Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Questions (44)

Ruth Coppinger


44. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will report on the delivery of an autistic spectrum disorder-specific school serving the Dublin 7 and 15 areas. [26428/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Education)

I am asking this question on behalf of Deputy Coppinger. Will the Minister report on the delivery of an ASD-specific school serving Dublin 7 and 15? This question is linked to a general crisis in this area. Does the Minister accept that there is a general crisis and that the State is failing to provide equal access to education for children on the autism spectrum?

Supporting and caring for a child with special needs can bring worries and concerns that not everyone experiences. It is our job to try and alleviate some of the additional difficulties and stresses and to not add to them. The NCSE, wrote to me on 18 April pursuant to provisions now contained in the Education Act 1998 through which ultimately a ministerial direction can be made requiring a school to make additional special education provision available. The NCSE identified that provision is required for 40 special school places for students with complex needs, including ASD in Dublin 15.

As existing special schools could not provide the necessary number of places within the timescale, it is necessary to establish a start-up special school in the area. Given the timing issues, it was essential to appoint a patron of scale with the experience necessary to immediately action and progress the necessary arrangements. Dublin and Dun Laoghaire ETB has agreed to act as patron for this start-up special school and it is progressing recruitment and other arrangements with a view to ensuring the school opens in September. Temporary accommodation has been secured to facilitate the school's start up then.

The advertisement for the role of principal was issued in the first week of June and interviews are to take place shortly. I am anxious that the principal, teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs, in the new school be appropriately supported. My Department, through the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, the NCSE and with input from the Middletown Centre for Autism, will develop a programme of professional learning for school staff. This will include upskilling, before the students commence school, on a phased basis and ongoing mentoring, coaching and in-school support during the challenging start-up terms. The NCSE is keeping in regular contact with the parents of the children concerned and will continue to advise them of progress.

I thank the Minister for that answer and that news. The more general issue arises repeatedly in the House. We have seen a couple of important protests organised by Enough is Enough!. Parents are getting organised in respect of this issue. Does he accept that this is not just a local problem here and there and that there is a nationwide problem regarding an absence of all of the supports necessary for children on the autism spectrum? Does he also accept that the State is substantially failing these children?

I will give an example from Dublin 24. Responsibility for part of this problem lies with the Department of Health and concerns people waiting five years to get access to required therapy. There are also, however, hundreds of children who do not have any school place or, in most cases, do not have a school place in an appropriate school given their needs. A radically different approach is needed as opposed to dealing with this issue only if it emerges as enough of a problem. Substantial financial investment is needed.

There is no question about it. We need to keep this issue live on the agenda and we need to continue to debate it in this House. We are putting a great deal of resources into special education. It is now one out of every five euro. We also need, however, to look at how we can provide a more holistic education to people who would not have been getting that in the past. That is why I have set up a social inclusion pilot which will cover west Dublin, Kildare and parts of Wicklow. We have chosen 75 schools. If complex special needs are involved, we will examine the need for a specialist nurse and incorporating the HSE into the pilot as well. That could involve speech and language therapy, occupational therapy or behavioural therapy and having that therapy delivered in a school setting. We have a duty to ensure that follow a totally inclusive approach with every single young person, no matter what disadvantage he or she might be experiencing, whether a physical or otherwise. That is why I have used the word "cumasú", which means "empowerment", at the heart of my education policy to ensure that every single young person is subject to that inclusive approach. We, however, have to continue this debate in this House and it is important we do that because this is a changing world.

We must also encourage the parents to continue to mobilise, protest and make their voices heard. It is striking that these parents are dealing with very difficult situations and they are not being assisted by the State. They are then forced to go out and struggle and fight for what is necessary for and the right of their children. I had a meeting last week with parents involved in different groups in my area. They were from the Tallaght Parents Autism Support Group, Social Circle and Enough is Enough!.

They told horrifying stories regarding the failure of the State and the number of children faced with being taught at home because they are not getting the appropriate supports that they need. There were also stories of children who had access to ASD units in the first half of primary school but were then forced to move into a different school. That causes significant disruption in their lives and their education during the second half of primary school. I heard reports of SNAs who have effectively been turned into classroom assistants because there is only provision for one SNA per classroom. There might, however, be three or four children needing access to that service. It means that the system is completely failing.

This is an important issue, which is close to my heart. I visit many primary and post-primary schools and I see the value of that focus on inclusion and the value of SNAs. That is why I am going to work hard regarding the recommendations on behalf of SNAs. I met with the Fórsa trade union last week to discuss the status of SNAs, their training and ongoing professional development. That is because SNAs have led the way. They were in those classrooms before we started talking about the social inclusion pilot and an all-inclusive classroom setting with behavioural therapists and speech and language occupational therapists.

I went into a small primary school in Donegal on Monday and I came across a young child named Paul. His mother was able to tell me that there is an additional need beyond speech and language occupational therapy. She was referring to physiotherapy. We are, therefore, learning all of the time and picking up new things. Deputy Paul Murphy is correct in stating that we have to continue to listen to the voices of parents. They are the people who have this lived experience. There is no doubt that the student and parent charter, when it becomes law, will be another vehicle to ensure that those voices are heard.

Questions Nos. 45 and 46 replied to with Written Answers.