Commencement Matters

School Staff

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne.

I thank the Chair for selecting this Commencement matter. I have been contacted by the parents of the children who attend Shraheen national school in Knockmore, County Mayo and Councillor Neil Cruise about the school's pupil numbers and teacher allocations. The school has two teachers at present. Just 14 pupils were enrolled in the school at the start of the school year in September. In accordance with Department of Education and Skills criteria, an extra pupil needed to be enrolled in the school by the 30 September deadline in order that it could retain its second teacher. My understanding is a 15th pupil was in attendance at the school last Friday, 28 September. I understand up to 11 children from families that are already in the parish and the catchment area will be enrolling in the school in the next couple of years. This does not take account of any extra pupils who might come to the school from outside the area in that time.

I will explain the dilemma being faced by everybody in the area. If the school can stay open for this year, it is projected that its numbers will increase thereafter. As the number of pupils in fifth and sixth class is small, just two pupils will leave in the next two or three years. It is projected that something like 11 pupils will come into the school during that time. I understand the deadline which was given was not relayed to the parents until after the school opened for the new term in September. This meant that the timeframe for getting an extra pupil enrolled was very tight. I presume the returns from Shraheen national school are not in yet. I am raising this matter because schools in local parishes and local areas are obviously very important for the people of those communities. It is important for the high standard of teaching in the school to continue.

I thank the Minister of State for being here to deal with this matter and accept that the Minister for Education and Skills is not available.

I apologise on behalf of Minister who cannot be here and thank the Senator for raising this matter, as it gives me the opportunity to outline the position on staffing in primary schools generally and Shraheen national school, Foxford, County Mayo in particular.

The criteria used for the allocation of teaching posts are published annually on the Department of Education and Skills website. The key factors for determining the staffing resources provided at individual school level is the staffing schedule for the relevant school year and pupil enrolments on the previous 30 September. The staffing arrangements for the 2018-19 school year are set out in Circular 0010/2018 which is available on the Department's website. The staffing schedule operates in a clear and transparent manner and treats all similar types of schools equally irrespective of location.

Budget 2018 provided for a one point improvement to the primary staffing schedule, which reduced the general average pupil-teacher ratio, PTR, to 26:1. The improved staffing schedule has been implemented for the 2018-19 school year. This measure brings the teacher allocation ratio in all primary schools to the most favourable ever seen at primary level. While budget 2012 increased the appointment and retention ratios for small schools, that is, schools with up to four-classroom teachers, improvements to the staffing of these schools have been made in the past few years. Improved retention thresholds for the second, third and fourth classroom teacher and also the improved appointment and retention thresholds for two teacher schools situated 8 km or more from the nearest school of the same type of patronage and, or language of instruction were introduced for the 2015-16 school year.

Budget 2016 announced a one point improvement to the primary staffing schedule, with this improvement implemented in the 2016-17 school year. Budget 2017 announced two adjustments for one teacher schools. Where the school is the sole primary school on an island the school will be able to appoint a second teacher. Regarding single teacher schools generally, those with an enrolment of 15 or more pupils can apply to the staffing appeal board for a second post where the single teacher has children across six or more class groups. The staffing arrangements also include an appeals mechanism for schools to submit an appeal under certain criteria to an independent appeals board.

Shraheen national school is currently a two-teacher school. The enrolment required to retain a second teacher is 17 pupils. On 30 September 2017, the school had an enrolment of 15 pupils and was due to have its teaching staff reduced to one in this current September. The school submitted an appeal to the March meeting of the primary staffing appeals board. In its appeal, the school projected an enrolment of 16 pupils across six class groupings and the school was successful in its appeal. The school was advised that the retention of the second teacher was dependent on the school achieving an enrolment of at least 15 pupils across six class groupings on 30 September 2018. The primary staffing appeals board operates independently of the Minister and the Department and its decision is final.

