Hilda Duignan from Ballydangan with her son Evan (5).

Children with special needs being 'left in limbo'

With up to eighteen special needs children in the Monksland area of Athlone currently unable to secure a school place, the Minister for Education has been asked to “urgently intervene” to avert a crisis in special needs education locally.

Hilda Duignan admits that she may have “no option” but to send her 5-year old son, Evan, who is autistic, to a primary school in September which is located a 70 mile round trip from his home in Ballydangan due to the lack of special classes at any of the local primary schools.

With her four children attending schools in three different counties – Roscommon, Galway and Westmeath – Hilda Duignan says she has applied to seven primary schools in the local area for a place for her youngest son, but without any success. “At the moment I am being offered nothing,” she says. “And unless a place materialises between now and September he will be left without an education, it's as stark as that.”

The Ballydangan mother says her “first choice” for Evan, who is currently in his second year in the Early Intervention class in St Paul's infant school in Athlone, is to join his sister, Edie (7), who has also been diagnosed with autism, in the special class at Scoi an Chroí Naofa in Ballinasloe, but there are no places available.

“Evan needs to be in a special class attached to a mainstream school, but demand for special needs places far outstrips supply, so unless more classes are opened up in local schools before the new school year starts in September, many children in the South Roscommon and greater Athlone area will be denied their basic right to an education,” says Hilda Duignan.

Another local parent who claims her child is being “left in limbo” is Catherine Marin, who lives in Cluain Broc, Monksland with her husband, Constantin and two sons, Logan (11) and Layton, who will be five in June, and has been diagnosed with level 2 autism.

Logan attends Cloonakilla National School, while Layton currently attends Juniper Tree preschool in Monksland, and is due to begin primary school in September.

However, despite their best efforts, his parents are unable to source a school place locally for their autistic son.

“We have been offered a place in a special needs class in Killimor in Galway, which would mean a three-hour daily round trip for Layton,” says his mother, Catherine who adds that such a long journey to school would be “unthinkable” for a small child who is still at the pre-verbal stage.

The Marins did enroll their youngest child in Cloonakilla national school, but Catherine says he would need “one to one support” from a Special Needs Assistant, which the school would not be in a position to provide.

“We feel we are being left in limbo, and at the moment we have no hope atall of any special needs place becoming available in any of the local schools as the demand for places is just too high.”

A number of parents from the Monksland area have requested Roscommon/Galway Sinn Féin TD, Clare Kerrane, to raise the lack of special needs school places, at both primary and secondary level, with the Minister for Education.

Deputy Kerrrane hand delivered a letter to Minister Normal Foley earlier this week seeking “urgent intervention” to ensure that children in need of a special needs class place are provided with one.

“This should not be a battle for parents – it needs to be guaranteed,” the letter stated. “There needs to be capacity sought and made available in existing schools, and the necessary supports, staffing or otherwise, to open special classes.”

The letter requested the Minister for Education to “engage immediately” with the National Council for Special Education on behalf of all children without a special class place in Monksland “to ensure that all children have access to an education – the most basic of human


Deputy Kerrane branded as “disgraceful” the fact that children and their parents, not just in Monksland, but in many other areas, are being deprived of a special needs class place and said “this should not happen”.

In response to a query from the Westmeath Independent about the lack of school places for special needs children in the Monksland and greater Athlone/South Roscommon areas a Department of Education spokesperson says that enabing children with special educational needs to receive an education “is a priority for this government”.

The spokesperson adds that the Department if Education spent “over €2.6 billion” on special education last year, with an additional investment of €113 million being made this year to provide supports for children with special educational needs.

At local level, the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) is currently “reviewing the overall demand for such provision in the area alongside the availability of space in local schools.” and will “continue to engage” on a regular basis in relation to the provision of additional special education placements” the department spokesperson explains.

The Department says that the local NCSE Special Educational Needs Organisers (SENO) remain in contact with the principals of the local schools and the parents in the areas, with parents being “duly notified as new special class placements become available and are sanctioned for the 2024/2025 school year within the area”.

The spokesperson reiterates that the Department and the NCSE are committed to ensuring that “sufficient special education placements will be available for children for this school year and future years”.