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.