The provision of education for children with special needs, including those with Autism, is an ongoing priority for Government.
Currently, almost 20% of the total Education Vote or €1.9bn is invested in supporting children with special needs.
Since 2011 investment in Special Education supports has increased by 50%, which is significantly above the 7% increase in total student numbers over the same period.
As a result the numbers of special education teachers, special needs assistants and special class and school places are at unprecedented levels.
The majority of children with Autism attend mainstream class, where they may access additional supports if required.
But some students may find it difficult to manage full-time placement in mainstream and so placement in a Special Class or Special School setting may be deemed appropriate where placement in mainstream class is not in the best interests of the child.
The NCSE has responsibility for coordinating and advising on the education provision for children nationwide and has well established structures in place for engaging with schools and parents.
Nationally, 167 new special classes opened this school year, which means there are 1,618 special classes in place, compared to 548 in 2011.
Of these 1,353 special classes cater for students diagnosed with ASD.
Provision in our 124 special schools has also increased from 6,848 placements in 2011 to 7,872 this year.
The NCSE has planned a further expansion of special class and school places nationally, including in Cork and Dublin, for next year.
The extent of new classes being opened in recent years shows the willingness of schools to open special classes and normally this is the case.
However there are some parts of the country where the Council has faced challenges in getting schools and their Patrons to voluntarily agree to provide special class or school places.
I know that this can cause much anguish for parents and families involved.
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 was activated on the 29th October, 2019 following a report by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) which identified a shortage of special school and special class places right across south Dublin.
The NCSE has identified 82 children needing special education school places for this or next year in south Dublin.
This is the second time the power under section 37A of the Education Act 1998 (as inserted by section 8 of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018) has been used.
The law contains a procedure through which the NCSE can test the capacity of schools in an area to provide more special education places and through which ultimately a Ministerial direction can be made requiring a school to make additional special education places available.
The necessary steps in the Admissions Act process, will continue to be expedited to ensure that children with special needs are provided with access to a suitable education.
I am concerned that engagement with schools in south Dublin has not secured sufficient special education provision but I am also conscious that schools need to be properly supported to provide special education.
I appreciate the concerns of principals and their staff but my message to them is this – I am committed to ensuring that a partnership approach will ensure we provide sufficient special education school places in south Dublin.
It would be preferable to see schools offering to provide more places for these children rather than places being secured on the back of an order or a direction from me. It is the right thing for the children in a community.
The legislation was used for the first time back in April in respect of the Dublin 15 area. We have made significant progress in a relatively short period with the establishment of Danu Special School as well as six schools offering to open special classes. The new places will help these families and ensure that the children concerned have access to education.
The experience of Dublin 15 shows that real and practical challenges can be addressed by working together to provide additional special class and special school places.