16 October, 2015 - Address by Jan O’Sullivan, Minister for Education and Skills at the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education Annual Conference 2015

Check Against Delivery

Introduction

 I am delighted to be here today to open your annual conference and I would like to thank Breda and Éilis for their kind invitation.

The role played by the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education (NABMSE) is highly valuable in representing the views of Boards of Management in Special Education, in particular, raising issues of importance and concern to Boards of Management and contributing nationally, on matters affecting the education of students with special needs. This is reflected in your membership in the Special school sector and your growing membership in mainstream school settings.

The theme of your Conference today, “Empowering Boards of Management” is very appropriate.  As we approach the changeover to new Boards from 1 December 2015, Boards of Management must have a very clear understanding of their governance role and responsibilities and must be fully aware of the importance of good communications with their school community.

With this in mind, I was very pleased to recently announce the publication of a new “Governance Manual for Primary Schools 2015- 2019”, which replaces the existing Constitution of Boards and Rules of Procedure 2011 booklet, setting out the various rules regarding the composition and operation of Boards and providing a helpful overview of the role of the Board and its governance responsibilities.

Appropriate training for Board members is also very important for successfully managing a school, and I am grateful to the various management bodies, including NABMSE, for their provision of training, advice and guidance to Boards of Management. 

In that regard, I am pleased that my Department will be supporting an increased focus on the use of online training to facilitate the delivery of training modules for Board members. I would encourage all new and existing Board members to avail of the various training opportunities that are made available.

I am particularly grateful for the positive and constructive input of the education partners, including NABMSE, to the process of reviewing the existing rules for Boards and developing the new manual. I believe it will greatly help Board members to successfully undertake their important role.

Since Boards of Management were first introduced in our primary schools over 40 years ago, many thousands of volunteers, individually and collectively, have contributed to the management and operation of our schools. I am very confident that this strong tradition of volunteerism and civic spirit will continue to play such an important part in the running of our schools. We are all aware that the primary objective of every Board of Management is to ensure that the school is managed in a manner that provides all of its students with the best possible education.

This Government has demonstrated its commitment to ensuring that students with special educational needs receive an appropriate education to enable them to achieve their potential. This commitment is evident in this week’s budget announcement which will see the annual spend on special education increase to over €1.4 billion, 17% of my Department’s overall budget. This substantial increase will enable us to make additional provision which will comprise:

·        600 additional resource teacher to address demographic demand, on top of the 6705 resource teachers already in place.

·        610 additional SNAs, which I already announced in July last and which are now available to schools from September bringing the total number of SNAs available to the NCSE for allocation to 11,920.

This represents an increase of 11% since 2011.

The Government’s decision to increase the number of SNAs in July also included a proposal for a review of the SNA scheme which will be carried out to ensure that it continues to meeting its objectives and that best use is being made of the very significant resources invested.

Overall, I have secured an additional investment of €144m which is the largest investment in education in recent years. This funding will provide a better learning environment for students and teachers and provide additional supports at higher level. 

In total 2260 additional teachers will be provided in primary and post-primary schools.  This consists of:

·        300 teachers at primary level from next September to reduce class sizes from 28:1 to 27:1

·        810 mainstream teachers to address demographic demand

·        550 teachers, mainly at post-primary level, to enhance guidance counselling and school leadership, and

·        600 resource posts which I have already mentioned.

250 posts will be used to enhance the role of deputy principals at post-primary level in schools with less than 500 students and to assist teaching principals at primary level.

Strengthening leadership in schools is a serious issue and part of this allocation will allow deputy principals to reduce their teaching time and focus on leadership and management.  It will also provide additional release days to teaching principals in primary schools.  This is positive news for school leadership.

Improving guidance counselling support in post primary schools will be a priority for the remaining additional posts.

The new investment will include a minor works grant, which will be paid to schools in November and €28.5m will be invested in this scheme. 

A new summer works scheme will commence next year.  The scheme will see €80m invested in enhancing schools between 2016 and 2017 – half of this amount in each year.

This year’s Budget builds on the renewed education investment begun last year and is proof that this Government is prepared to make that investment, now and into the future. 

Plans regarding Moratorium on Posts of Responsibility

When the moratorium on the filling of posts of responsibility was introduced in 2009, the Government exempted Principal and Deputy Principal posts in all primary and post-primary schools. These posts continue to be replaced in the normal manner. The impact of the moratorium was therefore limited to the Assistant Principal and Special Duties posts of responsibility.

The Government introduced limited alleviation arrangements so as to provide for schools acutely affected at Assistant Principal level by the impact of the moratorium. 

I am aware that economic constraints and the moratorium on recruitment, albeit alleviated to some extent for schools, have presented challenges within the education sector. 

However, they also provide an opportunity to review the role of the principal so that our principals are leaders of learning, and to reconfigure the middle management structure to support principals in their role, ensuring ownership of responsibility rather than tasks, thereby building expertise and supporting a career path within the profession.

My Department, in consultation with the representative management bodies has commenced an exploration of the opportunities to support and thereby advance our understanding of the needs of school leaders and how they might be addressed.

The Future Role of Special Schools and Classes

 As you are aware a key function of the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) is to provide expert, independent, evidence-informed policy advice on special education for children and adults. 

