11 local children are facing a 4,500km/week journey to access an autism specific second level class in either Glenamaddy or Longford Town because there is no capacity in the Athlone schools to cater for the students.
I raised this issue in the Dáil this week and have received a commitment from Minister Madigan that local places will be secured for these students.
Watch the discussion here:
Dáil Éireann debate –
Wednesday, 18 May 2022
Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Office of the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise this important issue on the floor of the House. I want to raise with the Minister of State the lack of school places for children with autism, which is now forcing students from south Roscommon to travel up to 100 km each day to avail of an education. I know of two children in south Roscommon who are travelling up to 100 km. Another two children I am aware of, in County Westmeath, must also travel such a distance. The children in County Roscommon will have to make a daily journey over to Glenamaddy from next September to access second level education in an autism-specific class.
I have spoken to a local campaigner, Claire Earley, and Senator Carrigy, who raised this issue in the Seanad last week. Between us, we have figured out that there will be 11 children leaving primary school in the catchment of Athlone and south Roscommon next month who have no local autism-specific school place. We all know that children with autism require routine, and their parents know the transition from primary school to secondary school is going to be challenging. What are those parents to say to their children as the latter say goodbye to their classmates? What answer are the children to give to the other sixth-class children when they talk about where they are going to school next September? Securing an appropriate school placement for a child is an anxious time for every single parent, particularly those with a child with additional needs. It makes the experience extremely stressful. The children, if they are lucky enough to get a placement in a school, will have to travel up to 100 km daily. The children I have mentioned are the ones who have been lucky enough to secure a school placement. On average, the 11 children are facing a combined weekly journey of over 4,500 km to go to school because of the failure to provide autism classes in local schools, despite the fact that this has been known to the Department for the past eight years. This is just not good enough.
We are now coming to the end of the school term and parents need certainty. Pupils themselves deserve it. Several parents of children already in the local post-primary school system believe their children would make better progress in an autism-specific class, if available. Senator Carrigy and I believe there is a need to accommodate in the region of 15 to 18 post-primary pupils within the Athlone catchment area. We in Athlone pride ourselves on the comprehensive range and standards of the schools and colleges we have.
However, our own children, who should be entitled to an education in their town, along with their schoolmates and brothers and sisters, will not be able to avail of that. I do not think it is too much to ask that we provide that to them.
The Minister of State tweeted last night that she is going to invoke section 37 of the Education Act 1998 to direct schools to make places available in areas which desperately require additional special education needs places. One of locations is Athlone, which needs places at post-primary school level. I ask the Minister of State to give a commitment that she will invoke section 37 within the catchment area of Athlone to ensure these children are not travelling 4,500 km every single week to try to access an education.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Senator Micheál Carrigy has an interest in this area and has discussed it with the Deputy at length. I am the first Minister of State with responsibility for special education. There are a number of different measures that we have put in place over the last year in terms of ensuring we have sufficient capacity to meet the growing demand in particular areas, not just in Dublin and Cork, but in Athlone, Roscommon and other areas.
I will be meeting the National Council for Special Education tomorrow and I will bring up Athlone and Roscommon. The National Council for Special Education is saying to me that, at present, it is confident it will meet the demands for special class places and special school places for September for both Roscommon and Athlone. In Athlone, Moate and Roscommon, there are currently 42 special class places for autism students in post-primary and, although the Deputy might not be aware of the fact, there will be the opening of two new post-primary special classes from September of this year in Scoil Mhuire gan Smál in Roscommon and Scoil Mhuire in Strokestown, which will mean an additional 12 places there as well. For any of those children in Athlone – the Deputy may have mentioned there are eight children there – the National Council for Special Education is also telling me, through its special educational needs organisers, that it will have sufficient capacity for those children for September of this year.
