After years of lagging behind in meeting the needs of vulnerable children, the Government is now providing unprecedented levels of investment in special education. This year it will spend more than € 2 billion – in excess of 25 per cent of the education budget – supporting children with additional educational needs. As a result, the number of special education teachers, special needs assistants, special classes and school places are higher than ever.
Despite these impressive figures, many children with additional needs are continuing to fall through the cracks of the education system. Dozens of vulnerable pupils do not have a school for next September. Many others are in inappropriate school placements which do not meet their assessed needs. Thousands of children are forced to travel out of their community each day to access a school place. Why?
A report by the Ombudsman for Children’s Office (OCO) helps shine a light on what is going wrong. It has exposed inadequate planning to ensure children with special needs receive equal access to education. It says a tendency to react rather than sufficiently plan for places is hampering progress. Incredibly, the authorities do not seem to know how many children are without an appropriate school place. The report includes moving testimonies from parents who face an unacceptable level of stress and pressure in finding places for their children.
Parents told of how the onus is on them to apply to dozens of schools and “pray” a door opens to them. One parent described how a State agency warned that if they opened up school places too early “children would come out of the woodwork”. We are facing another entirely predictable crisis this September when dozens of children are likely to be without school places.
Worryingly, one of the Government’s proposals involves setting up special educational needs centers on an emergency basis. Rightly, the idea has met a chorus of opposition from campaigners who say it could amount to segregated education. There are also urgent questions over whether the National Council for Special Education is fit for purpose in fulfilling its role of co-ordinating education provision for children with additional needs.
Ultimately, all children should enjoy their right to an education on an equal basis with their peers. If this is to be achieved, the Ombudsman’s recommendations should be implemented without delay. They include identifying how many children are without appropriate places; better planning to meet the forecast needs of children with special needs; and ensuring schools have the necessary accommodation to meet the needs of vulnerable children locally.
All children must be given the chance to reach their potential. Every child should have access to an education appropriate to their needs. Nothing less is acceptable.