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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 13 Jul 2022

Vol. 287 No. 6

Education (Provision in Respect of Children with Special Educational Needs) Bill 2022: Committee Stage

Sections 1 and 2 agreed to.

Amendment No. a1 on the first additional list of amendments, dated today, is in the name of Senator Mullen, but the Senator is not in the House to move the amendment.

Amendment No. a1 not moved.
Section 3 agreed to.

Amendment No. b1 is in the name of Senator Mullen. He is not here to move it.

Amendment No. b1 not moved.
Section 4 agreed to.

Amendment No. c1 is in the name of Senator Mullen. He is not present so he cannot move it.

Amendment No. c1 not moved.
Section 5 agreed to.

You have missed your amendments, Senator Mullen.

May I speak now?

You may speak to amendment No. 1a to section 7 when it comes up.


I move amendment No. 1:

In page 7, between lines 35 and 36, to insert the following:

“(10A) (a) The Council shall publish, concurrent with the giving of such a direction referred to in this section a report outlining the adequacy of resources provided by the Department, the NCSE, and the HSE and other relevant organisations to the Schools, and stating whether in the council’s view if the resources meet the needs of the school community and the children in the Special Class or School.

(b) These resources shall include, but not be limited to:

(i) adequate SNA support;

(ii) access to Multi Disciplinary teams including Speech and Language Therapists, Occupational Therapists, Psychiatrists and Nursing Staff;

(iii) mental health supports for pupils in schools and CAHMS fully staffed to meet the needs of all children with emotional and behavioural disorders; and

(iv) adequately qualified special Education Teachers.”.

I missed the Second Stage debate on the Bill. I welcome the Minister of State and apologise for being absent for that debate. I know that my colleague, Senator Gavan, spoke on my behalf and on behalf of Sinn Féin. I welcome this legislation, which will shorten the notice periods for schools being instructed to accommodate pupils with special educational needs. We know that many families are trying to secure appropriate places for their children, as is their human right. I take this opportunity to commend all the families and parents who fight tirelessly, day in, day out, for their children and who are politically active, as they are required to be in some instances, unfortunately. We can all agree that children have the right to a proper education. Sinn Féin has been calling for this measure. We tabled a motion to that effect in the Dáil a number of weeks ago.

As for this amendment, it has been well articulated by schools, parents and campaign groups that a special class is not just four walls and a door but also all the resources that go with it. That goes way beyond the Department of Education and the Minister of State here. It is vital that adequate resources are put in place where this power is used. There are schools that are reluctant to open special classes. In our experience, any school that opens a special class never regrets it. It enhances the school, and we all know the benefits it brings to diversity and everyone's experience in the school environment. Amendment No. 1 goes to the heart of the issues of adequate support for special needs assistants, SNAs; mental health support for schools; full staffing of and support for child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS; support for children in the community; an adequate number of qualified special education teachers; and, crucially, access to multidisciplinary teams such as speech and language therapists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists and nursing staff. That access to therapy is vital, and that is what amendment No. 1 goes to the heart of.

I welcome the Minister of State. This is fantastic legislation. The Minister of State has shown the whole time she has had this portfolio the changes she has sought to make. We talk about resources within our schools and special schools. We are looking at bringing children back into the mainstream. That has been a real policy over recent years. Specifically, with this Bill, the Minister of State is looking at working with schools, which is what the Department is doing, to ensure there is capacity there for children, particularly in regional and rural areas. We have heard of parents travelling nearly 50 miles, 100 mile return journeys, to try to access some of these schools. The Minister of State has done an awful lot of work in fighting for budgets, including for SNAs within the Department of Education, and we have seen the increase in that regard. Those resources are crucial for mainstream schools to be able to offer these special classes and to ensure they have the supports in place to do so.

As for this section, it is crucial, as Senator Warfield said, that schools engage at an early stage if there are capacity challenges. What this Bill says is that we are working with our schools. The Government has had a very clear strategy of mainstreaming of children with special needs. That will happen in schools in Ireland, and we will work with schools to achieve that. The Bill puts a strong emphasis on what the Government wants to see achieved here.

As I had an opportunity to speak on this Bill on Second Stage, I will be very brief. As the Minister of State knows and has been fighting for, the amount of resources and funding going into special education is absolutely unprecedented. While the funding is there, it is the outcomes that are important in terms of the young people and, of course, their families. Life is very difficult for a family when their child receives a diagnosis of an intellectual disability, no matter what type of disability it is. It can be difficult because they are trying to find their way as parents anyway, and then they are trying to find their way - there is no direct roadmap - towards getting all the extra supports and help they need to encourage that young person, who they have been entrusted with to reach his or her full potential. That is why it is so important for young people in all families and communities to have the opportunity to go to school with their siblings and peers. The Bill is the very essence of giving that opportunity and making sure every child has that opportunity.