The current enrolment in the school for the 2018-19 school year has been confirmed as 14. As the school has not achieved the required enrolment, the second teaching post will be suppressed with effect from Friday, 26 October and the most junior teacher in the school will be redeployed. I thank the Senator again for the opportunity to outline this process to the House. I have taken some notes on what he said about the fact that since last Friday,15 pupils have been enrolled in the school. I will bring it to the attention of the Minister. However, as outlined in the reply, the situation may well be out of his hands. That said, I will bring it to his attention.

I thank the Minister for State for the reply. I accept the criteria as outlined, but my information is slightly different from that outlined. The information will be confirmed one way or the other. The parents who contacted me were disappointed that they had not been made aware of the position earlier because there would have been no problem getting up to 15 enrolments. Efforts were made and there were 15 pupils in attendance last Friday. I am not sure of the exact details, but the numbers will have to be confirmed one way or the other. If the school's staffing allocation is reduced to one teacher, does that mean that the school will have to close? Given that enrolments are projected to increase, with 11 children from families with pupils in the school due to start in the next two years, the issue is bridging the gap between enrolments at the start of this September and future enrolments in the coming years. A public meeting on this issue is being held on Friday next. I hope the matter can be resolved because Shraheen national school is the heartbeat of the community.

I assure the Senator that I will bring his questions back to the Minister. In the context of the aforementioned public meeting, I understand his need for an urgent reply. I will ask the Minister to reply to him directly.

Special Educational Needs

I welcome the Minister of State. I refer to the inaction of the Department of Education and Skills vis-à-vis unregulated seclusion and restraint of children with disabilities. With the greatest respect to her, I am disappointed that none of the Minister for Education and Skills, the Minister of State at the Department of Health with responsibility for disability or the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs considers this issue important enough to merit their attendance in person to discuss it.

Inclusion Ireland published a discussion document last week, "Shining a light on seclusion and restraint in schools in Ireland", which shares stories of 14 children with a disability, some as young as five years of age. Following the publication of the document, Departments should have been reeling in an effort to react to the issues that it raises. Inclusion Ireland is concerned that despite being asked by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, on three occasions, the Department of Education and Skills has failed to provide best practice guidelines or to introduce reporting and monitoring protocols. Mr. Paddy Connolly, chief executive officer, CEO, of Inclusion Ireland, has stated that the rights and welfare of children should be at the centre of all that happens in schools. On the issue of managing the use of seclusion and restraint, best practice includes support and training for staff, whole-of-school positive behaviour strategies, school leadership and external inputs such as child mental health or disability services.

I put the Minister of State on notice that my colleague, Senator Lynn Ruane, will introduce legislation on this matter, to which the Government will have to respond. I will now read into the record some of the cases that were outlined in the discussion document. The names have been changed to protect the identity of the children involved.

One day I went to collect Brian* from his special school and he was sitting on the sofa in reception crying. His arms were very sore and staff would not tell me what happened. Later Brian calmed down and could tell me two Special Needs Assistants had held him face down on the floor by his arms which were now black and blue.

Michael*, who was 10 years old at the time, wasn’t allowed in the classroom of his Dublin school for 3 months. Instead Michael had to work in an empty room next door to the room where his class-mates were working.

My daughter Jenny* was restrained in a ‘prone restraint’ which is being held in a face down position by 2 or three people. On one month this took place up to 50 times and this went on for some time.

William* was restrained in his school transport by the escort with his head held down physically for the whole journey which took 20 minutes. William said he found it very hard to breathe and it was a painful experience. On other occasions William’s hands were held down ‘just in case’.

Seán* was restrained by a teacher when he was in senior infants. The teacher in question told me that I didn’t have to worry about Seán’s behaviour in school as he had found a way to restrain him.

Luke* attended a special school and he told me that his teacher had locked him into a toilet. The school denied this when I complained. We moved him to another school and a number of months later I was contacted by Tusla as two more children had alleged the teacher had locked them into a toilet. An investigation followed but found that the teacher posed no risk to children and the teacher returned to the school.

