The planned response for meeting the educational needs of children coming to Ireland from Ukraine

The planned response for meeting the educational needs of children coming to Ireland from Ukraine

My Dáil Contribution regarding the need for a planned response for meeting the education needs of children coming to Ireland from Ukraine.


Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh

If the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and Minister of State remain lawyers despite their current occupation, then I remain a primary school teacher, and I am very much proud to be one.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

I am a timekeeper.

Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh

Then I will endeavour not to waste it. That is the lens I am bringing to the Ukrainian crisis that is unfolding at the moment, the scale of which is shocking. The total number of refugees fleeing Ukraine reached 2 million people this week. More than 1 million people arrived into Poland, almost 500,000 into Romania and more than 100,000 into both Hungary and Slovakia, the four EU neighbours bordering Ukraine to the west.

We have seen some arrive in Ireland but not yet in the numbers we expect. The words of the EU Home Affairs Commissioner, Ylva Johansson, at the European Parliament were very stark: “More is to come. Worse is to come. Millions more will flee and we must welcome them.”

This is a scale of movement we have not see on the Continent of Europe in some 75 years. It is hard to fathom. The United Nations has described the movement from Ukraine as one of the fastest exoduses of modern times. Putin’s attack on a peaceful democratic country has set in train a historic wave of migration that will scar the individual family histories of millions of individuals and families in coming years.

Of the 2 million who have already left and sought safety in the EU, an estimated 800,000 are children. They have crossed the border bundled onto trains, buses, into cars and on foot, some with mobile phone numbers scrawled on the back of their hands and clutching plastic bags. Yesterday, the Irish Red Cross had received more than 6,000 pledges of accommodation for Ukrainians in people’s own homes. We have a generosity of spirit in this nation. We must bring it to bear to provide sanctuary and solace to those leaving their homes behind for now.

The Government response to date has been swift and significant. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O’Gorman, has announced a specialised unit will be put in place to meet refugees from Ukraine as they arrive in at airports and ports in Ireland. I also welcome the Minister for Social Protection’s commitment that her officials are working to give PPS numbers swiftly to Ukrainian refugees when they arrive to allow them to access services, supports and enable access to the labour market here.

However, as I said, it is the lens of the primary school teacher that I bring to this debate. Based on a back of an envelope calculation, if we are estimating that 100,000 people are going to arrive here, some 50,000 are likely to be children. That translates to 2,000 classrooms. That is just the physical built infrastructure. It also has to translate into 2,000 additional teachers, at a minimum, as well as all the supports that need to go into place. These will be deeply traumatised children. They will need the psychological supports. That is not the Minister of State’s brief. They will need considerable language inputs. They will arrive here, presumably, with very little English. And then there are all the extra supports that we would just expect for schoolgoing children of that age. We also need to have a sense of where the demand will be geographically.

We also need to have a broader conversation about the best way to deliver a curriculum to these children. Do we anticipate they will be here in five and ten years? In that case we should absolutely integrate them and fold them into the Irish curriculum. Or do we think they will be here for a shorter period? Should we be looking at ways to deliver something that is closer to the Ukrainian curriculum? Should we be looking at trying to get resources to deliver it, or at least some of it, in Ukrainian to minimise the disruption to these children’s education or should we be trying to create a stepping stone between those two things whereby we say we will deal with their specific needs now but try to scaffold them into an Irish system in the longer term? These are questions and that is how I pose them. There is a huge job of work to be done and it needs to be done extremely quickly.

Deputy Josepha Madigan

I thank the Deputy. This is a real topical issue at the moment. I want to reiterate the Government’s position that the continuing Russian military action against Ukraine is illegal and immoral. As the Government has stated, the priority is a full and comprehensive cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of the Russian military from Ukrainian territory. The Deputy is quite right that the war in Ukraine has caused a humanitarian crisis on a scale we have not seen for many decades in Europe. That will require a whole-of-government approach to supporting the people who arrive here.

