Report on the Summer Programme 2023

Report on the Summer Programme 2023

Full transcript: I am delighted to have an opportunity to contribute to the debate. I thank the chair of the committee, Senator Carrigy, and I thank Deputy Buckley for moving the motion. The committee took the decision to issue an interim report because it was important that enough lead-in time be given for the recommendations laid out in the report to be implemented ahead of this summer. I echo what Senator Carrigy said about the Business Committee expediting the matter and allowing for a longer debate than is normal on a Thursday evening because many Deputies were looking to make a contribution on it.

I would like to pull back and take more of a wide-lens view of what has happened with July provision, which is now summer provision. The fact of the matter is that the programme has expanded and changed over time. It was initially devised to mitigate regression for children with special educational needs, SEN, and also served as a form of respite for parents of these children. That was entirely appropriate as the first staging point. Different elements have been added to it in the interim such as an opportunity for DEIS schools to provide summer camps, the HSE-led range of summer camps catering for up to 1,200 children with complex needs and, just last year, that provision for Ukrainian kids. All of those are welcome and it is no harm at all that we have a programme that has now become multi-stranded and multifaceted. However, there is a need to refocus and reconsider what it is that we really want to get out of the summer programme for all of those strands and also to make sure we are not missing out, particularly on that most vulnerable cohort for whom the original programme was designed. There has been an expansion in the numbers from 15,000 in 2019 to 80,000 in 2021. There has been a massive expansion in the programme. We can expect that there will be a need to refocus. The power of this report may be to force us to draw breath, to look again at the programme and make sure we are achieving the original goals and, as we have added strands, to determine whether we are catering as we should to the people who have been brought into the net.

Senator Carrigy said one thing that I disagree with. He said that the parents who have been in to this committee have fought tirelessly. They are tired, really, are they not, when we think about it? The parents who have had to come in and give their testimony to this committee have really had to delve into their personal life experiences and have had to fight again and again with a system to access resources and services for their children. They have not fought tirelessly. They have fought relentlessly, for sure, but they are tired. I can well understand it.

The original purpose of this programme had that respite element in it. It is important. I am an educationalist by training and background and I am going to talk a little bit about how we should be focusing on the curriculum of what we want to achieve in the summer programme. That respite element is so important and should not be underestimated. I am going to read a quote from Miriam Jennings, who came and spoke before the committee:

The pressure on the child, parents, siblings and extended family is immense. [That reference to siblings and extended family is something we often forget.] There are no summer camps, playdates or family holidays during the nine or 13 weeks away from school. The long break causes an increase in the number of episodes of sensory overload, a regression in skills and a greater incidence of anxiety, self-injurious behaviours, aggression towards parents and siblings, destructive outbursts and absconding. When a child is regressing and losing the ability to cope, this puts a strain on families trying to support him or her. Family relationships come under immense pressure.

We cannot understate that. It is not a bottomless well that these people draw their courage and energy from. It is difficult to be a parent of a child who might have additional needs. It is difficult to be a sibling of a child who has those additional needs. We have heard that at the committee. It is often one of the great unspokens. The brothers and sisters within those families often find it difficult to say that. It is important for everybody within the family group that this is in place.

We may have lost a little bit of focus on what summer provision should do because of the expansion of the programme. That is an important part. We should be looking towards what it is we want to achieve within the summer programme. We want to avoid regression, keep people in routines they are used to, and provide that valuable respite for parents and families. What else? It is surely not the exact same curriculum that is being delivered week in, week out, or is it? In my opinion it should not be. It is summertime for everybody involved. Are we giving any sort of clear guidance and instruction to those schools that are trying to provide a summer programme and summer provision about what they should be covering during that period? If we think about those multiple strands that we have in place, maybe we need to be giving a clear delineation between the strands.

We should also think about access to therapeutics. It is an opportunity, even in the context of the school buildings. For example, I visited Bunscoil Gleann Sidheáin in Cappoquin. In the normal run of events it has two classrooms that cater for the autistic children who attend there. During the summertime there is actually much more freedom in terms of the built environment, access to the green spaces, the hall and so on. They are not in competition with the other classes in the school. Is there an opportunity during that period to get access to therapeutics in a more meaningful way? Others in the House have talked about the range of skills we could bring in, maybe people who are training for this, want to have the experience and are bringing a different range of skills into the mix. Given the massive and welcome expansion in the programme over the past number of years, maybe it is an opportunity to draw breath and look again at the objectives we want to achieve here.

I would not be happy with myself if I did not draw attention to one aspect here that we do not discuss enough. That is teachers’ energy, teachers’ burnout and principals. When we are asking schools to run summer provision, we are asking teachers who have had a long year going from September to the end of June. I have done it myself many years and they fall across the line on 30 June and need to recharge their own batteries as they have had a tough year. It is the same with principals. I do not know how teaching principals keep going when they do two jobs for one-and-a bit times the pay. They only begin their second job when all the children have gone home. We have to provide support into the schools as well. It is so important that we start the planning process now. That is one of the reasons I really welcome the interim report. We also have to resolve the pay issue. The Minister of State mentioned the online portal and that did substantially improve things last year, but there is a little bit of a hangover. There were teachers and special needs assistants who engaged previously in summer provision and did not see a paycheck arrive until maybe December and were put off as a result. We have a little bit of work to do in terms of remediating that to invite those people back in and assure them that those teething issues have been dealt with.

All in all, it is a very coherent report. It is short and to the point. I hope it is going to give the Minister of State something to consider in providing for summer provision this year. I thank the other members of the committee and in particular the committee chairperson for bringing the report forward.