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Joint Committee on Disability Matters debate -
Thursday, 14 Jul 2022

Education and the UNCRPD: Discussion (Resumed)

Apologies have been received from Deputy Seán Canney. On behalf of the committee, I welcome the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Simon Harris, and Mr. Enda Hughes and Mr. Aongus McGrane from the equality, diversity and inclusion unit at the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. I remind members that they are allowed to participate in the public meeting only when they are physically located within the Leinster House complex. In this regard, if members are joining remotely, can they please confirm that they are on the grounds of Leinster House prior to contributing to the meeting. For anyone watching this meeting online, I ask them to bear with us should any technical issues arise. Before we commence formal proceedings, witnesses are directed to give evidence only in connection to the subject matter and if asked to stop giving evidence, to please accept the direction of the Chair and where possible do not make any charges or criticisms against any person or persons or entity by name or in such a way to make them identifiable. Members are advised of that long-standing parliamentary practice as well. Without further ado, I call on the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, to give his opening statement.

I thank the committee for the opportunity to join in this important discussion today on how we align education in Ireland with the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, UNCRPD. I want to commend the work of the Joint Committee of Disability Matters and I thank the members for the work they are doing in applying such a focus to this issue. It is really important that the Government prioritises this work so people with disabilities can be empowered to reach their full potential and fulfil their ambitions and dreams as equal citizens and important contributors to both our society and our economy.

This work is one of the reasons I became involved in political life. I am very pleased to be able to share a number of new policies we are advancing to progress our vision for a third level education system designed so that students with disabilities are successful in their educational and training goals and so that we build systems and structures that are focused around the needs of the student rather than the needs of the system in and of itself. I have been following some of the contributions of previous contributors to this committee and indeed many experts including those in the National Disability Authority who continue to provide advice to me and my Department so that we can make the changes we need to open up access, to improve progression and success rates for people with disabilities in third level education.

The UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities reminds us that disabled people are diverse, as we all are, and that disability is an evolving concept. These are two really important things to state at the outset because they are fitted into the work we are endeavouring to do. There cannot be a one-size-fits-all-approach just as there cannot be for any group of people. Schemes, initiatives, structures need to be flexible and we also need to recognise that understanding of the word disability is evolving and our schemes need to be willing to evolve and react to that as well. The preamble to the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities recognises clearly that attitudinal and environmental barriers for disabled people hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. We are starting to break down those barriers at third level but I also want to be clear and acknowledge here today that this is a journey with plenty of road left to travel. Article 24 of the convention regarding education for those with disabilities calls for states to ensure the realisation of rights for persons with disabilities to education through an inclusive education system at all levels, and for all students, without discrimination and on an equal basis with others, while ensuring reasonable accommodation of the individual’s requirements is provided. A long-held aim of education policy in this country has been to ensure everybody is afforded the opportunity to develop to their full potential. The higher and further education sector can be an engine for economic growth. It can also be an instrument to promote diversity and enhance social cohesion. Indeed for the State, I believe education is the single greatest driver of equality and we must ensure any discrimination is eliminated across all pathways. I want to ensure we create opportunities and support people to engage in education and training at every stage of their lives; to learn, to upskill, to reskill and to grow. As a new Department which is only two years old, it is key to our priorities, and to my own political priorities, that our Department's statement of strategy specifically includes inclusion and support learning for all as its strategic goal.

I will briefly take you through some of my Department's initiatives and our ongoing work to align third level with the convention. Shortly I will bring the new access plan for higher education to Government. I am very excited about this. It probably would be better to have this conversation after that so I am happy to come back again and to brief the committee on it once it has been brought to Government. To give the plan its full title, it is the Strategic Action Plan for Equity, Participation and Success in Higher Education. It will be the plan up to 2028. We have made a lot of progress in Ireland in increasing participation rates in higher education across all levels. Our target under the last national access plan was for 8% of new people beginning college to be people with a disability. That target was surpassed and the current figure stands at 12.3%. The next plan will go further and will be more ambitious in relation to targets building on success to date but it is also going to try to think about this issue in a different way. We cannot think about inclusion now just in terms of access. Access is really important as it helps someone get in the door but what happens then? What happens when they try to come out the other side of the door after their journey through college, is as important. Being blunt and truthful, we can flatter ourselves in saying it is great that we got more people in the door. It is great in terms of the college experience, but also important is what happens after in terms of jobs, employment and postgraduate study. We want to look not just at the access piece but whether students got to complete their courses, did they get to move to postgraduate study, did they find employment, did they get to participate in public and civic life and what was their experience like. Another truth lies behind headline figures. This comes back to my point about the definition of disability and it needing a much broader understanding. We have not being measuring participation rates for students with intellectual disabilities, for example. This frustrates and angers me. That changes from now. The new national access plan will have as a priority group, students with intellectual disability. For the first time, students with intellectual disabilities will be part of the national access plan. This is important for a couple of reasons. It is important because it is the right thing to do but it is also important because we need to start measuring in order to develop data here so that we can put in place the right policies.

I am pleased to say we have moved ahead of the national access plan and announced a new funding stream for autistic students and for students with intellectual disabilities. These programmes are called PATH, the Programme for Access to Higher Education funding. There are two parts to it. The first starts in September. Every college in Ireland has been given a pot of money to roll out universal design. I am very excited about this. Universal design is the core to achieving the objectives on the convention. This funding can be used for things like sensory rooms, way-finder apps, student and staff training, which I know is an issue that has come up in this committee on a few occasions. It will lesson the feeling that autistic students tell me about when they arrive in the college campus and feel like they have arrived in a very large place, a place that is perhaps very difficult to navigate. This is about universal design which will benefit autistic students but being universal design, it will benefit all students. That is the first pot of the new fund.

The second funding pot is also very exciting. The second is a competitive call for colleges and universities to put in place programmes for students with intellectual disabilities. This arose from a conversation I had with a group of parents, all mothers in fact, of adult children with Down's syndrome. One mother said to me that not only does she not see her child progress after school like all other parents, she has to watch her child regress in front of her eyes. What a profound and heartbreaking thing for any parent to have to say. We have the Trinity Centre for Ageing and Intellectual Disability and Senator Clonan who I see on my monitor here knows it well. It is a great programme but I am fed up going around saying how great it is that we have a centre for people with intellectual disabilities in Trinity. I am so proud of what it does and it is brilliant but when are we are going to do this in the other universities and colleges? Why can we not have models like this right across the sector? The purpose of this fund, worth €3 million a year out to 2026, is to invite applications to come forward from the sector to provide programmes for people with intellectual disabilities. A good outcome here will be to be oversubscribed and for me to have to seek more funding. That is where we want to get to. The initial feedback and enthusiasm, and I thank my colleagues for their work on this, from the sector is encouraging. I think we will get a lot of good proposals coming forward. We will start funding those programmes from September 2023. The first pot will fund the universal design from this September onwards and the new programmes around intellectual disabilities the following September.

