Alignment of Special Education Policy with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Discussion

I welcome the Minister of State with special responsibility for special needs and inclusion, Deputy Madigan, and the officials from the Department. The Minister of State may call on the officials to speak briefly for clarification during the meeting when a specific or technical point arises. The officials may clarify issues for the committee. Any follow-up questions should be directed to the Minister of State as the accountable person before the committee. Members should ensure that questions are directed to the Minister of State rather than to anybody else.

I am aware that a wide range of issues will be the subject of discussion. If necessary, further and more detailed information on certain issues raised can be sent to the clerk to the committee for circulation to members. The committee and I wish to assist the witnesses in every way possible to ensure this meeting is beneficial for members and witnesses and that we have a good and productive session to try to get information for the general public through the committee.

I remind members that they are only allowed to participate in the meeting if they are physically located on the Leinster House complex. In this regard, I ask all members to confirm prior to making a contribution that they are on the grounds of the Leinster House complex. For those watching the meeting online, the Oireachtas Members and witnesses are accessing this meeting remotely. Only the Chairman and the necessary back-up team who are essential to the running of the meeting are physically present in the committee room. Due to the unprecedented circumstances and the large number of people attending the meeting remotely, I ask everyone to bear with us if any technical issues arise during the course of the meeting.

Before I commence formal proceedings, I wish to deal with some formalities and advise witnesses on the matter of privilege. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I advise witnesses giving evidence from a location outside the parliamentary precincts that the constitutional protections afforded to those attending in person to give evidence before the committee may not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether or the extent to which the evidence given is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature. Persons giving evidence from other jurisdictions should also be mindful of the domestic statutory regime. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter, they must respect that direction.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

The purpose of today's meeting is to discuss how Ireland's special education policy aligns with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and matters arising in respect of disability issues. I invite the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to make her opening remarks.

I thank the Chairman and the committee for the invitation to attend this meeting, particularly as the session that was due to take place in January had to be rescheduled. I am accompanied in this virtual setting by: Ms Martina Mannion, assistant secretary and head of inclusion in the Department; Mr. Eamonn Murtagh, director in the planning and building unit; and Ms Shirley Kearney, acting principal officer in the school transport section.

The breadth of my responsibilities and those of the officials concerned reflect the breadth of the issues highlighted by the committee in its invitation but also, perhaps more importantly, the importance that I and my Department give to the delivery of education to children with additional needs. As Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion, I am committed to making a difference for students who have additional needs as part of an inclusive education system. The Department has well-established structures for engaging with the partners in education and I wish to ensure that students and their families are at the heart of the education system.

I was pleased to see that the committee in its invitation referenced the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and how our education provision for children with special and additional educational needs sits with the convention. I have no doubt that committee members will be aware that on 3 December 2020, International Day of Persons with Disabilities, my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, published a consultation draft of Ireland's first report to the UN under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. There are education-specific references in the draft report regarding Article 24, which sets out the principal education content, and also, under the heading of Covid-19, responses to the education response to Covid-19 for school students with additional needs. Submissions on the draft report can be made to the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth until 3 March 2021. With just a week to go until that deadline, I encourage all those with an interest in this area to offer their views and perspectives. The report will then be finalised and submitted to the United Nations committee for the convention.

In recent weeks, my Department has provide this committee with several submissions in response to its request for regular briefings. I am, of course, always happy to facilitate this and my officials will continue with this briefing until we see a full return to school for all students. Of course, the reopening of schools remains a priority for my Department. The first steps in the phased return of schools took place on 11 February, with special schools reopening on a 50% basis. This was followed yesterday by the return of children in special classes at both primary and post-primary levels, comprising approximately 10,300 pupils. This is a significant and welcome development which saw more than one third of primary schools and a quarter of all post-primary schools open for children with special education needs in special classes.

The Minister, Deputy Foley, and I are committed to the full and safe return and sustained reopening of all schools at the earliest opportunity and we are working tirelessly with stakeholders and public health officials to make this happen. As the committee is aware, the Government is currently finalising the living with Covid plan which will place children's education at the core of our priorities. It is essential that, as a society, we continue to make progress in curbing the spread of the disease in order to allow all children to return to school as quickly as possible.

The Minister, Deputy Foley, and I, along with all in the Government and our officials, know that the return to classrooms for students with additional needs and their families is much more than just a return to learning. We know that some families will still have concerns about the return, and so too will school staff, but all of the decisions made by the Government since last March have been about achieving a balance between the overarching aim of protecting the health of our people and the need, among other things, to deliver services such as education in the most appropriate way for all students. We may not always agree in politics, but I know Deputies and Senators across both Houses share the objective of wanting to see our country emerge from Covid-19 restrictions successfully and as soon as possible.

The Government has prioritised the provision of education and, specifically, in-class provision. This prioritisation was not just in terms of funding the return to school last autumn, but also in strengthening school support teams following the October mid-term break to ensure schools remained open during level 5 restrictions up to the Christmas break, as well as issuing revised guidance to schools prior to Christmas in terms of supporting remote teaching and learning. The intensive engagement with the education partners since January, when it was not possible to return to school, demonstrates the desire of the Government to see all students return to their classrooms at the earliest opportunity. The decision last week in respect of the leaving certificate and the fact that school-related construction has been able to continue, which will ensure crucial additional capacity will be available for the new school year, are practical demonstrations of the priority and commitment this Government gives to education.

While ensuring that the return to in-school learning for pupils with special educational needs, SEN, can happen as quickly as possible in recognition of the fact that such pupils may find it more difficult to engage in remote learning, my Department has also put in place a supplementary support scheme to provide for home-based, one-to-one support for such pupils. In addition, I am committed to supporting an enhanced summer programme for children with SEN in summer 2021 that is as successful as the programme provided last year. It provided a strong basis to support students on their return to in-school learning in September 2020 following the long summer break. It also allowed schools and educationalists to target learning loss in their students in a way that made the transition back to school easier for these students and their families.

Since my appointment, we have successfully run that expanded summer provision programme, secured a record budget of €2 billion for special education, provided the resources for the creation of 1,200 additional special class places this year, and worked to put special education first as part of our school reopening.

Challenges remain and I am determined to tackle them. The committee has highlighted a range of issues on which it would like to focus today. My officials and I are happy to hear, at first hand, members' perspectives on these issues and to provide updates or further information where we can. The fully remote nature of today's session is a first for me, so I hope we can work together to make the best use of our time. I apologise in advance for any technical limitations, although I hope there will not be any.

I thank the Minister of State. Before we commence with questions, it is fair to say that the Covid pandemic of the past 12 months has shone a light on the challenges for parents and children trying to access special education in a wide variety of forums, and on the transport issue. I wish to raise two issues with the Minister of State and hope to have an opportunity before the end of the meeting to discuss them with her. They relate to transport, and the response from the Department to specific transport issues, and to the unavailability of school places in second level education for children with special needs.

