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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 1 Dec 2021

Vol. 1015 No. 1

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Natural Resources

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for choosing this matter for debate. It is vital importance to people across my own constituency of Meath West and that of my colleague Deputy O'Rourke, Meath East. Tara Mines employs over 580 people directly and hundreds more indirectly and supports thousands of jobs across County Meath. The importance of Tara Mines to the economy of Navan and County Meath cannot be understated. There is considerable concern across the county about the seriousness of the flooding now occurring in the mines. Last week, while a pilot borehole was being drilled for a ventilation shaft, a vast amount of water was encountered that began to flood the underground mine. Thankfully, all workers vacated it safely but the seriousness of the situation only became apparent when the massive amounts of water flowing in and flooding the underground tunnels did not subside. Since then, millions of litres of water continue to flood the new part of Tara Mines, known as Tara Deep, and also the old part of the mine that currently produces lead and zinc. Production has stopped and efforts are being made to try to stop the flooding. I commend the workers who are working tirelessly to try to fix the problem. On Sunday, a surface drill rig arrived and was set up over the borehole and a packer was to be used to try to address the issue from the surface above. I welcome the Tánaiste's visit to the mines on Friday evening and hope he took away the seriousness of the current situation.

Tara Mines is Europe's largest zinc mine and one of the largest in the world. Since mining began in 1977, more than 85 million tonnes of ore have been extracted. Zinc is used to galvanise other metals such as iron to prevent rusting, with galvanised steel used in everything from cars to street lamps and bridges. Lead is used in batteries among many other things. We need these metals for essential everyday items. This highlights the importance of the work of the skilled employees in the mines. As mentioned, the flooding has not stopped since the initial breach last week and the rising waters will threaten underground workshops and pumping stations if they do not reduce. We hope the plan to plug it from above, which was supposed to happen yesterday evening or today, will work successfully. If the packer seals the breach, the next job will be to try to pump out the incredible amount of water now present in the mine. Obviously, the mines have their own pumping system but it has never faced a crisis like this before. Will the Minister of State ensure all assistance the Government or State agencies can offer is made available should Tara Mines management require it? It is vital everything is done to try to recover the mine and protect these jobs.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who is unavailable this morning. I thank Deputy Guirke for raising this very important matter for his constituency and for County Meath. I concur with his concerns and also with his comments on the workforce, which is very skilled and dedicated and works in a high-pressure environment.

Boliden Tara Mines DAC is the operator of Tara Mines, located in Navan, County Meath. While drilling a pilot hole for venting purposes for its return air raise shaft No. 7 for the Tara deep exploration drive, there was an inrush of water to the mine. Thankfully, there were no injuries. The pilot hole broke through into the underground vent drive early in the morning of Sunday, 21 November 2021. Initial water flow was minor but built up over a number of days to a substantial volume and became greater than the mine pumping capacity. The mine authorities took the decision to allow the Tara deep exploration drive, which is over 2.4 km long, to flood. They removed equipment from the deeper sections of the mine and stopped production operations to facilitate this work. Efforts are ongoing to stem the inflow of water into the mine and a number of contingency plans are in place. The mine is containing the water from the pilot hole within the mine workings and it is currently not being discharged to the surface.

Mining in Ireland is highly regulated. For any mine to operate in Ireland it requires planning permission from the relevant local authority, in this case Meath County Council, an integrated pollution control or industrial emissions licence from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and a State mining facility from the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications. Health and safety for the mines are regulated by the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, which brought in new mining legislation in 2018, namely the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Mines) Regulations, Sl 133 of 2018. The regulations apply to all mines where people work and set out duties on the owner, operator, manager and employees at a mine with respect to persons at or in the area immediately surrounding a mine. The regulations came into operation on 30 April 2018.

The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, through the Geoscience Regulation Office, GSRO, is actively monitoring the situation and is liaising with the EPA and Meath County Council on the matter. Officials from the GSRO visited the Tara site earlier this week and engagement is ongoing between the regulators and Boliden. However, it is not yet known when mining operations will restart.

The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications is currently finalising a draft policy statement on mineral exploration and mining. Submissions as part of a public consultation which concluded on 15 October last are currently being considered. The Government will consider the draft policy statement early next year. The draft policy statement highlights the important role of minerals in our everyday lives and the critical role they will play in our transition to net-zero emissions and carbon neutrality by 2050.

