Learning difficulties: Schools may be forced to open special classes
Parents protest in Dublin and Cork over shortage of special needs places in schools
Julieann McGovern and sons Dylan (5) and Cillian (7) from Drimnagh at a protest over special needs in Dublin organised by Enough is Enough. Photograph: Fran Veale
Schools could be ordered to provide places for children with special needs due to an acute shortage of appropriate education places for children with autism and other learning difficulties, the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) has said.
The council wrote to Minister for Education Joe McHugh recently to advise that there was insufficient special school and special class capacity in west Dublin. The letter outlined the formal steps contained in new legislation – the Education (Admissions to School) Act 2018 – which gives the Minister for Education the power to direct a school to open additional places.
Dozens of parents who attended protests marches in Dublin and Cork over the weekend say there are shortages of appropriate school places right across the State.
Other parents of children with intellectual disabilities, ranging from moderate to severe, say they have been turned away from special schools on the grounds that they are oversubscribed.
Linda Comerford, spokeswoman for the Enough is Enough campaign which organised protests in Dublin and Cork on Saturday, said parents of many children with special needs were stressed and worried about the coming school year.
“When children start school it’s usually an exciting and proud time for families watching their children start a new chapter in their lives. But for parents of children who require access to special schools and ASD [autism spectrum disorder] classes, the situation for hundreds is that they are unable to access an appropriate school placement.”
The Department of Education said it aims to ensure all children with special needs have access to an education appropriate to their needs, preferably in mainstream school settings.
Last year it spent €1.75 billion on special education, nearly one-fifth of the overall education budget.
It said the NCSE was actively engaging with schools, patron bodies, parents “to try to ensure each child has a school placement appropriate to their needs for the 2019/20 school year”.
Mr McHugh said recently that the new power to compel schools to make additional special education provision available had yet to be invoked.
With a typical child you would know where your child is going to secondary school. We don’t have that
He has instead encouraged schools to work together with authorities to meet demand in the best interests of children.
However, in relation to west Dublin, he told the Dáil recently that “the process under the admissions legislation will continue, and may lead to interaction with education providers entering a more formal process”.
At the protest in Cork on Saturday, Siobhán Higgins from Dunmanway said she was struggling to find a primary school place for her five-year-old daughter Hannah, who has special needs.
While there was a special needs class in the town, she said they have been told their only option was to travel 26km from their home in west Cork.
Another protester, Joanne Cronin from White’s Cross in Cork, is attempting to get a secondary school place from her son Joe, who has a diagnosis of ASD. He has been “thriving” in national school, Ms Cronin said.
“With a typical child you would know where your child is going to secondary school. We don’t have that. We are fortunate in that there is a secondary school in our locality that has a unit. But it is full. So you are shipping your child off to maybe Mitchelstown or Fermoy. ”