More than 800 children with special needs had to rely on home tuition over the past year because they could not access a school or pre-school place which met their needs.
The use of home tuition is typically intended for use as a temporary measure and a measure of last resort and provides for 20 hours of teaching a week for successful applicants.
However, Department of Education figures released to The Irish Times show some 738 autistic children aged between two and six years of age were in receipt of home tuition during the 2021/22 academic year on the basis that a specialised pre-school service was not available to them.
In addition, a further 90 children with special needs aged six-plus were in receipt of home tuition in the absence of an appropriate primary school-based service.
The figures come at a time when the Government is facing criticism over a lack of school places in September 2022 for dozens of children with additional needs.
Gareth Noble, a solicitor who specialises in children’s rights, said access to education is a constitutionally enshrined right. However, he said home tuition should not be considered the constitutional discharge of the State’s educational duties.
Children with additional education needs require social integration the most, he said, yet are more likely than others to have to make do with home tuition.
The reliance on home tuition has been also the subject of criticism by the Ombudsman for Children Niall Muldoon in a recent report on access to school places for children with additional needs. The ombudsman said there were hundreds of children on waiting lists for special classes in mainstream schools, thousands of children travelling outside of their local school-catchment area and significant numbers of children being educated at home rather than in a school setting.
The report recommended that home tuition should operate as it is intended to operate, “namely as a time-limited emergency measure and tool of last resort”.
Commenting on the report’s findings, Dr Muldoon said his office was of the view that any failure to include children with special educational needs within the mainstream school system, for any reason other than to facilitate their effective education, constitutes discrimination.
“It is essential that appropriate school places are made available for children with SEN [special educational needs] close to their homes,” he said.
The department said that ensuring that every child with special educational needs gets a suitable education is its priority.
“This year, the Department of Education will invest in excess of €2 billion, or over 25 per cent of the department’s budget in the area of special educational needs support. The numbers of special education teachers, special needs assistants and special class and school places are at unprecedented levels,” it said.
‘Department is committed’
It added that there are 2,118 special classes in place providing places for more than 12,700 pupils. A total of 279 new special classes were established for the 2021/22 school year and the National Council for Special Education expects the number of new classes in 2022/23 to exceed this number.
“The department is committed, in conjunction with the National Council for Special Education, to continue to work with parents, schools, patrons and all stakeholders to ensure that there are sufficient appropriate places for students with additional needs and to support all students to achieve their potential,” the department said.
It said that where a suitable school placement cannot be found for a child, a grant is paid to the parent so they can employ a teacher to provide tuition in the home.