I thank the Chairman for the invitation to attend today to update the committee on the progress made on the implementation of the recommendations contained in the interim report on the use of reduced timetables in schools in the context of Covid-19 arrangements. I am a principal officer in the Department’s social inclusion unit. I am accompanied by my colleague, Eddie Ward, a principal officer in the special education section of the Department.
As the committee will be aware, the Department has drafted guidelines for schools and engaged with education stakeholders on their content and format. The guidelines draw on: the interim report; submissions received by the joint committee; and feedback from the education stakeholders. The intention was that the guidelines would issue to schools earlier this year. However, this plan was impacted by the closure of school buildings in March as part of the Government response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
During the period from March to the end of the 2019-2020 school year, the Department’s priorities included the continuity of learning for all students on a remote basis; development of guidance and supports for schools and teachers in responding to this unprecedented circumstance; development and delivery of an extended summer programme for children with the most complex needs to replace the traditional July provision; and planning for the safe and sustainable reopening of schools for all children for the 2020-2021 school year. Having regard to the priorities of recent months and the impact of Covid-19 on schools, it was decided that new policy announcements would be kept to a minimum. For example, some of the curricular changes at primary and post-primary levels were deferred. Similarly, the Department did not introduce the guidelines on the use of reduced timetables at the beginning of the school year. The Department is in the process of consulting with education stakeholders to consider the timing of the introduction of the guidelines in the context of Covid-19 and the current operating environment for schools. Once this process has completed, it is intended that the guidelines will issue to schools, allowing time for schools to plan for their implementation.
A copy of the guidelines has been provided to the committee. The guidelines provide for Tusla's education support service to be notified if a reduced timetable is implemented and for such instances to be recorded. The aim is to ensure that the use of reduced timetables is limited solely to those circumstances where it is absolutely necessary. The guidelines also provide for consultation with parents or guardians and they require their consent for the use of a reduced timetable.
On the other recommendations in the interim report, I wish to make the following observations. The provision of education for children with special needs is an ongoing priority for Government. In addition, more than €125 million is spent on the delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, programme. The numbers of special classes, special education teachers, special needs assistants and psychologists are at unprecedented levels. The Department of Education and Skills currently spends approximately €2 billion, or 20% of its total educational budget annually, on making additional provision for children with special educational needs. In this regard, budget 2021 provides for the following additionality. Some 990 additional special needs assistants, SNAs, will be recruited to work with children with special educational needs in schools. This will bring the total number to 18,000 SNAs in our schools. Some 235 new teachers will be recruited to work in special classes in our schools, while another 23 teachers will be hired for special schools. An additional 145 special education teachers will be recruited. As a result, an additional 1,200 new places in special classes will come on stream next year. The roll-out of the school inclusion model, SIM, will continue with further pilots being established in two extra community healthcare organisations as part of the expansion of the new model. As part of this expansion of the SIM, some 80 new therapists, including speech and language therapists and behavioural and occupational therapists, and 30 educational psychologists will be recruited to support the expansion of the new model. In addition, training and professional development and building school capacity in special needs education continue to be a priority.
The guidelines set out the process which applies where reduced timetables are used by schools. Parents must be consulted in the decision-making. The data collected from schools will clarify the extent to which reduced timetables are used by schools. When this data is analysed, the Department will have to consider if other policy initiatives are required so that every child is facilitated to receive a full education, which is their entitlement. I thank members for their time and we are happy to take questions from the committee on this subject.