Brendan Smith: Dáil Éireann debate – Friday, 1 Jul 2022Education (Provision in Respect of Children with Special Educational Needs)

Like other speakers, I welcome this legislation. To a certain extent, it is unfortunate we need it but I must compliment the Minister and Minister of State on bringing forward legislation to enable them to put in place the structures to ensure no child is denied a place in an appropriate setting in school. I welcome the comments of the Minister of State that it is intended this legislation will work to support children with special educational needs to gain access to specialist class placements that can meet their needs. She also stated she looks forward to working with colleagues on all sides of both Houses to ensure this legislation is passed and put in place before the Dáil and Seanad terms end. It is welcome in that respect.

Having interacted over the years with the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, I welcome the recent appointment of the new chief executive, John Kearney, who I knew as chief executive of Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board and who served as a school principal. I know that public representatives and Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board have worked together over the years to ensure we got those additional autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units, special classes and additional resources. Mr. Kearney has been in the classroom and has led an education and training board.

The schools under the remit of Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board show a great attachment to equality and diversity in their provision to ensure children who need that additional support are given it to the best extent possible. Over the years, we have seen a very significant growth in the number of units and special needs classes at different schools.

I saw a figure recently where, since this Government has taken office, something like 1,165 additional special needs assistants have been appointed. That is a very welcome development. There are almost 20,000 special needs assistants in our education system at present, and they are necessary.

I remember my early days as a Member of this House where the big campaign for all public representatives at that time was to have special needs assistants appointed. It was a rare school that had even one. Thankfully, there have been much-needed improvements and all of us, regardless of what side of the House we sit on, endeavour to ensure every child gets that necessary support.

Only a few weeks ago we had the privilege of having the Minister, Deputy Foley, in Cootehill, County Cavan, performing the official opening of the Holy Family School there. That school was established on a voluntary basis back in the 1960s to serve the needs of Cavan and Monaghan children. One of the former distinguished Members of this House, my friend and former Dáil colleague, Dr. Rory O’Hanlon, was one of the half-dozen people who set about establishing that school and had it then put then under the remit of the Department of Education. It is now a model school in the delivery of special education and is a great source of pride to all of us who have worked along with the boards of management and with successive parents’ associations to have that new school in place. Thankfully, that school has marvellous facilities today. The Minister, in an inspirational speech that day, spoke about the need and the value of special education and what it does for children, families and communities.

Often in this House, through parliamentary questions and Topical Issue debates, I have raised the need to put those new facilities in place because we had seen a growth in the level of temporary accommodation over the years. Thankfully, we have that school in place today with the most modern and up-to-date facilities, which are good for the children and for the teachers delivering the service.

I welcome the comments of the Minister that she, her Department, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, “recognise the importance of inclusive education for all children”. She stated it is a primary objective of hers as Minister for Education “to promote and support actions that will ensure the school setting is a welcoming and inclusive environment for all”. She also stated that “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”. It is very important that key priority and strategy is implemented.

Deputy Ó Laoghaire referred to the shortage of therapists. Only yesterday I raised questions with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on the need to ensure we increase the number of places in universities and institutes of technology to train more therapists. We have all been campaigning with parents to have assessments carried out for children who need them before they can get a place in a special school or special class. I have schools in my area of Cavan-Monaghan that are looking for special classes and an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit.

I have one case where I have been in contact with both the Minister and the Minister of State where an early intervention class has been approved for a school but the school does not have the follow-on ASD class. Some parents who may have intended to send their child to the early intervention class may consider that, if there is no follow-on class, they are perhaps better going to the school that has both the early intervention and ASD classes. From that point of view, it is important children can attend a school as much as is possible within their local community and that siblings, where possible, attend the same school. This is a case where I met the principal, the staff, and some of the parents and it is one where we have the additional accommodation that is needed to establish the class. In such instances where a principal has a particular knowledge of special education, there are very supportive staff who want the class, and there is the extra accommodation, we should ensure such classes are approved without delay.

On the issue of DEIS schools and additional support for children, I welcome that €32 million extra has been allocated to the Department for the extension of the programme. I also welcome the inclusion of a number of schools in my constituency in the extended programme, but again, like others, I am disappointed with the appeals process. I do not know how this algorithm, which the Department and the officials quote, works. We have schools that are drawing pupils from the same community where one school in the town or parish has DEIS status and the other does not. One principal wrote to me and made the point very succinctly:

Disappointingly we have not been accepted to the DEIS scheme. We must not be regarded as having equal disadvantage as the other primary schools in the centre of town.

We have schools drawing pupils from the same catchment area but having different status. I say to the Ministers that whatever algorithm or model is used, it needs to be revised. The DEIS programme is particularly beneficial to many children and families. I sincerely hope in the context of the new census figures being available that index that is often quoted can be revised somewhat, that we have the Pobal HP deprivation index revised, and that we have a different model put in place.

I welcome today’s legislation. Like other Deputies, we all represent children who need access to special classes, and the more classes and units that are established, the better to meet the needs of those children.