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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 14 Jun 2022

Vol. 1023 No. 4

Special Educational Needs School Places: Motion [Private Members]

I move

That Dáil Éireann:

notes that:

— a child's right to education is enshrined in the Constitution and, under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, must be accessible on an equal basis with others in the community in which they live; and

— the Government has made a commitment in its Programme for Government: Our Shared Future to ensure that each child with a special educational need has an appropriate school place, in line with their Constitutional right;

further notes that:

— there has been an inexcusable failure by the Minister for Education and Deputy Josepha Madigan, Minister of State at the Department of Education to make adequate preparations to provide appropriate school places to children with special educational needs;

— a survey by AsIAm notes that at least 267 students do not have an appropriate school place for September 2022, but in reality this number is likely to be significantly higher;

— the Minister for Education, the Department of Education and the National Council for Special Education have access to data on the true number of children who require an appropriate special educational place in September, and have not planned nor acted accordingly;

— the retrograde and ill-thought-out proposal to segregate and isolate children away from the school community and into special education centres is not acceptable, nor does it ensure an appropriate school place as committed to under the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future; and

— many parents have been put in a desperate position due to a lack of Government planning and may feel pressured to accept inappropriate places in special education centres or otherwise, as they feel they have no other choice for their child;

furthermore notes that:

— the 13-step process of compelling schools to open special units under section 37A of the Education Act, 1998, far from an emergency response, is incredibly arduous and time-consuming; and

— the announcement from Deputy Josepha Madigan, Minister of State at the Department of Education that she will now begin to issue notices under section 37A of the Education Act, 1998 is unlikely to ensure that schools will open special units by this September, given the timing set out in the Act to undertake the 13-step process; and

calls on the Government to:

— publish the data they hold on the true number of children with special educational needs who do not have an appropriate school place for September 2022;

— bring forward emergency legislation to expedite the section 37A process, ensuring special units in schools who receive these notices will be ready for September;

— give a clear statement that the segregationist proposal of special education centres will not go ahead;

— recommit to ensuring that all children with special educational needs have an appropriate school place within a school community by September 2022; and

— undertake a review and appropriate forward-planning before the end of 2022, to ensure that we are not again faced with children with special educational needs without an appropriate school place in summer 2023.

This motion calls for emergency measures from the Government to ensure every child has an appropriate school place - I emphasise the word "appropriate" - this September. It is disgraceful we have got to the point of having to resort to emergency measures at all. Education provision, particularly for children with special educational needs, should never be an emergency, yet year on year families across the State face a summer of stress not knowing whether their children will have schools to go to in September. Every year is the same, with no action on the part of the Government or the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, throughout the course of the school year followed by panic stations every May and June. This year is no different.

There are no excuses that the Minister, Deputy Foley, or the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, can make for the Government's failure to prepare. It was repeatedly warned this year and last year by parents of children with special educational needs, disability advocacy groups, Sinn Féin and others.

A survey released by AsIAm last week found that at least 267 students did not have an appropriate school place for September 2022. In reality, that number is significantly higher. That does not include the thousands of children whose parents, desperate and feeling that they had no other choice, accepted an inappropriate place for their child.

One parent told me this week that she and her partner were awake at night worrying about putting their son into an unsuitable mainstream class of 30 children in September with a teacher who is not trained in special education, as they have no other option. That is not the fault of the teacher. The couple's son should not be in that class. It is devastating for families that the lack of planning and action from the Government has left parents with their backs to the wall, accepting completely inappropriate school places because they feel they have no choice and home provision on other occasions.

The Ministers have access to the information on the true number of children who need a school place in September. They have the budget and the power to intervene and resolve this. Their failure to act is unacceptable. The announcement at the eleventh hour that they will now begin the process of issuing section 37A notices is a day late and a dollar short. This is a 13-step process. It will take months to complete all of the steps as they currently stand. Meanwhile, we have only two weeks of the primary school year left.

Parents I have spoken to are greatly worried that it will be October or even November before these additional class places are open for their child. Families were understandably hurt and, frankly, angered by the proposal that was floated of segregated centres of education, segregating and isolating children from their peers into special education centres rather than as part of the school community. One has to wonder how this proposal came to be in the first place. There is clearly a lack of communication within the Department, with the Fine Gael Minister of State with responsibility for special education announcing this special education proposal and the Fianna Fáil Minister for Education briefing the media that she had concerns over the implications for inclusion and immediately turning around to tell her party that it would not come about.

The Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, are tasked with working together with the National Council for Special Education and schools on the ground to ensure that all children have an appropriate school place. It seems the two Ministers in the Department are not even talking properly to each other about how best to resolve this. If that is indicative of the lack of poor planning, communication and dysfunction in the Department, is it any wonder that we are in this crisis at the eleventh hour? The mixed messages coming from the Department are incredibly difficult for any family to navigate but I imagine even more so for families of children with special educational needs who have English as a second language.

The Ministers know the number of children affected and what school places they need. I am urging them both to publish the data they hold on the number of children who do not have an appropriate place, give a clear statement that this segregationist, isolationist proposal of centres of special education will not be implemented and publish emergency legislation to expedite the section 37A process. More than that, because it is not enough to solve the issue for this September as we rush to do what we can to resolve that particular problem, we must ensure this is not repeated and that, instead, decisions about this matter are taken as far out from the beginning of the school year as possible. That needs to happen for 2023. The NCSE needs to get its act together on data and planning but so do the Ministers.

This is about the potential of children and them having the ability to best reach that potential. To do so, they need an appropriate school place, as is their constitutional entitlement, and I urge the Ministers to give them that constitutional entitlement.

In 2018, Ireland ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. I will cite part of two articles of the convention.

The first, Article 7, states:

Parties shall take all necessary measures to ensure the full enjoyment by children with disabilities of all human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with other children. In all actions concerning children with disabilities, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.

Article 24, which relates specifically to education, states that the parties "recognize the right of persons with disabilities to education" and "shall ensure an inclusive education system at all levels". The article, which continues in great detail, also states the parties will ensure that persons with disabilities "can access an inclusive, quality and free primary education and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live" and will "receive the support required, within the general education system, to facilitate their effective education".

This is not happening currently. Children with additional learning needs are not treated equally to other children. We have hundreds of children either without a school placement or in an inappropriate school placement. Children are not being educated in the communities in which they live. Many are travelling up to 40 km from their homes to access a supposedly suitable school placement. We have children in our schools on reduced timetables because they have been placed in an unsuitable school setting or insufficient resources have been provided to make the placement work. Furthermore, we hear of children suspended or expelled for the same reason. Students in special settings account for only 4% of primary school places but account for 6% of primary school expulsions. It is inconceivable that any child would be expelled from primary school. The reason some of these children are being expelled, however, is that the State has let them down and has failed to provide an appropriate school place. This is totally unfair.

The Minister is letting these children down and denying them their basic rights. Children are being home-schooled, not because it is their choice but because they had no other option. Over 1,400 families were supported by the home tuition grant scheme in the 2020-21 school year. How many of these families had no choice but to apply for this grant?

This Government made a commitment in the programme for Government to ensure that every child with additional educational needs would have an appropriate school place, yet here we are again facing into a new school year with countless children without an appropriate school placement. The Department of Education and the NCSE have data on precisely how many school places are required for children with additional needs.

There was no excuse for children progressing from primary to secondary school as the number in special classes in schools is known, yet there are insufficient suitable places for children to attend secondary schools in their locality.

The proposal to establish special education centres has shown how out of touch the Government is with what is appropriate and what should be deemed to be inclusive. It smacks of locking children away in residential centres out of sight and out of mind. We need emergency action to deal with the crisis looming in two months. The cumbersome method of enforcing a section 37A process has to be streamlined in some way so that it can be processed much faster.

From September onwards, planning for September 2023 must start in earnest, after which a proper long-term plan for a fully inclusive education must be put in place immediately for the years thereafter.

The parents who have contacted me are very upset that their children are not receiving the education they require. Children are self-harming. I am hearing of children banging their heads off the wall or the ground. Some are suicidal and are lashing out at parents and siblings. This is born out of frustration that their needs are not being met and is not fair for the child. Every child deserves a chance to reach its potential and to be happy and safe in its everyday life. If a child needs are not being met, the child and his or her family are affected.

I am aware of schools being opened to address a deficit in certain areas but, due to a lack of planning, the school is not working for the children. This is down to a lack of properly trained staff who do not know how to deal with autistic children or do not know the purpose of a sensory room, for example.

Additional school places need to be provided in every locality to cater for the needs of the children from that locality. Children should be in a position to attend their local school with their siblings. There needs to be a move away from segregation to inclusion, with proper planning and resourcing.

