Statements on Special Education Provision

8 February 2021

Ivana Bacik

I welcome the Minister of State and thank her for outlining the position on special education provision. I think all colleagues across the House very much welcome the announcement that special schools will reopen from this Thursday at 50% capacity. As others have done, I acknowledge on behalf of the Labour group the hard work that has gone into ensuring that reopening and I commend the hard work of all those involved: parents, parents' representatives, unions, staff and education partners. I welcome the fact that children in special classes in mainstream schools will return on 22 February. The Minister of State also outlined other plans.

On a broader level, however, we need to acknowledge much more - not just acknowledge but actually put in place practical recognition for - the enormous deprivation for all our children, particularly children with additional needs, who have missed out and been denied education not only in recent weeks but also for a number of months last year. Others have mentioned children with additional needs in mainstream schools. I am thinking of children I know with autism or children with Down's syndrome who participate in a normal school year in mainstream classes. They and their peers in the mainstream classes still do not have any clarity or certainty as to when their classes or schools will reopen. I know there are enormous operational and logistical difficulties with partial reopenings and blended teaching at primary and secondary level of in-person and remote learning. That is very difficult for school boards and principals. Any of us on school boards are well aware of the difficulty of trying to manage that. It may well be that a more practical resolution is to open all schools for all pupils when transmission rates allow, but we have to acknowledge the enormous impact on children with additional needs, and children more generally, of the lack of certainty or clarity as to when they will be going back to school. I see various indications being given that once special classes in mainstream schools have reopened fully from 22 February, it may be that primary schools, including all classes, will be in a position to reopen in full from early March, with less certainty about reopening dates for secondary schools.

It is this lack of clarity that is causing such trauma and distress to so many students. All of us have been contacted by individual parents who have children with additional needs. The parents can really see the regressive impact on those children of being deprived of education. There was a heartfelt article in yesterday's Sunday Independent by Sarah Caden giving voice to some of the children affected. The article quoted a mother who voiced her feelings of being left behind. She has a child who has additional needs and who is in a mainstream class. Therefore, she has no certainty about when the child can go back. I know the Minister of State is putting in place five hours per week of home-based teaching and care support, but clearly this is not a sustainable long-term resolution and does not address the real needs of such children.

In the Dáil my colleague, the Labour Party education spokesperson, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, has called on the Minister of State to remain in contact with the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, to secure more clarity on vaccinations for teachers and special educational needs staff as soon as possible. These are issues on which clarity and certainty is needed.

Although we have not really seen practical recognition of this, it is clear school closures have already had severe impacts on children with additional needs, vulnerable children and children in special schools. We need to ensure there is recognition in practice of what these detrimental impacts have been. We need to see clarity on the impact this has had.

I have seen far more in the British press about this. The British Government has done so badly generally on Covid-19 in so many ways. Yet, as long ago as last summer the British Government was putting billions of pounds into a catch-up fund to ensure that all children, including those with additional needs and children in mainstream schools, would be able to catch up on the education and related benefits that they had missed out on through the school closures.

We have to recognise that generation Covid-19 are greatly impacted by this. Our children and young people have missed out on so much. We are not seeing acknowledgement of the long-term effect on those children. We have not seen any plan to put in place a catch-up mechanism of the sort that we have seen elsewhere. We need to be looking now at post-Covid supports. We need to look in the short term at our dates for the return to school for all children in mainstream classes. We need to look beyond to post-Covid supports and how we make it up to the children who, because they have additional needs, have seen regression as well as to all of our children who have been deprived of education over such a long period.

We have debated Covid-19 policy more broadly. The Labour Party put forward a proposal for a national aggressive suppression strategy, the equivalent of looking to a way of achieving zero-Covid while we await the longer term roll-out of vaccinations. Unfortunately, there has been resistance from Government to that. I believe that resistance is changing and I welcome the proposed introduction of mandatory hotel quarantining. I have looked at Dublin Airport arrivals and departures. I see a flight arriving this evening from Lanzarote. We have all seen the reports about people using Ireland as a back door route. Still, flights are allowed into Ireland from Dubai whereas Britain has banned them.

We need to be far more strict about ensuring we have a containment policy and an elimination policy on Covid. It is simply not good enough to say it is not practical to close down flights from particular locations, where travel is unlikely to be essential, while saying it is practical to keep children with additional needs deprived of school or of any clarity on when they will return to school. We have all come to accept almost like Stockholm syndrome that it is practical for us to be stopped from going more than 5 km for exercise, for children to be engaged in home schooling and remote schooling for lengthy periods, and for parents to try to work around all of that. Many of us are experiencing that. Yet, we are told it is not practical to take up the lessons of New Zealand and Australia and so many other countries that have adopted far clearer policies. As a result of those policies they have been able to see their children return to school and have reduced the negative impact of Covid within their communities.

I will end with a plea to the Minister of State. Let us see from Government a clear acknowledgement of the impact upon children of the closure of education, particularly the impact upon children with additional needs, which is the Minister of State's direct responsibility. Let us also see clarity in the short term as to when children in mainstream classes will be returning to school.