Commencement Matters

Child Care Services Funding

I welcome the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly.

I am the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

It is a Freudian slip.

I am sorry; the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

The Minister is very welcome. Part of his brief relates to significant health issues such as the elimination of tobacco smoking, and it is a good description of him to say he is a quasi-Minister for Health.

A child care and crèche facility in Milltown Malbay in County Clare is on the verge of closing. The Spraoi facility looks after up to 80 children and employs a number of staff on a permanent basis. The problem is that the facility is waiting for funding from the Department and for some reason there appears to be a logjam in terms of the funding being released by the Department. It would be all very well if the facility had cash reserves or a back-up plan, but unfortunately that is not the case. Since Christmas, staff have worked for the past two weeks free gratis and for nothing in order to keep the facility open in the hope that the money will be forthcoming from the Department. I understand Spraoi received capital funding to carry out works on the facility, independently of the funding stream on which it is reliant in order to keep the doors open. It would be a great pity if the facility were to close due to timing because, realistically, those working there cannot continue to work without being paid. They might keep the facility going for another week but that will be it.

It is a wonderful facility. I have spoken to a number of parents who send their children there. I am aware of one parent who travels 25 miles to bring her child there because of the level of care and commitment shown by staff. I believe the issue is one of timing and that the matter can be resolved pretty quickly, but that would require the intervention of the Minister in order to expedite the payment. I await what I hope will be a positive reply from the Minister.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter, which has also been raised with me by his constituency colleagues, Deputies Joe Carey and Pat Breen.

The Spraoi community child care centre is a community-based, not-for-profit child care facility that provides child care services for the local community in Milltown Malbay. This child care service is one of more than 900 community child care services located throughout the country and managed by local communities, as the Senator outlined, on a not-for-profit basis. These community services play a very important role in the provision of child care services and particularly in the provision of services for disadvantaged and low-income families. Spraoi community child care is participating in the three major child care support programmes funded by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The funding is provided directly for participating child care services which have children enrolled that satisfy the programmes' eligibility criteria.

Spraoi is funded under the community child care subvention programme, which provides funding to not-for-profit community child care services to support disadvantaged and low-income working parents. Participating services qualify for funding on the basis of the level of service they provide and the profile of the qualifying parents eligible for support.

The group is also funded under the early childhood care and education programme, which provides a free preschool year to children in the year before they commence primary school. Funding is also provided under the training and education child care programme, which supports parents who are entering or returning to the workforce or who are participating in training or educational courses to facilitate a return to work.

The total funding provided to Spraoi under these programmes in the academic year 2013-2014 amounted to approximately €122,000. The final funding provision for the current school year in respect of the community child care subvention programme will not be determined until later in the school year, but the group has received a preliminary payment of €26,308, based on last year's figures. The group has already received almost €21,000 in funding for the early childhood care and education programme since August 2014 and can expect to receive a further €15,000 between now and the end of May, based on current enrolments. Funding in respect of the training and education child care programme will be determined by the number of children enrolled in the service during the course of the year whose parents qualify for support under the programme.

My Department will continue to provide funding for Spraoi, based on the numbers of qualified children enrolled in this service under each support programme. In addition to the above funding, Spraoi received more than €33,000 from the 2014 early years capital programme, which was targeted towards refurbishment projects in community child care services. I understand that Clare county child care committee, which is funded by my Department to provide support to parents and child care services in the region, has given advice and support to this group on previous occasions and I have been assured that the committee is in a position to offer advice and support again now. I would strongly urge the Spraoi management to engage with the county child care committee to ensure that this important local child care resource can be put on a sustainable footing for the benefit of all the young children and families in the area that need these services. I ask that the group examine its participation in all of the child care support programmes and engage with officials in my Department to ensure that the maximum levels of funding available under the programmes are being utilised.

