‘Every day he asks and every day our hearts break’: Children with special needs lack school places for September

Pupils have a diagnosis of autism and require either a special class or special school placement to meet their needs

Sylvanna McDaniel and her son Dara at home in Clonsilla Dublin. Dara (13) is autistic and has no secondary school place. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Sylvanna McDaniel son’s Dara (13) is due to finish sixth class in primary school next week, but has no secondary school place for next September.

“There have been seven application forms, seven open nights, seven rejection letters, seven closed doors and seven months of agony waiting,” says McDaniel

“At this stage he’s acutely aware that he doesn’t have a school place. Every day he asks us and every day we’ve no answers. We got a note from his teacher the other day to say he was upset in class ... so, we try not to talk about it in front of him.”

Dara, who lives in Clonsilla in Dublin, is one of up to 17 children in the Dublin 15 postal district who do not have a primary or post-primary school place for the coming school year.


All these children have a diagnosis of autism and require either a special class or special school placement in order to meet their assessed needs.

Government Ministers have pledged that all children who need school places will get them and education authorities now face a last-minute scramble to source them.

The irony, says local campaigner Síle Parsons, is that children’s special educational needs have been known about by authorities for years.

“This isn’t a secret,” she says. “The children who need post-primary special school places have been at primary school for eight years ...”

Even if school places are found, Parsons says a “rush job” is not the answer.

“Children are distressed because there is no time to transition properly; schools are under pressure to open special classes without adequate training or resources,” she says. “Staff panic, parents panic, children feed off it – no one gets off on the right foot. Yet, it can be done amazingly well, if there is the right forward planning.”

She, and other campaigners, say a crisis situation has arisen due to a lack of forward planning by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), understaffing of the agency and insufficient political will address these issues.

“We were at a meeting in 2022 with the then Minister of State Josepha Madigan and NCSE officials and were told this wouldn’t happen again – and here we are,” she says.

Parents affected plan to gather outside Leinster House on Thursday to draw attention to the shortages as part of a protest organised by local Socialist Party councillor Ruth Coppinger.

In a statement, the NCSE said it was aware of a number of children in the Dublin 15 area whose families are seeking placement for September 2024.

“The NCSE are working intensively with the Department of Education and the patron bodies of a number of schools in order to increase provision for September 2024,” it said.

A spokesman said the organisation was contacting parents “on at least a weekly basis” to provide updates as they become available, and “will continue to do so”.

Hildegarde Naughton, the recently appointed Minister with responsibility for special education, has said enabling children with special educational needs to receive an education is “a priority for this Government” and that more than 360 new special classes have been sanctioned for the coming school year.

A recent survey by school principals in the area estimates that there are more than 100 children in inappropriate school places: young people struggling in mainstream classes and who should be in special classes or schools to meet their identified needs.

McDaniel, meanwhile, says a child with Dara’s diagnosis needs a comprehensive transitioning programme to post-primary. That is not now going to happen.

“We fear he will regress as a result of not knowing where he is going next,” she says. “Every day he asks, every day there is no answer and every day our hearts break for him.”

He is, she says very bright. Dara loves technology and has set up his own websites and fizzes with ideas on new initiatives. His latest is a plan to set up his own amusement arcade, complete with a business plan,

“He learns differently, but once you connect with him, he’s very quick, very funny, very witty – any teacher who has had him adores him. He’s just a great, great kid – and this is so upsetting for him.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent