Friday, 19 February 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Special Educational Needs
I thank the Minister of State for coming before the House so quickly again. I very much appreciate that she was only here last week listening to us speak about exactly the same topics. As she will be aware, a group of parents have mounted a valiant campaign in Dublin 12 to see the opening of a school locally for the provision of autism-specific classes and supports. Very early in the Minister of State's tenure she met with them, and I know a considerable amount of work went into ensuring that the Scoil Colm that was there, which was ready to go, could be opened and equipped. This situation arose because the enrolment policies surrounding ASD classes are not community-specific or specific to the local community and, as a consequence, there were exceptionally long waiting lists in Dublin 12 because the surrounding areas of Dublin 6W and so on do not have classes. The Minister of State is always patient and tolerant in listening to me go on and on about this. I am passionate about it because I will never get over the meeting last year with Involve Autism and the sheer sadness of the parents that evening.
The Minister of State made a fantastic announcement at Christmas and I know it came on foot of an awful lot of background work on her part and on the part of her officials. We now know that the school opening is due for September of this year. I acknowledge fully the engagement of the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, and the Minister of State's most recent update that enrolment, staffing and so on are being contemplated. However, those parents who have advocated most for this are very anxious to know the specific details of the opening. Some are very anxious to get in and have a look at the facility and to see whether there is anything to be done, anything that can be done in the interim and anything that can be done to assist, to hurry this up and to ensure they will have places for their children in the coming school year, if not beforehand. As we know, autism is not limited to a specific demographic. It is really important to say that if we have this in Dublin 12, it will take the pressure from other areas and then, it is to be hoped, we will be able to concentrate and work on other areas, as I know the Minister of State has been doing. We have had great strides forward, and I very much appreciate her work on that. Anything she can tell us or update us in detail on regarding the opening of Scoil Colm will be very much appreciated.
I thank Senator Seery Kearney for raising this important matter. She raises it consistently with me. She raised it last week and I did not answer because there were so many other questions that there was not enough time. I am delighted to have the opportunity today.
Enabling children with special educational needs to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a priority for this Government and always has been. I was very pleased to have secured agreement on a new special school on the site of Scoil Colm. This is a much-needed development which will help to meet the demand for special school places in the area, as the Senator said. Since my appointment I have met with a wide range of representative associations and advocates for the special education sector. All these groups, including Involve Autism, have raised very important issues as to how they consider that improvements can be made to special education services. Among these groups were local campaigners for a special school in Dublin 12 such as Involve Autism, whom I met along with Senator Seery Kearney and other public representatives. I pay tribute to the work of these campaigners for their dedication to this project and the educational welfare of young people in the area. We know there has been a need, as the Senator pointed out, for an additional special school in the area, and I was determined to take action to rectify this. By working closely with school authorities, the patron body, officials, public representatives and the NCSE, we secured agreement on the use of the site, and I was delighted to approve the establishment of the new school just before Christmas of last year.
The NCSE has identified that appropriate provision is currently required for approximately 40 special school places for students with autism and general learning disabilities in the south Dublin area. This provision is required to be made available from the beginning of this year, that is, the 2021-22 school year.While the initial provision of 40 placements is intended to provide for those students identified by the NCSE, it is also intended that the available places will be used to meet the needs of other children with complex needs in the area. The Senator's particular question was around what is happening at the moment. The arrangements for the establishment of the new school are in train in consultation with the school patron, the Archbishop of Dublin, and the NCSE, and further information will be provided in advance of the opening. The NCSE will determine the staffing level for the school in line with normal procedures. My Department will also consider whatever other supports, including funding and training, are necessary to ensure the school is in a position to cater for the needs of these students upon enrolment. I assure the Senator that the necessary arrangements are being progressed as speedily as possible.
This new school will be a positive addition to the local area and we will ensure it is fully supported. We hope to open the school in September. If there is any possibility of doing so prior to that, we will certainly try but it will be open by September. The building does need to be prepared and teachers recruited. As I said, there is ongoing work with the NCSE around that. I am struck by what the Senator said about autism not being limited to a demographic. Indeed it is not and there are other areas around the country where special schools are required, and we always try to collaborate with existing schools to see if there is a way of expanding those schools. If not, we will always build special schools. I was very pleased that one of the first commitments I secured as a dedicated Minister of State for this area was a commitment from the building and planning area that from this year all new schools will automatically provide SEN facilities and classrooms. That is going to be important into the future so we do not have this issue happening perennially.
I very much appreciate the Minister of State's response. From the moment she took office, nobody could doubt the priority she placed on this issue or her passion. I recall that within a couple of weeks she had facilitated a number of meetings for me. I really appreciate it. I acknowledge the considerable work done, particularly by Ms Margaret Lowndes of the D12 autism-specific school campaign, because she beat that drum very loudly for a long time. I join her in excitement at seeing this come to fruition.
It is important for us to hear about the breakdown of classes. Are those 40 places in that specific school? Is it going to be across different classes? Covid is a difficulty here but they are anxious to have a look at how the parents are being selected. Will the children of those who campaigned secure places?
As the Senator will appreciate, it is a co-located shared campus with Scoil Eoin which already has 132 pupils. Scoil Colm is envisaged as catering for 40 students at the outset and it is hoped more thereafter. The intricacies and the finer details are being discussed at present, but I assure the Senator it is ongoing. There is quite a lot of work to do. We have been straitjacketed by Covid to a certain extent, not just with Scoil Colm and Scoil Eoin but in other areas of education, and it has been extremely difficult even to get on-site inspections done around the country. However, work on this is ongoing and should be done in a timely basis and definitely by September at the latest. As I said, if we can possibly do it before that we will. There are always increases in population as well as an exponential growth in autism around the country. I am determined we cater for these needs wherever they are situated. I thank the Senator again for her passion and interest in this particular area.