Not going to school next week: ‘Our children are slipping through the cracks’

No Child 2020: Hundreds of children with special needs are without school places

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Benjamin, Tadhg and Rian have all struggled to secure school places

 

No Child 2020 is an ongoing initiative by The Irish Times, providing a sustained focus on child welfare and children’s issues. We explore the problems facing children in Ireland today and offer solutions that would make this a better country to be a child. For more see irishtimes.com/nochild2020

Tadhg Reardon should be starting his first day of school next week. He turns six soon, and all the other children in the neighbourhood have their new school uniforms, school bags and lunchboxes.

But Tadhg has no school place. His mother Sharon has applied to more than 20 schools in the north Dublin area over the past year or so. He has been rejected by all of them. Some say they won’t have a place next year either.

“It’s heart-breaking,” says his mother, Sharon. “He’s come on so well during pre-school . . . he does so well with structure and routine. He’s a happy boy, loves singing, dancing. If he hears Gangnam Style, he’ll be dancing around the room.

“He loves nursery rhymes. Ads from the telly. Funny noises. And Minions – he’s obsessed with them.”

Tadhg has autism and a moderate intellectual disability. It requires more specialised schooling to meet his needs.

But any special schools within a 30km-40km radius are oversubscribed many times over, while mainstream schools with special classes say they are either full or do not have the resources to meet his needs.

Now, his only option for the coming year is a home tuition grant.

It will pay for a tutor for four hours a day – which his parents must find – but he will be on his own and isolated from his peers.

“This should be such an exciting time of year, but it’s awful,” says Sharon. “Now our big fear is that he’ll regress and lose all the progress he’s made. He’s much more social now. Before, he didn’t acknowledge he even had a little brother. That’s all changed. He can make eye contact.”

The most frustrating thing, she says, is the window to make most progress in tackling his condition will close soon and that he will be robbed of meeting his full potential.

“All you hear is the importance of early intervention. And now this. You’re stuck in limbo. Everything is made so hard. Everything is a struggle. You need to fight to get an assessment, then a diagnosis, then a school place. Surely it should be the opposite.”

***

Hundreds of children such as Tadhg find themselves excluded from the education system. They are children who have been diagnosed as requiring an appropriate education but cannot find a school place.

Many of the State’s 134 special schools are oversubscribed many times over, while hundreds of children are on waiting lists for special classes attached to mainstream schools. Many parents who have managed to secure places in special classes often find the system isn’t able to meet their children’s needs.

In some cases, parents have been forced to withdraw their children in the absence of appropriate supports to help their children learn. Some say their children are on reduced timetables or have been advised to seek home tuition instead. Others have either been suspended or expelled from schools that say they cannot cope with behaviour of pupils with complex needs.

These children are invisible because they are not recorded in official statistics as being out of the education system. Hundreds of others have been given home tuition grants in the absence of any other alternative, latest figures show.

Yet there is primary constitutional right to education. Article 42.2 of the Constitution obliges the State to provide for free primary education for all children – regardless of their level of disability – in as full and as positive a manner as for all other children.

“There aren’t many fundamental rights like this,” says Linda Comerford of the Enough is Enough campaign group. “Yet for children who require access to special schools and ASD [autism spectrum disorder] classes, their rights are being clearly violated.”

Official advice is that early intervention is crucial in helping children with conditions such as autism.

But many say their children face a brick wall from the State in trying to access appropriate therapies and the education crucial to maximising their potential. Parents in many cases feel their children are being allowed to slip through the cracks of the system.

Yet, the State has been investing record sums in special education. Since 2011, the number of special classes has jumped from 548 to more than 1,500 across the country. The number of special needs assistants has risen from just over 10,000 to almost 16,000. One-fifth of the State’s entire €11 billion education budget now goes on special education.

Campaigners accept that supports have increased, but say they are simply not enough to meet demand. “We wouldn’t accept it if there weren’t enough school places for schoolchildren in mainstream schools, yet it seems it is acceptable for children with autism to go without,” says Adam Harris of the autism charity AsIAm.