I thank the Minister of State and her officials for giving of their time. I appreciate that this is a very busy time and that an awful lot of work is being done. Over the past 48 hours in particular but throughout recent months, we have received emails that share how difficult it is for parents at home to cope with children with special educational needs. There has been a cycle of expectation whereby children were going back to school and then not going back to school, and that has been a difficulty. I am delighted, therefore, that the Government concluded its negotiations in this regard yesterday.

For children, there have been both setbacks to their development and regression. It is difficult to read about children self-harming or engaging in aggressive behaviour, let alone to experience it as a parent. One of the emails to which I refer cites an example of photographs of the child at school having to be put away because it was just too traumatic for the child to look at them. Next week will see the return to mainstream schools of children from junior infants to second class. Ideally, we would have a timeline of when we can expect the same for those in third class to sixth class. Could they be brought back in order that there could be special education provision for third class to sixth class in mainstream schools?

Finally, the 50% capacity has been difficult for parents to manage. I would appreciate the Minister of State's views in that regard.

I understand the frustrations that families of children with special needs have had over recent months. It has been extremely difficult for them and we can all share that concern. I appreciate the Senator's acknowledgement that children in special classes, a total of 10,300, returned to school yesterday. It was not before time but they have got back and that is a positive development. The Senator mentioned that special schools are at 50% capacity. We want to get them back to 100% at the earliest opportunity. While I am not a member of the Cabinet and cannot make those decisions, I imagine that will happen in early March, although no decision on that has yet been made. I hope that will be the case. Further light may emerge following the Cabinet meeting later; that remains to be seen.

In the meantime, it is important that we try to look after children with special educational needs, SEN, who are in mainstream classes. The Senator mentioned junior infants, senior infants, first class and second class. Children with SEN within those class groups will return to in-person learning next week but there is a cohort of children who will fall outside that. She referred in that context to third class, fourth class, fifth class and sixth class. Again, I am not in a position to give any definitive information on when those classes will return but we hope it will be sooner rather than later, and there may be some clarity on that later from the Cabinet. Suffice to say, the industrial relations team within the Department, under the remit of the Minister, has been in continuous engagement with our education partners, namely, parents, schools, boards of management and the unions. One of the priorities of the Government since the outset of the pandemic has been that children with special needs will get back to school as soon as possible.

Last year, there was a programme of supports over the summer. Is it intended to continue that this year or to provide enhanced programmes that may deal with setbacks in development or where there have been difficulties for families? What is proposed for this summer? It is important that systems be put in place. We are anticipating the summer holidays, which will come around all too quickly. Children will have had this period during which they have not been in school, there will be a return to school and routine and then it will be the summer holidays. What proposals are there in that regard?

I could not agree more on the summer provision, or the July provision, for this year. Regression has really adverse consequences for children with special needs and the summer provision is a way for them to reintegrate into a school environment. Last year, in line with the criteria we used, pupils included those with a diagnosis of autism or of severe and profound learning difficulties, those who were in a special school or special class, those who were transitioning into a special class from early years settings to primary school, those in primary school mainstream classes who presented with Down's syndrome or who were severely hard of hearing or had a severe visual impairment, those who had a moderate general learning difficulty and those with severe emotional or behavioural difficulties. Approximately 24,000 children were eligible for the scheme and it was its most successful year ever. It is crucial that it go ahead this year, and it will do so. We have expanded some of the categories and this year it will be extremely important.

I welcome our guests and thank them for giving us the opportunity to ask questions. As a parent of a child with special needs, I have the personal experience that has led many constituents in my county of Clare to reach out to me. They have explained or outlined the various challenges that each family has faced. The experience is individual and different for every child in every family. I appreciate that there have been many challenges in this sector, not least in the context of the reopening of schools.

My questions relate to the cohort of special educational needs students who still have not returned to school. The issue was mentioned in regard to those who are in mainstream school but who are not in special classes. I had been seeking a little more clarity on that but the Minister of State said she is not sure at this time and that the issue is involved in the review.

I want to ask specifically about meetings the Minister of State may have had with unions representing special needs assistants, SNAs, between June and December 2020. For example, can she outline how many meetings took place between June and December 2020? Are there special needs teachers and other staff in such settings to ensure that measures are taken in the event of schools closing again? Is there provision there should the case numbers increase again?

My other question concerns supporting therapists in the school inclusion model and the delivery of wraparound supports mentioned by the Minister of State in the briefing document. Specifically, it concerns speech and language therapists who have been reassigned to other duties, including contact tracing and testing. Is the Minister of State in a position to outline the overall position regarding the impact of the reassignment of HSE staff who support the delivery of special education? Can she outline how the challenge arising from this reassignment will be dealt with?

Following on from that, regressional behaviour has already been mentioned. I am interested in how the educational system will be able to support positive changes in respect of regressional behaviour or any other behavioural issues that are now presenting themselves. I will leave it at that.

I thank Deputy Wynne for her questions. I hope that I have taken a note of all of them but if I have not, she can come back to me later. There were quite a few there.

First, on contingency planning for the future, since the beginning of the pandemic there has been and is consistent engagement with our education partners at all times, including teacher and SNA unions. The Department's actions are always guided by public health advice and obviously from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC. The Department of Education is a member of the Government task force on emergency planning. It is also a member of the national emergency co-ordination group, which is the central Government platform for emergencies. That puts it into context.

There are structures in place for remote learning. However, it is important to acknowledge, as we all would, that for some students, nothing can replace in-person, in-school education. That goes without saying. The Deputy mentioned regression. One area at which the Department is looking consistently is a post-Covid world and trying to deal with the regression that students have suffered. Obviously, the summer provision will help students with special educational needs, SEN, in particular. None of us can escape the fact that many students have suffered adversely in the pandemic. It is an issue the Department is looking at consistently to see if there is something we can do about it.

On the school inclusion model, we are looking at a wraparound service and a tailored therapeutic support. It will involve occupational and speech and language therapists, as well as behaviour and crisis practitioners. It will revolutionise the process for children with special needs within the school environment. We have secured funding of €2 million for the service this year, and we hope to expand it to two community healthcare organisation, CHO, areas. The pilot was based in CHO 7, covering south-west Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow. There is funding in place to secure 80 speech and language and occupational therapists and 30 educational psychologists. We are not going to step on the toes of the HSE in any way and we are working with the HSE at the moment. This wraparound service is not in lieu of HSE therapy which falls under the remit of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. It is a complimentary service. We are currently recruiting the therapists for this service. Obviously, the process has been slowed down, to a certain degree, by Covid-19. We must be careful that the Department and the HSE are not recruiting from the same pool of therapists. We want to ensure that there are enough therapists for everybody. I believe that answers most of the Deputy's questions.

I am in Leinster House. Hopefully I have good coverage.

I thank the Minister of State. I too welcome her today. We are all particularly glad to see children with additional needs going back to school, whether it is for education, social needs, routine or inclusiveness. It is important that we are on the right track. That is something we need to build on. I know we are all waiting for the living with Covid-19 plan. However, it is important to provide communication and give correct dates, and ensure that there is no confusion. I know last time there was a bit of confusion over dates.

