Dyslexia Awareness Week: Statements

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I thank her for taking this important debate. She has ten minutes.

A cháirde, I am very grateful to Members of this House for allowing me the opportunity to speak today on the important occasion of Dyslexia Awareness Week. It is an important moment to take stock of where we are as a society in ensuring support and inclusivity is provided to those with dyslexia in our society. It also provides an opportunity to raise awareness and further develop our understanding about dyslexia and what can be done to further support people who have dyslexia.

While it is very common it is also important to recognise that each person with dyslexia is different and impacted differently. This is particularly important in our schools where reading and writing are essential parts of everyday learning. As Minister of State with responsibility for special education, I am firmly of the belief that education is a right for all and, furthermore, that our education system should not adopt a one-size-fits-all approach towards students and young people. Each child, as we know, has unique skills and characteristics. It is vital we ensure our schools and school staff have the resources and knowledge to provide a flexible and tailored support for each child, particularly those with additional needs.

I also want to acknowledge at this point the work of the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, which provides such great support for people affected by dyslexia, support which is critical for people to achieve their full potential in education, training, employment and all aspects of life. I have met the Dyslexia Association of Ireland and had the opportunity to learn about the positive impact it has on the lives of young people across our country. My Department provides funding annually to the Dyslexia Association of Ireland to support this work with a particular focus on the delivery of a public information service, assessments and targeted support for children who are disadvantaged. It is also vital that we continue to listen to the voices of people with dyslexia in all parts of society to learn from their experiences and to hear their insights. Empowerment is at the heart of education and gone are the paternalistic days where rights and protections were handed down from on high as though they were gifts or favours. In the 21st century it is vital the voice of the young person is heard as part of policy making. I will be working with officials to explore new ways of ensuring this is the case.

In terms of our education system, I want to stress that enabling students with additional needs to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a priority for this Government. Our policy is that students with additional needs should be included where possible and appropriate in mainstream placements with additional supports provided. Where students require more specialised interventions a continuum of education provision extends to include access to special school or special class places where appropriate.

My Department provides a range of placement options and supports for schools that have enrolled pupils with a specific learning disability, including dyslexia. This is to ensure that a child will have access to an appropriate education wherever he or she is enrolled.

In 2017, the Department introduced a new special education teaching allocation model to support students with additional needs in our schools. Under this model, special education teachers, SETs, are available to ensure that those with the highest level of need can access the highest level of support within the school in a timely manner, regardless of diagnosis. Currently, more than 13,600 special education teachers are allocated to mainstream schools, which is an increase of almost 40% since 2011. This resource is particularly focused on supporting those students who have difficulties in literacy and numeracy.

The Department also provides for special schools and special class placements where more intensive and supportive interventions are provided, including to students with dyslexia. It is important to note, though, that the majority of students with significant literary difficulties currently receive additional teaching support from an SET in a mainstream class and this is provided based on the individual learning needs of pupils, as identified in schools, as opposed to being based on a requirement for a child to have a diagnosis or an assessment of a particular disability. The benefits of mainstream education are known and recognised. We must continue to build a society with inclusion at its heart where everyone is welcome and where full participation is a right for all, no matter what their background or need. Our schools are where we nurture and develop the future of our society and, therefore, there should be no barriers to inclusion and no artificial segregation. It is our job to ensure that the necessary resources are provided to achieve that goal.

Additional supports exist for teachers and schools. These include funding under the assistive technology scheme for the purchase of specialised equipment to assist students with dyslexia. Targeted training for teaching is also provided for those teachers who support students with dyslexia. In addition, there is an information resource pack on dyslexia in digital and video format. Reasonable accommodations are also provided for in State examinations, which is crucial. These can include the provision of a reader, the use of a tape recorder or a scribe or the granting of a spelling and grammar waiver.

I am very aware, therefore, of the educational needs of students with dyslexia and of the need to ensure that appropriate sports are available to each school. I am committed to ensuring that the requisite level of investment is in place to ensure that these supports are available. Much work remains to be done, but I am determined to continue to advocate for all students with additional needs as part of this Government and to ensuring that their voice is at the heart of policymaking. This includes the provision of support from the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS. Where advice relating to specific issues that have arisen in schools is required, including support needs related to dyslexia, the NCSE and NEPS are available to provide direct support to schools and individual teachers in as flexible a way as possible.

I am pleased that the issue of dyslexia is being discussed because it is an important matter in the lives of many children and their families. The extent and scope of the educational supports in place are helping these young people to progress in education and to go on to live happy and fulfilled lives. I look forward to hearing contributions from the Senators and to working to continue to build an inclusive society.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House to mark Dyslexia Awareness Week. I refer in particular to her role as Minister of State with special responsibility for special education and inclusion. As the Fine Gael spokesperson on education, further and higher education, research, innovation and science, I welcome the statement from the Minister of State and the aims that she mentioned. She spoke about empowerment for young people and for children. She spoke about us in the 21st century having the voice of young people at heart of our society, about inclusion and full participation. All these aspects are crucial.

Dyslexia is a common difficulty. People are affected by it when they are reading text. It is a specific learning difficulty and intelligence is not impacted. The main disruption caused by dyslexia is the difficulty with phonological awareness and the ability to understand sounds and letters. It is incredible when we realise in this context that approximately 10% of students may be affected by dyslexia. It also means that 10% of people in any workplace may be similarly impacted. We are focusing on education at primary and secondary levels, but many of the people, some 10%, that we deal with every day in any workplace or environment may have a specific learning difficulty.

