Summer scheme to bridge education gap for special-needs children

Rising concern over vulnerable children losing key skills due to school closures

Thousands of children with special needs or at high risk of disadvantage will be able to apply for a summer education programme under proposals to be brought to Cabinet on Friday.

The scheme comes amid rising concern over the impact of long-term school closures on vulnerable children.

Support groups say many children have regressed and lost key skills, while disadvantaged schools report that significant numbers of at-risk pupils have not engaged with any form of schooling since mid-March.

Government sources say the programme, modelled along the lines of the traditional July provision scheme, will be expanded to provide support for children with autism, Down syndrome, learning disabilities and behaviour disorders.

The scheme will be delivered in schools or home settings by teachers, special-needs assistants and, in some cases, therapists.

In addition, all disadvantaged – or Deis – primary and secondary schools will be invited to express interest in providing programmes for children who have disengaged from education.

A Department of Education document seen by The Irish Times acknowledges there is likely to be “significant learning loss” among many at-risk students who have not engaged with their schools since they closed in March.

Under the planned programme, classes in wellbeing, literacy and numeracy will take place for at-risk students in August to act as a bridge to the start of the new school year. Deis schools will be invited to identify at-risk pupils who would benefit from the intervention.

No formal document

Minister for Education Joe McHugh signalled recently that a plan for reopening all schools in the new academic year would be ready on Friday.

However, informed sources said he would simply update Cabinet on work to reopen schools and a formal document may not be issued.

It is understood that much work with stakeholders to date has focused on return-to-work protocols, checklists and templates around the work required to take place in advance of reopening.

Formal guidance on what social-distancing requirements may be in place is unlikely to be issued soon, according to sources.

Some sources have indicated that social distancing may not be possible in schools and that other approaches may be required.

For example, latest advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team is that schools should adopt “micro-communities”, where staff and children remain in the same group in circumstances where social distancing is not possible.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, have expressed doubt over whether enough schools and staff will be available to roll out the Government’s planned summer education programme.

Special schools

Adam Harris, chief executive of the autism charity AsIAm, has urged special schools as well as mainstream schools with special classes to take part in the scheme, once it is formally announced.

“As someone who participated in the July provision programme myself, in a special school setting, I know the potential of this support and it is needed now more than ever,” he said.

Mr Harris said school-based settings will be particularly important this year in supporting students to refamiliarise themselves with school ahead of September.

“Special schools and classes provide indispensable support to some of the most vulnerable children within the education system,” he said,

“Many of these children, due to fear, stress and complex medical needs, have not left their homes since schools closed in early March. When the guidelines for the scheme are announced tomorrow, we are urging every special school and class to seriously consider opening.”

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