I welcome the dates that the Minister of State has announced today because it is important. Originally, when the schools were ready to go back, we saw that within a few hours of the announcement of the reopening of applications, they were oversubscribed by a ratio of approximately 2:1. As many parents and children were glad to get back into their normal routine, it is important to make sure that we have communications and that we open them as soon as possible.

Some special education settings have only ten or 12 students. It occurs to me that partial reopening was geared towards large schools and no autonomy was offered to smaller schools. The Minister of State might come back to me on that.

I also wish to raise what I am sure is a huge issue for many of us. Parents have contacted me about SNA allocations. It has become a huge issue, even for children going to mainstream schools who attend an autistic spectrum disorder, ASD, unit. At present, I am working on cases from County Carlow. We need to make sure we have enough units. I acknowledge this is something to which the Minister of State is committed but at present, even in my area of Carlow, there are not enough places for children who need to go to school, particularly in respect of one school. We need to find a solution to this issue and I will provide the Minister of State details of the cases I am dealing with to see if she can help me with them.

I also wish to discuss with the Minister of State the issue of school transport, particularly in my own area. Holy Angels Day Care Centre is a special education school in my area. The HSE used to insure vehicles for this facility. It would also provide help in that if something happened with the bus, for example, it would replace it. However, this all changed in 2009. Since then, the cost has been borne by the facility. The cost of insurance surprised me, as it costs approximately €5,000 per year to insure one of these buses. No additional funding or supports are given.

Last year, Holy Angels had to launch a fundraising appeal to add to the Lotto funding to replace its bus. This is unacceptable. However, even these types of issues are not just about the actual vehicle. Individual seating for each child, which must be replaced by the children using these buses when they grow and move on, costs more than €100 per seat. Again, that is another cost these schools simply cannot afford. Funding for escorts for these types of transport is not covered by a section 39 grant. I am sure the Minister of State is aware of that. During the Covid-19 pandemic in particular, schools had to employ additional escorts and funding was not provided. My understanding is that no extra funding is now being given for escorts for these buses. I ask the Minister of State to look at this.

The final issue is about school transport. It is important, particularly for children who are attending mainstream schools. Buses now pass the doors of homes with children who are in a unit in a mainstream school and who are just not getting on board. I also the Minister of State to work on that for me. Perhaps she could revert to me with the answers.

I thank Deputy Murnane O'Connor for her comments. I agree with what she said around communication. To be extra clear, I am not announcing any dates about the return to school.

I know that is the intention, but a Cabinet decision is being made today and I can confirm that there will be clarity at that point.

The Deputy referred to school buildings and smaller schools. It is important to know that all schools can apply to a scheme for funding for emergency works if they need to reconfigure. The sum of €75 million was given to all schools so that they could reconfigure as part of the package for the reopening of schools. It is very important that all schools know they can do that.

I am the very first Minister of State with responsibility for special education, which is good, because that is shining a light in a big way on this matter for the first time ever. I was considerably struck by the lack of ASD units. We are aware of that. If we look at it in context, there has been a 235% increase since 2011. This year there will be 1,836 special class places, of which 1,567 will be for ASD. We are making gains all of the time. There are supports for schools to open ASD units. There is a special class start-up grant of €6,500. We know there is one teacher, two SNAs and six pupils in an ASD unit. There is a furniture grant of €2,500 and an ICT grant of €6,700. There are a lot of incentives for schools. That is something we are working on as well.

I might ask Ms Mannion to respond to Deputy Murnane O'Connor’s specific query on the insurance issue for the Holy Angels centre.

Ms Martina Mannion

As I understand it, the question relates to the cost being borne by the school for school transport. My colleague, Ms Kearney, has responsibility for the school transport unit so she might be able to give us some more detail on that. Transport to and from disability services is outside the scope of the school transport scheme. Ms Kearney will be able to provide some additional information on the school transport issue.

Ms Shirley Kearney

I will certainly look into the issue raised by Deputy Murnane O'Connor but, as Ms Mannion stated, if it is a disability service as opposed to a recognised special school or mainstream school with special classes, it may be outside the scope of the school transport scheme. All transport services for special schools and special classes have fully resumed for all children who require those services. Additional funding has been agreed by the Government for the additional hygiene and cleaning measures that are required on transport services such as PPE equipment for school transport staff. In cases where we have provided extra services, with the implementation of 50% social distancing on post-primary services, we have provided funding for the employment of additional school bus escorts as well. If Deputy Murnane O'Connor sends me and email, I will follow up on her query.

Regarding her query on buses, am I correct in saying that it is a mainstream bus but that it is a child with special needs who requires the service? Again, all of those services resumed yesterday but if there is a specific issue, I would be more than happy to follow it up. If the Deputy can email me the details, then I will do so.

I did not reply to the question on SNAs, but I see I made a note of it. The current allocation is frozen at the moment due to Covid, but schools can apply for additionality. No school is losing an SNA at present. The Deputy might be aware that we secured 1,000 additional SNAs this year so we are up to 18,000 in total.

Yes. I thank the Minister of State.

I thank the Minister of State for coming before the committee.

I think we have lost Deputy Cairns. I think her microphone is muted.

Can the Chairman hear me now?

Yes, I can.

We all agree on the importance of reopening special schools. That is great. It is also great to be able to ask questions today. The matter has been discussed a lot by the Dáil and in the media, but I hope the committee can bring a unique focus on rights. The Minister of State mentioned the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the outset. Inclusive education is included in the convention but unfortunately, as we all know, that right has not been met, especially since Christmas. We are all aware that the reality is that online learning is not suitable for most students who attend special schools. In light of that, I welcome the return of classes and schools.

Families need absolute assurance on any delays or disruptions such as those that happened in January. I will not go into transport because Deputy Murnane O'Connor touched on it sufficiently. It probably goes for most areas in rural Ireland but parents and support organisations in my constituency of Cork South-West are concerned about the absence of services. For example, in my constituency, people must travel for up to two hours to access basic essential services such as speech and language therapy. The people who are availing of the service cannot stay in a closed space for a long period, so a two-hour journey becomes much longer. They could be travelling for an essential service that takes 20 minutes, such as speech and language therapy.

In response to a question from Deputy Wynne on the plan to revolutionise services, the Minister of State referred to speech and language therapy as one of them, but she also referred to south-west Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow. Is it just in those areas? How was that decision made? How were the areas chosen? At the moment it is basically a geographical lottery for services such as speech and language therapy. How was the decision made on where the revolutionary programme would be rolled out first and last? Is geography considered in those decisions? I ask the Minister of State to prioritise that question and if she has time, I have a similar question about wraparound supports. What will the roll-out be for such services in rural areas? The Minister of State referred to recruitment for speech and language therapy. Is that just for south-west Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow?

