Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Questions (9)

Niamh Smyth


9. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Education and Skills if his attention has been drawn to the fact that children are being taught in schools without the necessary supports needed due to delays in assessments for children attending school that have developmental issues and may require specialised support; the efforts being taken to clear this backlog; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19823/19]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Education)

My question is about students in primary and secondary school and the lack of necessary supports for those with special needs. We saw the protest outside Leinster House last week with parents who were completely frustrated. I am no different from any other Deputy in this Chamber. Such people come to our clinics regularly. They are the parents of children attending both primary and secondary school. Will the Minister outline his plans to get rid of the backlog which restricts children from accessing those important resources?

In 2017, my Department introduced a new model to support pupils with special educational needs. This means schools are now front-loaded with additional teachers to enable them to respond to pupil needs, rather than requiring an assessment to allow them to apply for such additional resources.  To back up my previous contribution, that is the type of model that we are trying to bring in under the social inclusion pilot that we just launched. This reduces the administrative burden on schools as schools will no longer have to complete an application process annually and apply for newly enrolled pupils who require additional teaching support. Children who need support can have that support provided immediately rather than having to wait for a diagnosis.

Additionally some pupils with developmental issues may require an assessment of need which is provided by the HSE services. My Department's National Educational Psychological Service delivers a tiered, consultative model of service. Each school takes responsibility for initial assessment, educational planning and intervention for pupils with difficulties including those with developmental delay. Teachers consult with their NEPS psychologist for assistance should they need to at this stage in the process. Only in the event of a failure to make reasonable progress, in spite of the school's best efforts, in consultation with NEPS, will the psychologist become directly involved with an individual child for intensive intervention or assessment.

This system allows psychologists to give early attention to urgent cases and also to help many more children indirectly than could be seen individually. It also ensures that children are not referred unnecessarily for psychological support. I advise that parents of children in schools for whom concerns exist relating to developmental delay should, in the first instance, raise the matter with the principal of the relevant school with a view to involving the assigned NEPS psychologist in the issue where appropriate.

I applaud the Minister's heartfelt intentions. However, the reality appears to be different in the sense that I have parents coming to me who are completely frustrated with the fact that the HSE has a duty with regard to the assessment of need and children have been waiting for 18 months or two years and still have not been assessed. That has a domino effect regarding the lack of supports provided in schools. It holds the entire system back. The Minister talked about a model that perhaps bypasses it. That is not filtering into schools and that is the reality for the parents on the ground. Not only are the parents frustrated, but so are school principals who are tasked with trying to coax and cajole students into class every day because there are developmental, mental health and learning difficulty issues. They do not have the supports in schools to deal with that. How good is the communication between the Minister's Department and the HSE when it comes to assessment of need? Some 18 months to two years is just not good enough.

Is the Minister aware that many parents and grandparents are being forced to go privately because the waiting list for assessments is so long? In the case of a child who may have autism spectrum disorder, ASD, issues, there is no provision to get an assessment at any time before the child is three and a half. By then, the child may have clear verbal issues and other behavioural issues. I realise the Minister has only come to this recently but I have heard of people spending €1,200 on assessments, with parents, grandparents and the rest of the family banding together to try to get this vital assessment. Unless a child has the assessment, nothing can be done for him or her. Schools are also trying to help. It is a very difficult area. The assessments are meant to cost €200 to €400 but, in practice, many assessments cost much more than that.

The most important time in any child's development is the first 1,000 days. We are talking about early years, the transition to junior primary school, and the process and ongoing progression into senior classes in primary school. I was speaking to a principal in a school this morning and she was talking about a delay when an assessment was given in early years, then there was a delay going into senior infants and then first class. There is an issue with the co-ordination between different stakeholders, including the HSE and officials in different Departments. That is why I am trying to work this pilot in a comprehensive way that does not just look at primary school but at that process from early years onward. Schools will have that information rather than just meeting the student at the front gate. That pilot will start in September. We have allocated €4.75 million to it but I want to see that model developing. It will be evaluated. It will not address the immediate issues of frustration for parents, as the Deputy pointed out, or for teachers, but we have to get the co-ordination and the progress from early years to junior right.

To go back to the initial point I was making, what is the Minister's target for clearing the backlogs that exist with regard to providing supports for students and bypassing the lengthy procedure that they currently go through? I will give another example. There is a second year secondary school student whose mum is exasperated. She cannot get her child to school. There is a developmental issue and a requirement for learning support.

He has now run into a serious number of days of absenteeism which brings a whole raft of other difficulties for his parents. It does not help relations between school management, authorities and parents who are doing their best. The school is doing its best but there is no communication and no link. That child is falling through the net.

There was a big change in 2017. The revised allocation process replaced the need for diagnosis and the school got the profile funding and the first port of call for a student into a primary school for example is not dependent on a diagnosis. In this social inclusion pilot model we are trying to have the same profiling that schools do not follow the diagnosis but an allocation and it is up to them to allocate those resources. It is important to point out that we need collaboration such that in an early year setting if a three year old is diagnosed as needing speech and language support the primary school principal knows that and has that information when they come into junior infants to ensure that support continues rather than having to wait a year or two. It is a big challenge but it is the right thing to do and we need to look at new ways of doing it.

In terms of the money that has come in since 2011, €1.75 billion a year, we are looking at a 44% increase in special needs assistants, SNAs, to 15,000. A lot of work has been done and whether it is special educational needs officers, SENOS, or people who work in the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, they are working very hard. But things are changing and there are different complex issues in homes that we need to be careful of. Ultimately, it is about ensuring that each child irrespective of his or her challenges gets equal treatment.