Commencement Matters

Disability Services Provision

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for coming here this morning. This morning's Commencement matter follows one I raised on 12 November with regard to disability services in Cavan and Monaghan. That matter concerned waiting times for joint physiotherapy and occupational therapy assessment in the HSE. Since then I have been inundated by parents contacting me with their own experiences and stories of the disability services for children and young people in Cavan and Monaghan. Their stories tell of despair, concern and, in some cases, anger at what they feel is a system that is failing their children's needs.

My office is contacted weekly by parents of children who have great difficulty getting answers from the HSE with regard to diagnostic assessments or access to therapies for their children. Many of those waiting on those appointments are in their formative years. It is not just the odd case; it is becoming the rule rather than the exception. Many of the problems I hear of stem from what happens once children transfer from Enable Ireland to the child development team. Instead of just taking my word for it, I will read some accounts into the record. One parent said:

My experience is one of a child already diagnosed transitioned from enable Ireland to CDT 2006, put on a waiting list for over two years for OT and SLT. The result - regressed so severely - now in a residential therapeutic assessment centre. The progressing disability is a result of initial poor services. Presently my child’s care and therapies are costing the government a lot more had they addressed the needs earlier.

Another parent wrote:

6 year old transfers from enable Ireland to Child development team and has to rejoin the nearly 3 year waiting list for OT!!!! This child is diagnosed and recurring treatment since he was 2! He will be nearly 9 before he sees someone again!!! It's just horrendous!

Another parent wrote:

Our son was referred from Enable Ireland to the Child Development Team in Cavan in July 2014 and have recently been informed by the HSE that he won't have access to Joint Physiotherapy/Occupational Therapy Assessment till MARCH 2017. We have a Physiotherapy Home Plan dated 2012 - we are left on our own with no support.

Another wrote:

6 year old son is autistic and was transferred from enable to the child development team in June 2015. We have just received our first speech and language session however I'm told that the wait for Occupational Therapy will be 2 years 11 months.

When the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, was in the House last, she noted:

Between 2010 and 2014 there was a 32% increase in referrals of children to the physiotherapy and occupational therapy service in Cavan-Monaghan. In 2010, there were 221 children referred for assessment. This figure increased to 292 in 2014.

Furthermore, she advised that "Cavan-Monaghan is restructuring its services in line with the national programme for progressing disability services for children and young people." She continued:

The Cavan-Monaghan implementation plan for progressing disability services for children and young people proposes the establishment of a network of paediatric teams at primary care level as this will facilitate children with non-complex needs accessing services in primary care, as appropriate. The establishment of these teams at primary care level should ensure that therapy services for children are more accessible and available within acceptable timeframes.

An implementation plan that will ensure therapy services for children are more accessible and are available within accessible timeframes is welcome. I welcome it. This plan should be rolled out as a matter of priority. Saying that there is a plan and advising that there are proposals in place will not alleviate the burdens of assessment and waiting times in the short term.

When parents tell me and those who operate the system that the lack of interventions and therapies at an early stage, as a result of waiting lists, is causing their children to regress, this becomes a serious issue of concern for us all.

I have a few questions on the specific services that are being restructured and proposed in Cavan-Monaghan. While the Minister of State may not be able to answer them this morning, I would be appreciative were he to refer them on for a response. Can a timeframe be provided? In addition, for those interested parents and families affected directly by this issue, can the Minister of State advise how the plan can help their children? Essentially, how will this plan help those children on the waiting list at present and those who are being put on it and who may be in the middle of a long wait for assessment or services? Will it mean availability and access will be facilitated in the next month, three months, six months or a year? Alternatively, will it only help those who will be referred in the future? In the last contribution, when I asked when the networks were to be established, the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, advised the process would take time. I accept that change takes time and that overhauling or implementing a new system cannot happen overnight. However, as the Minister of State noted, the demand for services is growing, as evidenced in the surge in referrals. I would welcome the indication of a timeframe as to how this change is to happen, when or how the network teams are to be built up, when gaps are identified and when posts will be allocated. It would go some way to allaying the concerns of parents who truly believe their children are being lost in the system.

Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an Seanadóir as an gceist. Toisc go bhfuil an tAire Stáit, an Teachta Lynch, as láthair inniu, tabharfaidh mise an freagra a bhaineann leis an ábhar fíor-thábhachtach seo.

