February 23, 2024
News Opinion

LINDA COMERFORD: ‘This is a crisis – our children are suffering’


LAST Tuesday I stood side-by-side with parents and representatives of many special needs education groups as we protested outside Dáil Éireann.

Our message was simple: all children must be given equal access to education.

This is, after all, their right under the Constitution of this country. But many of our children are being denied their constitutional rights to a fair education, despite some claims to the contrary from the powers-that-be.

We know the real facts because we have to live with this inequality every day of our lives as our children suffer.The campaign I represent, Enough is Enough – Every Voice Counts, was humbled by the fantastic response we received as mother and fathers and groups such as Irish Autism Mammys, AsIAm, the Special Needs Parents’ Association and others joined together to make our voices heard.

But it’s a shocking indictment, not only of this government but also many of its predecessors, that parents in this day and age have to stand outside the Dáil to demand equal access to education for their children.

On the same afternoon, shortly after the protest, the Minister for Education Joe McHugh released a statement in which he reminded schools and patrons of their responsibilities under admissions laws.

It’s worth reading Minister McHugh’s statement. He said: “While I accept there are some parts of the country where increases in population and other issues have led to pressure on school places for children with special needs, it is vital that all children, including those with special educational needs, can access an appropriate and sustainable placement.

“I have been assured that the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), an independent agency of the Department, is actively engaging with schools, patron bodies, parents, the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS), health professionals and other staff who are involved in the provision of services for children with special educational needs to try to ensure that each child has a school placement appropriate to their needs for the 2019/20 school year.”

Minister McHugh also said he has asked officials in his department to work with the NCSE to explore ways, where possible, to improve information being made available to parents.

Nice words, at face value. But also misleading.

Instead of providing real leadership, the minister is simply passing the book. And in the process he’s missing a crucial point and one that we are at pains to constantly point out.

Children with autism and special educational needs don’t simply need any school place. It must be an appropriate school where their needs will be met, where they will be supported, where as much as possible they will remain in their local communities and where they will be educated by teachers adequately qualified in the area of special education, alternative communication and who have an understanding of autism, intellectual disability and other disabilities.

We also need to ensure that children with a dual diagnosis, profound disability or life limiting disability are supported in schools. Many of our children also need nursing supports throughout the day.

We also have serious concerns for children with special educational needs who are currently in secondary schools across the country. As of December 2018, the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) have advised their members not to implement Individual Education Plan’s (IEP’s) and Student Support Files.

They argue this is because the section of the Education for Persons with Special Education Needs Act, 2004 (EPSEN ACT), which requires schools to provide IEP’s, has not been fully enacted. This effectively means there is no statutory requirement for schools to provide a mandatory IEP. The stance of the ASTI follows a similar call from the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI).

The ASTI say they “reject the imposition of a special education needs model which takes no account of the time, workload and practical implications for teachers and schools”.

However, the reality is that this is going to put students with special educational needs at an incredible disadvantage and create further barriers to them realising their full potential. It will also cause them immense stress and frustration. This is a crucial issue that you, minister, and your Government must tackle immediately.

All of these incredibly serious issues have been ignored and brushed under the carpet for far too long.

Make no mistake minister: inaction on these issues is having a serious detrimental impact on the lives of our children. And until you and your government have the courage to take the necessary action, to do what needs to be done, the crisis will continue to escalate.

In the meantime, our children will continue to suffer.

PICTURED: Kilkenny mother of special needs children Linda Comerford with her family

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