As is the case with the Navan mine, mining activities also have the potential to enhance and grow local communities, not just in terms of the provision of skilled jobs and the financial contribution they make to local economies, but also in terms of infrastructural improvements and improvements in the human capital they deliver in rural areas. It is not possible at this point to say when the Navan mine will become operational again, but the situation is being closely monitored.

I thank the Minister of State for the response. I appreciate this is a unique situation and one that the Government will not have much experience of dealing with. Nevertheless, it is vital that we do all that we can to assist. I ask the Minister of State to engage with the Office of Public Works, which has experience in the area of flood management, in regard to the OPW offering its help to Tara Mines should it be required, be that in regard to pumps or expertise. From what I have heard, the flooding is very extensive and it has consumed large parts of the current mine and the new mining area vital to the long-term future of the mine known as Tara Deep. Tara Deep is crucial to production post 2030 as it is where vast new deposits of lead and zinc lie.

I would encourage the Minister of State to remain in close contact with Tara management to ensure that any assistance the State can offer is provided so that mining can restart as soon as possible and, thus, we can protect the hundreds of jobs in Navan and County Meath.

In my initial response, I outlined the number of contacts between the different State agencies and the mining operators. I will convey the Deputy's request to the Minister with responsibility for the OPW that the OPW make contact with the mining operator to see if any assistance can be offered.

There is robust legislation and regulation in place to ensure that mining in this State operates to the highest standard. Environmental enforcement activities are carried out by the EPA through inspections, audits and emissions monitoring. Inspectors assess the results of emissions monitoring carried out at licensed facilities to determine the impact, if any, of the emissions on the environment. Officials from the GSRO in the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications also monitor mining operations. Inspections of each of the main State mining facilities are undertaken by specialist mine inspectors to ensure that they are compliant with the terms of their mining leases or licences.

Ireland still maintains significant status for zinc production in Europe due to operations at the Navan mine, the largest underground zinc mine in Europe and by far the most significant mining facility in the State. Approximately 600 people are directly employed at the mine, along with additional contract staff, as outlined by the Deputy. The mine is also important in terms of supplying the raw materials we need for our future solar and wind energy, as well as batteries required to decarbonise our energy systems.

As stated, it is not possible to say when the mine will become operational again but the relevant regulatory authorities, including the GSRO, the EPA, Meath County Council and the Health and Safety Authority continue to monitor the situation closely and to liaise with the company.

Covid-19 Pandemic

It is fair to say that school communities around Ireland are this morning grappling with another chaotic management of messaging and leadership from the Department of Education. The Minister, Deputy Foley, and I are in absolute agreement that it is incredibly important that schools remain open. It is profoundly damaging for children when schools are closed. We know that when they were closed it was very difficult for students, particularly those in disadvantaged areas and those with additional needs, to get the type of educational services they needed.

For the past 18 months, the Department and the Government have been saying, "Schools are safe", "Schools are safe", "Schools are safe". Last month, I stood here and asked the Minister and the Government to stop saying that, but they continue to repeat that schools are safe. Last week, we heard a new line from NPHET, that is, that it never said that schools are safe. Having taken five days to consider what NPHET has suggested in terms of mask-wearing for nine-year-olds, from third class upwards in primary schools, we get an overnight diktat from the Department of Education, delivered with all of the subtlety and compassion of a gas bill. This morning, principals have to police mask-wearing by nine-year-olds, from third class upwards, without any sense of what the legal implications are if a parent was to refuse, no sense of a lead-in period and an absolute absence of commentary, guidance or leadership from the Minister.

All we needed last night was a video message or other communication from the political leader of education in Ireland acknowledging that this change is difficult, telling parents that they are part of the solution and asking them to talk to their children about wearing masks - children have seen adults wearing masks - and telling them that the reason for that is we are trying to make sure that people do not get sick, that they can help us in that regard, that they should not feel anxious or worried, that we will get through this together and that they are part of the solution. Instead, we got a classic, soulless communication, a follow-up to a communication from the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, Dr. Tony Holohan, and NPHET to each individual school stating that this change was required to come into effect today. After everything schools have been through, the Minister being asked last April to do something around antigen testing, but doing nothing about it until this week, all of the failures of communication heretofore and the Minister and Government parroting the line, "Schools are safe", "Schools are safe", "Schools are safe", they have given principals and school communities 16 hours to get their act together to enforce a diktat, a requirement from the Department of Education on face mask wearing among, potentially, very anxious children, with zero compassion and zero leadership from that Department.

