I will deal with the Chairman's questions.
On boards of management, one of the concerns AsIAm.ie has had for some time is that they are often asked to make significant decisions on opening autism classes, suspensions and expulsions. The role of a board of management is to oversee the activities of a principal and hold him or her to account from a governance point of view. We are concerned that very few boards of management have a representative of parents with a child with special needs or include a person with that expertise. That is worrying and something at which the patron body should look.
Whatever comes out of the process on reduced timetables, it has to be more than a recording exercise by a principal; it also has to involve a degree of sanction and approval.
On the impact on other children, there is no doubt that schools that are inclusive and enrolling students with disabilities and other needs should be resourced appropriately. The evidence shows that in the vast majority of cases having a child with a disability in a class has a positive educational impact on other children. In a survey we conducted in April of attitudes to autism among 1,000 people selected at random the most open cohort was the 18 to 25 year age group. The reason is those surveyed had sat in a classroom with people with disabilities.
On the therapies piece about which I was asked, it was in reference to the piece about which Ms Byrne had spoken on the in-school therapy pilot scheme and the proposals for the reform of the SNA scheme.
To pick up on what Ms Hanahoe said about there being bigger overriding issues, one of the challenges in mainstreaming is that some expertise may have been lost in the process. When a child attended a special school, he or she was able to access a lot of people with advanced knowledge and from therapeutic backgrounds, etc. Mainstream schools do not currently have that resource.
Deputy Thomas Byrne referenced the Constitution. It is a point with which we very much agree and which we raise frequently, with the broader issue of illegality in the context of the Education Act, for example.
This relates to another area of the Constitution, namely, the parent as the primary educator. The parents in our community play a central role in advocating for and supporting their children. Our experience, however, is that they have the least choice and input in their child's education compared with other parents. One of the key reasons parents cite the reduced timetables is that they wanted their child to go to an autism class or a special school and that was not possible. I was asked whether there is usually a good engagement between parent and school. Unfortunately, in many instances the engagement has been appalling. I would use the word "manipulative" to describe the way parents have been handled, being told what would happen if they did not consent to this.
When we make the legal argument another factor is in play, namely, the UN convention, which is clear in stating that it is never the obligation of the child to somehow adjust and adapt to fit into the school. The onus is on the member state and its agencies, in this case, the school, to adapt to meet the needs of the child. When, for example, an autistic child is struggling and, as a result, experiences a meltdown and loses the ability to communicate that is not a choice. That is happening because of the environment and the experience the child is having being inaccessible. We need to consider this from an accessibility point of view and realise that the onus has to keep going back on to the State.
I am concerned that when instances such as that happen the policy that tends to be operated is a code of behaviour, not an accessibility policy about how to support the child in this instance. For example, families frequently get in touch with us because the use of a behaviour contract is being put to children as young as nine and ten years. Children are being asked to sign documents stating, for example, that they will respect personal space, be mindful in their tone of voice or will not get agitated if there is a change of plan. It is the equivalent of asking a child to sign a document stating it will no longer be autistic. These are fundamental accessibility needs and they are not being recognised.
In our written submission, we outlined the reasons that parents said their children were on reduced timetables. Resources come up, particularly in the lack of autism classes, but there are also issues such as lack of teacher training, the sensory environment and staff not having training in communication. There are deeper cultural issues that have to be recognised.
Deputy Catherine Martin asked about numbers. In our survey, 47% of the young people on reduced timetables had no engagement with their SENO. I have the numbers on Tusla and numbers for how long the reduced timetable has been in place but I do not have them with me. I can send them on without a problem. We found that reduced timetables tend to be the first step towards a suspension or an expulsion. During the research process for this, we tried to use freedom of information requests to get numbers from the Department on suspensions and expulsions of children with disabilities but there are no data. That goes hand in glove with this issue.
A question was asked about qualifications. We still see many instances of newly qualified teachers being placed in autism classes or in additional teaching roles that are not appropriate. The message that must go out is that it is not a case of choosing to be a special educational needs or mainstream teacher, our system now is that a person is a teacher and has to be willing to teach whomever they are called upon to teach, particularly as they become more experienced.
There is a deterioration in the accessibility of school buildings for autistic students. There are beautiful new buildings around the country but they have a lot of light and glare, and multi-purpose spaces are being used with a lot of sensory activity at once. Even the bright vibrant colour schemes pose fundamental accessibility issues. While physical access is considered, autism-friendly design is not being embedded in the construction of autism classes or schools.
There is no doubt the problem comes back to training again and again. Even though people with disabilities have been attending schools for some time, teachers are still completing their education without any discrete awareness of conditions such as autism. Mary Immaculate College in Thurles has become the first teacher education college to teach a compulsory module on autism. This needs to be explored more fully. In terms of continuing professional development, CPD, what is the uptake of schemes such as the Middletown Centre for Autism's training programme? If it is low, why is that the case? I understand from the teachers' unions that they are very keen to be able to access more training. A key priority in addressing this issue has to be to identify what sort of training is needed and how it can be delivered in a way that is acceptable to everybody.