Thursday, 17 October 2019

Questions (3)

Thomas Byrne


3. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to ensure each child with a special need has a school place in the 2019-20 school year; and if he will report on the planning under way for special education places in September 2020. [42700/19]

View answer

Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Education)

Some of my constituents have contacted me since I asked the first question. I am pleased they are watching proceedings here, but they are also very concerned about the issues raised this morning with regard to the Government's plans for capital spending.

My question is to ask the Minister his plans to ensure that each child with special educational needs has a place in school next September. If I were the Minister, I would not rest on my laurels because we are finally getting some children into school for this year. What planning is in place for next September?

As Minister for Education and Skills, I believe that every child should have an education provided for him or her that best supports the child and meets his or her individual needs. The provision of education for children with special needs is an ongoing priority for the Government. Currently, we spend almost 20% of the total education Vote of €1.9 billion on supporting children with special needs. The numbers of special classes, special education teachers and special needs assistants are at unprecedented levels.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has a statutory function to plan and co-ordinate the provision of education and support services to children with special educational needs. The council has well-established structures in place to plan and co-ordinate special education provision throughout the country. Normally, special classes are established with the full co-operation of the schools in areas where they are required. However, in some parts of the country councils face challenges in getting schools and their patrons to voluntarily agree to provide special class or school places. I know that this has caused much anguish for parents and families involved. As Minister, I have a power under section 37A of the Education Act 1998 to direct a school to provide additional provision where all reasonable efforts have failed. The legislation was used for the first time in April, not July, in respect of the Dublin 15 area. We have made significant progress in a relatively short period with the opening of seven new special classes and a new special school that will provide 88 places for children with special needs. I met the principal of the new special school last week. I acknowledge the work she and her team, in conjunction with the education and training board, have contributed to ensure that the project has progressed. The new places will help these families and ensure that the children concerned have access to education.

The experience of Dublin 15 shows the real and practical challenges that can be addressed when opening new special classes and how we can resolve these challenges by working together and in partnership. The NCSE is continuing its work at local level to ensure all children can access a suitable school placement for the forthcoming school year and beyond.

As Minister, I would much prefer that schools provide places for children in their community. Where that is not the case, I am prepared to use the legislation to ensure that children can access a suitable education.

I acknowledge what the Minister says about Dublin 15. I ask him to confirm that all of those classes and schools are open. He and his Department seem to be under a misapprehension regarding the purpose of the legislation, which gives the power to force classes to open. That is not a tool to plan school places. It is there for a small number of recalcitrant schools that refuse to do their share and provide education for children with special needs in their areas. As stated, that to which I refer is not a planning tool for every school. Planning is about sitting down with the NCSE and the special educational needs organisers and working out what places will be available next September. We are of the view that it should be possible to do it demographically for five years. It is possible with other aspects of special education and it needs to happen. The problem will not be solved overnight. Nor will it be solved if the Minister and Department are asleep at the wheel, as they were for the previous year. This problem seems to have suddenly come upon them when everybody else knew it was an issue. Other parts of the country need urgent attention.

I am happy to provide an update on the seven schools and classes. The situation is fluid, with training ongoing to ensure that teachers and staff are enabled and equipped to carry out these duties. For example, the special school is down to the final checklist to make sure it is ready. The feedback from people involved in the special school was that the training provided to the staff to ensure that they are equipped and enabled to deliver the proper services was of a high standard. There was also feedback about ensuring that we progress in these specific areas and that parents, teachers, staff and principals want to ensure that they have the proper training, capacity-building capability and professional development. I am happy to forward to the Deputy information about how many of them are open. Of course we need a better plan, a better way of doing things and a better way of communicating with parents. We still have a situation where some parents are told about certain schools which turn out to be full. That is not good enough and I have asked the NCSE to work on the matter.

If it was 17 August, it might be appropriate to state that training is being done, that everything is being made ready and that the parents want everything to be right. The latter is something I do not doubt. However, it is 17 October, weeks into the school year, and the Minister is happy to keep telling us about all of this work being done in, I remind the House, the Taoiseach's constituency. What is happening everywhere else? Every child has a constitutional right to primary education, one of the best moves made by Éamon de Valera and the people and parties who voted for and supported the Constitution when it was introduced. The right to which I refer was unrecognised in other constitutions at the time. The 1937 Constitution was visionary. That vision is not being implemented or taken seriously by this Government. We should be here in August, July or June - or a year before, as I suggest in this question, or even five years prior - doing our best to work out the demographic requirements. None of that is happening. Instead, the Minister is acting as if this is an emergency response. Since I mentioned an emergency response, I pay tribute to Dublin Fire Brigade regarding the work it did yesterday.

Charges are being levelled but let us be honest about what exactly is happening. The figures that we have are that, since this time last year, we have an additional 1,064 places in 167 extra classes. That figure has gone up to almost 1,600. I needed to ensure, in the context of the budget, that I protected the extra SNAs. We had 16,000 SNAs before the budget and we now have an additional 1,000. That brings the number to 17,000, the highest ever, a 61% increase in SNAs since 2011. We spend €1 out of every €5 on special education and inclusion education. That is the right thing to do, particularly as we have moved from an education system that was exclusive through to an integrated system and on now to one that is inclusive.

Inclusion means that the child is at the heart of everything. Parents are still struggling to get their young sons and daughters into classes and I am willing to meet that challenge head on.

The Deputy levelled a charge against me in respect of the past year. There are more than 1,000 extra places, 167 extra classes and 1,000 extra SNAs.

I ask for Members' co-operation. I do not want to stop anybody from speaking. They should try to adhere to the allocated times.