The Government has been described as a bad debs committee. That is the best description I can come up with this morning. I would like the Minister to respond to that and to speak not just to me, but to take this opportunity to speak to the children of Ireland who may see this contribution later today.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House, as he has requested, the current position regarding Covid-19 infection prevention and control measures in schools.

Ensuring that schools can continue to operate through Covid-19 has been a key priority for the Government. The Department always has been guided by our public health authorities, such as NPHET, the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, and the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, regarding the appropriate Covid-19 infection prevention and control measures in place in schools. Additional funding and staff have been made available to schools to support the implementation of these measures. Furthermore, I would like to record again that I am deeply appreciative of the strong work that has taken place and continues to take place on the ground in schools around the country to implement these public health measures.

As the Deputy will be aware, there have been a number of additional measures recommended by public health recently. First, the Department of Health and the HSE, working in collaboration with the Department of Education, recently commenced a programme in which antigen tests are made available to children in primary schools when a case of Covid-19 arises. The Deputy will be aware that there were varying views at various times in regard to the effectiveness of antigen testing, but it is now the strong recommendation of the CMO that there is a place for antigen testing as an additional tool to augment all of the other tools that are in our schools. For that reason, as public health have recommended it, it is now going forward.

Information materials for parents were shared with schools last week and publicised directly to parents. It has been referenced that, following recent advice from NPHET, the Government has approved the wearing of face masks by children aged nine years and older in a number of settings, including for children in third class and above in primary schools. Guidance has issued to primary schools on this basis, setting out the recommendation and the exemptions which apply in respect of children with medical or special needs. Of course, it may be difficult for some students with special needs or certain medical issues to wear face coverings. Schools know their children and are best placed to identify those children whose complex needs are such that the wearing of face coverings may not be possible for them and to discuss this with parents as required.

Schools have been provided with guidance and information for parents and children. It is expected that schools, as usual, will take a practical approach over the next day or two, as has been communicated, in order to communicate the new measures to parents and ensure parents have the opportunity to provide masks to children. The measure is being introduced on a temporary basis and is subject to review in mid-February 2022.

The Deputy will appreciate that this is a public health measure. It is guided by public health. It is the strong recommendation of the CMO and NPHET that this is an additional tool for our schools. The decision was taken yesterday but schools have been given the latitude over the coming days to engage with parents and students on the wearing of face masks. I confirm that this well-being approach is typical of the approach we have taken since the reopening of schools. It is a public health measure in the best interests of children, as advised by public health for the protection of children, individually and collectively, and the school community.

The Minister cannot stand here and tell us it is a public health measure and that is just the way it goes. She has said a practical approach is expected over the next day or two. What kind of leadership is that? What kind of certainty is that? What legal basis is there for this? What happens if somebody comes to the school gate and refuses for their child to wear a mask. What does the principal do then? Does the Minister what principals should do in such circumstances, and has she informed them of this in the 16 hours given for them to prepare for this measure? We all know we are trying to protect people from getting sick, hospitalised and ending up in ICU. We know what the point is. Government Members were the ones telling us for the last 18 months that schools were safe while school communities, principals and managers were screaming out for support. I think the Department is depending on the goodwill of principals, who are hardwired to ensure they defend the reputation of their schools at all costs in the school community, to ensure there are not high anxiety levels among their student body or parent body and to keep the show on the road, rather than telling the truth of what is happening.

The Department expects a practical approach over the next day or two. There is no understanding of legal implications, no reference to the potential for HEPA filters to be put in schools and no understanding of the heating bills that schools are facing. There was no leadership from the Minister last night. Please do not throw it back at us and say we are somehow not adhering to public health advice when the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, was sketchy on that last night. Will the Minister, Deputy Foley, take the opportunity to show some leadership and give some guidance to schools, school communities and principals who are doing their best to deal with anxious children, who the Minister has let down in this regard? What they needed last night was a voice of compassion, care and leadership from the political face of education in Ireland.

