Opinion: we have ended up yet again in a place where some children's education is conditional and up for debate rather than a right

The annual debacle in Ireland about provision of 'appropriate' school places for some ‘complex’ children has received more public and political attention than usual this year. Some children being without a school place for September 2022 in a developed country, that has expanded appropriately to embrace 5,843 Ukrainian pupils between February and May of 2022 alone, is inexcusable and unnecessary.

This anomaly provides us with duty and opportunity to take stock and examine what is going on behind this annual ‘crisis’. We have ended up (again) in a place where some children’s receipt or place of education is conditional and up for debate, rather than a right.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, Adam Harris from autism charity AsIAm on the ongoing shortage of school places

Conditionality of entitlement/enrolment is a clause written into the legal framework intended to establish inclusive education rights for all children (with disabilities). This ‘unless’ article is a fulcrum for ongoing rights prevarication. The idea that some children are best separated from community peers (for their own good or that of others) for education is a seed of doubt that lingers for parents, schools and allied professionals. The contradiction of having an exclusionary option/disclaimer in legislation for inclusivity has debilitated the systemic reform outlined by the NCSE in its own excellent Implementation Plan.

The proviso is underpinned by deficit-belief that some children are too 'special'/difficult to teach well in regular schools so it is best to group young people with similar difficulties (keeping them away from those without such difficulties) so that education is of better quality for everyone. ‘Special’ Education is a system that evolved to contain/provide for children considered not to fit in ‘normal’ education; it has been fraught with controversy for a long time but remains widely acceptable to many and its appropriateness is rarely questioned in public debate.

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From RTÉ News, parents say special needs school "left to fend for itself"

Despite ‘groundbreaking’ law and inclusivity-decrees, perennial horse-trading continues over placement and resources. This equivocation game serves to ensure that ‘mainstream’ education remains largely unchanged rather than adapting to become effectively inclusive of all local children, not just those who are close-enough-to or can assimilate as ‘normal’. The pawns in the game are neurodiverse children and young people with disabilities and others not welcomed unconditionally at school.

While education in segregated schools and classrooms can be suitable and much enjoyed and appreciated by its recipients, separation of some pupils from others is rarely their own choice. Segregated placement is often permanent for the duration of schooling years with the possibility of some ‘integration’ (of pupils and of their school/class teachers) with ‘the mainstream’. Neither the choice to be educated in one’s community nor the option of at least dual-enrolment recommended in 2009 has been prioritised.

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From RTÉ News, lack of special needs school places raised in the Dáil

Reactive, emergency procedures and political performance/deliberation for prescribed (segregated) places for some children indicate that we are further than ever from building an inclusive education system that welcomes all children to education in their local community. Current and recent debates emphasise the provision of certain therapies and supports for some children in schools rather than resourcing and requiring all schools to become comprehensively inclusive places of education for everyone. Why are we settling for less than inclusive, quality education for all children?

Our inclusive education Act is under review 18 years after declaration that all children would be entitled to inclusive education and 4 years since Ireland ratified such entitlement as international responsibility. Latest developments instead signal that Inclusive-Education-for-an-Inclusive Society intentions, announced in 2019, may be shelved. The new appointment in 2020 of a Minister of State for 'Special' Education and Inclusion, ever-increasing number of special classes and consistent reporting on popular increased-resourcing for ‘special education (needs)’ all serve to confirm that tensions of ambiguity prevail, impeding progress. Clear policy direction and commitment to systemic overhaul are required to dismantle ongoing exclusionary experience of education in Ireland.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, teen with autism denied place in special school for second year in a row

Of course young people not having any school place in a few weeks' time must be addressed in the short term but reactive new legislation is disingenuous, masking the real issue: not progressing or implementing existing legislation. Exclusion of some children is an avoidable situation perpetuated by a failure of government and of schools to address the core responsibility of education in a local school alongside one's peers as every child’s right. This resistance to inclusivity results in parents/carers having to engage in exhausting battle for any school place for their child. Frequent and recurring rejection exacerbates fears that regular schools won’t be 'appropriate’ for their children without (partial) segregation in special classes/schools.

Compelling schools to open special classes that may or not be appropriate/best for the children in question is counterproductive; such a move is unlikely to bring about the acceptance/welcome/belonging that all (autistic) children desire and deserve. The naming-and-shaming of schools with reservations about opening additional, segregated classes is more likely to damage than enhance the relationships, especially with teachers, that young people need to thrive in education. We also know that such classes do not suit or work well for all children enrolled therein; some thrive and others have better outcomes from inclusive settings. Autism self-advocates request caution about such classes and the pressures on parents to select them. Others report that separate classes are beneficial for some.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, John Kearney from the National Council for Special Education on the lack of school places for children with special needs

There appears overall to be belief or acceptance in Ireland that ‘mainstream’ education is fixed and somehow an inferior option for some children. Nevertheless, evidence is consistent that inclusive, welcoming school environments produce best outcomes for all young people, those with and without special educational needs. Furthermore, robustly inclusive opportunity, welcoming and responding to students as they are, (relatively simple tasks) not segregation or treatments is what young people want. We also know that some schools and teachers have already mastered universal access/inclusivity so it is possible.

It behoves us all to expect and create the systemic inclusivity that autistic-children/children-with disabilities/all children deserve. It is time to not settle for less and to stop the cycle of stop-gap measures keeping us from the root and branch reform necessary to uphold young people’s rights. If after having the automatic option to attend a school in their community for quality-education, some request/need other options this can only be known person by person not assumed impossible in advance.


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