It is very important, and we spoke about this on Second Stage, that it is not just about the room or building, but also about the supports that go with that room or building and about having SNAs. It was good news to see University College Dublin announce that it has brought in the accreditation for SNAs who have taken that extra step. This is very important in terms of professionalising the whole profession. It is about having the extra SNA supports and cross-cutting therapy supports that are under disability as opposed to education. We still have a way to go in ensuring we have all those complementary supports. We are most definitely on the right path in ensuring the Bill is passed and every child will have an opportunity in his or her community.

I understand the sentiment of the amendment but I cannot support it. To be fair, the Minister of State has more than adequately articulated prior to now - it was one of her first announcements in the Department - that there will be wrap-around supports in schools and that we will have a child-centred focus with all the attending multidisciplinary supports around that. It is a matter of recruitment and ensuring those multidisciplinary teams are in place.

Elements that are crucial and important in the amendment of section 37A include the length of time and effectiveness of the process, and ensuring the process will deliberately be more effective than it has been heretofore, as a consequence of the Government's amendment to this section of the Act. We should make sure that schools with an infrastructure are prioritised, built upon and are obliged to extend their services in secondary schools, both fee and non-fee paying schools and DEIS and non-DEIS schools, so that we have a universality of ambition to make sure the provision is as local to every child as it possibly can be and that section 37A is effective in making that happen quickly. I believe that is the intention of the Minister of State. Thus, everything around that will not just be the physical place of the child; it will also be everything that is attending to that.

I thank the Senator for his amendment. I spoke at length on Second Stage of the Bill on all the resources that have been put in place. I do not suggest that everybody is satisfied with all of the wrap-around services, but there have been 300 extra classes in the last year, there will be more than 315 in the next academic year, and a quarter of the entire education budget will go towards special needs education, which a lot of people probably do not realise.

The reason I have an issue with the amendment is not because I do not believe there should be multidisciplinary teams. I spoke about this on Second Stage. Multidisciplinary teams are needed. Parents and schools have concerns around those teams and the supports. The process under section 37A does not happen very often. All of this should be happening for every school rather than just in relation to the section 37A process. That is why I do not believe this is the place for it, because otherwise the Minister will go through the 37A process with only a handful of two or three schools. It would not be fair if those particular schools which have dug their heels in and said they will not have a special class are the schools we report on whether they have these multidisciplinary teams. All schools should have access to multidisciplinary teams.

We need to get the message out strongly that no school opens special classes and regrets doing so afterwards. Senator Warfield's colleague made this point on Second Stage of the Bill in the Dáil. Part of the reason they do not regret it is that they are provided with the resources that they need. For every class of six students in primary school, there is one teacher and two SNAs. For every class of six pupils at secondary school, there is 1.5 teachers and two SNAs. This is in addition to the multidisciplinary aspect. It should not only be under the remit of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan; it has to go across Departments as well. Those are my thoughts on it but that is not to say that I do not agree with the multidisciplinary aspect of the amendment. It needs to be for everyone.

I want to take a moment to inform the House of some good news on the provision of special classes in Dublin. Senators will be aware that the Department wrote to 14 schools a few weeks ago that had been identified as having space and capacity to open a special class for the coming academic year. I am delighted to announce that out of the 14 schools that were initially contacted, seven more classes have been sanctioned by the National Council For Special Education, NCSE, to open in the coming term. That brings the total number of additional special classes sanctioned in recent weeks to 15. There is ongoing engagement with other schools to deliver more special classes in the foreseeable future. I thank the schools, boards of management and patrons for their co-operation in assisting me, the Department and the NCSE in delivering special education services and facilities for children with additional needs. I also confirm that a new post-primary special class will open in Athlone-----

-----in September and I hope that will ease the pressure for parents and children in the area.

Senator Warfield tabled the amendment and I thank him for his indulgence in sharing this good news. I will now deal specifically with his amendment. While I understand the amendment, I have to put out a number of issues around it. As the Senator mentioned, appropriate educational provision for children with additional needs is absolutely critical and is something to which the Government is committed. It is not, unfortunately, the function of the Department or the NCSE to provide resources around speech and language therapists and occupational therapists, as contained in the amendment. Those resources are under the remits of other Departments and State agencies.

The other amendments proposed by Senator Warfield relate to the core functions and role of the NCSE and its staff, in particular special educational needs organisers, SENOs. Most of the amendments relate to the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act 2004. The Senators will be aware that a review of the Act is ongoing.

Given that the legislation is urgent and needs to be progressed so quickly, I suggest that we need more time and space to consider the Senator's amendment. I also suggest that the current review of the EPSEN Act is the way to input his contribution to that. There simply is not the time to adequately consider the impact and potential consequences of the amendment he has proposed. There are also some phrases used in the text of the amendment that may need to be clarified as well, such as the references to other relevant organisations providing resources to schools and how SNA and adequate special education teacher supports should be generally defined. I regret therefore that I cannot accept this amendment, but I commit to considering the matter, and the other matters raised, further as part of the broader review of the EPSEN Act.