I thank my colleague, Senator Tim Lombard, for organising an informative session for us today with representatives of the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, DAI. The Minister of State referred to that in her opening statement. The representatives from the DAI spoke to us about many concerns. The organisation represents adults and teachers, and it conducted a survey involving more than 800 adults and 400 teachers with experience of dyslexia. They based their findings on those surveys. Some of the areas they highlighted included the early identification of dyslexia, resources and supports, teacher training and the provision of the technology required to support these children. I refer as well to the impacts in this regard on mental health and well-being.

The incredible part of this context is that our budget under special needs and inclusion and education is one of the largest ever allocations. Some 17,000 special needs assistant, SNA, posts have been allocated to primary, post-primary and special schools. The Minister of State also mentioned there being 13,600 special education teachers. It is important that we are seeing this allocation of funds to support children in schools and to deal with the immediate need. There are delays in children getting assessed, but we are dealing with an immediate need in respect of children in schools. It will be possible to support them straight away with the SNAs that are available in classrooms. I refer as well to the school inclusion model. It was based on policies devised by the NCSE and it is concerned with providing the right support at the right time and having people with the right qualifications and skill sets. The provision of certain therapies in schools, such as speech and language, as well as the allocation of SNAs and the training they require, is being considered as part of this inclusion model.

One aspect I would like to ask the Minister of State about is teacher training. Training is now being offered to teachers, but it is not mandatory. If the number of people with dyslexia is 10% of the population, or perhaps 15% as has been reported in some results in the UK, then perhaps this is an aspect that we might engage on with our teaching providers. Turning to the early identification of dyslexia, that is crucial. The support being put in place in respect of access to SNAs is important. Early identification, though, is something that we would particularly like to see. Supports should also be in place for children as they are developing. What is important here is giving children confidence when they start in school and giving them the confidence to succeed later in life as well. It is important, therefore, that they have that confidence at the initial stages when they start school.

I sit on the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, along with some of my colleagues. We are looking at the reform of the leaving certificate examination now. This is timely, because this reform of the leaving certificate is concerned with examining how we can ensure that it is fully inclusive of all abilities and needs. Exam settings sometimes do not garner the maximum potential from our young people. An important aspect that should be borne in mind when we are examining reform of the leaving certificate, and this was highlighted for us in our session this week by representatives of the Irish Second–Level Students' Union, ISSU, and the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, is to have a model where there is potential for some kind of continuous or secondary assessment that will allow us to get the most from our students. Sometimes the exam model is not the best one.

I also highlight that a great deal of research is happening in this area. It is taking place in the context of Erasmus+, and globally in institutes across the world, including in the United States. This research is examining the supports that are in place. The Minister of State referred to the existing technologies. It is important that we see the deployment of those technologies to support children. This is something that the Department of Education should be looking at in future. I refer to how we will be preparing our children for the future, a future which will be even more digital. We must imagine having these types of technologies that can really support young people with dyslexia.

As has already been mentioned, people with dyslexia do not suffer any impact on their intelligence. Many people with dyslexia have high levels of creativity. When I was doing some background research on this topic in recent days, I was surprised to see the incredible artists who have been identified as having dyslexia. They included Pablo Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci. They had difficulties with dyslexia. It is incredible to think that there have been amazing artists with dyslexia. In more modern times, Noel Gallagher from Oasis also has dyslexia. I could not believe that when I read it. It is important to have people who are role models and who will demonstrate that having dyslexia does not hold people back in life and that there are ways to succeed.

If we can showcase these models and people who are role models, it would be important, but the Department should take the lead in some areas. I thank the Minister of State.

I welcome the Minister of State and thank her for coming to the House to focus for a short period on dyslexia. The minute I heard she was coming in I was reminded of the great autobiography of Micheal Heseltine, formerly a senior politician in the UK. He did not quite become leader of the Conservative Party for a load of internal reasons. In his autobiography he talked about hiding the issue of dyslexia and how he felt stupid. He was clever enough at five and six years of age to get a bag of sweets, empty them all out and sell them for a few pence or whatever it was then. He went on to create a great business. He always talked in the early years of his struggle and how he constantly hid, when he first entered the House of Commons, the difficulties of his own handwriting and his own coded stuff. It was okay for him because he developed his own shorthand but there were difficulties when meeting senior civil servants as he progressed in this career This happened only because he was so determined, focused, believed he had something and was exceptionally creative, which is what Senator Dolan has just referred to, and pursued it. He ended up having one of the biggest publishing houses in the UK and knew when to let go. He was a very creative person. He is now living in Winchester and he has created one of the greatest arboretums in Britain. He has a great interest in horticulture and gardening. I mention this as dyslexia should not be, and this proves it does not have to be, an impediment to getting on.

The reality we must face, especially older people of my generation who grew up with people with dyslexia, was that they hid it. Their parents felt their son or daughter was a failure. They were going to special schools and many parents did not want teachers to tell them their child had special needs. Thus we must support the parents and guardians of these children as well. We know from research that many children who have dyslexia, though not them all, also have higher rates of ADD, hyperactivity and issues with development of language. What happens for many who do not get early support is they opt out of education. They become difficult or troublesome because somehow that has not been recognised. Of course, parents have to buy into it too. A friend of mine retired was principal of a school on the northside a few years ago. She said the difficulty in this school was she could not get many parents to attend parent-teacher meetings. It was not to do with it being on the northside rather than the southside but was particular to the disadvantaged school she worked in. She said the parents she most wanted to speak did not come to the parent-teacher meetings. They did not engage. She asked a young lad one day why he did not have his uniform and he told her he woke up that morning and his mother was not there. Thus, we must see this in the round. I have a friend who teaches in a secondary school in Dublin and they are always interested in which primary schools the children are coming from. They can nearly tell you as there are some schools that do not have the same support. There are social issues around all that and support issues as well.

