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Joint Committee on Disability Matters debate -
Tuesday, 20 Sep 2022

Education and the UNCRPD: Discussion (Resumed)

We have received apologies from Senator McGreehan. The purpose of today's meeting is to discuss aligning education with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. On behalf of our committee I extend a very warm welcome to: the Minister for Education, Deputy Norma Foley; Martina Mannion, assistant secretary for special education and inclusion, Department of Education; as well as Brendan Doody and Martin McLoughlin from the special education section within the Department of Education. The Minister may call on her officials to speak briefly for clarification during the meeting or specifically if a technical point arises and officials may clarify issues. Any follow-up question should be put to the Minister as Ministers are the accountable person before the committee.

I am aware that a wide range of issues will be the subject of the discussion today and, if necessary, further and more detailed information on certain issues raised can be sent to the clerk to the committee to be circulated to members.

Before we begin, I will refer to privilege. Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of a person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in respect of identifiable persons or entities, witnesses will be directed to discontinue their remarks. Members are reminded also of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against persons outside of the House or officials in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members of the constitutional requirement that members be physically present within the confines of the Leinster House complex in order to participate in the public meetings. In this regard, I ask all members participating through Microsoft Teams that prior to making their contribution, they confirm that they are within the grounds of the Leinster House complex.

Without further ado I call now on the Minister, Deputy Foley, to make her opening statement.

I thank the Cathaoirleach. At the outset, I thank him and the committee for the invitation to be here today. I am accompanied, as the Cathaoirleach has already outlined, by the following officials from my Department, namely, Martina Mannion, assistant secretary for special education and inclusion; Brendan Doody, principal officer, special education section; and Martin McLoughlin, principal officer, special education section.

The topic before the committee today is aligning education with the UNCRPD and in particular, a focus on progress being made on aligning special education policy with the vision for inclusive education as articulated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As Minister for Education, I am committed to making a difference for students who have additional needs as part of an inclusive education system. I know that this commitment is also shared by the Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion in the Department of Education, Deputy Madigan.

It is important that I outline to the committee the Government’s ambition to develop an inclusive education system that meets the needs of all children regardless of disability or other disposition. At the outset, I wish to pay tribute to all our school staff at every level for the work they do. Their work and commitment ensures that children with special educational needs can attend school and participate in school life to the fullest possible extent.

As a Government, we fully recognise the importance of an inclusive and all-embracing education system. It is my firm belief that our education system should be adaptable and responsive to the needs of students. Being able to access education in an inclusive way is key to living life to its fullest. In doing so we are helping children and young people to grow and develop and to be as independent as possible.

As a Government, we continue to work to realise the goals of the convention and to deliver a truly inclusive education system. Having undertaken extensive consultations and research, the National Council For Special Education, NCSE, will provide policy advice on the future of special schools and special classes, taking into account the requirements of the UNCRPD.

While I await the NCSE policy advice, my Department’s policy remains very clear. We want to ensure that all children with special educational needs can be provided with an education appropriate to their needs. This means that children with special educational needs should be included, where possible and appropriate, in mainstream settings with the necessary additional teaching and care supports in place.

In circumstances where children with special educational needs require more specialised interventions, special school or special class places are provided for. We fully recognise that these more specialist supports and settings also have an important role to play.

I am happy to say that the vast majority of children with special educational needs are educated in mainstream classes. The benefits of mainstream education are known and recognised. We must continue to build a society with inclusion at its heart, where everyone is welcome and where full participation is the right of every person, no matter as to their background or need. Our schools are where we nurture and develop the future of our society. There should be no barriers to inclusion and no artificial segregation.

In the last few years, there has been a very significant increase in the number of children and young people being diagnosed with special educational needs, particularly in the area of autism. We have responded to that by providing additional supports in mainstream classes and additional special class and special school places necessary to meet the emerging needs of those children and young people.

The Department this year will spend over €2 billion, or over 25% of its total educational budget, on providing additional supports for children with special educational needs. This represents an increase of over 60% in total expenditure since 2011. This funding provides for 14,385 special education teachers in the mainstream school system in 2022, an increase of 620 on the previous year.

Provision has been made for an additional 1,165 special needs assistants, SNAs, in budget 2022, which will bring the number of SNAs to 19,169 by the end of 2022.

There were 2,118 special classes in place at the start of the 2021-22 school year. Additional provision for 383 additional special classes in 2022-23 will bring the total number of classes to 2,535 in the 2022-23 school year and will represent an increase of 339% since 2011, at which time 548 were provided.

Three new special schools have been opened in the last three years, two in Dublin, namely, Danu Community Special School and Our Lady of Hope School, Crumlin, and one in Cork, namely, Carrigaline Community Special School. Additional places continue to be provided to ensure that children with the most complex educational needs receive an education in line with their needs. Two further special schools will open in Dublin and Cork during the current school year.

We have worked hard to strengthen and streamline the planning systems between the Department and the NCSE to ensure that there are sufficient special education places available to meet needs throughout the country. Significant investment has been made to ensure that schools have the necessary accommodation and facilities to receive children and young people with disabilities. Professional development for teachers and school leaders is key to building capacity and confidence among teachers and their leaders and a truly inclusive culture and school environment. It is worth noting in particular that we have invested significantly in supporting school leadership in recent years. In fact, the extent of supports in that regard has never been greater. For example, in last year’s budget the Government provided administrative principal status for teaching principals in schools with two or more special classes.

It is also worth referring to a number of recent developments, the outcomes of which are likely to influence the way in which our system develops into the future. We are aware through policy advice from the NCSE that the current range of supports in schools, for example teaching and care on their own, do not fully meet the needs of some children with special educational needs, SEN, particularly children with complex needs in the areas of communication, speech and language, sensory impairments, self-regulation and positive behaviour skills. Under the school inclusion model which is currently at pilot stage, we aim to broaden the range of supports provided to include speech and language, occupational and behavioural supports in order that schools are better equipped to meet the needs of these children so they can achieve better life outcomes. The Department is working with the Departments of Health and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and the HSE to develop and strengthen more coherent structures to enable children and young people to access therapeutic assessments and supports. This work is being supported by the Department of the Taoiseach.

As regards the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act, this legislation has been in place for almost 20 years and it is timely that we should review it now. There has been significant change in Department policy and education provision has increased substantially in the intervening period. There has also been legislative change that impacts on education. This review will help ensure that our laws reflect current policy and international norms on provision and inclusion. It is envisaged that the full review will be completed by early 2023.

Regarding Irish Sign Language, ISL, the Irish Sign Language Act 2017 provides people whose main language is ISL with certain statutory entitlements. In recognition of this, earlier this year the Department launched a new scheme to provide ISL in-school support for students who are deaf and whose primary means of communication is ISL. We are creating a new specialised in-school support post for individual students in order that they can fully access education and participate in school life. We also will provide training and support for the school community, including teachers and special needs assistants to help with communication using Irish Sign Language. This is a positive development and the latest step in ensuring that we have an inclusive education system where everyone is supported to reach their full potential. The implementation of this Act in education will, I am confident, create a more inclusive school environment for these young people.

As regards transitions, the whole area of supporting the transition of young people with a disability right through the education system, with a particular focus on enabling young people to make informed life choices, is a priority. We are working with colleagues across a number of Departments to ensure that this remains a focus of the third action plan under the comprehensive employment strategy for persons with disabilities, which will cover the period from 2022 to 2024. The development of a demonstration transition programme has been agreed to address the transition needs of young people with disabilities in the two-year run up to their departure from school. Under the proposal, the pilot will take place on 20 project sites. There will be representation from a cross-section of schools to include students with disabilities in mainstream post-primary settings, located in special classes attached to mainstream and in special schools.

