Covid-19 (Special Educational Needs Provision): Statements

I thank the House for the opportunity to address the issue of reopening in-school teaching and learning for students with special educational needs and to update Members on the efforts that have been made in this regard since I spoke here last week.  When I was in the House last Thursday, I outlined the following points, which are worth repeating:

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 organisations, 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. 

The Government and I are conscious of the particular strain that school closures place on children with special educational needs and their families. Research led by Dr. Carol Barron from DCU's school of nursing, psychotherapy and community health found that during the last period of school closures, children with special needs were suffering from a lack of routine, with the disruptions to their daily routines having a significant negative impact on them. Many children experienced regression during this period of social isolation and this negatively impacted their mental health.  In many families, that earlier period of closure was a traumatic and deeply stressful time for children, their parents and their siblings. A survey by Inclusion Ireland in May 2020 found that:

Educating at home is not working well for most respondents to Inclusion Ireland's survey. There are huge barriers to educating at home for parents, who are not teachers in most cases.

Parents specifically found it challenging to provide education to children with special educational needs while also trying to work from home, work on the front line and isolate at home, or care for other children or elderly adults.

It is for all of these reasons and more that the Department has prioritised the reopening of schools and classes for children with special educational needs. As Deputies will all be aware, the Department and I have engaged intensively with all stakeholders to realise this shared ambition.  As I have stated many times before in this House and in other fora, collaboration is at the heart of all that we do in the education system, and this has never been more evident than at the present moment. Over the past year, since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been unprecedented levels of engagement between the Department of Education and stakeholders. It was in this spirit of co-operation and engagement that the Department approached the vital goal of reopening schools for children with special educational needs. It is worth noting that between 4 January and this Tuesday, there have been engagements between unions and myself or senior officials on a near-daily basis. All of those meetings were focused on the safe reopening of schools. In more recent days, they were particularly focused on the more specific question of reopening special schools on a phased basis. As I said, there has been near-daily contact with stakeholders in this time period. 

Before I spoke in the House last Thursday afternoon, I attended a meeting with the primary education stakeholders, including representatives of parents, teachers, special needs assistants, school management bodies and principals. Following on from that meeting, and the many engagements which had preceded it, all stakeholders agreed that we would work together towards the shared objective of a staged reopening of special and primary schools for children with special educational needs.  Consequently, the Department wrote to special schools and primary schools, on 14 January, addressing concerns in regard to a phased reopening of primary and special schools for children with significant additional needs being planned for this week. The issues addressed included advice on school safety measures, risk management, school transport and childcare. 

On 15 January, the Department wrote to special schools and primary schools setting out details of the framework under which it is intended that in-school teaching and learning would take place in special schools, special classes in mainstream primary schools and for pupils with special educational needs who attend mainstream classes in primary school. This guidance was agreed with the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, and Fórsa.  The measures set out provide for: the return of pupils in special schools to school, attending on alternate days; pupils in special classes in mainstream primary schools to attend every day; and pupils with significant additional needs in mainstream classes in primary schools to have access to in-school teaching and learning in special education teaching groups. As we are all regrettably aware, it has not been possible so far to secure agreement for a partial reopening of schools for children with special needs. Both the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and I will continue to engage with stakeholders to achieve an early return to in-school teaching and learning for this priority group of children.

At a webinar for school stakeholders attended by more than 16,000 teachers, SNAs and school staff, public health doctors, while acknowledging that, at present, the mobility of 1.1 million people in the education sector would not be advisable, reiterated that schools are safe places for both students and adults because of the mitigation measures now in place, which include guidance on social distancing, mask wearing, hand hygiene, cleaning and school transport. This event provided an opportunity for teachers and SNAs to ask questions about the return to in-person learning for children with special educational needs and the public health considerations in that regard. The webinar restated the message from our public health experts that schools are safe for staff and pupils and built on the confidence in our schools concerning the virus and the management of the risks associated with it.

Among the topics covered at the webinar were the safety of a school return at present, taking into account the latest information regarding the new variant and the present rate of community infection. In this context, specific reference was made to the experience of childcare facilities to date in 2021. The available data from January 2021 tell us that childcare facilities had a close-contact positivity rate of 3.2%, compared with a rate in the community in the high teens. In the year to date, the close-contact positivity rate for all schools has been below that of childcare facilities.  Also covered was the enhanced public health schools teams, which are being further enhanced by the Department of Education. Close contacts, testing and tracing were also discussed, in respect of which measures will continue for schools.

I wish at this point to express my appreciation to our public health experts, who have given so freely of their time and expertise. I was somewhat taken aback by some commentary around their role in recent days, which sought to cast aspersions on their advice. I want to acknowledge their immense professionalism, integrity and sense of public service, which have been of huge value to the education sector and to our society and country as a whole.

Unions have raised further concerns regarding high-risk staff and childcare arrangements. In response, the Department set out to the unions how it would address those concerns. Proposed measures included putting in place temporary flexible accommodations for high-risk staff to work remotely or carry out duties where they are not in close contact or providing personal care.

These temporary arrangements were possible only because of the very significant reduction in the number of children on site under the proposed phased reopening. Pregnant teachers and SNAs were given the concession to work from home as part of these temporary arrangements while advice for pregnant education sector staff was to be developed by occupational and public health doctors. Furthermore, education staff, particularly those on lower incomes, would be eligible for childcare subsidies from the national childcare scheme.

I want to assure the House that every effort is being made to work with school management and unions in a collaborative way so children can return to school safely as soon as possible. As I have said, intensive engagement has taken place with all stakeholders, including unions representing teachers and SNAs, namely INTO and Fórsa. This included intensive engagement with public health officials.

It should be noted that the plan to accommodate children with additional needs had considerable support among Opposition members and, indeed, was called for within and outside this House. The Government paused plans for reopening on 6 January as the education partners were expressing concerns regarding the proposed reopening on that date. The Minister of State responsible for special education and inclusion and I have been listening to those concerns. We engage intensively with stakeholders, public health officials and disability advocacy groups to address these concerns. The recent intensive engagement has not just been between the Department of Education and union representatives. The Department, the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and I have been engaging with disability representative bodies and parental representative bodies in regard to how children with special educational needs can best be supported during the current school closure period. It is important to provide in-person learning to this vulnerable cohort of children and I regret that to this point it has not proved possible. The needs of this group of students are such that no one should be in any doubt about the importance of this goal and its urgency. We all understand how vulnerable these children are and how much they need to be in school.

The concerns and fears of teachers and SNAs have been well articulated. I understand and appreciate that this is a time of heightened anxiety for all in society, including those in the education sector. I say that sincerely. This is a challenging and difficult time and we are listening carefully.

Public health advice for the education sector has at all times underpinned our approach to keeping schools safe and operational. Public health experts continue to advise that with the appropriate measures in place, we can support the reopening of special schools, special classes and in-person learning for certain children with special educational needs in mainstream schools.

Ireland is now an outlier in the European Union in not having in-person provision for students with special educational needs at this time. We have addressed the concerns raised in relation to safety, including making public health officials available to education partner representatives and subsequently facilitating three of the most senior public health officials in the country to communicate directly with teachers and SNAs. The Department has consistently accepted and acted on the knowledge, advice and expertise of public health experts. This is the first time that unions have refused to accept that advice.

We have provided guidance on how special schools can operate at 50% capacity to offer the students a return to learning. We have provided guidance and flexibility in regard to staff members who are at high risk of Covid-19 to ensure their safety. We have put in place flexible arrangements for schools to manage this situation, return to in-person learning and to organise and manage their staffing in this context.

Our clear focus, today, tomorrow and always, is on getting children and young people with special educational needs back into their classrooms. Work to achieve that is continuing assiduously. I know that Deputies across the House share this objective. I welcome their positive co-operation and contributions in the House today.

It is welcome that we are having this debate. It is very badly needed. The failure again to ensure that special education would open this week caused immense anger, heartbreak and frustration among staff, stakeholders, the Department and, I am sure, the Minister, but most of all the affected children and their families. For the second time since Christmas, if not the third, a desperately wished for return to school was dashed. Many children will have been waiting for a bus or lift that did not come today. We must remember who is at the heart of this. These are the children whom we all know were among the greatest losers educationally and socially during the first lockdown. The disruption to routine, the lack of social contact and frustration were unbearable for many of the children and their families. This is despite the best efforts of everyone, from staff to parents and children, but the reality is that remote learning for these children is not equal to that for others. In some instances, it is near impossible.

