Ministers object to ‘special education centres’ as solution to crisis in school places

Controversial plan, which critics say amounts to ‘segregated education’, not yet formally ruled out

A number of Cabinet Ministers have objected to the use of controversial “special education centres” as a solution to a looming crisis in school places.

The plan, which emerged late last month, involved establishing temporary centres to provide an education for dozens of vulnerable children who have not yet secured a special class place in a mainstream school in the Dublin area.

However, the plan met fierce criticism from campaigners and human rights groups who said it amounted to “segregated education” and would undermine attempts to create an inclusive education system.

Despite opposition, The Irish Times understands that the broad plan for special centres is still being examined and has not been formally ruled out.

Minister for Education Norma Foley and Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris are among those who voiced concerns over the proposals at last week’s Cabinet meeting, according to informed sources, and emphasised the need to source places within existing schools.

Opposition parties have labelled plans for education centres as a form of “segregation”, while groups representing young people with disabilities say it would impact “massively” on the inclusion of children who are entitled to an appropriate education.

In addition, the Irish Human Rights Commission has warned that it would not be rights-compliant.

The commission, which is the designated independent monitor of Ireland’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, said the State had an obligation to ensure that [people with disabilities] were “not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability”.

The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) has formally written to Minister of State for special education Josepha Madigan to warn that there is insufficient special class capacity in primary schools and special school capacity in Dublin.

Latest official figures indicate there are about 80 children who require school places, though this is expected to fall.

During a private members’ debate on the topic of shortages of special education places in the Dáil last week, Government Ministers and TDs did not reference special education centres.

Ms Madigan said the Government was committed to ensuring that each child with a special educational need has an appropriate school place, in line with their constitutional right and under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

She said she has commenced a legal process — known as section 37 A — to compel schools to increase the number of places for children with special educational needs.

Ms Madigan said her department was separately considering whether there is a need to introduce new emergency legislation to assist in securing additional special education needs provision. The department recently met the Office of the Attorney General to discuss the matter.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent