A major review of the legislation governing the education of children with special educational needs will get underway in January.
Junior minister for special education Josepha Madigan said there had been many significant changes and developments in policy relating to the education of children with special needs since the legislation was enacted 17 years ago.
However, even that legislation, the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act (EPSEN), has not been fully implemented and advocacy organisation have been calling for progress.
Ms Madigan said reviewing and updating laws relating to special education was a priority for her as minister.
“The purpose of the review is to ensure that legislation on education for students with additional needs is up-to-date, fully operational, and reflective of the lived experiences of students and families,” she said.
Ms Madigan said it was important to take full account of developments over the last two decades, to ensure that the legislation reflected best practice, both nationally and internationally.
“Ultimately we want our legislation to facilitate the best possible education and outcomes for children with special needs at all stages of their education,” she said.
The minister said collaboration and consultation would be at the heart of the review and all stakeholders would be invited to engage with the process.
An advisory group will include representatives of key stakeholders, including parent and advocacy groups and the review is expected to be completed by early 2023.
As well as a full review of the EPSEN Act 2004, Ms Madigan has asked the Department of Education to review the operation of Section 37A of the Education Act 1998, which deals with school placements for children with special educational needs.
Section 37A gives the minister power to direct a school to provide additional places for children with special needs and it has been invoked a number of times since 2018.
Spending on special education now runs to over €2bn a year, representing about a quarter of the Department of Education budget, reflecting a greater commitment to supporting children with additional needs.
However, key provisions of the 2004 legislation that have not been put into effect, including the promise of individual education plans, based on assessment.
Adam, Harris, CEO of AsIAM, which advocates for people with autism, welcomed the review but said it was of concern that it would not conclude until 2023.
He said while there had been many developments in the education system over the past 17 years, it remained that students with additional needs had “no right to support within the system due to the failure of successive governments to commence legislation passed by the Oireachtas in 2004”.
“The consequence of this is many children without a school place, without the support required within the classroom or too often restrained, excluded or expelled from school.
“The only way to ensure a universally inclusive system is to activate the law which places the right to the right support at the right time in the statute book,” he said.
Mr Harris said it was important to ensure that a commenced EPSEN Act was revised to reflect a more modern and inclusive approach to disability but Ireland had “a long history of excellent reports and policies on disability which are not followed into implementation”.
He said they looked forward to active engagement with the consultative process “to ensure that rights based-inclusive legislation was passed and commenced without delay”.