"There is nothing short of a crisis at the minute in special education in Cork city and the surrounding areas."
That's according to Sinn Féin’s Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire who today raised serious concerns about a "crisis" in special education in Cork at an Oireachtas Education Committee and called on the Department of Education officials in attendance to urgently act to take control of the issue.
The Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science discussed the provision of special needs education, among other topics, and heard from the Department of Education, the National Council for Special Education and the National Educational Psychological Service.
Speaking at the committee meeting, Sinn Féin Education spokesperson and Cork South Central TD, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire highlighted "a significant lack of spaces" particularly at secondary level for children with special educational needs in Cork.
“When I speak to parents who have children with additional needs there is enormous frustration, and a sense that the system is dysfunctional, if not broken entirely.
“It is hard to see how, when information is readily available on the number of children with special educational needs progressing to post-primary each year, the Department of Education and the NCSE have not anticipated this need, and have failed to meet this demand in Cork," he said.
Deputy Ó Laoghaire said that dozens of local families had been in contact with him who have no place for their child to go to school next year.
"One child received rejections from 12 different schools.
“Many of the existing special schools in Cork have waiting lists of up to 5 years. One school I spoke to had a waiting list of 30 children for only 10 places, another had 20 children waiting for only 5 available places.
“In the medium term, we need at least one if not two special schools in Cork, and we urgently need an immediate short-term solution to the crisis this September.
“I called on the Department of Education and the NCSE today, to get ahead of this demand, and to tackle this crisis head on. There are simply not enough units and special schools in Cork city. The government must act, to make sure that no child loses out," he said.
Labour’s Aodhan O Riordain told the Committee that he was “horrified” to learn what families had to go through to secure places and that some who had contacted him were “in tears” over the matter.
He told the Education Committee a fundamental shift in the system was needed.
Mr O Riordain asked representatives from the Department of Education and the National Council for Special Education how they could stand over such a system.
Mary McGrath, head of operations at the National Council for Special Education, admitted that were “pinch points” where some parents find it difficult gaining a place for their child.
But she told TDs and senators that special educational needs organisers (SENOs) advise parents about schools where they are aware there are placements available for the forthcoming school year.
“The SENOs are engaging with schools on a continuous cycle and planning additional special classes and placements and those places are confirmed at different points of time in the year,” she said.
“SENOs are updating parents who are seeking special school and special class places as those new placements become available.
“We do at certain points in time experience pinch points in various parts of the country and we have to date triggered the legislation which commenced in 2018, twice in Dublin, where schools who did have some space were not responding to requests from SENOs to open special classes.”
Mr O Riordain told the committee he was “not satisfied” with Ms McGrath’s response.
Assistant Secretary at the Department of Education Martina Mannion told TDs and senators that this year the State will spend more than two billion euro, or more than 20% of its total educational budget, on providing additional supports for children with special educational needs.
This represents an increase of more than 50% in total expenditure since 2011.
She said the Budget 2021 provides funding for 400 additional special education teaching posts and almost 1,000 additional special needs assistants (SNAs).
In a statement to the Echo, a spokesperson for the Department of Education said the Department is aware of difficulties regarding the availability of suitable school placements in Cork.
"Ensuring that every child with special educational needs has a suitable educational placement is a priority for the Department of Education and the National Council for Special Education (NCSE).
"The sanctioning of new special class and special schools is the responsibility of the NCSE working closely with the Department.
"The Department and the NCSE are aware of difficulties regarding the availability of suitable school placements in Cork. The NCSE is working with schools, patron bodies, parents and others to ensure there are sufficient special education placements available to meet local need."
The statement added: "It is open to any school to make an application to the NCSE to open a special class. The active collaboration of school communities is vital to the effective inclusion of students with special educational needs.
"Parents who have concerns about a school placement should keep in regular contact with their local special educational needs organiser (SENO) . SENOs are appointed by the NCSE to provide a direct local service to the parents of children with special educational needs and to schools within geographical areas. SENOs can also advise schools and parents on the facilities, services, and resources available to assist children with special educational needs."