Schools are acting ‘illegally’ by placing vulnerable children on reduced timetables

Lack of data means practice is a ‘hidden scandal’ that is not being monitored

 Fianna Fáil education spokesperson, Thomas Byrne:  Practice is  a ‘national scandal’. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Fianna Fáil education spokesperson, Thomas Byrne: Practice is a ‘national scandal’. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

Schools who place pupils on reduced timetables as a form of sanction are acting “illegally” and breaching children’s constitutional right to education, an Oireachtas committee has heard.

However, the practice is “hidden” and not being actively monitored by education authorities.

The Oireachtas education committee on Thursday heard from groups representing vulnerable pupils who said Travellers, children with special needs and those from low-income backgrounds were more likely to be placed on reduced hours.

Fianna Fáil education spokesman Thomas Byrne TD said the practice was a “national scandal”.

“Reduced time-tabling and shorter hours – which are effectively illegal suspensions of a child from school – must end,” he said.

“Schools must also have sufficient resources to deal with children with special needs and Traveller children. Deis schools must see their class sizes reduced.”

He called on the Minister for Education to set out a plan to end this illegality and uphold the constitutional right to education for every child.

Green Party education spokeswoman Catherine Martin TD said she was shocked to learn that in one Limerick school a young teenager has been on a reduced timetable for at least two years.

“This is appalling and doing a huge disservice to vulnerable pupils. There is also a lack of support for principals and teachers who feel they are forced to do this . . . I don’t know how this has been allowed to continue,” she said.

Education authorities confirmed that no official data is collected on the scale of the practice.

However, the National Council for Special Education, an advisory body to the Department of Education, confirmed that it has twice recommended to the department in recent years that schools should be required to notify social services about cases where a student is on “reduced attendance”.

Officials from the department and Tusla, the State body responsible for school attendance, said work was underway in drafting new guidelines which would address the need for data collection and clarifying rules over the use of reduced timetables.

Noel Kelly of Tusla said it has previously issued guidance to schools stating that the exclusion of a student for part of the school day, as a sanction, or asking parents to keep a child from school, as a sanction, is a suspension.

He said schools face many complex needs on a daily basis and Tusla was aware that, in some exceptional circumstances, the use of a reduced timetable may be beneficial for a student.

However, he said any such arrangement should be short-term in nature, have regular scheduled reviews, be in the best interest of the student and be agreed by the school, the parents/guardians and student.

Mary Cregg, a principal officer at the Department of Education, also said its position was that all pupils who are enrolled in a school should attend for the full day, unless exempted from doing so in “exceptional circumstances”.

“Reduced timetables should not be used as a behavioural management technique, or as a ‘de facto’ suspension or expulsion, nor does any provision exist for the use of reduced timetables for particular pupils,” she said.

Orla Hanahoe, principal of Cnoc Mhuire Senior School, Killinarden, Tallaght, in Dublin, said some schools end up having to place children on reduced timetables in their best interests.

This was because schools do not have the resources to meet the “complex and extreme needs” of some children.

“I urge you to look to the other agencies who should be supporting us in managing the most vulnerable children in society and to ensure that there are alternative placements for children who cannot cope in a mainstream school,” she said.

“I firmly believe that it is not the reduced timetable that is the issue. The real concern is the complex factors that contribute to a child needing one in the first instance, the lack of services and supports for children in need. Also, the right to an education for all in the school cannot be compromised.”