Wednesday, 6 March 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Autism Support Services
2. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to address the acute shortage of ASD classes for post-primary school students in County Kilkenny; the measures he will take to address the shortage in order to prepare for the high number of children with autism in primary schools in County Kilkenny who will finish primary level in the coming years and who will need a place in an ASD class at post-primary level; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11159/19]
My question is to ask the Minister what his plans are to address the acute shortage of ASD classes for post-primary school students in Kilkenny and what measures the Department will take to address the shortage in order to prepare for the high number of children with autism who are currently in primary school in Kilkenny, who will obviously finish primary school in the coming years and who are in need of a place in an ASD class at post-primary level. I ask the Minister to comment on the matter.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta fá choinne an cheist seo. Is léir go bhfuil an cheist iontach práinneach, agus ba mhaith liom m'aitheantas a ghabháil leis an Teachta fá choinne na ceiste a tharraingt anuas.
The National Council for Special Education, which is an independent agency of my Department, is responsible for planning, co-ordinating and advising on education provision for children with special educational needs. This includes taking account of the flow of students from primary into post-primary education. The council ensures that schools in an area can, between them, cater for all children who have been identified as needing special class placements.
The NCSE has informed my Department that it is satisfied that there are sufficient post-primary autism special class placements in Kilkenny to meet identified need for the forthcoming school year. The conversations I have had with the Deputy in recent months tell a different story.
The Deputy is picking up different messages on the ground, so we must look at meeting areas where there are weaknesses according to the anecdotal evidence and the feedback from my officials.
For the 2018-19 school year, 160 new special classes have been opened, which means that there are now 1,459 special classes in place, compared with 548 in 2011.
The number of special classes in County Kilkenny has increased from five in 2011-12 to 26 in 2018-19. Of these, 22 are autism special classes: two autism early intervention classes, 13 primary autism classes and seven post-primary autism classes.
Individual school boards of management are responsible for the establishment of special classes. It is open to any school to apply to the NCSE to establish a class. In deciding where to establish a special class in an area, the NCSE takes account of the current and projected demand and the available school accommodation, both current and planned.
The Minister referred to the fact that I have raised this issue on a number of occasions. As a result, I have met even more parents. Every time I speak about this, more people contact us. These parents do not want to have to come into my office of an evening to tell their stories and they should not have to do so. Obviously, however, there is a very serious issue here. There is definitely some major breakdown with the NCSE because time and time again, it tells us there are enough places. There clearly are not enough places. I think the Minister may have said there were seven post-primary places, if I heard him correctly. There are not. There are not seven schools at secondary level offering ASD classes to students. If they are, they are obviously hiding somewhere. What happens if a secondary school tells a parent and his or her child that there is no space in a school for the child? People who progress very well in an ASD class at primary level are then forced into a mainstream secondary school, often not even having the assistance of a special needs assistant or resource hours, and then they completely fall through the cracks of the education system. It is absolutely not good enough, and I ask the Minister to meet the parents in Kilkenny about this because I do not accept what the NCSE is saying. It is not the first time I have raised this issue, and we consistently get the same response. It does not reflect the reality on the ground.
I thank the Deputy once again. With every new school build, there is provision in the new school build, and even for major additional capital expansion of a school, the general trend is that there is an in-built provision for autism classes, special classes, within those new schools. I am aware that with a cohort of 4,000 primary and secondary schools in the country, there are many old buildings and buildings that are challenging from the point of view of provision of this service on site. There is an opportunity for schools and boards of management to decide to make provision for special classes. They can look at reconfiguring existing spaces. This is a difficulty because many of our schools are already at capacity, they are maxed out, but there is a provision to construct additional accommodation as well. I re-emphasise and reiterate that if the board of management comes forward with the idea and suggestion of looking at providing for a special class, the NCSE and the SENOs will meet the board. I meet the NCSE regularly, and this might be helpful in this instance. At this stage what I would like to do is meet the NCSE on this specific issue regarding Kilkenny, and I would be happy to organise a meeting and have the Deputy included in it.
I would appreciate that. I met the NCSE last year and it said there are enough spaces when clearly there are not. I would appreciate it if the Minister would arrange a meeting but I again appeal to him to meet with the parents in Kilkenny so he can see at first hand what they are dealing with.
What I hear is that it is completely up to a board of management to decide it needs an ASD class. What happens in a situation where there is a clear demand and a board of management perhaps does not want to deal with the issue? That is another reality we have to accept, although many people do not want to say that. There are some excellent schools and excellent teachers but some do not want to know about it and do not want to have an ASD class. What happens in that situation? What do we say to the parents coming in to us, desperate because they do not know if their child is going to secondary school in September?
At this time of year, children who do not have an additional need are taking their entrance exams for secondary school but that is not an option for children who need an ASD class because they do not even know if they are going to have a school, let alone an entrance exam. It is not acceptable that we continuously say they can have a different education system. We have created a two-tier education system. I am calling on the Minister to change that, given he is relatively new in the brief and I feel he has a genuine interest in this. Again, I ask that he would meet the parents in Kilkenny and perhaps arrange that parent representatives would speak directly to the NCSE.
The Deputy has been very constructive and we will certainly organise that and see how it pans out. We have a duty in this House, as legislators, to get the good message out. The Deputy is no different to me in that she visits primary schools and secondary schools. The schools that have special classes and that are embracing the social model of inclusion by ensuring the inclusion of people with special and challenging conditions, whether dyspraxia, dyslexia or autism, are the schools and learning environments that are the richer for it. We can feel the harmony and the learning that is going on, and the schools that embrace the special classes are the ones I feel energised by when I go to visit.
The message has to go out to other boards of management that there is an opportunity to ensure we are providing for children with all forms of disability and challenges, from complex medical needs to different and challenging behaviours. Those are the students who are going to enrich the school environment and they become the leaders within that school, along with the people around them, such as SNAs and others working within that inclusive atmosphere to provide the learning environment we all aspire to.