Teachers are concerned about a shortage of autism and special education classes in secondary schools, as the numbers show a wide discrepancy between the number of available elementary and secondary schools.
ata from the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) shows that there will be 1,789 elementary school classes with special educational needs (SEN) in September. About 740 will be available in secondary schools, raising concerns that students will find the transition from sixth grade to first year more difficult.
An analysis of the NCSE numbers shows that about 1,500 of these elementary school classes will be classes for children with autism. About 650 of these will be available in secondary schools.
While the number of classes available has increased in recent years, teachers and parents worry that the gap between primary and secondary schools will make it harder to find places for first graders.
Unions and interest groups have called for greater investment and improved long-term planning in the sector.
Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) Secretary-General Michael Gillespie said parents were concerned about securing adequate secondary school places and support for children.
“Some of our members are also parents, and we see the concern spreading across the country, ‘Where am I sending my son or daughter?’ That’s the most important thing we heard. They got into an elementary school, but what we see then is they don’t have a place to go after that,” he said
Special classes exist mainly in community, comprehensive, and Education and Training Board (ETB) schools.
“However, we are seeing more secondary schools are willing to take them on, as in some cases the headmaster may come from an ETB background or community school and may see an advantage in making the school more inclusive. In other cases they are forced to do by the department because nobody else in the area is doing it,” he said.
In the summer, the government introduced legislation aimed at improving the provision of SEN education. This means a school can be directed to create additional places for SEN students, but those working in the sector say better long-term planning is needed to improve the transition from primary to secondary school.
Adam Harris of autism charity AsIAm said a lack of connected thinking meant that areas that had autism and SEN classes at the elementary level didn’t always have places available in secondary schools.
He wants the NCSE to use the new legislation to ensure that “children who do not have a place in school today have that place in school by September or as soon as possible thereafter”. He said there are significant differences in the way special education is provided.
“The primary to secondary school gap is one example, but another important example is the geographic gap where we see some postcodes – particularly Dublin – have far fewer autism classes than other postcodes,” Mr Harris said.
“As a result, children sometimes travel up to 70km round-trip to take an autism class.”
He said better planning is needed and “it should be possible to have the required number of autism classes with the right planning and data collection.”
The Department of Education said it had received assurances from the NCSE that “there is an adequate supply of special class places” for the coming school year.
A spokesman said it will continue to forecast demand and “work weekly with the NCSE on the advance planning of special classes and special education offerings.”
“The NCSE is working with all schools to open special classes where necessary. It is open to any school to apply to the NCSE to set up a specialized service and, if approved, a range of support services.”
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