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Summer provision programme ‘categorised by confusion’

Mark O’Connor, at charity Inclusion Ireland, said parents and schools have been left confused by the Department of Education’s changing messages.

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Lorraine Dempsey, chairwoman of Inclusion Ireland, criticised the Department of Education’s planning for the summer provision scheme (Oireachtas TV/PA)

Lorraine Dempsey, chairwoman of Inclusion Ireland, criticised the Department of Education’s planning for the summer provision scheme (Oireachtas TV/PA)

Lorraine Dempsey, chairwoman of Inclusion Ireland, criticised the Department of Education’s planning for the summer provision scheme (Oireachtas TV/PA)

A series of summer programmes for children with intellectual disabilities has been “categorised by confusion” and excludes a large cohort of youngsters, a charity has said.

Mark O’Connor, a community engagement manager at Inclusion Ireland, said parents and schools have been left confused over the Department of Education’s changing message in how the scheme will operate.

Enda Egan, chief executive of the charity, which represents children with intellectual disabilities, said the scheme must be opened to all youngsters including those at secondary level.

Mr Egan said many children with special needs have not had access to education since schools were closed in March.

He said research shows that schools being shut for extended periods causes regression in learning and skills for children with intellectual disabilities.

“The Department of Education and Skills (DES) has initiated a summer program which is expanded to include additional children in 2020,” he told the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19.

“However, the scheme continues to exclude cohorts of children with disabilities and has been characterised by poor planning, leaving schools and families frustrated and in the dark.

“One trade union has stated the lack of guidance makes the scheme unsafe for staff and pupils.

“Parents are also reporting a lack of transport as a major barrier to attending the summer programme, and there are significant fears for September.

“The National Council for Special Education has previously expressed concern about the scheme being open to challenge on equal status grounds – that has not changed. The scheme must be opened to all children with intellectual disabilities, including those in second level as they also experience regression.”

Mr O’Connor said that all children with Down’s syndrome and those in special classes in secondary schools cannot participate in the summer scheme.

“To say the summer programme has been categorised by confusion would be an understatement,” he added.

“The department has definitely changed the message they have given to organisations over a period of weeks, and this in turn has led to confusion among parents and schools.

“There is no magic that happens at the age of 13 to say that the child’s education won’t regress over the summer period. These children have the same issues as children at primary level.

“The research is pretty clear that children with intellectual disabilities who have long absences from school can suffer regression in their learning, and to make up that lost ground can take a long period of time.”

Mr O’Connor added that, for children with intellectual disabilities and autism, home education has been “non-existent”.

A lack of transport is also a major barrier in children attending summer programmes, the committee heard.

Lorraine Dempsey, chairwoman of Inclusion Ireland, said: “Because of the disjointed nature of schools closing down, the department said they would support families making their own transport arrangements by a grant.

“Special classes are very dispersed across the country – we only have about 130 special schools. It’s untenable a parent would be making a three-hour round trip twice a day for their child to have four hours of school-based school provision.”

– Around 200 schools have opted to participate in the scheme this year.

PA