Key Priorities and the Effects of Covid-19 on the Education System: Department of Education

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Foley, the Minister of State with special responsibility for special needs and inclusion, Deputy Madigan, and the officials from the Department. The Minister and the Minister of State may call on their officials to speak briefly for clarification during the meeting where a specific or technical point arises. The officials can clarify issues for the committee. Any follow-up questions should be put to the Minister or the Minister of State because they are the accountable persons before the committee. I am aware that a wide range of issues will be the subject of discussion today. If necessary, further and more detailed information on certain issues raised can be sent to the clerk of the committee for circulation to members. The committee and I want to assist the witnesses in every possible way to ensure that this meeting is beneficial for members and witnesses and that we have a good and productive session.

I ask officials to note that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their presentations to the committee. This means they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they say at the meeting. However, they are expected not to abuse this privilege and it is my duty as Chairman to ensure that this privilege is not abused. If their statements, therefore, are potentially defamatory in regard to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction.

I now ask the witnesses to brief the committee on the key priorities of the Department, specifically regarding: the effect of Covid-19 on special needs provision; educational disadvantage; classroom sizes and current pupil-teacher ratios; children and mental health; the 2020 leaving certificate calculated grades and the 2021 leaving certificate preparations; digital learning; ensuring that schools are open in a safe and sustainable way and the circumstances around the recall of hand sanitising products from some schools. The format of the meeting will be that I will invite the witnesses to make brief opening statements, which will be followed by questions from members of the committee. Each member will have six minutes and that will include the reply from the Minister, the Minister of State or both. I will cut off contributions after six minutes, and I ask that any further information then be forwarded to the clerk of the committee. As the witnesses will probably be aware, the committee will publish the opening statements on its website following today's meeting.

Before we begin, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. The meeting will conclude at 3.35 p.m.

I ask the other witnesses to turn on their cameras now and ensure that they are available so that the members will know who they are.

I invite the Minister, Deputy Foley, to make her opening statement.

I thank the committee for its invitation to appear before it. I am joined by the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, as well as a number of departmental officials who can help support our engagement.

Last Thursday was my first appearance before the select committee and there was discussion about splitting the financial allocations between my Department and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. In addition, officials of my Department appeared as witnesses before this committee on the subject of the leaving certificate and I am sure we will touch on these matters again today.

The programme for Government sets out immediate priorities for the Department of Education and, on taking up my role as Minister, the Government moved quickly to achieve the reopening of the school sector, to provide an expanded summer programme for eligible students and to complete the calculated grades process to issue results and allow the 2020 leaving certificate students to progress.

We have hit significant milestones since the publication of the programme for Government. We have seen over 12,000 students with special education needs avail of this year’s summer programme and 9,000 avail of the summer programme for Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, both significantly ahead of previous years; had almost 1 million students and nearly 100,000 school staff return to their classrooms, playgrounds and school campuses in late August and early September; issued calculated grade results to over 60,000 students, allowing this year’s leaving certificate cohort to progress to the next stage of their lives; and reached agreement with the representatives of school secretaries and caretakers on an understanding for a pathway to progress the issues before the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, comprising several key strands. There is continued engagement with stakeholders and enhanced support responding to the needs of our school communities. Schools successfully returned following the mid-term break against a backdrop of level 5 restrictions being in place and yesterday, 16 November, the leaving certificate 2020 examinations began.

The Government’s commitment to education has been underlined by this year’s budget for the Department of Education, which is just short of €9 billion. This budget will facilitate key actions, such as a reduction in the average pupil-teacher ratio at primary level from 26:1 to 25:1; increased numbers of special needs assistants, SNAs; continued Covid-19 financial supports for schools, with €232 million provided in 2021 for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year; and a significant capital programme of over €740 million into 2021.

What has been achieved since July is a testament to the hard work and dedication of everyone in the schools system and in our school communities across the country. We could take it for granted, but it is worth acknowledging that we are all working differently now from in previous years and currently living and working under level 5 restrictions. In a world that feels so different in many ways from the previous normal, the benefits to the students and wider school communities of having classroom learning functioning as normally as possible can be seen as a signal of hope for society as a whole. Decisions taken by the Government have been taken to support school communities, and while all concerned can be justifiably proud of what has been achieved we have to meet the challenges that continue to be faced. We are best placed to meet those challenges by continuing to engage with each other and bringing our different perspectives, but with a common goal in mind. We have seen tremendous flexibility and responsiveness across the system.

The Department is in ongoing discussion and engagement with the partners in education and school communities. In response to concerns raised by education partners relating to contact tracing and the public health response to positive cases in schools, my Department and the Department of Health have put in place enhanced schools teams. These are dedicated resources and supports for school leaders where a positive case of Covid-19 has been identified. These teams are led by public health professionals and are further supported by members of my Department.

I appreciate that this is a challenging time for all in the school community, staff and students alike. The Department has sought to bolster well-being supports through a number of initiatives. While much support has been provided to support teacher well-being through Spectrum.Life and other departmental support services, it was agreed that additional support for school leader well-being might be valued and a focus is being brought to this area now by the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, with the professional development service for teachers, PDST, and teacher education centres.

While most students are happy to be back at school, some students have experienced anxiety and concern regarding Covid-19. For this reason, the Department has created 17 additional NEPS psychologist posts for schools as well as 120 whole-time equivalent guidance counsellor positions. NEPS psychologists have been asked to support with reluctant school attendance behaviour, although the number of cases emerging is fewer than had been initially anticipated. NEPS psychologists are also focusing on supporting the inclusion and participation of children with special and additional needs through their casework and consultation service. Furthermore, a well-being toolkit has been provided to teachers as further support with user-friendly materials to promote student well-being in the classroom.

Today’s engagement with the committee is particularly timely given that the Department is currently engaged in consultation towards the development of a three-year statement of strategy for 2021 to 2023. The strategy will be accompanied by an annual work programme which will contain significant actions against which we can measure our progress. A wide range of submissions and responses have been received, including from the general public, key stakeholders and other Departments. Our new statement of strategy will build on the long-term strategic priorities for primary and post-primary education in the context of a fundamentally altered operating environment due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We will continue to manage the pace and sequence of change in partnership and consultation with key stakeholders.

The priorities set out in the programme for Government closely reflect these longer-term strategic priorities, including improving standards of teaching, learning and assessment, inclusion and meeting the needs of those at risk of educational disadvantage and continuously improving the quality of the learning experience and outcomes for all learners. I would welcome the committee's views on these priorities, which can help to feed into the work on the statement of strategy. I look forward to the discussion with committee members on these and other matters.

To follow up on the Minister's statement, I acknowledge all the work of the school principals, as well as the work of the Minister, the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and the departmental officials, in getting schools reopened. It is important that they remain open.

I too acknowledge the great work being done in schools by teachers, school leaders, boards of management and everybody involved. I wish to discuss the testing and tracing. Can the Minister confirm that the school principals are being told not to tell anybody when somebody tests positive, including the teacher who is teaching that child? Teachers tell me they are being told to switch off the apps on their telephones because they are deemed by the app to be a close contact or else they are told to leave their telephones at home. Does the Minister agree with this? What does the tracing entail for schools? What duration or proximity is being looked at in terms of somebody being a close contact?

In recent weeks, the development of school teams has been a significant positive development in the school system. It is a recognition of the invaluable work that is conducted by the public health sector, but it also offers an opportunity to public health teams to be supported by staff in the Department of Education. That is in response to requests to be supportive of public health. In terms of any adjudication of a case within a school or a child or a member of staff being impacted by Covid-19, that adjudication is strictly and only conducted by public health and nobody else. There is-----

Are principals being told not to tell the teachers, including the teacher who is teaching the child in the class? Is the Minister concerned that it is creating an ethos of secrecy not only in the school but also in the community, where there are vacuums of information that are then being filled by untruths or inaccurate information?

It is very important that any decisions relating to public health in the school sector or in wider society are made by public health professionals. For that reason, and with the support of the partners in education, school teams are public-health led. No adjudication as regards what should happen in the school environment is being placed on the shoulders of any school principal or member of the management of a school. It is important that the expertise and professionalism of those in public health are utilised. It is not appropriate for the Department of Education or anyone in the public sector to tell public health how to do its job. Those people do their job because they are the experts in the area of public health. That is what is happening in every sector in society and I would not expect it to be done differently in the school environment.