Separately, I announced on 15 November a further planned development in the transition space. The Department is partnering with an NGO with experience in the area of transitions to support the transition of post-primary level students with special educational needs to employment, training or further study in seven schools across the country. Under the proposal, a careers and employment facilitator will engage with students and their parents and collaborate with teachers in complementary activities such as mini-companies, work experiences and transition planning. This development is in the initiation phase and is planned to progress later this year.

My colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, Deputy Rabbitte, recently announced that the HSE has commenced a process to reinstate health and social care supports which had previously existed in special schools. This involves the provision of an additional 136 whole-time equivalent, WTE, posts, which is on top of the 85 reinstated posts for special schools that were announced in 2021. This builds on the 290 posts funded in budget 2021 and budget 2022, which the HSE will also continue to recruit to the children’s disability network teams. This programme of work has already commenced and will be monitored closely for the remainder of 2022 with regular communication between relevant stakeholders at local and national level to ensure progress. Each one of the approved additional 136 WTE posts will deliver services on a 34-hour-week basis. The allocation to special schools will be aligned with the level of service and disciplines provided prior to the establishment of children’s disability network teams under the Progressing Disability Services for Children and Young People, PDS, programme.

We have come a long way in ensuring that children and young people with a special educational need can access an appropriate education. There is strong evidence to support this and I have provided some of this earlier. However, there are times when we experience difficulties and challenges for a smaller number of young people and the Department of Education is working intensely with the NCSE to address this. I am extremely grateful to schools for their co-operation and their leadership in this regard. The Department is fully committed to the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This will be achieved by increased investment in education provision and supports; the implementation of evidence-informed advice; the provision of continuous professional development for school staff; the strengthening of initial teacher education; and through consultation with teachers, parents, children, young people, school communities and general society.

I thank the Minister for her opening statement and welcome the €2 billion her Department is providing for special educational needs. That is 25% of the Department's budget. I compliment the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, on fighting for that budget and I hope we will see the same in next week's budget. I know an awful lot of resources have been achieved through that extra money including new special education teachers, extra SNAs, extra classes, school places and indeed new schools. I was delighted to welcome the Minister just last week to my own constituency for the opening of Stewarts special school's new building.

I agree with the Minister that there should be no barriers for education. I thank her, her officials and the NCSE for all they do to break down the barriers that do unfortunately exist. Notwithstanding the level of investment that goes into this area, as the Minister said herself in a response to a parliamentary question from me, there are still some parts of the country where an increase in population has created a shortage of school places for children with additional needs. My constituency of Dublin Mid-West is one of those areas. We have a rapidly growing population in Clondalkin, Lucan and our village areas but that population growth has not been met by additional capacity. As the Minister will be aware, we have a number of primary and secondary schools awaiting new buildings. It is essential that autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units and special educational needs classrooms are part of that capital investment. I do a lot of work with the Clondalkin Autism Parents Support Network, which has been doing an unofficial audit of ASD places available from next September. They cannot get that information from schools. I would love if the Minister would use her time here to outline what plans there are to invest in growing areas like this and to explain how those decisions on the allocation of resources, capital expenditure and plans are made and what data are used. She also may be able to give us an indication of the talent pipeline when it comes to teachers and SNAs. Is attracting talent into special education a challenge? Is there something more we could be doing if it is? I would also be interested to know how the Department is monitoring the actions of schools to make sure they are not discriminating against children with disabilities.

I thank the Deputy and acknowledge the great opportunity I had to visit her constituency recently and to see what wonderful, best-practice facilities we can see. I acknowledge the tremendous work of the local community and in particular the school community there. The Deputy is quite correct that significant progress has been made. For example, she referred to Dublin and we have been conscious in recent months that there were specific requirements in Dublin in terms of 80 places being required in special classes and 50 special school places. Due to the great work of all of these school communities on the ground, the 50 places in the special schools were provided for. Throughout Dublin, 300 additional places have been provided. That is a significant achievement. Obviously as the Deputy has outlined there will always be ongoing demand and challenge. I acknowledge that right throughout the country we have seen significant uptake from school communities. I would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge that where we have seen best practice in one school, we have seen almost a domino effect of other schools taking up opportunities to develop in a similar vein themselves.

Therefore, I am grateful to the schools that have taken it upon themselves to set the ball rolling in communities, because this has been very positive in local communities.

Regarding planning for future supply, because this is obviously a key element of the work we must do, particularly concerning additional special classes, almost 700 projects are currently progressing or are under way as part of the school building programme. In turn, this will deliver more than 1,300 new SEN classrooms and 200 replacement classrooms, catering for approximately 7,800 SEN pupils across primary and post-primary levels. Almost 100 of these projects are on-site now. Ultimately, this will deliver classroom spaces for almost 1,000 additional SEN pupils.

As of late, we have seen, and this aspect has been referred to, that 25% of the budget of the Department of Education is now being expended on special education. This is right and proper, and not before its time. There have been achievements but there is also a body of work that must continue and do so apace. Reference was also made to staff and support of staff. We now have the highest number of special education teachers, with 15,000 of them, with the number of SNAs standing at more than 19,000. A course is being funded by the Department for special education teachers to support that area of development.

Equally, we are looking at our initial teacher training. A significant component of that is inclusive education. Within the school system itself, we are also considering progression models for our students in respect of the types of curricula they might wish to follow. At the junior cycle level now, for example, we have level 1 and level 2. These will now transfer over as part of the senior cycle programme as well. Therefore, this is an ongoing body of work. We are continuing to tackle it from the construction point of view and from a staffing perspective. We are grateful for and appreciative of the genuine goodwill and determination of the school communities themselves. They recognise that the best model is the inclusive one and that we have an obligation to meet the needs of all our students at all times.

I thank the Minister and her staff for attending. I am curious about the school inclusion model, which is at the pilot stage. It is intended to include many supports and to reach out to different areas, including speech and language, occupational therapy and supports in schools, to ensure they are equipped in that regard. I understand it is to be completed by 2023. I ask the Minister to outline how this is progressing. It seems like it is a good way of finding out where we stand when it comes to this issue. I also mention community healthcare organisation, CHO, 9. I tabled a parliamentary question in May 2022 concerning waiting lists, and CHO 9, which includes my area of Dublin North-West, had one of the longest waiting lists for children to get an assessment. I think that has now improved, and perhaps the Minister will comment on this. I ask about this because I was worried about this situation when I spoke to the special educational needs organiser, SENO. There seemed have been little movement then, but perhaps something more has happened since.

The Minister is probably familiar with Gaelscoil Uí Earcáin in Finglas. A prefabricated building is being erected there for special education and people with disabilities. I am, however, worried about the numbers. The school has 294 pupils and it needs approximately 308 to get an extra teacher. It would be a disaster if there was a need to double up classes. Will the Minister please look at this situation? I ask because I do not think that would be a good idea. The class sizes would then shoot up to about 27, and that would be a disaster.

I also wish to ask the Minister about the effects of the pandemic. We know it had a huge negative impact on people with disabilities. What plans does the Minister have to address such a situation, if something like it were to happen again? It has been an absolute disaster. Will the Minister also comment on the use of seclusion and restraint in schools and the use of reduced timetables? People are sometimes penalised. I note my comrade mentioned some of the schools. I have had experience where principals have been avoiding taking on people because they have had a disability of some description. I do not know if this is common, but I have experience of this aspect from dealing with such situations in the past. I wonder how we can deal with these issues.

