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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 13 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 1

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Departmental Schemes

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Ceist:

63. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education the steps she has taken to remove disincentives for staff volunteering to facilitate the summer provision and DEIS summer programmes. [25042/21]

It is widely acknowledged that the children who lost out most during lockdown were those with special educational needs and those in situations of disadvantage. I and Sinn Féin called for the largest ever programme of summer provision and for the DEIS summer camps to be extended beyond DEIS schools. I welcome the fact that significant funding has been announced and there is a wider application potential there. The concern I have is ensuring the maximum of those eligible can avail. Removing disincentives to staff and schools participating is key and there are a number of such disincentives. I would like the Minister of State to address them.

I thank the Deputy for this question. It gives me an opportunity to respond on what we are doing with the expanded summer education programme for people with complex special education needs and those at greatest risk of educational disadvantage, as a Covid-19 pandemic response measure for summer 2021. This is an incredibly important Government decision which ensures for the first time that all primary and post-primary schools have the opportunity to provide summer programmes for children with complex needs and those at risk of educational disadvantage.

The total funding available to provide the programme is up to €40 million, which is a 100% increase on the allocation for summer provision in 2020. It is double the funding. The programmes for mainstream students in primary and post-primary schools are new programmes for 2021, building upon previous summer programmes for pupils with complex special education needs and those provided in DEIS schools last year.

The Deputy asked about removing disincentives. Enhanced measures have been put in place to encourage schools to offer the programme, including measures to reduce the administrative burden, so there is now a centralised application process. There is provision of funding to schools towards the preparation and overseeing of the programmes. There is the earlier payment of school staff and provision to recruit newly qualified teachers graduating this summer to work on the programme. The programme's aims are to support students to re-engage with education, build their confidence and increase their motivation, promote well-being and, for some who are at key transition stages, to help ensure they can move on to their planned educational placement next September along with their peers.

We called for an expansion in DEIS and in the summer provision for children with special educational needs. I will not criticise the provision of additional funds because it is what we wanted. However, I am concerned that there is a significant difference between eligibility and the ability to apply and the spaces that will exist. The problem is we are right down to the wire. There was a nod to some of the disincentives in the Department's press release a number of days ago but we need more detail.

The first disincentive to schools, as opposed to individual members of staff, is the lack of guidance. Schools could be running this programme in the next six or seven weeks and they still do not have guidance on what exactly the programme will entail, number of hours, prioritisation and so on. That is the first disincentive and needs to be provided as soon as possible. When will schools get guidance on how to run these programmes?

I reassure the Deputy that guidance has been given to schools in relation to this programme, particularly for the supervision of final year students, which was a key component of our interactions with schools. One of the things we wanted to make sure of this year was to remove any impediments schools felt existed to their participation. Last year, 804 schools were able to apply to provide summer provision, comprising 124 special schools and 680 primary schools. This year, there are 4,000 schools, so every single school is in a position to apply. A lot of applications are coming in. The closing date is Friday and there is a big uptick in post this week, which shows the positive engagement that we also had on Tuesday with stakeholders, unions, management bodies, parents and advocacy groups. As far as the Department is concerned, all those barriers have been removed for schools to participate in the summer programme.

My understanding of the guidance that is there is that it is the broad principles of the programme, rather than the detail that schools need.

I will move on to pay-related issues. I will identify three issues and ask the Minister of State to respond to each directly because they are all vitally important. There was a passing reference in Tuesday's announcement to earlier payment of school staff. What exactly does that mean? When will payment accrue? That is important and was a massive disincentive. The significant and disproportionate disparity in pay rates for special needs assistant, SNAs, and teachers was a disincentive to SNA participation. There was very poor pay for SNAs participating in the summer programme. Finally, substitute staff are concerned about potentially losing their pandemic unemployment payment because of participating. Those three key issues have not been fully addressed yet and can increase the amount of places that can be taken up. Will the Minister of State address those three issues?

