Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 16 Jun 2022

Vol. 1023 No. 6

Special Educational Needs: Statements

I will take this opportunity to speak directly to the parents and families of children with special educational needs, SEN. While I could not possibly understand all the day-to-day pressures they face, I am on their side and the Government is committed to ensuring every child with special educational needs has access to an education. One child who does not have a place is one child too many, and I fundamentally believe our most vulnerable children in society must be prioritised.

As a Government, we fully recognise the importance of an inclusive and all-embracing education system and never is that more important than in the case of children with special educational needs. It is their right under the Constitution and nobody in this Chamber would disagree with that. My number one priority, therefore, is to increase the number of special school and special class places until every child in this country has a place, and I will not stop until this is achieved. I have made clear that I believe every school should provide special education and that that is where we need to get to as a society. I know we are not yet there and that this is the reality facing some families, but that is where we must get to and I believe we will get there. We have to get there, because there is no other option.

We have made significant progress over recent years in increasing the number of special class places and special school places, as well as the number of special education teachers, SETs, and special needs assistants, SNAs, to record levels. That cannot be forgotten. This year, the Government will spend in excess of €2 billion, or more than 25% of the Department of Education’s budget, on providing additional teaching and care supports for children with special educational needs. This represents an increase of more than 60% in total expenditure since 2011.

As for where that money goes, it goes, for example, into increasing the number of SETs and SNAs. I thank them for all the amazing work they do throughout the school year in teaching and caring for children with additional needs. Some see the disabilities, but special education teachers see the possibilities. In 2011, the total number of special education teachers in the mainstream school system was 10,575, and there are now 14,385, which is an increase of 48%. I acknowledge the important role of individual SNAs in supporting some of the country’s most vulnerable children. Their work and commitment ensures children with SEN can attend school and participate in school life to the fullest possible extent. Provision has been made for 19,169 SNAs by the end of 2022, which will represent an increase of 81% since 2011, while 1,165 additional SNAs will be allocated this year.

Schools have maintained their SNA allocations since 2019 and an average of 1,000 additional SNAs per annum have also been allocated to schools since that time in 2020 and again in 2021. We have made significant inroads for SNAs over the past few years, which has been a key priority of mine.

We had a comprehensive review of the SNA scheme. In this regard, the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, recommended that a new national training programme at level 5 of the national qualification framework be developed for existing SNAs who do not have the requisite level of training and for new SNAs on appointment. This is a major educational initiative, which will enhance the knowledge, skills and expertise of SNAs, who are crucial to the inclusion of students with additional care needs in the education system. I ensured that the programme would be fully funded by the Department and delivered at no cost to the SNA. I am also aware of Fórsa’s campaign to have the minimum essential qualification for SNAs reviewed. The Department has committed and communicated to Fórsa that it is open to reviewing the position, which I fully support.

Where else does the budget go? It also goes into increasing special classes. As I mentioned, these classes are vital in supporting the development and potential of children with special educational needs. In 2011, we had just 548 special classes in mainstream schools. From this September, we will have 2,463 special classes in mainstream schools across the country. That is an increase of 450% in 11 years. Special classes to support children with significant special educational needs are smaller than the mainstream. They have a pupil-teacher ratio as low as 6:1 and have SNAs assigned to look after the pupil care needs. Overall, there are almost 12,700 pupils enrolled in special classes in mainstream primary and post-primary schools, representing approximately 1% of the overall pupil population.

Budget 2022 provided for the creation of 287 additional special classes for the 2022-23 school year. These additional classes were to provide more than 1,700 new places for September. So far, we have exceeded our projection so that 1,800 additional places in 315 new special classes will become available in 2022. The Department will continue to engage with the NCSE, school patrons and school authorities over the summer months to increase capacity where needed.

The budget also goes, of course, into supporting special schools. One of my favourite and one of the most rewarding parts of this job is being able to visit special schools across the country. It is really amazing to see the work that is going on in these schools. I recently visited St. Martin’s Special School in Waterford, which truly is an example of how far we have come. It is also an example of what can be achieved. It has music programmes, food preparation and nutrition classes, with an adjoining garden where children grow their own vegetables and herbs. There is also a woodwork and craft studio. These are all practical skills that children are learning from a young age to use into further education and beyond. They are life skills that are vitally important in order to be able to achieve their full potential. This is the type of model I want to see every child have access to in the future and that is what I am working towards.

As we know, special schools also have lower class sizes and will also have SNAs assigned. They cater for particular categories of disability. There are now 129 special schools providing specialist education for approximately 8,000 pupils annually with more than 1,400 teachers. That represents approximately 0.8% of the total pupil population.

Budget 2022 also provided for an additional 23 teaching posts and 46 SNA posts in special schools, which will create an additional 140 class places. Two new special schools opened last year. A further two, one in Cork and one in Dublin, are scheduled to open this year. These are the first new special schools to be developed in the country in more than a decade.

As I have highlighted, the special education budget of €2 billion is being spent on the front line to increase these key resources that are supporting special education provision. I spent the first part of my speech outlining the increase in numbers and statistics. However, I know for many parents out there listening that numbers and statistics do not mean anything if their child does not currently have an appropriate school place. I want to tell them that I am committed to doing anything I can to try to ensure that their child has access to the support he or she needs.

Over the last 11 years, Fine Gael has prioritised investing in children with special educational needs. We believe in supporting all children, especially children with special educational needs, to achieve their full potential. I believe this commitment was clear when the Tánaiste appointed me as the first ever Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion.

I take this opportunity to outline what I have done and what I will do further to increase special education provision. First, I secured an agreement with the Department that ensures all new school buildings will have compulsory special class provision moving forward. This is an important step along the way to ensuring eventually that every school will provide special education provision. I said this is my number one goal and I truly believe it is the only way forward. I introduced a number of new strategic initiatives, particularly in the last two years, to deliver the scale and quantity of special education provision that is required for our children and young people.

This future-proofing will include the incorporation of at least four special classes in all-new 1,000-student post-primary schools and other large-scale projects and pro rata for medium to smaller schools. At primary level, accommodation for two special classes is provided for eight to 16 mainstream class schools and for four special classes at larger schools. Despite what the Opposition claims, there is forward planning and work under way on enhancing special class and special school provision across the country.

I also introduced a new forecasting model. A geographic information management system is being utilised to support a strategic and co-ordinated approach to planning and delivery of special educational needs provision. That is essential in allowing us to prepare for the future. In March of this year, I announced for the very first time that special education provision would open with a fee-charging patron, namely, the Spiritan Education Trust. This is something many people said would never happen. I also expect to expand on this precedent going forward.

I also appointed a new CEO of the NCSE, whom I believe will make the necessary changes in order to reform the organisation. There are legacy issues that need to be addressed; I am well aware of that. I will put in place the necessary resources that are required to achieve this.

Another key priority of mine is to use whatever legislative tools I can to provide more places for children as quickly as possible. As Members will know, I already initiated the section 37A process. We are currently examining how we can streamline that process and if emergency legislation will help us to do that. I am also looking at commencing section 67 of the Education Act. This provides a power to the NCSE to designate a school place for an individual child in a special class or special school. This is something I believe we can do.

Although we do have many challenges ahead, the NCSE has informed me that, save for Dublin, it is confident there will be enough special class and special school provision to satisfy demand across the entire country. More broadly, the Department continues to work closely with the NCSE and relevant stakeholders in the school system with regard to the overall special education placement requirements. This is particularly in the case of the Dublin area to ensure a supply of placements coming on stream to meet emerging demand.

There is ongoing work to provide additional special classes and special school places for the next year in order that the remaining gaps in provision from the current 99% to the full 100% is achieved as quickly as possible. As I said, I recently announced that I would be initiating the section 37A process to compel schools to increase places for children with special educational needs. As I said on Tuesday, I felt like I was left with no other choice but to take substantive action. I believe that is a necessary step to try to ensure that every child gets the supports he or she needs and access to a school placement. All parties would clearly prefer to see schools actually volunteer to provide more places rather than places being secured on the back of an order or direction from a Minister.

Schools have been working with us and the NCSE, though, to open new classes and we will open at least 315 additional classes this year. I am grateful to all concerned for their ongoing work in this regard. Where schools do not volunteer to provide more places, however, I will absolutely compel them to do so. I said that on Tuesday evening and I will say it repeatedly. I fundamentally believe that all schools should have to provide places for children with special educational needs. It is not good enough to say that they do not cater for children with additional needs. I cannot and will not accept that.

The second stage of the section 37A process is now complete and the NCSE will now provide a detailed report to me on the matter. We will consult with school patrons, national parent bodies, school management bodies and the teacher unions, which is requested under the process. I insisted that this be done as quickly as possible and I expect that it will be.

I believe the process has to be streamlined and shortened because there are too many stages in it. I have made it clear it requires reform.

The other legislative option I have mentioned is section 67 of the Education Act. This provides a power to the NCSE to designate a school place for an individual child in a special class or special school. The Department has recently engaged with both the NCSE and Tusla about commencing this provision, and these discussions are continuing as a matter of priority. I believe we must have a common-sense approach to this issue. For me, it makes complete sense to commence section 67, as it is the NCSE that knows about the students who need special school and special class places the most. It has also already worked with the schools directly to open these places, so let it fill them. Furthermore, we are separately considering whether there is a need to introduce new emergency legislation to assist in securing additional special educational needs provision. As I mentioned on Tuesday, the Department recently met the Office of the Attorney General to discuss the matter. This work will consider whether new legislation would assist in expediting the section 37A process.

The Department and I are working closely with stakeholders, including parents and advocacy groups, and we have a consultative special education forum to ensure children with special educational needs can access education placements appropriate to their needs. I am very aware that listening to the voices of parents and of those representing children with disabilities is essential to ensure what we deliver meets the needs of the children. Sometimes in special education there is too much emphasis placed on the deficit and not enough on the strength. We have to harness that strength and determination to work intensively on the issues facing us in respect of school placements so that we can find a way forward with the best interests of the children at heart.

As I said on Tuesday, this is a very emotive topic for thousands of families and I realise every case of a child with special educational needs is different. I have met with many parents recently and I want to let them know we are listening to them. I assure every parent that I am committed to ensuring each child with a special educational need has an appropriate school place. After all, it is the child's constitutional right, and I will not stop until this is achieved.

First, I apologise to the Minister of State for being absent for the start of the debate. I was travelling up from an event in Cork this morning but I was listening to her contribution. I am often critical, but I recognise the Minister of State is well motivated and wants to see progress on special education. I believe I appropriately commended the Minister of State at the time of the budget on the additional budget for special educational needs. That was welcome.

I listened to the Minister of State's speech and the start of it was an outline of a series of figures. She correctly acknowledged the fact that for many parents any number of numbers is not going to change the fact their child does not have a place. However, it is more than that. To a significant extent, this is not a budgetary issue. It is about forecasting and planning. The Minister of State said that forecasting happens in terms of places. I find that hard to grasp because there has been the same pattern in recent years. The geography changes a small amount, but fundamentally, in areas where there is a young population, it is the same pattern every year. Parents come forward in September and October to inquire because they are worried about school places, indeed for the following September as well. They go to the Department and the NCSE, who assure them there are an adequate number of places. They continue to reassure them until the Department and the NCSE panic in March and April and, unfortunately, this year, in May and June because they realise there are not enough places. We know there are more than 120 too few places in Dublin.

If there is a projection model being used by the Department and the NCSE based on population data or, for example, the number of children in special classes in primary school going into special classes in secondary school, I do not understand how significant numbers of children, well over 250 across the State at a minimum, continue to be missed. I am of the view that if the Department had identified in September and October there were 120 children in Dublin who do not have a place in a special class, and there are probably 700 or 800 schools in Dublin, it is surely the case the Department would have been able to find places in special classes had it and the NCSE put the effort in at that stage. I absolutely believe that is the case. That is the part we need to crack. Over the course of the past 15 years or so, we have increased the proportion of the educational budget that goes to special educational needs, but we have not got anywhere near cracking the issue of planning. That is the issue on which my motion on Tuesday focused and which I urge the Minister of State to get right from now on because it is leading to parents currently not knowing where their child will be in September and to parents worrying about where their child will be in September 2023.

Some of this is because, perhaps, there is a desire on the part of the Department and the NCSE to will it into existence, to hope there are enough places. That is obviously not the case. There is an awful lot to do. There is the medium term and the long term. In the long term we want to work towards a system where there is greater fluidity whereby children have much more scope to move between special school, special class, mainstream and mainstream special class as their needs require, as they progress and so forth. We are a significant distance away from that because a number of things must happen at the same time. First, to ensure children who have additional needs can thrive in the mainstream, we must bring class sizes down and ensure there are an adequate number of special needs assistants, SNAs, which is a point to which I will return. We also must crack the issue of therapies. I saw the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte, here a short time ago and I am sure she will return soon, but therapies are an essential element of this. This is not just education in terms of teachers and SNAs but also in terms of speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and psychologists, who will all play a crucial role in ensuring these children can thrive. We must move forward on all those elements together, and some of them will take time.

