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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 12 May 2022

Vol. 1022 No. 1

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Special Educational Needs

Gary Gannon

Ceist:

64. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for Education the reason pupils with English as an additional language were dropped from the eligibility list for the primary inclusion programme for 2022. [23482/22]

Last year, students with English as an additional language were specifically mentioned as a group in the pupil eligibility groups for the inclusion programmes. I do not understand why they have not been included in the guidelines in the same way this year. Eligibility has been changed since last year. If needs be, I can point out the differences.

The Minister and I were delighted to announce this year’s summer programme. It is anticipated that it will support up to 48,000 children with special educational needs and children at most risk of educational disadvantage. It is on the back of the supplementary programme and the Covid learning support scheme. We know that these children suffered significant regression during the pandemic so it is important that they get access to this programme. In 2021, the numbers availing of the summer programme increased by 60% from the previous year and we expect them to increase again this year.

It is not the case that English as an additional language for pupils has been dropped from the eligibility list for the primary inclusion programme. All students who are eligible for the programme last year will still be eligible this year. That includes migrant students who are availing of English as an additional language. The summer programme for all primary schools clearly states that it offers an opportunity for schools to address the needs of migrant students such as addressing English language skills and integration.  This includes students who have recently arrived in Ireland from Ukraine. Some of those will be very interested in doing this programme and schools have expressed the wish to take in many Ukrainian students.

The inclusion programme is open to pupils who have complex needs, pupils who are at risk of educational disadvantage and pupils in mainstream education who are accessing the higher level of continuous support. That would include a small number of students with enduring needs that significantly affect their capacity to learn and function independently and to participate in education. The inclusion programme is also open to those students who require highly individualised and differentiated learning programmes that are significantly different from their peers.

I am glad the Minister of State mentioned the students from Ukraine seeking refuge here. When the summer programme was recently published in The Irish Times, following the Minister of State's announcement, the headline in the newspaper stated "'Summer school' plan to include thousands of Ukrainian students", but the reality is they were only being allocated the places left over after the other groups of students listed in the guidance document. Migrant students, including those recently arrived in Ireland from Ukraine, would only have an opportunity to take part in inclusion programmes or if schools themselves decide to prioritise this group, but the Department has not prioritised these students and to suggest otherwise is misleading. In fact, it has been taken down the pecking order from last year's programme to this year's programme. The Department has also failed to provide adequate time for school leaders to confirm they have enough teachers and SNAs available to run the school-based programme.

The summer programme is not about pitching one category against another and I know the Deputy is not saying it is, but it is important I say that for the record. This is not about the location of where children are or their backgrounds; this is about their levels of need. The schools have indicated they will be welcoming of Ukrainian and all migrant children and I accept their bona fides in that. The schools will be supported to include Ukrainian children in their programmes and they are focused on supporting the individual needs of those children. The flexibility at school level means schools can target those who they believe would most benefit from the intervention. On languages at primary level, the evidence would suggest that supporting migrant kids is best done through activity rather than through individual language classes. Post primary, more instruction can be given on language. I mention the English for speakers of other languages, ESOL, panels under the 16 education and training boards, ETBs, and they will help with that.

The Minister of State mentioned that schools will be supported. Will she specify for me how schools will be supported to ensure there are enough teachers or SNAs? How will that support manifest itself in real terms for schools that are already struggling to ensure they have enough teachers and SNAs to meet that need? Are all autistic children eligible for this year's summer programme and July provision?

They are. Children who have complex needs in mainstream education are eligible, as are special classes and schools. They are fully supported. First, is the funding of €40 million, which is important, and there is an extra week's pay for staff, so that represents double funding to incentivise them. There is also extra and enhanced funding for special schools and special classes above mainstream schools to get more of them involved. It is about €30 per pupil in a mainstream school, which comes to €60 per pupil for a special school or for special classes. Staff can now recruit final year students who are graduating this summer, undergraduates, and newly qualified teachers. Where a school has full capacity, a child can avail of a programme in another school once it has been agreed with all the people involved.

