. School closures last year created huge difficulties for students with special educational needs in terms of their personal and educational development. I have heard this countless times from the many organisations and families I have met since the summer. For many students with special educational needs and their families, school provides important daily routines and supports. Prolonged periods without this support can lead to regression and the loss of learning and skills, and families' capacity to cope can be challenged. We know from the evidence up to now that schools can function safely during this period of the pandemic and students can have access to the necessary in-school specialist supports. As a result of this, the Department sought to prioritise in-person teaching and learning for pupils attending special schools and special classes and to allow these facilities to reopen.

There has been continuous engagement with education partners on this matter since Christmas, building on weekly engagements between partners and public health throughout the school year. There has also been regular engagement with unions and management bodies on a weekly basis since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Department values this close collaboration with stakeholders. In my capacity as Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion, I have met regularly with a wide range of organisations advocating for students with special educational needs, including AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland, Inclusion Ireland, the Disability Federation of Ireland, parents' groups and the management bodies of our special schools. This engagement is invaluable in ensuring that all views and voices are heard in the area of special education, and it will continue.

There are 18,552 children enrolled in specialised settings in Ireland, including 10,382 in special classes and 8,224 in special schools. These settings operate in much smaller class groups than mainstream schools, with pupil-teacher ratios ranging from 6:1 to 11:1. The Department is continuing to engage intensively with education partners, including parental representative bodies, on this matter. We recognise that in-school learning for students with special educational needs is by far the best approach to support these students in their education and we are very eager for an agreement that moves this forward. There is a willingness to engage positively from all the partners in education and I am pleased that we now have a resolution on the table.

In the interim, it is crucial to ensure that education for students with special educational needs is fully supported. This includes students with special educational needs who are in mainstream classes across the country. Their needs also have to be fully recognised and supported at this time. A number of additional supports have been put in place, reflecting the engagement with partners and unions over a number of months. I will outline some of these supports, but it is important to say that no plan B will ever be as effective as in-school, in-person education for students with complex special educational needs. This is what we want to return to and that has been recognised by all.

The Department's guidance to schools includes provision to support the continuity of teaching and learning in response to the Covid-19 restrictions for those learners unable to engage with online learning. These documents first issued to schools in spring 2020 and were subsequently updated and agreed with stakeholders later last year to reflect the experience and input of staff and students. The guidance we issued last week reflects these updates and they have now been brought together into one dedicated guidance document for schools and families supporting students with special educational needs. Key themes of the guidance include: the role of schools and teachers in engaging with pupils with special educational needs; teachers and school leaders working to support pupils with special educational needs; keeping in touch with parents and guardians; keeping pupils with special educational needs safe in the distance learning environment; and resources for teachers. The guidance also provides information on the role of the class teacher, special education teacher and SNAs.

For special classes at primary level, the guidance indicates that class teachers should phone parents three times per week and have daily phone engagement with pupils. SNAs should have twice daily engagement with parents to support them developing and maintaining the child's schedule. For special classes at post-primary level, the guidance indicates that the special educational needs co-ordinators are in daily contact with special class students so that programmes of work, individual timetables and structures are planned in collaboration with parents. For students with special educational needs in mainstream classes, guidance advises that at primary level, the special education teacher is the nominated school liaison who will engage with the parents by phone twice per week. There are currently over 13,550 special education teachers allocated to mainstream schools, supporting the additional learning needs of pupils. Teachers will also have prepared at-home support plans and every Friday will host a familiar social skills board game using online technology. This support is in addition to the support of mainstream class teachers who are providing for all pupils in their classes.

At post-primary level, the subject teacher will continue to have overall responsibility for differentiating tasks to match the learning needs of students with special educational needs. The output will be reviewed and regular feedback provided to parents at agreed times. Special educational needs co-ordinators will also have regular communication and engagement with students on their caseload. SNAs will engage with parents and students as a liaison between home and school, as well as supporting the delivery of education to the students. Class teachers will also work with special educational needs co-ordinators and the pastoral care teams to support a co-ordinated whole-school approach to students with special educational needs.

The Department’s inspectorate has confirmed that it is engaging closely with schools catering to students with special educational needs to ensure that the full supports are being provided effectively. The inspectorate confirms that since Monday it has already engaged with nine special schools. All have a plan in place for remote learning and all have distributed digital devices to parents. There is daily contact with parents and students which forms part of their planning, mostly by phone, email, or any dedicated school platform. Extensive support and advice for schools regarding the provision of distance learning is available through the Department’s support services and agencies, including for pupils with special educational needs.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, also provides support and assistance to parents and schools. It is providing helplines to support them. These helplines are operated daily and offer advice, support and contact with local SENOs to ensure that all possible support is being provided. The council has also developed a brand new suite of short videos for teachers on how to best support children and young people with special educational needs. The NCSE also has a visiting teacher service to provide direct support to children who are blind, visually impaired, deaf or hard of hearing and their teachers. Visiting teachers continue to be available to provide advice and support.

Schools which established their first ASD special class for 2020 or 2021 were assigned a link adviser during the four-day training course held in September and October. These advisers remain assigned to these classes and are available to provide support and advice to special class teachers.

I understand the frustration and fears of the parents and families of children with additional needs. They want their children to be in school with their teachers, SNAs and friends. When they are back in school, they will be in their regular routine and be happier and healthier in a holistic way.

I was very pleased to see an expanded summer provision programme last summer which was open to 24,000 children with special educational needs, including, for the first time ever, preschool and secondary school children who have Down's syndrome. We had a very good budget of €2 billion. The resources are there.

I assure the House that every effort has been made to resolve matters in a collaborative way. I want to thank the stakeholders for their ongoing commitment and willingness to find a resolution. It is good news that special classes in special schools and SEN classes in mainstream primary schools will return next Thursday once we get the logistics sorted out.

I want to raise with the Minister the issue of children with severe to profound intellectual disabilities who attend Rosedale School. The children in question have lost everything. They have nothing. Their worlds have shrunk. One mother described to me how her daughter’s world has shrunk to a bubble in her head. While I welcome the announcement by the Minister, parents have told me that children with severe to profound intellectual disabilities deserve better. Currently, there is no appropriate education plan in place for these children. Children with these needs are the only ones who do not have such a plan at the moment, which is, as far as their parents are concerned, discrimination once again.

Parents have described Rosedale School as their lifeline. It is their children's world. It provides their children with so much happiness. All of the children's needs are incorporated into the education plan within the school setting. Parents are deeply concerned about the effect this closure and the previous closure have had on their children. The children of Rosedale had been out of school and have had their critical specialised services withheld. The reality of this is no education, physiotherapy, speech and language therapy, psychological support, friends, hope or light at the end of the tunnel.

These children have no comprehension of what is happening and their parents have no way of explaining it to them. The children have no way of putting their frustration across. This frustration stems directly from confusion, uncertainty and change in routine. I raised the issue of these children with the Minister's predecessor in June. I stated that the parents were deeply concerned that if a second wave hit Ireland, these schools would be closed again. I asked whether the service could be reclassified as an essential service in light of the fact that the children's needs are more complex and their conditions are far more profound than those of children in other schools.

The parents’ greatest fear became a reality last week when they were told that their children's school would not reopen. We cannot allow this situation to happen again. They deserve better. These children understand routine and boundaries. Learning is painstaking and arduous work for them. It has to be consistent and include repetition every single day. Rosedale parents' association needs clarity on whether the school will reopen and what its opening hours will be.

There is clearly a knowledge gap about what people perceive the daily lives of a child with a severe to profound disability to be and what the lived experience actually is. For that reason, I will outline a description of the daily reality and let it be on the Dáil record.

One mother told me how, before the first school closure, her son, who has autism and a severe to profound intellectual disability, had learned to regulate himself very well. His levels of aggression had significantly decreased. He was starting to interact with his brother more. The incidence of his sobbing bouts had decreased dramatically. Since the closure, each of these achievements has been the subject of a massive step backwards. His levels of aggression have significantly increased. He is vibrating to the point of shaking trying to regulate himself, to the point where he cannot sit with people for more than five to ten seconds. His mother described this as being like an electric current running through his body because his levels of anxiety are out of control. He is no longer interacting with his brother. He finds it hard to be in a room with the family for any length of time. His nanny, who is 65 years of age and without whom this mother would be unable to work, is his childminder. If he cannot hurt either of them, he hurts himself using walls or any surface he can find. His sobbing bouts have increased dramatically, which is the most heartbreaking part. He cannot tolerate his mother being in the room or giving him a hug to comfort him. He sobs in his room while his mother sobs outside the door.