I thank the Minister of State for coming here and for the focus on it. She summed it up well when she said empowerment is at the heart of education, no child should be left behind and everyone has gifts. Everyone has a yearning for learning but they might not necessarily have the supports or the mechanisms for it. We need more support for teachers. We certainly need much more support for parents, especially in DEIS and other disadvantaged schools. This will improve the more we talk about it and the more we hear people who are successful talk about their difficulties with literacy, numeracy and other issues - dare I use the term "successful". I mean people who feel they have fulfilled their aspirations, hopes and dreams for their life; that is success in my book. It is good the Minister of State has come to the House and it is good we are having this conversation.

I thank the Minister of State for attending. I listened carefully to what she said. The key elements that stuck out for me were the focus on inclusion, full participation, having no barriers and additional supports. They are all incredibly important in helping young people achieve their full potential and ensuring they are able to go on and have a full life within their own community and in society with respect to both employment and their own lives.

This is a good opportunity to talk about dyslexia. It is important the focus is on dyslexia awareness this particular week and that we have the opportunity to talk about the barriers and the research that is there. We can talk about famous people with dyslexia who have achieved an awful lot. Fair play to them for saying that despite this they have done well. Senator Dolan gave us a few such examples. I mention Steven Spielberg, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Richard Branson and Muhammad Ali. Many of our actors and actresses also have dyslexia. I think in particular of people I have met through life who suffered because of their dyslexia due to it not being diagnosed at an early enough stage for intervention. They always felt like the class dunce and they were at the back of the classroom. As a result they did not like school. It impeded their social interactions with their peers and teachers. Their sense of disempowerment was colossal and some never got over that. It is quite shocking to see how their whole lives were impacted on because of it. I am thinking of one person who suffered from dyslexia which was never picked up. He repeated his leaving certificate three times to get what he wanted to do in college. He got the course he wanted, which was architecture. He repeated every year twice and after ten years became an architect. He is now successful. That is how determined he was to get over this. I have great admiration and respect but we must learn lessons from that and ensure children are no longer isolated when they have such an issue. We must deepen our own understanding and awareness of dyslexia and deepen the understanding and support within the school system.

The awareness campaign going on this week is important because it is estimated dyslexia affects one in ten people and affects both children and adults. It is a common difficulty, as I witnessed myself when teaching at primary level. It causes people to have issues with reading text, writing words and spelling. As has been noted, it is important to understand this is not a measure of anybody's intelligence. It is not a learning disability; it is a specific learning difficulty. Having dyslexia does not impact on someone's ability to process complex information or to contribute to society. It is simply an additional need that if accounted for, and if relevant supports are made available, should not impact on an individual's life. All it means is that extra thought, care and support is needed and, as a society, we should certainly be willing to offer that.

As with any learning difficulty, early intervention is key and we must ensure parents and teachers are aware of the potential signs of dyslexia. We cannot take that for granted. Those suffering from dyslexia will often also struggle with retaining information if it is written. If anyone hears their child saying, he or she must keep rereading a sentence or he or she seems to struggle with following or remembering a story, this is a potential sign of dyslexia. Thus we need to know what to look for and we especially need to raise awareness of dyslexia in the education context, and that is why the Minister of State is here. We need to ensure our education system is equipped to support students who are dyslexic and that our teachers and the wider school communities are able to support the dyslexic students appropriately.

I have always been a passionate advocate for truly inclusive education.

We cannot allow a situation where somebody's educational outcomes are negatively impacted by either additional educational needs or by socioeconomic background. Education is a key differentiator and high quality education needs to be offered to all of our students. Ensuring fair and equitable access for all pupils has to be a key priority.

For my own party, Fianna Fáil, throughout our history we have been behind dramatic expansions at every level of the education system, and enabling children with special educational needs to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a priority for this Government. That is why there very specifically is a Minister of State with responsibility for special education, who, of course, is Deputy Madigan.

The Dyslexia Association of Ireland has some key and important research that is worth noting. It, of course, highlights that dyslexia is a lifelong condition which can impact on college work and social life, on occasion. If it is not identified, the result can be underachievement, frustration and, worst of all, low self-esteem. The research released today showed that access to dyslexia identification is a real challenge. Some 79% of respondents reported waiting more than two years for assessment and 39% more than four years. That is shocking and we need to do far better. It states that 100% of teachers reported having students in their class with unidentified dyslexia, and a third of these stated they believed they had five or more undiagnosed dyslexic students. Some 91% of parents and teachers report that having a child’s dyslexia identified helps them to better understand and support their learning needs which, of course, results in improved self-esteem, confidence and mental health, apart from educational outcomes. Over 96% of teachers said they would benefit from more training on dyslexia identification and interventions.

For many people with dyslexia, remote learning was very challenging, and we have to bear that in mind as we and they are struggling to try to catch up. Many parents felt their children had fallen behind in their literacy skills during the pandemic.

Looking at dyslexia in the workplace, most jobs require some level of literacy and-or numeracy, and adults with dyslexia may struggle with time management and organisation at work. As a society, all efforts have to be made to support individuals with dyslexia, making reasonable accommodations where necessary.

