Children deserve better of schools

WHEN a child misses 20 days of school in a year, a state body must automatically be notified and intervene with the family or guardian.

But when a teenager was refused entry to as many as 30 schools, most of them in the same wide catchment area, the same agency was powerless to act. So says the Department of Education in explaining why planned new laws and regulations will give that agency — the National Educational Welfare Board (NEWB) — and the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) power to compel a school to enrol a child in certain cases.

Last week, at a hearing of the Oireachtas education committee, concerns were raised by school management organisations that they may have to admit students for whom they do not have the resources to provide a suitable education or to deal with challenging behaviour.

When cases emerge like the one highlighted in a report by the Children’s Ombudsman Emily Logan, the provision is difficult to challenge, notwithstanding those observations. This is compounded by a case highlighted last week at the committee by NCSE chief Teresa Griffin of a parent of a child with special educational needs appealing against more than 20 schools that had refused enrolment and still having no place even though some had capacity.

“We do not think this is a reasonable position for any jurisdiction,” she said.

This was certainly the conclusion evident in the report by Ms Logan’s office into the case of a boy, now aged 18.

The legislation should go some way to getting ahead of such cases before they turn into such drawn-out affairs. But questions remain for the department — and for other departments which control its finances — over the availability, for example, of additional home tuition time when such a protracted case drags on.

Apparently, the Department of Education told the ombudsman’s investigation there was flexibility to offer more than the standard nine hours a week but later said otherwise. Something must be wrong with a system in which a department official, in rejecting the complaint that his absence from school for almost two years was having an adverse affect on his education, told the ombudsman there was no evidence of such.

Or when it appears to have taken the intervention of a district court judge in Mar 2010 to ensure the department provided an extension to home tuition to help keep the boy from falling behind with school work when a school had eventually enrolled him. The school only did so — not at the first time of asking — after inter-vention by the boy’s guardian ad litem with the chief executive of the relevant vocat-ional education committee and perseverance by the NEWB officer involved in his case.

It was one of 26 schools to whom the HSE applied in Jan and Feb 2010 for a place for the boy. He had returned to the country a few months earlier, having been taken out in summer 2009 by his father, who was caring for him inadequately, according to his guardian ad litem.

Only 11 of those schools replied in writing to the social worker’s enrolment applications and, although the ombudsman acknowledged that mid-year acceptance of new students can be problematic, the reasons provided were telling: The most common explanation was that there were no free places, or that he was living outside the catchment area, while others said he had an ongoing appeal against another school (the only such appeal lodged on his behalf by the social worker), his previous behavioural issues, and inability to meet his academic needs.

The issue raises a point highlighted at the committee by the Irish Traveller Movement; that members of that community — and any newcomer to an area — can be unfairly disadvantaged if they arrive outside the summer holiday period looking for a school place.

The ombudsman pointed to a bizarre suggestion offered by the department: That the boy could have accessed secondary education by returning to one of the primary schools that served the secondary schools which did not enrol him.

In ways, it highlights the need for legislative reform to think that this was even an option that a government department could put forward in relation to a 14 or 15-year-old boy (there were uncertainties about his age during the process).

It underlines calls made at last week’s Oireachtas hearing that an independent appeals system needs to be maintained.

The ombudsman’s director of investigations, Niall Muldoon, agrees there should be some mechanism to ensure such cases do not arise again. This, his report suggests, should mean a designated agency to oversee proposed reforms. “Such oversight should prevent cases such as this one, where children remain involuntarily outside school for protracted periods and numerous schools decline applications for a school place, arising in the future,” it said.

With all the lessons we have learned in recent years about what can go wrong when proper rules are not properly enforced, it is the very least that should be expected.

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