Seanad debates

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

10:30 am

Photo of Maire DevineMaire Devine (Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I wish to extend a céad míle fáilte to two groups in the Public Gallery this morning, AsIAm, which does Trojan work in raising awareness of autism throughout the country, and the Crumlin-based autism parent support group.

I raise this issue on foot of AsIAm's recent report entitled Invisible Children - Survey on School Absence and Withdrawal in Ireland's Autism Community. It is a national scandal that the right to an education is out of reach for so many autistic children at primary and secondary levels. A mother in her 30s is in jail this morning having been prosecuted for failing to send her children to school but this Government should be in the dock being prosecuted for the lack of places for autistic children at preschool, primary and secondary levels, which is preventing them from vindicating their right to an education.

There are several issues that the Minister for Education and Skills must address. He must ask the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, to develop policy advice on school exclusion and school refusal. He must also ask the council to improve the level and quality of engagement by special education needs organisers, SENOs, with families, particularly those that are in crisis because of the lack of school places.

When the aforementioned report was published on Monday, the Department said that it was satisfied that there were enough suitable school places. It must be accepted that there is a shortage of autism classes and moreover, a shortage of suitable placements in mainstream and special schools. I ask that the Minister for Education and Skills commits to publishing plans on how every autistic child can access a suitable school placement for the next academic year.

We finally ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities late last year but we are not living up to our commitments in that regard. It is estimated that one in every 59 or 60 children in this country has autism and we are failing those children. This Government is failing Ireland's autistic children. I hope that the Minister of State will provide some succour in her response this morning. The Minister for Education and Skills must instruct schools to open ASD units. That has not happened yet and I do not know how far the Minister is prepared to go in that regard. Schools need instruction as well as support and resources in order to ensure that children with autism grow up healthy, happy and secure and are educated within their own communities. They should not have to travel for miles to access a school place. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Devine for raising this very important issue. I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy McHugh. I wish to acknowledge the important role stakeholders like AslAm play in promoting education and the inclusion of children in education. The Minister, Deputy McHugh, recently met with AslAm and was impressed with its work. Officials are studying the report published yesterday and the Minister will be discussing its recommendations with them.

Enabling children with special educational needs, including autism, to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a priority for this Government. At present, we are investing heavily in supporting our children with special educational needs, with €1.8 billion being spent annually, which represents approximately €1 in every €5 of the education budget. This includes an allocation of more than €300 million towards providing additional resources specifically to support students with autism in schools. The number of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, special classes has more than doubled in the last five years from 511 in 2014 to 1,196 across the country now. In addition, 124 special schools provide for children with autism and very complex special needs.

The work of the Department of Education and Skills in respect of special education is informed by evidence-based advice from the National Council for Special Education. The NCSE consults extensively with stakeholders, including parents, experts and organisations like AslAm, which has provided useful insights into difficulties experienced by children and families in getting an education. The NCSE is currently developing advice for the Department on education provision in special classes and special schools. The council is examining whether there are any students for whom both specialist and mainstream educational settings are currently not working and, if there are, will consider what might be contributing to this. Schools are required to have policies in place for the promotion of student well-being, positive behaviour and an environment that is conducive to good teaching and learning. The thrust of these policies is early intervention and provision of supports so that every child receives an education appropriate to his or her ability. Advice and support is available to help schools in this regard.

The National Educational Psychological Service supports children with ASD, including those who may also present with anxiety. This involves working with teachers to build whole-school capacity to work with children with special educational needs, including autism and anxiety. It also involves working with individual children who are experiencing difficulties. There are legal provisions around the exclusion and expulsion of students and these are the responsibility of Tusla. Fair procedures are a key requirement. Expulsion should be a last resort and reduced timetables should not be used as a behavioural management technique. Where students are excluded from school, the Department provides home tuition as a short-term measure until a more permanent solution is identified.

The NCSE is aware of the recent demand for additional special class and special school placements in the Dublin area. Planning is actively under way to ensure that children without a suitable placement for next year are provided with such a placement. We expect a clearer picture to emerge in the coming weeks when schools have finalised their enrolments. The NCSE is leading the work in this regard with significant support from the Department.

Responsibility for ensuring all children have access to a suitable education is a shared responsibility. The Minister, Deputy McHugh, is confident that through the work of the NCSE and the co-operation of schools we can address the current difficulties.

Photo of Maire DevineMaire Devine (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister of State, although I would have liked a more reassuring response. The Children's Ombudsman is overwhelmed. I have spoken with him at length about this issue. He is considering what to do next. I reiterate that nobody should tolerate any child not having a place in a school, let alone a child with extra needs. It is as if the child is a burden on the system. The partial schooling being offered throughout the country is illegal. It goes against the law of the land. The assessment the NCSE is going to carry out is long overdue. When is that going to happen? When will an uplifting, embracing and worthwhile announcement about what will be done be made? We will listen to the likes of the parents who are in the Chamber today. They are loud, they will speak boldly, and they will not stop. This movement has commenced. It is the next thing we need to blow out of the water and lift the lid on. We need to ensure suitable education for our children. We will get everybody involved, including the Children's Ombudsman who has indicated that he is frustrated by the number of cases. There are solicitors in Cork who are prepared to take cases in respect of the waiting list for assessments of need. We could go on and on. Disability and, in this instance, autism are being left out in the cold. It will happen no longer.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Dublin 12 and AsIAm groups. As was set out in the opening statement the Minister, Deputy McHugh, provided, the Minister has already met with AsIAm and is very confident that some of the recommendations in its report will make a significant difference in children's lives. I will read back the last paragraph of the statement I was given:

Responsibility for ensuring all children have access to a suitable education is a shared responsibility. The Minister, Deputy McHugh, is confident that through the work of the NCSE and the co-operation of schools [and principals and teachers] we can address the current difficulties.

As a public representative and Minister of State, I believe that no child should be left without access to education no matter what disabilities he or she may have. I will continue to support efforts to deal with the difficulties I see in my role as a local Deputy such as the problems parents face in getting access to special classes in schools for their children. I will raise the issues the Senator has raised with the Minister when I meet him during the next week. I thank the Senator again.