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STUDENTS ARE PRESENTLY trying to ignore the impending end of their summer holidays and pleading for the return of some sunshine. This includes students from the 731 Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) special classes in primary schools around the country, as well as the hundreds of those students who have left 6th class and primary school behind and have the daunting transition to secondary school ahead of them, which can be especially challenging for students with autism.

While the lack of appropriate special class places for those and other students with ASD has been and continues to be rightly highlighted by parents, campaigners, those working in education and some politicians, the complete lack of funding to run ASD special classes in secondary schools has, until lately, received scant coverage.

Primary schools with ASD special classes receive €682 in additional funding per student per year. That’s €4,092 for every ASD special class per year, with 6 students per class. When a student moves from a 6th class ASD special class to a 1st year ASD special class, that funding goes from €682 per year to €0 per year. In the space of two months that student has changed almost imperceptibly, but their right to an appropriately funded education has vanished.

The National Council for Education (NCSE) recommends that ASD special classes in both primary and secondary should be equally funded. To date no argument has been put forward by the Department of Education and Skills to articulate why this should not be so.

Lack of joined-up thinking and logic 

It made complete sense that when ASD special classes were being rolled out across our education system that those in primary should be first to be properly funded. But the students in those initial primary ASD special classes, and the many others who’ve followed them, have moved on to secondary school. Unfortunately a lack of joined-up thinking and logic has meant that the appropriate funding of their education stops in June of 6th class.

In 2016 I read a document from the Department of Education and Skills with information and guidelines on how to set up a new ASD class in primary and post-primary schools. Under its final heading of ‘Grants’, it stated:

“The school will be paid an enhanced level of capitation grant per pupil enrolled in the special class for autism. The enhanced rate of capitation that will be paid to the school is now €855 per pupil in the special autism class. The standard capitation rate for pupils in mainstream classes €173. The amount of the enhanced grant in excess of the standard capitation grant is intended to be used to enhance the pupils’ learning and participation in school and to purchase books, materials and teaching aids.”

Excitedly I rang the Department of Education thinking our lack of funding must’ve been some oversight and prematurely thinking of all the ways in which this would benefit our students. My optimism didn’t survive that first phone call.

The Department denied the existence of the document. Shortly thereafter it was taken offline and amended. The Grants section was now split between primary and secondary with no mention of funding to run ASD special classes in secondary schools. In every subsequent phone call to the Department the existence of the original version of the document was denied. The same position was put to me in a meeting in the Department, until I put copies of both documents on the table.

Explanation

Successive Ministers for Education have publicly lauded the funding of ASD special classes in the full knowledge that said funding was to establish those ASD special classes and that, in the case of those in secondary schools, there wasn’t a cent provided to run them.

Recently this issue has been brought up in the Dáil by Thomas Byrne TD (FF) and in the Seanad by Senator Colette Kelleher (Ind) to Richard Bruton, Minister for Education, and he has said he’ll “look into the issue”. There are also impending meetings within the Department of Education and Skills to do the same.

No more investigation or research is necessary. There are two choices before the Minister and the Department of Education. Either appropriately fund ASD special classes in secondary schools as the NCSE supports or explain why they won’t or can’t. I wish them good luck with either explanation.

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