Dáil Éireann - Volume 617 - 05 April, 2006

Adjournment Debate. - School Accommodation.

  Ms Burton: Hundreds of children in Dublin 15 have no school place for this coming September and the reason is simple. Thousands of houses have been built in the Littlepace and Castleknock areas in the past five years but no provision has been made for school places for all the new families moving into the area.

Now we face another Groundhog Day, another round of crisis meetings to secure places for around 200 children who could not be accommodated in the first round of offers.

I want to take a positive approach in addressing this crisis as I am interested only in resolving this issue for once and for all. Next year’s parents cannot be put through the same distress and upset that parents have experienced recently, year on year, in Dublin 15, indeed for the full tenure of this Government, nine years. There is a clear and pressing need to commit to a full new primary school in the Ongar-Littlepace area over and above the two schools already established, to complete the permanent buildings for the Castaheaney Educate Together primary school currently based in prefabs and facing another year in them, to build an extra primary school in Castleknock and to provide a new secondary school in the Castaheaney-Clonee area to cater for families in houses built ten years ago in the area.

To resolve this crisis I am calling for a round table conference of all school principals with county council and education officials. It is not good enough to have a conference with selected principals from the Minister of State’s office in Marlborough Street. That does not impress me, particularly when the people in Tullamore cannot give answers.

I am also calling for a proper assessment of needs for the next five to ten years in line with expected new housing and the immediate purchase of sites for the new schools that will be required in Castaheaney. The Minister of State should tell us now how many sites and which sites have been acquired. I have received replies from the Minister for the past four years and she is still shilly-shallying about acquiring the sites.

Last year a quick-fix solution was found when the Minister was faced with a full-scale revolt from parents and the whole community. This year, in response to my recent parliamentary questions, the Minister acknowledged the extent of the crisis, referring yesterday to “the unabating increase in demand for pupil places” in Dublin 15. The poor woman sounds surprised. Extending existing schools, while welcome, is not enough. The Minister plans for Dublin West to have many primary schools of 1,000 pupils. With class sizes among the highest in the country, at more than [1753] 30 pupils, this is a shamefully inadequate response from a rich Government. We need more schools, particularly as new communities of 2,000 plus houses and apartments are being regularly built and more are planned. The interests of developers and their land deals cannot come before the interests of our children.

Judging by yesterday’s reply, the Minister unfortunately continues to keep her head in the sand. Planning for these new schools has to start today. Our children want school places but they also need a quality education in permanent buildings with reasonable class sizes, not the vision of endless prefabs and over-full classrooms, which seems to represent what Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats consider good enough for Dublin 15. Unless this is provided, the Government will continue to fail the new communities in Clonee, Littlepace, Ongar, Hansfield, Diswellstown, Luttrelstown, Tyrellstown and the many other growth areas in Dublin 15.

We have been blessed in Dublin 15 with a remarkable range of teachers, school principals and managers. Only they have been able to keep the show on the road, with dedicated parents. I have many expectations from the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, in her approach to education, but she has not delivered for Dublin 15.

  Mr. B. Lenihan: I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. It is an important subject and I share the concerns Deputy Burton has outlined to the House about the proper development of primary education in the area.

The Minister is conscious that the Dublin 15 area as a whole is one of the most rapidly developing areas in the country and that as a result there has been a marked increase in the demand for primary school places. I am conscious of that demand too and I assure the Deputy I have worked unceasingly in that regard with the planning unit in Tullamore and with the school principals, teachers and parents in the area. I join in the tribute the Deputy paid to them. They have gone a long way towards meeting the accommodation difficulties which the Deputy outlined to the House. To date, however, there has not been a Groundhog Day in Dublin West because the Minister, her officials, the school principals and parents have worked together to find solutions. That is what we must do this year too. I appreciate that Deputy Burton is committed to finding solutions in this area too.

The Department of Education and Science has taken a number of measures to increase the capacity of existing schools in the area concerned with the development of new schools to meet this growing demand. All building projects arising from these interventions are awarded a band one priority rating under the Department’s prioritis[1754] ation criteria for large-scale building projects to ensure they are delivered as expeditiously as possible. The allocation of financial resources is not the issue in the provision of primary education in Dublin 15.

  Ms Burton: Has the Department bought the sites?

  Mr. B. Lenihan: I will deal with sites shortly. In the Littlepace-Castaheaney area a new school building has recently been completed at Mary Mother of Hope national school and an additional project is under way with a target delivery date of September 2007. In addition, a 32-classroom campus is planned for a school site in Ongar. Under the arrangement between the Department and Fingal County Council the site at Ongar has been secured and transferred to the council. That happened last week. The project will provide a permanent accommodation solution for Castaheaney Educate Together national school. It also has a target completion date of September 2007. This area is also served by the Sacred Heart national school in Huntstown where an extension project to provide a 32-classroom school is nearing completion.

