I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I appreciate the opportunity to introduce and speak on this important legislation, the Education (Provision in Respect of Children with Special Educational Needs) Bill 2022. I fully recognise the importance of inclusive education for all children. It is my primary objective as Minister for Education to promote and support actions that will ensure the school setting is a welcoming and inclusive environment for all.
My Department is committed to delivering an education system that is of the highest quality, where every child and young person feels valued and is actively supported and nurtured to reach his or her full potential. We strive to ensure that all children have access to an educational experience that is appropriate to their needs and supports both their academic and personal development. Our policy, which is set out in the Education of Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 is that children with special educational needs should be educated in mainstream placements with additional supports provided as appropriate. Where children require more specialised educational settings, such as special classes or special schools, the Department and National Council for Special Education, NCSE, ensure the necessary resources and supports for such placements are provided in line with the needs of the child. The active collaboration of school communities to this end is essential and the importance of a welcoming and inclusive environment cannot be overstated.
Within this context, providing for an appropriate school placement for every child with special educational needs in a timely and supported manner is a key priority for the Department and the National Council for Special Education. The National Council for Special Education is statutorily responsible for planning and co-ordinating provision at both a local and a national level and advising the Department in this regard. The Department continues to work closely with the NCSE and other key stakeholders in relation to the requirements for special class and special school places and the more strategic and longer term requirements.
The legislation which I am bringing to the House today is an important step in ensuring that children with special educational needs are provided a school place appropriate to their needs. This legislation means a child-centred and child-focused approach is taken to the provision of special education classes. I am confident we all share a common goal to do everything within our power to ensure every child with special educational needs who requires a special class or special school placement is provided for as a priority.
The Department of Education currently invests more than €2 billion in additional provision for children with special education needs. This represents more than 25% of the Department's total annual budget. Access to education by every child with special education needs is designed to provide the appropriate and necessary supports to ensure the fullest potential of every child is achieved. For the coming school year, at least 315 additional new special classes have been sanctioned by the National Council for Special Education, catering for more than 1,800 additional students, bringing the total number of such classes to almost 2,500, providing for more than 14,000 students. While this illustrates the strong evidence of the progress made in meeting the needs of children with special educational needs in recent years, there is no doubt more work needs to be done. The National Council for Special Education advises that just over 100 children remain without an appropriate special educational need placement for the coming school year.
I acknowledge the excellent work of so many school communities across the country on special education provision. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and I have visited many of these schools and have seen first-hand the outstanding work being done every single day across the country. However, despite all efforts, there has been an inability to deliver the final number of places required as the number of children with special educational needs continues to increase. My Department and the National Council for Special Education will continue to engage intensely with school authorities to open new special classes. This legislation can also play a key role in helping us with those efforts.
Where efforts to work with schools to open new special classes are not sufficient to meet the demand for places, this legislation provides for a much shorter process than currently exists to allow for schools to be directed to open additional classes. The Department and I intend that the provisions within this legislation, once enacted, will be used to ensure that an adequate supply of special class places are available to students.
I confirm to the House that when a special class is established, the Department of Education provides funding for new staff. For example, certain special classes will consist of six students, one teacher and at least two SNAs. There will be support from the planning and building unit of the Department for any physical alterations required to the school building, a grant for equipment, enhanced capitation, support from the National Educational Psychological Service and a range of training courses provided by the National Council for Special Education.
Budget 2022 already provides for a significant increase in the number of special class and special school places for children. As a consequence, my Department envisages that the cost of providing additional special classes for children for the start of the coming school year will be met within the Department's existing budgetary allocation.
There are 12 sections in the Bill and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, will shortly set out for Members' information and consideration the provisions under each section of the Bill. The key provision in this legislation provides for a truncated Section 37A process, whereby the Minister can direct a school to make additional provision for children with special educational needs. It is envisaged that this new process can lead to a ministerial direction to be served on school within six to eight weeks of receiving a report from the NCSE setting out its opinion that there are insufficient schools places in a certain area. Where the existing section 37A process has been used twice already, those processes took between six and 18 months. This clearly underlines the need for a new, speedy and more time-efficient process. I appreciate that that is what we are setting out to achieve today.
I invite the House to note that the new shortened process will still allow two opportunities for school patrons and boards of management to make representations to the Minister ahead of a direction issuing. This is an important consideration and assurance for both school patrons and boards of management. In drafting the legislation, the Office of the Attorney General and my Department also took the opportunity to add additional functions to school patrons, schools and school boards. This relates to co-operating with the National Council for Special Education to provide additional capacity for children with special educational needs when requested, and compliance with a ministerial direction to open new classes or a direction from the National Council for Special Education to provide for a child with special educational needs. The legislation also provides for school admission policies to include a positive declaration setting out that schools will provide for children with special educational needs.
The legislation provides for an explicit function to allow the National Council for Special Education to manage and co-ordinate the admission of children with special educational needs in co-operation with parents and schools where necessary. This will reduce the burden on parents and I think we are all supportive of any mechanism or measure that will assist parents and guardians of children and young people with special education needs.
I acknowledge the significant work of the Attorney General and his officials, who worked with my Department to draft this important legislation in such a short period.
I express my sincere appreciation to the members of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science for agreeing to a waiver of the requirement for pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill given the urgency of the situation. I look forward to working with colleagues in both Houses to progress this important legislation and I thank Members in advance for their co-operation.