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Concern hundreds of children with autism could be without school places in September

Last month the Department of Education served statutory notices on 18 schools and two patrol bodies in the Dublin 15 area urging them to make additional provision.

HUNDREDS OF CHILDREN with autism could be without a primary school placement in September if the government fails to take urgent action, the country’s national autism charity has warned.

The father of one boy, Riley O’Keefe, who has been rejected by multiple Dublin primary schools for a placement sparked a conversation at the weekend after he penned a letter in the Sunday Independent.

Mark O’Keefe wrote that he had a pile of letters from schools he and his wife had “been applying to all year”.

“How many letters of rejection does one little boy need to realise that he is not good enough?” 

Adam Harris, founder and CEO of the AsIAm charity, told that hundreds of children across the country could be without a school place in September if the Department of Education does not take urgent action.

A survey his organisation published earlier this year found that while the problem is worst in the capital, there are cases all across the country.

The survey found 313 of the 1,000 families who participated had a child without a school place, not attending school due to a lack of suitable school space or due to a lack of support, or because they were on a reduced timetable. 

“We’ve documented parents applying to ten or 20 schools, one woman applied for 34 schools but she still wasn’t able to get support,” he said.

The department says it will provide home tuition in those cases but many in the report were not in receipt of home tuition and it’s only 20 hours a week which is in no way equivalent to being in school. Children with autism need additional teaching time, not less.

He said the issue is not just a lack of available places, in some cases a child who needs a special school is placed in a mainstream school and when they can not cope, or the school reduces their hours they stop attending. 

“There are situations where if parents of a child who is not on the autism spectrum didn’t send them to school for an extended period the State would pursue you – this is a complete double standard.”

It is open to any school to apply to the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) to open a special class for children with special educational needs. There is a package of teaching, special needs assistant, training and funding supports available to assist schools.

Harris said there are schools that are “doing an enormous amount” to support students with autism but “some think they can opt out of offering special classes even where there is a demonstrated need in the area”.

This is fundamentally a civil rights issue. We did that survey with 313 families and I know that is only the tip of the iceberg, the number could be over 1,000.

He pointed out that the Department of Education has legal powers to direct schools to make new places available and he said the minister “shouldn’t be afraid to use that power”.

Legislative powers

A spokesperson for the department told that Minister Joe McHugh has already used these powers this year. 

The NCSE wrote to Minister Joe McHugh on 18 April formally informing him of its view that there is insufficient special school and special class capacity in Dublin 15, and special class capacity in County Kildare for September 2019.

In May he wrote to 22 schools in the Dublin 15 area to request they give serious consideration to a request to open special classes. Despite some progress, there is still a need for an additional seven special classes for the coming school year in this area.

On 27 June, the department served statutory notices on 18 schools and two patrol bodies in the Dublin 15 area “communicating the Minister’s opinion that they should make additional provision for children with special educational needs”. 

The department is now considering responses it received from these schools and a meeting with patrons is due to take place in the coming days. 

The number of special classes in mainstream schools has increased from 548 in 2011 to 1,459 this year.

“Of these 1,196 special classes cater for students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD),” the department said.

“The NCSE has informed the department that they intend to establish over 170 new special classes nationally for 2019/20 school year of which approximately 165 will be new ASD special classes.”

The department said a number of steps need to be taken before the minister can use his legislative powers to direct schools to make places available.

The NCSE has to form the opinion that there is an insufficient number in an area, the minister must serve a statutory notice to schools and then he has to consider representations from all of the parties involved.

The department said it is a key priority “to ensure that every child is facilitated in accessing a suitable school placement”.

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