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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 13 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 1

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Special Educational Needs

Alan Dillon

Ceist:

68. Deputy Alan Dillon asked the Minister for Education the details of the funding available to schools for the development or enhancement of facilities for special education; and if funding programmes such as the minor works scheme could be expanded for the improvement of special education facilities. [24784/21]

I wish to ask the Minister for Education to provide details of the funding available to schools for the development and enhancement of education facilities and if funding programmes such as the minor works schemes could be expanded for the improvement of special education facilities.

I thank the Deputy and appreciate the question. I recognise the great importance of investing in special education. A significant investment is being made in both special classes and special schools by the Department of Education. Almost one fifth of the Department's budget, amounting to €2 billion, is spent on special education annually.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has a statutory function to plan and co-ordinate the provision of education and support services to children with special educational needs, in consultation with the relevant education partners and the HSE. This includes the establishment of special classes and special school placements in geographical areas where there is an identified need.

When the NCSE sanctions a special class in a school, the school authorities can apply to my Department for capital funding to reconfigure an existing space within the school building to accommodate the class or to construct additional accommodation under my Department's additional school accommodation scheme, or both. Similarly, where special schools are requested to expand provision or wish to refurbish existing facilities, they may apply to my Department for capital funding to carry out these works. Between 2018 and 2020, permanent accommodation was delivered for 229 special classes and for 67 new classrooms in special schools.

As the Deputy is aware, a minor works grant is payable to all primary schools. This grant provides good flexibility at local level to make improvements to the physical infrastructure of school buildings, including the enhancement of facilities for special needs pupils. The grant payment structure reflects the priority of supporting special needs provision, with the grant rate for special needs students in special classes and special schools being four times the standard rate for mainstream students. For example, a 60-pupil primary school will receive €19,830, comprising €6,610 paid in July, a further €6,610 in additional funding as part of July stimulus, and an early payment of €6,610.

I thank the Minister. I see a great opportunity to expand the funding schemes in the Department, with specific emphasis on empowering local schools to increase their special education resources. I am thinking specifically about repurposing the minor works scheme and the summer works scheme. I am aware that the Department has increased the rate of capitalisation per special needs pupil in a school but it does not allow for meaningful projects in many rural schools with low pupil numbers.

There are other avenues to increase special education funding, such as the creation of a special education grant like the basic grant already paid to schools. This would enable small-scale projects to be pursued specifically for meeting special educational needs. It would empower local principals and families who want to use more local schools as avenues.

Regarding the NCSE, it is a matter of SENOs recognising parents and guardians as key stakeholders in respect of the child and committing to good relationships. I would go so far as to say we need a dramatic reform of the process for assessing pupils’ needs and of how the NCSE engages with education plans for children.

The funding streams being made available to schools are often four times the standard rate of funding made available for mainstream students. That is as it should be. The Deputy referred specifically to smaller schools. A 60-pupil primary school receives just short of €20,000, which comprises grants spread throughout the year, including the minor works payment in July, the minor works payment later in the year and the stimulus package. That means substantial additional funding for schools in terms of minor works. On top of that, there is funding being provided for personal protective equipment, enhanced cleaning and the replacement of staff.

With regard to other grants, furniture and equipment grants are available to schools. For example, there is a start-up grant of €6,500, an ICT grant of more than €5,000, a furniture grant of €2,500, and a multisensory room grant €7,000, all made available to special schools.

The Minister might be aware of the recent clarification by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the housing adaptation grant that can be used by families to install sensory rooms in their homes. That is why I have raised this question today. It is very welcome news for many families and children with autism and will certainly make the home an improved learning environment. I know of many families around Mayo who will be looking to the minor works funding to make significant improvements in their homes. I ask that the Minister outline specific funding avenues available to schools for the development of enhanced special educational needs facilities. Some parents do not feel empowered to demonstrate to school principals on the issue of where funding can be pursued. I ask that the information be made available publicly and in a structured way.

I thank the Deputy. I welcome the announcement by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the home supports being made available. It is a positive and progressive step forward. I take the Deputy's point on making the public aware of the funding streams available to special schools. I will certainly take it on board. The funding is available but I take the point that there might well be an opportunity to disseminate the information more widely and to make it more accessible to parents and guardians.

