Special Needs Education: Discussion

On behalf of the committee, I welcome from Department of Education Ms Martina Mannion, assistant secretary with responsibility for the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, special education, social inclusion and early years education policy; Mr. Eddie Ward, principal officer, special education section; Mr. Brendan Doody, assistant chief inspector in the inspectorate division; and Mr. Eamon Murtagh, director of the planning and building unit. I also welcome Ms Mary McGrath, head of operations, National Council for Special Education, NCSE; and Ms Anne Tansey, director, NEPS. The officials are here to brief the committee on the provision of special educational needs, specifically funding and the allocation of resources, the roll-out of the school inclusion model and the role of special needs assistants, SNAs, the provision of autism services, State recognition of a broader range of intellectual disabilities and the implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act 2004.

The format of the meeting is that I will invite Ms Mannion to make an opening statement, which will be followed by questions from the committee. Each member has a six-minute slot, which gives him or her an opportunity to question the witness and for the witness to respond. I will keep an eye on the clock and when the six minutes has concluded, I will interrupt to ensure the meeting runs smoothly. As the witnesses are probably aware, the committee will publish the opening statements on its website following the 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 Houses of the Oireachtas or an official either by name or in such in way to make him or her identifiable. As officials are giving evidence remotely, from a place outside of the parliamentary precincts of Leinster House, as such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness physically present does. They have already been advised of that and whether it is appropriate to take legal advice on the matter. As we have started the meeting, it is a bit late now if they have not. They are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of a person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks by the Chair. It is imperative that they comply with all such directions.

I now ask Ms Mannion to make her opening statement.

Ms Martina Mannion

I thank the Chairman and committee members. At the outset I wish to thank the committee for its invitation to officials from the Department of Education, including the National Educational Psychological Service, and from the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, to meet with its members today. With their agreement, I will share my time for the opening statement with Ms Mary McGrath, head of operations at the NCSE.

We are also joined today by a number of other officials, including Mr. Eddie Ward, principal officer of the special education section, Mr. Brendan Doody, assistant chief inspector of the Department's inspectorate division, Ms Anne Tansey, director of the National Educational Psychological Service, and Mr. Eamonn Murtagh, director of the Department's planning and building unit.

The committee in its invitation has set out a number of topics to discuss today, including the funding and resourcing of special education supports. The Department of Education continues to prioritise investment in supports for pupils with special educational needs. Last October, a range of new investments in the area of special education was provided for as part of the budget 2021 measures. The State, this year, will spend over €2 billion, or over 20% of its total educational budget, on providing additional supports for children with special educational needs. This represents an increase of over 50%, in total expenditure, since 2011.

Budget 2021 provides for vital additional teachers and school staff in the area of special educational needs, including more than 400 extra special education teaching posts and almost 1,000 additional special needs assistants. It also provides funding for important reforms in the area of special education, such as the further roll-out of the school inclusion model.

In terms of staff resources for special educational needs, the provision for 2021 delivers for mainstream classes, special classes and special schools. Four hundred additional teachers have been provided in this area for 2021, including 145 additional special education teachers being provided for mainstream schools. Special education teachers provide additional teaching support for pupils with special educational needs who are enrolled in mainstream classes.

To limit the extent of allocation disruption for schools this year, in a year where there has already been a great deal of disruption due to Covid-19, the existing special education teacher allocations will be maintained for mainstream schools for the forthcoming 2021-22 school year.

No school will see a reduction to its current level of special education teaching supports next year. However, additional allocations of special education teachers will continue to be made for new schools which open for the first time; developing schools which are achieving significant demographic growth; and exceptional circumstances arising in schools, pending the next re-profiling process for schools.

Two hundred and thirty-five additional special class teaching posts have also been provided, which will facilitate the establishment of an additional 1,200 special class and special school placements this year. These classes will support pupils who have been assessed as requiring a special class placement for them to be able to access an education appropriate to their needs.

Special classes are part of a continuum of education provision that enables students with more complex special educational needs to be educated, in smaller class groups, within their local mainstream schools. The extra teachers being provided will ensure that the new special classes, including new classes to support pupils with autism, can be opened in areas where there may be currently a shortage of provision or in areas which have been achieving significant levels of demographic growth and where additional special class placements are needed.

Up to 200 new special classes are planned to be opened for September 2021 meaning that we will have over 2,000 special classes, compared to 548 special classes in 2011.

Twenty-three additional teaching posts are also being provided for special schools to meet expected increases in pupil numbers in special schools due to increasing enrolments and demographic trends in 2021. Providing an appropriate school placement for every child is a top priority for the Department and the NCSE.

Almost 1,000 extra SNA posts are also being provided for in 2021. The extra posts will ensure that we can continue to provide additional SNA supports for new special classes that open in 2021; new enrolments to special schools; and additional SNA allocations for mainstream schools. They are part of our planning process to develop a general allocation for allocating SNA support to mainstream schools. The provision of almost 1,000 extra SNA posts to the school system in 2021 will mean that the number of SNA posts will have increased by almost 70%, from 10,575 in 2011 to over 18,000.

In addition to this planned additional investment, the Department has provided for a range of measures to support pupils during a second period of school closures, in 2021, and also to support children with special educational needs to return to school. The Department has recognised that school closures can have a particular impact on children with special educational needs and, accordingly, it has prioritised children with special educational needs for the earliest possible return to in-school teaching and provided specific guidance and supports to schools, including additional IT funding, to support continuity of learning for the affected children during the school closure period. A supplementary education programme is being provided for children with special educational needs who have missed in-person education. A significantly expanded summer education programme for children with complex special educational needs was provided last year. It aimed to prevent regression among children with special needs, and planning is under way to provide for a similar summer education programme this year.

Yesterday, Monday, saw the return to in-school learning for all school students for the first time since we closed for the Christmas break. Overall, a package of more than €630 million has been provided to support the reopening of schools, including funding for personal protective equipment, additional teaching posts, sanitiser, enhanced cleaning and much more. As part of the package of supports, additional teachers have been provided to support the reopening of primary schools to provide enhanced substitution and eliminate the need to mix classes when a teacher is absent.

It is acknowledged that this has been a very challenging and demanding year for the education sector, particularly for children with special educational needs and their parents. Recognising this, the Department has sought to support the well-being of school communities during this Covid-19 period. In addition to its normal work in supporting schools and students, the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, has developed a range of resources to support the well-being of children and young people in line with the Department's Wellbeing Policy Statement and Framework for Practice. These include well-being guidance, webinars and toolkits, including a targeted toolkit for school staff, Supporting the Wellbeing of Students with Special Educational Needs (SEN) Returning to School: Strategies and Resources.

I thank the committee for our invitation. I will hand over to Ms Mary McGrath from the NCSE.

We have exceeded the time allowed for opening statements but I will allow Ms McGrath a minute and a half in which to make a brief one. I want to give members an opportunity because we must conclude within two hours.

Ms Mary McGrath

I thank the Chairman. I have responsibility for operational matters within the NCSE. The NCSE is a statutory body responsible for providing advice and supports to parents and schools, establishing specialist education places, undertaking research, developing policy advice and providing professional learning opportunities for teachers.

In 2018, the NCSE completed a comprehensive review of the SNA scheme. We recommended a school inclusion model to ensure that students get the right supports at the right time. This model includes a national SNA training programme, a national nursing scheme, more psychologists and the availability of speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and behaviour practitioners on our regional teams. A pilot project has commenced building on the positive results from the in-school and early years therapy project in 2018. The NCSE is working to recommence this project, which has been impacted by Covid-19.

In 2020, we established 197 new autism special classes. There are now 1,570 special classes in place, of which 135 are early intervention, 1,000 primary and 435 post-primary autism special classes. This represents an increase of 9% at primary level and 74% at post-primary level compared with the figures for 2017.

We expect to establish an additional 224 classes for 2021, an increase of more than 15% on 2020, along with a number of additional school places for students with autism. While we experience difficulties in some parts of the country in establishing special education places to meet the needs of children in the local community, schools and their patrons are generally very co-operative and respond positively to our request to establish special classes, and we thank them for this. We also provide a wide range of continuing professional development, CPD, for teachers in the area of autism. More than 35 separate seminars are delivered each year and we have responded to 519 requests for in-school support directly related to autism this year, delivering bespoke teacher professional learning in line with schools' identified needs.

I thank Ms McGrath.

