Reduced School Timetables

On behalf of the committee, I welcome Ms Mary Cregg, a principal officer from the social inclusion unit of the Department of Education and Skills and Mr. Eddie Ward, a principal officer from the special education of the Department. I ask the witnesses to brief the committee on progress made in the implementation of the recommendations contained in the interim report on the use of reduced timetables in schools, with specific reference to: the proposed guidelines for schools; and the effects of Covid-19. The format of the meeting is that I will invite the witnesses to make a brief opening statement, which will be followed by questions from members of the committee. The witnesses are probably aware that the committee will publish the opening statement on its website following the meeting.

Before we begin, I remind members of the longstanding parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I ask the witnesses and members to mute their mobile phones and preferably to put them on airplane mode. I ask Ms Cregg to make her opening statement.

Ms Mary Cregg

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.

I thank the principal officers, Ms Cregg from the social inclusion unit and Mr. Ward from the special education section. I have reviewed the briefing documents and the report completed by the previous Joint Committee on Education and Skills. Reduced timetables were introduced as a way to support students to join a school year, particularly after illness or if experiencing ongoing medical difficulties. However, it is being used away from its original purpose as a behavioural tool. There have been many other urgent challenges for schools as a result of Covid-19, which have pushed out the new guidelines for the reduced timetables.

There is a constitutional right for all children to receive a full education. As I noted in the guidelines the Department is issuing, students have the right to receive 28 hours per week of education in secondary schools and 27 hours per week, including breaks, in primary school. I welcome our Government's investment in close to 1,000 SNAs, along with the other teachers who are coming on stream for special needs in the school inclusion model and I note that 20% of the Department's budget is allocated to special needs, which is very welcome.

As members of the committee, our role is to ensure inclusion and equal access, and we do not want to see marginalisation, exclusion or children falling behind due to reduced hours and access. This all impacts on a child's future and the outcomes are stark.

Have we any data on the prevalence of this practice in primary or secondary schools? What additional provision or resources have been provided to the Tusla education support service, TESS, to manage the volume of requests? The information will be recorded by TESS but who will review the information? What decision-making processes are in place for schools if there are numerous breaches of these guidelines and what inter-agency protocols have been set up between TESS and the Department of Education and Skills? I might ask another couple of questions if I have time in my follow-up response.

Ms Mary Cregg

On the first question, about whether there are data on the prevalence, at present there are not. The purpose of putting out the guidelines is so that the data can be recorded and inform policy.

The second question related to what additional resources will be provided to the Tusla education support service. As the Senator may be aware, TESS comes under the remit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. When the transfer of function is effected, TESS will come under the remit of the Minister for Education and Skills, including its policy and funding. We will be able to work with Tusla in that regard. Judging by the interactions we have had, the agency is prepared and set up to carry out the data monitoring and recording.

The Senator's final question related to what the process and the interagency protocol will be. As I stated, TESS will come under the remit of the Minister for Education and Skills and, accordingly, will work under the policy direction of the Department.

When I was looking at the form that the Department will be required to submit to TESS, I was happy to see that parents will receive a copy of the guidelines and will be made aware that the consent can be withdrawn. I was also pleased with the measures for suspensions compared with what will be used for reduced timetabling.

The documents note evidence-based reasons for reduced timetables. What are they? Is there a list of accepted reasons for reduced timetabling? I did not see one listed.

Principals may be concerned about an increased administrative load. Is there any way an online registration process can be used here? It may be possible to upload images of signatures. Has engagement taken place with teaching representative groups? One group that made a submission last year noted in its document that a reduced-schoolday week can be used very successfully as a behaviour management tool. While that may be taken a bit out of context, given that it was from a larger document, I am also aware that only 5% of mainstream teachers have received training in special needs. Has any online training for teachers been forecast? We did it previously for the general data protection regulations in some organisations. Could there be a 30-minute training programme, either for principals or teachers, on the use of reduced timetables because we need to ensure we bring in all stakeholders to deliver the best possible education for our children?

Ms Mary Cregg

I will take the first three questions before handing over to my colleague on the question of training for special education teachers. On evidence-based reasons, we were quite clear we did not want to include a list of reasons because it is impossible to predict what will happen in any individual school context. We are trying to find a balance between autonomy at school level and putting in place some policy direction. The National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, is available to schools, which can seek advice from it or from the National Council for Special Education. It is very much on a school-by-school, case-by-case basis. We felt that including a list of reasons could have the opposite, negative effect.

On principals' administrative load, it was originally proposed that it would be a paper-based system. I am aware that in the meantime, the Tusla education support service has developed an online system for returns and we can work with it. We are keen to ensure this will not result in an additional administrative burden for principals and that the use of reduced timetables will be at a minimum. The reporting, therefore, relates to the prevalence. As for principals' administrative load, we are conscious, especially in the context of Covid-19, of the circumstances in which schools are operating. We will seek to ensure that, if it is possible to do something online, we will work with TESS to do it. It will be primarily a matter for TESS, which has developed systems in that regard and we hope to work with it.

On the question about teaching representative groups, the education stakeholders we approached included the management bodies and the unions. The voice of the teacher, therefore, was heard.

Will any training be provided for teachers and principals? There has been a cultural and historical experience of doing that.

Mr. Eddie Ward

The guidelines are fairly straightforward. Where the real training will happen is when the data are returned and show the prevalence of the use of reduced timetables. Reduced timetables can be used as a positive intervention in a number of cases, such as for children with medical or other kinds of health-related issues. The goal is to get them to optimise their participation in school. Perhaps when we get further data and shine a light on what exactly is happening, we will have to look at what else needs to be done. Training and professional development seem to be a key lever in bringing about change. That is the goal, but we need the data to see the extent of the issue.

I thank Ms Cregg and Mr. Ward for appearing before the committee. I commend them and everyone else in the Department on playing their part in getting the schools open. It is imperative that we provide our children with an education and keep our schools open.

Has Ms Cregg's unit or the Department conducted research into the negative impact that the four-month closure of DEIS schools had on the primary students therein? Will she speak to the negative impact of the closure of those schools?

Ms Mary Cregg

The Department has not conducted research directly. We worked closely with the management bodies over the period of school closure. We are aware of research conducted by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, and others, which has informed our approach. That was one of the reasons we made a number of initiatives during the summer, including a summer programme for DEIS schools, which had not been in place at post-primary level and which was significantly expanded at primary level. We continue to support schools in their return with well-being supports and seek to ensure that children, particularly in DEIS schools, are afforded the supports required. There has been a significant focus on supporting those children and re-integrating them into the school context, cognisant of the impacts of being at home.