The Minister does not see it as a problem in the school where all the responsibility is left on the shoulders of the principal being told to keep it secret and not to tell even the teacher involved.

Obviously the teacher involved would be a close contact of the student. What if that teacher shared a household with high-risk family members? Is it right that they are not told they are a close contact of the student involved?

With all due respect to the Deputy, the expertise that rests with public health means that we accept the adjudication of public health. That is what we do in every environment and I expect that that would be the same in the school environment. I reiterate that at no stage did any principal or member of school management wish to have the burden of making a public health adjudication placed upon them. For that reason, it is public health making the adjudication and no-one else within the school environment. That is practised everywhere so it is practised in schools.

Does the Minister therefore think it is right that teachers are told to switch off their phones? Who is telling them to switch off their phones so that they are not continuously bleeping if there are students within the school with confirmed cases? Neither I nor the Minister would be told to switch off our apps. Is it right they are being told to switch them off, that they are not a close contact or that they are not given the information that may affect their own lives, health and well-being?

It is my understanding that public health have said the app is one tool they use. When a situation arises in a school, however, they come to the school and evaluate the entire situation and make a judgment. They utilise everything and all information that is at their disposal, including the app.

How quickly then, are teachers being told of close contacts within the school?

As quickly and as soon as the adjudication has been completed by public health within the school. I must say again that the development of the school teams has hugely facilitated and expedited the manner in which-----

However it is only the principal who is told. He or she is then told not to tell the teacher who is the person in closest contact. Is that right?

To be fair-----

I just want to get clarity, that is all.

I am giving the Deputy that clarity. The decisions on public health and what should and should not operate within a school are made by public health and only by public health. That was the process agreed by the partners in education and is the agreed process both in school and outside the school environment. I believe that that is what is happening elsewhere and it is what should happen in schools as well. Public health has the experience, the expertise and the professionalism and it is appropriate that they would make the decisions as regards-----

Thus the Minister agreed to that, as Minister for Education. She agreed that teachers would not be told.

I agreed to public health being the ones that make the determination within schools, as they are making them elsewhere in society.

The ethos of secrecy within the schools is putting principals, parents and teachers in an impossible situation. I ask that the Minister look at that to see if there is a better way of doing it, notwithstanding data protection and the protection of the individual students involved. We need to look again at how it is done.

It is unclear to me whether the Deputy is suggesting that all decisions on public health be made by school principals and management. At no stage did I think that was appropriate and at no stage did school principals and management ask to have that burden placed upon them. It was always accepted that adjudications on Covid-19 would have to be made by those who are expert in that field. It is happening elsewhere therefore it is happening in schools. I am not clear about what the Deputy is actually asking-----

I am saying it is a huge burden on principals-----

I am going to have to curtail the Deputy; she has got leniency of a little over a minute.

I call Senator Dolan.

I welcome the Minister and Minister of State and thank the Minster for her update this morning. I wish the over 2,500 leaving certificate students sitting the written exams well. It is fantastic. I wish the same to 60,000 students who received calculated grades.

I pay tribute to the Minister and Minister of State, the Department, teachers and parents for coming together and getting over 1 million students back to school, it is phenomenal. In my own area of east County Galway and County Roscommon I have spoken to principals and teachers and am aware that there is anxiety, particularly about overcrowding. On the 25:1 pupil-teacher ratio in schools, if I am correct we are looking at over 1,065 teachers being hired and of those 400 will be in special education. How many of those teachers are in place or what is the timeline for when they will be? I am aware of another challenge from our own school out in Creagh, near Ballinasloe. It has 28 to 29 pupils per classroom. Where is the space going to be found for these students and teachers? We in Ballinasloe are the only ones in County Galway with a primary school at DEIS level 1. The pupil-teacher ratio change did not apply to DEIS schools. They have a lower ratio to begin with but will these schools be considered for the support and help they need, especially when dealing with children with high levels of complex needs?

On disadvantage, community and support groups across the country are seeing a huge need for food packs to families. I am particularly interested in the school meals programme. I am aware that this is cross-departmental and involves the Department of Social Protection as well as the social inclusion unit of the Department of Education. What steps are being taken here? I am thinking in particular of secondary schools in DEIS areas or Pobal deprivation areas that are seeing huge need from their students for lunches, breakfasts and so on.

Principals are at breaking point. The Minister mentioned teacher well-being and well-being supports in her opening statement. I am very happy to see that. What other administrative supports are being put in place to support principals in this really stressful and challenging time?

I ask also about the roll-out of the school inclusion project.

The Senator is correct that there is a reduced pupil-teacher ratio in the DEIS system and we have reduced the ordinary pupil-teacher ratio this year. At DEIS band 1, where it is currently at 24:1, it will reduce by one to 23:1. On the junior and the vertical schools, it is at 20:1 on the junior level and at 22:1 on the vertical level. As I confirmed last week, a package of measures is being put in place for DEIS schools and consideration of a reduction will also apply there. The finer detail of that entire DEIS package will be announced imminently. I cannot give a specific date but we are working on that.

That is good news.

The Senator is quite correct that the school meals programme is to be extended this year. It is a cross-departmental initiative with the Department of Social Protection. It is a programme of which I am a huge fan. I am hugely supportive of getting the maximum roll-out and take-up of it.

On teacher well-being, considerable resources have been put in place to acknowledge the burden that has been placed, as the Senator mentioned, on principals in the first instance. For that reason an additional day is being provided for teaching principals. There are other measures in place. Spectrum.Life has been employed to offer resources and support to teachers on the ground. We are also working towards a webinar that will facilitate school leaders. I should acknowledge that in excess of 17,000 members of school communities engaged in a previous health and well-being webinar. That is a facility that is available to the entire school community, not just one particular sector.

The Senator raised the impact of the reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio on school facilities. I am very conscious of that but there has been a huge push toward the reduction of the ratio because it can only advantage the pupils and indeed the staff as well. There is a very substantial build programme moving ahead this year in spite of Covid. There will be €740 million spent on additional accommodation. Substantial work was already done in schools by school communities in terms of accessing additional space within the school, which is terrific. The minor works grant facilitated quite an amount of that and another allocation of €55 million, split between primary and secondary schools, will be made towards the end of December.

I am conscious of the need for additional accommodation. We are working towards that. It is very positive that we will be looking at a reduced pupil-teacher ratio.

The Minister of State, Deputy Josepha Madigan, might like to take the question on the school inclusion model.

I will be very brief. Special schools have an enhanced pupil-teacher ratio. There are about three medical special schools attached to child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS. There are 114 schools for children with special needs.

Regarding the school inclusion model, the World Health Organization has always said that schools are best placed to have an inclusive education model because they already have a management structure in place. This is the very first budget in which we are in a position to roll the model out nationally. We ran a pilot in two community health organisation areas. We will now be in a position to implement the model in three. This is a tailored wraparound suite of therapeutic supports for children with special needs, including occupational therapists, speech and language therapists and crisis behaviour practitioners. It is really about putting the child at the centre of education.

I welcome the Minister and the Minister of State. We heard from them last week. They are becoming regular features here. I will use my time productively. There are four or five issues on which I would like to touch base. Talking about an ethos of secrecy in schools is not helpful or welcome. We all know this is a difficult time for schools, principals and people working in schools. Rather than using my time to point fingers or pigeonhole people, I would like to make a much broader contribution.

First, we unanimously welcome the reopening of schools. In other parts of the world schools and schoolchildren are not as fortunate. That must be pointed out at every opportunity.

I would like to discuss IT in schools. In my 15 years as a teacher I found that broadband or internet capacity varied greatly from one school to another. We have to consider rolling out community broadband initiatives in our schools against the worst-case scenario of further difficulties because of Covid-19 next year. I would welcome the Minister's comment on the possibility of community broadband initiatives based in schools. I know broadband has already been rolled out in some schools.

I welcome the news on school secretaries. Many in my own party have championed this issue. Could the Minister comment on pay and conditions for SNAs? Will that be addressed in the coming years?