I thank Ms Mannion and Ms McGrath for their opening statements. Regrettably, I want to ask questions once again about an issue that is very prominent in my constituency. It relates to the shortage of autism special classes at primary level in Dublin 4, 6 and 6W. I preface these questions by giving the committee some statistics. It is known that the average proportion of autism special class places at a national level stands at about one place for every 100 students. Unfortunately, in Dublin 4, 6 and 6W, it is seven times lower than that, with the average standing at about 0.154%. What are the proposed timelines to resolve a lack of provision in Dublin 4, 6 and 6W? The area stands out as markedly different from the rest of the country in terms of the number of ASD classes provided.

Ms Mary McGrath

In 2019, the NCSE recognised that there was a shortage of special class places in south Dublin and we advised the Department of our opinion of this. As part of our work in this area, we examined all the primary schools in south Dublin and looked at which schools would be in a position, with the available in space within their accommodation, to provide autism special classes in the short term to respond to that immediate need. We identified 39 schools spread across the various areas in south Dublin. To date, a number of these schools have opened classes, some are working to do so, while others are continuing in the process.

Generally, schools respond to our requests to open special classes and are very positive in their engagement with local SENOs. It is important to recognise that some schools, particularly in built-up areas of cities, may simply have insufficient space within the school environment. It may be that the school is oversubscribed and is using all the available classrooms for classroom purposes, with no space in which to expand the school in terms of its external provision.

I am aware of the section 37A process that applied to south Dublin. The problem is that when south Dublin is taken as an entity, the problem is not as pronounced because the percentage of ASD places per student population in south Dublin is about 0.7%. If south Dublin is narrowed down to Dublin 4, 6 and 6W, however, the figure is reduced to 0.154%. We need a more focused audit that will look at specific areas, as opposed to an audit of south Dublin in general. The objective is to allow kids to attend local schools.

In respect of the section 37A process, is it a robust process that provides consistent results? Is there not an ability for a large number of primary schools to avoid engaging in the process because there will not have been site visits to the schools before a decision is made?

Ms Mary McGrath

As I said, we examined all the primary schools in south Dublin and the available space within all of them. In regard to the particular postal districts the Deputy referenced, a number of schools were identified as part of that process and some of those schools are establishing special classes for the coming school year. We continue to engage with all schools in areas where there is a continued identified shortage and to work to establish special classes in those areas.

Ms McGrath is correct and I commend the schools involved. Star of the Sea and Scoil Mhuire will establish special classes from next September. Those schools are both in Dublin 4. I and a number of other local Deputies visited other schools in the area, for instance, the national boys' and girls' schools in Ringsend. They would be prepared to go along with this but need to be given the funding to construct ASD classrooms. What is the process for that? The two schools in question want to provide ASD classrooms and are wondering what the process is. Can it be expedited for them?

Ms Mary McGrath

We are always pleased to hear that schools want to establish special classes in response to the need in their areas. Where a school has insufficient accommodation within its existing infrastructure, it is open to it to apply to the Department of Education for additional accommodation to provide a special class.

Can I take it that all new school building projects will include the provision of ASD classrooms?

Ms Mary McGrath

My understanding is that new school buildings will include accommodation for special classes but one of my colleagues from the Department may wish to confirm that.

Would anyone from the Department like to come in on that question?

Do we have an official from the building section?

Mr. Eamonn Murtagh

I am from the planning and building unit. The policy is that we make provision for appropriate accommodation for special educational needs, SEN, provision at both primary and post-primary level, where the circumstances require, in any new school building that is approved.

I apologise for missing the private session of the meeting because, unfortunately, I was delayed coming up from Cork and only got here in time for this contribution. There are many issues that I would like to raise around the school inclusion model, about which I have particular concerns. I also have concerns about the allocation of special educational teachers. I know remarks have been made in that regard. Many people representing teachers involved in new and developing schools have a different view of what was announced a week or two ago in terms of the allocation model.

I will focus on two issues. I will pick up from what was said by Deputy O'Callaghan and address similar issues. When I speak to parents who have children with special educational needs, there is enormous frustration and a sense that the system is, if not a bit broken, certainly a bit dysfunctional. One would imagine that there is information on every child, particularly those who are in special schools and those progressing to post-primary level about how many children there are and how many places should be made available, yet those places never seem to be available. That applies to units and special schools. I want to understand how the National Council for Special Education and the Department anticipate demand. How are we failing to meet demand? There is a crisis in Cork city relating to special units and special schools. Why are we not anticipating future demand? What are we doing to fix that? It is too common, in particular at this time of year, for families to contact me because they have no school places for their children in September or even the following September. One family that was in contact with me had received rejections from 12 different schools in Cork and had nowhere to go in September. The situation is similar as regards special schools. Our guests might be aware that at least six children will be leaving Cara Junior School and have no special school places. The Department should surely have anticipated that this need would arise.

There is a specific crisis about places and units that I am going to localise to Cork, to some extent. There may be some schools that should be opening units and have not but, overall and at both levels, we are not getting ahead of demand and putting in place the provision in advance. I would like a comment on that. I am sure our guests heard Mr. Gary Murphy talking about his son on "Drive Time" last week and the frustration that he has faced, as have so many other families.

It is widely agreed that children with special educational needs were among those who lost out the most during the lockdown.

I welcomed the fact that last year's programme was expanded. There were parents who were disappointed with the hours that were available and the difficulty in getting through the past year so it is crucial that this year's programme is the largest and most comprehensive ever to ensure those who lost out the most are supported and given the greatest assistance possible to catch up and maintain education over the summer months. Can the witnesses outline whether there are plans to expand on last year? One of the biggest obstacles for those who want to receive it at home is finding tutors. Has work been done on any kind of centralised database of teachers and SNAs who are willing to provide this tuition to make it easier for parents to navigate? It is a simple thing the Department could do. Could Mr. Murtagh comment on any progress regarding the new building for St. Gabriel's Special School?

Ms Martina Mannion

I might address the issue of students who, as the Deputy indicated, have suffered most as a result of lockdown such as children with special needs and the plans for a programme for the summer. The important thing to reiterate is that right from the time when the schools closed in March 2020, the Department was highly conscious of the impact of such closures on children with special educational needs. All of the steps we have taken since March 2020 have been to mitigate learning loss at every point. It involves the additional supports by way of funding, guidance and how we have managed to support those children to return safely to school. That has been our priority. The actions we took in the context of the schools being closed involved the introduction of the supplementary programme. This programme allowed for in-school provision for children who were unable to access school during the school closures. It was offered by way of additional hours teaching that could be made available to children in their home where we had guidance from public health as to how this could be managed safely in homes or, at the request of a number of schools and following representation, on school premises. As we provided guidance to schools that they could use school premises to offer the supplementary programme, that is an additional support that is available.

In respect of the summer programme, we have engaged extensively with the stakeholders regarding what worked in summer 2020. Parents requiring to offer the summer programme by way of home tuition is something that has come across as being clearly difficult for parents. The kind of measures we are looking at in terms of summer 2021 involves seeing additional supports that can be put into schools to allow the schools to run the programmes. The greater the uptake of the programmes in schools, the more this will reduce the burden on parents but, importantly, it involves listening to education stakeholders regarding what they need to do to run the programme successfully in schools. I am conscious of time so that was just a brief update of the summer programme.

If the building unit could come back to me in writing, that would be fine. Could Ms McGrath offer a brief response to that because it is a vitally important issue? There is a particular crisis in Cork. It would be great if the Minister could meet Deputies from Cork. There is a crisis everywhere but particularly so in Cork. How are we not anticipating demand better?

Ms Mary McGrath

There have been significant increases in the provision of special classes in Cork over the past number of years. The number of primary autism special classes has increased by 240% to 166 since 2015. Similarly, at post-primary level, the number of special classes has increased by 205% to 70 since 2015. We engage in a continuous cycle of planning for special classes with parents, professionals, schools and their patrons. As I said earlier, generally the schools respond very positively to local requests from SENOs to establish special classes and respond to the needs of the children and young people in their community.

We are aware of a growing demand for special school placements over the past number of years and have engaged very co-operatively with the existing special schools and their patrons over this period. We are aware of a small number of children who are without a special school place for September 2021 and are working very closely with the existing schools, their patron and our colleagues in the Department of Education and Skills.

All the stakeholders together are exploring a number of options with a view to providing a short-term solution and more medium-term solutions and we hope we will make significant progress in this space over the coming period.

Next up is Deputy Ó Cathasaigh, followed by Deputy Alan Farrell. The Deputies are just swapping around.

I thank Ms Mannion and Ms McGrath for their presentations this morning. I welcome, first of all, the significant increase in staffing in this area, namely, 1,000 SNAs and 400 SEN teaching posts. That is a significant improvement on the situation which we had beforehand. Notwithstanding some of the concerns I share with Deputy Ó Laoghaire around the school inclusion model, it is welcome as well that the resources are being put into the schools in order that the schools make the decision about the provision of resources so that resources, particularly the SNA resources, get to the children with needs more quickly. I will go into a few specifics and then I have a few wider questions.

