Early intervention and resources needed for primary and special schools challenges

The Irish National Teacher’s Organisation (INTO) appeared before the Joint Committee on Autism today, represented by Máirín Ní Chéileachair, Director of Education, Research & Learning and David O’Sullivan, Director of Conditions of Employment and Leadership.

In her opening statement, Máirín Ní Chéileachair set out the background to Special Education provision at primary level in Ireland:

There are currently 3,329 primary schools listed on the Department of Education’s website. In the 2022-23 school year, there will be 1,548 Autism classes and Early Intervention classes across all primary schools. This figure shows an increase of 674 classes since 2018-19 and indicates an almost doubling of the number of Autism classes from 743 to 1,404. Schools are committed to providing inclusive education and these statistics speak for themselves.

As inclusive education has evolved in more recent years, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and special classes have become an integral and essential part of the Irish education system. It is important that the State continues to offer a range of provision to ensure that children obtain the best possible education in a setting that suits their needs. The INTO believes that all schools are inclusive schools including special schools and schools with ASD and special classes. Inclusive education does not necessarily mean that all pupils must be enrolled in mainstream classes. The INTO believes that a range of options across a continuum of provision, must continue to be available to parents.

Ms Ní Chéileachair also addressed issues related to accessing assessment and early intervention, the Assessment of Need (AON) process, recent challenges, and the provision of ASD in primary schools.

The INTO has long advocated the need for improvements to educational provision for students with ASD. In 2014, the INTO called for increased emphasis on early intervention, targeted professional development relating to ASD and improvements regarding the transfer of information process.

Pupils who access ASD classes and Early Intervention ASD classes have unique additional needs that require specific therapeutic support that is often beyond the remit and training of the teacher. It is unacceptable that, due to the lack of therapists, teachers are being asked to take on the duties of other professionals, such as speech and language therapists or occupational therapists. The INTO welcomes the commitment by the Government to continue to pilot a model of in-school speech and language therapy.

This pilot scheme needs to be evaluated before the end of the year with a view to ensuring its expansion nationwide.

Schools should be better supported with the transition of children with Special Educational needs from pre-school to primary, and from primary to post-primary level. Protocols should be agreed around the transfer of information and continuity of support to ensure there is no gap in the provision of resources. It is regrettable that the increase in special classes at primary level is not currently matched by a corresponding increase in special class provision at second level.

We are aware of, and support calls for public buildings to be more Autism-friendly. ASD classrooms need to be correctly designed as suitable learning environments, particularly those with associated sensory needs. Outside of the ASD classroom, schools need to be reconfigured with indoor and outdoor sensory spaces and learning environments. Issues such as lighting, noise management and school colour schemes need to be addressed throughout the building to facilitate inclusion.

The INTO also condemns Minister Josepha Madigan’s recent attempt to publicly name and shame four Dublin primary schools, that are working to create an environment that is suitable for pupils with Special Educational needs. Once again, the union called on the Minister to withdraw her remarks and apologise to the schools involved.

As the chairperson of the joint committee emphasised at today’s hearing, by working in close partnership Government, schools and stakeholders can achieve more for children with Autism.