I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the invitation to present to them on the issues pertaining to the education of children with special needs during the Covid-19 period thus far. Inclusion Ireland conducted a survey of parents in the first three weeks of May on how school closures were impacting on their lives. In total, 1,064 people responded to the survey, with 89% of respondents reporting that their child was missing school quite a lot. Educating at home is not working well for most respondents. There are huge barriers to home schooling for parents who, in most cases, are not teachers. Some parents noted that their child presents with behaviours that can be challenging or he or she has poor attention skills which require the support of a skilled teacher. The support from schools has been variable, from excellent to non-existent.
Our survey indicates that most families have access to some form of technology that enables them to access schoolwork at home. However, 11% have no access to such technology. While the virtual classroom is an option for some, there is a technology deficit which means that many children have not been accessing education in this way. A full technology audit and supply of equipment must be undertaken with immediate effect to ensure the children who would benefit from virtual education can do so.
Research tells us that school closures for extended periods cause regression in learning for children with intellectual disabilities. These children need to be top of the priority list for a return to school. They generally fall into the categories of those with highest support needs, traditionally referred to as moderate, severe and profound intellectual disabilities, as well as severe autism. For most children with disabilities, direct access to teachers, special needs assistants and a structured lesson plan derived from their individual education plan is what is required. These children find it more difficult to engage in virtual classes and should, therefore, be allowed back to school as early as possible.
The Department of Education and Skills has initiated a summer programme, which has expanded to include additional children in 2020. However, the scheme continues to exclude cohorts of children with disabilities and has been characterised by poor planning, leaving schools and families frustrated and in the dark. One trade union has stated the lack of guidance makes the scheme unsafe for pupils. Parents are also reporting a lack of transport as a major barrier to attending the summer programme and there are significant fears for September. The National Council for Special Education has previously expressed concern about the scheme being open to challenge on equal status grounds. The scheme must be opened to all children with intellectual disabilities, including those in second level, as they also experience regression.
A very small group of pupils in the Irish education system will not be able to attend school for some time. These are medically fragile pupils with disabilities to whom the Department needs to pay particular attention. These children need regular access to their teacher via remote means or through the home tuition scheme. It may require the Department to supply technology into homes as these children may not be back at school again for a significant period. It must be noted that HSE therapy support which enables education has also ceased.
Inclusion Ireland believes the following should happen to mitigate the undoubted and continuing regression in learning and skills for children with intellectual disabilities. A technology audit must be carried out to ensure all children who would benefit from virtual classroom support can do so. We must include all children with intellectual disabilities in the summer programme. At present, secondary school children remain the subject of possible discrimination by their continued exclusion from the scheme. Children with disabilities need to be at the top of the priority list for returning to school and transport issues must be addressed in advance. The resumption of HSE therapies such as speech and language therapy and occupational therapy must occur without delay. Many of these services can be delivered in a virtual manner. The Department of Education and Skills urgently needs to identify all children who are medically compromised and put in place supports for them to receive a home tuition package until it is safe for them to return to school. Some of these children will not be back in school until a vaccine is available or Covid-19 is fully suppressed.
That concludes my opening statement. I thank committee members for their time this afternoon. We are very happy to answer any questions they may have.