Special Needs Education Places: Motion [Private Members]

I move:

“That Dáil Éireann:

notes that:

— many parents of children with special needs are facing considerable difficulties in securing school places for their children, despite the school year having started already;

— of the 1,622 special classes in place, 849 are primary autism spectrum disorder (ASD) classes while only 370 post-primary ASD classes are in mainstream schools;

— removing the Home Tuition Grant, when school places are unsuitable for special needs children with other medical complications, can be unfair;

— some special schools have been awaiting a new building for up to 13 years;

— 384 children are in receipt of the Home Tuition Grant, many because they have not been able to secure a school place;

— the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) has already informed the Minister for Education and Skills that parents in South Dublin and Cork are having trouble securing school places for their children;

— in the Dublin area, the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) schools, provide a disproportionate number of school places by comparison with non-DEIS schools;

— in the neighbouring regions of Dublin 2, 4, 6 and 6 West, the ratio of available places to children with ASD is 1:782, while the national average is 1:100;

— in all areas of the country there are children who travel very long distances to secure suitable school places; and

— the Home Tuition Grant scheme application forms were published a full two weeks later in 2019 than the previous year;

further notes that:

— there are no official figures on the number of children with special needs who do not have an appropriate school place;

— 22 per cent of special schools are on a list for large-scale projects by comparison with 9 per cent of mainstream schools;

— according to a recent survey 84 per cent of parents of children with disabilities believe that their children do not get the therapies that they need due to long waiting lists or unfilled positions;

— many parents are frustrated by the information made available by the NCSE;

— the Minister for Education and Skills has the power under the Education Act, 1998 to direct a school to provide additional provision where all reasonable efforts have failed;

— many applications for home tuition remain to be dealt with for this school year; and

— many appeals in respect of reduced SNA provision remain to be dealt with;

agrees that:

— the advice of clinicians and the wishes of parents should be a priority for the delivery of education to children with special needs;

— no child should experience a delay in the start of their school year because of administrative issues;

— even in the Dublin 15 area where the Government believes it has resolved the issue, schools and special classes remain unopened;

— teachers should be provided with the resources and training they need to uphold every child’s right to an education;

— DEIS schools should not be tasked disproportionately with providing special classes;


— the failure to collect information on the educational outcomes of children with special needs across all outcomes is not the right policy to follow and has led to a lack of oversight;

and calls on the Government to:

— urgently resolve the issues which have been officially identified in Cork and South Dublin;

— commit to an appropriate amount of special classes in each administrative area and to publish an implementation plan as urgently as possible;

— urgently engage with unions to ensure that all Individual Education Plans are in place for every child;

— produce a rationale for the gap which exists in funding for children with special needs at primary and secondary level schools and commit to closing that gap;

— prioritise the construction of special schools on the Department of Education and Skills project list;

— issue a circular outlining the financial resources and staff training available to schools who wish to open a new special class;

— produce a five year forecast of the current and future need for special needs education places in the catchment area of each school and to communicate this demand to schools within each area and within six months;

— publish a list, by school, each June of all available school places in ASD units for the coming school year;

— commit to using the powers contained within the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018 where implementation plans deem it necessary;

— have an appropriate inspection regime in respect of special classes; and

— commit to the publication of an annual report on the number and circumstances of students with special educational needs, and the number whose needs are not being met by the education system and why.

Tógfaidh mise sé nóiméad. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus gabhaim buíochas le mo chomhghleacaithe i bhFianna Fáil de bharr an cinneadh a dhéanamh díospóireacht a thógáil ar an ábhar seo inniu. Is díospóireacht an-tábhachtach í seo. This issue of special education is not going away. It is to the fore of what Fianna Fáil is trying to be about in education. It is crucial to ensure that the constitutional right to primary education, and education in general, is upheld and vindicated for each and every one of our children.

It is worth recalling how farsighted Mr. de Valera was when the Constitution was being written that this particular right was inserted. It was not a common right at the time. It was inserted in the Soviet constitution the year before and there were also some mentions of it in German legislation in the previous century but this was a radical departure and it remains the only socioeconomic right that is directly justiciable from the Constitution. We should bear that in mind at all times when we talk about a child's education. This is not like what the Corbynites in the UK are proposing in a national educational service they want. We want to make sure that each child has their right to education, granted to them in the Constitution, vindicated in the type of society to which we aspire in this country. There is a continued failure within our education system. Many children with special needs are experiencing a system which was described by parents and a teacher on "Prime Time" as a containment policy, one which focused on containment rather than education. That is a devastating analysis by the parents and teacher in question but it is a fact for many children in our education system.

This motion seeks to create a pathway to a system where all children vindicate their right to education through the introduction of increased monitoring, better planning for future demand and the completion of reforms to which the Government has already said it is committed but upon which it has not yet acted.

I have no doubt that the Minister will talk about the funding that he has allocated but that is the easy part. Funding is paid by the taxpayers and provided to the Government, people have no choice but to pay and the Government allocates the funds. The key test of a Government is how it spends and plans for that money and ensures the best value for the taxpayers and citizens of this country. This Government is failing to do that in special education. For example, we do not know how many children with special educational needs are in the educational system, nor how many are on reduced timetables. We do not know how many parents failed to secure a suitable place for a child in a given school year because the Government is not monitoring the situation.

Each Deputy in this House has come across many children in those types of scenarios. It was not difficult for "Prime Time" to find parents at the ends of their tethers, financially in one case, because of the special education system.

The evidence we have is thanks to the work of non-governmental organisations, NGOs, journalists and parents. Parents of children with special educational needs, or special needs in general, are used to constant struggle, hard work and weariness, constantly fighting to obtain not only what their child is entitled to but what he or she needs to be a citizen who can partake fully in our society. The system is failing badly.

According to the AsIAm charity, one in four children with an intellectual disability is being put on short school days, in some cases illegally. That number jumps to one in three for children with autism. The Minister has issued guidelines but they do not go far enough. The Minister needs to stick to the basic premise that every child is entitled to be there for the full school day except under exceptional circumstances as advised by a medical or other professional. If one veers from that at all, we are then veering from that constitutional right. Fianna Fáil would have a much shorter circular if it was in government. That practice of shorter school days for children with intellectual disabilities must end now. The Minister must do that without ifs or buts. Every child is entitled to an education and the schools and teachers must be resourced to provide that, particularly for training. Short school days cannot be an answer for children with learning difficulties.

Over 850 children with special needs across the country were receiving home tuition last year because a space could not be found for them in schools. The amount paid for home tuition for these children has increased by almost a quarter in the past two years and that is a devastating indictment of our educational system. Annually parents of children with special needs and autism face considerable difficulty securing school places for their children. That was especially acute in the Taoiseach's constituency and is in the process of being dealt with to some extent but many of the classes in the special schools that have been announced are not yet open. Despite the progress that is being made and despite the powers that Fianna Fáil insisted would be put into the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act, not all children in Dublin 15 have a school place.

The system is too reactive. I have met some impressive people at the National Council for Special Education but the administrative structure does not seem to be there to ensure that the system knows what is actually happening, rather than an ad hoc approach reacting to the latest particular child, or the latest particular problem as it is sometimes seen, which is wrong. The issues do not even begin to cover unsuitable placements. One parent, who lives in the constituency of Deputies Lahart and O'Callaghan, talked about how badly serviced their area is in Dublin 6 where there are 31 schools in the surrounding areas and, incredibly, only one of those schools has an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, class. There are 30 other schools, serving over 9,000 primary school children, that are without an ASD class. That is in one part of the country but also happens in many others.

I will yield to my colleagues. I am delighted that many other Members who have taken an interest in this motion and proposed amendments which we will consider very carefully.

I thank Deputy Byrne for putting down this motion. My heart sinks when parents of children with special needs who are at the beginning of their journey come to my office - not because the child has special needs but because I know the battle that they are going through to face every step along the way in getting that to which their child is entitled by way of education and special supports.

There are not enough school places, particularly in areas of rapidly expanding population. Children in Cork are being forced to go across the city at peak traffic time in the morning, travelling for between 40 minutes and an hour to get to an appropriate school place. That is a terrible start to the day and should not be happening.

The ASD waiting lists are appalling. The waiting times in Cork for an assessment are unacceptable. Many children are waiting two years or more and, at the end of that, they find that there are no services. Speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and physiotherapy are virtually non-existent for children with autism in my constituency in Cork South Central. That is completely unacceptable.

Home tuition is not a substitute for an appropriate school place. The child is missing out on the social skills, mixing with other children and all the benefits that come from that. The Minister must bear in mind that home tuition is not a solution because it can be very disruptive in the home environment as well but, principally, it is not right for the child.

I know of many schools in the area of my constituency that do not have adequate facilities. One example is St. Gabriel's special school in Bishopstown, a remarkable school with outstanding staff and special children. The circumstances in which teachers have to teach and children have to learn are simply not acceptable.

The system is not working. The Government is putting the money in and resources are being provided but the child is not at the centre of what needs to be done in special education. I ask the Minister, in whatever time he has left in this Dáil, to deal with these issues.

