As Minister for Education and Skills, I believe that every child should have an education provided for him or her that best supports the child and meets his or her individual needs. The provision of education for children with special needs is an ongoing priority for the Government. Currently, we spend almost 20% of the total education Vote of €1.9 billion on supporting children with special needs. The numbers of special classes, special education teachers and special needs assistants are at unprecedented levels.
The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has a statutory function to plan and co-ordinate the provision of education and support services to children with special educational needs. The council has well-established structures in place to plan and co-ordinate special education provision throughout the country. Normally, special classes are established with the full co-operation of the schools in areas where they are required. However, in some parts of the country councils face challenges in getting schools and their patrons to voluntarily agree to provide special class or school places. I know that this has caused much anguish for parents and families involved. As Minister, I have a power under section 37A of the Education Act 1998 to direct a school to provide additional provision where all reasonable efforts have failed. The legislation was used for the first time in April, not July, in respect of the Dublin 15 area. We have made significant progress in a relatively short period with the opening of seven new special classes and a new special school that will provide 88 places for children with special needs. I met the principal of the new special school last week. I acknowledge the work she and her team, in conjunction with the education and training board, have contributed to ensure that the project has progressed. The new places will help these families and ensure that the children concerned have access to education.
The experience of Dublin 15 shows the real and practical challenges that can be addressed when opening new special classes and how we can resolve these challenges by working together and in partnership. The NCSE is continuing its work at local level to ensure all children can access a suitable school placement for the forthcoming school year and beyond.
As Minister, I would much prefer that schools provide places for children in their community. Where that is not the case, I am prepared to use the legislation to ensure that children can access a suitable education.