The Senator will be aware that the majority, although not all, of the provisions in EPSEN Act were commenced in 2004. The Act placed the NCSE on a statutory footing. It provides for the education of children under 18 years of age who have special educational needs. It has been in place for the past 18 years and is in need of urgent review. The Senator can, if he wishes, make a submission to the Department outlining his views. Any Member of the Oireachtas can have an input into that process. Obviously, as we have done in the case of the Senator's amendment, we will give serious consideration to all submissions made.

It is important that the legislation reflects current best practice, both nationally and internationally, and that it facilitates the best possible education and outcome for children with special educational needs. The consultation process is wide-ranging. It is due to be completed in the first quarter of 2023, so Members have a bit of time. Depending on the outcome of the review, it is expected that the Act will need to be updated and revised. Any proposed changes will need to come before both Houses. It is critically important that we have an legislation that we can commence and implement in full. There is no point in only certain provisions being capable of being commenced. In the context of the EPSEN Act, there were financial reasons as to why certain provisions could not be commenced. We want to ensure that the latter does not happen on this occasion, but I need the width and breadth of stakeholder consultation and submissions in respect of what we are doing.

I thank the Senator for tabling the amendment.

Senator Dolan wishes to come in.

Does Senator Warfield want to come in first?

No, we are under time pressure. I am not going to contribute a second time. If Senator Dolan wants to contribute, then by all means she should do so.

I thank the Minister of State for that excellent news on special classes. It is important. She mentioned she was in contact with over 14 schools located in the Dublin area, but it is crucial that the total number of special classes is being increased. I represent Roscommon and Galway. When take in conjunction with Athlone and Westmeath in general, the overall catchment area is extremely large. Senator Carrigy has often spoken about the challenges of parents who must travel. This is really appreciated. There are so many schools that have special classes. They are going over and above, and their principals are trying to make do with capacity and everything else. They are finding rooms, if needed, for autism spectrum disorder classes. It is crucial that our boards of management, principals and teachers are working together to achieve this for their communities.

I thank Senator Warfield for tabling the amendment because it has allowed us to discuss the issue of capacity. I appreciate that, as the Minister of State mentioned that submissions can be made in respect of the EPSEN Act. We will all have an opportunity to make such submissions to the Department. The Minister of State mentioned the first quarter of 2023 as the deadline, so it is crucial that we make our submissions and engage proactively in respect of the Act, which needs to be updated and amended as soon as possible.

Is Senator Warfield pressing the amendment?

No. I will withdraw it. The Minister of State has committed to consider the issue as part of the EPSEN Act review. I am satisfied with that response at this time.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 6 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 1a:

In page 8, line 43, after “Council” to insert “, pursuant to section 37A of the Act of 1998”.

I begin by thanking the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to present my amendments today. I found it quite frustrating that the hatch for submission of amendments closed almost as soon as Second Stage was concluded. Were it not for the Cathaoirleach's willingness to allow these amendments to come before the House, I would have been prevented from tabling them. That was on the back of a situation where the only way I could speak on this important piece of legislation on Second Stage was by getting a colleague to allow me two minutes of her time. It cannot be said often enough that this is a very unsatisfactory way to legislate. It is inevitable there will be a lot coming at the end of term but it does not have to be like this. An enormous pressure has been put on the Bills Office because of the management of our legislative affairs in recent weeks and it is just unfair. It is disrespectful of our democracy and of the people we represent. People on all sides of the House should be saying this, and saying it often, until Government gets the message. I am not blaming the Minister of State. She is just a bigger cog in the machine than the rest us but she is a cog in the machine nonetheless and frankly, the machine is not giving a good account of our democratic processes just now.

On a point of order, the Senator has to speak to the amendment. I understand the frustrations here but------

Is this a point of order? Has the Senator been-----

I am sorry, through the Chair.

Okay. I would prefer to not be obstructing on it. I think everybody in the House agrees with this if you talk to them about it privately, and the public is looking on.

I want to pick up on something the Minister of State and Senator Dolan said in response to Senator Warfield's amendment. They invited him to continue the dialogue, as it were, with the Department of Education and said that consideration will be given to his thoughts and views. However, surely that is true of every citizen. At least I hope it is. What they are saying, therefore, has no relevance. It is to be hoped that in this country we are all still allowed write to the Government with our points of view but out job in this moment is to legislate and to consider legislation. It is no great response to say that the Senator might have a point but that he should keep talking to the Department of Education and we will see about bringing the matter up in the future. That is what I take what was said to mean. I do not mean to be personal about it, but we must insist on standards for our Legislature.

On my amendment, I apologise that I was not here in the first few minutes but it is the same substantive-----

I apologise to the Senator but there is a vote in the Dáil-----

-----so I must ask permission to suspend for 15 minutes.

We have no choice.

Can I move the suspension of the sitting until the votes in the Dáil have concluded?

Where does that leave us?

The time will be extended. It has already been agreed on the Order of Business.

I propose that we suspend the sitting until the votes in the Dáil have concluded.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.
Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 7.14 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 7.29 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 7.14 p.m. and resumed at 7.29 p.m.