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State is ‘clearly failing’ schoolchildren with special needs, Ombudsman says

New report criticises the Department of Education for not being proactive in ensuring adequate school capacity for children with special educational needs


Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon

Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon

Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon

Children’s Ombudsman Dr Niall Muldoon says the Department of Education is “clearly failing” children with special educational needs, regarding the provision of suitable school places.

He says there are particular black spots, such as Dublin and Cork, and the lack of provision in the education system constituted discrimination.

Dr Muldoon’s hard-hitting comments coincide with the launch of a report by the Ombudsman for Children’s Office (OCO), titled “Plan for Places: Forward Planning for the provision of school places for children with Special Educational Needs (SEN)”.

The report criticises the department for not being proactive in ensuring there is adequate school capacity for children with SEN.

Its comes as families around the country are still struggling to find suitable places for children with special needs for September. There are particular difficulties in accessing post-primary schools even though the demand is obvious as children have been in special primary school classes.

Dr Muldoon outlines the scale of the problem:

  • Every day 15,500 children have to travel outside their local school-catchment area;
  • Nearly 1,500 students who cannot get a school place are receiving home tuition, which “should only be used as it was intended – as a last-resort measure and temporarily”;
  • Around 4,000 children are waiting for a diagnostic assessment in order to qualify for a school place.

The report raises concern that parents still have to contact the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) about a school place for their children in order for Local School Planning Area (LSPA) capacity to be put in place.

With around 25pc of pupils estimated to have SEN – including 1.6pc, or one in every 65 students, who have autism – the OCO predicts the situation will worsen unless proactive steps are taken .

The report notes that the department has expanded spending in this area and has undertaken significant work to improve data collection in order to forecast need.

But, according to Dr Muldoon: “There are clearly shortfalls in the system’s capacity to provide suitable places in a proactive and timely manner for a knowable population of students within, and set to enter, the education system.”

He said for parents not to be able to secure appropriate school places in a timely manner, close to their homes was “a clear failure on the part of the State, which has an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the right to education of every child”.

He said the heart of the report was that children with SEN should enjoy their right to education without discrimination and on an equal basis with their peers. “This is not currently the case, and is putting an unacceptable level of stress and pressure on families and their children,” he added.

The report makes a number of recommendations including a plan to ensure there are enough school places in the short to medium term to meet the predicted needs of children with SEN in their communities, mandating schools to build or re-purpose existing accommodation to meet the needs of children with SEN, and the publication of data every year on the number of children with SEN without an appropriate school place.

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