Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus leis an gcoiste fosta. I thank the joint committee for its invitation and affording me the opportunity to speak about the issue of reduced timetables. I also thank the representative bodies who presented on the issue at previous hearings for their input and contributions.
The basic aim of the Government is to use our economic success to build a fair and compassionate society. Equality of opportunity is at the heart of our vision. As I stated on many previous occasions and reiterate today, each and every child has a right to an education to enable him or her to live a full life and realise his or her potential. I have made my position clear that all pupils enrolled in a school should attend for the full day, unless exempt from doing so for exceptional circumstances. Reduced timetables are not in any way a standard aspect of a child’s experience of school and must not be allowed to become such; rather, they are an exceptional measure. While it may be necessary in some circumstances to use a reduced timetable, for example, as a means of assisting the reintegration of a pupil into a school routine, such arrangements should only be put in place in limited and time-bound circumstances.
Officials of my Department have been working closely with officials from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla which is within the remit of that Department in the monitoring of and reporting on this practice to address the issues raised in the committe's interim report. A set of guidelines is being prepared jointly by my Department and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla. The purpose of the guidelines is to provide clarity for school authorities and parents or guardians on the reporting of reduced timetables in schools to ensure their use is limited to those circumstances where it is absolutely necessary and, where in the rare circumstances such usage occurs, schools follow best practice, with the interests of the student to the fore. As is normal practice, prior to finalising the guidelines, my Department, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla are arranging for a consultation process with education stakeholders, including the school management bodies.
Provision of support is critical and I want to highlight the investment the Government is making. This year’s education budget is €10.8 billion. This highlights the Government’s strong belief in and commitment to the power of education. Nearly €1 in every €5 of this year’s budget, or about €1.9 billion, is being invested in supporting children with special educational needs, including those with challenging behaviour, in school. This is the highest ever level of Government expenditure on special education. It provides for a continuum of special educational provision to be made available to children with special educational needs, including those with challenging behaviour, in order that, regardless of the level of need of the child, educational provision can be made for them.
The number of special education teachers has increased by 37%, from 9,740 in 2011 to over 13,400. The number of special needs assistants, SNAs, has risen by 51%, from 10,575 in 2011 to 15,950. Schools can now allocate additional teaching support to a child whose challenging behaviour is having a significant impact on his or her ability to learn in school. Children do not need a special educational needs diagnosis to access these supports and parents or guardians will no longer be required to have their child receive such a diagnosis. Schools may also access SNA support for children with additional care needs, including challenging behaviour. All schools can access in-school supports and continuous professional development through the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, to assist teachers in working with children who display challenging behaviour.
The number of specialist placements for children with complex special educational needs has also been significantly increased by the Government. Over 1,050 additional special placements have been provided in the new school year. There are now 1,621 special classes, compared to 548 in 2011, including 1,355 to cater for children with autism. Some 125 special schools, including a new special school to be established this year, also provide specialist education for students with complex special educational needs. These schools provide over 8,000 places compared to 6,848 in 2011.
I note that the committee questioned whether SNA support was the most appropriate in dealing with a child’s challenging behaviour. As committee members are aware, the view of my Department and that of the NCSE is that students need the right support from the right person at the right time to achieve his or her full potential. To that end, a preschool and an in-school therapy demonstration project is being undertaken in 75 preschools and 75 schools to provide in-school therapeutic support for students. In addition, €4.75 million was allocated in budget 2019 for the trialling of a new school inclusion model of support to include in-school provision of behavioural practitioners, psychologists and regional support teams to build capacity in schools to meet the needs of their students. The outcome of the pilot scheme will inform future policy and service provision, including the provision of behavioural support.
The National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, works with both primary and post-primary schools and is concerned with learning, behaviour, social and emotional development. The Government has recognised the valuable input of the NEPS for pupils and schools. Over its lifetime it has increased psychologist numbers from a sanctioned level of 173 whole-time equivalents in 2015 to 204 whole-time posts, with a commensurate increase in investment, from €18 million to €20.75 million per annum in the period.
There are 190 posts in the system, with recruitment to fill 14 new posts and vacancies under way. Supports are also provided for DEIS schools, at an overall cost of €125 million for 891 schools serving approximately 190,000 pupils to improve attendance, retention and school participation.
Enhanced capitation payments for Traveller children in the system are provided, at a cost of €1.1 million. Actions are being progressed under the national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy to improve education outcomes for Travellers, including a pilot project to target school attendance, retention and participation, commencing this September. Additional supports have been provided to support this pilot project in the form of home-school-community liaison officers funded by my Department, in addition to Traveller education workers funded by the Department of Justice and Equality and educational welfare officers employed by Tusla.
In summary, I anticipate that the guidelines and notification system will allow us to monitor the use of reduced timetables and, ultimately, address the issues raised. If parents have concerns about the use by a school of a reduced timetable for their child, they can contact their local educational welfare officer who has statutory responsibility for ensuring the rights of the child to an education are upheld and will advise them on the most appropriate action to take. My Department will continue to work closely with Tusla's educational welfare service and the NCSE to ensure that where in the very limited number of cases a reduced timetable is deemed to be necessary, such measures will be used for time-limited periods only.
I again thank the committee for highlighting this issue. I am aware that it is an interim report and that the committee will be working on new proposals and suggestions in the not too distant future. I look forward to working with and hearing from it in that regard. I thank the groups and individuals who have contributed. As a Government, we have demonstrated and will continue to work to realise our commitment to ensuring all children receive the fullest possible education. I am also very conscious that there are challenges and that parents and children are facing them.