I propose to take Questions Nos. 391 to 395, inclusive, 397 and 398 together.
I wish to advise the Deputy that a number of sections of the Education for Persons with Special Needs (EPSEN) Act 2004 have been commenced. The commenced provisions include those establishing the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) and those providing for an inclusive approach to the education of children with special educational needs.
The following sections of the EPSEN Act were commenced in 2005.
Section 1 – Interpretation;
Section 2 - providing for the inclusive education of children with Special Educational Needs;
Section 14 – placing certain duties on schools;
Sections 19 to 37 - placing the Council on a statutory footing;
Section 39 - placing certain duties on Health Boards;
Sections 40 to 53 - amending the Education Act;
Schedule 1 – providing for meetings and membership of the Council; and
Schedule 2 providing for the Chief Executive Officer of the Council.
The remaining sections of the Act have yet to be commenced.
The Sections of the EPSEN Act which have not been implemented are those which would have conferred a statutory entitlement to:
- an educational assessment for all children with special educational needs;
- consequent development of a statutory individual educational plan (IEP);
- the delivery of detailed educational services on foot of this plan; and
- an independent appeals process.
The NCSE estimated, in its Plan for the Implementation of the EPSEN Act Report, which was published in 2006, that additional investment over a period of years of up to €235m per annum, across the education and health sectors, would be required to fully implement the EPSEN Act.
The view of my Department, at the time, was that the level of investment required could be significantly greater than that envisaged in the NCSE report. Legal advice also indicated that the EPSEN Act, as it is currently constituted, may not be implemented on a phased, or age cohort, basis.
Revised estimates of the amount of additional expenditure required to fully implement the remaining sections of the EPSEN Act, including the individual sections of the Act referred to by the Deputy, have not recently been conducted. The estimated level of additional expenditure required, to implement the outstanding sections of the Act, would have to take into account annual demographic growth and service developments in the area of special educational needs, pricing adjustments and salary cost differentials on an ongoing basis. Estimates would also have to be made as to the number of pupils who may now currently qualify for the statutory service provisions envisaged by the EPSEN Act.
The Government is committed to helping every child, particularly those with special educational needs, to fulfil their potential.
In 2021 the Department of Education and Skills will invest approximately €2 Billion in the area of special educational needs support - 1/5 of the Department's budget and up over 42% since 2011.
The Government has committed to consulting with stakeholders on how best to progress aspects of the EPSEN Act on a non-statutory basis.
A range of consultations with Education Partners and Stakeholders took place in relation to the development of a new model for allocating special education teachers over the course of 2017. The new model was introduced for all schools from September 2017.
Further consultations took place with education partners and stakeholders in the context of the undertaking of a comprehensive review of the SNA scheme and will continue in relation to the implementation of recommendations contained in this report.
Additional powers have also been provided to the National Council for Special Educational to designate a school place for a person with special educational needs, which is now provided for in the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018.
While awaiting the full implementation of the EPSEN Act, the NCSE has also published a number of policy advice papers which make recommendations aimed at developing a better or more effective alternative to the current resource allocation model, and which aims to move the system towards ultimate implementation of the EPSEN Act.
It should also be noted, however, that since EPSEN was enacted, the Department’s policy on supporting children with special educational needs has changed and evolved on foot of evidence based policy advice from the NCSE which takes account of international perspectives.
Significantly, the focus of special needs education provision has changed from a model that is diagnosis led to one which is driven by the needs of the child. This is a substantially different view to the one underlying the EPSEN Act. The levels of investment by Government in special education has increased to facilitate the underlying reforms required to implement and embed the needs based approach.
This Government will continue to prioritise investment in the area of special education support. Ongoing investment and reform will continue to see improvements made in this area.
I have also indicated that one of my priorities as Minister for Special Education and Inclusion is: Updating our Laws: Reviewing and updating the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs (EPSEN) Act.
Any review of the Act will take into account the extent of additional investment which has been made in special educational services since 2004, with some €2 Billion per year now being spent of special educational supports.
It will also take into account the range of reforms which have taken place in recent years including the development of new allocation models which are not based primarily on a response to assessment as policy advice has indicated that requirement of diagnosis can create a risk of children being diagnosed as having a special educational need for resource allocation purposes, rather than for health reasons. Also, that as there is a spectrum of ability and disability within every special education disability category, account must be taken of need, as well as diagnosis.