“Killian* was locked into a small storage room with a small window. We were initially told the room would only ever be used as a ‘last resort’. The teacher put Killian into this locked room, unattended for up to four or five hours for trivial reasons such as not doing school work quick enough or talking in class.

These are testimonies from the parents of children with disabilities who are some of the most vulnerable children in the education system. The Department of Education and Skills, the Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs should be all over this report, as well as making statements on how they are going to react to it. The reaction from Inclusion Ireland is one of exasperation at the lack of action from the Department. I understand the stresses that teachers in this area experience but the 14 case studies in this report are appalling and I want to know what the Government is going to do about it.

I am here on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills. I do not know about the other Ministers in question.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I understand the impact it has on him as a former teacher. I wish to advise him that the well-being and safety of children should be at the centre of all policy and practices in school. The board of management of each school is responsible for the care and safety of all of the pupils in their schools. Schools should supervise and support children who are distressed or out of control until they have recovered and are able to re-engage in the classroom. This may mean the temporary removal of a child from the environment where the problems have arisen in some circumstances. Schools have a duty of care to all their students and any action taken to manage behaviour must be proportionate. Schools are not required to report such interventions to the Department.

The educational welfare service of Tusla which is now under the aegis of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has developed guidelines for schools on codes of behaviour which all schools are required by law to have in place. The guidelines advise that specialised behaviour management strategies such as the use of restraint, should not be used without expert advice, training and monitoring. In particular, the guidelines point to certain sanctions which are regarded as inappropriate, including leaving a student in an unsupervised situation while in the care of the school. All parents must be made aware of behaviour management strategies employed by the school. There is a range of guidance, advice and support available to schools, including from their local National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, psychologist and the NCSE's support service. Training is also available for teachers and schools.

The Department is working on the development of guidelines for schools on responding to crisis situations and complex student behavioural needs. These guidelines will be informed by advice from the NCSE. The Department will consult the education partners on them, as well in the coming months. It is anticipated that they will be finalised by the end of this school year. The guidelines will be underpinned by the principles that such intervention is never used for the purpose of discipline, it should be applied proportionately and it should last only as long as is necessary to de-escalate the situation. The guidelines will also underline the importance of continued supervision of children during a crisis period, including matters related to behaviour. It is also expected that the guidelines will underline the importance of recording such incidents and how they are managed.

Where a parent, or any other person, has concerns about the care or safety of a child in school, they should report these concerns to the board of management of the school in the first instance. Where a parent or other person has a concern about the welfare or protection of a child in a school they may report the matter as a child protection concern to Tusla. In 2017, the Department received one child protection complaint, which referred to concerns relating to seclusion, and this complaint was dealt with in accordance with departmental procedures, including referral to Tusla. There were no child protection complaints received in respect of restraint.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply, but this sort of reply drives me round the twist. The first paragraph of the reply is a classic case of the Department saying it is somebody else's problem: "The board of management of each school is responsible for the care and safety of all of the pupils in their schools ... Schools are not required to report such interventions to the Department." It is not, therefore, up to the Department. Mr. Paddy Connolly, CEO of Inclusion Ireland, stated that the NCSE has asked the Department on three occasions to provide best practice guidelines. That has not happened but, according to this reply, it will respond to the NCSE by June 2019.