I refer also to the school building programme. The additional funding for capital programmes is very welcome. It highlights a degree of ambition. The education and training board in my constituency of Cork North-Central acknowledges that we are in need of another school in suburban east Cork. I will use this opportunity to mention once again St. Gabriel's Special School, which I mentioned last week. The board of management there has a new chairman. People from the Department of Education need to go down there as a matter of urgency and see the conditions for themselves.

Like previous speakers, I would like to refer to the pupil-teacher ratio. Our greatest tool in the battle against Covid-19 is keeping class numbers down. Consideration should be given to employing teachers on temporary or part-time contracts for the duration of Covid-19 if doing so could further reduce the pupil-teacher ratio. If a package of additional funding for schools in the DEIS programme is being formulated, I hope that will considered as a short-term measure.

Finally, I must mention school transport again. This is my hobby horse. The Minister said last week that the terms of reference of a review are being drawn up. I want to keep this on the agenda and I hope the Department will follow through on that front. I would appreciate any comment on this matter.

I thank the Deputy. He asked about the provision of IT and other services to schools. The positive news is that our schools are up and running and have remained open even under level 5 restrictions. Notwithstanding that, there is absolutely a requirement for investment in IT. The last five years have seen investment of more than €210 million. This year two tranches of €50 million have been paid out. The last tranche will be issued near the end of the year.

Connectivity in our schools is recognised as hugely important. Some 700 of our primary schools are involved in the national broadband plan. We are trying to roll that out as expeditiously as possible. I refer also to the successful schools connect programme. There is a body of work to be done on connectivity. We are hugely determined to ensure it is rolled out as quickly as possible. High-speed broadband is available in all our second level schools and is being utilised very well. I take the Deputy's comments on board.

Developments on the school building programme are very positive. An investment of more than €740 million is envisaged. We are looking at a variety of projects for next year, 200 of which are to be completed by the end of 2021. A further 145 will begin by mid-July.

The Deputy spoke about teachers and Covid-19. We have made huge efforts to adapt to the environment in which we are living, particularly in schools. The substitution scheme has been rolled out and the substitution panels have worked very well. Further detail on DEIS schools will be made available in the next week or two.

I know school transport is a huge issue for the Deputy and his constituency. We have secured substantial funding to ensure the roll-out of transport at 50% capacity, which will cost approximately €100 million. The review will be a milestone. As the Deputy notes, its terms of reference are being drawn up. We are looking to move that forward. I appreciate that there is a huge body of work to be done on school transport.

Last week the Deputy mentioned the prospect of a new special school in Cork. As I mentioned to the Deputy last week, discussions are ongoing with the Cope Foundation, the patron of Scoil Aislinn. Several building projects in Cork are being re-examined for any potential capacity. That process is ongoing.

Discussions with Fórsa on SNAs are ongoing. If there any issues they will be resolved through those talks.

The Minister is very welcome. I wish to raise a few issues. I will speed through them and give the Minister as much time as possible to respond. In my interactions with schools and school principals I find there is a certain exhaustion in the system. The Minister will appreciate that they are working very hard to keep going and keep the schools open. There is an argument for a long Christmas break, perhaps ending school on December 18. I would like to get the reaction to that. I know that a huge amount of work would have to be done on childcare and consultation with education partners. Is the Minister minded to consider an elongated Christmas break, with schools closed for an extra two days over Christmas?

On the topic of SNAs, I would like to ask about the 72-hour requirement. There is a controversial suggestion that SNAs will have to fulfil their requirement for 72 non-contact hours on-site. That is quite questionable practice during a pandemic. Does the Minister have a view on that? I know a letter was sent from the Department to principals last week. Considering the nature of the pandemic it would be strange if SNAs were asked to spend more time on-site than absolutely necessary.

Last week, the Minister said the issue pertaining to the DEIS pupil-teacher ratio, PTR, would be addressed imminently, and she used that phrase again today. Will she move to a situation where any reduction in the PTR would automatically transfer to DEIS schools and that it would not have to come through a separate process?

I would like to get a sense of the expansion of the free books scheme which, in fairness, the Minister has rolled out. There was an announcement that there was potential for 50 schools to benefit and the Minister has doubled that to 102. That is extremely welcome, and something that we support. Is there ambition for a further free book scheme where, after a time, we might mirror what happens in Northern Ireland?

The expansion of second level places in expanding areas is a constituency issue for me. There are caps in newly established second level schools in what I might broadly call the Dublin 13 area, which has had a huge expansion of population and where there is potentially 15,000 of a new population in the area. There is a cap in place on newly established second level schools. Can that be investigated so that second level schools, whether newly established or existing, can expand their places because it is becoming a big pinch point and a problem in the system?

I acknowledge, as has the Deputy, the huge body of work which has been conducted by all members of the school community, principals, teachers, SNAs, school secretaries, caretakers, boards of management, students and everyone who has contributed so positively to ensure our schools opened and stay open at level 5. In recognition of that, every effort has been made to support school leaders, as I mentioned earlier, with additional days offered, well-being supports with Spectrum.Life and school teams, which was a specific issue that was raised, as well as other issues which were raised. Notwithstanding that, I appreciate a great deal of work has been undertaken daily in schools.

On additional holidays, I am mindful that the school calendar has been agreed and parents are aware of it and have made necessary arrangements based on it. I am also very conscious that time has been missed during the year during the lockdown. We are working very hard to ensure there is no repeat of that time being lost and that it does not become a feature of this school year. I am conscious of the public health advice which tells us that students are much better served in school. Students have been disadvantaged when they are not in school. Schools, nationally and internationally, are very safe environments in terms of Covid-19. For those reasons and others, while I appreciate the goodwill with which the Deputy is making the suggestion, I will follow the public health advice at this time that things are operating well within our schools.

I appreciate the Deputy acknowledging the free books scheme. It is an initiative that I would like to see rolled out as much and as widely as possible. It has huge potential and that we have doubled it is testament to that. I acknowledge that DEIS is a particular area of interest to the Deputy and he has raised it consistently. I did use the phrase "imminently" last week but that was only on Thursday and today is Tuesday.

That is fair enough.

I am trying to move as quickly as I can but I assure the Deputy that all those considerations are uppermost in my mind. The package of DEIS supports will be announced in the not-too-distant future.

The Minister of State will probably wish to speak on the SNAs but I want to acknowledge the clarification issued on that. As I have said in other forums, the contribution of SNAs to the school environment and everything we seek to achieve in schools is invaluable. I say that here and everywhere and I acknowledge that. What issued was clarification on what the Deputy referred to as 72 hours, or the 12 days as they were originally in 2005. This was an arrangement that was agreed to and signed up to in 2005 and was modified under the Croke Park agreement and so on in 2011. There was no change in work practice and nothing new or extra was added in these duties. I want to be clear that no one should be or is being asked to perform anything extra or anything outside of what was agreed and signed up to as a duty.

I think the Minister has answered that adequately. I have previously expressed my appreciation for the valuable work that SNAs do, which I reiterate today. To be clear on the use of the 72 hours, it should be pupil-centred activities such as assistance with care planning, learning resource administration such as preparing classrooms and materials, class and school planning and development and assistance with special examination centres for State examinations and training. They are the duties and obviously, there are ongoing discussions with Fórsa as well.

I reiterate the importance of fair treatment for DEIS schools. I have sent petitions which came from DEIS schools in County Laois to the Minister's office. They are concerned and want to ensure that they are also included in class size reductions. We must be fair across the board. I sincerely hope that the package to be announced will include reductions in class size.

I welcome the Minister's remarks on improving inclusion and supporting those at risk of disadvantage. I acknowledge that a lot of very good work is being done in this area. Are there plans to reinstate the disadvantage committee, which was set up under the Education Act 1998? It was a fantastic committee. It did great work and was great value for money. I did research on this and introduced a Bill some years ago seeking its reinstatement. It did a lot of work around the DEIS initiatives. If we had this model, we could do more to build on what has already been done to prevent people being trapped in a cycle of disadvantage and ensuring that every child and student in the State reaches his or her full potential, as outlined in the Education Act.

