That Dáil Éireann shall consider the Report of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills entitled ‘Report on Training and Supports for Providers of Special Needs Education and Education in DEIS Schools’, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 24 October 2018.
As Chair of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, I am delighted to have the opportunity to move the motion and open the debate on this matter. The report arose from several contacts and requests made to me and other members of the committee, identifying the problems regarding the adequacy of training and supports for providers of special needs education and education in DEIS schools, as well as in schools that, in the opinion of the committee, may deserve DEIS status but did not receive it. Having considered the matters, they were given priority by the committee and several stakeholders were invited to make a written submission outlining their views. That led to the committee agreeing to hold a public hearing to examine in more detail the points raised in those submissions. I wish to thank the stakeholders who gave oral evidence to the committee, namely, Ms Deirbhile Nic Craith, director of education and research, Irish National Teachers’ Organisation; Dr. Anne Ryan, senior lecturer in education, Marino Institute of Education; Dr. Gene Mehigan, principal lecturer in education, Marino Institute of Education; Ms Noreen Duggan, principal of Scoil na Naomh Uilig in Newbridge; Ms Pauline Dempsey, principal of St. Anne’s special school in the Curragh; Ms Breda Corr, general secretary of the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education; Ms Teresa Griffin, CEO of the National Council for Special Education; Ms Madeline Hickey, director of the special education support service for the National Council for Special Education; and Dr. Áine Hyland, professor of education, University College Cork. There were very worthwhile exchanges with each of the witnesses.
The report deals with two distinct topics which the committee agreed to deal with together: training and support for providers of special needs education and education in DEIS schools. In the course of the hearing, several themes of particular concern to the committee emerged. These themes are highlighted in the report and form the basis for the eight key recommendations relating to both topics.
All Members recognise that attendance at mainstream schools by children with special educational needs results in significantly better outcomes for students and, indeed, the wider community in terms of inclusiveness. Of course, it is accepted that special schools have a role to play for some students and their families. However, simply providing these places will not have the desired result without sufficient supports and resources being made available and qualified personnel in particular. It is essential that all members of the education community be fully and appropriately trained in order to ensure that the best interests of every student are at the centre of any decision and that any student who so wishes and whose family so desires should have the opportunity to attend a mainstream school, either within an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit or in a mainstream classroom with the appropriate resources. The committee was told that there is a significant problem regarding teachers attending appropriate training courses. This is due to several factors. One of particular concern which could be dealt with by the Department relates to the lack of substitute teachers available to facilitate the release of teachers to attend the training.
I wish to specifically mention the issue of schools which are granted ASD units but do not receive sufficient resources to kit them out. Last Friday, I visited a primary school in Rath, County Laois, which caters for almost 250 students. It has two ASD units. The Department sanctioned a fantastic ASD unit which is almost fully built. I commend the Department on the quality of the build. It will make an incredible difference to the 12 young people who will be in the two units. However, the Department has not sanctioned any funding to kit out the unit, which will be ready in two to three weeks. There are, for example, three padded areas: two for break-out areas from the separate units and one for a sensory room. The padding will cost a significant amount of money but the Department is refusing to pay for it because several years ago the school received a small grant of €6,500 for another sensory space. I saw the latter space last Friday. It is little more than a cupboard. There is no way that anything could be transferred from it. I have submitted parliamentary questions on the matter and spoken to the Minister's office about it this week because I have no doubt that school is not the only one in that situation. It is important that we refer to such issues.
The provision of a special needs assistant, SNA, in the classroom is essential to assist the student and support him or her in achieving his or her full potential. However, we must remember that the SNA is not responsible for the delivery of teaching or instruction, which are solely matters for the teacher. It is appropriate for the SNA to work with the teacher to differentiate or adapt the curriculum to suit the needs of individual pupils.
In addition to the many challenges facing teachers and SNAs, the committee feels their role is constantly being challenged with the significant volume of paperwork and circulars emanating from the Department. The principal focus of teachers and SNAs must always be on the student and his or her educational progression and personal development. This should not be diluted by dealing with a burden of administrative duties, yet many students with special educational needs still find themselves in classrooms with too many students and insufficient supports to allow them to make progress and achieve the goals to which they aspire. This creates a highly pressurised and frustrating environment and can result in students and teachers being injured at schools. Reports of such incidents have been brought to my attention and that of other members of the committee. It is shocking and unacceptable for everybody. One school referred to the adequate number of clinical staff to support the needs of certain students and said that, despite an increase in student numbers, it has had to reduce the number of hours clinical staff are available due to insufficient funding. The lack of adequate and appropriate supports for students and schools will obviously result in a negative experience and outcome for them, their families and the wider school communities.
The committee notes that an increased capitation grant is paid to special education schools, but the evidence given to it clearly suggests this is still insufficient. Consideration may be given to the provision of such supports separate from capitation grants. I acknowledge that the State is investing a significant amount of its budget in providing support to special education, yet there are still glaring gaps in the service.