I accept that this is not the Minister of State's area of responsibility, but I want her to impress on the Minister for Education and Skills, the Minister of State with responsibility for disability and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs who are responsible that there is no sense of urgency in this reply. I get the impression from this that everything is fine and tickety-boo, there are ways for people to complain, the Department received only one complaint and so on. There is nothing in the reply that makes me feel that the people who wrote it have read what I have read into the record today in respect of children being locked in toilets, having their faces held down on bus transport or in classrooms, or being isolated in small rooms. Nobody is suggesting that this is an easy job but a report such as this should have made Departments react in a different way from this classic response of, "It is not really our responsibility, it is somebody else's responsibility. We are looking at it and will come back to you in due course". If anybody in this House was told that a child of theirs had been locked in the toilet or gone through any of the events raised in this report, I am sure there would be hell to pay, but I do not get a sense from this reply that the Department has that feeling. I reiterate that if this was taken seriously, there would be a Minister with responsibility for the area. Will the Minister of State impress on those responsible the need to do something a little more urgent and impressive to give us the sense that they are taking this matter seriously? If I was the mother or father of one of these children with disabilities who have gone through these events and this response was produced, I would not be impressed.

I will relay all of the Senator's frustration and concerns and outline the seriousness of some of the cases he has raised. I believe, however, that the reply states clearly that there is a process in place and, from my limited experience of the education system and boards of management, I am conscious that people have to make a complaint and it has to be dealt with in the school. Nobody wants to go back to the days when young children, with or without a disability, were punished for different reasons, whether by restraint or being locked in rooms. As a Member and as a parent and grandparent, it is not appropriate that any child should experience restraint in school. I will relay in a clear message the frustration and concerns raised by the Senator and bring them to the attention of the Minister for Education and Skills on my way back to the Dáil.

Sexual Offences Data

I thank the Minister for Justice and Equality for taking this matter. I am raising the issue of the second Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, SAVI, report to which the Government has committed and which will investigate and survey the levels of sexual violence and abuse experienced by men and women in Ireland.

It has been 16 years since the first SAVI report was published in 2002. In the light of just how much our understanding of sexual violence has changed since, it is high time we updated the State data and considered the issue and the realities on the ground once more.

Breda Allen, in the opening words of the 2002 SAVI report, stated, "This is a groundbreaking study, the importance of which cannot be overestimated." These words have only grown truer in the past decade and a half, especially in the light of recent developments in the #MeToo movement and the breaking of a powerful and shaming silence, allowing women to come forward and speak about the abuse of power and sexual harassment they have experienced.

The Minister will be aware that figures released this week from the Rape Crisis Centre showed an increase of 10% in the reporting of sexual crimes in the past year. However, even this increase is only part of the picture as we all know that huge numbers of sex crimes go unreported. The need for another SAVI report to give us an accurate picture on the ground of the experiences of survivors of sexual violence in this country is very important and I hope the Minister is able to confirm a timeline and details of how this will happen today.

We keep sharing our stories, baring our souls, laying ourselves bare for all to see. We risk questions and judgments and hope no one pokes away at the emotional scars our sexual assaults have left us with. I carried a shame that was not mine for five years before I told anyone what had happened to me and waited another three years before I went to the Rape Crisis Centre. I am not alone. Do not let the laying bare of all we have endured be for nothing.

For the last two weeks since I shared what happened to me on RTÉ, I have been inundated with hundreds of letters and emails from women and girls from every part of this island. Some sat in their sitting rooms with their families and as I said those words, "I was raped" they found themselves saying the same, for the very first time, in the seconds after I spoke. That is the power of sharing. The Minister has the ability and the resources to take those experiences and transform them into action.

Some people may never be able to speak to another person about their experience of sexual assault, much less a garda. However, just because people cannot report, does not mean they should be invisible. We need a survey that goes into communities, that can reach survivors in their own surroundings and translate their experiences, their pain in sharing that part of themselves into a better understanding of the realities of sexual violence, the barriers to accessing law enforcement, medical and therapeutic services for those abused and their families and how the State can do better and respond to these needs. That is what I am calling for today and I hope the Minister is able to share the steps he and his Department will be taking to start the second SAVI process and begin a better understanding and national conversation about sexual violence, survivors and their experiences. I thank the Minister.