As the Senator knows, the Government allocates in the region of €260 million annually to provide for the child support programmes and approximately 100,000 children benefit each year from this investment. This funding has been maintained despite the difficult economic situation that has prevailed in recent years. The majority of this funding is targeted at those families most in need of support and it is important, therefore, that those child care services, particularly community services, which benefit from this funding are prudently managed in order that the real beneficiaries are the young children who would not otherwise be a position to avail of high-quality child care services. We strongly wish to support these facilities and ensure they remain. I thank the Senator for raising the issue.

Is there imoney to which this group is entitled and has access but that it is not getting because there has been a delay in the Department for some reason? Maybe I am wrong, but that is my understanding of the problem. The money is there and has been allocated but there seems to be a time delay in terms of its release.

This is not the first such facility to find itself experiencing difficulties. In both previous cases, through the county child care committee, we have been able to support the facility, although not necessarily with additional funds but by helping it to restructure its arrangements through its management. In regard to the specific question raised, I am not aware of such a situation, but I will double-check and revert to the Senator.

Schools Amalgamation

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. My request to the Minister of State concerns the need for the Minister for Education and Skills to outline the plans, proposed facilities and rationale for the site choice for the new school arising from the amalgamation of the Mercy and Presentation second level schools in Galway city. This is planned to start in September 2016. Since I tabled this matter last week, a number of parents and people throughout Galway city have contacted me to ask about this choice. When the amalgamation was first mooted in September 2009, the Mercy site was mentioned. When the children came back to school after the Christmas holidays, CEIST, the overarching body for Catholic education, under which the Mercy and Presentation schools exist, announced that the new site would be the Presentation site. I spoke to Dr. Marie Griffin last evening, so I have more information now than I had when I tabled the matter. There has been much surprise and perhaps shock because the site that was always understood to be on the cards was the Mercy site, but now it has been confirmed that it will be the Presentation site. I got some facts from Dr. Marie Griffin, so I want to update the record. She said the only site available in 2009 was the Mercy site, but when an independent evaluation was done in the past year, an independent consultancy chose the Presentation site as the best one because of the room for expansion. The Presentation site is bigger and now a nuns' garden will be included.

The Minister of State might be able to tell me a little more about the rationale for that choice of site. However, the overriding public concern is about facilities to meet students' needs. The current site, the Mercy site, has a state-of-the-art technology room and a gym. The Presentation site does not have a gym, although it fulfils the needs of the PE curriculum by using the pool in NUIG, the rowing club and a local hall. The main concern of parents is why the Mercy site has not been chosen, given that it has a gym and given the physical and health educational needs of students. We all know about the evidence around obesity, the need for physical exercise, the saying that a healthy body is a healthy mind, etc.

We have another example in Galway of the Salerno secondary school, which is also looking for a gym. The Department of Education and Skills expressly said that it was not its policy to build gymnasiums in existing schools. However, when I put this to CEIST yesterday evening, it said it could apply for a full-sized gym. I know it is the policy of the Department of Education and Skills to include a gym in new schools, but will there be a full-sized gym in the Presentation school - which, like the Salerno secondary school, is an existing school - to meet the children's needs?

We will now have a school with 500 children. I understand there is wonderful co-operation between the two schools and that they will start to increase the number of subjects on offer even before September 2016. By working together, both schools will be able to offer a greater number of subjects. However, as the Minister of State will know, there is an incredible loyalty to one's home school. As there is a massive amount of change, slet us encourage these two school communities by saying they will also have the best facilities. I understand a commitment has been given that a new technology room will be put into the Presentation school, but the gym is still an outstanding requirement.

I am taking the matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, who sends her apologies. She cannot be here due to the change in schedule. I thank the Senator for raising the matter as it provides me with an opportunity to clarify the current position on the proposed amalgamation of the Mercy and Presentation schools in Galway city.

