Government plans to enact emergency legislation to provide school places for children with special needs are a belated recognition of the crisis facing vulnerable families. The Cabinet approved the Education (Provision in Respect of Children with Special Educational Needs) Bill 2022 last week which aims to compel schools to open special classes within six to eight weeks. The existing process can take up to 18 months.
Ministers described it as a “milestone” for children with additional needs. The reality, however, is that this emergency measure should not be needed. The lack of forward planning and insufficient political will to get to grips with these issues earlier has meant some vulnerable children have continued to fall through the cracks.
Latest official figures indicate about 100 children with learning disabilities do not have a school place for next September. Campaigners say many more are stuck in inappropriate placements which do not meet their needs. Thousands of children are also being forced to travel each day due to the absence of local school places.
The Government points out that it is providing unprecedented levels of investment in special education. This year it will spend more than €2 billion – in excess of 25 per cent of the education budget – supporting children with special educational needs. But this is a planning rather than a resources problem. The educational needs of most children have been known for years yet the system has not responded proactively. Understandably, some schools are aggrieved at being “named and shamed” in recent days for not opening additional special classes after being contacted at the eleventh hour.
Much better planning is required to provide for vulnerable children. Schools will need greater support to open accommodation and train staff. Parents must not be forced to apply to dozens of schools in the hope that one opens its doors. All children should enjoy their right to an education locally on an equal basis with their peers. If this can be achieved, it will truly be a milestone.