The Ombudsman for Children received a record number of complaints last year, with almost half directly related to Covid-19 and the impact of the pandemic.
The latest annual report from the Office of the Ombudsman for Children (OCO) showed 2,126 complaints were lodged in 2021, with 908 directly related to Covid-19.
It marks a 79% annual increase in the number of complaints fielded by the OCO, with more than half (53%) relating to education, far ahead of other significant categories such as health (17%), and family support (12%).
Half of all complaints were made by parents, down from 80% in 2020, and in another change 45% of complaints were made by unrelated adults.
According to the report: "This change was as a result of contacts about mask-wearing and other specific Covid-19 related issues from people who were not complaining on behalf of their own children but rather all children in the country."
Covid-related complaints also centred on restrictions in schools, uncertainty surrounding the Leaving Certificate, and supports for children with disabilities.
Complaints more broadly focussed on issues such as a lack of Special Needs Assistants in schools, a lack of ASD places - particularly for children moving into post-primary level and unable to secure a school with an ASD place due to a lack of availability in their locality - and the July provision. Bullying and how it is handled accounted for 10% of complaints.
The annual report referred to the high volume of contacts from parents and caregivers regarding the wearing of face masks by children in schools, particularly when the possibility of children not being allowed to attend school without wearing them was raised. Other issues involved children with very high risk medically vulnerable parents, caregivers or family members who could not resume normal schooling, and similarly, children with disabilities and other vulnerable groups.
The Children's Ombudsman, Dr Niall Muldoon, said: "Children last year were like a cork bobbing about in the storm, moving all over the place, no safe harbour, everything fluid and moving."
Dr Muldoon said young people "were expected to make-do with the stop/start nature of school and learning without falling behind", alongside other curtailed experiences, with the need to focus on striking the right balance between public health and the needs of children within that.
As for the persistent problems relating to education and disability, he said things were moving in the right direction with ministerial responsibility for the area, but he said there needs to be "a cultural change" that means any school that wants to offer special class provision should be able to do so, allowing children to attend the school nearest to them.
However, while praising schools for opening up to Ukrainian refugees, he said a "bottleneck" is "inevitable" when it comes to accommodation issues more generally, not least due to repeated "missed targets" in housing provision since 2016, something he described as "very annoying and frustrating".
Some of the cases the OCO was involved with last year:
- In March last year a law mediation service made a complaint on behalf of a family-of-four, arguing they had been living in emergency accommodation since 2018. One of the children, three-year-old Rosie, was born in emergency accommodation. Problems with that accommodation included a hole in the ceiling which let rain in and the OCO asked the local authority why there was a delay in moving the family on. "Unfortunately, the questions we raised remained unanswered and the issues persisted," the OCO said, escalating the issue to Director of Operations level and seeking records. Last November the local authority finally identified a suitable three-bedroom house and the family moved in last December.
- Ella is a 12 year-old girl with dyslexia and her primary school teacher applied to the local Special Education Needs Organiser (SENO) when she was 10 for a laptop to help with school work. The application was refused with no explanation or information on how to appeal the decision and was communicated to Ella’s parents through a short, hand written note. A separate application two years later, at a different school, was successful and the OCO queried why the first application was turned down, with Ella's parents saying it had a negative impact on her schooling. The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) said that on reviewing their records, the first application made with respect to Ella, had not been progressed or recorded correctly.