I ask that the NCSE and the Department of Education commit to gathering and publishing data quarterly on inappropriate school placements and children attending school outside their locality. We also need to know how many children are on reduced timetables, how many have been suspended or expelled and how many are dependent on the home tuition grant funding because the school placement was inappropriate or lacked the proper resources.

I have met hundreds of parents of children with disabilities in recent months, primarily in the area of healthcare and accessing speech and language therapy support, occupational therapy, child psychology and physiotherapy - a whole range of supports that children with disabilities need and cannot get because we do not have adequate resourcing of children’s disability network teams. Part of that involves the lack of supports in schools. There is obviously a clear link between the assessments of need the HSE should be providing but was not providing - it was found by the High Court to be in breach of the law in respect of those services - and children's educational needs. An assessment of need was, in theory, to look at the health but also at the educational needs of a child.

Children with special needs are being failed. Some weeks ago, the National Principals Forum published a survey which outlined in very stark terms the nature of that failure. Children with additional needs are on average receiving 21% fewer hours of specialised learning support than 15 years ago. That is a damning indictment of successive Governments of which the Minister's party was part. The vast majority of primary schools have more pupils with additional needs than they had four years ago yet the most recent allocation of SNA positions were frozen for the third year in a row. Eight in ten principals want a full-scale review and a new child-centred system for allocation of special needs resources and places in schools so that every child with additional needs can receive the support that they need in the most appropriate setting. For the vast majority of children with special needs, that should be in a mainstream school.

I mentioned the recent High Court finding that the HSE was in breach of the law around assessments of need. The judge referred to the lack of co-operation between the HSE and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, on the allocation of resources. It blamed the Government for not commencing the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act which successive Governments have promised but which has not happened. One in four children's disability network posts are vacant. That is a phenomenal figure. We are told that 700 posts, mainly therapist posts, cannot be filled amounting to 400,000 hours of therapy that children cannot get because the posts cannot be filled. We hear excuse after excuse from the Government for why these issues cannot be resolved and how difficult it is to recruit staff but we see no plan in place to increase training places for all these positions so that we can recruit more. These children have constitutional and legal rights to these services. According to AsIAm, at least 267 children will not have appropriate places this September. Each one of those children who will not have a place this year because of Government failure are being badly let down in so many different areas: they are not getting the assessments of need that they deserve, the therapy supports or school places. Deputy Tully organised a meeting in the audiovisual room some weeks ago which was very well attended. Five parents of children with special needs, mainly autism, all told stories of their children, what they were like, how much they love them and how brilliant they were but also how challenging it was because of their disabilities. It was heartbreaking to hear how almost every one of those parents felt let down by the system in access to healthcare supports, therapy supports and also a failure to provide proper school supports and places. That is unacceptable. What we are calling for is clear. First, we want the Minister to publish the real number of children in need of places. We want her to expedite legislation to ensure adequate provision in schools and we want to ensure that every single child has an appropriate place in September when the schools recommence. It is the Minister's job to deliver it.

Some weeks ago, a major meeting was held in Dublin 15 in my constituency, about 15 students who have no access to a school placement. There were two Ministers and a Senator from the Government benches. Parents after parent spoke of their concerns that their children were again being left behind and they had to fight for everything. They are weary of fighting for what are their children's rights. I thank the parents and the activists who took time out the other day to meet myself and Deputy Ó Laoghaire. They told us that out of the 22 places that were identified in the Dublin 15 area only one child has been informed that they have a place in September. Others have been told that they will get further information in coming weeks but they have told us that they are deeply worried about the admission policies that may leave them at the bottom of the list when it comes to accessing those special classes. They also do not know what these classes will look like. I have a lot of experience in this area and I stated very clearly at that meeting that the special class is not just tables, chairs, walls, a teacher or an SNA. A special class should be much more and the supports should be much more. There needs to be support and appropriate placement for any particular child. They need the extra resources in those schools or else we are just talking about a school place and that is it. Unfortunately in my experience, many of these students will fall out of the system without that support and end up at home and unable to attend school.

Every parent spoke of their frustration dealing with the system. They simply cannot understand why the NCSE did not properly plan despite numerous warnings that a school placement crisis was looming. We know what we need. The Government needs to publish the data on the true number of children with an appropriate school place in September. The parents told us at the meeting that they know what the information is. We need to bring forward the emergency legislation to expedite the 37A process. We need a clear statement that the segregationist proposal of special education centres will not go ahead. The parents have made it very clear to us that what they are talking about in terms of a hub is a multidisciplinary support hub for children and for parents and not a centre that kids will be just put in and lumped in for their teaching hours and just left there. They need the supports.

We really need to commit. This is not something that has just crept up overnight. It has been there for years and unfortunately it has not been addressed and it does not look like it will be in the near future. I am really worried and those parents are really worried for their children.

A common theme that I hear on education is the allocation of special classes in schools locally. I have raised it here in the Dáil on a number of occasions yet the situation does not change. The parents of children with special needs still have to contact schools far outside their areas while at the same time they are told that there is no need for such classes in the areas where there clearly is a demand.

One area that needs such a class is Carrick-on-Suir in County Tipperary. In September I raised with the Taoiseach the fact that no ASD unit or classroom was available for primary school children there. The Taoiseach told me that there was no issue with resourcing ASD units, that extra classes were being opened and that schools needed to apply for ASD units. In the middle of February, parents were informed that is not as easy as the Taoiseach made it out to be. An application made by Gaelscoil Charraig na Siúire was unsuccessful. It was told that current demand appears to be met from the current established classes in surrounding areas. In an email I received last week, I was told that there are five children travelling from Carrick-on-Suir to a new ASD class that is opening in Portlaw, County Waterford. Six children will attend this class and three other children with special education needs will start in mainstream in Portlaw. Some are starting in the Presentation Primary School in Carrick-on-Suir with access to shared SNAs. Carrick-on-Suir has needed a dedicated ASD class for years yet it is not getting it. I have been told that more than six children will be looking for an ASD class in September 2023. If the Government does not want to hear from or chooses not to believe the parents of Carrick-on-Suir, maybe they will listen to AsIAm whose survey of parents over the last two weeks revealed that at least 267 children do not have an appropriate place for this September. Under section 37A the Minister can compel schools to open special classes. It is shocking to see the Minister is only now issuing these notices to schools. We call for the process to be streamlined to ensure additional special classes are opened in time for September. There is a programme for Government commitment to ensure that every child with a special education need has an appropriate school place. Carrick-on-Suir and other places in need must be on the Minister's list, and not the shocking idea of segregated classes.

I move amendment No.1:

To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:

"notes that:

— a child's right to education is enshrined in the Constitution and, under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, must be accessible on an equal basis with others in the community in which they live; and

— the Government is committed to ensuring that each child with a special educational need (SEN) has an appropriate school place, in line with their Constitutional right and Programme for Government: Our Shared Future commitments;

further notes that:

— the Government's aim is to ensure that every child with additional needs receives an appropriate education based on their needs; providing an appropriate school placement for every child with SEN in a timely and supported manner is a key priority for the Department of Education and the National Council for Special Education (NCSE); the Government is absolutely committed to delivering an education system that is of the highest quality and where every child and young person feels valued and is actively supported and nurtured to reach their full potential;

— special education is a priority area for investment for this Government, and this year the Department of Education will spend in excess of €2 billion, or over 25 per cent of the Department's budget, on providing additional teaching and care supports for children with special educational needs;

— the Government 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 very stressful experience; and the Department of Education is working hard to ensure that there are sufficient school places, appropriate to the needs of all children, available on a timely basis nationwide;

— there have been an additional 380 teachers recruited to support students to be enrolled in new special classes and new special schools for the 2022/23 school year;

— the Department of Education will continue to engage with the NCSE, school patrons and school authorities over the summer months to increase capacity where needed, and so far 1,800 additional places in 315 new special classes will become available in September 2022;

— continuing to add capacity in schools and special schools to support SEN provision is a key priority for the Government, and two new special schools were established in Dublin in 2021;

— following on from strategic engagement with the Spiritan Education Trust, a new special school will be established in the 2022/23 school year in existing accommodation at the Templeogue College campus in Dublin, enabling it to cater for up to 150 pupils with SEN when completed;

— in Cork, a new special school has been established in the 2021/22 school year and another one will be established in the 2022/23 school year;

— the Government has implemented a number of strategic initiatives over the last two years to transform the planning and coordination of SEN provision;

— Deputy Josepha Madigan, Minister of State at the Department of Education recently announced that the section 37A process to compel schools to increase SEN provision has been initiated for a third time, and that this process is now underway, this process is currently being reviewed as part of the review of the Education of Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 and this review will take into account actual cases where section 37A has been used and the effectiveness for the child;

— work is also currently underway, in collaboration with the Office of the Attorney General, to consider whether emergency legislation would assist in the faster delivery of special educational placements;

— progress has been made in providing additional special class and special school places, however, the Government accepts that challenges remain in certain areas; and

— a key priority of the Ministers and Government is the delivery of special educational places for children who require such placements and intensive work will continue over the summer to provide further additional places for the new school year; and

furthermore notes that:

— significant investment has been made in the area of Special Education and that this is a key priority for both the Government and the Department of Education; and

— while significant progress has been made in adding capacity in schools and special schools to support Special Educational Needs, provision challenges still remain and that the Department of Education will continue to engage intensively with the NCSE, parents and all educational partners to continue to increase capacity."

