herald

Wednesday 18 September 2019

Schools in stand-off as 40 special needs pupils have nowhere to go

Education Minister Joe McHugh
Education Minister Joe McHugh

Education Minister Joe McHugh is facing a stand-off with schools over an enrolment crisis affecting 40 children who have no place for September.

Mr McHugh has used new legal powers to tell 18 primary schools and their patron bodies they should open special classes for pupils with additional needs, such as those on the autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

He told the Dail on Tuesday that one school had agreed to provide a classroom and the Department of Education was engaging with two others, and if those three worked out it would cater for 18 pupils.

Space

However, other schools have replied to a request from the department, setting out reasons, such as space and lack of staffing supports, why they cannot, or may not be able to, comply.

The notices to schools in the Dublin 15 area arrived as they were closing for the summer and at least one said it would be the end of August before its management board meets again.

Remedial works are taking place at St Luke’s, Tyrrelstown.
Remedial works are taking place at St Luke’s, Tyrrelstown.

Fianna Fail education spokesperson Thomas Byrne said Mr McHugh had received advice on the matter from the National Council for Special Education in April and it was "absolutely unconscionable for the letters to be sent out on the last day of school".

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin is patron of 14 of the schools and in his reply to Mr McHugh he said he was committed to doing everything to assist.

But he added that there was a "major concern" among the schools that already have successful ASD units "about a serious lack of external support from other agencies to meet the needs of students".

Powerstown Educate Together NS, Tyrrelstown, which already has three classes for pupils with special needs, said it was willing to consider opening two further specialised classes.

But acting chairperson of the school board Catherine Coffey set out a detailed list of its minimum requirements, in areas including staffing, funding and clinical supports, before it would agree to do so.

Sile Parsons, of the Autism School Dublin 15 Campaign, said that without putting the additional resources into the schools it was "irresponsible" to request them to open more special classes.

Difficult

Another school, St Luke's NS, Tyrrelstown, was among those caught up in last year's structural safety controversy.

Principal Vivienne Bourke said the board would meet as soon as possible, but communications were difficult because builders have taken the school over until August 27 for extensive remedial works.

Padraic Flesk, principal of St Benedict's NS, Ongar, challenged an assertion that the school was provided with a two-classroom special needs unit as part of a major building project, which was being used for mainstream students.

The process has also exposed shortcomings in school-building policy, with no provision being made for special classes to be incorporated in new builds.

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