The Minister spoke of well-being supports and mentioned additional supports for school leaders. I seek some clarity and information in this regard. What exactly are these supports?

The points raised by the Deputy and others on DEIS schools are very much to the forefront of the package that will be announced in the coming days or weeks. All aspects of DEIS provision are being considered. I want to acknowledge and be clear that there is already a reduced pupil-teacher ratio. It is very significant and important that it be there but it exists already in the DEIS schools. There are 887 schools in the DEIS programme serving 20% of the school population. In the 2020 programme, €120 million was spent on DEIS initiatives and on supporting the programme. I am a great supporter of all the tremendous work that is being done in the DEIS schools, which I acknowledge.

I will keep an open mind on the disadvantage committee. I can discuss that with Deputy Nolan again.

Regarding the additional well-being supports that are being offered, I am conscious of the need for such supports for the entire school community and the school leadership specifically, which is the matter the Deputy raised. One of the first initiatives in that regard was to acknowledge the amount of work being done in schools and the need for assistance to be offered to principals. This involved the establishment of school teams to take on any additional workload that schools believed had been placed on their shoulders. A public health webinar is being set up for school leaders, as is a well-being webinar. Additional days have been made available to schools, particularly for teaching principals. I acknowledge the work being done by Spectrum.Life for the entire school community, not just school leaders. We are conscious of the need to be as supportive as we can. In a normal environment, the work of school leaders and school communities is difficult and challenging. That is even more the case in a Covid-19 environment. We are working with the educational partners and we are keen to meet needs as they arise. For that reason, we are providing additional supports - not just well-being supports, but also workload supports. Did I miss any questions?

Regarding DEIS, there should be an announcement within the next fortnight.

Special education schools have benefited, but has any further work been done on setting up a multidisciplinary approach whereby occupational therapists would be based on school sites?

Yes. As I told Senator Dolan, the interim evaluation report that we received on the school inclusion model pilot was advantageous and showed that children had improved listening skills and competence and had reached most of their targets. We are now rolling out the model to additional community healthcare organisation, CHO, areas. We hope to do the entire nine CHOs over a period of approximately three years. It will be a revolutionary change and experience for children with special needs because they will have occupational therapists and access to speech and language therapists and behaviour and crisis practitioners. This will complement, rather than be in lieu of, the services that they obtain from the HSE. It will be exciting for children with special needs.

I thank the Minister and Minister of State for their responses.

I welcome the Minister and Minister of State and thank them for attending. I welcome that there will shortly be an announcement on DEIS band 1 junior and vertical schools. The senior level was taken into account and saw a reduction, as the Minister outlined. It is important to mention that, given that many members have missed that information in some of their comments at this meeting. I look forward to the announcement and I hope to see a reduction in class sizes.

Last week, I raised a matter in respect of which I was not sure what was happening. We know from the calculated grades that the results gap between DEIS and non-DEIS schools reduced. Will the Minister outline what steps are being taken to ensure that we do not lose that reduction in future leaving certificates?

I have received many emails outlining concerns about a smaller number of ASD classes at second level compared with primary level. Will the Minister of State comment on this matter? Will there be a move to increase numbers?

Was the issue of extended breaks raised by Deputy Ó Ríordáin? I apologise - everyone is forgetting his name.

I do not know how I could. I do not agree with the proposal for an additional break of two days. I do not see much benefit in it in terms of stopping the pandemic. It has been clearly shown that children are benefiting from returning to school. I would argue that some children would benefit more from being at home, but that is my background. We need to be honest with ourselves and say that, although school is fantastic and children are delighted to be back, it is also a form of childcare and there are many people who do not want their children to take any more days off school. It is a benefit to workers. That is my view on the matter, which I wanted to share with the Minister and Minister of State. They might revert to me on the issues of calculated grades and ASD classes.

Many people have contacted me, particularly those who are sitting exams currently, who feel a little like they were collateral damage and that much of the conversation has been about how most people were not downgraded but instead saw an increase in their grades compared with previous years. There are those who feel that, because they were in classes of high-achieving young people, they were unfairly downgraded. Does the Minister agree with their belief that they were collateral damage and that they need to be part of the conversation?

Regarding the November exams facility, I do not accept that anyone in the system was collateral damage at any stage. In the midst of a pandemic, to have a facility for in excess of 60,000 students to receive grades - calculated grades in this instance - and provide them a pathway to move forward in whatever direction they chose was significant. I acknowledge the co-operation of all involved who made that a reality. However, it is important that there be a facility to afford people the opportunity to take written exams in November. It was available for them if they chose to take it up. They were also free to choose not to take it up. Approximately 2,500 are availing of the facility. Whichever of the calculated and written exam grades is the best is the one they will be awarded. Having both options available was important to students.

We in the Green Party did not believe the exams should be cancelled. While I appreciate that the Minister and the Department did their best in the situation they were presented with, some people believe that they were downgraded and that that is not getting into the public narrative.

To reiterate, there is an opportunity to take written exams. I have worked in the sector for many years, so I say this in good faith - some people are happy with their results in particular subjects but unhappy with others. Unfortunately, that can happen. In this instance where calculated grades existed, that there was a further facility to take a written exam was important. We are providing that facility now, so the option is open to everyone. I will take this opportunity to wish everyone who is taking written exams the best of luck.

I appreciate the argument and view expressed by Deputy Ó Ríordáin but, for all of the reasons I have already outlined, it is not our intention to extend the Christmas break. I am mindful of the importance of children being in school. We have articulated that every step of the way.

That is why we have worked so hard, even in the midst of level 5 restrictions, to ensure that the schools are open. Notwithstanding the case that has been made by Deputy Ó Ríordáin, it is important that schools finish out their time. On DEIS band 1, I appreciate Senator O'Reilly reiterating that the pupil-teacher ratio has already been reduced from 24:1 to 23:1, and we will look at other measures as part of the DEIS package. On supports that have been put in place for DEIS schools, since the Senator was talking about bridging the gap, tremendous support has been made available to DEIS schools and we are working positively to enhance that.

Normally in new primary schools, there are at least two special classes and in post-primary schools, there are between two and four special classes. We have approximately 1,600 special classes in the country. That is a high figure when compared with 548 such classes in 2011. Of the 200 school projects that we have at present, 116 will have autism spectrum disorder units, five of which will be in Galway, where Senator O'Reilly comes from. The NCSE meets the Department every week to discuss forecasting and ensure that we always have enough places.

I want to pick up on something Deputy Ó Ríordáin said. He might get a vote of confidence from my son for giving him an extra day but he will not get it from my daughter.

I want to address two areas of concern. I acknowledge the significant contribution that principals, school management, teachers and the Department have made to get schools open and keep them open. I acknowledge the investment the Government has made both during the summer and more recently, with significant additional resources provided.

I raise one matter in schooling which Covid has highlighted, which is the digital divide and the difficulties students are having with online learning because their computer technology is not up to scratch. Some schools are, unfortunately, not in the position they could be in with regard to computer technology. I wanted to touch on that and on resources for students who are perhaps non-neurotypical with conditions such as developmental co-ordination disorder, dyspraxia or dyslexia, as well as the availability of supports for them at primary and secondary level.

I also raise the issue of anxiety, which was mentioned by a colleague in the course of our hearing. Anxiety places a significant strain on students. I have lost count of the number of parents who have come to me citing anxiety in their children, particularly at second level, and the effects that that may have on them and the learning environment that they are in. The Department needs to co-ordinate to have more psychologists available. The Minister referred to this. The Department might take simple, logical steps to provide an allocation of an educational psychologist to schools with autism spectrum disorder units. Children who are not in ASD units but in mainstream schools could have more ready access to such psychologists and mental health supports. As the Minister is undoubtedly aware and I am sure most Members of the House know, the difficulty of accessing those services is ever-present. Those questions about digital matters and anxiety are for both the Minister and Minister of State.

I accept the importance of well-being and anxiety being addressed in the school environment, both for students and the wider community in the schools. I have already referred to some supports that are available to the wider school community. On well-being for our students, the Deputy is quite correct. As I said, 120 additional guidance counsellor posts have been allocated. That is important and brings the number up to the 2011 benchmark. The value of having guidance hours available in the school is unquantifiable. I am personally aware of how well that works in the schools. I am pleased that we have made those 120 posts available.

