Children with autism left in limbo due to school project delays

Danu in west Dublin was first special school sanctioned by department in 15 years

Parents of children with autism in west Dublin fear being "pushed back to home tuition" due to a lack of progress on the construction of a new school that was approved two years ago.

Danu Community Special School, an autism specific school which currently provides education for 24 children, was in June 2019 the first special school sanctioned by the Department of Education in 15 years.

Danu has been temporarily located in Hansfield Educate Together Secondary School in Ongar, near the Dublin-Meath border, but was due to move to a new facility in September. However, work has yet to begin on the project.

Síle Parsons, spokeswoman for the Autism School Dublin 15 (ASD15) campaign, said parents had in 2019 been told they would have a new purpose-built school building on a greenfield site, but this April they learned the department had decided to convert one third of another secondary school, Riversdale Community College, Blanchardstown, for Danu.

Despite Danu now being due to move to Riversdale in just two months’ time, however, no work has begun on the necessary construction and conversion works to make the 33-year-old school building suitable for the children’s needs.

“These are children with very complex needs and Riversdale is a building dating from 1988 that already needs modernisation and upgrading. We can’t see how the work needed will be completed by September, given that it hasn’t even started,” Ms Parsons said.

Wholly unsuitable

The parents would prefer Danu was not moved to Riversdale, notwithstanding the lack of progress with the work, because the site was wholly unsuitable, she said.

"The main issue is one of safety. A lot of the children are flight risks. Riversdale is right beside a busy main road and the entrance to an industrial estate which has heavy goods vehicles heading to the M3, M7 and M50. It is completely unsafe."

The parents would rather stay in Hansfield until a purpose-built site was secured, but she said Hansfield required the space for its own growing numbers.

“The biggest issue facing us now is that the children have finished school this week and don’t know where they are going to be in September. We are very concerned that the kids will be pushed back to home tuition. There is no other education setting where the department would tell students to say at home.”

Local Labour councillor John Walsh called on Minister for Education Norma Foley to deliver on promises made to parents in Danu.

“The Minister should make a commitment to ensure that Danu Community Special School will have a dedicated, purpose-built new school building on a greenfield site,” he said.

“This would meet the essential educational needs of children with autism. Such a solution would also allow Riversdale to continue as a viable community college with scope for expansion and development of the school in its current building.”

Cllr Walsh said he was shocked to learn this week that no contractor had yet been appointed for the work required for Riversdale.

“This raises the prospect of a worst-case scenario where students are left without a school building at the start of the new school year and leaves parents and vulnerable children in limbo,” he said.

“After all that children and their parents have endured in the midst of the pandemic, it is utterly unacceptable and disgraceful that the department has dragged its feet in providing even for the essential minimum works to allow Danu Community Special School to have a viable building for September.”

In a statement the Department of Education said a design team had been appointed for the work at Riversdale and a contractor would be “starting on site very shortly”. The department did not say if the work would be completed by September.

Olivia Kelly

Olivia Kelly

Olivia Kelly is Dublin Editor of The Irish Times