‘Soft blocking’ keeps special needs pupils out of schools

Children with special needs are effectively being blocked from entering some schools due to hidden discrimination that has yet to be fully tackled by the Government.

The issue was highlighted yesterday as part of a major conference on the rights of children with special needs to adequate education and supports.

Speaking at the sixth annual National Council for Special Education meeting in Croke Park, NCSE researchers detailed a new study showing how children with special needs were still suffering “soft blocking” from schools which endorsed “exclusionary clauses”.

Under the Education for Persons with Educational Needs act, 2004, schools are obliged to provide pupils with extra needs the same additional support as they would get at other facilities, regardless of the financial costs involved.

However, the unofficial “exclusionary clauses” effectively allow some facilities to encourage the parents of these children to enrol elsewhere due to the financial strain on the school if they were allowed in.

A draft bill drawn up by the Department of Education to more closely regulate school enrolment policies, including those affecting children with special needs, is expected to be passed into law in the coming months on foot of actions initiated by former minister Ruairi Quinn last year.

However, speaking to 250 parents, education staff, and health service officials at the NCSE conference yesterday, researchers behind the Project IRIS (Inclusive Research in Irish Schools) said regardless of the move the issue was continuing unabated.

“School admission and enrolment policies recognise the need to make provision for diverse learners. But there policies often have clauses limiting access for those with complex needs.

“At school level, exclusionary clauses need to be removed,” researchers Richard Rose and Michael Shevlin said.

The IRIS study is based on the experiences of 900 people at 24 schools countrywide.

However, the issue of access to adequate special needs school supports for the children involved has regularly been highlighted since the end of the Celtic Tiger era, with special needs assistant gaps consistently showcasing how widespread the problem is.

While noting that Education Minister Jan O Sullivan is attempting to bring the draft legislation to more closely monitor the issue into law, NCSE head of research and communications, Jennifer Doran, said the “soft barrier” still exists.

“Sometimes what we know happens is a family might be told their child might be better off going to the school around the corner,” she said.

The NCSE conference also heard how a significant number of approaches which supposedly help children with autism have “no basis in fact”.

Keynote speaker Prof Sam Odom, director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina, US, said the majority of approaches are of benefit to children’s development.

However, while he stressed the importance of applied behavioural analysis therapies and others which are evidence-based, he criticised attempts by some groups to endorse alternative approaches which do nothing and can even damage the children involved.


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