In the meantime, the bare minimum we should be providing is enough places in special classes and special schools every year. I do not believe that is beyond our budget. This is not just a question of throwing money at it and hoping it will go away. Only proper planning will achieve it. If there is a forecasting model, we need to hear a little more about it because it does not appear to be cutting the mustard.

There is another issue in respect of section 37A. There is the medium term and the longer term, but we have the immediate term, which is an emergency situation for this September. That emergency has been apparent for some time. Several parties in the Opposition, as well as AsIAm, Inclusion Ireland and Families Unite for Services and Support, FUSS, Ireland, have been making it clear there is an emergency. I heard the Minister of State talk briefly about section 37A, saying she has begun that process. She has spoken in the past about the need for emergency legislation. I am not sure I heard that in her opening statement today or in her speech on Tuesday. It appears this will be rolled into the review of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, which is more a medium-term project and objective.

Where stands the proposal for emergency legislation on section 37? How are we going to ensure people have a place for this September, which is only 14 to 15 weeks away? It is a very short period of time until those children will be going to school. Obviously, that puts the schools in a difficult position, but it also puts the parents and the children in a difficult position. I did not hear enough from the Minister of State. There was some good stuff in the statement but I did not hear enough about how we are going to get places for those children in September. Will section 37A meet the needs? Is there going to be emergency legislation? Are these centres of special education going to happen?

It seems to me they are not. I welcome the fact they are not because it is isolationist and would segregate children from their peers. The parents in these instances chose to send their child to a special class as part of a larger school community because what they wanted was the opportunity to integrate with the wider school community. This would have sent them away on their own. I know the Minister of State will say it would have been a temporary measure, but we have an entire history in this State of temporary measures that end up being far from temporary. Direct provision is a classic example. The NBA flats near where I grew up were meant to last ten years and they lasted 30 years. We have a long track record of temporary solutions proving permanent or semi-permanent. I note the Government has not explicitly ruled it out at this point, but my fear is that if it is put in place, children could end up there until well into the following year and perhaps even a full school year. That would not have been in keeping with the principles of inclusion and ensuring those children get the best possible opportunity.

Undoubtedly, section 37 needs to be streamlined but there is a need for an emergency response. We should not need an emergency response. The Department and the NCSE should have been on top of this a long time ago, but we are in this situation and we must do what we can to vindicate what is a constitutional right for these children.

I also want to touch on the subject of SNAs. The Minister spoke about SNAs and the importance of their role. I very much agree they play a crucial role, one that for far too long has been neglected, diminished and shown inadequate respect. I fundamentally disagree with the approach adopted by the Department on the minimum qualifications. The Department makes a big play of the SNA announcement in the budget every year. It has been 1,000 or 1,100 every year for the past four or so years, but in each of those years we have not actually got 1,000 or 1,100 because the terms and conditions are not attractive enough. It is usually 750 or 800 that come through the system. When schools wonder why they do not have enough SNAs, in particular new and developing schools, a big part of the problem is that it is not all that easy to recruit SNAs because it is not the most attractive job in the world. In part, that is down to the minimum qualifications. The Minister of State and the Department are trying to roll this into part of the public sector pay talks. That is completely the wrong approach. It is putting the cart before the horse. That means it will be years before there is any real progress. The expert independent analysis, which we will be discussing at the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science this week or next week, should happen in advance of anything like that in order that their qualifications can be properly evaluated and any pay talks can reflect the improved conditions.

I will finish on that because I may possibly be going over time. We have an emergency situation that needs to be addressed urgently. I urge the Minister of State to use every power in her capability and, obviously, budget, but this is more than that. In the longer term, we need to get better at planning. These children have a constitutional right. We need to plan better, and it needs to be right at the start of the school year that we make these decisions.

I welcome much of what was in the Minister of State's statement. As my colleague Deputy Ó Laoghaire has said, we recognise that efforts have been made to resolve many of the issues that have been there for so long for many families who have children with various levels of disability.

The issue raised with us most often relates to special needs assistants in schools. In recent weeks, a young man from Drumshanbo contacted me about his son who is starting school soon. He said the school, St. Patrick's National School, which is a mainstream school, has 1.83 SNAs. His son has muscular dystrophy and he will need a lot of attention. The two SNAs that are in the school are already working with three other children in the school. The man has to apply for a special exemption review to look for an additional SNA. The point he makes is the system is clearly broken when that is the case. We need to have a much better way of assuring children and parents in particular that the service will be in place at the outset when they send their child to school. They should not be doing it in the current manner. One of the issues that needs to be examined is how to bring the system up to date so that it deals with people efficiently and effectively from the very start.

The Minister of State has gone through many of the other issues, for example, in regard to the provision of special classes. Several school principals have been in contact with me, including the local school, Carrigallen National School, in County Leitrim, which has an application for an extension for another special class. It already has one and there is a second one in place. It is looking to expand the criteria that are in place at present because some of them are very tight and difficult for them. There needs to be an openness to deal with each school individually, in particular if a school is prepared and is looking to the future. In fairness, that particular school, like many others, is looking to the future and it sees that what it is doing now will not be enough in seven or eight years' time and that it will need to apply again. Rather than coming back with another application for another extension or new building in seven or eight years' time, if it could be done the first time with a bit of extra space in place and if additional resources were put in place to do that, it would save the State a lot of money.

Another issue that comes to mind is the qualifications, which Deputy Ó Laoghaire mentioned. Many people set out to become SNAs and discover it is difficult and onerous. We need to re-examine that as a matter of urgency. It is not something that will take a long time to do and it could happen quickly if the effort is put in to do so.

Another issue was raised recently by a woman who has a practice in Drumshanbo. Her name is Anne Bohan and she runs her own private clinic, Assist Dyslexia. She works with children with dyslexia and she sent me a message in recent days:

Why are individual readers in exam being replaced by a helper for several students who will read occasional words or sentences? There seems to be a complete dismantling of support for Dyslexic kids at primary and second level. I have a copy of the letter one student received saying that's what has been granted.

In other words, a child with dyslexia in the past would have had a reader to assist him or her with the exams, but now the reader could be assisting several children. The system is not working. It cannot work. The experience of families is clearly set out in the letter. What families understand now is there is a withdrawal of support, yet when the Department is contacted it states supports are in place as normal for children with dyslexia when they are doing their exams. It is clear the support has been dispersed among several children and the reader who was previously available for one child has to work with several children. That is simply not appropriate. I think the Minister of State would acknowledge that needs to be examined.

The overall picture is that the experience of many families who have a child with a disability of whatever kind, such as autism or the various other issues that come to mind, is they have to fight every inch of the way. The Minister of State might acknowledge that is what most families tell us. We need to change that fundamentally. A child with special educational needs will have difficulties in life in general and families need to work hard to do their best for their child, but the State should be there to assist them, not to try to block them and hold them back. There are too many people in positions in various agencies who believe their job is to block anybody from getting anything rather than assisting them to get it. That attitude needs to change as well. I say to the Minister of State the leadership must come from the top. She has a role in that regard and, in fairness to her, she is taking the role seriously, but we have not seen it play out at the bottom yet. There are many experiences parents relay to us of situations they have come up against where the system just says "No". That is not good enough and it needs to be examined and changed.

The issues are wide and varied. They are also about pre-planning and making sure we have planning in place to have enough services in place for the future. There is good work being done. I pay tribute to the many people who work in the services, who do great work and who are committed to helping children and to liaising with families and working with them, but we still have a long distance to go.

A child who has special educational needs or has learning difficulties will need appropriate educational provisions and facilities to address those needs. Such assessments should also determine the educational setting he or she should attend. The child could have speech, language and communication needs or behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. He or she could have autistic spectrum conditions or specific learning difficulties, such as dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Regardless of the child's needs, difficulties or disabilities that interfere with learning, all children, especially those with special needs, have a right to a broad and balanced education. For the most part, children with special needs will go to an ordinary school and some might attend a special unit within the school grounds. Other children with special needs will go to special schools. In an ideal situation, the parents of the child, the school and the school board work in partnership to make the best decisions for the child's development and progress.

Homeless students face even greater challenges. For them, the classroom can represent, in a chaotic life, the only safe, consistent and stable place in their lives, as they often have to deal with difficult challenges outside the classroom that will directly impact on their academic performance. For children already identified as needing special education services, the stresses of homelessness can greatly increase learning problems.

The impact of the pandemic has brought new challenges for parents and children with special educational needs as they return to school. Many children were unable to participate in remote learning and, as a consequence, have lost crucial developmental skills. In my constituency, Dublin North-West, we have some of the highest waiting lists in the country for special needs places. I have met with parents who spoke to me of their experiences of trying to find a place for their child in a school. What was most striking from my conversations with these parents was the severe lack of places for children and the great difficulties parents face in trying to access resources. This has led to high levels of stress and anxiety for the parents and the child concerned. They highlighted the obvious reductions in the levels of special education teaching allocation and SNAs.

This was also highlighted in a survey conducted by three of the leading disability advocacy organisations in the State: Inclusion Ireland, Down Syndrome Ireland and AsIAm. Their report also found that while children with additional needs benefited from the return to school, it is clear they also faced new challenges, especially around accessing supports and being included in schools. The parents expressed to me in the strongest of terms that these issues must be addressed immediately and their children should have access to appropriate educational facilities and supports, such as additional teaching time and SNA supports.

An article published in 2020, "Special education reforms in Ireland: changing systems, changing schools", written by a group of academics from Trinity College Dublin, Dublin City University and the Economic and Social Research Institute who all have expertise in special needs education, highlighted the possible misuse of special needs teachers. The Department of Education was investigating at least 50 such cases and The Irish Times also reported there had been 88 reports of potentially inappropriate use of special education teaching resources since September 2017. However, teacher unions and those involved in school management bodies have said that such misuse of special needs teachers arose as a consequence of a number of factors, including, as was stated in the 2020 article:

...a lack of resources, gaps in competencies to manage the needs of some students within schools, and a lack of available teachers have impacted the ability of schools to allocate resources appropriately ... [It is clear that] The inclusion of an increased number of students with a spectrum of needs within schools has ... placed pressure on schools to expand the range of skills and competencies among the teaching staff

We know there is a severe lack of SNAs throughout the State and this has a knock-on effect in the lack of provision of school places for children in special needs education. There is also a concern that many special needs students are being placed on reduced timetables by schools. Such reductions in timetables should be used only in exceptional circumstances. This can be beneficial if seen in the context of supporting the full inclusion and reintegration of the child.

The Minister of State knows we already had a debate on many of these issues on Tuesday night. I will expand my comments to address some of the issues within the system.

The Minister of State will know that not every school is the same. As has been mentioned, there are a cohort of students in some schools who are particularly vulnerable and needy. There may be intergenerational educational disadvantage and addiction issues, in addition to higher proportions of Traveller children, migrant children, children who have just arrived from Ukraine and Roma children as well as a variety of issues with which the school has to deal. Within that school there can also be a higher proportion of children who are under the 30th percentile, so all these allocated resources that will be afforded to the Minister of State will be used in that way to deal with the scenario in front of her in the best way she can. There may be a child in that scenario who may be in the 50th percentile but could be in the 90th percentile with certain appropriate interventions. However, a different school may have the scenario, and I know this to be true, of the lowest performing child in reading capability in that school being at the 88th percentile, yet that child will get resources due to the baseline resources all schools get.

This is something social inclusion policy and the NCSE need to address properly. As I said, the child who is at the 50th percentile could be at the 90th percentile. The difference that intervention could make in that child's life over the course of his or her life could be so fundamental and life transforming, but the resources of one school mean it cannot afford to benefit that child because there are so many other needs in that school, whereas that very same scenario would be addressed in a different school. We must not just have a baseline of support for every school but a baseline of support for every child, if we recognise that the intervention of jumping from the 50th to the 90th percentile would make a massive difference in that child's life. As the Minister of State knows, we have an education system that is based on choice, which means competition. When we have competition, in effect, we have a system in which some schools, unfortunately, have a greater level of disadvantage than others.

The role of the special educational needs co-ordinator, SENCo, in the school system needs to be better supported. It almost needs to have the same sort of status within the school as that of a careers guidance teacher. The number of agencies SENCos deal with, the amount of timetabling they have to do, the phone calls they have to make, and the assessments on which they have to follow up are quite onerous. If we were to support that position more, we would have a situation in schools where resources would be better allocated and much more streamlined. We would not have the scenario, as has been explained to me, of paperwork clogging up basic applications for laptops, which can sometimes take three to four months to be processed. All these types of things are the daily grind for people in this position. Nobody in the Minister of State's position, or in the NCSE or the Department of the Education, wants to deny somebody the resources they deserve. As I said, the SENCo positions need to be properly recognised.