***

Rian is seven. He loves the Avengers, playing with Lego and climbing. “He’s the joy of our family,” says his mother, Suzanne Voakes. “He’s a typical boy, boisterous, loves hiding and climbing. He loves learning. He’s like a shining diamond.”

Last September, two years after starting at his local primary school, he was expelled. He was six.

Suzanne says the school did all it could for him but that teaching staff simply weren’t equipped or trained to meet his needs.

Rian has autism. He is non-verbal and was initially diagnosed with a mild intellectual disability. He can also get highly anxious and very hyperactive.

When he was diagnosed, authorities advised Suzanne that her son needed autism-specific education. While there were no places in autism-specific schools, she was delighted when he was offered a place in an autism class at her local school.

Rian was placed in a class of six children with autism, all non-verbal and with complex problems.

“There was a teacher and two special-needs assistants (SNAs) . . . but it was clear early on that it wasn’t going to work. It was more of a babysitting service. The school tried its best, but they were struggling and ill-equipped. It wasn’t their fault.”

Within six months, she says, he lost his speech. His toileting skills disappeared. Soon his anxiety levels were going through the roof, says Voakes.

“He was depressed. He’d lost all skills, he wasn’t sleeping and was getting out of control.”

When the family had him reassessed by health authorities, his diagnosis had worsened: he now had a moderate instead of mild learning disability. She ended up giving up her job as an intellectual disability nurse. Last September it came to a head.

“We realised the school couldn’t meet his needs. He was being excluded on the basis that they couldn’t meet his needs or educate him.

“He was expelled. It was something I was in agreement with. There was no other option.”

As a result of vigorous campaigning and relentless lobbying, Suzanne has recently been told that her son will finally get a place in an autism-specific service where staff are highly trained, backed up with supports.

“This has taken years of constant battling. You end up screaming and shouting and going to war. If I didn’t, Rian would be left on home tuition. This is doing huge damage to families. There is stress and anxiety. My eldest son, he’s 14; I’ve barely had a chance to speak to him properly in months.”

***

Rian’s story shows that even where places in special classes are available, schools are limited by their level of resources and training.

There is no obligation, for example, to ensure a teacher in an autism class has a specific qualification in special education. And the only mandatory qualification for a special-needs assistant is the Junior Cert.

There is little recognition of autism-specific education in teacher education. Many teachers end up training in their own time or at their own expense.

It is not the fault of teachers or schools that they are often ill-equipped to meet the often complex needs of children with special needs, says Síle Parsons, spokeswoman for the ASD 15 group.

“You hear of some teachers saying: ‘I’ve done my time in the special unit and I’m not going back.’ It’s seen as a difficult work. But teachers have to be trained and they have to be interested, Otherwise, it doesn’t work,” she says.

She says that while the State has made progress in the “bricks and mortar” side of setting up new classes, the lack of training for staff has been a crucial jigsaw piece. It is clear there is difficulty with planning and ensuring there are sufficient places to meet demand.

The proportion of children with special needs is rising due, experts say, to a combination of greater awareness and better diagnosis.

There are parts of the country where, parents say, the shortage of places is at crisis point.

While the Taoiseach has intervened due to a major shortfall of places in the Dublin 15 area – part of his constituency – groups in the capital say there are acute shortages, as well as in areas such as Cork, Wexford, Carlow and Kilkenny among others.

It is a sign, say many, that the State is still playing catch-up.

As recently as the 1990s, the Department of Education’s policy was that intellectually disabled children were “ineducable”. This emerged in a High Court action by Cork mother Marie O’Donoghue, on behalf of her disabled son Paul.

While other countries have been providing this education for years, the absence of any meaningful State policy meant vulnerable children were, in effect, left on a scrapheap.

A series of landmark cases by parents such as O’Donoghue and Kathy Sinnott helped prompt large-scale investment and new legislation.

The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act (2004), or Epsen Act, provided that children with special educational needs would be educated in an inclusive environment.

