Report by Mala O’Donoghue
A new campaign to fight for autism-friendly schools was launched in a packed meeting in the Metropole Hotel in Cork on Monday December 12th . Among the attendees were members of the Cork branch of People before Profit.
HOMEROOM which is campaigning for improvements in mainstream secondary school provision for students with autism, highlighted the desperate need for special Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) classes in post-primary schools, both in Cork and countrywide. They argue the reason for the shortage is the ability of secondary schools to refuse to set up the special classes, despite the need and requests from parents.
The focus of the meeting was to draw attention to The Education (Admissions to Schools) Bill 2016, which is currently working its way through the Oireachtas.
HOMEROOM have proposed an amendment to this bill, which would give NCSE (National Council for Special Education) the authority to compel schools to set up special classes where there is a need, which according to the organiser Graham Manning, is an authority the NCSE has asked for.
Graham, who is an ASD Programme organiser, spoke of the chronic shortage of school placements for children with ASD. In Cork, there are 81 ASD primary school classes and just 41 ASD classes in secondary school. The story is the similar all over the country, although the shortage is even starker in other areas. In Dublin for example, there are 105 ASD primary school classes and 30 ASD secondary school classes. Most worryingly year on year, the gap is continuing to get wider. However, these figures may actually under-represent the need for ASD classes in secondary school, as they do not include students in primary school with ADS that are not in a special class. Many of these children may require this support in secondary school.
These shocking figures mean that children with ASD are either refused enrolments in secondary schools in Cork or are offered mainstream placements that are detrimental to both their educational and psychological needs.
Invited speakers included Seamas Feehan ASD Services, Senator Collette Kelleher (who has agreed to propose the amendment), Mick Barry TD (AAA/PBP), Micheal Martin TD (FF), Donnchadh O Laoghaire TD (SF) and former TD Kathleen Lynch (Labour). Fine Gael representatives were notably absent though invited to attend.
All speakers referred to the current crisis and pledged to support the amendment proposed, which would compel secondary school to set up special ASD classes if requested by the National Council for Special Education.
However, it was the stories told by families of children with ASD that brought home the disturbing impact of the current crisis. Parents spoke of the distress, pain and upset their families have endured in trying to source suitable school placements for their children, and the devastating effects on children who are forced to attend unsuitable mainstream classes. They spoke emotively about bullying, social isolation, distress, anxiety, mental health problems and the hampering of academic success.
For me however, an infuriating aspect to the meeting was to hear Micheal Martin (FF) and Kathleen Lynch (Lab) describe the devastating consequence of the current crisis for children with ASD in Cork. They spoke as if they were innocent bystanders, playing no part in such a crisis. This crisis did not just occur in the last school year – it is the result of successive government policies, chronic underfunding and cutbacks, which have done serious damage to the Irish education system and consequently serious damage to the lives of these children and their families.
PBP/AAA will support this amendment in the Dail. However, we know that should this Bill pass, it is only the start of the struggle. Parents at the meeting highlighted huge challenges for children in schools with special ASD classes when resources and commitment are lacking. We believe that it will be People Power that will drive changes for these children – with our TDs acting as a voice for that power. We have seen what is possible when we organise and fight back, and look to people like Cork woman Vera Twomey, fighting on behalf of her daughter Ava, to see what is possible, or to the governments climbdown on water charges when people took to the street and refused to pay. HOMEROOM plan to continue their campaign with further meetings in the New Year. People before Profit will continue to support this campaign, as we believe that ALL children should have equal access to education.