Seanad debates

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

10:30 am

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy McHugh.

Photo of Maire DevineMaire Devine (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy McHugh. Let us hope we have good news today. This matter is about children who have been diagnosed with autism but in particular about the parents and the community of Crumlin in Dublin 12.The area which is on the south side of Dublin has a dense and growing population and a vibrant community. However, not one school place is available for any child in the Dublin 12-Crumlin area. I have brought up this issue on numerous occasions with the Minister who has been kind enough to listen. Today I would like a positive response from him to allow the children to be part of their community and not to have to travel miles, if they are lucky enough to find places.

I will bring the Minister through the responses I have received on the facilities available in surrounding areas to which one is told to apply. The nearest such facility is in Walkinstown; the rest are out of reach in other areas. Regardless, every single one of them is full. I meet parents who are tearing their hair out in trying to secure early intervention for their children and then there are the post-primary schools, every single one of which is full, while the waiting lists are phenomenal. As I said, Crumlin has a vibrant community. The children who need extra care want to be part of that community, to grow up and be leaders in it, to have their family and friends around them and to build very strong bonds. That is what we do when we go to school in our local area, which is the best solution for all of us.

On the home tuition that is available, I brought up this issue in a Commencement debate in April and May and at the beginning of July. There are just no places available. Parents in Dublin 12 set up a support group, with which I have been involved from the start. They are tenacious, have knocked on every single door and will not take "No" for an answer. They are still going to and have had conversations - some good, some not so good - with the NCSE which seems to be a little more positive and willing in its responses and aware of the need, as I know the Minister is. Places were provided in the Dublin 15 area, but Dublin 12 is such a vibrant and densely populated area with absolutely nothing to show when it comes to the children of the area. I have tried to obtain the relevant figures from the HSE, but it does not compile figures for the numbers diagnosed with autism in a given area. Such figures are difficult to get. Perhaps the data might come through soon when services are up and running in order that they can be merged.

I hope the Minister has a positive response. The parents in the area are fantastic. They are just ordinary mammies and daddies who are looking out for their children and others who fall through the cracks. They have great community spirit and staged numerous protests. They have located a site and talked to the Department on several occasions. It is an absolutely perfect site, a shut-down school that is mostly lying empty. It would be a centre of excellence for children with extra needs.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as ucht na nithe tábhachtacha agus iontach suntasacha seo fá choinne seirbhísí daoine óga a ardú. I thank the Senator for raising this important matter.

The provision of education for children with special needs is an ongoing priority for the Government. Currently, almost 20%, or €1 out of every €5, of the total Vote, or €1.9 billion, is invested in supporting children with special needs. The numbers of special classes, special education teachers and special needs assistants are at unprecedented levels. Nationally, 167 new special classes opened for the 2019-20 school year, which means that there are 1,618 special classes in place, compared to 548 in 2011. Of these, 1,353 special classes cater for students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, ASD. The majority of children with autism attend mainstream classes, in which they may access additional supports, if required. However, as some students may find it difficult to manage a full-time placement in mainstream classes, placement in a special class or special school setting may be deemed to be appropriate where placement in a mainstream class is not in the child's best interests.

The National Council for Special Education has a statutory function to plan and co-ordinate the provision of education and support services for children with special educational needs in consultation with the relevant education partners and the Health Service Executive. The council has well established structures in place to plan and co-ordinate special education provision throughout the country. It includes identifying the need for and establishing special class placements in various geographical areas where they are required. The council ensures schools in an area can, between them, cater for all children who have been identified as needing special class placements. Normally, special classes are established with the full co-operation of the schools in areas where they are required. There are, however, some parts of the country where the council has faced challenges in getting schools and their patrons to agree voluntarily to provide special class or school places. I know that this can cause much anguish for the parents and families involved.

