Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Questions (40)

Thomas Byrne


40. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills the special schools which have raised the issue of insurance costs with his Department; the number of schools which have contacted his Department; the total advance capitation released to date; the increased insurance costs reported by schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26831/19]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Education)

I am asking the Minister about the issue of insurance costs which, unfortunately, have threatened businesses and voluntary activity and are now threatening the system, particularly the special education system. It has been reported that 15 special needs schools have contacted the Department this year to inform it that they cannot afford to pay their insurance bills. I raised this issue last year and was very disappointed to see that it was still on the agenda and had not been resolved.

The work carried out by the 124 special schools is invaluable.  Since my appointment as Minister, I have had the opportunity to visit a number of the schools to see at first hand the work they do.

My Department is aware of issues related to very significant increases in insurance costs in some special schools through correspondence received from some special schools, discussions with the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education, NABMSE, and media reports. The increases appear to be due, in some instances, to an annual increase in insurance costs generally and, in some cases, an increase in claims against special schools.

Securing and maintaining adequate and appropriate insurance cover is a matter for the managerial authority of each school. My Department is working as a matter of urgency with the NABMSE and relevant Departments, including the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and the State Claims Agency to seek a resolution of the issue of increased insurance costs in special schools.

A number of options have been identified to address the issue.  They include the development of a group insurance scheme for special schools.  The NABMSE met boards and patrons on 6 June to discuss the matter and the options available.  An official from my Department attended the meeting. 

At this stage, the group scheme proposal appears to be the most viable.  The importance of all schools signing up to such a scheme was emphasised at the recent meeting and all school representatives who were in attendance were in favour of exploring the group scheme option.

Fifteen special schools that are experiencing difficulty in paying insurance premiums have contacted my Department directly. They report increases in the cost of insurance of between 30% and over 700% in the past two years. To date, my Department has advanced school capitation payments on an exceptional basis to two special schools, amounting to €36,860.  My Department is engaging with the other schools in that regard. However, it is not sustainable for my Department to continue to advance capitation payments as a way of meeting vastly increased insurance premiums. I know that this is a cause of concern for schools also and it is my hope a speedy and cost effective resolution can be secured for special schools which have been impacted on.

The Minister will forgive me for expressing my frustration. This issue was raised by me on 12 June last year. I took it from the reply given by the then Minister, Deputy Bruton, that he was dealing with it urgently, taking steps, meeting stakeholders and doing everything possible to deal with it. One year later we find that the insurance industry is being allowed by the Government to run amok and the response of the Department of Education and Skills is neither good enough nor quick enough. One school's insurance costs jumped from €3,000 to €26,300. I have no idea why that happened in two years. It is unsustainable and no school could ever meet that cost. Furthermore, the Government has refused to grant the increases in capitation we sought last year in the budget. I do not know what happened in that regard. I believe the then Minister, Deputy Bruton, felt Fianna Fáil would fight for and get this, but it seems that people at the higher levels of the Minister's party felt they did not want to be seen to give Fianna Fáil a win on capitation payments. The problem was left unaddressed and it appeared to be a case of "We will leave the schools without". There was an uncaring attitude on the part of the Government which was not willing to accede to the demand of the unions, Fianna Fáil and the Dáil on capitation payments. As a result, schools have been left in the lurch with these and other bills that they simply cannot afford to pay.

The issue of insurance costs for special schools has been raised with me by a number of Deputies. St. Teresa's special school in Ballinasloe was faced with an increased bill. It was not being facilitated by being able to make staged payments and had to pay the bill in one go. It did not have the money to pay it. This is an issue we are taking very seriously. There is a potential option that all of the special schools are prepared to buy into, namely, having one group scheme, rather than individual schools having to deal with insurance costs in isolation. Of the 124 schools, seven are hospital schools. I visited one of them recently in Crumlin. It is very clear that the expenses associated with special schools are over and above those of an average school. I agree with the Deputy that the issue of capitation payments is outstanding. I am committed to doing something about it, obviously within the parameters of the budget to be announced on 8 October. I have no doubt that there will be a discussion between the Deputy's party and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in that regard, but as far as I am concerned, the issue of capitation payments is critical, not just for special schools but also mainstream schools.

It is shocking that we are again, more than one year on, discussing this issue and that when it was raised first by the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education, NABMSE, and other organisations, it was not dealt with as a matter of urgency. There is another issue for the schools attached to organisations under section 38 of the Health Act. There was supposed to be a general agreement in respect of them, namely, the State's general indemnity scheme. I do not know if that issue has been sorted out for that cohort of schools. What is the position in that regard? We have got to take this issue much more seriously. The solicitor Gareth Noble stated in the media this week that the Department of Education and Skills had stepped off the playing pitch in the area of special educational needs. In my experience there is considerable truth in what he said when we look at this issue and a range of others, which include children being denied their constitutional right to an education, children being denied the supports they need, constant announcements that have little or no basis in reality and an utter failure to use the special powers Fianna Fáil inserted into the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill to force schools to open special classes. They have not been touched and children have been left at home with home tuition grants, if they can receive them. The Minister has to get to grips with the issues in the area of special education.

The Deputy knows the figures for the levels of investment in special education. One euro out of every five goes into special education. I refer to a sum of €1.9 billion out of a budget of €11 billion. The sum invested in school transport is more than €207 million, of which 50% is in the area of special education. We have moved into a new era in the past ten years in special education. There are things we are getting right and others that we are getting wrong, but there are ways by which we can improve. The Deputy is correct to say there is special provision in respect of powers I can invoke as Minister. I will talk about that issue when we come to deal with a later question in the context of my frustration and disappointment that some schools are not taking up the option of providing extra classes.

As regards where we are going in special education, the people who provide the inclusion model in schools are enriched by it. The students also come out enriched by it in terms of the experiences they share.

A question was asked about the HSE in the context of the general indemnity scheme. A number of special schools under the patronage of organisations that are funded by the HSE to provide health and personal social services on its behalf under section 38 of the Health Act experienced increased insurance quotes when the funded bodies were delegated bodies in the context of the general indemnity scheme under the State Claims Agency. The effect of the delegation was that the special schools under the patronage of the organisations concerned needed to seek separate insurance cover. There is a discussion ongoing in that regard.