On the further education side, and I mention this as it is really important, a broad range of supports is provided through the Education and Training Boards, ETBs, to support participation of all learners including people with disabilities. Data from SOLAS show 11,376 learners with a least one type of disability were enrolled in further education and training programmes . The Further Education and Training, FET, sector has very clearly nailed its colours to the mast. It has fostered inclusion as one of its key priorities in its new strategy. In real terms, this means initiatives such as further development of universal design for learning, UDL. For example, SOLAS published a UDL guide for FET practitioners. I understand this has been widely used right across our education and training boards now. The focus also means more research into barriers to FET for the long-term unemployed and for other vulnerable groups, many of whom have a disability. Building on its 2017 research, SOLAS intends to commission further research and examine barriers to participation in FET with particular reference to persons with disabilities.

It is rolling out specialist training provision programmes to train those working with people with a disability who have higher support needs. The FET strategy currently under evaluation commits to implementing the recommendations of that specialist training provision programme through the lifetime of the strategy.

The fund for students with disabilities, FSD, is available to assist students in further and higher education institutions. Deputy Tully and I had an important exchange on this in the Dáil last week. The FSD is the main funding source supporting participation by students with disabilities in approved further and higher education courses. It also supports students from Ireland to study abroad, on approved courses in the EU and the UK, including Northern Ireland. In the higher education sector, the number of students eligible for supports under the fund has increased from 10,097 in 2016-17 to 14,358 in 2019-20.

In the interests of colleagues, I will skip through the rest of my statement and take it as read. On the apprenticeship front, I point out to members that we want to diversify our apprenticeship population. We are establishing a new group on access to apprenticeships. There are barriers in that regard that need to come down.

As regards the issue of reasonable accommodation in the context of the physical infrastructure of buildings, which is important, the HEA is finalising what it describes as a space survey. It is going through all our buildings. As part of the survey, all higher education institutions have been asked to indicate the compliance of their buildings with Part M of the building regulations. This survey will be regularly updated. For the first time, we will have a full map of all our facilities and it will be regularly updated. I intend to publish it in the coming months once I receive it. It may be a useful reference point for the committee as well.

There is a final issue I wish to flag because it is important. One of the policy challenges and anomalies we have relates to part-time learning. Many students with disabilities tell me that part-time study might work better for them. I am not generalising but, for some students with a disability, it might work better. I have received examples from many committee members of students who may wish to do a four-year degree over five or six years, for example. There is a need to change the SUSI support scheme and the likes to reflect that. We have asked Professor Tom Collins and Professor Anne Looney, who are co-chairing our funding the future group, to prioritise this work. We need to define what is meant by "part-time". Part-time study for students with a disability is an area we could try to prioritise in terms of SUSI reform so that we are not just encouraging people to take up part-time study where it works for them, but actually ensuring the financial supports are in place to match it. I will leave it there.

I thank the Minister. Our first contributor is Deputy Tully, the Vice Chairman of the committee.

I thank the Chairman. As regards the discussion the Minister and I had last week, to which he referred, I went back to the student in question and he said that after much fighting with the college, the situation has been resolved. He will get a second personal assistant, PA, which is good news because he was thinking of withdrawing from the course, which would have been an awful pity. He said he had bad experiences right throughout second level and thought it was going to happen again. The situation has been resolved, however. He pointed out that although students are given a PA in college, they are not given assistance to study and work outside college, especially if they are living away from home. That is another issue I raised last week. If a student is lucky enough to be living at home, close to the further education centre, he or she may have a PA.

A number of students raised with me the issue of part-time learning, to which the Minister referred. We would welcome flexibility in that regard. Many people who have appeared before the committee to give their lived experience would say it is difficult to take on a full-time course. That may be down to financial reasons but it may be also for physical reasons. People who have chronic pain may not be able to attend college every day. There is a need to have other options, such as a blended option involving people connecting in virtually.

On the issue of exam time, students with disabilities are given ten or 15 minutes extra per exam but that does not take into account their needs and is often insufficient. They are arguing that exam accommodations should be based on need rather than having a set standard.

Yesterday, the Chairman and I separately met a young girl who is blind. She just sat her junior certificate examination. She had a meeting with the Ministers of State, Deputies Madigan and Rabbitte. She has lived experience of the problems she encountered in doing her junior certificate. It would be valuable to speak to people such as Niamh, who was in Leinster House yesterday, and others who have gone through junior certificate, leaving certificate or college exams to find out what are their needs. That is important.

I welcome the fact that the Minister mentioned training for staff. Some students have said they are often made to feel uncomfortable when they highlight their needs. It would be good to have training for staff. The fact that financial and health-related supports for students are insufficient has also been raised. Additional funding for the higher education access route, HEAR, and disability access route to education, DARE, programmes may be needed, as well as for mental health supports for disabled students in colleges. I refer to the issue of a diagnostic service to access disability supports for adults. A person seeking to access such supports has to pay privately for a diagnosis. Many people cannot afford to do so. To be able to avail of supports, one has to be diagnosed in the first place.

An issue raised with me is that there should be specific career guidance for disabled students at second level and third level to help them to navigate. There is often an assumption, especially in the case of students with intellectual disabilities, that they will just go into a day centre. As the Minister stated, we need to broaden how we look at things like that and have more inclusivity.

I make the point that disability officers at third level should have lived experience. That will give them a better understanding and may help them support students to advocate for themselves.

Has there been consultation with disabled persons organisations, DPOs, on all the work the Minister is doing? What he outlined in respect of the national access plan and so on is commendable. Has work been carried out with DPOs? The UNCRPD is all about the phrase "Nothing about us without us". It is important for that to be borne in mind and for there to be cross-departmental planning and co-operation.

I thank the Deputy. I note her genuinely interest in this area. She raised several issues. I am pleased to hear that the issue experienced by the individual to whom she referred was resolved. I am still frustrated that it occurred. The fund for students with disabilities is meant to be student-centred. In general, the feedback I get is that it is. If the person in question would like to relay his experience to me, I would be happy to take up that.

I also intend to pursue the issue the Deputy raised with me previously, and mentioned again this morning, regarding the fact that a student may have a personal assistant in college, which is great and largely works quite well, but if the student wants to go for a cup of coffee off-campus with fellow students, the PA cannot accompany him or her. That issue was brought to my attention. It does not seem right that that is the way it works. I will revert to the Deputy and the committee on that issue.

As regards the part-time piece, I acknowledge that we are all on the same page. I should have said in my opening statement that part-time students are eligible for the FSD and the student assistance fund. The figures are that 569 part-time students receive funding under the FSD and 1,242 part-time students receive funding under the student assistance fund. It is good that those two funds are available. The bit we have yet to do relates to SUSI. A key recommendation of the review I published in May is that part-time study needs to be funded. Those who are in part-time study need to be eligible for SUSI. I wish to prioritise that work and I have asked Professor Tom Collins to lead on that but, as a starting point within that, I would like students with a disability to be prioritised. That could make a significant change.