Although formal research into it has not been conducted, what is Ms Cregg's assessment, from her position as principal officer in the social inclusion unit, of the negative impact the closures had on kids in DEIS schools?

Ms Mary Cregg

As I said, our information is informed by the research conducted, which has clearly spelled out the impact on pupils. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are more disadvantaged than others by virtue of the fact that they were not in school. We are fully aware of that and have taken steps to address it.

Does Ms Cregg expect the Department to engage in any empirical research or surveys to try to get a more accurate picture of the impact?

Ms Mary Cregg

That is something we would look at in our ongoing evaluation of DEIS and of our disadvantaged programmes.

Mr. Eddie Ward

I would think that our inspectors visiting schools daily will get a good sense of how students are doing and how teaching and learning are progressing. Likewise, NEPS visits to schools will give some sense of that. From time to time, international surveys on literacy and numeracy are carried out and they will probably give us some sense of where are relative to international comparisons and so on. Each year - I am not an expert in this - standardised tests are carried out at certain levels in primary school and they will give some sense of children's progress.

The main concern and the most difficult issue to measure relates to well-being. That is something in which a problem might be tracked by Growing Up in Ireland and other such surveys. While the Department has been very focused and strong in the resources it provides to these schools, teachers and perhaps social services will probably be in a better position over time to address the issue in its broadest sense.

I am conscious that the International Labour Organization recently conducted a survey on the impact of Covid and the restrictions on young people. It found that 50% of them were displaying anxiety or depression because of the restrictions. Does that surprise Mr. Ward?

Mr. Eddie Ward

The research that we have examined has shown that Covid has impacted on young people the most. That is true across most of the western world. It is why we did things this summer. My colleague referred to the DEIS summer programme. Similarly, there was an expanded programme in respect of special needs. There was a sense of empowering and supporting schools in re-engaging children with education after being out of school for a four-month period.

We are conscious of this issue. We want to pick up signals about what is happening on the ground and will be tuned in if messages come through. It would mean that we would have to consider what could be done through education. However, this issue is broader than education.

Mr. Eddie Ward

The social and health aspects are major levers.

Mr. Ward might have answered my next question already but in terms of the reduced timetables, when will the guidelines be finalised and published?

Mr. Eddie Ward

We expect early next year. Our feeling was that we needed to re-engage with the partners. We had intended to issue the guidelines earlier this year. With the closure of school buildings, however, that was not possible. We are engaging with partners and hope that the guidelines will be issued to schools soon so that schools can plan for their implementation.

Will it be January or February?

Mr. Eddie Ward

Yes.

I thank Ms Cregg and Mr. Ward for attending. I acknowledge the work done by the previous committee, chaired by Senator O'Loughlin, and Inclusion Ireland. It brought a focus to and highlighted this important issue. Reduced timetables, where correctly applied, can have a role, but there seem to be instances where they have been misapplied and abused and children have consequently been denied an education.

My first question has partly been answered in the response to Deputy O'Callaghan. I understand that there were many other priorities in the Department of Education and Skills. For example, it is welcome that schools are open and I commend the Department on its work in that regard. As such, it is understandable that timeframes for various projects moved. Will the obligation on principals and schools take effect at the time of the guidelines' publication early next year? Will that be the process?

Ms Mary Cregg

One of the reasons we are engaging with the education partners is that we are conscious of the current operating environment within schools. We will take on board what we hear back from the education stakeholders about timing and implementation. It may be that the timelines are published and time is then given to schools to implement them, but a firm timeline for implementation will be attached once they are published.

Is there an approximate sense of the timescale? Are we looking at within three or four months of their publication early next year? Would that be fair to say?

Ms Mary Cregg

Yes.

Very well. I thank Ms Cregg.

I imagine that the Department's philosophy has not changed since the interim report's publication in July or August of 2019. Issues and concerns were raised at the time. For example, if a school was unco-operative and took the attitude of carrying on its bad practices, what sanctions could be applied if it was brought to the Department's attention that the school was continuing to misuse reduced timetables instead of using them as a way of integrating people back into education?

At the time, I raised a point about the requirement to provide appropriate work to the student when not in school. While that might be appropriate in some circumstances, there might be others in which it is not. It could become a source of conflict between the student and the school. Has Ms Cregg a perspective on these two issues?

Ms Mary Cregg

The Deputy's first question was on a school misusing reduced timetables. One current issue is the lack of data. The purpose of this exercise is to inform the Department about the prevalence of reduced timetables within any given school compared with other schools that use them. Those data are important in informing that approach.

If a parent or guardian has an issue with a reduced timetable, the guidelines allow for parental consent to be withdrawn. As outlined in the Tusla education support service, TESS, guidelines, a reduced timetable when used as a sanction can be considered a suspension. There is an appeal process for parents.

Our view on schools' approaches to the use of reduced timetables will be informed by data. Our inspectorate will also examine how schools manage at individual level as part of the school inspection process.

I will ask a brief follow-up question on that as well as one or two further questions. If a reduced timetable is in the space of suspension, can I take it from Ms Cregg's comments that it opens up other avenues for the parent to challenge, for example, through an appeal or other mechanism?

Ms Mary Cregg

Yes.

Given Ms Cregg's comment on the role of inspectors, can I take it that there might be some flexibility in the application of reduced timetables in terms of, for example, homework? Depending on the individual circumstances, could a decision be taken locally, supported by the inspector and educational welfare officer, EWO, that it might be best not to do that for the few days or whatever period is involved?

Ms Mary Cregg

To be clear, the inspectorate's role is not to intervene in individual cases. Instead, EWOs would be involved. It is not envisaged that the inspectorate would get involved.

We are trying to keep a balance between schools' autonomy and the best interests of the pupils involved. The purpose of having a work plan is for the benefit of most pupils, but there may be circumstances in which that is not in a child's best interests. We would rely on schools to determine how this could work for an individual.

Perhaps EWOs as well.

That brings me to my final two questions. EWOs and home-school community liaison officers have a crucial role in this situation. Will the witnesses provide us a timescale for the transfer of those functions from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla to the Department of Education and Skills? How is it proceeding?

I raised an issue concerning special education with the Minister yesterday. Anecdotally, children are still being told to choose between being in a unit and a mainstream class. This is not in line with best practice or departmental policy. Is the Department receiving feedback on this matter?