As has been mentioned, we keep coming back to the discussion about SNAs. It is still regarded by the Department as a short-term scheme 20 years on.

The question of recognising SNAs' qualifications and so on goes directly to the lack of respect that SNAs feel they are getting from the Department. This all feeds into the narrative. Every year, we discuss the need for SNA allocations to be made much earlier. We have spoken about how late they were made this year. We need to recognise the SNA position as being more than just part of a scheme and instead as being a career. The lack of recognition that their position gets goes to the heart of the insecurity that SNAs feel.

The Minister of State can point to the increased number of SNAs in the system, and that number is to her credit, but a school told me today about 54 students accessing six SNAs. If I remember my maths correctly, six into 54 is nine. That is nine students accessing one SNA. How could any SNA do that job effectively? Much of this has to do with how we have the largest class sizes in Europe. How can an SNA deal with the variety of educational needs in a class effectively when so many of the duties of an SNA dip into the educational area because the class is so large, the needs are so great and the teacher can only do so much? What the SNA is trained to do and is charged with doing dips into other areas because of the workload in the classroom.

I understand that there are approximately 5,000 deaf children or children with hearing loss in the system. Their advocates are telling me that there needs to be greater awareness among, and training for, teachers and SNAs who are dealing with children who are deaf, hard of hearing or suffering hearing loss, given that the children are not performing as their peers are performing. That is not because of any academic failing on the children's part, but because there is no support, awareness or teacher empowerment. The Department could address this matter.

We are still being governed by the five-year-old circular 13/2017. Principals have told me that they find it challenging that only children who are in treatment programmes with disability teams can get resources allocated to them in school. However, if a child has been diagnosed and is awaiting treatment from a disability team, the child cannot get resources in school. I would be interested in the Minister of State's view on this matter.

As was stated on Tuesday and again today, data are necessary. This is where the challenge lies for the NCSE. I met Mr. John Kearney, its new CEO. I appreciate his dynamism and new approach to finding solutions. However, the NCSE would be better served if it had more data and greater recognition of the level of need on a regional basis so that we were not firefighting every year and could project five years or ten years hence. Neither the Minister of State nor many members of the Opposition want to be here every June having the same argument about, or experiencing the same frustrations with, school places.

What comes to my mind in this debate is the word “insecurity”. As I mentioned on Tuesday, if a family is trying to grapple with a child’s diagnosis, there is insecurity about knowing when the assessment, intervention, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy will happen and insecurity about whether the child will get a school place. There is insecurity among those working in the system about whether they will be able to empower the child properly. There is insecurity about the career path of the SNA. There is insecurity for the person charged with overseeing all of this within the school system about whether there will be time and space within the school diary to do it, given the various overlapping agencies that he or she must contend with every day of the week. It is challenging.

Every school deserves resources and I am not in any way suggesting that schools do not. Fair play to the private schools for opening up to other children - I am delighted about that. However, where schools in intense disadvantage are concerned, the children attending them who are not in the siren zone – they are in the extremely vulnerable position of being under the 30th percentile and are progressing okay but could be progressing much better - are deserving of help as much as a middle class child is. This is a challenge for us. The Minister of State will agree that we can find solutions to it, but they must be socially inclusive and we need to work hand in glove with the NCSE on finding them.

I welcome these statements on special educational needs. The need for investment in special education has been highlighted time and again in my constituency. We have made significant progress in recent years on increasing the number of places in special classes and special schools as well as the number of special education teachers and SNAs to record levels. I compliment the Minister of State on her work in this area, including in the Department.

In my county of Mayo, we are fortunate to have recognised special education schools, namely, St. Anthony’s, St. Brid’s, St. Dymphna’s and the St. Nicholas school. I thank the Minister of State for her visit to St. Brid’s and St. Anthony’s when she came to Mayo last year. A number of additional accommodation announcements have been made recently by the Department in respect of schools across Mayo. I acknowledge the allocation of funding for additional autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units and special educational needs classrooms throughout the country. It is welcome.

In my town of Castlebar, Davitt College, which is part of the Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim Education and Training Board, ETB, has received confirmation from the NCSE that it can proceed with plans to open a special class in September for children with autism. This is important and welcome and sends a strong signal that the Department and the Government are prioritising the establishment of special education classes within our secondary school environment so that there is progression from national school. The major building project at St. Brid’s Special School is also under way and will be delivered under the Department’s ADAPT programme. The tender process for appointing a project manager is nearing completion. I hope that this project will soon progress to construction and be delivered. It would be welcome.

St. Anthony’s recently ran a major fundraiser to develop two sensory rooms. I compliment its principal, Ms Fiona Byrne, and her staff on the considerable work they do to progress the school. The two additional sensory rooms will be critical. However, I wish to discuss the allocation of an eighth teacher for the 2022-23 academic year. In terms of its autism profile, the school is increasing its enrolment from 21 children with autism to 26, yet no SNA staffing resource has been allocated to support the new classroom establishment. According to the NCSE’s website, 18 special schools in the country were allocated additional teacher posts, with 17 given at least one additional SNA. For some reason, St. Anthony’s was never given this additional resource. I know that the Minister of State is working on this issue in her office, but I ask that it be reviewed with the NCSE.

In addition, St. Anthony’s has 33 pupils with a variety of special educational needs who require their own support. With 26 pupils with ASD, the school is entitled to access the requisite level of support to match that profile irrespective of the additional needs that they may have. Come September, the school will have a new student with a history of needing and having intensive one-to-one adult support provided at all times across a variety of settings, including school. This will be challenging for the classroom teacher. Ensuring that a full-time SNA is allocated will be an important step forward. Granting the school's request for resources and supports will ensure that St. Anthony's 99 pupils in September, including 11 new pupils, achieve success and are able to access the best education that can be provided.

I compliment the school on the tremendous work it is doing. I wish to highlight the lack of SNA support.

It is an oversight from the NCSE's point of view and hopefully it will be rectified before the next academic year.

I wish to highlight another issue. As recently as yesterday, I was contacted by the family of a young child with special educational needs who needs to attend an ASD-specific preschool. The parents were contacted by a local unit with a view to enrolling their child for the coming September, only to be advised that the child was ineligible due to its age. The age requirement under the school's policy is three years and six months but this child, unfortunately, is three years and four months. The child is two months younger than the age in the school policy, even though enrolment will be in September. There is an issue with this refusal. The school has explained that children will be put on a waiting list but the child in question will be four and a half years of age before it reaches preschool. This is disappointing for the parents. It is crucial that they receive early intervention and support and that the child does not miss out on early intervention in its most vulnerable months. The special educational needs organiser, SENO, senior manager has stated that the school policy is not a legal document and it should be challenged. However, schools are implementing a policy that is impossible for parents to adhere to. I know the Minister of State is aware of this. Decisions such as these should be left to the Department of Education, not school principals. The NCSE and the SENO should have the authority to advise and allocate places for children on the basis of the critical diagnosis provided in cases such as this and for other children going forward. That should be the deciding factor.

We are all glad we are having these statements again. I sit on the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science with Deputies Ó Ríordáin and Ó Laoghaire. I listening to the Deputies' contributions and that of the Minister of State. We all acknowledge that we have a record number of SEN teachers, SNAs and ASD classes. All these big figures are great but the Minister of State made the point that numbers and statistics do not matter and that what matters are individuals without a school or an appropriate school place. Despite all the big figures and major investment of €2 billion in the Department of Education budget, there are still gaps and shortfalls in accommodating many students. We need to acknowledge that.

I will raise a number of points and I would appreciate it if the Minister of State would address them. I will try to focus first on the lack of ASD class provision in certain areas. I do not want to go on a geographical journey where I will embarrass individual schools publicly but I might just identify a few cases across the country, including in my county. There are large suburbs in the west of Cork city where there is one ASD class at primary level and one ASD class at secondary level. The area has one ASD class at primary and secondary level facilitating a population of about 25,000 people. This is totally inadequate and imbalanced. Out the road in outlying villages of a few hundred people, the primary school could have three or four ASD classes. This imbalance and the way we have allowed this model to develop need to be addressed.

We speak about working in collaboration with schools rather than adopting an adversarial approach but it is high time we took schools and boards of management to task. The greatest power the Minister of State has, as has been noted, is the section 37A power. I know it is not the most convenient way to do things. We would like to do things quicker. I understand the process can take up to two years, so section 37A is not the most appropriate of avenues by which to go about this. However, instigating this procedure, where appropriate and as quickly as possible, is a sure-fire way of signalling to these schools that they need to get their acts together.

I welcome the Minister of State's comment that a number of new schools are being established. One of them will be in Cork city. Just yesterday, we had confirmation that a second site in Glanmire had transferred from Cork City Council to the Department of Education in the hope that it will be developed as a special school. It is my hope that we can get on now with appointing a consultant, tendering and procuring for the site and getting the school built as it will facilitate dozens of children in the wider east Cork and Cork city area who require a special school place.

I will bring to the Minister of State's attention a matter that I became aware of only recently. We have approximately 140 early intervention classes at preschool level in the country. The difficulty is that many kids of two and three years of age who depend on the public service to get a diagnosis will more than likely not receive one until they are five, six or seven years of age. We are finding that in the early intervention classes, the majority of kids who are lucky enough to get a diagnosis at that age are from families who have the means to obtain a private diagnosis. The majority of early intervention classes are populated by children whose parents or families have the means to help them to get these places, which are in short supply. As I said, there are only approximately 140 early intervention classes nationwide. We need to work on that, particularly as regards the childcare settings we have. Perhaps we should develop a pod system or an ASD equivalent or perhaps we should expand existing early intervention provision. We need to work on the diagnosis of students if the system is to work.

I will touch on the summer provision programme. I spent 15 years as a teacher. Unfortunately, in that time the programme never had a good uptake for a variety of reasons, which have been well aired. I am hearing about this year's provision again. It is great that it has been assigned its largest ever budget of €40 million. However, I am hearing on the ground that about 80% of the students who could avail of summer provision will most likely not be able to do so. Again, I will not discuss individual schools but I have been told by parents' groups that in the case of a school in County Wicklow, there are 99 pupils seeking summer provision but only 12 of them have been offered a place. A school in Cavan has 183 students seeking summer provision but is only offering a programme to classes of children with severe and profound needs. This situation is mirrored across the country. While funding is welcome, we need to expand the numbers of people who can deliver the summer provision programme. Not everybody who delivers July or summer provision has to be a teacher. I know the scheme is being extended to trainee teachers who are registered with the Teaching Council but why cannot we consider other trainees such as those in the health or childcare sector? In my mind, anybody in the care sector could, in theory, be able to deliver a meaningful summer provision programme that far exceeds what is likely to be delivered this year.

I also flag the need for legislation on ASD provision. As I said, it is high time the Government, the Department or the NCSE took it upon themselves or were empowered to designate where ASD classes would be required. A proper demographic breakdown should be done to determine where ASD classes are most needed and they should then be targeted at those areas. I am not in favour of continuing to leave this at the discretion of schools.

The Minister of State indicated that, with the exception of Dublin, she has been told that sufficient places will be available. That is great and welcome. In Cork, we have about 12 children who are still awaiting a place. Many are opting to take a mainstream place, which their SENO has deemed as inappropriate. Due to a fear that they will not get a place anywhere else, these children are going back to mainstream education. Many of them have tried to exit mainstream education and get into a special school. While the problem might be more acute in Dublin, other areas are affected as well. We have made suggestions to the Department as to how to resolve that. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State would follow up the matter.

This week saw the Government vote against a Sinn Féin motion on special education. Instead of engaging and working with Sinn Féin and working together to come up with solutions for the most vulnerable children in the State, the Government again refused to work with us and to listen to those children and their families.

There were 296 primary school special classes in Cork city in 2023. This compares with only 104 at secondary school level, where the ratio is 7:1. This means that there are 2,072 children in primary schools in Cork in special classes and only 728 of them have a guaranteed place in secondary school. Some 1,344 children are at risk of having no place to progress to, despite the NCSE knowing that these children need a second level place. It had eight years to plan. These children go into primary school at the age of five and when they leave at the age of 12 there are no school places available.

How can that be right? Why is that not being solved, rather than planned? It is not a capacity issue. It is a scandalous failure by the Government to look after the most vulnerable, recognise the value in all children and nourish their potential. We know about the lack of spaces and the knock-on effect that has. The lack of spaces in special schools sees children with special educational needs put in mainstream schools where they will not thrive and should not be, but there are no other options. There is a lack of special school places, leaving some children with no alternative in September but to stay at home. This is not fair. This needs to be resolved. It is heartbreaking for the parents and the children. Will the Government please deliver for the most vulnerable?

The lack of special educational needs places in schools for children in Dublin Bay North is as bad as anywhere in the State. I have been in contact with a number of parents in recent months who cannot secure a place for their child for the school year starting in September. They have applied to all the schools in the area but cannot access something that is their child's right. These parents face battles every day. They have to battle for their children and are now fighting a battle that they cannot win because of the severe lack of places. These children have been failed by the State.

