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law suit 200 parents threaten to sue Department of Education over failure to re-open special schools

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Education Minister Norma Foley. Photo: Julien Behal

Education Minister Norma Foley. Photo: Julien Behal

Education Minister Norma Foley. Photo: Julien Behal

Nearly 200 parents of children with special needs are threatening to sue the Department of Education and unions over the failure to re-open special schools.

A leading human rights solicitors' firm is warning a test case challenging the closure will go to the High Court next week if the schools don't re-open by then.

The development adds to the pressure to break the impasse over the delay to the re-opening of classes for children with special needs. Education Minister Norma Foley’s admission that remote teaching is not suitable for children with special needs and school closures impact negatively on them is a central plank of the case.

In letters to the Department of Education, the parents say their children are not being provided with their Constitutional right to an appropriate education.

The legal threat is also made to the INTO, the primary teachers’ unions whose members are continuing to work in special schools in Northern Ireland, and Forsa, the Special Needs Assistants union whose members are working with adults with special needs.

The flood of legal letters from parents has arrived in the past week and increased this week when a deal to bring back the schools collapsed.

The solicitor representing the parents, Gareth Noble of KOD Lyons solicitors, says he is preparing up to five sample cases challenging the closure on behalf of his clients.

"We are monitoring the situation closely and if there is not a development in the coming days, we will have no option but to seek a judicial review. We are hoping the matter will be resolved before an application to the courts is necessary,” he said.

A similar legal threat in Northern Ireland last summer did have an impact and was seen as pivotal to special schools re-opening and staying open during heavy restrictions. The Northern Ireland Department of Education faced legal action over its legislation on how special schools operated during the lockdown.

The Department of Education confirmed it has received the legal letters.

"The Department has received legal correspondence on behalf of the parents of a number of children with special educational needs who are calling for the re-opening of special education in-school provision.

"The correspondence received is under consideration in the Department,” a spokesperson said.

The letters have been sent by the solicitors on behalf of parents in about 16 counties across the country. The number of parents threatening legal action is heading towards 200, with more expected.

The first batch of letters were sent last week, followed by another round of correspondence this week after talks on re-opening the special schools and classes collapsed.

In her statement announcing that the return for children with special educational needs to in-school learning was not happening this week, the Education Minister acknowledged that “school closures have significant impacts on children with special needs who are unable to engage in remote teaching”.

As of now, the Government is committed to re-opening schools on February 1.

However, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has indicated the current restrictions will be renewed next week, indicating pupils will not yet return to the classroom.

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