Thursday, 1 April 2021
Prime Time Investigates Programme on Department of Health: Statements
John Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the "RTÉ Investigates" programme on this issue. I wish to put on record that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is blameless in regard to this matter. It is important to state that.
I thank the Minister of State for being here. She has come to this place after only eight months in office. The question for me is how did we get here. I am sure that for people who might not have a vested interest or who are not stakeholders in the special education piece, it is mind-boggling how this information ended up on spreadsheets in secret files in the Department of Health. How is it that parents of children with special needs and children with special needs ended up in this situation of secret files being compiled on them in a Department of State?
How did we get here? Let us go back to the beginning of the trail. Taking my constituency as an example, I know of parents who rise at 6 a.m. to bring one child with special needs from the Rathfarnham-Knocklyon area to the border with Kildare to a school that has a special educational needs unit and who then make the journey back across the Dublin Mountains to the border with Wicklow where there is another school that has a special educational needs unit and they do that twice a day, Monday to Friday.
As for how did we get here, again, let us take my constituency as an example. Nationally, the ratio of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, places is 94:1. In other words, for every 94 mainstream school places, there is one special class place. In my constituency of Dublin South-West, as well as that of Dublin Bay South, which encompasses Dublin 4, 6 and 6W, and parts of Dublin 16 because there are schools there that have ASD units, the ratio is as high as 650:1. How did we get here? There are, as I learned recently, 130 post-primary schools inside and east of the M50, not including the 30 private fee-paying post-primary schools. Of those 130 post-primary schools, 23 have ASD units and all but two of those ASD units are in DEIS schools. How did we get here? The Department of Health is the second last staging post, before the courts, in this battle. How did we get here? It starts much earlier. How do we stop parents and their children ending up in this space? It starts before preschool. It is an exhausting, never-ending journey for parents, for whom the education of their children is only one of the challenges they face. We know the amazing impact that preschool education has on every child, never mind the impact it has on those children with special needs and the difference it makes to their lives. The struggle for places continues at primary school level, when parents are told that school X might be a better fit for their child than a particular school. We have not yet discovered the challenge that faces them at post-primary level. It is only beginning to emerge.
This is a societal issue. It ends in court. As I said, the second last staging post is the Department of Health, but this concerns patron bodies, boards of management and every stakeholder in education in this country, some of whom, not all - there are fantastic exceptions - connive silently and invisibly to exclude children from schools that are not State-run but are State-funded from start to finish.