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Dublin: 3 °C Wednesday 20 November, 2019
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Changes to summer scheme for children with disabilities to be considered after High Court cases

The scheme provides funding towards extra schooling in July for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or severe learning disability.

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THE GOVERNMENT IS to consider changes to an extended education scheme for children with severe learning disabilities or autism spectrum disorders after a number of court cases taken by parents of children who were rejected from the scheme.

The Department of Education settled three cases taken by the parents of children with Down Syndrome who were denied access to the scheme. The details of the settlements were not made public but it is understood that access to the scheme was not included.

However, the department has confirmed to TheJournal.ie that it is now considering reforms to the scheme.

The July Provision scheme provides funding towards extra schooling for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or severe or profound learning disability for the month of July. Where school-based provision is not feasible, 40 hours of home-based provision may be grant aided.

The scheme was developed to reduce potential regression in learning associated with these categories of special education needs over the summer holidays.

In one High Court case in which Free Legal Advice Centres (Flac) represented the child’s mother, the mother explained that her six-year-old son has a diagnosis of Down Syndrome along with a range of other education needs. He does not have a diagnosis of autism or of severe or profound general learning disorder.

He is non-verbal, has hearing loss and wears a hearing aid to improve his listening and communication. The child communicates with a combination of sign language and a few words. He also has poor eyesight.

He was in senior infants at a mainstream school and his mother said any disruption to his daily routine caused him “stress and frustration”. She said she feared the break from school in summer each year would cause her son to regress.

An educational psychologist who had assessed the boy stated in a report that the child’s needs were many and varied, and that he was more at risk of regression the longer his breaks from education were.

The Department of Education told the boy’s mother that as he did not have a diagnosis in either autism or severe to profound learning disability category, he did not qualify. The department also told her that the scheme could not be extended to further categories of disability.

The case was settled, as were two other cases taken by parents of children with Down Syndrome.

2016 recommendations

The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) published a review in 2016 of educational provision for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Although the review found parents valued the scheme, it concluded that:

Consultation groups were clear that in general, the scheme was not working in line with its original purpose and that, in its current form, it could not do so.

The review identified a number of problems including that it may not be equitable as it is not provided to all students with complex educational needs. As the review states, “Groups considered that access to the scheme should be based on student need rather than disability category”.

The council recommended that the relevant government departments consider how an equitable national scheme could be developed for all students with complex special educational needs, including some children with Down Syndrome.

The NCSE found no research basis to support the provision of an extended school year to children/families with ASD and not to other children/families with complex special educational needs who could benefit from it.

Back in 2016, the report’s authors stated their concern that the scheme “may be open to challenge on equality grounds”.

They noted that it was “clear that parents of students with ASD valued July provision and felt other parents of students with complex needs should benefit also”.

Ultimately, they recognised the difficulty of removing such a scheme from those already in receipt of it but recommended that “an equitable national scheme should be developed to replace the existing ESY scheme and should be consistently available throughout the State”.

Reforms

The Department of Education has now confirmed to TheJournal.ie that it set up an implementation group to consider reforms to the scheme. A spokesperson said part of that work involved consulting a number of other government departments and State agencies on the about the scheme.

“A report on their work is to be prepared for the minister and stakeholders will be consulted on any proposed recommendations,” the spokesperson said.

Flac chief executive Eilis Barry welcomed the review of the scheme and said she hoped the review “will focus on the assessment of individuals needs rather than the current category-based evaluation system”.

She added: “The Department of Education has an obligation under the Public Sector Equality and Human Rights Duty to ‘eliminate discrimination, promote equality of opportunity and protect the human rights of those to whom they provide services’, and this obligation applies to the July Provision scheme.”

Barry said Flac now calls on this review to consult with representatives from not only the various disability groups but also parents of children who would benefit from an extended school year, to input into the review process either through membership of the panel or by a series of consultations.

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