I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to come into the Seanad this morning. Education is of critical importance to children and young people but education is about more than just schooling, as many perceive it to mean. Education is a foundation for healthy development throughout one's lifespan. It means the freedom to think, create, play and imagine. It is learning about difference and diversity, and recognising the value of the contribution made by each and everybody.
For many children, however, school can be difficult. That is especially true for children with special educational needs and disabilities, for whom education poses all sorts of additional challenges. On occasion, school can be so difficult for young people who require additional support that a school can struggle to appropriately meet their needs. In certain instances, this can lead to breakdown in school placements, leaving vulnerable children with additional needs without an educational placement.
I want to be clear that I am not singling out our teachers, special needs assistants and learning support teachers for criticism. I am attempting to highlight the fact that some of our schools do not currently have enough resources to meet the needs of each individual child or young person in Ireland. We often hear disability rights organisations and activists speak of people being disabled by their environment. That is also true of children with special educational needs and disability in our educational settings.
In 2018, Deputy Thomas Byrne sought data from the Department of Education regarding the number of children with special educational needs and disability who had been subject to the section 29 procedure under the Education Act which allows for a parent or guardian to appeal a school's refusal to enroll a child in an educational placement. The data demonstrated that children with special educational needs and disability are disproportionately represented within the appeals process.
Ultimately, this suggests that children with special educational needs and disabilities are disproportionately refused enrolments in schools and are subsequently expelled from schools in equally disproportionate numbers. What remains unclear, however, is the precise number of children with special educational needs and disabilities who have suffered a breakdown in their school placement, whether temporary or permanent.
Additionally, I am seeking clarity regarding the investigation processes into the breakdown of educational placement for children with special educational needs by the Minister of State’s Department or by the National Council for Special Education. I suspect the Minister of State may say there is a complaints process for schools which any family can use to make any complaint. This roughly goes that any such complaint can be raised with the teacher, the principal, the board and the Ombudsman. The Education Welfare Act creates section 29 procedures, etc., for suspensions and expulsions and there is forthcoming legislation in terms of the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill. Complaints procedures for schools give schools too much power. The schools control the pace of the processes which can take, at times, two full years to work through. As well as this boards do not have the adequate skills to meet the needs of special educational needs and disabilities students which they consistently demonstrate by allowing reduced timetables to persist and by refusing to open autism classes.
Furthermore, when a placement breaks down, the Ombudsman is seriously constrained because if the complaint becomes a legal one, his process has to stop and sometimes the courts will not allow the raising of an issue which the Ombudsman may have addressed. The biggest problem here is that it allows the child’s rights to be severely impacted before the State does anything. There is no proactive measure to stop discrimination or to uphold the Equal Status Act and the State is behaving negligently as a result.
Will the Minister of State recognise that it is morally unacceptable that what is on the Statute Book allows the same policy document which deals with a student who is bullying or harassing another student or teacher’s code of behaviour to also use the same process to deal with a student with additional needs who is not capable of being responsible for a melt-down which he or she cannot control or who sometimes cannot communicate using words? Despite the lack of statistics surrounding special educational needs and disabilities' students who were subjected to section 29 of the Education Welfare Act, it is clear that the Act as it stands is not fit for purpose.
I am calling on the Minister of State to provide us with the figures for the number of special educational needs and disabilities children who have experienced a breakdown in their school placement, either temporary or permanent, and that her Department begin the process of reviewing the Education Welfare Act in order to ensure that those children and families who go through the State system are owed the highest duty of care and are placed at the heart of the Act. I therefore urge the Minister of State to work compassionately, understandingly and exclusively with special educational needs and disabilities' children and their families to find out what they require in order for their needs to be met.