Special Educational Needs

Joan Collins

Ceist:

65. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for Education if she will provide an update on the setting up of autism classes in schools (details supplied). [23584/22]

I ask the Minister of State for an update on the setting up of autism classes in the Dublin 12 area, namely, in Drimnagh Castle Secondary School, St. Paul's Secondary School, Assumption Secondary School, and Loreto College. In the next year a cohort of Dublin 12 children will need autism classes in secondary school. Children who may not have needed a class in primary school usually need one in secondary school as navigating secondary school is a lot harder. The question asked by the Dublin 12 campaign for autism spectrum disorder, ASD, inclusion is, if this is not provided, where will these children go?

The Deputy and I have spoken about Dublin 12 and special classes there on a number of different occasions. From a general perspective, we have increased the amount of special classes since 2011 by 386%, which we can all admit is significant, although that is not to say there are no pinch points, particularly in Dublin, Cork and other areas. This year we opened 269 classes and next year we will open 287, which will create 1,700 additional special class places. We have a total of 2,148 special classes open nationwide. In Dublin 12 we have a total of 21 special classes, 15 of which are in primary education, including two early intervention classes, and there are six post-primary classes as well. Of those 21 classes, four of them opened this year, including Loreto Senior Primary School, Loreto Junior Primary, St. Damian's National School, and the Marist Primary School on Clogher Road.

The majority of special classes open in Dublin are in primary level as distinct from post-primary, and that is a matter I am looking at. There is a gap and a disconnect there I am trying to fix. One of the ways we are doing that is with our collaboration with The Spiritan Education Trust, which is a patron for fee-charging schools, six of which are post-primary and three of which are primary. One of those is in Templeogue, which is in the Deputy’s constituency. It is a ground-breaking and major policy breakthrough that the fee-charging schools will open special classes and I am hoping that will fill the gap. There are four schools that have projects in train in the Deputy's constituency. There is the Holy Spirit Primary Schools in Greenhills in Kimmage west.

The Minister of State will get a chance to come back in.

I am involved in and support the Dublin 12 campaign for ASD inclusion. The Minister of State has met them and they are parents who are concerned about their children. They are campaigning hard to ensure those children who are moving from primary education, especially over the next year or two years, have clear direction to go into post-primary or secondary school. They made the point to me that it is harder for children who have autism to navigate secondary school and that is one of the reasons they are seeking to ensure classes are in place. They are campaigning so that children will not be forced out of the area to access a school when they should be getting services at close to home as possible.

That planning for special education provision is one of my raisons d'être in the Department. The National Council for Special Education, which I have to hold to account in its planning for current and anticipated demand, is critical, and that is primarily done through the special educational needs organisers, SENOs, even though there can often be a narrative that it is under the section 37 mechanism. It is generally done through collaboration with schools that engage with parents, HSE officials and other stakeholders. We have to look at the special educational needs, SEN, capacity over the next ten years from primary to post-primary level. We have to look at the space capacity in schools, the schools building programme, the expansion of projects and approval under the additional school accommodation schemes, where they can get that scheme and where it will be of assistance to open a special class.

Those are all things we will need to do, not just in Dublin 12 but nationally, from the point of view of moving children from primary to secondary level. Has the Department looked at the cohort of children who, over 2023, 2024, 2025, 2026, 2027, 2028, 2029 and 2030, will be seeking to move into secondary schools?

If schools do not provide the classes, will they be compelled to provide classes? Will the Minister of State give me and other Deputies information on how many children will need secondary school places in the next five to ten years?

Last year the Department gave a commitment that all new schools that are built will automatically have SEN facilities and-or a sensory room if they need it. We should not have this issue every year where we are scrambling to facilitate children with special needs. As I mentioned earlier, based on current and anticipated demand, we have a forecasting model in place. The planning and building unit is now sharing its geographical information system with the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, so the NCSE can see building projects that are planned in each geographical area in real time. That was not done previously. The Deputy is right that we need to ensure we have adequate capacity five, ten, 15 and 20 years into the future. I am endeavouring to work on that daily.

Question No. 66 replied to with Written Answers.

Schools Building Projects

Thomas Gould

Ceist:

67. Deputy Thomas Gould asked the Minister for Education if she will provide an update on the new school building for a school (details supplied). [23672/22]

I seek an update on the new school building for Gaelscoil Pheig Sayers in Cork.

I thank the Deputy for his brevity.

