The Government ’s decision to close all schools and the continued lack of education for some groups of children is “unconstitutional”, according to legal opinion obtained by children’s rights campaigners.
Tanya Ward of the Children's Rights Alliance said while the Government has a constitutional duty to provide for free primary education, there were categories of children for whom no educational provision was being made.
She said legal opinion - produced by Alan D.P Brady BL and James Rooney BL - found the blanket closure of schools, even with the provision of online learning, to be in breach of the right to an education as guaranteed by the Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Ms Ward said the legal opinion makes clear that online lessons do not translate into an adequate education for all children, owing to the fact that some children have additional educational needs and not all have sufficient access to technology or study environments.
The alliance released details of its legal position as it launched a joint campaign calling for the phased reopening of all schools.
A group of children's charities – including AsIAm, Barnardos, Children's Rights Alliance, Inclusion Ireland, and National Parents Council Primary – special education needs to be opened immediately to all children with additional needs.
The campaign said its calls are backed up by a recent National Parents Council Primary nationwide survey of over 6,000 parents in which 90 per cent support reopening schools in line with public health guidance.
The survey provides an insight into the difficulties facing children and families with remote learning.
The survey found that only 37 per cent of children had access to their own device, while 26 per cent were sharing with one or more people.
A large proportion (37 per cent) of children were also struggling with unreliable broadband access, while almost half (46 per cent) of children had either having limited access to quiet space or none at all.
A majority (55 per cent) of children were unable to access remote learning without adult supervision.
Áine Lynch of the National Parents Council Primary said the results underlined the need to reopen schools in line with public health advice.
“ In less than a month, our children will have endured a year’s worth of disruption to their schooling,” she said.
“ It’s time we came together to fix this. We’ve heard much about the impact of Covid-19 on adults’ lives – and quite rightly so – but our children’s futures matter too. Where is plan B?”
Lorraine Dempsey of Inclusion Ireland said the negative impact of school closures on children with special educational needs and disabilities was undeniable.
She said the phased return to special school has been “compounded” by the unsettling plan to have a maximum of 50 per cent of children attend special schools on alternating days.
“This needs to be resolved immediately by all parties involved and the focus moved onto providing an effective solution for children with special educational needs and disabilities in mainstream schools,” she said.
Suzanne Connolly of Barnardos said the ongoing school closures were deeply worrying for many of the vulnerable children her charity supports.
“Not only have they regressed in terms of educational attainment, but for many of these children school is a safe haven away from difficult, and sometimes threatening, home environments,” she said.
“They will not just bounce back from this. We need to have a strong and well-resourced recovery plan in place to support children’s social, emotional and educational needs.”
The charities have launched a #ChildrensFutures campaign which calls on Government and education partners to work together to protect children’s futures.
It calls for the full reopening of special schools and the wider reopening of all schools as a a matter of priority, in line with public health advice.
In addition, the campaign says catch-up learning is needed for all children but in particular for vulnerable groups such summer programmes.
Along with providing clarity and choice for Leaving Cert students, it says the Government needs to ensure the best interests of children are at the heart of all decisions about our children’s futures and that their voices are heard, particularly in relation to education.