The Deputy also referred to the Tyrellstown area. Tyrellstown Educate Together was opened some weeks ago and planning to provide permanent accommodation is at an advanced stage in the area. In the Diswellstown area, St. Patrick’s national school has recently moved into a new 24-classroom school. This will facilitate an annual three-stream intake. However, as an exceptional matter the board of management is considering taking a fourth stream of junior infants this year. In addition to this, the Department is in discussions with St. Mochta’s national School regarding the possibility of expanding it to cater for an annual four-stream intake. As the Deputy is aware, the school currently has an intake of three junior infant classes. An extension to cater for this development will also attract a band one priority rating.

9 o’clock

Other developments in the Dublin 15 area include the planned expansion of St. Brigid’s national school in Castleknock and extensions to St. Brigid’s boys and girls national schools, Blanchardstown. Extensive reference was made by the Deputy to semi-permanent accommodation. The build at the site at Ongar of additional classroom capacity will be permanent accommodation and will not involve the use of semi-permanent accommodation. Due to the level of demand emanating from the Dublin 15 area, the need to make further provision at primary level in addition to that outlined is being kept under continuous review by the Department of Education and Science. Certainly any proposals the Deputy may wish to make in this regard will be entertained at the Department.

[1755] I am confident the measures outlined will assist in alleviating the immediate demand for pupil places in the area. In regard to the various points referred to by the Deputy I wish to deal with the question of permanent buildings for Castaheany Educate Together primary school. The allocation made by the Minister, and announced by the Minister in January, provided the necessary resources and the site has been acquired. The priority must be to establish this school as rapidly as possible. Likewise the extension of a further 16 classrooms of permanent accommodation at Mary Mother of Hope school must take place as quickly as possible. In regard to acquisition of sites the Minister has entered into an arrangement with Fingal County Council to identify sites for new primary schools in the area.

  Ms Burton: The sites are all identified in the plans by the councillors. They are all zoned.

  Mr. B. Lenihan: They are not zoned for schools. They are identified in the development plan.

  Ms Burton: They are reserved sites.

  Mr. B. Lenihan: They are reserved in the development plan but they are not zoned for schools as such. The Deputy is well aware of that given the amounts of money that have to be expended on acquiring them. On the issue of site acquisition I pay tribute to the work being done by the officials at Fingal County Council who are liaising with the Department in identifying and acquiring sites for schools. An amount of work has gone into the identification and acquisition of a site for a secondary school in the Castaheany area, to which the Deputy referred.

  Ms Burton: That was identified eight years ago and reserved in the planning around 1996.

  Mr. B. Lenihan: We are not talking about planning wish lists dreamed up by councillors.

  Ms Burton: These are area action plans.

  Mr. B. Lenihan: We are talking about the practical decisions that have to be taken to build these schools.

  Ms Burton: The money.

  Mr. B. Lenihan: To date in Dublin 15 the money has been allocated. Accommodation has been provided year on year in difficult circumstances. The Minister and I are committed to continuing to do that and will deliver that.

  Ms Burton: This is about the relationship between Fianna Fáil and the builders.

[1756]   Mr. B. Lenihan: The Deputy should refrain from that sort of comment. I am elected to represent all the people. I do not represent a particular section and I resent that comment on the floor of the House.

  Ms Burton: It does not take nine years to get a school site.

  Mr. B. Lenihan: The accommodation needs will be addressed this year. A serious question the Deputy has raised is the need for additional school provision in the area. The Deputy must be aware that no patron tendered for any additional school in the last school application process last September. If necessary, the Minister will take all necessary steps to address the school needs of this area.

  Mr. Bruton: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this important issue. This matter concerns the provision of applied behavioural analysis schools for children on the northside with autistic spectrum disorders. The northside has a serious shortage of places for such children. There is one school in Kilbarrack, the only one on the northside. It has 30 places for which there is a waiting list of 48. ACORN, the school concerned, has offered 12 places but already 31 children are waiting for those places. It is the virtually uniform and strong belief of parents of children with autistic spectrum disorders that applied behavioural analysis is the preferred way to deal with children. They have provided an excellent document in support of this application which I hope the Minister of State has an opportunity to examine. It describes the particular disabilities of children with autism and the particular relevance of the applied behavioural approach to their needs. It goes on to cite international opinion which shows there is a consensus that the applied behavioural analysis is the most successful educational intervention. In the US that system is the automatic preference. The New York State Department of Health states: “Based upon strong scientific evidence, it is recommended that principles of applied behavioural analysis and behavioural intervention strategies be included as an important element of any intervention programme for young children with autism”.

