I propose to take Questions Nos. 475, 476, 478 and 481 together.
My Department is very conscious of the particular strain that school closures place on children with complex special educational needs and their families. While most children reportedly adapted reasonably well to remote learning, there is a developing body of evidence which indicated that the absence of school and other supports had a disproportionately negative impact on the lives and wellbeing of children with the most complex special educational needs and their families.
Throughout January of this year, there has been engagements with education stakeholders on a near-daily basis. All of those meetings were focused on the safe reopening of schools. Recently, the engagements were particularly focused on the more specific question of a limited reopening of in-school provision for children with complex special educational needs.
Following intensive engagement and input from primary and special education partners, a framework has now been developed and agreed with all partners, including unions and management, in order to achieve a phased return to in-school provision for children with complex special educational needs.
Under the framework the following phased return to in-school provision has been agreed:
Phase 1: Special schools will reopen from Thursday 11th February 2021. In accordance with this agreement pupils will attend on a 50 per cent basis to allow for attendance of reduced numbers within the school setting. This will be reviewed in line with public health advice.
Phase 2: Primary Special Classes will reopen from Monday 22nd February 2021. These pupils can attend on a fulltime basis.
I can also confirm that in recognition of the fact that remote learning is particularly challenging for children with complex special educational needs, the Department of Education is putting in place a supplementary programme to support the education and/or care needs of pupils with complex needs.
Information has been provided to schools who are in the process of contacting the families of eligible students to assist them with the application process.
An allocation of five hours per week of home-based teaching or care supports will be made available to eligible pupils.
This allocation is intended to supplement, and not replace, the remote teaching provided by the pupil’s school and can be provided by a teacher or SNA in a student’s home, at evenings and weekends. Participation in the programme is voluntary for families, teachers and SNAs and must be delivered in accordance with Public Health Advice.
It is intended that this programme would be supported by teachers and SNAs who may opt in to participate, on a paid basis, to help ensure a better learning experience for these pupils and to build on the learning taking place as part of the remote provision.
The pupils who will be eligible include -
- All pupils enrolled in special schools and special classes
- Pupils in mainstream schools who are accessing the highest level of the continuum of support (i.e. School Support Plus/for a Few). This will include pupils with Autism, Down syndrome, sensory impairments, and other disabilities who were identified for the summer programme of 2020.
- Pupils identified by their school as requiring the highest level of support at any given time. This will ensure that pupils presenting with exceptional needs due to the current school closures can participate in the scheme.
The Department’s approach is intended to be flexible so as to maximise the number of pupils participating.
An allocation of a 5-hour per week home-based teaching or care support programme will be made available to eligible pupils. This allocation is intended to supplement (and not replace) the remote teaching provided by the pupil’s school.
It is intended that this programme will operate 4 weeks commencing 11 February but eligible families may utilise the hours at any time before 30 April 2021.
I can also confirm that talks will continue with stakeholders, including within the post primary school sector, on further phases of return, so that a wider reopening can be delivered for children as soon as possible.