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak to the motion. The Department of Education is committed to delivering an education system that is of the highest quality and where every child and young person feels valued and is supported in reaching their full potential. We must have an education system that celebrates each child and young person within its care and strives to meets his or her individual needs. This is at the heart of what we do across the education sector and it is especially at the heart of special education provision, which is a priority area for investment for this Government.

I commend the excellent work happening in many schools around the country in this regard. As part of my work as Minister for Education, I am deeply fortunate to visit very many schools throughout the country and to meet with their students, staff, parents and broader community members. I am continually awed by the warmth, integrity and excellence in teaching and learning which I see in classrooms and schools throughout the country, including in respect of special education in both mainstream and specialised settings. This year, the Department will spend in excess of €2 billion, or more than 25% of the Department's budget, on providing additional teaching and care supports for children with special educational needs. This is right and proper and we will continue to increase investment to support students and young people over the term of this Government.

Departmental policy and educational expertise supports children with additional education needs being integrated in mainstream education to the greatest extent possible, with additional resources and supports such as differentiated learning, student support plans, special education teachers and SNAs being made available to schools and students. The total number of special education teachers in the mainstream school system is 14,385 in 2022 - an overall increase of 980 teaching posts. Provision has been made for 19,169 SNAs by the end of 2022, which represents an overall increase of 1,165 posts. It is important to note that students do not require a formal diagnosis or assessment to access these supports. This ensures that schools and students are able to access supports in a streamlined manner.

This being said, the Department recognises that some children and young people require more specialist support and it is committed to making special school and special class places available for these children. Ensuring that appropriate class placements are available for students remains one of the key priorities for the Department. One of the most difficult situations that can arise for any child or parent is for an appropriate school place to not be available for the child. I will use this opportunity to outline some of the progress that has been made as well as work that we are continuing to do in this regard because I recognise that work must continue apace to ensure that there is joined-up thinking and co-ordination in this regard.

The NCSE is statutorily responsible for planning and co-ordinating provision at both a local and a national level and advising the Department in that regard. A network of SENOs, who are located throughout the country, will continue to be available to assist and advise parents of children with special educational needs. There is ongoing intensive engagement between the Department, the NCSE and other key stakeholders on short-term requirements for special class and special school places and the more strategic and longer-term requirements on a national and local basis. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, will update the House in respect of the section 37A process. I would also like the House to note that engagement is ongoing between the Department and the Office of the Attorney General in respect of the legislative tools available to further expedite this process.

A number of initiatives have been put in place by my Department over the past two years to assist with the planning and co-ordination of special educational needs provision. These new initiatives are bearing fruit with 315 new special classes due to open for the 2022-23 school year, which will create more than 1,800 places for students. Two new special schools were established in Dublin in 2021. A new special school has been established in Cork in this school year and a new special school is being established in the 2022-23 school year in Cork. Following on from strategic engagement with the Spiritan Education Trust, a new special school will be established in the 2022-23 school year at the Templeogue College campus in Dublin, with the overall objective being to develop a modern, permanent provision for this school to enable it to cater for up to 150 pupils when completed. This will add very significant capacity for south Dublin area.

Furthermore, the Department is committed to planning for the future and all major building projects, such as new school buildings and significant extensions, must include space for special class provision as standard. Between 2018 and 2021, permanent accommodation for 292 special classes and additional capacity for 122 classrooms in 22 special schools was delivered. A further 700 projects are currently progressing under the Department's capital plan, which will deliver more than 1,300 new SEN classrooms and 200 replacement SEN classrooms to cater for approximately 7,800 SEN pupils in primary and post-primary education. Almost 100 of these projects are currently on-site, which will ultimately deliver classroom spaces for almost 1,000 additional SEN pupils. This investment is reflective of the broader and greater ambition that we hold for the sector. We will absolutely continue to prioritise investment in this vital and significant area. As such, I propose the Government's countermotion for consideration this evening.

I again acknowledge the exemplary work of many schools in the area of special education provision throughout the country. This notwithstanding, I also know from listening to and hearing from young people and families that more work must continue to be done to ensure that every child, including those with additional educational needs, receives timely access to every support he or she might need to reach his or her fullest potential. We must never lose sight of this goal and I look forward to continuing to work with everyone around the table, including all key stakeholders and interested parties, to ensure this the case. In this regard, I thank the Deputies for raising these important matters and I look forward to the debate.

I have just listened very closely to what the Minister has said and I have heard her outline investment and funding that is going in to special education. If one was to listen to her describe the investment, one would say we were in a much better place. Last Saturday, I went to Grand Parade in Cork city for the second protest vigil organised by Families Unite for Services and Support, FUSS, with regard to services for children with disabilities. I listened to their parents. Parents and children with disability described what they have had to do to get services and education in this State.

Since I was elected two years ago, I have raised the issue of both school places and services for children with disabilities and I hear a long list of what is happening. However, I am telling the Minister that there are children who do not have schools to go to in September. There are parents who do not know what they will do and still, I hear what the Government outlines. We know the data show that there are not enough places for children. What is being done? The buck stops with the Government. Why must these families always fight? These families are angry, frustrated and tired. They are tired of always having to fight for every single thing for their children. It is not right. A phrase in the Proclamation of 1916 that is quoted many times is "cherishing all the children of the nation equally". I can tell the Minister that a parent of a child with a disability does not feel that his or her child is being cherished.

I ask her to accept that Deputy Ó Laoghaire has brought forward a proposal. There should not be politics about the issue of disability services and school places. We should be able to work together to deliver for these most vulnerable children.

I plead with the Minister and the Government to accept the Deputy's proposal because it is the start of a solution.

I am pleased to speak to this motion on special educational needs. Children have the right not only to a school place but one that is fitting for their educational needs. In north Kildare, I work with the parents of these children in Naas, Sallins, Prosperous, and all the way across to Broadford. I work with them in every town and hinterland in my constituency. I see the parents' advocacy, frustration, worry, and their disbelief at how their bright young children are being failed by this State. Yesterday, some of them met my colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire. I thank him for the time he gave them and his work on this Private Member's business. It is not right that parents of children with special educational needs have to become full-time campaigners for the rights of children for an education suited to their needs. Coming to politics from a disabilities background, I know how these fights impact families. They hear that new places can be magicked up by the Minister, but what trained staff will fill them?

Optics rule this Government and any extra school places not tailored to the child are a fig leaf for failure. Suitable school places are not favours, charity or a kindness. They are constitutional rights the Government has a duty to vindicate. The parents whom Deputy Ó Laoghaire and I met yesterday have been fighting long and bitter battles for their children's rights. One hears and sees the toll it takes on their families. To help them, the Minister must publish the real data on how many children do not have a proper school place for September. She must introduce emergency legislation relating to section 37 and guarantee these children a proper school place fitting their educational needs. She must plan for 2023. There must be no more smoke and mirrors or sleight of hand, just fulfilment of rights from beginning to end.

Time and time again, the families of children with disabilities have to fight and scrape to get the resources these children are entitled to. It is a challenge to get an assessment within the timeframe mandated in the Disability Act and to get their children into schools with the necessary facilities to ensure those children have a positive educational experience. The parents of children with disabilities are some of the most inspiring people you will ever meet. In the humdrum daily ritual of life, they face additional struggles that parents of other children often do not have to face. Now many of these parents will be panicking about obtaining a school place for their child for the coming August-September start date.

The programme for Government has committed to ensuring children with special educational needs have an appropriate school place, yet the recent AsIAm survey showed that at least 267 do not have an appropriate place for this coming September. No doubt the real figure is higher. What are the true figures? How many of them are in my constituency, Limerick City?

Segregated education centres cannot and never will be the answer. Ireland is never going back to any dark places like that. It is outrageous that special education centres were even suggested. Children with disabilities and specific needs have as valuable a contribution to make to this society as any of us. They deserve to be raised and taught with their peers, not isolated and segregated. Our understanding and appreciation for citizens with special needs has thankfully developed in recent years and this type of schooling arrangement is retrograde and an insult to this progress. However, the reality is that with summer holidays approaching, panicked parents will feel they have no alternative.