I would be happy to meet with Niamh. I saw on social media that she was in Leinster House. There has been engagement. I am very proud of the extensive work that my Department and sector do with people with disabilities in terms of not just the writing of the national access plan, but also the monitoring of it. We have a specific committee structure within the Department. We have begun conversations with students with a disability in postgraduate study. Dr. Vivian Rath may be known to the committee. He is an excellent advocate and I have been meeting with him. He has been bringing together other students with a disability at postgraduate level. It is a great source of encouragement for students at undergraduate level but it is also good that we are now beginning to talk about postgraduate students with a disability and the supports that need to be put in place. I agree entirely in terms of there being nothing about us without us.

The specific career guidance piece the Deputy mentioned is key. The first piece of work I wanted to do was to get that autistic fund and the fund for students with intellectual disabilities, namely, the programme for access to higher education, PATH 4, in place. I am delighted we have done that. The Deputy has hit the nail on the head regarding the next piece, which is the transition from second level to third level. Obviously, I do not have all the responsibility for this but I do have responsibility for the part that relates to what happens in third level. I remember from my time as Minister for Health that a huge discussion takes place every year about the level of funding for day care and respite places for what they call school leavers who are people with a disability. That is an important conversation.

It seems to be the only one we have though. There does not seem to be a conversation about what happens to the person with a disability when he or she leaves second-level education and wants to access the education system. That was the motivation behind the new PATH 4 programme. There is work to be done on this. I have spoken to the Ministers of State, Deputies Madigan and Rabbitte and the Minister, Deputy Foley. We need to do work on the transition planning and careers guidance. I am very happy to work with the committee on that and get its input. I will come back on that.

The Minister is welcome. The committee often speaks about education and how it is the key to many things and a life that people might now have expected but because the door was opened, it is there. I am an example of someone where education was opened to me because of grants which enabled me to go to university. As I said last week, there is absolutely nothing that makes me better than anyone else; I was given opportunities because I was able. We need to built equity into the system along with equality.

Is funding available or are there targets for higher and further education to upskill staff to be more aware of disability equity so that they can be the lecturers and educators they need to be and that they know how to be inclusive in the courses they provide? I have friends who are lecturers and have never received any funding for this. I have heard of one who spoke to a person's personal assistant and was then told not to. Obviously you should not speak through the PA but they did not know and they felt stupid. It would empower staff as well as the student.

The Minister touched on school leavers. As sure as night follows day, our children will, we hope, become adults. When they get past school age, that happens regardless of ability. The Minister and his Department have done great work on apprenticeships and expanding education and how we look at further and higher education and training. I am thinking of day centres which are often seen simply as day centres rather than education facilities. There is a great programme in Drogheda run by the Irish Wheelchair Association. It has its day centre and runs its course. It is its college. People there learn skills and how to look after money and how to cook. It is a home economics course, in a way. An individual is running this and empowering these students. I hope they will come to Leinster House some day. I have met them a few times and know they are interested in politics because it is brought to them. They are interested in current affairs and know what is happening. It is called a day centre but it is actually an education centre. I would love to see that for early school leavers who might not have the ability to go into so-called mainstream education but who have a huge ability to learn.

The Senator is right about funding for staff and student training around awareness. The committee identified it as an area that needs real acceleration. From September, under the funding I referred to earlier, PATH 4, every college in Ireland will get an allocation for universal design. It is up to them what they do with it because they are autonomous. There is a list of things they can spend it on and one is staff training. There is a funding stream under PATH 4 for staff training and for student awareness, because that is also valid.

We have put a digital badge in place for staff who have accessed training on universal design. I will provide the committee with figures on how many have been through that. There is a programme and at the end staff are provided with a digital badge that allows them to say they have done the training. It is credited. There is also the funding with PATH 4.

I have been given a note here that says in 2021, 771 staff across the third level sector were awarded the universal design for learning, UDL, badge and 138 participants were awarded the optional facilitators badge. I will send the committee a note on these programmes. I think it is a really good initiative. It was co-designed by the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability, AHEAD, and by the UCD access and lifelong learning team. That seems to be going well. Funding and providing the bandwidth and opportunity for staff was a recognised need.

The Senator raised daycare centres and residential placements and how they interact with the education system. If I am really honest, it is something we have not cracked as a country and that is wrong. There are a couple of things we are doing on this. We have started engaging with a number of organisations. For example, I met recently with the Blue Diamond Drama Academy which is an amazing drama school for people with disabilities. It is an utterly inspiring place to visit. We are looking at how we can plug them in with the local ETB so that it is not operating as an island separate to the education system. Not to stray outside my brief, but part of the answer is the personalised budgets that colleagues in the Department of Health, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte and others are passionate about because, to be blunt, sometimes a lot of funding is provided to organisations, and it is not to say they do not do good work, but empowering the individual to decide how to spend it is a really important step forward. There are some examples of individualised budgets. That would enable citizens to say they want to do a certain course, or to go to Blue Diamond or to Lakers which I know in my constituency. There is joined-up work to be done there and the personalised budgets could be a way of progressing it.

Deputy Pauline Tully took the Chair.

The funding and PATH 4 is something the third-level institution will draw down, perhaps annually. It would be positive if funding could not be drawn down if targets were not met. A total of 771 staff is not a huge number -----

----when you think of the number of staff in, say DkIT or the Louth and Meath Education and Training Board, LMETB, further education. That is quite a minimum number of staff. Were there targets which were not met and funding not released? As the Minister knows, the people go after the money. I would appreciate it if the Department could look into that and put in targets and a clear rationale which would determine getting the money the following year.

Deputy Michael Moynihan resumed the Chair.

The Senator makes a valid point. I am thinking of our experience where we rolled out training around consent and taking a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment. As a result of putting a real laser focus on that there has been a massive increase in staff going for training. I think the Senator is right. Under the new HEA Bill, which will hopefully become the HEA Act in autumn, it will be able to design codes and guidelines to ask institutions to report. I will feed her suggestion into that process. I think it is good.

I thank the Minister for his contribution. He mentioned the new national access plan 2022-2026. He said we will have it towards the end of the summer or so. He mentioned intellectual disabilities.

A clear definition of that is very important. It is something the previous development plan did not define properly. I am hoping we will have it in this one. It is also about how we handle mental health when it comes to education. That brings me to the point we discussed about people saying part-time courses are better because some people with mental health issues do not have the same concentration and would not have the same experience. Looking at that part-time model is probably a better plan. The Minister obviously must then talk to Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, in terms of how that is rolled out and if it can be rolled out.

We did not mention school transport but that comes into this in terms of the Minister having to deal with the Department of Transport etc. We must take into account that many of the people attending these courses or otherwise have to get to them and they have schedules. I do not know what the Minister's interaction has been in that regard.

Apprenticeships is an issue that comes up a lot. I know there have been improvements in general terms for people with disabilities. In terms of apprenticeships, however, I often find that local authorities, for instance, and even the public services, tend to give people with disabilities jobs that are not always suitable. Some of them are very basic jobs. Trying to get people apprenticeships or get them to a higher level in order that they can go for much more meaningful jobs that will suit them is very important. How does the Minister deal with that when it comes to apprenticeships?

In terms of disability resources, especially when it comes to mental health and such, will the Minister tell us how and in what way some of that is directed and what he intends to do? With supports in particular, some people need a bit of help and might need someone to assist them. I do not know whether that person would be with them, but people might need that extra bit of support. Will the Minister tell us how that works?

