FIANNA Fáil’s special education spokesperson has called on Josepha Madigan, the junior minister for special education, to come before the Oireachtas committee on autism to discuss plans for special education centres for children with autism and other intellectual disabilities.
Cork North Central TD Pádraig O’Sullivan said he was “extremely disappointed” at a proposal to create a network of special education centres as an emergency response to an acute shortage of appropriate school places for vulnerable children.
The proposal had been tweeted last week by Ms Madigan, who added that it was not intended as “a medium or long-term alternative to a special class placement in a school”.
“This action is totally insufficient to deal with the scale of the problem,” Mr O’Sullivan told The Echo.
“We need a much greater sense of urgency to ensure children with special needs can claim their constitutional entitlement to education and gain admission to an appropriate school,” Mr O’Sullivan added.
He said he had been raising the issue for nearly two years in Cork and had tried unsuccessfully to engage with Ms Madigan.
“I have written to the minister and highlighted areas in Cork that could accommodate additional capacity for this coming September but have yet to receive a response or any meaningful engagement,” he said. “I am happy to engage with the minister and the department to find a solution for those children without a school place.”
Mr O’Sullivan noted that the fear for many parents would be that what are often proposed as short-term solutions can quickly become the norm.
“I am asking the minister to come before the joint committee on autism to discuss this further,” Mr O’Sullivan said.
Adam Harris, founder and chief executive of autism charity AsIAM, told The Echo the charity had conveyed to the minister its complete opposition to the proposals.
“We were shocked and horrified to learn the Department of Education was even considering setting up so-called special education centres due to their failure to provide the appropriate school places for autistic children, as is their constitutional obligation,” Mr Harris said.
He said the proposals would essentially mean that children who wish to be educated in their locality with their peers would instead be bussed out of their communities to segregated settings.
“The plan is not acceptable for children in Dublin and is certainly not a template for the rest of the country,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the proposal shows a lack of understanding of autism because transitions are hugely stressful and temporary, and hurriedly established settings such as those proposed would be traumatic and stressful for many children.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Education said a top priority was to give children appropriate school placings and assist families where there were difficulties in securing places. They said home tuition was given, and intended as short term measure, to support children until a placement was available in special classes or special schools, depending on their needs.
“An additional measure which is being considered by the department is the development of an additional interim measure, where children can be in a class with their peers, supported by qualified staff, based in a location outside of a school, with opportunities for integration being explored in nearby schools until appropriate long-term school placements become available.”
The department said this proposal remained under discussion and was subject to further engagement with all stakeholders.