We have a problem, but we cannot solve the problem without the correct data. We need to know how many children do not have an adequate school place. The data are with the NCSE and the Department. We need to see those data so that emergency measures can be taken, even at this late hour, to ensure all children have an appropriate school place for September. The Minister has powers available to compel schools to open special classes, but under section 37A, the process is long, complex and time-consuming, especially for parents. We need to see this process be made more concise and streamlined so that school places can be found for these children.

Our motion has specific demands, including the immediate publication of data on the number of children without an appropriate school place for the next school year, the introduction of emergency legislation to streamline and simplify the section 37A process and an unequivocal confirmation that the segregationist education centres proposal will be immediately scrapped.

I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire for tabling the motion. I call on the Government to withdraw its amendment. Deputy Ó Laoghaire's motion is factual. It calls for immediate action. I have been here for the past seven years and am black and blue from calling for this every year. Once June comes, children and families are pitted against each other and fight teachers in Aldi and Lidl because their children cannot get a place in school. Children with special educational needs are at a significant disadvantage. In her opening statement, the Minister said the Department's policy on educational expertise supports children with additional educational needs being integrated into mainstream education. It is a lie and a mistruth. I know of parents who tried to normalise their children's lives by putting them in primary school, in the mainstream system, with the assistance of teachers, but the problem is that they are ignored when it comes to secondary school because the feeder schools take up the slots. We do not have enough places.

We all have access to constituency databases. I hope the information from the census will come out shortly. The most recent one was in 2016. I can go to any part of my constituency and compile a list of children who have special needs from the information on the census. It includes nearly every demographic, including age, and one can paint a picture of the demand for the next ten years. Deputy Ó Laoghaire's motion calls for the data to be released, with the true figures of how many people cannot get into school.

We have another issue following from that. We cannot get people into schools in their own area and they will not be able to get school transport because it is outside of its remit. Private operators carry children from Cobh to Carrigtwohill. It is paid for privately for parents because their children fall outside the school transport remit.

This requires an instant review. We want to ensure that no child will be without a place for summer 2023. Let us be realistic about it. This creates stress for families and hatred between school principals and parents. As I said in my opening remarks, people are fighting and blaming each other for this in shopping centres because their children cannot get to school. It drives people insane. I appeal to the Minister to do the right thing. I ask her to withdraw the amendment and support Deputy Ó Laoghaire's motion.

I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire for tabling the motion. It is important that we reflect on the life of a family with a child with autism, the news of a diagnosis, the challenge of it and getting used to it. They then have to deal with the system and the long waiting lists for assessment and interventions. It can take 36 months in some cases. I have been dealing with families who have been affected by this issue for approximately three years. Let us imagine if one had to deal with the challenge of this diagnosis, the new reality of waiting lists and trying to balance that situation in a family, only to come face-to-face with the education system when trying to enrol a child in the local school and having the school say "No". Imagine how that family or those parents would immediately come to the conclusion that their child was a second-class citizen, because the local school has said "No". The SENO will provide a list of schools to the parents and wish them the best of luck, then tell them they can get home tuition if it does not work.

Who among us is qualified to invite someone we do not know into our home to teach their child as a substitute for their child going to the local school? Can people imagine the humiliation of having to chase down school after school and having them all say "No"? Parents have come to me saying they have chased down 17 schools that have all said "No".

On the list that was given to a woman in Donaghmede by the special educational needs organiser, SENO, there was a school in Drogheda. Already we have hundreds of parents around the country who feel that they and their children are second-class citizens.

I want the Minister to cast her mind back to 18 months ago when we were in the Convention Centre Dublin and we had a discussion about the reopening of schools in January 2021. The Minister did her absolute best to present herself as a champion of children with special educational needs and their parents by pitting parents against school communities. I challenged her by saying she was suggesting to us we have to pick a side. The Minister for Education said she did pick a side, that of young people and children with special educational needs and their parents. That is exactly what the Minister said. Fast-forward 18 months, we are now in June 2022 and again we have no solutions to the reality of what these families are facing. When it suits the Ministers, they can be on the side of children and families who are facing issues of school placement. When it does not suit them, they have to go through Twitter threads because they know there is a "Prime Time Investigates" programme coming or they are embarrassed by a child from Tipperary who has to fundraise for her brothers. They came up with a proposal that is so obnoxious and odious to the rights-based approach of children with special educational needs that it should have been followed by a resignation letter from the Minister with responsibility for special education. There are temperate, mild-mannered lobby groups and NGOs working in this system and area all the time that are horrified by the warehousing that is effectively a direct provision approach to special educational needs. It is as if the Ministers are stunned we are in the month of June because they could not predict it. Allied to this is the fact those who work most intensively in this area, our special needs assistants, SNAs, have the ignominy of being told on the very last day of May whether they have jobs for September.

I am exhausted listening to parents who are telling me their life stories, and I do not have to deal with it day to day. I cannot imagine the exhaustion of somebody who is dealing with challenging parenting and who then has to deal with agencies of the State that effectively make them and their child feel worthless. I and other Deputies deal with campaigning groups from all over the country. They have to become campaigning groups. If they were to deal with the State on a one-to-one basis, they would not get anywhere. Unless they become a campaigning group or a full-time campaigner, they are wasting their time. Unless they expose the privacy of their family life to television cameras and go on "Prime Time Investigates", nothing is going to change. They must have the campaigning zeal of a child in Tipperary who sees that what is happening to her brothers is not fair or just and has to embarrass the Government into meeting her. That is the only thing that seems to make a difference. It does not come from an inherent sense of equality or justice within Government. It does not come from an inherent sense of equality or justice on the part of the Ministers. What it comes from is a fire-fighting response to an emergency need.

I cannot imagine the rage I would feel if I approached the local school in my community with my child whom I have struggled to convince that he or she is an equal citizen in this Republic, and for the local school to say "No". The Ministers cannot at this late stage tell us they have grand plans for section 37A. It has been utilised twice. One of those cases is still stuck in the courts. As has been said, it takes a long time to expedite. The Ministers could have been reforming section 37A for the past 18 months since they made their grand gesture in the convention centre about how strongly they feel about special needs education, special needs students and their families. They did not. When they had a chance to use it as a wedge against teachers and SNAs on the reopening of schools, it was convenient for them. What actually needed to take place to provide school places for those who need them just did not happen. As has been said by the proposers of the motion, the Minister needs to take action on section 37A and we will support that. We supported emergency legislation earlier today. We will support any amount of time the Minister wants to put forward on section 37A to demand of a school to open up for a child who needs a place and then to resource that school. I am quite sure there are school principals and communities who are not sure they would get the support of the State if they did go down that road.

Immediately tonight, the Ministers must end this warehousing proposal. They must make a statement that it was a bad idea, ill-conceived and poorly thought out. It has caused a lot of hurt and upset and it is not going anywhere. The Ministers should make that statement tonight. They must absolutely commit to the ethic of a local school place for a child in that community. They must commit to doing anything they possibly can to ensure that right. They should commit that we will not be back here in six or 12 months' time having the very same debate because it does not suit the Ministers, who are utilising this issue as a wedge to drive between parents, school communities and children with special educational needs.

I thank Sinn Féin for proposing this motion, which the Social Democrats entirely support along with any and all actions to ensure all children's educational and human rights are met. I acknowledge the work my colleague, Deputy Gannon, has put into this issue. Unfortunately, he was unable to be here today for the debate. There is undeniably a crisis regarding appropriate school places for children with disabilities across our island, although I would be hesitant to use the word "emergency". I am hesitant because this situation has not arisen suddenly, nor has the Department been caught off guard or been unexpectedly faced with this situation. This crisis has not emerged without warning as emergencies do. It was entirely foreseeable and preventable. It is now being made worse by the Department's inability to act with urgency to adopt a rights-based approach when it comes to children with disabilities in our country.

The Education Act 1998 expressly states that the duty of the Minister for Education is to make appropriate education available to everyone in the State, including persons with disabilities. The right to education is enshrined in our Constitution and the programme for Government has a commitment to ensure each child with a special educational need has an appropriate school place in line with his or her constitutional right. Yet we know the reality, that there are many families throughout the country who cannot access education for their children with disabilities and these children's rights are being trampled on by this Government. As public representatives, we receive emails weekly if not more frequently. We see the stories on the news of families and children having to document the failure of the State to provide an education.

It is galling to hear Departments and Ministers say people with disabilities in Ireland have an equal right to access to education and that the Department's policy is to ensure appropriate education for all children with additional educational needs. While these rights exist in words and policies, in theory and in the Ministers' ideal, they do not exist in reality for these children or for their families. They do not exist in the day-to-day lives of the hundreds of children and families throughout the country who cannot get a school place, or for parents who have received more than 20 rejection letters from schools or those who have been forced to accept a school place they know is not suitable or appropriate for their child because there is no other option.