All these issues have been raised with the schools and dealt with by the Department. The level of investment has doubled from last year. Teachers and SNAs working on the programme will receive an additional weeks' pay for each week of the programme. If these staff have existing full-time contracts of employment with their school already paid during the summer, the summer programme payment will be additional on top of that. It is intended the rate of pay for school-based staff will be based on their personal rate of pay, that is, what they are normally paid during the school year. Payment for this work is subject to normal statutory deductions. There is also additional paid time available for schools to prepare the programme, which will be important. All schools can appoint an overseer to oversee the summer programme and reduce the burden on school leaders. Another burden was around flexibility and they now have flexibility around timing, so they can have it at any time during the school holiday.

Schools can engage substitute teachers, SNAs and teachers graduating from college this summer.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Bríd Smith

Ceist:

64. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Education the arrangements that will made to cater for the children in families who have members with serious underlying conditions and who remain unvaccinated against Covid-19 and therefore are forced to keep their children from schools at present; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24602/21]

I wish to ask the Minister about arrangements for children in families where a person has a serious underlying condition and remain unvaccinated against Covid-19 and are therefore forced to keep their children from school. Could she please make a statement on the matter?

The Government has always been guided by public health advice on what is safe in schools and that has been the case from the very beginning. The Chief Medical Officer, CMO, has made it clear in his advices to the Government that schools are places of low transmission, with very little evidence of transmission within schools, and that the majority of infections in children and adolescents occur outside the school setting. This is supported by public health doctors.

Schools have put significant infection prevention control measures in place to reduce the risk of coronavirus being transmitted to or within the school and funding of almost €650 million has been put in place by the Department of Education to fund Covid-19 related measures, including funding for personal protective equipment, PPE, sanitisation, additional cleaning and other such measures.

The HSE's Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, has issued specific advice about children attending school in the context of Covid-19. This advice covers both children with underlying medical conditions and children living with family members with underlying conditions. For all children, care should continue to be taken to reduce transmission through the infection control measures promoted by the HPSC. The HPSC advises that children with immediate family members, including parents, in both the high-risk and very high-risk categories can return to school and that it is important for the child's overall well-being. This is consistent with public health advice internationally on at-risk family members. The priority is that the household continues to follow all current advice on how to minimise the risk of coronavirus, and for all pupils and staff to continue to adhere to the school's infection control measures.

The Tusla Education Support Service, TESS, continues to engage with students and families identified by schools as needing additional support, and will remain in ongoing contact with school principals to identify students who may need support going forward. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Tusla has adopted a child welfare approach to all engagement with learners and families, being very conscious that many families had been impacted severely by Covid-19.

I hear what the Minister is saying. She and I have had this argument, discussion or whatever she wants to call it, many times over, but despite the mantra the Minister has just read out, the fact remains that there are vulnerable people out there, including teachers. However, today I wish to focus on vulnerable family members who either have been vaccinated and are still vulnerable because of very severe types of blood cancers or who have not been vaccinated yet. Thankfully, a lot of the families to whom I speak have been getting the vaccination. I got it myself in recent days. Things are moving forward and we are all grateful for that but, nevertheless, it remains the fact that there are vulnerable families whose children cannot go to school because if they pick up Covid and bring it home then the likelihood of death spikes. People with blood cancer, for example Jan Rynne, who was mentioned in this House previously, cannot be exposed to Covid because their chances of dying are much more increased than for anybody else. Ms Rynne has had her vaccination but the type of drugs that she is on for the cancer stop the vaccination responding in the same way as it would for the Minister or me. There are other people out there in the same position. What are we going to do to facilitate their children to be able to stay at home and learn? It is not asking a king's ransom or stretching the resources of the State to breaking point, it is asking to look after a minority of very vulnerable families.

