I wish to advise the Deputy that Government is deeply conscious that closing schools has hugely adverse consequences at individual, family and societal level and that the effect on children with additional needs can be even greater. The early reopening of schools is a key priority for Government.
Government and my Department have invested heavily in schools to support them throughout this pandemic and has sought to plan for, and prioritise, the return to school for children with special educational needs, at the earliest possible time.
A framework has now been developed and agreed with all partners, including unions and management, in order to achieve a phased return to in-school provision for children with special educational needs.
Under the framework, the following phased return to in-school provision has been agreed:
Phase 1: Special schools have reopened from Thursday 11th February 2021. In accordance with this agreement pupils will attend on a 50 per cent basis to allow for attendance of reduced numbers within the school setting. This will be reviewed in line with public health advice.
Phase 2: Primary and Post Primary Special Classes will reopen from Monday 22nd February 2021.
Pupils with special educational needs who do not attend special schools or classes will continue to be supported remotely by their mainstream class teachers, and by Special Education Teachers, pending their return to school.
My Department has provided a range of support and guidance for schools on how to provide for the continuing education for pupils over the current school closure period including support material has specifically on how schools should provide for the continuity of education for children with special educational needs.
This guidance is available at:
Guidance on Continuity of Schooling: Supporting Pupils with Special Educational Needs for Primary Schools
Guidance on Continuity of Schooling: Supporting Students with Special Educational Needs for post-primary schools
The guidance notes that there is a particular need for pupils with special educational needs (SEN) to have regular, ongoing schooling. While all pupils need to be supported to maintain their engagement in learning, those with SEN are among those who need most support at this time. Examples of strategies and measures to ensure that the needs of pupils with SEN are catered for are provided in the guidance documents and a range of resources are also identified for parents.
It sets out the role of the special education teacher to support children with special educational needs at this time. It notes that the special education teacher’s knowledge of their pupils’ priority learning needs and agreed targets, as outlined in the pupil support file, will enable them to work with parents and guardians to choose appropriate supports in a remote learning environment.
Special Education Teachers (SETs) are asked to carefully examine how progress on the existing learning targets in student support plans can be reasonably extended by home learning. They are asked to use this knowledge to communicate with the pupils and their parents and guardians and to establish what methods will work best to achieve continuity of learning for the pupils.
The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) is also providing a range of online resources for parents and teachers to support home learning for children with special educational needs during the Covid 19 restrictions.
I can also confirm, however, that in recognition of the fact that remote learning is particularly challenging for children with special educational needs, my Department is also putting in place a supplementary programme to support the education and/or care needs of pupils with complex needs.
An allocation of five hours per week of home-based teaching or care supports will be made available to eligible pupils.
This allocation is intended to supplement, and not replace, the remote teaching provided by the pupil’s school and can be provided by a teacher or SNA in a student’s home, at evenings and weekends. Participation in the programme is voluntary for families, teachers and SNAs and must be delivered in accordance with Public Health Advice.
It is intended that this programme would be supported by teachers and SNAs who may opt in to participate, on a paid basis, to help ensure a better learning experience for these pupils and to build on the learning taking place as part of the remote provision.
The pupils who will be eligible include -
All pupils enrolled in special schools and special classes
Pupils in mainstream schools who are accessing the highest level of the continuum of support (i.e. School Support Plus/for a Few). This will include pupils with Autism, Down syndrome, sensory impairments, and other disabilities who were identified for the summer programme of 2020.
Pupils identified by their school as requiring the highest level of support at any given time. This will ensure that pupils presenting with exceptional needs due to the current school closures can participate in the scheme.
My Department’s approach is intended to be flexible so as to maximise the number of pupils participating.
An allocation of a 5-hour per week home-based teaching or care support programme will be made available to eligible pupils. This allocation is intended to supplement (and not replace) the remote teaching provided by the pupil’s school.
It is intended that this programme will operate 4 weeks commencing 11th February
This scheme will provide an additional type of support for parents and families who may find it difficult to engage with remote learning.
I am therefore pleased to be able to advise that considerable progress has been made to ensure that children with special educational needs can begin to return to school.
I can also confirm that talks will continue with stakeholders, on further phases of return, so that a wider reopening can be delivered for children as soon as possible.
In the interim, there are no plans to change the current criteria by which Special Education Teachers are allocated to schools. There are currently over 13,600 Special Education Teachers allocated to mainstream schools, providing additional support for pupils with special educational needs or additional learning needs, representing an increase of almost 40% over the allocation in 2011, which was 9740 special edcuation teachers.