AsIAm, through its Appropriate School Place survey, found at least 267 children do not have an appropriate school place for this September. The number is likely to be significantly higher. The Minister, the Department and the NCSE have access to the data on the true number of children who require an appropriate special education place in September.

The survey of AsIAm yielded many other stark findings that show the failure of our education system to provide for all children and the utter desperation families are enduring. Two hundred and twenty-one of the respondents received no assistance from the NCSE in looking for a school place, and 126 respondents have had no communication from their special educational needs organisers. Of the respondents whose children have a school place, fewer than 50% received adequate supports, such as special needs assistants and additional teaching time, for those children, and 57% were on reduced timetables. One hundred and nine respondents accepted school places for September 2022 that are not appropriate for their child’s needs. Of these, 94% received no further support from the NCSE in finding a more suitable place. Two hundred and forty-one respondents stated they did not expect to receive an offer of an appropriate school place before September 2022. That paints a picture of a failed system.

It should be noted that AsIAm conducted this work following the indefensible and legally questionable plans surrounding the special education centres. The Department has moved away from these, which I welcome and as do many of my colleagues who are present. However, we need to ask serious questions as to why interim measures based on segregation were developed when the rights and policy are underlined by inclusion. The idea is completely at odds with international human rights and our national legislation. Regardless of how briefly it existed, we need to question how it came about.

We have a shameful past when it comes to vindicating the rights of people with disabilities. In 2018, Ireland was the last country to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, committing to do what is needed to ensure people with disabilities can exercise their human rights fully and as equals of non-disabled people.

Nearly 20 years on, the Education for People with Special Educational Needs Act has not been fully implemented. Instead, it was permitted to expire. I am aware of the ongoing review, which is needed, but we also desperately need a sense of urgency and the will to follow through. The results must not be more legislation permitted to gather dust on a shelf. That we do not operate in Ireland with a human-rights-based approach to disability is internationally embarrassing and morally repugnant.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, at its meeting in January 2016, highlighted and criticised our nation for having no comprehensive strategy for the inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream education and the encouragement of their autonomy. The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in its general comment on inclusive education of 2016, stated:

Placing students with disabilities within mainstream classes without accompanying structural changes … does not constitute inclusion. Furthermore, integration does not automatically guarantee the transition from segregation to inclusion.

It also stated:

...educational institutions and programmes must be available in sufficient quantity and quality. States parties must guarantee a broad availability of educational places for learners with disabilities at all levels throughout the community.

I do not doubt the intention of the Minister or Department but there is a legacy of not meeting the needs of people with disabilities and of their rights not being met. That is why 241 of the respondents to the AsIAm survey do not expect to receive an offer of an appropriate school place before September 2022.

Families are not asking the Department to look into a crystal ball. They are asking that they and their children not be punished because those children have additional educational needs. We now have a crisis that must be dealt with urgently while maintaining those children’s rights, but we must also have a departmental commitment to planning ahead by providing multi-annual budgeting so schools will be able to provide appropriate places for children with additional educational needs ahead of schedule.

There is a disconnect between the reality of children and families across our nation and what the Department and NCSE are presenting as a reality. How many children are on a waiting list for a special school place? How many are in need of supports? The Minister must publish this information. There must be transparency regarding these failings. The information is critical and needed so we will no longer have the disconnect. I thank Sinn Féin for tabling the motion, for which I reiterate the support of the Social Democrats.

I commend Sinn Féin on its motion. It is very good. We are probably debating something we should not be debating because there should not be a need for a debate on special education for children, yet we continue to debate it not only in this Chamber but also outside it. The issue may seem abstract when debating it but it is not so abstract when it comes to parents and their children not being provided for in September. It is completely unacceptable that this continues in 2022. History will judge successive Governments to have let down children by not providing the basic right to an education. Two hundred and forty-one children will not have an appropriate place come September. At least 112 children between the ages of one and six are waiting for an appropriate school place. The stress this brings on is incalculable. That the children will not have a place is unacceptable.

As other Deputies have said, many parents come to our constituency offices and tell us their children will have no school places in September. My head drops when that happens. As I have said before, Deputies are the last people to whom parents seeking special educational provision speak. That means the system has failed, and that is just not good enough in 2022.

I have raised with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, the matter of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, places, particularly at secondary school. At present, the ratio between places at primary and secondary levels is 3:1. Therefore, there is a serious shortage of ASD places in secondary schools. In the Leinster area, including Dublin, the ratio is 3:1. Therefore, for every three places at primary level, there is one at second level. This will lead to a major shortage of appropriate places in secondary schools. This is already happening. Some secondary schools are stepping up to the plate and some have reservations about resources, places and so forth. It is important the resources be put in place. I can speak only for the area I represent. I realise there is a major shortage in secondary schools every September. That has to be addressed.

The special education centres are a complete non-runner. The Minister should state they will be completely ruled out. Parents I have been speaking to, although not all, have said they are not a good idea as they almost institutionalise the special education of their children. The section 37A legal process compels schools to make provision for special education. Again, it entails a very arduous, bureaucratic system. Ultimately, schools probably will not be compelled to provide special educational places. We should not have circumstances in which schools must be compelled. If schools were given the resources and adequate provision were made, every one of them would provide special education in the classroom. There is no doubt about that, but there is a barrier between the resources schools want and what the Department of Education can provide.

I do not want to be overly political about this. Sometimes you have to leave your politics behind but this needs to be sorted out.

It should have been sorted out yesterday. I know that, on a personal basis, the Minister of State is embarrassed by this. It is embarrassing that hundreds of children do not have an appropriate place for September, which is not acceptable. Let us leave all the politics behind and we will support the Minister of State, as Opposition Deputies, to finally resolve this issue. This has been decades in the making and successive Governments simply have not worked it out. This is a very wealthy country and there are a lot of resources. For children to be denied an education when they are between five and eight years old is unacceptable. I hope that in the two and a half years left of this Government, if it lasts that long, it can at least address some of the issues that are letting down children.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this very important issue. As the previous speaker said, we should not be here talking about it because we should have had solutions in place many years ago so the resources would be there.

I acknowledge the role of the Department and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, in the past two and a half years. I acknowledge the amount of investment that has been announced and the amount of work that is being done to try to improve services. In my own town of Tuam, we opened a new special needs school, St. Oliver's, which is a fine, state-of-the-art building and is great for the children who have use of it. I know the Minister of State has great plans for investment. However, having been in a ministerial role in government, I understand that the process by which things get done and physically get built on the ground is gruesome and arduous, and it saps a lot of the money from what that money is supposed to be for. It goes on consultants, reports and all of that kind of thing before we actually see construction on the ground.

The other part is that if we are going to set out a plan for what is going to happen over the next four to five years with special needs education, the first thing we need to do is to get the data right as to what we are dealing with, including the numbers, where people are located and how the issues are being addressed, and we need a programme that lists how works will commence and how they will be finished. Parents find that the cruellest part of their whole existence is the fact they do not know when and they cannot find out when. With this lack of implementation of the plans, it is the children who suffer most, as well as their families, who are under severe pressure. They then find themselves under even more pressure because the whole process is very slow and very cumbersome and many years pass by before they actually see the infrastructure in place.

There is also the issue of resources to teach children and to offer every child the opportunity to progress in life, to gain employment and to realise their full potential. In my constituency, there is a group called PALS, which is a group of parents of autistic people in Loughrea and surrounding areas, which represents more than 150 families. Loughrea does not have any ASD room in any of the national schools in the town. Next year or the year after, St. Raphael’s secondary school will have an ASD room but, in the meantime, the families of children have to seek out education in the surrounding towns and villages and in schools in rural areas. That is causing serious problems where brothers and sisters are going to a mainstream school and another child has to go to a different school, which is creating segregation in its own right. When we think about it, the schools that are there have a limited supply as well.

The teacher training programmes need to be updated to ensure a ready supply of special needs teachers who also have the opportunity to advance in their careers. This is to ensure special needs education becomes a very important and integrated part of our total education system.

The summer school programme this year is causing problems, with people trying to get places. It is important that this is addressed and corrected as a matter of urgency.

The Department needs to provide guidance and recommendations on apps for children who cannot follow the standard curriculum or the adapted curriculum. That choice and recommendation is being left to parents.

As a member of the Joint Committee on Disability Matters, I find that a recurring theme from parents is that services are not available and they are under-resourced, and parents are left fighting a daily battle for their children. AsIAm and Autism Ireland are doing so much work in this fight for people with autism and we need to listen to them before it is too late. Joined-up thinking is required from the assessment and through the education process, from primary school to secondary school and on to third level education, in a manner that all parents can follow and understand from day one.