I do appreciate that this is an issue Deputy Bríd Smith has raised on an ongoing basis. I also appreciate the difficulties for individual families. I recognise that the issues the Deputy has raised are causing particular difficulties for families. Equally, it is very important that we remember that within the education sector at every step of the way everything that we have sought to do and achieved has been done on foot of the best public health advice available to us. That advice is telling us that children are best served when they are in school. If they are children whose parents or family members are regarded as being particularly high risk, it is still the view of the public health experts that children themselves are best served by returning to school. Deputy Smith graciously acknowledged that significant work has been achieved in terms of the vaccination programme. We have been told that by the end of May or June, all those with underlying conditions will have received their vaccination.

I am not going to get into a big argument with the Minister about the conditions in schools but, suffice to say that in Germany, for example, they are providing CO2 monitors in every classroom yet we are barely purchasing them here. I have a friend who is a teacher with a condition that makes her vulnerable and she begged her principal to allow her to teach from home because she feared going back to school. She went back to school and she has been flat on her back with Covid for 30 days. The reality is that no matter what the Minister says, Covid is being transmitted in schools.

I wish to quote Dr. Ronan Glynn, the assistant CMO, who recently told the Ombudsman for Children, in regard to Jan Rynne, that in exceptional circumstances school supports should be provided by the Department to allow children to remain at home. She is just an example. I do not want the whole focus to be on Jan, but she is an important example. The Minister keeps talking about public health advice and how closely she follows it. There is a specific piece of advice. Will she follow it, and will she provide in very exceptional circumstances home supports for children to learn at home? Like I said, it is not going to break the bank. It is a very limited request and it is increasingly applying to fewer and fewer families but, nevertheless, the need remains.

I thank the Deputy. We have other Deputies waiting.

I want to be very clear about this: where staff have been identified as very high risk, measures have been put in place for all staff to be replaced. Substantial funding has been made available for that and it has been drawn down throughout the country in recognition of the needs of specific staff who are regarded as very high risk. There is no question about staff who are very high risk being asked to return to school. If they were designated as very high risk, accommodation has been made and they have been substituted. Very high risk staff have been replaced within the school system.

Equally, measures have been put in place for children who have been designated as very high risk. That has been the procedure that has been adopted since we returned to school. In fairness, the issue the Deputy raises in general – it is not appropriate for me to comment on a specific case – has been addressed by public health. We have engaged with the public health experts on an ongoing basis and their advice is that children are best served in school.

School Curriculum

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Ceist:

65. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education her views on the current position that the religious ethos of a school can impact the relationships and sexuality education, RSE, curriculum being taught in that school; and the legislative changes she will make to ensure the RSE programme is uniform, age appropriate and fully inclusive across all schools. [25043/21]

RSE is vitally important. It is also vitally important that we get it right, because if we do not then we risk our children growing into adults who potentially have a feeling of being othered, a disfigured or unhealthy understanding of sexuality and a feeling of exclusion and discomfort within the educational setting. The Minister will be aware that there is a significant amount of concern about some of the programmes that are being provided in schools at present.

Access to sexual and health education is an important right for students. Social, personal and health education, SPHE, is a mandatory curriculum subject in all primary and post-primary schools. Relationships and sexuality education is required at all levels, from primary through to senior cycle. The Department has set out the content for each of these programmes in SPHE syllabuses and guidelines.

All schools are required to have an RSE policy that is developed through engagement and in consultation and collaboration with the school community, including school management, parents, teachers and students, as appropriate. The school's programme for RSE is developed and taught in the context of the school's RSE policy.

Schools are required to teach all aspects of the RSE programme, including family planning, sexually transmitted infections and sexual orientation. It is important to note that the ethos of the school should never preclude learners from acquiring the knowledge about the issues, but ethos may influence how that content is treated.

The programme for Government states that the Government will develop inclusive and age-appropriate curricula for relationships and sexuality education, RSE, and social, personal and health education, SPHE, across primary and post-primary schools, including an inclusive programme on LGBTI+, and will make appropriate legislative changes, if necessary. The Department of Education is working closely with the National Council for Curriculum and assessment, NCCA, which continues the process of curricular development and publishing additional resources for SPHE and RSE to determine the approach to best give effect to this commitment in the programme for Government. This will include legislative change, if necessary.