I realise the Minister wanted the children in school. As she well knows, so did we. I do not know a single Deputy who objected to the principle. I, among others, wanted it as soon as it could be agreed. The Minister finished her speech speaking about a shared objective. The criticism here is not of the objective because we can all have a shared objective and different ways of achieving it. I am sure that we have a similar objective across this House to solve the housing crisis but there are many different ways suggested as to how this could be achieved. There is a huge gap between having an objective and having an agreed plan to deliver something. It is about delivery. That is where the Department has fallen down. I am aware that the Minister has criticisms of others but she, the Minister of State and the Department should consider their own roles and responsibility in this debacle. There are no winners and we must solve the problem, but there should be some reflection on responsibility here as well.

In the first instance, I cannot get over the fact that there was never a plan B for the education system if schools had to close overall. I agreed with the objective of trying to ensure schools could remain open for as long as possible. School is the best way of learning. I look forward to the schools being open again but this Government made it its Alamo that there could never be a plan B. It was asked how the schools could possibly close. For that reason, there seemed to be no consideration given to the question of how education could be continue and to the priorities if schools had to close. It was not set out who could be kept in school buildings. That this did not happen led to the mistakes of the past few weeks. There was no plan for the first occasion. A proposal was rolled out with scarcely any consultation and then, this week, there was a proposal that was subject to consultation to an extent but not agreed. The failure to agree is the crucial element. That is the origin of the issue. In my view, there was a rush to deliver good news – good news that I was glad to see – but that rush upended the entire process, twice.

There may be a temptation to let this drift. That must not happen. I am encouraged to hear that discussions are continuing but that has to continue on an intensive basis. I appreciate that there are lingering tensions between the Minister, the Minister of State and the unions but nobody expects them to be best friends. We want them to work together and get a result for the affected children. I note some of the last-minute commitments made by the Minister yesterday. It is frustrating that some of them seem to have been made when the dye was more or less cast and when the jig was up, given many of these issues and assurances have been flagged since August by me, others in this House and the stakeholders. If the Government is sincere in its efforts, these commitments have to remain on the table and solutions will have to be found for other outstanding issues, including the issues of flexibility for at-risk staff, serial testing for staff, reversing the incredible 40% cut to the grant for personal protective equipment and sanitisation equipment and the extension of supply panels. This has been done elsewhere and it can be done here. We need to change the approach of the Ministers and, indeed, the Taoiseach, who needs to be part of this process. It needs to be agreed before it is announced.

I will move on to some questions. One of the key concerns in schools is to ensure that, where a case arises, the public health response to it is decisive, immediate and comprehensive. One of the issues being raised with the Minister relates to serial testing. Will she ensure that school staff have access to serial testing?

I will make a brief point on public health guidance. We need to be careful in our language here because one of the points of frustration is that people feel they are not being treated as adults when we talk about schools being safe. The public health advice has never been that schools are absolutely safe. They are relatively safe. It is important that they remain open with the right safeguards because of their importance but there is never any suggestion that they are absolutely safe and without risk. That risk has to be minimised and these discussions should be about minimising risks and protecting people. However, we must also treat school staff with the respect they deserve and ensure they understand that. That is the way the communications should be. They should acknowledge the risks that are there and put in place the measures to minimise the risks because of the importance of education. My question there related to serial testing and whether the Minister can provide that.

The other point related to vaccination, which I am sure has been raised with the Minister many times. Has her Department contacted the national immunisation advisory committee to request an increased priority for vaccination? Has the Minister made that ask on behalf of the people who work for her?

My final question relates to a major concern of mine. I am concerned that the issue of special education will be rolled into the overall process of reopening schools. That would be a profound mistake. It can be considered in conjunction with it, but reopening special education must be an objective in and of itself. We all want to see schools open as soon as possible. Schools are the best place to learn and for children to be, but we all know that cannot be guaranteed on 1 February. If it is possible, then great, but the decision could be made that the return to school is not possible until mid or late February. It could potentially be 22 February. I am not prejudging that but it is a possibility. If so, it would be a profound tragedy if children with special educational needs are left behind yet again. They must be a first priority for return and it should not be contingent on the overall reopening of schools. Will the Minister commit that the return of special education will not be contingent on the overall return to school buildings?

I thank the Deputy. On the reference to there not being plans A, B, C and D, I can tell the Deputy that there have been since June------

I understand the Minister's desire to respond but she has issued press releases. There is three minutes and there were three specific questions.

Absolutely, and if the Deputy allows me, I will answer the questions.

Will the Deputy let the Minister respond, please?

The Deputy has made an assertion that there was no planning here. There have been considerable plans put in place, all of them backed to follow public health advice. As public health advice dictates, we follow the plans as available. There has been no ambiguity there. Plan A, on foot of public health advice, was to reopen our schools, which we did successfully from September to December. Plan B, if that was not possible, involved considerable planning in terms of guidance and adjudication for schools in terms of how to manage remote teaching and learning. That was agreed guidance after considerable engagement with all unions and stakeholders. That guidance has admitted. Plan C outlined that if there was to be a partial return, the priority was to be given to the core group the Deputy mentioned, namely, children with additional needs.

I refer to the 40% cut that the Deputy and others in his party have made liberal reference to. There is no 40% cut in terms of personal protective equipment, PPE. The difference in moneys being made available in this term are as follows-----

The Minister is talking down the clock.

I am not. This is very important because the Deputy, his leader and many others have made assertions about this and it is important to correct the record. In the instance of PPE, in the first term there was considerable additional funding made available for start-up costs which included putting in place hand sanitiser, equipment in places, additional bins and all of that.

I am aware of the facts. I disagree. Will the Minister answer the questions?

If the Deputy allows me to finish. Equally so, the first term was 25% longer than the present term so there is no cut. I refute that absolutely 100%. The provision of PPE is as it should be and we have always said if there was more required, it would be given.

On serial testing, on foot of public health recommendations, if that is required, we will follow public health advice. On vaccination, we made representations that our school communities would be part of that. We have made further representation and there is discussion on that.

Finally, on the Deputy's assertion that there was no consultation and a rushed plan in relation to Thursday, I say to him that was on foot of intensive discussion and negotiation. It was also as a result of agreement at the stakeholder meeting. To illustrate it was a shared objective, this day last week the Irish National Teachers' Organisation general secretary, John Boyle, said he believed that every single school in Ireland would be opening their doors late in the following week for children with additional needs. It was a shared objective and there was nothing rushed about it.

I thank the Minister. I call Deputy Ó Ríordáin.

My final question was not answered.

Of course. Priority is being given to children with additional needs.

Deputy Ó Ríordáin, please. Can we bit a little bit orderly?

We welcome this debate but every time the Minister or the Minister of State get an opportunity to speak about this issue, they only make things worse. I am inclined not to ask any questions because the answers will just make things worse. The Labour Party has been trying to de-escalate this issue over recent days, but it is clear that the Minister and her Minister of State have lost control of the situation. Some of the Minister's statements are making the situation irretrievable, so I think I need to set the record straight.

The Minister decided to make an announcement on 6 January about the return to school with no consultation in the middle of the highest infection rate in the world. All of us in the Opposition encouraged her to seek options for the return to school of those with additional needs, those who were vulnerable and those who were disadvantaged. If she had made those efforts and they came to naught with the best of intentions, she would have had no criticism from us. She then made another announcement a week ago amid great fanfare and self-congratulation all over the place, with no agreement. Then a letter was sent to every school in the country, again with no agreement. Inevitably, it fell apart last Tuesday when the Minister was apparently at a Fianna Fáil webinar at 7 o'clock. Then we went into an overdrive of unbelievable media management by Government. Whatever chance there was of recovering the situation was blown out of the water. We had a particularly ill-advised, bad-tempered communication from the Department that evening. Meanwhile, the unions were saying they still wanted to be at the table. The Minister of State, who has form in this regard and can rarely be let out without punching down on some vulnerable group, be it Travellers or those with addiction issues, followed on from a crass statement last week by going on national radio and making a comparison with mother and baby homes. Even in the past 24 hours, another Minister of State said on national radio that he is getting tired listening to unions setting themselves up as health experts and said the same thing on local radio this morning.