In direct response to the Deputy’s questions, if it is the case that there are not sufficient places for children with additional needs in the areas he has mentioned, then I will have no hesitation in instigating section 37A, particularly in post-primary schools. From the demographics I have seen and from the geographical information system, it seems to me there is this gap between primary and post-primary in particular, not just in the Deputy’s area but in other areas throughout the country, and that is not satisfactory. The Deputy will be aware that the majority of special classes and places in special schools are created via collaboration and ongoing engagement with schools in a cordial and constructive way. I am reluctant to use section 37A because it is a blunt instrument but, nevertheless, it is there for a reason. It is a statutory mechanism that is specifically tasked to me, as the Minister of State with responsibility for special education, and I will use it where I need to do so.
The forecasting model we have in place since last year has already borne fruit in certain areas and the planning and building unit is now working directly with the National Council for Special Education, in a way that it was not before, on an integrated planning and forecasting process. It shares its geographical system with the National Council for Special Education so we can see building projects in real-time in each geographical area, which is critical. That is on top of the fact that we already had a commitment for the very first time from the Department of Education that all new schools from last year will automatically provide special class facilities and sensory rooms going forward, so we do not have this perennial problem year after year.
I thank the Minister for her commitment to invoke section 37 if required. While the National Council for Special Education has told the Minister of State that it is confident it will meet the needs, it has not told the parents that. The parents I have spoken to, the parents Claire Earley has spoken to and the parents Senator Carrigy has spoken to have been offered places either in Longford town or in Glenamaddy in north-east Galway. They are local parents in Athlone but that is what they have been offered.
Although this is outside the Minister of State’s remit, the reality is the Department had 93 months to get this right but we are now three months away from those children going into second level and it has not got it right to date. We are one month away from those children leaving primary school and they have not got any indication that they will be provided with a service in their own local catchment along with their brothers and sisters, their neighbours and their classmates.
At present, there are just three primary schools and one second level school providing autism-specific classes in the wider Athlone area, which is insufficient to meet the current needs. This must be urgently addressed. The primary schools with autism spectrum disorder classes are St. Paul’s in Lyster Street, St. Joseph’s in Summerhill on the Connacht side of the town and at Coosan on the Leinster side of the town. At second level, we have just one school, Coláiste Chiaráin in Summerhill, that has autism-specific classes. There are 57 primary school pupils in local autism classes in Athlone, Ballinasloe and south Roscommon, and despite the demand for more places, no new classes are being planned for this September. As I said, the situation at second level is even more stark, with just 23 students with autism being accommodated at present between the schools in Athlone and Ballinasloe, and children facing a 100 km daily return trip. That is unacceptable.
I know the Deputy’s commitment to this area, along with Senator Carrigy. As we know. children have a right to an education under the Constitution and it is my job to vindicate that right for them. The first thing we have to do is to find them a special class place, or should I say an appropriate placement, whether a special class place in mainstream or a special school. The second thing that is looked at is the location. Obviously, in an ideal scenario, a child with additional needs, or any child for that matter, would attend a school in their locality. As has happened in the past and as continues to happen, however, that has not been possible for practical reasons, for capacity reasons and for other legitimate reasons that have been offered to us. Nevertheless, we are endeavouring to make sure that children have a place in their area.
Although parents may not have been told as yet by the National Council for Special Education, there is a reason for that, and it is that there is still ongoing engagement with some of the schools. They are sensitive, confidential discussions and we do not want to do something that would upset that in any way. It sometimes takes a radical shift for a school to make that jump and we want to try to nurture that relationship and bring the school with us. Again, to go back to section 37, I will use it where I have to, but in circumstances where the schools are collaborating and will open the special classes, we should give them the space to do that. I hope the parents will be told in early course when their child has a place because, obviously, they need to plan for September and to make sure they have those places in good time.
The short, medium and long-term planning is undertaken at a national and regional level. It is based on projected future population demographics and the average percentage of the schoolgoing population requiring special education places. That is a sort of general rule for how this is looked at but there will always be children who, for whatever reason, may have moved from a special class to mainstream, moved from mainstream to a special school or moved to a completely different locality, and it can be difficult to anticipate those sorts of circumstances. We need to allow some room for those types of situations.
One is okay in isolation but there are 18 in this case.