With regard to the setting up of an ASD class, the Deputy made specific reference to multisensory rooms. There is a grant of around €7,000 for the development of multisensory rooms in special schools. That is in addition to the other funds I outlined.

State Examinations

Denis Naughten

Ceist:

69. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Education the steps she is taking to specifically support the leaving certificate class of 2022; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23966/21]

Students who sit their exams in June of next year will have missed out on a considerable amount of class time due to the lockdown restrictions. They will be the first leaving certificate class to sit a State examination without ever having completed one before. These two factors, along with the potential threat of further restrictions, in addition to the mental health challenges every pupil has faced, place additional stresses on this cohort of students.

I appreciate the Deputy raising this question on the floor of the House. The Department is acutely aware of the disruption caused to students as a result of school closures resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. From 11 January 2021, all students, including those currently in fifth year and who are due to sit the leaving certificate examinations in 2022, engaged in a programme of remote learning with their schools. However, students in fifth year were prioritised for a return to school following the return of sixth year students.

As the Deputy is aware, all students have now returned to school.

The public health restrictions which resulted in the closure of schools in March 2020 highlighted the absolute necessity for schools to be agile in providing for continuity of schooling in the future. As a contingency measure against the possibility of partial or full school closures, the Department of Education provided a suite of guidance materials, agreed with the education partners, to enable schools to mediate the curriculum safely for all pupils and students in a Covid-19 context.

The nature of distance learning, which was necessitated during the unprecedented closure of schools last year and early this year, required educators to take on a range of approaches to support their pupils' continuity of learning during those periods. Assisted by Department-funded resources and supports, schools and teachers demonstrated significant innovation in adapting to the unprecedented situation, including the use of digital technologies and online learning platforms for teaching and learning.

A number of adjustments have been made to the assessment arrangements for the 2021 leaving certificate examinations to take account of the disruption to learning experienced by the students who are due to take these examinations this year. I am particularly conscious that current fifth year students have also experienced some disruption to their learning and this will be considered in determining the assessment arrangements for the State examinations in 2022.

I thank the Minister. The point I want to make is that this cohort of fifth year students, who will sit the exams next year, is unique in that they have never sat a State exam before. They have not had the experience or the pressure involved in a State exam before because they did not sit their junior certificate examinations. These students need additional supports over the coming year. I bring to the Minister's attention that there has been a 58% increase in the number of children presenting to our emergency departments in the last three months of 2020, with anxiety, suicidal ideation and self-harm. Every single young person in this country has experienced additional anxiety as a result of Covid-19. This is a challenge to deal with across our education system. We do not need to put additional anxiety on this cohort of fifth year students in coping with a State examination.

I reiterate that I am conscious of the particular difficulties and stresses for students throughout the Covid pandemic. In the context of the well-being of and supports for students, I acknowledge that schools and everybody involved in the school community have very much taken a well-being approach to supporting, mentoring, catering to and encouraging students with regard to school. We are all conscious of issues. Much of the advice about well-being issues, as the Deputy pointed out, has been highlighted by NEPS, as I alluded to earlier.

On the current cohort of fifth years who will be leaving certificate students next year, I want to be clear. As I have said previously, that suitable accommodations for assessment were made for the leaving certificate class of 2021 and consideration is being given to what supports can be put in place for the affected students in 2022.

I acknowledge what the Minister is saying but it is important that we also acknowledge that next year's leaving certificate class, this year's fifth year class, finds itself in unique circumstances. Additional supports need to be provided. In general, we need to put additional supports and new approaches in place to deal with and prevent the growing mental health issues that we have among our students at primary and post-primary level. The results from the Growing Up in Ireland study that was carried out prior to the pandemic show that students having a higher depressive score at the age of 13 is associated with a greater chance of a diagnosis of depression at 17 or 18 years of age and a greater likelihood of self-harm. It is important that in the wider school population, especially at second level, that we have a proactive, innovative approach across all of our students to support them from a mental health perspective.