I thank the Deputy again for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House these measures. I reiterate that if there are outbreaks of concern in educational facilities, public health teams continue to provide support to schools where required and the measures we have implemented in schools are on the back of expert public health advice. The on-the-ground experience of public health doctors has been and remains that schools are relatively low-risk environments in terms of transmission and have not been a driver of transmission in children over the course of the pandemic. That has been reiterated by our CMO and NPHET on an ongoing basis.

You did not say that last week.

The Government is committed to supporting schools and keeping them open for all children as we continue to live with Covid-19. The aim of all the Covid-19 infection prevention and control measures in place in schools is to support schools to operate safely and prevent the introduction and onward transmission of Covid-19 among the school community.

I will speak specifically on the measures confirmed by the Government yesterday and the guidelines issued to schools. It is important because I have heard from the Deputy and others about the necessity to get the guidelines in place as a matter of urgency. Guidelines are required-----

We did that yesterday and are very clear in the guidelines. I know schools and have spent the vast majority of my working life in schools.

Do not give us that line. We have all worked in schools.

I have the floor. I am aware that schools take a flexible approach. We have advised they take such an approach over the coming days.

The word "requirement" was used. That is not flexibility.

Grandstanding on a matter of public health serves no good purpose.

For the love of God. If I hear that accusation one more time-----

In relation to there being an opportunity for schools to take a flexible approach, as they always do, they have that flexibility in the coming days. The vast majority of parents are aware, as I am, that many children wore masks on the word of the CMO last week. We are taking an approach advised by public health. The measure is regarded as an additional tool for the benefit of our schools and we are implementing it. We ask parents to co-operate as they have done magnificently up to this point. I have no doubt they will do so going forward. It is operating seamlessly at second level. This is a mirror reflection of a measure regarded by public health as a public health measure.

On resources going into schools, about which the Deputy made an inference, over €700 million has been expended on resources being made available to schools for a variety of infection prevention and control measures. Ventilation is considered on a case-by-case basis, as the Deputy will appreciate, because no two schools have the same requirements. It is the strong advice that natural ventilation is best but where there are specific issues, the Department has engaged on a case-by-case basis with schools, whether it is for increased vents, windows or whatever. Moneys have been paid, work has been done and if HEPA filters are required, that is also a measure.

School Accommodation

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for selecting this topic and the Minister for being present for this debate. Ballincollig is the largest town in my constituency and in County Cork. It has a rapidly growing schoolgoing population. A sign of that is that in recent times approval was given for a new primary school, Gaelscoil an Chaisleáin. The issue of a permanent site for that school is still to be resolved.

Last September, the latest addition to the educational network in Ballincollig opened with Le Chéile Secondary School. That is a welcome development and it reflects the reality of the burgeoning demand for additional school places. The annual issue that arises concerning children going from primary to secondary school in Ballincollig concerns where in the town they will get a placement. Up to now, many have been forced to travel outside of Ballincollig. I was approached last night by a parent whose child is number 60+ on a standby list for admission to Ballincollig Community School. I do not have the exact numbers for Coláiste Choilm, but I suspect it is the same. This heightens anxiety among parents and pupils who are sitting next to peers who have been offered a placement and wondering where they will be going to school next year.

Against that backdrop, Le Chéile Secondary School was opened last September and was a welcome addition to the educational infrastructure in Ballincollig. Unfortunately, the school received a significant setback last week when Cork City Council issued a refusal of planning permission to the Minister. I have, courtesy of my colleague in Ballincollig, Councillor Garret Kelleher, a copy of the city council's decision.

While it indicates that there was pre-planning done by the Department of Education in consultation with the city council, any reading of the planner's report and the terms of the refusal would bring into question why the Department felt it was appropriate to pursue this planning application and waste time. While I acknowledge the support of the local GAA club in facilitating the site, it is clear that the site is dead in the water for the reasons enunciated in the planning refusal and that we now need to move on. We need to work with all stakeholders to get a solution.

