Athlone mother Michelle Lynch. Her search for a secondary school place for her son Gareth, who has autism, was discussed in the Dail recently.

Dáil told of new special class in Athlone, but details are unknown

The Tanaiste Leo Varadkar has said a local 12-year-old boy with autism is to be offered a secondary school place in “an additional special class” in Athlone, but the boy’s mother is still waiting for details of the place being made available to him.

As previously reported in the Westmeath Independent, there are 11 local children with autism who recently finished primary school without having a secondary school place in the Athlone area. One of these children is Gareth (12), who has autism and type 1 diabetes.

Gareth’s mother Michelle Lynch, who lives in Baylough, recently spoke on RTÉ News about being unable to find a school place for him locally, and this led to the case being raised by Labour leader Ivana Bacik in the Dáil on June 23.

“(Gareth’s) mother, Michelle, spoke powerfully about the toll that this has taken on her child. He has stopped attending class altogether because he feels that there is just no point. He is not alone,” said Deputy Bacik.

“Some estimates indicate that nearly 270 children in Ireland are without school places for this coming September.”

Responding, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said: “I am always reluctant to discuss individual cases in the Dáil but I understand that, in Gareth’s case, an additional special class is now being provided in Athlone. That will be an option for him.

“I hope that will resolve that issue to the satisfaction of his parents,” added the Fine Gael leader.

When contacted by this newspaper on Monday, Gareth’s mother said she had received a phone call from the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) telling her that there would be a school place for her son in Athlone, but they couldn’t say which school would be providing it.

“I don’t know what school is getting the extra class, or if he’s just being squeezed into (an existing) classroom, or what the story is,” said Michelle.

She said the NCSE told her they would be in touch but they couldn’t say when she would find out which school would be offering Gareth a place.

“It’s no good to me finding out in September. I need a bit of time to prepare and to get him used to the idea of going to secondary school, because he’s had no transition to secondary school,” she commented.

On Friday last the Minister with responsibility for Special Education, Josepha Madigan, introduced new legislation to the Dáil which aims to increase the number of special class places available across the country.

The Government said the new law would establish “a truncated Section 37A process” that could direct schools to make additional provision for children with special educational needs in a shorter timeframe.

It said the new process could see Ministerial directions being served on schools “within 6 to 8 weeks of receiving a report from the NCSE setting out its opinion that there are insufficient school places in a certain area.”

The Minister described the introduction of the new legislation as “a landmark day for children with special educational needs and their families”.

On Tuesday, the recently established Oireachtas committee on autism, which is chaired by Longford Senator Micheál Carrigy, held meetings with Minister Madigan and representatives of teachers’ unions to discuss autism policy and education.

“The Committee welcomes this opportunity to meet with Minister Madigan and the teaching unions as we continue our work following last week’s opening meeting,” said Senator Carrigy.

He added that the committee was looking forward to “wide-ranging discussions on autism policy and education and related matters.”