A child's right to education is enshrined in our Constitution. Under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, it must be accessible on an equal basis with others in the community in which they live. It is incumbent on us, as elected representatives, to make sure that happens.

At present, just three primary schools and one secondary school are providing autism-specific classes in the wider Athlone area. This is grossly inefficient to meet the current needs and no new classes are planned for September, which is completely unacceptable. It needs to be urgently addressed.

Four weeks ago, I raised in the House with the Minister of State the lack of secondary school places for children with autism in Athlone and south Roscommon, which will force students to travel up to 100 km each day to avail of a second level education from September. I know of two children in south Roscommon who will travel up to 100 km a day as they will have to make the daily journey to Glenamaddy, County Galway to access a second level education in an autism-specific class. In fact, there will be 11 children leaving primary school in the catchment of Athlone and south Roscommon in the next fortnight who have no local autism-specific school place. These 11 children will travel up to 150,000 km over the next school year because of the failure to provide autism classes in local schools. So much for climate change and so much for helping families with the cost of living.

Four weeks ago, the Minister of State told me she was meeting with the NCSE the following day and that she was going to bring up the crisis situation in Athlone and south Roscommon. She told me that the NCSE had told her that it was confident it would meet the demands for special class places and special school places for this September in both Roscommon and Athlone, and that there was sufficient capacity for those children from September this year. Not one of the parents has been contacted or has heard anything from either the Department, the NCSE or the SENO in the past four weeks. Even those who have been forced to travel up to 100 km a day are not being given any information about transport, how it is envisaged that they are going to get to school each day or how they are going to be able to afford to pay for the petrol to travel these astronomical distances. These children should be entitled to an education in their own town along with their schoolmates and their brothers and sisters. I do not think it is too much to ask. I urge the Minister of State to intervene in this regard.

Furthermore, four weeks ago, she advised me that where schools were collaborating and there was a willingness to open the special classes, they should be given the space to do that. Despite that approach being taken, the Department and the NCSE are not supporting schools that are willing to alter special classes. St. Comán’s Wood Primary School in Roscommon town has been refused a special class for children with multiple and complex disabilities. This is despite having the numbers for such a class and despite the fact the application was supported by both the senior psychologist in the child disability network team and the local SENO. St. Comán’s Wood has an excellent reputation for giving children opportunities to taste success, irrespective of their circumstances. This has resulted in some children with special needs moving from neighbouring schools to St. Comán’s Wood. Many parents without any special needs also choose to send their children to the school because they want an inclusive education for their children that reflects the wider community.

We all know that resource hours and SNAs do not meet the needs of children with multiple disabilities.

Having part-time access to an SNA or resource hours does not work for them. They need constant support throughout the day where they are engaged with in activities that are relevant and meaningful to them.

I note there are 25 special classes in mainstream schools for children with multiple disabilities throughout the country. There are two in Clare, five in Cork, two in Donegal, four in Galway, eight in Kerry, one in Louth and three in Mayo. Not one has been sanctioned for County Roscommon. Despite the fact that the board of management has identified a need, supported the school in making the application and received the endorsement of both the HSE and the SENO, the Department of Education is not willing to support the establishment of this special class. I urge the Minister to reconsider this.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very important issue. I also welcome that I have finally received confirmation from the National Council for Special Education that a special education needs organiser has been put in place in County Laois. However, we are still waiting for a SENO to be put in place in County Offaly. This is a great source of frustration to the parents I meet daily and also to the schools that have contacted me about this matter. It is unacceptable to be missing such a critical person for helping parents. I understand the SENO is to be put in place by the end of July. I ask both Ministers to ensure that happens.

Parents are exhausted from trying to fight for their children with special needs. I meet these parents continually. It is very unfair. They face barrier after barrier. They need help. A SENO should be in place in County Offaly. There is no excuse for the delays that have been experienced already. It has been a long drawn-out process and this needs to happen by the end of July, as promised. While this is vitally important in terms of co-ordinating and protecting the rights of special needs children, it must also be matched with increased capacity in schools and a ramping up of the number of special needs assistants. Without that we will have a situation akin to being referred by a GP for a service that simply cannot be provided. There are serious gaps in terms of meeting the needs of children with special needs. I acknowledge the great support groups such as Laois Offaly Families For Autism, LOFFA, which supports children with autism in Laois and Offaly and their parents. If it were not for such groups, many parents would be totally at a loss and I commend them on their work.

I highlight the point in the motion regarding the 13-step process of compelling schools to open special units under section 37A of the Education Act 1998. I agree that far from being an emergency response, the process is incredibly cumbersome and time-consuming. It is also a useful political trick of being seen to do something but in reality doing nothing to improve the situation in a simple and practical way.

I raised the issue of the special education needs organiser and special education in February with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, through a parliamentary question. I found it appalling to be told in an extraordinary reply at the time that it was nothing to do with the Minister of State and that I should contact the NCSE. This is what parents face every day of the week. When we as Deputies try to help them we should receive more support and assistance. I want to call that out. It is typical of the approach of this Government to seek the praise, while accepting none of the responsibility or assisting in times of need. We have to remember that children with special educational needs have already been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 restrictions and the loss of school time.

The Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, on which I sit, was told by the National Principals Forum, NPF, that more than half - 53.6% - of principals surveyed had observed an increase in special educational needs children returning to school. The NPF further noted that this increase could be caused by the loss of engagement, skills, learning and human connection of students with special educational needs. All of the challenges are unacceptable. I ask the Minister to take action on these issues.

The Private Members’ motion relates to national schools providing appropriate places for children in our educational system and I agree with it. Why is there no joined-up thinking between Departments? I have asked this question previously. The Departments of Education and Health must talk to each other.

We require a needs-based system for children with special needs. The delays in diagnosis are crazy. When parents of children with special needs look for places in the educational system schools will not give places to children without a diagnosis from a health professional. The educators say they need to provide appropriate care relative to the disability of the child. Waiting times for assessments are extraordinary, with huge delays. The health service states there is no requirement for a formal assessment in order to get a school place, yet children are being refused school places because they have no official diagnosis. Therein lies the difficulty. On one hand, the education sector states that a child needs a diagnosis while, on the other, the health sector states that a diagnosis is not needed. Will the Minister please talk to the Department of Health to see whether we can find a resolution to move forward. The failure of the two Departments to talk to each other is causing delays for children seeking to secure a place in school. It is not rocket science for people to talk to each other, or for two Departments to talk to each other, to find a way forward to meet the genuine care needs of children. Will the Minister talk to the Department of Health? Will the Department of Health talk to the Minister and come up with a system to work together for the betterment of these children?

I thank Sinn Féin for bringing this motion for debate. It is important at this time of the year. It is the same every year. Parents are worried and anxious, ready to tear out their hair because they cannot get a place for these children with special needs. It seems to be a continuation. Some schools have benefited but more have not. I could give examples of many worried parents throughout County Kerry who are at their wits' end and simply cannot find a school place for their son or daughter with special educational needs.

When a child develops a problem it is a serious burden for parents. They need help and should have the right to full-time education. The State is not meeting that obligation to educate children with disabilities. This represents a gigantic failure on the part of the Government to address this long-standing issue.

I believe there has been an increase in cases of autism. Our medics should look to see what is causing that because these vulnerable children are being discriminated against. The whole situation is damaging for the health and well-being of all the families affected. Meanwhile, many other cases throughout the country involve parents being forced to fundraise to finance the salary of an SNA. This is unacceptable.

While I have the Minister for Education here and given that she is from Kerry, I have to raise the issue of Ballyduff National School and Tarbert National School. These schools are set to lose teachers this year because at the end of September last year, when assessing the number of teaching staff required, they were down perhaps one child.

Since that, they are catering for 16 extra children from Ukraine whom they are delighted to have and they are doing their best to see after them. There are language barriers etc. and they are trying to overcome them. They are doing their level best. Surely, we must do something. I expect Deputy Foley, as a Minister from Kerry, surely to see after Ballyduff and Tarbert national schools to ensure that they do not lose a teacher. Every parish has a hollow, maybe, where they go down a few children.

Of course, I must ask the Minister about the Black Valley school, which is the only school in the Black Valley. It is a proud community. Like that, they are suffering. Numbers are declining a bit. I believe that if they could get over this hump and if the school could remain open this year - I appeal to the Minister to do her level best to ensure the Black Valley school is not closed on her watch as Minister for Education - when we go on there will be plenty of children but if it is closed, it will never again open.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak.

It is concerning to think that there are many parents in this country who have been unable to find a place at an appropriate school for their child this coming September. I cannot imagine the stress these parents are under, being forced into a situation such as this so late in the year and with September only around the corner.

