I propose to take Questions Nos. 215 to 218, inclusive, together.
The provision of education for children with special needs, including those with Autism, 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.
Since 2011 investment in Special Education supports has increased by 50%, which is significantly above the 7% increase in total student numbers over the same period.
As a result the numbers of special education teachers, special needs assistants and special class and school places are at unprecedented levels.
The majority of children with Autism attend mainstream class, where they may access additional supports if required.
But some students may find it difficult to manage full-time placement in mainstream and so placement in a Special Class or Special School setting may be deemed appropriate where placement in mainstream class is not in the best interests of the child.
The NCSE has responsibility for coordinating and advising on the education provision for children nationwide and has well established structures in place for engaging with schools and parents.
The Council ensures that schools in an area can, between them, cater for all children who have been identified as needing special class placements.
Nationally, 167 new special classes opened this 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.
Provision in our 124 special schools has also increased from 6,848 placements in 2011 to 7,872 this year.
In Kildare alone, there are 75 special classes and 4 Special Schools providing specialist support to children with more complex special educational needs.
The NCSE is planning a further expansion of special class and school places in Kildare to meet identified need for next year. This process is ongoing.
The NCSE has informed the Department that, in general, they are satisfied that they have planned sufficient ASD post primary special class placements to meet identified need in Kildare for next year.
The NCSE team of locally based Special Education Needs Organisers (SENOs) in Kildare are available to assist parents to identify appropriate educational placements for children with special educational needs and to discuss their child's special educational needs. The local SENO contact details are available on www.ncse.ie.
Normally, special class and school places 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.
I would prefer to see schools volunteer to provide more places rather than places being secured on the back of an order or a direction from me. It is the right thing for the children in a community.