The Government is committed to providing and developing services for children with special needs and to improving access by these children to therapy services, in so far as possible, within available resources. As the Senator will be aware, health-related therapy supports and interventions for such children can be accessed through both the HSE's primary care services and its disability services depending on the level of need. Significant additional resources have been invested in recent years in the State's primary care and disability services with a view to enhancing therapy service provision. For example, in 2013, additional funding of €20 million was allocated to strengthen primary care services and to support the recruitment of prioritised front-line posts. The HSE also has recognised that its early intervention services and services for school-aged children with disabilities must be standardised. To this end, a major reconfiguration of therapy resources for children with disabilities aged up to 18 years is currently under way. This involves pooling the resources of all service providers in defined geographical areas. The HSE's national programme on progressing disability services for children and young people up to 18 years of age aims to bring about equity of access to disability services and consistency of service delivery, with a clear pathway for children with disabilities and their families to services regardless of where they live, what school the child attends or the nature of the individual child's difficulties. Implementation of this programme is taking place on a phased basis in consultation with stakeholders, including service users and their families. It is a key priority for the executive's social care directorate. An additional €4 million was allocated in 2014 to assist in implementing the programme, equating to approximately 80 additional therapy posts. Further investment of €4 million, equating to €6 million in a full year, has been provided this year to support its ongoing implementation. Full implementation of the programme is expected before the end of 2016.

Reconfiguration of disability services in line with this programme is already under way in Cavan-Monaghan. I understand that four additional therapy posts have been allocated to the region to date to assist in this process, comprising two speech and language therapy posts, an occupational therapy post and a social worker post. To date, two early intervention teams are being operated by Enable Ireland in line with the programme's policy and two school-age teams in the area are due to be reconfigured by the end of this year. It should be remembered that moving to this new service model is complex and requires considerable preparatory work on the part of the multi-agency local implementation group, in collaboration with all key stakeholders, to ensure as smooth a transition as possible. Clear integrated policies, procedures and protocols must be developed, together with a clear governance structure for the newly-formed multi-agency and multidisciplinary teams. While the HSE is facing challenges in some areas in meeting the statutory timeframes that apply to the assessment of need process under the Disability Act in light of the number and complexity of current cases, I understand there are no particular problems at present in Cavan-Monaghan and that assessments are being carried out in a timely fashion. Research conducted by the National Disability Authority into the statutory assessment of need, AON, process has found that where services are reorganised on an integrated basis, such as under the model advocated by the progressing disability services programme, the statutory assessment process works more smoothly.

I assure the Senator that improving access to therapy services for children in primary care and in disability services is a particular priority for the Government. In this context, further funding of €8 million is being provided in 2016 to expand the provision of speech and language therapy through primary care services and to support the re-organisation and expansion of speech and language and other therapies under the progressing disability services programme.

Early Childhood Care Education

I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Reilly.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I raise the need for him to clarify the issue of a second year of free preschool care for a child who already has received his or her first year of free preschool care. I have met a number of people who had children who were almost four but had missed the cut-off date to enable them to attend school. As they already had participated in the preschool year, they wished to participate in a second year and the parents felt that, in such circumstances, they should be entitled to a second year.

I thank the Senator for the opportunity to address this matter. The early childhood care and education programme was introduced in 2010. Aligned with the school year, the programme provides one year, that is, the 38 weeks of the academic year, of free preschool to every child before he or she starts primary school. At present, children aged between three years and two months and four years and seven months in the September of the enrolment year qualify for the programme. This means, for example, that children born between 2 February 2011 and 30 June 2012 qualify for the preschool provision in the current school year. Children born after 30 June qualify in the school year commencing in September 2016. In budget 2016, I announced additional funding of €85 million for the child care sector to support the achievement of affordable, accessible and high-quality child care. This funding represents an increase of 33% in the annual investment in child care supports in my Department and allows us to deliver significant enhancements to a number of child care support programmes.

Given what is known about the importance of quality investment in the early years, I am pleased the Government has been able to implement one recommendation of the expert advisory group on the early years strategy, which also was made by the interdepartmental group on future investment in child care I established earlier this year, namely, to provide free preschool care for every child in the country from when he or she turns three until he or she starts primary school. To ensure that children can benefit from this entitlement at the earliest opportunity, they will be able to join the programme at three different points in the year, as opposed to the current position in which one can only join in September. In addition to the regular intake point of September, children in future also will be able to join free preschool in January and April. This new entitlement comes into effect from September 2016. This start-up date was deliberately chosen. This new entitlement to free preschool for all children means the number of children who benefit from free preschool is estimated to increase from approximately 67,000 at present to approximately 127,000 children when fully rolled out. A significant expansion of the capacity of the preschool sector is therefore required. The September 2016 date was chosen to give providers enough time to make any changes they consider to be necessary to their preschool service and to put in place extra staff resources to accommodate the additional numbers that will benefit from the programme.