I very much welcome the opportunity to address this important topic raised by the Senator and congratulate her on her recent publication. I acknowledge her courage and bravery in the many interviews and public engagements she has undertaken in recent weeks. It is my belief she has started a national conversation which, as Minister for Justice and Equality, I very much welcome and for which I thank her. I ask her to continue in that vein.

My Government colleagues and I are totally committed to preventing and addressing sexual violence in Ireland. It is extremely important to me and the Government that policy is driven by accurate, up-to-date, reliable data. Knowledge and information are essential in making effective policies to prevent and combat sexual violence.

The SAVI report was a fundamental piece of research and its results had a significant impact, both at the time of its publication in 2002 and since. Late last year, the Government decided that a scoping study should be undertaken to see just what the situation was regarding data available for the development of policy in this particularly sensitive area and to assess if there were gaps in the data available for policy formulation. To that end, as the Senator may be aware, the Government agreed to establish a scoping group to consider the availability of data and make recommendations on a study to identify the prevalence of sexual abuse and violence in Ireland today, as well as emerging trends. The group was made up of experts and relevant departmental officials and was chaired by Professor Dorothy Watson, associate research professor, ESRI, and adjunct professor of sociology at Trinity College Dublin. Presentations and submissions from key non-governmental organisations were made to the group at its first meeting and subsequent submissions from representative groups were also made and presented to the scoping group for their consideration.

In line with the group’s terms of reference and work plan, the group’s academic members completed a paper on data points relevant to sexual violence. During this work, other relevant international surveys were reviewed and cross-referenced to identify gaps in the original data points and address those gaps by adding new data points and variables not present in the SAVI study. The group considered this paper and it ultimately became a core element of its report. The group also considered survey methodology, ethical considerations, the feasibility of periodic data collection over time and data protection issues. The group has since submitted its draft report to my office for consideration.

This work is extremely complex and requires careful consideration of the sensitivities and practicalities involved. A further piece of technical work is being completed by my Department to enable me to bring proposals to the Cabinet. I expect to be in a position to do this in a matter of weeks. Once the report has been considered by the Government it will be possible to be more specific about its recommendations. I acknowledge the importance of this issue and what the Senator has said. I am very keen to report progress on this matter over the course of the next couple of months.

My question relates to the scoping exercise, which is very important and which I welcome. I know that organisations that work with survivors have been involved but I am concerned that a huge amount of data from women who never access services are missing from the report of the scoping exercise. This is because so much is not reported. Much still needs to be done by way of a public consultation on sexual violence in order that we can gather some of that data as they will not be accessible to us via academia or those on the scoping group. The Minister says he will get a commitment from the Cabinet on whether it can publish the specific recommendations of the group. Is it possible to have something else that would enable us to reach the people to whom I referred? Like me, up until now they would never have spoken out loud about their experience, but they may be prepared to fill out an anonymous survey and that would give us a clearer picture.

I am very pleased that this debate is taking place and I thank the Senator for engaging on it. I am here, as Minister, to hear her views and take her advice on the issue. I will do that because sexual violence is a sensitive issue and a gross violation of the individual, not only physically but psychologically and emotionally. Due to the complexities, undertaking a survey into the prevalence of sexual violence raises a lot of issues. The scoping group has given preliminary consideration to the key issues and further intensive work is now under way to resolve a number of technical issues. I am sure the Senator will agree that it is important that any survey which is undertaken will take full account of the care due to individuals who will be answering questions of great sensitivity, as well as to those who actually conduct the survey. It is also essential to have a sufficiently large number of respondents to any survey in order that we will be able to draw statistically robust conclusions.

Once the outstanding technical matters are resolved, I will bring proposals to the Government and expect to do so shortly. Once the report has been considered by the Government, it will be possible to be more specific about the recommendations but, in the meantime, I would be very happy to engage further with Members of the Seanad. I very much welcome their views.

