Four new special schools will be established next September in Limerick, Meath, Wexford and Kildare in response to increasing numbers of students with learning needs.
The schools will cater for about 120 young people with autism and complex learning needs, initially up to 18 years of age, and will gradually increase numbers over the coming years.
The Department of Education said they will be based in Limerick city, Enfield, Co Meath; Gorey, Co Wexford; and the south Kildare area. The exact locations of the schools is not yet being revealed as some final details have to be agreed with stakeholders.
The move follows analysis which found the level of need in these areas could not be catered for by expanding places in existing special schools.
Details such as the admission process and the number of places to be offered for 2024/25 school year in each new special school will be confirmed “very shortly”, the department said.
The schools will be established by renovating to modern standards existing school buildings which are no longer used, or repurposing school buildings on school campuses with spare capacity.
The department said use of the existing school building stock is key to a quicker delivery of schools in time for next September.
It will bring the number of special schools in the State to 134. The vast majority of children with additional needs attend mainstream schools or special classes, while a very small minority with more complex needs attend special schools.
The move to establish the new schools - which will be under the patronage of the local State-owned Education and Training Boards - follows analysis which found the level of need in these areas could not be catered for by expanding places in existing special schools.
In a statement, Minister for Education Norma Foley said the number of special education places continues to grow year on year, ensuring that “children and young people have access to school places which are appropriate to their needs”.
“This announcement reflects the very strong emphasis on forward planning and roll-out of provision for children and young people with special educational needs,” she said.
“I am pleased that we are making real progress in meeting the needs of our young people and collaborating in new ways to ensure every child has access to a welcoming and inclusive environment to learn and flourish.”
Minister of State for Special Education Josepha Madigan said it was a “landmark day for parents of children with special educational needs” in areas where the schools are due to open.
She said Budget 2024 makes the “biggest-ever commitment” to students with special educational needs, representing over a quarter of the Department’s allocation.
The department and the NCSE have come in for criticism in the past for a lack of forward planning which has left authorities scrambling to find appropriate school places.
However, Ms Madigan said the new announcement would allow more time than ever before for the planning of school admissions, recruitment of staff, staff training and completion of building works in time for next September.
Planning for the establishment and opening of the new special schools has begun, which will include a determination of the size of the school required so necessary staff recruitment and school policies can be put in train. This will also include communication with the families concerned.
In addition to the establishment of four new schools, a number of school building projects relating to special schools are currently in progress in response to rising demand.
Some modular accommodation projects and reconfiguration works are currently being planned or underway at special schools, including St Anne’s School in Co Clare; Tigh Nan Dooley child education and development centre, Co Galway; St Ita’s and St Joseph’s Special School in Co Kerry; St Francis Special School in Co Kerry; Stepping Stones, Co Kildare; St Anthony’s School, Co Mayo; St Brid’s Special School, Co Mayo; and St Dympna’s School, Co Mayo.
Information on special schools and the list of mainstream schools with special classes, including new classes for the current 2023/24 school year, the coming 2024/25 school year, and the types and locations of these classes is published on the NCSE website (ncse.ie).
The NCSE said it will continue to update the list as more classes are sanctioned ahead of the 2024/25 school year.