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Re-opening schools for students with special needs to be prioritised by government, says minister

Four groups, representing 30,00 children, state that remote schooling is not an option for them.

A meeting took place with Education Minister Norma Foley today.
A meeting took place with Education Minister Norma Foley today.

EDUCATION MINISTER NORMA Foley has given a commitment to groups representing children with additional needs that the government will find a pathway to get those with special needs back to school. 

As I Am, Down Syndrome Ireland, Family Carers Ireland and Inclusion Ireland shared their concerns about the decision to keep schools closed this month with the minister at today’s meeting. 

The groups, representing 30,00 children, state that remote schooling is not an option for them. They told the minister today about the ongoing struggles faced by families in the first lockdown, and the regression of many children.

They told the minister of their concern that the children’s key life and development skills were being put at risk by being out of the classroom, and pointing out that their right to an education was not being fulfilled with the school closures.

It is understood the minister agreed that there is an urgent need to get children with special needs back to school, telling the groups that it is a priority for her.

Minister for Special Education Josepha Madigan, who also attended today’s meeting, said she is determined to secure an agreement to get the children back to school.

While there appears to be broad agreement between government, stakeholders and unions that these children should be allowed to return to the classroom, no white smoke or solution as to how to deliver that emerged from today’s meeting. 

While all sides seems to theoretically be in agreement to get special needs children back to school, no one, including the unions, have put forward a concrete roadmap as to how to achieve it, said one government source. 

Bilateral meetings between department officials and the teaching unions are understood to be getting underway, with a hope that some solution will materialise.

The four groups welcomed the promise that the re-opening of schools for students with special educational will be prioritised by government, but warned that the commitment must be delivered on, and interim measures put in place urgently.

Speaking following a meeting with the Minister for Education, a spokesperson for the groups said they sought a firm commitment that students would be back in the classroom as soon as possible.

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“We also welcome the commitment to examine a range of interim measures to support children with SEN and their families in the coming weeks, and to further consultation with representative groups. However, what we need to see now is delivery and follow-through on these commitments. The Government must not let our vulnerable students and their families down again,” they said.

In the interim of children returning to school, the groups said the minister committed to examining measures such as enhanced in-person supports, a partial re-opening of schools for students with SEN, the roll out of Parents Plus Programme for parents of children with special needs and the provision of a Summer Scheme style programme.

“Our groups have been inundated by messages from parents and carers over the weekend about the impact school closures is having on their children – including significant behavioural issues and serious regression. The minister acknowledged the serious pressure that parents and family carers are under and recognised the urgency in alleviating this pressure.

“The onus is now on the Government to work closely with teaching unions and stakeholders to find a solution that allows our most vulnerable students safely return to the classroom, and supports made available to those who cant,” concluded the statement.

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