AsIAm’s latest snap survey is particularly troubling, bearing in mind that the survey is merely a snapshot of a nationwide crisis with less than half of respondents based in Dublin. It is clear that there is a massive shortage in appropriate school places for children with autism spectrum disorder, ASD.

The snap survey has shown that at least 267 children do not have an appropriate school place for September 2022. Shockingly, 241 respondents do not expect to receive an offer of an appropriate school place at all before September, meaning that many children will have no school to go to next year. Imagine how that would feel, to a student and to a parent, for a young person to miss out on all that school has to offer, not only as regards education, but also as regards the social and development opportunities it gives our young people.

What is worse is that we know that this number is nowhere near accurate and it is expected that there are numerous more stuck in the same situation. We also know that the Government most likely knows, or at least has the means to find out, what that exact number is. Despite this, these numbers have yet to be released and, cynically, I have to say that I believe the reason they have not been is because of how high they are and how bad this looks. There is no other explanation. That is truly despicable.

The Government has stated in its amendment to this motion that "a child's right to education is enshrined in the Constitution and, under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, must be accessible on an equal basis with others in the community in which they live". This just proves how meaningless their own statements are. How can one say that a child's right to education must be accessible while so many in this country do not have access to appropriate education? The Government cannot be allowed to come in here and state that it believes that every child deserves equal access to education when its actions quite literally say the opposite. Something needs to change. We need to ensure that there are adequate resources for all children to get the education they deserve.

No child can be left behind. We need to look seriously into resourcing and funding to ensure this. The Government, at the very least, needs to publish the correct figures so that we can see properly the scale of this issue and what the problem is.

This is a serious problem in my constituency of Donegal and in many rural constituencies, where there is a complete lack of services in some parts. I have talked with many parents who have a child with additional needs and who seriously struggle to live in rural areas. They are forced to travel long distances for services and for appropriate schools, and for many this is not doable. Many of them have submitted multiple applications to schools in the hope that somewhere can offer appropriate special education. This should not be the way that parents have to behave.

Every child deserves and is entitled to an appropriate school place in his or her locality which meets his or her needs in agreement with his or her parents and psychologists’ report yet we are hearing reports of families that are unable even to get a psychologist's report to recommend this. This is not acceptable and cannot be tolerated any longer.

It is completely unfair that the stress and panic of this has been placed solely on the shoulders of the parents who have received such minimal assistance from the State regarding it. I am thinking especially of those parents who do not have English as their first language and who receive such little help in situations such as this. School placement and enrolment should be only a positive experience and should not be seen as negative. However, many parents living in direct provision and in temporary accommodation are completely left behind as well.

AsIAm states that it believes that this crisis was "foreseeable and preventable", which suggests an inexcusable failure by the Department. It is clear that there has been a complete lack of preplanning here and I have to ask why. Surely the numbers are there. Surely something could have been done sooner than June.

Going forward, AsIAm states that "through better planning, communication and a rights-based approach, we believe an emergency response is needed in an emergency situation." Unfortunately, this is now undeniably an emergency situation. We must respond accordingly.

I support this motion. I believe the amendments put forward by the Government are inappropriate and make no attempt to address this emergency situation properly.

I support Sinn Féin's call for the Government to publish data on the number of students who do not have an appropriate school place as soon as possible and I will be following up with the Minister's office on this. We cannot address the problem without first realising the scale of it. This is the very least that we can do.

The Department has to know these figures. If the Department does not know the figures, even bigger questions have to be asked. We should be able to gather these figures. We should know the extent of the problem. If we cannot meet it all the time that is fair enough but we should at least know what we are addressing and be upfront about it as well. It is the least we can expect.

I thank the Deputies for their contributions to this debate.

I too share their views that children with special education needs should be supported to access the education system. As a Government, we fully recognise the importance of an inclusive and all-embracing education system. Never is it more important than in the case of children with special education needs. I fundamentally believe that our most vulnerable children in society must be prioritised.

Government policy on supporting children with special educational needs aims to ensure that all children with special needs can have access to an education appropriate to their needs. Our policy is to provide for inclusive education and to ensure the maximum possible integration of children with special needs into ordinary mainstream schools. Where pupils require more targeted interventions, special class or special school placements are also provided.

I re-emphasise the significant levels of financial provision that are made each year to ensure that all children with special educational needs, SEN, can access education. The Department currently spends in excess of €2 billion, which is over 25% of the Department's budget, on providing additional teaching and care supports for children with SEN.

My Department has significantly increased the availability of specialist placements for children with SEN as well as bringing ever more children into mainstream education. Continuing to add capacity in schools to support SEN provision is a key priority of the Government and a key priority in the roll-out of the national development plan.

I recently secured an agreement with the Department which ensures that all new school buildings will have compulsory special class provision moving forward. This future proofing will include the incorporation of four special classes in all new 1,000 student post-primary schools and other large-scale projects, and pro-rata provision for medium-to-smaller schools. Primary school buildings will also include special class provision and that will be accommodation for two special classes.

In the national development plan, there will also be a particular emphasis at post-primary level. This includes permanent accommodation for 292 special classes and additional capacity for 122 classrooms in 22 special schools delivered during the national development plan, NDP, period, which was 2018 to 2021. There is a further 700 projects currently progressing under the NDP which will deliver over 1,300 new SEN classrooms and 200 replacement SEN classrooms catering for approximately 7,800 SEN pupils across primary and post-primary. Almost 100 of these projects are currently on-site, which will ultimately deliver classroom spaces for almost 1,000 additional SEN pupils. Taken together, this will enable new additional or modernised accommodation at over 50% of the special schools and 60% of post-primary schools will either have an existing special class or have a project on the school building programme which will provide SEN accommodation.

In March last, I announced for the first time that special education provision would open with the fee charging patron, the Spiritan Education Trust. This was a significant policy direction change for the Department and one that I was proud to spearhead. We listened to school communities. We listened to what parents were telling us. I welcomed the memorandum of understanding with the Spiritan Order, which marks for the first time that schools such as these will be part of the provision of special education in Ireland without barriers to entry for those who need a place. Under this arrangement, a new special school will be established in the 2022-23 school year in the existing accommodation at the Templeogue College campus in Dublin. The overall objectives are to develop a modern, permanent provision for this school over time and to eventually enable it to cater for up to 150 pupils with special education needs. This will add significant capacity for the south Dublin area.

My Department has also informed the NCSE that the policy position has changed since March 2022 and that the Department will support special classes in other fee-charging schools as needed. This is a much-needed development which will help to meet the demand for special school places in the area. My Department has been intensely engaging with the NCSE, school patrons and school authorities to ensure there are sufficient adequate special school places and special classes available for the 2022-23 academic year. The Department, the Minister and I will continue to engage with the NCSE school patrons and school authorities over the summer months to increase capacity where needed. As the Minister mentioned, so far, 315 new special classes are due to open for the 2022-23 school year, providing 1,800 new school placements.

Fine Gael in Government has have made significant progress in recent years in increasing the number of special class and special school places, as well as increasing the numbers of special education teachers and special needs assistants to record levels. However, I know that for many parents listening, numbers and statistics mean nothing if their child does not currently have an appropriate school place. I want to say to parents that while I could not possibly understand all of the day-to-day pressures they are facing, I am on their side and I am committed to ensuring that as many places as possible are available.

Fine Gael believes in supporting children with special education needs to achieve their full potential. I believe this commitment was clear when the Tánaiste appointed me as the first ever Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion. I am determined to continue that work until no child is left without a placement. We have already made major inroads but we have a huge amount of work left to do.

I recently announced that I would be initiating the section 37A process to compel schools to increase the number of places for children with special educational needs. I was left with no other choice but to take this substantive action. I believe this is a necessary step to try to ensure that every child gets the supports he or she needs and access to school placement. All parties 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 the Minister. The evidence available in this school year is that schools are willing to work collaboratively with the Department and the NCSE on the provision of new school places for children with special educational needs. I am grateful to all concerned for their ongoing work in this regard.

Where schools do not volunteer to provide more places, the section 37A process is one of the tools available to the Department to ensure that adequate suitable education provision is made for children with special needs. It is not a substitute for advanced planning. I fundamentally believe that all schools should have to provide places for children with special educational needs. It is not good enough for a school to say it does not cater for children with additional needs. I cannot and will not accept that.

The NCSE has formally written to me, as Minister of State, to advise me that it has formed an opinion that there is insufficient special class capacity in primary schools and special school capacity in Dublin. The second stage of the process is now complete. I have informed the NCSE in relation to planned additional provision of education for children with special educational needs and available land and buildings. The NCSE will now provide a detailed report on the matter to me, which will consider existing provision, any relevant proposed building works and which schools may be able to provide additional provision. In preparing this report, the legislation requires the NCSE to consult school patrons, national parent bodies, school management bodies and teacher unions. I have insisted that this be done as quickly as possible, and I expect that will be the case.

