The Department of Education estimates it needs to double the amount of special education classes at post-primary level over the next three years as pupil numbers soar.
Officials from the department’s planning and building unit briefed members of the Oireachtas education committee on Tuesday on its current and future plans.
Planning and Building Assistant Secretary Hubert Loftus told the committee that national demographics at post-primary level are projected to peak in the next couple of years. There are currently 1,000 Ukrainian students in sixth class who will require a post-primary place in September.
Green Party TD Marc Ó Cathasaigh asked if the department has a “basic metric” to predict how many special classes are needed at both primary and post-primary level.
In response, Assistant Secretary-General Martina Mannion said the department was previously working off general figures, also in use by the Department of Health, which put the prevalence rate of autism across the Irish population at 1.5%.
Significant additional work and detailed analysis have been done since, she added. “We’re now working off figures of 3.3% in terms of making provision across the system.”
The department has analyzed its forecasts over the last two years to see "the difference between the level of provision that we had intended to provide and the actual level of provision that we did ultimately provide", she said.
It also looked at the number of children transitioning between classes, attending classes, and at emerging evidence. “We have now a much more detailed forecasting model for the level of provision that we need to provide over the next three years.”
“We would see that [we're] going to need to continue to deliver the same number of special classes at primary level, but we're going to need to double the number of classes or post-primary level over the next three years.”
Ultimately, the department envisages that every post-primary school in the country will have special education classes. "It's not just the classrooms, we need to make sure that schools have an early notification of where those classes are going to be required.
Fianna Fáil TD for Cork East, Padraig O'Sullivan, asked if many schools are currently at planning stage for astroturf pitches, given EU proposals on banning microplastics.
He also asked about the provision of post-primary schools in East Cork, which experiences pressure for places each year. There are currently up to 10,000 new homes planned for the area.
Mr Loftus said the department is aware of the EU directive, but he believes it will be more of an issue for sports clubs than schools. He added that there will be “some phase out” of the pitches.
Fianna Fáil TD for Cork East James O'Connor said school place issues in the East Cork area are "chronic" and that every school in his constituency has expanded and is at capacity.
Principal officer Áine Cusack said the department is continuing to keep monitoring the housing and population targets in the area. "We believe that the projects we already have in train will meet that medium-term need."