It is the soul of wit. The project for Gaelscoil Pheig Sayers is included in the Department’s construction programme, which is being delivered under the national development plan as part of Project Ireland 2040 framework. Under Project Ireland 2040, the education sector will receive a total of approximately €4.4 billion in capital investment over the period from 2021 to 2025. This significant investment allows us to move forward with certainty on our ambitious plans and deliver high-quality building projects with a real focus on sustainability for school communities across Ireland. This investment will build on the good progress being made in adding capacity to cater for demographic changes and provision for children with special educational needs. This investment will also facilitate an increased focus on the modernisation of existing school stock and help transition the school system for an era of net zero carbon by 2050.

The brief for this project for Gaelscoil Pheig Sayers is the development of a new 16-classroom Gaelscoil with two classrooms for pupils with special educational needs and all associated site works on the site adjacent to the current school at Farranferris in Cork city. The major building project will be delivered under the Department's ADAPT programme. ADAPT is an acronym for the accelerated delivery of architectural planning and tendering. The ADAPT programme uses a professional external project manager to co-ordinate and drive the design team to achieve the best possible timeframe for the project through the stages of architectural planning to tender and construction.

The tender process to appoint a project manager will be completed this week. Once appointed, the project manager will commence the tender process for the appointment of a design team for each of the projects on this ADAPT programme, including a design team for Gaelscoil Pheig Sayers. The Department will keep the school authorities informed of the progression of these appointments as they proceed.

I have been on the board of management of Gaelscoil Pheig Sayers for 11 years. Gaelscoil Pheig Sayers was originally founded in 1986 when a group of people who wanted to develop the Irish language on the northside of the city came together. For 36 years the school has had no permanent home. It has been brilliant to see how people have been encouraged to speak the language and the interest in Gaelscoileanna in the northside of the city. Students come from throughout the northside to attend the school. The school has now got a reputation for being a hub for the language and heritage, something I am very proud of.

I welcome the Minister's announcement today that appointments will be made this week. Does she know the timeline for start and completion?

I acknowledge the growth of the school, as well as the service provided by the school community, school staff and wider community in ensuring it is the success that it is. As the Deputy indicated, it is a positive step that the process to appoint the project manager will be completed this week. Once fully appointed, the project manager will meet departmental officials and will put in train their programme for appointment of the design team for each of the projects in this ADAPT programme. The project manager will also be in direct contact with the school. After the appointment of the design team, it will take approximately 12 weeks to appoint the consultant architect, quantity surveyor, civil construction engineer, building services engineer etc. I appreciate this has been a long process, but the appointment of the project manager by the end of this week is very positive.

This will be very welcome news for the almost 300 students, their parents and the staff. My youngest and eldest daughters went to the school. My eldest daughter is in sixth class and so she will not see the delivery of the new school. However, for the other children who are in Gaelscoil Pheig Sayers it will be wonderful to have a purpose-built modern school with special needs units. The school wants to be inclusive of all the children. The staff and in particular the principal, Adrian Breathnach, have always encouraged that. For the 300 children and their parents this is welcome news. Ten years ago, that school had 89 students and now it has almost 300. For the northside this is welcome. It is long overdue. I thank the Minister for her response today.

Ba mhaith liom cuidiú le mo chara agus leis an méid atá ráite ag an Teachta Gould. Is scéal dearfach é sin. D'éirigh go hiontach leis an scoil in ainneoin nach bhfuil foirgnimh aici le breis is 30 bliain. It has been a very long and difficult road for this school, but despite that it has thrived. I am encouraged by what the Minister has said, but I hope this can be followed through on and that we finally see a permanent home for Gaelscoil Pheig Sayers. I know the board of management and the principal, Adrian Breathnach, have worked very hard on this. I hope we see progress.

I again take the opportunity to urge the Minister to finally submit the planning application for a permanent building for Cork Educate Together secondary school, for which we have been waiting for a long time.

Is léir dom gur scoil iontach í Gaelscoil Pheig Sayers. Tá sárobair ar siúl sa scoil lá i ndiaidh lae. This is a good news story today. It is positive progress, as Deputy Gould has articulated. A growth from 89 pupils initially to almost 300 now speaks volumes. This is an ambitious project for the school, a 16-classroom project with two classrooms for pupils with special educational needs. It is a series of processes but, as I have articulated, the tender process to appoint a project manager will be completed this week, and after that it rolls on. It is my intention as much as possible to expedite all of these issues. As I said earlier, it is usually a 12-week programme for the appointment of a design team. It is my intention to do that as quickly as possible. It is testament to the success of the school that it has grown in such great numbers. Like Deputies Gould and Ó Laoghaire, I would like to see this move as quickly as possible.