Furthermore, the section 37A process itself is being reviewed as part of the review of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act. The review will take into account actual cases where section 37A has been used and the effectiveness of it for the child. I believe the process needs to be more streamlined and a more expedited process needs to be put in place.

The Department is separately considering whether there is a need to introduce new emergency legislation to assist in securing additional special education needs provision. As the Minister said, the Department recently met the Office of the Attorney General to discuss the matter. This work will consider whether new legislation would assist in expediting the section 37A process. The Department of Education, together with the NCSE, will continue to work with schools, patron bodies and teachers so that they can establish special classes, where required, with confidence. In that way, we will continue to seek to meet the educational needs of children in their local school insofar as possible. The Department is working closely with stakeholders, including parents and advocacy groups, to ensure that children with special educational needs can access education placements that are appropriate to their needs. I am very aware that listening to the voices of parents and to those representing children with disabilities is essential to ensuring that what we deliver meets the needs of the children. There is a shared determination to work intensively on the issues facing us in relation to school placements so that we can find a way forward with the best interests of the children at heart.

I, too, thank Deputies for raising the issues today. This has provided me with an opportunity to outline to the House the Government’s commitment to ensure that children with special education needs are provided with every opportunity to fully participate in and benefit from the education system. I know this is a very emotive topic for thousands of families across the country. I realise that every case of a child with special education needs is different. I have met many parents recently and I want to let them know that we are listening.

I emphasise that the Government is committed to ensuring that each child with a special educational need has an appropriate school place, in line with their constitutional right and under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Having outlined the significant commitment towards the education of children with special needs, the Government recommends the countermotion to the House.

I thank the Minister of State and call on Deputy Ward to conclude. He is sharing time with Deputies Darren O'Rourke and Ó Laoghaire.

On Saturday, I stood outside the GPO with members of FUSS. I stood in solidarity as they spoke about children's disability services. The Minister of State mentioned emotion. I could not help but be emotional while listening to the parents and children who shared their lived experiences. They have to fight every single day just to get the basic care, access to treatment and school places their children need.

One of the groups at the protest on Saturday was the Clondalkin Autism Parents Support Network, which is based in my area. I met members of the group a couple of weeks ago and I will meet them again tomorrow with my colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire. The word I can use to best describe those parents is "exhausted". They are absolutely exhausted from just trying to get the basic care their children need. The group has been invited to the audiovisual room of Leinster House in the next couple of weeks. I will invite both the Minister and the Minister of State to personally meet its members at that briefing, so that they can hear first-hand what those parents have to go through.

The Clondalkin Autism Parents Support Network asked me to raise the lack of autism spectrum disorder secondary school places in my area in Dublin Mid-West. Information the group received from the National Council for Special Education indicates that there are 17 primary schools with 29 ASD classes. That is 174 children in primary school ASD classes. We currently have five secondary schools with 1.5 ASD classes, which will accommodate 45 children. Simple mathematics tells me that putting 174 children into 45 places does not go. There is a promise and commitment in the programme for Government to ensure that every child with a special educational need has an appropriate school place. The Government is failing these children.

The recent proposal that children with special educational needs be segregated and isolated from the school community in special education centres is a retrograde and completely unacceptable step. Desperate parents may feel pressured to accept these places simply because they have no other option. This goes against the provision in the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 that every child must have an appropriate school place. Children with special educational needs must be part of our schools but not apart from our schools. The latter will happen if this provision is introduced.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this timely and important motion. I commend Deputy Ó Laoghaire on bringing it forward. I also commend FUSS Ireland on its activism on these issues. As Deputy Ward said, its members were out across the country, including in Dublin, on Saturday. I had an opportunity to meet with Rachel Martin of FUSS Ireland in my constituency on Friday. The activism and energy that are committed by parents of children with disabilities, who have so many caring responsibilities, is to be commended. The name of the organisation, FUSS Ireland, indicates what these parents are fighting for, that is, services and supports for their children. It is shameful that they have to expend such energy to keep fighting for what should be basic and fundamental rights.

There is a failure to plan, prepare and resource services at practically every level. Ministers talk about investment and offer statistics and figures, but the question of unmet need is really where the focus needs to be. In the case of special education, that includes the provision of assessments, therapies, services, school places, including in special schools, special classes and special units at primary and secondary level, and the provision of special needs assistants.

I commend the motion and join others in encouraging the Minister to support it. It is an awful shame that parents have to make such efforts on behalf of their children. There are deep concerns for the coming September and even more concerns for September 2023. There are significant merits in the proposals set out in the motion. They must be acted upon. Provision must be made for the rights, entitlements and basic dignity of these young people.

Gabhaim buíochas le gach Teachta a labhair air seo. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire agus an Aire Stáit as fanacht leis an díospóireacht iomlán. Táim buíoch díobh as an méid sin ar a laghad agus táim buíoch de gach Teachta a thacaigh leis an rún. Ní ghlacaim leis an rún malartach atá ag an Roinn. Ní thugann sé aon earraí ná aon rud nua dúinn. Ní thugann sé aon ghríosú dúinn ná aon mholadh a gcuirfidh réiteach ar an bhfadhb phráinneach atá againn. Ní fheicim aon phráinn ó dhearcadh, ó mholtaí ná ó óráidí atá ag an Aire agus an Aire Stáit.

Listening to the speeches by the Minister and the Minister of State, I am struck by what seems to be a lack of urgency on this matter. I have engaged with many parents across the State in recent weeks and months, including parents in Dublin 4, 2, 6 and 6W, Kildare and Cork. I am meeting with groups from Clondalkin and Dublin 8 in the coming days. I hear the same story from all of them.

The Minister's amendment refers to money and the investment that has been made. In the past, including at the time of the budget, I have welcomed investment in special education. However, this is far from just being a monetary issue. Of course money and funding are necessary for the provision of staff, accommodation and so on. The real issue, however, is lack of planning and preparation. There is almost a stubbornness in this regard from the Department of Education and the NCSE.

All the parents in all the groups tell us the same old story. They are not just worried about this coming September but also the following September and the one after that. They do not trust the Department and the NCSE to plan properly. Parents go to the NCSE in September and are told there are enough places before going back, getting the famous list from the special educational needs organiser, SENO, and being told to ring all the listed schools and they will find a place eventually. The NCSE tells them again in October that there are enough places. The Department's attitude, likewise, is that there is enough space in the system and their child will be accommodated. However, every year for at least the past four or five years, when it comes to April or May, it is panic stations when the NCSE and the Department realise there are, in fact, not close to enough spaces. There certainly are not enough spaces this year, with 120 children across Dublin and well over 250 across the State, at a minimum, in need of provision. Those figures do not even include the pupils in home tuition who should be in a special class or those in a mainstream class who should be in a special class. There are not anywhere near enough places and we get nothing but eleventh-hour responses.

I am more worried now, after this debate, than I was beforehand. The Minister's amendment brings nothing new to the table. It merely regurgitates the same old measures we know are not working and expresses the hope that the schools that have been requested politely to open will, in fact, open. The review of section 37 of the Education Act is being lumped in with the review of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, which is a lengthy process that has already been under way for a year. There is nothing about ensuring the ongoing problems are prevented in the future. I had parents coming to me five years ago and throwing down the various letters showing their child had been refused a place, put on a waiting list or been asked to contact the particular school in September two years away. I had a message today from a parent detailing the list of schools she had contacted. Again, she had a collection of letters indicating either that her child had been refused a place or was on a waiting list. It is now June and that child still does not have a place when all the schools are closing for the summer. That is where we are at and I do not see an adequate sense of urgency in addressing it.

As I said, it comes down to a lack of planning. We need a solution for September and there must be urgent action in that regard. Above all, we need there to be no further repetition of this problem. If that is to happen, there must be a culture shift in terms of planning from the Department and the NCSE. The proposal around centres of special education shows clearly one aspect of the problem and the dysfunction that exists. The Minister is coming out with this proposal while the Minister of State walks away from it. I do not know who is responsible for the absolute fiasco that has occurred but we need a clear statement that it will not happen again. The Minister, the Minister of State, the NCSE and everyone in the Department must pull in the same direction, with schools, to ensure we get what the Minister has said she is committed to, which is an appropriate school place for every child for this September. That provision is a constitutional right. This is not a bald assertion; it is a fact long established in court. It is these children's constitutional right to have an appropriate school place. We must ensure we are not failing them come September and, certainly, the following September.

Amendment put.

Is the amendment in the Minister's name agreed to?

Deputies

No. Vótáil.

In accordance with Standing Orders, the vote is deferred until the weekly division time tomorrow evening.

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