Topical Issue Debate (Resumed)

Special Educational Needs

I thank the Minister for coming into the House to address this important issue. I raise the case of a child in Kilkenny called James Brennan. I have the permission of his family to name him and to talk about his case. Obviously, this is a measure of last resort. In fairness to his mother, she has been battling on his behalf for every service he has received to date. She has been trying to obtain a school place for him. James is due to start school in September of this year. The nearest school, Clinstown national school, has an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit but unfortunately it is full. As there is also a waiting list, there is no possibility of James being able to attend there this year. There is another school in Kilkenny city, St. Canice's, which also has an ASD unit. That unit also is full and as there are nine children ahead of James on the waiting list, there is no possibility of him being able to attend school there. James's mother recently had a meeting with the management at the School of the Holy Spirit, an excellent school in Kilkenny catering for children with additional needs. He is tenth or 11th on the waiting list there and again, there is absolutely no possibility of him getting a place in that school.

I ask the Minister to personally intervene in this case to ensure there is a school place for James in September. It is not appropriate for him to attend a mainstream school with a special needs assistant, SNA. Sometimes, when no place is available within an ASD unit, a special education needs officer, SENO, will try to push parents down that road but it does not always work out. Often a child will start school only for it to not work out and then the child must move, which is extremely disruptive. Children starting school in September 2018 are now learning where they will be going. They are getting their letters telling them about starting school and there is no reason for James to be treated differently to other children. He is entitled to an education and to a school place. If parents decide not to send their child to school or if the child misses more than 21 days in a school year, the Department will be on to them fairly fast and yet here we have parents who are battling to get a school place for their child.

The School of the Holy Spirit, which I mentioned earlier, is the most suitable place for James. It has come up with a potential solution in that the school would have a place for James in September 2019. That is not ideal and in the interim, James would need to have a place in an ASD preschool, of which there is only one in County Kilkenny, located in Freshford. That preschool is awaiting funding to enable it to open a third room. In that context, the family has a number of obstacles to overcome. Will the Minister intervene and look into ensuring that James has a place in the School of the Holy Spirit? Failing that, will the Minister ensure that James can be accommodated in the ASD preschool in Freshford in order that he has the opportunity to attend a preschool before starting school in 2019? In that scenario, he would be starting school a year later than should be the case. He is not currently attending an ASD preschool because of the lack of spaces.

I have raised this matter on a number of occasions with the Department of Education and Skills. I raise it now as Topical Issue because this family really needs an answer and a solution.

I thank Deputy Funchion for raising this matter. As I did not get notice of the details on the individual child, I can only respond to the Deputy in a general way. However, I will undertake to get the Department to make contact with the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, to advise on the case. It is not the case that people like me can make decisions about the best placement for a child like James.

As the Deputy will see from the general departmental response, there is an approach for all children with special needs, whereby it will be determined whether the best placement is in a mainstream class. Of the children with ASD, almost two thirds are in mainstream classes but there has been a massive expansion in the number of children who are accommodated in special classes within mainstream schools. In the case of Carlow-Kilkenny, there were 11 ASD classes in 2011 and now there are 48 such classes. The number of special classes has increased by six classes per year since 2011, demonstrating that an effort is being made to very substantially expand the provision of ASD classes.

In order for the NCSE to determine that a special class is appropriate for a child, that child has to undergo a professional assessment which would designate the type of disability, such as ASD, and the needs of the child. The child would also have to have significant learning needs that require the support of a specialised unit. Independent third party evidence must be brought to the NCSE before it can make a decision.

The expansion of provision in this area has been very rapid, as evidenced by the six additional special classes every year in Deputy Funchion's constituency. Typically if a school submitted an application to provide an a unit of this nature, that would be very sympathetically considered where there is an established need. Such applications are fast-tracked within the Department in terms of making provision. In addition, we ensure that all new schools at that are built include special classes, both at primary and at second level.

I do not have any information relating to the specific schools mentioned by Deputy Funchion or relating to James's particular needs. However, I will alert my officials to this particular case to see what can be done and to determine his status in the assessment process. In a general sense, the NCSE reports that there are special classes with places in the area. I understand that there are places available but whether they are in the schools that James is seeking is another matter. The NCSE anticipates that places in ASD units will be available within the area. Obviously we will have to see if they can accommodate the needs of James. It must be pointed out that special arrangements are made to provide transport in the event that a child with special needs has to travel a significant distance to attend a unit appropriate to his or her needs.

I have been dealing with this case since last November so the Department is well aware of the details of the case. For the purposes of clarification, I sent on all of the relevant information to the Department again today in order that the Minister would have the details before coming into the House this evening. The Department already has all of the details. James has already been assessed and it has been recommended that he attends an ASD unit. All of that part of the process has been dealt with already. I welcome the fact that additional places will be provided but there is still a serious level of demand in the constituency. All of the schools that I mentioned have waiting lists. If James is number nine, ten or 11 on a waiting list, there is very little possibility of him getting a place. It is not the case that his parents have tried only one or two schools. They have approached as many schools as possible in their area that have ASD units. The last school that they approached was the School of the Holy Spirit. If I send the details on again in relation to that school and to the option of James starting school a year later, on the condition that he would be given a place in an ASD preschool, will the Department examine the case and come back to me on it? I have been trying to get an answer from the Department since November 2017. As I said earlier, that is why I have raised this as a Topical Issue. To be honest, I do not really wish to be obliged to come into this Chamber to talk about people's personal details. I do not think it is very fair on them but I was pushed to do it because I could not see any other way of getting an answer. I am asking for a commitment that the Department will look into this specific case and not come back with a general response to the effect that it is up to the NCSE. This child has a right to an education and a right to a school place. His parents did not put this on the long finger, in fairness to them. They have been trying since last September to get him a school place. We are now in March and before long, it will be Easter.

Soon it will be summer and then the new school year will start in September. It is not fair on this child who will also need some time to adjust to where he will be going to school and to get into a routine and know the process around that. I am asking for a commitment from the Minister to examine this case and to come back to us in a timely fashion.

The NCSE is an independent body that has been given the power to make decisions in this area. It is not my Department that makes these calls. The NCSE has the power to allocate resource teachers and SNA. We have massively expanded the number of SNAs by 1,000 per year and have provided 1,800 additional resource teachers by means of the past three budgets. We are greatly expanding provision in this area. The Department is providing many resources in this area but the decision on individual placements and whether a mainstream setting, special class or special school is appropriate is something on which, ultimately, parents, schools, special needs organisers and the NCSE advise us.

That said, I will certainly seek a report on what is being done in this case. There appear to be seven early intervention settings in Carlow and Kilkenny, although I do not know where they are located or whether they are in suitable locations. Where a need is identified and has not been met and where there is a case for an additional class to be provided in a school or a network of schools, the NCSE would encourage a school to make an application and would support it as a matter of urgency, be it in the context of temporary accommodation or, if an adaptation can be made, permanent accommodation. There is a good support system but the decisions are mediated through an independent body. It is important for the protection of parents that it is not down to the political system or departmental officials.

I will ensure that this matter is examined. I offer my apologies that I genuinely did not know that any suggestion of an individual case was submitted to my Department. That was not brought to my attention and I will check what went wrong there.