All children with autism should have access to the “essential” Summer Programme, and the Minister for Education should ensure that all Special Schools provide it next year, a landmark report to be published on Thursday has urged.
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Autism made the resolution “given the urgency of the current situation”, calling on Norma Foley to undertake a number of actions to guarantee that the programme reaches as many of the children who need it as possible this summer.
The Summer Programme, previously called July Provision, was established as a four-week programme of education for children with autism and those with profound special educational needs throughout the month of July. It sought to mitigate regression for such children and also served as a form of respite for parents.
Access to summer programmes has been expanded in recent years, but sign-up from schools, teachers, and SNAs is voluntary. Many special schools also do not run programmes over the summer holidays.
As the Government expanded the cohort of pupils to whom the programme was available during Covid-19 into three strands, the committee said it heard that those for whom the programme was envisaged “were no longer able to avail of it”. It held a number of meetings with stakeholders, including parents, to seek submissions on how to improve the situation heading into next year.
The committee identified numerous key issues related to the Summer Programme over the course of these meetings, including delays in schools confirming participation, refusal of schools to provide it, and the strain placed on carers and families over this period.
Although adopting a resolution that all special schools should provide this programme, the committee also acknowledged that issues need to be addressed for this to happen.
It said: “As there are underlying complexities concerning staffing and pay parity, establishing a requirement for special schools to provide the Summer Programme may be difficult to achieve without adequately addressing the underlying issues,” it said.
It also notes the impact of the programme on respite for families. “For many of these families, it is often the only form of respite available to them,” it said. The committee said that parents often have to take unpaid leave to care for their children during the summer months as a result.
As part of the resolution adopted by the committee, it recommends that sufficient resources are provided to schools in order that they may offer a comprehensive provision of the Summer Programme in 2023.
Where needed, the resources of schools should be brought together to ensure that a programme is available in every large town in the country.
Furthermore, any constraints should be mitigated in respect of staffing issues such as delays in payments to teachers and SNAs, the resolution of any pay anomalies and the broadening of the workforce to include occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, early childcare workers and suitable student placements.
The report will be published by the committee at a press conference in Leinster House later on Thursday.