While the Department of Education’s policy is to ensure children with special needs are placed in mainstream classes with supports, there are other options for children with more severe levels of disability. They include autism classes in mainstream schools – where there are usually six pupils to one teacher – or special schools, which specialise in supporting children with more complex needs.

While this has changed the face of Irish education, many children are still falling through the cracks of the system.

***

Benjamin Tynan finished sixth class at Scoil na Mainistreach in Celbridge, Co Kildare, earlier this summer. This coming week his classmates are due to start secondary school – but his mother has been told there is no appropriate school place available.

The 12-year-old, who has autism and ADHD, finds it difficult to cope with the noise of the classroom and being around other children for long periods.

But his mother says he has made great strides in the special autism class at the school. It has given him a sense of belonging, while his teacher has been “wonderful”. He needs a similar special class at second level but has been told there is nothing available.

It feels, she says, as is the system has suddenly abandoned him. “Benjamin has a right to go to school, and I want him to be the best he can be. So far, every door has been slammed in our face,” she says.

Her worry now is that he will lose much of the progress he has made. As a last resort, she has set up a petition to get a school place for him which has gone on to collect thousands of signatures. But as of now, there is no appropriate school place for him.

“I have been in touch with the Minister for Education tens of times, politicians, I’ve gone public, I’ve 2,500 signatures on a petition online. The NCSE [National Council for Special Education] know about our situation, and there is help. It’s an absolute joke. And now he will be sitting at home in September.”

***

If battles facing parents at primary level are daunting, many warn an even bigger one looms over the right to education at second level.

While there are more than 1,500 special classes at primary level for pupils with autism or other difficulties, there is just a fraction on this in the post-primary sector. So pupils such as Benjamin, who have made great progress at primary level, can end up metaphorically falling off a cliff when they progress to secondary school.

Campaigners say there is a chronic lack of data collection and forward planning to meet the needs of children with complex needs.

A spokesman for the Department of Education told The Irish Times earlier this year it had been advised that there were sufficient ASD [autism spectrum disorder] special class placements to meet existing demand nationally.

But parents in campaign groups right across the capital – areas such as Dublin 4, 6, 6W, 11 and 12 – as well as many other parts of the country, say they have huge difficulties finding appropriate school places.

They say it is hidden by the fact that parents are willing to commute long distances, or even move house, to secure a school place. Home tuition, some say, also takes the pressure off authorities as it means children – statistically, at least – are in receipt of an education.

In the case of the Dublin 15 area – where shortages of school have been flagged for a number of years – action on the ground has been late in the day.

While parents warned that more than 90 children lacked school places, the Minister for Education was eventually forced to use new powers at the end of June to compel schools in the area to open additional special classes.

The letters to the schools concerned arrived on the last day of the summer term, resulting in a scramble to try to open special classes in time for the start of the new school year. Authorities are also rushing to set up a new special school this year for children with more complex needs.

In many respects, children in the area are fortunate; there is an active and organised group of parents and it is also in the heart of the Taoiseach’s constituency. Political pressure has been brought to bear on solving these issues.

By what about hundreds of other children across the State without appropriate school places?

When the autism charity AsIAm recently polled more than 300 families who were either waiting for school places or had been excluded from schools, it found more than half of children had not been attending school for anywhere from a few months to three years or more.

Only a minority of these families – about 15 per cent – were in receipt of home tuition.

Some 90 per cent said they had no contact from Tusla, the child and family agency, which is responsible for ensuring children attend school.

Harris says the scale of the problem is a national scandal. “These children are invisible and don’t show up in statistics. It is happening under our noses and the State is pretending that it isn’t,” he said.

He calls on Minister for Education Joe McHugh to seek urgent policy advice from the National Council for Special Education on the issue of school exclusion.

For many parents, meanwhile, there is heartbreak and frustration. Comerford says parents are consumed with stress and worry over their children’s futures.

“When children start school it’s usually an exciting and proud time for families watching their children start a new chapter in their lives,” she says.

“But for many parents of children who require access to special schools and ASD classes, their lives are on hold and their rights are being denied. Would we accept this for any other group of schoolchildren?”

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