On the school inclusion model, this is spread across 73 schools and covers three counties, namely, Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow. It is an inclusive and good model. The Deputy is correct that it is one we are seeking to trial. I appreciate his personal interest in this subject. Within this model, there are 12 therapists and four National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, psychologists working directly with staff. I have seen on the ground how well this approach works. There has, however, been an impact in respect of the Covid-19 pandemic and other measures. During the time of Covid-19, therapists were withdrawn and various other things had to happen during the pandemic as well. The model has now recommenced and we are aiming to complete the review as fast as possible. Great learning will be derived from it. It is a model that deserves to have its place. It remains to be seen whether that will be in its entirety as it exists now, or whether there will be opportunities for modifications, or whatever, in future. It is an excellent model, however, and it is one I am pleased to say we have recommenced piloting.

Turning to the reduced timetables, it is important that such reduced timetables for children with special educational needs are used and used appropriately, and in a way that meets their needs and benefits those pupils.

It is also important that the necessary supports are in place. The Department has provided schools with guidelines concerning how to implement the reduced school days. As part of this approach, schools are required to engage with the variety of services available. This includes the SENOs, who are particularly relevant in this situation. The Tusla education support service will monitor this aspect as well. It is now obliged to report on how the timetables are being used and how beneficial they are. Therefore, there is strong oversight of the use of these timetables. They can be used well but it is important that everybody is happy with how they are being used and aware that there is also an oversight and monitoring structure in this context.

Regarding some of the points raised by the Deputy, and starting with Gaelscoil Uí Earcáin, I cannot give the Deputy a definite answer on this subject. Where a school feels it has additional needs in respect of the staffing that has been apportioned to it based on its needs, there is an opportunity to appeal. Such a mechanism exists.

This has been one of the great successes. Throid mé na blianta fada ar son Ghaelscoil Uí Earcáin. It has been a major development for the people of Finglas. It is the first Gaelscoil, and this is why I am so anxious about it.

Tuigim é sin agus is dócha go bhfuil an Ghaeilge faoi bhláth de bharr an méid atá ar siúl sa scoil. I appreciate that. There may be an opportunity for engagement through the review process. Regarding the behaviours of concern, I am conscious, especially when I visit special schools and those that have children with particular challenges, that there are behaviours of concern.

It is an issue of real concern for many schools. There is a considerable body of work being done on how best to manage it in the context of the school environment and school supports. The NCSE has been developing a behaviour support framework for use across all schools. The emphasis in this framework is on developing a very positive, holistic approach within schools, prevention measures and how they can be employed within the schools and, in particular, early intervention measures. The quicker and earlier the intervention, the more positive the outcome.

I acknowledge the body of work being done by the former director of the NEPS, Maureen Costello, on developing specific guidelines for the schools. It is under way at the moment. I am conscious, especially when visiting schools, that this is a matter being raised, but there is a major body of work being done in respect of it.

Will the Minister say something about CHO 9?

What is the issue with CHO 9?

We have one of the longest waiting lists.

That is through the HSE. I would have to direct the matter to the HSE, but I will transfer that to my colleague.

I thank the Minister. I call Deputy Murnane O'Connor in place of Senator McGreehan.

I, too, thank the Minister. I contacted her recently and I am aware she is trying to do her best with a system we probably need to look at more. My own experience is that children with disabilities are not fully seen or heard and that the provision of services varies depending on a child's disability, their age, where they go to school or where they live. I always say no matter what part of the country you live in, be it Carlow, Kilkenny or Donegal, you have the same entitlements.

I will give the Minister an example from a school near me, namely, Holy Angels. I thank the Minister because she visited the school and is very much aware of it. The school is getting its new build, so this is a good news story. Holy Angels has discharged 14 pupils, but out of this group, seven are waiting for differential aptitude test assessments. Without the assessment, the child will end up in a mainstream classroom without any additional supports. Some of these children have already lost out on ASD preschool placements because they have not had their assessments to date. There are six children who require placement in St. Laserian's Special School in Carlow, which is an excellent school, or maybe in special classes within the locality, but, again, without educational assessments, they will not get placements. As a result, these children will also end up in mainstream education.

The Minister is aware of this and is working on it. It is important. I have been working with the parents in order that we get as many assessments done as soon as possible. Before Covid, things totally changed but all students in a place called New Brunswick in Canada are educated together in their local school. Every child, whether they are able or disabled, with complex needs, are talented students, thriving students or disadvantaged students, all study together. They all learn together with their own tailored experience. In 2019, the NCSE spoke about this idea. To fully include all students it suggested looking at this model. I understand that since the suggestion came in late 2019 we have had the coronavirus and we have lost a lot of ground but is this a model the Minister is looking at? She might come back to me on that.

I have another question on a matter one or two parents have contacted me about. Has the Department had any engagement with the State Examinations Commission to ensure reasonable accommodation be made at State examinations for students with epilepsy who experience a seizure during the exam. Families have been telling me epilepsy should be included as a serious health condition so an enormous burden is not placed on a student to prove they have had a seizure. I am aware the State Examinations Commission rules stipulate that while candidates who experience a serious medical condition are entitled to sit deferred exams, this does not apply to those who have commenced an exam. The same issue arises for those who experience seizures. Is the Minister looking at this?

I met a group of parents earlier. They spoke about the summer experience of children attending special school. It was about the July provision or the lack of it. As the Minister knows, it is probably one of the best programmes for children who need routine and their parents. It is hugely beneficial to the children and the parents. I am wondering what the update is on that. I must give the Minister this book. There are many stories in it from parents who have been affected because their children's school did not do the July provision this year, so I want to ask her about that too.

This is my final point. The Minister is very much for inclusion and that is part of our ethos going forward. It is great students sitting State examinations get their papers in both Irish and English. This is welcome, but we now have Syrian, Ukrainian and Lithuanian students here. English is not their first language. Would the Minister consider having papers available in those languages as well as in English and Irish in the 2023 exams? I would appreciate it if she could come back to me with some answers on these.

On the assessment of need, the Deputy will appreciate it is a HSE issue but I can follow up on it with my colleague.

On the Deputy's area, it is important to say that we have been successful, and I acknowledge the Deputy's local school communities. An additional 11 classes within her area have opened up, which is such a positive news story.

On the New Brunswick model she referenced, which I am aware of, we are intent the model be very much an Irish model. You can take best practice from various places, but it is important we have a model that meets the needs within our own country. For example, we referenced earlier things like the school inclusion model-----

-----and various different initiatives we have working towards acknowledging that different situations demand different solutions, remedies or whatever and recognising there is a uniqueness within our own situation.

On the State Examinations Commission specifically and reasonable accommodations, irrespective of whatever the health condition may be, at the end of every running of the examinations there is a full review. It is a matter for the commission, which is independent, but it is my personal view, and core to my beliefs around senior cycle reform, that we maximise the potential for every student inasmuch as we possibly can in terms of taking the exams and how it will benefit them. I am confident that, as part of this review following the running of these examinations, there will be opportunities to look at things further. The last full review of the reasonable accommodations scheme was in 2017. There will be a much more in-depth review to come. It will probably be hand-in-hand with the senior cycle reform as well but it is a matter for the State Examinations Commission. I 100% support the philosophy that we give the maximum opportunity to our students to showcase their talents and abilities on a given day.