The Minister has given a commitment to review section 37 of the Education Act, which is welcome but no good to parents here and now. Successive Governments have failed to tackle the issue of appropriate school places for children with additional needs. In the real world, this amounts to neglect by the State. Parents are not asking for much. They ask that their children be given the same opportunities as any other child.

My colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, brought forward a motion on Tuesday calling for the Minister to bring in emergency legislation to tackle the lack of places. The motion also called for a review and proper forward planning for future years. The Government voted against this. Watching that debate, it was clear that the Ministers are failing to grasp how serious this issue is and that it requires urgent intervention. We need such intervention now. Will the Minister of State confirm whether her Department is proceeding with the proposal for emergency special education centres? People deserve an answer to that.

The Minister and the Minister of State have each stated multiple times, including in the opening part of the address today, that 25% of the Department budget, some €2 billion, is dedicated to meeting the needs of children with additional educational needs. That is an impressive figure but it is little or no comfort to young people and families without appropriate education. It is little help for parents receiving upwards of 20 rejection letters from schools or forced to accept a place for their child that is not appropriate or suitable to their needs. Instead of reiterating the budget spend for this year dedicated to special educational needs, perhaps we should also talk about rights because money does not equate to rights.

In 2016, we were last examined by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and came up lacking. The committee was concerned that Ireland had "no comprehensive strategy for the inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream education and the encouragement of their autonomy" and highlighted the lack of action for the full implementation of the EPSEN Act. The committee advocated for the human rights-based approach to disability because we did not have that in 2016 and we continue to not have a rights-based framework when it comes to disability.

Despite what our Constitution, our Education Act and the UNCRPD, which we agreed to, might say, the lived reality for too many children with additional educational needs is that they do not participate on an equal basis with their peers. That is not because of the disability, but because of the system.

Census 2016 showed that, of people with disability aged 15 to 50, 13.7% had completed no higher than primary level education, compared to 4.2% of the general population. AsIAm's appropriate school place survey found that at least 267 children did not have an appropriate school place for this September, though the number is likely to be significantly higher. Some 109 respondents accepted school places for September that are not appropriate for their child's needs, while 241 respondents stated they did not expect to receive an offer of an appropriate school place before September. When do rights kick in? Is it when a family goes on "Prime Time" or comes to the gates of the Dáil? We all know there is not a human rights approach to disability or a realised right to education for all in our country because we regularly see in our newspapers and hear on our airwaves of children and young people locked out of education because they have a disability or are placed in a system that cannot provide the support they need. However, €2 billion will be spent this year.

Approaching 20 years since its enactment, the EPSEN legislation has never been fully implemented but has been allowed to rot. This was a cost-saving measure, lest we forget. The Act predates our ratification of the UNCRPD in 2018 and, therefore, the ongoing review is essential to ensure it meets international human rights standards. We all fear the review of the EPSEN Act will share the same fate of being left on the shelf unless we commit to neither charity nor best intentions but to full, unwavering realisation and implementation of a human rights framework for people and children with disabilities across our island. We need this work prioritised and expedited.

I will touch on the important work by SNAs. A clear lack of respect is shown to SNAs by the Department. We see it in rates of pay for home-based school summer provision of 2022, for example, where the SNA rate is €16.77 per hour, while that of a qualified teacher is between €35.69 and €47.45 per hour for doing the same job. The majority of our SNAs are vastly overqualified for their role, considering the current minimum requirement is a FETAC level 3 major qualification or a minimum of three grade Ds in the junior certificate, yet the Department has refused to raise the minimum requirement to better reflect the work involved and the development of the role since 1979. The national training programme for SNAs that launched last year and runs in University College Dublin is still without accreditation despite an incredible campaign run by SNAs throughout the country over the past couple of years. We need our SNAs. I do not think there is a school that would disagree. To improve recruitment and retention and to offer the best support for pupils who require it, we need to better respect the role.

We see a clear continuation of negligence and exclusion from society for those with disabilities. People with disabilities are more than twice as likely to experience poverty and deprivation as those without. In 2016, only one third of working-age people with disabilities indicated that their main economic status was employed, compared with two thirds of those without a disability. There was also a vast difference in employment depending on the type of disability. Only 15% of individuals with an intellectual disability were employed, compared to 34% of those with blindness or a serious vision impairment, for example. Exclusion from education is exclusion from socialisation, playing and integration for the better of all in our society and it reduces opportunities beyond school. We have to do better. We are failing despite the receipts the Department can produce and that is not to diminish it. Investment and dedicated funding is essential but do not equate to rights.

Only this year the Department produced guidelines on reduced timetables. Of the respondents to the AsIAm survey mentioned earlier, 57% were on reduced timetables. Only this year were positions created for sign language interpreters so deaf children could access mainstream education. I highlight the work of Andrew Geary, a father who had to fight to get this for this son. Parents have to fight consistently and constantly to ensure their children's constitutional right to an education is met.

Questions remain. When will the EPSEN legislation be enacted fully? When will the role of the SNA be professionalised fully? When will their pay be matched with the responsibility and importance of the work? What year will it be when every child has an appropriate school place? We must do everything we can to ensure it is this year, September 2022. Whether that requires emergency legislation or a greater budget, fundamental to it all is a rights-based approach.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate because services for children with disabilities or additional needs are incredibly important.

Under the umbrella of additional needs come special educational needs. I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, on the work she has done and the commitment she has shown thus far. Having a dedicated Minister of State for special education is a genuine show of the Government's commitment to improving the lives of children with special educational needs. This area has benefited from having a dedicated Minister of State and, if I may so, from having Deputy Madigan in that role because her empathy, compassion and passion for reform in this area is obvious and badly needed by families up and down this country.

I will raise a couple of the issues I am most commonly approached about. The first is special needs education capacity. I know there has been intensive engagement between the Departments, NCSE, school patrons and school authorities on increasing capacity in Dublin. The NCSE's recently published opinion with regard to section 37A of the Education Act 1998 clearly outlined that there is insufficient capacity in special classes and special schools in the county at primary level. Approximately 80 special class places and 49 special school places are needed. Since June, eight special classes have been sanctioned by the NCSE. This will increase special place capacity for the coming academic year. That reduces the number of school places the NCSE has identified as being needed back down to 56. That is really welcome progress but we need more.

My area, Dublin Mid-West, is full of young people and growing families. The demand for ASD units, the supply of which is currently stretched, is only going to increase. Since 2011, the NCSE has increased the number of special classes by more than 130%, from 548 to 1,456. The great majority of those classes are ASD classes. It is fantastic growth but, based purely on the number of inquiries I get from parents in my area who cannot find a place for their children in an ASD class, we need to provide many more.

I will also raise the need for grants for departmental emergency works to facilitate accessibility to be approved more quickly than the current process allows for. Right now, schools have to wait until they can confirm their allocation of SNAs before they apply for funding for accessibility works to accommodate, for example, students in wheelchairs. That is crazy. Until the funding is in place, the work cannot be carried out. In a particular case I am dealing with, this means that a child who is due to start secondary school in September has not yet been accepted to their local school, which is the school they want to attend and the one all their friends are going to. Why? It is because the school is awaiting a new building from the Department. The existing building is not up to current standards, which means it is not accessible. As a result of the school not being able to apply for an accessibility grant until recently because it did not know its SNA allocation, no decision has yet been made on funding. It is the student and his or her family who are paying the price. They are under enormous stress and strain because of this. This administrative hurdle is a major barrier for children and young people with additional physical needs when it comes to accessing their educational entitlement.

I will also highlight another particular issue I have come across in my area. A group of six children are in a preschool early intervention ASD unit. It is approaching the time for them to go to primary school and five of the six have been offered places in the school, either in the mainstream class or the ASD unit. However, one child was offered no place at all. I have been corresponding with the NCSE on this matter and it is proactively engaging on it but I wanted to take the opportunity to raise with the Minister of State that broader issue because if a child is in an early intervention preschool ASD class in the grounds of a school, there simply must be an ASD place available for him or her when it comes time to go to primary school. That must be guaranteed. We need to put that in place.

Scoil Chrónáin in Rathcoole, which is in my area, was chosen to take part in a pilot scheme to provide in-school and preschool speech and language and occupational therapy services a number of years back. The scheme had a really positive impact and offered a more joined-up approach to delivering services that are tailored to each child's individual needs. I do not know the current status of that scheme but it needs to be revived and rolled out to additional schools, especially schools in the area of community healthcare organisation, CHO, 7.

As the Minister of State will be aware, the CHO 7 area is highly populated and my constituency falls into it. It is notoriously a massively challenged area when it comes to speech and language and occupational therapies and other additional needs supports for children. A student in my constituency recently wrote to me to share her experience of navigating the education system with learning disabilities, namely dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and developmental language disorder. What struck me most was this child's struggle to get a proper diagnosis. She had spent years of primary and secondary school being told she was not trying hard enough or being passed over by teachers who did not have either the authority or the training to recognise learning disabilities. The student eventually got a private diagnosis in her late teens thanks to the perseverance of her mother. Unfortunately, that will not change the educational disadvantage she has experienced so far.

The State currently spends more than 25% of its annual education and training budget on making additional provision for children with special educational needs. That is an increase of more than 60% since 2011 alone. That is very positive. Budget 2022 provided funding for an additional 1,165 SNAs, an additional 620 new special education teacher posts and 287 additional special classes. The trends in funding are most certainly going in the right direction. I welcome that but we still need more. There are issues with diagnosis. I acknowledge that does not fall under the remit of the Minister of State but, when it comes to learning disabilities, we need stronger pathways within our classrooms to identify the signs of disability and to get quicker diagnoses. There is no doubt that we are making great progress in the area of special education. The discussion, the policies, the funding and everything else is moving in the right direction but there are still massive challenges. I know there is political will from the Minister of State and her Department to meet these challenges head on and to deliver a reformed service for the children who so badly need it.

This is one of my great areas of interest in terms of advocacy, insofar as a politician can advocate on anything, and it has been since my party was in opposition. I want to focus on some of the things I believe have improved but I also believe we have stalled a little bit, that we need to do much more and that we are facing a crisis.

A case that has stuck in my memory is that of a parent who had more than one child with autism and who made a daily journey, starting at 6 a.m. or 6.30 a.m., to transport one child to Saplings Special School in Kill and another to Kiltiernan, County Dublin. The Minister of State will be familiar with Kiltiernan because it is in her constituency. Saplings is in Kill, County Kildare. Can you imagine making that journey twice a day, travelling down the Naas Road before reversing back over the mountains to Kiltiernan?

I do not want to allow this debate to go by without sincerely thanking the passionate advocates. I think of Miriam Kenny of Involve Autism, her husband, Brian, Alan and Colman and all of the others who assist them. I also think of all of the other autism groups and special needs advocates and those involved in groups like Twigs and SparkAbility that provide after-school care for children with special needs. Aside from leaving them exhausted, that advocacy and the time and energy these people have invested in this have done the State, these children and their parents an incalculable service.

I will now come back to us. There have been movements in the right direction. Progress was being made in my constituency, although I think things have stalled a little. I think of St. Dominic's National School in Tallaght, which I visited a number of months ago. The teachers and the SNAs worked in beautiful classes that had been set aside there. A really beautiful sensory room was also established. The school was yearning for a second ASD class. That was the first time I experienced that as a Deputy. I had never come across teachers who said they would welcome a second ASD class. I have encountered that opinion in other schools since. Why do they hold it? It is because it would enable collaboration and end isolation. That is something the system needs to welcome. I was very proud of the fact that we had got one ASD class, which caters for three or six students, but now I know, although it took a while to dawn on me, that one ASD class in a primary school is simply not sufficient. There needs to be multiple ASD classes. It has been highlighted that the provision for post-primary school is wholly and pitifully inadequate.

It is a crisis that is on our doorsteps as we speak. There is also the after-school element. We are doing a lot of work on the sports and after-school care side of it. I have been a great supporter of a particular idea for six years, so I will keep proposing it. Looking at all the building projects that are going on, we should be co-locating preschools on primary school sites. That would enable co-operation in respect of early intervention and the pooling of resources and the facilitation of after-school care for all children, not just those with special needs, but specifically with those children in mind. It would represent a one-stop shop for parents who are ferrying children to different schools.

I wish to raise the issue of political accountability. I wrote a letter to a principal of a school in Greenhills, which had as its final line: "The decision of the independent board is final". The principal wrote back the most eloquent letter and asked who is ultimately politically accountable, stating that we live in a Republic and there must be political accountability. The Minister of State and the Minister for Education are the ones who are politically accountable. The State cannot allow some schools to stand in the way of its policy to provide education for every child who requires it. Every tool at the disposal of the State has to be employed. If schools simply do not have the space, that is fine. However, the issue of space needs to be addressed and we must ask where we can find the space. The approach should also include the threat of removal of some funding if schools do not co-operate. The day has to come to an end where a principal can tell a parent with two children, one of whom has special needs, that the school may not be the best school for the child with special needs. We must ensure that the schools that are enthusiastic and anxious to provide school places for children with special needs are fully resourced in every way.

