A GROUP of Cork principals have met with the Minister for Education to raise concerns surrounding the lack of autism support in the region.
The principals, who formed a group eight years ago to advocate for more support for children with special needs in Cork, say the region is one of the worst in Ireland for services.
Rhodri Mears, principal of the Educate Together school in Midleton and a member of the group, described the situation as a crisis.
He said the group was delighted to have met the Minister for Education and Skills, Joe McHugh, this week at the Dáil.
“We had a positive meeting where we were able to express the concerns we have for ASD provision within the health system and education system in Cork County.
“Even though no commitment was given, the door is open for further discussion whilst conversations take place among stakeholders to get a clearer picture as to why the issues in Cork in relation to autism is in such a crisis and in urgent need of attention,” added Mr Mears.
“As a group of passionate principals, we will continue to communicate with those who may be able to influence change.
“Some of our most vulnerable children are in need for help and we intend to fight to ensure we can aid them.”
The group of principals, along with Cork TD David Stanton (FG), wrote to Minister Joe McHugh in February requesting a meeting to discuss their concerns and ideas.
Mr Mears said that despite the fact the principals in Cork have been voicing their concerns for eight years or more, things have actually gotten worse. “The pressure schools and parents find themselves under to find a place for children with special needs is getting worse,” he added.
“Cork has the biggest waiting lists for special needs school places and has the biggest ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) population in Ireland.
“It’s clear that the services here were never built to deal with this demand and there’s a need for major reform. “We’re in the midst of a crisis where children are waiting on assessments of needs and supports and they could be waiting three years.”
Teachers, parents and students from Gaelscoil Pheig Sayers recently protested outside the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) headquarters in Mahon to highlight their own struggles in obtaining the required amount of special needs assistants.
The school had just one SNA for four children with special needs after one left last summer but the NCSE recently allocated them the necessary support following months of fighting for it.
Meanwhile, Anne Hartnett, principal of St Paul’s special needs school in Montenotte, has revealed that the school has 29 children on its waiting list for this September but can only offer places to six of them.
“We are full to capacity and have been since I joined St Paul’s as a teacher in 1997,” she said.
Ms Hartnett said that every child has a right to an education.
“These children are amongst the most vulnerable in society and yet they are not guaranteed a school placement.
“This is a shameful indictment,” she added.
Donal Deasy, principal of Morning Star National School, said the lack of services is a major source of frustration for principals and parents.
Morning Star NS opened its own Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) facility in 2013 with one class of six students.
The school now boasts three special needs classes and one early intervention class for three to five-year-olds, with a maximum of six pupils per class.
“The demand for places is massive,” said Mr Deasy.
“Every school has waiting lists and parents are ringing all the time seeing if there is a place for their child.”
Karen O’Mahony of the Rainbow Club, an autism charity in Cork, told The Echo that parents are panicking ahead of this September due to the lack of school places available in Cork for children with special needs.
“I know there is a two-year waiting list for some special needs schools in Cork.
“Some local schools are trying to add more rooms to their services and add more capacity,” she added.
“They’re under massive strain.”
Mr Mears said the group of principals wish to work with the Department of Education constructively to provide a full pathway from early education right through second and even third level.
“We need joined up thinking from the department and the HSE to ensure children are supported throughout their development.
“Parents are fighting for supports at early education levels, in primary schools and again at secondary school level,” he added.
“There needs to be a full pathway through the education system.”