The three registration points we are providing for in the programme means the total number of weeks children will spend in free preschool will depend on two factors, namely, their birth date and the age at which they start primary school. Children qualifying for the preschool provision in September 2016 will have a birth date between 1 January 2012 and 31 December 2013.

Some of these children, those with birth dates between 1 January 2012 and 30 June 2012, will have already qualified for the provision under the age criteria for this year, which I outlined earlier, and are currently availing of the programme. This means that those children will be entitled to enrol again in September 2016 for a further 38 weeks free preschool provision, bringing the possible maximum number of weeks they can avail of to 76 weeks.

Children born between 1 July 2012 and 31 December 2012 do not qualify for the free preschool provision in the current school year as the cut-off date is 30 June 2012. However, they will qualify in September 2016 under the new age criteria for the enhanced programme but will only be entitled to 38 weeks of one free preschool year. Under the extended programme, children cannot enrol for free preschool if their age will exceed five years and six months at the end of a given preschool year.

I understand this expansion of the programme, and the change in entitlements, is one that it may take people a little time to get used to but I am confident that this budgetary measure represents a significant improvement in our support for children and families, something to which the Government has made a strong commitment.

I agree wholeheartedly with the final paragraph of the Minister's response. There is no question that the recent budgetary change represents a major improvement for children. The specific point in the matter I raise relates to the fact that one of the particular children whose parents I spoke to will start school next September. The child is already in a second preschool year. It appears to me that many children would be in that category. By its nature, the intention of the preschool year was that most children would go to school directly afterwards because there was not a second preschool year but in certain limited cases, parents may take the decision that their child is still a little too young to go to school. The situation prevailed in advance of the Minister devising the new programme. I expect that cohort of children to be quite small and in those circumstances, I did not think it would affect the industry and the provisions the Minister has made to cater for the expansion many facilities must undertake. The crux of the matter is the new entitlement in terms of the cut-off date, which comes into effect from September 2016. That puts an end to any case the child in question would have for a second preschool year.

In case the Minister thinks I do not know what I am talking about, a limited number of children are availing of a second preschool year, where that was not the original intention, but who would otherwise have gone to school. I thought that perhaps the second half of that year could have come under the remit of the new regulations for children who are already in the system. I do not anticipate the number involved would be large. However, I appreciate the great efforts that have been made to introduce the second preschool year and the attempt to get children into preschool at different stages with the three entry points. I congratulate the Minister on his work in that regard. I do not know the number of children in the category I have raised but perhaps the Minister considers it would be too many to facilitate.

It is just a technical situation. To be honest, nobody has lost out as a consequence of the change, although some have not gained as much as others. Senator Noone's point about the school starting age is an issue that did consume us for a while. We were very concerned about the fact that due to expense, many parents feel under pressure to send their children to school a little bit younger than they might otherwise like to. International evidence shows us that in some such instances, children are disadvantaged because they are not as intellectually mature or physically mature. By extending the programme from three years to three years and two months and stopping at five and a half years rather than four years and seven months, we will double the number of children in the preschool sector in a couple of years. That was done purposely in order that the sector itself would grow into the space and grow capacity because there was concern that providers would not be able to cope.

I pay tribute to preschool leaders and providers who perform a most valuable service. This service has been proven not alone to improve the ability of children to read and in other areas but also in terms of being able to socialise. Another benefit is that later in life, they might attain higher educational achievements, which also leads to better employability and more independence for them. The core of what we are doing is to try to give every child a fair chance because some children, through no fault of their own, are disadvantaged and that must be addressed. They are the ones who have been shown to gain the most from the preschool curriculum. I am very pleased with the new scheme which means that children from the age of three onwards will be able to stay in preschool until they are ready to go to school at five years and six months. I thank Senator Noone for her support.

I accept what the Minister said. I appreciate where he is coming from but it does not really answer my question about the children who have a potential second year that was not intended before they go to school. I gather that the cut-off point is the crux of the issue for the child in question. I thank the Minister.

