We were invited to present at the Joint Oireachtas committee on education on Tuesday 20th April. The session focused on educational rights, particularly the EPSEN Act which has yet to be fully implemented. Representatives from Inclusion Ireland, As I Am and the Ombudsman for Children were also invited. The session involved introductory statements from each organisation followed by a question and answer session which was record and shared on the Oireachtas website.
An inclusive society begins with inclusive education, but inclusion is more than physical presence. According to the UNCRPD, inclusion is a process of systematic reform embodying changes and modification in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies in education to overcome barriers with a vision serving to provide all students of the relevant age range with an equitable and participatory learning experience.
For children with Down syndrome, research has consistently found that academic progress and achievements were better for those children attending mainstream school, as opposed to those children educated in special school settings (Fox et al, 2004; Buckley et al, 2008; de Graaf et al, 2012). The majority of children with Down syndrome now enroll in their local primary mainstream school, and increasing numbers of children with Down syndrome are progressing to mainstream Post- Primary school.
This is a welcome development, and is in line with Irish education policy. The 2004 EPSEN Act states that children with special educational needs should be educated, wherever possible, in an inclusive, mainstream environment with their peers.
Shockingly, 17 years later, the EPSEN Act has yet to be fully ratified. The Irish state has an unfortunate history of introducing legislation which is then not fully implemented, and often the sections which are left unimplemented are those which would have the greatest impact. Failing to enact the provisions in the EPSEN Act relating to an individual right to assessment and individual education plan (IEP) denies students the statutory right to the educational supports needed to enable them to benefit from an inclusive education environment.
While in many cases, teachers are willing to devise IEPs, this is not universal. Schools are ‘encouraged ’rather than obligated to provide an IEP. Assessments may or may not be available. Down Syndrome Ireland has long campaigned for the EPSEN Act to be fully enacted and adequately resourced so that the rights of students with additional educational needs are enshrined in law, rather than depending on ‘encouragement ’from the DES and the goodwill of schools and teachers.
We are aware that education theory and practice have moved on since 2004, and understand the calls for a full review of the EPSEN Act before it is fully enacted, however we are looking for action now, not in another decade or two. We acknowledge that there may be a need for amendments, but we believe that the rights based approach within the EPSEN Act needs to be rapidly adopted and the resources provided to do this properly. We are not looking for a repeat of the early years Assessment of Need process, where statutory obligations are often not met, and identification of need brings no obligation to provide support. We are looking for students to have statutory access to individualised plans and supports which have been identified as necessary for their education.
All of this has been said before, but I cannot finish without calling for additional SNA and resource teaching support to be provided to ensure that students are given the opportunity to succeed in their education. We all know that students with additional needs have been particularly badly impacted by the school closures which were needed during the pandemic. These same students will need additional support to continue their learning, in the form of additional resource teaching, team teaching and care supports. The common practice of sharing access to SNAs across
different classes is difficult to manage at the best of times, and is completely inappropriate in a pandemic. This needs to stop.
We would also like to ask whether the DES is continuing to gather information and monitor the use of reduced timetables in school. While we appreciate that all children have been affected by reduced access to education during the pandemic, the fact remains that children with disabilities were disproportionately affected by reduced school days or weeks long before Covid 19. We have raised this with the committee before, and were assured in early 2019 that there would be monitoring of the use of reduced timetables in schools and consultation about the issue.
To summarise, we are calling on the Government to:
- Amend and implement the EPSEN Act without delay.
- Provide adequate resources and training for teachers so they can provide critical individual education planning (IEPs) for children with Down syndrome. Provide additional resources so that needs which are identified in the planning process can be met.
- Confirm access to the extended school year programme to all students who have Down syndrome. Families need to be reassured that access to this programme is ongoing.
- End the practice of shared SNAs for children in different classrooms. Particularly in a pandemic where vaccination of children is unlikely in the near future, this is poor practice. At primary school, if there is one or more children within a room that require SNA support, there should be an SNA allocated to that room.
- Consider applications for additional support favourably this year, particularly where children are struggling to reintegrate into school or are moving into a new situation. Children have missed out on a significant amount of education since March last year, and it should come as no surprise to the department that the most vulnerable will need extra support for both care and educational needs.
- Monitor use of reduced timetables in schools over and above the pandemic related closures for children with additional needs and make this information public. Work with organisations and schools to develop parameters to ensure that reduced timetables are used for the shortest possible time and only for very explicit reasons.