Of particular importance is ASD provision for September 2022. While Ballincollig has a positive network of educational establishments, it is sadly lacking in ASD provision. I have seen cases of children from Ballincollig having to go to Farran, Berrings and elsewhere for ASD provision. Fortunately, this issue has begun to be addressed recently and there are now ASD units in primary schools in Ballincollig - I acknowledge the role of Mr. Gerry Ryan, the special educational needs organiser, SENO, in that regard - but the only ASD provision available for the classes graduating from primary school next September was to be on the Le Chéile campus. I ask the Minister to give a clear commitment and signal in replying to this matter that, if we do nothing else, the ASD unit will be up and running for next September. I ask her to ensure that all of the stakeholders meet and her Department takes a proactive position. We need to ensure that enrolment proceeds next September. There are 120 pupils who have been offered places in Le Chéile for next year and there are 60 on standby in one of the secondary schools already. We have a clear problem.

I acknowledge the Deputy's ongoing commitment to this issue in his constituency. It is an issue on which Deputy Aindrias Moynihan has also engaged with me. I thank Deputy Creed for raising the matter, as it allows me to provide an update to the House on the current position on the provision of interim accommodation for Le Chéile Secondary School in Ballincollig, County Cork.

In September 2021, the school opened in contingency interim accommodation in the former Cork Film Centre in Ballincollig. The school will operate in interim accommodation pending delivery of its permanent school project. As the Deputy outlined, the Department of Education had sought planning permission from Cork City Council for the planned interim accommodation for the school on the grounds of Ballincollig GAA Club. That planning application has been refused by Cork City Council.

At the moment, my Department is exploring what other options may be available, but it is proving difficult. Having done this previously, my Department had identified the Ballincollig GAA site as the best option. My Department will be liaising urgently with the local authority on alternative options. My Department will endeavour to make the appropriate and necessary interim accommodation arrangements in the shortest timeframe possible and will keep the school and its patron informed as viable options are examined and arrangements for September 2022 are made.

My Department has been in contact with the school regarding its first year enrolment for 2022. The school's admissions policy, as published on its website, confirms that 72 places are available. My Department understands that the school made offers to applicants on 11 November and that the closing date for acceptance of these offers is 7 December.

My Department will continue to work with the school and its patron in exploring the accommodation options for mainstream and special education needs pupils for the 2022-23 school year. Officials in my Department continue to liaise with officials in Cork City Council on the identification and acquisition of a suitable permanent site for the school in question. A number of permanent site options were identified. Each of these was investigated by the Department in conjunction with officials from Cork City Council. Unfortunately, in the case of all options identified, either the land could not be readily acquired from the landowner or the site was ultimately considered unfeasible for development. There has been consistent engagement and liaising with the local authority on identifying an appropriate and suitable site, and this will remain ongoing.

A potential suitable site has been identified in conjunction with the city council and discussions are ongoing in terms of exploring all options available to the Department to obtain possession of it. The Department is unable to provide any further information at this stage due to commercial sensitivities related to acquisition of the permanent site, but this is a priority for the Department.

I acknowledge the need within the area. We have taken a proactive approach. We have engaged from a pre-planning point of view and in respect of a variety of other sites that had potential, each of which was evaluated in conjunction with the local authority. I acknowledge the liaising with the local authority, which has been most helpful. As we proceed, we needing that liaising to continue. I assure the Deputy that we will do everything possible to prioritise the acquisition of a site and move matters forward in a timely and appropriate manner so as to meet the needs of the school and the area.

I thank the Minister for her response. I will ask her to do one further thing. When she returns to the Department after the debate, will she specifically ask her private secretary to give her an updated progress report on this matter in two weeks' time? Time is of the essence. We have ten months before enrolment commences next September. That is worrying for the vast cohort of students, but it is particularly worrying for those students in ASD units who have no other place to go in Ballincollig. They have been educated in these ASD units in their local community. It is cruel beyond belief that we would be unable to solve their particular problem within this bigger problem. If there is any specific commitment that I would like the Minister to give, it is that the ASD unit at least will be open in September 2022.

The Minister referred to the issue of the permanent site. I accept that a permanent site is the ultimate ambition for all of us. However, I find it difficult to believe that something that has eluded us to this date can be concluded and a temporary structure put on it by next September. I ask the Minister, in convening all stakeholders, that she consider advertising locally for a temporary site. It is clear that the GAA site is dead in the water now. The school has advanced the idea that, on its existing site, which is courtesy of the city council, there may be some scope to resolve the September 2022 situation, if not beyond that, including for the ASD unit. That idea should be explored as a matter of urgency. However, it is likely that there will be a requirement for a new site on a temporary basis and every effort must be made to find that while continuing the efforts to find a permanent solution, which has eluded us to date notwithstanding the best efforts of everybody. I understand the commercial sensitivities involved, but I would like the Minister to ask for progress reports on this issue within two weeks. Time is of the essence.