Coastal Erosion

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Simon Harris, for taking the time to come into the House to respond to the Commencement matter I raise, namely, to seek funding to combat coastal erosion at Tullaghan, County Leitrim, which seriously threatens Tynte Lodge. The house has now come into private ownership. The Burns family have great plans for Tynte Lodge, which was built in 1750. It is Leitrim's only built heritage on the coastal tourist trail of the Wild Atlantic Way.

I acknowledge the work that has been done to date by my colleague, Councillor Justin Warnock of Kinlough, who raised this issue at a recent meeting of the Manorhamilton municipal district to seek funding from the Office of Public Works to combat the coastal erosion at Tullaghan that seriously threatens Tynte Lodge. According to Councillor Warnock, having assumed ownership, the new owners are actively working on heritage, culture and education projects. The old lodge and its castellated structure overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. It has the potential to be a significant tourist attraction on Leitrim's section of the Wild Atlantic Way. I understand from the discussions that took place at the Leitrim meeting that representatives of Leitrim County Council are to meet with representatives of the Office of Public Works for advice on how to proceed with an application for funding to secure the future of the only listed coastal property in County Leitrim. In a sense, the question is self-evident. I would be most grateful for the support of the Minister of State in ensuring that this listed building does not fall into the sea. The Minister of State will be familiar with the photograph that has been published in the Leitrim Observer showing its exact location, which gives a very strong indication that if something is not done, then inevitably coastal erosion will swamp the house and knock it into the sea.

I thank Senator Mooney and Councillor Warnock, who raised this matter with the Senator, for giving me the opportunity to speak in the Seanad on the subject of coastal erosion, and on a specific issue affecting County Leitrim.

Coastal erosion is a natural and ongoing process which takes place around the entire coastline of Ireland. Senator Mooney has highlighted a case in which coastal erosion is posing a threat to an imposing and historic building. In other cases, coastal erosion may threaten human life, land or infrastructure such as roads. However, it must be recognised that coastal erosion also has beneficial effects such as providing natural nourishment and supply of sediment to adjacent beaches. Due to the considerable extent and nature of the Irish coastline impacted by erosion and the fact it is an ongoing natural process, it would be uneconomical and impractical for the State to protect all of this coastline. That is the balance the Office of Public Works, in conjunction with local authorities, needs to strike.

In the first instance, it is a matter for local authorities to identify and prioritise areas of their respective coastlines considered to be under significant threat from erosion and to put forward proposals to central government for funding of appropriate erosion management measures.

The Office of Public Works has a scheme in place entitled the minor flood mitigation works and coastal protection scheme. Under this scheme, applications are considered for measures costing not more than €500,000 in each instance. Studies are also funded under this scheme. Funding of up to 90% of the cost is available for eligible projects. Any approach to addressing problems of coastal erosion must be informed by an assessment of the risks involved. In some cases a do nothing or no active intervention approach might well be the most appropriate management response and international studies have borne this out. Some previous interventions to solve local erosion problems have exacerbated coastal erosion at other locations or have generated other environmental problems. It is quite a complex matter.

The OPW requires that proposals and funding applications for structural measures to prevent and mitigate coastal erosion should be done in conjunction with an appropriate coastal erosion risk management study which fully investigates, substantiates and demonstrates the merits of any measures being proposed. Such measures usually require the investment of substantial amounts of public funds. In order to ensure value for money, it is considered best practice to carry out a study in advance of undertaking any measures. A study should include technical, economic, social and environmental criteria and should ensure that due consideration is given to the full range of management options. I understand that the local authority, in this case, Leitrim County Council, is considering making an application to the Office of Public Works, under the minor flood mitigation works and coastal protection scheme for funding of a coastal erosion risk management study at Tynte Lodge. Council officials have sought a meeting with the OPW to discuss how the case may be progressed and I am happy to confirm to Senator Mooney that my office will make senior engineering staff available to meet with council officials in the near future to explain the guidelines relevant to the minor works scheme so that they can submit the best possible application. Any application that the council may make under the scheme will then be considered by the OPW in accordance with the scheme eligibility criteria and having regard to the overall availability of funds for flood risk management and coastal protection. The best thing to happen now is for the senior engineering staff of the OPW to meet officials from Leitrim County Council to best advise them on how the scheme works so that the county council can make a decision on whether to submit an application. I can assure the Senator that if an application is submitted, my office will assess it as a matter of priority.