Question No. 68 replied to with Written Answers.

Bullying in Educational Institutions

Gary Gannon

Ceist:

69. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for Education her plans to protect LGBTQI+ students and staff; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23483/22]

I ask the Minister to outline her plans to protect LGBTQI+ students and staff; and if she will make a statement on the matter. When I say protect, I mean more than just the essential protection from bullying and harassment. I mean protection from being marginalised, excluded and made feel invisible, which is what many relationships and sexuality education, RSE, programmes do. It is also about a culture in staffrooms that the religious ethos has inflicted on teachers. We heard that mentioned at the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, conference a few weeks ago. What are we doing to protect teachers and students in our schools?

Ensuring all students and staff, including LGBTQI+ students and staff, feel supported, welcomed and secure within their schools is a key priority for the Department of Education.

The Department of Education supports a number of programmes that support LGBTQI+ students and staff. For example, since 2013, the Department has provided funding to BeLonG To for StandUp! Awareness which is a campaign that supports school communities to take a stand against bullying that is homophobic, transphobic or biphobic. The Deputy observed that there are issues other than bullying but it is all part of creating a good atmosphere in schools.

The campaign also seeks to raise awareness in schools about the experience of LGBTQI+ students. The Department has also collaborated with advocacy bodies and partners to prepare a resource document for schools to support LGBTQI+ students, which has been made available online and to schools.

The action plan on bullying and the anti-bullying procedures for primary and post-primary schools set out the Department's approach to tackling bullying and promoting an anti-bullying culture in schools. As the Deputy is aware, the Department has recently commenced a review of the action plan and the anti-bullying procedures that will take account of research and developments since they were published. It will specifically consider cyberbullying, identity bullying and sexual harassment, among other areas.

Access to relationships and sexuality education, RSE, is an important right for students, as was referenced earlier, and it is important that the social personal health education, SPHE, and RSE programmes in place in our schools are relevant, up-to-date and inclusive of all our students and staff. This is reflected in the programme for Government commitment to develop inclusive and age appropriate RSE and SPHE curricula.

Following an extensive review of the RSE curriculum, focusing on a range of topics including healthy positive sexual expression and relationships and LGBTQI+ matters, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, published the report on the review of relationships and sexuality education in primary and post-primary schools. I earlier outlined to the Deputy the progress we are making in that regard, particularly in respect of the specifications for the junior cycle that will be published imminently, followed by public consultation and roll-out into our schools. In tandem, preparation work is under way for similar reviews of the senior cycle and at primary level.

Specifically in terms of staff, it is also worth noting that under employment law, employers, including schools, have a duty to ensure the health and safety of their employees in the workplace as set out in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005.

I am conscious it was only in 2015 that we passed laws to make it illegal for schools run by religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTQI+ teachers on the grounds of their sexuality. We have also heard stories from teachers that show there is still a fear of having one's sexuality known about within the school community. During recent teachers' conferences, I read a report in a newspaper about a teacher who could not talk about the grief he felt over the loss of a loved one for fear of what it would mean for his role in the school and potential progression or otherwise.

The 2020 equality survey report of the Irish National Teachers Organisation reported that only 18% of respondents in the Republic of Ireland and 12% of respondents in Northern Ireland were out within their school communities. I appreciate we have legislation but we also must face reality. This is an issue we need to take infinitely more seriously. Our schools should be part of a foundational knowledge when it comes to learning about respect for others and tolerance and yet we know that is not how many in the teaching profession feel in their place of work. Will the Minister assure me this will be a priority for her Department?

It is an absolute priority that students, staff and everyone in the school community are safe, happy and secure in the environment in which they work and attend school every day. Employment law is important, as I said earlier and the Deputy acknowledged. That is an important point. It means that employers, including schools, have a duty to ensure the health and safety of their employees in the workplace. The Department offers an employee assistance service for all school staff, including LGBTQI+ employees. This free service includes a wide range of supports including a confidential 24/7 helpline, short-term counselling, a wellbeing portal, webinars, podcasts and blogs. It also provides advice and support to managers to help them deal with wellbeing issues among the staff.

The bottom line, as the Deputy has articulated, is about fostering a safe, happy and inclusive environment in our schools.