Mr. Eddie Ward

In terms of children being enrolled in special or mainstream classes in schools, one would expect the decision to be made after consultation between the parents and the school. Most children with special needs are in mainstream classes. Where they are assessed as having special needs that are sufficiently severe, they will be placed in special classes. As part of that continuum, the most severe cases would probably be in special schools in their areas. The overall desire is for the child to be in the place where he or she will get the most appropriate education to meet his or her needs.

Placements in mainstream classes can work well. There are additional teachers in the schools, SNA supports are available and there is access to supports from the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, as required. Generally speaking, the decision has to be made locally. There are complaints occasionally, for example, where parents feel their children are not getting the optimum placements. Such issues are best resolved at local level. If expert advice is needed, it can be called on from the NCSE or NEPS.

I must cut off Mr. Ward. If we have time later, I might call Deputy Ó Laoghaire again and the witnesses can reply to him further. Since Senator Mullen is not present, I now call Senator O'Reilly.

I thank the witnesses for joining us and for the work they have done. I would have asked why it had not been implemented at the start but I think they have answered that question, unless they wish to expand on the reasons. Resourcing seems to have been one of the key issues. It is clear that reduced timetables are used unnecessarily and that this has had a stigmatising impact. I note that the briefing notes mention that it is having significantly adverse financial and emotional impacts on both parents and children. What research has been done on this to outline what this impact is? In some instances the impact can be very positive. Is there research to show both those sides? In addition, I notice from the draft guidelines that this is done with the consent of parents and the hope is that this would reduce the need for appeals. Is there also a case to be made that it could be that parents ask for the reduced timetabling and that it is not just that the school proposes it and the parents consent?

Ms Mary Cregg

Based on the feedback from stakeholders, the positive impact to which the Senator referred was made clear to the Department. In addition, our NEPS psychologists indicate that in some limited circumstances, as part of a reintegration technique, a reduced timetable has a positive impact with a view to getting a child into school for a longer day but on a limited timeframe. We were informed by that approach, and that is why we took the approach we did with the guidelines. We are leaving the possibility of a reduced timetable there with the consent of the parent. The Senator asked if a parent could request a reduced timetable. The answer to that question is that at school level there may be situations in which a parent asks for a reduced timetable in part because it may be in the child's best interest. That would be between the school and the child. As long as there is agreement in place, that is what the guidelines intend to set out the circumstances for.

The key use of this is in special needs but it may also be medically necessary in some cases. We have not really discussed that today. I have been approached by a number of parents who are concerned because of Covid about children who are very medically vulnerable being in school settings but they do not want to de-register their children and register them as home-educated, for instance. Do the witnesses envisage a situation in which the Department would look at this issue? Flexi-schooling, for instance, is part of the legislation in the UK, but here one has to be registered as either home-educated or registered with a school. It makes it incredibly difficult for parents and indeed young people who may want to do it for a short period out of medical necessity. Do the witnesses envisage a change in this approach?

Mr. Eddie Ward

The guidance that is out there in the context of Covid provides for children who are considered by the health authorities to be at very high risk going into school, but the school retains responsibility for their ongoing education. If it is a special needs case, every school gets an allocation of special educational teachers and the school has discretion in how they are managed in order to support these children while in an out-of-school scenario. That would probably be done through remote learning. We know that that can be very useful in such situations, but I think every child really wants to get back into school. We are living in an unprecedented situation, but it is provided for that if a child cannot be in school for very good health reasons, the school retains responsibility and that connection is preserved.

Anecdotally, I am hearing that that is not always happening, but I will follow up on that separately. I thank the witnesses for their contributions.

I wish to go back to the educational partners the witnesses referred to. Who are they? Are they predominantly trade unions, teaching staff and management or do we have the broad spectrum of parents and young people involved in this as well?

Ms Mary Cregg

I apologise because we in the Department tend to use the term "education partner" a lot. It is known to us but may not be generally known. It refers to the management bodies and the teacher unions, and we also include the national parents' councils at primary and post-primary. They are the general stakeholders we refer to when we talk about education partners.

I note that the witnesses did not answer the question about research on the financial and emotional impacts. Is it based on anecdotal evidence from NEPS or is there an actual body of research that shows the impacts?

Ms Mary Cregg

I am guided by our colleagues in NEPS as to what happens on the ground with reduced timetables and its expertise in that regard.

I am sorry, I know I am over time, but I would like to see this come out of these guidelines such that it could inform some kind of research on an ongoing basis in order that we might see the impact. One question my colleague asked about when TESS will transfer over to the Department of Education and Skills was not answered. Do the witnesses have a date for when TESS might transfer over?

Ms Mary Cregg

I am not in a position to answer that right now. There are quite a lot of issues attached. A transfer of functions is not always straightforward. We are operating on transferring as a priority while working through the logistics of that, but it has been set out that TESS will transfer. In addition, prior to any reference to a transfer of functions, we work quite closely with TESS as part of our day-to-day activity - it is an integral part of DEIS schools - and with the educational welfare officers, so we have quite a close working relationship with TESS as it stands and we hope to build on that. I am not in a position to give the Senator a date for the transfer but it is being progressed.

Mr. Eddie Ward

On the issue of research, when we get the data on the prevalence of reduced timetables, those data will feed into research within the NCSE, which has an ongoing function of advising the Minister on issues of practice and strategies and interventions that are required at school level.

I wish to go back to the impact the closure of schools, which was raised by Deputy O'Callaghan, has on children. One thing that really concerns me is that while we do not have a measurement of that problem, we do have some kind of measurement in the form of the domestic violence figures. One can only imagine the psychological impact and damage that domestic violence has on the health, education and well-being of children. I see that in Wales recently there has been a pilot project which enables the police to contact the schools when there have been incidents of domestic violence. The expectation may be that children who have witnessed domestic violence go into school, learn, have a proper uniform and participate properly in their education when they may have been up all night witnessing severe domestic violence. Is this something the Department sees a need for here? Would the Department support it?

Ms Mary Cregg

The Department has recently been made aware of the initiative to which the Deputy refers. There are child protection guidelines already in place for schools, and they are guided by the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs and Justice and Equality as it stands. We are aware of the initiative to which the Deputy refers and we have agreed to meet with some of those who are involved in it to explore what is involved and what the implications might be.

At the moment there is no statutory obligation on the Garda to notify a school when a garda has attended an incident of domestic violence, is there? Is there any liaison between the Garda and the schools, or perhaps the front-line services and the schools where gardaí are not involved?

Ms Mary Cregg

That is outside my area of knowledge at this point in time. I can arrange to follow up with the Deputy on the specifics of the child protection guidelines.

