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Plan for Places: OCO report highlights need for adequate forward planning to ensure children with SEN receive equal access to education

The Department of Education is failing children with Special Educational Needs, particularly in black spots such as Dublin and Cork, regarding the provision of suitable school places, a new report published today by the Ombudsman for Children’s Office (OCO) has found.

The report, Plan for Places: Forward Planning for the provision of school places for children with Special Educational Needs (SEN), makes a number of recommendations to address the problem that has left a number of children across the country waiting for a school place this September.

The recommendations include that the Department of Education prioritise publishing a plan to ensure there are enough school places in the short to medium term to meet the forecast needs of children with SEN in their local communities, as well as mandating schools to build or re-purpose appropriate existing accommodation to meet the needs of children with SEN locally, in the short-term. It also recommends that centralised data is published every year on the number of children with SEN without an appropriate school place.

Commenting on the report’s findings, the Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon, said:

“The OCO is of the view that any failure to include children with SEN within the mainstream school system, for any reason other than to facilitate their effective education, constitutes discrimination.

“It is essential that appropriate school places are made available for children with SEN close to their homes. We know that as many as 15,500 children currently have to travel outside their local school-catchment area every day. Meanwhile, nearly 1,500 students are receiving home tuition, which our report recommends should only be used as it was intended – as a last resort measure and temporarily.

“There are also around 4,000 children currently waiting for a diagnostic assessment in order to qualify for a school place in the first place. These children need to be given access to a psychologist via the available State services to establish whether they need a special class or school place in the short term.

“We know there is the will in the Department of Education to cater for all children with SEN. However, a tendency to react, rather than to sufficiently plan for places, is hampering progress.

“This report includes a number of testimonies from parents who tell us that the onus is on them to put their child’s name down in multiple places and pray a door opens to them. They

tell us that finding a place is like an additional part-time job. One parent described how a State agency warned that if they open up school places too early ‘children would come out of the woodwork’”.

“At the very heart of this report is that all children with SEN should enjoy their right to education without discrimination and on an equal basis with the rest of their peers. This is not currently the case, and is putting an unacceptable level of stress and pressure on families and their children.

“We will be pushing for our recommendations to be taken on board. I hope these recommendations will inform the Minister’s current reviews of Section 37A of the Education Act 1998 and of the EPSEN Act 2004, encourage a more child-centred and transparent approach to decision-making in this area, and support public bodies to fulfil their obligations to realise the rights of children with SEN within an inclusive education system.”

The OCO report raises concern that parents still have to contact the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) themselves about a school place for their children in order for Local School Planning Area (LSPA) capacity to be put in place. With approximately 25% of the student population in Ireland estimated to have SEN, the OCO predicts that the situation will continue to worsen unless proactive steps are taken to increase capacity building locally, straight away.