I thank the committee for inviting me. I am honoured and pleased to be here at this stage to add my voice to the voices of my colleagues here. I am here in a personal capacity. I have been in education for a very long time. I was a civil servant in the Department of Education 56 years ago. I had to retire because of the marriage ban, but since then I have been a teacher, a teacher trainer, a university professor and, above all else, I am a mother, and I am a grandmother of a boy with autism, which puts me very much in sympathy with what I have heard here today. I am very impressed by what Ms Noreen Duggan has to say, because much of it is what I have in my own submission and also what I believe. I am utterly convinced of the importance of an inclusive school. My grandson, who is now 12, has been lucky. He has been in St. Clare's primary school in Harold's Cross, where Ms Maria Spring runs a wonderful school, but unfortunately he is hitting exactly the same problem as these parents here and the parents with whom other witnesses work.
I welcome the report of the Oireachtas joint committee on the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill, which I read before I came in, especially its recommendation that the NCSE be given the statutory power to compel schools to establish special classes for children with autism or other disabilities where such classes are required.
As the recommendation has already been made, it might be repeated as it is very helpful.
I note in the report that the Department of Education and Skills denies there is a chronic shortage of specialised school places for children with autism and, in fairness, I recognise the considerable advance that has been made in this and other special needs areas, particularly at primary level. It is a really major issue at post-primary level. Some members may have seen the campaign from the area in which my grandson lives, as we spoke about campaigns, and my daughter and her husband are spearheading it. We do not apologise for it. In Dublin 2, Dublin 4, Dublin 6, Dublin 6W and Dublin 8, or the entirety of the southern Dublin city region, there are no special classes at all at post-primary level. There are nine at primary level, going on the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, website, but none at post-primary level. The solution the National Educational Welfare Board, NEWB, might formulate for some of those children would be home tuition. It is a disastrous idea and not a solution.
This is a very urgent matter and, ironically, it arises because we have been relatively successful at primary school level. I was a member of the special education review committee in 1993, as was my colleague, Dr. Mehigan, and I was also chair of the educational disadvantage committee. I really welcome what I have heard here. I do not like to see DEIS and special needs education separated. I am pleased with the new assistant secretary, Mr. Dalton Tattan, and I hoped he would be here today. At least he has an overview and is the assistant secretary with responsibility for both areas. It is a very positive development. There are a number of other positive developments but of course they are slow and we need them now. I will not sing the song of the campaign but the words are "two, four, six, eight, ASD kids just can't wait".
I will not speak about teacher training as we have had much good input in that regard. I spent most of my more recent years, until I retired, in teacher training. There are changes and I would be the first to put my hands up and say that in the past we gave no training to our young teachers, especially our post-primary teachers, on including children with special needs in mainstream classes. That is changing thanks to the Teaching Council and the two-year programme for all teachers. There is a compulsory element to the training that will at least provide some awareness of the approach they should take in including children with special needs and those from a variety of different backgrounds in mainstream classes.
I am not looking at educational disadvantage separately but as a sort of overall continuum, and there is a separate heading in the submission. I am very aware of the improvements. When I was leaving the Department of Education 52 years ago to get married, we had just finished a report pointing out that more than 50% of 14 year olds had dropped out of school. That is more than half, so things have come on dramatically, as I would be first to recognise. However, we want a really good and inclusive system for every child. We do not want 3,500 children leaving school without a qualification, which is the currently the case.
I agree with Ms Duggan that the focus should be on the pupil rather than the school. I will not bore the committee with a report I brought with me that is from 1965 and indicates a need for special assistance for needy pupils. This was a pupil-centred approach rather than just a school-centred approach, although of course the school needs support. There should be a continuum rather than a big bang or stop. I chaired the educational disadvantage committee that reported 12 years and we were abolished very quickly. I will come to that momentarily. We would have made the point that at least half the children from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds are not in what are now called DEIS schools. They are in other schools and they need support. Currently, it is either a "Yes" or "No" and a pupil is either in or out. The school is in DEIS band 1 or 2. That will change a little.
There is a need for a whole-school and whole community approach, and the focus on the child and family has been highlighted so much. We highlighted that very much in the report of the educational disadvantage committee. We recommended a rights-based approach to equality and inclusion of diversity - we used the term a lot - as well as integration of strategies, structures and systems. We recommended coherence overall of provision, highlighting the importance of interdepartmental and interagency links, with a view to ensuring greater cohesion. We pointed out that half the children who require additional support were never in what are now called DEIS schools. We are all saying that things have of course improved and the new literacy and numeracy strategy has led to improved outcomes for all our pupils, including those in DEIS schools, but there is still a gap, which is a big challenge. We also recognise the increase of the year in teacher training will be helpful. We must try to ensure there is full inclusivity in all our schools, and we have a much more diverse school population than we used to have. The diversity is across social, cultural, ethnic and linguistic lines, along with children with disabilities and various special needs.
I query the transfer of responsibility for the school completion programme, the home, school, community liaison scheme and the National Educational Welfare Board to Tusla in 2014. I was concerned about it and put my name forward, whether wisely or unwisely, to go on the Tusla board. I was appointed to the board earlier this year. I am concerned that the focus of Tusla is more on social care and there is almost no one on the board with an educational background as such. I would still prefer if the school completion programme and the home, school, community liaison scheme had stayed with the Department of Education and Skills, but perhaps some members understand the process better. There is further fragmentation, as we said there would be 12 years ago, and we must reduce that fragmentation in the delivery of services. Sometimes when this happens, one wonders about coherence or the reasons behind it. There may have been good reasons. I am on the board now and, whether wisely or unwisely, I am taking some responsibility for it.
As I mentioned earlier I am disappointed the educational disadvantage committee was not replaced in 2005 after we reported. It was a fairly radical and critical report but at least it existed as part of the Education Act 1998. In 2012, that section of the Act was deleted. I do not know why that happened but some of the witnesses or members may know. It was great to have an educational disadvantage committee. We had people from the formal system and the non-formal system. I brought in part of the report but I will not waste the committee's time reading it. Dr. Ann Louise Gilligan died only last week and she made a huge contribution. As my colleague said, there are some young people who for various reasons will not fit into the school system. That is recognised in the international literature and there must be other options available.
I express my concern about the ongoing high level of suspensions and expulsions, especially of young boys aged 12 to 16. A parliamentary question was recently replied to by the Minister, Deputy Zappone, who now has responsibility for the area, and it indicated there were 13,000 suspensions last year. It is a huge number. Every time a young person is suspended for three, four or five days - it is usually a minimum of three days - the continuity of education is finished. Those students will lose all standing in most cases when that happens and why would they bother after that? There were 145 expulsions, which is a small number, but there is a large number of especially behaviourally challenged children, especially boys, in that age group who are on a limited or reduced school day, or worse again, in receipt of home tuition.
I have very grave concerns about home tuition. While the NCSE has asked to have authority to place a child and the NEWB has no authority, it appears that no one has authority to ensure a child who is excluded from mainstream schooling has a school place as opposed to getting some kind of tuition. I feel passionate and have done for many years on these issues. While I recognise that there have been improvements, I am not going to give up until I am down under.