I thank the committee for the invitation to attend today to engage with it on the plans of the Department of Education and Skills to enable and support special education provision while minimising the risk of spreading Covid-19 infections. I am assistant secretary with responsibility for inclusion in the Department of Education and Skills. Attending with me are other Department of Education and Skills colleagues, including Mr. Eddie Ward, principal officer in the Department’s special education section, Mr. Brendan Doody, assistant chief inspector in the Department’s Inspectorate and Ms Anne Tansey, director of the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS.
The Taoiseach’s announcement on 12 March last of the closure of all schools, colleges, universities and other training and learning facilities was the commencement of a series of challenges across the education and training sector as a result of Covid-19. The challenges continue to be managed by the Department of Education and Skills, the education partners and a range of stakeholders.
The interests of students and their families, as well as the safety of the staff in the sector, have been the paramount considerations throughout.
Advice and guidance was issued to the school sector following the closures. All schools were asked to work to minimise the impact on teaching and learning by continuing to plan lessons and, where possible, provide online resources for students or online lessons where they were equipped to do so. Schools were asked to be conscious of students who may not have access to online facilities and to consider this actively in their plans. Information was provided for teachers on a range of online resources to assist schools to provide ongoing support to students during school closures. Following the decision that they would remain closed after the initial period, more comprehensive guidance was issued to all schools on supporting teaching and learning. Specific guidance was also issued for those engaging with students with special educational needs and those at risk of educational disadvantage. Additional ICT grants and the creation of new resources have also been part of our response. There are many good examples illustrating how schools and teachers have developed innovative ways to connect with their students.
While most children have adapted reasonably well to the new circumstances, there is evidence that the absence of school and other supports is having a negative impact on the lives and well-being of many of those with complex needs and their families. The loss of the regular school routine, social interaction with friends, access to teachers, special needs assistants, therapy services and respite-type supports are presenting a real risk of regression in the learning, the social and emotional development and the well-being of these children. Furthermore, many families are reporting significant challenges caring for their children in the absence of these supports and routines.
Phase 4 of the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business sets out that educational institutions can open on a phased basis at the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year, with a limited reopening provided from phase 2 on 8 June last. Since the Government decision of 5 June, the Department has progressed plans for specific programmes and initiatives for children with special educational needs.
Summer Provision 2020 - Reconnecting with Education, is a significantly expanded programme for children with complex special educational needs and those at greatest risk of educational disadvantage. The summer programme includes a Department of Education and Skills-led programme involving school-based and home-based strands. It is focused on providing a foundation to re-establish relationships and a sense of belonging and connectedness to school, re-engaging with learning and support and the successful transition or reintegration of students with their peers into their planned education setting for the next school year. The programme also involves a Department of Health and HSE-led activity-based programme delivered in a school setting. In-school or home-based supports provided by teachers and SNAs will help to prevent regression among children with special needs.
To be eligible, a child must fall into one of the following categories: pupils with a diagnosis of autism; pupils with severe and profound learning difficulties; any child in a special class or special school; children transitioning into a special class from early years settings to primary school; and pupils in primary school mainstream classes who present with a number of disabilities. Comprehensive guidance and frequently asked questions for the programme have been published. Participation in the programme by schools, teachers and special needs assistants is voluntary and so far the response is very positive with 200 schools registered to run the school-based summer education programme. Some 36 schools, of which 35 are also running the school-based programme, have registered to participate in the HSE provision. It is estimated that 3,400 children will benefit from these school-based programmes. Almost 9,200 children are registered for the home-based programme.
Decisions on summer provision must be underpinned by public health advice. The Department has this week issued guidance to all primary schools to help guide them in running the summer provision. This guidance is informed by our engagement with the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, and the Department of Health. I thank the committee for giving the Department the opportunity to discuss these issues today. My colleagues and I are happy to take questions from members on this matter.