The report on the review of relationships and sexuality education - the RSE programme - in primary and post-primary schools was published by the NCCA in December 2019. As part of the review of RSE, an extensive consultation occurred. Feedback was facilitated through an online survey, written submissions, round-table meetings and large events. Adjustments were made to the final report to reflect a stronger focus on issues that stakeholders wished to see highlighted. The NCCA is developing updated guidance materials for schools. It has established two development groups, which are currently working on the specifications, with a particular focus on the updating of the syllabus at junior cycle level.

A couple of matters arise. The first concerns timescales and when we are going to see some of that work come back because we cannot have it going into the never-never. The second is more a question of principles. Schools are at liberty to teach in this way when there is no objective sexual education curriculum. Where it is the view or the ethos of the school that a relationship should be between a man and a woman, and there is an LGBT child in that school, does the Minister accept they would feel uncomfortable? Does she accept they would feel "othered"? Does she accept also that this is entirely permitted within the legislative framework that exists at this point in time?

In the first instance, the primary objective within a school is to ensure that all children, irrespective of their backgrounds, beliefs or orientation, are all welcomed and all included, and that is what we wish the experience of education to be for all concerned. The Deputy specifically asked in regard to timelines. As I alluded to earlier, the NCCA is developing the updated guidelines and the information and a toolkit are available online for schools in the interim. With regard to the body of work that it is being done by the development groups, this is specifically aimed at providing new specifications in the syllabus for, in the first instance, the junior cycle and thereafter moving onwards. The work is being undertaken at present. The review of the junior cycle has been drafted and will be considered by the NCCA by the summer. Subsequent work on the development of the new junior cycle curriculum programme will begin in the new school year.

The Minister has partially answered one question but she has not answered the others. Many parents are alarmed at the content of some of the religious-based RSE programmes being introduced in schools. We can talk about parental choice but the reality, particularly at primary level, is that many parents do not really have a choice. The vast majority - nine out of every ten - national schools are of a Catholic ethos, and that element of choice is something we need to advance very significantly. There is also the fact that many children are taught an RSE programme that is not necessarily in keeping with their beliefs or the beliefs of their families. This religious ethos is impacting on what children are learning about relationships, sexual orientation and many other things. It allows schools, to some extent, to pick and choose the curriculum. I ask the Minister again: does she accept that a child who is LGBT could be taught in a school that a relationship should be between a man and a woman? Does she accept they would feel uncomfortable? Does she accept that this is allowed within our legislation at this point?

I thank the Deputy. As I have stated clearly, all schools are required to have an RSE policy. That policy, we must acknowledge, is developed in consultation with the entire school community, and the entire school community includes school management, parents, teachers and students, as appropriate. A school's programme for RSE is developed and taught, as the Deputy stated, in the context of the school's RSE policy. It is a shared policy and one that has been achieved through collaboration and engagement with all of the partners within the school forum. Equally, it is important to say that the ethos of the school should never preclude learners from acquiring knowledge about the issues or from following the curriculum as outlined by the NCCA. It is important to note that there is an NCCA curriculum. Many individuals from a variety of different experiences and backgrounds would say there is a need for a new curriculum to be put in place in terms of RSE. That work is ongoing and, as I said, it will continue right into next year.

Psychological Assessments

Denis Naughten

Ceist:

66. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Education her plans to increase the number of educational psychological assessments allocated to primary schools through the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24786/21]

The National Principals Forum has reported that 84% of schools have seen an increase in pupils with additional educational needs in the past four years. Over the same period, only an additional 31 front-line educational psychologists have been appointed to our primary schools, which leaves a dramatic deficiency in capacity within the system.

The Department of Education's NEPS provides a school-based, consultative psychological service in two ways: through the provision of an individual casework service for students and through a support and development service for school staff. Educational psychological assessments are not assigned to schools; rather, educational psychologists are assigned to schools.

