Cllr Paddy McDonald (SF).

Lack of ASD school spaces highlighted

The increasing lack of appropriate school places for children with autism and additional needs was highlighted at the April monthly meeting of Cavan County Council.

Sinn Féin’s Paddy McDonald is calling on the Minister for Education, Norma Foley; the Department of Education and the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) to address the shortage. “Every September there are children who’ve no school place whatsoever, or do not have one appropriate to their educational needs and in the locality in which they live,” he highlighted.

He said the result is that parents are “frequently forced” to apply for numerous schools in the hope their child is accepted at one.

Cllr McDonald described that process as “soul destroying” for parents and the child. He said that it causes a “huge amount of stress” for months prior to the new term starting. “Many parents feel they must seek a school placement for their child years before they require it.”

The Bailieborough man said that children “have the right” to be educated in their local school with their siblings and neighbours.

“Currently children must travel up to one hour to a school, which caters for their educational needs.”

In 2023, €2.6 billion was spent on special education and an additional €113 million has been earmarked to provide supports this year.

At present there are, for the 2023/24 school year, 13 primary level schools with ASD classes in the county, four of which are new, and five post-primary schools offering class space.

The vast majority of children with special educational needs are supported to attend mainstream classes with their peers.

“There are insufficient school places at primary and post primary school. There is no excuse for there not being sufficient places at post primary level as it is known how many students are in autism classes at primary level, and while needs may change over time, it should still indicate to the NCSE and the Department roughly how many places will be required,” Cllr McDonald told his fellow councillors.

He believes there needs to be “better joined-up thinking” too between the early childcare sector and primary schools.

“Pre schools have very important information regarding the children in attendance yet there is no mechanism currently for sharing this with the primary school sector,” said Cllr McDonald. He’s also calling for staff to be properly trained to “accommodate the needs of all children” in their own communities.

The motion was supported by Fine Gael’s Peter McVitty, and seconded by Fianna Fáil’s Clifford Kelly.

Cllr McVitty said he was “disappointed” the council had not yet received a response from the department after representations were made, in chamber to councillors, by the Parents Association attached to Cootehill’s Holy Family School.

He further described the distances some children with special needs have to travel to access education, and the wait councillors have in getting a response from the Department, as “ridiculous”.

Cllr Patricia Walsh (FF) also gave her support. She highlighted the length of time families must face for a child to simply get assessed. “When the service is in place, it can make a huge difference to a child,” she said.

Cllr T.P. O’Reilly (FG) said it was simply “not on in this day and age” that the “most vulnerable” are “still struggling to get school places”.

There was support too from Independent Brendan Fay, and from Cathaoirleach Philip Brady.