Some 17 additional NEPS psychologist posts have been made available to support the work of schools. There are 221 full-time equivalent posts in the schools, so there are approximately 250 people.

I have a supplementary question now that the Minister raises that point. Has she analysed regional disparities for those supports across the country?

It is interesting that the Deputy raises the point because NEPS psychologists are currently surveying their work in schools. Their initial report concerns facilities available in schools and the attitude of students and how they are managing in the school system, especially in a Covid environment. They have covered almost 50% of schools. When all of those data are fully available, we will discuss it at greater length. I am conscious that we will have specific data available.

To follow on from what the Minister said, the budget had €1.2 million for educational psychologists. They were primarily recruited for children with special needs. Most of that money would be targeted at pupils with special educational needs. On the inclusion model, the NCSE can recruit therapists directly, so the HSE is not in a position to take any therapist from children who need help most. The Deputy mentioned distance learning. The home tuition scheme is valuable for children who are not in a position to attend school. There are 20 hours for children over the age of three and ten hours for children under the age of three. The July provision helped to significantly reduce regression, so that children could get back into the school environment. Any progress reports that they had were sent on to their teachers when they started school in September.

Will the Minister of State address the points that I made about digital supports for children with additional needs, notwithstanding what she said about the July provision?

Ultimately, the school has a designated teacher who will liaise with parents about distance learning to ensure that any technology that is required is provided. There is provision in the budget for those resources and the Department consistently takes those data to ensure that no child does not have access. The Deputy is right and if there is ever a pandemic again, we want to ensure that nobody is left out on a limb without access to technology to learn.

I thank the Minister of State.

I ask the Minister about the shock that fee-charging schools felt when the decision on the Covid package of supports to help schools to reopen safely emerged in August. I recall mentioning it to the Minister briefly when I met her in the corridor of Leinster House. I wrote about it in the Irish Independent at the time.

When it was decided to make a Covid package available, there was major surprise and concern among the fee-charging schools when it emerged that they were to be excluded from the payments. There was a subsequent partial concession to their pleas, with such schools being allowed to apply for the grants but being judged on a case-by-case basis. I understand that this involved a lot of paperwork wherein the schools were required to show that they could not find the resources otherwise. Even where they submitted a financial case there was no transparency about the decision criteria. The sense among the schools was that this was a decision that came from within the Civil Service that reflected a negative attitude to fee-charging schools. An attitude in which the schools were seen as a problem as opposed to being seen as a sector involving many people who are not rich and make sacrifices to send their children to fee-charging schools and who end up saving the State money because those schools are funded to a lesser degree than are those in the non-charging sector. There was a particular sense of feeling wounded about the idea that this was about money intended for keeping children safe. People felt that if we are going to cherish all the children of the nation equally then we cannot have a situation where families of children in fee-paying schools are subsidising supports for everyone else's children with their own school of choice getting nothing at all. There was a real misstep here and the damage has not been remedied. Does the Minister agree?

In the first instance I want to make it very clear that I value the contribution of all within the education sector. We are a sector constituted of many parts and each part makes a hugely important, significant and valued contribution to the system of education as we know it in this country. I want to say that quite unequivocally. I do not for one minute accept that there was a view from the outset to exclude. I must point out that in the very first instance there is a staff salary grant for fee-charging schools in the normal run of things. For example, in the 2018 to 2019 year, in excess of €95 million was paid out in staff grants to fee-charging schools.

Specifically in relation to Covid-19 measures, I must point out that all of the fee-charging schools qualified for the same rate of support as was made available to the free schools in terms of the allocation of PPE and enhanced cleaning. The ratio of €51 per pupil was applied to all within the fee-charging school remit in the same way as it was applied to second-level schools in the free scheme. Equally, the ICT grant was given at a rate of 50% to the fee-charging schools. The Senator is correct about the minor works grant; all schools in the fee-charging scheme were invited to apply for that on the basis of need and where there was a need, a financial need, to meet any of the Covid-19 measures then that need was addressed. Thus, quite a substantial amount was done in relation to Covid-19 measures being made available.

I thank the Minister for her reply but there is still a widespread view in the sector that an injustice was done and that this decision was without precedent. They saw it as something of a stroke from within the Civil Service, to be respectfully honest with the Minister. They felt that while the fee-paying sector, as she rightly says, gets money in terms of the payment of teachers, they get a lot less. As this was in the context of children's safety, it went down extremely badly. Certainly people in that sector who I have been speaking to, including school managers, point out that many of the people who send their children to these schools are not wealthy and many of these schools operate on the basis of the fees they get enabling children who are less well-off to also attend those schools. I respect, and listened to, everything the Minister said but there is a lesson in what happened during the summer. It was not good and it left a bad taste which remains.

I will add to what I said because I really do not want any misinformation to go out about this. I want it to be abundantly clear, as I have already said to the Senator, that the same moneys that were allocated for PPE-----

-----and for enhanced cleaning were made available to the fee-charging schools Equally so for ICT grants and all of that-----

Yes, a 50% rate.

On the minor works and all of that, the Senator specifically referenced health and safety. In any instance where there was a case regarding health and safely in a Covid-19 environment and there was an inability to provide for that, that was absolutely provided for by the Department. Unquestionably.

However they had a higher threshold to meet when it came to proving it. One principal said that imposing all of this paperwork on them at a time when they were really struggling was unfair. At one point, they even said that giving people more work they can do can amount to workplace bullying. That was how it was felt. There was a lot of strong feeling.

I appreciate the case the Deputy is making but we have to be very clear here and say that there was no instance, absolutely none, where money was required to meet a health and safety issue in a fee-charging school that was not met by the Department. I am absolutely 100% adamant in saying that. I do not for a minute take away from what the Senator might reference about how people were discommoded by making an application or whatever. However, it is very important too that the Department had X amount of funding, the funding was managed and where there was a definite need in any school it was absolutely provided for. I wanted to say that because it is very important that that message also gets out there.

I thank the Minister.

I thank the Minister and Minister of State, who have been very generous with their time. We are becoming very used to them at this stage and might begin keeping seats permanently reserved for them.

My first point will be brief because it has been made before and I will not belabour it. It concerns the DEIS band schools. I echo the call that we ensure that the reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio is passed on to all such schools. I am very interested in seeing the package coming down the track for DEIS. Can the Minister provide the timeline for when we might see that?

I note the very good work with the July provision and the special educational needs, SEN, teams within schools who worked so hard during the first lockdown to maintain the connection between schools and children with special educational needs in particular. There was also the increase in NEPS psychologists announced in the budget. All of these are very welcome. I have a question on this however. Did the first lockdown have an impact on the throughput of assessments? We know that within schools teachers will begin the assessment process and that takes a good few months. In fact, it generally takes close to two years to move from the start of an assessment process to the end. Has there been any impact on the throughput of assessments and is there a backlog, seeing as the assessments presumably were not conducted over the closure period?

I raise home-school liaisons. It is an area that was affected by cuts during the last recession and it is very often the children in the most vulnerable communities who pay the price of that. This being the case, will the Minister comment on the increased provision of home-school liaisons?

Lastly, a sentence jumped out at me in the briefing document. It refers to "...the growing number of pupils who are self-isolating at home...". Do either the Minister or the Minster of State have figures available on that? Are we seeing a large increase in the number of children, presumably with underlying health conditions or with parents with such conditions, who are self-isolating at home? How are we tackling that in terms of blended learning? Is this putting an additional workload onto the classroom teachers? Are we looking at a situation where a teacher is delivering content during the day and then trying to deliver content in tandem in the evening time? How large an issue is that in numerical terms and what provision is in place to support teachers who may be having to deal with that issue?

I will begin with the Deputy's last question. Students who have been designated as very high risk are availing of an adapted education experience. That is really where they have worked in conjunction with the schools and where there is a designated person within the schools to provide for the needs of that student. That is as it should be and it is working quite well.

