Dáil debates

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Special Educational Needs

9:20 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Topical Issue No. 2 is to discuss the continued and consistent absence of provision of ASD classes in postal code areas of Dublin south and west, leading to no school places for some students and advice to hire a home teacher to provide a child's continuing education.

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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There is probably no huge reason to elaborate on that, but I will. I first raised this issue in Opposition about three or four years ago. The rate of ASD places nationally is about 94 to 1. For every 94 mainstream class places nationally, there is one ASD place. In Dublin 4, Dublin 6, Dublin 6W and parts of Dublin 16 - Dublin 6, 6W and 16 are in my constituency - that ratio is as high as 650 to 1. For every 650 mainstream class places there is one ASD place. This leads to a disproportionate amount of pressure on schools in Dublin 12, which is also my constituency, and in Dublin 24 to take students and pupils from the other postal districts. As a consequence, it can sometimes lead to these schools turning down students from within their own catchment areas and their own postal code areas. I acknowledge that I did not believe I would be back here but I was at a public meeting recently and the situation at primary school level is becoming acute again. I will not even begin on the post primary level situation.

A grandmother called me yesterday on behalf of her grandson. She was distraught and exhausted and she still has not reached the end of the process in securing a place for her grandson. Her son wrote to me and said:

I am writing to you as we are desperately trying to secure a primary school place in an ASD class for our son... He was diagnosed with ASD in 2019 and is currently attending an ASD preschool class in the Good Shepherd National School in Churchtown. [They speak very highly about the Good Shepherd National School] Unfortunately, they do not have any ASD facilities in their primary school. We have applied to the following schools...

He goes on to outline the following schools, and this is not an exclusive list: Scoil Íosa (rejected); Educate Together, Ballinteer - no place; the Marist school - no place; Educate Together Firhouse - no place [and I know this is becuase they already are taking a disproportionate number of children in their school]; Educate Together Stepaside [which is miles away] - no place; St. Damian's National School, Crumlin - no place; Scoil Mhuire - they already have two ASD classes; St. Kevin's, Kilnamanagh [which is miles away] - no place; St. Clare's National School - no place; the Muslim school in Clonskeagh - no place; Our Lady of Good Hope - no place; Educate Together, Harcourt Terrace - no place; Scoil Naomh Pádraig - no place. The list goes on. I want to be clear that some of those schools are already operating ASD classes but most of them are not in Dublin 6W or Dublin 16.

The father goes on:

We have spoken to the two special educational needs organisers, SENOs, in our area .... and they have provided the names of some of the schools above. They have mentioned numerous times the home schooling option but this is not viable as my wife will need to return to work as we are on a single income at present.

Due to the very long waiting lists and the lack of services in the public sector the family is paying for private occupational therapy and speech and language therapy at the moment, and also had to get a private ASD assessment for their son in 2019 to allow him to obtain a place in preschool.

The letter goes on and on.

9 o’clock

I want to listen to the Minister of State's initial reply before I add some other points to it, but I think he gets very clearly the drift of where I am coming from on this.

9:30 pm

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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In the first instance, I send the apologies of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. Like Deputy Lahart, I have experienced some of those same issues, unfortunately, in my own constituency. I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It provides an opportunity for the Department to outline the current position regarding provision for children with special educational needs, including autism. Enabling children with special educational needs to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a priority for this Government.

This year, the Department of Education will invest in excess of €2 billion, or more than 25% of the Department's budget, in the area of special educational needs support. As a result, the numbers of special education teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and special class and school places are at unprecedented levels. Since 2011, the number of special classes in mainstream schools has increased from 548 to a current total of 2,148 for the 2021-2022 school year.

Recognising some of the difficulties experienced by parents in securing appropriate school placements, over the past two years, the Department of Education and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, have worked closely on a more streamlined and joined-up planning process. This has ensured a targeted approach to meet demand for special needs placements ahead of each new school year. Overall, this intensive intervention has seen an additional 300 special classes providing 1,800 new places already opened nationwide for the 2021-2022 school year.