On behalf of the Green Party, I call Senator Pauline O'Reilly, who is sharing time with Senator Róisín Garvey.

I welcome the Minister of State. It is important that we are having this discussion today. It is also important to recognise what I think is a really good aspiration from the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, that is, to create a dyslexia-friendly society. While it is absolutely appropriate that we would have the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, in the House, this is a wider conversation beyond education and involves the way we treat each other as citizens in this country.

The part that education has to play is that it can do one of two things: it can make people feel better about themselves or it can make them feel worse about themselves. Senator Dolan has outlined very well everything that has been achieved and everything the Minister of State has put in place over the last year since we entered government. However, it is also fair to say that there is frustration. There is a backlog of work that needs to be done, and it can only be done over a period of time. I certainly appreciate that but we also have to recognise the frustrations of young people and parents. We need to say that we are going to tackle this, that this is important to us and that this is why we made the decision to put in place a Minister of State with responsibility for special education.

It has been mentioned many times that 10% of us have dyslexia, which means many of us in this Chamber have dyslexia. I imagine that many of us do not even know, as we are standing up here, trying to read notes and struggling, because we were never diagnosed in school. That is a real challenge for people. We have very high rates of illiteracy in this country. We just do not know how much of that is linked to dyslexia. There is a further 5% to 10% of people on top of that 10% who have a language-based learning disability, so that is 20%, or one in five of us, who have a language-based learning disability, and we just do not know about it.

Recently, in the school of one of my children, the students underwent an assessment to see what kind of learners they are. It was really valuable and empowering for the children in that school to feel, "Okay, that is why I do not read or write to the same level as some of my peers, but the thing I am really good at is painting, and that is the way I learn because I am a visual learner". It is really empowering for people to understand themselves throughout their life. Not only that, it is the other four in five people who were there who then learn there are people who learn differently to them as well. That will help as we go forward into workplaces with understanding our work colleagues.

We have an opportunity to change the way that learning happens in this country, both in terms of our appreciation of other people and having that dyslexia-friendly society, and also having that real sense of self-confidence that we can participate in the world, add to it and be valuable members of our society, even if we have a language-based learning disability, or especially because of that, because we can hone our other skills and be really competent at something we are good at.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. It is great that we have set aside time in the Chamber to discuss this very important issue, and I appreciate the Minister of State giving it the time.

By definition, dyslexia is a general term for difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters or other symbols but it does not affect general intelligence, and it is important to make that clear. As a secondary school teacher for many years, I had many students who struggled with dyslexia, often undiagnosed, even at the secondary school level. The challenge for me was not that they were not going to be able to learn; the challenge was to find a way to teach so they would be able to learn. It is very important that we do not use it as an excuse for them not learning and that we find another way that works for them. There are a lot of different ways dyslexia is expressed. I had students who also had dyscalculia, which is a form of numerical dyslexia, and it is also often unrecognised or undiagnosed.

People with dyslexia are frequently very good at something else, so as well as addressing the challenge, it is very important that we also find things they are very good at because there are all forms of intelligence. We need to focus more on the point that if somebody has a challenge in one area, the chances are that he or she has lots of energy and ability in another area.

As a teacher, I struggled to find supports in order to find better ways to teach the pupils who had the challenge of dyslexia but I came across an amazing book. I would urge everybody in the House and everybody who has a child with dyslexia or is a teacher of such a child to read it. It is called The Gift of Dyslexia: Why Some of the Smartest People Can't Read...and How They Can Learn. It was a game changer for me as a teacher. It is by Ronald D. Davis and it was first published in 1994 so, luckily, it was out when I was teaching. The Gift of Dyslexia became an immediate bestseller and changed the face of how dyslexia is viewed and how it can be remedied worldwide. The third revised and expanded edition, published in 2010, which is the one I recommend, contains added information to help with the mental techniques for orientation and attention focus that are hallmarks of the Davis programme.

As the Minister of State noted, we do a lot more now in support of dyslexia than in the past, but I have many friends and I know many people who were undiagnosed with dyslexia and who are now adults with dyslexia. I would love to see a further education course or module designed just for adults with dyslexia to give them the supports they never got as children to see if we can help them overcome that.

As other speakers have mentioned, despite that challenge, many of them have been very successful. One of my favourites is Agatha Christie, who was a famous novelist and who managed to write several books despite her dyslexia. John Lennon, the great singer who was a total inspiration, was also a great advocate for dyslexia. There is also Whoopi Goldberg, a great actress. Recently, a friend of mine came back home from South Sudan after four years working on the front line in conflict resolution and supporting UN staff.

He suffers from severe dyslexia. The key here is that what sets someone back in one way will help them shine in another. It is important we find what helps the child or adult shine despite the challenges of dyslexia.

The Department of Education provides an exemption for people with dyslexia to not have to take Irish. That does not mean we presume they do not want to learn Irish. Often it is assumed that if someone is dyslexic, he or she will not take Irish. A member of my family had to put in a good fight to be allowed sit Irish. He got a high grade in honours Irish in the leaving certificate despite dyslexia but he was strongly encouraged to not bother doing it at all. We have to be careful about these issues as well. It is not all clear.

Awareness is the first step and it is great we have this week to raise awareness about dyslexia. Of course, the second step, which is the most important step, is action. I look forward to working with the Minister of State on anything we can do to support her in her work that needs to be continued in this regard.

