I propose to take Questions Nos. 181 to 185, inclusive, together.
Enabling children with special educational needs to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a priority for this Government. Currently, almost 20% of the total Education Vote or €1.9bn is invested in supporting children with special needs.
Notwithstanding the extent of this investment, there are some parts of the country, including South Dublin, where increases in population and other issues have led to concerns regarding a shortage of school places.
The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) has responsibility for coordinating and advising on the education provision for children nationwide. NCSE is continuing its engagement with schools, patron bodies, parents and others across South Dublin to bring the required additional special class and special school placements on stream. While progress has been achieved, the NCSE has identified the need for additional special class and special school places in South Dublin for the current school-year.
Normally, special class and special 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 NCSE has faced challenges in getting schools and their patrons to provide new special class or special school places.
As Minister, I have a power under Section 37A of the Education Act 1998 (as inserted by Section 8 of the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018), to direct a school to provide additional provision where all reasonable efforts have failed. The legislation contains a procedure through which the capacity of schools in an area can be tested and through which ultimately a Ministerial direction can be made requiring a school to make additional special education provision available.
The legislation was used for the first time in 2019, in respect of the Dublin 15 area. Significant progress has been made in that area on foot of action taken under Section 37. A new Special School was established and six schools have agreed to open special classes thereby meeting the need for additional places in the area. 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.
A Report from the NCSE, prepared in accordance with Section 37A (2) of the Education Act 1998 (as inserted by Section 8 of the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018), confirming the need for additional special education places in South Dublin was submitted to the then Minister in April last. This Report is available on my Department’s website.
Statutory notices under the Act were subsequently issued on 26 June, 2020 to 39 schools identified by the NCSE. The issue of the notices is but the first step in a very transparent multi-step process, the purpose of which is to establish if the school has capacity to provide new places. At each stage of the process, schools are given the opportunity to make representations and there is also an option for arbitration at a later point. Statutory notices issued under the Act together with the representations received from the schools and their patrons are published on my Department’s website. The representations received to date have all been published and are a matter of public record. Schools may be visited as part of this process to establish the circumstances of individual schools.
It would not be appropriate for me to comment further at this stage on the legislative process which is currently underway.
In 2020, a national inventory of school capacity was developed using the Department’s Geographic Information System (GIS). In 2019, as part of their annual enrolment returns to the Department in the Primary On-line Database (POD) and the Post-Primary On-line Database (PPOD), schools were requested to provide information in respect of overall demand for school places and available capacity within their schools.
The compilation and analysis of this information at local, regional and national level through the Department’s GIS will be an important additional feature of the school planning process. This is the first year of this initiative and the approach taken will provide a cost effective and efficient method to the provision and analysis of up to date data in relation to demand and capacity across over 3,000 primary schools and over 750 post-primary schools.