As politicians we spend much time dealing with the challenges and problems about which our constituents come to us. These include housing, health, roads, grants and care packages but the ones I find the hardest to hear about and to deal with concern parents whose children with special needs cannot get a place in a school for love or money. Sadly, these stories are all too common because of the current system. As a former teacher, I have been familiar with this problem for many years. Hundreds of children in Ireland who have autism or special needs are still without appropriate school places, although it is now almost October. Approximately 850 young people receive home tuition rather than attending school, which is at a cost of €5.6 million to the taxpayer. This is not good enough. Schools are not only places of academic learning, but also are for socialisation and are places where children can develop in areas of emotional and social intelligence. These children, along with the children on reduced timetables - something that was discussed at length at committee yesterday - are invisible in our system and our statistics. Parents of children with special needs are used to advocating and fighting for their children but they are tired. They have been fighting all their lives. I meet them every week and speak to them by phone every day. There is no greater love than that of a parent for a child with special needs who is vulnerable. They want to do their very best for their children but feel they are failing them because they are unable to secure a place. The State is failing these children. We call on the Government to radically improve the system with increased monitoring. We also call for better planning. We need a five-year plan, as schools should be equipped with forward knowledge and statistical projections.

Last night, I spoke to a parent whose son is in first class in a junior school. While he should be going into second class in the senior school, which is part of the same school on the same campus, he cannot. There are three children in the ASD unit but only one place in the ASD unit in the senior school. The school is accepting a child who is coming down from Dublin. The parents have applied to 25 schools but have got nothing. I rest my case.

The Minister knows that he will not meet a more exhausted group of people in this country than the parents of children with special needs. The motion tabled by my colleague, Deputy Thomas Byrne, enables us to reinforce points that the Minister might be missing. They are things that may have come across the Minister's desk but we have the opportunity to point them out to him. I have ten pages of notes before me but I have only a minute and a half to make some salient points. In my constituency, which includes Dublin 6, Dublin 6W, and Dublin 12 - although part of that is in the constituency of my colleague, Deputy O'Callaghan - there was no ASD unit until this year. Some body is not doing its job properly. Our party leader mentioned the role of the old inspectorate to go out into individual schools and ask what they were doing could be really valuable in this regard.

Many parents have referred to new schools. This country has never had such a large school building programme but surveys of the families in the areas must be conducted prior to planning permission being given in order that schools know what proportion of children with special needs will be attending the school. New schools are being constructed without any special needs provision in them.

If a special needs child joins the school midway through the academic year, as is often the case, the time taken before the school gets sanction for special needs assistants can take months, which creates its own anomaly. These are things that the Minister can address.

A teacher told me how she was a big fan of inclusion and how she worked with special needs children every day. She constantly questions whether she is doing their best for them and colleagues do likewise. She noted that while she would not be without them, she felt that teachers are being taken for granted because no teacher will leave a special needs child behind or not give him or her the chance to achieve his or her full potential. We need more resources and more people. I have spoken to others about access to therapy of any kind, speech, occupational and so on, and the waiting lists are shameful.

I know of someone who, after being on the waiting list, was given three speech and language therapy sessions under the HSE. The box was ticked and the person was removed from the list. While that person might have needed 30 or 300 sessions, they have ticked off the Government's waiting list only to have to wait years to join the bottom of the queue again.

My colleagues have already referred to many aspects of special education, such as the assessment of needs. When parents come to the constituency clinic, one's heart sinks as one knows they have had a battle already, which will continue after they have left. Assessment of need must be addressed in order that children can get the right help, care and supports. Getting the place in school is important to enable them to have an education. The statistics show that some children are absent from schools because there are no places or supports for them. The special needs assistants, SNAs, are a critical part of the debate. While they are important to special education, they feel undervalued and unappreciated by the Department of Education and Skills. They go from one academic year to the next on short contracts without being paid during summer holidays. Mainstream class teachers would be unable to conduct their classes in the smooth, inclusive manner which they do, without the all-important SNA in their class. I ask the Minister to look at these things.

I also wish to acknowledge the good work that is being done. The Holy Family school is under construction in Cootehill. I acknowledge the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, for his visit to Cootehill to see the fantastic work being done there by the teachers at first hand. Hopefully the Government will ensure that the school and facilities needed are delivered there.

I compliment Deputy Thomas Byrne on tabling the motion that the Dáil may reflect on the current position in respect of special education and providing education for people who need specialist education. I compliment those involved, including special educational needs organisers, SENOs, who we work with every day, whose level of knowledge has been built up over 20 years since special needs assistants were first brought in by the then Minister, Deputy Micheál Martin and the growth of the sector which has followed. However, we must look at where we are in 2019. This House has had many debates on what happened to children in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s but I challenge Dáil Éireann today to ask whether whoever is around in 50 years' time will be having a debate on us and on whether we did right in our time. All we can do is ensure that we are doing right, which is what we are doing now. There is a huge crisis right across the disability sector from cradle to grave. There is a huge challenge. The waiting lists for needs assessment are deplorable. Whoever is in this Chamber in 50 years' time will be talking about the waiting lists in 2019 and 2020, and how nothing was done about it. Assessments of needs for young kids are taking between 18 months to two years. If they are transferred into the system, it will be 24 months before any therapy comes on stream, so that means it is heading for four years. I was Chairman of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills before the 2007 general election when we were getting the international information on this, which was hugely important. We are not taking the challenges facing our young kids today seriously. I challenge the Minister that we should be doing more to ensure that everything is being done for kids with special needs, in order that Members do not need to have a debate in the future to apologise for previous Administrations. That is what will happen unless we take this seriously.

I thank my colleague, Deputy Thomas Byrne, for bringing forward this motion. This House must ensure that all children, particularly those with special needs, are provided with the supports and resources they need to reach their maximum potential because this motion is about each person reaching his or her maximum potential. We must acknowledge all the school principals, teachers, SNAs and others doing such wonderful work in this area. As my colleagues alluded to, one of the greatest problems is the assessment of need. There is a significant waiting time of more than two years for these assessments. There is another problem, namely the assessment of children starting school at primary level, going up to post-primary level or even moving within primary or post-primary classes, who need further assessments carried out as part of their development to ensure they get the proper supports and services. There is no alignment between the AONs and the school being able to make the application to the Department by the set date for the additional resources and supports because the assessment is sometimes not carried out until the child has started school or is halfway through the school year. When the child's need is then identified, he or she has lost valuable time. The child is the most vulnerable and he or she is falling behind because of this. It is much slower for the school to make the application and sometimes it is refused.

School principals and boards of management tell me that it would be good if that could be better aligned when they are make their applications in the first four or five months of the school year for the following school year. That is something that needs to be examined. There is a problem with the application process to the Department for additional supports and services for children with special needs coming into the school. That is mainly due to the AONs not being carried out in time and the lack of alignment between the assessments and the schools making their applications to the Department.

Special units need to be included in new builds at the planning and design stage in primary and post-primary schools, which does not happen all the time. As my colleague said, families and children have to travel long distances to special education units because they are none near them. That needs to be addressed.

We had a serious problem with the special intervention units in my constituency earlier this year. I thank the Minister for meeting the families involved and assisting us to overcome that issue but there needs to be a better system for the parents of the children to be listened to. That issue went on for more than eight months and it was unnecessary. They were not listened to and who was suffering but the most vulnerable people, namely the children involved. There has to be more accountability and responsibility given. People need to be made aware and they need to be made accountable for those units.

I thank the Fianna Fáil Deputies for raising this issue relating to the education provision for children with special education needs. Their tone has not been lost on me in this afternoon's debate. This is a serious issue. Fianna Fáil wants this Chamber to reflect on and debate this important matter and we are on the same page when it comes to the parents and children who are not having their needs met and we are trying to work through that. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta Thomas Byrne fá choinne an t-ábhar seo a ardú inniú agus fá choinne na díospóireachta. Táim sásta labhairt leis na Teachtaí fosta.

Every child is entitled to an education and the State has a role in vindicating that right. At local level, schools have a vital role in serving their communities by being open to enrolling children with special educational needs. In that regard, our schools have a strong track record of inclusiveness and of encouraging their students to achieve their potential. The motion comprises a mix of current issues, including the planning arrangements for adequate education provision for children with special needs; construction of special schools; provision of funding and training; consultation with stakeholders; communications and; inspection arrangements for special classes. The provision of education for children with special needs is an ongoing priority for Government. Currently, we spend 19% of the total education Vote, or €1.9 billion, on supporting children with special needs.

The numbers of special classes, special education teachers and SNAs are at unprecedented levels as is the number of children receiving support across the continuum, which includes mainstream classes, special classes and schools. Over the past two years alone, we have added 540 special education classes, which gives an indication of the intensity of demand at this level. An additional 1,050 specialised places have been provided this school year, with 167 new special classes. This brings the total number of special class places to in excess of 9,700, almost a trebling in provision since 2011. Some 125 special schools also provide specialist education for students with complex special educational needs. These schools now provide more than 8,000 places compared to 6,848 in 2011.

Our policy is informed by evidence-based advice provided by the independent National Council for Special Education, NCSE, which is an agency of my Department. Well established structures are 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. The NCSE has a statutory function to plan and co-ordinate the provision of education and support services to children with special educational needs. This includes the establishment of special class and special school placements in areas with identified need. The council works with families and schools to ensure that advance planning is in place so that schools in an area can, between them, cater for all children who have been identified as needing special class placements. The council also collaborates with other bodies, including the HSE, in terms of numbers of children accessing its early years disability services and Tusla's educational welfare service. Details of the location of special classes are published on its website.

