7. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills when in-school speech and language therapy teams will be in place; and the nature of the service that will be provided. (Question 14451/18 asked on 29 Mar 2018)

Deputy Thomas Byrne: The question asks that the Minister would flesh out the information on what exactly he is proposing in regard to in-school speech and language therapy. It was to be a pilot project but the language was changed subsequently to a study or a study project, which concerned people. What is the Minister’s vision in this regard?

Deputy Richard Bruton: It is an important, interesting and valuable area which we will be piloting. The programme for Government commits that a new model of in-school speech and language therapy will be established. This year’s budget provided an additional €2 million to introduce a demonstration project for in-school therapy services in 2018. It is intended that the project should commence in schools from September 2018 and proceed over the course of the 2018-19 school year.

The demonstration project will develop and test a model for the delivery of in-school speech and language and occupational therapy support in a defined regional area, across a range of schools, in conjunction with the Health Service Executive, HSE, and supplementing existing HSE therapy services. The demonstration model will focus on developing greater linkages between educational and therapy supports. It will provide for in-school therapy services and professional support, training and guidance for school staff and parents. It will seek to assist schools to develop their capacity to support children with speech and language needs in schools, while also focusing on early identification and intervention.

An interdepartmental working group, including representatives from my Department, the National Council for Special Education, the Department of Health, the HSE and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, has been appointed to develop the pilot-demonstration model for in-school therapy services.

Deputy Thomas Byrne: I think the Minister has let the cat out of the bag. This is not what I had been envisaging. The Minister referred to a “demonstration project”, which is certainly a change from the programme for Government. He has not said in which schools it will take place or where it will take place. Moreover, the model that seems to be envisaged is not a replacement for the health service or therapy for children, but instead seems to be the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, model, whereby NEPS comes in and gives advice to teachers as to how to deal with children, rather than giving the therapy itself.

If that is what the Minister is envisaging for speech and language therapy, we will not be supporting it in schools. What we want is a vision of a model for speech and language therapy in a school setting, not a model where professionals come in and train teachers in how to identify problems. That is not what we had in mind when we put this in our manifesto, when we raised questions about it and when we saw it in the programme for Government and were happy with that. That is not it at all. The Minister is seriously barking up the wrong tree on this one if that is what is envisaged. It is not acceptable.

Deputy Joan Burton: Will the Minister supply us with the figures, because what he has just announced really is news? I and I am sure every other Deputy can take the Minister to children who are on the autism spectrum or have behavioural issues, many of whom have parents who are teachers. We understood that their speech and language therapy was to be delivered locally in the school using the model that has been mentioned. As such, what the Minister has just announced is a major deviation from the understanding of parents who, as he knows, have often been waiting for a long time. I am shocked.

Deputy Richard Bruton: The Deputies will have to wait to see the full details, but this will provide in-school therapy services as well as professional support and guidance for school staff and parents. It will provide a direct service - speech and language therapists will be allocated specifically to the pilot schools - and support schools to build their capacity to deal with children who have-----

Deputy Joan Burton: That is not what the model was.

Deputy Richard Bruton: -----special needs in terms of speech and language. This is a way of getting a win-win outcome. The evidence has been that having speech and language therapy solely available on a referral basis, which will continue, has not been adequate. We need to build the capacity within the education system to support schools directly and to build the capability of teachers, SNAs and school leaders to integrate speech and language therapy into their offerings.

Deputy Thomas Byrne: What?

Deputy Richard Bruton: This is an exciting project-----

Deputy Joan Burton: Some €2 million.

Deputy Richard Bruton: -----and it will make a significant difference to schools’ capacity to provide in this area.

Deputy Thomas Byrne: This is the most shocked I have been in the Dáil in many years. According to the Minister, this will expand the capacity of teachers and SNAs-----

Deputy Joan Burton: And the parents.

Deputy Thomas Byrne: ----to provide speech and language therapy and occupational therapy.

Deputy Richard Bruton: The Deputy is trying to-----

Deputy Thomas Byrne: If we are somehow going to land teachers and SNAs with those therapist roles and train them in how to deal with issues, the Minister might as well stop this now because I imagine it will not be acceptable to the Dáil. If that is what he has in mind, it worries me greatly. I am glad that I asked this question now. Providing speech and language therapy in schools sounds fantastic in a programme for Government, but the reality of what the Minister has just described gives rise to concern. It is not what we envisaged and it is not what parents want. I am not a medical professional or a therapist, but I suspect it is not what children need either.

Does the Minister have a list of the pilot schools and how can others get into the pilot if that is their wish?

Deputy Richard Bruton: The Deputy just seems to want a speech and language therapist sitting inside the school gate-----

Deputy Joan Burton: Yes. That is what the-----

Deputy Richard Bruton: -----without integrating in any way with the school, its capacity, parents or teachers.

Deputy Thomas Byrne: That is actually what we thought it might be.

Deputy Richard Bruton: This is about ensuring that teachers and SNAs have the capacity to identify early children who have such needs and that children have direct access to speech and language therapists who are directly assigned to support their schools and provide a service. This is about building the capacity of the system to identify early, to support children with special speech and language needs and to do so within the school context where the maximum advantage can be secured. This is an exciting direction in which to go and it is an indication of how we can ensure that children who come to school with special needs do not just get teaching and SNAs within our schools, but also access to the other services that will allow them to fulfil their potential. This is a win-win and I do not agree with the Deputies’ criticism of what has been proposed.