Sunday 22 September 2019

Quarter of children with disability 'suspended' from school through use of shortened timetables

John Boyle
Education minister Joe McHugh. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Fianna Fáil education spokesperson Thomas Byrne. Photo: Tom Burke
Inclusion Ireland CEO Enda Egan
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

One in four children with a disability is being “suspended” from school through the use of shortened timetables, often to deal with behavioural problem.

The figure rises to one in three with autism, and the practice does lasting damage to children and their families – educationally, emotionally and financially, according to new research.

In many cases the shorter days are “illegal” and the findings have prompted calls for the Minister for Education to compel schools to meet their obligation to educate children with disabilities.

The research - by a team from Inclusion Ireland and Technological University (TU) Dublin - is based on an extensive survey and interviews with parents.

Lead author Deborah Brennan of TU Dublin said children were being denied their right to education because of the lack of acceptance and accommodation of their differences.

“Many parents told us they are being forced either to accept a short school day or to remove their child from school,” she said.

The report, “Education, behaviour and exclusion: The experience and impact of short school days on children with disabilities and their families in the Republic of Ireland”, is published today.

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Inclusion Ireland CEO Enda Egan

The research found the average short school day lasted only two to three hours, with many children forced to attend school for less than an hour a day.

Inclusion Ireland CEO Enda Egan said it was “very worrying to us, the impact that short school days are having on both parents and children.  It is causing severe anxiety in the children, so much so that many have indicated not wanting to go to school at all.

“Families are also suffering significant financial loss as they scramble to keep afloat and hold onto their jobs with being available to mind a child for extra hours each day or to collect their child from school at a moment’s notice.”

Short school days, also known as “reduced timetables”, were the subject of hearings by the Joint Oireachtas Education Committee earlier this year.

Fianna Fáil Education spokesperson Thomas Byrne said the constitutional rights of some of the most vulnerable children in our education system were being denied through an illegal practice.

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Fianna Fáil education spokesperson Thomas Byrne. Photo: Tom Burke

He said the official position was clear, with the  Department  of Education stating that children were entitled to be at school for the full day and  the child and family agency Tusla confirming that they consider reduced hours to be a suspension.

Mr Byrne said the practice had to end “for once and for all” and  he accused Educaton Minister Joe McHugh of “turning a blind eye” to the matter.

He said there was an urgent need to monitor schools in this regard and also to ensure they had adequate resources, as well as a need for legislation governing these practices.

Education Minister Joe McHugh, has said that all children have a right to a full school day, and that short school days should not be used for “behaviour management”, but research found that children’s behaviour was the most common reason that schools give for imposing short school days.

READ MORE: Make or break for special needs legislation

Ms Brennan said “schools appear to be using a short school day as a behaviour management ‘shortcut’, sometimes when dealing with quite serious behaviour problems, without consulting experts outside the school or addressing root causes.”

She said “some of these ‘challenging behaviours’ are ways that children normally act when they have a certain condition – so this is simply discrimination”.

Mr Egan said the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Ireland ratified last year, provided that people with disabilities should have the same right to avail of, and benefit from, appropriate education as their peers.

He called on the Minister to compel and monitor schools so that they “stop blocking the admission of children with disabilities, including by their admissions policies.”

However, in a defence of schools, Irish National Teachers’ Organisation general secretary John Boyle said boards of management did not put pupils on reduced timetables lightly.

Mr Boyle said that resources and supports are “insufficient for schools to provide an appropriate education for some pupils with special educational needs".

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John Boyle

He said shorter days were implemented  “out of a desire to do what’s in the best interest of the child in question and after full consultation with the parents involved".

He added: “Reduced timetables are never the first port of call; schools will endeavour to do whatever they can to avoid such a need arising. They are the last resort when a child simply isn’t coping with the full school day.”

Mr Boyle said in  recent years, resources for children with acute special educational needs had been cut, reducing access to resource teacher support, full-time special needs assistants, and therapeutic support services for schools.

“Therapy services such as speech and language supports are practically non-existent in schools, as are supports for children’s mental health. The National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) is severely under-resourced at present.

“This creates situations where the resources available in schools are not sufficient to provide for inclusion in that setting.”

The research team included three young adults with intellectual disabilities, Margaret Turley, Tomás Murphy and Christopher Byrne Araya. The research was funded by the Irish Research Council under a scheme that partners researchers with the community and voluntary sector.

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