The Senator's contribution was inspirational and I thank her for sharing her experience as a teacher with us.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I thank the Dyslexia Association of Ireland for the meeting today with Oireachtas Members and staff, which was informative. I grew up with a family member who is dyslexic and it was interesting to see the demand for policy change that exists.

We heard earlier that dyslexia affects 10% of the population. At the meeting, the representatives spoke about the importance of early identification. How can we deal with dyslexia if we have not identified it? Only 23% of parents had an assessment for their child. Senator O'Loughlin mentioned these statistics. Most parents waited more than two years, and some more than four years, for an assessment in the public system, during which period children fell behind.

In addition, teachers also say that they believe there are unidentified cases of dyslexia in their classes. I am sure there are. There are unclear policies and processes for teachers who may think that there is a child with dyslexia in a class. I also learned that only 18% of teachers received training on dyslexia. In four years of teacher training, it seems incredible that some teachers might only get an hour's training on dyslexia when 10% of the population may have it. It is something that should be looked at.

There are also mental health aspects to the issue that make assessment so important because if left unsupported it can have a major impact on a person's mental health.

In terms of Covid-19, teachers believed that remote learning had an impact on students with dyslexia. However, in some instances students with dyslexia found that stress dropped at home because it may have been a more relaxing environment. They may have had better access to technology and that stress dropped as a result.

From childhood, Mum and Dad put in hours upon hours of additional so-called "homework" with one of my siblings. Indeed, they chose a school on the basis that it had construction studies, art, technical graphics and music. We only secured access to that school on the basis of a lottery and it goes to show.

I spoke about the skills that people have. My brother is just the most incredible craftsman I have ever met. Even at that, access to third-level course was not based on practical ability; it was based on the leaving certificate. I will come to some of the reforms that Sinn Féin would like and that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is beginning its discussions on regarding the future of the leaving certificate.

We should not force families to go privately to get an assessment, putting financial strain on families who may not have the money to do so or may have to make sacrifices to get that assessment. Identification helps drives a student's performance, helps people with mental health, and helps people to identify all the role models that people have spoken about today who may have dyslexia or, as was spoken about in the meeting today, to find their tribe.

It is fitting that we are celebrating Dyslexia Awareness Week while at the same time the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is beginning its discussion on the future and reform of the leaving certificate. The need for reform is obvious to all. It is ridiculous that so many years of hard work hinge on one week of examinations. The pressure it creates is unhealthy. It is even more ridiculous that dyslexic students have to fight every year for reasonable accommodations to sit their examinations, such as scribes and readers. Sinn Féin has long advocated for reform of State examinations. There is a need for the curriculum to be more reflective of how different types of students learn and for a more holistic approach to be taken in how subjects are taught in a way that is inclusive of as many types of learners as possible. We need more continuous assessment to take the pressure off the final examination. The leaving certificate must reward not only knowledge acquisition but creativity, flexible thinking and adaptability.

The Minister of State championed and led Creative Ireland and Creative Schools. I hope that programme can be extended. I would love to see it in every school in the State where appropriate but we need to also see what the Creative Ireland programme will look like moving on from next year.

I look forward to the Oireachtas committee hearings on the reform of the leaving certificate in the coming weeks, in particular, the potential that reform has to transform the learning experience of students with dyslexia and additional educational needs. Many former teachers have spoken here. As a family member, I know that obstacles are staked in a person's way when he or she has dyslexia and we need to level the playing field as much as possible.

Ar an gcéad dul síos, gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit, Deputy Josepha Madigan, a bheith anseo an tráthnóna seo don díospóireacht seo.

I have been listening intently to this wonderful debate. It brings me back to my school days when I was working in my cousin's business, which was a part hardware and agricultural store. I can recall clearly a small number of customers, in particular, men, who would come and buy their goods, whether it was fertiliser, fencing posts or whatever. They would throw down their chequebook and say, "Fill that in.", and I would reply, "No, you do it." Some years afterwards, I realised that some of those people were suffering from dyslexia. The point I am trying to make is it was such a shame people never wanted to talk about it. They would not tell their spouses or adult children. Many people say to me nowadays that they suffered with this for many years but they were so ashamed to mention it. That is why it is important to have this debate, to have this awareness month and to have additional State funding going into the system, but also to appeal to people out there who suffer in their everyday lives with this and do not want to talk to anybody about it. Maybe sometimes even students do not want to talk to their parents or guardians about it. Maybe part of the reason some young people do not want to go to school is the embarrassment of it.

When I look at some of the modern lingo on social media, I wonder whether we are all gone a bit dyslexic at times even though we probably deliberately shorten words, etc.

There has been a complete change in the way we deal with language. The way we deal with nouns, verbs, adverbs and so on has changed, particularly among younger people.

In talking about our education system, I would like to see a greater focus on why some youngsters do not want to continue with school or even hate school. I firmly believe that it could be to do with dyslexia. When I think back to my own days in school, I had a huge difficulty with mathematics. To this day, if I am asked to add, subtract, multiply or divide, I can beat anyone but do not put algebra or anything like that in front of me because I would be the worst person in this room and in Ireland at it. That is a form of dyslexia but we do not look at it that way. It is the same with people who have a difficulty with Irish, history, geography and so on. It is a huge problem within our education system and is far more common than is recognised but the fact that we have open debates about it and that people are more willing to talk about it is good. As legislators, we must look out for young people and adults. In the past, people would have asked me to fill in cheques for them because they could not or would not do it but they would not say that it was anything to do with dyslexia. Nowadays it is easier for people to talk about it. Good friends have come to me in recent years and told me that they or their family members were dyslexic. Many of those people are real achievers in life. Some are really good business people and really good communicators but they have kept hidden the fact that they cannot write properly or deal with that part of life.