The Minister has the audacity to tell us the unions are not following public health advice when her Government did not do that in December. For all of us who are trying to be constructive and focus the issue back on where it is supposed to be, nobody in Government has helped this at all. They have made it worse and worse and worse. Every interview, statement, press release and speech in this House has made it worse. It is as if they have decided to pick a side.

I am at the point now of urging the Ministers not to say anything else, to return to the negotiating table and realise why they are here in the first place and to focus on the fact that the enemy is not teachers or SNAs. The enemy is the virus. The virus is the reason young people with additional needs are not in school.

If the Government were to focus on that, we might actually get somewhere. What it has attempted to do, however, in poorly chosen language, poorly chosen press releases, poorly chosen statements and appalling rhetoric in interviews, is to make it worse and worse. It is putting in jeopardy not only the possibility of children and young people with additional needs returning to school but the entire project of getting back to school because it has burned every bridge it has come across.

I have no questions, a Cheann Comhairle, because I am worried the answers would make matters worse. My only suggestion to the Minister and the Minister of State, and to the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, who has appeared on national and local radio in the past 24 hours, is to stop saying anything in public. Let them say what they have to say in private with those unions that have also committed to doing the same, and then we might have a roadmap for achieving what we all want to achieve, namely, education being delivered for those who need it most.

A Cheann Comhairle-----

I am sorry, Minister, but we are out of time.

Could I have ten seconds to reply?

The Deputy very successfully talked down the clock so that I would not-----

I deliberately talked down the clock-----

-----be in a position to reply.

A Cheann Comhairle-----

No. Deputy Ó Ríordáin, please.

(Interruptions).

Please, Deputy Ó Ríordáin.

I have no problem with the Minister adding something constructive-----

Please, you have made your point.

(Interruptions).

Please do not be disruptive.

I asked for ten seconds to reply. I do not have sufficient time to reply in full because the clock will not allow me, but I want to make one point. The Deputy quite correctly asserted that I have encouraged people to pick sides and that I have picked sides. I make no apology. I picked the side, and will continue to pick the side, of children with additional needs. They are my first priority. The Deputy made an assertion and I have clarified the matter.

(Interruptions).

Deputies. The public, and in particular the parents as well as the staff who work with children with special needs, are watching this debate. I think they would want us to conduct it in an orderly and constructive manner.

I call the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan.

I welcome the opportunity to address the House. It is important to acknowledge the challenges faced by young people with special educational needs, SEN, and their families at this time, as well as the staff who support them. These students have been at the heart of our commitment to ensuring that in-person special education could continue in some form during the current restrictions for those who need it. We know that distance learning does not work for all, as is shown by international evidence. We also know that previous school closures impacted many young people with special educational needs, causing regression and the loss of key skills.

Recent weeks have seen consistent engagement, as the Minister noted, with education partners including teachers and SNA unions. Furthermore, intensive engagement continued following the initial pause requested by stakeholders. This built on the significant collaboration that has taken place with stakeholders throughout this pandemic, including weekly meetings involving education stakeholders. Through discussions with primary and special education stakeholders, it had been hoped that a shared objective to support children with SEN in returning to in-school learning could be reached.

The Department has listened closely to the issues raised by trade unions and school management bodies. These included requests for clear messaging on public health guidance to be given directly to their members by public health specialists and temporary arrangements during the current phase of reopening for high-risk staff and those experiencing childcare difficulties. In response, the Department set out a proposal for how it would address these concerns, including greater work flexibility and distance working for high-risk and pregnant teachers and SNAs. These temporary arrangements were possible only due to the significant reduction in the number of children on site under the proposed phased reopening.

A health-education webinar that had significant attendance by front-line education staff was hosted by the Department at the request of unions and partners and was attended by the deputy chief medical officer, Dr. Ronan Glynn, and senior public health consultants, Dr. Abigail Collins and Dr. Kevin Kelleher. The purpose of this webinar was to provide clarity on the prevailing health advice and answer questions from the participants. It was reaffirmed clearly that schools with risk-mitigation measures in place provide a safe environment for staff and students. While the general advice is that people should stay at home, this does not apply to workers providing an essential service for priority groups such as special needs children. Teachers and SNAs are essential workers.

At all stages the Department worked to provide assurances where they were sought. We provided guidance on how special schools can operate at 50% capacity to offer these students a return to learning, knowing that the vast majority of these students cannot engage with remote learning. We provided guidance and flexibility in respect of staff members who are at high risk of Covid-19 to ensure their safety. We put in place flexibility for schools to manage this situation and to return to in-person learning over the coming days, to organise and manage their staffing in this context. This was part of an effort to support in-school provision for just over 18,000 children with SEN, who constitute just 4% of those who would attend during a full reopening.

Many schools in the North and Britain are providing in-person teaching to children with special educational needs and it is very regrettable that a similar outcome cannot be achieved here. All parties have signalled a willingness to continue discussions. We acknowledge there are concerns but it is also important to listen to the public health advice and what the doctors are telling us. In the interim, as I highlighted last week, it is vital that education for students with SEN is supported as much as possible. This includes those students with additional needs in mainstream classes throughout the State. Their needs must also be acknowledged and supported at this time.

I want to restate some of the new additional supports and to offer assurances of what will remain in place as discussions continue. It is important to reiterate, however, that no plan B will ever be as effective as in-school, in-person education for students with additional needs. This is ultimately what we want to return to. The Department's Covid-19 guidance to schools is focused on maintaining the continuity of teaching and learning for students able to engage with online learning. These documents were first issued to schools in spring 2020 and were subsequently updated and agreed to with stakeholders later last year to reflect the experience and feedback of staff and students.

The guidance we issued two weeks ago incorporates these updates, which have been brought together into one dedicated guidance document for schools and families supporting students with additional needs. Some of the themes in the documents include the role of schools and teachers in engaging with pupils with SEN, teachers and school leaders working to support pupils with SEN, keeping in touch with parents and guardians, keeping pupils with SEN safe in the distance learning environment, and resources for teachers. The guidance also provides information on the role of class teachers, special education teachers and SNAs.

For special classes at primary level, the guidance makes clear that class teachers should phone parents three times per week and have daily phone engagement with pupils, while SNAs should have twice-daily engagement with parents to support them in developing and maintaining the child's schedule. For special classes at post-primary level, the guidance sets out that the SEN co-ordinators should be in daily contact with special class students in order that programmes of work, individual timetables and structures are planned collaboratively with parents. For students with SEN in mainstream classes, guidance indicates that at primary level the special education teacher should be the nominated school liaison who will engage with the parents by phone twice per week. Currently, more than 13,550 special education teachers are allocated to mainstream schools, supporting the additional learning needs of pupils. The teacher should also have prepared an at-home support plan and every Friday will host a familiar social skills board game using online technology. This support is in addition to the support of the mainstream class teacher, who provides for all pupils in his or her class.

At post-primary level, the subject teacher will continue to have overall responsibility for differentiating tasks to match the learning needs of students with SEN. The output will be reviewed and regular feedback provided to parents at agreed times. SEN co-ordinators will also have regular communication and engagement with students on their caseload.

SNAs will also engage with parents and students as a liaison between home and school as well as supporting the delivery of the education to the students. Class teachers will also work with SEN co-ordinators and the pastoral care teams to support an integrated whole-school approach to students with SEN. Details of support and advice for schools regarding the delivery of distance learning is available through the Department's support services and agencies, including for those pupils with special educational needs. Schools that have established their first autism spectrum disorder, ASD, special class were assigned a link adviser during the four-day training course in September and October of last year. These advisers remained assigned to these classes and are available to offer support and advice to the special class teacher. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, is also providing support to parents and teachers through dedicated helplines. These phone lines are operated daily and offer advice and contact with local special educational needs organisers, SENO. The NCSE has also developed a suite of short videos for teachers and still has its visiting teacher service. The Department's inspectorate is also resolved to engage closely with schools that cater for students with additional needs to ensure the full supports are being provided effectively.