My first question is very specific. How is the hiring going? We are looking for 400 SEN teachers and for 1,000 SNAs. Are we managing to fill those posts?

Ms Martina Mannion

The teaching posts are allocated to the individual schools and it is a matter for the schools to recruit the teachers as they would do in the normal way. I do not believe that there will be any challenges in dealing with this. These are teachers who will be interested in working in the area of special education. Particularly at primary level, there should not be any particular challenges in those areas. Obviously, at post-primary there are separate challenges, particularly in relation to, for example, subject specialists but it should not impact in terms of special education teaching posts.

In relation to the SNA allocation, the additional allocations have not gone out to schools yet as we are working through that allocation process. We commit each year to have those SNA allocations to schools in May and we intend to be able to provide those to schools as quickly as possible.

I thank Ms Mannion. I suppose the follow-on question is the flip side to that. Deputy Ó Laoghaire was driving at it as well. If we are recruiting 400 new SEN teachers, do we have the physical accommodation? How confident are we regarding the physical classrooms that we will be able to provide for these teachers and for the students who need that? Maybe somebody from the buildings unit would like to come in on that.

Mr. Eamonn Murtagh

We are working closely with colleagues in the NCSE in terms of the identification of schools that are in a position to provide special classes for the coming September and where additional accommodation or refurbishment of existing accommodation is required to facilitate the provision of those classes. We ensure we work closely with them to allow that to happen through the additional school accommodation, ASA, application process in terms of projects to deliver that. It is a fairly fluid situation, as colleagues in the NCSE have outlined in terms of identification of these classes, but where a school has identified a need for September 2021 and a commitment to put that in place, we work hard to enable that to happen before the coming school year.

If I still have time, I might turn to Ms McGrath in my third question. I want to ask Ms McGrath about this education and professional development, EPD, that is being provided by the NCSE and by others in the education space. I am aware of the summer courses and the seminars that are available. Are we satisfied that that level of upskilling is what we want and what is required in the area? Are we satisfied that those resources are going into the right areas? How are we in terms of getting teachers trained to a high level, that is, to level 9 or level 10, in this specialty area? I have often found within schools that one gets pockets of excellence but they become quite siloed. If we are training to this high level, do we have a good mechanism whereby experience and best practice can be shared between schools in order that we are not all separately trying to reinvent the wheel when we are providing these services?

Ms Mary McGrath

I thank the Deputy. One of our remits is to provide teacher professional learning.

To give a sense of the scale of this, we provided professional learning to over 16,000 teachers in 2019. In 2020, this was somewhat impacted by Covid-19 and we provided training to 5,000 teachers. We have looked at and redesigned some of the elements of our programme of training to provide it online during the current school year to ensure we continue to reach teachers, as required.

We also provide our in-school support service, where schools can identify specific needs that they may have within their own community and we will provide bespoke tailored learning to that school, be it for whole-school staff, small groups of teachers or individual teachers. That, in particular, can help to embed the teacher professional learning across the school community, as referred to by the Deputy. In 2019, we responded to over 2,200 requests from schools to provide that type of in-school support and we continue to provide that service online currently.

On the specifics of those training programmes, are the majority of them 20-hour summer courses or are they much more in-depth in providing the level of knowledge teachers will need if they are moving in to special education?

Ms Mary McGrath

The majority of our seminars will be provided over one or two days and some may run over a period of six days, depending on the type of course. There is a range of different timeframes.

If summer or July provision was important in previous years, it is absolutely essential this year. One of the big difficulties is with recruiting the tutors who will make this July provision available. In the context of this year, are there any incentives or plans in place to ensure tutors are available to provide the summer programme?

Ms Martina Mannion

I thank the Deputy for his question. The Irish Primary Principals Network provides assistance to parents who are looking for teachers and SNAs in both the supplementary and summer programmes. Our focus this year is to try to repurpose the provision to provide as much as possible in schools, at which point it will alleviate the issue of parents potentially having to do so much of that recruitment. We are focusing more on schools in respect of this provision. I hope this will alleviate one of the concerns raised by the Deputy.

I thank our guests and apologise for being a little late. I swapped slots with Deputy Ó Cathasaigh to give me an opportunity to reread the opening statements and I thank the Deputy for that.

I will not be introducing anything new to the conversation but there is scope for further information to be provided to us. I acknowledge what is largely a great deal of good news in the opening statements, notwithstanding the day-to-day difficulties that can arise. We must acknowledge the significant increase in budgetary support in the Department of Education, in particular for the provision of SNAs. There were 10,500 SNAs a decade ago and there are 18,000 today.

Other figures provided on autism services show there has been an increase of 9% at primary level and 74% in post-primary provision since 2017 alone. We must acknowledge these two points in the context of this discussion.

Deputy Ó Laoghaire made a worthwhile contribution on the anticipation of demand. I am sure every Deputy in every constituency can identify areas in which there have been deficiencies in the provision of services or at least in the timely provision of these services in terms of enrolment and what transpires thereafter for children with additional educational needs and autism. In looking into this, I acknowledge the extraordinary work done by SENOs, SNAs and resource teachers in the past 12 months. Many parents have contacted me to tell me about SNAs and resource teachers going above and beyond what was expected of them in their support of children with additional educational needs and autism.

I acknowledge that.

Deputy Ó Laoghaire outlined difficulties with anticipation of demand in Cork. I can look at north County Dublin and say that there are difficulties in communities such as Skerries and across the board in rural areas where secondary schools outside of Ashbourne and Balbriggan are not really providing services. As a result, there is a significant gap in the centre. How we identify those difficulties and deficiencies could be improved. I would appreciate a comment on that.

The other issue, which has already been touched on, is infrastructure. With all of these additional support teachers and resource hours that are made available to students, is existing school infrastructure capable of catering for the increased level of demand? In my community in Fingal in north County Dublin, which is one of the fastest-growing in Europe, will we be able to meet the level of demand, especially in view of the stated aim of reducing pupil-teacher ratios in both primary and post-primary schools?

My final point is relates to the statement Ms McGrath made about additional supports being provided, especially in the run-up to the summer, the issue of student well-being and the difficulties that have arisen with increased levels of anxiety. Could she identify a specific programme within the current offering that the Department has in place at present and during the summer that will identify students who have had mental health difficulties as a result of not being in class and the associated difficulties now that they are back in the classroom?

Ms Martina Mannion

I ask my colleague, Ms Tansey, who is the director of NEPS, to advise how the Department is approaching supporting children with regard to mental health issues, including children with special educational needs.

Ms Anne Tansey

As schools have reopened and right through this period, NEPS has supported the well-being of school communities. NEPS has developed a range of resources that have been made available to schools to guide them in supporting well-being at this time. The approach that has been taken is in line with the HSE's advice around a psychosocial, tiered approach to supporting well-being. We know that strong universal approaches that promote calm, a sense of efficacy and a sense of psychological and physical safety within school communities are really important for most students. We recognise that there are children and young people who may need more support and we are advising and supporting schools on that.

On specific programmes that are available to support children and young people in managing anxiety or managing their mental health at this time, the approach of NEPS is to build school capability to support these children and young people. We provide programmes such as the friends programme, which is a resilience-building and anxiety-reducing and prevention programme. We train teachers to provide this programme of support to children within their schools. It is provided to all children. It builds the core skills and competencies of children to manage worry, stress and anxiety. It takes a cognitive behavioural approach and children build their skills through it.

NEPS is developing a range of workshops on the promotion of well-being resilience which will include a trauma-informed approach. These workshops are currently being piloted in our schools and they are due to be rolled out to support teachers, special education teachers, SNAs and school leaders from next September in the Department.

I thank Ms Tansey. Do the witnesses have a response about additional resources and infrastructure? I appreciate that they have covered them somewhat, but if there is further information that they would like to introduce, it would be welcome.

Mr. Brendan Doody

It is important to note that not all the supports that would be made available to schools would be intended for the removal of students into a special class. One of the specific teaching methodologies that has been advised in special education teaching is team teaching. It involves the special education teachers working with class or subject teachers in mainstream settings. We are encouraging schools to build the capacity of all teachers in mainstream provision through the use of the special education teacher in that way.

I find it unsatisfactory that it has taken so long for witnesses to answer the questions. Can one of the witnesses take the lead by directing who will answer which questions?

