Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Special Needs Assistants

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor.

I thank the Minister of State for coming. I have a very important issue that I would like to speak to her about.

Last month the Department issued the news that 800 new special needs assistants were to be allocated to schools from September. The reason given was that there was a record number of children in mainstream schools who required support. While I welcome the early announcement as it will eliminate the usual uncertainty among schools, the SNA allocations are not happening fast enough for the children who need them and the staff who provide such assistance. A total of 110.6 posts have been allocated to Carlow schools for September. There will be reductions in some schools and increases in others, but there will be no increase in Ballinabranna national school, despite the fact that with the new intake of children in September, four children will need SNA support. I will not name the children or identify their specific needs to protect their privacy, but, in some cases, they need constant supervision, which will be impossible as they cross all classes and ages. Last week I was contacted by parents who were suffering from anxiety because of the allocation. The allocation for the school will not serve the well-being of any of the children in need of this support and I have serious concerns about the morale of SNAs.

Ballinabranna national school is a mixed school that has almost 200 pupils. It was allocated a total of 46.05 hours, but it has only one SNA post. The parents of the children have been at pains to highlight the great support they receive from the SNA, the staff and the principal, but they believe the Department has let the down with its allocation. In terms of the number of hours allocated, I am concerned that one SNA will be required to work these hours. The parents asked for help; the school applied for support and contact was made with special educational needs organiser, yet this September, according to the Department's allocation, four children will have to share a resource that can only be described as overstretched.

When considering whether to make an application for the support of a special needs assistant, it is important that a balance be struck between providing the necessary care support and the right of a child to acquire personal independence skills. In the case of Ballinabranna national school, each of the four children requires constant care support to be independent. When faced with the prospect that their child will need medical assistance and supervision at all times during the school day, the parents believe they might have to be on-call throughout in case their child needs an intervention to administer medication or support a medical need while the SNA is attending to another child. It does not offer independence to a child when a parent must swoop in on a regular basis and does not assist the parent to live a full life while the child is at school.

The duties of special needs assistants sanctioned by the Department are non-teaching. Teachers cannot be required to administer medication or supervise a child who could have a serious medical need while they go about their work.

SNAs provide these children with the tools they need in order to go to school and participate with their peers. Without this support, these children would be unfairly discriminated against and SNAs will be pulled in all sorts of directions. In addition, a child needing help may feel isolated because he or she requires something he or she cannot access because the system does not allow it. It is not acceptable that four children with individual needs must share one SNA. What happens if the SNA is off site with one child on, for example, a school tour? What should the other three do?

When a child begins primary school, we try to ensure that he or she is included. If a child comes from a preschool setting with full SNA access to a school where the SNA has three other children to deal with and is in a different part of the building, he or she will not feel included. I want the Minister of State to look at the allocation for the school to which I refer in particular and to listen to what the parents, the school, the SNA and myself are saying. This is a very important issue. These families and their children are being neglected. I am asking for an additional SNA because having four children with one SNA is not acceptable.

As the House knows, I am the Minister of State in charge of higher education-----

As a teacher, the Minister of State would have been-----

Please allow the Minister of State to respond.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy McHugh. As a former school principal, and I am not just saying this, I pay tribute to the wonderful work being done by SNAs everywhere to support children. I thank SNAs, of whom there will be 15,950 by the end of the year, for their efforts.

I understand the Senator's frustration because what she outlined has happened in my constituency and schools there have contacted me. I assure the House that the education of children with special needs remains a key priority. The Government will invest in the region of €560 million in the SNA scheme as part of a €1.9 billion investment in special educational needs overall this year. As already stated, there will be 15,950 SNAs working in our schools, providing support for approximately 37,500 pupils, by the end of this year. This is a 51% increase on 2011, when the number of SNAs stood at 10,575.

The SNA scheme has been a major factor in the successful integration and participation, which is so important, of children with special needs in mainstream education and in specialist settings, for example, special classes or special schools. The Department’s policy is to ensure that every child who is assessed as qualifying for SNA support will receive access to such support. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, which, I stress, is an independent agency, is responsible, through its network of local special educational needs organisers, SENOs, for allocating SNA support to schools in accordance with published criteria. The Department is not involved in making decisions in respect of individual cases.

In considering applications for SNA support for individual pupils, SENOs take account of pupils' needs and consider the resources already available to the school to identify whether additional resources are needed or whether the school might reasonably be expected to meet the needs of pupils from its current level of resources. SNAs are not allocated to individual children but to schools as a school-based resource. It is important that this House is aware that each school’s allocation of SNA support can change from year to year in line with the changing student profile, for example, when students with special educational needs leave a school and are not replaced by others with a similar level of need, or when new students with significant needs enrol in a school. In addition, an individual student’s needs may change over time. In each case, the SNA allocation would be reviewed and adjusted, as required.

The NCSE has an appeals process and the advice I am giving to this school and to schools in my constituency is that they need to appeal very strongly. The appeals process may be invoked by a parent or a school where it is considered that a child was not granted access to SNA support on the grounds that the requirements of the SNA scheme are not met. Schools may also appeal a decision where the school considers that the NCSE has not allocated the appropriate level of SNA support to the school to meet the care needs of the children concerned as outlined in the Department’s circular.