There is legislative provision in place where schools refuse to make the necessary provision for children in their areas. The motion refers to section 37A of the Education Act 1998, which gives the Minister power to direct schools to make additional places available where this is required and where schools in an area refuse to make the necessary additional provision. This legislation provides for a series of transparent steps involving school boards of management and their patron bodies, which can lead to the issue of a binding direction on schools. This legislation was first invoked by the NCSE back in April when it formally advised me of the need for 88 new school places for children with special needs in the Dublin 15 area. Since then, we have worked hard with the schools and patron bodies concerned to ensure the new places came on stream quickly early in this school year.

We have made progress. A new special school has been opened under the patronage of Dublin and Dún Laoghaire education and training board, ETB, which will ultimately accommodate 40 students. Following the serving of notices under section 37A on 18 schools in the area, six schools have agreed to open special classes, each accommodating six students, bringing the total of classes opened to seven in the area for this school year. A further class is required and work is ongoing in this regard. I am grateful to the schools concerned for taking on this additional challenge and we will continue to work with them over the coming months. Reading between the lines in the communications coming from schools and school principals, there are issues we have to meet head on relating to fears about capacity and training, and we are working with them to ensure that goes hand in glove. The legislation is a necessary tool to vindicate a child's right to access a suitable education where all reasonable efforts to provide for the necessary places have failed. However, we will keep its operation under review to ensure that it is effective. I assure the House that the legislation will be activated where necessary and appropriate in any part of the country.

The motion references training for teachers and information for schools. The NCSE is responsible for advising and supporting schools on special needs. For example, in the case of schools opening special classes for the first time in the Dublin 15 area, the teachers in those classes will receive ten days' training. Information on funding, teaching resources and guidance for schools are published on the NCSE website. The NCSE has established structures for consulting with schools, parents and other stakeholders. On an ongoing basis, the council, through its national network of special educational needs officers, SENOs, engages with relevant stakeholders on the ground with regard to planning for future provision and engaging with the Department.

The Department's school building programme is focused on providing the additional school places needed to ensure that every child, including children with a special need, has a school place. This includes opening new schools and extending existing schools in areas where more school places are needed to meet the increasing number of children living in these areas. Some 44 new schools are planned to open in the between 2019 and 2022 in priority areas of need. The Department prioritises the delivery of special needs places and the inclusion of special needs provision is now standard in all new builds and major extension projects. The Department's inspectorate is committed to supporting continuous improvement in the provision for students with special education needs. The model of inspection at both primary and post-primary levels, which have been updated recently, have a clear focus on the quality of teaching and learning and on the use of resources allocated to schools to support children with special education needs.

Where a child does not have a suitable place available to him or her, home tuition is available to the family as an interim measure while efforts are made to secure a suitable placement.

As I stated at the outset, my Department's policy is evidence-based, with the primary objective of ensuring that each child with special needs is facilitated in accessing education that meets his or her need. We aim to make things better for every child and we are open to change and doing things differently. I again emphasise the importance of holding a debate in this House to help us work in a more efficient and productive way. In this regard, the NCSE is leading an innovative pilot programme involving 73 schools, which, if effective, will see the introduction of clinical supports into schools in collaboration with the HSE. I have also requested that the NCSE review the current policy on special placements with a view to ensuring that our provision is in line with international standards and best practice. I have no doubt that the work of the education committee, the contributions in this House and the ongoing vigilance relating to the NCSE review will help shape future direction as well.

Notwithstanding the unprecedented investment, I am aware that issues remain. In some parts of the country, increases in population and other issues have led to shortages in capacity in the school system. In these areas, some parents are experiencing difficulty securing a suitable place for their children. This will continue to be a major concern for me and my Department. I again thank the Deputies for raising these important matters. I receive ongoing communication through various channels about individual, difficult issues and it is important that we be honest about them. We are trying to build capacity at a fast rate, and have increased the number of SNAs by 51% since 2011, up to 16,000. However, we still need more SNAs and more classes. Approximately 30% of our 720 post-primary schools have at least one special class, so we need to continue to build on what we have been doing. Momentum is important, but it is also important to target resources in an efficient and correct way. I appreciate the Deputies' contributions, and the tone in which this debate has been presented because we have to work collectively to get this right.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “calls on the Government to:” and substitute the following:

“— provide all necessary resources and training to urgently resolve issues which have been officially identified in Cork and South Dublin;

— commit to an appropriate amount of special classes in each administrative area and to publish an implementation and resourcing plan as urgently as possible;

— implement the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 in full, and urgently engage with unions and the education partners to ensure that all Individual Education Plans are in place and fully resourced for every child with assessed special educational needs;

— produce a rationale for the gap which exists in funding for children with special needs at primary and secondary level schools and commit to closing that gap;

— prioritise the construction of special schools on the Department of Education and Skills project list;

— issue a circular outlining the financial resources and staff training available to schools who wish to open a new special class;

— produce a five year forecast of the current and future need for special needs education places both across the State and also in the catchment area of each school and to communicate this demand to schools within each area and within six months;

— publish a list, by school, each May of all available school places in ASD units for the coming school year;

— commit to using the powers contained within the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018 where implementation plans deem it necessary, giving a minimum notice of six months to schools affected;

— have an appropriate inspection regime in respect of special classes and ensure that there are an adequate number of inspectors to facilitate this;

— commit to the publication of an annual report on the number and circumstances of students with special educational needs, and the number whose needs are not being met by the education system and why;

— provide adequate budgets to ensure that special schools have proper provision of therapies to support their students;

— provide for greater flexibility in the School Transport Scheme for children attending special schools or ASD units, that may not be the nearest special school, but were unable to obtain a place in the nearest special school or ASD unit; and

— immediately establish an all-party Oireachtas Committee on Autism, as set out and supported by all groups in the motion agreed by the House on World Autism Awareness Day, 2nd April, 2019, and for this Committee to develop and publish a comprehensive autism empowerment strategy within a six month period of its establishment.”

I only have five minutes to speak, but I could speak for ten times longer on this issue, based the conversations I have had with constituents alone. I commend Deputy Thomas Byrne for bringing forward the motion. The amendment we have tabled is constructive and intended to strengthen what is in the proposal. In 2012, the people passed the referendum on the rights of children, and the principle that the best interests of the child are paramount in any situation where children and their supports are being discussed or legislated for was inserted into the Constitution. The more years have passed, the more it seems that the referendum was more show than substance, particularly for children with special educational needs, as the State has failed to apply their best interests. It is not in the best interests of children with special needs in our education system to languish on waiting lists for assessments indefinitely; for their parents to be frustrated at every turn; that the additional supports required by children with speech needs are inadequately resourced; for ASD units to be promised only for such promises to be broken time and again; and that there is a deficit in transparency and information from the Department, the NCSE and various other bodies.

The frustration felt by parents of children with special educational needs, who have to fight for every inch, has been reflected in some contributions. During the recent local election campaign, I met a quietly spoken woman in the western part of Cork city. She was initially reluctant to talk to me, but once she got in the front door, she did have some things she wanted to say to me. She broke down because of the frustration of the issues she had been dealing with and the challenges she had to work with for her children. I refer to the sacrifices people make. Deputy Crowe told me of a constituent of his from west Dublin who is the mother of a child with special needs. She has moved to Wexford, where there is less, though still significant, pressure on the system because there simply was no capacity in west Dublin. She now sees her husband at the weekend and they are trying to move things back and forth. These are the sacrifices people are making. Over the summer, I dealt with a constituent who had been refused by ten different schools over a range of 30 or 40 miles, which covers many schools in the Cork city area. All the units were full and the schools told the family that they were on a waiting list, or did not have the capacity, and so on. It is extremely frustrating. I acknowledge that the Minister is now directing schools. However, both the motion and our amendment state that should have happened a long time ago. We need to plan on a long-term basis the same way we do for new schools, although that process is not perfect either. We need to plan on a long-term basis for where the capacity is required and where the spaces will exist because we simply do not have the capacity, particularly in our major cities.

The Minister mentioned special schools, which are an important component of the education system. There are serious issues with special schools due not only to the Department of Education and Skills but also the Department of Health. Parents whose children are in special schools have told me they were nearly better off in ASD units, because they no longer benefit from speech and language or occupational therapy services and so on. Much of that is now the responsibility of the HSE and a number of service providers. I refer to Cara junior school, just outside Cork city, about which I have met with the Minister, as well as the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, and other Deputies on two occasions. This school has had an ongoing issue for three or four years. According to the National Disability Authority's report on disability services in Ireland, this school should have between 1.5 and 3.3 whole-time equivalent employees for psychology, speech and language and occupational therapies for the 66 children attending the school. The actual allocation is 0.4 for both psychology and speech and language therapy, and 0.3 for occupational therapy. The reality on the ground is that children who cannot speak get no access to speech and language therapy, potentially for years at a time, which is unacceptable. The HSE needs to ensure that when these schools are established, service providers such as the Brothers of Charity and others get another allocation for the additional needs these schools have. It is just not good enough and much more is needed in order to vindicate the promise made to the children of Ireland by constitutional amendment in 2012. There is a serious need to act on it.

Ná déanaimis dearmad go bhfuil muid ag caint faoi pháistí atá ar an imeall. Caithfimid an rud ceart a dhéanamh dóibh.

