Government plans ‘special education centres’ as emergency response to shortage of appropriate school places

Autism campaigners question whether plans will meet the needs of vulnerable children

The Government is planning to create a network of special education centres as an emergency response to an acute shortage of appropriate school places for vulnerable children.

Education authorities confirmed last week that there are 80 children waiting for a special class in Dublin, while it is estimated there are many more outside the capital in need of appropriate school places.

Minister of State with responsibility for special education Josepha Madigan is expected to announce shortly that five special educational needs (SEN) centres will be created across north and south Dublin as an “interim” solution.

It is expected that there will be four special classes — or a total of 24 pupils — in each of the new centres, which are due to open in September 2022.

It is understood that Education and Training Boards will manage and operate the new centres, in partnership with the Department of Education and the National Council for Special Education. The centres will be aimed at children who have not yet secured a special class place in a mainstream school.

One education source familiar with the plans said they will be targeted in Dublin to begin with but this could be rolled out across the country, adding that the proposal was not a medium or long-term solution.

“It is intended that children will access education on an interim basis in a new SEN centre and be supported to move quickly to a special class placement in a mainstream school,” the source added.

However, the plans have sparked concerns among some campaigners.

Adam Harris, chief executive of the autism charity AsIAm, said he was “deeply concerned” over aspects of the plan, which were the result of poor planning by education authorities.

“There is a lack of clarity over what they will look like. Will they be located alongside mainstream schools? How far will children have to travel to attend them? How long will they spend there? What pathways will children have to go on to special classes,” he said.

“We’ve ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. While the education system is, regrettably, not yet ready to move to an inclusive model, these centres may end up as special schools where children do not have opportunities to integrate with their peers.”

He also said there had been no consultation with advocacy groups over the plans.

“We’re urgently asking the Department of Education to engage with advocacy organisations to help ensure children, in particular, can access local, appropriate school places on the same basis as other children.”

Mr Harris said AsIAm is currently surveying families to help establish how many children are without appropriate school places for next September.