This is the reality for the families of children with severe and profound learning difficulties. I ask the Minister to meet with the parents' association of Rosedale and hear their lived experiences, and ensure that these children are never left behind again. I ask the Minister to clarify whether Rosedale School will reopen next Thursday, the number of hours for which it will be open and if she is willing to meet with the parents' association.

I will make a brief comment and the Minister of State will then contribute. On the case outlined by the Deputy, it is for all those reasons and more that specific provision for the cohort of children with additional needs and profound and severe difficulties is being made so they are facilitated in terms of lockdown. I am personally aware of the difficulties and complexities faced by these children and, in addition, by their families and guardians during the last lockdown. It is for all those reasons and more that the Government has been 100% committed to making particular accommodation for children with additional needs.

I am very aware of Rosedale School. I spoke with Angelina Hynes last week and I understand the difficulties the school faces. I echo the comments of the Minister. The school will open next Thursday. There will be one-to-one remote support in the interim to help. I am particularly aware of the issues facing special schools.

I would like to acknowledge the work the Minister and Minister of State have done over the past few weeks to ensure that children with special educational and complex needs can return to school shortly. I welcome the Minister's statement that all parties are working together towards a safe return by 21 January. This is welcome, considering that some of the children in these cases have profound needs and the impact of Covid on their education and socialisation is most profound.

I welcome that the Minister and Minister of State have engaged extensively with all stakeholders, having recently met Inclusion Ireland, Family Carers Ireland, Down Syndrome Ireland and AsIAm about the prospects of reopening schools. The families and students represented by these groups clearly communicated the importance of returning to education for some of our most vulnerable students and are best placed to speak about how detachment from a school or care setting negatively impacts on these students the most. From listening to the parents of the students affected, we have heard that remote learning can never replace on-site education and care.

On special education, I ask the Minister to elaborate or comment on what additional support measures are being examined in the interim to facilitate a safe return for the students. I would also like to acknowledge the role placed by the trade union Fórsa in ensuring that the resumption of special education can proceed on a phased basis.

The announcement regarding a return for primary school pupils is to be welcomed but what is the arrangement for second level students? Are similar talks progressing with all stakeholders at second level in regard to special education provision? As the Minister and Minister of State know, there are nearly 2,000 special classes throughout the country in nearly 1,000 schools. Many second level students attend ASD units. What does a phased return to school mean for those students?

Second, I want to refer to the leaving certificate examination. As teachers, the Minister and I know the importance of the examination and how it ideally should proceed. Questions surrounding the leaving certificate need to be answered sooner rather than later. The debate must be concluded instead of being allowed to trundle on. As we have seen again today, some Opposition Deputies prefer to speak out of both sides of their mouth and add to the pressures already being experienced by students and their families. I note that the Minister's advisory group is to meet again shortly. While we need to look at a blended, hybrid option, perhaps offering both a traditional leaving certificate accompanied by a refined predictive grading model, I note that the Irish Second-Level Students Union has written to members of the Oireachtas education committee detailing the pressures experienced by students in the vacuum in which they currently find themselves. If a traditional leaving certificate accompanied by predictive grading is the chosen route, akin to last year, we will need to look at stripping back the content and number of modules in certain syllabi or providing an increased number of questions or options on the leaving certificate papers.

My third question relates to repeat students. If we find ourselves in a predicament where predictive grading is deemed the optimum model, we will need to be able to facilitate students who may have to repeat examinations this year. I would appreciate answers to those three questions.

I very much welcome the news that has been delivered here today by the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, that schoolchildren in special classes in primary schools and children with significant additional needs in mainstream schools will return to school on 21 January, or that is, at least, the date towards which the Department is working. This news will come as a huge relief to parents, guardians and students themselves throughout the country. It is a job well done by the Minister, the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, Deputy Rabbitte. It is what they wanted from day one but circumstances had not allowed it. Fair play to them for the work they have done in getting to this point. It is very welcome news.

The reasons that these arrangements are necessary is clear. Children with special needs are losing out on education, gaining skills and having quality time with their peers. Routine is very important to these children, a point made by many of the parents and guardians who have contacted me. Their children's behavioural issues are increasing because of the lack of routine. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan touched on that point. We now need to work hard towards getting children who avail of ASD units and special classes in secondary schools back to school. I am confident that these provisions will work.

I want to refer briefly to the leaving certificate examination. I just ran a quick poll on the subject on my Instagram page. I do not have that many Instagram followers but they provide a reasonable sample of what leaving certificate students and their parents think. I put the option to them of a blended model that would include predicted grades along with the choice to sit the leaving certificate examination if a student is not happy with his or her predicted grades. A resounding 74% of respondents were in favour of that option. I also ran the option of proceeding with the traditional leaving certificate process, which got 49% for and 51% against. My point is that we need to be guided by the students on this issue. They are saying to me that they want the option of predicted grades and the option to sit the examination. More than anything else, we need clarity and certainty and we need them as soon as possible.

I conclude with a brief comment on the difficulties with remote learning. There are pockets in my constituency where broadband is not up to scratch and students are having difficulty availing of remote learning. I want to make the Minister aware of that. I have no specific questions but wanted to get those points across.

In many homes throughout the country right now, children with special educational needs, sadly, are regressing. For them, education is not just about learning a curriculum. It is about learning at their own rate, practising coping mechanisms and having a routine. For their parents, it is not just about school; it is also about respite. Caring for children with additional needs 24-7 is extremely tough. Doing so while juggling working from home or working on the front line and homeschooling other children is, for many, utterly impossible. Despite the best efforts of the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, those parents are still in that utterly impossible situation.

We are the only First World country in the entire globe in which special schools are closed at this time. Ireland is the only country whose special needs children were caught up in a stalemate with unions. It has been utterly heartbreaking listening to parents of special needs children this week. I spoke to the father of a child with profound special needs who told me that all he was being offered was ten minutes of online schooling for his child. I spoke to a nurse who is working 12-hour shifts on our front line, homeschooling her son and struggling to homeschool her daughter with autism. I know many SNAs and teachers in special schools who are, naturally, worried about going back to work but who wish to do so because they want to be there to support their pupils. For them, their role is not just a job but a vocation. They want to be there to help their special needs students through this really challenging time.

Those teachers and SNAs, and families throughout the country, are very glad that the Minister and Minister of State have worked so hard, well and collaboratively to figure out a plan that safely returns staff to special schools and children to their special classrooms next week. For many of those children and their families, school is their lifeline. I am pleased the Minister and Minister of State are not leaving it until 1 February to allow them to return, because every day spent negotiating and every day spent at home is a day lost for the children. I thank the Minister and Minister of State for making these children their priority. Will they now look at how we can support children with additional educational needs in mainstream and ASD units, particularly where the parents are front-line workers who need to be able to send their children to special education?

I would like to tell the Minister about a family in my community. Both parents work on the front line in our health service. Their seven-year-old son has autism and is in mainstream school. Despite today's announcements, they still are not be sure how they will be catered for under this plan. They work alternative shifts, passing the parenting and homeschooling baton to each other at the end of long days working in overcrowded hospitals and tending to people in their time of need. They snatch an hour or two of sleep when they can. While their resilience, determination and courage are commendable, such parents are not indestructible. They cannot go on like this forever. The progress the Minister and Minister of State are making in helping children with special needs to access classroom-based education is very welcome and we all thank them for that. Families like the one to which I referred will be waiting with bated breath to learn how they will be catered for under the plan.

Special schools will reopen on Thursday, 21 January. I appreciate the stories Deputy Higgins outlined and how incredibly difficult it has been for children with special educational needs over the recent period. We had a very constructive engagement with our education partners, which was done in a very collaborative way, as the Deputy said, and it is of benefit that the schools will reopen next Thursday. There are interim supports for children in special schools. In particular, the reduced pupil-teacher ratio means there is scope to provide a one-to-one online resource, which will be hugely important even if the reopening of schools is now just a week away. In the meantime, that online engagement will be crucial in allowing children to keep their connection not just with the teacher in the special school but also with their SNAs. Clear guidance has been put out and the National Council for Special Education is providing resources to children with special educational needs across the spectrum, whether they are in special schools, special classes or mainstream classes.

