Cork principals want to meet minister to discuss autism crisis

Cork principals want to meet minister to discuss autism crisis
Parents, pupils and teachers of Gaelscoil Pheig Sayers, Cork protesting about SNA cuts outside the National Council for Special Education offices in Mahon, Cork.Picture Dan Linehan

A DELEGATION of Cork principals hope to meet Minister for Education Joe McHugh in the coming weeks to discuss the crisis in school autism supports in the region, it has been revealed.

The group of principals, set up eight years ago to advocate for more supports for children with special needs in Cork, say the region is one of the worst in Ireland for a lack of support.

Rhodri Mears, principal of the Educate Together school in Midleton, described the situation as a crisis.

“This group of principals in Cork have been voicing their concerns for eight years or more,” he told the Echo. “Nothing has changed on the ground; if anything it’s getting worse. The pressure schools and parents find themselves under to find a place for children with special needs is getting worse.

“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.”

Karen O’Mahony of the Rainbow Club said parents are panicking ahead of this September due to the lack of school places available in Cork for children with special needs.

“There just aren’t enough school places for this September,” she said. “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. 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,” he said. “Parents are fighting for supports at early education levels, in primary schools and again at secondary school level.

“There needs to be a full pathway through the education system.”

The group of principals met with local politicians in the Vienna Woods Hotel earlier this month to outline their concerns. Both Mr Mears and local TD David Stanton (FG) described the meeting as positive and constructive. Deputy Stanton has written to Minister McHugh asking him to meet with the group.

“We want to approach this in a proactive way and engage with those involved,” Mr Stanton said. There are currently 246 special classes in Cork, which represents an increase of 45% since the 2015/16 school year, according to the National Council for Special Education.

A statement from the NCSE said that it is aware that sometimes, parents of children with special educational needs, including autism, can experience difficulties in accessing school places for their children because of their child’s special educational needs.

“This is not the normal situation, but these situations can arise from time to time.”

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