Hundreds of special-needs children unable to access school places

Campaigners call for reform of ‘broken’ system for pupils with complex needs

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A total of 210 children who require places in special schools or special classes are in receipt of home tuition on the basis they do not have a school place Photograph: Getty

 

Hundreds of children with special needs do not have school places which meet their assessed level of need, new figures show.

A total of 210 children who require places in special schools or special classes are in receipt of home tuition on the basis they do not have a school place, according to the Department of Education.

A further 522 children with additional needs who required specialised pre-school places or early intervention are also in receipt of home tuition due to shortages of appropriate places.

Campaigners say the number of children excluded from school settings shows that the system is “broken” and insist that these shortages would not be tolerated in mainstream schools.

“We cannot say the system is working when hundreds of children continue to be without appropriate school places and parents of children with additional needs are facing barriers no other families experience,” said Adam Harris, founder of the autism charity AsIAm.

“We know this is a problem year-on-year. It simply would not be tolerated for neurotypical children, and the State has a duty to provide equality of opportunity.”

Advocates for children with disabilities also say a cohort of children with special needs are being “locked out” of education due to reduced timetables or expulsions, often linked to challenging behaviour.

While expulsions are rare at primary level – about 30 a year – they are disproportionately high in special schools or schools with special classes, according to latest figures compiled by Tusla.

Pupils in these special settings make up just 4 per cent of the primary school population, but account for about 66 per cent of primary expulsions.

No placement

One 16-year-old boy with a disability and autism was expelled from his special school last September after his school said his challenging behaviour was placing the health and safety of students and staff at risk.

His mother said she has applied without success to 15 other schools since then and no appropriate placement is available.

“If I decided to keep my daughter at home, the authorities would be knocking on my door. I’d probably face prosecution. But because this is a teenage boy with challenging behaviour, no one wants to know,” the mother said.

In a statement, the Department of Education said it is continuing to prioritise investment in special education, with over €2 billion due to be spent on special education this year.

It said in the coming school year there will more than 2,000 special classes – the largest number of special classes ever – compared to over 500 classes available in 2011.

A total of 18,000 special needs assistants will also be available to support the care needs of pupils with special educational needs in schools.

“Ensuring that every child has a suitable school placement is a key objective of this department. Significant resources are allocated each year to ensure that appropriate supports are available for children with special educational needs,” a department spokeswoman said.

In circumstances where no placement is available for a child with special needs, the department said it can provide a grant funding towards the provision of 20 hours’ home tuition per week as an interim measure until a place is available.

Mr Harris said, however, that the Government needs to review school admissions legislation which is making it difficult for children to access school places.

“It is now three years since the School Admission Bill 2018 gave the Minister for Education and the department the power to compel schools to open special classes,” he said.

“The Act requires the Minister to review the operation of this provision after three years, which is this year. It is vital that this power is utilised much more robustly to end this problem once and for all. All schools must be open to all students. Children with additional needs can no longer rely on a grace and favour system – we must move to a rights-based approach.”

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