EPSEN review must deliver for children and schools

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) today formally published our submission to the open consultation on the long-overdue review of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs (EPSEN) Act 2004. 

While welcome, the process must be followed up with meaningful actions and the commencement of the outstanding sections of the EPSEN Act. This will ensure that children with disabilities and additional needs, along with their families and school communities, have access to concrete resources and support to ensure they can thrive in our primary education system.

It is essential that the Department of Education, alongside the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) and other relevant State agencies offer increased financial and practical supports to schools. Meaningful and regular CPD for teachers and SNAs, access to qualified therapists (for the purpose of assessing and supporting pupils) and collaborating on individualised plans to provide adequate time for planning are key measures to ensure a system of inclusion in our schools.

Our full set of recommendations is available to read in our submission.

In respect of resourcing school admissions, the INTO recommends that:

  • The autonomy to open a special class should rest with the Board of Management of the school.
  • Two SNAs should be allocated to each special class for children with emotional and behavioural disorders.
  • All necessary supports and resources should be provided to schools prior to the opening of new special classes.
  • Professional development and training must be provided to all staff deployed to special classes prior to the opening of new special classes and should continue throughout teachers’ careers.
  • All physical modifications, including the provision of new classrooms, nurture rooms, sensory rooms or therapy rooms must be completed prior to the opening of new special classes.
  • Class sizes be reduced significantly to reflect the diversity of modern-day classrooms.
  • Posts of responsibility must be reinstated to pre-austerity levels.

In respect of assessment by qualified professionals, the INTO recommends that:

  • All children with additional needs be entitled to a full assessment with an appropriately trained professional regardless of geography.
  • A suitably qualified professional – or if necessary, a multi-disciplinary team – be available to children who may have additional needs to offer an individualised needs assessment.
  • Continued provision of SNAs to children who would benefit from them.
  • Multidisciplinary assessment should be readily available in a pre-school setting to maximise early intervention.
  • The NCSE resource all schools sufficiently to provide appropriate education for all pupils.
  • Adequate resourcing of the NCSE, HSE and National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS), including the recruitment of additional professionals to ensure children are not waiting any longer than necessary to go through an assessment process.
  • Additional supports are provided to all schools to address the mental health needs of all pupils.
  • Multi-disciplinary and nursing care staff should be available to routinely assess children as required in the special school setting and to ensure the delivery of individualised supports to pupils who attend these schools.

In respect of individual education plans, the INTO recommends that:

  • Professional development and training must be provided to all staff deployed to special classes prior to the opening of new special classes and should continue throughout teachers’ careers.
  • Trainee teachers be offered the opportunity to spend at least one placement during their time in college based in a special education setting eg, a special class.
  • Substitute cover be provided to enable teachers to avail of professional development opportunities and to visit other special schools or classes to witness best practice.

In respect of teacher education and CPD, the INTO recommends that:

  • The approaches within the School Inclusion Model (SIM) pilot scheme be rolled out on a national level.
  • The delivery of therapeutic specialist services be prompt, effective and well-resourced.
  • Increased regularity in meetings between stakeholders at local level.
  • The commitment in Budget 2023 to recruit more Special Education Needs Organisers (SENOs) and NEPS psychologists be honoured.
  • There is a clarification of the role of the NCSE in the Exceptional Review Process with SENOs reviewing the access needs of schools in-person rather than by paper.
  • Increased provision of school psychologists.
  • Professional and school-based assessments with the views of relevant professionals informing decisions regarding pupils’ placement in special schools, special classes or mainstream schools with support for children with special educational needs.
  • Cosán includes access to CPD in special and inclusive education, including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), for all teachers.
  • Provision of timely and Department-funded professional development for teachers in ASD and special classes.
  • Ongoing supports for teachers and pupils of special schools and classes remains.
  • Special education courses be made available to all teachers including those not in a special education setting.
  • Reinstatement of additional allowances for further qualifications
  • Qualified teachers with additional expertise in special education be heavily involved in Regional Support Services.
  • Funding for schools to provide professional development and training by the NCSE to SNAs in relation to supporting all pupils with additional needs regardless of setting.

In respect of the role and functions of the NCSE, the INTO recommends that:

  • The role and functions of the NCSE be reviewed in line with the review of the EPSEN Act.
  • A robust and fair appeals system be devised for the allocation of SNAs and teachers to schools to support children with additional needs.
  • The SENO/NCSE have regular contact with the school community including in-person visits on a termly basis.
  • SENOs have the autonomy to grant additional resources as needed.
  • The NCSE issue guidelines to support schools in relation to physical interventions.
  • Counselling/behaviour/emotional supports be provided to schools where incidents of challenging behaviour occurs.
  • Guidelines with legal standing for schools and teachers on behaviours of concern be published immediately, accompanied by CPD for teachers in situations where pupils are a danger to themselves or others.
  • The Department in conjunction with the Teaching Council, the colleges of education and the unions look at ways of ensuring teachers with additional needs are recruited into the education system.
  • Time and resources, including substitution be provided for training for disability awareness, including invisible disabilities to the whole school community.