Opinion: the lack of provision for the special educational needs of children of gifted intelligence is a breach of their human rights

Teachers, principals and parents up and down the country are constantly pleading with the Department for Education for the specific needs of the people they represent. We are used to hearing (quite rightly) about the pressures on teachers, the limitations of the school curriculum and class sizes. We also hear about the waiting lists for NEPS assessments and the lack of school places for children with additional needs. The pandemic and the move to re-open schools has brought more pressure and calls for action. 

But there is one group of children whose human rights are completely neglected within the Irish educational system. In fact, having been deliberately written into Irish legislation in 1998, gifted children were deliberately written out of Irish legislation in 2004. In academic literature, the term "gifted" is used interchangeably with the terms "gifted and talented" and "exceptionally able" with differences in semantics registering social and political sensitivities.

The Irish Education Act of 1998 formed the legislative framework for the provision of education at first and second levels in Ireland. It placed a legal onus on the government to ensure that appropriate education and support services were available to all children enrolled in schools across the country.This Act also defined key terms in education. "Special educational needs", according to the Act, "means the educational needs of students who have a disability and the educational needs of exceptionally able students".

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, Dr Dieter Wolke from the University of Warwick on an experiment which helps spot gifted children

But the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, 2004 dissolved the National Council for Special Education and omitted "exceptionally able" from the legislation. This means 5% of our school-aged population is not having its needs recognised – never mind met – and these children’s human rights are not being respected by Irish law and have not been since 2004.

This cynical move effectively denies the special education needs of gifted children. It further denies them a legal instrument which acknowledges their human rights in this area, meaning the current legislation around the provision of education for gifted students is not human rights compliant. 

Equality legislation is usually invoked in situations where children are being denied their rights, but it cannot be invoked for exceptionally able children because their special needs are not even recognised. It’s a bit like having legislation that recognises the special needs of people with no arms, but not of people with no legs.

From TEDxLangleyED, Heidi Hass Gable on gifted, creative and highly sensitive children

The Education (Welfare) Act of 2000 charges Tusla with the promotion and fostering, of "an environment that encourages children to attend and participate fully in the life of the school". Without provision for their special education needs, gifted children cannot participate fully in the life of the school, and, therefore, suffer discrimination and exclusion. Furthermore, schools that don’t cater to the very specific needs of gifted children are failing to provide ‘an environment that encourages children to attend’.

Ireland ratified the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992. According to Article 28, "States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity". The key phrase here is "equal opportunity", but the removal of any reference to gifted students in Irish legislation immediately dismisses any pretence of equal opportunity. 

Under Article 29 of the Convention, States Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to "the development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential". Clearly, the Irish government is also in breach of this Article as far as gifted children are concerned. Their right to access support and facilities which will help them develop to their fullest potential is not being upheld. 

From EuroNews, how being gifted can be a double-edged sword

It could also be argued that the Irish government has been in breach of Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights since 2004. This holds that "the States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health." Children at, or above, the 95th percentile need interventions in order to support their educational and social/emotional needs, interventions which successive Irish governments have deliberately refused to provide.

The Irish government’s lack of provision for the special educational needs of children of gifted intelligence is a breach of their human rights. Denying this cohort of students the right to access education that addresses their special educational needs, is a clear breach of their human rights under several legal instruments. Let’s hope that our new Minister for Education addresses this deficit and brings about change for those who desperately need it.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