On the July provision, or the summer provision as we call it now it is no longer limited, a considerable investment of over €40 million was made and there was significant uptake. It is a provision that is made available for children with additional needs but also those at risk of educational disadvantage. It is my absolute desire and determination that more schools will find themselves in a position to make these summer provision programmes available. This year, a considerable number of changes were put in place, in that there was much engagement with schools on what would be required to make the programme more attractive. An example would be ensuring the burden would not automatically fall on the principal of the school or school leadership. Finances were made available that there would be an overseer put in place. There was also flexibility for schools as we referenced earlier, in that it would not just be July and could be whatever time during the summer period that would suit them. There was an online programme for the payment of staff.

There is a variety of measures. A full review will take place. I know we need greater availability of the programme for students and families. We are looking at models in other parts of the world to ascertain what is best practice internationally. I am open to considering other Departments that may be in a position to support work in respect of July provision coming in. We will revert as soon as we can with this new model. It will be a model that looks to international best practice. In particular, we are keen to look to the model in Malta, as well as other providers that may be able to support us in running the scheme.

Reference was made to the Canadian model by the NCSE. The Minister might consider it and come back to us.

Is the Deputy referring to the New Brunswick model?

Yes, that is it. I thank the Minister.

While I welcome any opportunity to engage with the Minister, it is unacceptable, frankly, that it has taken so long for her to appear before the committee. We sought a date before the summer recess, when known issues could have been highlighted before the new school year commenced. We are already several weeks into that term and the situation has worsened in some cases. All present know that timing is key in helping children with special educational needs and disabilities. It is unfortunate that the insights and points this committee has to offer were not prioritised.

In her opening statement, the Minister outlined the amounts being spent and the increase in support, all of which are more than welcome. However, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Irish law are clear on this. Every young person is entitled to an appropriate education but the reality is that many children and young people are being denied that right. The pre-budget submission of this committee, which is based on the contributions of witnesses, families and advocates, highlights the lack of school places, inadequate transitions between primary and secondary schools and insufficient ASD classes and SNA supports.

Cork South-West has no special school and a severe shortage of special classes. The classes that are in place are doing incredible work but they are oversubscribed. Last week, I raised the case of an autistic child who has been moved between different primary schools. The Minister's office and that of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, are aware of this case. His education has been disrupted to suit the needs of the Department rather than it being the other way around. He spent the past year in a non-ASD special class, which has led to his developmental regression. Needless to say, that is not due to any issue with the class; the class is just not suitable. An ASD class is now opening in the town closest to the child - it is closer to him than his current school - but it is already full even though it has not yet opened, so he will not get a place there. His mum asked me how, after eight years in primary education, the Department is not aware of the numbers coming through into second-level education. It does not make sense. There seems to be a complete lack of even basic planning. That is just one example among many. What does the Minister have to say to the parents of that child?

My next question relates to SNA provision. The Minister will be aware that a national school in Ballydehob has had to fundraise to increase its SNA hours. It is just one of many schools in my constituency that have had to take that action. I cannot imagine how many of them there are across the country. It is symptomatic of a significant gap between the identified needs of students and the SNA allocation and resources being assigned by the Minister and the Department. The system of assigning SNAs relies on old information and, in some cases, assessments made many years ago. When I raised this matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, she referred me to the appeal and exceptional review process. That process puts the onus back on overstretched principals and teachers to do the work of the Department. In addition, more than 50% of all exceptional review applications result in the allocation of additional SNA or part-time SNA supports. That obviously illustrates the flawed and ridiculous approach of the Department on this issue.

Finally, the summer programme, formerly known as July provision, is a major concern for the committee. We have called for the Department to develop it as a standard and to ensure that all children who want access to the programme can do so. Parents and principals have outlined their frustration with the process, the delays in announcing it and the poor communication, not to mention the underpaying of SNAs. Ultimately, it is children who suffer as a result of this disorganisation. What is being done to ensure that every school is available for the summer programme? Why is the Minister not announcing the scheme now, before Christmas, to support as many schools as possible participating? I ask the Minister to also address the low rates of remuneration for SNAs.

As regards summer provision, I have already stated that there has been a substantial increase in schools taking up the summer provision programme. It is not enough and I would be the first to say that. I also clearly articulated that we are looking at a variety of models of best practice internationally, and even going beyond that to see what other types of resources we can put in place to facilitate schools that might not believe they have the necessary staffing resources. It is a voluntary programme. Staff can volunteer to be part of the summer provision programme or they may choose, for their own reasons, not to be involved in the programme. We have put in place a number of measures this year to ensure the maximum number of people can avail of it but we are not stopping there. A full review of how the programme worked this year is taking place. We are engaging with international best practice. We are also engaging with groups and organisations that might be in a position to be part of this remodelling or re-envisioning of the summer provision programme. It is an excellent programme. I have visited many of them. I have seen them operating on the ground and the extraordinary benefit to children and young people who can avail of them. It is my ambition that there will be far more schools in a position to provide the programme.

As regards SNAs, there is no assessment required for SNA provision. In terms of the provision in schools, we have more than 19,000 SNAs now in schools, the highest number we have ever had. There is no doubt that the work of SNAs is very important. Recognising that, there has been a significant increase in the provision of SNAs in each of the budgets that I have presided over in recent years.

The Deputy specifically referenced the number of classes in her area and the difficulties there. We are coming from a base that requires that we grow. There is no doubt about that. As regards her area specifically, there are 41 new classes in the primary sector in her constituency and 22 new classes at post-primary level. It is not enough but it is significant progress from where we were. We continue to advance that body of work and yo prioritise. Testament to the priority that we are placing on this is that 25% of our budget is now expended solely on the area of special education. It is being given priority. We see that priority manifest itself in things such as summer provision, which involves a €40 million investment, double the investment in recent years, just to ensure that the maximum number of schools will be in a position to promote it. A significant body of work has been completed. There is more work to be done but we are certainly putting in the resources and ambition to ensure the maximum number of children are being supported.

On the point I was trying to make in respect of summer provision, the Minister's response was that not all of the schools are taking it up and it is a voluntary programme. That is the point. It needs to be standardised. When it is voluntary, that means there are children who are not able to access education. The point I was trying to get across is that children are entitled to that education. Throughout the summer, we had families taking unpaid leave for the month of July. Do they have to do the same for August? There has to be a standardised approach to the summer programme so that it is not the case that some children get it but others do not. It is a necessity for some families.

The Minister stated that there is no assessment in respect of SNAs. Perhaps I said "assessment" but I meant to say "allocation". Surely when people go to the appeal and exceptional review process they are appealing something, be it an allocation or an assessment. As I stated, 50% of those appeals are granted. The allocation is not working. It is being put back on schools and overstretched principals. Principals, particularly those in rural areas, are managing so much. They have to manage the school and all the various paperwork and then re-appeal for all these things, with an allocation then being granted 50% of the time.

The schools that are refused an allocation do not understand why and are fundraising to employ SNAs separately. This is at a time when there is no shortage of SNAs. When roles are advertised, many applications are received. In such circumstances, there is no reason not to provide the SNAs that need to be allocated. We hear, in the context of the children's disability network teams, that there are no staff. However, there are staff available.

I did not get a response to my question on access to ASD classes. If somebody needs an ASD class, and there is a new school being built in the area but it is already oversubscribed, why is there a lack of planning? Children spend eight years in primary education, so the Department knows that they will need places at second level. Why is there no planning for the number of students who need either ASD classes, special classes or special schools?