I am very grateful to the Minister of State. As the Acting Chairman will know, as he comes from that part of County Leitrim, we are very proud that our 2.5 miles of coastline dictates that Leitrim is a maritime county. That is usually a pub quiz question. We are very proud of that particularly lovely part of County Leitrim. If Tynte Lodge progresses along the lines which the new owners are indicating, it will be a big boost to local tourism and to the county as a whole. I wish the new owners, the Burns family, well in that regard. I am grateful to the Minister of State for his response and look forward to a fruitful meeting between representatives of Leitrim County Council and the OPW, which will lead to ensuring the building will be protected in the long term.

The Acting Chairman, as a Leitrim man, will be interested that this historic building is described on the national inventory of architectural heritage website, published by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, as an imposing Georgian country house built in circa 1750, occupying a prominent site overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The site includes two stone folly towers and a series of walled gardens and encloses and the lodge and towers are both listed buildings. I understand the new owner of the property has been in touch with my colleague, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Humphreys, in relation to her plans for the property.

My note informs me that County Leitrim has only 5 km of a coastline, which is 2.5 miles, and, therefore, it is fair to say that the council's knowledge or experience of dealing with coastal erosion is probably minimal compared to other local authorities. I think it prudent that my senior engineering team would meet the council officials and offer them the best advice on how to proceed.

Early School Leavers

The Life Centre in Cork was set up by the Christian Brothers a number of years ago and deals with young people who have dropped out of school. Some of these children are as young as ten years of age. At present, there are 45 children in the facility and more than 60 people work on a voluntary basis. These volunteers are either retired teachers, those who are studying for their higher diploma in education or social studies students who are assisting in providing one to one education for these 45 children. Last year, nine children sat the junior certificate examination and two sat the applied leaving certificate.

The total funding the facility is getting from the Department of Education and Skills is €47,500 for the entire year. Up to last year, the Christian Brothers were able to provide €100,000 per annum but are no longer able to do so. A group has put together a package to provide the facility with €40,000 per year for the next ten years. A small amount of money is being given to it and it will not be able to remain open if it does not get adequate funding. Some €47,500 is not adequate and it needs State investment. It is getting some hours from the education and training board but it is not adequate.

Let me put this into context. In July, I visited Oberstown where there are 46 detainees. My information is that 241 staff work there and it costs €350,000 per detainee per annum, whereas the total allocated to the Cork Life Centre is €47,500 for 45 students. That is not a fair funding level. If one of these children - I am not saying one will - ended up in Oberstown, the cost would be €350,000 for the student for the year.

By putting adequate funding into this facility, it can look after 45 children who otherwise would be on the street. The centre has the support of the local Garda and all the services. Even the school attendance officers are referring children to the Cork Life Centre because the children do not fit into the school structure and are falling between two stools. This facility is helping a significant number of children. It is important it gets adequate funding so that it can continue to provide the support to these children.

I am requesting co-ordination between the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and, to some extent, the Department of Justice and Equality to ensure the project continues.

I thank Senator Burke for raising this important matter, which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan. I welcome this opportunity to clarify the position of the Department of Education and Skills.

As Senator Burke will be aware, the Cork Life Centre is an out-of-school educational facility in Sundays Well, Cork, which supports young people who are not engaging with mainstream education. The Cork Life Centre was established by the Christian Brothers in 1996, with the assistance of the Holy Faith Sisters, to provide education and other supports for young people between the ages of 12 and 18 years who are out of the mainstream school system. The centre prepares young people for the junior certificate and for other education and training pathways. In recent years, a number of young people have completed leaving certificate studies and accessed further and third level education.

The Department's contribution to the funding of the centre commenced in 2000 under the children at risk fund, CAR, and has continued to date to the current level of €47,500 in non-pay funding and 968 teaching hours at a cost of €81,840. This represents an overall annual total of €129,340. With the hours allocated, tutors are employed by the Cork Education and Training Board, ETB, to work in the centre and deliver tuition in subjects across the post-primary school curriculum.

The Minister for Education and Skills is aware that Cork Life Centre is currently experiencing financial difficulties due to a combination of a decision by its main funder, the Christian Brothers, to withdraw direct funding to the centre, and a decision by the centre to expand its enrolment. In this regard, it is important to note that the Department has not reduced its funding or support to the centre in recent years. Rather it has maintained its contribution to the cost of education provision to its current level of just over €129,000 per annum, broken down as I have outlined.

