Make or break for special needs legislation
A new act underpinning access to a school place for children on the autism spectrum is put to the test, writes Katherine Donnelly
As parents continue to struggle to find a school place for a child on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or with other complex needs, all eyes are on the impact of new legislation aimed at creating a fairer admissions process for all.
The ink is barely dry on The Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 and it is being put to the test in Dublin 15 where parents have been crying out for years for adequate educational provision for children with special needs.
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Much of the attention around this legislation centred on reducing the influence of religion and 'old boys' networks' on school entry, but, perhaps, its greatest legacy will be underpinning equity of access to education for the most vulnerable children.
It hasn't come a moment too soon for parents, not only in Dublin 15, but in many other areas, as evidenced in a recent Dáil protest. Dublin 15 stands out because of the scale of demand in one of the fastest growing communities in the country.
That the legislation was needed at all speaks volumes for how, despite great strides made around special education, the system can continue to fail children with the most complex needs, including the estimated one-in-65 with ASD.
These parents can, and do, endure exhausting battles in pursuit of their children's right to an education. Turned away from one school after another, they end up resorting to: home tuition - and they have to find the tutor; taking a school place that is not suitable, but at least it is a place; having to accept a shorter school day or week, or both; driving a daily round trip of 60km to avail of a place in another community.
In the 2017/18 school year, there were 56 children in Dublin 15 on a home tuition grant, including an 11-year-old on the fifth year of home schooling.
When the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) did an official count in Dublin 15, it identified a need for an additional 88 specialist school places this Sepember. In Kildare, another area of rapid population growth, there was a shortfall of two places.
The NCSE says 48 of the Dublin 15 children need a special class in a mainstream school, such as an ASD unit, while the other 40 require a special school. The area has 32 primary and 11 post-primary schools, with 18 ASD classes at primary level and six at post-primary, all of which are full.
As well as the 88 children, there was separate additional demand for places at post-primary which has been met through opening two special classes.
The NCSE relies on a school's willingness to open a special class or to take on additional special school provision, but, with the new act, Minister for Education how has the power to direct a school to do so.
The legislation kicks in when schools in an area are not volunteering to open places to meet demand. It has come into play in Dublin 15 and the process started last month when the NCSE wrote to Education Minister Joe McHugh advising him of insufficient places.
The council is seeking to open eight more special classes in primary schools and seven classes in special schools to cater for the 88 children. It believes there is enough capacity at post-primary level. An additional factor in Dublin 15 is that the parents do not want a traditional special school, but an autism-specific special school to meet the particular needs of their children. In a recent survey, principals in the area said that 54 of their pupils would be better placed in an autism-specific school.
The NCSE is now consulting with the education partners, such as patron bodies, and most particularly in this case, the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin - the main patron in the area - to see if a solution can be worked out voluntarily.
There are also discussions involving schools, parents, the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS), health professionals and others involved in the provision of services for children with special educational needs.
Schools may have practical difficulties such as space constraints or lack of training among staff.
So far, three primary schools have agreed or indicated willingness to open additional specialist provision, catering for 18 children in all.
Discussions are ongoing and if, at the end of the day, there is still a lack of places, the NCSE must report to the minister, outlining what schools could meet the additional demand and what schools, if any, should be requested to provide additional provision.
There is provision for an arbitration process before the minister makes any final direction.
The legislation is a game changer, but everyone involved accepts that, ultimately, compulsion is not the desired end result.
Dublin 15 campaign spokesperson Síle Parsons says they while they need additional provision, "the children deserve teachers who want to work with them and have the skillset and resources to teach and support them."
Áine Lynch, CEO of the National Parents' Council-Primary, says it is "not just about getting a physical place, but a supportive environment. Is there physical space? Do teachers need upskilling? All of these things need to happen."
Lorraine Dempsey of the Special Needs Parents Association says: "We don't want schools to end up failing the children because they don't have effective resources." She also queries why provision for special units has not been included in the design of schools built in recent years.