The witnesses are all very welcome. My main question is on access to school places. I was horrified to learn what families are expected to do in order to access a place for their child if their child has an autism diagnosis. The process seems to be that a special education needs organiser will hand the parent a list of schools and wish them the best of luck. The parent will go to as many schools as he or she can in order to access the school place, whether primary or secondary. I know of parents who have gone to 15, 16 or 17 schools. I represent a constituency on the north side of Dublin and the lists of schools given to parents include schools in Drogheda. Parents may also access home tuition. I do not know any of us who is qualified to employ a tutor, whether during a pandemic or otherwise, who could adequately fulfil the needs of home tuition but this is what we are expecting people to do. Not only are parents dealing with a challenging situation of a diagnosis but they must almost go to war with the system to access a school place. There seems to be no absolute right to a school place.

I spoke to a woman in my constituency yesterday who was in tears over the situation. She sent me a message to say her son has autism and there is no secondary school place for him until next year. He needs a special school placement as he has moderate autism, non-verbal skills, to be taught life skills, etc. She has been applying to special schools for the past four years with no success. He meets the enrolment criteria for the school's catchment area but because his needs require more help, a class space with compatible peers cannot be found.

I know the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act changed the position and the Minister now has more powers to intervene in certain schools to meet the type of need that has been described at this meeting. How can the Department stand over a system in which a SENO hands a list of schools to a parent and abrogates responsibility?

Ms Mary McGrath

A SENO will advise parents of the schools of which they are aware which have places coming up or available for the forthcoming school year. The SENOs are engaging with schools on a continuous cycle of planning additional special classes and special school placements. Those special classes, etc., are confirmed at different points in the school year so the SENO is updating parents who are seeking special school and special class places as they become available.

We experience pinch points at certain times in parts of the country. We have triggered the legislation, which was commenced in 2018, twice in Dublin where schools which did have space were not responding to requests from SENOs to open special classes. We had recommended to the Department that such legislation be introduced as we knew we were reaching a saturation point in some areas.

This was only in a very small area where some schools were not responding positively to the SENO's requests. The SENO supports parents in identifying where placements are available. He or she updates parents as new placements become available and more information becomes available to us.

This is in theory but in practice, it is something very different. Many parents just give up. The person I spoke to yesterday, whose case I have outlined today, has been seeking a secondary school placement for her child for four years. Ms McGrath mentioned pinch points. My constituency may be a pinch point, but there does not seem to be a policy determination from the Department that there is an absolute right to a school place and the SENO has to find that school place. It is up to the parent.

Ms Mary McGrath

Parents are required to enrol their children in a school. Where the parent enrols the child is a matter for that parent. The SENO supports the parent in finding that special school or special class placement. I am happy to respond to the Deputy separately in relation to the specific case he mentions.

With respect, that is not the experience of parents with whom I deal. The experience of parents I deal with is that they talk to the SENO, who gives them a list of schools. Parents then interact with the schools which have all the expertise, language and education vocabulary. Parents are absolutely at a disadvantage. Schools can find many reasons why they cannot facilitate the child and the parent goes from school to school. The SENO can be a cheerleader for all that the SENO wants to be but fundamentally, there is no absolute right to a school place for the child that the SENO has to facilitate. It is up to the parents and the parents are, effectively, on their own.

Ms Mary McGrath

As I said, the SENO will provide that support to parents. I am happy to speak separately to the Deputy in relation to the case he references.

The Deputy has one minute because he was interrupted.

I genuinely am not satisfied by that answer. We must have a fundamental overview and review of how the system interacts with parents who are completely exhausted by going to war, not just on this issue of school placements but on other issues of intervention and long waiting lists for assessment and intervention. When they finally try to get their child through the school gate, it can be hugely difficult for them.

How the SENO interacts with this whole process is a massive failing. I do not know whether it is a constitutional overhang which makes the Department so reluctant to intervene in schools; it says the management of schools because it just does not want to intervene. A huge number of families are falling through the cracks because of an inability of the Department to properly defend the child. Defending the parents' right to choose whatever school they want to which to send their child lets the schools off the hook. While the SENO may be a support, it is not working. I wish the Department would accept that. A re-analysis of the way the system is supposed to operate is genuinely a necessity in this case because the person I am speaking of, who has been waiting four years for a secondary school place, is the tip of the iceberg. These are only the people who contact their local representatives. Many of them just give up.

Can some of the witnesses give a brief reply to the Deputy?

Ms Martina Mannion

I will come in on the Deputy's point. On the challenges he has described for that particular parent, obviously nobody in the Department or the NCSE wants to hear of a parent having those kinds of experiences. The Department and the NCSE have put huge resources and supports into ensuring that children can access appropriate placements by making available those resources and supports. Where we have had those particular challenges, we have had to resort to legislation to ensure we could enforce those rights for those children.

Separate to the legislation we have pointed to in relation to the section 37 process, parents who are refused enrolment of a child in school can have access to the section 29 appeal process under the Education Act. They can bring that process through to conclusion, which will ensure that if a school is making unreasonable objections to taking in a child with special educational needs, it would not be acceptable to a section 29 appeal committee when the Department's resources and supports are given to a school at the scale we have outlined in order to support children in those school placements.

The practice across the Department and the NCSE has been wholly in the supportive space of ensuring that schools do not put barriers in place. They are being provided with a level of teaching resources, SNA support and guidance that allows them to take in these children. There is then a process whereby the Department supports parents in choosing a school placement for their child. The Department is there to help them through the processes to ensure they can access the placement. Clearly, we do not want to hear of cases where this is not working and we will work through, as Ms McGrath has said, individual cases. Across the system, that is not the experience because children are accessing school placements and the level and volume of increase in special class, special school and mainstream supports to children is evidence that the process, generally, is working. We do not want specific cases where it is not working for people, and we will work with members on those.

I remind one of the witnesses that she is to communicate with Deputy Ó Ríordáin on an individual case.

I greatly appreciate it. I thank the Chair.

I thank all the officials present today. I acknowledge all the increases in the number of teachers, SNAs, ASD units and special education units nationally. I acknowledge the good work that is being done and in the debate today we need to be aware of the progress being made. However, an earlier speaker referred to pinch points and there are undoubtedly a number of these across the country. As Deputy Ó Laoghaire mentioned, Cork is one of them.

As a broad point, should we be talking about sections 29 and 37 and the various mechanisms? The reality is we should not be talking about them. People should have access to a school place without having to resort to those mechanisms. What witnesses are hearing from Deputies is the frustration from parents who are blocked in the system.

With particular reference to Cork, I spoke previously in the education committee regarding a new school. Perhaps Mr. Murtagh of the building unit could clarify what progress has been made on the new school in Cork in terms of identifying a site and a building for conversion in the short term. In Cork, we have 23 families who, as of next September, will have no place for their child who has an ASD need or a profound intellectual disability. We also have approximately 100 students on the spectrum in Cork who do not have full access to an ASD unit. Schools are managing as best they can. That is the situation on the ground in Cork and services need to catch up. It is fine to say services have increased by X or Y per cent but we need to recognise and cite the extra demand on services and the extra number of diagnoses that are made every year. That would help inform the debate. What is the position regarding the new school in Cork? As I understand it, a couple of buildings have been assessed but still nothing has been recommended as far as I can see or hear.

Mr. Eamonn Murtagh

I thank the Deputy. I might pass that to Ms Mannion for the general discussion on Cork and the places in Cork.

Ms Martina Mannion

I thank Mr. Murtagh and the Deputy. On the Deputy's first point, I reiterate that the Department does not wish to see parents having to trigger legislative provisions in section 29 nor does the Department wish to trigger section 37 processes to ensure provision is available. All the steps and processes the Department and the NCSE have in place are specifically to ensure we have sufficient provision. I accept the issue that the Deputy and other Deputies have raised in relation to the challenge identified, particularly in Cork. We are conscious there are students who have requirements for special school and special class placements. We are working through a number of engagements with the management bodies and stakeholders in the Cork area in relation to how this might be delivered, including expansion of existing special schools and looking, together with patrons, at the possibility of providing special school placements. It is an ongoing process.

We are working through it with the patrons and with the local groups in Cork with a view to trying to find a solution. We are conscious that the parents need us to come back on that as quickly as possible. Our absolute focus at the moment is to be able to provide that clarity to those parents and to people in Cork as a matter of urgency.

To follow on from that, with respect, I have spoken to all the potential patrons, including Cork ETB, Cope and others, and I have spoken to a number of stakeholders in regard to the identification of a number of sites. This has been going on a long time and people are becoming frustrated, given a number of sites and buildings suitable for conversion have been identified. I understand some of them did not meet the criteria, which is fair enough and is part of any appraisal or assessment. I want to stress the urgency because we need to kick on with this. During the pandemic, politicians of all codes reiterated that home tuition is not suitable for children but, come next September, unless a solution is found in Cork, a number of families will be facing that real prospect, which is not acceptable.

