Children with special needs are being bussed out of their communities to attend schools many miles from their homes due to a shortage of appropriate school places, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
School principals’ representatives told an Oireachtas committee on autism that a lack of planning and support means local schools are often unable to meet the needs of children with complex conditions,
The Irish Primary Principals’ Network, a professional body for principals and deputies at more than 3,00 primary schools, said it supported the principle of ensuring equal access to education for all children alongside their siblings and friends in their local area.
However, it said the lack of planning and due diligence to determine the capacity within the schools to facilitate the opening of special classes and difficulties accessing supports to meet complex needs were key barriers.
“The current situation has resulted in children with additional needs being ‘bussed’ from their local area, often right past their local school that their siblings and friends attend, to schools that may be many miles away from their home. This is untenable,” said Pairic Clerkin, chief executive of the IPPN.
He said the network is encouraging all schools to undertake to open a special class in response to local needs.
However, he said a longer time-frame is needed around the admissions process to plan for the placement of children with complex additional needs in their local school.
Mr Clerkin said this will allow schools and education authorities to address what supports need to be put in place. This, he said, would avoid the need to legally compel schools to open classes in the first place.
“It would eliminate the need for children to be ‘bussed’ to schools outside their catchment area, and remove any barriers to providing places for children locally,” he said.
The Fórsa trade union, which represents thousands of special needs assistants as well as health staff, warned that long waiting lists for access to vital supports such as speech and language or occupational therapy are undermining children’s education.
“The backlogs are not in any way the fault of the staff in those services who are trying valiantly to cope with unmanageable caseloads. However, the waiting lists present significant difficulties for schools, and families, who are trying to support students with autism,” said Linda Kelly, Fórsa’s national secretary in the health and welfare division.
The union said the lack of these in-school supports means “truly inclusive education is a dream rather than a reality”.
Much of Tuesday’s meeting focused on the lack of teachers and schools willing to run the summer provision programme for children with additional needs.
Last week’s meeting heard that just over 400 out of 8,000 children in special schools got to participate in the programme last year.
Jennifer Carroll McNeill TD (Fine Gael) questioned why so few out of the 116,000 teachers on the Teaching Council’s register were involved, while committee chairman Senator Micheál Carrigy (Fine Gael) asked whether all schools who receive State funding could be compelled to run the programme.
Caroline Quinn of the Irish Primary Principals Network said many schools were not running the programme due to the late notice and lack of clarity over the resources available, along with other issues such as difficulties sourcing staff and hurdles relating to Garda vetting requirements.
“If that type of clarity was available earlier, I guarantee that we would see a different picture out there,” she said.
Pauline Tully TD (Sinn Féin) raised concerns over the level of training and education available to inexperienced teachers who are allocated special classes for children with specialised needs.
She said newly-qualified teachers are often given jobs in these settings with the promise that they can move on to mainstream classes in a few years.
“It’s not fair on the teachers and it’s not fair on the students, either,” she said.