Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Ceisteanna (3)

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Ceist:

3. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education the status of the development of clear guidelines on when and the manner in which children with special educational needs can integrate within mainstream classes during the school day and the way in which that will be managed. [30313/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Education)

An issue seems to be arising in schools across the State whereby families are being told either to choose between the unit and the mainstream if their children are in an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit. I understand that this is not required or appropriate. It is happening in the absence of guidance. There is limited guidance provided, amounting to four lines in the roadmap. Will there be further guidance to ensure this is not happening?

I thank the Deputy for his question. Children with special needs should receive their education in placements that are appropriate to their needs alongside their peers wherever possible unless such an approach would be inconsistent with the best interests of an individual child or other children in the school. This is provided for in section 2 of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004.

On the guidelines the Deputy mentioned, guidance has been sent to schools. A summary of it was published on the website www.gov.ie on 11 September. It relates to special education, in particular. Pupils in special classes should continue to interact or integrate with mainstream classes. The guidelines do not prevent this. Schools will continue to do their best in the interest of the students. If the Deputy has concerns about a certain school, he may write to me about it and I can revert to him. To the greatest extent possible, schools should be trying to integrate children with special needs.

My Department supports a continuum of learning through a range of dedicated supports in line with the needs of the child. These include the provision of teachers, special needs assistants and psychological support from the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS. In addition, there are specialist supports provided by the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, which has published guidelines on setting up and organising special classes for primary and post-primary schools. The teachers should be aware of those. The guidelines advise that students enrolled in special classes should be included in mainstream classes, to the greatest extent possible, in line with their abilities.

The overall aim of the continuum is to ensure that every child is supported in the journey towards realising their potential through education in an inclusive and caring school environment. Pupils in special classes should continue to interact with or integrate with mainstream classes. However, the number of mainstream classes with which each special class pupil integrates should be minimised in order to maintain pod grouping to the greatest extent and to assist with contact and tracing mechanisms, should this become necessary.

I am glad to hear it is the Minister of State's firm belief that children with special educational needs should not be denied the opportunity to be part of the mainstream class and to have the associated interaction. My concern is not that it is the Department's intention that it should be otherwise; it is that what I describe is happening. Not every parent is necessarily willing to bring it to the attention of the school they are dealing with that they are unhappy with the way things are being handled. I have come across parents who are worried and special education teachers who are concerned about parents who are effectively being told to choose between ASD units and mainstream education and about the use of the excuse of Covid. I accept that Covid undoubtedly makes matters more complicated but the objective still needs to involve children benefiting from the unit and also being part of the mainstream inasmuch as that is possible.

The guidance does not prevent what I describe but there is not enough detail on how the circumstances are to be managed. The NCSE needs to take a more assertive approach in ensuring that existing guidance, in addition to more substantial guidance, is applied.

If parents have concerns about particular schools, they should contact the NCSE. If schools have difficulties, they can contact the NCSE or the Department. As I said, the guidance is very detailed and clear. I have said clearly today that pupils in special classes should continue to interact or integrate with mainstream classes. Obviously that number will have to be minimised. What is being said is that at primary school level, for example, this may mean each special class pupil integrates with one mainstream class only, and at post primary school level it may mean special class pupils attending only those mainstream classes necessary for their subject participation. There are a number of guidelines. There is the continuum of support guidelines for teachers laid out by NEPS. There is also the inclusive education framework, which is published on the NCSE's website. There are also the traditional guidelines, a specific part of which is on moving between mainstream and special settings. There are a number of guidelines and I ask the schools to ensure that they try to abide by them.

It is welcome there is a very clear message but it is certainly my experience that special education teachers in particular feel the guidelines are not adequately clear and that the NCSE needs to be more assertive.

Yesterday's budget included provision for 1,000 special needs assistants, which I welcome, and it follows similar measures in the previous years. However, the manner of the allocation of these special needs assistants will be crucial. It will involve the roll-out of the new allocation model. There are concerns about this, especially schools whose profile changes significantly from year to year as do their needs. The review kicks in too late for them to benefit within the school year. I am not expecting the Minister to get into the granular detail of it right now but if this model is to be rolled out, will there be significant consultation with stakeholders, including parents, special education teachers, schools and school patrons, in advance? Many people have legitimate concerns about the manner of allocation of special needs assistants and special education teachers.

I assure the Deputy I am acutely aware of the sensitivities about special education. This is why when we are in a position to front-load the new special needs assistants model in September 2021 - we could not do it this year because of Covid - we will, in tandem, be rolling out the school inclusion model. As the Deputy knows, through investment in the budget, I am in a position to recruit extra therapists, occupational therapists and speech and language therapists. We are extending this to two other community health organisation areas apart from the pilot project we did. The pilot project covers approximately 150 schools and this will cover 200 schools. We intend to roll this out over the next two to three years. It should provide some reassurance to parents. The one thing we do not want is to make any transition without bringing everybody along with us. It will be a wrap-around service in the schools and will include special needs assistants. Overall, it is fair and much more equitable way to deal with the issue.