The NEPS casework service involves the provision of a psychological service for a student, with the psychologist working with the student, teachers and parents, and other professionals, if appropriate, to identify need and plan for intervention and review to support the student in school. This service can take place over an extended period of time with NEPS psychologists. This model does not operate on a waiting list basis. It extends to approximately 8,000 students per annum. The NEPS support and development service, reaching an estimated 25,000 teachers annually, is an applied psychological service for school staff to help them build their capability to respond to the well-being, academic, social and emotional needs of all students, particularly those who are experiencing barriers to their well-being, learning, inclusion and participation. This model of service allows psychologists to give early attention to urgent cases and also to help many more children indirectly than could be seen individually. It also ensures that children are not referred unnecessarily for psychological intervention.

The capacity of NEPS has increased significantly from its 2016 allocation of 173 whole-time equivalent psychologists. The capacity of NEPS was increased recently as part of a package of measures to support the reopening of our schools with the provision of an additional 17 psychologist posts to NEPS, bringing overall sanctioned numbers to 221 whole-time equivalent psychologist posts. This represents by far the highest number of psychologists sanctioned for NEPS since its inception in 2000. The capacity of NEPS will be kept under review and I hope to be in a position to increase this capacity in future years.

I do not disagree with the model that is being used. The difficulty is that, in tandem with that model of supporting schools, in order for students to access additional support, they require a psychological assessment. To have just 31 additional front-line psychologists over the last four years, when 84% of primary school are stating there has been an increase in the number of pupils presenting with additional educational needs, is insufficient. It is the case that psychologists are appointed to schools but they are allocated specific hours in those schools. Medium size schools in particular, which are not in the small school category or the large school category, are squeezed.

To give an example of that, in one school where one educational assessment has been carried out, six pupils have had to go privately to get that assessment.

It is important to point out that the provision of support in schools is not dependent on a NEPS assessment or diagnosis. A new model was introduced in 2016. I appreciate the Deputy acknowledging the various strands of work in which the NEPS psychologists are involved but it is very important to note that. The special education teaching, SET, model of resourcing, introduced in 2016, is a needs-based resourcing model.

Schools are provided for additional resources to support pupils with additional learning needs, care needs or who have special educational needs from a set allocation of resources based on the school's profile. Schools then have discretion to provide additional supports for pupils based on their actual identified learning needs, as opposed to allocating set quantums of time to pupils who have been assessed as having a particular disability with certain pupils who may not have had an assessment excluded from the provision. Children who need support can have that support provided immediately, rather than having to wait for a diagnosis.

To correct the record, if a child is in need of assistive technology in order to access the curriculum fully, this would not be granted without being strongly recommended in a report. Therefore, that report is essential in that scenario. I accept the principle of what the Minister is telling me here but the practical reality on the ground is very different. I know of schools where there are proactive teams of staff, where they use all the mechanisms available and all the resources, they engage directly with the educational psychologist and exploit the model that the Minister very well articulated here this morning, but the situation in that particular school with less than 150 pupils is that in the past 12 months, six families have had to get private psychological assessments at a cost of between €500 and €600. Some have recommended further occupational therapy assessments, which is a further cost on those families. It should be based on need, not on the financial resources of a particular family.

I acknowledge, as the Deputy has, the excellent work on the ground by our schools and special education teachers. The model as introduced in 2016 is working more effectively, in that it does allow a child without a specific diagnosis to be catered for within the school environment by virtue of the hours that have been made available through the special education teacher. Since becoming Minister I have been very conscious of the value of this work in our schools and the emphasis on well-being and inclusion in our schools. For that reason, I very specifically made a determination about schools reopening as we returned, that additional psychologists would be made available for the benefit of schools and of children in particular. I have committed to keeping that under review and will continue to do so.

School Staff

Richard O'Donoghue

Ceist:

67. Deputy Richard O'Donoghue asked the Minister for Education if she will review schools that require a teacher appointed for September 2021 in circumstances (details supplied). [24600/21]

Will the Minister review the schools that now need to have a teacher appointed for September? The Covid pandemic has skewed the figures for children enrolling in September. Children booked into schools did not materialise, such as those from other counties or coming home from abroad, while others who were not booked in for September are now coming to the classroom. Can a review be done under these unusual circumstances?

