The Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 was passed by the Oireachtas on 4th July 2018, and was signed into law by the President on the 18th July 2018.
The Act will create a more parent-friendly, equitable and consistent approach to how school admissions policy should operate for schools.
The first stage of commencement on 3rd October 2018 brought a number of sections of the Act into operation including the banning of admission fees and the amendment of the Equal Status Act 2000 to remove, in the case of recognised denominational primary schools, the existing provision that permits such schools to use religion as a selection criterion in school admissions. Under this provision, there will be a protection to ensure that a child of a minority faith, can still access a school of their faith or a similar faith.
Section 8 of the Act, which commenced on the 3rd of December 2018, also provides the Minister with a power, after a process of consultation with the NCSE, the board of management and the patron of the school, to compel a school to make additional provision for the education of children with special educational needs. A number of sections of the Act were commenced in 2018.
Whereas most children, including children with special educational needs, will be able to be enrolled in the school or school placement of their choice there are circumstances where it may be difficult for parents to obtain the school or special class placement of their choice.
The Government is spending nearly one euro in every five of the education budget on special education – about €1.75 billion. We have significantly increased the availability of special classes for children with special educational needs as well as bringing more and more children into mainstream education.
Notwithstanding the extent of this additional investment, there are some parts of the country where increases in population and other issues have led to pressure on school places for children with special needs, it is vital that all children, including those with special educational needs, can access an appropriate and sustainable placement.
I have been assured that the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), an independent agency of the Department, is actively engaging with schools, patron bodies, parents, the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS), health professionals and other staff who are involved in the provision of services for children with special educational needs to try to ensure that each child has a school placement appropriate to their needs for the 2019/20 school year.
As Minister, my objective is for children, including children with special educational needs, to access education in as inclusive a setting as possible where they will experience a welcoming school environment.
Following the commencement of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018, a power has been created to allow me to compel a school to make additional provision for special education.
The power has yet to be invoked and I believe it should only be used as a measure of last resort.
As Minister, I hope that schools, patrons and boards of managements can be encouraged to work together with the NCSE to meet demand in the best interests of the children concerned.
Ensuring that every child has a suitable placement available to them from September is a key priority for me and my Department.