I read the Department of Education strategy for 2021 to 2023. RSE, sexual education and LGBTQI+ matter are not mentioned. If this is a priority, as I fully believe the Minister feels it is, why is it not mentioned in the strategy for 2021 to 2023 when teachers raise issues about feeling uncomfortable in their place of work every year? Can we place emphasis on it and place it into our strategies? If it is written down, it becomes an action to be fulfilled and not just a matter of rhetoric.

The Minister referenced employment laws. Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act 1998 states that certain institutions, including schools, should not be taken to discriminate against a person if their decision is made in order to maintain the religious ethos of the institution. I know that is still felt in staffrooms. I have taught with people who have felt like they had to obscure their sexual identity for reasons that fall under that provision.

We know that over 90% of our primary schools, in particular, are based on a Catholic ethos. What about Muslim teachers, teachers from another Christian denomination or atheist teachers when they go for interviews in such schools? Do they have an equal chance of being employed? I think of the children in those classrooms and the oft-heard phrase that if you cannot see it, you cannot be it. A Muslim child has never looked to the front of a class in my school and seen a Muslim teacher, an openly atheist teacher or a teacher from another denomination. That needs to be addressed.

I wish to address the issue of the development of a new RSE-SPHE curriculum, which seems to be progressing extremely slowly. There are a number of issues tied up in this. There is a need to expedite divestment but even within that, we need to ensure there is a bare minimum standard in terms of RSE that every school can expect. The Minister will know that attention was recently drawn to a dispute in a school in County Wicklow that touched on the boxing off of certain topics that was proposed by the school. As far as I am concerned, it is unacceptable if what was reported was accurate. It is vital that we ensure every child has the same access. My concern is that the progress made by the NCCA in that regard is not quick enough. I urge the Minister to attempt to expedite that.

I thank the Deputies, who have raised a variety of points. Deputy Gannon mentioned the fact that if you cannot see it, you cannot be it. I am hugely supportive of achieving the greatest diversity possible within our schools for the benefit of our school communities, our students and our staff. I recently attended the graduation in Marino of migrant teachers. It has been a phenomenally successful programme through which we are getting the best of experience and diversity to enrich our schools. I intend to support and progress that as much as possible to the benefit of our staff, students and schools.

Deputy Ó Laoghaire asked about divestment. He will be aware that we have already rolled out a significant pilot programme to promote divestment in our schools. That was born of a lot of engagement and consultation with all of the stakeholders. I am optimistic. We are already seeing how well that is progressing in terms of independent mediation.

As I have already said, we are progressing a new RSE curriculum at pace. We are looking initially at the publication of specifications for the junior cycle. The preparatory work for a similar programme for the senior cycle and at primary level is under way. There is an absolute commitment to advancing new curricula.

Special Educational Needs

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

70. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Education the availability of special needs teachers and accommodation in all primary and second-level schools throughout the country; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23751/22]

My question seeks to ascertain the availability of accommodation, special needs classes, special needs teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, etc. in all schools throughout the country at both primary and secondary levels.

I thank the Deputy for his question. I know he has an interest in the area of special education. As he knows, the most recent budget allocated €2.2 billion to the area, which is over 25% of the entire education budget. That is in recognition and acknowledgement of the importance of special education. The Government respects the fact that this is an area that needs funding, support and care.

We have at present 14,385 special education teachers. That is an increase of 48% since 2011. Our complement of SNAs has increased by 81% to over 19,000. The role of special education teachers is obviously important for our children. They provide additional teaching support for students with special educational needs enrolled in mainstream classes in primary and post-primary schools.

That special education teacher model was rolled out a couple of years ago and we have based, to a certain extent, the SNA front-loading model on that. It takes account of the profile of the school. There is a baseline component, gender is taken into account, as is geography and the socioeconomic background of the school. The special education teachers and the SNAs are available to children when they go into a school and there is no delay in children getting the resources they need. Obviously, if a school believes that its special education teacher allocation is not sufficient it can, in exceptional circumstances, have that allocation reviewed. It is important that schools do that if they believe they do not have sufficient resources for their children.

In terms of the schools building programme, under Project Ireland, the education sector will receive a total of €4.4 billion.

I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive reply. By way of a supplementary question, will she outline the extent to which there is an awareness of the increased demands arising from increases in the population, both natural and indigenous increases as well as increases in the number of refugees who have to be accommodated in the country. Are sufficient resources readily available to ensure there is a smooth transition between the demand and the requirements in terms of the availability of the necessary accommodation and staff?

