Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 3 Feb 2005

Vol. 179 No. 4

Educational Disadvantage.

I welcome the Minister to the House although I regret the absence of a Minister from the Department of Education and Science. I do not blame the Minister, Deputy Roche for that and I am aware that the Minister for Education and Science is taking Priority Questions.

One child in every 166 is thought to suffer from autism or to be in the so-called autistic spectrum. Previously this figure was put at four or five per 10,000. In Carlow, a dedicated group of parents whose children have been diagnosed as suffering from autism, formed a group three years ago. Most had their children tested privately because had they waited for the public system there would have been a long delay.

It is an understatement to say this group has received no State assistance. It has been treated with contempt, as have I in connection with this issue. I have here a copy of the fax I sent to the office of the Minister for Education and Science on 13 October 2004 seeking a meeting with either the Minister or her officials. The group of parents had succeeded in obtaining a free site for a school in the centre of Carlow town in Askea, kindly given by the parish priest. The purpose of the meeting was to see how to progress this to the next step.

Between sending the fax and now I have been lied to and been misinformed. I have been assured of having a meeting and have told the parents that they would have a meeting too but three and a half months later no progress has been made.

Last Monday I was guaranteed a telephone call from the Minister's office about this but received none. I am blue in the face ringing the Department to ask for a meeting. I was told a letter had been sent saying that the Minister could not meet me. The letter has not arrived. I waited three and a half months and wasted my time and, more important, the time of this group to be told that we could not meet the Minister.

They have a prime site in Askea church which is an ideal location for a school and the parents want to know what they should do next. Has the Government learned nothing from the Jamie Sinnott case? It is ironic to think that the Disability Bill is going through the other House when the Department is treating me and these parents with such contempt.

I contacted one of the parents recently and apologised profusely to her because I feel I let the group down badly by not delivering for them. As I am being treated so badly, she wondered what hope she and other members of the group have. That is shameful and should not be allowed to happen.

I hope the Minister's reply will not quote national development plans, etc. I want definite answers. All we seek immediately is a meeting with the officials to take this to the next phase. I understand the Minister for Education and Science is very busy. Before we know it next September will have come around and another school year will be lost.

The children who suffer from autism in Carlow deserve the same opportunities as those in other parts of the country. In Cork and Kildare there are sapling schools which specialise in this area and we in Carlow should not be treated any differently. We have wasted three and a half months and it is time for action. It is regrettable that I had to put this down as a matter on the Adjournment.

The Minister for Education and Science is unavailable as she has been in the other House. I can understand the frustration of the Senator if correspondence has not been dealt with appropriately and I am sure this would not have the support of the Minister for Education and Science, who is known in both Houses as a person of exemplary courtesy and concern, particularly on issues relating to children. I will bring the concerns of the Senator to her attention.

A number of children with autism are currently being catered for in integrated settings in mainstream schools with relevant supports or in St. Laserian's special school in Carlow. A number of autistic children are travelling to schools outside the area and school transport is being provided for these children by the Department of Education and Science. Other children with autism awaiting suitable school placements are in receipt of home tuition grants, on an interim basis.

The Department of Education and Science has, however, been aware for some time of the necessity to develop additional educational provision for autistic children in the area and, in this context, the preference is to provide school-based autism provision through the establishment of special classes attached to existing primary schools. Following a submission to the Department from a local parents' representative group, the Carlow Autism Awareness Network, regarding educational provision for their autistic children, efforts have been made by officials in the Department to source a suitable primary school in Carlow that would be prepared to host the establishment of one or more special autism classes. In this regard, consultations began with the board of management of a school in the Carlow area in regard to a proposal to set up a class in the school. Following lengthy discussions, the school authorities confirmed that they were not in a position to set up such a class at present.

The Department then wrote to patrons of the Catholic and Church of Ireland schools, and also to the development officer of the Educate Together schools, outlining to them the request from parents in Carlow. They were asked if they were aware of any of the schools under their patronage that may be interested in setting up special educational facilities for children with autism. Further assessment of two other possible host schools in the area, including meetings with the relevant schools authorities, took place. Efforts in this regard are continuing. To this effect, officials from the Department will be in contact with all of the relevant parties in the coming weeks to consider the most appropriate way forward to progress the development of additional educational provision for autistic pupils in County Carlow.

I hope this clarifies the position for the Senator. I will bring his comments regarding the inappropriate manner in which correspondence was treated to the Minister's attention.

I thank the Minister for his reply and I hope he conveys my sense of frustration to the Minister for Education and Science. The Minister, Deputy Roche, referred to lengthy discussions taking place in regard to setting up aclass in a mainstream school. It is worth noting that two schools were approached. One was not in a position to facilitate the suggestion because it was due to undergo major renovation work, which it indicated to the Department. For some reason, the Department did not register this reply. Months passed and a vacuum was created. While I do not expect the Minister to reply now, this affair is not one of the better examples of how the Department of Education and Science should work. I look forward to contact being made with the parents in the near future.

The Seanad adjourned at 4.55 p.m. until2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 8 February 2005.