The Minister is also aware that the numbers attending the Cork Life Centre have increased in recent years. The life centre has advised the Department that the number of pupils enrolled in the centre has increased from 11 in 2009 to the current number of over 40 in the current school year. The Minister is advised that the pupil cohort currently attending the Life Centre includes referrals by Tusla's educational welfare and child and family services, the HSE's child and adult mental health service, CAMHS and other health professionals.

As Senator Burke is aware, Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, which provides educational welfare services is the statutory body with responsibility for the administration of educational welfare functions contained in the Education Welfare Act 2000. These include assisting parents who are experiencing difficulty in securing a school place for their child and ensuring school attendance, participation and retention for all pupils.

Tusla is also responsible for the provision of supports for children in the care of its child and family services.

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has confirmed to the Minister for Education and Skills that Tusla refers young people to the Life Centre because of their complexity of needs which are not only educational but also social and emotional and because of the multi-disciplinary and holistic approach of the centre. The Minister understands that young people attending the centre have access to a multi-disciplinary team providing counselling and therapy as well as access to an outreach drugs and alcohol worker.

Officials in the Department are currently engaging with the Cork Life Centre, Cork Education and Training Board and the Educational Welfare Service of Tusla to facilitate appropriate future educational supports for the cohort of pupils currently supported by the centre. The Minister has also asked them to seek the involvement of other Tusla services to consider the question of other supports provided by the centre. I will happily relay the Senator's comments to the Minister for Education and Skills.

I thank the Minister of State for that response. This is the first time I have seen the figure of €129,000. The Minister of State is correct in saying that 925 hours are allocated by the ETB but the problem with 925 hours is that it only equates to 1.5 teachers for the year for 45 students who have dropped out of school. These children have not fitted into the existing education system, as the Minister of State pointed out. A sum of €100,000 was being provided by the Christian Brothers for administrative and other supports for the people working at the centre. Were it not for the 16 people who are working there on a voluntary basis, the service would not be provided at all. All we are looking for is a bit of support.

I am not criticising the Minister of State or the Minister. In fairness to the Minister for Education and Skills, a representative from her office phoned me this morning to apologise for her absence this morning. I understand she is attending an EU meeting abroad and I fully appreciate her responsibility in that regard. However, we are now falling between three stools, that is, between the Departments of Justice and Equality, Education and Skills and Children and Youth Affairs. All I am saying is that if the centre is given adequate funding, it will save the Department of Justice and Equality a lot of money in the longer term. The Government must get its act together on this. The Life Centre provides a great service and the staff working there are hugely committed, particularly those who are working on a voluntary basis. The least we can do is give the centre a bit more support. We need the €100,000 the Christian Brothers were providing up until recently. The Government must replace that funding; otherwise, the facility cannot stay open. Simple issues like insurance, maintenance costs and so forth must be taken into account but the sum of €47,500 will not suffice. I ask that serious consideration be given to supporting the centre; otherwise, we will have 45 children on the streets of Cork who could end up going down the wrong road for the rest of their lives.

I thank Senator Burke for his remarks. As he has rightly stated, the Minister for Education and Skills would have liked to be here this morning but she is currently abroad on Government business. A key consideration for the Minister in this matter is the Department's policy of inclusion, where the objective is for children to be educated within the mainstream system to the greatest extent possible, although obviously that is not always possible. In this regard, it is important to note that the level of additional supports provided to schools to meet a range of additional educational pupil needs has increased significantly since the Department first began funding the Life Centre in 2000. The Minister must also take account of the Department's funding of national programmes catering for early school leavers in the Cork area. It is very important that the supports provided by the Department to schools are fully availed of by students who need them, both to ensure value for the investment being made and in recognition of the importance of early intervention in meeting individual needs.

The Minister is committed to working with her colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, to ensure the particular needs of this student cohort can be met. It is my understanding that the numbers attending the Life Centre have increased in recent years to accommodate referrals of young people to the centre by a number of other State agencies, including Tusla, the HSE and private practitioners, in order that these young people can avail of the particular range of excellent services offered by the centre. These include counselling and therapeutic services, which are considered to be of particular benefit.

The Minister has assured me that she will work with her colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, to ensure the needs of these students are met. I am sure the Senator will have an opportunity to pursue the matter further with the Ministers for Education and Skills and Children and Youth Affairs.

I thank the Minister of State for his remarks. I ask him to relay to the Department of Education and Skills the suggestion that it gives the centre some funding on a pilot project basis. The Life Centre and other centres in the country were set up on a pilot basis to determine the best way to deal with children who have dropped out of the mainstream system.

Sitting suspended at 11.15 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.