I understand the frustration and fears of parents and families with children with additional needs currently. They want their children to be in school with their teachers, SNAs and friends. At school, they will be in a regular routine and be happier and healthier in a holistic way. Therefore, the Government's commitment to this area has been clear from the start. We had the summer provision programme last year that was available for up to 24,000 students with SEN, which included those with Down's syndrome in post-primary school and preschool for the first time. Following this, we had a dedicated financial package of almost half €0.5 billion to assist the schools to get back.

I will conclude by assuring the House that every effort is being made, as the Minister, Deputy Foley said, to resolve matters in a collaborative way so children can return to soon as safely as possible. We are committed to doing whatever it takes to support students with additional needs at this time.

I understand this is a questions and answers session so I will make a couple of comments. There is no doubt this is a difficult time for the school community, including in my county of Donegal. A school community is made up of teachers, teaching assistants, ancillary staff, children and their families. Everyone in that community has one objective and that is to have our children back at school. The welfare of our children is crucial. Tá an aidhm chéanna ag achan duine. Tá an sprioc céanna ag pobal na scoile, is é sin leas na bpáiste a chur chun tosaigh. Tá pobal na scoile i dTír Chonaill ag fulaingt. Tá fearg orthu agus tá pian i measc an phobail sin.

The school community in my constituency is hurting. I regret comments made by the Minister that sought to pit the community against itself. That is no way to serve the school community. It is clear the Government has failed to make the contingencies for reopening schools and in the case of the lockdown after Christmas, what the school community in County Donegal and elsewhere need is a change of approach from Government. What is the Government going to do? What change of steps will the Government take? After the talks collapsed or broke down, its reaction was completely and utterly inappropriate and disappointing and it flamed the fires. What steps did the Minister take yesterday? What steps will she take in the coming days to reopen special education?

What steps has the Minister taken to respond to the real concerns by staff and SNAs, such as the flexibility for high-risk staff, serial testing and the reversal of the 40% cut in the grant for personal protective equipment, PPE, and sanitisation products?

The Deputy should be under no illusions that at every stage and every step I, the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and the Department have taken a collaborative approach. When talks have not worked out, I have always committed to re-engagement at the earliest of opportunities and that is exactly what is happening at present.

The issues raised by the Deputy are similar to those raised by his colleague, to which I already replied. There is no such thing as a 40% cut in PPE. It seems to be an issue that despite the clarifications and clear information that has been given, certain individuals continue to perpetuate that untruth. I will reiterate once again that the 40% we were talking about was for start-up costs in terms of the provision of PPE, which included roll-out costs of putting in hand sanitiser units, additional furniture that might be required in schools, signage and whatever else. Additional moneys were made available for that. Equally, additional moneys were made available because the first term was 25% longer than this present term. Therefore, when one takes all that into consideration there is absolutely no cut in the PPE funding. There was never a question of funding for PPE or otherwise. The Deputy will appreciate that more than €639 million has been expended. It is the highest budget of money for any remediation and mitigation purposes in our schools and has been made available freely. There has never been a question of resources.

In terms of serial testing, I say quite clearly to the Deputy that we have followed the public health advice at every step of the way. Should the public health team request that, we will certainly do it. Every time it has asked for a new introduction of measures, we have done that.

The Deputy raised childcare and other issues in terms of his community. I know exactly how the communities are feeling. Communities want to see children with additional needs back in schools. As I said in my opening remarks, I appreciate this is a time of high anxiety for everyone. I come from a family that is heavily invested in the education sector and carries out a variety of different roles. I know exactly how they are feeling but I also know they are fully committed to making education available to children with additional needs. I will work constructively, as will the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to ensure that happens.

I agree with the Minister's last statement that this is a time of high anxiety for everybody. I would go further and say the anger in the air is palpable. One can hear it on the radio, on the airwaves, and in all the communication that is happening. One can feel it in the Chamber at the minute. It is the Government's responsibility now to attempt to de-escalate that and some of the commentary has not been helpful.

I particularly want to take issue with this idea that one must pick a side. I was disappointed when the Minister said she has chosen to pick a side and is on the side of those whose children are most vulnerable. In that binary, the Minister has given the impression there are those of us who are not on their side and, in particular, the side of those who are asking to be safe upon their return to the workplace. I am referring, in particular, to our SNA community. I assure the Minister that absolutely everybody, and I include her and the Government, the Opposition and all stakeholders, want to ensure the safe return for children with special education needs into our education sector. We need to find a way of doing that collaboratively. I have been angry because of the vilification of people in our education sector who I know devote every hour of their professional lives to ensuring those in their charge are provided with the absolute best care. The commentary that has emerged over the last week has suggested otherwise and I believe we need to confront that.

To me, those in the SNA community are the absolute champions of our education sector. They are, and have continuously, been undervalued for so long. The starting salary for an SNA is just over €24,000. They provide close care to those with special education needs and do it as a vocation. They are the first port of call in the morning where the child will receive a smile. The job is immensely tough and the remuneration is not nearly commensurate with the responsibility, and still they go to school every day with a smile. They are not the enemy here; far from it. It was the SNA community who stood up during the first lockdown and were redeployed to the HSE so they could provide care for children with special education needs. They were the ones who were not given adequate PPE until very recently. They had to call for appropriate face masks so they could provide that care in a way that would keep them and their families safe. All they are asking is that they can be safe and listened to.

I firmly believe we need to de-escalate tensions now. I fully accept my own responsibility in terms of some of my engagements and casting blame, and even being vocal in how disappointed I was with some of the behaviour and communications that have emanated from the Minister's Department. However, now is the time for de-escalation and to get around the table and listen. That is absolutely essential. In all the communications we have had, there has been an absence of empathy and a willingness to listen.

The Minister talks about the presentations that happened with over 16,000 educators. That was a presentation. The Minister also talks about her engagements with the stakeholders. That consisted of Zoom calls in which the Department basically gave out a rant for about 50 minutes and had four or five minutes for questions. We need to listen. When one listens, one hears of genuine fear.

Parents and guardians have a responsibility to their children, trade unions have a responsibility to their workers and workers have a responsibility to their families. The Minister represents the State and she has a responsibility to all citizens. In her engagement, it is imperative that she listens. When we listen, we will hear of fear, anxiety and of a genuine willingness to be collaborative, to go back into the workplace and to provide care for those for whom these workers have always cared.

We need to listen, first and foremost. When we listen, we can find a pathway to solutions. That has to be the essence of what we do here because at the moment it is too hostile. When we are angry, we make mistakes. We make mistakes in our rhetoric, as demonstrated by the Minister of State over the last week, and we make mistakes in enflaming tensions, as we have done since Christmas. We also make mistakes that will impact the lives, livelihoods and experiences of those about whom we all care; namely, children who are at risk of regression. Let us de-escalate the tensions, therefore.

There are those we need to consider most in our engagements. We want these children to return to school. In the brief period I have left, I want to acknowledge another cohort who have been crying out to be listened to - the leaving certificate students. Yesterday, the Irish Second-Level Students' Union carried out a survey of its members and 81% of them agreed that they should not do the traditional leaving certificate because they simply cannot do so. They have not had the traditional leaving certificate experience so they should not sit the traditional leaving certificate exam. That decision has to be made quickly because it leads to immense anxiety for young people who simply cannot deal with that at the minute. It is impacting on their mental health. If we approach it with empathy we would decide to cancel the leaving certificate now and come up with a workable solution.

As I was preparing my few notes for this debate, I had hoped it would be constructive and positive. I mention all those adjectives we are used to hearing from some Members in the House. I have to reference Deputy Ó Ríordáin's contribution in particular. He came in here professing that he wanted to de-escalate the situation, to be constructive and to use all of those positive connotations. He then launched into a five-minute tirade of abuse against the Minister. He cast aspersions on the Minister of State as well before he decided he would up sticks and leave the debate and the room. That hypocrisy needs to be flagged and the people who might be watching this on television at home can see that for what it is. He did not even give the Minister of State the opportunity to respond to the aspersions he cast against her and that hypocrisy needs to be called out. I would welcome Deputy Gannon's contribution, which was much more measured and constructive.

