Dáil debates

Tuesday, 7 November 2006

Adjournment Debate

Special Educational Needs.

8:00 pm

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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There is a real danger that Bluebell ABA School for children with autism will have to close if it is not assisted by the Government with funding this year. That is why I am raising the issue as a matter of urgency. Parents are fearful for their children, who have been making wonderful progress and are so very content in the Bluebell environment. Bluebell was founded by parents in March 2004 and caters for six children in a rented house in a residential area of the Limerick suburbs.

Parents have managed to keep the school going through using home tuition grants and constant fundraising. They are worried, however, that even that tenuous funding is now at risk because the Department of Education and Science has told some of them that home tuition grants may be withdrawn. I urge the Minister for Education and Science to sanction the funding of Bluebell directly by her Department to put an end to the uncertainty and worry those families are suffering.

Already some 12 ABA schools have departmental funding, and I understand that two others have been approved. None is in Limerick, the third city of the Republic, and it is about time that Bluebell ABA school in that city was recognised. I know that the others that have received recognition are doing wonderful work, as is Bluebell, but its future is currently very insecure.

I recently visited the school, one of the most positive experiences that I have had for some time. It is clear that the children are benefiting from the environment and methods suited to their specific needs. From observing them and seeing how they interact with those with whom they deal at Bluebell, I have no doubt that those children would not be able to adapt to the traditional school classroom at this stage in their development. They do not have the skills to survive in a normal classroom.

One of the Bluebell parents explained matters by saying that children with autism are trapped inside their own minds, aware of their surroundings but unable to make sense of them. As well as teaching ABCs, they teach those children how to exist in the world around them, something that will be a cornerstone of their futures and a key to unlocking their potential to understand and participate in their world. By investing in autism-specific education at an early age, we can give those special children a real chance in life. If we do not, they and their families may face a future of constant battling for services and the understanding of those around them.

If we want to be purely mercenary about it, I have no doubt whatsoever that the State will save a great deal by addressing the needs of those children appropriately at an early age. I cannot overstate the commitment of the parents whom I met at that school. They are desperate to keep it going and offer the same opportunity to other parents, but they are very tired of constantly having to raise funds and battling to maintain what they have put in place. They are very concerned for their children's futures. If the school is granted recognition, it will be able to move to a new site and take more children. There is a long waiting list at present.

I understand that it has been offered a site should it be given the go-ahead to establish a purpose-built school. They propose to increase numbers gradually over a five-year period, taking an extra five children each year up to a maximum of 20. I urge the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, and his colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, to grant recognition and secure funding to Bluebell school. It cannot be allowed to close its doors for lack of funds. I make that appeal in the knowledge that the school is in genuine danger of closing owing to the loss of home tuition grants.

Photo of John BrowneJohn Browne (Minister of State, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and apologise for the Minister's absence. It provides me with the opportunity to clarify the position of the Department of Education and Science regarding educational provision for pupils with autistic spectrum disorders, ASD.

The Deputy will be aware of the commitment of the Department of Education and Science to ensuring that all children, including those with ASD, receive an education appropriate to their needs. In that regard, the Department has established 171 special classes for children with autism attached to special and mainstream schools; five special classes for children with Asperger's syndrome; 16 pre-school classes to facilitate the demand for early intervention provision for children on the autistic spectrum; and 12 stand-alone facilities providing an applied behavioural analysis, ABA-specific methodology on a pilot basis. Approval has also been given for the establishment of a further two such facilities. The group referred to by the Deputy has applied for inclusion under that scheme.

The Department is of the view that children with autism, in common with all children, should have access to appropriate provision delivered by suitably qualified teachers within the school system where the children can mix with their wider peer group and have maximum opportunities for integration. Pupils with autism who are fully integrated into mainstream school receive individual teaching support for several hours per week, as well as support from special needs assistants and specialist equipment, if required.

Pupils attending those classes benefit from having a wider range of ASD teaching methodologies open to them, fully qualified national school teachers, a school structure and the option of integration into mainstream classes immediately available, depending on each child's ability and progress. Schools have the support of the Special Education Support Service, SESS, which is committed to providing continuing training as appropriate.

Staffing supports for autistic children in special classes in ordinary schools and special schools have a maximum pupil-teacher ratio of six pupils to every teacher. A minimum of two special needs assistants are provided per class, with the possibility of additional special needs assistant posts being made available up to a 1:1 basis where required.

The newly established National Council for Special Education and its team of over 70 special educational needs organisers is also working across the country to ensure that new services are put in place where needed so that children with special needs, including those on the autistic spectrum, have access to appropriate school-based provision.

I advise the Deputy that the Department of Education and Science is currently considering the application from Bluebell in Limerick for inclusion under the pilot scheme. I thank the Deputy once again for raising this matter. I assure her that I will bring her points to the Minister's attention. As the parent of a physically challenged child, I fully support the efforts of parents in Limerick to have such provision.