On the summer provision scheme, considering where the scheme was previously, I think the Minister for Education has done her best in providing additional resources, spreading the scheme over the summer months, bringing forward the payment of teachers and opening the scheme up to student teachers and others to provide it. However, it is not working. We really need to have a long, hard look at it. All of the Deputies have emails in their inboxes from people saying that four out of five of their local schools are not providing the summer provision scheme. As I have suggested previously, I think clusters of schools should work together in particular areas. For example, one school could provide the scheme for one of the summer months, or one school could provide the scheme in a particular year, with the agreement that the other school in the locality would provide it the next year. We have to be more and more creative. We cannot let obstacles stand in our way. As usual, I have much more to say on this issue, but I thank the Ceann Comhairle for bearing with me.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this issue. Parents of neurotypical children have an expectation that their children will get a decent education. It is not an unreasonable expectation. However, it is not an expectation that parents of neurodiverse children have. One parent from the Neurodiversity - Irishtown, Ringsend and Pearse Street and Involve Autism advocacy groups told me recently that as a parent of an autistic child, getting a place in a school is a horrific struggle. Parents feel they are begging the teachers, principals and SENOs for a place. They have to pretend their children are not as autistic as they actually are in order that they have a chance of getting the school to accept their child. SENOs will not pick up the phone to parents because there is nothing they can say to them. In my view, the NCSE is dysfunctional. There has to be a way that the NCSE can gather the information it needs to ensure the resources are directed where they are needed. Currently, the NCSE does not have the information it needs, so it cannot plan. That is a major factor in this human disaster.

Every child should have an appropriate place in its community with the wraparound services it needs and deserves. We have to stop the practice of taxiing children out of their community. I have raised the issue previously. The Government is spending over €70,000 a day taxiing children with disabilities out of their community to schools a long distance away. This practice cannot be allowed to continue. I understand that a child as young as two and half is being taxied out of their community because there are not enough early intervention classes in the area. The Government has failed to plan and failed to act. As a result, it has failed our children.

We are being told that the NCSE has the data and knows the children and their needs. If that is the case, why are we here relaying the concerns of parents and young people in the month of June? The reality is that the NCSE was aware of children's needs, but failed to put in place a strategy to deal with the situation. If it can do this year after year, why should parents and students believe that next year or the year after that will be any different?

I know we all have the statistics, but I think it is worth repeating them. In Dublin 15, there are currently 30 autism classes in primary schools, which cater for a maximum of 180 students. There are nine autism classes in secondary schools, with a maximum of 54 places. As I stated on Tuesday, despite the promise of the immediate allocation of 22 school places, only one has been provided so far. Looking forward, are we going to have the same outrage from parents who cannot access places in the 2023 school intake process? In Dublin 15, only 20% of students who are currently in third, fourth and fifth classes will have a place available to them. If the NCSE has that information, it must tell the parents of those students how they will be facilitated. We know that many students do not leave special classes. The 22 places that have been promised will be locked in for a number of years. If there is to be a new stream of special needs classes for each year, parents must be informed. They must be given that clarification now.

Danu Community Special School, the special school for Dublin 15, only opened recently but is already at full capacity. The school has stated that it will not be open to new enrolments for at least five years. From 2022 to 2025, there will be over 35 children who will need a secondary school place. Where are those children to go? As Deputy Andrews mentioned, they will be taxied to other schools, or they will be lost to the school system. They will not have a place, and unfortunately, will not get the education they deserve. I ask the Minister of State to provide a full-time behavioural therapist for Danu Community Special School. The school has been pleading for the provision of such a therapist since it opened and moved to the new complex in Rath Dara. I also ask the Minister of State to provide a multidisciplinary team, even on a cluster school basis, to support teachers and students to enable them to attain the highest level of education that we can provide.

I want to raise the issue of the bizarre nature of the assignment of SNAs. I ask that we stop the nonsensical practice of schools having to reapply for an SNA at post-primary level when a child has had an SNA all throughout his or her primary education. If a child needs an SNA in primary school, why does he or she have to go through the process of applying for an SNA at secondary level? I genuinely believe that in future, a Minister will be sitting where the Minister of State is sitting now apologising on behalf of the State for the failure of previous Ministers to provide an appropriate education for children with special educational needs.

How do we even know what the needs and educational needs of children are when they cannot access an assessment of need? They are entitled to an assessment of need within three months of application, and to have the resources provided within a further three months. However, children are waiting two and three years for assessments. That assessment at the outset is key. If a child does not get the assessment, diagnosis, resources and supports, the needs grow and it becomes a much bigger problem for schools, the child and the parents as the child enters education.

To give an example, parents with a two-year-old son attended my office in recent weeks. That child is non-verbal. His paediatrician says he shows all the signs of fairly severe autism. He applied for an assessment on 2 February and should have received that assessment by now. He was linked in with the CDNT but that was just a box-ticking exercise. The HSE has now told his parents that it could be two to three years before he gets the assessment. His parents are panicked about his future. If that child were to get an assessment, including an assessment of his educational needs, and a diagnosis now, he could get the services and supports that are necessary and he would be in a far better position. If he does not get those supports, his future will be impacted. There will be bigger problems for his education and those delays may define the school he attends. Early intervention is absolutely critical and we are failing disastrously at that level.

I have raised time and again the issue of young people who are trying to get qualifications, doctorates and so on, in educational and counselling psychologically but are unable to get those qualifications because of the massive fees involved. Those fees are deterring or preventing many of them from qualifying. Many young people want to work with children who have special needs but are being charged a fortune for their qualifications. It is difficult for them to qualify. There is no funding whatsoever for postgraduate degrees and doctorates in educational psychology, which is absolutely disgraceful. We give funding to clinical psychology but not to educational psychology. These are the people we need to make the assessments and provide the services and so on that will set young people up and avoid a situation where those young people's delayed development is worsened and their futures are impacted by delaying their admission to suitable schools.

The Government will say there are more SNAs than ever. However, the fact is that the numbers are rising in line with population growth. In terms of the levels of support available from SNAs and special education teachers, we are not even back to where we were before the austerity cuts of 2008 in real terms, when one looks at the proportion of SNAs and teachers available.

We are also talking about places in ASD units. I have been campaigning in support of St. Mary's Boys National School in Booterstown. There has been an identified need for an ASD unit in that area for some time. The school has been campaigning to use the parish hall as an ASD unit. The owners of the parish hall are willing to give it over for that purpose and the Government has committed to supporting its acquisition but despite all the promises, the school still does not know what is going to happen. It is pleading with the Government to make sure that acquisition goes through because it does not know if the hall will be acquired by September to provide the ASD unit that the school needs.

I will also mention Stepaside Educate Together, which has a stepping stones unit in its school but does not have enough funding to staff it properly. The failure of the Government to provide resources and staff for places has now led the Government to talk about segregating children rather than including them in the mainstream because of the lack of resources, places, supports and staff. That is simply not good enough.

I wish to draw a parallel. I attended at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Gender Equality this morning at which there were presentations from groups involved in care work and some academics. It was interesting that the same issue arose about not knowing the full extent of the care needs, the numbers of carers and those who undertake care work in the country. It is, therefore, difficult for those organisations and the supports around them to make plans. There is a parallel to be drawn with the NCSE and the lack of available data to plan for children with special needs. There are similar issues in other areas. I have heard reference to that issue in most of the contributions to this debate and it is a real problem. Policymakers and those whose job it is to enforce policy need to have every bit of data to hand to plan not only for today, tomorrow and emergency situations but also for the future.

I know this an area with which the Minister of State will be familiar because I was with her at the opening of Our Lady of Hope School in Crumlin. She will also be familiar with the magnificent campaign that the parents and the community in that area conducted to get that special autism school. It has been open for a year now and the school has never had any therapists on-site. This is a problem. Despite the school, the SNAs and the teachers, some of these children still have considerable special needs. They need physiotherapy, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy, and still there are no therapists on-site. There is a feeling in the area that getting the school was more than most places get so the needs of those students must have been met but that is not the reality. There are enormous needs in an area such as Dublin 12. It is a growing area. It is one part of the country where apartments and homes are being built. We still do not know what resources are going to be needed for all the new families, never mind the existing families in the area.

The D12 autism community campaign conducted its own survey, which cannot have been thoroughly scientific but was carried out as well as the campaign's members could. They surveyed 35 families and found that 56% of the children with special needs in the area have access to no services at all. They are beginning to feel they have been forgotten about because they got Our Lady of Hope School. The supports cannot stop at that. I have submitted parliamentary questions to the Minister of State on the issue and I know the campaign has also written to her. The area has 17 schools, four of which are secondary schools and none of them have special autism classes. The experience of many parents is that their children need to be in special autism classes rather than in mainstream classes. Getting a place in a mainstream class means that the student gets an SNA, if he or she is lucky, but does not necessarily mean they get the therapy required. That is how children fall through the cracks. The longer this goes on, the more cracks appear and the more children fall through them. It is not even a cost-saving mechanism. This needs to be considered as an example of where things could be done differently. It cannot be too difficult to get one special classroom in every school. We also need to ensure the building work is done in time. The building work for one special classroom that is due to open in September has not even started. I plead with the Minister of State to listen to the parents and those who are involved with the children. I ask her to consider the needs of the area.

I have been in touch with a principal of a school in Dublin 8 who thinks the Department does not grasp the choices that principals have to make on a daily basis. Because of that, they are allocated scarce and finite resources and must continually prioritise children with complex needs for whom the schools are not sufficiently equipped or resourced to care. That means the moderate needs of some children, which does not mean they need no help, become more grave because they cannot be facilitated in the classroom. Those children are equally worthy of the resources to cater for their needs. They are falling further and further behind. There is a pattern involved. As a result of the exasperation and frustration of parents, and the utterly painful lives they have to lead, they are issuing solicitors' letters to the schools to try to get results. That is expensive for the parents and for the principals who are legally obliged to respond.

We need to start planning for what is required. We must understand that absolute data are required to fulfil the needs of children and to plan for the future. A cohort of schools is educating children who are becoming more and more marginalised and are being left behind. I know that the delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, programme has a special meaning and is supposed to have a special place but schools with that designation are not getting the resources they deserve. It is awful to have to come into the Chamber and complain about the situation all the time but I am lucky because I am not a parent of a child with special needs. Some of those parents who have to live with the situation day in and day out are at the end of their tethers. Something drastically different must be done. The system needs changing.

I thank the Minister of State for her comments, which I welcome. I know she has brought a determination to the role and it is extremely important that the Minister of State with responsibility for special education has that determination because it is an extremely important role.

I appreciate her efforts.

As the Minister of State knows, I have a very particular personal and professional interest in the support of children with additional needs. It is important as a State that we recognise that thus far, we have not done enough, although we have made great progress and strides in recent years. As Deputy Ó Laoghaire said earlier, there was some good stuff in the Minister of State's contribution and there is some good stuff being done in the Department. With a bit of help and some additional resources, I am absolutely positive that we will be able to make further enhancements to the services being provided for children with additional needs right across the country.

However, there are issues with the flow of information to schools and the decision-making process that schools engage in vis-à-vis enrolment, year on year. In the context of planning, the lack of essential information makes it very difficult for schools to cater for their community's needs, quite apart from the schools that actually refuse to provide the necessary classes or spaces in their schools. While it is the stick element, I do welcome what the Minister said about giving the NCSE the power to compel a school to provide a place to a child with special educational needs. Getting this implemented is essential. I also welcome the further legislative exploration that the Department is conducting with the NCSE and the Attorney General and I hope there is an opportunity for us, particularly through the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, to look closely at that. This is something that NGOs, the committee, the Department and others have explored in recent months and years.

Notwithstanding some of the great strides that are being made and some of the difficulties still being felt, with the record levels of SNAs to cater for the rising level of demand and the addition of quite a number of special education teachers, the Government has shown its commitment in this area. I reiterate what the Minister of State said about the emphasis that Fine Gael in government has placed on this area in recent years, not just in this term but also in prior years. Of course, that was done with the support of most parties in the House, given our minority position in the previous Dáil. Fine Gael was not acting alone. We certainly had the support of other parties but we showed initiative and we are now starting to see the benefit of that forward planning.

It is imperative that we have a system that is inclusive of all children at all levels of ability and one that enables them to maximise their potential and, more importantly, their happiness. The worry that parents have regarding their child being educated in an appropriate setting has a profound effect on family life. All Members of this House, given the number of families that contact our offices every year, know that the effect of the concerns parents have about accessing services within the State, not just from the Department of Education but also from the Department of Health, to support their children with additional needs is profound. It also has an effect on us as Deputies and our staff and we work hard to ensure that we can cater for those demands. That is why it is so important that we continue to invest adequately in the system.