I commend the Minister and the Minister of State for the attempts they have made. It has not been easy and it is obvious that there have been difficulties but the best way to resolve those difficulties is through engagement and debate. By my nature I am a schoolteacher. I have a lot of friends, family members and relatives who are in the education field, just as the Minister does. People are concerned and there is a heightened level of anxiety for obvious reasons. It is the middle of a pandemic. That said, we have to do the right thing here, which is to get back to the table, as the Minister and the Minister of State have done today, and to engage in positive discussions with the various trade unions. It is incumbent on all of us, on all sides of the House, to comment responsibly and maturely in this debate because as others have mentioned, any negative contributions are likely to heighten, enflame and escalate the difficulties we are having, rather than resolve them. We need a bit of calm and Members need to be measured in their contributions. That would be appreciated by all sides.

I have a number of questions for the Minister of State on special education. Has any consideration been given to local arrangements being made in the interim in situations in which schools, employees or education providers would like to assist the family of a special education student in getting additional help? Would allowances be considered for this type of an arrangement if it was agreeable to all parties at a local level?

I thank the Deputy for his question and for his non-adversarial and constructive approach, which is important. Whatever has happened in the past, we must move forward in a constructive way.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, does a lot of work on the ground with children with special needs. It has its SENOs, who are a close liaison with schools and families. That is probably the best way to implement a local approach. I would suggest that if the Deputy has a particular family in mind, they should get in contact with a SENO in the NCSE. The NCSE will appoint someone if it does not have one already. That is probably the best way because this is what happens in the community and they are the people on the ground. There are other interim supports that we are providing such as online supports. As I said in my earlier contribution, any type of distance learning is not adequate and is suboptimal for children with special needs. We still want to have them attend in person in an in-school environment because that is the best way to teach them. It can be difficult for families to manage to give that teaching without an SNA who is present in the home environment. That is probably the best way to deal with that issue.

My second query is on school transport because I am aware that it has informed some of the negotiations with the trade unions in recent weeks. I still have concerns on school transport and I can highlight one specific case in my constituency in which three schools are together on one campus and different groups of students attending those three schools are all mixing and congregating on the one bus. I would hope that clarity could be given to Bus Éireann in that particular case that this practice cannot be allowed to continue. Where it is highlighted, it needs to stop. How will we get school transport back up and running when the schools resume?

My third query is on a special needs school in Cork. I am grateful to the Minister of State for acknowledging that there is a need for a new special education school in Cork. I understand that investigations have been conducted by one education provider into Montenotte House in Cork North-Central, where we have a long waiting list for children to attend a special education school. Is the Minister of State aware of any update in that regard? I am fully conscious that we are talking about the need for special education students to return to school in the coming weeks but there are 67 children in Cork city and county in the greater Cork city area who will have no school to go to in September.

That sounds like a good Topical Issue matter.

The Deputy and I have discussed this particular dearth of special education provision in Cork on previous occasions and I can get him a written reply to his query. In Cork, we are planning a considerable amount of work this year because Cork is one of the areas that is most affected by a lack of special class and school places. As the Deputy knows, there is a mechanism under section 37A of the Education Act 1998, which I can consider for these areas. I am reluctant to do so, however, because again, when we are talking about collaboration we always try to collaborate with the schools themselves in providing places, particularly if there is an existing school. I am aware of the issue in Montenotte and as I said, I will give the Deputy a written reply on that.

On the Deputy's query about transport, infection control measures will need to be put in place for transport when it resumes. Children with special education needs do not necessarily have to wear face masks if they are uncomfortable doing so. Adequate PPE is provided for the bus escorts on school transport, however. There is social distancing on a school bus as well. That is another benefit of having just special education as a priority when we are talking about bringing special education students back into schools. There is no congregating of parents or anything like that, therefore. We are talking about 4% of the education system in its entirety. It is only about 18,500 children.

There is none of this fear of parents congregating outside the school because many of these children, as the Deputy correctly points out, would be availing of school transport. Obviously, we have to ensure that the buses are clean, that they are sanitised adequately, that the bus escorts have their medical-grade masks and indeed the bus drivers wear their masks and that these are worn even when they are waiting for the bus. Something that we have always been vigilant about in the Department is that they are always checked to ensure that they are not substandard and that they provide a safe environment for these children where they are travelling to or from their education setting.

It seems the Minister has conveniently forgotten that it was by agreement with the teachers unions and the special needs assistant, SNA, unions that the schools were able to reopen and stayed open for 80 days. The Minister was quick to take all of the credit for reopening schools but when her failure to engage and her inability to listen and respond to the genuine concerns of those working in the schools meant that school reopening had to be postponed, she tried nice and quickly to shift the blame onto teachers and workers in the education system. It is shameful that the Minister tried to scapegoat those workers in the way that she did because it was the Minister and the Department that had let them down.

The Minister is asking teachers and all of those who work in schools to go into work with people who are in the main unmasked. They have done it previously and they continued to do it as case numbers were rising. They want to know is it safe to do it now. There is no comparison between workers in retail - I have heard people try to make this comparison - where mask-wearing can be enforced and those who are working in schools. While I am on the subject, there is no comparison between people who work in schools and those who ran Magdalen laundries and mother and baby institutions and to draw that comparison was both offensive and hurtful to teachers who had been in touch with me and to SNAs, school secretaries and others who work there. I encourage the Minister to have a word with her junior Minister and remind her that language is important and that she should be more careful when choosing her words in future.

Teachers and SNAs say they want to get back to work - that is what they are telling me and everybody else - but they want to do it as soon and as safely as possible. They want to know that their workplaces are safe. They want to hear that a detailed, up-to-date risk assessment has been carried out and they would like to think that the Minister is listening to them.

I want to say a word about my own sister. She is a principal of a delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, school here in Dublin. I have watched her work day in, day out from early in the morning until late at night. She has gone way over and above, as have all of the people working with her. All of the education partners, as the Minister refers to them, have gone over and above because they want the schools to be open. They want the children to be able to come to school but they want to know that it is safe because at the end of the day they have to go home to their families.

I have a few questions. The Minister's attempt to blame education workers is demoralising. Will she stop? The Minister's attempt to pit workers against parents will not work and it is causing further distress and upset to both parents and workers. Will the Minister stop and think? They want to know what the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, is saying today about our schools and the impact of reopening on our overstretched hospital system. They want the Minister to stop merely saying that schools are safe and focus on making schools safe in the current climate with high case numbers. They want to know that those workers who provide not only learning, but in some cases intimate care, to learners who cannot be masked will be vaccinated. When will that happen? They want to hear that children with special education needs will be prioritised and that they will not be held back until the reopening of all of education. I would like the Minister in the few seconds that remain to answer that question my colleague asked her and she did not answer. Could the Minister answer it now?

With the greatest respect to everyone, we know how the system works. It is not reasonable to put four questions to the Minister and ask her to answer in four seconds. I do not know how we can do that.

I have asked the Minister to prioritise one question, if the Ceann Comhairle gives her a few seconds. The Ceann Comhairle gave her a few seconds previously.

I need the few seconds that I have. I note the Deputy expended her use on the clock quite well so as not to afford me the opportunity to answer in detail.

I had three and a half minutes.

I have the floor now. The Deputy has made an assertion that I do not listen and that I have taken credit in relation to the reopening of schools. If the Deputy was assiduously listening, and if the Deputy had this particular interest in schools and what was happening in schools from September right up to December, she would know that at every opportunity in this House and outside I have said quite clearly that the successful and sustained reopening of our schools was due largely, in huge measure, to the magnificent and generous work of school communities the length and breadth of this country. I have never deviated from that view.

In relation to the work of teachers and SNAs, I have worked for long and many years in the education sector alongside SNAs. I regard them as valuable and valued partners in the education sector. I see at first hand what they have done. That is why I appreciate the collective approach. Indeed, as I said, I recognise when things do not work out it is necessary to engage and re-engage repeatedly. That has always been my process and I do it now.

I thank the Minister.

In relation to the questions that the Deputy has raised, I have answered every one of them that has been put by the Deputy's colleague. Indeed, it is interesting that the Deputy repeats the questions and does not seem to grasp the answers.

Deputy Bríd Smith is sharing with Deputy Barry.

