Seanad debates

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Autism Support Services

10:30 am

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House this morning. He is very welcome. This issue is not his direct area of responsibility but I would appreciate it if he would give us a response and convey concerns to the Minister.

The issue at stake is State supports for those with special educational needs. In particular, I raise the issue of the lack of supports for those students with autism and the pressure the State has put on their parents. This is an issue of major national concern at this critical time in the school year. The Government is failing our children.

The most pressing issue facing children with autism spectrum disorder, ASD, is the lack of special class spaces at secondary level. Teachers encounter students every year who should be in needs-appropriate learning environments but who instead are forced into mainstream schools which cannot accommodate their needs. I met a number of teachers over the course of the summer who have expressed real concern about the stress this causes for parents, children and teachers.

This is an issue that comes up every year and, unfortunately, the Government has failed to meet the challenge every year. Government policy forces hundreds of children with autism and other special educational needs to go without needs-appropriate learning environments. Instead of receiving a needs-appropriate education, they are treated as problematic students. They are put on reduced timetables and left with no option but to spend much of the time they should be in school at home. On Monday, I met a parent whose child is given only one hour of schooling per day.This position is further undermined by the lack of sufficient funding for home tuition, which is an issue that has been raised for weeks ahead of the return to school and continued to be raised weeks after the return to school. I hope the Minister of State can clarify for us this morning if appropriate home tuition hours have been approved.

The Minister for Education and Skills has in his power since the enactment of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 to ensure that every school across this State has the appropriate level of classes for children with special educational needs. I am puzzled as to why this power has not been used more often. These children are locked out of their constitutionally guaranteed right to education by the simple fact that this Government is not willing to pay for their education. There is a chronic lack of autism spectrum disorder special classes at post-primary level and an unacceptable level of geographic inequity in this provision of special classes. For example, in Cavan there are seven special classes at primary level to every one at post-primary level and in Laois the numbers are similar. In Dublin, this ratio is 3:1 and it is similar in Clare, Kildare, Monaghan, Offaly, Roscommon, Waterford and Wicklow. Only one county, Leitrim, has a ratio of 1:1 and it is the least-populated county in the State. The rest of the country faces deficits of 50%. These numbers are not coming down and the progress that the Government claims is mostly at primary level. This begs the question of whether Fine Gael envisages a society where half or more of our children with autism just do not continue to second level education?

This issue is symptomatic of a Government negligent in its duties. Not only that but this is an obstructive Government that is impeding the advancement of equality enshrined in our Constitution. Education is the keystone in the bridge to opportunity. We have removed that bridge for too many children, unduly burdening too many parents. This must be remedied and the solution is obvious. There must be more classes. The current reality unfortunately represents a total failure of the Government's constitutional obligations to these children and their parents.


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