Going back to Deputy O'Callaghan's questions, we have no measure in place to determine the impact on children of closing schools. Were the schools to close again would we not need that information to make a proper decision on closure?

Ms Mary Cregg

On the schools closing, as my colleagues mentioned there are measurements that can be taken on a quantitative basis in terms of academic outcomes. The well-being outcomes are less easy to measure and that is why we have focused on them with the return to school.

We are aware of the research put into the public domain by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, and others. Our intention is to try to support schools as much as we can to stay open.

It is important that the information is gathered as a matter of urgency, and that it is used. In Britain, school meals are still being provided during closure. I believe that we must look at households and the impact of school closures on children. If we fail to do that then we fail the children. Many other issues need to be considered on an ongoing basis.

The Department in its report has rightly outlined the additional supports that will be available to children such as the 990 additional special needs assistants and all of that. I hope that the supports will go a long way towards addressing many of the issues that we come across daily in terms of therapies, supports and services for children, particularly children with special needs. When will recruitment for the SNA posts start? What is the duration of the recruitment process? When will they be in place?

Mr. Eddie Ward

The recruitment of SNAs is on an ongoing basis. Generally, it really happens at the commencement of the school year or when a school plans for the next school year. One would expect it to happen in April-May for the following September.

The 990 posts that were announced as part of the budget will cover the calendar year next year. In terms of additionality coming into the system, that will cover whatever needs arise in the course of the year. That would be for children entering the system for the first time and the SNAs will support them.

Does that mean children will not get the benefit of the 990 special needs assistants until September 2021?

Mr. Eddie Ward

Currently, we are living within the allocation for this year. That was made in last year's budget when more than 1,000 SNAs were brought into the system. We are currently working through the 1,000 SNAs and will probably have them all used by 31 December. On 1 January, we will then start going into the 990 SNAs.

The Deputy asked about recruitment. The main recruitment happens when one plans for the next school year because one wants to have all of the supports in place from the time a child comes into a school, which is, generally, 1 September.

We look forward to seeing the outcomes, or measuring the outcomes of the resources.

I welcome the two representatives from the Department and appreciate their presentation. Judging from the line of questioning by the last few speakers all of them acknowledge the difficulties of keeping schools open but also the importance of keeping them open. We have all heard anecdotal stories from families in different localities and that emphasises the importance that the Minister placed on keeping schools open. Going forward, it is important that we stress the fact, as much as we can, that schools need to stay open.

My first question is on the medical advice reference. Is the medical advice as simple as a letter by a GP or consultant, or a report by a NEPS psychologist? What is the minimum requirement?

Ms Mary Cregg

Is the Deputy asking about the guidelines on medical advice?

Yes, the guidelines.

Ms Mary Cregg

It is not specified because we are looking at this on a school-by-school basis. There may be circumstances where a child has a medical condition, has finished treatment and needs to stagger his or her return to school. It is in those situations that medical advice would apply. In other situations it may be where the NEPS psychologist is working with the school and perhaps suggests that a reduced timetable may be in the child's best interest, subject to parental agreement to the approach. It depends on the circumstances.

Will the medical advice come from some type of medical practitioner and not a local person such as a school counsellor?

Ms Mary Cregg

No. It is from a professional.

What is the average waiting time for a NEPS assessment?

Mr. Eddie Ward

I do not know but the assessment of need and diagnosis is done by the HSE. NEPS does some assessments but its full-time job is to build capacity within schools, advise individual schools on the individual needs of children and do some one-to-one work with children. The statutory responsibility for assessments lies with the HSE and we are aware that there are significant waiting times in some areas. A significant amount was announced during the week. Recently it has been estimated that it would cost close to €8 million to improve services so we expect the situation to improve in the coming months.

I was a schoolteacher for 15 years before I got elected and taught in a Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, school for more than 12 years so I know that every student is different and has different needs. On occasion, we had a problems with students with low attendance. In a situation where a student does not present to school for a significant period, will the guidelines when published contain a provision that encourages such students to attend on a reduced timetable basis thus encouraging them back to school?

Ms Mary Cregg

The reasons are set out in the reduced timetables and allow for a reintegration-transition period. Yes, but it is not intended to be the default approach.

My fourth question is on supports for teachers and management. I spent 15 years of my professional life teaching and know that we can always do more to provide professional development for teachers and staff in schools. What provisions have been made for school staff in terms of students who available of a reduced timetable?

Ms Mary Cregg

As my colleague mentioned, there has been considerable investment in additional supports for teachers and advice is available from the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and NEPS should a school request assistance from them.

We have a draft report and I understand from previous questions that things might be in place by September 2021. Will the Department issue the guidelines to schools? Will schools receive a circular advising them that this is what they should work towards?

Ms Mary Cregg

There is a consultation process taking place with the education partners that will inform the timing of the introduction of the guidelines. We are conscious of everything that is going on in schools at the moment. We intend to give schools time to plan and implement. The guidelines have been made available to management bodies and unions so there is an awareness in the system of what is envisaged.

I thank the witnesses.

I thank the guests for joining us today. I commend the work done by the previous Joint Committee on Education and Skills and on publishing its interim report that greatly informed this process. In light of the fact that the guidelines have not been published, this committee should give further consideration to this matter once the guidance documents are produced by the Department and the outcome of the consultation process has been completed.

It would be very helpful for the committee in formulating a view and not just continue the work of the previous committee but to complete it in the context of the report having been an interim one. I do not wish to reinvent the wheel but it would be appropriate for the committee to draw conclusions on both the interim report and the guidance documents when they have been completed. My contribution would be premature until such time as those guidance documents are produced.

Deputy O'Sullivan has asked my only question and received a response so I will leave it there.

I am no longer a member of the committee. I was a member of the previous committee when it began this work. I am attending in the absence of Senator Flynn as she is unwell and is quite anxious because she is unable to contribute. Since I came into the House, one of the biggest issues in the interim report was the misuse of timetables in relation to Traveller children, something which has not come up today. The use of reduced timetables in particular communities and schools was viewed as modern segregation and discrimination. When we refer to behavioural management, we need to be careful about what it means. Are we talking about a child who might have come from a chaotic home life, is experiencing poverty, including food poverty, and has experienced a lot of trauma? This materialises in the classroom. We know it is happening. The evidence is there. Parents have spoken up and contacted us. They have engaged with Traveller organisations.