Primary schools are currently provided with class teachers on the basis of one teacher for every 26 pupils, which is at its historically lowest level. Under the programme for Government there is a commitment to make further progress in reducing the pupil-teacher ratios in primary schools and to support small schools.

As part of the budget 2021 measures, the Government has sought to deliver on this commitment by the announcement of a one-point change to the primary staffing schedule and the introduction of a three-point reduction in the number of pupils required to retain a teacher currently in a school. That has been of enormous benefit to schools nationwide.

The staffing schedule for the 2021-22 school year was published last month and all schools can now establish their staffing for the coming school year on the basis of enrolments in September 2020.  The Department has published guidance for schools that takes account of the exceptional circumstances that have arisen for those pupils who are enrolled in school but have not returned to school during the 2020-21 school year but whose intention is to do so.

It is important that schools return valid enrolments to the Department to ensure an equitable allocation of resources to schools. The staffing arrangements also include a staffing appeal mechanism and a developing post application process, which allows for schools to be allocated posts on the basis of projected enrolments.  The appeal process also contains a number of other criteria that may be applicable to some schools where their enrolments has changed. 

This year the Department and the primary staffing appeals board are cognisant of the impact of Covid-19 on schools and in that context will look carefully at all decisions on the allocation of teaching posts where schools have reduced enrolments to ensure that all decisions are reasonable and all schools are treated fairly.

The primary staffing appeals board operates independently of the Department of Education.

I wrote to the Minister's office and was informed that the pupil-teacher ratio has come down and that a pupil-teacher ratio of 25:1 will operate from September 2021. Why then has a school in my constituency, Ballingarry National School, got 38 pupils in one classroom and 35 in another? It needed to have 199 at the end of September and it had 194. It now has 201 as it has gained numbers over the year, mainly due to circumstances relating to Covid. I advised it that there is an appeal process, but on Friday evening, it received a reply turning it down for an extra teacher. Did anyone actually look at this appeal? This is genuine.

To be clear, the primary staffing appeals board is an independent board and operates independently of the Department. There is an opportunity for appeal. I cannot comment on the specific school the Deputy mentioned as I am not familiar with it or the format of its appeal. However, we did successfully reduce the pupil-teacher ratio to 26:1 this year. We also included the three-point reduction for the retention of a teacher. To be fair, that is a significant advancement for schools being able to hold onto a teacher and equally for the classroom base to be a ratio of 26:1. That is the level that schools are allocated in their entirety. If some classes are less than that and some are greater, that is a matter for the schools themselves distribute their teaching staff.

Another school in my constituency has said it will be practically impossible for it to open in September as a junior class has 28 children and it is impossible for them to be in pods. It is losing a teacher in its appeal, which was also turned down. Under any circumstances, is it possible to have 38 students, two SNAs and a teacher in one classroom? That is 41 people in one room. It was turned down just because the process says "No". Is the Minister satisfied there will be 38 unvaccinated students, an unvaccinated teacher and two unvaccinated SNAs in a single room? What exactly are we doing here? The process is that where a school loses or gains a teacher, it will not get that teacher until 12 months later. In the case of Ballingarry National School, it has the pupil numbers but it now has to do without a teacher until September 2022 because the process does not allow for it. These are exceptional circumstances.

I thank the Deputy. There has been a three-point reduction in the number of pupils required to hold on to a member of staff. For many schools, that has been very successful and beneficial. For others, it might have required a reduction of four, five or six. That is the position but there has been a significant advancement.

Equally, there have been advancements regarding appeals, which can be ongoing. I cannot comment on the specifics the Deputy referred to but schools are entitled, where they have further information, to appeal again and make reference to the layout of the room, the number who can be facilitated in a room, the number of children who will be in a room, and so on. That is the basis for making an appeal. If there is a specific case where a class cannot be accommodated in a specific room, as we saw last year, accommodations can be made. I ask that the school address that in its appeal.

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