That Dáil Éireann:
— 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.