I know Deputy Higgins mentioned it in her statement but none of us can underestimate the extraordinary body and volume of work that has been undertaken by the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, the Department of Education and myself. as well as all stakeholders, including education partners, unions, advocacy groups, representative groups, parents associations and everyone. It is fair to say that everyone has a common goal, at the end of the day, which is to actually get in-person teaching. We all know that even for normal children remote teaching is difficult but for children who have additional needs it is particularly difficult.

A plan B was never going to be sufficient. Covid-19 and the pandemic, to a certain extent, tore up many of our best laid plans. Anyway, it is a positive development today because we will see special schools - they are the schools with the children who have the most severe and complex needs - reopen next Thursday. There are ongoing discussions in terms of the logistics and practicalities that need to be worked out. All the resources will be given to special classes, to children in mainstream as well, and in special schools in order that they can reopen successfully and continue their essential work.

The fact that I was not called for my allocated slot gives me an opportunity to challenge some of the revisionism and scapegoating that I have heard in the past 11 minutes. I hope to take the opportunity to do that, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I will use my time to ask questions and, hopefully, to receive short answers. I will defend my time against any attempts at evasion in that regard.

In the week from 20 to 26 December, 412 cases of Covid-19 were detected among children or students between the ages of 13 and 18 years. In the week from 3 to 9 January, the week just past, 2,827 cases of Covid-19 were detected among the age cohort between 13 and 18 years. Let us keep those figures in mind.

The Minister reiterated on many occasions in her media engagements and in the letter she sent to schools yesterday to be sent out to parents that schools were safe. Given the current situation, what scientific data are guiding the Minister to state unequivocally that schools are safe environments at this particular moment with the virus surging and a new variant in our midst?

A specific issue has been raised by Deputy Gannon in terms of numbers prior to December. Deputy Gannon has said that I consistently articulate that school is a safe environment. I articulate it because that is the evidence, wisdom and expertise of public health. It is those in public health who are confirming this to us. Deputy Gannon will be aware that Dr. Holohan references low transmission within our schools and he refers to schools being safe places. It is supported by Professor Philip Nolan, also a member of the National Public Health Emergency Team.

Deputy Gannon will also be aware of the ongoing engagement with the expert professionals in terms of public health who we deal with in the schools. The deputy national director of public health, Dr. Kevin Kelleher, and the consultant in public health, Dr. Abigail Collins, have had personal experience of the surveying of our schools.

I have the point. If I can finish, the Minister can come back in.

I will finish this point. As public health professionals they have consistently confirmed that, in their expert opinion and experience, schools are safe environments. I defer to their expert treatment of the matter.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. I appreciate the engagement. The letter referred to by the Minister from the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, from 5 January states, "While the experience from September to December 2020 has clearly demonstrated that schools are in themselves a safe environment, the current epidemiological situation has deteriorated to a point where the significant levels of mobility and linked activity that the full reopening of schools would generate, constitutes a very significant additional risk". The CMO's letter was dated 5 January. The best health advice the Minister had from the CMO before then was from 30 December.

The Minister also will be aware that international evidence has changed. I raised this with the Minister in our meeting last Monday. Advice from the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, SAGE, on 19 December clearly demonstrated that the new variant of Covid-19 has a greater risk of transmissibility by and from children in schools. That was clearly demonstrated in evidence. Public Health England has also released figures to show that children are at greater risk from the new variant. I note that this week, evidence from Montreal has demonstrated that one in five children had caught Covid-19 during that particular period.

I will ask the Minister again. The new variant and the current epidemiological situation represent a greater danger than that existing up until the point when we had this evidence. What evidence is the Minister relying on now to reassert, once again, that schools are safe? Or, is it the evidence that was previously given? I do not believe we can use the older evidence. It is too dangerous to the point of criminal negligence to do so.

I want to talk once again about the engagements with some of the stakeholders last week. It is welcome that today we have an announcement that schools for special educational needs students will be reopening next week. During this session I have listened to some of the Minister's party colleagues suggesting that this was the Minister's intention all along. I dispute that.

Last week, the Minister's intention was to reopen schools for 61,000 leaving certificate students between the ages of 17 and 19 years and for students with special educational needs. I will reference the current rate of infection among that particular cohort. The Minister will be aware that cases are surging among those aged 19 to 24 years. Given the number of students we have who are currently a little under that age bracket, why did the Minister believe that we could bring them back? Why did the Minister not engage with the unions at that level?

We have already reached the point where, having had engagement with the unions and the other stakeholders this week, we have come to a satisfactory conclusion, but that was not what happened last week. Last week, the Minister unilaterally announced that 61,000 students were going back in addition to the special educational needs students. Does the Minister believe that if we had the engagement last week, we would have come to this satisfactory outcome sooner?

The Deputy asked about public health advice and the new variant. At all stages, public health advice officials offer their expertise. They do it mindful of all that is happening from an epidemiological point of view in terms of what we would call the virus as we knew it and the new variants, whether the UK variant or the South African variant. All of that is taken into consideration when they issue their advice.

Mindful of that, on Monday, 4 January, prior to my meeting with all the partners in education, the public health officials made their advice available. They said they still regarded schools as safe places. Indeed, the Deputy has helpfully pointed out himself that Dr. Holohan made reference only to mobility in society. The Deputy has the letter to hand. Dr. Holohan specifically stated in that letter that at no stage did he revise his view that transmission was low in schools and that schools were safe places. He raised a question around large mobility. For that reason, it was on the basis of a mobility issue for all of society that the decision was taken to reduce the numbers and stand down a little over 900,000 people in the education sector.

The public health advice we received on Monday, 4 January and what we have received again this week confirm to us that in the expert knowledge of public health officials in the context of all variants and otherwise, schools remain safe places. Consideration has been taken of all the various variants. I will point also to remarks I heard personally made by Dr. Cillian De Gascun in respect of the transmissibility of the variant. He suggested at that stage of the weekend that in his view, the transmissibility at that point - that is what was said - in terms of the new variant was not over-extensive or new in terms of young people.

In terms of engagement-----

One moment please, Minister. We have run out of time. I know you are still standing, Deputy Gannon, but I am afraid you will not be coming back in. We have run out of time. I am sorry to cut you short, Minister, but that is the set-up. We have gone a little over. I am going to move on to Sinn Féin. Deputy Matt Carthy has five minutes in total.

I will put my questions in the first two minutes and ask the Minister to reply in two minutes and then use the last minute for a follow-up comment.

There is widespread loss of confidence in the Minister's ability to address the challenges that will face education in the coming weeks and months. Like many Deputies, I have been speaking to leaving certificate students, other students, families of children with special needs, school management, teachers and other workers in education, including SNAs. The overwhelming view is that the Minister has not engaged with any of them sufficiently until after a crisis has emerged and that the Minister has failed to understand their concerns with her approach for a myriad of reasons.

A large part of the reason for this lack of confidence is the Minister's failure to even start to address problems that have been identified to her since last summer.

I have two questions to put to the Minister. I have raised in the House on several occasions the absolute mess that has been made of school transport for many families, particularly those in rural communities. I have brought to the Minister's attention a number of instances of children who have been deemed eligible for school transport but who have been denied a place on their local school bus because their parents or guardians submitted their payment after the arbitrary 4 August deadline. Families missed that deadline for an array of reasons, including in instances I know of in which parents simply did not have the funds in place at that stage, and they have been treated disgracefully for that. Bus Éireann has just stopped engaging with them at all. It has stopped engaging with elected representatives on this in many instances and the Minister has appeared to wash her hands of the matter.

My first question is this: what will the Minister now do to ensure that all schoolchildren who have been deemed eligible for school transport will get a seat on their school bus before the schools return after these current restrictions? Second, I have been inundated this week with communications from parents and families unable to facilitate remote learning because either they do not have access to broadband or they cannot afford laptops. What is the Minister doing to address their needs?

