Schools will be compelled to open special classes in autumn if they don’t volunteer, minister says

Four primary schools in dispute with the Department of Education over opening classes for children with special needs in September will be compelled to do so under emergency legislation, if they don’t volunteer.

ducation Minister Norma Foley says a proposed new law approved by Cabinet today may be used to ensure that schools open classes in September for children with special needs.

The legislation will truncate the legal process available to the minister to compel a school to open a special class, if they don’t volunteer to do so.

Currently the process, known as Section 37A, takes four to 18 months, but under the new regime that will be shortened to six to eight weeks.

The draft legislation approved by the Cabinet will be fast tracked through the Oireachtas, with a view to passing into law before the Dáil rises for the summer.

Ms Foley said Section 37A would be used as a last resort, where co-operation is not forthcoming and in the first instance they were happy to work through any issues with schools.

Ms Foley said it was an important step in ensuring that children with special educational needs have a school place for the upcoming school year and meant “ that a child-centred and child-focused approach is taken to the provision of special education classes.

The minister acknowledged the examples of best practice around the inclusion of children with special needs and it was only in ”rare and exceptional cases” that there was a reliance on Section 37A

There are 106 children in Dublin with special educational needs with no school place for the autumn – 56 awaiting a special class place and 50 awaiting a special school place.

The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) and the Department are working to address the demand for special school places and hope to make announcements on this matter in due course, a spokesperson said.

The 56 awaiting a special class place was the figure before the current official engagement with 14 schools in Dublin. It follows recent agreement of eight other schools to open classes, which reduced the number of children requiring a special class place from 80 to 56.

The NCSE has advised the department that there is an adequate supply of special class and special school places throughout the remainder of the country at this time, but Ms Foley acknowledged today that some children may have to travel a distance to get a school place.

A major row broke out over the weekend when four of the 14 schools in Dublin were named and accused by Junior Minister for special education Josepha Madigan of not being forthcoming the department. The four schools have strenuously disputed that.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation and the Irish Primary Principals Network accused the minister of seeking to “scapegoat schools and avoid political blame” and said the four schools already had special classes and were working towards building more capacity.

Ms Madigan stood over her comments today.

She said it was “important to clarify that what Section 37A process does is that it publishes names of schools who, for whatever reason they have decided, won’t provide a special class. That’s in circumstances where the NCSE and department are of the view that they have capacity to open.”

Ms Madigan said the NCSE “assured me there was insufficient engagement from these schools and that there wasn’t going to be collaboration around special class space. And, if that continues, then they will be compelled to open further special class spaces.

“If NCSE is of the view, and they were of the view, that these schools can provide an extra special class, where they have already got on one, or a first special class space, then we will be compelling these schools to open a special class space as we will with other schools in the future.”

While the schools have insisted they were engaging with the department, the minister said from her perspective “ignoring the import of the correspondence was very clear”.

Ms Madigan said while “we shouldn’t get bogged down by talking about four particular schools, they may, and will probably be, part of the Section 37A process even if they have a special class, because you have to remember there are children out there with additional needs who cannot wait for a placement.”

She added: “There are parents and children contacting me on a daily basis crying out for places in schools.”

Ms Madigan said enough schools weren’t volunteering and that is “why we have no option but to bring this emergency legislation here today.”

She said today was a milestone day and said children with additional needs had been “neglected”.

Sinn Féin said the public naming of schools that have allegedly been dragging their feet on the provision of classes for vulnerable students is a distraction from special education minister Madigan’s own failings.

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, the SF spokesman on education, said he was “not in principle against naming schools where there are issues around wrongdoing and so on,” even though schools might dispute the facts.

“But in this instance, it seems to have really just proved to distract from the minister’s own failure,” he said.

“It seems to have just caused a public row without any fruitful outcome from it. And obviously, what the minister and her Department have said in relation to the schools is disputed.” Four schools have bitterly complained that they have been maligned through identification with the failure to provide special clases.

“In this instance, it doesn’t seem to have been helpful,” Mr Ó Laoghaire said. “And it seems to be a distraction from the minister’s own failures in relation to ensuring there’s adequate special school places.

“I don’t have confidence in the minister. I don’t have confidence in the Government and that’s why we’re looking for a general election at the earliest opportunity. She’s not the person I want to see as Minister for Education.”

The current situation is that there’s hundreds of children across the State, and over 100 in Dublin alone, who don’t have a place in a special class or a special school for next year, he said.

It was the consequence of a lack of planning and foresight by the Department of Education and its agencies, along with policy failures “that have been described as discriminatory by the Ombudsman for Children,” he said.

Two weeks ago, Sinn Féin brought forward a motion looking for emergency measures to enable a school to be speedily directed to open a special class. “We are also seeking significantly improved planning and preparation, along with earlier decision making,” Mr Ó Laoghaire said. The Government’s response was that such legislation was not needed – but had now moved to bring forward legislation to be debated on Friday.

“We welcome the fact that legislation has been brought forward. We obviously will wait to see the detail, which hasn’t been published yet, and will engage critically with it,” he said.

“Sinn Féin is keen to cooperate to ensure that any legislation can get through, provided that it is fit for purpose. The objective here is to ensure that children get an appropriate school place. There are parents out there right now who don’t know where their child is going to be in September. That is a shocking policy failure and is grotesquely unfair on those children and indeed their parents.

“We need to use each and every measure we can to ensure that is rectified. Ultimately, we need long-term solutions in terms of how the Department operates.

“But we look forward to seeing the legislation and we welcome the fact that the Government has listened.”

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