I thank Deputy Cairns for her questions. I am aware that online learning is not suitable and that is why we have been prioritising trying to get those with special educational needs back into the classroom. At least 50% of special schools are back. As the Deputy said, it is not ideal that it is not 100% yet, but it is a start. We also have special classes back.

On waiting times for assessments and the two-hour journeys, people often confuse me with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, who has responsibility for disability. My remit is the school environment itself, so that would not fall under my area of responsibility. However-----

I did not refer to assessments of needs but, rather, to speech and language therapy.

I have met with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to discuss waiting times and lengthy car journeys for assessments. The school inclusion model was a pilot project we did with 150 participating schools, 75 preschools and 75 primary and post-primary schools in those areas that I mentioned, Wicklow, Kildare and south-west Dublin. That was only one community health organisation area. In the budget last year, I secured money to be able to extend that to the nine community health organisation areas. The plan is to try to roll out the programme in the coming years.

The Deputy asked how it is decided where the next expansion will be. Cork is a particular area of concern for the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. It is a very high-density area and there is a lack of places. We have to do a lot of joined-up thinking there. Cork may well be a runner but, obviously, I cannot say that. The NCSE will be consulting with local SENOs on the ground and the building and planning unit in the Department to try to ascertain where the capacity is needed now and in the future from a demographic perspective.

It is not just about now; it is about the future also. We have a five-year forecasting model in place to try to pin that down. The officials can correct me if I am wrong, but I hope that this year we will be able to establish where the next two community health organisation areas will be. Speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and so on will then be provided in situ in the school setting, in addition to whatever HSE therapeutic service children are benefiting from. The service will complement the therapeutic service.

Is geography one of the considerations in deciding, for example, how far a person would have to travel for the service? Is that part of the decision-making process for the next nine places?

The child will get the service in his or her school and will not be travelling for it. It is not a HSE service. It is separate. It will be within the child's school environment. It would depend only on how long it takes for the child to travel to the school. Geography will make a difference. In some pockets, such as south Dublin and Cork, there is a greater lack of places and assistance than in other areas. Other criteria will also be taken into account, for example, how many children need the service. There are some areas where the need for services is not as acute as in other areas. All of those considerations will be taken into account.

I thank the Minister of State and her officials for attending. Parents are raising a number of issues with me, one of which is contingency planning. We had the initial lockdown last year and when the children went back there was the summer programme. Parents are of the view that there was no contingency planning at that time for further lockdowns. We saw this coming to the fore in January when the services were supposed to open but did not open. Contingency planning is required in all aspects of Covid but particularly for special educational needs. What kind of contingency planning is being done now for this year so that if another lockdown were to occur, we could see that there is a plan in place? We have enough experience now to know what to do and how to do it.

Many parents have also told me that there has been very little real engagement with them. While organisations may speak on behalf of parents, we find that parents themselves are not involved in the system. At one of the first meetings of this committee, someone stated - I cannot recall who it was - that the lack of engagement by the Department on children with special needs and their parents had created a lot of problems. That was probably last July or August. At that time, the parents asked that this would not happen again but it seems to be happening again.

I welcome that there will be 1,200 additional school places for next year. That is fine. I am, however, concerned about the reassignment of staff involved in special educational needs to contact tracing. Are all of them back doing what they should be doing?

Given that remote learning is very challenging for many children, why do we insist that they engage in remote learning? This question keeps arising. Children have a high and a low where they are in school one day and not in school the next day. We need to get this right. It is not easy. We all agree that we do not have a reference point for this. However, many parents are very angry because they are not being listened to. I ask the Department, the officials and the Minister of State to place more emphasis on that aspect to try to make sure parents feel they are part of the solution.

How will children catch up? What plans are being put in place to enable them to get back to where they were previously? It is fine to sending children back to school but they need additional help now. Is this being planned for?

I must stick to the time and try to get everyone in. The Minister of State has 90 seconds to respond.

I appreciate the Deputy's comments and I hear his frustration, which I share. I know this has been an extremely difficult time for families and children. Contingency planning is important. It is wrong to say there has not been any contingency planning as there has been. There is weekly engagement with all of our education partners and updated guidance on remote learning. Remote learning is not ideal but there is no choice when the child is not back in an in-person environment. This is why we put forward the supplementary in-home provision which will provide five hours per week over a four-week period - 20 hours in total - to try to supplement that. This can be provided at evenings and weekends, as I mentioned.

It is important to remember that the Department makes decisions with its education partners, boards of management, schools, and parents representative bodies, based on public health advice. It is not just one person making a decision. There are many constituent parts in the education sector and we must bring everybody on board and give everybody confidence to move forward. Obviously, people have concerns and those concerns must be addressed. I meet AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland, Inclusion Ireland, Family Carers Ireland and many parental representative bodies on an ongoing basis to make sure their voices are heard. It was very important to me, as the very first dedicated Minister of State with responsibility for special education, that the voices of children with special needs would be heard in a way that they had not been before. I believe they have been now. Proof of that is the fact that the special schools and special classes are open. Obviously there is more to do.

We spoke about regression earlier. The Department is very aware that there has been regression. We have the summer programme for next year. We also have the supplementary programme and we may be in a position to expand that. That remains to be seen but suffice to say, I will be doing everything I can to ensure we assist those children as best we can.

I thank the Minister of State for appearing before the committee to go through this issue with us. She has a very tough job in particularly challenging circumstances. I am pleased that she has been such a strong advocate for families of children with special needs. It has been a really tough time for them and it was not helped by all the false starts. We all agree on that. It is positive that they are now back to school, albeit not full time. They are in the right place and getting the supports to which they have a right, as Deputy Cairns said.

I agree with Deputy Canney's comment that special education is an essential service. We need to make sure we are protecting it in advance of any other potential curve balls that may come at us in the future. I hope we will not be back in lockdown again but no matter what comes at us, we must, as a Government, ensure we protect this essential service for our most vulnerable children.

I am aware that the Minister of State has done a great deal to get all the parties involved in talks to get children back into classrooms. It is unfortunate that children with special needs are not back at school full time. The Minister of State stated it was her intention to get special schools back to full capacity as soon as possible. What is her timeline or target for achieving that?

I welcome the commitment that was made to Senator Seery Kearney on the summer programme provision and thank the Minister of State for the information that she shared with us on that. It will be hugely helpful when it comes to us playing catch up in terms of the lost resources that these kids have had in the past year at this stage.

I am interested to learn about the new special classes that are coming on-stream. In the last budget we saw an increase in resources for new special classes. It was on foot of that the Minister of State had written to 39 schools in the south Dublin area. Can she give us an update and are there protected timelines for that?

I thank the Deputy for her comments. However difficult this has been for all of us, as public representatives, for the families of children with special needs it has been immeasurably more difficult and challenging for them. That is what motivates all of us, even everybody on this committee, so that we can be a voice for them.

I referred earlier to timelines and deadlines. What I can say about special schools, and obviously subject to the Cabinet making a decision on it later, it is likely that they will move to 100% in early March. That seems to be the indication but I add the caveat that it is a decision that the Cabinet must make.