Coroners Service

I thank the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, for taking time out of his busy schedule to be here. In this country, when a human remains or a body is not identified, there is no central database for the information that is gathered. I understand the information is kept within each of the coroners' areas. Dr. René Gapert who is an expert in this area has suggested a central database be established. The cost of doing this would not be huge. It would be important to have such a system in place. Dr. Gapert has received the support of coroners from around the country. I am raising this issue on foot of a case in Dublin involving a person who was reported missing more than ten years ago. A body was washed up on the coast of County Louth within three months of the person being reported missing, but it took nine years for two and two to be put together and for it to be realised that the body which washed up in County Louth was that of the person who had been reported missing ten years earlier. The family of that person lived with uncertainty for ten years. A central database would help the Garda, the coroners and all the people involved. I ask the Department to give serious consideration to this proposal.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. It is distressing when the remains of deceased people are sometimes discovered on land or washed ashore on the coast, as in the case mentioned by the Senator. The relevant State authorities make every effort to identify such people by whatever means possible. I am informed by coroners that fortunately there are very few cases in which remains cannot be identified within a foreseeable timeframe. The discovery of skeletal remains or bones, usually as a result of construction activity, happens more frequently.

The Senator is proposing that I establish a new section for unidentified human remains as a means of centralising information and streamlining the identification process. He has previously submitted to me a proposal from a well-respected forensic anthropologist that a forensic human remains identification specialist position be established and located within the ambit of the Department. It is proposed that such a specialist would centralise information and provide a service in respect of the identification of discovered bodies or parts of bodies. It is argued that this could help to co-ordinate the expertise required and be of greater assistance to the families of missing people. I have asked the various relevant divisions and agencies within my departmental remit to examine the proposal carefully. This consideration is now under way. The initial feedback I have received suggests consideration must be given to whether the establishment of a separate section, with attendant costs or impacts on the work of other agencies concerned, represents the best use of available resources. Statutory changes could also be required.

I am informed that there is no evidence to suggest there are major deficiencies in the handling and ultimate identification of human remains. Most such remains are ultimately identified. I would be happy to engage further with the Senator on these issues. I recognise that families and relations of people who go missing for long periods of time have their hopes raised when discoveries are reported. We must ensure all possible measures are taken to identify the deceased when remains are discovered. I commend the Senator on his efforts to enhance the identification of unidentified remains. He has done a great deal of work to advance proposals to allow families to manage the affairs of missing people. His Private Members' Bill in that regard has passed all Stages in the Seanad and is awaiting Second Stage in the Dáil. I hope we can report progress on that issue in the coming weeks. If the Bill is enacted, it will be of considerable assistance to the families of people who have gone missing. I have indicated that I will do everything I can to facilitate its passage.

I understand that across the various coroners' areas there are approximately 200 cases in which the bodies or partial remains of individuals have not been identified. That figure is taken from a survey which added them all up. There is no central relationship that allows such discoveries to be cross-checked with the cases of people who have been reported missing. Problems can arise when people who have been reported missing turn up in a totally different part of a country. I know of a case involving a person whose remains were discovered in County Galway and who has not been identified, in which the evidence suggests the person was not even from Ireland. I am concerned that there is no central place where the Garda authorities and the coroners can go after bodies are discovered to cross-check information about people who have been reported missing. I am raising this issue in that context. I am asking for serious consideration to be given to the establishment of a central database. I suggest that someone be given responsibility for working on this matter, even on a part-time basis, in order to ensure people might go to a central place.

I assure the Senator that I have asked the various divisions and agencies within the remit of my Department to study carefully his proposal for the establishment of a special section to deal with the remains of unidentified people. I will not be in a position to give a definitive response until that consideration has been completed. I commend the Senator on his interest in this matter. I am happy to engage with him in this public forum and bilaterally on the progress that is being made or otherwise. I commend him on his efforts to advance matters concerning unidentified remains and the management of the affairs of missing people. After he raised this issue with me earlier in the year, I had an opportunity to attend a conference of coroners. I am anxious to engage further on this issue with a view to meeting the Senator's concerns.