I understand from the Senator's contribution that she may now have information that is nearly as up to date as ours, unlike when she originally submitted this motion. As such, she will be aware that the patron and the boards of management of the Presentation secondary school and Mercy College, Newtownsmith, on 8 January issued a press release announcing the next stage in a process that envisages their amalgamation from September 2016. As the Senator may be aware, the decision-making authority for any amalgamation belongs to the patron of a school, subject to the approval of the Minister for Education and Skills. The initiative for any amalgamation may come from a variety of sources, such as parents, staff, boards of management and patrons. Any such proposal to amalgamate schools must involve consultation with all of the relevant stakeholders, namely, students, parents, teachers and local communities. A decision taken at local level will follow that consultation process. A decision will not be forced on anyone.

The primary reason for the amalgamation is due to the decline in pupil numbers. In the case of the Presentation school, pupil numbers have declined from 395 pupils in 1999 to 214 pupils in 2014, whereas the decline in the case of Mercy College has been from 463 mainstream pupils and 30 post-leaving certificate, PLC, pupils in 1999 to 240 mainstream pupils and eight PLC pupils in 2014. The view of the patron following a process of consultation is that, unless an amalgamation takes place, the future viability of the schools is in question. The patron and the respective schools envisage that the new amalgamated school will cater for more than 500 girls and allow for a broader curriculum and new programme options.

The patron and the respective schools have also determined that the new amalgamated school should be located on the Presentation secondary school's site. In reaching this decision, the patron and schools had available to them an independent technical report that reviewed the curricular capacity of the buildings and sites of both schools. While deficits of accommodation in both buildings were identified, the report recommended that the Presentation secondary school building was the location that required the least amount of remodelling of the existing structure and had the potential for expansion to accommodate a combined curriculum and additional teaching spaces. This is the main reason for the decision. The patron has advised the Department that it accepted the report's recommendation that the Presentation building and site were the most suitable for an amalgamated school.

To support the amalgamation process, it is understood that a steering group is being established that will comprise nominees of parents, teachers and members of the boards of management of both schools. It is also envisaged that, from next September, both schools will co-operate closely in their curricular provision. The patron is continuing to engage with the Department in respect of this process.

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline the current position regarding the proposed amalgamation of both schools in Galway city. She also raised the question of a gym. I will ask the Department to revert to her with a comment on same. I presume that, when the two schools are being amalgamated, there might be an opportunity to realise some finance from the site that will not be used. It is a local issue, but this possibility should be considered. There will be an opportunity to use the site for something else that could generate an income that could contribute to a gym. The Senator is right, in that the Department has been trying to maximise accommodation for new pupils throughout the country. The majority of funding, which is taxpayers' money, is being used to build new classrooms as opposed to other facilities. While I agree that all schools need those other facilities, including gyms where possible, tight resources will be concentrated on the necessities, namely, the teaching end of things. The Senator is correct that gyms are just as important and I hope that the Department will soon be in a position to resume funding them.

I thank the Minister of State for his answer. I learned some of that information in the period since tabling this motion last week, but my question about the provision of a gym was not addressed in the answer. I included it in my question.

That issue was not specified.

The proposed facilities were mentioned in the question. This issue remains a concern. The Minister of State referred to the possibility of finance being realised from the other site, but when I spoke with CEIST last night, it stated that it had no plans and did not know to what use the site would be put. Perhaps it could have another educational use. One could argue that, in the meantime, kids will be short-changed in terms of their physical education. All of these needs must be outsourced, as it were. The Presentation is doing a good job in that regard, but it would be better were that education provided in-house. Will the Minister of State clarify policy on the gym, given what has been learned from other settings?

According to the Minister of State, the patron "advised the Department that it accepted the report's recommendation".

A question, please.

The patron did not revert for consultation subsequently. Is the Minister of State with me?

Let me be clear. This is a local decision. The two schools have gone through a process that is still continuing. If consultation is under way, it should also be continued. A steering group has been established and will comprise nominees from both schools. However, the Department will not tell either school where to go. This is a local decision. The schools had access to technical expertise and a report that helped them make their decision.

The Senator's question did not specify anything about a gym. I have given a commitment to get her some information on the matter. That will not be a problem.

