Ensuring that every child has a suitable placement available to them is a key priority for me and the Government.
I am deeply conscious of the stress and anxiety facing parents and their children where difficulties are encountered in securing a school place.
We are investing heavily in supporting our children with special educational needs, with €1.9bn being spent in 2019, about €1 in every €5 of the education budget. An additional 1,000 special class places have been provided in this school year, with the establishment of 167 special classes. This brings the total number of special class places in Ireland to over 9,700, almost a trebling in this provision since 2011.
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 various geographical areas where the NCSE identifies need. The NCSE 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.
As Minister I have a power under Section 37A of the Education Act 1998 to direct a school to provide additional provision where all reasonable efforts have failed. The legislation provides for a very transparent series of steps which can ultimately lead to the issuing of a legally binding direction to a board of management.
The initial step in the process is for the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) to inform the Minister that there is a shortage of places in a particular area.
The NCSE will only activate the legislation after it has taken all reasonable efforts to get schools and their Patrons to voluntarily agree to provide additional special class or school places.
The legislation was formally activated for the first time on April 18th following a report from the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) outlining insufficient special school and special class capacity in Dublin 15 and North Kildare. This followed extensive interaction between the NCSE, schools and my Department.
The shortage of places in North Kildare was resolved and additional post primary classes will open in 2020/21.
In relation to Dublin 15, the specific provision required was 8 additional primary Autism special classes providing 46 places and 40 special school places for students with complex needs.
New classes which will be coming on stream over coming weeks are the result of very intense engagement between the Department, the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), Patron bodies and schools.
This follows the establishing of a Special School for up to 40 children in Dublin 15, under the patronage of Dublin and Dun Laoghaire ETB.
As the new places come on stream in Dublin 15 over coming weeks, the NCSE will work closely with the Schools and the Parents of the children concerned to ensure there is a planned approach to the start-up of the new school and classes.
The NCSE has also indicated that some parents in South Dublin and Cork are experiencing difficulty securing school places for their children. It worked with schools over the last school year to establish 7 additional special classes and, since June 2019, established a further 6 special classes. This has created an additional 54 places in primary autism special classes and an additional 24 places in post primary autism special classes. NCSE continue to work with schools and has advised my Department that the legislation may need to be invoked in the near future, if sufficient schools do not respond voluntarily.
NCSE were aware of increased demand for special classes in Cork and have established 24 special classes for Setember 2019, creating over 140 additional special class places in Cork. In total there are 190 special classes in Cork.
At end of the school year in June 2019, NCSE was aware of 20 children in Cork seeking a special class or special school placement. At that time, there were approximately 60 specialist education places vacant in Cork and NCSE has worked during the school holidays to match children with suitable class places. Schools will confirm special class and school enrolments to NCSE this month and NCSE will review the final position.
NCSE is aware of a number of children still seeking specialist places and continues to work with schools and their patrons to establish additional provision.
The NCSE is actively engaging at local level with schools, Patron Bodies and the families concerned to resolve the issues involved as soon as possible.
If, following completion of that work, the NCSE establishes that there is a shortage of places in either area it can inform the Minister thereby activating the provisions contained in section 37A of the Education Act 1998.