I reiterate the particular interest that I have, as has the Deputy, in the well-being of students and, beyond that, for the entire school community. It is important to consider that the experience of Covid-19 has created challenges for us all, so I include the wider school community when considering the need to provide resources and support for well-being. As the Deputy has referenced the cohort of students who will take the leaving certificate examinations next year, I want to be clear that even in the budget in October, I was conscious of the need for supports and making additional school counsellors available. I was pleased that more than 100 additional posts for guidance counsellors were provided in our schools. I referred earlier to the provision of a substantial number of additional NEPS psychologists. NEPS has been working with schools to roll out specific programmes that identify, promote and enhance the existing well-being structures in our schools.

Question No. 70 replied to with Written Answers.

Pupil-Teacher Ratio

Denis Naughten

Ceist:

71. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Education her plans to address large classes in primary schools; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23964/21]

During the past school year, nearly one in five of our primary school pupils were in classes of 30 or more. The failure to tackle these super-sized classes means that many children are being subjected to a significant educational disadvantage, which has negative long-term consequences for their progression through the education system.

I appreciate the Deputy raising the question. As he will be aware, it was previously raised by another Deputy. It is a priority of mine and has been since I became Minister to reduce the pupil:teacher ratio, which we succeeded in doing, and also to address the points required for the retention of a teacher, which have fallen by three points this year. That is important and has proven to be of significant benefit to schools.

Primary schools are currently provided with class teachers on the basis of one teacher to 26 pupils which, as I said, is at an historical low. In the programme for Government, there is a commitment to make further progress in reducing the pupil-teacher ratios in primary schools and supporting small schools. As part of the budget, as I have outlined, we reduced it by one to 26:1 and introduced a three point reduction to retain a teacher. This announcement continues to build on this progress to date and for the 2021-22 school year, the staffing schedule will be on the basis of one teacher for every 25 pupils.

The latest figures for the pupil-teacher ratio show an improved ratio of students to teachers from 16:1 to 15:1 at primary level when comparing the 2015-16 school year to the 2019-20 school year. Average class sizes improved from 24.9 to 24.1 in the same period. The most recent budget announcement will continue the positive trend. The staffing schedule, which is at an historical low, will help to ensure better teacher retention in primary schools while also ensuring that fewer pupils are required to retain or recruit a teacher.

The new staffing schedule for 2021-22, taking account of the recent budget measure, was published last month and schools are in a position to establish what their staffing arrangements are for the 2021-22 school year. The new schedule has received a positive welcome from schools. It is an historical low. We would like at all points for it to be as low as possible but it is not possible to do it in one fell swoop. We will continue to work on it.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I acknowledge that the pupil-teacher ratio is decreasing and that is positive but this ratio wallpapers over what I believe is an unacceptable situation whereby there are more than 5,000 primary school children in classes of 35 or more.

Any teacher in such a situation is not teaching but is undertaking crowd control. That is all that is involved. There are 84 or 85 children in classes of 40 or more. That should not happen in any economy in the developed world. We need to address this specific issue. The pandemic has highlighted the issue of these supersized classes, which must be made a priority.

I reiterate that, as the Deputy has graciously acknowledged, we are reducing the pupil-teacher ratio. This will be at an historical low, 25:1, when pupils return to school in September. It is a point consistently missed that we have reduced by three the number of students required for a school to hold on to a teacher. Again, that was a bold, brave and positive measure in respect of the overall number of staff available in a school at any given time. I again reiterate that, for every 25 pupils, one teacher is provided. That is a staffing level of one teacher to 25 students. That is what the ratio will be in September, which is positive. I am committed to incrementally reducing the pupil-teacher ratio further every year, within budgetary constraints. The Deputy specifically alluded to very large classes. With regard to staffing appeals, appeals can be made where exceptional circumstances pertain with regard to the number of pupils in a particular class or the size of the classroom, as I alluded to earlier. I advise schools to make appeals in such exceptional cases.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the system if there are 5,000 children in classes of 35 or more. This has a direct impact on the amount of their time teachers can give pupils. It impacts on individual students and has a disproportionate impact on weaker students who have learning difficulties and on brighter students who need encouragement to move a bit further on. As a result, such students become bored in their classes for one reason or another, end up disrupting those classes and every single pupil in them suffers as a result. We need to deal with this issue of supersized classes. A specific focus needs to be put on the issue, particularly in the context of Covid-19 and the risk of variants in the future. We need to eradicate these large classes.

