SET allocation ignores important considerations

Many schools around the country will be deeply concerned about the contents of DE Circular 0002/2024, which details changes to the model for allocating Special Education Teaching (SET) hours. It clearly demonstrates that the government is not prepared to provide the necessary investment to deliver truly inclusive education in the next academic year.

The dearth of data on children with additional needs being provided by the HSE’s Children Disability Network Teams continues to have a detrimental effect on the provision of school supports. The rolling recruitment and retention crisis in our schools is having a profound impact on the delivery of special education and is likely to exacerbate learning losses accrued during the pandemic.

Despite recent claims to the contrary by Minister Madigan, today’s announcement has failed to recognise that the unavailability of necessary therapeutic, behavioural and psychological supports is a major barrier to the provision of fully inclusive education.

The Department of Education (DE) has now reduced the criteria considered for the allocation of SET hours to schools from five to three for the coming year. Since 2017, baseline school data (enrolment), gender, the profile of a school, the degree of complex needs and the level of deprivation in the area have been taken into account when calculating the allocation for each school. However, next year’s allocation will disregard the gender and the complex needs of pupils.

The INTO has been clear in our engagement with the department that all relevant factors must be taken into account. This union has set out that children experiencing homelessness, children living in areas with high levels of crime, children in care or residential settings, new entrant pupils and other pupils who do not speak English as a first language must be factored into any revised model. The circular issued today does not take sufficient account of children whose families are impacted by social deprivation or those who do not speak English as a first language. As any teacher knows these children will require additional supports if they are to thrive in our education system.

The INTO has also demanded that a weighting should be awarded for pupils in junior classes to allow for early intervention and we acknowledge that this has been factored in to some extent. However it remains to be seen how sufficient this weighting will prove to be when each individual junior and infant school receives its allocation this week.

While we welcomed the move away from the prohibitively narrow definition of complex needs, which was a feature of the scheme since its inception, we specifically sought the recognition of pupils with multiple needs who had not been adequately catered for within the confines of the previous model.

The INTO firmly believes that for these children who have multiple needs, the DE’s refusal to take our well-researched recommendations on board render the 2024-25 SET allocations fundamentally flawed as they fail to provide for the specific needs of a cohort of vulnerable children in the local context of their schools. The over-emphasis on the literacy and numeracy profiles of schools as estimated from the results of standardised testing is a major bone of contention for teachers because this criterion also fails dismally to take account of children with multiple needs. The trojan efforts of teachers to improve literacy and numeracy levels may now result in reduced allocations of teaching supports which would be counterproductive.

The INTO also challenged the lack of time for administration, planning and assessment related to special education within the previous model and insisted that the new circular recognised the requirement for this work and clarified that it can be carried out during school hours. While Circular 0002/2024 does not make provision for this, we remain hopeful that this will be contained in guidelines to be published later. We understand that schools will also be permitted to combine SET hours with other teaching hours and leadership/management days. This amendment designed to minimise changes to existing clustering arrangements would be welcome.

We have consistently called on the Department to restore the 2,000 posts of assistant principal missing from primary and special schools since 2009 many of which were dedicated to the co-ordination of special education, and we have repeatedly highlighted the impossibility of true inclusion when Ireland’s class sizes remain so overcrowded.

In that regard the 2024/25 primary staffing schedule will do absolutely nothing to tackle the scandal of Ireland’s supersized classes and the restoration of 500 posts of responsibility from next September will be woefully wide of the mark needed to strengthen school leadership teams.

Read the staffing schedule appendices here.

The DE has emphasised that today’s announcement is for the first phase of a process to make the SET model fairer, more agile, more responsive to the needs of schools and more transparent. Thankfully the long discredited exceptional review process has been consigned to history. The DE has now promised that all appeals will be simplified and completed in a timely manner this year. We encourage schools who feel disadvantaged by their 2024/25 allocation to use the new appeals mechanisms to address this.

Regrettably the length of time the Department has taken to review the model coupled with their problematic approach to SET allocations for the next school year does not inspire much confidence. Until such time as those who have responsibility for the provision of supports for children with additional needs start recognising and actively listening to representatives of the real experts that spend time in classrooms every single day, children with additional needs will not be provided with the supports they need to thrive in school.

In the next twelve months all interested parties must commit to work constructively together to design a strongly supported special education teaching model that will serve mainstream primary schools properly in the period ahead. The INTO symposium on special education will be held in Portlaoise on 24 February. Leading stakeholders who are involved with special education have been invited to the event.

In the aftermath of discussions at the Symposium the INTO will seek early engagement with the DE to ensure that the ongoing modification of the SET model results in a system that is fully fit for purpose being rolled out in the 2025-26 school year. We will continue to campaign vigorously for Ireland’s class sizes to be brought to the EU average and for the full restoration of assistant principalships for the benefit of all pupils particularly those with additional needs. And we will endeavour to ensure that in the run in to the next General Election those who aspire to government will be convinced of the need to provide the required supports to children with additional needs.