In terms of students who have not re-engaged for other reasons, initially, there was a view that given anxieties around Covid-19 and so forth, there might be a high uptake of students in that particular cohort. That, however, has actually not materialised. To give the Deputy a definite number on that, the Tusla education support service engaged with all schools and asked them to provide updated figures. Not all schools have done so. They had until around 16 November to have that completed. Up to this point, approximately 60% of schools have engaged with it so approximately 40% are outstanding. We will have better figures when the remaining schools make their returns and I will make those available to the Deputy.

I acknowledge the invaluable assistance and support provided by the home school community liaison service in liaising between education services, communities and families. The increased provision is important. I am conscious of that as part of the roll-out of the package of DEIS supports and, indeed, other aspects such as the educational welfare service, etc.

I acknowledge that a phenomenal service was provided by the Tusla education support service during lockdown, particularly in terms of targeting students who might have withdrawn their connection to the schools. I acknowledge that engagement was made with families and homework and materials were brought to homes.

Finally, the Deputy referenced the DEIS support and that will come as quickly as we can, certainly before Christmas.

I have forgotten Deputy Ó Cathasaigh's question.

I asked whether there is a backlog in terms of assessment.

I am aware that approximately 15,000 families avail of the home tuition scheme at a cost of approximately €19 million. As the Minister, Deputy Foley, alluded to, there is a designated teacher for very high-risk children who are at home and an amount of distance learning in that way. The schools have discretion to manage their resources. I believe that was everything the Deputy asked about.

I also asked whether there is any backlog in terms of assessment.

I will make one point on that. The HSE makes the assessments and one does not need an assessment to obtain an SNA within a school environment.

The Deputy raised the issue of early intervention. That is generally done through the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme and through the access and inclusion model. That should also continue. If there is any backlog, I am not aware of it. I believe significant supports have been given by the Department to try to alleviate any backlog.

I thank the Minister of State. The next speaker is Senator O'Loughlin.

My apologies for leaving the Chamber. I had been booked for a Commencement debate on education and was then told the Minister and the Minister of State would be at the education committee. I said I knew that because I was planning to attend this meeting. The Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, took the matter in the absence of the Minister, Deputy Foley. I was pressing the need for the new much-awaited and much-needed secondary school in the Newbridge area of County Kildare.

In terms of the issues we have to hand, first, I thank the Minister, Deputy Foley and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, for the incredible amount of work that has gone on since they took office. We saw that in the opening statement, not alone with the reopening of the school sector, but also in keeping classes open in the summer as part of the expanded summer programme and in the whole calculated grades process. It is quite significant. I still feel strongly about the agreement with Fórsa regarding school secretaries and caretakers and a pathway going forward with regard to therapy. That is hugely important.

I wish to raise a number of specific points. I thank all the school communities that have done incredible work with the extra help of the investment given by the Department. My first question involves the whole area of special needs provision, which I have also raised with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. Children in mainstream schools or special schools were enjoying the support of extra therapists, but unfortunately some of those therapists have been redeployed. In my area in County Kildare, I know that two full-time therapists and one part-time therapist were taken away to deal with assessment as opposed to the intervention that was needed at schools. That is regrettable. The Minister might comment on that.

I am aware the Minister spoke briefly about educational disadvantage. I welcome the fact that a review has been done with regard to those children who did not go back to school in September. From speaking to principals and teachers, it is sad and such a shame that children are missing out. That is a crucial point in terms of intervention. As somebody who always asks and talks about the importance of developing resilience, and supports our young people in terms of positive mental health, in one way, young people have developed a new form of resilience. I know, however, from conversations with students and their parents that young people are anxious and stressed, particularly those who are in sixth year. I am, therefore, also interested in knowing a little bit more about NEPS.

With regard to the complexities of the leaving certificate and calculated grades, etc., I am aware that the Minister, Deputy Foley, has made some arrangements for those taking the leaving certificate for 2021. More information needs to be given because students feel they are absolutely not going to cover all of their courses. I feel an intervention needs to be made on that.

The digital divide has been addressed here. Many schools have inadequate broadband capacity and we must bear in mind that young people self-isolating at home do not have access to what they need.

The last question reverts back to the leaving certificate. It is interesting to talk to students who are doing the leaving certificate this year. They actually prefer the calculated grades while teachers prefer to have the normal form. Are there any thoughts about the possibility of including more continuous assessment throughout the school year which would go hand in hand with exams at the end of the year?

The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, wishes to speak first.

I must pop out briefly so I will answer first, if that is okay. We have spoken a good bit about NEPS today. It has published a well-being resource, a toolkit and a webinar. We have 120 NEPS psychologists, who are obviously of assistance because the well-being of children, particularly those with special needs, is important. It is mostly targeted at those kinds of children.

The Senator mentioned the NCSE, which can directly recruit therapists now. Because we had an unprecedented pandemic, it was obviously the case that some HSE therapists were used for contact tracing and other issues. That, however, has since been resolved so at least the NCSE is in a position to recruit those therapists directly in order that they can assist with the inclusion model, and in general terms, with children with special needs.

I will add to that. Again, the issue of students who have not engaged with schools was referenced earlier. We are told that 99% of our students have actually engaged with and returned to school so that is positive. To add to what the Minister of State said, a welfare approach has very much been taken as regards students coming back to school and encouraging them. Again, I acknowledge the terrific work that was done during lockdown to ensure students continued to engage.

Accommodation has been made in terms of the assessment of the curriculum for the leaving certificate of 2021. It would not be possible for us at this point to change the curriculum for the simple reason that different schools and teachers take different approaches to covering a course. What one teacher might have covered at a particular time, another teacher might not have covered. It would be difficult to take out chunks here and there - excuse the phrase. The accommodation has been made and notified to the schools in terms of the assessment with wider choice and so on.

I was asked whether calculated grades and continuous assessment would become part of the leaving certificate of 2021. It is our full determination that the traditional leaving certificate will be the leaving certificate that will be experienced in 2021. Notwithstanding that we are in a pandemic and so on, all of our energies are being placed towards running the system in 2021 as we have come to know it.

I will ask some questions as there are no other speakers left. I will go for a second round and will give people a reduced time to ask a direct question to the Minister. I have three or four issues I wish to ask about. The Minister might not have the answers but she might be able to come back to me.

There are few large primary schools in the country. When I say large primary schools, I mean those with 700 pupils or more. A primary school of such numbers is entitled to a principal and a deputy principal for administration. Let us compare that to a post-primary school with between 300 and 600 pupils. Such a school is entitled to a principal and several deputy principals, albeit with reduced teaching hours in some situations and not in others.

There are many challenges in primary schools. Will the Minister examine this specifically as it applies to larger primary schools? There are some primary schools with almost 1,000 pupils. It is unfair for a primary school to have only a principal and deputy principal for administration compared to the resources available to a smaller secondary school. Is this something the Minister can look at?

Several primary schools throughout the country, especially in urban areas have seen an increased number of overseas families. I will offer an example. In my area there are four meat factories. As the Minister knows, most employees of meat factories are foreign people who have come in from overseas. Their families get visas and they can bring in their children. I understand that when they start primary education - some may start secondary education - the school must have 25% of the pupil population under the level of B3 proficiency. I believe that goes against the larger primary schools. A smaller primary school might get to 25% more easily but larger primary schools definitely will not get to that level. I call on the Minister to look upon this area.

My children are going to school in my local area. The school has a large number of overseas students but nowhere near enough to reach the 25% mark. The school does a fabulous and brilliant job. However, I believe some of the children coming in need additional resources in teaching English and so on.

This is something that occurs in urban areas because most of the families who come in want to live in the towns rather than out in the middle of the countryside. They want to be where there is more to do. Perhaps they can settle in more easily in accommodation provided in urban areas. I know from speaking to some of my other colleagues throughout the country that this is an issue for them as well because I have asked them about it.

I know several other Deputies have raised the issue of the change in the budget this year. I welcome the classroom size reduction for DEIS band 1 schools but it does not apply to junior DEIS band 1 schools or vertical DEIS band 1 schools. I appeal to the Minister to look closely at this. As I did not hear the reply the Minister gave to Deputy Ó Cathasaigh on this point, the Minister may wish to repeat the reply.