The Deputy referred to an assessment for SNAs. I made it clear that there is no assessment for SNAs. There is an appeals system for every aspect of the education sector. The appeals system adjudicates the needs of the school and student. It is an independent mechanism and is afforded across a variety of different aspects of education.

There is very much forward planning when it comes to ASD classes. We are better now than was the case perhaps in years gone by. For example, it will be automatic for all new school builds. A 1,000 pupil post-primary school will have a four-classroom SEN base. The position will be likewise for primary schools, depending on their size. The NCSE is charged with working hand in hand with schools, SENOs and parents, because that is the model we would like to see going forward. This will ensure that parents have less of a burden. As the Deputy has clearly articulated, there is less of a burden being placed on parents in terms of the provision of places.

On the summer provision programme, I hear the frustrations expressed by the Deputy. I want the maximum number of schools to be in a position to offer the programme and, at the very least, make the relevant facilities available. However, the programme is voluntary. I have engaged with many parents who were disappointed that the programme was not being run in their schools, but they accepted the decision of the staff not to make themselves available for the programme. It is for that reason, as I articulated earlier, that we are looking at other models abroad. We are also looking at other groups and organisations that might well be able to come into schools and, maybe, run these programmes. I recognise that the maximum number of students cannot avail of this programme. We are looking at alternative means now to see how we can provide in a better way. Notwithstanding the fact that the number this year is an increase on the number in previous years, the programme is not growing at the greater pace at which I would like it to grow.

The Minister said that I articulated that this provision somehow reduced the stress or burden on parents. I did not say that at all. From what I have experienced in my constituency office, I know that these parents are worried, stressed and at the end of their tethers. They know that there is a short period for intervention in order that their children can live full and independent lives. The need in this regard is not being met. I did not say that any burden has been taken off parents.

I articulated the view that it is the job of the NCSE to work with parents to alleviate stress and any challenge that they might face, and to make accessing supports, classes or whatever more seamless. I was very clear in what I said.

As I only have six minutes, I will focus on one issue. My fellow committee members have raised many other issues.

Recently, I dealt with a mum who contacted me because her eldest son, who has done his leaving certificate, and her youngest child, who has entered the leaving certificate years, are visually impaired. I empathise with this mother because my child, though much younger, is in a similar position. During Covid, a huge amount of the teaching online was very challenging for children who are visually impaired. Much of the teaching was digital in nature and required a lot of technology. I cannot fault the Department because, from my experience, the technology is both freely available and excellent. During Covid, there was a working method that was very much digital and online. We learned to rely on it, and secondary school students who are moving towards independence very much rely on it.

As already referred to by one of my colleagues, the use of digital technology does not exactly happen during State examinations. The State Examinations Commission is an independent body but it does sit within the Department. The reality is that children who have worked, studied and learned through digital means for their whole education - and my ten-year-old is doing everything on a Polaris, which is like an laptop without a screen - cannot work in the same way when sitting State examinations. To me, that seems like a very clear breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Department's stance disadvantages children because they have learned one way and then are asked to sit State examinations in a completely different way. A simple fix would be to allow for PDF versions of examination papers. When it comes to a clear breach of human rights, although the State Examinations Commission is a non-departmental public body, in this case it would be appropriate for the Department to step in with the commission, whose representatives I have met, and say that action needs to be taken fast.

We have discussed the issue of reasonable accommodations. I brought a copy of the detailed Irish document on reasonable accommodations to the meeting. Let me cite the UK example as best practice. By my word count, the document is about four times as long as the Irish document and is incredibly detailed. In the UK, digital papers are allowed and allowance is made for a number of issues. We know in the Irish experience that the offer of a scribe and extended time do not suit everybody. For many children who are sitting examinations, unless they have a scribe to explain the pictures, they are told not to use them. That places them at a clear disadvantage. There are a couple of simple things that we could do to remedy the situation. The Minister stated that the Department will review reasonable accommodations in tandem with reform of the leaving certificate examination in general. The Department could review this earlier. I have emphasised to the State Examinations Board that a review is urgent. The Department's stance is clearly contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

I do not want to misrepresent the State Examinations Board, but when I met its representatives, I did not feel a sense of urgency about reviewing reasonable accommodations. I am sorry to be bearer of bad new but we all know that we have some of the lowest levels of full-time employment for people with disabilities in this country. Not allowing digital assistance in State examinations is part of that as it acts as a barrier to third level education. I did not get a sense that the State Examinations Board had any immediate impetus to conduct a review. I talked to the State Examinations Board about allowing PDF versions of examination papers and asked if it had the capacity to make PDFs digitally available during State examinations. I was told that it would not, which puts us into the territory of seeking a tender. As we all know, the tender process takes longer. I am not being flippant when I say that I have staff in my office who can make a PDF document that is secure and would meet the security requirements of the commission.

Let me clearly outline my three suggestions for the Department. The first is to instruct the State Examinations Commission to undertake a review of the list of reasonable accommodations. I accept that would be a longer project. The second would be to allow in that process some kind of a forum and consultation between parents and relevant educators. My experience of visiting teachers has been excellent because they know exactly what they are doing. I know that people within a Department do not always feel that they can speak up, but visiting teachers are the experts. I strongly believe that we can learn from them. It is they who should be asked about reasonable accommodations.

The third suggestion is that we should just get on with introducing the use of PDF documents. I suggest that we provide this option to the leaving certificate students who will participate in the next round of examinations. I cannot emphasise enough how great a difference this initiative would make to the very small number of students affected. Their lives would be transformed by being able to access State examinations.

I cannot disagree with any of the points made by the Deputy. We have made enormous strides in terms of technology over a long period but particularly in the last couple of years. We have seen the enormous benefits. If we are to follow through and build on that, we need to take the next step. The State Examinations Commission is charged with conducting examinations and has ultimate responsibility for them.

The Deputy made a very clear point.

The rates review is linked with senior cycle reform. It is to give maximum opportunity to students to be the best they can be in any situation, most notably in examinations. I ask the Deputy to leave it with me. I will take this with me and see where the scope and potential lie. I do not want to lead the Deputy astray and say it is within my gift because it is not entirely, and it is within the State Examinations Commission. However, it is a fair point that is being raised. Other points have been made regarding the accessibility of examination papers. On the points that have been raised with me in that regard, the commission has a duty to protect the examinations, but there is always a way.

I completely accept the need to protect the examinations. Nobody wants to have to resit an examination. However, it would be meaningful for them to hear from the Minister that there is a concern around the human rights issues. My views are shared by Senator Erin McGreehan, who wanted to be here tonight, and Senator Martin Conway. We are like mini-coalition on this issue. We are very concerned about what this means for students.

To be fair, they have raised that with me previously, which I acknowledge.

I thank the Minister for her engagement. I appreciate that, this September, we have had record numbers of places in the schools that have come on board. However, to give a quote, a deputy principal in one of the schools says that clear training and planning for the opening of ASD classes is needed in schools, and that it is not enough to sanction one and then leave it to the principal to project manage and upskill the staff. It is said that the NCSE is not supporting the process as it should, and that the waiting lists are incredibly long to get education staff on the courses on managing challenging behaviour. There are more children than ever with learning difficulties in classrooms. SNAs are being run ragged, giving ten minutes here and ten minutes there, which does not provide effective support to the children who need it.