There is no logic to Irish people offering this wonderful céad míle fáilte to Ukrainian nationals and their families if we cannot provide the additional supports they require. It is an evolving situation and we do not know how long they will be here. It is commendable that the Irish people have made in excess of 6,000 offers of accommodation. Our schools have a strong tradition of welcoming children of all nationalities and backgrounds and have experience of doing this throughout the school year. Many schools, primary and post primary, have contacted the Department already to express how keen they are to ensure any children arriving in their areas are welcomed into their schools. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, has published a range of resources to support learners with English as an additional language. Further guidance for teachers about these resources will issue to schools shortly.

The Deputy mentioned psychological supports. I think that will be pertinent, particularly around trauma. These children may have seen things as well as the stress of their having to leave their home of origin. Schools are provided with support from psychologists from the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS. NEPS has developed materials for schools to assist them in supporting children of Ukrainian heritage and others who may be experiencing distress in relation to current events. Temporary crisis measures will be put in place where needed.

It will take a Trojan effort from the education sector which is on the back of coming out Covid. I commend all the teachers – the Deputy is a teacher himself – and all the school staff for the incredible work they have done to date. They will require even more fortitude to look after these children. In my constituency of Dublin Rathdown, I heard only yesterday of twins who have already come from Ukraine and are in school. Schools with capacity to welcome children can do so in the usual way. There will be a helpline for schools and we are putting information online and on social media for parents in relevant languages to support them in accessing schooling for children. My officials have already spoken to the staff unions and management bodies, and work is under way on engaging with other Departments, agencies and stakeholders. We need to see where there are children being accommodated so that we can cater for them in schools in the locality.

There are obviously children in Ireland who are looking for schools but we must also cater for Ukrainians. It is also important to mention there will also be teachers coming from Ukraine. The Teaching Council will work with the Department on expediting registration for those teachers so that they can teach in their mother tongue, as the Deputy mentioned. There will be procedures for those who do not have proof of qualifications so that they can teach here.

Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh

What I understand from the answer is that we are talking about a default position where we fold these children into the general school population. If that is the considered position we arrive at with the best expert evidence, that is fine. I would be happy to support that. However, we have to acknowledge the huge additional pressures that would place on schoolteachers, staff and principals in particular. It is something we need to consider. The Minister of State did reference that it is presumed we will have educational professionals who will arrive from Ukraine. It is important to identify those and use them as quickly as possible.

I have concerns. I have taught children with very little English. These children will be deeply traumatised by their circumstances. It is very difficult to reach them when you do not have a shared language, particularly if you are in a class of 25 or 30, as so many of our teachers often are. If that is where we are landing, then let us plan around that and support it. I am concerned the scale and numbers of children arriving will make that difficult and will place huge pressure, even on the built environment.

We should be engaging the NCCA. We have experts on curricular reform and planning. We should engage that expertise. I have written to the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and asked it to suspend its work programme to dedicate some time to this to hear from best international evidence and to hear how best we can support these children. It would be a really good use of our time. There is a lot of expertise on that committee and we should use it to support the Government action as much as possible. We should think deeply about whether our response of folding them into the general school environment is best for the children themselves and also the staff who have to deliver.

Deputy Josepha Madigan

As a teacher, the Deputy has experience of educating children. As a country, we need to look at novel, innovative approaches for how we will educate Ukrainian nationals.

Teachers who come from Ukraine will be able to teach in their mother tongue, which will be of assistance to these children. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment will publish resources to support learners with English as an additional language. It may well be that some sort of compromise will be found between folding children into the existing educational system as well as providing a hybrid and novel approach. As the Deputy suggested, perhaps having the Oireachtas committee look at it is a good idea.

We should dedicate some time to this because we do not want a situation where our schools, and we have 4,000 in this country, are under acute pressure when they are just coming out of Covid. It will be a mammoth task for them to take in children, especially if we are talking about approximately 100,000 Ukrainian nationals coming here, but we have to do it. It is imperative we do not just take families as refugees into this country. We waived the visa requirement. There is no arbitrary limit to the number that can come into this country, but we also have to educate their children. They could be here for six months, a year or five years. We do not want them suffering from a lack of education. Since Ireland’s schools have a strong tradition of welcoming children from different nationalities and backgrounds, we will have the capacity to do it. The helpline will assist and cohesion between Departments will be crucial to ensure we all speak the same language when we deal with this issue.