There are growing concerns over the “huge” numbers of school suspensions involving young boys at second level, an Oireachtas committee has been told.
The latest available figures show that there were more than 13,000 suspensions of children and 145 expulsions during the 2013/14 academic year.
Prof Áine Hyland, emeritus professor of education at UCC, told the Oireachtas education committee that these numbers did not include pupils on reduced school hours or in receipt of home tuition due to behavioural problems.
“That is a huge number,” she said. “Every time you suspend a young person, the continuity of their education is affected.”
In particular, she said she was concerned at the number of boys aged 12-16 who were being suspended or expelled. Many, she said, were attending schools which were in receipt of extra funding and support .
She made the comments at a meeting of a committee which heard a number of concerns over supports available for students with special needs.
Pauline Dempsey, principal at St Anne's in the Curragh, Co Kildare, said special schools are under tremendous pressure to enrol any child that applies.
“This is regardless of the fact the school might be full, the class is not suitable, or we might not be able to meet the child’s needs. This is particularly relevant if the child develops behaviours that challenge,” she said.
“The more challenging they are, the quicker they are filtered down through the system to us.”
Ms Dempsey said that while mainstream schools are considered beneficial for children with special needs, this is not considered the case for pupils with severe or profound learning disabilities.
“We now have a different level of segregation which discriminates against a child in a different category from those who were discriminated against 20-30 years ago before children in the severe or profound range were even in the education system.”
She questioned what it was about teachers in special schools rather than mainstream schools that made them suitable to teach children in this range,
“Why is it acceptable that staff in special schools can sustain injuries and children can miss out on their educational experiences but staff and pupils in mainstream schools have more rights,” she said.
Ms Dempsey said mainstream classes with autism spectrum disorder units have access to the same grant to set classes up, along with the same staffing ratios, capitation and access to training and support.
“We are expected to cope in the same environment with identical resources as our mainstream counterparts,” she said.
“However we are obliged to take the most challenging [students], and often with several others who display behaviours in the same class, and those with lower levels of ability without additional supports or resources. This is unrealistic and is not working.
“It is also the worst model of educational provision and an appalling learning environment.”
She said if the philosophy continues, special schools will become the “catch-all” for pupils other schools do not want, and they must be resourced differently and staff trained appropriately.
“The current model is unsustainable,” she said.
Noreen Duggan, principal of Scoil Na Naomh Uilig, Newbridge, Co Kildare, also called on the Department of Education to provide guidelines and directions on the use of restraint when dealing with challenging behaviour in schools.
“Every school, at some stage, has children who abscond or who present with severely challenging behaviour such as hitting, kicking, spitting, throwing rocks or equipment, damaging property, [or] trying to injure other pupils,” she said.
“In these instances, the child has to be restrained to preserve the safety of all present.”
The extent of the advice currently from the department is to investigate the cause of the behaviour and put a behaviour plan in place.
“At present there are no guidelines on restrictive practices and schools have to come up with their own policies and also arrange for “suitable” training on this,” she said.
Ms Duggan noted that her own school had about €3,000 from its own funds to train 30 people.