It is clear there is a strong desire among parents of children with autism that this is the best way for their children. There are many who are extremely passionate about this model. I am sure the Minister of State has had representations on the matter. It is extraordinary that our Department, despite having committed itself to the Education Disability Act which provides that the needs of the child must be paramount, continues to resist providing the applied behavioural analysis approach and to persist with the system that provides much less personal support to these children. There is a genuine fear that this is about [1757] economics and that the reason the Minister of State is not willing to commit to it is that by the standard approach it is a ratio of six children to one teacher, plus two special needs assistants while the applied behavioural analysis system is a one -to -one approach. There is no doubt it is more resource intensive. The Minister of State needs to respond not only to this crisis where there are 78 children waiting on the northside but also in the national context to recognise this system has an appropriate place. This application was first made nine months ago. It has been with the new special education council in Trim and is going to the National Educational Psychological Service for yet another loop. Instead of making parents go through loop after loop we need to recognise this is a core requirement. It is clear that children at a certain part of the spectrum who have severe difficulties need this system. There is a need to move forward and we need a proper policy statement.

I was alarmed to see among the correspondence I received that the Minister for Education and Science has consistently refused to meet Irish Autism Action, the national umbrella organisation for promoting this form of education. Scales need to fall from the eyes of the people within the Department of Education and Science who need to recognise this is not only the wish of parents but also internationally proven to be a preferred approach. If the Minister of State does not have a positive response I hope he will convey the strength of feeling of parents to the Minister.

  Mr. B. Lenihan: I thank Deputy Bruton for raising this issue. It is an area in which I have taken a big interest as a Deputy and as a Minister of State. I agree this model deserves fair evaluation and consideration by the Minister. The one school in Kilbarrack was opened some years ago. The demand for this school is substantial. Like the Deputy I have the honour of representing the northside of the city and am well aware of the issues raised. The special facility operates the applied behavioural analysis method of teaching children with autism. I have met some of the groups involved and referred to by the Deputy. I understand the application is known as the ACORN proposal.

The Minister is most anxious that all children, including children with autistic spectrum disorders, receive an education appropriate to their needs. It is in recognition of this that the Department of Education and Science provides the following facilities for the education of children with autism: 159 special classes for children with autism, attached to special and mainstream schools; 15 pre-school classes; five special classes for children with Asperger’s syndrome; and 12 stand alone facilities providing an ABA specific methodology.

Many of the children being proposed for the unit in question are in existing autism specific [1758] provision. The ABA method is one of a range of approaches to the education of children with autism. The approach is based on understanding a set of behaviours, breaking down the components of the tasks involved in learning and the application of consequences to either reduce-weaken or increase-strengthen a particular behaviour or set of behaviours.

Based on a detailed assessment of a child’s current skills, numerous systematic instructional sequences are presented to the child. The child’s response to each component of each task is closely monitored. Positive reinforcement is used. Progress is closely monitored through recording the child’s reaction on each trial throughout the day. The results of each trial are recorded on detailed graphs and these form the basis of decisions as to when to move on to new tasks.

The past few years have seen the promotion of the ABA method in certain sectors as the most effective approach to the education of children with autism. Some parents believe the ABA method alone can effectively address their children’s needs. Expert opinion varies on the success of the ABA approach. The view of the Department is that while the ABA method has a role to play, especially for younger children, it is not the only approach and is not necessarily appropriate for all children with autism. There is also concern that exclusive adherence to the ABA method to the exclusion of all other models is unduly one dimensional and not in the best interests of the overall long-term development of children.

The role of ABA was considered in detail by the task force on autism which concluded that ABA, in common with a range of other models, has a valuable contribution to make. The task force’s view was that ABA and a range of other models should all be available within an eclectic approach where the precise model or models used and the extent of their use at any give time should be dictated by the professionally assessed and evolving needs of each individual child.

While the Department’s preferred approach is to provide appropriate provision based on an eclectic model and delivered through the recognised primary and post-primary school network, it will continue, in conjunction with the National Council for Special Education, to consider applications which may be received for the establishment of further stand-alone facilities. The involvement of the NCSE also takes account of the role and responsibility of that organisation in identifying suitable educational placements for children with special needs. In examining all current and future applications for ABA specific units, the involvement of the NCSE, through its relevant special educational needs organisers, will enable the Department of Education and Science to consider the need for stand-alone units on a fully informed basis.

This participation will enable the Minister’s officials to establish what provision, if any, is in place for the relevant children; where a child is [1759] not currently placed in any provision, to identify appropriate provision in that area, if it exists; to explore the potential of establishing new school-based provision; and at the end of this process to report back to the Department on the outcome of that process and provide an update on the position regarding each child.

The Department is considering a report from the National Council for Special Education on the application in question. Input has been requested from both the National Educational Psychological Service and the Department’s inspectorate.

[1760]   Mr. Bruton: It is nine months since an application was made for 12 places, for which 78 children are waiting. Surely the Department can act with greater urgency.

  Mr. B. Lenihan: The information received is being considered and Department officials will revert to the relevant agencies if further information is required. The officials will notify all relevant parties when a decision on the application has been made.

  The Dáil adjourned at 9.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 6 April 2006.