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Charities call for pause on special education changes

Three charities that support children with special needs have asked the Department of Education not to proceed with the implementation of a new way of allocating school special education teaching hours until what they have called “meaningful consultation” can take place with those most affected.

Autism charity AsIAm, Inclusion Ireland, and Down’s Syndrome Ireland say that while they have all three engaged with the Department in recent days “there remains insufficient clarity on the basis of the [new] model for us to provide any meaningful reassurances to families”.

Earlier this month, the Department informed schools that their way of calculating the additional teaching hours that schools are entitled to would change from September.

Since 2017, it has used a number of general criteria to decide allocation.

These include the number of children attending a school, the socioeconomic background of pupils, test scores, and the number of children in the school who have “complex needs”.

However, the Department of Education has decided to remove the last criteria from this coming September.

Complex needs refer typically to children with an intellectual disability or Down’s Syndrome or a condition such as autism who require a significant amount of support in order to learn in school.

The department has said the change will make allocation fairer to all children with complex needs.

It said a review had identified concerns in relation to the accuracy and consistency of data provided by local HSE teams working with children with complex needs and that not all cases were being captured.

However, disability charities and primary school principals have serious concerns about the planned change.

In a statement, the three charities said they need to be able to reassure families “that the new approach is inclusive and equitable for students with the greatest level of support needs attending mainstream schools”.

They said that during engagement with department officials, they had not seen detailed modelling to assure them that children would not be disadvantaged.

The charities say they are particularly concerned by a suggestion that one reason for the change is the growth of special classes and schools.

In its communication to schools, the Department of Education said that with the very significant growth in special classes and the opening of new special schools, “a significant number of pupils with more complex needs are now supported in these settings”, which are resourced separately.

The charities have said that this “will be of concern to many parents who wish for their child to attend mainstream school in an inclusive and accessible setting”.

They said that on Monday they will begin consulting with families “to ascertain the views and experiences of our collective communities on the proposed allocation model”.

“The data gleaned from this process will enable us to give the clear views and concerns of students with additional needs” to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and to the Department of Education.

The organisations are due to address the committee on 5 March.

The charities say that in requesting this pause they also “call on the Department to ensure it never again excludes the voices of our communities from critical decisions which affect us”.

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