There is a need for us to maximise the number of children who are receiving support in mainstream classrooms, notwithstanding the additional requirements for some children with additional needs to be in special units. That is obviously dependent upon their diagnosis and the level of support that is required. I am encouraged that the Minister is open to introducing emergency legislation on the provision of spaces. Like her, I am very concerned about the 120 places here in Dublin. I am acutely aware that there are schools in Dublin 15 and in my constituency that have refused to provide places. The patrons, principals and the Department need to get together on that to come up with a more workable solution because educating those children is the imperative. I appreciate that this is seen as controversial but something has to be done. Education must be provided and I would much rather move legislation to require and compel those schools to provide places than do what has been suggested.

This is an area that every Member of this House must spend more time on. The number of Deputies who have spoken this afternoon on what is an extremely important issue is notable. The willingness is there within the Department and the ambition is also there. With a little tweaking in terms of legislative action, we can get the offering to where it needs to be. There is also an onus on Members to work with schools, particularly their principals, to try to convince them that these services need to be provided in each and every community. The needs are most acute in Dublin but they exist right across the country. I commend the Minister of State on her work and look forward to working with her on the Oireachtas committee in the coming months and years.

Every Member of this House who speaks on this topic does so with great empathy and in a very well-intentioned way. The objective of all of us is to ensure that children with special educational needs have an easy and certain passage into education. However, from the point of view of their parents who inspire us all so much, empathy and understanding from us is not enough. It really rests upon us to solve this growing social and educational problem that has developed to a much larger extent in recent years.

Obviously progress has been made in recent years but we still have huge challenges. It is important that we start from first principles and the first principle that I start from is that all children in this country, irrespective of their ability or whether they have special educational needs, have a constitutional entitlement to an education. Article 42 of the Constitution sets out the obligation on the State to ensure that every child is given a free primary education and in effect, there is a constitutional obligation that goes beyond that. That right to an education applies to every child, irrespective of his or her educational needs. This House and the other House have given statutory recognition to that through the Education Act which recognises that the same rights that are appropriate to children without special educational needs should apply to children with such needs. There should not be any distinction between the two when they start their education in the same way as there is not any distinction between children of moderate or extreme intelligence when they are starting out in their education.

It is important to recall that this country made a policy decision that the model of education we are going to use for children with special educational needs is one that encourages integration and inclusion. We have decided as policymakers that we want to see children with special educational needs educated in what we refer to as mainstream schools. It is obviously the prerogative and choice of parents as to where their child goes to school and I am well aware that not every child with special educational needs is going to be capable of attending a mainstream school. That said, the basis of our policy is that it is built on the principles of integration and inclusion. In terms of our international obligations, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities holds that people with disabilities should not be excluded from free primary or secondary education. That is expressly set out in Article 24 of that convention.

Having identified the basic principles to start from, we then need to identify the problems. The main problem with the current system is that it is haphazard when it comes to children being able to access places in primary schools. At present, it is not mandatory for schools to ensure that they have places for children with special educational needs who want to come into the school.

Instead we have a system, and I have seen it in my constituency repeatedly, where parents must, literally, go through a begging process of going from national school to national school to see if the school will take in their child in the forthcoming September. Regrettably, on far too many occasions the vast majority are told that, unfortunately, the school does not have the facilities to deal with a child with such special educational needs. It is not acceptable that we place an obligation on parents that they must hunt around looking for a space in a suitable school. The principle should be that all primary schools should have places available for children with special educational needs. I am aware there is the power under section 37A, which has been used in the past, but unfortunately I believe we will have to use it more in the future unless schools get into line and provide these services. In my constituency, there were significant issues with primary schools that did not offer ASD classrooms. I am pleased to say the position is improving considerably, but we still need to see it go much further.

On the issue of needs assessments, I had an interesting consultation with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and members of the HSE who do the special needs assessments for children in the Dublin 2 and 4 areas. There are huge resource issues in this area. I was informed that the vacancy rate for the staff who carry out special needs assessments stands at 50%. We all know it is much quicker to get an assessment done if one has the money to go privately. We need to assess whether the State is serving parents and children most effectively by putting them on a list where they must wait for the assessment to be done publicly. Perhaps the State should consider purchasing the private expertise to get this work done much faster.

We also need to be aware that there needs to be much greater recognition of the data. We do not have enough data on the numbers of children awaiting diagnosis, the numbers who have been diagnosed and the numbers who have not been diagnosed but are in need of support. We are also aware that the Department of Education has kept SNA hours at 2019 levels and special education hours have been cut for certain schools so that the schools only get hours based on the numbers, rather than on an individual needs basis. This needs to be looked at. There are simply not enough ASD classrooms at present. I am sorry I am running out of time. We need to identify what can be done to help in that regard. I will return to that issue in a future speech. We need greater emphasis on ensuring that integration, which is our desire, is actually achieved in policy.

We are discussing special needs and disability and I agree with many previous speakers that it is all about delivering for our citizens as regards their rights and entitlements in education and any other area. They should not be discriminated against on the basis of their special need or disability.

Let us reverse this and deal with the issues parents face in an awful lot of cases. Whether it is financial supports, housing, supports inside and outside school, speech and language therapy or occupational therapy, we know the difficulties and we know there is not one single place where these parents can go. Many Deputies noted that parents are forced into becoming activists. Sometimes they are lucky and there are already groups up and running and people have already taken this hard road beforehand. This is not the way it should be. As previous speakers said, we need a one-stop shop for parents to know where and what they can access. Many Deputies are probably already doing a haphazard job in that regard. It is just not the way the system should be.

If we are talking about special education and ensuring we can offer what people need, the answer is fairly obvious on some levels. First, we must have information. We have insufficient information on what the need is. We must be able to model into the future what the requirements are. It is as simple as that. Beyond that, we must ensure we have the resourcing, particularly in personnel, to deliver. This applies to SNAs, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists or psychologists. Members have spoken of the difficulties with individual job specifications and in workforce planning or the bits of work that have not been done in relation to that. We know there is a difficulty for psychologists around training and the obstacles set in their way in the context of costs. It is no wonder we have ended up in this situation.

All Members deal with parents who are frustrated about SENOs and the NCSE. I do not want to come down too hard on the individuals who work in these organisations because it is very difficult to offer parents what they need for their child or to offer the supports children require. They cannot offer a place if a class is full or an SNA service if none is available. The NCSE is, therefore, set up to fail at this point in time.

I agree with everything that has been said on modelling and planning, especially as regards streamlining section 37A to ensure we can offer places and classes. At this point, many parents and children will not be facilitated unless we can up with a proper solution that works straight away.

AsIAm has found that 267 children with autism will not be able to get places in September. Deputies have dealt with many parents. We are over and back with the NCSE and we are dealing with SENOs but we are not getting the places that are needed. We are spending a huge amount of their time and our time failing to get the results we need. We must deal with diagnoses and ensure diagnoses are available in order that we have information on needs and assessments do not take two, three or more years. We must be able to offer interventions, particularly early interventions, which might mean that later interventions are required less often.

My son would fall into this bracket. We had him at St. Joseph's National School in Dundalk. I can only commend the work the school has done. I imagine he will go to Ó Fiaich College next year and I expect the service he will get there will be up to scratch. I must also commend the school that has probably made up for many of the services that are not necessarily available at this point. We need to ensure that all kids get this experience, while accepting that some children have more complex needs than others.

A child's right to education is enshrined in our Constitution and under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. All children, including children with disabilities and children with special needs, have the right to free primary education up to the age of 16. What defines a person with special needs? A person has special educational needs if his or her capacity to participate in and benefit from education is restricted due to an enduring physical, sensory, mental health or learning disability.

We spoke earlier about kids going to mainstream schools. I welcome this, especially when siblings also attend the school as the brothers and sisters can all feel part of the family. I visit many of the schools in the Dundalk region and I see all the work being done with learning supports, resource teachers and special needs assistants. They are doing a fantastic job. I am a parent and grandparent. All people want is for our children to reach their full potential. I have sat with teachers and principals who have given out about the teacher training programme. They told me it needs to be updated to ensure teachers are properly trained to get people with disabilities up to a certain standard. I ask the Minister of State to consider that.

Parents call to my constituency office to tell me that services are not in place or there is not enough money or resources available.

The issue most people come to me about is accessibility. They want to get their child assessed to see exactly what is wrong with them. The reason assessments are done is to see what services are needed to meet the child's needs under the 2005 Act and identify the child's health and education needs. When the assessment of needs is completed, the assessment officer will write an assessment and if the child is deemed to have a disability, the assessment report will be given to a liaison officer. The liaison officer then uses the report to draw up a service statement with a list of services the HSE proposes to provide to meet the child's needs. The assessment officer can refer the matter to a relevant public body.

Numerous issues with the assessment of needs process have emerged, including poor access provision for assessment of special needs for school-aged children and using a diagnostic-led rather than a needs-led model. A 2020 report by the Ombudsman for Children, entitled Unmet Needs, examined the challenges faced by children in Ireland who require an assessment of needs. The ombudsman noted that the 2005 Act has been commenced in full for persons under the age of five but the assessment of special needs in the furtherance of a child's education plan has not. Indeed, the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, noted that the percentage of assessments of needs required has increased from 25% in 2011 to 55% in 2019. The ombudsman said there was a lack of consistency across all public bodies.

People keep coming to my constituency office about this issue. A child coming in could have ADHD, bad hearing, physical needs, autism or anything else. This child is loved by the parents and all they are looking for is help. The thing they keep asking for is a good communication line between the Department of Education and the Department of Health. The child has to be assessed. I keep using that word. It is like everything else. To get into system and find out exactly what is wrong, you have to get assessed. I have seen parents going to credit unions or banks and getting loans to get the information they need for their child privately because at the end of the day people cannot move on until they are diagnosed. What is the plan going forward?

The Minister of State is good and I know she is trying her hardest. There has been a lot of pressure in the last number of months because of children not being able to get assessed for school in September. It is very important that everybody works together on this. Not a day goes by in my constituency office that someone does not come in asking for help. I mentioned mainstream schools and kids wanting to go to school with their siblings. It is a matter of putting the system right. Do the Departments of Education and Health talk to each other, plan and see what is happening? I have seen some of those kids coming into my office. I have nothing but admiration for parents. I have never come across a parent who would give their child back but the system seems to have failed them. Recently, a school in Togher in County Louth was under severe pressure because of SNAs and teachers. The situation went on for 18 months. In fairness, the Department had a look at it, put its hands up and said the system was wrong and rectified it. The system is not perfect. I ask the Minster of State to ensure these teachers are properly trained. My daughter is an SNA and I am so proud of her. She comes home some days having been bitten and kicked and everything else and she has not one bad thing to say. Parents are looking for a bit of help. I trust the Minister of State will help us.

Provision for children with special educational needs is vitally important. These needs present themselves in a variety different forms. There is also a range of needs, from those who have specific learning difficulties to those who are exceptionally able and need to be challenged in different ways. Thousands of people work on a daily basis with those who have these special educational needs and we should recognise and appreciate the importance of this work. In school settings we have special needs assistants, special education teachers and other resources as necessary. In addition to the school supports, there are specialists who are responsible for the identification of these needs.

Recently, I have heard a number of stories where short-sighted policy decisions left children going through our education system with their needs unmet. One example is the reduction in SNA provision back in 2011, during the education cutbacks. I heard recently from one parent, Jane Johnstone, about the major impact this had on her son who has complex needs. Once the SNA was removed from this boy's daily education, his progression in education stopped. This has resulted in an even greater cost to the State in the long run as he now turns 18. Jane also highlighted the constant battle for provisions and resources he has had to endure. Rather than putting in place long-term support plans, too many parents are left anxiously waiting each summer to discover whether their child will have the resources they need for the next school year, with funding only being decided in September. We must not underestimate the importance of the support given to those who need it most and must create long-term sustainable plans.

I understand the Department allocated extra resources on a temporary basis to schools to help bridge some deficits as a result of the Covid-19 policies. I do not think the full harsh reality of the lockdown policies' impact on education has been fully realised. Closing schools and banning children from even socialising has had serious consequences. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of students who went without vital special education supports for the best part of 18 months. The Government needs to ensure any extra temporary supports that were made available to schools are extended to help bridge the gaps that were created between 2020 and 2021.

