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special education centres

Autism charity calls for immediate clarity on proposed 'special education centres'

Speaking this morning, Higher Education Minister Simon Harris said the proposal “won’t fly” with the public.

STAKEHOLDERS HAVE HELD a third meeting with Department of Education officials to discuss the Government’s proposal to open education centres for children with special educational needs without a school place.

It is not clear whether the plan is still being considered by the Government, with autism charity AsIAm calling for clarity on the matter before the bank holiday weekend. 

It emerged last week that the Government proposed opening five centres in Dublin in September as an emergency measure in response to a shortage of appropriate school places for children with special educational needs. 

But the plan was highly criticised by parents and stakeholders, who called it regressive and segregative to children with special educational needs, with some concerned that the temporary measure could easily become permanent.

Groups met with Special Education Minister Josepha Madigan on Tuesday to discuss the plan, after which she said she had committed to using her Section 37a powers to compel a school to provide additional places “if necessary”.

A Section 37a notice is a legally binding intervention from the minister to schools to establish additional classes for children with special needs. It can take up to 18 months to complete.

In a statement following today’s meeting, AsIAm said another meeting will be held tomorrow on the matter, with further meetings planned for next week.

“Whilst we have agreed to hear further proposals from the Department tomorrow, we have highlighted the need for any proposal to address this crisis to be rights-compliant and for a clear response on the future of the proposed ‘Special Education Centres’ to be communicated prior to the long weekend,” the statement said.

The charity said it received assurances from the Department that no proposal will proceed without cooperation with the advocacy groups making up the Inclusive Education Forum.

“We have highlighted the importance of the direct engagement of the Minister with our groups in identifying an appropriate path forward for children without appropriate school places for September 2022,” the statement continued. 

“The Department advised us that our request for emergency legislation on the Section 37(A) issue is currently under consideration and that we will receive a formal response to this proposal.”

In a statement to The Journal, CEO of Inclusion Ireland Derval McDonagh said the charity has agreed to “constructively engage with the Department around options”. 

“We are awaiting an official response from Minister Madigan about our proposal for emergency legislation, although we do understand it is being looked at as an option,” she said.

What is clear is the need for immediate action to ensure children have places in their local school by September.

“We are also clear that any such options proposed must align with our goals to become UNCRPD compliant and must aim to vindicate the child’s right to access appropriate education locally, with whatever supports they might need. The forum agreed that plans would not proceed on any option without cooperation of advocacy groups,” she added.

Proposal ‘won’t fly’

This morning, Higher Education Minister Simon Harris said the proposal for special education centres “won’t fly” with the public.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne programme this morning, Harris said the proposal “is not a good one”. 

“It is my personal view that this idea won’t fly. I am very clear in relation to that, and I base that not just on my own view, but on the views of people I know, of families that I represent in my own constituency, and indeed on my own background in this area,” he said.

“We have made a lot of progress as a country in relation to special needs education and inclusion in general, and we just need to be very careful we don’t go backwards.”

He said Madigan is doing “an incredible job” in working with schools to try to increase classrooms.

“This was an idea that I think landed in a way that it was never meant to. It possibly got into the public domain in a way it was never meant to. It was meant to be consulted, discussed. That’s not what happened. It caused a lot of hurt last week,” he said.

This was a very difficult week for people with autism in our country and for worried parents. Something good now needs to come from it.

He said Madigan is “a very progressive minister” and added that he has no doubt she will “listen to the advocacy groups, work with them and will come up with a way forward”.

Madigan last week said that the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) had formally written to her to advise her that there is insufficient special class capacity in primary schools and special school capacity in Dublin.

“The NCSE’s opinion is based on an analysis of its available data, engagement with schools, school patrons and parental groups,” she said.

She said the NCSE will provide a detailed report on the matter to her, which will consider existing provision, any relevant proposed building works and which schools may be able to provide additional provision.

“In preparing this report, the legislation requires the NCSE to consult with school patrons, national parent bodies, school management bodies and the teacher unions. I have asked that this be done as quickly as possible,” she added.

“Everyone would prefer that schools welcome students that need school places into their schools, and would open the classes needed, with the support of the Department and NCSE. I was pleased to meet with stakeholders again today on this, and to reiterate that I won’t hesitate to compel schools to open classes if it is necessary to do so.”

‘Major concerns’

Speaking to The Journal last week, Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) Sinéad Gibney said the institution has “major concerns” about the proposal.

“From a legal perspective, what we will be doing is really looking at our legal powers and determining if this is an issue that we’d like to apply them to. We have a plenary meeting of the Commission on Thursday where we’ll be discussing it,” she said.

She said IHREC has concerns around Constitutional rights, as well as rights under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

Under Article 24 of the UN CRPD, the State holds an obligation to ensure that: “Persons with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability, and that children with disabilities are not excluded from free and compulsory primary education, or from secondary education, on the basis of disability”. 

Gibney said the proposal is “simply not in line” with the rights set out under the CRPD.

“We have defined and enshrined in our Constitution a right to appropriate education, and this is not appropriate. Segregation is not appropriate or inclusive in education. So we do see it as a potential area which we will look at if the Government chooses to proceed with its plan for the centres,” she said.

She added that IHREC would be in favour of emergency measures to amend the Section 37a powers to make the process stronger and faster.

“[Section] 37a was built to do exactly this, so that the Minister could compel the opening of classes where there was resistance in schools, and if it’s not working, fix it,” she said.

“I would rather that the Government would throw their energy and resources into something like that, than into these stopgap measures which have been suggested.”

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

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

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