Browne calls special debate on special needs education

I thank the Minister of State for taking this
debate on school places in Wexford for children with special needs. Parents of children with
special needs come to me in a state of distress every week. Very often they are worn out,
not because their children have special needs but because they are exhausted from having
to fight for school places and the basic services they need so that their children can have
a quality of life. My heart goes out to them because I know the battle they are facing
every single day to ensure that the education and special supports their children are entitled
to are provided. Waiting times in Wexford for special needs assessments are unacceptable.
Many children are waiting years for the approval of services such as occupational therapy,
physiotherapy and speech and language therapy. This is simply wrong.
Today, I want to focus on the lack of school places for children with special needs. Last
year, over 850 children with special needs across Ireland received home tuition because
spaces could not be found for them in schools. Many of these children are in my home county
of Wexford. Many schools in Wexford do not have adequate facilities or spaces for children
with special needs. Mainstream schools and special schools have long waiting lists. In
Enniscorthy, there are long waiting lists for support classes in St. Aidan’s and St.
Senan’s primary schools. St. Senan’s primary school has been waiting at stage 2 for a new
build, which includes badly needed special needs classes, for the fourth longest period
of time in the country. St. Aidan’s primary school has been approved for an additional
classroom, but has not received approval to go to tender. This needs to happen immediately
to provide the additional classroom which is badly needed this September.
I welcome that a new building for St. Patrick’s special school is being built in Enniscorthy,
but it started two years after it was promised. Meanwhile, the principal, teachers, special
needs assistants and students have to endure Dickensian conditions in the existing building.
Our Lady of Fatima special school in Wexford town is a remarkable school with a wonderful
principal in Rita Waters, outstanding staff and special children. The conditions in which
teachers at the school have to teach and children have to learn are simply not acceptable. The
car park doubles as a schoolyard and a bus collection point, which is dangerous and unacceptable.
Many special schools across the country are waiting up to 13 years for new builds that
are badly needed. There are severe problems throughout County Wexford, including in New
Ross, Gorey, Wexford and Enniscorthy. Schools that cannot take children are very often not
provided with the resources and training that teachers and special needs assistants need
to uphold every child’s right to an education. Very often, the provision of special needs
assistants in schools who can provide the necessary support for students and teachers
is inefficient. Appeals are often turned down, but it is impossible for principals to know
why that happened. For those children who cannot get a place
in a mainstream or special school, parents often apply to every school in the county
and beyond. This is not a solution and it is impossible where both parents are working.
More importantly, all children want to go to school where their friends and neighbours
attend school. It is distressing for any young child, but especially a child with special
needs, to have to travel long distances every day for basic schooling needs and to go to
an area where he or she does not know anybody. The only alternative to this is home schooling,
which is not a substitute for an appropriate school place unless it is clinically advised.
Children are missing out on developing social skills and the opportunity to mix with other
children, and all of the benefits that come from that for any child. It can be very destructive
to a home environment and where both parents are working, it can be almost impossible to
manage. Ultimately, it is not right for the child.
I ask the Minister of State to deal with these issues, commit to an appropriate number of
special classes in County Wexford, ensure every child has a right to access education
and publish an implementation plan as soon as possible for County Wexford to ensure that
children have adequate school places and supports.

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