I also know of schools that were obliged to take children on board. That is great. I am delighted there are places for children, and I will certainly fight for that. However, the allocation of SNAs did not go up proportionately in response to the number of children with complex needs. We have this interplay involving the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, the HSE and the Department of Education. To take CHO 7, it is desperately under-resourced in terms of the failure of recruitment to bring in the occupational therapists and special needs specialists that are required. We have a difficulty in that regard. I am concerned about the transparency and accountability of how we are going to ensure the supports are put in place around children. Those are the first two points.

My third point is that, post Covid, we are hearing of a lot of mental health issues and the need for mental health supports, particularly for children with disabilities, and the fact they are recovering post Covid but they can be experiencing or manifesting trauma. I would like to know what plans are being put in place for that.

There is obviously the issue of school transport. There are still residual issues on that and I would like to hear the Minister's comments.

In terms of school transport, children with additional needs are entitled to the school transport system. Where the system is readily available, it is made available. Where there is a particular challenge, alternative arrangements can be put in place with regard to access to a taxi or other means to get them to school. They are entitled to that. More than €289 million has been made available for the school transport system. The other point is that we are very conscious that the needs of children who fall into the special educational needs bracket can come at different times of the year, so there is no time limit or timeframe in terms of their access to that school transport support. We have more than 15,500 children availing of school transport from the special education point of view, and that will continue to grow.

With regard to resources in schools for special classes, the resources that are made available are one teacher and two SNAs to six pupils, and they are provided for. I hear the point the Senator raises around the wider element of therapeutic supports in that instance. Considerable engagement has taken place with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, with regard to putting in place those specific resources in schools. There has been an announcement around 136 posts into special schools, with 44 of those posts to be put in place immediately and then, over three different tranches, the additional ones will be put in place throughout the autumn as they recruit.

On the wider question of supports within the school, a programme of professional support for schools with newly established special classes has been developed by the NCSE. The programme has been completed by the NCSE and will be available to schools as soon as is practical. The NCSE has worked very hard to put this together. The programme will involve a variety of supports, including seminars for principals, a four-day intensive training course for teachers, a two-day training course for new teachers and whole-staff CPD. There is an acknowledgement that the more a school is supported, the better it is.

The NCSE is heavily committed to this body of work. There is a new person taking up the position of CEO within the NCSE. Considerable progress has been made in terms of recognising the issues that are on the ground for either special classes or special schools. The appropriate measures are being put in place to meet those issues that have been identified.

I hear that the NCSE is committed, that progress has been made and that schools will receive the professional supports as soon as is practical, but I also think about the fact the July provision is voluntary. If teachers, SNAs and schools are being obliged to provide places, which is absolutely right - and every child deserves to be educated as close to their own home as possible and have their needs addressed - but if the supports are not going in for the teachers, then it is less likely they will volunteer for the July provision. I take Deputy Cairns’ point that the July provision should be mandatory and that other resources should be used to make sure we provide that.

I am concerned that schools would be obliged to find that support for their staff, especially in managing challenging behaviours. I do not want to overemphasise that because many challenging behaviours arise where children are manifesting the strangeness of their environment. That is sometimes a vicious circle in that the staff around them are not equipped to cope with their needs and, consequently, the children are more anxious, which leads to children being sent home or having a reduced provision. It is a nasty cycle that needs to be arrested as a matter of urgency.

The point that I made about the new model from the NCSE is that there are new additional supports. The professional development service for teachers, PDST, already engages with schools. In terms of supports, I have said from the very beginning, in advance of any special classes being set up, that the provision is there for two SNAs and one teacher for six students, and that is automatic.

In terms of the other therapeutic supports, that is not within our gift. What I will say is that we have had extensive engagement with other Departments in that regard and I think we have made good progress. Again, notwithstanding the fact it is not within our gift, there has been an acknowledgement of the importance of returning those therapeutic supports back into the system. Specifically in regard to the PDST and CPD for schools, that has been ongoing and it continues to be provided to schools.

There is scope for this additional new model that has been provided by the NCSE as well.

I did not receive a response on mental health supports post-Covid-19.

Significant supports have been provided to schools with additional hours - class hours specifically - for schools to distribute as they saw fit. The emphasis was on reintegrating children into the school system, supporting schools in what they felt would meet the needs of students. In excess of €52 million was expended in that respect. For some, it was additional to teaching hours, for others it was for creative arts or whatever the school deemed necessary. There has been a definite acknowledgement of the need for those supports, particularly, as the Deputy said, in the framework of Covid-19.

I call Deputy Tully.

Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirleach. I welcome the Minister.

I have a number of questions. Some of them have already been asked, but I would like to ask the Minister if she would consider making disability and autism training a mandatory element of all teacher training courses, going forward. Would the Minister also make it mandatory for all qualified teachers to undergo disability and autism training as continuing professional development, CPD? Whether you are at primary, secondary, post-leaving certificate, PLC, or even university level, you are going to encounter students with additional needs, who are autistic. If we are serious about being inclusive, it is imperative that we ensure all staff are properly trained. It is the biggest issue we hear from the people who come in here, who have first-hand experience with disability. They talk to us about the lack of awareness and lack of training in all sectors, but it is vitally important in education.

The Minister gave details about the number of special schools and classes, etc., that have opened of late. Of course, that is absolutely welcome, but it is not enough to have the physical space. I have been talking to parents in cases where special classes or schools have opened, but they have not been properly resourced. They do not have the properly-trained teachers in place or enough SNAs. They do not have a sensory room or the necessary equipment, or there is no open communication between the principal or the school in general with the parents. There is no access to therapeutic supports. We do not have enough NEPS psychologists, and we know that there are huge shortages of therapists within the CNDTs. I know the support they can give to teachers in a school with students who are transitioning, especially from one school to another, about their needs. That support is invaluable. I remember receiving that when I was teaching; it was an invaluable support given to students coming from primary schoo but is not there at the moment.

A point that has been made, especially by organisations like AsIAm, is that we need to look at classrooms being inclusive, instead of students in the special or autism class being put out in the prefab on the outskirts of the school, for example. They should be made the centre of the school as well. Also, the use of restraint and expulsion of students with additional needs from special schools happens and it should not happen. It is not acceptable, but is very much linked to the lack of training and resources in schools.

A number of people have brought up summer provision. It was established as July provision after a High Court hearing in 1993, which recognised that children with severe needs lose skills over the long school holidays and these skills may never be recovered. When July provision was replaced by the extended summer programme, the eligibility opened up from 15,000 to 80,000 students. Of the 8,000 students who attend special schools, fewer than 5% actually received summer provision this summer gone. I think only 410 students got the full four weeks. Is there some way of safeguarding the children in our special schools going forward to ensure that they will be prioritised for summer provision?

The Minister spoke about looking at other options in other jurisdictions. She mentioned Malta, and yes, it has a very good scheme and is worth looking at, but they use people from other professions. Actually, a number of schools now, in the west of Ireland, I think, have run a very successful July provision. They start organising in January, they go to their own staff and staff in other schools in the locality and then they approach student occupational and speech and language therapists, people who are in third-level education, to come in and work with the students. It has been really successful. It is a model that needs to be looked at.

In my own area, on school transport, the remote area grant was offered to a number of parents in Cavan around 8 August. That was too late. It was not suitable for their needs, so they turned it down, and now they are eligible for a bus or taxi. That then has to go to tender, which takes a number of weeks. Then, the driver may have to be Garda vetted and the bus checked. I know one student who has not yet attended their autism class because they have no way of getting there. Why can that not be done months in advance? The transport is approved maybe six months prior or longer, but was not actually enacted.