The NCSE has responsibility for co-ordinating and advising on the education provision for children with special educational needs nationwide. It has well-established structures in place for engaging with schools and parents. The NCSE seeks to ensure schools in an area between them can cater for all children who have been identified as needing special class placements. The Department and the Minister, Deputy Foley, and Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, continue to prioritise and support this work.

The Department of Education recognises that it can be a stressful experience where parents have difficulties in securing an appropriate school placement for a child, particularly a child with additional needs. The Department is working hard to ensure there are sufficient school places appropriate to the needs of all children available on a timely basis nationwide. It is also envisaged, in line with demographics and as part of forward planning, that special classes will be required at most, if not all, post-primary schools in Dublin.

A range of measures to meet additional special educational needs, SEN, capacity demands have already been put in place, including the utilisation of spare capacity in existing schools and delivery of additional SEN capacity within the scope of existing building projects. Additionally, it is general practice to include a SEN base in the accommodation brief for new school buildings unless exceptional local circumstances indicate it is not required. The extent of provision made at these schools is informed by the level of demand in the area as well as the size of the school.

Looking specifically to the Dublin South-West postcodes of Dublin 6W, 12, 16 and 24, there are currently 65 special classes for students with autism in this area. This comprises 54 autism spectrum disorder, ASD, special classes at primary level, including five ASD early intervention classes, and 11 special classes at post-primary level, providing 390 placements for students. Both the Department of Education and the NCSE are always grateful to schools that express a willingness to open a special class to meet the educational needs of students in their local communities.

There are special educational needs organisers, SENOs, located throughout the country who have a key specific remit in helping and supporting parents in accessing the additional education necessary for their children, including identifying suitable school placements.

The NCSE is currently engaged in a process of establishing new classes for the 2022-2023 school year and beyond and is looking at the information relating to projected demand for future special education places, especially to cater for students with autism who have associated complex needs.

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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The mind boggles, particularly when we look specifically to Dublin South-West postcodes, which include, in fairness, Dublin 12 and Dublin 24. The bulk of the 65 special classes for students are in Dublin 12 and Dublin 24. There are notable exceptions in Dublin 6W such as Bishop Shanahan National School and Bishop Galvin National School, which are new to the system. I would like to say I had a little involvement in that and very much welcome it. Trojan work is being done at Scoil Mhuire, Ballyboden, which has two units, but all the others are in Dublin 12 and Dublin 24. Again, they are taking a disproportionate number of students.

Going back to the letter, the parent goes on to write that:

We were forced to apply far and wide to schools that put priority on children in their own catchment areas. Preschool has made a massive positive impact on our son and our ability to handle the long days. He's very happy in preschool and it has made a huge difference to him. He's very happy going in every morning and the socialisation aspect is essential for him.

It can be seen, therefore, that this child is doing very well developmentally and for this to be brought to an end will obviously cause a setback and regression to him. As I said, I was contacted not just by his father yesterday but by his grandmother.

This is what I would like the Minister of State to do because clearly, and I would like to say I again played a little part in this, the Government is doing its job in terms of resources. I would like both the Minister, Deputy Foley, and Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to write to all those schools in Dublin 6W and Dublin 16, some of which are very new schools, to ask them what obstacles are in the way of enabling them to provide ASD places for students in those postal codes. If every school in the four postal codes mentioned took an ASD class, we would never be having a debate in this Chamber about the provision of ASD places for children with special needs.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I absolutely empathise and understand the stress a grandmother would be under trying to secure a school place. It is not something that should be happening in society. As the Deputy alluded to, there is significant funding behind the provision of education in the State.

I think the Deputy may have put his finger on the pulse in terms of the two postcodes he referenced, however. I will raise this with both the Minister and Minister of State. Obviously, I do not have the data in front of me to give the Deputy exactly everything he needs at this point. I will genuinely bring it up with the Minister for Education, however, and in reference to the letter, the need to see potentially what obstacles are in place. The script I have been provided with also states that planning is very actively under way to ensure every student who is under pressure now gets a place. Again, I promise I will raise the issue with the Minister, Deputy Foley.