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 Header Item Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation (Continued)
 Header Item Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)
 Header Item Cabinet Committees

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 996 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[The Taoiseach: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin] Fundamentally, there is always and will be a significant degree of local autonomy to be deployed by the schools themselves in terms of the configuration of their own schools and the utilisation of the minor works grants in terms of reconfiguring classrooms and so forth.

The capital programme is a separate programme. I discussed it with the Minister last week. What I have said to departmental officials is that we would like to accelerate any provisions for special needs education in terms of units within schools or special schools themselves. In my view, their capital works should get priority and they should be accelerated. Specific measures will be required for specific schools where there are issues in terms of numbers, in particular in urban areas. The health advice is clear about the application of common sense and balance in terms of social distancing. The roadmap is grounded on that.

In terms of Deputy Ó Laoghaire's concern, that is not envisaged at all. The plan is very clear. For primary schools it is about special schools and special education and it is about post-primary schools. It is not envisaged that special needs teachers or assistants would be used to substitute elsewhere. That is not the philosophy behind the roadmap at all. In some instances, if a particularly strong relationship had developed between a child with special needs and a teacher, one would like to see that continue even if the child is at home, so that some level of contact would be maintained.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl All right. We need to conclude.

The Taoiseach: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin That can be useful and important. Deputy Gould raised a point of which I am aware in terms of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units in Cork and the need for greater provision. A lot of work has been done over the summer in terms of the provision of some units. Work is under way to assess the need for additional capacity in ASD units and in special schools in the general Cork area.

I take on board what Deputy Michael Collins said about school accommodation.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl That concludes questions on promised legislation. Twenty two Deputies have not been reached, including eight Deputies carried forward from yesterday. We will carry the 22 forward to tomorrow and I will not be minded to take any new speakers tomorrow.

Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)

Cabinet Committees

 1. Deputy Alan Kelly Information on Alan Kelly Zoom on Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will next meet.  [16888/20]

 2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin his plans for public services reform to be driven from his Department. [17249/20]

 3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin the Cabinet committee which addresses matters relating to justice. [17250/20]

 4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will meet.  [18476/20]

The Taoiseach: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet Committee on Social Affairs and Equality was established by Government decision on 6 July last. The first meeting will take place on 31 July. It will oversee implementation of the programme for Government commitments in the areas of social policy, equality and public services, including matters relating to justice and public service reform. It will receive detailed reports on identified policy areas and consider the implementation of commitments and reforms.

Membership of the committee comprises the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Minister for business, enterprise and innovation, the Minister for climate action, communication networks and transport, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, the Minister for Finance, the Minister for media, tourism, arts, culture, sport and the Gaeltacht, the Minister for social protection, community and rural development and the islands, the Minister for children, disability, equality and integration, the Minister for Health, the Minister for justice, the Minister for education, the Minister for further and higher education, research, innovation and science, and the Minister for housing, local government and heritage. Other Ministers and Ministers of State will participate as required.

In addition to the meetings of the full Cabinet and of Cabinet committees, I meet with Ministers on an individual basis to focus on particular issues. The Department of the Taoiseach has had a direct involvement in a range of public service reform initiatives over the recent period and this will continue under the new programme for Government. Major public reform initiatives will continue to be informed by external inputs and overseen by the Cabinet Committee on Social Affairs and Equality, supported by the Department.

Deputy Pearse Doherty: Information on Pearse Doherty Zoom on Pearse Doherty I am sure the Taoiseach shares my view that all children in need of ASD special classes should be able to attend their local school, yet that is not the case despite many years of campaigning by parents. The provision of ASD education supports to children is patchy right across the State at best, with many parts, in particular in the capital city with little or no provision. Our party leader has recently been out meeting parents in south Dublin where certain areas have become a no-go zone for children with ASD to attend, as a result of the lack of provision elsewhere in the city. There is a particular lack of ASD units in Dublin 2, 4, 6 and 6W, with only one school adequately equipped to deliver equality in education for children with ASD, and only at primary level. It is not the case that other areas have too many spaces but there has been a failure by consecutive Governments to deliver on local ASD services for children.

One primary school with early intervention and an ASD unit provides the bulk of educational need for children in south-east Dublin. Parents in that area are left with no option but to enrol their children in schools outside their communities or areas, often on the other side of the city, to enable their children access an education that meets their needs. The families we have been in contact with recently have discovered that the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, does not have accurate data and it does not know that some children have ASD in the first instance. As a result, it cannot plan for the needs of the area. That is a very important issue which is replicated right across the State. After an audit of the Dublin south area, the NCSE has only sought to compel two schools in Dublin 4, 6 and 6W, which have both said they are not in a position to set up a class or unit due to space concerns, yet other schools identified in the audit said they would be interested in providing a class, if they had the space but no space has been provided. The process of ensuring local access to appropriate education needs to be reviewed and schools that wish to set up ASD classes and units should be supported to do so. Those who do not comply with the requirements must be made to do so and adequately resourced and trained, as recommended by the NCSE, because every child deserves to go to his or her local school and every family should be supported to that end, but it is clearly not happening in many areas right across the State.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett The fundamental principle in supporting children and families with special needs should be that they get support based on their needs, but that is not what is happening. What is actually happening is the rationing of resources, and then inadequate resources that are not based on the actual needs of children in schools are stretched to the point that they do not provide the support that is necessary. It is not acceptable to treat SNAs with the contempt they have been shown during the period of the pandemic. At one point, SNAs were just informed they were going to work in nursing homes. It was as if the virtual supports they were giving to children with special needs were somehow irrelevant and then there was back-tracking on that plan. The pay is pathetic. We need to treat SNAs with respect and we need to have supports for children with special needs that are based not on the rationing of inadequate resources but on the needs of children and providing schools with supports, and of course to address the shocking backlogs in assessment, which are especially acute in particular areas. The people who are protesting outside would like to know that the Taoiseach is taking seriously their issues and the hardships they are suffering.

The Taoiseach: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin I thank both Deputies for the points that they have raised in respect of special education. I speak as someone who back in 1998 when I was Minister for Education and Science brought in the first ASD unit in mainstream schools. At that time autism was not even recognised as a category deserving of special educational provision in the form of special pupil-teacher ratios or as a category of disability. I also introduced SNAs for the first time into mainstream education. I have kept a long-term interest in this area. The key agenda then was to create an automatic entitlement to a school place for children with special needs.

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