I thank Deputy Ellis. Yes, for the first time, people with intellectual disabilities will be there as a priority group. We obviously will be working with the National Disability Authority, as the Deputy rightly said, around definitions and accuracy around this. I have in front of me figures from a document the National Disability Authority, which, by the way, does incredible work, gave to me, that is, its disability statistics fact sheet from October 2018. At that time, we had 66,611 people who had an intellectual disability listed as their primary disability. Therefore, a very significant number of people in our population have an intellectual disability. I certainly do not want to suggest there have not been examples of good practice in parts of the system; there have been. From an actual data point of view and policy point of view, however, it has not had the visibility it needed before now. I think that is a view we all share. That is why the new national access plan will define them as a priority group and define the issue as a priority. What do these things mean? It means it gets a reporting focus within the national access plan it has not gotten up until now. That helps in terms of resources but also in terms of policy.

I find myself having to agree with the Deputy on part-time courses. He rightly broadened the issue to include people with mental health challenges. I could broaden it further. When I meet lone-parent organisations, they highlight the fact that the availability of a programme on a part-time basis can make all the difference in terms of whether someone can actually access third-level education.

I also heard during the Covid-19 pandemic about a lot of people managing to access education because it was provided in a different way. Online learning certainly did not work for everybody. It caused much difficulty for many people. For some people in the population, however, including people with disabilities, they actually found it was an improvement in terms of accessibility.

As the Deputy rightly said, the body of work I need to do now is to begin to define what is part-time. Genuinely, what do we mean by part-time? Is it a weekend course? That is not what we are talking about here. We are talking about people who are engaging with the qualifications framework in the higher education sector but doing it in a more flexible way. We have really asked the right person in Professor Tom Collins, who is co-chairing that group with Professor Anne Looney, to begin to look at prioritising the part-time piece. I am happy to link closely with the committee on this.

I am conscious that transport has come up as an issue from my reading of some of the transcripts of this committee on a few occasions. I assure the Deputy that from our perspective, and this probably differs from other Departments, transport support is one of the categories for which the fund for students with a disability can be used. Perhaps that brings me to the Deputy's next question when he asked me to explain how the funding works. The beauty or the benefit of the fund for students with disabilities, FSD, is that a needs assessment is done. As is often the case, there is not one and, unfortunately, with too many schemes, it is not that rigid. The needs assessment is actually done. That genuinely does place the learner at the centre. Once the needs assessment is done, disability support staff from the higher education institution then take that assessment and translate it into what that means in terms of both the nature and level of supports, including transport supports and personal assistant, PA, hours, that are required by the student. The student can then draw down from an eligible expenditure listed in the FSD guidelines. We have a number of students doing this. In the year 2019 to 2020, 125 students were drawing down support for transport through that fund. It was a smaller number of 46 the following year, which I presume was to do with Covid-19. That is how that fund for students with disabilities works and transport is an eligible part.

On the apprenticeship side, although I do not want to go on too long, that is a really important issue. The Deputy highlighted why it is an important issue. Currently, the latest figures available to me are that a total of 640 apprentices have declared one or more disabilities. It is important to say the word "declared" because, obviously, it is up to the individual to declare whether he or she has a disability. However, 640 apprentices have declared a disability. A majority of those who identified as having a disability - approximately 400 - identified as having dyslexia. A further 25.5% identified as having another disability relating to learning and 12% did not specify what disability they have.

One of the big aims of our apprenticeship action plan is not just to grow the number of apprentices, although that is an aim, but to try to make sure the apprenticeship population much more closely reflects the profile of the general population. How do we get more access, diversity and inclusion? We will be establishing an equity of access sub-committee of the National Apprenticeship Alliance specifically to look at this. It will be doing things like an employer survey to determine baseline employer attitudes and the extent of knowledge of supports available to employers for supporting employees with disabilities. It will also look at targets and interventions for specific groups in terms of what extra supports we need to put in place. I will keep the committee updated on that.

I thank the Minister. Our next speaker is Deputy Cairns.

I thank the Minister and his team for appearing before the committee today. Despite guarantees to access for education and employment in both the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD, and national law, we know that people with disabilities are consistently under-represented in both. Approximately one third of disabled people have left education before they intended because of their disability. The Higher Education Authority, HEA, notes that despite progress made in recent years, the higher education system is still not as inclusive as it wants it to be and that some prospective students simply do not see themselves as belonging in third-level education. There are complex systematic and historical obstacles we need to consider. Ireland also has the lowest employment rate of persons with disabilities in the EU at 32.3%. Further and higher education is crucial in addressing this and must play a key part in helping people progress in education and then go on to gain meaningful employment.

When the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, appeared before this committee earlier in the year, it highlighted the financial barriers faced by students and prospective students with disabilities. In addition, we know the cost of disability is up to more than €12,000 extra annually according to The Cost of Disability in Ireland report. The reality is that the cost remains a significant barrier for participation. As we come up to the budget, apart from the SUSI measures, what targeted supports will the Minister be proposing or pushing for current or prospective students with disabilities?

We spoke about the financial barrier created by the rigidity of the system in terms of part-time courses, which the Minister mentioned. Part-time courses suit so many people better. The Association for Higher Education Access and Disability, for example, identified an increase of 21% in the number of students with disabilities studying part-time in higher education. So much of the funding is still dependent on being full-time, however. The Minister mentioned that he has hopes to change that.

Apart from the ambition to do it, where is it at? When will it be changed? What has been done so far? What will be done?

A key barrier for children and young people with disabilities is accessing primary and secondary education. It has become clear that there is a lack of planning in regard to that. We know how many children there are with additional needs in primary school, but there has been no foresight whatsoever in terms of providing places in secondary school. There is a significant lack of places at second level in ASD as a result of that. What planning is the Department doing on that to ensure there are enough places for people progressing? Is it doing that kind of modelling?

The Minister referenced different figures for apprenticeships. Did they refer to further and higher education training courses? We could not get an exact figure on that. Where did the figure come from?

The committee previously heard about the progress made by universities, including technological universities, in supporting students with disabilities. We know smaller further education colleges do not have the same capacity. Can the Minister outline what targeted supports and additional staff could, or will, be put into such organisations? They are often more locally based. Deputy Tully mentioned the fact that many people cannot live near a university. Smaller institutions are often more locally based for people who cannot live away from home without access to a full-time PA.

I thank Deputy Cairns.

I thank Deputy Cairns for her questions. I will take them in sequence.

The issue of people leaving before completion or dropping out of education is key. I am being very blunt about this. It is flattering the targets and our reporting against them. We are, objectively, making progress on progress on access, albeit that the figures are not as high as they need to be. However, we are not measuring what happens after access. The new national access plan will go to Cabinet this month and be published in August or September. It will try to start measuring and determining what happens beyond access. The Deputy is correct. It is a genuine concern we in the sector have.