It is great to have the Minister of State here for this debate and to listen to everyone's point of view on the issue. It is an issue that we should focus on more and I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to be here today to discuss it.

The Minister of State is very welcome to the House this evening to discuss this important issue. I will begin by complimenting her on the work she has done since taking over responsibility for special needs and on her contribution to special needs schools and to children with disabilities and learning difficulties, including those with dyslexia. As has been pointed out earlier, dyslexia is not just about children; it also affects adults. I am glad to have the opportunity to speak this evening, especially as this week is Dyslexia Awareness Week. Many of us in the House attended the Dyslexia Association of Ireland's briefing where we heard some pretty stark facts. While there was much positivity in the briefing, there were also some alarming issues raised. Some teachers admitted that they felt they were not properly trained to deal with dyslexia. Many teachers have been on training courses but feel they do not have the skills to deal with dyslexic children or to teach them properly. It should be compulsory for all teachers to complete a dyslexia training course.

I also wish to compliment the SNAs in our schools. There are many fantastic SNAs out there who have worked so diligently with students, especially those who are completing the leaving certificate. I know of a student who is severely dyslexic, who reads everything backwards and finds it really difficult to learn. That student got close to 500 points in the leaving certificate, thanks to the help of a hard-working SNA. It is also important to mention technology in this debate. Supportive technology enables many people who are dyslexic to learn a lot faster. Dyslexic students can use iPads and similar devices at school and many of them find that very useful. I know of one child who writes everything backwards but who is the first to understand a verbal instruction. The child is very intelligent, as is the case with many people with dyslexia. It is all about finding the right supports for children, especially in education. In many instances, people lack confidence because they feel they are doing things wrong but it is not about right or wrong but putting the right supports in place. I would like to see grants being given for assistive technology because it can be very costly for families. I met the parents of three children with dyslexia recently who told me that the cost of getting a computer for each child was enormous, not to mention the cost of upgrading and so on.

While much good work is happening out there, we need to go a step further. I compliment the Minister of State on her commitment to this area and look forward to working with her on improving the rights of people with dyslexia.

I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to be here today. It is really important that we highlight dyslexia and its impact on those affected. I had the experience of supporting someone doing a degree in UCD. While that person could not sit down and write an essay, he could walk the length of the room and dictate a 3,000 word essay and be able to picture it in his head and instruct me to go back to a particular point and type it. I was merely the scribe or the secretary throughout the process and it really brought home to me the fact that dyslexia is not about intelligence or ability. It is a learning difficulty that people experience but is not reflective of their life or of their capacity, capabilities or where they can assume themselves to be or aspire to be. It is really important that we have days like tomorrow and weeks like this during which we highlight the achievements of people with dyslexia and draw attention to the number of renowned people throughout the world who had dyslexia. Despite the dyslexia, their brilliance and innovation came to the fore and was experienced.

I welcome today's debate and I also welcome the incredible work that the Minister of State has done in her new role. We have seen an increase in special education places and classes for which the Minister of State must be congratulated. I have enormous confidence in the Minister of State's drive and determination to ensure that we provide wraparound services to children in school which will address some of the issues that were raised at the briefing today. Early identification will be facilitated by having those wraparound services. The concept that the Minister of State is bringing into being will bear fruit for the next generation.

I must mention Dublin 6W where there are huge gaps in the provision of services. I know the Minister of State is doing her best to intervene, to have a say and to increase the number of places in schools for children with special education needs. We cannot have a situation where service provision is a postcode lottery and access to supports depends on where one lives in the country. We cannot have resistance at school level for whatever reason, be it league tables or otherwise.

We certainly cannot have that.

I think Covid amplified the digital technology divide. Many children were working from home where maybe three children were sharing a phone or device, as someone told me the other day. We need to move very decisively on things like that to ensure that no child is left behind when it comes to technology, particularly where there are areas like this.

I want to offer congratulations on the new course for SNAs that began last year. I know an SNA who is going through it at the moment. It is a phenomenal amount of work in terms of the quality of the input and the quality of the confidence in the SNAs going through it, realising everything they have done is really good and inspired by their own life experience and professionalism. They are getting that confidence and it is emboldening them in their roles, and getting new information and training. That has been really instrumental. I have one ask. How much of that can be off-set against Croke Park hours? From SNAs I have spoken to, it seems to be at the discretion of the principal of the school. We could do with uniformity on that because there is a lot of work to it but it is fantastic. Everyone I have spoken to, and one person in particular, really values the experience and the professionalism that has been honoured through the course. I thank the Minister of State for that. It is very good.

I want to say how fantastic it is to have a Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion in this room to talk about dyslexia month. It is an acknowledgement of where we are. There is a lot of work to do but it is a commitment to where we want to get to. I cannot think of a better person to do it. Everyone has heard of dyslexia but I am not sure there is enough general awareness of what it actually is and the specific supports that people need. Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that affects reading and spelling skills and affects 10% of the population.

People come in all sizes and shapes yet we still very much live in a one-size-fits-all world. A lot of our work is to tailor to people's specific needs. To me, dyslexia is just another form of human diversity. We all have something different about ourselves. This is always about equality of opportunity. That is very much a principle that we need to strive for.

