The Tanaiste has defended the Government’s commitment to special education amid concerns over plans to create special school centres as an “interim” measure.
The Fine Gael leader faced questions on Thursday over frustrations among parents and advocates about the difficulty in finding school and class places for children with additional needs.
In Dublin alone, there are 80 children waiting for a special class place.
Leo Varadkar acknowledged that “stop gap” was not appropriate language to use in relation to policy measures for children with special educational needs.
In response to a question in the Dail from Labour TD Duncan Smith, who raised the need for more special school places for the second day this week, Mr Varadkar said the Government’s policy is one of integration.
Mr Smith mentioned reports in the Irish Times of plans to create emergency special school centres, subsequently confirmed by Minister of State for Special Education Josepha Madigan on Twitter on Wednesday evening.
“This is no way to make major public announcements, specifically on areas so sensitive and so important,” Mr Smith said.
“This still seems like one of the most brainless, out-of-touch policy responses to a real crisis that has existed in our country for many years.
Mr Varadkar said: “Our policy is one of integration. If we’re going to have an integrated society, we’re going to have to start with integrated schools.
“As much as possible, children with special needs or additional needs should be integrated in mainstream schools or mainstream classes.”
Last year, there were an additional 300 special needs places made available in mainstream schools, Mr Varadkar said.
“Last night I attended a meeting with people from my constituency from the Dublin 15 area,” he continued. “And we were able to confirm last night 22 additional places in special classes in four schools in Dublin 15. We were short 17 places, and we were able to find an extra 22.”
Ms Madigan was also at the meeting, Mr Varadkar said, and was able to achieve “co-operation from the schools” in securing the additional places.
He said the budget for special education is two billion euro, meaning for every four euro spent in schools one goes to special education.
Mr Varadkar also admitted: “Language that was used yesterday was not the best language. No parent wants to be told that their child has been offered a ‘stop-gap’ solution.
“And I particularly don’t like the use of the term ‘autism centre’, because it sounds othering. It sounds like children are going to be bussed away to a special place set away from other children.
“The language that was used last night was not the right language, and certainly has been badly received by parents and by advocates in the sector. I hear that and I get that.”
A meeting is planned on Thursday between department officials and the Special Education Consultative Forum to discuss the proposal.
In a statement released ahead of the meeting, Ms Madigan said she is committed to using the Section 37a process which requires mainstream schools to establish new special classes.
Mr Varadkar, speaking to reporters in Dublin city centre on Thursday afternoon, defended his Government’s record on special education.
“I don’t think any government has been more committed to special education than this Government,” he said.
“It’s very much the policy of Government to mainstream and integrate kids with special educational needs and make sure that they get the education they’re entitled to in their local school, in their community and that’s what we’re absolutely committed to,” he said.
“Sometimes we can run into problems and home tuition has to be offered as an option or, in some cases, a special school is the right option for children with very profound needs.
“But for the vast majority of children, what we’re providing them with is mainstream classes in mainstream schools.
“And the minister has the power to require schools to provide additional mainstream classes if that’s necessary, and she’s willing to use that power.”
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein’s Matt Carty raised the cost-of-living crisis during Leaders’ Questions, and said fuel prices had crept back up to levels they had been at when the Government raised its fuel subsidy measure.
“It’s an understatement to say that the packages your Government have introduced don’t go far enough. They didn’t make a dent in the astronomical living costs that people face.
“Fuel prices are now back at the level they were at before the Government introduced a measure that you were told wasn’t enough. In fact, the price at the fuel pumps is even higher today than it was then.”
Mr Varadkar said the rising cost of living was “largely driven” by international factors, including the war in Ukraine and China’s zero-Covid strategy.
He said that rather than being a “mini” Budget, the cost of living package is worth more than the usual October Budget – comprising 1-2 billion euros compared to the cost of living package worth 2.4 billion euros “so far” this year.
“It’s the kind of thing you would do in two budgets,” he said.
People Before Profit Solidarity TD Mick Barry raised the World Economic Forum at Davos, which Mr Varadkar had attended and Taoiseach Micheal Martin is currently attending.
Mr Varadkar said it was an opportunity to raise issues like the Northern Ireland Protocol, and he flew by commercial flight and stayed at a four-star hotel.