Almost 270 vulnerable autistic children do not have appropriate school places available for next September, according to a new survey.
The poll by autism charity AsIAm, conducted over the past week, indicates that the scale of unmet demand for school places which meet children’s assessed needs is significantly greater than official data.
Campaign groups are now seeking emergency legislation to ensure the rights of children are upheld in time for the new school year.
“While we believe this crisis was foreseeable and preventable, through better planning, communication and a rights-based approach, we believe an emergency response is needed in an emergency situation,” said Adam Harris, chief executive of AsIAm.
Most children in the survey have been assessed as requiring places in special schools or special classes attached to mainstream schools. Many reported unsuccessfully applying to dozens of schools for such places.
The results also show widespread dissatisfaction among families with education authorities.
Some 90 per cent of respondents say they have not had sufficient support from the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), which is responsible for co-ordinating education provision for children nationwide. In cases where support was provided, it was most commonly a list of schools in the region.
Josepha Madigan, Minister of State with responsibility for special education, has pledged to use legal powers – known as section 37a – to compel schools to open special classes where there is unmet need.
However, campaigners say this process is too bureaucratic and will not deliver places in time for next September.
A new plan, reported in last week’s Irish Times, to create “special educational needs centres” as an emergency response to the shortage, met fierce criticism from families and human rights bodies who described it as “segregation” and a “backwards step for inclusion”.
Disability groups are due to meet Ms Madigan and education officials this week to explore options.
A coalition of advocacy groups, including AsIAm and Inclusion Ireland, is seeking emergency legislation to compel schools to provide special classes, where they are needed, in time for September.
A spokesperson from the Department of Education said ensuring every child had access to an appropriate school placement was a top priority.
“The Government recognises the need to ensure appropriate placements for all children. Every effort will continue to be made to ensure that every child has access to a school place that is suitable for them,” the spokesperson added.
The National Council for Special Education (NCSE), which has responsibility for co-ordinating and advising on the education provision for children nationwide, also said it was working to find appropriate places for children with additional needs.
It said it was aware of 130 children in the Dublin area who still required special school or special class places; it said recently announced special education places should cater to the needs of a further 37 children in the Dublin and Cork areas in September.
The NCSE said it was not aware of any child unable to attend a mainstream school due to the unavailability of appropriate supports.
When asked if there were plans to ensure all children who needed an appropriate school would get one in time for September, the NCSE said it was working with local schools to determine the number of additional classes required.
“The NCSE relies on schools agreeing to open special classes; NCSE cannot oblige schools to do so. However, we generally find that schools do open sufficient special classes to meet demand and we are very grateful to schools that respond to our requests to establish special classes…”