To move on, there is also an issue with certain schools requiring that their students leave primary school at 12 years of age. Can Ms Mannion clarify the situation in regard to a person with a diagnosis or a special educational need and the requirement for them to leave the school at 12 years of age?

There is a specific issue concerning children with dual diagnosis in Cork. Again, both of the school locations that would be suitable to take children with dual diagnosis are full. I have written to Ms McGrath in the past and, to be fair, she gave me a very comprehensive response about the number of ASD units across the county and city. However, as we go down through the list, the vast majority of those units are full. If a person is travelling from outside the greater Cork city environs, given the units available, it would probably require travel to Charleville or Mitchelstown, which are right on the fringes. There is a particular problem in those areas of the city and county where there is fast population growth, in particular suburban areas. It is fine to say, as was mentioned earlier, that a SENO’s role is to help people navigate their way through the system and identify school places but, from the list that was furnished to me, the vast majority of ASD units are full. Consequently, there is a very limited role that a SENO could play, and the SENOs themselves probably feel powerless in the whole situation.

I ask Ms Mannion to clarify the situation with regard to dual diagnosis and to 12-year-old children being compelled to finish primary school.

Ms Martina Mannion

I thank the Deputy. On the first point, special schools can cater for children once they start primary school right up to 18 years of age. If a special class is attached to a mainstream primary school, at the end of sixth class, because it is part of the mainstream primary school, the child would move on to a post-primary placement at that point or, if parents prefer, move into a special school placement if they felt that best met their child's needs. In those circumstances, it is probably fair to say it is not in the best interests of the child who is 12 or over to remain in a mainstream primary school, even if they are in a special class, because that is probably not the best place to meet their educational needs. Special schools can cater for children up to 18 years of age. In those circumstances, the normal process would be that the children would move to a special class in a post-primary school or move to a special school. That is a global explanation of how the special classes attaching to the system work.

With regard to the question of children with dual diagnosis in Cork in particular, the Deputy has identified the issue in regard to children with autism. As well as dual diagnosis, the issue for us as a Department, in working with the NCSE and stakeholders, is to ensure there is enough provision available for all children, regardless of diagnosis, in the Cork area. I want to reassure the Deputy and other Deputies that we are acutely aware of that issue in Cork. We are working tirelessly to ensure we have appropriate provision available in the Cork area to meet the needs, regardless of the diagnosis for those children.

It is important to again reassure committee members that, in order to trigger special education resources, people do not need a diagnosis. How our provision of resources has been set up in more recent years has moved away from the need to have a diagnosis and to focus more on the needs of the individual child.

We can discuss the issue further with the Deputy at any point if he so wishes.

I thank Ms Mannion, Ms McGrath and the other officials from the Department of Education, NEPS and the NESC for attending. I would like to congratulate principals and teaching staff for getting all of our students back to school yesterday. It is great to see the increase in Government investment, which builds on our previous policies. With more than 20% of the budget going towards special needs, as the witnesses have noted, it allows for nearly 1,000 extra SNA posts and another 400 special education teaching posts. It is good that some of those posts are also going into mainstream schools. The school inclusion model is focusing on SNA training and healthcare and educational supports, including nursing, psychology, speech and language and occupational therapy. It is amazing to see how multidisciplinary it is when the supports are in place for our special needs schools.

The most significant issue for me is the lack of special education and special needs capacity for the area around Ballinasloe, where I come from. It covers counties Galway, Roscommon, Westmeath, Offaly and north Tipperary. That is where the students and children who attend these schools come from. How are we going to use all of these extra posts when we do not have a building or space in our area in which to teach the children? I would like to acknowledge and thank the devolved project section of the office of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State at the Department of Education, Deputy Madigan, for their support last week for the provision of two classrooms for St. Teresa's Special School in Ballinasloe. However, the school management is waiting to find out about a site acquisition and where a new school will be located. The school has increased in size from 11 students in 2010 to 27 or 28 last year. I ask the witnesses for a brief response, of perhaps one minute, for each of the following questions. I would appreciate a follow-up written response, if required.

I will direct my first question on infrastructure to Mr. Murtagh, director of the planning and building unit. The question concerns the status of site acquisition for St. Teresa's school. What is the position there? Second, Scoil na Croí Naofa is a DEIS band 1 school with a special needs class, but it has been waiting 25 years for a new school building. It cannot take a second special needs class. What is the plan for this area when we are trying to move forward? I appreciate that the provision of the additional two classrooms will accommodate ten students from September 2021. That has been an important step forward, but there are two major planning projects under way.

On summer provision, I will direct my question to Ms Mannion. The plans for summer provision this year were mentioned earlier. We know that the programme must happen this year, particularly given the need for it after lockdown. How much of the programme is done in schools and at home? If it is a voluntary programme how, and in what way, are we supporting schools to take part? Will the 18,000 SNAs that we have help support the delivery of that programme this summer?

On SENO visits, I will direct my question to Ms McGrath. As per the opening statement, it is noted that allocations for SNA numbers will not be reduced for schools for September 2021. It is really positive that SNA allocations will remain in place this year. If this is the case, do SENO visits still have to take place in schools this year, for example, for the end of April, May and June, particularly given that we are trying to reduce contacts in light of public health guidelines?

Ms Martina Mannion

Perhaps Mr. Murtagh can start and we will follow.

Mr. Eamonn Murtagh

I am aware of the ongoing site acquisition for St. Teresa's Special School in Ballinasloe. I understand that it is progressing well. I will have to follow up on the specifics of it to provide the Senator with the latest position on it. More generally, in terms of planning for SEN provision within school planning areas across the country, as I outlined earlier, we work very closely with the NCSE on the identification of schools in a position to take on special classes, and support the delivery of that additional accommodation through the additional school accommodation, ASA, scheme. In the longer term, we are planning a number of years in advance to identify those schools that have the potential to make such provision into the future. That is an ongoing process. I will come back directly to the Senator on the issue of the site acquisition for St. Teresa's.

That is good news.

Ms Martina Mannion

In terms of the breakdown of the summer programme as regards home-based and school-based provision, almost 13,800 children participated in the programme last year, of which 3,800 were in school-based provision and approximately 9,000 in a home programme at a cost of over €18 million.

As one can see, the balance towards the home programme is part of the issues we are working through to ensure we make the school-based programme more attractive for schools to run. It is a voluntary programme because it is outside the school calendar year. We are engaging with the stakeholders on the types of supports that would make running the school programmes attractive to them. These include, for example, reducing the administrative burden, streamlining the payments and application processes and providing support in the run-up to, and delivery of, the programme.

Obviously, our focus in the special education area of the Department has been getting the children back to school as quickly as possible. We are pleased children with special educational needs were prioritised for returning. Special schools are back since 11 February, special classes are back and all of the children are back since yesterday.

We are now working through how the summer programme might work and ensuring it is focused more towards school than home. However, the home-based component is also important because it will remain an important part of the programme and worked successfully for more than 9,000 children last year.

I thank Ms Mannion for the opening statement. In light of the recent revelations in the "Prime Time" programme, have any of the witnesses been asked by the Department of Health to provide information on individual children and families?

Ms Martina Mannion

The Department became aware of this matter as a result of the "Prime Time" programme on 25 March. We issued a press statement at the time. I reiterate that the focus of the Department, in its management of litigation over the past 20 years and more, has been on ensuring children with special educational needs had access to the appropriate provision. The best defence of litigation proceedings was ensuring the children had access to appropriate educational placements and provision to meet their needs. That has been the entire focus of the Department's work.

Has Ms Mannion supplied information to the Department of Health?

Ms Martina Mannion

As a result of the programme, we have instituted a review of the procedures relating to how the cases were managed over a long period. The review is ongoing and we will be able to provide further information once it is complete. It is important to reiterate that supporting children and their provision is the primary focus of the Department's focus on litigation.

Who is conducting the review? Is the Department conducting its review internally?

Ms Martina Mannion

This matter was brought to our attention as a result of the "Prime Time" programme and we have instituted our review of processes and procedures. That review is ongoing.

That does not answer my question. Who is in charge of the review?

Ms Martina Mannion

To be fair, the matter was only brought to our attention three weeks ago and relates to litigation going back 20 or 25 years. It is appropriate that we review our files and then advise as to their contents, rather than comment in this forum. Our focus in dealing with this has been to ensure children have had appropriate provision. It is important the committee is aware of that.

I take it from her response that Ms Mannion was absolutely unaware of the practices before the "Prime Time" programme.

Is it true to say that?

Deputy Conway-Walsh is travelling a little outside the remit of today's meeting.

That is okay, Chair, but I think it is very important. We need to understand what is happening.