I will answer the Deputy's follow-up question in a moment, but on the capital budget, €4.4 billion is available for the period 2021 to 2025. Schools can also apply for additionality in terms of accommodation through the additional school accommodation scheme.

On demographics, population increases and provision for those coming from Ukraine and other migrant children as well as children with additional needs, it is very important we have sufficient capacity over the next ten years. The Department will initially consider spare capacity within schools themselves to see if they have room. We will then consider the schools building programme and the expansion of projects, including an integrated approach for primary and post-primary schools. The Department will also consider the additional school accommodation scheme or the building of new schools, where needed.

I wish to ascertain the relationship between the upcoming need at all levels and the response. To what degree are the efforts co-ordinated between the two to make the provision available on time, to ensure there are no delays and thus avoid any negative consequences?

I acknowledge the work the Minister of State is doing in this area. In respect of the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and its appeal system, is the Minister of State aware of the length of time it takes for appeals to be heard? Furthermore, very often when appeals are upheld, nothing happens and schools are told they must go through the whole process again. I suggest the NCSE may not be fit for purpose any more and may need to be overhauled.

I also ask the Minister of State to comment on the need for special schools, especially in my area of east Cork where children with special needs are travelling very long distances, in some cases between 40 km and 100 km, to special schools because of the lack of same in their local area.

In response to Deputy Durkan, the forecasting model, particularly in the context of special education, is critical. Indeed, for all children, not just those with additional needs, that geographical information system is important in the planning and building unit. It is important there is capacity there, that we know current demand and can anticipate future demand when planning for schools. We must now take into account Ukrainian children, but we do not know, as yet, how many we are going to have in the future.

Deputy Stanton and I have spoken many times about the NCSE. It will comfort him to know I recently met the new CEO, Mr. John Kearney, who is going to be very much concentrating on operational issues. A lot of work needs to be done there in terms of engagement.

School Transport

Steven Matthews

Ceist:

71. Deputy Steven Matthews asked the Minister for Education further to Question No. 150 of 1 February 2022, if a review of the existing school bus allocation system has been completed; if her attention has been drawn to the need to increase flexibility in ticket allocation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23552/22]

We have made great strides in terms of sustainable transport. However, one of the areas that still needs work is the school transport system and school buses in particular. Further to Question No. 150 of 1 February, 2022, has the review of the existing school bus allocation system been completed and has the Minister's attention been drawn to the need to increase flexibility in ticket allocation?

School transport is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department of Education. In the current school year more than 121,400 children, including in excess of 15,500 children with special educational needs, are transported every day to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country at a cost of more than €289 million in 2021.

Under the terms of the school transport schemes, children are eligible for transport at primary level where they reside not less than 3.2 km from and are attending their nearest national school, and at post-primary level where they reside not less than 4.8 km from and are attending their nearest post-primary school or education centre as determined by the Department or Bus Éireann, having regard to ethos and language.

As the Deputy is aware, the Department commenced a review of the school transport scheme in February 2021. The review is being conducted with a view to examining the current scheme, how it operates, its broader effectiveness and sustainability, and that it adequately supports the provision of services to students and their families. The review encompasses the school transport scheme for children with special educational needs and the primary and post-primary school transport schemes in terms of how each element of the schemes currently operates, including eligibility criteria, trends, costs and cost drivers, and overall effectiveness in meeting the objectives of the schemes. The review will also examine the potential for integration of different strands of the scheme and a more co-ordinated approach with other Departments that also use transport services.

Following commencement of this review, the steering group presented me with an initial interim report in June 2021. Following consideration of this report, I approved the extension of temporary alleviation measures for the 2021-2022 school year for transport for post-primary students who were otherwise eligible for school transport but were attending their second-nearest school and had applied and paid on time.

Wider considerations relating to operation of the scheme are now taking place in the next phase of the review which is under way. The technical working group has undertaken extensive consultation over recent months, including running a public survey for parents and guardians and students who use the service and those who do not use the service but who would like to do so.  The group has also consulted a broad array of stakeholders, including schools, special education interest groups, industry representatives and other Departments.

