Thursday, 27 May 2021

Questions (4)

Matt Shanahan


4. Deputy Matt Shanahan asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to outline details of the funding programme to increase access to sensory rooms and special needs assistant supports being considered over the life of the 33rd Dáil for preschool children; and the amount of funding that has been allocated under capital plans to date. [28744/21]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

My question relates to the funding of sensory rooms and special needs assistants in the disability sector, especially at preschool and school levels. I know it is a Government commitment but will the Minister outline his plans for the life of the 33rd Dáil and any capital allocations that have been approved to date?

While my Department does not provide any specific funding for sensory rooms or SNA supports, a wide range of supports is available through the access and inclusion model, AIM, to support children with disabilities to access and fully participate in the universal preschool programme, ECCE. The allocation of targeted AIM supports is based on the needs of the child and the context of the preschool setting rather than a wider diagnosis.

The Deputy specifically referred to capital funding. Level 5 of the AIM involves funding for specialised equipment appliances or small capital grants towards minor building alteration. A short report from a designated professional is required confirming that the specialised equipment or minor building alterations are necessary to allow the participation of a child in preschool.

In line with emerging best practice to support the integration and interdependence of children with a disability, AIM does not fund SNAs. Rather, AIM level 7 support provides financial support to the preschool provider where it is needed for the participation of a child. This funding is used either to reduce the adult to child ratio in the preschool room or to buy in additional assistance.

AIM also provides several training programmes for preschool practitioners, including specific training on sensory processing through the sensory processing e-learning programme, SPEL. SPEL helps practitioners understand how best to support children with sensory processing difficulties to participate fully in preschool.

In 2020, the total AIM budget was €43 million. Of this, €850,000 was allocated under level 5 and €26 million was allocated under AIM level 7, which is the additional assistance. I have been able to increase the budget in 2021. It is up to €48 million this year, of which €850,000 has been allocated under level 5. Currently, some €29.5 million is allocated under AIM level 7.

I know the Minister is more than aware of the challenges being faced every day in the education sector. I point out again the significant delays in getting psychological evaluations for children. Large schools might have only two slots in a year. These are schools with up to 600 students. I have no wish to ascribe a proportion to this as there are teachers who can do that, but it is a significant problem.

I highlight to the Minister the difficulties schools experience trying to accommodate sensory rooms where they do not have space. This is a significant issue and addressing it requires capital allocations.

There is great merit in what we are trying to achieve. We have to tie in all the community services to address the significant problems with occupational health outreach services in schools.

I agree with the Deputy absolutely. My colleagues, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, are very focused on schools and on addressing the issues the Deputy has raised. In particular, as Minister of State with special responsibility for special education, Deputy Madigan has placed a real focus on these issues. With regard to those wider community supports, I am joined today by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. We are working very hard in our Department to bring all of those services together and to achieve better integration. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has had real successes in tackling some of those waiting lists but we all acknowledge that there is more work to be done in this area. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter.

May I flag one more project with the Minister? I refer to a new disability centre at John's Hill, Waterford. It has been developed in conjunction with a support group, Touching Hearts. It was announced some months ago that this project was going to be approved under the capital allocations. Families in Waterford who are, at present, accessing services in John Street in Waterford are being told that they now have to travel to Dungarvan, including some who receive occupational therapy up to three times a week. That service is 30 miles away from the population of approximately 40,000 who live in this area. We need this centre developed. Can the Minister of State provide any clarity as to the status of the funding programme? When can we expect to see boots on the ground to deliver this new disability centre in John's Hill? It has been promised for a long time and parent groups and active supporters have fought very hard for it.

I thank the Deputy very much. I will be honest; I do not have the full information for him as I stand here. I know the Deputy has mentioned the importance of this centre for the wider community before. It sounds like a great project. I ask the Deputy to write to me. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and I will commit to getting back to him and letting him know where we are with the project. We will confirm the funding streams and set out the timelines for planning and other matters with regard to the delivery of the physical infrastructure and the services to be provided, if that is all right with the Deputy.