Seanad debates

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Special Educational Needs

10:00 am

Photo of Eileen FlynnEileen Flynn (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for being here. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important matter. Just months before the start of the new school year, we have heard that hundreds of children do not have appropriate school places. AsIAm, the national autism charity, published a survey earlier this month showing that at least 267 children do not have appropriate school places for September. According to the survey, at least 112 children aged between one and six are on waiting lists for an appropriate school place. Just 20% of people who responded have a child with a school place in their locality for September. It is believed that the actual numbers are much higher than this snap survey has shown.

Last month, the Government proposed opening five special educational needs centres in Dublin as an emergency measure to respond to the shortage of suitable school places. I add my voice to those parents and disability organisations who have said this is no solution to a very real problem.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, has also raised concerns about this proposal. IHREC monitors Ireland’s obligation under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and has called on the Department to take a human rights- and equality-based approach. It has called on the Government to ensure mainstream educational provision that is fully inclusive of all people with disabilities. This means making sure children have appropriate school places that meet their needs. This is an education issue, a disability rights issue and a child’s rights issue. As a member of the Joint Committee on Autism, the Joint Committee on Disability Matters and the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, I have spoken often on how we need to work towards a fully inclusive society that upholds the rights of all our people.

The Minister of State said that she plans to start issuing section 37A orders to schools, if needed, to make sure that spaces are available for children in special classes in schools but we know that is a lengthy process. However, we also know the Oireachtas can pass legislation very quickly when the political will and pressure is there. Is this not an emergency situation that requires an emergency response?

My question is very straightforward. Is the proposal to set up separate special education centres still being considered? I am looking for a straight "Yes" or "No" answer if it is possible. The children, families and their advocates deserve to hear that. If that plan is no longer being considered, will the Minister of State use her authority to enact emergency legislation to make sure the additional special educational units needed in our schools will be there for September?

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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It is very important for me, as Minister for State with responsibility for special education and inclusion, that I support children with additional needs in any way I can. I have a budget of €2 billion, which is more than 25% of the entire education budget and an unprecedented amount. It has grown by 60% since 2011. Due to that, we have been able to put in place many more special education teachers. We have more than 14,000 of those and more than 19,000 special needs assistants, SNAs. In addition, special classes and special school places are at unprecedented levels. but, clearly, there is still a gap for some children and we need to make sure that we provide for them.

Recognising some of the difficulties experienced by parents in securing appropriate school placements, my Department and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, have worked over the past two years, since I have been in this role, on a more streamlined and joined-up planning process, which has ensured a targeted approach to meet the demand for special needs placements ahead of each new school year.

The Department and the NCSE have introduced a number of strategic initiatives to deliver the scale and quantity of special educational needs, SEN, provision required for our children and young people. The Department has a geographical information system that is being utilised to support a more strategic and co-ordinated approach to the planning and delivery of SEN provision. Some of the initiatives that are bearing fruit from that are: 269 special classes opened in September 2021, with a further 33 opening for 2021-22; 315 new special classes opening for the 2022-23 school year; two new special schools established in Cork and Dublin in 2021; and a new special school opening in Cork in the 2022-23 school year. In addition, there is a new major policy departure in the Department where we got the fee-charging schools under the Spiritan Education Trust to agree to open special classes for the very first time. It will open a new special school in existing accommodation at the Templeogue College campus in Dublin, with an overall objective to provide a modern permanent provision for the school to enable it to cater for up to 150 pupils when completed, adding very significant capacity for the south Dublin area.

The Senator mentioned section 37A of the Education Act. That process has been initiated for the third time by the Department and I triggered it. The NCSE wrote to me and formed an opinion that there was insufficient special class capacity in Dublin. At the moment, we have special class and special school provision completely covered outside of Dublin. Dublin is the pinch point and that is what we are trying to sort out.

The NCSE advice in May was that 80 special class places and 49 special school places were still needed for September this year. Since then, due to much ongoing work, we reduced those places to 56. We are making progress and we will continue to make progress during the summer. I recognise how stressful it is for families who are working hard to get sufficient school and special class placements.

Stage one of section 37A is now complete. The Senator will be aware that the process itself is under review. It needs to be streamlined and truncated. It is the only tool available to me at present. However, we want to make sure that we review that properly and that it is more streamlined.

On emergency legislation, which the Senator mentioned as well, my Department is considering the need to bring in emergency legislation to assist us in securing additional placements where we do not have them in schools at present. My officials are currently engaged with the Office of the Attorney General on that matter.

Photo of Eileen FlynnEileen Flynn (Independent)
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I know parents of children with special needs and the children themselves would very much appreciate the Minister of State’s last comment around creating more spaces for our children in our mainstream schools. Is there any way she could give the children and parents a “Yes” or “No” answer? Is it still on the table to open five separate centres for children with special educational needs?

I appreciate the €2 billion that has gone into special educational funding this year. Unfortunately, that means very little to parents who are looking for a place for the children but have not found one yet.Remember, it is now June. I stress the importance of engaging. I know from organisations and individuals I spoke with over the past two weeks, people from the disability sector and people with disabilities do not agree with the segregation of people with disabilities. That never worked. Putting Travellers into schools by themselves in the 1970s and 1980s did not work and it is not going to work for people with disabilities.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Flynn. The Department is working closely with stakeholders and the advocacy groups she mentioned to ensure that children with special educational needs can access educational places appropriate to their needs. My Department and I are listening really closely to the voice of parents and those representing children with disabilities. That is essential to ensure that what we deliver meets their needs.

There is a shared determination to work intensively on the issues facing us. We are doing that through the special education consultative forum I set up on which all the advocacy groups are represented. We are focusing on addressing this need without having to introduce other avenues of support than those I have already outlined. That has always been our first priority.

Any additional supports that could be provided to parents of children who are availing of home tuition and which are currently being discussed, as I said, through our special education consultative forum would require the mutual support of the forum and the Department. Engagement on this is continuing.

I want to reassure Senator Flynn that I will continue to support children with additional needs in whatever way I can with the support of the advocacy groups. Whatever way we move forward it will be in a united way with those representative bodies.