I again reiterate that we are making progress in terms of the size of classes within our school environments. I will say again that the ratio will be at an historical low in September. We are making steady progress in that regard. For every 25 pupils in a school, there will be one teacher available. That represents significant progress. Schools who need to retain a teacher will now require three pupils fewer than they would have heretofore, a measure which will be of benefit to many schools, particularly small schools. I will specifically say again, very clearly, that we are making progress with regard to the pupil-teacher ratio and the size of our classes. However, where there are specific demands and specific instances of what the Deputy has referred to, large numbers of children in small classrooms in this Covid-19 atmosphere, an appeals mechanism exists. Schools have the opportunity to make their case. I advise that any specific school the Deputy represents should make an appeal of this nature.

Schools Building Projects

Jackie Cahill

Ceist:

72. Deputy Jackie Cahill asked the Minister for Education the status of each large-scale school building project in County Tipperary; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25064/21]

Will the Minister provide the status of each large-scale school building project in County Tipperary? I want to recognise on the record the Minister's tremendous record with regard to school infrastructure in my county and across the country since she became Minister less than a year ago. This level of investment in Tipperary has never been seen before. As politicians, we are very glad to see that investment, but we are always coming back looking for more.

I appreciate that; it is the nature of the job, is it not? The current national development plan, NDP, as part of the Project Ireland 2040 framework, provides for an €8.8 billion investment in schools during the period from 2018 to 2027. The increased investment under the NDP is positioning the State to focus on adding and modernising capacity in the school system.

During the NDP period 2018-2020, 526 building projects were completed under the large-scale capital programme and the additional school accommodation scheme. These projects delivered in excess of 48,000 school places, including permanent accommodation for 229 special classes, and additional capacity for 67 classrooms in 14 special schools throughout the country. Of the 526 school building projects completed in the period from 2018 to 2020, 24 were delivered in County Tipperary.

The Department has a significant existing pipeline of projects to be delivered over the coming years to meet capacity needs. This is managed under the large-scale capital programme and the additional school accommodation scheme. Overall, there are 61 building projects across the various stages of planning, design, tender and construction in County Tipperary, five of which fall under the large-scale capital programme and a further 56 under the additional school accommodation scheme. Two of these projects are at project brief stage, one is at detailed design stage and two are on site as we speak.

I have made arrangements for the details of these 61 school building projects to be forwarded directly to the Deputy. I believe he will accept that this represents significant progress in his constituency and will be of considerable benefit to the students and school communities. We look forward to building on that progress.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Minister. I just acknowledged the great investment in Tipperary, from Carrick-on-Suir all the way up to Lorrha in the north of the county. In the last six weeks, St. Michael's National School in Holycross has been given two allocations from the Department. A number of large-scale projects have been approved in the recent past. Will the Minister provide me with an update on them? There are two in Tipperary town and there is to be very significant investment in Fethard. Presentation Secondary School in Thurles is also to receive significant investment. What are the timelines for building works to start on these four projects? Have they gone to tender? When will those four very significant projects in the county begin?

I thank the Deputy. I appreciate the need to expedite these projects and to commence them as soon as possible. I also appreciate how important they are. The Department has done considerable work to progress the projects despite the pressures of Covid-19 and the impact this has had on advancing projects. We were fortunate in the Department of Education in that we were able to continue with the provision of school buildings as an essential service. As the Deputy has acknowledged, we were also able to continue notifying schools as regards developments in both the short and long term. With regard to the specific timelines and targets to be met, I will ensure he is given specific information as regards the particular schools he referenced. My officials will make that available to him.