Guidelines are an important step along with the data on its prevalence but we need to see what else can be introduced so that there is not a cultural use of reduced timetables in schools with families that are not in the position to advocate as others. I came through a school where this has been happening for 20 years. Sometimes pupils are not even sent home but just to the back of the classroom with something to do - now it is an iPad but in my time it might have been a puzzle. Reduced timetables can also effectively happen while the child is still sitting in the classroom because the child is not being engaged in the educational day. How do we address this as part of the guidelines?

Can a specific way of advocating for and supporting parents who find themselves in this position be introduced? Although we are saying that some parents consent to reduced timetables, that is not always clear-cut. We have heard evidence from parents who felt forced into this. They try to engage with professionals who articulate themselves in a particular way, and the parents are made to believe that this is the only option available to them other than their child not attending school at all. Many families have felt coerced into this, which is not really consent. How can we begin to support the parents who might need the Department of Education and Skills or someone to step in to advocate on the reduced timetables for them in a supportive role? I believe the guidelines are really important but also what we bring in with them to support vulnerable families.

Senator Flynn wanted to highlight the importance of the yellow flag programme, which is hugely successful. It plays a role in supporting children within the school system who are affected by reduced timetables as well as the overall cultural aspect of it but it does not have any core funding. We could examine the yellow flag programme funding that could have a positive impact on schools and their ability to engage with children who are not in a position to engage their full attention on the curriculum everyday.

Does the Department agree that we should look to how we can best support and resource schools to keep a child in a full curriculum rather than remove him or her? How do we get that balance right when we have the data? The Department needs to indicate that it will introduce the resources and funding to better support schools to give that full holistic approach to education.

I reiterate that there has been an unfair use of reduced timetables for kids in disadvantaged schools and kids from a Traveller background. That might also be the case for children from a migrant background. I do not believe that we heard from the migrant community last time and it might be something that the committee needs to examine if there are future hearings. How do we move from guidelines to enforceability of the full curriculum and a policy that can be implemented rather than merely being a reporting system?

Ms Mary Cregg

On supporting parents, education welfare officers provide that advice and support if needed. They can support any parent who feels their child is having problems with attendance for any reason.

On supporting schools, the first thing that we need to do is get the data so that we can identify the prevalence on a school-by-school basis relative to others, where there may be a particular issue. That will inform the approach where additional supports may be needed. The inspectorate, through their inspection process, assess the use of reduced timetables but that is retrospective. That is not an individual support to students but it does look at the practices of schools. In cases they have been made aware of, they have found that there was a reason underpinning it. The informed consent of parents and even the highlighting of the issue will change the goalposts in the usage of reduced timetables. The data will inform its prevalence, which will then inform where the issues are and what needs to be done about it. This is the first phase in a process.

One challenge of being down the running order is that many of the questions have been asked but one benefit is that I have been able to listen to some excellent contributions on the subject, including that of Ms Cregg.

I will refer to some of the good points that have been raised. Senator Ruane noted that many of the children are coming from chaotic backgrounds. The idea of implementing home tuition to supplement a reduced timetable is untenable in many of those cases. Deputy Conway Walsh mentioned some of the information sharing with teachers. It used to drive me mad as a teacher that the child would arrive in front of me and I would know the child was bringing something to school but the teacher would always be the last to know what it was. Deputy O'Sullivan will also be aware of this.

Ms Cregg has observed that without the data we are flying blind. How does the Department plan to disaggregate the data? As well as a total overview, what specific areas will be honed in on through this data collection?

Ms Mary Cregg

Regarding the data, the form provides for an ethnic identifier but that is included with a person's consent. It outlines the details of the school and the reasons for the reduced timetable being put in place. It would be premature to say how it would be disaggregated until we get the data and start to analyse them. The first thing is to get the guidelines in place and have the data come in. We hope the numbers reporting will be relatively low but we will try to disaggregate what we can to inform the policy approach. That will depend on the numbers. We do not want to get into a situation where individual schools or students can be identified.

I refer to resourcing and some of the announcements in the budget yesterday. It is widely acknowledged that while restricted timetables can be used in a positive way to be scaffold for a person in a health situation in particular and allow him or her to re-enter school. The use of such timetables as a behaviour management tool is a sticking plaster, however, and a poor one at that. It is acknowledged that it has widely been applied because of a lack of resources and that schools and teachers are struggling to cope in particular situations and feel a responsibility to other students. In that context, it is very welcome to see the allocation of 1,200 places for special classes and the appointment of 30 NEPS psychologists and a number of therapists. I have a question about special educational needs organiser, SENO, provision. If we are talking about providing nearly 1,000 additional SNAs, do we have the capacity within the SENO service to ensure that they are well-directed? Also, the criteria by which SNAs will be allocated have been tightened - perhaps more rigorously applied would be a better use of language - in the past few years. Consequently, where SNA access is concerned, are we content there will be the provision of SENOs that will allow that to happen and also do we feel that an SNA will be directed in the correct way to support these students in particular?

Mr. Eddie Ward

SNAs are employed by schools. Their role and functions are very much to do with care and meeting care needs to ensure that a child can participate fully in the education experience of a school. They are recruited by individual schools. The NCSE is the body charged with allocation and whether schools need one or whatever. Schools have to make the case for it. There are agreed criteria and the NCSE has a process of allocation. For special classes, there are agreed ratios. With SNAs, it is generally six students, one teacher and one SNA but there can perhaps be more in exceptional situations. In the mainstream situation, we have moved away from the diagnosis model whereby every child needed a diagnosis in order to qualify. There is a more qualitative assessment to be carried out regarding the child's actual needs. The assessment was an easy way to say that a child had a particular disability and therefore should get X, Y or Z in terms of resources, but actually there is a spectrum of needs. Some will have extreme needs, other children with the same disability may have a considerably lesser need. Thus there is an assessment to be carried out within the school in terms of the amount of time a child needs and what support action he or she may need in order to access the learning within the school. For the school, training and resources are made available, the SENO is there to advise and assist with how those decisions are made. If a school feels it has not got enough SNAs at a particular point it can seek a review and the NCSE delivers on that.

The Department is moving steadily and surely toward a needs-based model and trying to get away from the need for a diagnosis in an overall way. We feel that is more equitable and that it levels the field in terms of parents' ability to get assessments. That is why we have removed the need in terms of the mainstreaming of children with special needs in school so that they can get access to SNA support without having assessments. With the school inclusion model, we are also in a direction of bringing in additional therapeutic supports within schools. There was a time when we thought - and parents would have been buying into it - that the SNA met the totality of the child's needs. We know now, and the evidence presented by the NCSE is telling us, that a child's needs could be in speech and language, occupational therapy and a variety of other areas and we need a broader suite of supports outside of education and are more health-related. We already have a pilot in place in the community health organisation, CHO, 7, counties of Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow. There is a proposal and money has been granted in the budget so we can extend that model. What we are really trying to do here is to find the best support, the best model of service that meets the needs of the children and that leads ultimately to the best outcomes. In that way we are being more inclusive and that has to bring with it a lot of professional development for teachers.