I raised another matter last week, namely, calculated grades in the leaving certificate. Will the Department be looking at going towards continuous assessment in the leaving certificate? Is this part of a review that the Minister might undertake, if not shortly, then perhaps in the coming years? It would take a good deal of consultation with teacher unions and so on and all the stakeholders involved in education. Is this something of which the Minster is personally in favour? Might the Minister consider holding a review in this regard?

Yesterday, the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, announced that all new school buildings will include classroom facilities for children with special needs. Will the Minister of State flesh out what is involved in this? I very much welcome it. Normally, when we see a new school building we see a structure and that is it. Often, we forget about the future and what might be the needs of people in future.

I do appreciate the points made in terms of larger schools. There was an acknowledgement of that, especially in the Covid-19 measures. Additional days would be made available to teaching principals and additional resources were being put in place as much as possible. Certainly, this is an area I would look at.

The same applies equally in terms of students coming from overseas and the need for English as an additional language and all of that. I am absolutely conscious of that.

The Chairman asked about DEIS band 1 schools. Again, I will reiterate what I have said. There will be a reduction from 24:1 to 23:1. The Chairman asked about junior and vertical schools. What I have said is that we are currently looking at a suite of measures in terms of a DEIS package. There will be several initiatives within that package that will be announced, hopefully prior to Christmas. That is what I am aiming for. I am giving consideration to it at that point.

I will reiterate what I said to the Senator about calculated grades and changes to the leaving certificate. I am conscious that for 2021, notwithstanding that we are in a pandemic and so on and provided public health advice prevails, we are working towards the traditional leaving certificate. Any other changes will be a matter of engagement and discussion and so on. To be fair, there has been positive endorsement of the traditional leaving certificate as we know it. In the short term that is the aim and target for 2021.

I do not want an immediate reply to my question on additional resources for English for overseas students but will the Minister ask the Department to look at this? In fairness, the larger schools are under severe pressure with overseas students. They do a fabulous job. Will the Minister acknowledge that? The school I am referring to is almost up to the 25% level. This is something that could be given to the school but we must acknowledge what the schools are doing and what they have done. It is difficult for teachers when a pupil comes in with little English. Yet, then within two or three years the pupil is absolutely fluent and very much part and parcel of the place. In the classes my children are in, there could be three, four or five different nationalities. This is an area of concern. We have seen this in Ireland in recent years. The teachers have done a fantastic job in giving fluency in English and making this fit into the classroom. It is not only about spending time to ensure the pupils fit in with the peers and everything like that as well. I appeal to the Minister personally to look at this one area. I do not want a reply from the Minister now.

I acknowledge the excellent work that goes on. It is an area I am familiar with. The Chairman has made the point about the 25% criterion. Excellent resources are in place but I appreciate the point the Chairman is making about a particular percentage.

In essence, when I was appointed to this position as the first dedicated Minister of State with responsibility for special education, it was clear and evident to me that we needed to tackle the dearth of special class places in particular pockets throughout the country.

I was delighted that I got a commitment from the school building unit to ensure that there will be sufficient accommodation for special classes in all new school builds into the future, which will help alleviate that problem, and that is in tandem with the NCSE forecasting model. It is developing a five-year plan, together with the forward model of the Department of Education, so that we can see and anticipate, from a demographic perspective, what and how many types of special classes we are going to need in the future. We can work with existing schools, but for all new builds there will be provision made for that accommodation.

I thank both witnesses for the considerable amount of work that has been done since they both took office. It has been an extraordinary journey.

My questions are twofold. One arises from the comments made here last week by the officials from the Department in relation to the leaving certificate students of 2020 and those who were downgraded from their teachers' grades. Last week I asked the officials if there is an acknowledged group of students that were downgraded who previously had patterns of achieving consistently high grades. The response I got was that there is no acknowledgement of such a specific, discreet or distinct group and that this was dealt with by saying that these are students whose grades were overestimated. That appears to suggest that there has been a systematic review of the students who claim that they were downgraded from a pattern of high grades and that there was some sort of an engagement with their results in order to be able to cast a net around them to say that this is the group that has been downgraded and the only reason for the downgrade is that they were overestimated and there is not any other possibility for it. I am curious about that review and how such a wide-sweeping definition and decision could be applied to that particular group.

I am not aware of any specific review as the Senator has spoken to in her question. I made the point earlier that obviously there are students who are very pleased with what they have received and those who are less pleased. As part of the calculated grades programme there was a commitment that there will be a review of the full process and I am very committed to that and it will take place. I will ask the officials to clarify what it was that they said to the Senator last week in that respect.

Mr. Dalton Tattan

I think what I was saying in the conversation we had on this day last week was that when we look across, there was overestimation in terms of what the level of results would be in comparison to other years. Dr. Hislop who was with me last week gave an example in the case of agricultural science, where the percentage of H1s would have been in the order of 13% or 14% if a standardisation approach had not been applied, compared to 2019, when it was in the order of about 4% to 4.5%. There are lots of incidences like that and they are published in that national standardisation group report, which is available on the Department's website.

I appreciate that and that this year's H1 percentage comes in at around 9%. However, that does not explain that there is a very distinct group of students who are saying that they had an historical pattern of high achievement and expected that their teachers' grades were in line with what their expectations were. Within that, there is the group who are now currently sitting the leaving certificate examinations and getting a rather unsympathetic ride on that because they are not getting any accommodation with regard to the actual paper that they are sitting, they have had no support since last March, or extra tuition - they have had nothing. In fact, they are going into this alone. A disproportionately high percentage of that group are the students who believe that they were downgraded unfairly because they had a standard pattern of high achievement. How can it be attributed to overestimated grades for that particular cohort, who are a unique group within those leaving certificate students, without an actual interrogation of the over 2,000 students who claim to be in that position? Not all of them will necessarily have missed out on obtaining a place in college; some of them expected to do better but just scraped by. There is also a very significant number that did not get their places and that are being put out by a year, but one cannot say that it has been caused by an overestimation without absolutely examining that particular group or having a mechanism to do so, so it does not answer how they are being ascribed to that particular group.

Mr. Dalton Tattan

I understand the point that the Senator is making. I would say that it is not solely that group who are sitting the exams at the moment. We did have others who, unfortunately, for various reasons, we could not give a calculated grade to, although we tried our very best, for example, out-of-school learners or those who were carrying an additional subject or two outside of school. There are a number of reasons why people are choosing to sit the exams.

I accept that, but a disproportionately high number of them are those who were downgraded and feel that this exam is their chance to prove that the Department was wrong in not applying the historical grades of the school in their instances.

Mr. Dalton Tattan

We always felt that the ability to run the exams and for students to have that option to sit those exams was the ultimate appeal.

But what Mr. Tattan is confirming to me is that there has not been a substantive review of the group. He is going on a statistical comparison between years, rather than on the specific cohort of students who claim they were unfairly downgraded.

Mr. Dalton Tattan

This is a bit of a return to the conversation that we had last week. I am not clear entirely on what the totality is of the group to which the Senator is referring. We know of instances and we have litigation in some cases too and we have conducted some analysis in relation to that, but I am not going to go into the details of those cases, as I hope the Senator understands. We have also indicated that it is our intention to run a full and comprehensive review when the process is complete, which is when the exams have been concluded and stage three of the appeals happens.

Is that going to be a substantive or a procedural review?

Mr. Dalton Tattan

The intention is for it to be a substantive review looking at all the major aspects of it and we intend to publish the terms of reference as part of that.

We have a few minutes left. I will go to Deputy Conway-Walsh first. Does Senator O'Loughlin wish to come in a second time?

I would also like to ask a question. It will not be an exchange between members and witnesses, rather it will be direct questions. Each member will have a minute to ask his or her question and I will be as lenient as possible.

First, I welcome the fact that the Minister has stated today that there will be an accommodation made for students. I ask that she takes a few minutes to tease out what that accommodation will be for 2021. How much have we spent so far on the legal cases? Are the legal cases being contested individually? Will the expenditure on the legal cases, both in terms of what is spent on the legal teams and what is allocated for compensation, come out of the budget of the Department of Education and will that have an impact on what the Department can deliver through its budget?