I thank the Minister. I will refer to two other primary schools which have had applications in for a period of time. I do not expect the Minister to have information on them in her briefing material, but will she come back to me with information on the status of applications made by Presentation Primary School in Thurles and Ballylooby National School? Will she let me know when those schools can expect a decision? I have been lobbying for them for a period of time. When does the Minister expect a decision to be made with regard to funding for these two specific schools? As I said, I do not expect the Minister to have an answer for me now, but I would appreciate it if she could get her officials to give me a brief on those two schools.

I thank the Deputy. I will guarantee that this information will be made available to him. I acknowledge his ongoing and consistent commitment to the provision of education services in Tipperary. I will ensure that information is made available to him.

State Examinations

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

73. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Education the extent to which she expects the leaving certificate examinations to proceed as planned in the current year; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24967/21]

I acknowledge the efforts the Minister and many others have made in bringing about the current situation in respect of the leaving certificate.

Does she remain satisfied that the procedure is going according to plan or have issues arisen?

I thank the Deputy for posing this question and highlighting this matter. On 17 February, I confirmed that leaving certificate 2021 examinations would proceed, guided by public health advice, and that students would also have the alternative option of applying for grades accredited by the State Examinations Commission, SEC, to be known henceforward as SEC-accredited grades. This decision was taken by the Government to provide choice and clarity for students.

Students will by now have registered for the traditional examinations and-or to receive SEC-accredited grades on a subject-by-subject basis on the candidate self-service portal. In any subject where a student sits the examination and opts to receive an accredited grade, he or she will be automatically credited with the better of the two results. Those opting for the traditional examinations will have completed their orals and music practical examinations over Easter and leaving certificate vocational programme, LCVP, students completed their link module examinations last weekend. Leaving certificate applied, LCA, orals started on 3 May and continued until 12 May.

My Department and the SEC have published a series of guides for students and schools regarding the processes for the 2021 leaving certificate. These guides and further information are available on www.gov.ie.

On 25 March, I announced details of the additional supports that are being provided to schools to support the running of the leaving certificate and LCA examinations and the accredited grades process. Schools can appoint a leaving certificate aide for up to a maximum of 60 days to support school management in the planning, preparations for and running of the examinations and the work involved in the accredited grades process. The Department is also supporting schools, parents and students through a dedicated phone line and email service for queries on the accredited grades process.

In the coming days, the SEC will be issuing further guidance for the conduct of written examinations to schools that is in line with public health advice and will ensure that the examinations can proceed safely.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The Deputy will also be aware that legislation is being introduced for the purposes of providing for the running of the 2021 leaving certificate to confer the necessary powers on the SEC to run the accredited grades process.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply. I offer my compliments to her in respect of her dedication in pursuing the issues involved. Arising from the experience so far, has anything arisen that may cause concern or need dispute resolution at a later stage? Is the Minister satisfied that any such requirement can be met?

All steps that have been necessary thus far have been taken. I have outlined for the House all the various aspects, for example, the orals and music practicals, that have already taken place and worked well, largely due to the considerable support provided by schools on the ground, the resources put in place by the Department and the strong, collaborative and supportive approach taken to making accommodations for exams of that nature. LCA orals took place between 3 and 12 May and proficiency tests for out-of-school languages took place last Saturday. All of these were run positively. There has been significant engagement by students through their use of the portal.

To what degree does the Minister remain satisfied that all the objectives can be met on time and that facilities remain available to her to bring about satisfactory solutions to disputes that arise?

All of the steps that need to be taken have been taken and have been worked through. Legislation on the running of the accredited grades process and so on has cleared the Seanad and will begin its passage through the Dáil this afternoon. That legislation is important because it ascribes to the SEC the authority to run the calculated grades process as it was known last year or the accredited grades process as it will be known this year. Within the legislation, provision is being made for a variety of issues, for example, indemnities for teachers, tutors, subject assessors and everyone with an involvement in the accredited grades process. It also makes accommodation for non-acceptance in terms of canvassing and so on. I would welcome the conclusion of that legislation in the shortest possible time.

Question No. 74 replied to with Written Answers.

School Transport

Denis Naughten

Ceist:

75. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Education her plans for the school transport service in September 2021; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23965/21]

School transport applications for the 2021-22 school year are currently being processed by Bus Éireann, but no one knows whether there will be 50% or 100% capacity on second level buses. This issue caused major problems last September and could cause chaos this September for 13,000 post-primary concessionary pupils across the system. We need clarity.

