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Emergency legislation to provide school places for children with Special Educational Needs is positive but not perfect – Ombudsman for Children’s Office

The Ombudsman for Children’s Office (OCO) has said that while emergency legislation to provide school places for children with special educational needs (SEN) is positive, more could be done to plan for the needs of children who we know will need SEN support in the future.


Following the recent publication of the OCO’s Plan for Places report which highlighted the need to forward plan to provide school places for children with Special Educational Needs, the Education (Provision in respect of Children with Special Educational Needs) Bill 2022 is a welcome acknowledgement by Government that leaving any child with SEN without a school place is an unacceptable failure by the State. It also signals a positive move to recalibrate the balance between central Government oversight of education and schools’ autonomy in relation to education provision for children with SEN.


One of the key issues for children and parents is the time it can take to secure a school place. While moves to mandate cooperation by patrons, boards and schools with the NCSE, and to streamline the section 37A process are welcome, efforts need to be made by all concerned to implement the process in the shortest time possible and in the best interests of children. Although not guaranteed in the Bill, the timeframe of six to eight weeks set by Government, is a useful target. We must not forget that Section 37A is a measure of last resort and a focus on forward planning should result in section 37A not needing to be used.


The Bill also does not include a definition of what an ‘area’ is and provides no guarantee that, where a place is secured for a child, it will be in their locality. Children with SEN deserve to fully realise their right to education close to home, just like their brothers, sisters and neighbours. More generally, the OCO expects steps to be taken so that children who are currently in an unsuitable place, including those who have to travel long distances to go to school, can secure an appropriate place close to where they live.


Special classes continue to be a focus in this Bill to meet the current demand for places. However, it is vital that this emphasis does not delay or otherwise impede a move towards building an inclusive education system that upholds children’s right to education, in accordance with Ireland’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.


While this Bill aims to ensure children with SEN have a place for this September, it could do more to plan for the future. We cannot miss this opportunity to create a robust, inclusive and equitable system that will stand the test of time. More attention needs to be given to forward planning and the Department must prioritise publishing a plan to ensure there are sufficient school places to meet the forecasted needs of children with SEN within their local communities. Requirements on patrons, boards and schools contained in the Bill also need to be matched with adequate resources.