I understand. In fairness, however, when the committee invited the witnesses to appear, we were very specific about the items that they were to cover. I want to be fair to them.

Yes, but it is important for children. Is Ms Mannion aware of how many children are suspended from primary school at the moment because of behavioural issues?

Ms Martina Mannion

I apologise to the Deputy, but we will have to come back to her on that. The Department does not hold information on suspensions of individual children. Is the Deputy talking about children with special educational needs?

I will give an example of a seven-year old child who has been suspended several times in recent months. The child has not been assessed by NEPS and is continuously suspended. Does Ms Mannion think that is right? I ask that in light of the fact that she is telling us that €2 billion has been provided for additional supports for children. I cannot reconcile how children as young as seven can be suspended from school because of behavioural issues. One would imagine that all of the supports and services are there to be able to address those needs.

Ms Martina Mannion

I will ask my colleague, Ms Tansey, to comment. She will be able to articulate how the management of those issues are addressed. Obviously, she cannot comment on individual cases, but I think she will be able to explain to the Deputy how cases are managed by schools.

Ms Anne Tansey

NEPS provides a service to all primary and post-primary schools through the assignment of psychologists. We provide a dual service. We support schools to build their capacity to support the children within the school setting and to provide a continuum of support. The support we provide for schools consists of two types of service. There is a case work service and a support and development service. The case work service is built into-----

If Ms Tansey does not mind, I will ask her a question because we have very limited time. As we speak, do all schools have access to NEPS? Is there an onus on school principals to refer to NEPS if requested by a parent?

Ms Anne Tansey

I am not sure that I heard the Deputy's question completely as the sound broke up a little. From what I heard, Deputy Conway-Walsh asked if all schools have access to NEPS and if there is an onus on a principal to refer a child to the service? All primary and post-primary schools have access to NEPS. What happens with regard to the individual supports is that NEPS supports teachers and school personnel through the provision of a consultation and advisory service to support children within their schools. If a continuum of support has been put in place and a student support plan is in place and the child is still presenting with needs, often times the school principal will prioritise that child for an individual case work service from NEPS. It is possible for a school principal to receive the support of NEPS in that instance.

Does Ms Tansey know how many parents are accessing psychological services privately because they cannot get a psychological assessment service from NEPS or any other State service? I know a number of parents who are paying large amounts of money for private psychological assessments because they have been left with no choice. My concern is that only those who have the ability to pay will have their children assessed and get a diagnosis. I accept what Ms Tansey said earlier, namely, that one does not have to wait for the diagnosis in order for the services to be provided. That is not the experience, however. Does she know how many parents pay for private services?

Ms Anne Tansey

I do not have those figures on how many parents are accessing private psychological services.

However, as we said earlier, accessing NEPS for a diagnosis is not a prerequisite to a child receiving support within the school setting or of the school availing of the support services provided by the Department of Education. As a colleague mentioned earlier, we have a system in place now whereby supports for schools and to support children within schools are front-loaded and pre-allocated based on the school's profile. The allocation of that support is not dependent on a NEPS diagnosis but the service is available to support schools in providing that continuum of support.

I thank Ms Tansey. The next speaker is Senator Pauline O'Reilly who will be followed by Senator Fiona O'Loughlin.

I thank the witnesses for coming in. I reiterate that there has been significant investment in special needs education. It is important for all of us here to recognise that but the challenge is that children grow up very fast and we see the realities on the ground. It may take some time for things to fall into place but we have an obligation regardless to ensure that every child's needs are met. We have a constitutional obligation as well as everything else and therefore we need to ask the witnesses these questions about individual cases.

One of the requests we made was for the witnesses to talk about the EPSEN Act, which has not been covered at this stage. A number of provisions in that Act have not been commenced, despite the fact that it is on the Statute Book since 2004. From speaking to As I Am, one of the concerns is that in other jurisdictions such as the US and the UK individual education plans, IEPs, are on a statutory footing but that is not the case here. I tabled a Commencement matter on this to the Minister. I understand that from the Department's perspective that is because of a move from diagnosis to this inclusion model. However, IEPs are still being used because they are in the guidelines. The fact that is not on a statutory footing means that people do not have the same kind of recourse if their school is not putting in place proper education plans. Could the witnesses outline whether they believe that is the case because what I am hearing on the ground, certainly from As I Am, are many stories about people getting very little communication about individual education plans, which are supposed to be consultative. Are they confident that all schools are rolling these out in the same manner because leaving something in guidelines does not give people enough confidence?

Ms Martina Mannion

I thank the Senator. I might ask Mr. Doody from the inspectorate, who has particular knowledge of IEPs in school and how they support children with special needs, to respond as he might be able to assist her with her query. I can specifically answer then in respect of the EPSEN Act.

Mr. Brendan Doody

I note that while there is a guideline which suggests that there should be planning for all students, it is very rare that we come across situations in schools where children with special educational needs do not have that level of individual planning available to them. We conducted a fairly comprehensive review of provision for children with autism in special classes in 2019 and published a report last year and, for the most part, the quality of planning for individual children was found to be fairly good. There were some instances where it was not to the required standard and that would have been addressed at the level of the individual school. Overwhelmingly, however, the supports that were in place included a good level of planning for the students.

As members may know, there is a union directive, at post-primary level in particular, that IEPs would not be put in place for students but we are finding that is not the case in practice.

The support file that is supposed to be made available for students, as indicated in the guidelines, is actually in place.

I thank Mr. Doody. Do the witnesses believe the EPSEN Act will be commenced in full? What is the position on some of the aspects concerning individual plans, particularly on mediation and section 38? Could I have a response to that? I would like to come back in so could we speed up the answers, if the witnesses do not mind?

Ms Martina Mannion

Certainly. The Senator has identified that certain sections of the Act have been commenced and that others have not. The Minister of State responsible for special education and inclusion, Deputy Madigan, has indicated that one of her priorities is to review the laws on special educational needs, including the EPSEN Act. That is something the Department has indicated it will do. The Senator pointed out that since the EPSEN legislation was implemented, the policy on supporting children with special educational needs has moved on and evolved on foot of evidence and policy advice from the NCSE, which takes into account international perspectives and other matters. The fact is that the model for the provision of special educational needs has moved on from a diagnosis-led model to one that is driven by the needs of the child. Having regard to any view that is substantially different from the one that underlined and underpinned the EPSEN Act, any review of the Act will need to take into account the changing policy since the inclusion of EPSEN provisions in 2004. The review is something that the Minister of State is committed to and that the Department will undertake to do.

The period 2004 to now is quite a long one in which the measures could have been put on a statutory footing. This needs to happen as soon as possible. I am looking for full commencement because both aspects are obviously working in conjunction with each other anyway. We do not have the same rights if we do not have them in legislation.

My other question is on July provision or summer provision. Ms Mannion spoke about an inducement for schools to provide the service in school but schools are struggling to get tutors or teachers to do so. It is partly because there is a delay in payments, of up to four months in some cases. I want to be confident. Is Ms Mannion confident that this will be resolved? Are we certain it will be resolved for this summer?

My point on school buildings is that many of the buildings on the schools list are for multidenominational schools. We are waiting for these to be rolled out. It impacts some sections of society more than others in respect of the provision of the new special education classes.

Ms Martina Mannion

I reiterate that the focus of our work is ensuring that we have a successful summer programme in 2021, building on the success of 2020. We are considering reducing the administrative burden through a centralised applications process, providing funding towards preparation and overseeing and facilitating earlier payments of school staff, if possible. We are working through those processes internally so it is our hope that we will be able to streamline and make that process smoother for 2021. We have not concluded that internally or with the stakeholders yet. We will obviously have to come back to the Senator on that, but trying to make the process as streamlined as possible, for the benefit of parents and schools, is very much our focus.

I thank Ms Mannion and all her colleagues. I acknowledge all the work that has been done and the significant investment that has been made in special needs, and rightly so. I share Senator O'Reilly's concern about the EPSEN Act. That 17 years have elapsed since its passage and that some issues may have changed certainly do not lessen its whole principle. What was considered very important 17 years ago is all the more important at this point in time.

Deputy Conway-Walsh raised the issue of children not being in school due to reduced timetables. There has been a complete abuse of reduced timetables and I think we are all aware of specific examples. Only this morning, I spoke to a parent about her child who has special needs and has been getting sent home every morning. The child attends an ASD unit within a mainstream school. There was a large focus on the issue a number of years ago and agreement was reached that guidelines would be issued and a proper monitoring system would be put in place. Is there an update on that? It fits in to what we are talking about.

