Wednesday, 13 May 2020
Department of Education and Skills
292. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the number of notices served under section 37A of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 since it was commenced; the number of classrooms and school places created as a result of such notices; the areas in which places been created; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5187/20]
293. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if the National Council for Special Education has provided notice of its view that there is insufficient capacity in areas for the 2020-21 academic year; if so, the areas; if he will exercise his power under section 37A of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act in advance of the academic year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5188/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 292 and 293 together.
The provision of education for children with special needs is an ongoing priority for Government.
Currently, almost 20% of the total Education Vote or €1.9bn is invested in supporting children with special needs.
As a result the numbers of special education teachers, special needs assistants and special class and school places are at unprecedented levels.
The majority of children with special educational needs attend mainstream class, where they have access additional supports if required. But some students may find it difficult to manage full-time placement in mainstream and so placement in a Special Class or Special School setting may be deemed appropriate where placement in mainstream class is not in the best interests of the child.
Special Schools funded by my Department are established as special primary schools and cater for children and young persons with complex special educational needs from the age of 4 years until the end of the school year in which they reach their 18th year.
Provision in our 124 special schools has also increased from 6,848 placements in 2011 to 7,872 this year.
Nationally, 167 new special classes opened this school year, which means there are 1,618 special classes in place, compared to 548 in 2011.
The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) has responsibility for coordinating and advising on the education provision for children nationwide; has well established structures in place for engaging with schools and parents; and seeks to ensure that schools in an area can, between them, cater for all children who have been identified as needing special class placements.
It is open to any school to make an application to the NCSE for the establishment of specialised provision and where sanctioned, a range of supports, including capital funding, is made available to the school. My Department works closely with the NCSE in this regard. In considering these applications, however, the NSCE, in conjunction with the school buildings unit of my Department, consider the capacity of the school for such a class including the availability of suitable accommodation.
The NCSE is finalising plans for a further expansion of special class and special school places nationally to meet identified need for September 2020. This process is ongoing.
Normally, special class and special school places are established with the full cooperation of the schools in areas where they are required. However there are some parts of the country where the NCSE has faced challenges in getting schools and their patrons to voluntarily agree to provide special class or special school places.
I know that this can cause much anguish for parents and families involved.
As Minister I have a power under Section 37A of the Education Act 1998 to direct a school to provide additional provision where all reasonable efforts have failed.
I would prefer to see schools volunteer to provide more places rather than places being secured on the back of an order or a direction from me. It is the right thing for the children in a community.
The process was first activated in April 2019 when the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) informed my Department under Section 37A of the Education Act 1998 of a shortage of school places for children with special educational needs in the Dublin 15 area.
This was followed by an extended and intensive engagement with schools in the area, seeking their willingness to open a special class.
In May 2019, letters issued to the principals and chairpersons of boards of management in 22 schools in Dublin 15 requesting that they give serious consideration to the need for more special education provision.
In June 2019, my Department served statutory notices under Section 37A (5) on 18 schools and 2 patrons in Dublin 15. These notices communicated my opinion that they should make additional provision for children with special educational needs.
Following further consultations with two patron bodies and site visits by technical teams to the schools, in August 2019 second legal notices were served under Section 37A on 6 schools in Dublin 15
Significant progress was made as a result of this process with 7 primary schools in the Dublin 15 area agreeing to open ASD special classes, providing special class places for 42 children along with the establishment of the new Danu Community Special School with provision for 40 special school places.
6 of the new special classes were established following the activation of Section 37A of the Education Act 1998. 1 school volunteered to establish a special class.
The experience of Dublin 15 shows the real and practical challenges that can be addressed when opening new special classes and how we can resolve these challenges by working together and in partnership.
The legislation was activated for a second time on the 29th October, 2019 following a report by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) which identified 82 children in South Dublin needing special education school places in the current school year and a further potential 68 children needing special education school places in 2020/21.
Since then, as required under the Act, the NCSE in consultation with the relevant education stakeholders, has been testing the capacity among schools in the South Dublin area.
On 21 April 2020, I received a report from the NCSE , pursuant to Section 37A(2) of the Education Act 1998 in respect of South Dublin, as the NCSE Council remains of the opinion that there is an insufficient number of special class and special school places within the South Dublin area for September 2020.
Before reaching this opinion, the NCSE had undertaken substantial work reviewing provision and accommodation in the 231 mainstream primary and 23 special schools in South Dublin.
Following engagement between NCSE local personnel and school management and Patrons, 78 ASD primary school special class placements and 12 ASD early intervention special class places have been created in 14 schools in South Dublin, with 13 new ASD special classes and 2 new ASD early intervention special classes to open for September 2020.
However, the NCSE has reported that to date, an insufficient number of schools have indicated a willingness to open additional special classes. The NCSE is of the opinion that should this continue, there remains a need for an additional 43 ASD primary special class places and 36 special school places in South Dublin.
The report also outlines the schools that should be requested to make additional provision.
This report will now be considered and if I agree with the position as set out by NCSE, next steps in the process will be considered which may include serving a statutory notice on schools identified if required.
At each stage of the process, schools are given the opportunity to make representations and there is also an option for arbitration.
Statutory notices issued under the Act together with the representations received from the schools are published on the Department’s website.
The necessary steps in the Admissions Act process will continue to be expedited to ensure that every child has a suitable school placement, which is the key objective of my Department.