The Deputy correctly stated that people with disabilities can sometimes say they do not feel like they belong in higher education. We all have to challenge ourselves as to why that is the case. I do not think there is one answer to this, as the Deputy alluded to, in terms of the cultural and systemic change that needs to happen. There are two things that could make a very real difference. The transition planning piece is an obvious way in which we can begin to make a difference, and I have commenced conversation with the Department of Education in that regard. It has done some work and in the interests of brevity I will give the Deputy a note on it. It has a comprehensive employment strategy and is beginning to work with a number of schools on the transition from secondary school into the workforce or third level. It is outlining how it will select schools. The Deputy may have already received a briefing on this from the Department of Education, but I will share the note with her.

When a lot of students get to university, they then feel they do not belong because, to use my words, which I hope are appropriate, they can feel completely overwhelmed in what can be very large institutions. I hope the funding we have put in place around universal design will make a difference.

On what we are going to do about the cost of disability, the normal caveats around budgetary processes and Estimate, which I will not pre-empt, apply. There are two significant ways in which we can help. One is the fund for students with disabilities, which I understand has an annual allocation of about €9.6 million. We will obviously need to stress test that in advance of the budget. The second is the student assistance fund, which is not exclusively for students with disabilities, but many students with disabilities draw from it. There is currently €18.5 million in that fund. I will examine a range of areas to determine how we can assist further.

The question on part time is fair. There is an ambition, but the Deputy has asked when we will deal with it. I take the point. We are moving quite quickly on it. The report was published in May and it is on the website of my Department. About two or three weeks ago, I co-chaired a group with Professors Tom Collins and Anne Looney - the funding our future group. At that meeting, we asked them to prioritise that work. I hope to be in a position to get an outcome from that later this year and then move forward. Unfortunately, I cannot tell the Deputy whether it will happen in 2022 or 2023, but I hope to move quite quickly on it. It is low hanging fruit that could make a real difference. The work is being accelerated and I will come back to the Deputy as soon as I have a definitive timeline.

On the issue of places, third level is different from the school system. We are looking, through universal design, to accommodate and include everybody within the third level sector, rather than the situation around ASD classes and so on which the Deputy correctly referenced. We have funding of about €20 million for the sector for demographics. That is how we will address that.

The issue of staffing is a more interesting question. We had a very good conversation at the funding our future group recently. USI was very good on this. We have set an ambition to reduce the student to staff ratio in higher education to bring it into line with European norms. What we mean when we talk about staff and what came out of that discussion was an agreement that that cannot just be academic staff, but also has to include staff working in a variety of areas including disability, mental health and student support staff and defining these groups so that we can see how many are going at each institution. Again, I cannot pre-empt the budgetary process but my major priority for core funding is to inject more staff to improve ratios. We are not just going to examine academic staff; we will also examine student support staff which will very much include students with disabilities.

I have apprenticeship figures which I am very happy to share with the Deputy. I presume they came from SOLAS and the National Apprenticeship Office. There is quite a bit of detail in that which might be of use to the committee. We are about to establish the equity of access subcommittee of the national apprenticeship alliance. Its job will be to begin to map out the actions we need to take. We have already put in place an additional payment around a gender bursary. I imagine, without pre-empting that work, that is likely to be a further area we can apply in regard to disability. It has been recognised that there are additional costs and challenges, therefore we have provided an additional bursary. I will share the note with the Deputy and the committee.

I thank the Minister for his reply. It is the last day of the Dáil and, given that there is a Minister in the committee, I would like to make an appeal. A lot of budgetary decisions will be made over the recess. As a committee, we have heard a lot from people over the past two years about the risk of social exclusion and other such things being much higher among people with disabilities. We know there is a cost of living crisis at the moment. People with disabilities are suffering more than everybody else. I appeal to the Minister, in advance of the budget, to push for a cost of disability payment in advance of the budget to try to address the suffering people are experiencing.

That is an important thing to push for and we all share a view on the need to move on that. We are moving on it. We decided not to wait for the budget to put in place money for PATH 4 to support students in colleges in September. All students who are starting or returning to college, as well as all students, including students with a disability, will see the benefit of the universal design funding which has been disbursed to institutions across the country for September. There is no disputing the additional costs faced by people with a disability and the need for the budget to reflect that. I have apprenticeship figures which I am very happy to share with the Deputy.

I thank the Minister and his officials for coming before the committee. Over almost two years the committee has heard how difficult it is for somebody with a disability to navigate Irish society. I see very positive moves happening and the Minister has provided a very comprehensive report today, which I value. Ensuring that someone has an experience that is not just about education but also the outcomes is important. We are not providing access to education as an end in itself; we are providing it as insurance towards a life and for every individual to live his or her best life as every person in Ireland has an entitlement and right to do.

When I hear the phrase "universal design", I think it is fantastic because we need to equip colleges with that. However, I am interested in the mechanism that will flow from in terms of the real life lived experience of the students who enter into that environment and how they give feedback. How will their involvement in the effectiveness of that be harnessed and facilitated?

This might be appallingly cynical on my part but my fear is tokenism, that we put in provisions but they do not make an impact for the people for whom they are intended. We want to make sure the provision do make an impact for these people. We have the experience of people who are a little further on in education, who may be in second and third year, and there are those in first year who do not have any comparisons to make. It is important to harness that. I would be interested to hear how that will be done.

The next issue is that disability costs. It disproportionately costs families supporting a person with a disability at the level of going into college. That burden is definitely on parents and families around them. When we talk about funding, we talk about PATH 4 funding, is there any cross-departmental discussion on that kind of support? Do we involve the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth? Has that Department an input into it? Are there officials from the Department of Social Protection who join up and discuss? What about the Department of Health, is that on board? There is also the Minister’s own Department. Transport has been one of the inhibitors to engagement in life, getting outside the house and not being trapped in the house. That is a very important feature.

I am a little wary about the part time option. I welcome it, and have seen the benefit in people I know who I have been supporting over the past couple of years. However, I am also wary of colleges cutting corners in the provision of part-time courses. I already know of fees that have gone up while the engagement with students has gone down because it is all online now. Are we monitoring that?

Most of my questions are on the idea of enforcement, accountability and ensuring it actually is effective and has an effective outcome. My last point is around apprenticeships. They are really welcome. Already two years in when it comes to literacy and apprenticeships, the Minister has really made a difference. The apprenticeships to my mind are aligned with people with disabilities who have had the experience of community employment schemes and getting access to the workplace through those. I appreciate there is an enormous difference but it is about process. It is the process of occupying someone for a number of years. Participants gain great skills and confidence but have no permanent outcome from that. Often they are on a treadmill where they might get an extension or be renewed repeatedly for an extra year but there is no permanent job at the end of it. How are we going to incentivise employers to ensure there are permanent jobs at the end of an apprentice scheme? When the funding dries up for the individual because he or she has reached a certain point, does the engagement of the individual cease? That comes back to my own theme which is that this has to be a lifelong, sustainable process to ensure the person is living his or her best life.

