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.