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Children's Rights Alliance: This government must do better when it comes to education

Saoirse Brady of the Children’s Rights Alliance says this difficult time could offer an opportunity to recalibrate the education system.

Saoirse Brady

LAST YEAR WAS a year like no other due to the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Around one million children were impacted by school closures when their education was interrupted for more than six months last year while most children have not seen the inside of a classroom at all in 2021.

The closure of schools, even with the provision of online learning for those in a position to access it, has had significant implications for the right to education as guaranteed by the Constitution of Ireland and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

Today, we at the Children’s Rights Alliance launch Report Card 2021, the thirteenth edition in the series. This is the first analysis of the new Programme for Government: Our Shared Future and represents our first collective opportunity to measure the Government’s progress on 16 of its own commitments to children and young people.

An independent panel chaired by former Supreme Court Judge Catherine McGuinness has awarded the Government 8 D grades, 7 Cs and one B for their first six months in office. 

A ‘D-’ grade for special education

Education is one of the key focuses of Report Card 2021. We are hearing from our members and parents who contact our information line of the disruption to children’s routines and increased isolation caused by school closures.

This disruption appears to have taken a particular toll on children with additional needs. Many are displaying signs of regression or concerning behaviour like self-harming and suffering from anxiety despite having worked so hard with their teachers, Special Needs Assistants and their parents to overcome the challenges they face.

While we appreciate that special schools have been the first to reopen this year, this does not take account of the children in mainstream school who have additional needs. 

The long-term commitments which could enhance their experience and attainment when they return to the classroom appear to have moved down the priority list. The Government has committed to ensuring that ‘each child with a special educational need has an appropriate school place in line with their constitutional right’ yet parents still have to fight for school places.

Crucially, a key piece of legislation, the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs (EPSEN) Act 2004 remains only partially commenced. The EPSEN Act provides that children with special needs should be educated in an inclusive mainstream environment unless to do so would not be in the best interests of the child.

However, almost 20 years on, the requirement to prepare a tailored, annually-reviewed, individual Education Plan for a pupil following assessment of need is not yet operational, nor has the Special Education Appeals Board – the independent mechanism for review and redress – been established. For this reason, the Government gets a ‘D-‘ grade for its lack of progress against this commitment.

Access to the classroom

When regular schooling resumes, it is vital children can access their right to education in full. Throughout 2019, the use of reduced timetables without any procedural safeguards continued to be a concern.

We know that children with special educational needs and disabilities are more likely to be placed on a reduced timetable meaning that they may have a reduced day in school starting late and finishing early, or they have a reduced week in school only attending on certain days.

Children as young as five have been placed on a reduced timetable which can have a long-lasting impact not only on their education but on their friendships and interactions with teachers.

While guidelines to ensure reduced timetables are only used in a manner which is ‘limited, appropriate and absolutely necessary’ were drafted 15 months ago, they still not been issued to schools. For this reason, progress against this commitment receives a ‘D-’ grade.

Traveller and Roma children are also disproportionately affected by the practice of reduced timetables. But this is just one of the many issues that they face in education. Traveller children and young people are four times more likely to attend schools in the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) programme than non-DEIS schools.

The Government has acknowledged that Traveller and Roma children have been more severely impacted by school closures as they are more likely to face inequalities in accessing broadband and technology which can make online learning particularly challenging.

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While guidance has been issued to schools on supporting pupils at risk of educational disadvantage, including Traveller and Roma children, and those for whom English is not their first language, without community-wide provision of material support in the form of digital devices and access to broadband, it is unclear how helpful this additional guidance will be.

It is positive that a new two-year inclusion strategy pilot project has been running across 59 schools with 1,300 Traveller and Roma children involved. They have also been involved in an extensive research project to establish a better understanding of their experience of school and hopefully, this will be published in 2021 meaning that the Government will get a higher grade than the ‘D+’ they got this year.

The pandemic

While Covid-19 restrictions have turned the world upside down for our children and young people, we believe that we can also use this unique opportunity to recalibrate and reform the education system to ensure that we have a world-class system that meets the need of all children.

The development of a new children’s strategy in 2021 should provide a roadmap for recovery. The Government needs to ensure that the best interests of children are at the heart of all decisions about our children’s futures and that their voices are heard, particularly in relation to education.

Saoirse Brady is Children’s Rights Alliance’s Head of Legal, Policy and Public Affairs. Founded in 1995, the Children’s Rights Alliance unites over 100 members working together to make Ireland one of the best places in the world to be a child. Further information is available at: www.childrensrights.ie or on Twitter, @ChildRightsIRL. #ReportCard2021

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