I thank Senator Seery Kearney for her contribution and her work in this area. There is quite a lot in it so let me delve in. The Senator is beyond right in regard to the whole issue of outcomes and output. This is probably more generally across the public service but we have to stop measuring just what we are putting in and start measuring what comes out the other side. I am talking about public investment. When we actually invest we cannot just say that is great and here is the press release announcing something, but what actually happened? What difference did it make? I fully agree. I hear that feedback very strongly from students and I hear it extremely strongly from the disability community and sector. That is why in my opening statement I made the point that we are going to try to shift the focus or at least re-balance the focus in the new national access plan to look at more than just access. We should not just report on access, although it is really important to keep reporting on it, but also report on what actually happened on the journey. I gave some examples earlier. Did somebody complete the course? Did somebody go on to postgraduate studies afterwards? I credited Dr. Vivian Rath for the good work he is doing on this. Did somebody get a job? That is part of the joined-up thinking that will then help. If somebody got a job then that will feed into the work on the comprehensive employment strategy, so expect a shift in that regard. I intend to bring that to Cabinet very shortly and publish probably in August or September.

A tangential point that is somewhat linked is the HEA Bill which is through the Dáil and will one day be through the Seanad, in September. That legislation will allow the HEA to have a more structured reporting mechanism on a number of issues. That will be important for accountability and transparency. It will allow the HEA to set codes, guidelines and the likes. I have no doubt this whole area of access and disability will absolutely be one.

I wish to assure members that what we are doing here has to be everything other than tokenism. If we get it right this has the ability to be as transformational as some of the decisions that were made in education years ago in regard to special needs education model. My motivation for this is that the cliff edge has, sadly for too many students, moved from in the first instance primary to secondary, and that is great, but now from secondary to third level, notwithstanding the issues that Deputy Cairns rightly highlights around pressures at second level on places. I do not dispute that but we see a much better situation in regard to special needs education at primary and secondary level than we did when I was in school. The cliff edge for far too many has now moved to third level. We cannot allow that cliff edge to exist. We cannot allow people to make all that progress, families to make all that progress and then, as I quoted earlier, have the mother of an adult child with Down’s syndrome tell me she watches her son regress in front of her.

The universal design is international best practice as to how we go about this. Rather than saying, “Will we just put in a few supports for the student with a disability?” which is important but how do we actually redesign how the college works so that it works for everybody? That is what excites me. As a reference point for the committee, the Atlantic Technological University, formerly the Institute of Technology Sligo, has been a real leader in regard to universal design. I will send a more detailed note on this to the committee but it very much includes the student voice. What we are seeing now, as we all know about universal design, is that things that make sense for those with disabilities are helping everybody. The sensory room is helping everybody. The Wayfinder app and extra technology is helping everybody. It is not just lifting the student with the disability, it is changing the whole culture of an institution.

On the joined-up thinking piece, I want to assure members that there is some. My colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, carried out as members might remember, the Cost of Disability Research report. This was published on 7 December 2021. This tried to measure the cost of disability, the additional day-to-day costs that people experience, the costs that people with a disability experience that others in society do not face. It can be also measured by the amount of additional income a household containing a person with a disability would require to achieve the same standard of living. In order to get a better understanding of the cost of disability, the Department of Social Protection commissioned Indecon to carry out a full independent cost of disability study. This was a programme for Government commitment. The research finds that there is no one cost but rather a spectrum of costs. To make a long story short, this report has now gone to the national disability inclusion strategy steering group which is chaired by our colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, who is pulling together all of the relevant Departments so that they are all at the table in terms of how we respond to this and accept the challenge. The budget is the next obvious point where Government needs to provide a meaningful response in this regard.

Is the Minister's own Department at those interdepartmental meetings held by the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte?

Is that where the operational thinking happens?

Yes, that is exactly right. We are at the table, as are all the other relevant Departments and the anchor for that discussion now is the Indecon report around the cost of disability and how we respond to that. Deputy Rabbitte will deliver the Government's response but we are all feeding into it.

In regard to part time courses, it is important that the Senator provided a balance to the conversation because we are all believers in part-time and flexible learning. We have to get this right and that is why it is important that Professor Collins who is doing this piece of work asks, "What do we mean by part time?" We instinctively know what we mean by it but that has to be translated into reality that absolutely can uphold standards and satisfy accreditation bodies. On the apprenticeship piece, a very good point is how we make sure the - this goes for all apprenticeships and in particular for people with a disability - apprenticeship converts into a job? There are two responses to that. The first is somewhat anecdotal, but we know in general with apprenticeships, because they are over a long period of time that a relationship builds up between the apprenticeship and an employer and very often results in a job because they get to know each other very well and work well together.

It is a significant period of time to spend together. Therefore, the translation rate for apprentices into jobs is quite good. One would imagine and expect that to extend to people with disabilities who are apprentices, of which there are about 600 in the country at the moment.

The second and meatier piece will be the equity of access committee for apprenticeships that we are setting up. It will be specifically looking at these sort of issues and reporting back with measures. As I suggested, I would be surprised if things such as additional bursaries and the likes are not an outcome of that.

I wish to raise one thing. When we come to looking at the old Further Education and Training Awards Council, FETAC, levels – I apologise as the old name for it is still in my head – and what is a level 5, 6 and 7, that involves a certain element of measurement of contact hours. When it comes to the part-time, we need to have verifiable contact hours, not merely that we are allowed to do hybrid and it then ends up all online, but there is genuine student-tutor contact. It is essential that is an element in it.

I think that is right. The good news is we are not starting from scratch on this. I was at Longford Women’s Link recently, which is a superb organisation. In rural County Longford, I met women completing degree programmes entirely remotely, but Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, accredited and the likes with, I think, the South East Technological University and possibly Maynooth University. QQI’s role is key here. They are the custodians, guardians and protectors of quality of accreditation. Thankfully it is not me, my Department or the political system. It is QQI’s seal of approval.

It is and it is fantastic, albeit slow.

I thank the Chair for letting me in. I recognise that I am not a permanent member of the committee. However, the Minister, Deputy Harris, knows I tend to follow him about.

I want to acknowledge the progress that has been made in the past two years in the way that we support students with disabilities on the PhD level. However, there are a number of anomalies I want to point out to the Minister. I would ask that he engage with the Minister for Social Protection to ensure the invalidity pension recipients would not have to go on the partial capacity benefit to take up a full-time PhD.

There is also a lack of clarity on how income from the compulsory work during the PhD is treated, such as the grading of papers and the teaching supports. In some colleges, the PhD students are paid for their work, but others are not. Students on disability or invalidity are in limbo and unable to get clarity on whether they are able to be paid or whether this will affect their disability support payments. I would also ask that the Minister work with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to look at how our secondary support is affected by taking up scholarships or PhD stipends. For example, I ask for clarity on when disabled students lose eligibility to fuel allowance or other means tested secondary supports.

We are talking about a small number of students at this level, but they need flexibility and clear guidance on the rules. There seems to be a falling between the gaps between the Minister’s Department and the Department of Social Protection. It would very good going forward if we could have that more streamlined in a frame and then people could know. The more we can get rid of the anxiety around these things and have proper guidance, the better it would be. I want to acknowledge the work done by the Minister, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, but also by Catherine Gallagher from Achill. That is one question.