School transport is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department of Education. In the current school year, more than 114,000 children, including 14,700 children with special educational needs, are transported on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country at a cost of over €224.7 million in 2020. Having regard to available resources, the purpose of the scheme is to support the transport to and from school of children whose places of residence are remote from their nearest schools. All children who are eligible and complete the application and payment process on time will be accommodated on school transport in the 2021-22 school year where such services are in operation. Children who are not eligible for school transport may apply for transport on a concessionary basis where seats are available after all eligible applicants have been accommodated.

The Department has engaged intensively with Bus Éireann in regard to the logistics for the safe operation of school transport scheme services for the 2020-21 school year. Based on public health advice, the Department provided for school transport scheme services for the 2020-21 school year to operate fully, but with additional measures and hygiene requirements in place and the rolling implementation of measures on post-primary services as required to provide physical distancing using 50% of passenger capacity. My officials engage on a weekly basis with public health consultants from the HSE on the safe operation of schools, including school transport.

The requirement to implement additional measures on school transport services in the 2021-22 school year will be dependent on the prevailing public health advice at that time. It is difficult at this point to make a projection, given that we will be using the most up-to-date advice available to us at the time. In addition, the Department is conducting a review of the school transport scheme to ensure that it is fit for purpose and serves students and their families adequately. All consideration will be given to the public health advice that is available to us in advance of the return to school.

I accept that it is difficult to be definitive at the moment because we must consider the public health advice, but the Minister's officials are engaging with Bus Éireann and I presume that that involves some scenario planning. Could we be looking at a 50% reduction in capacity? What impact would that have on the 13,000 students who avail of concessionary school transport? Their families need clarity for September. Families whose children are starting the junior or senior cycle might have the opportunity to switch schools if clarity is provided. Many parents manage childcare based on the availability of and their access to school transport services. We need clarity.

To be clear, the process is that all children who are eligible and complete the application and payment process on time will be accommodated on school transport services for the 2021-2022 school year. Children who are not eligible may apply for school transport on a concessionary basis. If seats are available, even where capacity is at 50%, they will be made available on a concessionary basis.

I want to be clear, as we look back on what we have achieved in education and forward to what we will do in future, that everything we have done has been, and will be, on the basis of the public health advice that is made available to us. As we began this school year, the advice was that, at second level, school transport would have to operate at 50% capacity. Things are looking much more positive for society in general in terms of how we are progressing. We are hopeful that the reduced capacity on school transport may no longer be required in due course, but I cannot say it will be so. We will operate on the basis of the available public health advice.

I thank the Minister. Reading between the lines, what she is saying to me in plain English is that, while she hopes it will not happen, it may be that the advice is that school transport should continue to operate at 50%. If that is the case, there will be 13,000 students left on the sides of our roads from the beginning of September because the capacity is not there while services are operating at 50%.

What was the additional cost for the current academic year of operating the public health measures to reduce capacity on the school transport service? How many buses achieved the 50% capacity requirement? Finally, how many parents availed of the €5.10 a day alternative transport arrangements? If the Minister does not have those figures available, I ask that she provide them to me later.

I appreciate the Deputy's interest in this issue. I am very clear in terms of school transport. It is important to acknowledge that we are conducting a review of the service. It is my intention that we will do all we can to ensure that as wide an access as possible is provided in terms of eligibility of children and young people for school transport. That is part of the remit of the current review. I have to be honest with the Deputy and say that where pubic health advice pertains, that advice will be followed. If the advice is to operate at 50% capacity, then we will have 50% capacity. However, there is scope within that, as there was previously, for accommodation of those who avail of transport on a concessionary basis. No one who is eligible will be excluded from that remit.

More than 98% of buses have run at 50% capacity, at a cost of between €87 million and €135 million. I can revert to the Deputy with any further information he requires.

Question No. 76 replied to with Written Answers.