Regarding the Deputy's remarks on lack of engagement, which I utterly reject out of hand, it has been the hallmark of my Ministry that substantial engagement right from the very beginning has been attested by the reopening of our schools and ongoing engagement with all the partners in education. This includes parents, teachers, students and managerial bodies right across the weave of education. I therefore reject out of hand the Deputy's remarks in that regard.

Regarding school transport specifically, it is very clear that all those who were eligible and who paid on time have been facilitated. Deputy Carthy may or may not be aware of the reality of the Covid-19 situation, which has led to public health issuing advice on school transport. I reiterate, as I highlighted earlier, that everything we in the Department of Education have been asked to adhere to, including flexibility in terms of public health, we have done so. In adherence to public health, we have accepted the recommendation that we accommodate 50% on our school transport, and we are rolling that out. Where there is extra capacity, accommodation will be made, but we are abiding by public health in that regard.

In the context of parents and families, again, I acknowledge that there has been ongoing representation and engagement. There is a parent voice, a parent representative, in all my engagements. I have facilitated that regularly and will continue to do so. It is hugely important. In the Department of Education and in the education sector we work as a collaborative, and I acknowledge the willingness of all the various partners in education to contribute positively.

The Minister is essentially saying that all the people who have been contacting Deputies across the House are liars. On Thursday last, her suggestion was that the schools would operate this week for leaving certificate students and children with special educational needs. That did not happen precisely because the engagement had not taken place beforehand with all those leaving certificate students who have been contacting us this week to say they have had no engagement from the Minister or her Department, all the teachers who were absolutely flabbergasted by the Minister's position only a week ago and all those parents who are still wondering what exactly will happen.

The Minister asked whether I understood the reality of school transport. I will tell her the reality of one family in my constituency. The father passed away in the most tragic circumstances a couple of years ago and the mother has been doing everything in her power to hold her family together under the most difficult circumstances. As a result of financial constraints and all the other issues in that house, it was 10 August when the mother paid her school transport fees. The school bus passes her front door every single morning and she has to get into a car with two of her children and follow it. That is the lived reality. I understand that when the schools were reopening in September, lots of issues needed to be dealt with. The Minister had September, October, November and December to sort out issues for these families and she has not engaged at all. The problem is that those families are sitting at home now and are unaware whether or not the children will have seats on their school bus. It is crucially important they do.

In my county almost half the households do not have access to broadband. The Minister has not answered, her Department has not answered and the Government has not answered how in the hell these families are supposed to facilitate remote learning for their children. It is simply not good enough.

The Deputy gained a minute or two because of the clock so, unfortunately, the Minister-----

It is very disappointing that Deputy Carthy-----

We will move on. For the benefit of the Minister and Deputies, there is a set and agreed format here. I am simply imposing it. That is all I am doing, to be fair to everybody. I am moving on now. The next slot is a six-and-a-half-minute one. It is practically impossible, but that is the way it is. Two Deputies are offering. They may ask questions or make statements or do both, but if they do not leave time for the Minister, she will not be able to answer.

It is important to say that the huge and detrimental impact Covid-19 is having on education at the moment is to do with the disastrous strategy this Government has pursued. We argued that it should listen to public health advice in advance of Christmas and that if it did not, we would be in a disastrous situation in January. Tragically, we now are. Now our young people and some of those most vulnerable with special needs are suffering the consequences of the Government's dire strategy, the so-called Plan for Living with Covid, the yo-yo in and out of surge and lockdown. It is important to stress that point.

Having said that, on the issue of special needs, the Minister should just own up. There is a suggestion in the statement she has just sprung on us that she has got agreement on reopening on 21 January when she has not actually got agreement. Of course we need special needs provision and it is a priority, but it also has to be in compliance with public health. It must be ensured that teachers and children and their families are in a safe situation. Here is a suggestion. If I were the Minister, rather than making big announcements without having got agreement, I would have an urgent forensic audit carried out as to which parents want their children to go into school and which teachers are willing to go in and teach them and I would try to match those two things.

I am, as I am sure all of us are, inundated with communications from leaving certificate students who are stressed to bits about not knowing what is happening. They need certainty and the Minister cannot give it to them. She is giving them fake certainty to the effect that, come hell or high water, there will be a leaving certificate, essentially. She cannot say that on epidemiological grounds. The Government could not predict in December that we would be in the situation we are in now, in January; how on earth can it predict what will happen in June? The truth is that it cannot. It is therefore absolutely wrong to force students to do a leaving certificate when the Minister cannot provide them with that certainty. She should give them choice, alternatives and the certainty that those choices and alternatives will be available now.

An extraordinary report appeared in The Business Post last weekend to the effect that the Government is considering vaccinating 61,000 students in order to allow them to sit the leaving certificate. I wonder which vulnerable group in society would be pushed down the vaccine queue in order to allow for such an extraordinary measure. I wish to ask the Minister about reports regarding the widespread medication of leaving certificate students in order that they can last the course and sit the exams. Last Sunday, primary school principal Siobhán Fitzgerald wrote to the Minister an open letter. The letter told the story of Ms Fitzgerald's daughter, a leaving certificate student, whom she described as bright, intelligent, sporty, empathetic and very creative. Her daughter does, however, suffer from acute anxiety and this anxiety has seemingly been well and truly activated in the course of her leaving certificate cycle.

Ms Fitzgerald goes on to say that she brought her daughter to the doctor who offered to prescribe medication to help get her through the build-up to the exams and the exams themselves. The doctor said that he had prescribed such medication to many other leaving certificate students. Since Sunday, I have told this story to doctors and students. Individuals from both groups confirmed that this is a widespread practice, with one doctor telling me that leaving certificate anxiety is particularly acute this year. Why would it not be? Students have had greater disruption to their leaving certificate cycle than any other cohort in the history of this State. There has been not one major disruption, there have been two.

Let students' voices be heard. One student wrote to me:

I have been so worried. I keep crying whenever I think about it all. It is so difficult at the moment and my mental health has just gone down the drain.

Another said, "This government would rather me suffer more frequent and intense panic attacks than cancel an outdated exam." The Minister should cancel the examinations. She should not only do that, she should also guarantee an increase in investment in third level education so that each student in the leaving certificate class of 2021 will have the offer of a place in college next year.

My first question is: has there been a discussion between the Minister and her Cabinet colleagues, formal or informal, about mass vaccination of leaving certificate students to facilitate exams? Second, will she write to the National Educational Psychological Service to ask for expert opinion on the mental health implications of carrying on now with leaving certificate 2021? I also ask the Minister to please comment on the point I raised about the mass medication of leaving certificate students, which is a very serious issue.

The Deputy has left the Minister with 50 seconds to answer all of those questions.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. In the first instance, I will refer specifically to points that were raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett. I assure the Deputy, and I have articulated this previously, that every measure we have introduced into our schools is backed by public health advice and that we react immediately, taking account of the public health advice, in respect of any measures that schools ask us to change or to be flexible on. I ask the Deputy to be under no illusions in this regard.

On the specific points raised by Deputy Barry, I have no knowledge whatsoever of the sources of the story that he referred to in a Sunday newspaper. I can categorically state that there was no engagement with me or my Department on any such stories. There is no veracity to this.

I know of the challenges, difficulties and anxieties to which the Deputy refers and which leaving certificate students are facing. I know these very well. I have spent all of my professional life teaching students of all different levels, especially those in senior cycle. I know that the most difficult year for every student is that when he or she sits the leaving certificate. This is intensely even more the case now in the midst of the pandemic. We are listening very closely to all student voices. Students are well represented at all of our stakeholder engagements.

I reiterate that we are in a difficult situation because we are due to move on to a debate with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science later. We are under time pressure. I agree that how we are proceeding is not satisfactory but that is what was agreed to, namely, a question-and-answer session. If the Deputies want answers, they must leave enough time for them because, otherwise, they will just be making statements. That is too because that is what they are entitled to do.

I am moving on to the next group. The three speakers in the group, Deputies Cathal Crowe, Devlin and MacSharry, will have 11 minutes between them.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I will be taking four minutes of that speaking time.