Politics has failed children with special needs throughout the country. As an elected representative, I am ashamed that we are at this point. The opening line of this motion states: "...parents of children with special needs are facing considerable difficulties in securing school places for their children." I would go much further than this. As I address the motion, there are families all over the country in despair. They are at their wits’ end. It is scandalous and unacceptable and this Government has been fully aware of this for a long time. Dublin and Cork have been specifically mentioned in this motion, which is understandable given the population pressures in both areas. I stress, however, that we are experiencing a national crisis in the provision of education for children with special needs. The situation in my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan is no less concerning for the children, parents, and families involved.

More than 12 months ago, I wrote to the previous Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, regarding the expulsion of an eight year old child from a school in the midlands due to behavioural issues that were directly related to a lack of therapeutic supports available within that school. Some 12 months later, I again wrote a letter on behalf of the same child who is still without a school place and whose parents - like so many other parents - are at their wits' end.

In my constituency a similar case was highlighted to me recently where two children within the same family, and both with special needs, have no school place and their parents simply do not know where to turn for support. I wish to reinforce this point. The issue of the lack of special school places is not specific to Dublin and Cork. It includes cities, towns and villages across rural Ireland. It demands immediate and critical redress.

The current framework that parents are requested to follow when seeking a special school place is not working and it has to change. SENOs cannot find school places for children if there is simply no capacity within schools currently. The Government does not seem to understand that the only way to address demand is to build capacity by investing. This is the case whether it be in housing, in health or for home supports. All of these social crises demand address and this is not happening, as it must.

Access to education is a human right. That the Government stands over the denial of our most vulnerable children accessing their academic, social and cognitive development, is reprehensible should be a matter of deep shame.

I have referred to the fact that the Government has been aware of this disturbing matter for a long time. Last April, on World Autism Day, Sinn Féin brought forward a framework to take politics out of this issue. Five months ago, we proposed and succeeded in getting agreement from this House to establish an all-party committee on autism tasked with developing an autism empowerment strategy within six months. The Minister's party acceded to that request. Provision of education was a major anchor of that motion and perhaps if steps had been taken back then, and if that motion and decision had been acted upon, we might not be looking at a situation as bad as it is today.

I appeal, in the strongest terms possible, to the Minister to please let us establish this committee with immediate priority. Please let us all in this House take ownership and responsibility for providing our vulnerable children with the best possible prospects for their development, and please let us stop this disgraceful situation together. I ask the Minister to let us start working together. What is so undoable about working together in this House in the interests of those who deserve it most?

It is a little like Groundhog Day here as we discuss the issue again of the two-tier system that currently exists in our education system for children who have additional needs. I have two boys and if I decided not to send them to school, the educational welfare officer would contact me after 20 days to ask me why I had not sent my kids to school. If, however, a child with an additional need is not given a place in an ASD class, or does not have the adequate SNA or resource hours and is told that he or she cannot attend school, nobody is held to account be it 20,30 or 40 days or half of the school year later. There is a two-tier system in our education system. We cannot address the problem unless we first acknowledge that there is a serious problem.

I do not know how many motions or Private Members' Bills will have to be tabled, or how many Topical Issue debates or stories will have to be told - people's very personal stories and lives are thrashed out here in the Dáil - before something is done about it.

Deputy Ó Caoláin referred to Sinn Féin's motion on 2 April on World Autism Day, which related to establishing a committee. I am delighted the Ceann Comhairle is in the Chair and I appeal to him and to the Minister, Deputy McHugh, to please try to get the proposed committee up and running. Five months have passed and still we have had no word on what exactly is happening in that regard. It would be a small step, but an important one that we need to happen. It would be a cross-party committee that would include everybody. As Deputy Ó Caoláin said, it would take the politics out of the matter.

There is no data or information available on how many children are on reduced timetables, how many children do not have a school place or how many children have issues with school transport. I believe that not having the data is deliberate; if the data were there and we were able to see the figures and see the reality of how many kids do not have a school place, or do not have a full school day, or how many are trekking to and from school, the Government would have to do something about it. I appeal to the Minister to speak to the NCSE about getting the data and the information together. The issue is raised in the Chamber time and again. The Minister cannot get away with saying there is a problem in one constituency, one county or one area; it is a nationwide problem.

There are difficulties everywhere. It has got to the stage now where people are contacting me about next September because they are so panicked. They know exactly the battle that is in front of them. When one hears that a child gets a place in an ASD class, one is delighted, but that this is just the start of the battle. It might not always be suitable and it might not work out. There will still be serious issues ahead for parents, children and teachers. There is the issue of access to occupational therapy and speech and language therapy. In many areas - when one finally gets access to these services - a family could find that an occupational therapist or speech and language therapist might go on leave and not be replaced. The child may go six to eight months without access to that service and regress, which is a serious setback.

I say this time and again - and I am sick of hearing myself saying this, so I am sure that everybody else is sick of it too - that we have consistently failed children in the State. We all know the stories of the industrial homes and the Magdalen laundries and yet here we are failing children again. I believe that 20 or 30 years down the road everybody will wonder, "How did we let this happen?" We are letting it happen and we need to decide if we are going to do something about this and address it. The Minister will say that funding is in place but on the ground, people cannot access school places, school transport or a bus escort or SNA and resource hours. The two things do not match up. We need to be much stronger, not only in providing ASD class places, but also ensuring they are resourced with teachers who have training, have the interest and who want to be there doing that job.

There is also significant responsibility on some schools that we all know, unfortunately, are trying to turn a blind eye to this issue. This is another reason so many kids are on reduced timetables. It is time we started to use the legislative powers in place to ensure that ASD classes are built. The Minister may say that he does not want to enforce schools to do that, but I believe it has come to the stage where we have to look at that and say to those schools that it is not acceptable. Members will be aware of various new school builds in their constituencies. These schools must have ASD classes and it should not be up for negotiation. They should have to have an ASD class. Many new school builds currently do not have an ASD class in their plans, which is unacceptable.

I would like to especially thank parents in Dublin West who over the past year have mounted a series of public campaigns through meetings, social media and through reaching out to journalists and other media to explain the story of their lives and their children's lives, and what they want in access to education, and what they want from a functioning system. I also thank Fianna Fáil for putting forward a comprehensive motion, which genuinely gives a flavour of the different problems at different stages in various parts of the country. It is important. This is a whole-of-life approach for the child and for the parents and family of the child. We have to become much more realistic in acknowledging that. I believe there has been a running away from that approach in the system.

We sometimes believe that if we partly address a problem it will be enough and we will not hear about the problem again.

I would like to give a specific mention to AsIAm, a group of young adults affected by autism and, therefore, knowledgeable about spectrum issues, which has been lobbying on this issue and is very much a part of what has been happening in the UN in terms of the contribution being made by people such as Greta Thunberg to make us aware of the immediacy of the situation from the point of view of children.

The Minister corresponded with a number of schools in Dublin 15 in west Dublin to generate the education legislation. He will be aware of the shock of some schools, and the willingness of others, at being asked to provide additional provision. Some of these schools are DEIS designated schools that are not massively well resourced and are dealing with a number of children who have specific needs, not necessarily all in the autism area. I find the refusal of the Department of Education and Skills to put in place a proper schools budget very strange. No school should be asked to give up two of its resource rooms, as happened when the Minister's officials visited two schools in Dublin West. He will be aware that such rooms facilitate special teaching. The schools in Dublin West often have hundreds of children in need of special teaching and, therefore, these rooms are important. It is reasonable to request schools that have grounds and so on that they construct additional facilities but the Department needs to fund them. Schools do not have the funds to generate the special facilities required.

Scoil Mhuire in Blakestown in Dublin 15 is a DEIS school. The principal of the school set out the resources in terms of grants and so on to equip a special room. The school is to receive a set-up grant of €6,500, €2,500 for loose furniture and equipment and €5,000 for ICT equipment. The Minister will be aware that if he and his wife wanted to upgrade their kitchen and all the electrics therein, they would not be able to do it with such a small amount. Schools want to meet the requirements set for them but they are unable to do so with such small grants. There were floor to ceiling windows in one of the rooms I visited. I am sure the Minister's officials are aware that it is not appropriate to have such windows in an autism adapted room, which is supposed to be a sensory and safe environment. He will also be aware that replacing full length windows costs an awful lot more than the grants being provided. There is a need for detailed discussion between the schools and the Department of Education and Skills regarding what is required and how it can be funded. The grant for tables or chairs is approximately €2,500 per classroom to cater for six children plus a teacher and, possibly, one or two SNAs. It is not possible to provide the type of specialised furniture required with that level of grant. That is the reality. If the Department knows of companies that will provide it for that amount, the Minister might identify them to the schools.

On training for people wishing to work in the ASD or special class environment, according to the Minister in many replies to parliamentary questions I have tabled, the Teaching Council is the body responsible but it does not recognise people who have specialist ASD training, perhaps from other countries. The Department passes the buck to the council, which passes it to the schools, which, in turn, pass it back to the Department such that we are going around in circles. There are people who want to train and work in this area. The Minister has proposals to bring this area into the programme for the degrees in education. He needs to progress those proposals. There are people who were home tutors last year and would like to be home tutors this year but neither the Department nor the special education needs organisers, SENOs, have not yet communicated with them in that regard.

