Northern Ireland’s Children’s Commissioner has accused the Executive of abandoning special schools with almost a third of them now providing classes on a part-time basis.
Koulla Yiasouma said politicians are failing in their duty to provide a full education to children in all special schools, with uncertainty continuing over safety issues and the Covid testing and vaccination of teachers.
“Despite the fact that, at the start of this lockdown, two months ago, the Minister for Education issued a directive requiring all special schools to remain open for over 6,000 children and young people, we know there have been a number of schools that have only been able to offer part-time provision,” she said.
“It is unacceptable that many children are still not receiving the education and health care they require, and indeed are entitled to, from their special school setting.”
She said urgent steps must be taken to address the worrying situation left facing families and raised concerns about the continued detrimental impact of part-time education on some of our most vulnerable children’s education, health, and wellbeing.
“It is my understanding schools are facing a number of issues including workforce absence, concerns that risks haven’t been appropriately assessed and adequate safeguards put in place and uncertainty regarding testing and vaccinations,” she said.
“I appreciate this is a significant task, but it is disappointing that insufficient work has been undertaken by relevant authorities to anticipate these issues and address them as soon as they arose.”
Special schools were asked to remain open as they provide an essential service for children who have multiple complex needs and disabilities.
The Commissioner added: “Urgent action must be taken by the Department of Education, the Education Authority (EA), Health and Social Care, and special schools’ principals and boards of governors to identify and resolve the issues preventing those special schools from offering full-time education.”
The Commissioner said further action is now required to address staff absence, to reduce pressures on staff, to support them to feel safe and secure in the school setting and to provide sufficient cover.
She has also asked for detail on how the Department and EA are holding the boards of governors and management of special schools to account to ensure they are doing all they can to keep schools open.
“There must be improved communications and consultation with schools and parents and regular individualised assessment focused on children’s needs and best interests,” she continued.
“A rapid roll out of the testing programme in special schools, prioritisation of the vaccine for school staff and, in particular, those that work in special schools and continuous monitoring and review, in consultation with children and their parents/carers, of the impact of part-time or blended learning on education, health and wellbeing are all essential.
“There must be a concerted, collaborative effort to ensure the safe, full and sustainable opening of all our special schools; making sure our most vulnerable children and young people can fully realise their right to an education during this pandemic and beyond.”