Safeguards must be put in place around the use of reduced timetables, which are a “daily reality for many vulnerable students” that disproportionately affect the most marginalized, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
Without the consent of their parents, a student can have the number of hours they spend in school limited, the committee was warned, and, when used inappropriately, reduced timetables deny Travellers, disadvantaged students, and children with disabilities of their right to education.
Fears were also expressed that reduced timetables are being used inappropriately as a type of unmonitored “informal suspension” to manage bad behaviour in the classroom.
The current invisibility on the use of reduced timetables is a "real and serious concern", Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon, told an Oireachtas Education committee.
Currently, there is no oversight on the use of the practice within schools, he added.
"There are no guidelines on its use, no guidance on recording its use and no external monitoring of same."
While the process can be beneficial in certain cases when used correctly, there is a fear that students may end up missing far more school through a reduced timetable then they would through a formal suspension, which is monitored, he added.
A study carried out by autism charity, AsIAm, found that 17% of students with autism who responded to the survey were on reduced timetables, the committee also heard.
"Some of these students were as young as four or five," director Adam Harris said.
Director of the Irish Traveller Movement, Bernard Joyce, called for the introduction of legislation to control and monitor the use of reduced timetables, as well as for an audit of current practice across all schools.
Mr Joyce also called for the use of ethnic identifiers to be introduced as part of the monitoring of the practice.
However, there is also a “balancing act” in ensuring that every child in a classroom has their right to an education fulfilled, according to Orla Hanahoe, principal of Scoil Cnoc Mhuire, a DEIS school in Tallaght.
Guidelines on the practice should be introduced, she added.
“Simple guidelines because schools are already flooded with paperwork,” she added.
Mary Cregg of the Department of Education and Skills said the department is working with TUSLA and the Department of Children with a view "to ensuring that the use of reduced timetables is limited to only those exceptional circumstances where it is necessary."
Noel Kelly of Tusla told the committee he would propose that a form be developed for schools to report reduced timetables to TUSLA and that a booklet to be circulated to parents about reduced timetables.