The Minister should declare that two hours per day in a primary school is not a full education. It is not possible with the kind of immersive programme we have for primary education, particularly at junior-senior-infants-first class level, for a child to be in a school environment for only two hours per day. In many cases, parents are required to be in the school for those two hours as well. This is not a provision of service. It is a patch, which is not good enough for people's precious children because they will only get one chance at education. I commend the Minister for the interest he has shown in this area and his desire to improve it. We need to make serious provision for this area in the upcoming budget. Many companies are making a lot of money in Ireland and paying no tax. The Minister and his colleagues in government should give consideration to some of them being asked to contribute to the education sector so that we can do what we want and need to do, particularly in the area of special needs.

We are making progress. The Dublin West model is one that could be used in the future. When Minister for Social Protection, I initiated a review by the chief medical officer of the Department of the domiciliary care allowance paid to families of children with autism on a monthly basis. As a consequence of the changes, the demand and payments per annum increased by approximately 20%. The same is waiting to happen in the education sector at primary level but even more so at secondary level. As a country, we have focused on provision at primary level but the Minister will know that the resources at secondary level are only 30% of what they are at primary level. The children who complete primary level have to move on to their next level of education when we have an inclusive programme.

May I move our amendment?

No, the Sinn Féin amendment has been moved so the Deputy cannot move his until that has been dealt with.

It is good that we are having this debate. This issue has been debated many times over the past three and a half years. The motion is comprehensive. It identifies what is good in the system of special needs provision in Ireland and the faults therein. Like other Deputies, during the summer months I was contacted by many parents on this issue. The stress endured by parents in accessing provision for a child with special needs is incomprehensible.

The fact that there is no provision for them when they need it is unforgivable. This has been happening. I do not wish to be completely negative and I note that over the past decade, there have been improvements regarding SNAs and ASD units. I am very familiar with one unit in St. Peter Apostle junior national school in Neilstown, which is a really good unit for which there is over-demand. It is a really good way to allow children with special needs to source education in a mainstream school. As the system seems to be based on postcode or seems to be arbitrary when it comes to ASD units, there is a crisis under way and a need for special needs provision. In one case, children had to wait two and a half years for ASD provision, which is unacceptable in 2019. We must uphold a child's right to an education. It cannot be just about containment. It must be a meaningful education where children can flourish like any other child. They should not be discriminated against because of their needs.

The financial hardship endured by parents sometimes goes under the radar. "Prime Time" exposed not only the stress but the financial blow-back experienced by people with regard to their mortgages and their own relationships when provision was not there. It comes down to the "R" word - resources. I know money is being thrown at this issue but we need more money and resources. This should be seen in the wider context of special needs provision in Ireland. Other Deputies and I have frequently said that under the Disability Act 2005, the Government is breaking its own law. Parents are bringing the Government to the High Court because it is breaching its own legislation, which is incredible. It is happening because of the lack of both assessment of needs and provision of speech and language therapy, psychological assessment and occupational therapy. It is remarkable that this has been allowed to happen in quite a wealthy country. Other individuals have stated that provision is needed but it comes down to resources. Hopefully, the Minister can get the ear of the Minister for Finance and tell him that this situation must be addressed immediately. No child or family should be left behind because every child is the same in this country.

Based on my experience as a teacher, I acknowledge the work that has been done by individual teachers and schools to make schools inclusive and welcoming to children with special needs, including those teachers who were drawing up individual learning plans long before a directive was issued by the Department to do so. Knowing how best to address the needs of children with special needs is difficult and challenging. It is not just about their educational needs. It includes their social and psychological needs. Is the answer a special school, a special class in a mainstream school, withdrawal from class for learning support or home tuition? There is also a challenge in identifying the particular need because it could involve Down's syndrome, the wide spectrum involving autism of which there are different types, including Asperger's syndrome, or the challenge of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD. I am critical of the latter label being used indiscriminately to target quite a number of children. Alongside all of that, the other children need to be educated in a calm and positive atmosphere.

I know from my own years in teaching that children with particular special needs can be challenging in a mainstream school. Some of them want to be in a mainstream class because they do not want to be seen as different. Foreign national children can present a challenge, as many arrive without English and some also have special needs. In the middle of all that, one finds the impact of homelessness on children. One can imagine the terrible effects of being homeless on a child with special needs.

How can the educational needs of all children be addressed because they all have a right to education? There is a need for real and accurate data. There could be more information on the forms that go in from primary schools at the end of September with the resource hours on them in order that we know the facts.

We must ensure that this applies to all schools. Children with special needs are not confined to particular areas because it has been too easy for some schools to say that they do not have the resources but X school down the road does. All schools have a role to play. Schools' admission policies must recognise this. We also need a whole school approach led by the principal or post holder that includes all staff, SNAs and ancillary staff. While there a postgraduate diploma in special education, most teachers will not have that. As all teachers will have children with special needs in their classrooms, however, there is a need for continuous professional development.

Regarding the curriculum, particularly for post-primary schools, educational needs need to be balanced with the academic ability of the child because students cannot be set up for failure. I know the junior certificate school programme and the leaving certificate applied play a really important role here but that is difficult in small schools. Time is another issue. There are times when a restricted timetable and reduced hours are in the best interests of the child and we need to be realistic about that.

One point I took from the motion and the amendments is the need for an Oireachtas committee on autism, which must directly engage with those teachers at the coalface who are dealing with this. I will mention ChildVision, a special school known to me that caters for children with multiple disabilities and visual impairment. It is a centre of excellence and a model for a special school because all of the facilities and services are on a single campus.

Like many Deputies, it breaks my heart when I meet parents who tell me about problems such as fighting for an assessment of needs and services for their children. I have been following up regarding CHO 7, the area covering south Dublin, Kildare and west Wicklow, and the school age team. One of the replies I received was that there are 298 children on the Dublin south west school age team waiting list, a further 18 children are awaiting transition from the early intervention team to the school age team, the waiting time for the school age team is 41 months and is growing monthly because the team does not have the capacity to safely take on additional cases and there has been no movement in the waiting list for the past ten months. That is a terrible indictment. Families cannot access those assessments of need, which are crucial when it comes to entering school, and are forced to get private assessments and private hearing and language therapy. This is supposed to be provided by the State. The Government is failing these children. It is good to see that in many areas, groups of parents are coming together in solidarity to start campaigning for support for their children. Parents in areas like Dublin 8, Dublin 10, Dublin 12, Dublin 6 and Dublin 6W have done this in response to the Government's failure to provide that. I spoke to a woman from the Dublin 12 group who told me that four of the children in her group did not get access to ASD classes or an ASD school. They are aged six and seven while there are two five year olds. Three of them got preschool through home tuition while one is still at home. As a public representative, I cannot stand over accepting that a child is at home because he or she cannot get access to a class or special school.

I have tabled questions about Scoil Colm, Armagh Road, Crumlin a number of times. This school building is vacant. The parents concerned have approached the Edmund Rice Schools Trust, which has told them there would be no problem with having an ASD-specific school there. The parents approached the principal next door where there is a special school that does not take in children with ASD. He was reluctant. I am trying to figure out who is responsible for deciding that an area needs an ASD-specific school. Is it the NCSE or the Minister? Who is responsible for it because these parents cannot get past that level? They do not know where to go to raise the issue.

There are some very good points here and I support the motion. I particularly support Sinn Féin's amendment calling on the Government to immediately establish the all-party Oireachtas committee on autism, as agreed to on World Autism Day. That has not happened. It was supposed to be set up in six months but it has not been. To allow a collective response from the Dáil and the parties and groups in it, the committee should be set up very quickly. The Government should compile statistics on how many children are still not in school and the number of children requiring an assessment of needs in an area in order to match those children with local school units and special schools.

In the time I have, I will be brief. I wish to mention the realities of the Department's transition from a generalised education allocation model for learning supports at primary and post-primary schools to the revised allocation process we have today. The former dealt with the assessed needs of individual children, whereas the new model allocates special education teachers to mainstream schools based on the needs profile of the school. While this works in some ways for children who display so-called "high-incidence" special educational needs, it does not work for those with multiple diagnoses or complex educational needs. They fall between the cracks when a mainstream school cannot support them and the nearest special school can be a four-hour round trip away.

This is the reality facing a child whose mother has come to me in utter frustration at the lack of progress in her daughter's educational situation. Despite the fact that she is unable to cope at the level of many children who have an autism spectrum disorder, the Department has classified her as having a mild intellectual disability. Her multiple diagnoses require supports for her behavioural, emotional and intellectual difficulties, which were not provided for by mainstream schools due to the lack of training and educational supports. This mother has been asked by the mainstream school to keep her child at home for certain activities. Her parents then made the difficult decision to move her to a special school. The Department's new model did not look at the way the school could be better resourced to cater for the child's educational needs. Instead, the only option was one that was not ideally suited. It has led to lengthy travel, which has exacerbated some of her problems.

Schools need more resources to address the educational needs of individual children within the community in order that they can integrate into mainstream schools. Moreover, if a school cannot cater to certain individual children, the Government must make provision for special schools or special classes that are accessible within the local community. While I welcome this motion, more needs to be done for those with complex educational needs and for children who consistently fall between the cracks and are left behind by the Department.

First, I thank Deputy Thomas Byrne and Fianna Fáil for giving us the opportunity to talk about this motion this evening, as many parents have children affected by autism or intellectual disabilities. For many parents, it is traumatic to find out about these needs for the first time. From that point on, they want to do the best they can for those children. We need to assist them in any way we can. Given the small amounts of money involved, we should not be penny-pinching in providing funding for children with autism and their education.