On section 37A, we wrote to 39 schools last June and 14 of them were withdrawn on the basis that there was consideration of their representations, submissions and there were on-site inspections. Those 14 schools would not have been taken off the list unless there were very extenuating valid and exceptional reasons that they could not facilitate a special class. The schools often genuinely do not have the space, particularly in high-density areas. Ten schools remained and they have received a third notice that was issued on 14 December of last year.

Since the introduction of section 37, 21 additional special class cases have been confirmed and there is a potential for another 66 special class cases by September 2021. For the first time I secured a specific commitment from the building and planning unit of my Department, when I was recently appointed, concerning every new school. Sometimes I think that the significance of this has not got the attention that it should because it is a really big decision that the Department made, and the right decision. One might ask why was the decision not made before but at least it has been made. I secured that every school from now on will have special facilities and special education needs, SEN, rooms unless local circumstances dictate otherwise and that there is no need. That is a really big commitment because we want to get out of a situation where we are perennially trying to scramble for special class places. The forecasting model will help as well. As the Deputy will know, we announced the opening of Scoil Colm in Crumlin that will help towards the development of special schools as opposed to special classes. There have been a lot of positive developments but obviously we have a huge amount of work still left to do.

I, too, welcome the Minister of State to the meeting. I refer to a ten-year-old in an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit in Cavan. He has an occupational therapist report that recommends a laptop with the very specific software of Englishtype junior and Clicker 8. However, the special educational needs organiser, SENO, has refused to recommend this to the Department, which I think directly contravenes Article 24.2(e) in that the supports this child needs are being denied. I ask the Minister of State to clarify the role of a SENO. Should it be to ensure that the educational needs of children are met or somehow safeguard the Department in terms of spending money? I ask because this is not the only instance but one example. Perhaps I can personally raise the issue with the Minister of State after this meeting, if possible, to further the process.

Children in my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan and, indeed, elsewhere are forced to travel out of their areas to attend schools that meet their needs whether that is a special school or an ASD unit. Earlier Deputy Higgins mentioned the section 37A process. Under that process schools are asked to indicate if they have space for a unit. I know that many schools have space but they do not want to countenance having a unit in their school so are not indicating that they have space. Can the process be strengthened to ensure that all schools seriously consider having a unit in their schools? My colleague, Deputy Chris Andrews, has raised the issue of the lack of special class places and ASD unit spaces in the south Dublin area, which is very stark. The Department spends hundreds of thousands of euro every day transporting students from their localities to schools that are perhaps half an hour or an hour's journey away. That money would be better spent providing additional units. As the Minister of State knows and we all know, we need additional units in schools but many schools have refused to countenance this. Is the Minister of State working directly with, say, the Catholic patron bodies? Many of our schools still operate under a Catholic ethos and many of our schools that have units are community or DEIS schools, but many of the Catholic schools are not. Has there been an increase in the number of schools that will include a unit?

I welcome the fact that all new builds require an ASD unit. Will that be sufficient to meet the need? I would love all siblings to attend at the same school, where possible, but if there is not a unit or special class to meet the needs of those with additional needs then that may not be possible so new schools might be needed. I am in contact with Enable Ireland that has said it has been inundated with the number of new assessments being requested. That indicates, in terms of planning for the future, that there will be a huge need for more units at both primary and secondary schools and, indeed, for services post-secondary school as well so a lot of planning is needed.

The forecasting model has been mentioned. What is the latest National Council for Special Education, NCSE, prevalence rate? In 2016, it was 1.55%. Is there an up to date figure available? It is 3.3% in the North so there is quite a difference, which I wonder about.

Will Down's syndrome children be included in the summer provision? I ask because there was some confusion concerning that last year.

I will do my best to answer the many questions asked and the Deputy might please let me know if I do not. Down's syndrome children were included last year and they will be included this year.

Arising from the comment about Deputy Andrews, I recently met representatives of Autism Equality Dublin Bay on the lack of special class places in Dublin 2 and 4. There is a process outside of the section 37A. The National Council for Special Education liaises and engages with schools on special classes and all of the time outside of the section 37A. The section 37A process is a very valid mechanism and has its benefits but it should only really ever be used as a last resort. However, I will use it if I have to. There will be 1,200 places next year.

Deputy Tully mentioned a particular ASD unit. Earlier I mentioned that there has been a considerable growth of 235% since 2011. There will be 189 ASD special classes this year and that is out of 197 new special classes in total. As I said, there will 1,200 special class places but 189 of those are for ASD pupils, 12 are early intervention, 113 are primary and 64 are post-primary.

The culture and ethos of a school is really important. It has been hard to determine, I think historically, whether it is simply a lack of places or whether schools do not want to take a class. That culture and ethos is changing slowly. Obviously we try to encourage patron bodies and other organisations and schools to voluntarily open a special class where it is needed rather than trigger the section 37A mechanism, which we only want to do where we absolutely have to.

The Deputy mentioned the technology, I think, for a ten-year-old boy. There is an assistive technology scheme. Some €100 million has gone into that. There are ICT grants available for schools as well. The SENO can liaise through the NCSE, which, in turn, engages with the Department if there are any particular issues. I can certainly talk to Deputy Tully about that particular case off-line another time if she wishes.

The main aim of the committee is to be unapologetic about being proactive and determined to create some equity and equality for people with disabilities. The Minister of State and I spoke on Friday during my Commencement matter. The Minister of State is well aware of the families that are struggling more than ever, and behind closed doors much of the time, with their children with special needs and additional needs. I will not repeat the valid and important points around technology and transport other members have raised. With regard to the 50% capacity of special needs schools, is it possible to get an update on when they will return to 100%? Will it be in line with the mainstream schools?

Will there be a sector-specific educational, social or even medical study done of the impact of school closures and the not-full opening of the special schools and classes looking back on all we have learned? Going back to what Deputy Canney spoke about, how do we catch up? Is there a plan on how we will catch up? How will we assist families whose children have regressed so badly? How do we increase the supports of children with additional needs?

I certainly am always learning in this pandemic. It has highlighted the areas where we all need to learn as a society and how people with disabilities have been affected disproportionately. We have to learn and move on to a rights-based approach to our disability services. That, I suppose, is the aim of this committee. It is to implement the UNCRPD. How does the Department learn from the pandemic? Is it the case that special needs schools and classes need to be reclassified under law as essential services to make sure that they remain open?

Finally, the Department of Education funds the National Parents Council. Is it possible that the Department would fund a dedicated parents council for the parents of children with special needs and additional needs, or has that been thought about? We all are aware that children with additional needs and special needs have specific and different needs from mainstream children. Such an advocacy group for these families would be welcome.