Turning to the national training programme for SNAs and teachers, I acknowledge that the Department is considering rolling out another such a programme for nursing within schools. Is there an update on that proposal? Having listened to what our guests outlined, I believe that teachers and SNAs need more than the types of supports being suggested.

We all agree that early intervention is very important. There are significant delays between assessment and provision of support services for children diagnosed with autism. Does the Department have up-to-date information on how long the delays are at this time? Anecdotally, I have heard they are very long. What do our guests consider an acceptable delay?

I know of a number of parents whose children have been diagnosed with verbal dyspraxia but they had to go to England to get the diagnosis. There seems to have been a significant shortfall in support services for speech therapy. I know of a seven-year-old boy who has had only six public speech therapy sessions. Again, his parents, thankfully, could afford to make sacrifices to be able to go down the private road but that is not an option for everybody.

The introduction of the new school inclusion model at the school for the deaf in Cabra meant that a speech therapist post was to be taken away. While that has been rectified, and I know the Minister of State committed to that, it is a very important issue and we want to ensure that designated special schools will not lose out under the new model.

On the supports for schools through NEPS, while it is very important that schools have a wellness policy and a positive mental health policy, there are circumstances in which direct interventions are needed. Are professional counsellors provided by the Department? Is there access to funding through the school to be able to supply that? It is very important, notwithstanding the issue of peer learning.

Ms Martina Mannion

The Senator raised a large number of issues, so we may not be able to get through all of them in the time available. On delays in diagnosis, I reiterate that a diagnosis is not required for children with special educational needs to access educational supports in schools. We have moved away in recent years from a diagnosis being required to access supports towards focusing on the needs of the child. As for the issues the Senator raised regarding delayed diagnosis, I understand they may relate to a delay in respect of access of supports once children are diagnosed or health-related supports, potentially in respect of therapies and other issues. As those matters are not under the remit of the Department of Education, we probably cannot comment in any great detail on them.

The Senator mentioned reduced timetables, an issue on which my colleagues in the special education and social inclusion areas of the Department have appeared before the committee in recent times.

To reiterate, we have committed to ensuring robust data collection on the use of reduced timetables. We want to ensure that where reduced timetables are in place, they are only used in a manner that is limited, proportionate and absolutely necessary, in line with our guidance. We had guidelines drawn up for the use of the reduced timetables and we have spoken to the committee about that on previous occasions. Those guidelines have been out for consultation with education stakeholders but the process has, unfortunately, coincided with the pandemic. We reissued the guidelines for engagement with stakeholders in late 2020, with a view to having them introduced in the schools in early 2021 but as a result of school closures, that has been further delayed. Now that schools are open, we are in a position to progress this issue further. The key message is that reduced timetables are to be used only in very limited circumstances to reintroduce a child to school but never as a way of managing a child's behaviour or otherwise as a replication for the appropriate supports that the Department is funding to ensure a child has access to appropriate provision.

I know there were a number of other areas about which the Senator asked. She asked about progressing disability services in the school for the deaf. It is an issue that has been raised and managed under the remit of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. It provides a pathway for people to access therapy in the wider health space. The Minister of State has recently announced that she will be holding further discussions with the HSE about the management of the programme and has paused any changes in therapy services to schools pending those discussions. That is an update on those issues. I am not sure if the Senator asked about anything else.

I thank our guests for joining us today and sharing their presentations. My first question relates to NEPS. I welcome that there has been a recent increase in NEPS psychologists. However, I am aware from a reply I received to a parliamentary question some months ago that the number of whole-time equivalent NEPS psychologists currently stands at 221, including an extra 17 who have been allocated to well-being in our schools. We know that only 205 of those posts have been filled. Could I get an update on the outstanding 16 posts and what is happening there? Are there barriers to the recruitment of NEPS psychologists and, if there are, will our guests identify them? Are pay and conditions barriers? Is there a lack of available candidates? What are the barriers? There appears to be a shortage of NEPS psychologists. I have raised this issue time and again since my first election in 2016. I was acutely aware of the shortage of NEPS psychologists in schools where I worked. I would like an update on that and on what can be done around recruitment to attract more people into psychology because we have a need for that.

I welcome the extra €2 billion for additional supports for children with special needs. I also acknowledge that the budget last October identified that additional teachers and school staff would be provided, particularly in the area of special educational needs. That budget was presented on 3 October and we are now in an entirely different situation. Many schools and principals are identifying the lack of engagement among students as being an issue of concern, in addition to educational disadvantage. Will any other provisions be made? Do our guests feel that the measures and resources identified and allowed for in the most recent budget are already inadequate when compared with the increased demand for pupil assistance?

I would like an answer to this given the situation in which we find ourselves.

The issue of reduced timetables, which was referred by a previous speaker, is a very serious one that was highlighted by this committee, which produced a report on it. The fact that 12% of children only received one hour per day is very concerning. The witnesses mentioned that data collection has been put in place but have any other resources been put in place by the Department to assist schools on this matter? I would like a specific answer to the question of resources. The witnesses spoke about data collection but is there anything else available?

My third point encompasses an issue raised by many people this morning, namely, the delays relating to school buildings. I have raised the case of Gaelscoil na Laochra, a school that needs to transfer to a permanent premises in Birr, County Offaly, with the Department. There are children with special needs in that school who are in an entirely inadequate premises in Sandymount Haven, Birr. The school is to move to a premises that is partially occupied by HSE mental health services but there has been delay after delay. It has been going on for at least four years. I am very concerned for all the children but particularly those with special educational needs along with the fact that the school's potential is being hampered. The lack of adequate space during a pandemic is unacceptable. The school is in a building in Sandymount Haven that is inadequate and there is a lack of space, including in the school yard. I would like a direct update because I have raised this issue a number of times but I cannot get direct answers. There does not seem to be enough engagement between the Department of Education and the HSE on this matter. I would call for that. If another section of the Department deals specifically with this, I would welcome a written answer on it and something positive that shows that steps are being taken to remedy this situation.

Ms Martina Mannion

The Deputy covered three issues. I will deal with the second one first. The Deputy will appreciate that when an individual issue is raised concerning a specific school and building project, we will come back to her directly. Regarding the budget and funding for special education, we outlined in our opening statement that in September 2021, we will see an additional 1,000 SNAs and an additional 400 extra special education teachers on top of what was a significant increase over previous years. We are talking about a 50% increase in special education allocation since 2011. This is a really significant increase and shows the Minister and Department's commitment to special education where more than 20% of our budget is now being spent on children with special educational needs.

The Deputy mentioned the impact of the return to school and Covid. The Department is working on this and all the measures we have put in place since March 2020 have been to put in place resources and supports to support children who are out of school as a result of school closures in particular acknowledgement that children with special educational needs would find it hardest to engage with remote learning. It is for this reason that they were prioritised for the return to school and that all the supports and resources we have put in place, including additional guidance, were there to ensure that when they were being taught remotely, they were able to access this to the best possible degree, acknowledging that nothing replaces the child returning to the school itself.

The first issue raised by the Deputy related to the recruitment of psychologists. I will hand over to Ms Tansey but I reiterate that all public service appointments are recruited in line with public service requirements. In an organisation like NEPS, which has over 200 staff, there will be ongoing recruitment of psychologists and filling of posts on an ongoing basis, so this is not a static figure. As people retire and move on, there is continuous movement in and out of the service. The key message given by Ms Tansey is that a NEPS psychological service is available to every primary and post-primary school in the country. Ms Tansey might be able to provide more information on that.

Ms Anne Tansey

I thank the Deputy for her question. In relation to NEPS numbers, it is important to note that we have grown from a base of 173 whole-time equivalent psychologists in 2016 up to what the Deputy rightly stated is now a sanctioned figure of 221 whole-time equivalent psychologists. We currently have 206 psychologists in post and we have recently recruited three more psychologists during the month of March. We have engaged with the Public Appointments Service and we are planning a recruitment competition for NEPS in this quarter to fill the remaining vacancies in NEPS. We have managed to fill the vacancies that have occurred in NEPS over the past four years and are hopeful that the next recruitment competition will enable us to fill the current vacancies that we have.

To date this year, with the staff that we have, we provided an individual casework service for 5,743 children and young people with additional needs in our schools despite the restrictions that have been in place as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. NEPS has provided a blended model of service delivery during this period. We have provided an in-school service where it is essential and possible to do so within the guidelines. We have also adopted a remote service delivery where we work through teachers and through parents to support individual children with additional needs in their schools. This approach, we feel, has been largely successful. Moreover, for the information of members, our figures with regard to casework will reach those comparable to pre-pandemic years.

Could I ask one more question?

I will let the Deputy come back in because she has gone over time.

I just want to clarify something.

Quickly then.