I will just ask the other question, if the Minister does not mind, and he can then respond. The fund for the students with disabilities obviously provides for funding with the post leaving certificate, PLC, college and schools to assist them in offering supports and services for eligible students with disabilities so they can participate on an equal basis with their peers. It is managed by the higher education authority, HEA, for higher education and SOLAS for further education. I have been contacted by a number of PAs working in further education and they are hired on zero contract hours. They have no pay scale or pension and are forced to sign on during the summer. Some are employed in essentially a full-time basis, if you can call it that, for years, and others are hired to meet the needs of a student. However, if the student does not attend or complete the course, they are then just dropped. We have not been able to even get clarity on whether the PAs are on standardised terms or if it varies from education and training board, ETB, to ETB.

There is a connection between how we treat students with disabilities and the staff we employ to support them. I have not been able to find a legal basis for the terms of employment for PAs. I ask the Minister to look into that matter and share with this committee or me the details on the employment terms for both further and higher education in that sense.

I thank the Deputy for following me around and for her contribution. They are all very valid and serious issues she raised.

First, I was going to make the point that Catherine’s Law was an example. The Deputy knows Catherine Gallagher and I have met her as well when I went to pay tribute to her. It is an example of how joined-up thinking and a bit of common sense is needed and can be put in place. I know there are other areas where Ms Gallagher and others are advocating for change. I give a commitment to this committee to work closely with the Minister and the Department of Social Protection. We are working with them closely on the national access plan, which perhaps brings me to the next point.

I apologise, not to pre-empt Government’s consideration, but I expect the national access plan will place a focus on all programmes and all stages. Again, that will be a welcome shift in terms of recognising that when we talk about access, one can flash oneself with statistics if it is very broad, but we want access across all of the range of programmes and levels throughout higher education. There will be a focus on that. Truthfully, there probably has not been as much of a focus on that as there has been in the past.

I am engaging with a very good group of students from Trinity College. I mentioned Dr. Vivian Rath and I know the Deputy engaged with him as well. They did a recent survey of their members, which, as the Deputy rightly said, is a small number, but that is not to take from the issues. It is very good we are beginning to engage. They identified many additional barriers they felt students with a disability at postgraduate level were facing. I met them last on 20 April and I am due to meet them again in the autumn ahead of the budget to see if we can progress. The figures I have here show me that disabled postgraduate students represent about 2.4% of the total postgraduate population. I talked about the cliff edge earlier. Getting this right is so important because we do not want there to be a cliff edge. We want people to be able to go right through and right up the qualifications framework. I am finding the postgraduate consultative committee very helpful in that regard.

On the important issue the Deputy raised on PAs working in further education and their terms of employment, I will not bluff, because I do not have the information here. However, I undertake to get the Deputy the information and engage with her on this and with its representatives, if required, as well. We will come back to her directly on that.

I appreciate that the Minister is certainly trying to put inclusivity and inclusion at the heart of all that he does. He particularly mentioned in his speech affording everybody the opportunity to develop to their full potential. That is hugely important. As we all know, education can be transformative in terms of people’s lives, particularly for people with disability.

I would like to ask about further education and lifelong learning, as opposed to that piece about going to third level. The work happening there about creating access is absolutely very important. However, there is a very large cohort of people with disabilities who will not aspire to going to third level but need to have further education. When we are talking about people’s different types of potential, there are many people among the general population who will not go on to third level but need to have another type of support through education and training that will help them in another way. It is the same for people with disabilities.

I will give the Minister some examples of the type of projects about which I am talking. The Minister and members will be familiar with the Oireachtas Work Learning, OWL, project and the graduation programme. The graduation happened the week before last. It is great that out of the ten graduates, six are getting part-time jobs.

That type of apprenticeship or internship is hugely important. To be fair to the Houses of the Oireachtas, they have got it right on this. KARE and WALK are the two organisations. I know KARE very well and back in 2016 the then CEO of KARE came to me about doing something like this. We were able to get it up and running. They also have another similar type of internship called Project SEARCH, which is run in Naas and Tallaght hospitals. It has given incredible training and opportunities to young people with disabilities, many of whom have gone on to get employment from it. It would be wonderful to see this rolled out in other parts of the State but it needs some seed funding behind it. Project SEARCH was originally brought in from the United States of America. I understand the licence to get it was quite expensive. I would love to see some work on developing a programme like that.

Reference was made to a statistic around people with a disability who leave school without the leaving certificate and there possibly being an expectation that they would go into a day service. While a day service has its function and its role, we need to look at ways of inspiring and empowering young people with disabilities to do more than they would do in day services. I will give an example of a project that is very difficult to get funding for. The chairman and committee members will have heard me speaking in the past about the Down's syndrome organisation in Kildare. This group of volunteers got together and recognised the need for extra courses in literacy for young people to keep up their literacy. They also set up a horticultural programme, which is fantastic. I put it to the Minister that it is really well worth a visit. It is located at Sallins. The young people involved in this programme grow plants and vegetables. They supply local restaurants with fruit and vegetables and they supply the local Tidy Towns group with flowers and shrubs and so on. The volunteers do an amazing job. They pay the literacy tutors and those who work in the horticultural area. Initially they were able to get funding from the HSE through KARE but then KARE was told that the HSE could not fund them any longer because this was an educational programme as opposed to health. We have spent almost one year trying to source some kind of funding to enable this project to continue, without success yet. The HSE has suggested they incorporate the organisation into a section 39. This is a group of volunteers, however, and they do not want to have to go through all of that. That should not be the way we deal with something like this. I would love to get the Minister's thoughts on how we support such groups and organisations. I get that there is a lot of focus on third level and on access to universities. The last announcement by the Minister was excellent. It is fantastic that universities are getting this funding to make it easier for people with disabilities to go to third level, but prior to this announcement I had been hoping it might be the answer to the group I am talking about and that they would be able to access a piece of the funding from education to be able to roll out the projects that really make a huge difference in the lives of young people with disabilities.

The only other question I have for the Minister is around the lack of access to assessment to enable a diagnosis of disability in order to access supports at third level. I had some experience of this at primary school and secondary school level. It is very difficult. Parents must fund that assessment themselves. In one particular case the school paid for the first assessment and the parent paid for the second assessment. The Department of Education still would not agree and it wanted a third assessment. It took four private assessments to actually get the application to where it needed to be to get the assistive technology, which thankfully the young person now has.

I have been rambling on for long enough. These are my thoughts and my concerns. I would appreciate the Minister's response.

I thank Senator O'Loughlin.

The Senator was not rambling. She was very cogent on a lot of issues. I thank the Senator for her work with the Minster of State, Deputy Niall Collins, and with me in highlighting the need for the programme for access to higher education, PATH. I acknowledge the Senator's own experience and advocacy around Down's syndrome. It was a good example of how we were able to take an issue, highlight it and try to put in place a funding stream that did not previously exist.

When I was the Minister for Health I attended a graduation ceremony at the programme in Tallaght Hospital. It was one of the most enjoyable and inspiring events I ever attended. I am aware of colleagues who work in similar programmes in the Houses. Whether it falls under my direct remit or not, I believe we should do something about the expansion of this. I will talk to the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, about this to see if we can team up to work on that. The Senator is right.