I thank Senator McGreehan for her questions. Of course, another advocacy group could be formed. Parents form them all the time. There are many different parental representative bodies and groups already. I do not see any reason another cannot be set up by the parents at any time. It would not be something for the Department to do as such but I understand what the Senator is talking about in terms of a point of contact for parents. We liaise with parents all the time. I suppose another role of the NCSE is to liaise at a grassroots level with parents of children who are struggling with their needs and, indeed, the other advocacy organisations I mentioned earlier, AsIAm and Down Syndrome Ireland, and other representative groups.

In regard to the 50% capacity returning to 100%, I will welcome the decision when it happens. Hopefully, it will happen sooner rather than later. As I said earlier, it will be subject to Cabinet approval but we are hoping that it will be in early March. It will be an important development for students in these schools, because they have the greatest level of need, if we can at least get them back to a full routine and a full structure.

In terms of regression, as I mentioned earlier, the summer provision will help. That is a practical support. There are other supports that we give from a financial perspective but that is a practical support. The summer provision is primarily about the children but it also allows some sort of respite for the families, particularly when they have had extended periods at home looking after their children. I must emphasise the supplementary programme also because that is a radical new departure for the Department. It never existed previously. It is one-to-one home support which will supplement any other learning they are getting. It is five hours per week for four weeks, which is 20 hours. Any unused hours can be used by 30 April, including during the Easter holidays. There is scope there for families. It is open to all students in special schools and in special classes who are those with the greatest need. That should be of assistance also.

Lastly, in terms of it being an essential service, it is something I considered. The reality is providing education is an essential service. The difficulty is that it is not only the Department that makes the decisions. It is everybody who makes the decisions and until all concerned are assuaged, there is no reality in going back. The Department and everybody else takes its advice from public health advice. The Deputy is correct that it is an essential service.

I wish the Minister of State a good afternoon. I have three different areas I want to get to if possible. First, for those students who are not in a special class but who are in a mainstream class and receive resource hours, could the Minister of State outline what supplementary supports such children, for example, a child with a visual impairment or a deaf child in a mainstream class, are in receipt of?

Second, I want to return to the issue we talked a little about today, namely, early intervention and the lag that we might experience due to Covid. The Ombudsman for Children's Office, OCO, report, which I am sure the Department is aware of, which outlined issues around unmet needs included a concern around access to early intervention. Due to Covid disruption, there would be a significant cohort of students who may age-out of early educational intervention. This is partly because referring a child for an assessment of need with educational issues is hampered by a difficulty as regard the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act 2004, in that some of the Act's provisions have not commenced. I understand that overlaps a little with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte's area but it also relies on school principals to do much of the referring. The report states some of those gaps are being met by the use of the National Educational Psychological Service. My questions in that area are as follows. What actions are the Department taking to address the issues with and access to that early educational intervention? What are the plans as regards children who might age-out of it due to the disruption due to Covid? In this committee, we talk a great deal about the optional protocol, but that report also outlines that there is a lack of a robust mechanism to complain or raise concerns around issues when it comes to referring for educational early intervention. Could the Minister of State speak to that, perhaps around what we could put in place to allow parents or the schools to report on it?

Could we get a brief update on those children in secondary education who are facing into the junior certificate or leaving certificate, and the supports that might be in place for them? I am particularly thinking of those students would have been struggling with online learning already and how that might interact with State examinations.

On the State examinations, there are accommodations in place for the children to whom the Deputy referred. They are called special arrangements or reasonable accommodations. There are, therefore, supports in place for children with special needs who are doing the leaving certificate this year. The junior certificate does not apply this year. I am not sure if the Deputy mentioned the junior certificate but she may have mentioned the leaving certificate.

While remote learning and not attending school are not optimum for children, there are supports in place. I mentioned these earlier and they include the supplementary programme, which will provide significant help. This involves in-home tuition and takes place on a one-on-one basis in the evenings or at weekends. Other than that, updated guidance has been given to schools on some of the issues that children will need assistance with. There are key themes in the guidance documents around the role of schools, teachers and school leaders working with children with special educational needs on all of their needs.

It is important that schools reach out to parents and let them know what is available. There has to be regular engagement with pupils and students. There is a blend of guided and independent learning and tasks. There is two-way feedback between the home and school and supports for students with special educational needs. We are looking at focusing on special education teaching hours for students who are not going back yet. I also mentioned the summer programme.

On early intervention, while this issue is not under my remit, I have raised with the Minister of State at the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy Rabbitte, and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, the concerns the Deputy mentioned.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak and ask questions of the Minister of State. Other members covered a number of the issues raised with us in emails by parents of children with additional needs. They have expressed to us their immense frustration and told us of the terrible impact the prolonged school closures have had on their children and the regression they have seen. They are seeking clarity and certainty about schools reopening and classes restarting. They are also looking, as the Minister of State knows, for a commitment that there will not be any more on-off school closures. I know the Minister of State has already responded on some of those issues but I would like to get greater clarity on dates and to ensure that once schools open fully - and we appreciate that special schools are already open - that children with additional needs will be able to stay in school and there will not be any more on-off approaches.

I ask specifically about a Labour Party proposal for a catch-up for children scheme. We have proposed that the Government allocate €100 million to structured and targeted interventions so that once schools reopen and we are, hopefully, moving out of Covid restrictions, we will need to first establish precisely what the impacts of prolonged school closures have been for children. We must then enable structured interventions at all stages, for example, additional tuition for children whose literacy or learning has fallen back or who gave regressed in other ways. We have seen a similar scheme in place in the UK.

The Minister of State's colleague, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, announced a welcome plan this week for the reopening of pubs and nightlife after Covid. We need to see a similar plan to address the impacts on children of prolonged school closures and the losses of everything else, such as sport, extracurricular activities, over the course of the pandemic. The Institute for Fiscal Studies in England has suggested that the costs have been immense for children. We have not seen anything like the level of discourse we need on that in Ireland. I have been attending some webinars organised by the Children's Rights Alliance, which have referred to that issue but we need to see more intervention from the Government to address it.

I make an appeal on behalf of one specific group of parents and children I met earlier today, namely, those involved in Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland. There are children, young adults and older adults with this condition across Ireland who have many needs. I promised the group that I would raise in particular the needs of children with spina bifida and hydrocephalus who are seeking to access education. There has been a real difficulty for many children in this situation who not only require SNA support but also require additional physical support such as nursing support, which has typically been provided by the HSE. Can the Minister of State confirm that a scheme is in place to meet both the physical needs of these children, in addition to their need for an SNA, and their need to access education?

I took a note of the Senator's comments. On the on-off approach, as the Senator described it, I cannot give any guarantees about anything because the Department takes its advice from the public health authorities. I cannot give confirmative information about dates either. I said earlier that the Cabinet is meeting today and there is an indication that special schools will go back to 100% capacity in early March. That is the extent of my knowledge because I am the Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion and my I am limited to that area. The other decisions are not made by me.

