Cabinet to discuss plans to speed up compelling schools to provide special needs places

Dáil may sit on Friday to pass emergency legislation through Oireachtas before summer recess

Proposals to speed up the process of compelling schools to provide places for children with special educational needs are to be discussed by Cabinet on Tuesday.

If approved, the Dáil is expected to have an extra sitting on Friday in a bid to pass the emergency legislation through the Oireachtas before the summer recess.

There has been pressure on the Government to take action on the issue with some 106 children with special needs still without a school place next September.

While efforts are ongoing to find places, the Government hopes the changes to the legislation will be in place as soon as possible in case schools must be compelled to open special needs classes.

The aim of the legislation – which has been developed by Minister for Education Norma Foley and Minister of State for Special Education Josepha Madigan – is to speed up this process.

At present the mechanism used to compel schools to open classes – section 37A of the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018 – can take up to 18 months to be completed.

Remarks denounced

Under the proposals to be considered by Cabinet, this would be reduced to a period of six to eight weeks.

It comes as schools accused by Ms Madigan of ignoring orders to open up more special needs classes have denounced her remarks.

Over the weekend, Ms Madigan alleged that four named Dublin primary schools were “not engaging at all” with officials over plans to create more spaces.

Ms Madigan said she would be “relentless” in targeting 14 schools across the capital that have extra “capacity” for children with additional needs who cannot find a place elsewhere, but that only 10 had entered negotiations.

One of the four schools that Ms Madigan claimed was not engaging has rejected her accusations as “incorrect”.

The board of management of Cromcastle Green Boy’s National School in Artane said: “It is not true that our school has ignored correspondence about this matter.”

The school said it had engaged with the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) over the past three years about its “willingness to engage and work... to ensure appropriate provision for all pupils with special educational needs, including a new special class”.

“It is shameful and upsetting that the excellent work of our school community has been so wrongly misrepresented,” the board said.

The school currently has six special education teachers and five special needs assistants, supporting pupils in 10 mainstream classes. All of its classrooms “are currently in use to capacity”, it said.

‘Complete misrepresentation’

Another named school, St John of God Girls’ National School, described Ms Madigan’s remarks on RTÉ Radio as “a complete misrepresentation”.

“We have, in fact, agreed with the NCSE to open two special classes in September 2023 and we are working towards that aim,” its board of governors said.

The school said it had “always welcomed children with special educational needs”.

A Department of Education spokesman said that 14 schools had been identified where, based on the information available, it was indicated there were classrooms which could be used to allow schools to open special classes.

He said: “The Department considers that four of the schools have not sufficiently engaged with this process to facilitate the opening of special classes for September 2022.”

He said the schools were contacted, the department offered to undertake technical visits to the schools where necessary, and they were also given reassurances that they would receive the necessary resources to open a special class.

Both the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation and the Irish Primary Principals’ Network attacked what it called a “politicised decision” to name the schools.

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times

Brian Hutton

Brian Hutton is a freelance journalist and Irish Times contributor