A CAMPAIGN TO VINDICATE THE RIGHTS OF CHILDREN IN IRELAND WITH SPECIAL EDUCATIONAL NEEDS AND DISABILITIES WHO HAVE EXPERIENCED A SCHOOL PLACEMENT BREAKDOWN.
SEEKING THE INPUT AND SUPPORT OF
MINISTERS: MADIGAN, RABBITTE, FOLEY AND O’GORMAN
Currently the Minister for Special Education Needs and Disabilities Education, Josepha Madigan is working towards the provision of additional school places for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) this can take various forms including the opening of specialised schools for children with SEND, specialised classes within Mainstream Schools and facilitating placements in mainstream classes with additional supports.
Although the Minister regularly announces her achievements in this area, the headlines miss several facts of the reality of the situation, for example lack of appropriate buildings, there are stories of challenges from around the country of poor building provision, for example a school in Offaly cast out to a disused prefab, that SNAs are painting with in their own time to make it habitable.
Children with autism left in limbo due to school project delays (irishtimes.com)
Report now removed.
Schools willing and passionate about providing inclusive education for all but refusing to because they know they simply cannot offer an appropriate level of care and education, due to the fact Special Education Teacher hours are insufficient – often being cut as opposed to increased and Special Educational Needs Assistant Hours being considerably lower than necessary and are based on a pre-written protocol as opposed to actual need of the individual child.
Struggle for special education supports 'morally wrong' (rte.ie)
Need that is supported by clinical professionals when providing reports to schools that highlight support needs of the child are being ignored, setting children up for failure before they even begin.
This regularly leads to instances of school placement breakdowns. The child remains on the school roll and to the outside world has a school place and all is well. But in reality, it is far from ‘well’ in fact the situation often is quite the opposite of ‘well’.
Children all over Ireland are victims of school placement breakdowns. Despite numerous requests to her office by our campaign committee, Minister Josepha Madigan has failed to provide a report on the number of children experiencing school placement breakdowns, including the expulsion of a teen boy from a SEND Specialist school.
However, Pauline Tully of Sinn Fein recently discussed this issue in the Dáil stating over 700 children that are in receipt of the Home Tuition Grant. The committee feel this number does not fully reflect the number of children impacted by this issue as they are not availing of the grant and we again call on Minister Madigan to provide specific numbers on this issue.
For the purpose of our campaign, school placement breakdown is classified as:
1. The parent(s) / guardian has had to remove the child from the school as the child cannot cope in the environment available to them, because
a. There aren't enough physical facilities / resources / staff / training to support a meaningful, safe placement.
b. The school has created a situation that the family had no choice but to remove the child - many families report that they feel their child was 'managed out' with schools stating a position of 'what else could we do?' Parents presenting evidence that there is a lot more that schools could do. Schools indicating that they ‘did their best’, parents and legal representatives often disagreeing.
2. Expulsion, exclusion, suspension. A lexicon and approach that feels highly inappropriate and often creates a perception of ‘blame’ towards the child for behaviour, that clinical research indicates is as a result of significant distress. The school has a duty of care to ensure this distress is managed and way this is handled is often woefully and dangerously inadequate, causing trauma to the child with SEND and potentially school staff too. This may be as a result of point 1,a, above or due to what many parents report as an attitude not conducive with inclusion.
3. The child is on a significantly reduced hours contract - either a few hours a day or a few days a week. The Children’s Rights Alliance scored this issue as a D- in their 2021 report card.
4. Instances of what is termed ‘school avoidance / refusal’ where there is no meaningful support being offered facilitate the child’s return school.
5. Any other situations the child has an official school place but is not attending school.
School Placement Breakdowns can come in many forms, both permanent and temporary, and parents feel that their concerns are continuously ignored. Dr Niall Muldoon the Ombudsman for Children has recently reported on the detrimental impact of lockdown on children and young people, both in their present and their future.
Lockdown and restricted access to education, social interactions and opportunities for development are often denied to children with SEND outside of pandemic times. They and their families continually feel that they are on mute, their voices, inputs and rights not heard, not respected and not realised.
Aims and Objectives
Many of the people on our campaign committee have experienced significant exclusion and trauma themselves or for their children and dealt with the consequences this has on their families as a whole. However, we accept that the focus now must not be on the past, but on a establishing a ‘present’ where our children can thrive and a meaningful future can be created – a future that is pro-life, our children’s lives. A present and future where they can realise their right to be part of a society that includes them as equals - a society where they belong.
Our main objective is to establish a structured process of assessment by the DES into school placement breakdowns, this currently does not occur, and children go under the radar. These assessments should not be dependent on any child having a formal diagnosis, if a child is unable to attend school for any reason (usually driven by anxiety manifesting in behaviours that challenge the child and/or staff such as SIB/Fight/Flight/Fawn). This can be as a result of insufficient/inappropriate supports being offered to children in a variety of ways.
The office of Minister Madigan has listed what ‘does’ apparently happen, yet many parents report that this is simply not the case or if it does then it is a tick box exercise that produces no meaningful outcomes, with the Department of Education and skills essentially abandoning their duty of care to provide the child with an education, let alone connecting the child and their family to the mental supports often needed. Who takes responsibility for these children, to support families in supporting them through this traumatic and detrimental process?