Irish Sign Language, ISL, was mentioned. I have been contacted by people with a third-level qualification in ISL from Trinity College. Even though it is an official language of the State, it is not recognised as a teaching subject. When I contacted the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, about this, they blamed the Teaching Council, and when I contacted the Teaching Council, they blamed the NCCA. Can this be addressed? These people are qualified and they may have another qualification in a different subject. They could teach Irish Sign Language to students in our schools.

I thank Deputy Tully. I call the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley.

I thank Deputy Tully. On her first point about disability and autism training, I absolutely see where she is coming from. I spent long enough teaching to appreciate the importance of giving confidence, and confidence will only come when people feel they have the familiarity and training in it. Regarding the Teaching Council, inclusive education is now part of the initial teacher training qualification. Teachers must be trained in that as part of their affiliation and accreditation with the Teaching Council. I appreciate that CPD in this area is very important, but if we get it right starting with the new teachers coming out and it being part of their course and qualification, that is the most valid building brick we have. We must continue to offer CPD alongside that.

Therapeutic supports have been raised by a number of speakers. We have made progress in consultation with the Minister of State at the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and at the Department of Health, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, and those Departments. It is an advantage, obviously, to the schools. We need to have those resources in our schools. We are seeing a step-by-step return now, with 136 posts coming into the special schools, 44 of which have been automatically reinstated. The others will come in three tranches. The Department of Education can make the provision for teaching staff with one teacher and two SNAs and the other therapeutic supports, but we are also working with the other Department to ensure that that is put in place. Obviously, it is a holistic approach.

On the remote area grant and the 8 August date, I take Deputy Tully's point. We are coming close to finalising the entire root-and-branch review of school transport and looking at mechanisms of how to refine it. It has improved of late, and I appreciate the Deputy's acknowledgement of that. There are areas where we absolutely can do better and I certainly will take that point on board about timing, etc.

On the July provision and the model the Deputy referenced in other schools, I have seen some of those models and they are superb, where schools and staff were thinking outside the box and they went to other organisations or groups or third-level students, etc. To be fair, regarding third-level students, that happens quite a lot already. They are relied upon quite a lot, but there is greater scope there. That is why I earlier referenced that we are looking at other models - the Deputy is familiar with Malta. We are looking specifically at approaching different groups and organisations, seeing the models that have worked and doing things differently for the model that will unfold for summer 2023. I am absolutely committed to ensuring that we have maximum uptake, if at all possible.

I have a few other points on schools and the resources made available to them.

From the Department's point of view, aside from staff, both teachers and SNAs, a considerable special-class start-up grant of €6,500 is also made available to the school, as well as an ICT grant of €6,700 and an enhanced capitation grant which is around €720 per student. The Department of Education gives considerable resources to special education and that is right and proper. I know I am repeating myself when I say that 25% of our entire budget is now dedicated to special education. As I said at the start, considerable progress has been made. We are moving in the right direction. A body of work still needs to be done, but I will certainly take on board the positive and concrete suggestions made by the Deputy. I appreciate that.

I thank the Minister for her attendance and I have been listening with interest. I will raise three or four points with the Minister. In light of what happened during the Covid pandemic, is the Department now planning our education system so we can deal with whatever happens if we have another pandemic or emergency, rather than just waiting for something to happen and then making decisions that might have a negative effect on our children? I am asking about forward planning based on the experiences of the past two years.

The Minister mentioned the needs of the child and the needs of the school. We should only talk about the needs of the child. It is important that we concentrate on the child and what the child needs and that we build everything else around that. What I mean by that is, if training is required by teachers, they should not take days off from their time in the school because that is disruptive. Forward planning involves an effort to deal with all the issues so that children who have disabilities have a calm learning experience.

The school transport situation was, and still continues to be, a disaster in my constituency, and I am sure in other constituencies. It has had a negative effect on children with disabilities. One school in my constituency has four children who still do not have a bus. A bus was allocated and approved last May. The school interviewed and appointed an escort for the bus. The contract was signed and no bus has arrived. This falls to the Department. I raised it with the Tánaiste last week. The information was sent on to the Minister's Department and I ask that be resolved as a matter of urgency. It is not good enough.

Another child who is in a wheelchair has no school transport. Today is 20 September. These things should not be happening. There is no excuse. As a member of this committee, I understand that we all try to put things in place to create an atmosphere where everything is being looked after. Whatever is happening with school transport, and I have my own ideas about that, it has affected children with disabilities and with special educational needs and we need to rectify the problems anywhere they have arisen as a matter of urgency. The onus should not be put on parents to try to bring a child who is in a wheelchair to school, costing them €90 per week. It is not acceptable.

Regarding the design of schools for people with disabilities, are there experts within the building unit who are vetting the design of all new schools to ensure they meet the requirements of universal design?

I also ask the Minister about the EPSEN Act 2004. What provisions for the child will be implemented from that Act? We need to be serious about this. It seems to be done in a haphazard way. Services are not being provided in a uniform way throughout the country and within schools. I know of children who have disabilities who must go to school outside of their area or parishes because facilities are not available in their areas. They have to leave their friends to go to other schools for education. Their siblings want to go to the nearest school but are not with their brother or sister in the national school. We have a lot of things to seriously correct to ensure that we are meeting our commitments. The most annoying thing at the moment is that the school transport system is not working properly. We have been caught napping on that. The decision to offer free transport was well intentioned but has created unintended negative consequences for children and parents, and especially for children with disabilities.

I will start with the last question regarding school transport. The waiving of school transport fees was introduced as a cost-of-living measure. This time last year over 103,000 children in mainstream education were availing of it. Presently 124,000 tickets are available free of charge to families. That is an increase of over 20% of children availing of the school transport system. That is a considerable benefit to families. I am talking in general rather than about the specific area of special education that the Deputy has raised, as he raised both. I do not want any family to be discommoded. That has never been the intention. Some families find themselves outside the criteria for the provision of mainstream school transport and have availed of concessionary school transport in the past. It is interesting to note that even concessionary school transport has seen an increase of one third. That is notwithstanding that some families have been affected where others have become eligible and they are not. However, in the greater scheme of things, 124,000 families are availing of free transport, notwithstanding that we are still working through some issues.

The Deputy is 100% right that there have been extraordinary learnings from the pandemic. I visit many schools who say that in many instances, the pandemic pushed us on almost five to ten years as regards our learnings and things we might have expected to have taken a long time to get across the ground. We are now in a much better position, notwithstanding the sadness and challenges that the pandemic obviously brought. However, we have seen positive steps in the areas of technology, remote teaching and learning and in how we have managed exams in the past while, as well as how best practice and learning has been incorporated for the benefit of students. That will obviously be a guiding principle going forward.

The Deputy referenced the needs of the child. I could not agree with him more. The education sector serves the student and it must take a child-centred approach and I agree 100% with the Deputy and appreciate that he made that point. Everything else is a service around it and that is the objective. Everything we are doing in education, whether specifically in the area of special education or in senior cycle reform, is all about putting the student at the centre. When we talk about the child-centred approach, I wish to be clear that in general, never before has the student voice sat at the centre of all that we do. Students are articulating on behalf of students. Students are part of the National Council for Curriculum Assessment, NCCA, for the first time ever. We are very focused, and I am particularly focused, on ensuring that the student is at the centre, and remains at the centre, of all that we do.

I should have asked the Deputy at the outset to give me details of those specific cases that he raised around school transport so that I can follow up on them.

The Deputy asked who is charged with ensuring that the universal design for learning is the way it should be.

