The Irish Times view on education for the disadvantaged: reduced teaching hours on vulnerable children must end
Legislation on what constitutes school attendance may be required
The Department of Education allows schools to impose a “reduced timetable” on pupils in exceptional circumstances, but never as a behavioural management tool and only with the parents’ consent. Photograph: David Sleator
The teaching of children with social and behavioural difficulties has always posed a challenge for the education system. That is why vindicating a “right to education” for young people is so important for their future development. Evidence that a widespread practice has emerged within primary schools of excluding disadvantaged and difficult children from the normal curriculum through separate, limiting teaching hours is, therefore, totally unacceptable.
The Department of Education allows schools to impose a “reduced timetable” on pupils in exceptional circumstances, but never as a behavioural management tool and only with the parents’ consent. In spite of those strict conditions, and because records of such disciplinary actions and limited schooling hours are not kept by the Department or by child protection agency Tusla, the practice has become – according to one source – “endemic”.
Legislation on what constitutes school attendance may be required. As things stand, a child is marked “present” at school, even if that attendance amounts to just a few hours – or less – a day. That, in turn, means the needs of difficult, vulnerable or disabled children, who receive only limited teaching, are not reported to the education welfare section at Tusla or to the Department of Education.
Child advocates Barnardos raised the issue with the Department because of concern that the practice impacted especially on disadvantaged children who experienced behavioural difficulties, disabilities or emotional challenges. Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon believed children who demonstrated challenging behaviour had as much right as any others to access education. The Irish Traveller Movement described the regular in-school misuse of reduced timetable provisions, particularly as a tool for behavioural management and without regard for parental agreement, as a breach of constitutional rights.
Failure in these instances has not, however, been confined to schools. Inadequate psychological and other services operated by the Health Service Executive, that could help children manage their anger or control bad behaviour, have long been identified and documented. In that regard, Dr Muldoon insisted that no child should be deprived of education “due to the lack of services or support to meet their needs in a school setting”. That is what has happened, however, even as the Department of Education and Tusla seek to distance themselves from unacceptable practices. The Department has emphasised the exceptional circumstances under which a reduced timetable might be applied and Tusla maintains that every child should attend a full school day.
Now that agreement exists at official level on what is – and what is not – permissible, can we expect that the practice of imposing reduced teaching hours on vulnerable children will end? And will the Department of Health and the HSE provide the necessary resources for childhood psychiatric and other services?