The beginning of the new school year should be a hopeful time for all children. School corridors bustle with pupils, the roll is fresh with new names and copy books are crunched open at the spine with blank pages waiting to be filled. Yet many of our most vulnerable pupils in urgent need of support have no place to go this week.
These are children who have been diagnosed with learning difficulties who cannot find appropriate school places; young people with autism on lengthy waiting lists for special classes; children with behavioural problems on reduced timetables because staff are not trained to meet their needs; pupils who face suspension or expulsion because there is no other option for them.
These children are invisible. There is no record kept, for example, on the number of pupils on reduced hours. There is no official figure on the number of children stuck on waiting lists for an appropriate school place. There is no central register to measure how many children are stuck in settings that do not meet their needs. The very absence of this data speaks volumes in relation to the priority of these children’s needs in the eyes of the education system.
However, we do know from surveys by autism charities and parents’ groups that hundreds of children are being excluded from education in these different ways. Many end up in receipt of home tuition, isolated from their peers and at risk of regressing. For a child who should have a right to attend school, this is no substitute.
It seems beyond doubt that the rights of many children who require access to appropriate education are being violated
The Government points out that it has made progress over the past decade and a half by investing record sums in special education. One-fifth of the State’s entire education budget now goes on special education. These are positive indicators – but it is simply not enough to meet demand. Earlier this year the Department of Education said it was actively engaging with schools and parents to ensure “each child has a school placement appropriate to their needs for the 2019-2020 school year”. This is plainly not the case. With sustained political will, these issues can be tackled. We need more school places urgently. Better training for teachers is crucial. Decent quality data is vital.
The right to education is enshrined in the Constitution. Article 42.2 obliges the State to provide for free primary education for all children – regardless of their level of disability.
It seems beyond doubt that the rights of many children who require access to appropriate education are being violated. In the process, they are being robbed of the chance to reach their full potential. The scale of the problem amounts to a national scandal. We would not tolerate it if there were not enough places for children in mainstream schools. Why should we allow the most vulnerable of all to be excluded from education?