The Minister acknowledged that the absence of special needs education negatively impacts on the children and on their families. We have witnessed that in the desperate need for additional supports for children and their families evident on the media over the past few days but it is a joke to dump it all on the teachers and the special needs assistants.

All of us, every single Deputy in this House, if he or she is honest with himself or herself, will say that a large chunk of his or her time is spent advocating for children with special needs. The Ombudsman recently said that only 10% of assessments of need are fulfilled for children with intellectual disabilities within the legally stated time limit. Parents come to us all the time for help. For example, Linda in Tallaght is waiting seven years for her child with speech and language therapy needs to be seen by a speech and language therapist. Amy, a care worker in a care home, had to give up her job because there was no transport for her son to his allocated training every day. Angela waited 12 years for her house to be adapted for the wheelchair needs of her daughter. The litany of failures of this and other Governments is despicable. They have failed on dental, on optical, on hearing and on every single need for children in this society. Special children have been utterly neglected at every level but we are dumping on the teachers.

I refer to a poignant tweet from one of these very put upon parents of a special needs child. She states that teachers are not to blame and that they are being asked to risk their health for the children and their education when what the children really need is consistent occupational, physio and speech therapy and access to psychological services and respite. She states that parents such as herself have come to rely on schools to make up for the failure of wider society to provide for their children in health and welfare. She asks that we not let them shift the blame to teachers and special needs assistants, that parents such as herself have been fighting for these services in the courts for years and that this is not a new problem. That is an important statement. In light of the answers we got on the lack of special care for our special children, it makes a show of this Government.

The Minister states that she wants a traditional leaving certificate. To hell with the Minister's tradition. Tradition is not more important than health. Tradition is not more important than mental health. Tradition does not take into account the fact that these students have experienced serious disruption to their course, not once but twice.

While it is a hugely important issue, this is not about the leaving certificate. This is about special education.

It is a debate on education.

No, it is a debate on special education. I have a leaving certificate student in my own home. I know how important the leaving certificate issue is but that is not what today's debate is about.

There are special needs students doing the leaving certificate.

If the Deputy wants to talk about that, that is fine.

What do the students want? Yesterday's Irish Second-Level Students' Union, ISSU poll of more than 20,000 students should give the Minister a fairly good idea. Four per cent want the Minister's traditional leaving certificate. Eighty-one per cent want a break with that model, as either a first or second choice for them is that they would have a choice between a watered down leaving certificate and calculated grades.

The Minister has not been listening. She has blocked students from making comments on her Instagram. She now needs to listen. Students are saying "No" to a forced leaving certificate. I would like to see the cancellation of the leaving certificate examinations with the cert given to all students and a college place offered to every student who wants one. At the very least, there must be no forced leaving certificate.

As for the Minister's idea of reopening schools for leaving certificate classes from 1 February, it is not a runner. Three quarters of students said they feel it is unsafe or very unsafe. Those students will go back to school when they are convinced that it is safe. They will not want to go back on Monday week.

Does the Minister realise that she will run into a wall of student opposition if she tries to force this issue and force students to go back to school on Monday week?

It is interesting that Deputy Bríd Smith referenced issues that she claimed have been ongoing for ten and 12 years. I remind the Deputy that this Government has been in place for six months. Within that six months with regard to the commitment and the determination to progress special education, we have a budget in excess of €2 billion. The largest and most significant budget ever for special education has been provided by this Government. That is a strong statement of intent in terms of the importance that we place on special education. I hope when the Deputy speaks that she is cognisant of that. I also hope she would be cognisant that, even in these current difficult circumstances for everybody, particular consideration is being given to providing educational services for children with additional needs. That again is testament to the determination of the Government to cater for the needs of children with additional needs and all those who fall into the special education sector.

Although this is a debate on special education, Deputy Barry raised specific issues around the leaving certificate. I want to be very clear. Since 27 June, all of my negotiations and engagements have been with the representative bodies, including the student representative body. At every stakeholder engagement that I have had and every conversation about students, I have always and consistently listened and engaged with the president of the students union. I will continue to do that. Tomorrow the students are making a presentation at the advisory committee. The Deputy should be under no illusion. I have worked long years in the education sector, particularly with senior students at leaving certificate level. They are a priority. I value them and I respect them to the extent that I always engage with their representative body.

I am sharing my time with Deputy Kieran O'Donnell. Bhí áthas orm a chloisteáil go ndúirt an tAire sa rún inniu go gcuirfear cibé PPE a theastaíonn ar fáil. Tabharfaidh sé sin faoiseamh intinne do go leor daoine. Chomh maith leis sin, tá páirt ag chuile duine sa tír cuidiú le gasúir agus a muintir dul ar ais ar scoil agus aire a thabhairt nach muid a scaipeann an galar seo agus líon na n-uimhreacha a laghdú.

I really believe in debates in the Dáil and thrashing matters out. This is a case, however, where we would actually be better employed if everybody, as they say in the European jargon, was in the tunnel and keeping away from the media. It would be better if all the players - the teachers, parents and the Department - kept the one thing in mind, namely, that there are hugely deserving and vulnerable children who need school. Our total focus has to be on the one issue. How do we safely and by agreement get education for those in special schools and in special classes in particular?

I have been on to the Minister several times on behalf of children in Galway with a significant focus on those who are most vulnerable, most dependent and who require to be in school because distance learning is totally irrelevant to them. My plea would be for all the parties to go into the tunnel and see how this can be worked out in the interest of those probably least well able to speak for themselves, namely, the children. If we could achieve that, we would have done a great day's work for these vulnerable children.

This is not a time to apportion blame. We are, as they say in the jargon, where we are. The measure of us will be how we go forward from here and how we all co-operate to get from here to where we all profess we want to go. We should leave the arguments to another day of what happened or how we got to where we are. I trust in the bona fides of everybody. I hope everyone will go into the tunnel and we will resolve this urgent issue for very special people.

It is probably not often that I would admit I have little to say as Deputy Ó Cuív encapsulated exactly my views on this matter. If everything is stripped away, the issues involved are about public health for both the staff and students with special needs and education for people with special needs. I know parents and students with special needs in Limerick. What they have gone through with the lockdown has been horrendous. No group has suffered more.

We need to speak about going into the tunnel with one sole objective, namely, what can be done to put in place proper public health procedures for the teachers and the students to get special needs schools reopened immediately. What is the process that the Minister can adopt to ensure the matter is discussed in a quiet fashion with the media not involved? The media has a role to play but this matter is so serious that it requires, as Deputy Ó Cuív said, a tunnel. Will the Minister give us an update as to where discussions are at and what the process will be? Who will be involved? NPHET will have to be involved directly to give assurance around public health. Clearly, the unions, along with the parents' and students' advocates, the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, should be involved in finding this resolution. Will the Minister give us an update as to when she will be going into the tunnel to resolve these issues in order that students with special needs can get back to school?

Ar an gcéad dul síos, gabhaim buíochas don Teachta Ó Cuív as an méid atá ráite aige. I thank Deputy Ó Cuív for his considerate, insightful and, indeed, measured contribution.

I believe the Deputy is 100% correct, and it has been articulated by Deputy O'Donnell, that there is only one agenda here and it is to find a way forward for all of our children, in this instance children with additional needs in particular. I absolutely believe there is a shared objective, and I say this with the greatest of respect to all of the Deputies here. I believe it is their shared objective also as, indeed, I believe it is the shared objective of the partners in education, and I include all of the voices that have been mentioned, including the teacher unions, the unions representing special needs assistants, the managerial bodies and everyone as a collective. The Deputy asked what exactly we are going to do now. What we are doing is maintaining the fact that priority must be given to children with additional needs. The Deputy referenced public health and absolutely everything in the best interests of everyone who is part of the school community, including those who are working in the school community and the children themselves, has always been underpinned by public health advice. The Department of Education and I have never deviated from public health advice. We will not deviate from public health advice now and whatever we are asked to do in terms of public health advice in the best interests of everybody who works in the education sector and the children we will do. Once again, we are in discussion with everyone concerned and we will continue to discuss, engage and encourage, all of us working collectively to find suitable resolution. I know we are all committed to doing that.