As a member of the Green Party I may believe in recycling, but that was almost verbatim the answer that was received to the parliamentary question submitted on 1 February. I would have hoped to see some movement forward since then. For many children, the school bus is their first experience of public transport. Indeed, that was the case for me, back in the middle ages when I was taking the school bus. Perhaps we should not base policy on specific instances but parents in Butlerstown, my home parish, are paying privately for school bus transport to Tramore and the costs are going through the roof. The need is already proven. They are doing this themselves to get children to the nearest available school. I can say, as a vocal advocate for active travel, including walking and cycling, that there is no earthly way I would put my 14-year-old on a bike on those roads, knowing the traffic. The need is there and has been proven and we need to build flexibility into the system.

I say to the Deputy that facts are facts and they remain as facts, irrespective of the timeframe. Significant progress has been made. The Deputy will be aware, for example, that last year as an interim measure, eligibility criteria were adjusted.

Rather than eligibility revolving around the nearest school, I put in place measures so that students would be facilitated if they were opting to go to their second-nearest school. This has alleviated quite considerably many of the difficulties that heretofore had been experienced. To be fair, I believe there has been a general acknowledgement of the importance of this progressive move.

The steering group has undertaken extraordinarily efficient public consultation that involved meeting with pupils and parents and consulting the broadest range of stakeholders by actively seeking their opinions so we could have a system in place that would meet the demands of the time in terms of climate and the demands of the time in terms of capacity for students. That work is nearing completion.

I thank the Minister. I acknowledge the good work that is under way and the additional flexibility that is being built in. It would be churlish not to. I would like to have an idea of the actual timeline for that review being completed. We were initially given an indication of quarter 1 of 2022 and we would like to see it over the line.

I will refer to a specific instance where flexibility is needed. There is school transport available that is passing quite close to the area in question. It passes from Dunhill into Tramore. The people in Dunhill satisfy the eligibility criteria for distance. Not every seat on the bus is full. It makes eminent sense to me to try to build in that flexibility to maximise the transport capacity we have and to provide a sustainable service for those parents who want to get their kids to school safely and in a sustainable way.

Before the Minister comes back in, I will bring in a number of other speakers.

The decision to use the second-nearest school for these purposes was an inspired one. I agree with the Minister that it has made a huge difference. Will the Minister clarify if it is in place again this year? Perhaps she is familiar with the route between Carrigtwohill and Cobh. Can girls from Cobh now get transport to the school in Carrigtwohill, which would be their second-nearest school? Would this measure apply in those instances? As the Minister is aware, children going to St. Aloysius College from Cobh must pay privately. It is very expensive. There is no real transport there. It would take a lot of cars off the road. Perhaps the Minister could clarify that. The same applies on the Knockraha to Carrigtwohill route, with Glanmire being the nearest school and Carrigtwohill being the second nearest. Would this apply also in these instances?

I ask the Minister to look again at the need to appeal the application of the section 29 model that is there at the moment, which is quite legalistic. If parents must get transport to school, that is the method they must use if the nearest school is full.

I wish to raise the issue of the viability of the school bus transport service. Providers are under huge pressure with costs. The Minister is aware of this. The Coach Tourism and Transport Council has indicated that 95% of providers are under pressure to deliver services until the end of year. We have seen flexibility from the Government as announced in recent days around construction costs. School transport providers are similarly locked into contracts that are unviable for them. We want to see school bus transport expanded but will we have the service providers to do this? I am concerned about that. I am aware that there are discussions between the Department, Bus Éireann and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Can I get an update on those discussions? When can providers expect to hear from the Minister?

I appreciate the Minister's interest in this particular issue as it affects all schools, or most schools, throughout the country. There are particular sensitive issues in many cases where parents, including the parents of children with special needs, are forced to drive their children to school even though the relevant bus already passes their door. They must drive their children to school and travel the same road on which the approved school bus travels, behind the school bus, and enter the school premises at the same time. Despite the extenuating circumstances of any special needs or responsibilities, no movement has been made so far in accommodating them. I believe there is a compelling case there and I would strongly urge it.

I am afraid that the Minister has one minute to conclude with all of those questions.

I appreciate the interest across the floor from all Deputies in the whole school transport system. It is an issue I am very familiar with, given my constituency. There has been a body of work. I am glad there is an acknowledgement that the improvements made in the interim, and particularly around the second-nearest school, have considerably helped with access.

