Seanad debates

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Autism Support Services

10:30 am

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank Senator Gavan for providing this opportunity to have this debate on a very important area. I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, as he could not make it here to take part in the debate.

The Government is determined to ensure every child is allocated a school place, including through the use of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 to direct schools to make a provision. We are trying to set new targets and provide new treatments but the aim is to provide school places and there is no lack of desire on our side to achieve it. We stand for equality of opportunity as a party and as the party leading the Government, we will carry that through.

Every child must have the opportunity to avail of his or her right to education pursuant to constitutional and legal rights and in accordance with identified needs. To this end, the Government will invest €1.9 billion this year on supporting students with special educational needs in schools. This includes an allocation of over €300 million towards providing additional resources specifically to support students with autism. The numbers of special education teachers, special needs assistants and specialised places are at unprecedented levels and so too is the number of children receiving support across the continuum that includes mainstream classes, special classes and schools. The greater proportion of children with autism attend mainstream class, where they may access additional supports if required. Some students may find it difficult to manage full-time placement in mainstream classes and so placement in a special class or special school setting is sometimes deemed more appropriate.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has a statutory function to plan and co-ordinate the provision of education and support services to children with special educational needs. This includes the establishment of special class and special school places in areas with identified need. Since 2011, the Government has increased the number of special classes from 548 to 1,621 across the country now, of which 1,355 are autism spectrum disorder special classes. It is an important increase and although some may argue it is still not enough, it is a serious commitment to increasing the offering that has been there over the past seven or eight difficult years. We ensured we could prioritise education during those years, which were difficult because of financial reasons, and we also looked to prioritise special needs education in that time. There are 124 special schools that provide specialist education for students with complex special educational needs. These schools now provide over 8,000 places, compared with 6,848 in 2011.

The NCSE has well-established structures to ensure advance planning is in place to ensure that there is sufficient specialist places to meet need as it arises. Normally, places are established with the full co-operation of the schools. There is legislative provision in place where schools refuse to make the necessary provision for children in their areas or try to avoid it. The legislation was invoked already by the NCSE back in April when the council formally advised of the need for eight primary autism classes and 40 special school places for children in the Dublin 15 area. This followed an intensive series of engagements by the NCSE with schools in the area. We have since worked hard with the schools and patron bodies concerned. We have made progress with the opening of a new special school that will ultimately provide 40 places and seven primary schools have also agreed to open autism classes. One further class is required and work is ongoing in this regard.

The experience in Dublin 15 demonstrates the legislation is an effective tool to vindicate a child's constitutional right to education where all reasonable efforts have failed and it may need to be used again. However, we would naturally prefer not to use legislation and there should be a willingness from all involved in the provision of education to carry out duties in that space. The Minister's preference is for schools to engage with this challenge on a voluntary basis because it is right for the children in these communities. The Department of Education and Skills, together with the NCSE, will continue to work with schools, patron bodies and teachers so they can establish special classes where required with confidence. In that way, we will continue to seek to meet the education needs of children in their local school in so far as possible.

I note the Senator mentioned the difference between primary and secondary levels and there is a concentration on trying to meet those additional needs at the secondary level. There are still many primary schools that are not providing the required spaces so we will continue to work on that as a Government. As I noted, the Minister wants this done in a voluntary capacity, with people recognising their responsibilities, but if that does not happen, the legislation allows us to step in and make changes. That is what has happened.


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