Seanad debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Special Educational Needs

10:30 am

Photo of Micheál CarrigyMicheál Carrigy (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for taking this Commencement matter. I know it is a situation of which he is very well aware. In the Athlone area and its environs, there are eight parents who do not have a school place for their children within the Athlone school area for next September. These eight children have been in autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classes within primary school settings. We now have a situation where there is no school available within Athlone or within 55 km of the town for them to get an education. That is not acceptable.

A number of people have also been in contact with me whose children are within the post-primary schools within the area but would prefer if there was another class for them to go to. We need in the region of 12 to 18 places to be made available within the Athlone area for the kids to go to school. The reality is that these children are entitled to be educated close to their home. As it stands, some of these children will have to travel a return journey of 100 km per day to be able to get an education. This is at a time when our school transport system requires that people go to their nearest school and yet, we are not accommodating that for families. Parents need certainty.

I will give the Minister of State an idea of the surrounding areas. In Longford, at present, we have 48 ASD classes for an enrolment of 4,205. There is low availability in two of the schools. There are no places available in Mullingar, Ballinasloe or Roscommon. Those are all the surrounding areas of Athlone town to where those families now look to have their children educated. I have been in contact with the office of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. I know she is working on it but we are coming to the end of the school term and these parents have to get certainty that their children can be educated in the Athlone area, in the environs of where they live, in September 2022.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Carrigy for his Commencement matter which is a very important one and, as he has referred to himself, I am aware of a number of cases in my own home town of Mullingar where there is no capacity at all. This is a shocking situation for families who need certainty and are under significant pressure at the moment in trying to get a place for their children into the future.

This year, the Department of Education will invest in excess of €2 billion, or over 25% of the Department's budget, in the area of special educational needs support. As a result, the numbers of special education teachers, special needs assistants and special class and school places are at unprecedented levels. Since 2011, the number of special classes in mainstream schools has increased from 548 to a current total of 2,148 for the 2021-2022 school year. Of these, almost 1,900 special classes cater for students with autism.

Recognising some of the difficulties experienced by parents in securing appropriate school placements over the past two years, the Department of Education and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, have worked closely on a more streamlined and joined-up planning process which has ensured a targeted approach to meet demand for special needs placements ahead of each new school year. Overall, this intensive intervention has seen an additional 300 special classes, providing 1,800 new places, which have already opened nationwide for the 2021-22 school year.

The NCSE has responsibility for co-ordinating and advising on the education provision for children with special educational needs nationwide. It has well established structures in place for engaging with schools and parents. The NCSE seeks to ensure that schools in an area can, between them, cater for all the children who have been identified as needing special class placements. The Department, the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, continue to prioritise support of this work. As correctly referred to by the Senator, that is very important because there are very vulnerable families travelling a distance, if they are lucky enough at times, in order to get a place. The transport system can pose a great problem for and stress on a family.

The Department also recognises that where parents have difficulties in securing an appropriate school placement for their child, particularly a child with additional needs, it can be a stressful experience. The Department is working hard to ensure that there are sufficient school places, appropriate to the needs of all children, available on a timely basis nationwide.

As matters stand, the Department in this reply has confirmed that there is a total of 30 autism spectrum disorder, ASD, special class places in post-primary schools in the Athlone and Moate area. The Department and the NCSE are always grateful to schools that express a willingness to open a special class to meet the educational needs of students in their local communities.

There are special educational needs organisers, SENOs, located across the country and they have a specific remit in helping and supporting parents in accessing the education necessary for their children, including in identifying suitable school placements. The NCSE is currently engaging in a process of establishing new classes for the 2022-23 school year and beyond. The NCSE is looking at local information on projected demand for future special education places, particularly to cater for students with autism who have associated complex needs.

The NCSE has also been working with stakeholders in Westmeath for a number of years to meet the identified need in the county. SENOs are currently engaged with schools and boards of management in the Athlone and the wider Westmeath-Roscommon regions to establish the level of need to ensure that the necessary arrangements are put in place to meet that need.

I should also state that budget 2022 has provided funding to the Department of Education and the NCSE for the creation of 287 additional special classes for the 2022-23 school year. These additional classes will provide more than 1,700 new places this year. This additional provision will bring the total number of special classes to more than 2,400 in the 2022-23 school year.

Photo of Micheál CarrigyMicheál Carrigy (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State and I compliment the Government on the work that it has done and, in particular, the work that has been done by the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and the senior Minister, Deputy Foley, in providing a significant number of places, especially at primary level.

We have a tsunami ahead of us because we have not created the places at post-primary level. The reply refers to the fact that there were 30 places in Athlone and in Moate. The reality is that there are, in fact, 30 places but there is no availability in those towns for any child who wishes to avail of such a place in September. In fact one child from just outside Athlone, on the Ballymahon side in Glasson, has secured a place in St. Mel's College in Longford. That is a 90 km return journey every day for that family. For anyone who knows anything about autism, and I know about this condition personally, one needs to have children in schools in places with which they are familiar. This is not acceptable.

It is also stated in the reply that the NCSE has been working on this for years. This does not take years to sort out. If one sits down with the schools in the area, not just there but across the country, we know the numbers that are in the primary system and we need to ensure that every family and child who is entitled to get an education - and this is written into the 1916 Proclamation - is treated equally. We need to sit down, identify the schools and ensure that we have sufficient places for all children. This needs to be sorted before this school term is over to give certainty to those parents.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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Before I allow the Minister of State to reply, I want to say I completely support what the Senator is saying. The forward planning is very poor in providing adequate places. Only yesterday I heard of a child in Brittas, County Wicklow, who has to travel to Rathangan, which is in County Kildare on the Offaly border, and a child from Rathangan must travel to Straffan which is right at the other end of the county, and is over a 90 mile trip also. I completely endorse everything the Senator has said and I call on the Minister of State now to reply, please.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Acting Chairperson. I also endorse and share the concerns that I have seen on the ground working in my locality. I have seen very vulnerable families who are under significant pressure in having to deal with the burden and stress, first, of getting a school place and, second, getting a school place which is a great distance away. That is not good enough and I feel for those families.

Potentially, we should meet the senior Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, again on this issue because, as the Senator has quite rightly pointed out in respect of the reply, it is factual to say that there are 30 places in the areas referred to but they are not meeting the demand. That is the key point. The families are placed under pressure then because this demand is not being met. That is completely unacceptable given the amount of money we are spending on education. It would be important to meet both Ministers to try to shine a spotlight on this issue and to push as hard as we can to have it resolved.