There are two aspects to it in that there is the universal design from a building point of view but there is also teaching methodology. Within the Department, obviously the principles of universal design are embedded in every aspect of the Department's work. In terms of guidance that is given for building projects, including the large-scale ones, those where additional classroom space is being made available or the reconfiguration of space specifically to meet the needs of children with additional needs, all are guided by universal access and there is a universal design process there for all of that.

What about the EPSEN Act?

The review of the Act is ongoing. It is our expectation that it will be completed in early 2023. There is a body of work ongoing in that regard and as Deputy Canney has said, it is the appropriate time to review it with a child-centred and child access approach at its centre. The review should be completed in early to mid-2023.

I thank the Minister.

A question was asked earlier today at the Joint Committee on Autism on training for teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs, on how to work with young children. The Joint Committee on Autism had appear before it many different parents' support groups set up by parents themselves and they discussed how teachers should be trained properly. As the Minister has stated that new teachers coming through will have inclusive education, can she explain what she means by inclusive education? Is that just about special needs or does it include all forms, such as the needs of people from ethnic minority groups?

I was speaking to AsIAm a few weeks ago and its representatives said that while we have a lot of buildings and schools for children with special needs, we do not have the services within the schools. It is one thing to have a building but the services are more important and meeting the children where they are at. One of the organisations that appeared today, I think it was the Dublin 12 Campaign 4 Autism Inclusion group, said it is extremely important that we see the child, the young person, and meet them where they are at. The parents of some children with special additional needs believe themselves that their children should be in mainstream schools. So those services should be there.

The committee met representatives of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, a few weeks ago and they spoke about the budget going forward. They only have four requests but the one on which I want to focus is mental health supports within our schools.

Something that has not been touched on as we come up to the budget concerns SNAs. Will there be an increase in SNA payments this year in budget 2023? While I welcome that there are now 19,000 SNAs in the system, I regret to say they are not valued and their qualification is not recognised. This is not a personal attack on the Minister. I am myself a qualified SNA and I know what it is like to work in a classroom with children with complex needs and how we should value our SNAs. Those are my questions.

I thank the Senator. On the learning needs of all pupils and meeting the pupils at the place that you find them, I could not agree more. That fits in with the point the Senator raised as regards initial teacher education and what that involves in terms of inclusive education. That specifically involves meeting the learning needs of each individual student and meeting them at the place that you find them in. As for budget 2023 and how we are fixed, I would love to be able to tell the Senator. We are currently in discussions around the budget. The Senator specifically raised the INTO request and I have met INTO representatives about a package around mental health and well-being and I wish to be truthful and say that everything is on the table at this point. I have had a number of asks from a number of different partners in education and they are all on the table but it is all very much part of the discussion and negotiation and I mean that sincerely. Even at this point, I know we are only a week away, but that is the nature of it.

Regarding SNAs, we have seen a significant increase in the number of SNAs. There is an unprecedented level in excess of 19,000 SNAs in the system now. I want to acknowledge the invaluable role of SNAs and I know Senator Flynn has that background. In terms of pay, that is very much a part of the public sector pay deal. As regards our capacity to grow the number of SNAs going forward, again like the INTO request, that is part of the greater mix at the moment. We will know a lot more this time next Tuesday.

I thank the Minister. The questions from our members today are based on information the committee has received from various witnesses who have appeared before us over the past two years. The summer provision is one thing and I note with interest the Minister's commitment to it. It is vitally important that it is out there strongly and that every plan is put in place for next summer.

On SNAs and the part that they play in the entire school community, particularly special schools and schools with special classes, the whole group puts together so much work and dedication. As a society we cannot underestimate or undervalue the commitment that is being given at school level in terms of what they are doing. In some instances, an allocation of SNAs is made and then the school authorities look at it and say they need more help and resources. I know that there is a process to appeal it to the National Council for Special Education but it is something that needs to be looked at to ensure the method of appeal is not cumbersome. I certainly have come across situations where they have had to go to the nth degree and eventually they get it. The Department will say that a huge number of SNAs are being appointed overall but there may be something that should be looked at in that regard.

On school transport, the Minister is meeting the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science in the morning to discuss school transport issues specifically. I have a question on school transport for people with additional needs. Sometimes families or the school authorities may not have ticked the right box when the application was put in as to whether they want a transport grant or a taxi. Sometimes the taxi does not work out. People could go for a taxi but then have to revert because of complex needs or because of a number of issues. There should be a bit of flexibility and some kind of cooling-off period or trial period that would give the option to either go A or B after a period of two, three or four weeks or whatever is deemed appropriate. That has to be done. There is no question or doubt but that a huge amount of work has been done in mainstreaming special education and in ensuring special classes. There are very difficult, complex cases that continuously come to the committee's attention. While the Department and everybody are trying to do the greater good, there should be accommodation when challenges are encountered.

I compliment the Minister on her recent visit to the excellent Holy Family Special School in Charleville. She visited a number of schools but that school was the highlight of the day, as were the issues we dealt with. I compliment her specifically on that as we talked about special education.

I ask the Minister to address the issues of the appeal mechanism for special needs assistants and the need for a little flexibility on transport for children with additional needs. On the overall issue of transport, where there are priorities at present, people with additional needs should get concessionary tickets, if they are available or if there is a lottery for them. There is a mechanism for that. Again, the situation is ever evolving and new information is coming on a daily basis, from society and the Department. Special education will have to keep evolving to meet the needs as we go forward. The Minister has alluded to that in a number of her contributions. I thank the Minister and ask her to address those few questions.

I thank the Chair. I have already outlined I am very committed to expanding summer provision to the widest of its capacity. I appreciate the Chair has a particular interest in that. There is significant interest and commitment at this committee regarding the expansion of summer provision. As I said, a body of work is under way to see how we can improve and enhance it even more for next summer. I appreciate the engagement of everybody here.

On the SNAs and the method of appeal, the NCSE streamlined the appeals system this year. There is always further scope in future but it simplified the process this year. The Chair raised an interesting point regarding school transport and an element of trial around what method best suits a child with additional needs. I will take that with me. A child with additional needs, however, is automatically provided for as regards school transport.

I acknowledge the wonderful visit to Holy Family Special School, in particular in the context of the issues we talked about. It is an absolutely superb school community. I appreciated the opportunity to visit there.

There is one final point. On the special units that have been built onto schools, as Deputy Canney said, it is very important that it is policy where new schools are being built, or where there is substantial refurbishing of additional schools that are not new, that children are not travelling long distances and the units are, as much as possible, available in nearly every community.

For sure. I apologise to Deputy Canney. I should have referenced that myself. It is the absolute objective that the closer we can bring transport to a child's immediate home, the better. A body is work is there. We are coming from a base that did not always provide for that transport, but it is the objective. It can be seen from the way we are growing the special classes that we are getting closer and closer all the time. That is the absolute objective.

The Chairman referred to units. Members of the autism community would prefer that they be referred to as "classes" because they do not see that they should be made feel different from anybody else in any other class. It is a small point that came up at the Joint Committee on Autism.

Absolutely. The word was hardly out of my mouth before I realised I should not have said it. I take the Deputy's point.

It was referred to as "unit" by others at other stages as well. I know it is something members of the autism community would like to see removed.

I thank the Deputy. I very much thank the Minister, Mr. McLoughlin, Mr. Doody and Ms Mannion for attending at this hour of the evening. We appreciate their commitment and our further engagement.

The joint committee adjourned at 8.44 p.m. sine die.