This is being given a high priority by my Department. I appreciate the Deputy's ongoing interest in this issue, which he has raised with me a number of times, as has Deputy Aindrias Moynihan. It is a matter of high priority within Deputy Creed's constituency. He can see from the level of engagement that the Department has had with the local authority on interim sites for additional accommodation and permanent site availability that we have at every opportunity taken the broadest look at available sites and analysed each. The Deputy will be appreciative of the body of work that goes into analysing a variety of sites and their potential. We have done that in conjunction with the local authority, which has been most helpful. Where we thought we had an option for interim accommodation, we even engaged on pre-planning. The Deputy referenced the engagement on and suitability of the site. From many years of service on a local authority, I am aware, as is the Deputy, that pre-planning serves as a positive opportunity for engagement and for ironing out difficulties, which then gives the freedom to proceed to planning. It was not successful in this instance, but that does not mean that we will not continue to go forward-----

It brings into question the level of pre-planning engagement, given the comprehensive rejection.

If I could conclude. The Deputy is aware that pre-planning is a significant and important element of the planning process.

If we had not engaged in pre-planning, the Deputy would be quite critical. It points to the fact that the Department has utilised every opportunity available to it to ensure that interim and permanent sites would be made available for this school. I assure him that we will continue to give this every priority, both for the benefit of the student community and the wider community.

Special Educational Needs

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, for attending. I appreciate the difficult task she has in trying to rectify what seems to be a crisis in special needs assistant, SNA, shortages and allocations. At the same time, I must speak up on behalf of the parents of children with special needs. Principals of national schools throughout the country, and in west Cork, seem to be engaged in a constant battle for extra SNA allocation. These principals are already dealing with extra Covid measures such as those announced last night. They must explain to parents why their children must now wear face masks. They are dealing with the prevention of Covid, pods and ventilation and they have an extra battle to get SNA allocation for the students who deserve this help and support. There seems to be a particular problem in and around the Skibbereen area because schools are contacting my office and pleading for help, including Dreeny National School, Caheragh National School, Ballydehob National School, and St. Joseph's National School, Skibbereen. I do not expect the Minister of State to be familiar with each of the schools individually, but there is a major shortage of SNAs in and around this area and the situation is at crisis point.

I will try to outline the difficulties the schools have. I will not name the individual school, but the schools are all in or around the Skibbereen area. One school has a child with Down's syndrome, a child with severe autism and a child with spina bifida. The school has an allocation of 1.83 SNAs. Because of the lack of mobility, the child with spina bifida requires two SNAs to physically lift the child into the hoist apparatus used. That requires approximately two hours of SNA help per day, and it leads to a situation where the principal, who is in the classroom, must look after the other two children with special needs requirements, without any SNA support whatsoever. One of the children is a flight risk. In addition to everything else the principal must deal with; it is not good enough that they are left without support for two hours. This is the type of thing that is happening.

In another two-teacher school, a junior class has two children with significant needs and the senior class also has two children with significant needs. The SNA allocation for the entire school is 0.5. It has been said time and time again that the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, seems to have no idea of the reality on the ground for these principals, parents and students. One parent, who is in social housing and is on a low income, has offered to help out financially and pay for extra SNA support.

The final example I will give is a school that has one class with severe and profound difficulties. The SNA allocation for the class is 2.87. There are five students in the class, but two of them have almost no mobility. Again, two of the SNAs must bring those students to the bathroom, leaving the rest of the class in the care of the special needs teacher.

We are running out of time.

This is the type of thing that is happening on the ground.

We are way over time.

It is proof that the NCSE has no idea of what is happening on the ground and that needs to be resolved.

I thank the Deputy for comprehensively outlining the SNA allocations issues west Cork in particular faces.

