I propose to take Questions Nos. 84 and 97 together.
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.
There is no policy restricting the establishment of ASD Special Classes to co-ed schools and a number of special classes have been established in single sex schools. When establishing special classes, consideration will be given to their long term sustainability and the extent to which such classes can support the needs within a local area. In some cases a co-ed school may be better placed than a single sex school to respond to a range of needs locally.
The SENO may approach individual schools to discuss the matter with a view to finding the optimal location in terms of convenience and sustainability.
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 1,355 are ASD special classes, including 133 ASD Early Intervention classes, 852 Primary ASD classes and 370 Post Primary ASD classes.
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 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 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.