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.
My Department does not hold information in relation to the number of children with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder in school.
The National Council for Special education (NCSE), an independent agency of my Department, is responsible for planning, coordinating and advising on education provision for children with special educational needs in consultation with the relevant education partners and the Health Service Executive (HSE).
The NCSE’s policy advice on Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (2016) noted a national ASD prevalence rate of 1.55% or 1 in every 65 students.
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 enrolment of a child to a school is a matter in the first instance for the parents/guardians of the child and the Board of Management of a school. My Department has no role either in making or deciding on enrolment applications to schools or keeping waiting lists. In these matters, schools are required to adhere to the requirements of relevant legislation and the policies of my department.
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.
In Wicklow alone there are 62 special classes and 3 Special Schools providing specialist support to children with more complex special educational needs.
The NCSE has planned a further expansion of special class and school places in Wicklow for next year.
It is open to any school to make an application to the NCSE for the establishment of a specialised provision and where sanctioned, there is a range of supports including capital funding available to the school.
Normally, special class and school places are established with the full cooperation of the schools in areas where they are required. 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.
I would prefer to see schools volunteer to provide more places 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.
All schools have the contact details of their local SENO, while Parents may also contact their local SENO directly to discuss their child's special educational needs and to identify appropriate educational placements, using the contact details available on the NCSE website www.ncse.ie.