Seanad debates

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Special Educational Needs

10:30 am

Róisín Garvey (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education, Deputy Madigan, to the House, and I congratulate her on her new role. It is a pleasure to have her here.

My Commencement matter is a very straightforward issue. We are all aware that the number of people diagnosed with autism every year is on the increase in this country. We have done quite well in recent years with regard to the autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units in the primary school sector. I tabled my Commencement matter because we are not doing so well at secondary school level. I want to find out from the Minister of State whether there are specific plans in place to build more ASD units in County Clare and all over the country. All across the country there is only one place for every three pupils who need a secondary school ASD unit. The children who have come from ASD units at primary school have grown accustomed to the structure and routine with great results. Now we have parents who supported each other all the way as their children spent eight years in primary school now almost having to compete with each other for the one place that is available in the secondary school system. I would like to know what will remedy the situation.

For some reason, three quarter of the ASD units are attached to DEIS schools. Not in any scientific paper anywhere ever has it been shown that there is a socio-economic link with having autism. Why have units mainly been attached to DEIS schools? Why is it not allowed to attach ASD units to private schools that are funded by the State and that taxpayers help subsidise?

Can the Minister of State specifically tell me what will be done in the immediate and short term to increase the number of ASD units in secondary schools in County Clare? Why have 75% of all ASD units been attached to DEIS schools? That seems completely wrong. We want equity in education and we want the same choices for everybody so ASD units should be attached to all types of schools. Why is it not allowed to attach ASD units to private schools?

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. May I also take the opportunity to congratulate her on her election to the Seanad?

Enabling children with special educational needs to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a priority for this Government and for me, as the first dedicated Minister with responsibility for this area. Next year, over 20% of the total education budget or €2 billion will be invested in supporting children with special educational needs. As a result, the numbers of special education teachers, special needs assistants, SNAs, and special class and school places are at unprecedented levels. As many as 197 new special classes have been established nationally for the 2020-21 school year. Of these, approximately 189 will be new ASD special classes with 64 of these in post-primary schools. Budget 2021 provided for an additional 235 special class teachers in 2021. We hope this investment will provide 1,200 additional special class places.

My Department's policy is that all children with special educational needs, including those with autism, can have access to an education appropriate to their needs and preferably in school settings through the primary and post-primary school network. This policy has been informed by published research, including the Report of the Task Force on Autism, entitled An Evaluation of Educational Provision for Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders 2006, and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, policy advice outlined in Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools. This policy ensures that the majority of children with SEN attend mainstream classes with their peers. Such placements facilitate access to individualised education programmes that may draw from a range of appropriate educational interventions. These are delivered by fully qualified teachers, with the support of SNAs, special education teachers and the appropriate school curriculum.

Some students may find it difficult to manage full-time placement in a mainstream setting. For these students, placement in a special class or special school setting, where lower pupil-teacher ratios apply and other supports are available, may be appropriate.

The National Council for Special Education is responsible for planning and co-ordinating local education provision and school placements for children with SEN. The NCSE has advised that there are currently nine special classes that support students with autism in post-primary schools in County Clare. One of these classes is an additional one for the 2020-21 school year.

The NCSE recognises that there is a requirement for additional special class provision at post-primary level, as mentioned by the Senator, in Shannon and Ennis over the next few years. This is based on local information regarding projected demand for future specialist places for students with autism. It is open to any school to make an application to the NCSE to open a special class, which will be approved where it is considered that there is a sustainable demand into the future. The active collaboration of school communities is vital to the effective inclusion of students with special educational needs. Planning for the future takes into consideration the current availability of such places and focuses on those locations where additional provision is required.

The NCSE is currently consulting with local schools, patrons, other education partners and my Department in order to ensure that additional post-primary special classes can be established, which is what was alluded to by the Senator. Where a school is not in a position to expand its specialist provision within its existing accommodation, the school can submit an application to my Department for capital funding to reconfigure existing spaces to accommodate the expansion or construct additional accommodation. The NCSE, through its network of local special educational needs organiser, SENOs, will continue to engage with the local schools to support the establishment of additional classes as required.

I thank Senator Garvey for giving me the opportunity to address this issue. My Department will continue to support the NCSE and schools through the provision of the necessary funding, and capital investment, to ensure all children are successful in accessing an education.

Róisín Garvey (Green Party)
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I thank the Minister of State for her response. One new class for 2020-21 means just six more places for the entire county of Clare. That will not even meet the needs of the eight pupils coming from Sixmilebridge to Shannon so the process needs to be sped up.

I heard the Minister of State's clear statement that it is up to schools to apply. That probably answers why private schools and non-DEIS schools do not seem to have any ASD units. Obviously they are do not want or are unwilling to supply the service to pupils with autism in their school communities, which is something that should be analysed by the Department if we want equity in education. Having 75% of all ASD units attached to DEIS schools is not good enough in this day and age. The service should be equally provided to all schools and I suggest that the Department conduct more research on the issue.

My question asking why private schools do not have ASD units was not answered. The situation with private schools, especially as they are State funded, is interesting and I shall raise the matter another time. I appreciate the Minister of State's response and I will continue to work with her on this issue.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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The Senator mentioned joined-up thinking so I wish to reassure her that the Department meets the NCSE on a weekly basis. I am the very first Minister with dedicated responsibility for this area and there is a huge body of work to be done.

Róisín Garvey (Green Party)
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Yes, I know.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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There is a forecasting model that is being developed with the NCSE so that we can work with existing schools and know, from a demographic perspective, how many children and people with special needs will need accommodation.One of the announcements I made this week was that all new school buildings - I got this commitment from the Department - will be able to open and have space for special classes and sensory rooms in the future. The difficulty is with existing schools. We have the legislative mechanism under section 37A of the Education Act, which we have used occasionally. We used it in south and west Dublin and we are still in that process with some schools. We want to work with schools and we want them to work with us. The door of the NCSE is always open to engage with SENOs. I do not want any child with special needs ever to be in position that he or she would not obtain that access. There is equity in education and we want to ensure we reflect that adequately and provide for those children. I will do all I can to achieve that and I hope to work with the Senator on this in the future.

Róisín Garvey (Green Party)
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I understand now that it is also important for schools to apply for such units and that are not simply provided arising from a departmental stipulation.