Schools could be legally forced to set up classes for pupils with special educational needs if parents are unable to get a local school to provide services.
The measure is one of a number of amendments to a schools admissions bill for which Education Minister Richard Bruton secured Cabinet approval yesterday.
Difficulties finding places in mainstream schools for pupils with autism or other special educational needs have been increasing in recent years, particularly at second level.
Despite efforts by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) to have mainstream schools provide special needs classes, the lack of legal obligations is leading to children having to travel considerable distances or to attend special needs schools instead.
The proposed amendment which Mr Bruton will introduce at report stage to the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill would give him or his successors power to compel a school to set up a special needs class where the NCSE identifies the need to do so in an area.
However, it is hoped the existence of the powers would encourage greater co-operation from schools in the first instance.
The initiative has been added to the bill following significant lobbying by groups representing families of children with special needs, and also pressure from Fianna Fáil.
The bill, initiated in 2016, passed committee stage last summer but was delayed while a number of additional provisions remain subject to legal consideration by the attorney general’s office.
Previously flagged measures also being added to the bill will see an exemption being given to minority-faith schools from Mr Bruton’s plans to remove religion as a criteria for selecting children if there are not enough places for all applicants for enrolment.
Consultations on the move to remove the so-called baptism barrier that currently allows faith-based schools prioritise children of their own ethos, proved divisive.
Mr Bruton expects the new rules to be in place in time for enrolment applications from September 2019.
The idea of exempting Protestant or other minority-faith schools is based on the more considerable distances between such schools than that between Catholic schools, which account for almost 90% of the country’s 3,300 primary schools.
Where a minority-faith school decides to include religion as selection criteria if oversubscribed, children of ‘similar’ religions to that of the school would have to be given equal treatment.
This would mean, for example, that a Church of Ireland school would be required to give equal preference for enrolments to children of Methodist or Presbyterian families.
A third amendment will make provision for children with what “reasonable and age-appropriate” levels of fluency in Irish to be given priority over others if there are not enough places for all applicants to Irish-medium schools.
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