On a catch-up scheme, one of the reasons we put in place the supplementary programme, which will be hugely beneficial, is to provide for the catch-up that children with special needs, in particular, will badly need. Practically every member of the committee has mentioned regression. It is a huge issue for children without additional needs, never mind for those with additional needs, and we are conscious of that. We will probably be in a position to expand that supplementary programme at a later stage. If it is the case that schools have to close before the end of this term or in the next term - we hope that will not happen but cannot be sure - it may well be of assistance then. We also have the summer provision under which every child receives a progress card. These progress cards are given to the school and when the children go back to school their teachers then know what skills they have and do not have. That should be of significant benefit to them.

I understand what the Senator is saying about spina bifida and hydrocephalus and she is right that the nurses' list is provided by the HSE. We are developing a nursing programme through the school inclusion model at a cost of €1.3 million. Hopefully that will be of assistance.

I thank the Chairman for allowing me to sit in on the meeting. The Minister of State will probably think I am following her at this stage because I have been plaguing her in recent times. I have a number of points and questions I would like to raise rather than giving a speech. I am seeking clarification on a number of issues from the Minister of State and her officials.

We have spoken about the negative impacts all children, particularly those in special education, have experienced during lockdown and Covid. Has there been any analysis of that in the Department or has any report been drawn up to analyse the empirical data and the impact in order to quantify that regression? If such a report exists, could the Minister of State elaborate on it and, if one does not exist, is it worth giving consideration to compiling one?

In the case of students who, for health reasons or due to underlying health conditions, choose not to return to special education in the coming weeks, will the Minister of State clarify specifically what supports they might receive?

The Chairman mentioned in his opening comments that we are reasonably well catered for at primary level with ASD units and special education provision, but when children hit second level many parents speak of the delivery of supports almost falling off a cliff. I recognise the massive investment that has happened over the last decade, to which the Minister of State alluded in her opening remarks. The numbers of teachers, SNAs and ASD classes have dramatically increased. Obviously, there is a massive demand there and I am concerned that we are not catering for it. Deputy Cairns and Senator McGreehan mentioned facilitating ASD units. What is the Minister of State's policy in that regard? I can only speak about Cork county and city. There is one suburb in Cork with a population of 20,000, which has three secondary schools and not one ASD unit. New schools are being asked to provide ASD units but existing schools have to pick up the slack and if they are not willing to do that voluntarily we have to consider a change in policy or direction. That is just one example of one suburb in Cork with a population of 20,000 and no ASD unit in place.

My final question relates to school transport and buses. We have a particular issue in the Cope Foundation in Cork, where buses provided by Bus Éireann are facilitating three schools on one campus. Those children go into their bubbles in class and remain in them, but as soon as they come back out to the buses, three cohorts of students go on the same bus. Will the Minister of State, or one of her officials, clarify if that is still supposed to be happening? I do not think it is.

I thank the Deputy for his comments and questions. We will consider putting together a report but at the moment we are dealing primarily with getting all our children with SEN back to school. That is the priority right now but it may well merit some sort of report. I do not believe in having reports just for the sake of them but if we felt it would achieve something and we could learn from it into the future, it is something we would consider. I thank the Deputy for raising that.

Regarding supports for children who are not back in school at the moment, the supplementary programme I mentioned provides one-on-one teaching outside of school hours and at weekends. The inspectorate also has a Covid-19 helpline, which is available for schools. The National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, has published a document on supporting the well-being of students with SEN returning to school, which is being revised and is a very comprehensive resource. People can contact NEPS psychologists or the NEPS office directly because the well-being of children with special needs is crucial at the moment, more so than for other children. The NCSE has a dedicated phone line and the NCSE adviser will support SEN access during this period. Special educational needs organisers, SENOs, are also available to support parents where children are experiencing challenges in returning to school. Those supports will be important.

I will call Ms Kearney in a minute to answer the Deputy's question on the Cope Foundation transport issue. He and I have spoken many times about Cork. The NCSE is aware of 20 children in Cork who are not in school and who require a special school place. They are currently availing of the home tuition scheme. Some 116 children in the Cork area have a recommendation for a special school placement but the majority of those are currently in a special class placement. There is much engagement going on between the Department, the NCSE, school management, the Cope Foundation and the patron of Scoil Aislinn about expanding - or not, as the case may be - to provide further places in that area. There were a number of meetings last autumn, as the Deputy knows, and a further meeting with the Cope Foundation is planned as well.

Ms Shirley Kearney

We have engaged with the Cope Foundation in Cork regarding specific concerns it had about transport. We have provided reassurances that all services are operating with additional hygiene and other measures in place. It is not logistically possible to provide separate services to separate schools and that is true throughout the country, not just with regard to the Cope Foundation. There are currently over 2,000 vehicles operating on the special needs scheme and there are simply not enough vehicles, drivers or school escorts to provide separate services to every school. However, all services are operating with additional measures in place, in line with public health advice. Where those measures are in place but parents prefer not to use the transport, we have offered the option of a grant instead. All services are operating in line with public health advice and with those additional measures in place.

I am not sure if there is time but if it is of any assistance, Ms Mannion might speak briefly about regression in general because a number of members have raised it. She might add something to what I have already mentioned, subject to the Chairman's approval.

Absolutely.

Ms Martina Mannion

I thank the committee members. The Minister of State has already outlined the steps the Department is taking in the area of regression and the supports being provided for children with special educational needs in order to get back to school. One of the key messages is that the Department is acutely aware that being out of school has an impact on all children, but has a particular impact on children with special educational needs. In returning children to school, getting those children in special schools and special classes back has been the priority.

As regards regression, when schools reopened in September, the Department worked very closely with stakeholders to provide guidance documents and supports to schools about how best to provide for children on their return to school and to support any learning loss that had been identified. There are over 13,000 special education support teachers across our school system and children with special educational needs have learning plans that identify their particular learning needs. Those teachers have worked closely with the class teachers and the special education teams in the schools to ensure that children who had particular challenges on return to school could be best supported by the allocation of those teachers to the children who most needed them. That, supplemented by the programme the Minister of State has identified as the supplementary programme and our summer programme, is what we can do currently to support those children in the area of regression. As the committee has clearly identified, this is an area of which we are acutely aware and we are working very closely with the stakeholders to get everyone back. Once they are back, we are targeting learning loss in particular. Members will also be aware that when children first returned in September, our strategies were very much about settling back in, targeting areas of particular loss and picking up on key skills to allow children to bed that in before they moved on to building on that learning. That will be the focus again when children in special schools, special classes and mainstream schools return.

I missed a short period in the middle of the meeting so these questions may have been dealt with. I want to talk about the issue of choice.

We have discussed the importance of ensuring those who need that direct education are able to return to school but I am wondering about a related issue in terms of choice where there are children with a disability, for example, in families which may have a high-risk member. In many cases, the priority for the family is that the child return to school, but there are situations where the family wants to access remote learning to keep the connection with the school with a long-term view to moving back there, not moving to home schooling but looking at remote linking with the school over the next few months. There is a concern about children being marked absent in those circumstances. The problem is it seems to be very much on or off. One is either in or out of school, either home schooling or in full education. Have measures around, in certain situations, providing the option of remote learning on a temporary basis for those who seek it been looked at?