The Future Role of Special Schools and Classes is one topic which has been considered by the NCSE.   While we must all recognise the legislative intent in the EPSEN Act, 2004, that pupils with special educational needs should be educated alongside their peers, in inclusive settings to the greatest extent possible, I want to clearly state that Special Schools will continue to have a role to play in the education of children with special educational needs as part of a continuum of special educational provision. 

The NCSE Policy advice recommends that in the future, Special Schools should serve those pupils with the greatest level and complexity of special educational needs rather than be primarily designated by any particular category of disability.  Over time this will ensure that most children who require a special school setting will be able to attend the special school that is closest to where he or she lives, regardless of their diagnosed category of disability.  

The NCSE also recommends that, where possible, special school provision should be provided on the sites of mainstream schools, in a similar manner to how many special class units are now located alongside mainstream schools. It will take time to arrive at a situation where all children attend school on the same campus, with the necessary supports in place. However, the future direction will be to move towards ever greater levels of inclusion and co-location.    

New Model for Allocating Teaching Resources – Pilot Project

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, identified that the current model for allocating resource teachers to schools is potentially inequitable because access to professional assessments is not always readily available to those who cannot afford to access them privately.  Reform of the allocation system is needed and I am committed to achieving that goal. 

The proposed new model currently being piloted will remove the formal requirement for such assessments as it will be based on the profiled needs of each school, rather than on the diagnosed disability of individual children.    

Through a consultation process, during which NABMSE played an active and constructive role, there was a broad welcome for the proposed new model from Parents, disability groups, schools and stakeholders. 

47 schools (28 primary and 19 post-primary schools) have agreed to participate in the pilot project during 2015/16 school year.   We have schools from various parts of the country and schools of different types and sizes, different levels of disadvantage and gender differences to provide for the broadest possible representation. 

In September, my officials had a very positive meeting with the participating schools and, through ongoing engagements, I expect the pilot to be successfully concluded.  The pilot will test the new model and will allow for any concerns to be fully addressed prior to implementation.  It will also allow us to take into account the learning experiences of schools, principals, pupils and the views of parents over the course of the pilot.

The pilot will be subject to a review by my Department’s Inspectorate, the National Council for Special Education, and the National Educational Psychological Services in collaboration with the participating schools to determine its effectiveness in meeting the needs of pupils with special educational needs, including how schools manage to deploy resources in accordance with identified needs of students, as envisaged by the proposed new allocation model.

Progress on the NCSE Autism Advice

The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) has recently submitted their Policy Advice on Educational Provision for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.  In developing this policy advice, the NCSE consulted widely with parents, professionals and other stakeholders and interested parties while also conducting research in relation to this area. 

The policy advice is currently under consideration in my Department and I expect it will be published in the coming weeks.

Admissions Bill

The Education (Admission to Schools) Bill, which was published in April of this year, aims to bring about a more open, fair and transparent system of enrolment.

The legislative framework seeks to strike an appropriate balance between school autonomy and the interests of parents in our education system. This can be achieved through regulations that foster greater transparency and consistency in terms of how schools communicate and interact with parents.  To that end the Bill sets out clearly matters relating to enrolment that regulations may address.

A key objective of the Bill and its associated regulations is to see improved access to schools for all pupils.  The Bill will enshrine in law a ban on schools charging parents to apply for a place in school.

The Bill will strengthen our capacity to cater for children who cannot get any school place.  This is important and particularly so for children that are vulnerable or at risk.

The Bill will enable school enrolment to be addressed in a cohesive and integrated manner and with regard to the roles of the different agencies that interact with schools in relation to admission principally, the Department of Education and Skills, the Child and Family Agency, the National Council for Special Education and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.

The Bill is on the Government’s legislative programme for enactment in this session, and following enactment of the Bill, the associated regulations will be updated and published in draft form for further consultation with the relevant education stakeholders.

I know that NABMSE have expressed some concerns in relation to the legislation, and in this regard I can advise that my officials will continue to engage with NABMSE to ensure that the Bill when enacted, does not disrupt the smooth operation of the admissions process for students with special educational needs.

Framework for Junior Cycle - Level 2 Learning Programmes and Priority Learning Units (PLUs)

Finally, as part of the new Junior Cycle, schools can now include programmes called Level 2 Learning Programmes (L2LPs) designed for a small number of students with particular special educational needs.  L2LPs are suited to students with general learning disabilities in the higher functioning moderate and low functioning mild categories.  The special needs of these students is such as to prevent them from accessing some or all of the subjects and short courses on offer at junior cycle that are broadly aligned with Level 3 NFQ.  Such students may be attending either a mainstream school or a special school. 

Most students with general learning disabilities should be able to access most, if not all, subjects and short courses through differentiated teaching, learning and assessment.  Varied use of resource allocation such as team-teaching, small group and individual withdrawal, may also facilitate ease of access to subjects and short courses.

Level 2 Learning Programmes build on prior learning but are essentially designed around priority learning units (PLUs) that focus on the social, personal and pre-vocational skills that prepare students for further study, for work and for life. 

The NCCA is also investigating whether Level 1 Learning Programmes, which are broadly aligned with Level 1 of the NFQ, will need to be introduced in due course.  These programmes would address the learning needs of the very small number of students in the low moderate, and severe and profound range of general learning disabilities.

As I conclude, I want to thank Breda and Éilis again for their invitation and I want you all to be assured that I value your work and the work done by all in our education system.  

I know you have a busy and full agenda and I have no doubt that the discussions will be stimulating and informative.

I wish you all the best and enjoy the day ahead.

ENDS