Minister accused of ‘spin’ over school places for autistic children

Archbishop of Dublin says he originally advised forcing schools to provide for autism

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin: ‘He’s now spinning it as if I’m the one holding it up. If you look up his speeches, it’s me – I’m the only one ever mentioned.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin: ‘He’s now spinning it as if I’m the one holding it up. If you look up his speeches, it’s me – I’m the only one ever mentioned.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, has accused the Minister for Education, Joe McHugh, of spinning against him on the issue of places for autistic children in Dublin schools.

The Archbishop also said the schools’ divestment policy has failed, with the great majority of boards of management remaining under control of the churches despite efforts by church and State to encourage greater plurality.

The Department of Education last week sent letters to six west Dublin schools, and their patron Archbishop Martin, advising that they should open a special class for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with six pupils per class.

The national schools in Dublin 15, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s constituency, are Scoil Bríde in Blanchardstown; St Patrick’s in Corduff; Scoil Nais Mhuire Sois in Blakestown; Scoil Mhuire in Blakestown; Ladywell in Mulhuddart and Mary Mother of Hope in Clonee.

The schools and Archbishop Martin have 14 days to respond. Since enactment of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act last December, the Minister has powers to compel a school to make additional provision for special education.

Meeting

Speaking to The Irish Times on Sunday, Archbishop Martin recalled how last month in Dublin Castle – at a meeting between the Government, leaders of Ireland’s churches, other faiths, and various ethical groupings – “one of the things I did was to ask that the Minister for Education use his powers to force schools to take in, give places for autism.

“He’s now spinning it as if I’m the one holding it up. If you look up his speeches, it’s me – I’m the only one ever mentioned. They are spin doctors, that’s the problem.”

Archbishop Martin told Mr Varadkar that the policy on divestment of schools’ boards of management had failed

A spokesman for Mr McHugh said that, in addressing the schools’ autism issue, he was “absolutely not” spinning against anybody. He had not targeted any patron over another and pointed out that letters sent last week also went to Educate Together.

“The letters were not targeted at one patron,” the spokesman said, adding that a press release about the letters did not quote the Minister referring to any specific school or patron body.

Archbishop Martin said that during the Dublin Castle meeting he told Mr Varadkar that the policy on divestment of schools’ boards of management had failed. “The answer I got was that he was only trying to blame the methods for the fact that it hasn’t worked. I didn’t say that we should give up on it.”

‘Local factors’

He recalled how “the Taoiseach said to me on another occasion there were many other local factors. I suggested the only way to do it was to have some sort of figure or a group of people who went and looked at it.

“Way back when Batt O’Keeffe was minister for education (from 2008 to 2010), I said that probably one of the best ways to do this was to get schools in areas and say that over the lifetime of this grouping the school will change. If you’ve got junior and senior [classes] the lifetime would be only two or three years and that you would have the idea that they would gradually change in ethos rather than have to do it overnight.”

More generally, the archbishop said he felt that while the topic of divestment was “a lively issue in general reflection, I’m not too sure on doorsteps, I’m not too sure that many people are asking for it, because if people are happy with their school they are happy with their school.”