Many parents lack support when their children are first diagnosed. It is vital that we support them when they find out for the first time that their child has a little problem. I have very little time. There is still a delay in the provision of home tuition hours. We are now in the third week in September. That is not satisfactory, and I would like the Minister of State to deal with that. That cannot be allowed to happen because continuity is very important for these children. If there is a delay and they are left behind for even a short while, they will go back to where they were again. In that regard, we should be making provision in July for children with Down's syndrome as well as all the other children with intellectual disabilities. We are not doing that at present, and that is very unfair on these children. That group of children should be entitled to July provision as well. That is very important.

Moreover, we make no provision at all for children when they reach the age of 18. From that point on we do not assist parents who are sometimes very elderly and do not know where their child will end up. We are doing nothing at all in that regard. In our county, we are left totally behind.

I too wish to acknowledge the good work of Deputy Thomas Byrne and his colleagues in Fianna Fáil in bringing this very important motion before the House this evening. I speak about people with different types of intellectual disabilities, little problems as we call them, as someone who is profoundly dyslexic. I have no problem in the world with admitting that. I know at first hand the difficulties it can create when it comes to learning. I know that when parents first receive diagnoses such as dyslexia or other intellectual problems, it is very upsetting. That is why the work of teachers, the early intervention of the special needs assistants, SNAs, various supports and interventions and diagnoses of the problems are all very important.

One of the most common things any person in this Chamber hears in their work as a public representative is that a constituent is looking for a diagnosis for his or her child's problem. Parents know there is a problem. To find a solution, one has to know exactly what is wrong. We cannot know what is wrong without a definition of the problem. There is one big mystery which I must put to the floor of this House. I would love to be smart enough to know the answer to it. What has gone wrong in this country in the past 20 years to give rise to all these various diagnoses? They are 100% real existing conditions. What is causing this in our children? What is the problem? I do not want to be alarmist but the first thing I think of is smartphones. Is this caused by new forms of modern communication? Are they affecting pregnant ladies and having an adverse effect on children? I do not mean to take away from what Fianna Fáil is trying to highlight in its motion. We have to look at the cause of the intellectual problems and difficulties which our children have now but which they did not have previously. Alternatively, is it the case that we are smart enough now to be able to put a label on everything, whereas in the past we were not and simply thought that one child was not as good as another? Is that what has made the difference? It is one of the mysteries I would love to know the answer to. I would love it if people could get to the bottom of it. I am sorry if I am eating into anyone else's time. I wish to support the motion in every way.

I am happy to speak on this important motion this evening. It is appalling to note that at the end of March, 3,568 children were awaiting a first assessment of needs nationwide and more than 850 children with special educational needs were receiving home tuition while awaiting school placement. This is shocking. I know the Minister of State is not the Minister for Health. As is usual now, like when the Minister of State addressed Topical Issue matters, the Government is running scared and will not answer questions. It is a shocking disgrace that it cannot look after the most vulnerable children and those with special needs. I salute the SNAs and the work they try to do, as well as the schools for the way they try to cater for, accept and look after children. The Government's record is abysmal. It is one of absurd failure and neglect. It passes legislation here calling for equality for this and equality for that. Where is the equality for these people, who are mistreated, neglected and abandoned to the point that their parents have to scrounge, beg and implore to get their children assessed? They have to put the money together themselves to get a private assessment. It is appalling.

Members of the Government should hang their heads in shame. This is nothing short of a national disgrace in a first-world country. The Government should get out of office as soon as possible and let people take over who have an interest in and the ability to do something for children with special needs.

I raise the issue concerning the more than 20 students and 15 staff of St. Teresa's Special School in Ballinasloe. In July 2017, the Department of Education and Skills informed me that it was working closely with Galway County Council on the acquisition of a site for the school. The school is included in the Department's six-year capital programme. That was announced in 2015 and is due to go to construction stage between now and 2021. We still do not have a commitment regarding funding, however. As of 8 May this year, the Minister informed me that his officials, working with Galway County Council, have identified a suitable site. I was told that as soon as they have possession they will proceed with the architectural planning.

We still do not have any progress on that. It is imperative, however, that there is movement and that this project moves to construction without delay. The school is currently located in temporary accommodation on the grounds of the former psychiatric hospital at St. Bridget's in Ballinasloe. We need a clear commitment of funding for this project. The Minister for Education and Skills will be aware that there was an issue before the summer regarding insurance costs. That was because we do not have a purpose-built school in Ballinasloe for children with special needs. For far too long children with special needs have had to travel great distances to access education. We now have a facility on our doorstep and we need a commitment that capital will be put in place to allow for the construction of a purpose-built school for the children of Ballinasloe, east Galway and south Roscommon.

Deputy Shortall is sharing her time with Deputy Martin.

People with disabilities face some of the greatest challenges in this country. It is a very poor reflection on the political system in this country that this is still the case. Some 13.5% of people have disabilities. That is about 640,000 people. This group is at significantly greater risk of poverty, exclusion and unemployment because of their disabilities. That should not, and does not have to be, the case. Many of us in this House will have seen the RTÉ "Prime Time" programme last Tuesday night. We heard from a family who challenged everybody who was watching the programme and, in particular, challenged the Government regarding its failure to address the basic needs of this family.

Darren Milne and his partner, Gillian Bolger, have twin boys with autism, and another child. They spoke about how they went through an entire year without any support whatsoever. They had no school placement, no home tuition and both of the parents had to stay at home to care for their two children with autism. That was not all, however. Darren spoke very poignantly and emotionally about what that actually meant for the family. Apart from the huge emotional, physical and mental drain that caused the family, it also meant that Darren had to spend long periods away from work. Luckily, he is with Dublin bus and that was facilitated. Spending those long periods away from work without an income, however, meant the couple fell behind with all of their bills, got into mortgage difficulty and were facing home repossession.

They spoke in public about all of their experiences and it is shocking that they had to do that. All of what they suffered came about because of the State's failure to provide basic health and education services for their two children with autism. That is a scandal by any standard. It should cause members of the Government to hang their heads in shame. We talk a great deal about equality and inclusion. A situation such as this, however, is the hard face of the lack of action by the Government and the lack of priority being given to the whole area of disability. That is particularly the case for people with autism. The twins' mother, Gillian, spoke about having to fight for everything. Not only was she exhausted from caring for the children, but she was also exhausted from having to fight for every single service they needed.

This story is replicated many times all around the country. There is no doubt many families face what is, in effect, a postcode lottery when it comes to accessing school places or the basic therapeutic services that simply do not exist in many regions. The denial of those basic services results in a denial of those children's basic human rights. This Government should be ashamed of that. AsIAm, the very good advocacy organisation working in this area, has regularly drawn attention to these shortcomings. I also acknowledge Mr. Graham Manning, who has done so much work in identifying the dearth of data and information about this area. The basic fact is that if we do not measure things, those things do not matter. This is the case in this situation. We have put forward a number of amendments and I hope the Fianna Fáil Party will accept them to strengthen its good and comprehensive motion. I hope Fianna Fáil will also raise this issue in the budget negotiations.

Tá an An Comhaontas Glas sásta tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún seo. I thank Deputy Thomas Byrne for bringing this motion before the House. It outlines clearly how the State is failing so many students in this country. Many good and inclusive schools across the country welcome all children, regardless of educational need, socio-economic background or the financial situation of their parents. We still have a long way to go, however, to ensure our schools are as inclusive as they should be. DEIS schools teach a much higher proportion of students with special educational needs than non-DEIS schools, and many of them are hugely oversubscribed with students requiring special classes. We still have a long way to go to reach a stage where schools stop cherry-picking students because they are thinking only about the school league tables and not about the child.

It is appalling that there is no secondary school with special educational classes in the Dublin 2, 4, 6, 6W or 8 areas. The situation is not much better in my area of Dublin Rathdown. Many parents find it difficult to secure supports for their children in local secondary and primary schools. I received a letter from a parent in Dundrum before the summer. The person concerned stated that he was contacting me about his son who is five years old and has a diagnosis of autism. He stated:

He currently attends a special pre-school applied behavioural analysis, ABA, class in Shankill. He has a recommendation in writing for a placement in an autism unit in a mainstream school for 19 September. We have tried many schools in the area and cannot get him a place. Either the unit will not be ready for September or there are no vacancies. We are under huge pressure. If we do not get a place for him, we will have to break up the family. My son and myself will have to move to Laois during the week to access an autism unit while my wife and my teenage child stay in Dublin. As you will understand, this would be a huge problem for us in every way and living away from the rest of the family could cause him more trouble ultimately.

This is where things stand. A family is seriously considering separating and renting a house in Laois so that it will be possible to access an autism unit for their child. I spoke to that parent, who was in tears while telling me that they are actually considering emigration to keep the family together. They have endured sleepless nights and have been distraught, anxious and worried. That child will be six in January. He is still in a preschool and the parents feel that if he stays here he will still be in a preschool next year. He will turn seven the following January. It is wrong and shameful. A two-tier system is in place in our schooling for children with special education needs. That has to end. Schools are an essential part of shaping who we are and who we will be. We have an extraordinary duty of care as a State, not just legally and constitutionally but morally, to all children, whoever they are or wherever they are from, to provide them with full and fair education shaped around them and not something that forces them to be shaped around it.