I have to cut Mr. Ward off there but I will come back to him at the end. Before I call Senator O'Loughlin, I note that she was the previous Chairman of this committee and did fantastic work. I compliment her and the outgoing members of the committee.

I thank the Chairman for those positive comments and thank the members of the previous committee. Deputy Ó Laoghaire and Senator Ruane were members of it and have returned. Ms Cregg and Mr. Ward are very welcome. They presented to the previous committee as well and I know they were very struck by the evidence they heard at the committee from those who gave us evidence of what was happening, particularly AsIAm and Inclusion Ireland. I really appreciate that everything the officials heard was taken on board and that they also took on board the interim report and the recommendations that were made. I thank the Department and the Minister for taking that on. At the time, I think we were all quite shocked at the light that was shone on these practices that were happening in schools. The fact that there was no monitoring or reporting of it was one of the really big issues that struck members of the committee. If we really wanted to be able to deal with this situation that was the main thing that needed to happen because ensuring that every child's constitutional right to an education was honoured this was absolutely one of the directions we needed to take and I am quite comforted by what the officials are saying.

There are a few issues I wish to raise, so perhaps I will ask the questions and our guests can respond. One of the key matters that also came up was that restricted timetables were being used as a behavioural management tool. I also want to acknowledge what the management bodies told us at that time about how difficult it was for teachers in specific situations as well. Like Deputies Ó Cathasaigh and Pádraig O'Sullivan, I have had experience - 25 years' worth - of teaching and have come across this as well. Teachers need our help and support in terms of being able to manage difficult situations. I know Ms Cregg and Mr. Ward have said there are supports there for teachers but I feel we need to do more and they might enlighten us a little about that.

One of the key issues for us also was that action was taken against parents when they did not send their children to school but there was no monitoring of the situation when children were sent home from school. I remember a parent telling us that she would bring her child to school and at 9 a.m. and at 9:10 a.m. she would get a phone call to remove her child so she had to stay in the car park. The child would stay ten minutes and that was it. Clear guidelines have to be agreed in consultation with school management, parents and teachers, and with the externals as well.

Much has been said about Covid and how teachers and schools have dealt with the situation and have been so wonderful in ensuring that our schools reopened. That is important and absolutely must always be acknowledged. Speaking to some friends of mine who are teaching, there is concern about children who have behavioural problems and have not come back to school at all. That is a major concern and the officials might address that.

Access to therapies was one of the big issues that was raised and schools highlighted it. I would appreciate it if our guests provided a little more information on the matter.

Once a child is marginalised, it has significant adverse impacts not just on the child but on his or her life choices. I echo what Senator Ruane said because we spent quite a bit of time talking about how children from the Traveller community are impacted and trying to ensure they have the opportunity of a full education.

Ms Mary Cregg

I thank the Senator. I will follow up on the concern about children who have not returned to school. We have been working closely with Tusla education support service, TESS, and it has put out a call to schools and developed an online database. Schools will return the list of those who have not shown up to TESS with a view to it then being able to follow up accordingly with individual children who have not appeared for longer periods. That is over and above what would normally happen in terms of the reporting to TESS so there is a concerted effort and an awareness there. It is also a collaborative effort across the home school community liaisons, the school completion programme and the educational welfare officers. That reporting, however, is going into Tusla's educational support service and we will follow up with it on the outcome of that. I will hand over to Mr. Ward on the therapies and teaching support.

Mr. Eddie Ward

I may have addressed it in reply to the earlier question but therapies are the business of the HSE. We are currently in the process of developing a model of therapy provision in schools. This will bring together both health and educational supports on a trial basis while we evaluate it and work out the best model that works for education and for children with a view to rolling it out nationally. This week's budget provided that we can extend that pilot to other areas and bring in speech and language occupational therapy and speech and language. The focus is very much around increasing school capacity in terms of teaching and engagement and, obviously, working with the children. The primary responsibility for one-to-one therapy, however, is very much with the HSE nationally.

The school inclusion model also includes a number of other aspects which are about SNAs being front loaded into schools and the training of SNAs. There is also a piece about a nursing programme for children with the most complex needs and more National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, psychologists to work in the schools. That is what we believe the future looks like. It is an evidence-based model and it will be evaluated as we go.

Professional development for teachers is obviously a key piece and is very much part and parcel of trying to support teachers and support change, taking account of what is best practice elsewhere and bringing that in and making it available to teachers. I expect when we see data coming back on the use of the reduced timetable there will be some consideration as to whether the extent of the use is appropriate and whether one might think of alternative interventions and advise teachers that perhaps there are certain supports here one should trial.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, support service provides extensive programmes on behavioural management. It has behavioural practitioners now on some of its teams and has strategies on working with children with difficulties. It also has programmes around autism and supporting schools around that.

We recognise we must improve and grow the whole professional development piece. There is a statutory provision in the Teaching Council Act which provides for that and which has not been commenced at this point. As I understand it, the Cosán framework is still under development but that will make it mandatory for teachers generally to engage and will be considered as part of the renewal of his or her professional registration each year. The direction of policy is there. We recognise there is a need for it and as we get more information and research, we will add to that.

I thank both witnesses for their presentations. How will the issue of reduced timetables be monitored? I am aware the witnesses have mentioned the guidelines and the fact there will need to be parental consent. That is certainly welcome. How exactly will it be monitored? It must be monitored effectively for it to be effective.

How many educational welfare officers do we have in this State? If they have an important role in this process, then I would like to know the number we have.

On resources needed in terms of mental health and children's well-being, that links in with social inclusion. Given the school closures for four months had a detrimental impact on children, is it possible more supports for mental health could be rolled out under this social inclusion programme? They are needed in all schools but starting with the special schools the Department will be responsible for, is it possible those supports could be built into that if they are not there already? We need to get to grips with the issue as it is affecting children greatly.

