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Thursday 28 September 2023 Dublin: 15°C
# Education
Government urged to confirm 'special education centres' no longer being considered
The proposal was met with backlash from parents and campaigners last week.

LAST UPDATE | May 31st 2022, 3:30 PM

SPECIAL EDUCATION MINISTER Josepha Madigan has said it is essential that Government explore “every possible opportunity” to provide children with school places amid reports that the proposal to open so-called “special education centres” has been shelved. 

It emerged last week that the Government proposed opening five centres in Dublin in September as an emergency measure in response to a shortage of appropriate school places for children with special educational needs. 

But the plan was highly criticised by parents and stakeholders, who called it regressive and segregative to children with special educational needs, with some concerned that the temporary measure could easily become permanent.

In a meeting last week, campaign groups outlined their concerns to the Minister and other Department officials, who told them that the proposal is an early stage idea and that no decision has yet been made on the matter.

Speaking after the meeting, Madigan said that the proposal was “very much in its infancy” and that there had been “a lot of misperception about what it is meant to be”.

But it has been reported that the proposal has now been abandoned due to a lack of support from campaigners as well as concerns within Government.

The Minister met with stakeholders again this afternoon to discuss the proposal and to update them on the work being done to secure school places for children with special educational needs in Dublin.

In a statement following the meeting, Madigan said: “While we are making good progress in engaging with schools that do not yet have a special class, I have committed to using my power under section 37(a) of the Act, if necessary, to compel a school to compel a school to provide additional places.”

A Section 37a notice is a legally binding intervention from the minister to schools to establish additional classes for children with special needs. It can take up to 18 months to complete. 

Madigan said that the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) has formally written to her to advise her that it has formed an opinion that there is insufficient special class capacity in primary schools and special school capacity in Dublin.

“The NCSE’s opinion is based on an analysis of its available data, engagement with schools, school patrons and parental groups,” she said.

“Stage one of the Section 37a legislation is now complete and in accordance with the stages set out in legislation, the Department will now engage further with the NCSE on the matter, particularly in relation to accommodation issues and building works planned.”

She said the NCSE will provide a detailed report on the matter to her, which will consider existing provision, any relevant proposed building works and which schools may be able to provide additional provision.

“In preparing this report, the legislation requires the NCSE to consult with school patrons, national parent bodies, school management bodies and the teacher unions. I have asked that this be done as quickly as possible,” she added.

Everyone would prefer that schools welcome students that need school places into their schools, and would open the classes needed, with the support of the Department and NCSE. I was pleased to meet with stakeholders again today on this, and to reiterate that I won’t hesitate to compel schools to open classes if it is necessary to do so.

Speaking outside the Dáil this morning, Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon said the Government needs to confirm that the proposal to open special education centres is no longer being considered. 

“We believe that Minister Madigan must come into the Dáil to tell us how this plan came to the fore in the first place, that it’s absolutely taken off the table completely, and what they’re going to do to ensure that children with special educational needs can have their human rights vindicated,” he said.

The Business Post has also reported that the Government is considering “integration days”, where students in special education centres could pair with local schools on specific days. 

Gannon said the reports of proposed “integration days” are “not an appropriate form of integration”.

“Integration Day is a special day, but it’s not integration in it’s full sense. Integration is having students with additional needs in classrooms, with students having their rights vindicated,” he said. 

“Students with additional needs don’t need a day, they need their voice vindicated every single day of the week, so I’m against it completely at the moment.”

‘Quick fix’

In a statement to The Journal, CEO of Inclusion Ireland Derval McDonagh said: “From reading articles in the media published yesterday, it would appear that the idea around ‘school centres’ will not be progressed. We are hoping that this will be confirmed today by the Department.”

“Inclusion Ireland and other advocacy groups have made their thoughts very clear on any such plan. It simply is not acceptable to look at this type of ‘quick fix’ solution which could have a serious, long-term negative impact on a child’s right to access appropriate, local education opportunities,” she said.

Short-term measures in Ireland have a way of becoming long-term solutions. We are hoping to progress the conversation today towards other solutions and are looking forward to hearing what the Department of Education have to say on that matter.

McDonagh said Inclusion Ireland wrote to the Minister last Friday requesting emergency legislation to speed up the Section 37a process so that schools will accept disabled children in September.

“It is a pity that it has come to reacting with an emergency response. Emergency and education should never be uttered in the same sentence. Careful planning around children’s rights is what is needed,” she said.

“We need better data for planning purposes. We need to ensure that children have a smooth transition to their local school, with the supports they need to thrive and flourish. Accepting a disabled child into the school community is not a charitable act – it is their constitutional right.”

Speaking to The Journal, Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) Sinéad Gibney said the institution has “major concerns” about the proposal.

“From a legal perspective, what we will be doing is really looking at our legal powers and determining if this is an issue that we’d like to apply them to. We have a plenary meeting of the Commission on Thursday where we’ll be discussing it,” she said.

She said IHREC has concerns around Constitutional rights, as well as rights under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

Right to appropriate education

Under Article 24 of the UN CRPD, the State holds an obligation to ensure that: “Persons with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability, and that children with disabilities are not excluded from free and compulsory primary education, or from secondary education, on the basis of disability”. 

Gibney said the proposal is “simply not in line” with the rights set out under the CRPD.

“We have defined and enshrined in our Constitution a right to appropriate education, and this is not appropriate. Segregation is not appropriate or inclusive in education. So we do see it as a potential area which we will look at if the Government chooses to proceed with its plan for the centres,” she said.

She added that IHREC would be in favour of emergency measures to amend the Section 37a powers to make the process stronger and faster.

“[Section] 37a was built to do exactly this, so that the Minister could compel the opening of classes where there was resistance in schools, and if it’s not working, fix it,” she said.

I would rather that the Government would throw their energy and resources into something like that, than into these stopgap measures which have been suggested.

CEO of the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) John Kearney has said there are “roughly 160″ children nationally who do not have a special educational needs place in school.

He was speaking on RTÉ’s Drivetime programme following a meeting with Madigan and Taoiseach Micheál Martin to discuss the shortage of school places for children with additional needs.

The meeting was called after the Taoiseach apologised to Gillian and Darren Milne, who had been left without appropriate education for their twin sons Ryan and Kyle who have severe autism. They have since been given places in a special school.

“Ultimately for us long-term, every school in the country would have special class placements. We’re working towards that,” Kearney said.

“The Department’s long-term strategy is to deliver building facilities to accommodate that. There are anomalies in terms of families and children travelling outside their catchment area,” he added.

He said the NCSE is aware of children travelling “further than you would like them to be travelling” to attend school, but he said they are working with schools to address that.

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