Parents of children with additional needs are battling for rights every day. The current setback is nothing new for them. One example of the ongoing battle that children with additional needs have is the 37A process for autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classes in south Dublin, which was set in train by the former Minister, Deputy McHugh, and has now finished. Following the closure of the 37A process for ASD classes no classes were established in Dublin 4 or Dublin 6 as a result of the process. Considering the enormous impact this is having on families in Ringsend, Milltown, Ranelagh and throughout Dublin 4 and Dublin 6, there is an urgent need for a specific 37A process for Dublin 4 and Dublin 6. The absence of ASD classes is unacceptable. We now have a situation where there are no ASD classes in Dublin 4 or Dublin 6 after the 37A process. We know what has to be done and the Minister needs to do it. Action and resources are needed.

I have spoken to many schools in Dublin 4 and Dublin 6 and they are willing to set up ASD classes but what they do not want, and what the parents of children with autism do not want, is an autism class wedged into a school that looks like an afterthought. Properly constructed and resourced classes need to be installed and the funding needs to be invested in our children as a matter of urgency. This needs to be done so classes meet the needs of children with autism and are not just box ticking exercises. It seems that when it comes to children with autism and their education that any place will do. This cannot be allowed any more. ASD classes in Dublin 4 and Dublin 6 need to be resourced and open as at matter of urgency.

The Minister speaks regularly about inclusion but, unfortunately, the reality is very different. Last year, the Government spent more than €100 million transporting special needs children out of their communities when they should be in their local schools. There are no official figures for the number of children who are not receiving the education they require. The Department and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, have no idea how many children in Ringsend, Sandymount, Ranelagh and throughout Dublin 4 and Dublin 6 need special education and this is absolutely bonkers.

We would not let a new school or extension be built without a wheelchair ramp and disabled access being installed. Why are schools being built that do not have ASD classes? How can we have extensions to schools but no additional ASD classes? I know the Minister has given commitments to change this but, like many families of children with additional needs, I will not believe any commitment until I see it delivered. What we have now is educational apartheid and we must change this urgently. By any statistical measure this has never been truer than it is in Dublin 4 and Dublin 6. Will the Minister initiate a 37A process specifically for Dublin 4 and Dublin 6 as a matter of urgency?

I thank Deputy Andrews for his query. We issued 39 notices to various schools under section 37A of the Education Act because it is important where there is a dearth of places in a particular area, and I am aware of the issues in Dublin 4 and Dublin 6. With regard to these 39 schools, two notices were issued and we are now in the process of looking through the submissions. On-site inspections take place regularly to collaborate with the schools and see whether we can expand an existing school. One of the very first things I managed to secure as the first dedicated Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion was a commitment from the building unit in the Department that every new school built from here on in will automatically provide ASD units and special class places. We do not want to have this situation on a perennial basis. The NCSE is developing a five-year forecasting model to ensure we have the data about which the Deputy spoke so we can establish where there is a lack of places.

I am slightly lost for words, which the Ceann Comhairle knows is not my style. I have heard it all and everybody has heard it. I do not believe for a minute that either the Minister or Minister of State has turned a deaf ear or do not feel what is being said or have not done their best. Equally, I do not believe our schoolteachers or special needs assistants have done so. I have never dealt with the teachers' unions but I do not believe they are there for any reason other than to come to a proper solution that sees our most vulnerable children back where they should be.

There is a huge burden on everybody here because there is not a simple solution. I have had representations from all sides. I have not heard one teacher who does not want to go back to work. I have not heard one special needs assistant who does not want to go back to work. Certainly they have issues and they range from childcare to safety concerns to vulnerable family members about whom they are concerned. In the same way, I have heard parents who just cannot cope without having some form of respite, even in the frame of education, for their children. I have heard other parents who are worried sick that if the service is open they would be bad parents to send the children back with the fear of Covid.

The reality of the situation is that it is very difficult and the one common denominator is that everybody is scared, including me. I am scared that if the wrong decision is made it will have the knock-on effect of an outbreak among the most vulnerable. I share the same concern as the teachers and the special needs assistants. I have to put my faith in all concerned who are trying to put this together, that they will make the decision for the right reasons and not so it will be politicised as something the Government got right or that the INTO would use it for its own expedience as the main teachers' union. I am certainly not here to politicise it.

I am here to offer my support. If there is anything I can do I will do it. At present, all I can do is keep parents and special needs assistants informed as to how things are going. I have passed all of the communications I have had to the Department and the Minister. I have to say at this point that I have never had anything but proper communication from the Department of Education. These have been with regard to other matters. On this I do not expect a response to every email because there have been hundreds but I expect that every email, which has voiced a different level of concern, has been taken on board. We can hear it here today.

Every Deputy understands what the issues are. I concur mainly with those who say that perhaps the solution is to go into a tunnel, with all sides staying away from the media. This is not about who wins. This is about getting it right. There may be solutions whereby we can do antigen testing. There is affordable antigen testing. That may be one solution. There may be a solution whereby we need to take the special needs assistants and teachers up the list for the vaccine.

It is all very difficult.

It is even more difficult when, every day, we have our daily reports from NPHET and, as general members of the population not in the sphere of teachers, SNAs or special needs children, all we hear is to stay home and that this is highly contagious. Then, for this cohort of people, we are all to accept readily that our schools are safe. I accept it when the Minister says that the medical advice is that the schools, while not risk-free, are safer. What is wrong here is that there is an element of confusion for people. How, on the one hand, can we be told to stay home and that this is highly contagious and, on the other, it is acceptable to bring our most vulnerable cohort of people into one setting? This is not something I believe is the fault of a 40% reduction in PPE. I have had no representations on that matter. Where anybody has come to me for PPE, it has been resolved and by no means has it been about money. However, I believe there are certain settings that are not suitable for social distancing. The very nature of what is entertained here is absolute physical contact between those with special needs and those providing the care and the services.

I will not drag on. Although I have five minutes left and I had prepared a question on the leaving certificate, there will be another day. However, I will say that if my services are required as a politician, I am there to offer any help I can. All that I can do for my constituents at this time is support them when they call me, answer their messages and emails and wait for the process to conclude successfully.

I thank the Deputy. I acknowledge her very positive and constructive contribution this evening and, indeed, her positive and ongoing positive contribution to every debate on the education sector. I would say, given the Deputy referenced the concern among teachers, SNAs and others working in the school community, that I know those concerns. I engage on an ongoing basis with the representatives of all of the people of whom we speak, but I also engage on a personal level with teachers, SNAs, school secretaries and caretakers - you name it. This is the community where I come from. These are the people I know.

I know, when the Deputy says there is not a teacher or an SNA who does not want to go back to work, that this is 100% correct. I also know we are living in a society with heightened concerns. However, I want to assure them that, as I have said from the outset, I will always follow the public health advice. I have followed it, as have the Department of Education and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, since September right through to December. I am following that now as they have told us that schools are controlled environments and that they have confidence we can provide for children with additional needs in these settings. We are talking about 18,000 students out of a population of 1 million and many classes have just six pupils. I follow the public health advice. I have the interests of all within the education sector at heart.

Deputy Michael Collins is sharing time with Deputy Mattie McGrath.

With regard to special needs, it is a very difficult time for everybody and I respect that and I am not going to add to that difficulty. On the question of going back to school, up to now it has kind of been the cart before the horse, or that is what people have been saying - announce the openings first and then have discussions afterwards. Doing it this way is causing a lot of false hope for special needs children and their parents. Unfortunately, that hope evaporates and it then becomes a matter of a certain criticism towards SNAs, which is not right either. Perhaps the discussions could take place first and, afterwards, there would be an announcement when everyone is in agreement. Deputy Ó Cuív mentioned something along those lines and I agree with him.

Last week, I raised with the Minister a question on the leaving certificate but I ran out of time before the Minister gave me the answer. The main message from students is to put a predictive grades system in place for the leaving certificate and, if the students are unhappy with this, to allow them the choice of sitting the leaving certificate. Does the Minister or her office have plans to do this and, if so, I would urge her to share them with all of the students.

I realise that many students do not have the Internet, and I was talking to a student over the weekend in Drimoleague who does not even have a mobile phone service. They are falling way behind through no fault of their own, which is a big difficulty.