I welcome the expansion of the social inclusion model to include 80 therapists and 30 educational psychologists who are badly needed. Given its expertise in education, the Department will be aware of the schools that are struggling within regions and that have raised the issue of the lack of therapists with it. Does the Department have any role at all in the decision making with the HSE? There needs to be a joined-up approach in terms of addressing the issue and the long waiting lists. In my constituency of Laois-Offaly, we have 1,118 children waiting in excess of 18 months for occupational therapy. At least 159 children are waiting in excess of 12 months for speech therapy. This problem must be gotten to grips with because it is affecting children's educational attainment and means many of them are unable to reach their potential and are struggling. I am aware of children who still have not received speech therapy at seven years of age, which is a terrible disadvantage for any child. The Department should have some input if it does not already. Does it have any at all? That is my main question.

I welcomed the fact the extended summer programme for children with complex needs to replace the July provision got the go-ahead at a late stage last summer. I am concerned, however, that many programmes did not get off the ground across the country. What oversight will there be to ensure the maximum participation of special schools and, indeed, the co-operation of everybody in this? I am aware of parents who actually had to avail of private tuition where the special schools did not or were not able to participate in this programme. I am not sure what the actual case was. I am aware, however, that it certainly did not happen as frequently as it should have throughout the State. Will there be a more co-operative approach this time to make sure we get as many of the programmes as possible in place?

Ms Mary Cregg

I thank the Deputy. I will address the initial questions on how the issue of reduced timetables will be monitored. The first step is to get the data to Tusla educational support service and assess what the prevalence is. Then, we will work with Tusla educational support service to see how the situation can be monitored. As I mentioned, at the moment TESS is under the remit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs but will shortly come under the remit of the Minister for Education and Skills. We will, therefore, be in a position to work more directly with it on rolling out the monitoring of the reduced timetables.

In terms of the numbers, again, the Department of Education and Skills is not responsible for the funding of educational welfare officers. In that regard, we will work with them on ensuring they have sufficient resources to work on the reduced timetables issue with us. It is a collaborative service across school completion and home school community liaison officers as well and obviously our intention here is to ensure the use of timetables is minimised so it does not come to a point where children are on reduced timetables. We do not want a situation where reduced timetables are used across the country to an extent it requires an intense level of follow-up. It should be a case that even by putting the guidelines in place we are clarifying that reduced timetables are a last resort. We certainly do not want to encourage their use by the use of the reporting. There will be situations at school level, and agreed between parents, where a reduced timetable can have a positive impact. It may not require follow-up per se but the fact it will be put in place and time-limited will be recorded.

The intention is to have the data available to us. That will form the approach in terms of monitoring. I think the Deputy is talking about where there is an extended reduced timetable and where it is repeated. That obviously would be a red flag issue and would require invention at that point.

Do we know how many educational welfare officers we have currently? Does their number need to be increased?

Ms Mary Cregg

As I said, they are not currently under the remit of this Department.

Ms Mary Cregg

The Deputy mentioned the return to school. The Department has a strong focus on supporting well-being in the context of the return to school. NEPS psychologists were involved in the roll-out of a specific strategy to support schools and there are considerable resources available on the Department's website. The focus was on implementing physical safety measures and allowing a period for students to settle in and re-establish routines - we called this "Settling in - Slow Down to Catch Up" - and key messages were communicated within the school community. NEPS also advised that it would be necessary to have a targeted response for some students, promote staff well-being and ensure students had a voice in all of this. A considerable number of resources are available. They include webinars and supports for school communities, which were developed by NEPS for primary and post-primary schools, a toolkit, which was made available to schools, and advice for parents, students and school staff. There has, therefore, been a considerable emphasis on the well-being component as part of the return to school.

Mr. Eddie Ward

On therapies, we are talking primarily about speech and language therapy and occupational therapy. The one-to-one service nationally is provided by the HSE. What we are talking about here is a joint collaborate effort with the HSE to bring this into school and see what model of service provision works in the school context to lead to better education and live outcomes. We are working closely with the HSE and the Department of Health. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs was involved in the initial roll-out of the therapy model in early years services.

The goal will be to have ongoing involvement by the HSE. Initially, it provided the therapists who were working in the schools. These therapists were withdrawn because of the Covid crisis and the need to redeploy them. The Government decided that the National Council for Special Education should be given the power to recruit therapists directly and that work is under way. We see this as the model for how education can impact better on the lives of children.

The extended summer programme the Deputy spoke about was a programme developed as a one-off in 2020 as a response to Covid. We recognised that with children having been out of school for such an extended period, we needed to go all out to provide children with complex needs with an opportunity to participate in the programme. We depend on schools and school communities making their premises and staff available to do that. It has been a challenge to get every school to participate in the programme. It has increasingly become a home-based programme where the parents engage or hire a tutor to come in for 20 hours per week. That is what happened this year.

We would like to reform the programme on the basis of policy advice from the NCSE. Just before Covid impacted on us, we had started a broad consultation with a number of other Departments which also deliver summer programmes. The thrust of the traditional July provision programme operated by the Department is very much focused on curriculum and learning in the formal sense. It is related to the school curriculum. The advice coming through from the NCSE was that a different provision was required, one geared more towards skill and competence development, communication and language and learning through play and games. We have been examining this issue.

Almost 12,000 participated in this year's programme, of whom 3,000 participated in school settings, with the remainder in home settings. We are still finalising the numbers on that.

I must cut Mr. Ward off at this point as we have to leave the room after two hours under Covid rules. If the witnesses would like to respond on any other issues, I will allow them to do so.

If a special educational needs organiser rules that the home school programme is not suitable for a child, can the decision be overruled? The Department relies on the opinion of the SENO but is there a way around that?

Mr. Eddie Ward

I am not sure I understand what the Deputy is saying. The role of the SENO is to plan and co-ordinate local provision, in other words, special classes and the allocation of special needs assistants, and to help parents with regard to what might be the appropriate place and advising the Department in cases where children do not have places. We then have to engage on another level. SENOs do not sign off education programmes.

To give an example, last year a five-year-old child needed to be in the home school programme but the SENO was reluctant to sign off on that. This would have been a problem because of the lack of autism spectrum disorder units. Castlebar and other towns do not have an ASD unit. If there is no unit for the child to attend and the child cannot be approved for a home school tutor either, what does the child do? On resources, does this mean we will see many more ASD units set up around the country?

Mr. Eddie Ward

We currently have in the order of 1,600 special classes, 80% of which cater for children with an autism spectrum disorder. We have to acknowledge that schools have been very willing to cater for children in their locality and many have made that provision.

Only one school made that provision in Castlebar last year, thankfully. We were left with one national school with an ASD unit for the whole of Castlebar and the surrounding area.

Mr. Eddie Ward

That is something the NCSE is looking at nationwide. It is open to any school to make an application to the NCSE to open a special class.

