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'Ten steps backwards': Govt proposal to open 'special educational needs centres' met with criticism

Five centres are set to open in Dublin in September as an “interim” solution for children without a special class place in school.

STAKEHOLDERS HAVE MET with Department of Education officials this afternoon following criticism of a Government proposal to open designated education centres for children with special educational needs.

It has emerged that the Government plans to open five so-called “special education centres” later this year as an emergency measure in response to a shortage of appropriate school places.

However, the proposal has been met with backlash from parents and campaigners, with some fearing that it could become a permanent solution rather than a temporary measure. 

In a statement this afternoon, Minister of State for Special Education Josepha Madigan said the proposal “is in development and is still at a very early stage”.

She said the Government’s “number one priority” is increasing the amount of special class places in schools throughout the country.

“Every child with special educational needs deserves a school placement appropriate to those needs. I am committed to putting all possible solutions in place to ensure the needs of these children are met. This includes use of the section 37a process which I’m committed to using where it has not been possible to get schools to open special classes,” she said.

A Section 37a notice is a legally binding intervention from the minister to schools to establish additional classes for children with special needs.

Madigan continued: “Families can be assured that the Department and the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) remain committed to opening special classes as quickly as possible and this proposal offers further opportunities to support children and parents while we work to deliver extra special class places.

“I will continue to engage with the NCSE and with patrons on the provision of additional special classes not only in Dublin but right across the country where we have families who require these placements.”

Autism charity AsIAm CEO Adam Harris, who attended the meeting this afternoon, told The Journal that he outlined his concern that the proposal could become permanent.

‘Not acceptable’

“We were concerned that something that’s been pitched as temporary could become very permanent, that there perhaps wasn’t an understanding of the challenges people have in terms of transition,” he said.

When you’re on the autism spectrum, the idea that an autistic person could just be casually moved from one setting to another just misunderstands the needs of autistic people to be honest.

He said the Department made clear that this proposal is an early stage idea and that no decision has been made, adding that they were keen to listen to stakeholders on the matter.

“We’ve agreed to meet again on 31 May and we’re certainly happy to engage around any solutions that can be found, but I think what we have to be very, very clear on is that the proposal at this stage is not acceptable and we would be vigorously opposed to it,” he said.

Harris said he was “shocked and concerned” when the statement was issued yesterday.

“It’s very clear to us that this proposal is a non-runner. It’s a regressive proposal that would undermine the rights of the child,” he said.

“We also don’t believe that we’re in an emergency situation. We’re in a crisis because of a lack of appropriate planning, but this isn’t an emergency. It’s something that always should have been foresaw and planned for by the Department and by the NCSE.

“This crisis didn’t need to happen, but it happens every summer because of a lack of appropriate planning, and it would appear a lack of sufficient data on the part of the NCSE and the Department,” he said.

He added that local solutions need to be found for children who still have not secured a school place and that planning for next year needs to begin to prevent this from happening again.

Yesterday, Madigan stressed that the plan is not a medium or long-term alternative to a special class placement in a school.

She said that children can access education “on an interim basis” in a new SEN centre and be supported to move quickly to a special class placement in a mainstream school.

“This is a supplementary measure to ensure that while children await a new special class placement in a mainstream school, they can access a more sustained level of support in a setting with peers of their own age.

“This is particularly important for some children with SEN who are relying on Home Tuition while awaiting a special class placement. This is simply an option to parents if they wish to avail of it.”

She added that children would have access to qualified teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) in the new centres and that she wanted to make sure that “every child has access to the supports they need”.

‘Ten steps backwards’

Another voluntary organisation, Inclusion Ireland, said in a statement that it was “shocked and appalled” by the proposal, describing it as being “like ten steps backwards on the path to inclusive education”.

“Inclusion Ireland was not contacted or consulted in any way about these measures despite being heavily involved in the national consultative groups and forums about special and inclusive education. We are so disappointed at such a response to an issue that the department has been aware of for months and years.”

Inclusion Ireland CEO Derval McDonagh said: “We all know what happens with ‘short term’ segregated solutions, they quickly become the accepted norm that last years longer than they were intended to and that is not what children deserve for their education.”

“Children only get one chance to participate in their education and then they become the adults of tomorrow. There needs to be proper planning around children’s right to their education and a coordinated well thought out and appropriately resourced response to the needs of children, even when the response needs to happen quickly.

This plan does not offer choice to children and families. If parents refuse a place in a segregated ‘temporary’ centre, what happens then? Energies and resources should be immediately channelled into finding and following through on appropriate places for each child in their local communities.

‘Not the right language’

Speaking during Leaders’ Questions this afternoon, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the language used yesterday in relation to the proposal “wasn’t the best language”.

“No parent wants to be told that their child is being offered a stopgap solution, and I particularly don’t like the use of the term ‘autism centre’,” he said.

“It sounds othering, it sounds like children are going to be bussed away to a special place, you know, set away from other children, from the rest of society and put in some sort of special centre, and I don’t like that either.

“And I think perhaps the language that was used last night was not the right language, and certainly has been badly received by parents and by advocates in the sector, and I hear that and I get that.”

People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy has described the plan as “extremely concerning”.

“Parents are rightly concerned that what begins as an interim measure will become a permanent measure, with children with special needs being separated from others,” he said in a statement. 

“I also wonder whether this is designed to reduce the pressure on the government to use its powers under Section 37A of the Education Act to direct schools to open special classes. In Dublin 24, for example, there is incredibly only one post-primary school with a special class, while there are 157 primary schools with special classes. Where are all these pupils supposed to go?”

Murphy said the government has “shamefully” only used its Section 37A powers twice, “despite the crisis of lack of special classes across the country”.

The government needs to use its powers and resource schools properly to provide appropriate school places for all.

Madigan said it is “absolutely” her intention to ensure every child has a special class place and that she will be issuing Section 37a notices to schools where it is necessary.

“We are still working on this proposal and this is in no way a long term solution. But the Section 37 process takes time and I wanted to give parents an alternative option and a choice for this September,” she added.

Harris said that while it appears that the NCSE does not have centralised data on children in inappropriate school places, it is “very clear that there are hundreds of children across the country without an appropriate school place”. 

AsIAm is currently conducting a survey with parents and children to try and gain a greater insight into how many children do not have appropriate school places. This data is due to be published on Monday.

Last week, CEO of the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) John Kearney said there are “roughly 160″ children nationally who do not have a special educational needs place in school. 

He was speaking to RTÉ’s Drivetime following a meeting with Madigan and Taoiseach Micheál Martin to discuss the shortage of school places for children with additional needs.

The meeting was called after the Taoiseach apologised to Gillian and Darren Milne, who had been left without appropriate education for their twin sons Ryan and Kyle who have severe autism. They have since been given places in a special school.

“Ultimately for us long-term, every school in the country would have special class placements. We’re working towards that,” Kearney said.

“The Department’s long-term strategy is to deliver building facilities to accommodate that. There are anomalies in terms of families and children travelling outside their catchment area,” he added.

He said the NCSE is aware of children travelling “further than you would like them to be travelling” to attend school, but he said they are working with schools to address that.

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