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)
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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.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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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.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response. He referred to what has happened since the passing of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018. Interestingly, the Government opposed the part of the Bill that gave the Minister those powers, and it was a combination of Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party and others that had it included in the legislation. I understand the Minister of State may not be able to answer my question and I want to be fair. I am puzzled as to why the powers in the Act have been used so little to date. We know there is a dearth of classes, with a particular problem at secondary level, as the Minister of State acknowledged, in fairness. Nevertheless, the Minister has chosen not to use the legislation that may force schools to provide classes where they are needed. I mentioned counties like Cavan, Laois, Dublin, Clare, Kildare, Monaghan, Offaly, Roscommon, Waterford and Wicklow, which have a drastic shortage of these classes. I am puzzled as to why the Minister has not used that power.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I should be clear that the Government is determined to ensure every child is allocated a school place and to use the legislation when it must, when it is appropriate and when it is advised to do so by the NCSE. I forget the history of the various amendments to the legislation but it is great if this House contributed to making the necessary changes and that Act is now working. It is what the House is for. We try to take on board amendments from everybody when we can and they are right.

This part of the legislation was formally used for the first time on 18 April by the NCSE in informing the Minister of a shortage of school places in Dublin 15. The NCSE had to make the case to the Minister that this legislation had to be used, and that is what happened in April. The NCSE is aware of a number of children still seeking specialist places and it continues to work with schools and patrons to establish this educational provision. The council takes the approach of trying to work with schools and parents to make this happen without the need for the provisions in the legislation. We are not afraid to use it when the need is there, as we have proven. The NCSE is actively engaging at a local level with schools, patron bodies and the families concerned to resolve the issues involved as soon as possible. If, following completion of the work, the NCSE establishes there is still a shortage of places in either area, it may inform the Minister by activating the provisions contained in the Education Act 1998. Funding for provision of home tuition is available to parents as a short-term intervention until school placement is available.

I understand the funding is there to match need. There are often issues but these are not always related to money. The provisions of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 are used when required but there is a process in getting to that. It is not for a Minister to decide that he or she will intervene on a specific day. It must come through the NCSE in the process that has been working well in this country for a number of years.

Sitting suspended at 11.20 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.