I am glad that Senator O'Loughlin brought up this issue because sometimes the conversation can become too much about higher education. Whether we are talking about people with disabilities or those without disabilities - it does not matter - with people in general we should be talking about a unified tertiary education system and which bit works best for whoever at whatever time. The focus on further education and training is very important. I have a couple of thoughts on this.

SOLAS is a further education and training agency and is currently overseeing an independent evaluation of the specialist training provision programme. This provides education and training for learners with a disability with higher support needs. The evaluation is currently under way but has experienced the usual Covid-related delays, which were for good reason because they wanted to ensure they could engage specifically with learners and potential learners with a disability who require supports. SOLAS will hopefully have an outcome on that very shortly. That is one kind of structural piece being done under the further education and training strategy. SOLAS has identified the need to do a lot more in this space. That is thought number one. I will keep in touch with the Senator on the evaluation of that special training provision.

The Senator referred to Down's syndrome. My second thought is that there are some very good examples being driven by Down Syndrome Ireland, for which I want to credit that organisation on the record of this committee. Down Syndrome Ireland has started linking in with SOLAS and a number of education and training boards, ETBs, to try and do exactly what the Senator is saying. I understand that the Senator's question is broader than Down's syndrome but it is a good example. They are sharing their knowledge and their expertise in helping our further education and training sector to develop and design courses for adults with Down's syndrome. They are linking in with teams and adults with Down's syndrome and their families to ensure their voices are heard. They are also supporting SOLAS and the education and training boards with disability awareness across the further education sector. With regard to outcomes, this has meant that so far we have four regional self-directed advocacy groups that meet on an ongoing bimonthly basis to ensure that any student or family experiencing barriers are represented and heard. It continues to provide up-to-date information and website links about the various programmes that are available. It is an interesting point because one of the challenges, which I find in life in general, is that while there is always an important argument to be made about the need for more services, there also can be a challenge in finding the existing services and signposting for the services. They do very good work in that regard in providing direct information by putting up website links and sharing good practice. Their target now is to have 105 tutors working in further education with access to their Moodle resources and online training resources. They have supported two of our ETBs to complete current programmes. They will support a further five ETBs in the coming months. Since then they have updated us to say there has been a large demand in training from the ETBs. They have provided disability awareness training to the City of Dublin ETB, the Louth Meath ETB and the Tipperary ETB. The courses give all ETB staff a broad understanding of additional needs. They have also formalised partnerships with three ETBs and now have 32 students currently studying latch-on literacy and DSI work skills courses in Dublin, Dundalk and Roscommon. I will send this note to the Senator. It is a very good example of that partnership model.

I would like to see more of that in Down's syndrome and more beyond Down's syndrome. I will send on that note and come back to me with any thoughts on it.

The last point is valid. I mentioned to Senator McGreehan earlier about the Blue Diamond Academy which I visited. It is an example of an incredible drama academy providing training and education for people with disabilities in south County Dublin. I do not mean this rudely, but it is doing it over there and needs to be plugged into our education system. What Senator O'Loughlin describes is a similar example where Kildare Down Syndrome Association is also providing what we would probably call community education, which is valid but how does it fit in with the ETBs? If Senator O'Loughlin sends me a note on that I will come back to her on this. If it is a tug-of-war between education and health let us see if we can resolve it. There is a broader piece of work we need to do about community education providers who are providing really valuable education for people with disabilities or indeed for people more generally. We need to make sure they are not an island and that they are plugged in. I will come back on that to Senator O'Loughlin and the Chair.

I thank members for their contributions. Each week people come before us whose officials are predominantly people who have disabilities or they are advocacy groups. They talk about a pathway to engage fully with society. We have seen the challenges in primary and post-primary and on into adult life. Many voluntary groups and schemes that members talk about have developed right throughout the country. In regard to the Minister's last point on plugging them into the system, there are the HEAR and DARE programmes for higher education and other initiatives along the way but joined-up thinking would help. I visited Kerry social farming recently which has a hugely innovative approach to rolling out the idea of social farming. There is room within the Minister's Department given that the title of it is Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science which gives the impression that we are dealing with research and development. However you could apply innovation to every single level. Senator O'Loughlin just spoke about day services. They have been so good for so many but it is time to really look at how we can develop that further. On the social farming model there were courses on FETAC. Is there a possibility to offer some kind of course within the ETBs and the regional educational hubs that now exist to people attending day services? That might be something that could be looked at. In his contribution this morning the Minister has a clear understanding about where he would like society to go in terms of people with disabilities. It is important that his Department makes sure the most vulnerable people get the best chance they possibly can in life and that the various schemes and initiatives that have been developed, sometimes on a voluntary basis, are plugged into the system. We will continue to engage with the Minister in that regard.

I have only one question in terms of the policies his Department is looking at. Is there a student with disabilities voice coming through to the Department and the policymakers? Student unions have people who are very articulate and well capable but are there students who have an intellectual or physical disability having a direct access to policy in order to disability-proof the policy? That is what we in this committee were set up to do under the UNCRPD, to disability-proof it. I would like to see that within the Department.

I thank the Chair and this committee for its work. It is a very valuable addition to the work of the Oireachtas. From my own perspective and that of my Department we do not see this as a once-off engagement. We will publish the national access plan. That is a higher education document but we will be publishing it shortly. I imagine the committee will want to be kept informed on that and how that helps us to align our work with our legal and moral obligations in regard to the UNCRPD. Similarly the progress I expect we will make on the apprenticeship agenda which, if we get it right, could be a real bridge towards addressing the goals of the comprehensive education strategy. I will provide updates on the points made by both Senators in regard to outcomes, return on investment and accountability around what happens to the money. I am very happy to keep in touch with this committee on that. I feel strongly about the community education piece. Beyond disability in general there is a great deal of good work going on such as An Cosán. There are many examples. We must make sure we are fully utilising that and that they are part of the family, the ecosystem. I can assure the Chair that there are voices of students with disabilities involved. In light of the Chair's comment I will make sure that it is robustly involved in our work. My strong understanding is that it is. In meetings I attend I always directly hear that voice. One of the additions we are seeing in the Department in recent months is that we are now engaging directly with postgraduate students with disabilities which is perhaps a new voice or a new perspective we are now hearing.

We are excited about the agenda. The Taoiseach established this Department. It allowed a focus to be put on third level education. We are making sure that focus is as inclusive as it possibly can be. Education is the circuit-breaker. In terms of deprivation, access, families and communities and potential, education is the single greatest circuit-breaker we have. We accept the challenges the committee has set us.

I thank the Minister for his engagement with us this morning. I thank the members sincerely for all their work on the committee throughout the year. Their engagement makes the committee work as it is working. I thank them for the enormous work they have done every Thursday morning and judging by the private session this morning and what they are looking for in September we would nearly want 60 days in September rather than 30. We will get to it. I thank our team sincerely for their enormous work putting together report after report.

The joint committee adjourned at 12.38 p.m. sine die.