I propose to take Questions Nos. 224 to 226, inclusive, 228 and 229 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.
Special classes enable students with more complex special educational needs who are unable to access the curriculum in a mainstream class, even with support, for most or all of their school day.
Special school placements are provided for other students with ASD and very complex special needs who wouldn’t manage in a mainstream school even for part of the week.
The responsibility to ensure that all children with Special education needs can get a school placement is a shared responsibility involving the NCSE, schools management and Patrons, the education partners and my Department. However in the first instance this responsibility rests with individual schools boards of management.
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.
It is open to any school including special schools to make an application to the NCSE for the establishment of a specialised provision and where sanctioned, there is a range of supports including capital funding available to the school. My Department works closely with the NCSE in this regard.
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.
The NCSE has a team of local Special Education Needs Organisers who are available to provide parents with information about the supports that can be provided for children with special educational needs in schools and can also advise parents of the availability of special class placements in schools.
The NCSE is planning a further expansion of special class and school places nationally to meet identified need for next year. This process is ongoing.
The extent of new special class and school places being established in recent years shows the willingness of schools to provide special classes and school places and normally this is the case.
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.
The legislation was activated on the 29th October, 2019 following a report by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) which identified a shortage of special school and special class places right across south Dublin.
The NCSE has identified 82 children needing special education school places for this or next year in south Dublin.
This is the second time the power under section 37A of the Education Act 1998 (as inserted by section 8 of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018) has been used.
The law contains a procedure through which the NCSE can test the capacity of schools in an area to provide more special education places and through which ultimately a Ministerial direction can be made requiring a school to make additional special education places available.
The necessary steps in the Admissions Act process, will continue to be expedited to ensure that children with special needs are provided with access to a suitable education.
The legislation was used for the first time back in April in respect of the Dublin 15 area.
Significant progress was made in a relatively short period with the establishment of Danu Special School as well as six schools offering to open special classes. The new places will help these families and ensure that the children concerned have access to education.
The experience of Dublin 15 shows that real and practical challenges can be addressed by working together to provide additional special class and special school places.
I published the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill in September the Seanad Report Stage on the Bill is scheduled for this week. The aim of the legislation is to improve how schools engage with students and their parents.
Under the legislation, schools will be required to prepare and implement a Student and Parent Charter in accordance with national guidelines. The national charter guidelines will be published by the Minister after consultation with the education partners, including those bodies representing students and parents.
The legislation provides that the charter guidelines will set out the requirements on schools in relation to the content of charters, including the procedures for consulting with students and their parents on the review and development of school plans and policies.