The provision of education for children with special needs is an ongoing priority for Government.
Currently, almost 20% of the total Education Vote or €1.9bn is invested in supporting children with special needs. The numbers of special classes, special education teachers and Special Needs Assistants are at unprecedented levels. Nationally, 167 new special classes opened for the 2019/20 school year, which means there are 1,618 special classes in place, compared to 548 in 2011. Of these 1,353 special classes cater for students diagnosed with ASD.
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, in consultation with the relevant education partners and the Health Service Executive (HSE).
The Council has well established structures in place to plan and coordinate special education provision throughout the country. This includes identifying the need for and establishing special class placements in various geographical areas where they are required. The Council ensures that schools in an area can, between them, cater for all children who have been identified as needing special class placements.
Normally, special classes are established with the full cooperation of the schools in areas where they are required. However there are some parts of the country where the Council has faced challenges in getting schools and their Patrons to voluntarily agree to provide special class or school places. I know that this can cause 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 back in April in respect of the Dublin 15 area. We have made significant progress in a relatively short period with the opening 7 new special classes and a new Special School that will provide 88 places for children with special needs. The new places will help these families and ensure that the children concerned have access to education.
The legislation contains a procedure through which the capacity of schools in an area can be tested and through which ultimately a Ministerial direction can be made requiring a school to make additional special education provision available. The initial steps in this procedure are currently being progressed.
The experience of Dublin 15 shows that 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.
To this end, the NCSE is continuing its engagement with schools, patron bodies, parents and others across south Dublin to bring the required additional special class and special school placements on stream.