Short school days: A quiet, hidden practice

The practice, involving families with little voice, is almost certainly illegal in most cases

The Constitution obliges the State to provide free primary education for all children – regardless of their level of disability. Photograph: iStock

The Constitution obliges the State to provide free primary education for all children – regardless of their level of disability. Photograph: iStock

 

On the face of it, all children have a right to education in the same way as any other child.

In practice, the reality is very different.

Today’s report by researchers on the use of short school days for children with disabilities or behaviour problems shows that this practice is taking place on a frightening scale.

One in four children with a disability such as autism has been put on short school days.

Half of the children put on short school days had that reduction for 20 days or more, with many suspensions extending to years without a medical reason and against their parents’ wishes.

This is likely to represent thousands of vulnerable children right across the country.

So what kind of impact does this have on the children themselves?

Again, the report’s findings make for disturbing reading. Many children on short school days are missing key subjects partially or entirely and, as a result, are being denied their legal right to education.

As a result of experiencing short school days, children have been found to suffer significant feelings of anxiety and exclusion and, in many cases, a desire to leave school entirely.

So what does the law state when it comes to education? And is this practice legal?

There is a primary constitutional right to education. Article 42.2 of the Constitution obliges the State to provide free primary education for all children – regardless of their level of disability.

The courts have interpreted this as a right that should be considered “in as full and as positive a manner as for all other children”.

In 2004, the Education for Persons with Special Education Needs (Epsen) Act became law in Ireland.

The Epsen Act also places the State under a legal priority to deliver that education in integrated mainstream settings – with special units and special schools provided where the child’s educational needs require them.

And last year, the State ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (becoming the last country in Europe to do so).

It provides that “people with disabilities shall have the same right to avail of, and benefit from, appropriate education as do their peers who do not have disabilities”.

Clearly, this is not happening on a shocking scale.

Rules

The rules when it comes to the use of short school days are clear.

They may be justified, for example, by a child’s medical needs, as certified by a paediatrician based in the child’s disability services.

Otherwise, the guidelines for schools published by the National Educational Welfare Board are that a shortened school day is a form of suspension that can be imposed only by a school’s board of management, or by the principal with the board’s written authorisation.

The solutions should be simple: greater awareness of rules, along with supports for schools to help meet children’s needs, and greater oversight by authorities.

As of now, not only is this not happening, but no records are being kept by schools or authorities on the scale of the practice.

This has, most likely, suited authorities: it has been a quiet, hidden practice involving families with little voice or power.