On 30th May, the Oireachtas Joint Education Committee met to hear from advocacy groups about the issue of reduced school days. Students with disabilities were represented by the Special Needs Parents Association and Inclusion Ireland, with Down Syndrome Ireland in attendance to support.
Shorter school days can be put in place for various reasons. Sometimes they are requested by families if a student has a medical condition which makes it difficult for them to manage the full day. Other times, unfortunately, they may be used by schools to manage students who are struggling or to manage systems which are under-resourced to meet their needs.
It’s important for families to know that reducing the time that your child is attending school is considered to be a form of suspension. Any suspension should only be used as a last resort, in consultation with parents, and with a clear, time-framed plan for re-introducing the child fully to school.
If the school proposes shortening the school day you need to know:
• Why this is being suggested
• How long it is going to last
• When it is going to be reviewed (and by whom)
• What supports are being put in place in the meantime to help your child
Sometimes, a reduced school day is put in place for behavioural reasons, but there is a big difference between creating a breathing space for a short time while support is sourced and a plan is agreed, and using a long term reduction of the school day as a way to minimise the amount of time the school need to manage the child.
Unfortunately, it can take time to access support for behavioural challenges. Even when specialised support is available, it takes time to observe and understand the reasons for behaviour. When the functions of the behaviour have been identified and a behaviour plan is written, this needs to be implemented consistently for at least a month before a change can be reasonably expected. Change takes time. A reduced school day in the short term may help to maintain positive relationships while this happens.
There is a big difference between a reduced school day and a reduced curriculum.
A reduced curriculum may be helpful for many students with Down syndrome, particularly at post-primary level. Reducing the number of different subjects the student tackles can allow for doubling up on classes, giving the student access to repetition to support their learning. It can allow them to focus on their strengths and interests, and to have some time for supported practice to maintain and develop maths and literacy skills.
Reducing the curriculum does not involve a reduced number of hours attending or receiving teaching in school.
Every child has the right to an education. The Department of Education has clear policies on how many hours a child needs to attend school, along with statutory procedures which schools must follow if the child misses too many days.
From Junior Infants until the end of first class, children are entitled to at least 4 hours and 40 minutes of school each day including breaks. For the rest of primary school, your child is entitled to 5 hours and 40 minutes a day. At post-primary school, the focus shifts to teaching time, and every student is entitled to 28 hours of instruction per week (not including breaks and study time).
We have been contacted by members who are only being offered schooling for an hour or two, or who are finishing at lunchtime every day. We are also aware of parents who are being phoned to collect their child early most days. Finishing school an hour or so early might not seem like a big issue, but over the course of a school year, that amounts to almost 200 hours of school missed.
Children with Down syndrome need more time to learn, not less, and parents need to be aware that the Department of Education considers a reduced school day to be a rolling suspension which should only be used as a last resort, and only when there is a plan to reintegrate.