Minister criticised for Carlow school where autism students are in 'hand-me-down portacabin'

Senator Jennifer Murnane O'Connor raised the matter recently

Darren Hassett

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Darren Hassett

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"The school was granted temporary accommodation to enable the ASD unit to get off the ground," Minister Bruton

The Minister for Education has been criticised over the conditions for autism students at Fr Cullen Memorial School in Tinryland.

The facility is a digital school of distinction, a fair trade school, a green school, and a school which excels in sports, academia and extracurricular activities.

Speaking in the Seanad earlier this year, Senator Jennifer Murnane O'Connor said: "It had an enrolment of 161 students for the past year but the numbers are growing."

Fr Cullen Memorial school has an autistic spectrum disorder unit catering for 12 students.

When the school contacted the Department about its desire to have a proper autism spectrum disorder unit it was given sanction for two classrooms, which were listed on the Department's website for intake last year.

When the school wrote to the Department asking for help in building sufficient accommodation for this sanction it was asked about renting the local hall or inquiring about a vacant shop across the road.

None of these ideas were suitable because a sizeable amount of work was necessary to bring them up to scratch.

Senator Murnane O'Connor said: "Meanwhile, the school was offered someone else's portacabin. Now it has 12 lovely children, four SNAs and two teachers working in hand-me-down portacabin.

"The area is too small and the children are stressed out and deserve so much better from the Department of Education and Skills.

"There are no changing facilities.There is no withdrawal space, which is key in the correct education of children in this spectrum.

"The unsuitable accommodation is putting a massive strain on staff and an unnecessary strain on already struggling families. There is no reason these children should be taught in unsuitable accommodation.

"It needs additional accommodation and it should have the opportunity to pitch for it. Enrolment at the school is predicted to increase in September.

"Where on the schools building programme list is this project? It is important that the school is granted funding for the provision of these two additional classrooms. The school is creaking at the seams and it needs a little help."

In response, Minister Richard Brurton said: "We plan to start a prefab replacement programme in 2019. Beyond this, we intend to have a deep refurbishment of all schools over ten years old, including energy retrofit. 

"As mentioned by the Senator, in 2017 the school was approved by the (National Council for Special Education) for an ASD unit, for which the school sought commencement in September 2017.

"In the intervening period, the school was granted temporary accommodation to enable the ASD unit to get off the ground and provide the service needed.

"Earlier this year, the school submitted an application for capital funding for not only the two ASD classrooms but additional mainstream classrooms which it considers will be required into the future on the basis of the schools projected enrolment.

"The school has gone beyond the original application in respect of the ASD unit, which the Senator referenced when she said it wanted the opportunity to pitch for additional accommodation to develop the school.

"Those two issues will be looked at slightly differently within the Department. The ASD unit is clearly necessary accommodation. We always want to move to try to upgrade those facilities.

"Officials are working closely with the principal and they will be looking at this specific application."

The Minister pledged that  a response to the school was imminent.

With regard to the portacabin, he said: "It is not a decision that I make. The inspectorate will look at the accommodation currently available and the merit of the application against the ability to deliver the progress that needs to be delivered.

"The decision will be made on that fair and equal basis. Senator Murnane O'Connor has to bear in mind that capital funds are still under pressure. We have continued growth at both primary and secondary levels this year, with roughly 100,000 extra students to be accommodated at each level.

"That is the reality of the present climate. Most countries in Europe would give their right arms to have such strong growth in pupil numbers. It is a sign of a young growing population."