Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Questions (7)

Thomas Byrne


7. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he is satisfied with the level of access to education for children with special needs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19837/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Education)

Baineann an cheist seo le páistí le riachtanais speisialta oideachais agus leis an easpa oideachais do a lán dóibh. Bhí agóid taobh amuigh den Dáil an tseachtain seo caite. Tá a lán scéalta sna meáin maidir leis an ábhar seo.

There are many children out there. There was a protest last week involving children with special educational needs who are simply not being given their constitutional right to free primary education or indeed secondary education. They protested outside the Dáil last week. We also saw the AsIAm survey. I was on Newstalk last summer where I had to make an intervention on behalf of two seven year olds who had no school place. I do not see how the Minister can be satisfied or how he can answer this question in the affirmative.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta as an cheist. Aontaím leis faoin éileamh atá ann maidir le feitheamh agus faoin éileamh atá ann i measc tuismitheoirí i ndáil leis an cheist seo. Tá sé iontach tábhachtach go mbeidh réiteach ar an cheist seo san am atá amach romhainn.

My Department's policy aims to ensure that all children with special needs can have access to an education appropriate to their needs, preferably in mainstream school settings. In 2018, in the region of €1.75 billion was invested in special education, nearly one fifth of the overall education budget, and up 43% since 2011.

This funding includes provision for over 13,400 special education teachers in mainstream schools. It also provides for 15,000 special needs assistants, SNAs, to support the care needs of pupils with disabilities in an educational context, up 42% since 2011.

Provision is also made for special school and special class placements for pupils who require more specialist interventions. There are now 1,459 special classes with over 140 new special classes opened for the 2018-19 school year. This compares to 548 special classes in 2011.

I am satisfied that the level of provision we have made in recent years has ensured that all children with special educational needs can participate in education and that most children with special needs have been able to be enrolled in the school or placement of their choice. I am also conscious that there are gaps and that there are parents and children for whom we need to continue to be vigilant and for whom we need to find places as well. There are circumstances where it can be difficult for parents to obtain the school or special class placement of their choice where increases in population or other issues have led to pressure on school places.

The National Council for Special Education is actively engaging with schools, patron bodies, parents and other staff to try to ensure each child has a school placement appropriate to his or her needs for the 2019-20 school year. Ensuring every child has access to a suitable school placement is a priority for me and my Department and we will continue to ensure that this can be provided for.

I often wonder whether there should be a unit in the Department of Education and Skills whose sole purpose is to implement the constitutional guarantee of free primary education, because in many cases it is not being implemented and people are not getting their rights.

Last week at the protest I was shocked, especially by the number of parents from deprived parts of Dublin who are simply outside of the system, as are their children. It is totally wrong. My colleague, Deputy Lahart, raised the issue of the lack of autism spectrum disorder classes in Dublin 6, Dublin 6W and the surrounding areas. We have the outrageous situation in some cases of pupils being sent home too early. Parents have been telephoned and told to collect their children or children are only going in for a couple of hours each day. In a written response on the matter the Minister gave a clear answer to the effect that this is not permitted. My advice is to leave the children in school because they are entitled to it, but of course it must be in an appropriate setting. The AsIAm survey found that one third of parents have been waiting between one and two years for a school placement while one in ten have been waiting between two and three years. Moreover, 7% of parents are waiting for more than three years for a suitable school place for their child. This cannot go on. These children are seriously losing out and yet they are the children who really need early intervention and support along with an education to which they are entitled.

It would be wrong of me to stand up and say that we do not have a problem. We have a problem and an issue. The demand exists and there is extraordinary frustration for parents. Some parents have the uncertainty of not knowing that their children will have a place in September.

I am working with the National Council for Special Education. I have asked those responsible to look at whether there are better ways of communicating messages rather than having parents going around to up to nine different schools where the units may already be full. I think we can be better at communicating. We can do that at one level but I wish to make a public plea again to schools. Ultimately the school will make the decision, but if a school has a need for a special class, we will provide capital funding to that school. I would encourage schools to look at the schools that already have these special classes. It is an enriching experience to be in those schools and to see all the different benefits of having special classes. I was in the Coláiste Gleann Lí in Tralee last week. They have a sensory room and a new special class. It is a wonderful place to be to see that inclusiveness.

I know this issue will remain an issue and will continue to be an issue. It is something that I want to work on together. I believe there are short-term ways of making it more effective from a communications point of view but there is the issue of infrastructure as well.

I do not think it is acceptable to say that this will remain an issue. That sounds like the old religious adage: "The poor you will always have with you". That is not the position. The State is obliged under the laws of this land and the Constitution to provide an education to every child but it is not doing that.

The Minister said he put out a plea to school to take special classes. That is behind the curve. Legislation was passed here last year at the insistence of Fianna Fáil to provide the Minister with the power to force schools to take special classes. It is about time that power started to be implemented because it has been in law since last December. We objected to the passage of the Education (Admissions to Schools) Bill unless these measures were in it. They are now in it and thankfully the former Minister, Deputy Bruton, accepted that. It is about time the Minister and the NCSE started using these powers to force schools to take special classes and to look at the establishment of special autism schools or other special schools. What is happening now with some special schools is that they are taking children who are at the lower end of special needs. This means children who have the most severe and profound autism are being left on the scrap heap. It is tragic and sad. I encountered parents crying outside the Dáil last week. They came to plead with us as legislators to do something about it. I told them we had done something about it. We have changed the law, but the Minister needs to implement the law and finally do something about the problem.

Deputy Byrne is correct to say there is provision now in the Act to allow the Minister to compel schools in this regard. I am always a believer in working with people, whether it is working with schools or boards of management. I am asking for schools to look at the schools that have made the decision to have special classes. It is the right thing to do in terms of inclusive education. If there are outstanding demands and gaps, then I am fully prepared to continue my engagement with the NCSE. I am also determined to ensure we help the parents who are going through this incredible frustration. It should be a positive experience when young people are going to primary or secondary school. I am concerned about taking away that positive experience. Whether we have to use the legislation through compelling or whether we try to encourage the schools to extend or provide the special classes is a matter for consideration. The special classes and the people who work within them are not simply add-ons to schools. That is one of the things I noticed in Coláiste Gleann Lí in Tralee. The special classes are central to the physical structure of the school. It is a normal road to go.