Are there barriers to the recruitment of NEPS psychologists?

Ms Anne Tansey

We have run a competition for the past five years. Our numbers have increased and it is not just the numbers that we have been sanctioned. We have had an increase of ten per year and then 17 last year. It is not just those increases. We have retirements and we have people who resign from our organisation. We have a rolling need to fill vacancies within NEPS. There are largely two colleges which provide the professional training programme for educational psychologists. These are Mary Immaculate College in Limerick and UCD in Dublin. We have generally been able to fill our vacancies through recruitment from both of those courses, and sometimes through recruitment from the UK.

I thank Deputy Nolan. I myself have a couple of quick questions. One or two members want to come back in. If anybody wants to come back in, I ask them to message the clerk to the committee. Senator Dolan is the first up, after me, to come back in.

Ms Tansey spoke of the psychologists. Is there a shortage of psychologists in Ireland for recruitment at present?

Ms Anne Tansey

In general, we have been able to fill our vacancies. However, with the planned school inclusion model and the planned progress in disability services within health, the plans are that there will be more psychologists available within the system.

All the officials will agree it has been a huge issue today when they talk about the imperative that there be early intervention when a child is diagnosed with autism. There are reports of considerable delays right across the country. They heard Deputies in Cork speaking about their own constituency. I have experienced it in my own constituency in Wexford. Right across the country one hears these terrible stories, and on the media as well, of the considerable delays.

It is terrible when one hears of children being diagnosed with autism by NEPS. Could NEPS give me a reply on the waiting times between when the child gets a diagnosis of autism and the provision thereafter of the therapeutic services outside of those provided in the school? Is there a specified target date for providing those services after diagnosis? I accept there is an issue with the HSE in delays but is there a better way for us to streamline our services between the Department of Education and the HSE?

Ms Anne Tansey

I suppose it might be important to say that NEPS does not diagnose autism. That is just one thing to say. The diagnoses are generally made by multidisciplinary teams that are operated within the HSE services.

In terms of what NEPS does and the services NEPS provides in schools and the in-school service, as we said earlier on, the lack of a diagnosis does not preclude a child from accessing the services that are available within the school setting.

As to the linkages between education and health, my colleague, Ms McGrath, in the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and I engage frequently with our colleagues in the HSE with a view to streamlining services to try to ensure that the services provided for children are streamlined across health and education.

Does Ms Tansey believe the streamlining is satisfactory at the moment because many people would disagree with that and say it is not a satisfactory at the moment? I engage with parents and, as a politician, I do not believe any parent should have to approach their local Deputy, councillor or Senator to look for these services or approach me, as a public representative, to speed up the provision of these services. It is terrible when a parent has to go to a politician to spill their heart out because of the delay in services. I do not believe it is down to funding; it is often down to the streamlining of the services between the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, the Department of Education and the HSE. We could spend the next two to three hours arguing on that point but I wish to allow other members to come back into this discussion.

A key recommendation in the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response report on the impact of Covid-19 on primary and secondary education was that emotional counselling and therapeutic support should be provided in all primary and secondary schools as an urgent priority. I have no doubt that our witnesses, as officials, have read the report that was commissioned by the committee. For their information, these were recommendations Nos. 9 and 25.

Could the officials brief the committee on any progress that has been made with regard to the implementation of these recommendations with specific reference to students with special education needs?

Ms Anne Tansey

I will come in on that question. The Department's approach to supporting the well-being of our children and young people in our school settings is set out in the Department's well-being policy and framework for practice which was published in 2018 and refreshed in 2019. This approach is founded on very strong research and best international practice in how schools can best support the well-being and mental health of children and young people. The approach proposed is that a whole-school preventative approach is put in place that has multiple components which include providing children with opportunities to build core social and emotional skills and competencies within school settings, providing children and young people with opportunities to experience supportive relationships within the school setting and to learn through those relationships and providing children and young people with opportunities to be part of a school environment and culture that feels both physically and psychologically safe. This is an environment in which children feel a sense of belonging and connectedness, in which their voice is heard and in which they feel supported. We are implementing that through encouraging schools to use a reflective school's self-evaluation process in order to identify the needs of their school community in the promotion of well-being and mental health and to identify what needs to be put in place in that respect.

There are a number of supports in place for schools in order to implement that approach to promoting well-being. These include supports that come from NEPS itself but also the support of our guidance counsellors within the school setting, from the National Council for Special Education, from the professional development service for teachers and from other support services.

I mentioned earlier the very specific interventions that NEPS puts in place in order to support schools to build key core emotional and social competencies of children and young people such as the Friends programmes and the trauma-informed programmes that we are currently piloting. Within the Department we have also developed guidelines on best practice for schools supporting children with autism. These guidelines are currently being finalised and will be made available to schools in the coming year.

We also promote student support teams at post-primary school level to co-ordinate support for children but also to facilitate links to the community and other non-school support services and our guidance counsellors also do this. Counselling is a key part of the role of the guidance counsellor and it is offered on an individual and group basis at particular times, particularly at transition points. The guidance counsellor also identifies and supports the referral of students to external counselling agencies and professionals, as required.

As the committee members may be aware, it is the Department of Health which has responsibility for the provision of counselling services in Ireland. It provides this for our children and young people through the primary care psychology services and the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS.

Recently, the HSE and its funded providers have provided e-mental health services that offer online, text and telephone support to young people seeking mental health advice and information. That includes services provided through Jigsaw, SpunOut, Bodywhys, BeLonG To, Childline, and a range of other services. In our Department, we support the signposting within schools and for students to these HSE and HSE-funded services. We have built strong links with the Department of Health. We are exploring ways to improve supports for young people, including increased awareness and signposting to the range of available supports that are being provided by our colleagues in the Department of Health and the HSE. We will continue to collectively explore that.

I do not want a reply to this, but I have been speaking to a number of teachers recently who have spoken about children being in and out of school over the last while. It will be a significant challenge for the witnesses to deal with kids' emotions and so on. It is anecdotal evidence, since one teacher told me that no specific research was done on this. He said that the female students were finding it much more difficult than the male students to fit back into school because male students get back into hurling, football, sports and so on. I am not saying that the female students do not but many do not have that same activity. The teachers who I was speaking to said that this will be a significant problem, and not just for the next months. They feel that both male and female children have lost out on much education over the last number of months, and they reckon that, beyond Covid-19, this could stick with them for the next 12, 18, or 24 months, and that they might feel that they are trying to play catch-up the whole time. It will be a significant challenge.

I note to Ms Tansey that I acknowledge the importance of career guidance counsellors. I am on the Sub-Committee on Mental Health as well and they are crucial.

My query to Ms McGrath was about whether SENO visits need to take place over the next couple of months. If the allocation remains the same from September, is it necessary, with public health guidelines etc., and could we reduce contact?

Ms Mary McGrath

Our staff are conducting school visits where essential. If services can be provided in an online space, that is happening, but where the service is essential and an in-school visit is required to deliver the service, whether the services of our visiting teachers, advisers or SENOs, those face-to-face meetings in schools are happening currently, in line with Covid regulations as required.

I apologise for not knowing this. If it has been stated that there will be no reduction in the SNA allocation in September, is it necessary for these visits to take place?

Ms Mary McGrath

We await clarification from our colleagues in the Department about SNA allocations for September 2021.

Ms McGrath's statement, which she gave to us earlier, indicated that there would be no reduction in allocations from September. Am I incorrect about that?

Ms Mary McGrath

I am afraid the Senator is. That was not in my statement.

Ms Martina Mannion

It was in respect of special education teacher allocation but there has been no update in this regard.

With regard to autism, what is in place to ensure that autistic children have defined pathways for those who have exceptional abilities, especially in mathematics, arts or whatever subject it might be? How are those exceptional abilities developed within the education system?

Mr. Brendan Doody

One of the key principles that underpins the special education teacher model is that the students with the greatest level of need should get the greatest level of support. Determining which student requires the greatest level of support in the school lies with the school. That removes the need for a diagnosis.

If, for example, there are students in the school with exceptionally high ability who require additional supports to ensure they meet their cognitive abilities and so on, they should be supported to avail of whatever support can be provided by the special education teacher. It could also involve project work or a range of other types of work that could be provided for the student. That the student has an exceptionally high ability should not preclude him or her from accessing support at the level of the individual school.

I thank Ms Mannion, Mr. Ward, Mr. Doody, Mr. Murtagh, Ms McGrath and Ms Tansey for appearing before the committee. The briefing was informative and productive for us as committee members to enable us to follow on from the information they gave us. I also thank members for their input.

The committee stands adjourned until its next public meeting at 12.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 20 April 2021.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.31 p.m. until 12.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 20 April 2021.