It is awful for people to be made feel they are a burden, that it is a huge amount of hassle for them to be accommodated and that they should have to adapt because they learn in a different way. This is how it feels for many children and their parents and it is not right. The current situation is not fair on those children who are denied a full and fair education because there is no place for them at their local school. It is not fair on their parents, who feel helpless, anxious and abandoned. This is not what our education system should be about. Our education system should welcome diversity. It should be based on inclusivity and be welcoming. For this to happen, the Government needs to properly resource the provision of education for children and students with special educational needs. I call particularly on the Minister for Education and Skills to use his powers under the recent Education (Admission to Schools) Act to ensure schools provide for the children in their areas with reasonable notice periods and the necessary levels of support.

In his opening statement, the Minister of State referred to home tuition being available. All Members of the Oireachtas are inundated with emails because this is not the case. I received an email from a home tutor still awaiting a return to work. The email states:

I was due to return to work on September 2nd but I am still waiting to receive confirmation from the Department of Education telling me that I can return. Without pointing out the obvious, we are now midway through the third week of September and Primary Schools have long returned for the new school [year] since the end of August.

What is happening here? The system is completely broken and needs to be fixed. As for telling parents not to worry because in the meantime they will have access to home tuition, that is not happening. The Minister was copied in on the email.

I will be sharing time with Deputies Brassil, Browne, Aindrias Moynihan and Calleary. I thank my colleague, Deputy Thomas Byrne, for tabling the motion. I acknowledge the invaluable work of special needs assistants, autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units and special schools. All of us acknowledge this and see it in our communities. The problem is that on a regular basis, all Members of the House meet parents and children who cannot access the services. Children are unique individuals and every day we deal with cases. This is not anecdotal evidence or me saying it. It is in the replies we receive. The outcome has been home tuition for 800 or 900 children. I have no doubt that if the facility were available many others would be availing of it. We urgently need to invest in this sector. Too many of our children have no access to the facilities required.

I very much welcome the opportunity to have a few brief moments to speak on this very important topic. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, is the body charged with looking after the special educational needs of children. It operates under the special education review committee, SERC, report of 1993. That guideline is 26 years old and in dire need of updating to meet modern day requirements and standards. The criteria set out in the report call for a 6:1 pupil-teacher ratio and two special needs assistants. This is hugely outdated. The profile of students has changed and many students have profound medical and intellectual needs.

There is no standardisation of nursing supports for special schools. They operate on an ad hoc basis for each individual school. For example, the Nano Nagle school in Listowel fought a three-year campaign to have a permanent nurse to assist children with profound medical needs. There is a lot of work to be done. Most schools are underfunded and require fundraising to allow them to operate on a day-to-day basis. We need to get ourselves up to modern-day standards, update the SERC report and have the NCSE deliver on it immediately.

On this very important debate on special educational needs, I will begin by thanking special needs assistants, SENOs, teachers, principals and boards of management for the great work they do for children with disabilities in very difficult circumstances. Every year, many parents of children with special needs meet difficulties in securing the school places they need for their children. In County Wexford there are lengthy waiting lists for special needs education. This compounds an already very stressful situation for parents. Our Lady of Fatima national school in Wexford provides an outstanding service but is constantly oversubscribed. Its principal, Rita Waters, does a fantastic job under difficult circumstances. Recently, a building dating from 2008 that was next door to the school was flattened to become a car park. The HSE would not hand it over. It was a total waste of State money by the Government. St. Patrick's special school is finally being built, under the guidance of the school principal, Lee Rogers, but it is more than two years behind schedule.

There are no official figures on the number of children with special needs who do not have an appropriate place but if the number of parents coming to me every week in my constituency office is anything to go by it is significant. The lack of special educational needs places and delays in diagnosis lead to great concern among parents as to whether their children will get the places they need.

I acknowledge the work of parents for children with disabilities. My sister has spina bifida hydrocephalus and my goddaughter has Down's syndrome. I am very aware of the particular circumstances and challenges faced. No child should experience a delay to the start of the school year because of administrative issues. There is a fundamental failure on the part of the Government and the Minister for Education and Skills to provide the necessary places for children with special needs. Why are children with special needs not being prioritised? Why are they being left behind? Why must parents fight constantly to get basic services?

I support the motion to ensure children with special and additional needs have the same fair chance at education as anybody else. Where they do have access we hear that the emphasis is often more on containment than on education. There are significant challenges for people trying to get into the system through an assessment of need and to get up and running. There are considerable delays, particularly in Cork, where parents are constantly raising the issue with me.

While there are places with schools where everything is up and running and working well, and it is important to acknowledge this, there are significant gaps in other areas. Ballincollig has a population of almost 20,000. It has five primary schools and two secondary schools but no ASD unit. Children must travel for miles to another school, often separately from their brothers and sisters. I ask the Minister of State to see if there is some way to focus on ensuring that in places where there is demand, ASD units are available, such as in Ballincollig.

Tá faillí á déanamh ar pháistí a bhfuil riachtanais speisialta orthu agus tá dúshlán ann dóibh. Tá dúshlán acu cheana féin ach níor chóir go mbeadh an córas ag cur isteach orthu agus ag cur bac orthu mar atá sé. Ba chóir don Aire Stáit dul i ngleic leis an dúshlán sin agus a chinntiú go mbeidh deis ag gach páiste teacht ar chóras oideachais gan aon bhac ón gcóras féin.

I thank my colleagues, Deputies Thomas Byrne, O'Loughlin and Murphy O'Mahony for their work on this issue. I mean no personal offence to the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, but the Department of Education and Skills has a Minister and two Ministers of State and it is not acceptable they cannot be present for the debate. When Deputy Curran was Chief Whip, a Minister from the relevant Department was present for debates.

As we returned after the recess, the Proclamation of 1916 was restored to its natural place.

It is the same Proclamation that guarantees equal rights and opportunities to all citizens and promises that it will cherish all the children of the nation equally. These words ring hollow to the parents of children with special needs who are seeking education or health services. For some reason this country conspires to make an incredibly difficult journey even more difficult at every possible opportunity. Challenges are put in front of parents, grandparents and other loved ones in seeking basic services in education, as we are discussing, health and across a range of other areas. This has to stop. It cannot be allowed to be the standard in Ireland in 2020. We need to make the pathway much less difficult. We need to help parents, instead of hindering them. As a nation, we need to live up to the standards set in the document to which we all subscribe, copies of which all Deputies and Senators give to their visitors. However, does it live out in the daily lives of the citizens of this Republic? In this case it does not.

The State and its services are not designed to provide care seamlessly for people who give their entire lives to their families and are under tremendous stress. The State does not seem to have a problem with therapist positions not being filled and with therapists on sick leave or maternity leave without providing cover. It does not seem to have a problem with a lack of or having zero education places. It is time to call halt and live up to the aspirations of the Proclamation.

The Minister, Deputy McHugh, was present for most of the debate, but he had to leave to go to the Seanad for another debate and asked me to respond in his stead.

I started teaching over 40 years ago. I know - I do not look it. At the time many of the conditions of which we are aware today were not recognised or known. Dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia, autism, ADD, ADHD, various forms of depression and so on were not widely known in schools at the time. As Deputy Michael Healy-Rae said, we have learned a lot in the intervening years and continue to learn. We have come a long way.

I thank Deputies for their contributions to the debate. I share their view that children with special educational needs should be supported to access the education system. I was deeply involved in the debate which led to the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act. In fact, I think I christened it with the then Minister, Noel Dempsey. We had a very good debate on it.

As a Government, we fully recognise the importance of an inclusive and all-embracing education system and nowhere is it more important than in the case of children with special educational needs. Government policy on supporting children with special educational needs aims to ensure all children with special needs can have access to an education appropriate to their needs. The policy is to provide for inclusive education and ensure the maximum possible integration of children with special needs into ordinary mainstream schools. All new school buildings and significant refurbishment projects now incorporate provision for students with special needs as standard. There seemed to be some confusion about that aspect in the debate. Where pupils require more targeted interventions, special classes or special school placements are also provided. Very significant levels of financial provision are made each year to ensure all children with special educational needs can access education. Some speakers mentioned home education. I am told that the Department is processing applications within 15 working days. To date, 544 applications have been approved. Just 83 are being processed, mostly for children under six years.

The Department spends approximately €1.5 billion, or almost 19% of its total education budget, annually in making additional provision for children with special educational needs. We have significantly increased the availability of specialist placements for children with special educational needs, as well as bringing more children into mainstream education. An additional 1,050 specialised places have been approved during this school year, with 167 new special classes.

The number of special education teachers has increased by 37%, from 9,740 in 2011 to over 13,400 at present. The number of special needs assistants has risen by 50%, from 10,575 in 2011 to 15,950 at present. A total of 124 special schools also provide specialist education for students with complex special educational needs, including autism. These school now provide over 8,000 places compared to 6,848 in 2011. The number of children benefiting from these supports is also at an all-time high. Other supports include an assistive technology scheme for students and funded transport arrangements to get children to school.

The motion references the need for planning for children with special needs in the context of the EPSEN Act 2004. Under the Education Act 1998, schools are already required to "provide education to students which is appropriate to their abilities and needs" and to "ensure that the educational needs of all students, including those with a disability or other educational needs, are identified and provided for". We have a very professional teaching workforce in schools who take pride in the education of the children in their care. Planning is a normal part of a teacher's work and planning tools such as the student support file have been created as a resource to help schools provide for their students.

