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Commencement Matter - Seeking an timeline for the opening of autism outreach classrooms in Dublin 2,4,6 & 6W

11 May 2021

Ivana Bacik:

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to the House to take this important issue on the provision of a timeline for the opening of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units and ASD outreach classes in schools in Dublin 2, 4, 6 and 6W. In these areas in Dublin Bay South, there is a serious shortage of places in autism units and ASD outreach classes for children. This is a matter of intense frustration for the many parents, families and children affected. I know that the Minister of State is well aware of this. The Labour Party has been working on this matter for some years now. Along with my colleague, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, I have met the representative groups involved. I thank Autism Equality Dublin Bay, the AsIAm organisation and the parents group, Involve Autism:D6/D6W and Surrounds, who have been advocating on behalf of children in the area and putting forward important points.

Currently, every day, nearly 2,000 children from these areas are bused to schools in other areas at a cost, I am told, of approximately €63,000 per annum and at how detriment to the children involved and to their families. This is the result of poor planning and a lack of local provision. This must be tackled. I know that progress is being made. We need a timeframe so that we can see what progress is being made and identify where places will be available. I am conscious that there are schools that have stepped up, but these, I am told, are predominantly Educate Together and DEIS schools. There are large areas in Dublin Bay South where there is no provision of ASD classes or autism units. Many well established schools in affluent areas, despite being mandated to do so under the section 37A process, have not stepped up and made provision in their schools for children with autism or autistic children. We need stricter enforcement of the rule such that schools must provide such placements. We are all conscious of the demand for places and of the fact that children are currently being bussed out of the areas. That is not acceptable. It is important to reiterate the immense frustration that parents and children in the areas are experiencing.

I have been asked by the groups involved to seek information from the Minister of State on the new forecasting model, which she has spoken about previously. I have been asked to inquire if she can share details of that model, the prevalence rates and what the Department of Education and the NCSE propose to do about future planning for the area. This is not just about children who need these placements today, although that is the pressing need, it is also about ensuring that planning for the future is conducted in a well thought out and evidence-based manner such that we do not see children in future also caught in this trap and again having to be bussed out of the areas.

I eagerly await the Minister of State's response.

Minister of State Madigan:

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. It is important to say that enabling children with special educational needs to receive an education appropriate to their needs is a priority for this Government and for me as the first ever Minister of State with responsibility special educational needs. As the Senator will know, this year, in excess of 20% of the total education budget, or €2 billion, will be invested in supporting children with special educational needs. As a result, the numbers of special education teachers, SNAs and special class and school places are at unprecedented levels. My Department aims to ensure, always, that there are sufficient school places available to meet the needs of all children throughout the State. I am using every level available to me to do that.

As the Senator will be aware, the departmental policy is that student's with special educational needs should be included where possible and appropriate in mainstream placements with additional supports provided.

In circumstances where children require more specialised interventions, some of which the Senator outlined, special classes or places are provided. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, is responsible for planning and co-ordinating provision at local and national levels and for advising my Department in that regard. It is open to any school to make an application to the NCSE for the establishment of specialised provision. Where sanctioned, a range of supports, including capital funding, are made available to the school. Every school that opens a special class gets support in terms of grants - start-up grants, furniture grants and IT grants. There is always an incentive for the school to open a special class.

Irish mainstream schools have a tradition of providing places that respond to the needs of families in their areas. This is evidenced by the growth in special classes in recent years. In 2011, there were 548 special classes. We are now at 1,836, 1,567 of which are autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classes.

The Senator correctly pointed out that issues had arisen, particularly in recent years, with a shortage of suitable school places for students with special educational needs. This has primarily been driven by the significant increase in demand and the shortage of suitable school accommodation in which to open special classes and expand special school provision. Areas of Dublin such as those referenced by the Senator have featured in that regard. It is the issue of better planning at national and local levels that she spoke about that I have been endeavouring to tackle. It is my objective for special education places to come on stream to meet emerging demand in a timely manner. Aside from the section 37A process to which the Senator alluded, it goes without saying the active collaboration by school communities in this regard is pivotal. The NCSE engages on an ongoing basis and most special classes are set up outside the section 37A process.

A number of schools in the areas to which the Senator referred have agreed to open special classes. Some schools have genuine reasons for not being in a position to do so, be it capacity issues or extenuating circumstances. However, the majority that have been written to are in a position to open such classes.

We want to ensure no child with special educational needs will be without a place this September. From September, we will be opening 1,200 special class places throughout the country.

Ivana Bacik:

I thank the Minister of State for her response and I welcome her comments about being committed to better planning. I also welcome that, from September, there will be 1,200 additional places. However, I did not hear from her any commitment as regards places in Dublin 2, 4, 6 or 6W. These are the areas where there is a pressing need for local places. Children are being bussed out of their areas. That is not acceptable and a source of immense frustration. It is to the detriment of those children and their families. There is no provision on the east side of Dublin Bay South around Ringsend and Sandymount, and well-established schools are not stepping up and providing the places that should be there for children in their local catchment areas. Despite the incentives that have been provided, there remains a serious issue of a shortage of places for children in these areas. Will the Minister of State provide a timeframe as to when more places will become available for children in Dublin 2, 4, 6 and 6W?

Minister of State Madigan:

The Senator may be aware that I have met Autism Equality Dublin Bay, Involve Autism and AsIAm. I commend them on the work they do in this regard. It is important I hear from parents and families on the ground. One of the things I have tried to do since assuming my role has been to take the sting out of trying to find a place in a special class or special school. City Quay National School and Star of the Sea Boys National School will be opening in the areas the Senator mentioned, as will St. Christopher's, Shellybanks, Ringsend and other schools.

Planning using the forecasting model is a departure for the Department. We are working with the building and planning unit on setting out the five-year forecasting model. There was never a reason we could not do this, given that an information geographical system for planning into the future is used in respect of other schools. An important measure I have from the Department is that, from this year on, all new schools will automatically provide for special educational needs. This will help a significant cohort in the years to come.