Dáil debates

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Special Educational Needs

5:20 pm

Photo of Pádraig O'SullivanPádraig O'Sullivan (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I have raised this issue consistently with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, both in the Chamber and when I have an opportunity at the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. I will continue to raise it because it is an issue of contention in Cork and it needs to be addressed urgently. Any clarification that the Minister of State could give today would be most welcome.

I will give a couple of facts that detail the situation we face in Cork. In area CHO 4, as per the HSE designation, there are over 1,000 children awaiting assessment of needs. A high proportion of these are from Cork and a significant number would require a place in a special needs school. The nearest special school, Scoil Cara, opened in 2014. This was a fantastic purpose-built facility. It currently has an enrolment of 71 students but with a capacity of 72. That is essentially full.

Following on from that, there are also 22 children in Cork who do not have a place in a special school at present and are not in any school. They are most likely receiving home tuition. In addition to those 22 children, there are 40 children in special class placements who remain on the waiting list for a special school. That amounts to more than 60 children in Cork who currently do not have a place in a special school but are entitled to one.

In response to a previous inquiry I made, there may be capacity for enrolment of four to six children in Rochestown in September 2021, but that is it. That leaves 56 children or so, as of now, with no special school place come September 2021. Our experience with Covid shows that these students suffer the most in the absence of the ability to get to school. What can we say to the 56 children who have no prospect of returning to any school for the next academic year?

Some work has been done to progress the idea of a new special school. I welcome the input of Department and, in particular, Cope into this process. I note that a report was submitted to the Department of Education on 12 October last in relation to a technical report on a nearby building, Montenotte House. That technical report surmised that the building was not able to deliver much-needed places in the short term. While I have not seen the contents of that technical report, Montenotte House is a protected building and, most likely, is unsuitable to cater for lifts and widening of doors, etc., for persons with disability. I would imagine that has put considerable restrictions on the building's ability to deliver much-needed places.

I understand that a further meeting took place on 3 November. I am not entirely sure of the outcome of that meeting. Perhaps the Minister of State could elaborate on it for me. I am led to believe from speaking to people locally that in response to the technical report that Cope submitted to the Department before Christmas, in addition to stating that the Montenotte House building was unsuitable to cater for children in special education, Cope essentially offered part of its office block on site for conversion. If that is the case, I wonder if the Minister of State could clarify where we are at with that process.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. He is correct when he says he consistently raises it with me in the Chamber and at the joint committee. He is correct to do so because it is an important issue for children with special needs in County Cork. This opportunity gives me a chance to outline the provision that we are giving for children with special educational needs, in general and also in Cork.

Departmental policy is that children with special educational needs should be included, where possible and appropriate, in mainstream placements with additional supports provided. In circumstances where children with special educational needs require more specialised interventions, special school or special class places are provided for. This year, the State will invest over 20% of its total education budget, or €2 billion, in supporting children with special needs. As a result, even though there is more progress to be made, the numbers of special education teachers, special needs assistants, special classes and special school places are at unprecedented levels.

Since 2011, the number of special classes in mainstream schools has increased by almost 235% from 548 to 1,836 for the 2020-21 school year.

Nationally, 197 new special classes have been established for the 2020-21 school year.

Budget 2021 also provided for an extra 235 special class teachers this year, supporting the provision of more than 1,200 additional special class places; an extra 990 SNAs, meaning that more than 18,000 SNAs will be available for allocation to schools this year; an additional 145 special education teachers, bringing the total provision to 13,765 in mainstream primary and post-primary schools; and an additional 23 special education teachers to be allocated to meet increased enrolments in special schools.

Notwithstanding the extent of this investment, I am acutely aware that there are some parts of the country where increases in population and other issues have led to concerns regarding a shortage of school places, for example, in Cork. It is accepted that additional specialist education places are urgently required in the Cork area. The Department's school building programme is focused on providing the additional school places to ensure every child, including children with special needs, has a school place. This includes opening new schools and extending existing schools in areas where more school places are needed to meet the growing number of children living there.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has responsibility for co-ordinating and advising on the education provision for children with special educational needs nationwide. It has well-established structures for engaging with schools and parents. The NCSE seeks to ensure schools in an area can, between them, cater for all children who have been identified as needing special education placements. It continues to work with and support the families who have a recommendation for, and are seeking to secure, a special school placement.

A number of meetings between the Department, the NCSE and relevant stakeholders, including patron bodies, have taken place to consider how the demand for special school placements in Cork can be met. This engagement is ongoing. The NCSE is aware there are 20 children who are not in school and who require special school places. The Deputy mentioned a figure of 22, so the number is either 20 or 22. These children are getting home tuition, but that is not satisfactory. All options are being explored, including ascertaining the availability of any accommodation in existing schools that could be used as a short-term solution, the availability of lands where temporary accommodation could be provided, and the option of a greenfield site where a new school could be constructed.

5:30 pm

Photo of Pádraig O'SullivanPádraig O'Sullivan (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for her response. At the outset, I meant to acknowledge the good work that had been done in special needs education over the past decade in particular. We have more special needs assistants, SNAs, and special education teachers than ever before, but we must be cognisant of the fact we also have more children than ever with a diagnosis of some description on the spectrum. Hence the pressure we are under to facilitate places for them in special schools.

While I welcome the Minister of State's response, I would welcome any clarification she could give regarding the meetings in Cork between the NCSE, the Cope Foundation and her Department. In the initial technical report, three options were considered - short, medium and long-term. I understand the option of converting Montenotte House was the short-term option. Now that it seems to have been ruled out following the technical report submitted, will the Minister of State clarify what the medium- and long-term options are? Would they entail greenfield sites? I am aware the Cope Foundation has essentially offered its office and administration buildings in Montenotte for conversion into classrooms, which I have been informed could facilitate up to 25 or 30 children. If the Minister of State is aware of this offer, will she comment on it? This would not be about doing a short-term fix just for the sake of it. Not only would it be the quickest solution for the September 2021 intake, it would also be on campus with the existing facilities. It makes total sense to explore this option.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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Short-term options are being considered, for example, if any other vacant accommodation is available in an existing school in Cork city. In addition, a number of building projects in Cork are being re-examined for potential capacity. The process is ongoing and includes engagement with local patrons and the education and training board, ETB. Options for the provision of a special school in Cork are also being examined. The Deputy will be aware there were meetings between the Department, the NCSE, the school's management and the Cope Foundation regarding Scoil Aislinn, whose patron is the Cope Foundation and which is located on Boreenmanna Road, Ballintemple, Cork, to explore the school's expansion and other options that would facilitate the enrolment of children who are without a school placement currently. My understanding is there will be another meeting in February to explore these options further and determine whether they would be feasible.

My Department will continue to support the NCSE and schools through the provision of the necessary funding and capital investment to ensure all children succeed in accessing education. In Cork, a concentrated effort is required by the Department, the NCSE and me. It is important that every child with special needs is catered for. It is not acceptable that school places are not available to the children who are waiting on them. The Deputy has raised this matter many times. A meeting will be held in February and I hope progress will come from it so that the children in question, particularly the 20 who are not in a school and are availing of the home tuition scheme, will be able to get school places. There are other children who have recommendations for school places and who are in special classes currently. They need to be considered as well.