The issue of allocations was raised with me by the principal of a school in Wexford. This school has 700 pupils on campus but a recent NCSE allocation gave it a rating of zero complex hours for the junior and senior schools. Previously, the senior school had 35 hours and the junior school 25. The SENO and the local disability network manager agree this was a mistake but the school cannot seem to get anyone to rectify the situation. The principal was told the Department of Education receives all relevant data from the local disability network manager and the information was not passed on in a timely manner. The local disability network manager said they did not have accurate information to send the Department. Yet, they had accurate information about every other school in south County Wexford. The local disability network manager agrees that the rating is a mistake and needs fixing. The special education needs organiser said SENOs do not have any role in giving other information to the Department but they also agree that the zero complex needs rating is a mistake and needs fixing. A member of the Department of Education's special education section has stated that the school received a zero rating from the local disability network. He agreed that it seemed unusual that the two DEIS urban band 1 schools would have a zero complex needs rating. The principal asked him to input the correct number but the official said the computer would not let him do it. He said this was the only school in Ireland with this problem, out of 4,000, but he was not in a position to assist. There are 130 teachers set aside to give schools that appeal their allocation and he recommended that the school apply for an exceptional review. He said the NCSE would prioritise the review. The principal pointed out that the schools did not make any mistake but were being lumped with an exceptional review that will take an age to prepare for. He also suggested that the Department give the schools two teachers until the review was completed but he could not do that either. The official agrees that the zero rating is a mistake and needs fixing but he cannot fix it, even though he is in the Department of Education.

In other words, the principal of a school was dealing with special education support teams and three officials have admitted a mistake was made, yet it seems nobody can sort it out. The school is now expected to go through the rigmarole of an appeal or review system, which involves a lot of work on its behalf, to fix a mistake not of its making. I hope the Minister of State can intervene in the matter. I have given her Department the full details with the names attached. This is the type of problem that should be possible to solve with the stroke of a pen rather than allowing it to drag on.

I am sharing time with Deputy Devlin.

I have some examples similar to that raised by Deputy Verona Murphy relating to the intransigence of a system that is no longer fit to serve those it seeks to serve. I have spoken so often in this House about the silo mentality in this country when it comes to delivering public services, and nowhere does that do more damage than in the area of special and additional needs and special education. That is not to take away from the Minister of State's work or commitment or from that of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. Both of them are doing a super job, as are SNAs, teachers, principals and many of the existing National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, teams, but there is a lack of co-ordination, communication and a system whereby the Department of Education works with the HSE and NEPS has a direct line into the HSE. It causes so many unfair delays and so much more stress in what is an already stressful situation.

It was interesting yesterday, when we met representatives of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, in the context of its pre-budget submission, that its key asks this year include a request for major investment in mental health support for pupils. That is from the coalface of education. One teacher told me at the briefing that, in some cases, pupils are picked up in junior infants and they could be in second class, four years later, before appropriate treatments are put in place. The mantra of so many services relates to early intervention, which could make a journey that may be difficult a lot less difficult, but four years could never qualify as early intervention. We need far greater investment in NEPS and its teams throughout the country in order that there will be more of them and they will be better resourced to respond to needs as they arise, but that is only the start. That is only the Department of Education's side of it. It is when we get to the availability of therapists in all grades and of treatments through the HSE that the major problems begin.

I spoke earlier during parliamentary questions to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform about the need in the public service pay talks to identify where there are gaps in services because jobs cannot be filled. Additional needs and disabilities form one such area where we cannot fill vacancies for therapists, medical staff and educational staff, but we should be able to do that. Often, pay is not the only issue. Rather, it can be about how the organisation is run, the management procedures and how children are treated, rooted in a system that may be decades old, where processes and procedures seem to take precedence over persons. Procedures and form-filling can seem to be more important than the child and going through the process and the system seems to get more resources than the therapies and treatment of the child who needs them.

All the while, for every child there are parents who are trying their level best, under very stressful and difficult circumstances, to get the best for their child. At a time when I am feeling more and more inadequate as a public representative representing the views of my constituents dealing with many State services, dealing with disability services and trying to represent and speak for parents whose children have a disability or an additional need is what makes me most frustrated at the moment. That is in education, health and so many spaces. Computer says "No" means a person says "No"; it is not just a computer. Members of senior management in so many areas are not exposed to the reality of their decisions on the ground or to the way they take or communicate those decisions, but those communications and methods are making a bad situation worse.

We cannot continue to clap ourselves on the back for spending money or for having 12,000 SNAs where we once might have had 1,000 when the services those children are getting are disimproving, and we cannot continue to keep talking about it during statements in this House. We have to do something different and make a difference. At some stage, somebody is going to break down the silos and decide people are more important than processes and that children are more important than forms. There is a chance now for the Minister of State, and I am pretty sure the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is determined to try to do it, but we need urgency. There is no sense in us coming back to the House this time next year to have more statements on this, or in schools this time next year having plenty of enrolments but not places because nobody thought to plan four or five years ago for how many students would have additional needs.

All the time these macro, headline decisions are being taken, a child, a parent, an SNA and a school community are under the most inordinate stress. Will the Minister of State please lay out a plan that works, once and for all? Will she break down those silos and take on whoever needs to be taken on? Often, those who are blocking the system do not understand what they are doing or the impact it is having in homes. They do not see that if they just did their job properly, it could make an enormous difference to one child and one parent, and it could create a whole range of options in their lives after that.

Let us resolve that we will not make statements on this issue anymore. I have been here for a lot of statements on this during my 15 years in this House. Once and for all, let us blow up the system and give those parents and, most importantly, those children a chance.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss and examine the supports available for people with special educational needs. As a society, it is critical we deliver an education system that is of high quality for all our children, where every child and young person feels valued and is actively supported and nurtured to reach his or her full potential, and where every child with additional needs receives appropriate educational support based on his or her needs. Over the past 20 years, the system we are speaking about today was developed on a modest basis, and virtually all the Deputies who have spoken have made the point it is not fit for the purpose of the current day. While investment in the system is very welcome and necessary, it needs some sort of overhaul.

I agree with Deputy Calleary’s remarks to the Minister of State. Special education is a priority for investment by the Government and I thank the Minister of State, along with her colleagues, the Minister for Education and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for all their engagement and efforts to date. My constituency, Dún Laoghaire, has many exceptional service providers, such as the Carmona Services. People working in the sector go above and beyond to support people with special and additional needs and their families, which has to be acknowledged. This year, the Department of Education will spend more than €2 billion, or 25% of its budget, on providing additional teaching and care support for children with special educational needs, while last year's budget delivered significant funding for those with special educational needs. Over recent years, the number of special classes in mainstream schools has increased and stands at 2,148 for the school year 2021-22.

The pandemic has, however, resulted in challenges for children with special needs and their families. As we all know in this House, the online learning many of them were offered was not suitable for some of their needs. Some of them could not engage and some of the physical, in-person activities and classes did not resume. In fact, some services still have not fully resumed and that is of great concern to the children in particular and to their families. While some efforts have been made to support them, we need to do more and, as we exit Covid, ensure services get back to full tilt this September.

Budget 2022 provided for the creation 287 additional special classes for the year 2022-23 and some 269 new special classes opened for September 2021, with a further 33 opening during the 2021-22 school year. The remaining classes must be expedited over the next couple of weeks for September of this year.

That said, some schools have informed me that the system is complicated and lengthy. It needs to be streamlined, mainly for the ASD units. I know the Minister of State is familiar with St. Mary's Boys National School in Booterstown. She will be aware that it tried to transform a local parish centre into an SEN unit. It should be remembered, however, that the principals are teachers primarily, not project managers. Greater support should be provided by the Department to allow them to focus on their school community and allow the project to work in tandem with that.

SNAs should follow the child as well, which is something we heard earlier. I am aware of a number of cases where a child's much-needed SNA joins him or her in primary school and follows the child through his or her education, by and large. Come post-primary level, however, the child is left in the wilderness unless the school he or she is going to has the additional resources of an SNA. Even at that, some schools share SNAs, so there is no dedicated person who knows the children intimately and knows how to deal with and support them and their educational needs.

The Minister of State will be aware of the work of the Parents, Family and Friends of Carmona Services in my constituency in Dún Laoghaire. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has engaged with its representatives in recent months, which is much appreciated. I know they are eager to interact and meet the Minister of State again on the issue of residential care within community healthcare organisation, CHO, 6.

As was said earlier about NEPS and SENOs, all the services that have developed over the last 20 years need to be reviewed, refined and tweaked to ensure children and their families feel the supports are there. The money going into these services is extremely welcome and necessary and it should continue but we also need to ensure it lands with those children who need it.

While much has obviously been done for special education - I commend the work of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and her colleagues in this regard - we need to review and improve the processes for ASD and SEN units at all levels of education to ensure they are fit for purpose over the coming years.

Our children have a constitutional right to an education. Under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, education must be accessible on an all-equal basis with others in the community in which people live. This right is being denied by a lack of appropriate school places. On page 96 of the programme for Government, there is a commitment to ensure that every child with a special educational need has an appropriate school place in line with his or her constitutional right.

We all saw the struggle of the Milne family from Glasnevin, who featured on "Prime Time" last month. When they were first on television in September 2019, the then leader of the Opposition, the current Taoiseach, raised the case in the Dáil. Three years later, the family have thankfully received a school place. This is not good enough. The Government should not have been shamed into acting. Not everyone is lucky enough to make it on to television; many must suffer on in silence.

A recent AsIAm survey revealed that at least 267 children do not have an appropriate school place for this September. There is no doubt that the real figure is much higher. The Department of Education knows the true number of children who require a place and has not taken the necessary action. We need forward planning, not a snail-paced reaction to a crisis that already exists.

The recent proposal that children with special educational needs be segregated and isolated from the school community in special education centres is absolutely unacceptable. I note that my colleague, Deputy Mitchell, asked for clarity on this. I would also appreciate if I could get some clarity on it.

Parents want their children to be part of a school community in a local school. Gone are the days of hiding away our vulnerable citizens, who need our support, behind closed doors. President Higgins, speaking in County Kildare on Tuesday, referred to people being allowed to participate fully in society with dignity. He also spoke of resisting phrases like, "I am putting you in here". He said that people are not parcels or objects. People who need the extra support of special education and their families deserve dignity. It is important that the Government remembers this.

I want to share with the House two emails I received recently, the first of which is from a grandmother. It states:

Can you please help me to get my grandson, Scott, into a school that helps children with autism in Newbridge, County Kildare? Scott is non-verbal and the longer we leave him out of the system it will become harder to teach him the basics of everything. It is terrible that a grandmother has to write to a TD for help when a child's basic entitlements are not there for him. His parents are hitting a brick wall trying to fight to get their son a place in a school that helps children with autism. Scott will be five in December and he is a beautiful child.

The other e-mail I received is from a special needs assistant and reads as follows:

Yesterday, I checked the NCSE website for the SNA allocations for 2022-2023 and realised that my job was gone. In total, we have lost two SNAs from our autism unit. We have bills and mortgages and we should not be subjected to this treatment. It does not happen like this in any other profession. We have families that we need to feed and we call for your urgent help and support in this matter. It is an extremely stressful and unfair system. [Where is the respect for SNAs? That says an awful lot to me.] The most vulnerable children in our school are the ones who will ultimately suffer. This is a huge blow to our special education department here with the knock-on effect of going across the board to all our SEN students.

Those emails I received are a damning indictment of this Government and previous Governments. The system is failing our SNAs and students. Now, the Government is proposing this regressive plan. It is absolutely shameful. This Government needs to get off the stage before it does any more damage if this is how it views this area. I am asking the Minister of State - in fact, I am pleading with her at this point - to approach this in a proper fashion and do something to help these people.

I thank the Minister of State for her opening statement and wholeheartedly support her aspirations in her role. I want to be positive in my discourse, and I hope I am, as the area of special educational needs is very important to many parents, guardians, siblings, providers and, most importantly, the persons who should be afforded an education to allow them to evolve as human beings. I am not here to hold the Minister of State to account. Instead, I would like to relate to her some of my experiences over my time as a public representative. I am not an expert, but there appears to be something missing. From what I have seen, the State is failing and has failed many of these people and their families, at least in my constituency.

We are a wealthy, first world country but we are not meeting our obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which recognises the right of persons with disabilities to education. In my constituency of Dublin South-West, there are 21 primary schools with one or two ASD units, which accommodate six students per class, and only three post-primary schools with ASD classes. The question worried parents ask is where are these children expected to go once they complete their primary education.

Many of these families are not afforded the opportunity to pick a school wherever they like or in their catchment area. It is, therefore, already profoundly difficult to find a place for their children. I believe the Department needs to prioritise a solution and process that ensures every single child in this State will be provided with an opportunity to vindicate his or her right to an education. We should not and cannot have our most vulnerable children in the State denied their right to education. We should not put the onus on families to provide home tuition simply because finding a place for their child in school has become impossible.

I understand the Minister of State intends to invoke section 37A to ensure mainstream schools provide the necessary ASD classes. Families and schools would be extremely grateful if the Department could provide clarity on how these schools will be supported with the funding required for facilities, equipment, staffing and other resources they need to set up these classes appropriately.

