Schools to notify social services when pupils on reduced hours

Campaigners say vulnerable pupils excluded from education through short school days

Photograph: Getty

Photograph: Getty

 

Schools are to be obliged to notify social services if they place pupils on shortened school days under new Department of Education rules aimed at restricting the practice.

Many vulnerable students such as those with special needs or Traveller children are being placed on reduced school timetables as a way of managing behaviour, campaigners argue. The practice has remained mostly hidden as there are no official figures on its use and schools are not obliged to record the number of pupils on shortened school days.

Minister for Education Joe McHugh will on Monday announce draft rules obliging schools to formally notify Tusla, the child and family agency, if a child’s school hours are cut, and to say why.

The aim is to ensure that the use of reduced timetables is limited solely to those circumstances where it is absolutely necessary, the Minister will say, The Irish Times understands.

As part of the new rules, reduced hours should not be used as a sanction or as a tool to manage behaviour; it should be applied proportionately and should last only as long as is necessary to bring a child back to full hours.

The draft guidelines on reduced timetables also state that the consent of parents or guardians will be required; a school must set out a plan to get the child back to full hours; Tusla will record and monitor the use of reduced timetables; and if used, the hours cut must be subject to time limits.

Concerned parents or guardians will be encouraged to contact their local educational welfare officer, who will advise them on the most appropriate approach. The Minister is now seeking views on the proposed guidelines.

“Inclusion is central to this Government’s education policy and it is essential that all pupils who are enrolled in a school should attend for the full day unless in exceptional circumstances,” he said.

“A reduced timetable is not in any way a standard aspect of a child’s experience of school and must not be allowed to become such; it should be an exceptional measure.”

Mr McHugh added that in some cases it may be necessary to use a reduced timetable, for example, as a means of assisting the reintegration of a pupil to a school routine, but such arrangements must only be adopted in limited and time-bound circumstances.

“The best interests of the child, their education and their development, should be paramount in any decision-making by schools,” he said.

The finalised guidelines will apply to all recognised schools with the department inviting observations from education stakeholders until October 18th.

Background

A study published earlier this month found that one in four pupils with special needs have been placed on reduced hours. The study by academics at Technological University Dublin, and commissioned by Inclusion Ireland, a lobby group for people with an intellectual disability, found the practice was largely hidden and, in many, cases illegal. Among children with autism, as many as one in three had been placed on reduced timetables.

Traveller representative groups have also highlighted inappropriate use of short school days affecting pupils. Many schools argue that the practice is a measure of last resort and say they lack trained staff to deal with complex needs.

The Government, however, argues that record sums are being invested in special education and training.