I understand from the NCSE that it has received an appeal from Ballinabranna school and this will be dealt with in accordance with the formal appeals process. The Department is not involved in this process, nor is the Minister. The NCSE is available to support schools through advice and professional development where this is necessary. The council advises the Department on policy matters relating to meeting the needs of children with special needs.

On behalf of the Minister, I take this opportunity to assure the House that schools that have enrolled children who qualify for support from an SNA will continue to be allocated such support in a manner appropriate to their needs.

I thank the Minister of State for reply. I knew the Minister was not coming to the House and I felt it was appropriate the Minister of State, as a former principal and teacher, should be here. I have concerns about the appeals process, although the appeal has gone to the NCSE. The Department of Education and Skills and the Minister announced that these extra 800 special needs assistants were coming yet we are now fighting a battle to get an extra SNA, which is all we want. I will follow this up. I ask that the Minister of State would bring this to the attention of the Minister on my behalf. There will be more cases like this. It is a very serious situation. We definitely need one more SNA and I hope this will be looked on favourably.

I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister.

School Accommodation Provision

I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to deal with this important matter, which I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise. The standard of primary education provided by teachers in Carrick-on-Shannon is second to none. Children attend Scoil Mhuire from all social classes and the town has become home to children of many nationalities. However, it is very evident that we must assist Carrick-on-Shannon, as a growing town, to address the urgent need for the provision of a more modern, fit-for-purpose school for the primary education of its young people.

I want to give the Minister of State some background context. Scoil Mhuire, located on the Dublin Road in the town, is the new name for school following the amalgamation of two schools, St. Mary's boys school and the Marist Convent primary school. The amalgamation took place in 2013 and both school buildings are used and are referred to as campus 1 and campus 2. There is a staff of 25 teachers, with a principal and five SNAs. The amalgamated school currently has more than 460 pupils, with numbers predicted to grow as the town population continues to grow. The existing buildings were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, with additional prefabs at both locations. Unfortunately, because of the increasing capacity problems, a space designated as a play area has been now been used to accompany prefabs for the necessary provision of classrooms. Funding is continually needed to upgrade facilities and pay for repairs to these old buildings. Maintenance poses significant challenges every year.

These two main schools are 500 m apart and there is a one-way system on the road which leads to much frustration when parents try to collect the children from both locations at the same time. The physical division also leads to difficulties in communicating messages to staff and pupils at the same time.

The need for a modern school for the community has been an ongoing part of local conversations for more than ten years. I commend my colleague, Councillor Finola Armstrong-McGuire, in Carrick-on-Shannon on highlighting the issues. It is time for the necessary funding to be allocated to progress a new school development. This is what our children deserve. There are a umber of options for sites around the town which could be suitable for development and I understand that the HSE has looked at two options for a new St. Patrick's Hospital development, one of which it has selected. I would be interested to know the position regarding the one it rejected. I know the question must be put to the HSE but the site could be suitable for the location of a new primary school.

I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, who is currently out of the country. I thank the Senator for raising the matter and I am aware that Councillor Finola Armstrong-McGuire has made many requests on behalf of this school. As a former school principal, I congratulate the people responsible on amalgamating the two schools, which can be fraught with tension. There are a lot of logistics and I say "well done" to the two principals, the staff, the parents and the children.

As the Senator is aware, the Department will invest €8.4 billion in school buildings over the lifetime of Project Ireland 2040. This investment will see a 70% increase in the school building budget which will be targeted at delivering on the twin objectives of catering for the continued increase in demographics and a greater focus on the refurbishment and upgrade of existing school stock. The Government remains committed to delivering on existing projects on the school building programme as soon as possible. In time, we want to see physical education halls to ensure children get the best experience from primary and post-primary schools.

Scoil Mhuire is a co-educational school under Catholic patronage and 457 pupils are enrolled in the school. The Department’s planning and building unit received an application from Scoil Mhuire seeking funding for a new school on a greenfield site on 5 June and this application will be considered in the context of competing demands on the Department’s budget. The immediate priority of the Department is to provide 20,000 new and replacement school places each year to ensure that every child has a school place. In the interim, it is open to Scoil Mhuire national school to submit an application under the Department’s additional school accommodation scheme, ASA, to address any immediate deficits of accommodation that the school may have. The application form is available on my Department’s website, www.education.ie.

Project Ireland 2040 is about demographics and the upgrading and refurbishing of schools. The school needs to understand that the application has just been received. It will be kept under review and should the school authority make an application under the additional school accommodation scheme or the summer works scheme, it will be processed and the decision relayed to the school authority directly.

I am delighted that the school has put in an application. Many very good things are happening in the education sector in my region and I thank the Minister of State for her recent visit to Sligo, where she announced €960,000 to support apprenticeship programmes at the Institute of Technology Sligo, which was very welcome. The Minister of State has visited Sligo on numerous occasions and there is always good news when she is in the area. I was also delighted to attend the official opening of the new Gaelscoil in Carrick-on-Shannon by the Minister, Deputy McHugh, last Tuesday week. I have presented a strong case for a new, modern school for Carrick-on-Shannon and I know the Minister will give it due consideration.

I am very cognisant of the schools in Carrick-on-Shannon and Sligo. I will talk to the Minister because I know Senator Feighan has been pushing this. In the short term, the school should apply for the two grants I mentioned.