It specified facilities. A gym is a key facility.

A gym was not mentioned, but I have given the Senator a commitment to get her some information when I can. I can do no more than that. I imagine that the steering group will consider what do to with the site that will not be in use. That opportunity should be discussed, but this is just my personal opinion. Now is the time to have a conversation about whether the other site can release resources to fund a gym. It is difficult to see how the Department could give a commitment on the gym. Resources are tight and the majority are being used to try to fund additional accommodation for new pupils so as to meet demographic demands throughout the country. This is the policy currently. I will get the Senator a note on the gym, now that she has raised the matter.

I understand it is a local decision. I thank the Minister of State-----

There is no need to thank him.

-----and look forward to the note. I appreciate it. I also thank the Cathaoirleach.

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch.

Tá mé buíoch go bhfuil deis agam an t-ábhar tábhachtach seo a ardú ar an Tosú sa Seanad inniu.

I wish to raise an issue that has been of considerable concern in County Meath, particularly in child care settings, for seven months or so. Not many people are aware that, in County Meath and possibly some other counties, the former health boards and then the HSE have funded special needs assistants, SNAs, in preschools for decades. As there was an SNA in my child's preschool class, I believed it was routine. It did not occur to me that it was a specific provision that could be put under threat. I could not see how the child with special needs or the rest of the class could operate without that SNA.

In or around June last year, HSE officials wrote to preschools in County Meath informing them that the service was being withdrawn. This caused considerable consternation and some level of disbelief. During the past six months, a campaign entirely composed of providers of child care services has built up. They have now been joined by parents. They organised a meeting on the issue last week in Navan. It was a cold winter's night, but the meeting was packed and was one of the largest I had ever attended. Some parents were in tears over the uncertainty created by the HSE's bad news. Others paid tribute to the SNAs who had done tremendous work with their children. One woman credited an SNA with giving her child the gift of speech. Subsequently, we heard from the HSE through the media - as usual - that it would fund the provision of SNAs, but that it had not yet decided on the level of funding.

This system is haphazard. Are we depending on the budgets and whims of the HSE and Government for the provision of SNAs? I believed we were beyond such. While there will always be budgetary issues and we will always need more SNAs, I never envisaged that someone could decide to abolish the entire system and that everyone would lose. In general, something like this has not happened in the austerity climate. We will have another day for a political debate, but Governments have tried to level out the impact so that no one would be targeted for complete elimination. Cuts have been made across the board as best as possible.

Last week's HSE statement that it would continue funding the service was welcome, but it has not announced the level of that funding. There is still considerable concern and I have been asked to keep raising the matter until we get clarity on what is happening.

There is a key political issue.

Can someone, please, tell the HSE not to be putting parents and the providers of preschool education, through this stress, this trauma, the tears and the upset that I witnessed at a public meeting in a public forum last Thursday night? I am sure this has been replicated in homes and in preschools. Many of the parents whose children are availing of preschool special needs assistants will also be availing of the same service next year if they are participating in a two-year ECCE or two-year programme. Those parents who are currently availing of the services are concerned for everybody else but they are also concerned about their own situation. I pay tribute to the group comprising five providers of child care who have been joined by other people. They have brought the HSE so far but, in my view, there was no need for this crisis to happen and there would have been no need to have this public meeting if there had been a proper statement yesterday and proper provision. There were arguments over whether the health service should be involved as opposed to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. This is a matter for the Department's internal administration but the bottom line is that the Minister's Department is the provider and I thank the Minister of State for her attendance today.

I do not think I fully agree with the Senator's last comment but I understand the point he makes and I thank him for raising this matter. The issue of the participation of children with a disability in preschool is a cross-cutting issue involving a number of stakeholders including the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs, Education and Skills and the HSE. The free preschool year is provided through the early childhood care and education programme, ECCE, which is the responsibility of my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. The objective of this scheme is to make early learning in a formal setting available to eligible children in the year before they commence primary school. While the HSE has no statutory obligation to provide supports for children with special needs wishing to avail of the free preschool year, it works at local level and in partnership with the relevant disability service providers to address individual needs as they arise. This is done in a number of ways such as funding special preschools that cater specifically for children with disabilities.