Every sinew of effort in our country at the moment is being ploughed into the physical health of the nation. As a result of engaging with young people in my constituency at the weekend and last week, I have become extremely concerned about their mental health. I have been talking to them on Facebook and Instagram and via email. They are extremely concerned about the uncertainty that lies ahead for them in the context of the State examinations. Like the Minister, I am a teacher. I know that she understands the stress these students are experiencing. If the election had gone differently for both of us last year, I would be in a classroom and she would be preparing yet another class for the leaving certificate. We need to put an end to the uncertainty and to tell the State examination classes of 2021, in the quickest possible time, what lies ahead for them this summer. My suggestion to the Minister - I have spoken to her about it - is that there should be a blended model. Predicted grades would be a good option to offer people along with the more traditional leaving certificate, which proved possible to organise last autumn. The two options need to coexist and students must be given a choice. Some certainty needs to be brought to all of this.

Many junior certificate students and their parents have also been in contact with me. All of the national discourse is about the leaving certificate but junior certificate students also need certainty and to be unburdened of the immense stress they are experiencing at this time. There is a cohort of students in this country, it is not sizeable, but many will apply to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in order to try to gain third level places in England and they too need certainty.

I welcome the announcement that things will open next week in respect of special education. We also need to see services like child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, move online. If our teachers can do it, so can others. I joined in a lesson this morning in my local school in Parteen. It was a fabulous lesson delivered via Zoom. If that school and others throughout the country can do this, so can CAMHS and the other early intervention services that support young people. I ask for the Minister’s views on this matter and on a blended model for leaving certificate. I would also like to hear how she anticipates engaging those other youth services in order to ensure that special education will be a success in the coming weeks.

The Minister has two minutes to reply.

I thank the Deputy and acknowledge his engagement with me on an ongoing basis in respect of education issues. As already stated, I understand the anxiety and difficulties of our leaving certificate students in particular. I acknowledge that their representatives are very much part of our advisory committee that is preparing for our leaving certificate, which has met on two occasions and which will meet again in the coming days. The committee is looking at all of the different measures that need to be put in place for the leaving certificate, including all of the contingencies involved, and at many of the issues raised by the Deputy. The approach taken will be collaborative. The Deputy must remember that there are many partners in the education sector, such as the teacher unions, parents, managerial bodies, and, very importantly, students. All of their views must be taken on board. I appreciate that there is not unanimity and that there is a variety of views.

In the context of those with special educational needs, I acknowledge the tremendous work taking place in the special education sector. I also acknowledge that remote learning is not appropriate to all. For that reason, I welcome the very positive engagement with the partners in education to find a pathway forward in the next number of days towards 21 January and a resumption of face-to-face contact for students with additional needs.

I thank the Minister. In the few seconds left, I wish to refer to broadband, which is still an issue for schools such as Doora National School in County Clare. There is a significant push to reignite the discussion relating to ASD units. These units cannot just be imposed on schools. They need to be bespoke units and I ask the Minister to have her Department continue to look at that matter.

Before I begin, I take this opportunity to wish the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and other colleagues a happy new year. I also wish to thank the staff for their work and efforts during this pandemic to keep the Oireachtas operational.

I welcome the opportunity to examine the impact the pandemic is having on the education sector. Like many colleagues, I have been contacted by students, parents and teachers over the past couple of weeks. Reopening schools last September was a great national achievement. I pay tribute to the teachers, SNAs, school principals, caretakers and all other stakeholders who helped reopen our schools and keep our children safe up until Christmas. Their efforts have ensured that schools are safe places, which was acknowledged in the NPHET letter to Government on 5 January, particularly in the context of the fact that 75% of schools had no engagement with public health authorities in the period up to Christmas. Given the recent surge in Covid-19 numbers and the advent of the B117 variant, however, the Government was right in moving to online learning for the month of January in order to limit the number of people moving around the country.

Like all parents, I acknowledge the challenges that online learning presents. Despite the best efforts of teachers, online learning is no substitute for classroom time. Many children do not or cannot engage well in an online environment. It is difficult for pupils and parents alike. Online learning also results in fewer hours for students when compared with the in-class environment. The latest lockdown and the move to online learning has presented many challenges for parents of, in particular, younger children and those who are trying to juggle online learning and working from home. It is not easy for them, not to mention those homes with limited or no access to either ICT equipment or broadband.

This has been an especially worrying time for sixth-year students. These students have been badly impacted.

They lost a number of months in fifth year - three months of class time in 2020 - and will lose yet another month this year. Many of them have been in contact with me and they are all extremely anxious about the situation. Many want the opportunity to sit the traditional leaving certificate examination, but others prefer the option of predicted grades.

I acknowledge the tremendous effort made by the Minister to allow them some classroom time this month. It is unfortunate that it could not proceed. We should do everything possible to support these students. I hope that by June the vaccine roll-out and the public health situation will be such that it will be possible to sit examinations, but the loss of classroom time must be considered. I ask the Minister to examine the possibility of introducing the predicted grades option and to consult with students, parents and teachers in advance of making any early decisions on the matter. Students need to know as soon as possible.

I welcome the news from the Minister, working with the education partners, about reopening the special schools and special primary classes from next Thursday. This will come as a great relief to the many parents who have been in contact with me. I thank the Minister, teachers, SNAs, principals and everyone involved for their efforts. While schools are safe, it should be recognised that staff with underlying conditions and those who care for elderly or vulnerable relatives at home have legitimate concerns about Covid-19. I hope local arrangements can be agreed to facilitate them. The vaccine must be rolled out to at-risk teachers and SNAs as soon as possible, and I ask the Minister to raise this with the Minister for Health.

Like the previous speaker, I will use my time to put a few matters on record. I can liaise with the Minister at a later date. She knows better than me that young people have suffered disproportionately throughout the Covid crisis. Everybody has suffered and it is difficult for everybody, but I believe young people, both primary and secondary school pupils, have suffered a great deal and have often been wrongly fingered for a proportion of blame when there were outbreaks of the coronavirus. Other speakers have alluded to the level of stress. The Minister appreciates better than me that in any household that has a child in an examination year, be it the junior or leaving certificate, it affects the entire family. The family is invested in the effort to ensure the environment is correct to support the child in his or her studies as he or she prepares for the role he or she will play in the future.

With that in mind, I have one request today. I do not have the expertise that is held by the Minister and her advisers in liaising with pupil representative groups, the teaching unions, principals and so forth as to what is the best approach to take for the examination years, both junior certificate and particularly leaving certificate, but my appeal, and as Deputy Cathal Crowe, who is also a teacher, rightly pointed out, is that whatever we do, we should decide it immediately, which means in the next few weeks. I had the opportunity last evening to point out some of the failings so far in the vaccination programme and the improvements that must be made. That is a variable the Minister's Department cannot control unilaterally. With all the stress these pupils and their teachers have had to go through over the past year, we owe them, at least, to inform them of whatever decision we take with regard to examination years and to take that decision in the next fortnight to three weeks, at the latest. I am told by many of the Minister's former colleagues in the teaching profession that if it gets near what would have been the February mid-term break, it will be too late. Sadly, I do not believe we can depend on the vaccination programme to be as far progressed as we would like to facilitate a full return to school and normal junior certificate and leaving certificate examinations. For that reason, I ask the Minister to move immediately to ensure a decision is taken, and preferably in the next fortnight.

I welcome that she is seeking, with consultation, to secure the return of special needs education and special classes in mainstream schools. That is a relief for many and, hopefully, it can be done safely. I thank her for this opportunity and I hope she will take my points on board.

I have a number of questions for the Minister and I hope she will respond to some of them. I also wish to make a number of points. It is clear that occasionally there have been mixed messages and a breakdown in communication with parents, pupils, teachers and trade unions. Engaging with all stakeholders is extremely important and necessary. I acknowledge the Minister's announcement that special needs schools and pupils will be able to return to some form of normality on 21 January next. This brings us in line with best international practices, whereby they have remained open in other countries. It is a pity it took so long, but it is welcome that the Minister has done this.

It is generally agreed that transmission in schools is low. NPHET has also pointed this out. The public health advice was more worried about movement and more mobility, but it agreed transmissions were generally low. Are there any plans to provide Covid-19 vaccinations to administrative staff such as SNAs? The Minister mentioned this earlier, but she did not outline whether it has been discussed with her colleagues in advance of the reopening. The deadline is very tight, but if it could be done it would be an important decision. What engagement with transport services, such as taxi services and rural transport providers, has taken place with regard to getting people to and from schools? What facilities have been put in place to enable remote learning for people in direct provision? Balseskin is near my area and direct provision centres do not have proper facilities. In some cases, they do not even have broadband.

