Thursday, 1 February 2018

Ceisteanna (2)

Kathleen Funchion


2. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans for children with additional needs starting primary school in view of the fact that there are not enough school places for children who require space in an ASD unit and that have other such requirements within a reasonable distance. [4980/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Education)

My question is about ASD units and what the plans are for children with additional needs who are starting primary school, in view of the fact that there are not enough school places for children who require space in an ASD unit and who have other such requirements. These units are not available within a reasonable geographic distance for students.

Ensuring that children with special educational needs are supported and given the opportunity to reach their full potential is a key priority for this Government. Since 2011 we have provided 12,000 extra pupils with special needs assistant, SNA, support. The investment has been very substantial. There have been 3,545 additional SNAs since 2011, over 2,000 in the last two years. There have been 3,660 additional resource teachers, 1,600 of which have been recruited in the past two years. In terms of special classes, which I know the Deputy is concerned about, there have been an additional 712 of those since 2011. That represents a more than doubling of the amount of special class, including 277 new classes in the past two years. Another 180 are planned for this September.

The Department is extending major investment to meet the very needs the Deputy brings up, and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, advises me that we are meeting those needs.

Most children with special education needs attend mainstream class, but some require the environment of a special class. This decision is based on a professional assessment in consultation with the NCSE.

The NCSE, through its network of local Special Educational Needs Organisers, SENOs, in consultation with the relevant education partners, is responsible for the establishment of special classes in various geographical areas where there is an identified need.

Schools may apply to the NCSE to open a special class where a need has been identified in their area, for example where a number of students have professional reports indicating they require the support of a special class.

As the Deputy knows, Deputy Thomas Byrne and others have urged at Committee Stage that we would introduce a provision, which I am now having drafted, which would give the NCSE the power to designate a school to open a special class, should that prove necessary.

I am concerned that the NCSE is saying it is meeting the requirements. Unfortunately it is not. I am not sure where it is getting its figures from, but in my constituency alone in the last number of months I have dealt with three cases of children who are due to start school in September and who have no school place. Starting school is a major step in anybody's life, but if a person has an additional need and does not know what school he or she will attend it is difficult. In some situations parents are being told that there is a school an hour or an hour and a half away and that transport will be provided. In that instance a child of five is being asked to get on a bus for an hour and a half before he or she even starts school. A few weeks into that sort of system they are going to be so exhausted that they will not be able to learn, let alone reach their full potential. There are 24 ASD units throughout Carlow and Kilkenny at primary level and 16 at post-primary level. They only cater for six children each, so that is a total of 144 in primary school and 96 at post-primary. It is not adequate, certainly in my constituency. Perhaps the NCSE is saying that it is adequate in its eyes, but I invite it to come down to our constituency and visit the schools and parents who are struggling. What are we supposed to tell them?

We are establishing these special units at a very rapid pace. There are 180 planned for next September. To have a special class the NCSE must ensure that there are enough children so that it will be a sustainable class. It has to consider present and future need. While it will not always be possible to provide an ASD unit in the child's own school for that reason the NCSE has informed the Department that it is generally satisfied that there are sufficient ASD special class places at primary level to meet existing demand. The NCSE and my Department work closely together to address the issues of provision that arise from time to time at local level. These issues arise in my constituency as well.

Children with special education needs are eligible for school transport. In the event that these children have to move away from their local school their transport requirements will be met. That has been significantly expanded, so that 2,000 more children with special needs have availed of school transport in the last number of years.

I understand that the children are eligible for school transport, but it is not good enough that we are asking a five year old child to get on a bus at 7.30 a.m. so that he or she can be in school for 9 a.m. The child in that instance would be awake for over an hour and a half before they even get to school and begin to learn. That is not an adequate way to learn. That child is not going to do well. He or she is going to end up completely exhausted and will miss days from school. I would ask that the Minister inquire of the NCSE, if it is insisting that there are adequate spaces, whether it will look into provision in Carlow-Kilkenny and tell us why there are so many children who are unable to get a place in an ASD unit. In some cases a place is not available even an hour or an hour and a half away. There have been a large number of cases in the last few months where parents have been told that schools just do not have the space in September. It is now February, and parents do not know where their children will be going to school in September. That is completely unfair. Every other child who does not have an additional need who is starting school will know either this month or next month when they will start school. There will be the usual meetings with the school concerning being a new student and the whole big step of starting school. These other children are simply being left behind because they have an additional need.

It is important to say that two thirds of children with special needs are accommodated in a mainstream class. Not every child needs to be considered for a special unit. A special unit is a six-child unit, with a teacher of its own and two SNAs. Its own space has to be developed. Unfortunately we cannot guarantee that will be available in every single local school. Where the need is established in an area we work with the schools to establish that class as conveniently as possible to the children who have the need. That requires school transport for some children in some cases. The NCSE tries to solve these problems in as practical a way as possible by working with the schools. We are taking this additional step of giving the power to direct, if necessary, to the NCSE. By and large we have not found that schools are unsupportive of these units. In fact, many schools are really keen to see the development of those units in their areas.

It is expanding very rapidly. We are matching the need, as conveniently as we can, to the parents. I will ask that the NCSE has a look at Carlow-Kilkenny.