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Almost all parents fear child will lose resources under special education reforms, poll finds

Survey highlights ‘fundamental concerns’ of families, says three disability advocacy organisations

Some 96 per cent of parents of children with disabilities fear their children’s school could lose resources under Department of Education changes to how special education teachers will be allocated.

Last month the department published a revised special education teacher allocation model, which will determine how resources are provided to thousands of students with disabilities attending mainstream schools.

The department estimates that about one in three schools will lose out on teaching hours, while two out of three will gain under the new model.

Controversially, the revised model has removed “complex needs” as a criterion for the allocation of special education teaching hours.


Three disability advocacy organisations – AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland and Inclusion Ireland – told an Oireachtas committee on Tuesday that the changes were made without consulting parents or disability stakeholders, in breach of Ireland’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The groups also disclosed details of a poll of 1,300 parents over the past week which, they said, highlighted the “fundamental concerns” of families.

In all, 94 per cent believed any reduction in special education teacher hours would impact their child’s ability to learn and participate in school, while a large majority (74 per cent) felt that they did not have a good understanding of the changes proposed by the Department. Some 96 per cent were concerned that the change would see their child’s school lose resources.

Turlough Kelly, communication and advocacy manager with Down Syndrome Ireland, said the changes have caused acute concern and unease among many of its members.

“In the absence of any definitive public clarification from the Department on the exclusion of complex needs from the criteria, many parents fear that their children will not have access to the supports or the educational setting they need to thrive. The lack of consultation with those most affected has also caused a huge degree of uncertainty and anxiety”.

Adam Harris, chief executive of autism charity AsIAm, said the current reality was that a majority of young people could not access the support they require in school.

“We urgently need to see more investment together with a robust appeals process which provides transparency to families and avoids a blame game between the Department and schools. Put simply, we need to make the system work for children, not make our children fit into a broken system.”

Derval McDonagh, chief executive of Inclusion Ireland, said there was a “disconnect” from those in a position of power to the experience of disabled children in school today.

“Forty-five per cent of children with support needs contend with a lack of appropriate supports at school, reduced timetables, emotionally based school avoidance, other distressing experiences, or they are not attending school at all,” she said.

“From our recent survey, only 14 per cent of disabled children are thriving in school in Ireland today. This statistic alone should make us stop and think. The experience that children have in school lasts a lifetime. We need a better system, one where every child is valued, belongs and gets the support they need. It is an investment in their lives and in their future.”

Green Party Senator Pauline O’Reilly said it was clear that “massive mistakes” had been made by the Department, while Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan urged the Department and ministers to “do what they can” to rebuild trust with disability advocates.

Labour education spokesman Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD said children’s needs must be put first, rather than those of other stakeholders.

Speaking at a press briefing on Tuesday afternoon, Minister for Education Norma Foley insisted the new model still allowed for children’s complex needs to be recognised, but in other ways.

She said the changes arose based on feedback from schools and that the new model will not lead to any reduction in the overall number of special education teachers.

Instead, she said it will strengthen the capacity of the education system to respond to the significant learning needs of students.

Ms Foley declined to say whether the department will consider a pause to the changes, as sought by disability groups, but called on all stakeholders to “work with us” in progressing the changes.

To ensure schools are not negatively impacted by these issues, the department has pledged that existing hours assigned for complex needs will be maintained for each school.

It has previously said it removed the term “complex needs” as a criterion on the basis of concern over the accuracy of HSE data on children with special needs.

Minister of State for special needs Josepha Madigan has told the Dáil that about 67 per cent of schools will have either enhanced hours or the same. Of the remainder who stand to lose hours, she said more than 70 per cent of those schools will lose no more than five hours.

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