Moving on to the delivering equality of opportunities in schools, DEIS, element of the report, the introduction of DEIS was certainly very welcome, but a number of the contributors to the committee pointed out that there are still challenges within schools despite the scheme. No matter what, there are disadvantaged children in every school, regardless of whether it has DEIS status. Therefore, we must consider how we can support those who are disadvantaged in schools that do not have DEIS status. DEIS was originally aimed at addressing the educational needs of children and young people from disadvantaged communities. This was a very welcome initiative and has resulted in significant success. Therefore, the introduction of its successor in 2017 was widely anticipated. The committee will monitor its effectiveness. There is certainly dissatisfaction in regard to how schools were accepted into the DEIS scheme.
DEIS 2017 aims at providing a vision for education to become more fully a proven pathway to better opportunities for those in communities at risk of disadvantage and social exclusion. It plays an important role. We can never forget that, but we need to have more resources under the scheme. DEIS sets out a number of objectives and actions to support children at greatest risk of educational disadvantage. These are to implement a more robust and responsive assessment framework for identification of schools and effective resource allocation; to improve the learning experience and outcomes of pupils in DEIS schools; to improve the capacity of school leaders and teachers to engage, plan and deploy resources to their best advantage; to support and foster best practice in schools through inter-agency collaboration; and to support the work of schools by providing the research, information, evaluation and feedback to achieve the goals of the plan. No DEIS scheme can succeed fully, however, unless other elements of the education experience complement and support it in achieving its goals. The problem with many such schemes is that they can be interpreted too rigidly and can fail some of those whom they are supposed to help. I accept that such consequences are unintentional but this appears to be the case based on the evidence to the committee.
All schemes and the guidelines governing their implementation and operation must have inbuilt flexibility to develop in response to the ever-changing needs to achieve their ends. In addressing the issues highlighted by the committee in producing this report, the outcomes will be universally beneficial by ensuring that the needs of the students are met, school staff on the ground can manage resources appropriately, and the State and all our communities will get value for their money.
The committee's report makes a total of eight very reasonable and practical recommendations based on the evidence put to it. The Minister has provided an overview of progress made under DEIS Plan 2017 arising from recommendation No. 8. I certainly welcome this. I do, however, wish to place on the record of the House the other recommendations. The first is that the committee recommends that the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 be put into effect fully. The Act puts in place legislation to give children with special educational needs the right to graduate from school with the skills necessary to participate, to the level of their capacity, in an inclusive way in the social and economic activities of society and to live independent and fulfilled lives. Parts of the law have been brought into effect but not those that would give a statutory entitlement to provide students with a full assessment of the supports needed to allow them to participate in education and to have the necessary resources provided in accordance with an individual education plan. It is imperative that they be brought into effect.
The second is that the committee asks the Minister for Education and Skills to consider the merits of establishing a two-year pilot co-teaching-for-inclusion project at primary level. Third, the committee recommends that the Minister for Education and Skills put in place measures to address issues affecting schools that were raised in the course of the discussion, including the shortage of school places, facilitating children with challenging behavioural issues, injuries to staff and other pupils, staff-pupil ratios and substitute cover.
Fourth, the committee recommends that the shortage of specialised school places for post-primary children with autism and other special educational needs be addressed as a matter of urgency. An issue in Kildare took 18 months to resolve. This will happen on an ongoing basis, so addressing it is an absolute priority.
Fifth, the committee recommends that the training of staff, from teachers to bus escorts, be made compulsory and that consideration be given to the provision of a separate fund for this training to be made available by the Department of Education and Skills so as not to impact further the funding of schools. Sixth, the committee recommends the standardisation of nursing and clinical supports throughout the educational system. Seventh, the committee recommends that the findings and recommendations on supporting students with special educational needs in school be examined and implemented where practicable.
The Minister has addressed recommendation No. 8 in correspondence but I will put it on the record. The committee recommends that an update on the implementation of the five goals identified in DEIS Plan 2017 prior to the publication of the report be provided to the committee. The committee believes supports should be pupil-centred and made available to students who are disadvantaged, rather than providing only for children who attend a DEIS school.
I would be grateful for some clarification on the apparent focus on allocating funds based on students who reside in an area of high deprivation as a proportion of the total enrolment. The support should be associated with the student and should not be limited by virtue of geographical location alone.
Most important, I acknowledge the commitment of all involved in the provision of education for children with special educational needs and those who teach and provide support in DEIS schools throughout the State. Without them, many children would not have been given the opportunities they have had to date. I pay tribute to secretarial and support staff in schools on their dedication. Their significant contributions are often overlooked. The committee is considering examining this formally.
The report and its recommendations highlight a number of specific issues that speak for themselves. While addressing some of these may be under way, I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.