In some limited cases, at local level, HSE disability services have also facilitated children with disabilities to attend mainstream preschools by providing funding for preschool assistant supports where possible and to which the Senator referred in his contribution. In this context, the HSE Meath disability service provides a preschool assistance subsidy in co-operation with Enable Ireland Meath early services. This subsidy assists towards the cost of obtaining a preschool assistant for a child with a disability. The subsidy is paid directly to the preschool as the employer. I am advised by the HSE that the current demand for this subsidy exceeds available resources. These arrangements should not be confused with special needs assistants for children in primary and secondary schools, who are the responsibility of the Department of Education and Skills.

The HSE is obliged to review continually all its existing funding arrangements in order to ensure services are provided within available resources. The HSE Meath disability service has confirmed that it is committed to continued funding of this subsidy for the academic year 2015-16 from within its approved budget. The overall budget allocation for 2015 is under consideration. The HSE has also stated it will be necessary to review how these support hours are allocated in order to ensure that resources are used to best effect and on the basis of need.

The HSE is involved in a major reconfiguration of its therapy resources for children and young people with disabilities as part of its national programme on progressing disability services for children and young people, aged up to 18 years. This programme, when fully implemented, should mean greater equity in accessing therapy services, based on need, clearer referral pathways and improved collaboration between the sectors. An additional €4 million, equating to approximately 80 additional therapy posts, was specifically allocated in 2014 to drive implementation of the programme. A further additional investment of €4 million will be made in the programme in 2015. This equates to €6 million in a full year.

This programme is already well advanced in County Meath. In addition, a dedicated cross-sectoral team, comprising representatives of my Department, the HSE, the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, is in place to strengthen cross-sectoral working on children's disability issues. A subgroup of this cross-sectoral team is examining the issue of the integration of children with disabilities into mainstream preschool settings, including supports for these children. It is expected to conclude its work in the coming weeks. I hope this information is of benefit to the Senator.

It is welcome that the issue is being examined at national level. However, in County Meath this service has been provided for decades. Most children with special needs whose parents wish them to attend a mainstream preschool do so. We would like certainty and we would like to see the results of the report, as well as having proper funding in place for next year. We would like to see parents and schools better informed about the situation because the uncertainty is causing stress, anxiety, worry and tears. I will be raising this issue again, as will other colleagues. It is important that it is raised in the House today. The HSE needs to take immediate action and to explain that what it intends to provide will be at least the same as last year - which is not sufficient and was not sufficient last year. There needs to be a level of service equivalent to what has been provided. Some certainty needs to be provided because this will be a very anxious month for many parents as they wait for a decision about next year but also for society in general as we wait to see what the Government plans to do. I suggest that the principle of the Meath plan is good and it should be used in other areas rather than it being abolished in County Meath. I thank the Minister of State and the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise the matter.

The HSE has confirmed it will continue to support services. I agree with the Senator that this is the type of service that we should provide everywhere if we are now saying that no child with a disability should go to a segregated school, even though I admit that I believe that in some cases there is a very particular need for a specialist school which would be of benefit to those with particular disabilities. We encourage parents to make the choice about putting their children in mainstream education. We need to get together to see how this choice can be supported. Teachers enable the delivery of education and socialisation to all children but the supports are needed for some children. However, this is not solely a matter within the remit of the Department of Health nor of the HSE, even though the HSE needs to reassure parents about the funding for the coming year. The responsibility definitely lies with a combination of Departments and it is a case of them getting together to decide on a change to how service for those with disabilities will be delivered in the community to both children and adults with disabilities.

I thank the Minister of State.

Sitting suspended at 11.10 a.m. and resumed at noon.