Will they have all the resources they need?

Mr. Eddie Ward

If the NCSE is satisfied that there is a sustainable demand in an area, it will put in the necessary resources for that. That is what happens. The schools get the extra teachers and special needs assistants.

How quickly can that happen?

Mr. Eddie Ward

It can happen fairly quickly. Once the NCSE forms the view that there is a sustainable demand in this area, it can make the necessary decisions to enable the school to recruit the teachers and the SNAs. That can be done within a matter of months.

I will follow up on a question I asked earlier. Maybe I did not explain it well enough. The guidelines provide that the purpose of using reduced timetables is to help students with serious and significant medical issues in reintegrating or coming back to school after a long period of absence. My question relates to students who have intermittent attendance or take a couple of days or weeks off here and there for reasons such as casual work or issues at home. It might not necessarily be for medical reasons. In such circumstances could children be offered reduced timetables to entice them back into a school environment?

Ms Mary Cregg

The Deputy's question is quite broad in terms of the possible scenarios. I do not want to pre-empt any situation that might exist. The crux of the question is whether a school, in order to encourage full attendance, can initially use a reduced timetable for a child as a period of reintegration into full-time school. That is what the guidelines set out.

Can that apply for non-medical reasons? As I said, young adults of 18 years might be working a casual job or there could be some other reason. They could be living in a single parent household where the parent has needs. There could be a non-medical reason for non-attendance in school.

Ms Mary Cregg

The Deputy may be stretching into a situation involving attendance as opposed to reduced timetables.

Where a school feels that a pupil is not attending regularly, the educational welfare officer intervenes to broker whatever solution is required to encourage the child back into full-time education. It is not quite the same thing.

We have a very good centre in Cork city called the Cork Life Centre. Deputy Ó Laoghaire will also be familiar with it. I do not think it receives any funding from the Department of Education and Skills. It receives funding from the HSE's social inclusion fund. However, it has lodged an application to set up a service level agreement with the Department of Education and Skills through the Cork Education and Training Board. I would like to flag that with the witnesses. A lot of the people we are discussing today attend that facility. It is only fair that they receive funding and resources similar to what would be received by a mainstream school. The centre does fantastic work.

Ms Mary Cregg

The Cork Life Centre does receive funding from the Department for non-pay purposes. It also receives some payment from the Department of further and higher education, research, innovation and science for pay expenses. We are aware of that centre.

I would like to echo the point made by Deputy O'Sullivan. The Cork Life Centre is an incredible organisation. An excellent documentary was made on the centre not long ago. I appreciate that some funding is provided, but there are constant questions about the sustainability of the service. It was previously supported by the Christian Brothers and that is not so much the case any more. I hope the Department will consider the question of the centre's sustainability. We might return to that issue.

My question is for Mr. Ward. I raised this earlier but I am not sure I explained it right. My point concerned ASD units attached to mainstream schools. I understand that in the context of Covid-19, some schools are incorrectly telling families that children must either be placed in the unit or in a mainstream class. The unit and the class are not being integrated as they previously would have been. The motives for this approach might be justifiable in light of Covid-19, but it is not in the best educational interests of the children. As I understand it, this is not the guidance of the Department or the NCSE. Can the Department officials comment on whether this has come to their attention? Is there any solution to it?

Finally, I note that additional SNAs are provided for in the budget. That is very welcome. There has been talk of rolling out the new allocation model. Are there plans for further consultation on the allocation model? There are some stakeholders who have their reservations.

Mr. Eddie Ward

I may have misunderstood the Deputy's earlier question about integration. In the context of Covid-19, the Department's objective is for every child to have an educational experience that is as near to normal as possible while taking account of the constraints imposed by the pandemic. These constraints concern social distancing, hygiene etc.

The guidance indicates that integration should continue subject to those constraints. However, it is recognised that integration may have to be limited in some situations. The idea is to keep the child within the same group of students all the time. We are trying to avoid mixing between groups. It is very difficult to be hard and fast about this, because we must take account of the context of a specific school, its size and what is possible there. However, we do not think it is appropriate for a child in an ASD unit not to have an opportunity to be integrated with his or her peers for some part of the day in the normal way.

Regarding SNAs, it is the Department's policy to move towards the introduction of the front-loading model in the next academic year. We have taken a step towards it this year. Allocations have been frozen. We will be talking to the partners about how to progress this again.

I have one question. In my view, home tuition should be the very last resort where education is concerned. As has rightly been said, the different aspects of school life, including socialisation and integration, are hugely important. I appreciate from what has been said here that we are moving in a different direction where restricted timetables are concerned. That is very welcome. However, we have found that restricted timetables have offered absolutely no access to home tuition whatsoever. As such, children were doubly and trebly disadvantaged. We are absolutely hoping that in the main, restricted timetables will not happen. If they are introduced, for whatever reason, will there be access to home tuition, even if the timetable only applies for a short period of time? It is important to explore that.

Mr. Eddie Ward

Home tuition is generally made available. It is what we call "compensatory education". In the Department's view, it in no way equates to the full experience of being taught in a school, to which a child is entitled. It is meant to be a short-term interim measure. The only people who will undergo home tuition for the long term are those with extreme mental or physical medical conditions. The other category in receipt of home tuition will be children awaiting a suitable school place.

We see the reduced timetable as a very short-term measure. The whole purpose of the guidelines is to allow schools to reduce timetables in appropriate circumstances but to ensure that the measure is time-bound, with a particular goal in mind and opportunity for regular review. If the reduction lasts beyond a certain length of time it effectively becomes a suspension and can be appealed. There is no get-out clause here. This will not replace a child's entitlement to a full education. It can be used as part of an overall strategy, with the goal of integrating the child into the school on a full-time basis.

I accept what Mr. Ward is saying and I hope none of those situations arises. However, if one did arise, even for a short-term period of one week or two weeks, the child should have the opportunity to access some kind of educational support to ensure he or she does not lag behind. I ask the Department to take that point on board.

Does the Department have any figures for the number of children that have been suspended for behavioural issues?

Mr. Eddie Ward

I do not, but I know the Tusla educational welfare services publish data on this.

I will check that. Is there anything else Mr. Ward or Ms Cregg would like to add?

Mr. Eddie Ward

No.

I thank both of the witnesses for coming in today and for being very frank in their replies. I thank all of the committee members for their co-operation. At our next meeting we will discuss the Estimates for the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of higher education.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.09 p.m. until 11.30 a.m. on Thursday, 22 October 2020.