I know the Minister of State is fighting at the moment for budget allocation. This year, €2 billion, or 25% of our education budget, will be spent on special educational needs. That shows the commitment to change. I often come across parents and schools who have concerns. I want to recognise groups such as the Dyslexia Support Group in Dublin 15. It is a new group which is meeting for the first time, because of Covid, on 22 October, for a coffee morning in support of Dyslexia Awareness Month and the Dyslexia Association of Ireland. I thank Senator Lombard for arranging this debate and the information that we got.

Inclusive education is set out in the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. It states a child with special educational needs shall be educated in an inclusive environment with children who do not have such needs unless it is not in the best interest of the child with special educational needs or is inconsistent with the effective provision of education for children with whom the child is to be educated. I do not think there is any disagreement with the latter. I agree that such an inclusive approach is what we want to achieve. We have a model for allocating special education teachers in mainstream schools that was introduced in 2017 based on the profile needs of the school. That allows the school to allocate support where it is needed and without diagnosis. The numbers speak for themselves. There are 13,600 special education teachers at the moment but we must accept that we are still trying to close the disconnect between where we want to get to versus what some children with severe dyslexia are currently experiencing. I am specifically talking about Dublin west. I speak to parents with children in the third percentile who get support from their special education teacher but still feel that the children are missing out on an inclusive experience because they have to leave their table or leave their classroom so much. That is an issue that we have to acknowledge. It creates a negative experience for children if they are feeling different and feeling left out. Not every child will feel that but among the parents I speak to, many of them do. We have to listen to parents who are happy for their children to have access to reading classes and reading schools should their children need it. They do not see a reading class or a reading school as a failure of inclusion, they see them as an enabler of inclusion in the long term. I know the Department has said that it no longer supports the opening of new reading schools or classes but it is disappointing to the parents and children in Dublin 15 who do not have access to either. There is a school there, St. Francis Xavier, in Roselawn that wants to open a reading class and there are parents who very much want that. The Department has said it is going to review that policy. Parents, schools, the Dyslexia Association of Ireland and the National Educational Psychological Service have said that in an ideal world, where teachers are fully trained and schools are fully resourced, reading classes and schools would not be needed. That is what the Minister of State is working towards. While we absolutely need to get there, we are not there yet. I hope that review will fall in the favour of parents who want the reading classes and schools.

I spent most of this debate in my office listening to the contributions. I want to compliment the Senators. It was a great debate with great knowledge and I am very proud of the House tonight.

I want to speak about the Dyslexia Association of Ireland. It does amazing work. It is a fantastic organisation that deals with parents in particular, as well as teachers. It has done fantastic work over the last 50 years and that needs to be acknowledged. I do a little bit of work with it and I want to acknowledge its great efforts. Looking at what the association does on the ground, one thing is building up self-esteem with children who are dyslexic in their workshops, which is really important. Self-esteem is a real issue with children who have dyslexia, and also adults to some degree, but particularly children. Those workshops are really important for dyslexic kids. There is also the work the association does in teacher and parent training. Parents, like all of us, need training to know exactly what aids their child needs when they are dyslexic. The work the association does on those two things is exceptionally important. There are also the workshops that happen outside school hours for children which are a real bonus. Those workshops, which are probably weekly, give real understanding among parents and children and bring them up to what we need to do regarding teaching our children to learn. That is exactly what it is about: teaching our child how to learn in a different way. We would have taught our kids the ABC alphabet but that was completely wrong. It is all phonics now. It has totally changed and we did not realise. Now, 11 years later, we could write a book on it. These are the big issues that we have in society.

There needs to be urgent reform of the education system and how children are looked on in education forums. There are massive issues. Senators have mentioned mandatory teacher training. To have a scenario today where teachers do not have training to identify when a child is dyslexic is appalling. We really need to look at how our education colleges are training our teachers. Continuous training is the biggest issue. We need to make sure that the teachers in the system can be brought up to speed on how we can work with our children.

The simple and easy win is extra time for exams. That is the key issue. Students need more time to compute so that they can fill out exam papers. For me, though, the main issue is technology. It gives glasses to a child who does not have the ability to see. A reader pen, which is a fantastic tool, gives a child the opportunity to read with a pen. The child can hear the word. A child can type into an iPad and it will then speak for him or her. These kinds of technology are the ultimate game changer and are what we need to be talking about, but there is resistance within some schools. Schools do not understand what these technologies are about or why and where we use them. It will take a holistic approach across the entire education system to bring the system up to speed. If that assistive technology can be taken away during the Drumcondra reading test, which is an assessment given to children, it is appalling. I know a parent of a child who is on the third centile. His assistive technology was taken away from him when he did his Drumcondra test last year. We cannot stand over this. No one can. It would be like taking away the glasses of a child with a visual impairment and expecting him or her to do an exam.

This shows the lack of joined-up thinking in the area, and is why our debate is so important. It is also why I have spent most of the debate in my office. This is about trying to get change and small, basic wins to ensure that our children have the ability to perform and be equal in the classroom. That is what we need to see today. We need to see a complete reform of the education system when it comes to dyslexic people. For that to happen, a complete ethos change will be required by educational colleges all the way up. That is where we need to start.

If we were to get one win, it would be with the technology. Having that technology gives our students the ability to run. If we can do that and make a start, society will thank us. Some 10% of our communities need this help and it is in our gift to give it.

I thank the Senator for organising the briefing this afternoon and for his contribution on this debate.

