One in four children with a disability are being denied the opportunity to attend school for the full school day, with children with autism most at risk from the practice, according to a new report.
The report, published today, finds that so-called "short school days" are being widely imposed on children with disabilities by schools, often against the wishes of their parents and "with little regard to the serious consequences of such action".
It suggests that thousands of children around Ireland are being affected.
The research was conducted by Technological University Dublin and disabilities charity, Inclusion Ireland.
Based on a survey and interviews carried out with parents of children with disabilities, it is the first to attempt to quantify the extent of the practice.
"Short school days" is the term used for a mechanism whereby children are not allowed to stay in school for the full day.
This study has found evidence that the practice is being widely used by schools as a way of dealing with children with disabilities.
It found that half of children affected were put on short school days that lasted for 20 days or more, and that some children were experiencing short school days for periods lasting years, without any medical reason, and against their parents' wishes.
It found that use of short school days is not being formally recorded or monitored by education or child welfare authorities.
The study found that in most cases schools cited "challenging behaviour" as a reason for curtailing the length of the child's school days.
It found that schools are using reduced timetables as a "short-cut" for managing a child's behaviour, even though research finds the approach "ineffective at best" and with the potential to exacerbate challenging behaviour.
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The research, which was funded by the Irish Research Council, found that children put on short school days suffer "significant feelings of anxiety and exclusion, and in many cases a desire to leave school entirely".
This is the second report into the use of short school days, also known as "reduced timetables", this year.
In June, the Oireachtas Committee on Education published a report on the matter, after hearing submissions from charities, school authorities and other.
Both reports were strongly critical of the lack of monitoring of the practice by state agencies such as Tusla, as well as a lack of guidelines from the Department of Education. Both call for formal oversight and monitoring.
The report finds that in most cases where short school days are imposed, the child is recorded as present at school.
"The fact that the child may be there for as little as five or ten minutes is not recorded", the report says.
It calls the practice "an abuse of power", which excludes children from school "in a hidden manner". It accuses some schools of avoiding their obligation to educate children with disabilities and accuses the State of failing to exercise its authority to prevent schools' actions.
The research is based on the responses of almost 400 parents of school-going children who participated in an online survey.
The survey was followed by in-depth interviews with 12 parents.
It found that while 24% of children with disabilities had experienced being placed on short school days, that rose to 32% for children with autism.
The researchers did not count short school days implemented during the first year of a child's schooling.
Around one-third of parents whose child had experienced the practice said their child had been made "worried or anxious" as a result. Nearly half of parents said their children felt "left out or different". About 40% said their child did not want to go to school at all as a result.
The study has found reduced timetables were imposed on children attending both mainstream schools and special schools that cater specifically for children with disabilities.
It also found many parents felt pressured by schools to agree to their use.
According to the report, parents who spoke to researchers also complained about "openly negative attitudes adopted by teachers and school management toward pupils who exhibit behaviours that are construed as problematic".
The study cites the conclusions of a Department of Education committee in a formal appeal taken on behalf of one child.
The committee concluded that "the interventions taken by the school were too much focused on 'rules' and on recording [the child's] behaviour.
"The exceptionally detailed accounts provided to the appeal hearing of incidents involving [the child] were, in the appeals committee's view, evidence of an emphasis on providing a record of the misbehaviour and showed much less emphasis on steps taken to identify triggers for the incidents and on steps taken to calm a five-year-old child experiencing significant trauma".
The report says that such efforts to "build a case" against a child rather than address their needs "were a common feature of the cases we examined closely".
One mother of a five-year-old child told researchers: "The school kept telling us that Sean couldn't be supported 'in this mainstream school'. One of the written reports told us that Sean had 'broken fixtures and fittings' in the class. I asked what he had broken. The teacher said, 'a crayon'."
In relation to an eight-year-old child with Down syndrome, another parent told researchers: "They did everything to build a case against him. One of his many 'crimes' was trying to climb a barrier that was keeping him on his own in the schoolyard, when he wanted to reach the other children."
The parent of a 15-year-old boy with autism and ADHD, who was attending a special unit attached to a mainstream school, told researchers: "The school had opened the unit for whatever reason, under pressure, and the four children they had, with an untrained teacher, presented challenges to them.
"They took matters into their own hands, and told me my son could only attend 9 to 11, and told that other mother that her son could only attend 11 to 1."
The mother of a second eight-year-old child with Down syndrome said: "People talk about resources, I never realised the biggest resource I needed was the right attitude."