Schools are not maliciously resisting the idea of ASD units. Rather, it is a matter of not having the capacity or support to provide the classes. From what I have seen in some places, these schools are on their knees financially. There are schools in my constituency that have buildings that are close to collapsing. They are unable to secure grants for retrofitting because the buildings are too unstable. Therefore, to ask these schools to put their already limited funding towards an ASD class and staffing instead of repairing the roof to ensure the safety of the students is unrealistic.

I recently met with SparkAbility and have been in contact with other groups such as Tallaght Parents Autism Support Group. It is fantastic organisations that provides valuable services to people with disabilities, mainly autism. It offers support to families and give people with autism the opportunity to grow, flourish and be connected with their community. It is providing a service the State should be providing, and without State remuneration. SparkAbility's funding relies solely on nominal fees and it has no permanent venue. We must ensure organisations of this nature are given security and stability to continue these services to ensure that no child or person with disabilities falls through the cracks. I would be grateful if the Minister of State could afford some of her time to meet with the members of the SparkAbility team and hear their proposals. The organisation has a fantastic model of care that could be used nationwide to help families and children. I will write to the Minister of State with its details.

I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive opening statement. However, as is often the case with opening statements from Ministers, there is no context given. I welcome her commitment, her bona fides and the positive steps she has outlined, but to understand that one must put it in context. The Minister of State pointed out that it is their right under the Constitution, and nobody in the Chamber disagrees with that, but I call that weak in the extreme. There is an obligation under Article 42 of the Constitution, as the Minister of State knows better then me, regarding primary school education. It does not depend on ability. Unfortunately, in the O'Donoghue case back in the 1990s, the Government sought to argue that some children were not educable. We have moved a long way from that, but that is the background here. I will return to that in respect of the July provision.

We are talking about rights here. The context of this discussion is not proactive. It is not because the National Council for Special Education came forward and said it has a crisis and will have no places in September; it is a result of committed organisations coming forward and the media telling us that there is a problem. We had a response to that through tweets on Twitter, which is not an acceptable way to convey policy. That is my view. I do not believe it is the right way to do things. Policy should be conveyed on the floor of the Dáil. There were tweets going out about this saying that the legislation might be changed, that the legislation in place might be implemented and that we might set up special education centres. Quite predictably, it caused an outcry. Gareth Noble, a solicitor who specialises in children's rights, pointed out that education is not a luxury or privilege, but a constitutionally enshrined privilege. We know that. Áine Hyland, Emeritus Professor of Education at University College Cork, UCC, says the shortage of special places at second level, in particular, is entirely predictable. AsIAm pointed out its shock at the proposal regarding special education centres. More particularly, Adam Harris pointed out that a fundamental change in culture is needed, saying that a deeply-rooted, charity-based approach is the problem. It is charity-based, not Constitution-based.

I would have a great deal more faith in the system if this was a proactive discussion brought forward by the Government in an open and accountable way to admit that there is a major problem, notwithstanding the amount of money at more than €2 billion, which I welcome, and the eligibility for the July programme, to which I will return. At the very least I would expect that when a speech like that is made, it is placed in context so we understand it. Ultimately, we are talking about a finite number of children. Overall, there are almost 12,700 pupils - a finite number, and approximately 1% of the overall population - enrolled in special classes in mainstream primary and post-primary schools. The Minister of State also told us there are now 129 special schools with 8,000 pupils, which is 0.8% of the total population. We have finite numbers and finite challenges. I do not like to call it a problem. All our effort should be going to help those with disability in the first instance, then national schools and, last of all, third level, notwithstanding that I fully recognise the important role of third level education. However, I would put it in at the other end.

We have this finite number and this finite challenge, yet this is a reactive discussion where the Minister of State is obliged to come here and say she did this, this and this. All the while there are 250 to 270 children with no place in the autumn. That is completely unacceptable if we are taking our obligations under the Constitution seriously. I welcome the fact that the Minister of State has appointed a new CEO, but there is no analysis of what led to this problem. What led to her appointing a new CEO? What analysis has been done, without blaming anybody? What happened that the person could not predict and bring it to the Minister of State's attention so we could have a proactive discussion and examine it? That has not happened.

Then the changes proposed were ad hoc and positively dangerous and unacceptable, particularly in the context of saying there will be special education centres and so forth. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission responded with immediate concerns about the plan. It pointed out that young people have a right to education and for that education to be an appropriate education which meets their needs under Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. Imagine having to say this. We signed up to the convention and finally ratified it in 2018. We have not signed up to the protocol yet. Various organisations on the ground have had to come forward and point out that they are truly shocked. Adam Harris of AsIAm is shocked by the plan, which will mean the segregation of autistic children from their peers. He estimates there are at least 267 children across the country who have been unable to find a suitable place for September. When I looked at the Minister of State's speech, and when it is near the end of a debate there is a chance to read the speech, I said to the staff who are working with me: "This is such a positive contribution, why is there a problem?" There is more than €2 billion available, so what is going on here? Clearly, what we are saying to the 267 children is that we have done brilliantly for everybody else and that their time will come at some stage in the future.

I could read out what is the actual effect on somebody whose time is to come in the future, but it is too upsetting to read out what somebody writes to Deputies, telling them about their child who is doubly incontinent, has hearing and speech difficulties and who is absolutely reliant on education and the July provision, or the summer provision as it is now called. I do not wish to do it. That is the level Deputies are at in our offices, and then we match that with the Minister of State's lovely speech about all the positive things. One asks if one will be negative again today. What is the problem here? I am of the view that the problem lies in a lack of openness and accountability regarding the procedure that is there, what happened, how we can change it and how we can improve it.

I will examine summer provision in my last two and a half minutes. I thank the Minister of State for giving me the review. She may recall that I raised this as a Topical Issue because parents are at their wits' end. Again, summer provision, which was previously the July provision, was consequent on the High Court case of O'Donoghue v. the Department of Education in the 1990s. There were minor changes in 2001. It took up to 2001. I was not able to establish precisely when the case started but it was throughout the 1990s. That family was put to the pin of their collar and finally a limited July provision was introduced specifically in respect of the children with special needs who are utterly dependent on such provision. I raised this as a Topical Issue matter and I have received the review.

The Minister might clarify if the comprehensive review that was to be done in 2019 is still under way or if it metamorphosed into this review, the inspectorate report, which is anything but analytical? It talks about "the majority of parents" and "some parents" and states that the July provision is "very good". There is no analysis whatsoever of the significant number of families who cannot avail of the July provision because the vast amount of schools are not participating. I will not embarrass a school in Galway, which is a special school, that is not doing the July provision. I have a letter from a woman at her wits' end. The school is renting the gym and other facilities for the summer because, according to it, the school needs money. It is clear that it is not being funded enough for the July provision.

In my last minute, I urge the Minister of State to have a complete, comprehensive, factual analysis of the summer provision. I welcome that it changed in the sense of widening out the eligibility, however, to my knowledge, that is to the detriment of the very children and families it was set up to support. The numbers are tiny. I do not have the time to go into them. I welcome the changes the Minister of State made in regard to special needs teachers and the advantages for them if they take part, but there is a far more fundamental problem, that this is voluntary and only a tiny percentage of those with special needs can avail of it and when they do, they only get a week or two. There is absolutely no clarification on home provision. It is being put in as a saviour, but it is not suitable at all. People are resorting to respite services, which are not there, to get a break. They have begged the special school in Galway. The parents said they would run it themselves in order to get a break.

I welcome the discussion. I hope that at some stage we would have a proactive discussion in which we analyse the problem, and the Minister of State would come back and tell us the solutions within a very specific period and not tell us that at some stage in the future this piece of an Act will finally be implemented or another Act will be changed. There is a constitutional obligation on the Minister of State and the Government to provide education.

I thank the 24 Deputies who spoke in the debate over the past two and a half hours. They have been very frank, honest, articulate and comprehensive in their contributions on special education. I very much welcome that because it gives me an opportunity to hear from individual Deputies around the country, who hear from their own particular constituents and from advocacy groups about the particular issues they want brought to the attention of the Dáil and to my attention.

It was mentioned here today that empathy and compassion are not enough. I agree with that, but they are also important because they are a motivating factor for somebody to make a difference in this area. It was also mentioned today that financial support is not necessarily important. In fact, the combination of empathy and compassion and financial support are the two things that are absolutely required to drive change. I am intent, as the very first Minister of State with responsibility for special education, on driving that change in a way that has not been done before.

I can say categorically that any of the frustrations that the Deputies in this Chamber may have, I have ten times over, since I am acutely aware on a daily basis of the challenges that we face in this particular area. I meet with parents, families and advocacy groups. I set up the consultative forum on special education so that we could collaborate and have the joined-up thinking that has been spoken about at length here today.

So many issues have been raised that it would be impossible for me to go through every single one in the time available, but I will follow up with the Deputies. We had a Topical Issue debate on the summer provision. Deputy Ellis and Deputy Duffy are still present. There have been many contributions by other Deputies, all of which have merit and value.

The reason I outline the amount of financial support that we have given in the first instance is to show the progress that we have made over the years. That is not to say that it will ever be enough, nor will it solve everything. Practical forward planning is probably the biggest message to come out of today's debate. John Kearney is the new CEO of the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. He is seized with the challenge to concentrate primarily on operational issues within the National Council for Special Education. Much as Members will all hold me to account in my role as Minister of State with responsibility for special education, my role is to the hold the NCSE and the Department to account in terms of providing supports for children with special educational needs. I outlined earlier the fact that we have grown the number of special classes by 450% in 11 years. We will be at 2,463 special classes by the end of this year, and we were only at 548 in 2011. It is important to state that because it demonstrates the progress that we are making.

In my opening statement I set out very clearly the steps that I have taken in the past two years since I came into this role. I know John Kearney, the new CEO, is also looking at areas that need improvement, in particular the forecasting model which Deputy Ó Laoghaire asked about earlier. The Department has 314 school planning areas, which use geographic information systems from a range of sources that include child benefit and our own school enrolment database. What the NCSE does then is it takes the school enrolment data information and builds it into the knowledge and understanding of the incidence of different categories of special education. As we know, the incidence of autism has grown exponentially, not just in Ireland but internationally. The system, which is what we call it, is trying to anticipate the demand and capacity but the desire and intent are not sufficient. We must have it set out in a database that is based on evidence. That is what we are doing. By virtue of the fact that we have the geographic information systems, which are being shared with the planning and building unit, but for the first time only in recent years, we can see through spatial analysis where the capacity is needed and where we can meet the demand in the future.

I have had repeated assurances from the National Council for Special Education that come September, no child outside of Dublin will be without a special class or a special school place come. I have asked that the SENOs would communicate that to the respective parents who may yet be waiting on an individual class. There are some 130 children in Dublin whom I may not be able to provide with a special class or a special place for this September, but we are doing everything we can to ensure that does not happen again. We have looked at every single avenue. We are already at the second stage of the process to deal with section 37A. As I mentioned, I am also actively looking at section 67 of the Education Act, which provides power to the NCSE to designate a school place for an individual child in a special class or in a special school. That will be critical.

In terms of the UN convention, as a lawyer myself, I do not need another lawyer or advocacy group to tell me about the rights that are enshrined in the Constitution. It is crystal clear that education is a right and our education system has to be rights-based and constitutionally based. I am determined to ensure that we get an appropriate placement for every child at the earliest possible opportunity.

There was a lot of discussion about SNAs as well. We will have 19,169 SNAs by the end of this year.

Deputy Martin Kenny brought that up. Clearly, SNAs are of major assistance to children with additional needs in schools. They quite simply could not function without them. The first thing we wanted to do, following the NCSE policy advice, was to set up a training programme for them, which we did in UCD, where 3,500 SNAs availed of that education in five different modules over ten months. We hope more will be able to do so in future. The next step will be to look at accreditation but training was the first thing that needed to be done. SNAs play a very serious role in what they do on a daily basis. The Department is clearly very much aware of that as well.

Summer provision was mentioned. We have put aside €40 million this year for that. I hope this provision will also help children coming from Ukraine who may be able to avail of it for the very first time. Inclusion programmes are in place at primary and post-primary levels. It is important to stress that all 4,000 schools were eligible to apply for summer provision. We provided extra pay and managed to attract graduate teachers, younger teachers and student teachers to supply the summer provision where staff may not have been available in a particular school. Last year, we had approximately 38,000 children. We expect about 48,000 children to participate this year. That is again building on the Covid supports we put in place two years ago. We had the supplementary programme and the Covid learning and support scheme of €52.6 million because we want to make sure that children with additional needs, in particular, do not regress any further than they may have, which they probably did, when all the schools were closed.

I heard Members use some words such as "intransigence", "insecurity" and "frustration". I know those words. I hear them every day and I feel them a lot, but we are making progress. In the past two years in this role, which was never in place before, we have already made major changes. We can do more in the future. The House is aware of my commitment to this area. We have many other good things we will do in the future. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to go over time on this issue, which I appreciate. I again thank the Deputies for all their contributions.

Top
Share