I was asked a direct question about the measures for the 2022-23 school year. They will be announced imminently. The work of the review group is continuing apace, but it is my intention that in the shortest timeframe possible, very shortly, I will be making an announcement on the measures for the 2022-23 school year. The focus here is to ensure there is flexibility, access and greater ability for people to avail of the school transport system.

A specific issue was raised around fuel. The Deputy is correct. The discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are ongoing. It is my hope and expectation that they will conclude as soon as possible. Those discussions are continuing with the Department.

Deputy Ó Laoghaire is down to take Question No. 72 but he may take his own question, No. 73.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I will put on the record, on behalf of Deputy Tully, that she also shares some of the concerns that I previously raised about summer provision.

Question No. 72 replied to with Written Answers.

Ukraine War

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Ceist:

73. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education her plans to ensure that all Ukrainian children and young people arriving in Ireland have access to adequate education and schooling; and the resources that she has provided to facilitate same. [23699/22]

Thousands of school-aged children and young people have arrived into Ireland from Ukraine over recent weeks. I am seeking an update on what is being done to ensure all Ukrainian schoolchildren receive a school place, and on the supports they will have.

I acknowledge first of all the great work that our schools, students, school leaders and staff have done in welcoming Ukrainian children and young people into their communities over the past two months, and the wider society also. I have visited many schools across the length and breadth of the country and I have seen at first hand the professionalism, the care, the welcome and the efforts that have been made to provide a happy and inclusive atmosphere for Ukrainian families. The Department is working to support education provision for arriving children with immediate education needs.  Utilisation of each school’s existing capacity is the most flexible way possible to do that. There is generally good capacity across the country, albeit there are capacity pressures in some areas greater than in others.

Many resources for teaching, learning and inclusion of Ukrainian pupils have been published to date, including a central repository of information and continuing professional development resources for school leaders and teachers to support cultural and linguistic diversity, which is available at www.scoilnet.ie. The supports include those designed by the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, to help children suffering from trauma. NEPS psychologists are available on the ground to consult schools and provide support as needed. A helpline for school principals is also in place. Schools that have enrolled students from Ukraine can apply, and have successfully applied, for additional English as an additional language support and hundreds of schools are already receiving this support.

As the Deputy may be aware, we have set up regional education and language teams, known as REALT, to help to ensure good co-ordination and alignment of supports for Ukrainian children arriving in Ireland.  REALT services are hosted by the 16 regional education and training boards and are staffed by existing regionally-based education support personnel. The primary role of REALT is to build on existing regional education support structures. The initial focus is on assisting families in securing school places when they are ready to engage with the school system. REALT will also support schools in the area to meet the needs of these children as they emerge, to advise and support my Department in developing new capacity where required, and to co-ordinate the provision of education services to schools and families across their defined area.

Overall, it is estimated that approximately 25,000 school places at primary level are available, along with some 20,000 places at secondary level. These teams will ensure that clear, accessible information flows are in place between schools, local education support services and national support structures.

With the limited time I have, I want to flag that children and young people arriving here from Ukraine have had their whole lives uprooted. I acknowledge the huge work that has been done by schools to try to facilitate them by going to significant lengths. Is there a specific funding stream in place for schools and Ukrainian families for the purchase of uniforms and schoolbooks for Ukrainian students? Concerns have been raised with me that some schools are strictly enforcing uniform rules and book requirements for Ukrainian children. For example, one family had to pay for school uniforms for three children in secondary school, at €200 per child. This is for a school that they may not be attending after the summer if they are moved to more permanent accommodation in another area. Will the Minister encourage schools to show flexibility in these instances? Finally, are there pressure points at this time in relation to school places? If the Minister does not have time to respond, perhaps she will do so in writing.

I appreciate the shortage of time but I will say there is no cap on the resources that are being made available to our schools. We have ensured that where schools requested additional teaching staff, which could have been teaching staff for additional hours or English as an additional language, or whether they requested furniture or whatever, that has all been put in place.

Specifically, in relation to the students-----

Sometimes there is a need for cash too.

We have put in place REALT teams, which are addressing any needs on the ground, either for schools with whatever issues they might have or indeed if there is an inability to access a place from a student's point of view. It has proven very successful, which I want to acknowledge. These locally-based regional teams are aware of the issues within schools. They are open to the principals but also to the families to address any of the needs that need to be met for the students. I acknowledge that schools have done tremendous work on their own but they are being very ably supported by the REALT teams.

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