Teachers are clearly struggling to provide a sufficient number of classes online and to give extra help to pupils who are falling behind in a subject or who find the course particularly difficult. Teachers cannot provide the one-to-one teaching they can provide in a classroom. Under the current circumstances, this type of teaching cannot be done. The Department must provide the proper guidance, resources and funding that will be required to ensure that students, especially vulnerable students, can continue their education. Many people in my constituency already face great social and economic barriers. Many are on low incomes and are economically disadvantaged. Even in the best times they face great obstacles in accessing and continuing education. This pandemic has raised even greater obstacles for those who were already struggling in education. We must provide the funding and resources to ensure we do not have a lost generation in education.

There are a number of DEIS schools in my constituency of Dublin North-West. Many of the pupils who attend those schools can only access education through the resources of community groups, libraries and other facilities. However, many of these are closed and are effectively shut off from those trying to access them. Pupils who have a computer at home often have a number of siblings who are trying to access online learning. This can prove difficult if it is a family of five or six, with all trying to share a single point. The Department must also facilitate paid leave for parents who must stay at home to look after their children and homeschool them, which will be challenging for many people in my constituency. Does the Minister have any plans to consider paid leave for parents?

There are 20 seconds left for the Minister to comment.

Regarding specific provision for children who are in danger of disadvantage, there is a programme in place and all the guidelines and provisions have been worked out with the partners in education. For example, schools have identified individuals who make direct contact with students. There is the Check and Connect programme and a variety of other programmes. The home school community liaison officers are working in these areas. The school meals programme continues for children. For children who might not have the technology, schools have purchased the technology to make it available to students.

I thank the Minister. I am really sorry. Not enough time was left for her response. That is the nature of things: if time is not left then the question cannot be answered. I understand both sides. That is the way it is. We are going to move on to the Regional Group.

Tógfaidh mé ceithre nóiméad agus fágfaidh mé ceithre nóiméad go leith do mo chomhghleacaí. The political management of leaving certificate 2020 was a lesson in chaos. Last year, decisions were made and reversed on a weekly basis. It feels like we are back to square one. Currently, students around the country are having their stress levels ratcheted up, in large part due to the political chaos around this particular issue. I know of students who lost months last year in school and who will lose a month this year. I know of a student who was sitting in the cold in his back garden every day because it was the only place he could get the necessary Internet connection to participate in lessons.

There has been some debate on whether exams should take place this year. The key point is that students are being left in the dark. The Government needs to make a decision on it as soon as possible.

I wish to put on record my opposition to the closure of special schools. This was an absolute disgrace. Joanne Murphy, an Aontú colleague of mine in County Cork, made the headlines in recent days when she spoke of her own experience. She has a 15-year old son who has autism. She did not know how to tell her son that the schools were not going to reopen because she knew that if she did tell him, his heart would be broken. She said: "The last lockdown his anxiety levels shot through the roof. He went from being happy and easy going to flapping and hitting and repetitive talking." Thousands of parents in recent weeks have had the experience of watching their children regress before their eyes on a daily basis.

The other sector I wish to speak about briefly is children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Education offers them a lifeline. I also worry about children who are at risk of abuse. Last year, the number of referrals to Tusla during the lockdown fell significantly. That is because teachers are best placed to note the warning signs with regard to children at risk. Domestic violence, mental health and drug and alcohol abuse are on the rise in families around the country. Many children are being left in difficult situations in the middle of that.

The questions I have for the Minister are very simple. First, when making decisions, will she do so in complete partnership with the stakeholders - the teachers, the unions, the parents and the students? When she does not do that, it leads to the crisis that we saw last week.

Why were special education and education for children from disadvantaged areas closed? Will the Minister commit on the floor of the Dáil to making a declaration on the future of this year's leaving certificate in the next fortnight so that the anxiety levels of students around the country can be punctured?

I agree with the Deputy that the provision of special education remains an absolute priority to ensure that children with additional needs are catered for in the midst of a lockdown and otherwise. It was for all of those reasons that I and the Government made the decision that in the midst of the current lockdown that children with additional needs would be catered for but that proved difficult for the partners in education. We are in a better position now and I am happy with the announcement that has been made today.

In terms of operating in complete partnership with the parents, students and teachers, that has always been the hallmark of everything that we have done in education. The Deputy specifically raised the leaving certificate. The advisory committee is constituted to include parents, teachers, students, managerial bodies, principals, deputy principals and all of those engaged in the sector. The Deputy should be under no illusions about that. The advisory committee continues to meet. Accommodations that were necessary for the leaving certificate were put in place last year. The advisory committee will continue to look at all contingencies and measures as regards leaving certificate 2021.

I wish to raise three issues with the Minister. Covid is rampant within our community and it is spreading quicker than ever before. As reported this week, Ireland has the highest rate of infection in the world in recent weeks. This is a truly frightening time for everyone. With this in mind, the first issue I wish to raise is the safety of students and staff in schools once they return. I have spoken to many parents and staff who are genuinely worried about the safety, not only of their schoolgoing children but also the staff. The Minister has constantly stated that schools are the safest place for children and while I believe she may be correct in some regard, we need to take another look at this, in particular due to the new UK strain of Covid, which appears to be more easily spread. Could she confirm if her Department has received advice on this and what the current status is with regard to this new strain of Covid? The new strain is extremely contagious and as a result has the ability to spread rapidly if it gets a foothold in schools.

Children with special needs have been particularly affected by the lockdowns. They have been forced to stay at home, with no or very little interaction with their friends or schools. I know from speaking to parents of children with special needs that the one thing on which they are all agreed is that the children have all gone back into themselves and that any progress they have made is all but lost. These parents and their children need our support. Words are no good to them. What they need is real support. By real support I mean the reopening of special units in schools. This must be done as a matter of urgency. I welcome the Minister's commitment to the reopening of special schools on 21 January. Clarity was required so that the parents and children know exactly when life can go back to some sort of normality for them.

The final issue I wish to raise is the leaving certificate. Exactly one year ago the headline in The Irish Times was about leaving certificate marking being rushed and unfair. This headline was before there was any talk of schools closing as a result of Covid. Today we have 6th year students who do not know if the leaving certificate is going to go ahead at all. This is completely unfair not only to them but also to the teaching staff. There is no point in saying something one day and then something completely different a few days later. The bottom line is that a firm decision needs to be made now. There is no point in dragging this on for weeks on end and creating uncertainty among students and staff. The very latest date for a firm decision is the end of January as to whether the leaving certificate is going to go ahead or not. From her comments, I know the Minister is of the opinion that the leaving certificate must go ahead at all costs. This is the wrong message to send out. If it is not safe to hold the leaving certificate, then alternatives must be provided. There is no point in waiting until the last minute to decide. I urge the Minister to give clarity to students and staff by the end of January at the very latest.

I have been inundated with emails from students, parents and staff outlining their worries on this year's leaving certificate exam. The following is from a very worried parent of a leaving certificate student who is also a teacher.

l am writing to you as a parent of a leaving cert student and also as a second level teacher to ask you to use your good office to appeal to the Government, Minister Foley and the Department of Education to make a speedy decision as to how the Leaving Certificate will be assessed in 2021.

My daughter is already extremely stressed, trying to cope with online, remote learning and trying to stay motivated in the face of so much uncertainty and adversity. The leaving cert exam is such a difficult trial at the best of times and so much of a student's future depends on it. To have the additional stress of not knowing when-if practicals will happen, whether the leaving cert will happen or whether it will be predicted grades again, (which was a disaster in my view). There are also rumours floating around that the leaving cert exam might be delayed.

That is only a small example of some of the correspondence I have received. Could the Minister confirm a definite date on when a decision will be made on the 2021 leaving certificate and the advice she received regarding the UK strain of Covid and its effect on the safety of students and staff? In fairness to her, she has already answered the question on special needs.

The safety of students and staff has been the primary concern that has been addressed at all stages of the reopening of schools. It continues to be the primary motivation. The direction is given according to the public health advice, taking on board the UK strain and all other aspects from a public health point of view that need to be taken into account. It has been confirmed consistently, as recently as today, that schools remain safe places.