I welcome the Minister of State. I was struck by Senator Murphy's comment about years ago. Thirty years ago, I am not sure whether the words "dyslexia" and "autism" were even in the English language. A large number of the kids in question were at the back of the class and sometimes did not get a chance in life. Thankfully, that has changed and people are getting opportunities.

I welcome today's presentation and I thank Senator Lombard for organising it. It was informative and I compliment the organisation that appeared before us on its work. Well done to Senator Lombard on being such a strong advocate. I support the organisation's requests for the budget. How equipment can make such a difference was well articulated by the Senator.

I am a firm believer in early intervention. There are challenges in getting early intervention to kids, but there is a simpler test that can be done and used to refer kids on for further tests. This needs to be done at a young age in all schools.

Yesterday evening, I told my wife, Una, that I was going to speak on this issue. She felt that, as a primary teacher, she was not well enough informed on the matter. She has made overtures and bought equipment, coloured paper and so on to have it all in place for kids who might be affected. More teachers need to be trained up to increase their awareness, as do SNAs. A child would not get an SNA on the basis of having dyslexia, but when SNAs are in a classroom setting, they should have a basic knowledge of the issue as well.

Across the system, there need to be more spot checks so that kids who should be getting aid in school are actually getting it and that their schools are not using their hours for alternative uses. The latter is happening in a large number of schools. I do not want to see principals not giving kids the hours that they have been allocated and to which they are entitled. An eye needs to be kept on this.

The figure of 10% is startling. I did not realise that was the percentage until Senator Lombard said so. I am proud of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, who has driven the school inclusion model for kids with autism in particular. It is the way forward. We can bring occupational therapy and speech and language therapy into schools as well to help kids with dyslexia. Instead of taking kids out of the school setting where they are comfortable and putting them into a clinical setting, bring that help into schools. I hope that more funding is allocated to the Department to allow for that approach to be taken across the country. It was successful in the trial area, which I believe was CHO 7 in Meath, and had positive results. It must be rolled out across the whole country. Get it into schools and to the kids every day of the week. Get in early, identify the problems and sort them out.

I compliment the Minister of State on her work and Senator Lombard on being a very strong advocate for people with dyslexia.

Pablo Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Heseltine, Agatha Christie, John Lennon, Whoopi Goldberg, Albert Einstein and Noel Gallagher are the names that I got this evening of people who have or had dyslexia. As many Senators have pointed out, dyslexia is not a lack of intelligence or, as Senator Boyhan said, an impediment to not just progressing in life, but also achieving extraordinary things. It was wonderful to hear the Senators' contributions, which will help me as Minister of State with responsibility for special education. I met the Dyslexia Association of Ireland with Senator Lombard last year. That was helpful for me as well. The Department gives funding to the association, which is important.

Dyslexia is high incidence and low impact. Many children around the country have dyslexia. It is predominantly in the mainstream that we cater for children with dyslexia through special education teachers, SETs, and SNAs. There would be no need for children to go to special classes or special schools unless they had another diagnosis, for example, autism.

Some of the points made during this debate struck me, for example, those about early intervention and teacher training. Senators Lombard, Maria Byrne, Warfield, O'Loughlin, Dolan, Boyhan and Carrigy mentioned teacher training as an important issue. I wrote down "not a lack of intelligence", which is something that Senator Seery Kearney mentioned. Senator Murphy referred to how dyslexia was hidden, which is true. We are breaking down those barriers. Even having this discussion is important, in that it puts a spotlight on the matter. We do not have children at the "back of the class" anymore. SNAs are helping in that regard.

Giving the children confidence was mentioned as well. We want to ensure that they do not lack confidence as a result of having dyslexia.

The funding for the assistive technology scheme is important. Technology is important and we saw the divide during the pandemic. We will have to put more funding into technology in the future.

All these tools are vital.

Senator Currie mentioned a dyslexic group in Dublin 15. It is great that a new group has formed and that there are support groups. Some Members mentioned other matters separate from dyslexia and I come back to them on all of those.

It is important to note the inspectorate is ensuring policy in the area of special education, including in the area of dyslexia, in respect of reading supports will be reviewed to ensure it is meeting the needs of young people. That is good for the Members to know. It does that on an ongoing basis and will continue to do that.

I am always interested in hearing the views of public representatives. They know their constituents, schools, teachers, staff, families and parents. They meet them all the time. I cannot change things for the better or help ameliorate policy or change the way policy is going unless I hear from them on different matters. They have given me most of those this evening. The school inclusion model was mentioned and it will be critical.

I am in the middle of budget negotiations for my Department. We had a budget of €2 billion last year, which represented a 50% increase since 2011. It is a massive increase but that was coming from a low base. There are two sides to that. The fact we have more diagnoses means we have more children to look after and it is good they are being diagnosed in the first instance. For dyslexia in particular, a diagnosis is not needed to access an SNA or a special education teacher in mainstream education. That is important. It is always available for the child. It is important to keep those children as inclusively integrated into the classroom as possible rather than having them going in and out all the time.

The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act is 17 years old. I am committed to reviewing it. When I undertake that review, it will show the direction of travel for the future. The needs of children are changing all the time as we evolve. Technology came to the fore here this evening and it will change again in 20 years. We do not know what other initiatives or inventions there will be by then. Therefore, we must make sure we amend our legislation when we need to. The fact that 10% of the population is affected by dyslexia is significant. Early intervention is critical. I speak to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, on an ongoing basis about that and about issues such as waiting lists, assessments and making sure children gain those supports if and when they need them.

I thank the Minister of State for joining us this evening.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.24 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 7 October 2021.