The Minister of State may have addressed the other issue. It is around an enhanced summer programme with additional supports. How do we look to ensure that, over June and July, we make up for lost time and try to enhance that programme? If the Minister of State would talk a little bit more about that, I would appreciate it. We have mentioned the issues around testing and so forth for special education staff. I thank the Minister of State.

I thank the Senator. On children with high risk, in primary school there are designated teachers who will ensure continuity in learning in relation to the schools. It is sort of home tuition to a certain extent. Post-primary pupils are matched with appropriate subject teachers who will teach either in person at home or using technology, or maybe a combination of blended learning. The local educational centres will also help in relation to that.

I mentioned the summer programme and the categories earlier on. It will go ahead next year. Some 24,000 children were eligible last year and I imagine it will be as big a success next year because it will be extremely beneficial for those children. It will be enhanced in any conceivable way that we can. All those progress report cards will go to the school they will be going on to and that continuity of learning, because of the regression these children will have had, should help in a big way.

It was specifically not where the child is high risk but where there is a high-risk family member. It is a challenging situation for families. The system accommodates the child who is high risk but I refer to where, for example, they have a sibling or family member with health conditions. Additional supports are needed in those situations and they seem to be falling between the cracks somewhat. We had situations back in autumn where children were marked absent while the school was trying to accommodate remote learning.

If a staff member or an SNA is high risk, they can avail of the enhanced occupational healthcare service via the HSE. If they have concerns about their health risk in the workplace, it is an anonymous consultation, their health conditions are assessed and they are advised whether it is safe to return to work or not. They can ask for more information or even have the assessment reviewed. That should be of benefit. I am not sure if Ms Mannion wants to add anything to that but that is my understanding of it.

Ms Martina Mannion

I thank the Minister of State. On the issue of children living with family members who are high risk, we have talked about the need for children to be back in school and accessing the benefits of the school system. In those circumstances, the Department believes the best thing is for those children to return to school to access the benefits that the school system brings. The key messages for those schools and children is that once the control measures are in place, it minimises the risk of transmission in those children. The best thing for those children is to return to school to have the benefit of the school provision and to put in place the mitigation measures to minimise the risk of transmission. We are aware that is a difficult decision for families dealing with the competing risks in a family situation. Part of the reason we are supportive of those children returning to school is the fact that this virus is going on in society and the world for a long time and those children are missing out on their educational provision by not being in school. We are trying to work with those families but the overall position is that it is best if they can return. We will support them to return safely as best we can.

The public health advice is for a cautious, phased approach for the return to school at the moment. Schools, of themselves, are safe environments and that has been consistently said by Dr. Ronan Glynn and others. International evidence shows that child-to-child and child-to-adult transmission of Covid-19 in schools is very uncommon.

This might be an area where a more nuanced approach is warranted. I believe that in 80% to 90% of situations expediting the return to school is absolutely the best and most important thing but I know families who are worried they will be pushed into an all-or-nothing situation. I am worried that we may have families, including families where children have special needs, who are falling out of the system because of the difficult choice the Minister of State has described, in terms of weighing it up. There may need to be thought about potential customised solutions in the future.

I will put two points to the Minister of State in relation to the school transport section. I, for one, as a public representative have encountered some difficulties over the past number of months in relation to school transport and people opting for one aspect of school transport, such as the taxi, then seeing it does not work out for their circumstances, changing to the grant-based model and having huge difficulty in engaging with the Department on it.

I and many public representatives have been dealing with the Department on a long-running issue. It is where a student with complex and special needs opts for a school thinking it the most appropriate for their needs at the beginning of their school journey. The student finds out that school is not appropriate for him or her and switches to another school after much consultation, then find they are doing well in that school and it is the best environment for them. There is some issue in the Department's regulations stating that, because it was not named at the time of their first application, they cannot be granted funding or support for transport to the second school, even though it has been universally deemed by psychologists and everybody else as the appropriate setting for the student. There needs to be flexibility on that. I cannot understand why it should be the terms from six or seven years ago that determine whether the family can avail of school transport. In many instances, one or other of the parents would have given up their job to become the full-time carer.

There is a major issue with no places being available for pupils entering second level education and with children of 14 years of age whose primary schooling might have been delayed because of illness and other issues. There needs to be some flexibility in this regard also. My suggestion for the Minister of State is that, rather than having hard and fast rules on difficult and challenging cases of people with complex medial and educational needs, there should be a lot of flexibility in the Department. I can follow up with the Minister of State on the specific cases because I do not want to go into them in a public forum. There needs to be a lot more flexibility. Many public representatives and I have tried with might and main to resolve issues faced by parents and children but to no avail because of the strict interpretation of rules within the Department.

I thank the Chairman. He absolutely may follow up with me if he wishes. Flexibility is important but there is obviously a policy that needs to be followed closely. The specific transport issues the Chairman mentioned are under the remit of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, but I can find out the information for the Chairman and come back to him. On the transition from primary to secondary school, there are practices in place in schools. A designated teacher from a post-primary school may visit the primary schools to discuss issues and share information. Specific information is available on open days for post-primary schools. There are also dedicated induction activities during the first week of term. There are organised meet-and-greet sessions for parents of first-year pupils to share information. The National Council for Special Education also has guidelines on transition. The Department provides continuing professional development, CPD, for staff regarding special educational needs. We can, of course, revert to the Chairman of the transport issue if he does not want to get into detail in a public forum.

Have members any supplementary questions for the Minister of State on special education?

My question is on the in-home tutoring for five hours per week, which the Minister of State talked about. Is it possible to offer the tuition within the school building to assist large families who cannot facilitate in-home tuition due to space considerations or noise levels? I thank the Minister of State.

I thank the Deputy for her question. It is a matter we can consider in the coming weeks. It is a new scheme. It is voluntary for families and staff. It is open to all students in special schools and classes for those with the greatest need. The tuition is for five hours per week over four weeks, amounting to 20 hours. We certainly can consider that proposal.

The Chairman was talking about flexibility. Many schemes in the Department have been in existence for a long time and some have not. We are always trying to evolve, improve and make things better. If it were felt that it would be in the best interest of the child to have the scheme available in the school, as well as at home, it would obviously merit consideration. I thank the Deputy for bringing it up today.

Since there are no further contributions, I thank the Minister of State and her officials for participating. We look forward to further engagement on the challenges that exist. There are many challenges in the area of special education and the pandemic in particular has shone a light on them. Major efforts are being made right across the country, particularly regarding classes that opened on 11 February and yesterday morning. We must compliment the people involved, the front-line staff who have been doing great work. There are challenges we have to meet, however. We will be engaging with the Minister of State further and we would like to have another meeting in the not-too-distant future on certain aspects of special education. I thank the Minister of State for participating in the meeting today. We look forward to engaging with her further on the areas under our remit.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.56 p.m. sine die.