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'not prioritised' National Parents Council will not support school reopening plan unless all vulnerable children return first

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School children in classroom at lesson

School children in classroom at lesson

School children in classroom at lesson

The National Parents Council Primary (NPC) will not support the Government’s return to school plan unless all vulnerable children go back to the classroom in the first phase in March.

NPC CEO Áine Lynch said she cannot get an assurance that pupils with special needs in mainstream classes and children from severely disadvantaged homes will return early next month.

Her worries include children in Direct Provision and homeless provision, and those living in violent and overcrowded conditions or where parents are suffering mental health issues.

Lack of support from the council may have little practical effect on re-opening, but it would be a serious blow to the Government not to have the endorsement of a highly respected education partner with a strong track record of constructive engagement.

Government ministers have indicated that schools will reopen for pupils from junior infants to second class in early March and that others would not follow for at least two weeks.

The reopening is being guided by cautious public health advice because the Covid-19 variant dominating now is more transmissible than last year’s versions, and the drop in infection rates arising from the current lockdown has not followed the same pattern as 2020.

Special schools have reopened and special classes in mainstream schools will return next Monday, bringing about 20,000 pupils back to the classroom for first time since Christmas.

Leaving Cert students will also be among the first back, but other second-level students will be waiting some, perhaps, until after Easter.

Primary pupils with additional needs in mainstream classes and children who suffer severe disadvantage were on the priority list when a return to school was mooted in January.

Those moves collapsed.

Now Ms Lynch is “extremely concerned” that about 5,000 of these pupils, in primary classes from third to sixth which may not return until March 15 at the earliest are being forgotten.

She said the NPC welcomed that schools were top of the list in moves to lift restrictions, but said the Government “promised all along that the most vulnerable children would get priority but they seem to be completely forgotten”.

The NPC is involved in the schools reopening talks and Ms Lynch said “we have asked questions and they don’t seem to be included in the first phase”.

“We certainly cannot support a plan that excludes these children. We cannot leave these children behind. In other jurisdictions, these children have never been out of school.”

Ms Lynch said they were “inundated” with phone calls from parents of children suffering disadvantage.

She said arguments may be made that bringing back small numbers of children ahead of the rest of the class might stigmatise them “but that is not what we are hearing from parents. Overwhelmingly, what we are hearing is that these children need to go back.”

Studies have shown that pupils with special educational needs or those suffering economic, or other disadvantage are disproportionately affected by not being at school.

Meanwhile, an NPC survey on remote learning has highlighted big disparities in the experience of primary pupils and parents, depending on the school attended, teacher and family circumstances.

More than 6,000 parents responded to the survey last week, and one key finding was that only 59pc of pupils received feedback and support from their teacher on a daily basis, and 5pc never did.

The findings confirm the struggles parents are having with home schooling, with 58pc saying supporting remote learning was either ‘difficult’ or ‘very difficult’.

More than half (55pc) of children are not able to do remote learning on their own, and only half (51pc) of parents feel ‘confident’ supporting them. About 15pc are ‘not confident’ and 34pc replied that it depended on the subject.

Almost one in three (29pc) children were ‘not motivated’ about remote learning, and a further 44pc were ‘somewhat motivated”. Only 7pc were ‘very motivated’

Most parents (66pc) said their child would benefit from online classes.

Post primary schools were directed to conduct online classes, but this guidance did not extend to primary, and while 57pc of schools are providing them, 42pc are not.

Each survey response was confined to one child and 68pc of parents said that they or another adult/sibling was spending between one and three hours a day supporting the pupil’s school work. In 6pc of cases, it was more than four hours.

The responses bear out other studies showing how much children miss being at school, with 58pc ‘unhappy’ or ‘very unhappy’ about that.

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