When will we have the results from the leaving certificate that students sat in 2020? These students are waiting anxiously. One such student has been in contact with us today. Her family are recovering from Covid and it is just another stress to wait for the results. The Minister might be able to answer those questions.

I thank the Deputy. To clarify the question of announcements first and discussions next, all discussions have taken place first and announcements have then been made, and they have been done collaboratively. When the Department has made announcements, similar announcements have been made by those who have been at the table also.

In terms of the results from the November 2020 exams, that will be in early February. Reference was made to the leaving certificate. The process is moving forward and there is another meeting of the advisory group. The contingencies that are already in place remain in place but further plans are being assessed.

I am here, like everybody else, trying to help. I believe that for those with special difficulties in education, we must find the road map forward. Deputy Ó Cuív and others have suggested the Minister would go into a tunnel with the teaching bodies, the SNA representatives and the parents’ representatives. I know of some traumatic situations for parents, as we all do. Their children need this special education. Special needs teachers and SNAs want to impart their expertise and their love and caring attitude towards these children with special needs, given such a loving relationship has been fostered. I salute the boards of management in many schools which set up the special rooms and brought teachers into them, as well as the contribution of the community. It has been working great.

We need to focus and to go into that tunnel, but there must be light at the end of the tunnel. This will be our third attempt so we cannot have any more false dawns for the parents and families of special education children. They need certainty and routine. The routine was part of the relief when they went from the home and were collected by the bus driver or taxi driver. We must also bring them into the discussions. We cannot expect buses just to be there and to be turned on and off like a tap. It is a loving relationship and a very special relationship but we need to foster it and we need that done delicately and sensitively.

There are some parties of the left that want to hijack this to forward their own position. That is utterly wrong. All together, we must try to sort this out, get it right in the next week or two and give those special children the services. We must allow the SNAs and those caring people who love doing their work to be able to be in a safe environment, with certainty and guaranteed safety of the children, the parents, the bus drivers and the communities. I appeal to the Minister to sit down with them and to do that. I commend her on her work to date and her attitude towards this. The Minister understands it and they understand it. It is a matter of getting someone in there. If it needs an outside person to organise that, somebody to bring people together, we must get that person, but we must move forward positively.

I thank the Deputy and appreciate his positive contribution. He referenced all who work in the school community and he particularly referred to boards of management, which I also acknowledge personally. These are individuals who volunteer and generously give so much of their time. I acknowledge their contribution as well that of the entire community, which the Deputy also referenced.

The Deputy referred to those who work in school transport. Again, I have always appreciated that it is very much the collective and the community in education. This is our priority. The Deputy mentioned moving forward with safety for all. That is exactly the view we are taking and we have always taken. It is safety for all in the education sector.

Deputy Pringle is sharing time with Deputy Connolly.

I am not going to beat around the bush. I think the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, should resign. To say that the handling of the reopening of schools has been an omnishambles would be the understatement of the year. I suppose it is still January, but given how awful this Government is, I am sure there are more fiascos en route.

The Department's press release issued earlier this week beggars belief. The attempt to pit parents against teachers, SNAs and unions is reprehensible, especially when we hear the stress and distress that parents are under, particularly those who have children with additional needs. It is a blatant attempt to deflect from the fact that the Minster has done nothing since September to plan for this except to take advantage of the goodwill of all educational staff in facilitating the under-resourced return to school while repeating ad nauseam the fallacious mantra that schools are safe.

The Minister's statement began in an overly confrontational way when it stated that "a phased return for children with special educational needs to in-school learning on Thursday 21 January, will regrettably not be possible owing to a lack of co-operation by key staff unions in the primary sector". After blaming a lack of co-operation, the statement continued by saying there had been "unprecedented engagement with primary and special education stakeholders". The use of language such as "unprecedented engagement" about unions and service providers is quite disingenuous. The Minister is either engaging with stakeholders and looking for co-operation or she is not.

There is a bigger conversation here around students with additional needs. Teachers are not occupational therapists or speech and language therapists, they are educators. This is a larger system failure with supports, or lack thereof, in general for children with additional needs and their families or carers. The waiting lists for services are atrocious, the statutory timeframe for the HSE assessment of needs, which is supposed to be six months from referral, is constantly flouted and the process of the assessment of need has reportedly been changed by the HSE. What is the current state of the waiting lists within the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS? NEPS has been mentioned in many Department press releases and statements up to the end of last year. In November there were reports that the Department created an additional 17 NEPS posts. Were these posts filled? What support is NEPS providing to schools and teachers now? How are assessments taking place during Covid and what reviews of the service are taking place during this time?

Gov.ie has a section from NEPS on “Wellbeing advice and resources during COVID-19”. It contains PDF documents about "calming your child" and "managing stress and anxiety". The information page seems to have been published on 27 August 2020 and updated on 20 January 2021. What co-operation is there between NEPS and the HSE?

An informative Twitter thread by Irwin Gill at the start of this week laid out what needs to be done on special needs. Has the Minister read this?

Bhí an tAire ceart nuair a dúirt sí go mba chóir go mbeadh na scoileanna seo oscailte. Aontaím léi go huile is go hiomlán. Is mór an náire í, áfach, agus is scannal é go bhfuil na gasúir seo sáite i lár cogaidh cumarsáide atá nimhneach idir an Aire Stáit agus an Aire agus na ceardchumainn. Ní féidir glacadh leis sin.

I agree totally with the Minister when she said that these special schools should be open, I fully support her on that, but the manner in which this has been handled is shocking and unacceptable. From day one, children with special needs were never prioritised. She knows that because we were playing catch-up. NPHET did not prioritise them and neither did the Department. I would fault the Government and NPHET for not prioritising schools. Special schools should have been declared as an essential service. That did not happen, nor did it happen with nursing homes. The Minister has been playing catch-up. For example, the July provision was rolled out, and I welcome the Minister's work on that, but parents are still waiting for payment six months later. They had no transport, they provided transport themselves, travelled great miles to get to the July provision and they are still waiting to be repaid.

To set these children, and we are only talking about 18,000, in the middle of a war between the Department and the unions that is absolutely poisonous is unacceptable. We need special schools to be declared as an essential service. We need to recognise the serious concerns of the teachers and special needs assistants in a manner conducive to a solution, not to furthering the stream of poison. The Minister will have my support if she does that. Let us declare special schools an essential service, let us see what steps are needed as a matter of urgency to roll out that educational service, and let us be honest about our utter failure to provide physiotherapy, psychological assistance, and occupational therapy, as has already been mentioned.

Scannal agus náire atá anseo agus ní mór dúinn dul i ngleic leis an bhfadhb agus leis an dúshlán seo le chéile agus réiteach a fháil chomh sciobtha agus is féidir linn.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and appreciate his indulgence. I again note that I was not given the facility to reply by the Deputies.

To Deputy Pringle, I say that after five months of school closures, from March to August, there was a view, shared by the Deputy and others, that it would not be possible to reopen the schools. In my Ministry, we delivered the reopening of schools after five months of closure. It was delivered because of considerable resources - €639 million - but also, largely and more importantly, and I recognise this and will consistently recognise it, because of the generous goodwill of school communities throughout the country. I knew it was right then to reopen the schools for the benefit of children with additional needs and all our children in education. It was the right thing to do then and it is the right thing to do now, in the midst of this wave of the pandemic, to ensure that children with additional needs are facilitated in the education sector. I will consistently work with all in the education sector to ensure that we deliver that. I am conscious of what is right. I know what is right and I will ensure that we will work collectively and consistently to deliver what is right.

I appreciate what Deputy Connolly said. I have spoken before about this Government's priorities. It, unlike many others, has provided a budget of €2 billion for the education of children with additional needs, giving it the importance that it deserves and giving it the priority that it should and must deserve.

I thank the Minister.

There is no question around the intent of this Government to deliver for children with additional needs. We do that in a co-operative fashion with everyone in the education sector.

Go raibh míle maith agat, a Aire.

If I may make a quick point of order, I did not table a question. I am fully conscious of the rules and I chose to use my two and a half minutes just to make a statement, that is all. I am very conscious of the rules and I did not ask a question.

I am very conscious of that.

The Dáil adjourned at 6.37 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 27 January 2021.