The education system needs to be 'Covid-proofed' to ensure vulnerable children are not left behind, a major seminar has heard.
The online event also heard specialist emotional counsellors and therapists must be appointed in schools as a matter of urgency.
The event was organised by the Children’s Futures Campaign, an umbrella body comprising 13 children and youth organisations first established last February in response to the pandemic.
The webinar, coming ahead of the budget and to mark Education Awareness Month, featured a host of speakers, with many arguing that difficulties and inequalities in the education system have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Keynote speaker Dr Paul Downes, director of the Educational Disadvantage Centre at Dublin City University, said: “This year, successive Oireachtas Education Committee reports in response to Covid and on mental health in schools have given the same key recommendation to the Minister for Education, Norma Foley – that specialist emotional counselling and therapeutic supports be provided in all primary and secondary schools as an ‘urgent priority’.
"Ireland is playing catch-up on this glaring gap in provision in schools compared to many countries in Europe and internationally. Specialist emotional counsellors/therapists in schools must be directly and substantially funded in the forthcoming budget.”
Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, and co-founding campaign member, said a whole-of-Government approach, outlined in a "clear action plan", was now needed to address the impact of the pandemic and school closures on children and young people, particularly those already experiencing disadvantage.
"It’s about Covid-proofing the education system and refocusing it in the best interests of children," Ms Ward said.
"This will require a suite of interventions to address learning loss. The Government has already started this work, establishing the CLASS scheme a little over a week ago, which is a positive development.
"Yet we need so much more if we are to truly tackle the inequalities embedded in the system.”
Others to speak at the webinar included Julie Helen of Inclusion Ireland, who said: “The reality for children and young people with intellectual disabilities is that many will be excluded in some shape or form during their school years, because they’re inconvenient for our one-size-fits-all education system.
"Much of this is characterised by poor planning or lack of appropriate supports, leaving everyone frustrated. We know that children with intellectual disabilities, who have long absences from school can suffer regression in their learning – this is not new information. It’s time Government leads on this, so our children can start making up some lost ground, and that this never happens again in the future.”
Tracey Reilly, newly appointed education officer at Pavee Point, said: “Traveller and Roma education is in a state of crisis. Marginalisation and discrimination are embedded and endemic within the education system and have been exacerbated by Covid-19 and I have seen this for myself.
"We are working with other organisations on this important campaign to begin to bring about necessary change.”