When are the 120 guidance counsellors going to be put in place? We did a survey earlier this year that showed that 75% of leaving certificate students from last year felt that they did not receive adequate career guidance.

I will take the last question first. On the issue of the 120 guidance counsellors, in many instances it involved an increase in the number of hours that were available. In some schools there would have been a presence of a guidance counsellor, but with reduced hours and perhaps teaching in another capacity. That is how these posts have been divided up in some instances. For example, in a 500-pupil school, it meant that there would be an additional three hours of counselling provided on top of what is already available.

So it is being done as we speak?

On the issue of the legal cases and the associated costs, I will revert to my official who is handling that. In relation to 2021, the accommodation for students is around the question format that is on the paper, where there is a wider choice being given.

All of that has been disseminated to the schools and students would be aware that where there might have been a limited option, a greater option is now being provided for examination. Mr. Tattan might like to come in there to comment on the legal side of things.

Mr. Dalton Tattan

On Deputy Conway-Walsh's question on the legal cases, the nature of the litigation - and litigation normally - is that costs only arise afterwards. There has been no expenditure to date in respect of the cases that are ongoing. Obviously, expenditure is potentially incurred once a legal team is engaged, etc. When a case is over, the costs are ruled on by the judge. In the event that we are successful, costs would normally follow the event, which means that the losing party pays. In the event the State loses, there is a sharing whereby the State's legal team is paid for through the Office of the Attorney General's budget, and the opposing side's legal team costs would be paid for by the Department out of its budget.

So the Department could end up with a whole lot of students who each have to pay the legal bills of the State.

Mr. Dalton Tattan

I am not going to comment on particular cases but I will make the general point that this is the normal rule when litigation is taken.

I really hope that will not be the case

I appreciate that the Minister has responded on the accommodation for leaving certificate 2021. I believe there needs to be a larger element of choice than has already been disseminated through the schools.

On the review of DEIS and school transport, I am aware that these two issues are on the Minister's radar. Will the Minister give us an update on that? The school completion programme has been moved to the Department of Education, which is very welcome news, and it is a much better fit there than with the Department with responsibility for youth, children and Tusla. Does the Minister feel that there is more scope in what can be done via that programme?

I am very keen that the school transport review would take place as soon as possible. We are currently scoping out the terms of reference. We will proceed with that as expeditiously as possible. We are seeking to roll out the 50% programme also, but we will be moving apace with that.

There are 887 schools currently in the DEIS programme, which caters for approximately 20% of the school population as we know it. Significant resources have been spent on DEIS programmes. We are finalising the new DEIS identification model and we are working as quickly as we possibly can on that. It is a positive step forward that the education support services are coming within our remit from Tusla. We will have the educational welfare service, the home school community liaison, and the school completion programme. As I said earlier, there is a particular package of additional resources being made available to us this year, including DEIS and pupil-teacher ratios, and the other aspect of DEIS to which I referred. When that package is announced I will be in a better position to give members more concrete detail on what it will mean going forward. It is an excellent programme that delivers very well in our schools. The more we can expand it and the more we can progress it, the better.

I thank the Minister.

I want to raise the issue of mental health and NEPS. The Minister referred to this briefly earlier. It was already an issue before we ever had a pandemic. There was pressure on the system and schools' ability to access the system and have assigned psychologists affects their ability to determine the needs of children with special needs, or indeed where there are behavioural issues. The possibility for delay within the system was already a problem. In light of the pandemic and all that we hear about mental health and the associated challenges, and with the pressures on children with special needs in particular because of the lack of engagement and the acute nature of the pandemic challenge for some, where are we now regarding the operation of NEPS? In the context of the ability of NEPS to grapple with the challenge that was already there, to paraphrase the words of U2, is it getting better or is it still the same?

We got provision for an additional 17 educational psychologists in the budget. Overall, there are 120 of them. Their work is primarily targeted at children with special needs. When I took over this role, one of the aspects of which I was most acutely aware was that of children with special needs and the extra anxiety and well-being issues that might have arisen for them in terms of going back to school, especially from a regression perspective. The July provision was accessed by 15,000 children, an increase of 9,000 on last year - 24,000 were actually eligible for it - and it assisted those with special needs to integrate back into the school environment. All the progress reports they would have received during that period were provided.

The Minister will agree that well-being was at the heart of the entire reopening of the schools. Of the €447 million that was provided, a huge amount went towards reducing potential anxiety for children. There are a lot of well-being resources, toolkits and webinars, and inductions for teachers. Again, the budget has provided an increased amount for an extra 400 teachers for special educational needs, which will also assist. We have a school inclusion model that will help to reduce children's anxiety around it. The best interests of the child within the Covid environment is always at the heart of it, and we are always aware of it.

As mentioned earlier, if there are children who are very high risk and who, for whatever reason, cannot go back into the school environment, tuition and assistance is available for them. We constantly monitor all of those situations.

I thank the Minister of State. Following on from Senator Mullen's point, are there many schools that have not been assigned educational psychologists? I presume schools share psychologists at the moment. What other alternative supports are available for schools in that regard?

Every school should have access to a psychologist and there is no reason a psychologist cannot go to more than one school. It is not based on one school.

What if they are under pressure or overworked, which I presume happens in certain cases?

One could say that about any therapist or teacher. With the reopening of schools, we wanted to ensure that we were in a position to replace an absence, and particularly around SNAs. The €14.7 million was there so if, for whatever reason, an SNA was absent then he or she would be immediately replaced. The same applied to educational psychologists and we got an additional 17 positions. We are recruiting with the school inclusion model now in order to kick that off for September 2021. Some of that was paused because of Covid. There is a suite of different therapeutic supports on offer if an educational psychologist is not available, but one should be available at all times.

I know I am breaking my own rules as I speak back and forth, but does the Minister of State have a percentage for how many pupils left primary school and brought their SNAs with them to post-primary school? I am aware that this is an issue. For a while in my county, where a pupil had an SNA right up to sixth class, he or she was refused the SNA when going into first year in secondary school. What percentage of pupils might have continued on with their SNAs on entering post-primary school?

In general, the allocation of SNAs was frozen for this year because of Covid. The exceptional review process is available for any school that needs additional SNAs, and the front-loading of SNAs will commence from September 2021 in tandem with the rolling out of the school inclusion model.

There is nothing prohibiting an SNA moving from one school to another so long as they are wearing PPE which, again, is provided for under the budget. Their role is completely integral and a lot of children, those with special needs in particular, can get attached to individual SNAs. That is something that schools themselves work out between them in terms of trying to look after the kids.

I have one last question for the Minister, on school buildings. It was not the issue we brought her in to discuss but I hope she does not mind. It is more of an observation than a question. Some schools have needed additional school buildings for Covid reasons and they have probably been given prefabs or whatever. This issue is a major bugbear of mine. I know Covid is totally different but I hope this does not mean other schools that might be suffering will be given prefabs instead of permanent structures. Since 2011, this is something every Government and all Ministers have made great strides on. When I was elected first in 2002 I would say that 70% of schools in my own constituency had some form of a prefab and in fairness they have moved away from that policy and towards permanent structures. It makes a huge difference where value for money is concerned and I hope it continues on in the Department and that the Minister will continue to do it.

I very much appreciate the point the Chairman makes. He is right that there has been an element of exception there because of Covid. Notwithstanding that, our determination to progress school building with bricks and mortar is underpinned by the fact that in 2021 we are looking at the completion of more than 200 projects, and 145 beginning in the mid-year stream as well. These will all be bricks and mortar so I appreciate the Chairman's point, notwithstanding, as I said, that we are also in a Covid environment.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, as well as their officials, for coming before us today to brief us on their key priorities for education. I acknowledge that the Minister and Minister of State were very upfront in their replies and it was no bother to them. The briefing today was very beneficial both for discussing key priorities and also the impact Covid-19 has had on education. It will greatly assist the committee in our deliberations. Our next public meeting will be at 11.30 a.m. on Thursday, 19 November with representatives from the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, ASTI, the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, and Fórsa on the topic of ensuring schools are open in a manner which is both safe and sustainable.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.32 p.m. until 11.30 a.m. on Thursday, 19 November 2020.