I thank the Minister. I will move on. If Members want answers, they must leave time for them.

I commend the Minister on her approach to date and congratulate her on what she has achieved. I single out the admirable and essential decision last week to try to prioritise two cohorts of students, which are those with special needs and leaving certificate students. It was the right call, for the right reasons, and it is regrettable that it did not prove possible. It does worry me that we have a situation where the system was unable to manage 5% of students returning to 100% of the space in a scenario where 100% of students were due to return a few days prior to that.

I am not sure where that fell apart. There has been much speculation and theories but in any event, there is significant concern as to how we get back at all if 5% of students could not go back because the system was not able to deal with that.

Many sectors have continued throughout the pandemic. Retail workers have been going through thick and thin. We have seen gardaí, emergency service workers and healthcare personnel, including doctors and nurses, on the front line. Others, including public transport workers, have also continued, with teachers and school workers continuing up until December. This was for the same reasons, as the provision of school and education, particularly to leaving certificate and final year students, is an essential service. This is similar to how we have other cohorts of essential services. I really hope a way can be found to provide this because it is so important to all the students' needs.

There are many thousands of teachers across the country who made Trojan efforts both before Christmas in physical classrooms and now in remote classrooms. I saw them working as recently as this morning in my household, where teaching continues remotely. We all know this is no substitute for real-time and physical engagement. Many matters have been raised in the Chamber today and on other days in the media and pretty much all of those can be addressed by returning to schools as soon as it can be done safely. I urge that this be done as soon as safely possible. This would address myriad issues and although I will not repeat all of them, I will briefly touch on a few.

The social and economic issues are well known and that divide is only exacerbated with physical distance from school and not having social, economic and parental supports in place. I listened to Ms Tanya Ward of the Children's Rights Alliance speak last week on a radio programme, saying it would be tragic if schools could not return as soon as possible for those reasons.

The digital divide is real and broadband connections vary from person to person and house to house. That does not just scupper students as it affects teachers. I have heard stories of teachers having to drive and teach from their cars in places where they could get better connections. They were not able to teach classes from home due to problems with Internet access.

I do not come to this from an abstract position on policy. I am married to a teacher, the son of a teacher and a parent to a leaving certificate student. I see it from all sides and every single day. In my kitchen at home there is a calendar on the wall with a number of dates on it, including the return to school after Christmas, mock and oral exams, as well as for the leaving certificate. These are on the calendar and the household has run to that schedule since September. There are some people in this Chamber and elsewhere who say we should tear up the calendar and start again. Actually, I am not quite sure what they advocate as an alternative. I do not share those views.

There are real and meaningful concerns about the mental health of students in many cases but the answer to this - the expected panacea - is not to cancel everything and abandon ship. The answer is to acknowledge that many students have mental health issues exacerbated by such suggestions; for every student calling for this to be cancelled, others are calling for the process to continue. We must all be mindful in the debate that there are many views on this, both from the student population, parents, families and educators. Whatever answer is found, it must reflect those views.

My own view is that we should provide a structure. Perhaps mocks or oral exams could be conducted online to some extent. We need to give these students motivation and a path forward to follow. As the Minister indicates, the traditional leaving certificate examination provides a way to do that. I have no issue with predicted grades being used as a parallel process but I suggest that neither process should be a poor relation. They should work in tandem rather than one being an afterthought.

I yield to my colleagues as I know a number of them wish to contribute.

I will use my time for very specific questions. When will a decision be made on the leaving certificate?

The advisory group on the leaving certificate has met on a number of occasions to look at the broadest matters relating to the exam. Accommodations have already been made in terms of dates for practical exams, projects and all of that. Equally, the engagement with the advisory group on further accommodation and contingencies that may need to be put in place will continue. In the interests of balance, previous speakers have alluded to the fact there are myriad voices on the approach to be taken. Therefore, it is in the spirit of partnership and collaboration that all those voices will be heard at the advisory group on the path forward.

Is it possible to give us a date?

The advisory group is continuing to meet and taking on board all the evolving situation, including the myriad voices on proceeding to the leaving certificate for 2021. I also point out that we very successfully ran the leaving certificate in November, just a short number of weeks ago. It was a full leaving certificate exam and all that learning, experience and public health advice relating to learning and the running of exams is also being taken on board.

I will not take up a huge amount of time. I made a long contribution to our parliamentary party meeting last night and the Minister is aware of the issues. The key issue is certainty and a decision around deadlines for the practicals and oral exams, for example. I have to come back around to it and ask if there is any general window of opportunity for students listening to this regarding certainty on when they might know for sure about this? This applies to junior certificate students as well.

All the information on additional time for practicals, projects and all of that has been disseminated to the schools. They are aware of it and it was part of the contingency planning worked through with the advisory group that allowed sufficient time and space to make that additional time available if we were to find ourselves in what is now the current position. I reiterate that the advisory group will continue to meet and work through all the options, taking on board the public health advice available to us.

I thank the Minister.

I have a question for the Minister, Deputy Foley. The concern with the leaving certificate is certainty for students, who are the most important of all. What is the Minister's personal view, as she ultimately makes the decision? Does she want a written leaving certificate - the normal leaving cert - or is she looking at predicted grades or a hybrid model? Students are entitled to and need certainty. The leaving certificate is potentially the most important exam in a person's life. What is the Minister's personal view and which leaving certificate does she favour?

What is the process by which she will decide to re-open schools? Students do better when attending school and being taught by teachers in a classroom. What process will be used and what benchmarks will be used for the reopening of schools? When does the Minister expect that schools to be reopened?

I thank the Deputy. I can give my view and everybody else has a view. The Deputy spoke about certainty. When it was proposed to hold the leaving certificate exams last November in the middle of a period of level 5 restrictions, some doubt was cast as to whether we could deliver that. Yet again, taking on board the public health advice made available, a full leaving certificate written exam was very successfully offered and achieved in November. The advisory group is taking cognisance of that and of all we learned in the running of the exams in November. It is listening to all the other voices that are part of the stakeholder engagement as we move forward. Those deliberations will continue, always underpinned by public health advice.

I absolutely and categorically agree with the Deputy that students do better in school. That has always been my view. Throughout level 5 and difficult circumstances from September to December, when many businesses and other places were closing, we managed very successfully to keep schools open for that reason. The schools have closed due to significant mobility in the education sector and it has been necessary to stand down more than 900,000 people in the education sector to benefit wider society.

I have very little time.

The Deputy asked about reopening and the judgment on that. There will be a review of that at the end of January, including a review concerning mobility in the education sector. I hope we are moving towards 1 February.

I have a very quick question for the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. I very much welcome the decision made today on special needs schools and special classes opening on 21 January, which is next Thursday.

Have parents been informed? If not, when will they be informed? Have the schools been informed? What is the process by which parents will learn, in terms of communication with schools, that their child with special needs is going back to school next Thursday?

Obviously, even though we have a shared commitment and ambition to reopen next Thursday, there are still some ongoing discussions on logistics and other issues that need to be ironed out. Concurrent communication is something that is being discussed by all of the groups, including the parents representatives and our education partners and is something of which we are very conscious. The intention now is to move forward on 21 January.

I have a lot of questions but I accept that the Minister will not be able to answer all of them now. I ask that she reply in writing to those questions she does not cover. My office has been inundated with calls, messages and emails from leaving certificate 2021 students, as I am sure is true of every Deputy. The main message from the students is that the Department should put a predicted grades system in place and any students who are unhappy with that should be give the option of sitting the leaving certificate exam. Does the Minister and her Department have any plans to do so? If so, I urge her to share those plans with students because they need clarity. Junior certificate students have also been in contact with me. They know that they are down the line vis-à-vis their leaving certificate peers but their worries are no less important. They need to know if the junior certificate exam will go ahead this year. They feel that they have not had the opportunities to study that previous junior certificate students had, having missed a lot of school last year and now studying remotely again. Does the Department have any plans in place for the junior certificate? What are the plans, if any, for the classroom-based assessments, CBAs, and the oral exams?