I will put in context my role as Minister of State with responsibility for special education in the rolling out and administering the €2.2 billion budget we secured this year, which is more than 25% of the entire education budget. That is an increase of 60% since 2011. Within the €2.2 billion resource, we managed to secure funding for an unprecedented number of 1,165 SNAs. By the end of December 2022, we will have 19,169 SNAs circulating within the education sector. That is an increase of 81%. The statistics can sound abstract and cold when we are talking about special education. I simply outline them to show the Deputy the progress that has been made in the sector. That is not to say that, on occasion, schools will not require additionality of SNA posts. The Deputy outlined some of the matters faced by schools in Skibbereen.

He will be aware of the exceptional review process, which is a valuable process whereby a school can apply directly to the NCSE to increase its allocation in circumstances where it is of the view that such an increase is required. He outlined some cases. I assume these are mainstream schools as opposed to special schools. It is important to stress that the allocation for SNAs in April 2021 has remained at that level. The front-loading allocation model will be introduced in September next year and it may benefit the schools to which the Deputy referred. The allocation is purely based on the school profile, as opposed to the individual needs of the children within the school. It is up to the schools themselves to allocate the SNAs as they see fit to individual children. The NCSE takes a number of criteria into account when assessing whether a new SNA is required.

I had a look at Cork in general to examine the success rate of the exceptional review process. I am not sure if the schools to which the Deputy referred applied. This year, there were 195 applications from 164 schools in Cork. He specifically mentioned primary schools. Some 72 of them received an increase totalling 42.86 SNA posts. Some 15 post-primary schools received a total of 10.75 SNAs. There was an increase for 87 schools in Cork. The NCSE does assess the individual requirements of schools, as per their school profile.

It is also important to note that a mainstream class no longer requires a diagnosis for a child to access an SNA. That saves the family having to go to the expense, trouble, and inconvenience of trying to get a professional report, as that is no longer required. SNAs are freely available for mainstream classes.

I genuinely appreciate the efforts that are being made. I do not disregard the figure of in excess of 19,000 SNAs that are in circulation. That is a large increase, and we must acknowledge it. At the same time, in many instances, the increase in SNA allocations is not being reflected on the ground. In the cases I outlined, many of the schools have applied to the NCSE and appealed decisions. In some instances, they may have received a minor increase in their SNA allocation. In one case, a school received an increased SNA allocation of 0.87, but it goes nowhere near addressing its needs.

I will return to an example I gave where there are two children in a junior class and two children in a senior class, all of them with significant needs, and the school received an SNA allocation of 0.5.

In this instance, even the SENO recommended an increase to an allocation of one but the NCSE turned it down. I am trying to highlight the disconnect between the NCSE and schools, principals and staff, regarding how things are operating on the ground. It is impossible to expect the NCSE, or anyone, to be fully aware of the day-to-day running of a school and the different incidents that may evolve or happen during the course of a day but it is clear to me that the NCSE is not aware at all of what is happening on the ground and what these principals and teachers, in particular, have to deal with and cope with.

I am asking for a little more discretion, especially when it comes to a very well thought-out appeal. I also ask the Minister of State to look at the individual cases of the schools I mentioned, namely, Dreeny National School, Caheragh National School, Ballydehob National School, and St. Joseph's National School, Skibbereen. I appreciate there is a separation between her and the NCSE, but they make very strong cases for extra SNA allocation.

I thank the Deputy for outlining his concerns regarding these schools. It is my role as Minister of State with responsibility for special education to ensure that I hold the NCSE to account. It receives €20 million from the Department every year and employs its SENOs to liaise on the ground with schools, families and parents to ensure sufficient resources are available to each school. I can bring this matter to the attention of the NCSE. I am not aware if it has recently inspected these schools. The Deputy may wish to consider requesting the NCSE, via the schools, to inspect them. I often visit mainstream schools, special schools and special classes. When we are talking about hoists and mechanisms like that, visits are a very real, tangible and practical way for SENOs to see what is needed as opposed to seeing it in an academic way on paper. If there have not been NCSE inspections, that would be a good thing to look at.

The role of the SNA is critical when we talk about special education. It is often the only way a child with additional needs can survive in school at all. Most children would not be in position to do so, if it were not for the SNA. Training is now being provided through a new national SNA programme at University College Dublin. We want to make sure that the SNAs that are in place are equipped and have continuous professional development in order to be able to carry out the tasks the school wishes them to. It is at the discretion of schools to use SNAs as they see fit.

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