Emergency legislation to speed up the process of compelling schools to open classes for children with special educational needs (SEN) is expected to be approved by Cabinet on Tuesday.
It comes against the backdrop of a crisis over provision for students needing a place in primary and post primary schools next September, as well as pre-existing and future demand.
Last week, Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon accused the Department of Education of failing children with SEN regarding the provision of suitable school places.
Currently, Section 37A of the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act confers powers on the education minister to require schools to open places for SEN pupils, but it is seen in official circles and by parents as too lengthy a process
Where there is a shortage of places, the legislation provides for the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) to issue a report, following which the minister can direct a school to open a special class.
The minister may potentially issue up to six separate notices to a school authority with periods allowed for representations, and consideration of arguments put forward, between each step.
Section 37A has been used twice since 2018 – with a number of schools in the Dublin subjected to notices on each occasion – and it has taken between four and 18 months.
The new truncated process would allow them minister to issue a directive to schools within a period of six to eight weeks after receiving a report from the NCSE.
It is expected that Dáil will sit on Friday to fast-track the new legislation.
The shortage of places for September is affecting families around the country, but the problem is particularly acute in Dublin and Cork.
A third Section 37A process currently underway has caused fury in four schools identified on the Department of Education website last week. Notices had originally been issued to 14 schools in Dublin and 10 have agreed to open classes in September.
Junior Minister for Special Education Minister Josepha Madigan accused the four schools of not being forthcoming in opening special classes for pupils this September.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO)) and the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) said the minister was seeking to “scapegoat schools and avoid political blame”. It said the four schools had special classes and were working towards building capacity.
They condemned the “politicised decision by the Department of Education to name a small number of Dublin primary schools who have raised reasonable concerns relating to a lack of resources required to deliver a quality education to students with special educational needs”.
In a report last week, on the lack of SEN provision, the Ombudsman for Children said it amounted to discrimination.
While some children with SEN have no school place, others travel long distances to get to a school and others are inappropriately placed.
According to Dr Muldoon, 15,500 children currently travel outside their local school-catchment area every day, and nearly 1,500 are receiving home tuition, which is only supposed to be used as a last resort temporarily.
He said it was essential that appropriate school places are made available for children with SEN close to their homes, and called for a fresh approach by the department.