The Irish Times view on special needs education: the vulnerable are falling behind

Many children have regressed since schools were shut, and some have lost key skills which they learned over years

Parents of children with autism, and other conditions that make learning difficult, have carried a huge additional weight of responsibility as full-time carers during the lockdown.

Parents of children with autism, and other conditions that make learning difficult, have carried a huge additional weight of responsibility as full-time carers during the lockdown.

 

School closures have hit the most vulnerable hardest. Children with special needs in particular are among the most at risk. The toll in stress and distress, on parents and children, has been aired in heart-breaking detail. Many children have regressed since schools were shut. Some have lost key skills which they learned over years of painstaking support from teachers and therapists.

This makes the need for a summer programme of support for children, after more than three months of school closures due to the pandemic lockdown, obvious and pressing. Parents of children with autism, and other conditions that make learning difficult, have carried a huge additional weight of responsibility as full-time carers. Meanwhile, many more children, from economically and culturally deprived homes, have often experienced the lockdown as a complete break from an educational system where they were already faltering. At a material level, lack of internet access has meant that many children could not avail of online learning opportunities, or lacked the space to study in peace and quiet.

At a cultural level, children in homes where education is not seen as a priority by parents, or where parents lack much formal education themselves, were already severely disadvantaged at school. They have now fallen much further behind, while their more fortunate classmates have been diligently homeschooled by parents better equipped for this unexpected obligation.

Minister for Education Joe McHugh made two high-profile announcements about summer programmes to address these issues this month. However, it appears the Government’s plans for what used to be known as July Provision are falling badly short.

Parents were initially relieved and grateful, but are only now finding out that some categories of vulnerable children are ineligible for the programme, despite earlier pledges to the contrary. Schools and staff say they are only now being offered health guidelines, just days ahead of the start of the programme, with little in the way of extra funding to put the scheme into practice. One trade union has expressed concern that this uncertainty could result in unsafe working conditions for both staff and students. Some school principals, teachers and special needs assistants say they find themselves expected to organise these programmes, on which they have not been consulted in any meaningful way, against a backdrop of uncertainty.

It is incumbent on the Government to ensure adequate budgets are available immediately and that all children who require support have access to it. The education of vulnerable children, the welfare of teachers, and the relief of hard-pressed parents is much too important to be the vehicle for political smoke and mirrors.

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