Minister of State for Special Education Josepha Madigan has said the creation of special education centres to cater for children with autism and other intellectual disabilities who cannot secure a school place remains an option.
However, she said she would be open to changing the name.
Speaking on RTÉ's Six One News, Ms Madigan said there is "a lot of misperception about what it [special education centres] is meant to be".
She said she believed it was regrettable that it came into the public domain before there was an opportunity to discuss it with stakeholders, including AsIAm and other advocacy groups.
"I think I had no option but to tweet something on the basis that it was already out there in the public domain and I suppose I wanted to reassure people who were perhaps wondering what this was all about and I think there was, there is, a lot of misperception about what it is meant to be," she said.
She added that the plan was "very much in its infancy".
"I should stress, this is not to replace a special class. This is not a placement and one of the reasons why we couldn't call them schools is because of that, because that then relinquishes the responsibility on local schools to provide these special class spaces."
The minister insisted that she will compel any school that does not have a legitimate reason to not open a special class to do so, and said she is liaising closely with the National Council for Special Education and the Department of Education on this issue.
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission strongly criticised the plans and autism campaigners and school principals have reacted with shock to the decision.
Details of the plan - designed to address a severe shortage of school places in the capital - emerged last night and involve a network of five centres to be run by the Education and Training Boards.
This was described as a "template", suggesting that it could be rolled out in other areas.
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The IHREC said the announcement of the plan without consultation is "fundamentally at odds with the word and the spirit of the UN Convention".
Under Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the State holds an obligation to ensure that: "Persons with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability, and that children with disabilities are not excluded from free and compulsory primary education, or from secondary education, on the basis of disability."
IHREC Chief Commissioner Sinéad Gibney said: "The State has a record of temporary measures becoming embedded in long term delivery. The severe shortage of school places for these students is not new and not only Dublin specific.
"The State cannot just roll back the rights of these children to an inclusive education for the sake of convenience, particularly for children who rely on consistency and routine to anchor their educational needs."
Shock expressed at plan
Adam Harris of the charity AsIAm, said he is "truly shocked" by the plan which will mean "the segregation of autistic children from their peers".
Mr Harris said his organisation estimated that there were at least several hundred autistic children across the country who have been unable to find a suitable school place for this coming September.
AsIAm is currently surveying parents and hopes to have a definitive idea as to the extent of the school places shortage by tomorrow.
Commenting after meeting Minister Madigan earlier today, Mr Harris said the organisation remained of the view that the proposal is "not in keeping with the rights of the child and cannot proceed".
He said AsIAm was keen to engage with the department and welcomed their wish to engage.
Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, Mr Harris said the decision "flies in the face" of Ireland's obligation under the UN Convention on the rights of a person with disabilities.
He said it also arguably does not meet the test for an appropriate suitable education that is provided for within the Constitution.
He said that for over 20 years they have been trying to work towards a model whereby every child who is able to learn in mainstream is included in a mainstream setting.
"We know year on year there has been a failure to appropriately plan for the provision of these places and that has caused an ongoing crisis for hundreds of families across the country, particularly in the Dublin region," he said.
Mr Harris accused the Government of inconsistent messaging on this issue and said there has been poor communication with families and schools.
This is a supplementary measure to ensure that while children await a new special class placement in a mainstream school, they can access a more sustained level of support in a setting with peers of their own age.— Josepha Madigan ⚖️✨ (@josephamadigan) May 25, 2022
On Twitter last night, Ms Madigan described the plan as a "supplementary measure to ensure that while children await a new special class placement in a mainstream school they can access a more sustained level of support in a setting with peers of their own age".
Ms Madigan said she wanted to stress that "this proposal is not a medium or long-term alternative to a special class placement in a school".
She said children could "access education on an interim basis in a new SEN Centre and be supported to move quickly to a special class placement in a mainstream school.
"We are still working on this proposal and this is in no way a long-term solution".
She said children would have access to qualified teachers and SNAs at the new centres.
I want to stress that this proposal is not a medium or long-term alternative to a special class placement in a school. Children can access education on an interim basis in a new SEN Centre and be supported to move quickly to a special class placement in a mainstream school.— Josepha Madigan ⚖️✨ (@josephamadigan) May 25, 2022
The Tánaiste has insisted that the proposal is "not a move back towards special schools".
When asked on RTÉ's Drivetime about what would happen to those children who do not have a school place for September, Leo Varadkar said there are "a number of options" which would be subject to parental choice.
"So for example, there is the option of home tuition and that's used in some circumstances," Mr Varadkar said.
"And there's also the option of using the Education Act, I think it's section 37 A of the Education Act, where the minister can direct schools to accept special classes."
Earlier, he told the Dáil that he believed the way the matter was brought to public attention could have been communicated better.
"I think perhaps the language that was used yesterday was not the best language.
"No parent wants to be told that their child is being offered a stop-gap solution. I particularly don't like the phrase autism centre."
The Tánaiste also told the Dáil that "integration" is the policy of Government for children with special education needs.
Earlier today, he met today with the parents of two boys with autism.
School principals also reacted to the news with shock.
"I feel so sorry for these children. They are going to end up in a 'Mosney' for kids," one principal told RTÉ News, comparing the proposed centres to a form of the much criticised Direct Provision system for asylum seekers.
Mr Harris said he believed the plan may be unconstitutional.
"There are serious questions about whether or not such a plan would meet the test, meet the constitutional test of providing 'appropriate' education for children," he said.
"Ireland has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and that means we need to move towards integrated education, but this is segregating children and putting them together simply because of their diagnosis."
Meanwhile, the chairperson of Involve Autism has described the special education centres plan as "absolutely appalling and very upsetting".
Miriam Kenny said she was "totally shocked" at the proposal and she said as an advocate, an educator and a mother of an autistic child she was "totally gobsmacked that this was considered or even touted as an idea".
Speaking on RTÉ's Prime Time programme, she said as a parent, what she wants for her child is "an exceptional education, the same as everybody else wants for their child, so why should my expectation be any different".
She has called for "systemic change and planning" for the children and she said the children and families need to be supported.
'Ten steps backwards'
Inclusion Ireland, an advocacy organisation for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, has described the plan as being "like ten steps backwards on the path to inclusive education".
The group said they were "not contacted or consulted in any way" about the measures, despite their involvement in consultative forums on special and inclusive education.
CEO of Inclusion Ireland Derval McDonagh said that "'short-term' segregated solutions... quickly become the accepted norm that last years longer than they were intended to and that is not what children deserve for their education".
Labour TD Duncan Smith characterised the plan as a "brainless out-of-touch policy".
He said the emergence of the initiative last night was "no way to make major public announcement" given the issue is "so sensitive and important" and he asserted it had "caused huge concern and distress".
Mr Smith contended the policy was "totally at odds" with what Minister Madigan announced last week, in which she committed to using special powers to increase numbers in schools.
He added the new policy sounded as if schools that "don't get their act together" will be allowed off the hook" and parents would be worried as they know "short-term solutions" often become the "norm".
Fianna Fáil TD Paul McAuliffe said he is "incredibly frustrated" with the plan, and that the intention seemed to go against parents' views without any consultation.
"I am very concerned and I hope Minister Madigan can explain to Fianna Fáil backbenchers like myself what this change means," Mr McAuliffe said, adding that the topic came up every week at the parliamentary party meeting.
Reporting Emma O Kelly, Paul Cunningham, Sandra Hurley