Parents of vulnerable children are being told to accept drastically reduced timetables or face the threat of suspension or expulsion, according to campaigners.
Groups representing children with autism, intellectual disabilities and Travellers told an Oireachtas committee on Thursday that use of reduced timetables to manage behavioural problems is a "hidden" practice that is undermining young people's education and wellbeing.
AsIAm, the autism charity, says there has been a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to reduced timetables by education authorities. which has “devastating consequences” for young people of various minority groups.
Its survey of more than 300 parents found that about 17 per cent of students were on reduced timetables. Some of these students were as young as four or five.
“In some instances, parents who did not wish to have a reduced timetable were threatened with a suspension or expulsion process for not complying,” the charity says.
The National Traveller Women’s Forum says the the issue of Traveller children on reduced hours has almost reached the point where it has become the “policy rather than an exceptional measure for a child with particular needs”.
It says reduced timetables have been implemented while young Travellers are placed on waiting lists for psychological or educational assessments.
While schools say they take these measures to tackle behavioural problems, the forum says more usually it is a response to lack of resources, behaviour management and low expectations.
Placing these vulnerable young people on reduced hours in school is often the “complete opposite” to what they need, according to the forum.
Inclusion Ireland, which represents children with intellectual disabilities, will say hundreds of "invisible" children on reduced school timetables do not show up in official statistics because they are being marked down as present on school roll books.
“Through our casework parents tell us of the stress, the shame and distress the child feels and the huge financial burden of having to give up work and apply for the carer allowance,” according to Inclusion Ireland’s submission to the committee.
In many cases, it says teachers have no specialist training nor are they required to have specialist training to teach children with disabilities. This, it says, may lead to bored children who can act out.
There is also poor access to therapeutic services including speech and language therapy, which can assist children to address their sensory and communication needs in a more appropriate manner than through disruptive behaviour.
Kieran Golden, president of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, said these measures need to be used in exceptional circumstances, in consultation with parents, with a defined start and end date.
"I've very conscious that disengagement from school can be catastrophic... Once a child is marginalised, it has a huge impact on the life chances of a child and their wider family," said Mr Golden, who is also principal of Mayfield Community School.
Pat Goff, deputy chief executive of the Irish Primary Principals Network, said his organisation was in favour of the practice, but only in very limited circumstances.
He said principals are faced with the dilemma on a daily basis of balancing the rights of an individual pupil with the rest of a class.
“Some pupils do not operate well in a system - yet we shoehorn them into a system we operate in schools,” he said.
While schools need supports for individual pupils, they did not have the option of waiting years, in some cases, for the right intervention.
He also said schools had “nothing to hide” and would fully support any plans to formally record the numbers of pupils on reduced timetables.