The UN committee on economic, social, and cultural rights recommended a fortnight ago that the Government implement the 2004 Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs (Epsen) Act.
Only parts of the law have been brought into effect, but not those which would entitle students to full assessments of the supports needed to allow them participate in education and to have the necessary resources provided in accordance with an individual education plan.
The committee said this should be done as part of a stepping-up of State efforts to ensure equal opportunities of all children to quality education.
A 2006 National Council for Special Education (NCSE) plan suggested that an extra €235m a year, across the education and health sectors, would be needed to fully implement the Epsen Act.
In response to the UN recommendation, the Department of Education told the Irish Examiner it believes the necessary spending would be even greater, although it has not quantified by how much.
“Further consideration of this issue would also have to take account of pricing adjustments in the period since the publication of the NCSE report,” the department said.
“In light of the very difficult economic situation and the significant costs involved in fully implementing the Epsen Act, the previous government deferred the full implementation of the Act.”
The rising cost of providing special needs assistants and resource teachers in schools for pupils with disabilities has seen limits placed on the numbers of those staff which can be employed since 2011.
Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan required Cabinet approval this week to raise the cap on SNA numbers by more than 600 to 11,940 for the next school year, due to demand rising more than expected.
The weekly hours of resource teaching available for children with disabilities in mainstream schools has been cut by 15% since 2011 in order to keep numbers inside another cap.
Such limits would no longer be required or legal if the Government fully implemented the Epsen Act, the delayed adoption of which was highlighted by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) in its submission to the UN committee.
“The IHREC regrets the State’s rationale for the lack of implementation of the Epsen Act on the basis of resource constraints,” it said.
The 2011 programme for government committed the Fine Gael-Labour coalition to publish a plan on implementing the law, to prioritise access for children with special needs to an individual education plan, but it has not yet been done.
It is now expected to be 2017 before a new system is in place to allocate resource teachers, replacing a system under which students must have a professional diagnosis of a disability before teaching hours are given to their school.