As Minister, I have a power under section 37A of the Education Act 1998 to direct a school to make additional provision where all reasonable efforts have failed. The legislation was used for the first time in April this year in the Dublin 15 area. We have made significant progress in a relatively short period, with the opening of seven new special classes and a new special school which will provide 88 places for children with special needs. The new places will help the families and children concerned to have access to education. I wish everyone well on that journey. The legislation contains a procedure under which the capacity of schools in an area can be tested and under which, ultimately, a ministerial direction may be made requiring a school to make additional special education provision. The initial steps in this procedure are being progressed. As Minister, I am prepared to use the legislation when necessary to ensure children can access a suitable education. My preference, however, is for schools to engage with this challenge voluntarily because it is the right thing for the children in their communities. The experience in Dublin 15 shows that real and practical challenges can be addressed in opening new special classes and how we can resolve these challenges by working together and in partnership. To that end, the NCSE is continuing its engagement with schools, patron bodies, parents and others across south Dublin to bring the required additional special class and special school placements on stream.

To respond to the issue the Senator raised in Dublin 12, I have asked my officials this morning to consider, in collaboration with the NCSE, what is the best solution, the best fit. A combination of solutions is on offer, be it a mainstream class or an additional class.

The Senator also raised the issue of the use of a specific building as a potential centre of excellence. We will look at all options to see what is the best fit, obviously in conjunction and consultation with the parents. The difficulty in finding the best fit is that it must be met by resources, which is a challenge. Next September, there will be 17,000 SNAs on stream. We have opened additional classes across the country, including in Dublin and Cork city, where there are major pressures. Ultimately, although we continue to highlight what we are doing, it may not pacify the anguish or meet the needs of parents who cannot get their son or daughter into a school. I want to continue to work in a collaborative way. I know that the various teacher representative bodies are also very engaged in this process. Some schools will not enter into a partnership or open new classes on the basis that there is a fear that there will not be adequate training or resources or the proper capacity to do so. I am also very conscious of this. However, I reassure the Senator that, regarding the area to which she referred, we will give proper attention to the detail of what is required to see what is the best fit, the best solution.

Photo of Maire DevineMaire Devine (Sinn Fein)
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I am trying desperately to read between the lines of the Minister's response, but I absolutely acknowledge his Trojan efforts in finding more places for children with ASD. On the experience in Dublin 12, fair play to everybody who has worked in collaboration to remove the anguish of parents and children. Perhaps it is a template for use in the next phase in opening a school in Dublin 12. Is the Minister prepared to meet the parents?They have a specific site, which could be taken into account, along with the other available options. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has spoken with them and is in regular contact. It has taken on some of their proposal. I hope something will come out of whatever report is going to be done. Will the Minister make a pledge to meet them, so that they can present him with the proposal? There is an also invite to attend a protest in Dublin 12 on 16 November, if the Minister is available.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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One thing for sure is that anywhere there is a need, we have the professionalism and expertise to deal with it through the NCSE and my officials. If a delegation of parents wish to meet with officials, I will be happy to arrange that. I receive requests on a daily, if not an hourly, basis to meet different representations from more than 4,000 schools. I am conscious of not creating expectations that will not be met but I can certainly arrange for my officials to meet with a delegation of parents.

To return to the three-pronged solution that is available, it is down parental choice, whether the fit is for mainstream classes or for an additional class or whether a special school is a solution. We have to be very pragmatic when it comes to long-term planning because it will not happen today or tomorrow but we have a new school pilot involving up to 75 schools in west Dublin, Wicklow and Kildare, where we need the all-inclusive model. The new school inclusion, and the ideal model, is where we have speech and language therapists, behavioural therapists, occupational therapists, and teachers in that same environment, rather than putting the pressure on parents to get a diagnosis at a cost and putting that additional strain on parents to look for referrals to the HSE, where the HSE may not be working in conjunction with the schools. We need that all-inclusive model. That is the long-term plan. By long term, I mean that the pilot will be finished in June of this year and we will be getting learnings from that. We have to ensure that we have an opportunity, a platform and an environment for every single student, regardless of ability or label, and ultimately focused on the learning potential. Where they need support and if we can give it, we will.

I am sorry, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, I may be annoying your official who is shaking her head. I do not want to upset anybody this morning.

Photo of Maire DevineMaire Devine (Sinn Fein)
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This is really important.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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Just a moment, I have three other Commencement matters to take. My apologies, Minister.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I apologise to the Leas-Chathaoirleach's team. Gabhaim buíochas leo.

Photo of Maire DevineMaire Devine (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister and appreciate his help.