Tuesday 15 October 2019

Children with intellectual disabilities told by their school they will be on 'short days' for two years, Oireachtas committee hears

Fiona O' Loughlin. Pic Tom Burke
Fiona O' Loughlin. Pic Tom Burke
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Eight children with intellectual disabilities have been told by their school that they will be on 'short days' for the next two years, it emerged today amid efforts to tackle the practice of reduced timetables for some pupils.

Oireachtas Education Committee chairwoman Fiona O’Loughlin told Education Minister Joe McHugh: “That is every one of the 167 days of the school year, it is not good enough.”

The Co Kildare TD went on to say the children had no school for six months before getting second-level placements in her area last November - when they were immediately put on a reduced timetable. This year they were told they would be on short days for the next two years.

Mr McHugh was appearing before the Committee in the face of the controversy over schools effectively “suspending” certain pupils by putting them on shorter days, often because of because of behavioural issues.

READ MORE: Sarah Caden: 'School exclusion makes a lie of inclusive Ireland' 

Anecdotal evidence suggests reduced timetables were disproportionately affecting children with disabilities, children with emotional and behavioural difficulties or children from a different cultural background such as the Traveller or Roma communities.

Education Minister Joe McHugh
Education Minister Joe McHugh

There are no official statistics on the extent of the practice, but a recent survey showed that one in four children with a disability – rising to one in three for those with autism - were on reduced timetables, doing lasting damage to them and their families.

While a short day is a common way of implementing a reduced timetable, it may also be a short week

The minister has published draft guidelines on the use of reduced timetables - which are out for consultation with education stakeholders until October 18 - before being finalised.

READ MORE: Minister urged to act over short school days for disabled pupils

They will require schools to notify Tusla's Educational Welfare Service when a reduced timetable is being put in place and also explain the rationale.

Other provisions include requiring schools to get consent of parents or guardians for the use of a reduced timetable and to draw up a plan of action for the child’s full re-integration into the full-time school day.

Fianna Fáil education spokesperson Thomas Byrne. Photo: Tom Burke
Fianna Fáil education spokesperson Thomas Byrne. Photo: Tom Burke

Mr McHugh told the committee that he hoped that the final guidelines would be implemented during the current school year.

The guidelines have received a general welcome, although members of the Education Committee today made a number of suggestions as to how they should be improved in the interests of children and parents.

Independent Senator Lynn Ruane said that some parents would need an intermediary to advocate on their behalf with a school in the event that a reduced timetable was being proposed.

She said in many cases it was a socio-economic issue and “the parents involved are probably the most vulnerable families”, people who had negative experience of the education system.

“Who is going to advocate for the parent? There is a power imbalance; there needs to be an advocate, someone within the community, to support the family.”

Senator Ruane told the committee of a case in her constituency where a school was trying to influence a mother to put a child with dyslexia, and with no behavioural issues, on a reduced timetable because she was struggling.

Fianna Fáil Education spokesperson Thomas Byrne said the language in the guidelines around when a reduced timetable could be introduced needed to be much more precise.

Senator Lynn Ruane. Photo: Tom Burke
Senator Lynn Ruane. Photo: Tom Burke

Green Party TD Catherine Martin said a school’s approach to proposing a reduced timetable needed to be more than a “box-ticking” exercise.

Meanwhile, the Ombudsman for Children, Niall Muldoon, and the advocacy group Inclusion Ireland have welcomed the guidelines.

Mr Muldoon encouraged all of those in the education community to get involved in the consultation process.

He said “if applied effectively guidelines will prevent the use of reduced timetables as an informal form of a suspension and it will bring clarity to this issue which has long been of concern”.

Inclusion Ireland CEO Enda Egan described the minister’s announcement as “a welcome step in the right direction, given the impact the practice is having on children and their parents”.

Mr Egan said following the consultation process, the guidelines should be implemented immediately.

Children's Ombudsman Dr Niall Muldoon. Photo: Jason Clarke Photography
Children's Ombudsman Dr Niall Muldoon. Photo: Jason Clarke Photography

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