I come from Cork South-West which has a genuinely shocking broadband service, from Adrigole to Drimoleague, Kilmacsimon to Kinsale and elsewhere. Leaving certificate students in these areas cannot access school remotely. One family cannot even get mobile phone coverage in their house so the students cannot even use their own data allowance. Can a plan be put in place to enable such disadvantaged students to go into school to access the school's Wi-Fi network in order to learn? I had a mother on the phone yesterday who told me that she had to pick and choose which of her five children could use the Wi-Fi in the house because it is too slow for all of them to use at once. This is the case for so many families. It is all very well to say that children can learn remotely but in practice, those in rural Ireland are far more disadvantaged.

I have a question about books. Surely bookshops should be deemed essential. I submitted a parliamentary question to the Department of Education on this issue but the answer I received this morning was the usual generic response regarding level 5 restrictions. Surely a click and collect facility could be made available so that exam students could buy extra books and exam papers. I ask that the Department looks into this.

Children's mental health is suffering and I fear the effects of this will only be known in years to come. I ask the Minister to explain the situation with regard to the roll-out of the vaccine to SNAs, teachers and other school staff. Is any deadline set in that regard?

The Minister has an impossible task. She has 20 seconds to answer all of those questions.

In terms of books, I would point out to the Deputy that click and collect and delivery are still in operation. On vaccinations, as I have mentioned, it is not within my gift, as he will appreciate. We have made representations to the Department of Health and discussions will continue on vaccinations for the school community. We will continue to engage on that issue.

I know the Minister is doing her best but last week I left Government Buildings at 6.20 p.m., having been there from 4 p.m. meeting the Taoiseach. By the time I reached Bray, the Government's decision had been overturned. We were assured that special schools were going to reopen and that leaving certificate students were going to be brought back. However, within 20 minutes, that decision was pulled and there was utter confusion. I am delighted to hear that the Fórsa trade union will advise SNAs to co-operate with the phased resumption of in-school services to children, pending a number of safety measures being undertaken. This is very important because the mixed messages have been very disconcerting. There are legitimate concerns among teachers and staff in special schools who have their own health concerns and childcare issues. I know it is not simple but I welcome the decision announced today that special schools will reopen on 21 January. The most vulnerable children who attend special schools cannot engage in remote learning and are being left behind again. We should learn from the mistakes we made earlier in the pandemic, including last summer. Children regressed because of the lack of routine and an inability to access the therapies delivered to them through school. Many lost skills, could not sleep, became irritable and were self-harming due to frustration. I am sure the Minister is well aware of that, having been a múinteoir herself. Now children have to stay indoors because the weather is so bad. Parents are becoming increasingly upset and many are contacting our offices out of pure frustration. Children with special needs are suffering so much and cannot understand what has happened to their school routine. Their social activities have all been cancelled because of Covid-19 and therapies provided by the HSE, which were already limited, have all been cancelled as well. We do not have much time now so I ask the Minister to reply to my questions in writing. Solutions have to be found. Schools should be provided with additional PPE, testing should be available to staff and to families and supports in the community should also be offered. I know that the issue is not simple but it should be resolved.

In terms of leaving certificate students, huge efforts were made to bring them back but the decision was pulled ultimately. There must be more co-operation with the schools. I was contacted by the principal of Coláiste Dún Iascaigh on foot of a letter the Minister wrote and sent to all principals in recent days, asking them to forward it to all parents. They are very concerned, annoyed and are hugely frustrated and angered by the content and tone of that letter, which is a pity. I am only relating what I have been told but it is very important that the Minister would engage with school staff meaningfully and properly. Those kinds of letters should not be sent out. Anger and annoyance has been expressed by teachers about the content of that letter and I ask the Minister to review it.

The CAO points have gone up this year which will cause difficulties for leaving certificate students. We must have a broader look at the leaving certificate anyway and maybe now is the time to do that. Some question the wisdom of cramming five years' work into two hour or one and a half hour exams. Maybe we should review the entire thing. I wish the Minister well and offer her the support of the Rural Independent Group. We must look after our special children because they so badly need our support.

I am glad that my wains are young adults and done with school because the U-turns this Government has taken over the reopening of schools has had me spinning around. The utter disregard for students, parents, teachers, principals and all of the ancillary school staff has been shocking. I am not usually shocked at this Government’s incompetence and arrogance; I expect it, unfortunately.

People are being told to stay at home, to work from home and to learn from home. The Government forged ahead with plans to reopen schools this week despite our highest daily numbers of positive Covid cases. Those plans were scrapped and then the Minister talked about just bringing in leaving certificate students for three days per week, without prior consultation with affected groups. Thankfully, students and unions rallied and a significant campaign took place and forced yet another U-turn. One thing this Government has been great for is demonstrating to everyone the power of the public and the power of standing together. Each U-turn of this Government has been because of public outcry and pressure. The people have the power and it would serve the Government well to remember that. Furthermore, we are all far more connected these days through social media, which is how we can so quickly prove the Government's own contradictions.s

At this week’s meeting of the Oireachtas disability group, we heard from advocates supporting parents of children with additional needs. They told us of major regression for some of the children following their time out of school and away from their routine. Regressions were reported relating to behavioural issues, with some children having seizures, losing vocabulary, losing the ability to speak and regressing in their toilet-training. Some children were being medicated because of their anxiety levels. Advocacy organisations are calling for the roll-out of the summer programme that ran last year, previously known at the July programme. The precedent is there for running these classes for children with additional needs. The Minister said that children with special needs are going back to school next week and it will be interesting to see how that goes.

I wish to speak briefly about universities because I will not be here for that discussion later. There are reports that some universities are already planning to be online again from the first semester later this year, while others still have not decided or communicated their plans for the rest of the current semester.

The Minister should let people plan. With all of the uncertainty around this pandemic, new strains, rates of vaccinations, and so on, the least service providers and employers can do is to carry out some forward planning. Realistically, we should probably be looking at online learning and an increased level of working from home for the rest of this year. The Government should let people organise for this in order that it can be done properly.

I am delighted that the Minister expects students with special needs to return to school on a staggered basis next week. It is the best news I have heard all week. Like many others, I have received many emails from parents of children with special needs who are beyond devastated as they see their children regress before their eyes. Equally, I have received many emails from teachers who are frightened and petrified by the prospect of returning to the classroom.

While I am delighted about what is happening, what has changed? How is next week or today different from last Monday? Is the Minister looking at offering vaccination to teachers who are prepared to go back into classrooms at the height of the third wave? I have written to the Minister for Health on this same question.

Time and time again, we have been told that schools are safe. Would it perhaps to be more accurate to say that schools are safer than other environments? Given that mobility is part and parcel of attending school, one cannot be separated from the other. That has to be factored into any statements we make about schooling. Have any efforts been made to factor in the possibility that many young people may be asymptomatic though infected and, therefore, do not appear in school statistics? It is when students go home, where they spend 75% of their time, that they have a greater chance of spreading the virus. Has that been studied?

With regard to the leaving certificate examination itself, as a former maths teacher, I understand the importance of the objectivity of the examination. I am, therefore, instinctively hesitant with regard to predicted grades. Covid has, however, upended everything. How can students prepare adequately without sitting mock examinations? Some have inadequate broadband. What about students with difficult home situations? Current leaving certificate students have also already lost a lot of time.

Will the Minister at least look at some kind of hybrid model in which students might receive predicted grades for oral and practical examinations and project work? Should the Minister not, at the very least, tell schools to prepare for predicted grades? Above all else, we need a Department policy with regard to consistency in predicted grades. This could include, for example, metrics such as the number of assignments carried out, the level of online participation and the results of classroom tests in addition to collaboration with subject teachers and national guidelines. I fully understand that this is not the Minister's plan A, but Covid has taught us that we always need a plan B.

Deputy Pringle mentioned public health advice and the decision to stand down our schools. I want to make it very clear that we have followed public health advice at every point. The public health advice suggested that there was a need to reduce mobility. We respected that and acted accordingly. I am very disappointed that the Deputy does not agree that it is important to give priority to children with additional needs in those circumstances. They deserve that priority. I thought that then and I think it now.

I thank Deputy Harkin for her comments. It is very positive that we are working towards the resumption of education for children with additional needs on 21 January. There are still logistics to be worked out and so on but our partners in education have confirmed that they share our objective for these children to return to education on 21 January. In terms of-----

The Minister will have to write to the Deputy; we have run out of time again. I thank her for her co-operation. I apologise for interrupting but I have to abide by the time limits.