Wednesday 16 October 2019

Minister in schools stand-off over additional special classes

Notice: Education Minister Joe McHugh hass told schools to open special classes for pupils with additional needs. Photo: Frank McGrath
Notice: Education Minister Joe McHugh hass told schools to open special classes for pupils with additional needs. Photo: Frank McGrath
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Education Minister Joe McHugh is facing a stand-off with schools over an enrolment crisis affecting 40 children who have no place for September.

Mr McHugh has used new legal powers to tell 18 primary schools and their patron bodies that they should open special classes for pupils with additional needs, such as those with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

He told the Dáil on Tuesday that one school had agreed to provide a classroom and his department was engaging with two others, and if those three worked out it would cater for 18 pupils.

However, other schools have replied to a formal request from the department setting out reasons, such as space, inadequate accommodation and a lack of proper staffing supports, as to why they cannot, or may not be able to, comply.

The notices to schools in the Dublin 15 area arrived as they were closing for the summer and at least one has said that it would be the end of August before its board of management meets again.

Fianna Fáil education spokesperson Thomas Byrne said that the minister had received advice on this matter from the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) in April and it was "absolutely unconscionable for the letters to be sent out on the last day of school".

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin is patron of 14 of the schools.

In his reply to Mr McHugh, he said that he was committed to doing everything to assist, but there was a "major concern" among the schools that already have successful ASD units "about a serious lack of external support from other agencies to meet the needs of students attending these units".

Powerstown Educate Together NS, Tyrrelstown, which already has three classes for children with special needs, said it was willing to consider opening two further specialised classes.

But acting chairperson of the school board Catherine Coffey set out a detailed list of its minimum requirements, in areas including staffing, funding and clinical supports, before it would agree to do so.

Síle Parsons, of the Autism School Dublin 15 campaign, said without putting the additional resources into the school it was "irresponsible" to request it to open more special classes.

Another school, St Luke's NS, Tyrrelstown, is among those caught up in last year's structural safety controversy.

Principal Vivienne Bourke said the board would meet as soon as possible, but that communications were difficult because builders have taken the school over until August 27 for extensive remedial works.

Padraic Flesk, principal of St Benedict's NS, Ongar, challenged an assertion that the school was provided with a two-classroom special needs unit as part of a major building project, which was being used for mainstream students.

According to Mr Flesk "this is completely incorrect".

The process has also exposed serious shortcomings in school building policy, with no provision being made for special classes to be incorporated into new builds.

In its report to Mr McHugh setting out the issues in Dublin 15, NCSE said the current policy of not automatically including the requirement for special provision accommodation within plans for new schools or major refurbishment/extensions "should be considered".

Irish Independent

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