Special Educational Needs

Alan Dillon

Ceist:

77. Deputy Alan Dillon asked the Minister for Education the number of additional special class teachers in 2021; the number of additional special class places that the additional recruitment has provided; and if speech and language therapists, among others, are being directly recruited by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE. [24785/21]

Will the Minister indicate the number of additional special class teachers in 2021, the number of special class places provided by way of additional recruitment and whether speech and language therapists, among others, are being directly recruited by the NCSE?

I thank the Deputy for his question. In budget 2021, as he knows, we secured an unprecedented investment of €2 billion dedicated to the provision of special education, which is one fifth of the entire education budget. Included in that was provision for approximately 235 speech and language therapy teachers. In addition, we got an extra 1,000 special needs assistants, SNAs, which takes us to an unprecedented total of 18,000 SNAs in the education system. SNAs are critical to assisting children in mainstream classes and, indeed, in special schools and special classes. Ensuring we have enough teaching staff within the school system is something we always need to advocate for on behalf of children with special needs. It is always important that we have dedicated teachers for this sector, as opposed to trying to use other teachers in the system. In my conversations with SNAs, they often tell me that they should not be used for any other care or duty other than looking after children with special needs. That is something for which I fully advocate.

I take this opportunity to mention the expanded summer provision, which offers a significant increase on what was available last year. The eligibility is now extended to 81,000 pupils. For the first time, all 4,000 schools in the country will be in a position to apply for funding to run the summer programme. Last year, for example, it was just primary schools and special schools that could apply. There is an unprecedented allocation of €40 million for the programme, which is double the funding that was given last year. That will go some way to assisting the participation of schools in the project.

I thank the Minister of State and acknowledge the tremendous work she has done within the Department. Having a dedicated Minister of State with responsibility for special education was an important move. I acknowledge her announcement regarding the summer programme, which is very welcome.

I want to raise an issue regarding Department of Education Circular 38/07, which outlines the criteria for enrolment in special classes of pupils with specific speech and language disorders. It requires that a full-time teacher be assigned to each class, that classes operate with a reduced pupil-teacher ratio of 7:1 and that eligible pupils may spend up to two years in such a class. As we know, some pupils with special needs have been seriously impacted by the Covid crisis. I know of a seven-year-old girl in County Mayo who has lost out on 35% of the time in her specific speech and language class. I am asking that an amendment be made to the circular in the light of the pandemic.

I thank the Deputy for pointing that out. There is a special education review committee that deals with the resourcing of special classes with teachers and SNAs. Allocations are determined under those terms. When we talk about special classes, we know there should be two SNAs and one teacher per special class, if there are only six children in the class. That should be the number. If there is a difficulty with adhering to that, I suggest that the school in question should get in contact with either the NCSE or the Department. The NCSE's comprehensive review of the SNA scheme, published in May 2018, found that the scheme as currently configured worked well in meeting the needs of the children for whom it was originally designed. It is very important that every child who has special educational needs gets the support and resources he or she needs within a particular class. I ask the Deputy to bring the particular case he raised to my attention later.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. I recognise that the opening of speech and language classes is contingent on the HSE's having resources available to provide speech and language therapy to students. I emphasise the importance of this provision for parents looking to access services for their children. In a large county like Mayo, we have two dedicated speech and language classes, one of which is in Ballina. I understand that there are 46 such classes throughout the country. This service is something on which we can improve, working in co-operation with the NCSE and the HSE to identify additional resources and requirements for classrooms.

I should have said at the outset that separately from and in addition to the HSE supports for speech and language therapy, we are operating a demonstration project around the school inclusion model. That project was approved by Government in February 2019 and began operating in community healthcare organisation, CHO, 7, encompassing Dublin, Kildare and west Wicklow. It was disrupted because of Covid but it will be a transformative model for children with special needs into the future. Under this model, pupils will have access to bespoke, tailored therapeutic supports in situ, provided by speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, behavioural practitioners and other therapists.

They will be able to use their professional relationships and expertise to assist in the best interests of the child and for her or him to reach her or his full potential into the future.

I know some Deputies are waiting but, unfortunately, that completes Question Time for today. I thought I might get to another few Deputies, but the Tánaiste is here so we will move on.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
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