Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Questions (4)

Joan Burton

Question:

4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans regarding the provision of autism-specific education in Dublin 15 for children at primary and secondary level; when work will commence on the proposed autism-specific school in Dublin 15; when the school will officially open; if he anticipates the possibility of opening the autism-specific school in temporary premises ahead of the 2019-20 academic year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19825/19]

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Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Education)

I wish to ask the Minister about the indications he gave and promises he made regarding education for children living in Dublin 15 or Dublin 7 who are affected by autism. We have agreed that the evidence is that a special school is needed for children who are severely affected by autism spectrum disorder, ASD. Many of them also have serious behavioural disorders, with the result that children as young as six years of age are being excluded from primary school, which the Minister will agree is nonsensical. Does the Minister have a definite agreement with the Government to proceed to launch the special school? Will it open on a temporary basis for the upcoming academic year?

I assure the Deputy that concerns regarding a shortage of appropriate school places for next September are being taken very seriously. The Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, has been engaging with local groups on this issue directly. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has formally advised me that there is insufficient special school and special class capacity in Dublin 15. I wrote to the local parents' committee on 26 April. My Department, the NCSE and the office of An Taoiseach were represented at a meeting with parents on 29 April to discuss the issue.

My Department, the NCSE and school patrons are actively engaging to address the issue. As a result of these efforts, three special classes catering for 18 students are on track to open in September 2019. In addition, the NCSE met stakeholders, including education providers, in the Dublin 15 area on 30 April and further engagement with the objective of opening further special classes is ongoing.

If existing schools, including special schools, cannot provide the necessary number of places, other arrangements will be made following any necessary consultation with parents and schools. Options are being examined and scoped out in regard to establishing additional special school places to cater for the needs of children in Dublin 15. Officials of my Department are engaging with patron bodies, including Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board, with regard to suitable space which may be made available immediately for the purpose of providing the required placements. The NCSE will keep in regular contact with the parents of the children concerned to advise them of progress and identify placements as they become available.

I have discussed this matter in detail with An Taoiseach and my Department is actively engaged with the NCSE in taking steps to increase the number of suitable places to cater for the needs of children in Dublin 15.

I recently attended a very large public meeting in Tyrrelstown, Dublin 15, at which we heard in detail the concerns of parents whose children are affected by ASD. A spokesperson for the Taoiseach addressed the meeting. Deputies Coppinger and Jack Chambers were also in attendance. Parents very much need to know what is happening. We are making progress, but it is very slow.

The Minister referred to three classes of 18. Does that mean there will be space for 54 children or that there will be three classes of six?

Although the Minister may have been communicating with the Taoiseach on this issue, the Deputies representing Dublin West, who have raised this issue time and again, also need to be kept informed because we are the people on the ground dealing on a day-to-day basis with the parents affected by this situation.

To clarify, there will be three classes of six, giving a total of 18 spaces. A scoping exercise is being carried out to see whether there is additional capacity in any other schools. I acknowledge that far more than 18 students are affected by this issue, as has been publicly articulated at the meetings and elsewhere, as well as privately. For that reason, we are considering the possibility that an alternative property may provide a solution and there is active engagement with the ETB in that regard. I am reaching out publicly today to schools which believe they can provide additional capacity. That is one route which can be pursued, but it is not an overall solution for all of the students concerned, which is why we are seeking a solution in conjunction with the ETB.

I mentioned the Taoiseach because all Members of this House are elected as Deputies for their constituency. The Taoiseach is a Teachta Dála for the area in question and in that capacity he has been quite insistent and forceful regarding a solution being found on this issue. That is not to undermine the voices of Deputy Burton and other Deputies representing the constituency, who I acknowledge have raised this issue on several occasions and are working closely with the parents on it. I will keep the Deputies informed as soon as any information comes through.

Deputy Jack Chambers, Deputy Coppinger - who has also tabled a question on the issue - and I have been working on this issue constantly at committee, sub-committee and big public meeting levels, as well as with the various agencies. Can the Minister confirm what we were previously told, namely, that there will be an ASD-specific special school for Dublin 15 and Dublin 7? I appreciate that the Minister indicated that some additional capacity will be made available but I am unclear whether he is referring to the special school. The Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board has agreed to host the school, which is very good progress and we all hope that that will come about. Will the special school be established, whether in temporary or more permanent accommodation, possibly hosted by the ETB, for the academic year 2019-20?

Deputy Coppinger has a brief supplementary question on the same issue.

I want absolute clarity because this is a significant issue in Dublin 15 and elsewhere in the country. It will rear its head in every constituency, particularly those which are growing and have young populations. As Deputy Burton stated, there was a public meeting last week attended by almost 200 people. All of the local election candidates were in attendance. The ASD 15 campaign has very much progressed the matter and pushed it along. Is the Minister talking about an autism-specific school in Dublin 15, rather than asking schools to take in some students here and other students there? One could take that impression from his comments. A temporary building would be acceptable, but it would have to be specially designed for autism in the long run and have trained teachers who know what they are doing. It is wrong that schools must be asked whether they will take students in. The children should have access to suitable education as of right.

Let us be clear. The issue has been articulated in the public domain by the Deputies, their offices, the Taoiseach and others. There is a gap and a need. We are looking at extra capacity within existing schools and we are engaging with the ETB on a potential temporary solution for next September. Obviously, the building will need special adaptation if it is decided to utilise it. However, I do not wish to predetermine any decision. The matter is at an advanced stage of discussion and a significant amount of work has gone into it. As soon as the deliberations and discussions are complete, I will be in a better position to make a public announcement on the matter. I will not do so today because the continuing discussions are at an advanced stage.

I am very anxious to help the Minister achieve the special school for the parents and children who need it. Will he agree to meet the Deputies for the area, including the Taoiseach if he wishes to attend, because we are the people meeting the parents every day on the ground? It has been a long-standing practice in this House for Ministers to meet Deputies on overwhelmingly important issues such as this which affect their constituency.

Perhaps Fine Gael would revert to that practice while it is in government. The Minister told us he met the Taoiseach in his capacity as a Deputy. That is the same capacity we have. We will be happy to the meet the Minister this week or next week - we can accommodate him and I am sure Deputy Jack Chambers will agree as well - because the Minister must go through this in detail. He still has not answered the question of whether the ASD special school will be open, perhaps in temporary, borrowed or rented accommodation, for the beginning of the 2019-2020 academic year.

The Deputy is seeking two obvious answers. First, she is seeking an answer on something that has not been decided yet. She is also asking me to give the answer that she wants me to give. I will not do that out of justice to the parents and the community. I understand the effort she is putting into this and I am aware of the issue. That is why I formally arranged for NCSE officials and officials from my Department to meet the parents because, ultimately, it is the parents who need a solution for September. That is at an advanced stage, and as soon as I am in a position to give more information, I will be happy to do that and meet the Deputy.

Is the Minister meeting the parents?