Our children are being hidden in plain sight, technically having a school place, appearing on school rolls, but not attending school, not receiving support. But all is not well and in fact our children live what one committee member calls a “Dickensian existence, hidden away from society,” not seen, not heard, not counted. Abandoned, excluded, LESS!
Our campaign ‘Not Ok In Irish Schools’ calls on Minsters Josepha Madigan, Norma Foley, Anne Rabbitte and Roderic O’Gorman in their various ministerial roles responsible for Education, Disability, Children and Equality, to: establish a formal structured process for these DES assessments. Where Schools and/or the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) are held accountable for the breakdown of school placements. Understanding why the placement fails helps us to move forward in bringing success.
Currently many believe that the NCSE is not fit for purpose, establishing these assessments would help to identify if the NCSE is in fact failing to fulfil its duty of care to children who are already vulnerable, or if their failures are adding to their trauma and reducing even further their potential outcomes both in the education system and beyond.
If we do not assess and address what is holding us back, how can we expect to move forward?
It is vital that we understand first and foremost why the child is not in school. Moving on to understand what supports have and can be offered to facilitate a return to school or the identification of an alternative school placement that is appropriate to meet the needs of the child, as identified in the DES assessment. Our committee is an eco-system of experts with both lived experience and scientific research as our tools for progress.
Currently children with SEND are required to attend the school closest to them with a school place available, or they cannot avail of transport offered by the department of education.
Whether the school is appropriate for the child is insignificant in the eyes of the NCSE. Many of our campaign committee members are parents to children who are already availing of their third educational placement even though their child is still in National School.
Many spending hours contacting Special Educational Needs Organisers (SENOs) who are employed by the NCSE, to get basic information such as ‘has the teacher in the Autism Unit completed the NCSE ASD training course?’ not an unreasonable request or question, yet SENOs often are unable or unwilling to answer this. SENOs who the NCSE informs us have a duty of care to assist parents in accessing an alternative educational placement or support post a school placement breakdown, telling parents “there is nothing I can do, you need to sort it out for yourself.”
Again more ‘hours that should be ours’ stolen from our families as we spend an unreasonable amount of time trying to secure scraps for our children. Facing bureaucratic processes that leave no room for sensible, fair decision making that may deviate from the protocol of the NCSE – a protocol that many parents believe is simply ‘decline for as long as possible!’
Vulnerable children are being passed from pillar to post, with no accountability to those mandated to protect and educate them, no support in dealing with the trauma caused by the school placement breakdown. This trauma impacts not only the child but also their family. Many parents (usually the mother) have to either give up or take time off work to care for the child at home and home school.
Many do not qualify for Carers benefit and therefore face financial uncertainty and stress. Family Carers Ireland estimates that there are in excess of 500,000 carers in Ireland, saving the economy over €20bn per year. In its 2021 poverty focus report, Social Justice Ireland identified that Carers account for more than 10% of those living in poverty in Ireland.
Young carers are often a secondary carer to a sibling, and this reduces their likelihood of positive outcomes. This is further exacerbated when there is a school placement breakdown. This often creates a culture and attitude of blame towards the child absent from school, this is very wrong and causes additional trauma and reduction of self esteem and worth.
Report Highlights Urgent Need to Support Young Carer... (familycarers.ie)
The most worrying impact is the impact to mental health of the child experiencing the school placement breakdown, something that is not supported as a matter of procedure, as no procedure exists, not figures are available to inform us how many children are impacted. No procedure exists to provide emergency mental health support and CAMHS services are woefully inadequate to cope even before the pandemic and are now stretched even thinner.
As an example: Autistic children often fall victim to school placement breakdowns for a variety of reasons. Reports on the impact of this on their mental health varies, with one recent report indicating that Autistic Adults are 9 times more likely to die by suicide that neurotypicals.
As parents we not only face the stress of finding an educational placement to facilitate our child’s learning, but also to increase the chances of keeping them alive! It is that serious, and it is terrifying and the pressure to do this is often the cause of parental health issues, both emotional and physical health. All of this can be avoided if our children were given the understanding, support and respect they deserve. Yet they are treated by ‘the system’ as: a burden, a problem, a challenge – they are none of these things – they are children; children who deserve the right to survive and thrive.
The chairperson of our campaign committee reports that 2 days after his school placement breakdown, her 11-year-old son stuck a knife into his chest telling her he wanted to die as “nobody wants me, nobody cares about me, what did I do wrong, why can’t I go to school anymore?”
He has attempted to kill himself twice more since, stating the same issue. Since his challenges at school began in February 2019, he has attempted suicide 15 times. He is not unique.
This is our reality! This is why we fight! This is why we refuse to go away until this is addressed!
Her son is now thriving in a different learning environment, but this is only being offered as a short term solution and is not available in a school environment, where he is expected to return as there are no other options for him. But it could be available in schools, if we stopped trying to painfully and traumatically force square pegs into round holes and created better educational pathways that suit all.
The answer is easy, we simply need to design and deliver square holes.