About 4,000 vulnerable children waiting on assessments to get school places

Thousands of children need vital developmental checks to get appropriate education, Oireachtas committee hears

A shortage of therapists and delays in accessing vital assessments are undermining the rights of vulnerable children to an education which meets their needs, according to teachers.

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Autism heard there were about 4,000 children waiting on a diagnostic assessment to get a school place.

The HSE confirmed earlier this year that there was an average 19-month waiting time for an assessment, despite a legal requirement for them to be completed within six months.

The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) told the committee these delays were linked to the State’s failure to invest adequately in public services and inadequate workforce planning to anticipate current and future need.

Moira Leydon, ASTI assistant general secretary, said many families resorted to paying for private assessments which could cost hundreds of euro and this was leading to increased levels of stress and difficulties for families of children with autism. She said immediate steps must be taken to boost access to assessment services and called for a review of overall psychological services given sustained growth in the number of children with additional needs.

The committee also heard that a shortage of therapists was having an impact on therapeutic services provided in special schools and other settings. Minister of State with responsibility for special education Josepha Madigan confirmed that up to a third of posts in areas such as speech and language and occupational therapy were vacant. She said this was having a real impact on the ability of special schools to meet the full needs of vulnerable children.

In addition, the committee heard that a Government pilot project to provide in-school therapies for children with additional needs in mainstream settings had been struggling to recruit enough therapists. Ms Madigan said the Department of Education was engaging with other Government departments with a view to increasing the supply of therapists to better meet demand.

However, Máirín Ní Chéileachair, head of education and research at the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, said a lack of therapeutic services and other supports was placing an “intolerable burden” on families and on school communities.

She said pupils who needed access to special classes and early intervention required specific therapeutic support that was often beyond the remit of the teacher.

“It is unacceptable that, due to the lack of therapists, teachers are being asked to take on the duties of other professionals, such as speech and language therapists or occupational therapists,” she said.

Ms Ní Chéileachair said collaborative multidisciplinary assessments should also be readily available in a preschool setting to facilitate early intervention. She said timely access to therapeutic supports and other services was essential if early intervention classes were to provide targeted interventions at an early stage in a child’s education.

“Schools should be better supported with the transition of children with special educational needs from preschool to primary and from primary to post-primary level,” she said. “Protocols should be agreed around the transfer of information and continuity of support to ensure that there is no gap in the provision of resources.”

Ms Ní Chéileachair said it was regrettable that the increase in special classes at primary level was not currently matched by a corresponding increase in special class provision at second level. “This creates significant difficulties for pupils transferring from primary to post primary, particularly those who require a continuity of experience and support.”

Ms Madigan said the planning capacity of education authorities had been boosted in recent years, while there was a new focus on supporting the transition of young people with a disability right through the education system.

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