The NCSE has a key role in front-line planning and the co-ordination of education provision for children with special needs. Some colleagues referred to difficulties they had experienced with children. SENOs are available to assist, while educational welfare officers also do considerably good work. The NCSE's remit includes responsibility for building school capacity through continuous professional development and specialist training and promoting a continuum of educational provision which is inclusive and responsive.

Some of the ESPEN Act provisions which have not been commenced have been overtaken by new policy and the expanded range of supports now in place for children with special needs. Currently, there is a particular focus on supporting schools that are setting up a special class for the first time. The focus of professional development is on enhancing teachers' understanding of the nature of the special educational need and the learning and teaching implications for each individual student and teacher; enhancing teachers' use of a variety of interventions and teaching approaches for students based on the assessed needs of students and taking account of empirically based research; and enabling teachers to assess, plan and implement effective and differentiated teaching strategies, with a view to meeting the needs of students through individualised planning.

The NCSE has published a number of policy advice papers in recent years. I am sure colleagues have read many of them. They have made recommendations aimed at developing better education services for children with special educational needs. Policy advice reports include the NCSE policy advice paper, Supporting Students with Special Educational Needs in Schools, published in 2013; the report of the working group on a proposed new model for allocating teaching resources for pupils with special educational needs, published in 2014; and the comprehensive review of the special needs assistant scheme, published in 2018. Deputy Brassil might also look at them. They are very interesting and make some very good points.

In developing such policy advice papers the NCSE consulted widely with stakeholders, disability representative bodies and parents' bodies. In bringing forward proposals for the implementation of the recommendations contained in the reports the Department also consults widely with education partners and stakeholders. Following intensive consultations with education partners, a new model for allocating special education teachers to mainstream schools was introduced from September 2017. Under the new allocation model, schools are provided with a total allocation for special education teaching support based on a school's profile. Schools are front-loaded with resources to provide support immediately for those pupils who need it without delay. This means that children who need support can have it provided immediately, rather than having to wait for a diagnosis. It also means that under the new allocation model, children do not need to be labelled with a particular condition to qualify for extra teaching assistance. It gives greater freedom to schools to give extra teaching help to the pupils who most need it, regardless of their diagnosis.

The ongoing prioritisation of special education funding, in conjunction with policy developments, will see continued improvements in the provision of education for children with special educational needs. As a Government, we are ever conscious of the need to support such children and have responded through the continuation of and the introduction of a significant level of relevant supports.

Not having a suitable school placement for a child is a serious concern for any parent. The NCSE is working with families in a number of areas of the country to resolve individual situations. Section 37A of the Education Act 1998 has been invoked and may need to be used again. However, the Minister's stated preference is for schools to engage with this challenge on a voluntary basis because it is the right thing to do for the children in their community. The Department, together with the NCSE, will continue to work with schools, patron bodies and teachers in order that they can establish special classes, where required, with confidence.

We want them to do that. In that way we will continue to seek to meet the educational needs of children in their local schools insofar as possible.

I thank the Members opposite for raising these issues, which has provided an opportunity to outline to the House the Government's commitment to ensuring that children with special educational needs are provided with every opportunity to fully participate in and benefit from the educational system. I confirm that the Government will not oppose this motion but will not support the amendments to it.

Although this is a national issue, the problem is particularly acute in my constituency of Dublin Bay South, which covers Dublin 2, 4, 6 and 6W. The national ratio of special needs places to mainstream places is 1:100. In Dublin, the ratio is 1:119. In Dublin 2, 4, 6 and 6W, it is 1:782, which identifies my constituency as a pocket of extraordinary educational disadvantage for children with special needs. If the national average applied in the areas of Dublin 2, 4, 6 and 6W we would expect to have approximately 94 places or 15 autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classrooms. Instead, in Dublin 6 there is only one national school with two ASD units, in St. Clare’s in Harold’s Cross. It does an excellent job but it cannot deal with the demand for special needs places in that area on its own.

Why is the lack of special needs places so great in this area? One major issue is the NCSE’s lack of planning and its reliance on the special educational needs organisers, SENOs, to plan for them. The SENOs get their information from schools and unfortunately, it appears to be the case that some schools do not want ASD units within their schools for reasons that are hard to explain. It is in respect of this that the Minister can intervene under the Education Acts.

I commend the parents who fight so strongly for their children’s rights, particularly Miriam Kenny and Alan Power, who have been vigorous in pursuing their children's entitlements. They should not have to fight in this way. They have a right to have this provided by the State.

In November 2012, the citizens voted to ensure the rights of all children were protected in the Constitution. Since then, children's access to healthcare and housing have deteriorated and we are failing in many cases of child welfare and protection. This evening, we are considering the failures of Government in respect of children with special educational needs.

I met a parent yesterday evening who travelled from my constituency to meet me here in Leinster House because he was so frustrated. His five year old boy started at national school on 2 September. He had a full-time special needs assistant, SNA, in Montessori school but now only has part-time access to an SNA, despite the fact that two reports were submitted by the occupational therapist and the psychologist supporting his need for full-time access. Since 2 September, and we have not reached the end of the month, the child has been segregated from his classmates on numerous occasions. He has been sent home and it has been suggested to his parents that he have shorter school days.

While I welcome the fact that the Government is not opposing the motion before the House, it is imperative that the sound policy proposals of Deputy Thomas Byrne be implemented because there are gross failings in the system for children with special educational needs. I have cited one example but I do not wish to name the school or the child, as that would be unfair. I hope these proposals will be implemented and that we can look forward to a day when the rights of all children will be exercised.

As parents we all know that children face challenges including special needs, additional needs and learning challenges such as dyslexia and dyspraxia. These children need to be nurtured with special supports and assessments and a clear pathway set out in order that they can receive every opportunity to grow and be the best they can possibly be, to attend school, play with their friends, enjoy life and receive an education. Some parents of children with special needs experience a system that seems focused on containment rather than education. They battle every day to get the correct resources and wraparound supports.

The first challenge parents and teachers face is to get the correct assessment for the child. Schools get an annual allowance to have two children assessed. If I were to make one request it would be that schools be enabled to assess more than two children per year. A school principal told me recently that it is like playing God. He has to decide which children to pick out of which classes and he has to determine which parents might be able to afford support, or borrow the money to get it. If a child is assessed, a clear pathway can be signposted for the correct supports to be put in place.

It is unfair to the child, the teacher, the SNA and the parents, to put a child with special needs in a mainstream classroom without an assessment. The child may be in the wrong class in the wrong school. Early intervention is vital. Two assessments a year in a national school is certainly not enough.

There is a very special school for very special people in Sligo, namely, St. Cecilia's. I wish to express my thanks and those of the parents for the great work that the school and its staff do.

The best chance these young people have is early intervention. At the moment the school is waiting for a speech therapist. Interviews took place on 31 July and 1 August and thankfully there was a great response to the advertisement for people to work in the school. A qualified panel is in place but unfortunately it is still waiting for the national approval to hire the staff. We are almost halfway through this part of the school term. It is very unfair. I appeal to the Minister of State to use his good offices to ensure that this school gets the approval to hire the staff it so badly needs.

Gabhaim buíochas le mo chomhghleacaithe go léir a thóg páirt sa díospóireacht seo inniu agus a thaispeáin go raibh spéis acu san ábhar seo. I thank my colleagues who spoke and showed an interest in this motion. We are appealing to the Government to get interested in this. Fine Gael has shown time and again its lack of interest, with only a Minister and Minister of State speaking today, and the record of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills will show that too. That is part of the problem.

The only thing this Minister has done was to go in at the last possible moment to the Taoiseach's constituency, using powers that the previous Minister did not want but which we forced him to take on, to tell schools to open classes, although some of the schools were willing to do so and had classes open already. By and large those classes are not yet open. The Ministers have never put that on the record. The special school that was announced is not yet open either. The idea that this is some sort of victory for children with special needs is wrong. Many of these children needed that school last year and certainly at the start of the school term this year.

The parents in the constituencies of Deputies O'Callaghan and Lahart, as well as in Cork, Kildare and other parts of the country, including my constituency, also need schools. The 800 or so children who are receiving home tuition or are in other private educational institutions using home tuition grants, need, and most of them want, to be in State schools with the appropriate resources. If I were Minister for Education and Skills, I would be sitting at a table and banging it to find out what is going on for next September and trying to plan for that or, as our motion proposes, for five years' time. That is what we are looking for, not to have the mad dash in which this Government has engaged. It is an outrageous way to deal with children.

There seems to be no way to plan ahead, which is what our motion seeks. The Government repeatedly tells us about the resources but that is the easy part. It is not right, as Deputy Michael McGrath noted, that in Cork some children must travel for 40 minutes through traffic to go to school, while in my constituency, one child travels 15 miles one way and his sibling travels a similar distance in the other direction. It adds to cost and stress and it is arguable that such children are not in the ideal place because they should attend their local school. The Government needs to get to grips with the issue, relieve parents of the stress and ensure that the constitutional rights of all the children of the country, which Eamon de Valera rightly inserted in the Constitution, are vindicated. Children should receive the education that is appropriate for them and to which they are entitled.

Amendment put.

In accordance with Standing Order 70(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 26 September 2019.