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Pupils with special needs set to return to classrooms from next week

Norma Foley said trade unions shared her objective to work together.


Education Minister Norma Foley (Niall Carson/PA Wire)

Education Minister Norma Foley (Niall Carson/PA Wire)

Education Minister Norma Foley (Niall Carson/PA Wire)

Pupils with special needs may return to primary school classrooms from next week, the Education Minister has said.

Primary school students with physical and intellectual disabilities may also be back in the classroom from January 21.

The move comes following a series of meetings between Education Minister Norma Foley, Special Education Minister Josepha Madigan and trade union representatives this week.

In a statement she said: “We are working together towards a phased return for children in special schools and a return to school for those in special classes in primary schools, and children with significant additional needs in mainstream classes, beginning on January 21.”

Last week the Government announced plans for schools to reopen partially on January 11 for 18,000 pupils with special needs and 60,000 Leaving Cert students.

My department and I are listening to students on this, and indeed to all the other stakeholders involvedNorma Foley, Education Minister

But they were forced to U-turn on the plans after teaching unions refused to back the plan over Covid-19 safety concerns.

It will now be February 1 at the earliest before pupils are back in their classrooms.

Speaking in the Dail, Ms Foley said work was under way to ensure all students could return to the classroom as soon as it was safe to do so.

She said planning for Leaving Certificate examinations in 2021 was also under way by the State Examinations Commission and her department and that this year’s exams would incorporate “additional choice”.

Ms Foley said: “Already a number of adjustments to assessment arrangements have been made at Leaving Certificate and junior certificate level, taking into account the disrupted learning experienced by students during 2019/2020, and further possible loss of learning time of the 2020/2021 school year as a contingency measure.

“The adjustments play to the strengths by leaving intact the familiar overall structure of the exams, while incorporating additional choice. There will be no change to the length of the written exams.”

She added that she was aware that some students were calling for the examinations to be curtailed or delayed or perhaps even cancelled and that others were suggesting that alternatives should again be used in 2021 due to the disruption caused by Covid-19.

“Let me be clear on these points, my department and I are listening to students on this, and indeed to all the other stakeholders involved,” she said.

The Kerry TD added that further meetings regarding the Leaving Cert are planned and that her focus now is on reopening schools and ensuring they remain open until the end of term.

Sinn Fein’s Louise O’Reilly accused the education minister of being “absolutely oblivious” to the stress the Government’s backtracking had caused not only on the families of children in the education system but the workers in the sector.

Ms O’Reilly welcomed the reopening of special needs schools but said a plan B was needed for the Leaving Cert examinations.

“Now is the time to put a contingency plan in place. Now is the time to ensure that choices are going to be available for those students who are in sixth year,” she added.

The Dublin Fingal TD called for priority to be given to those working in the schools who cannot social distance as part of their jobs when it came to the rollout of the coronavirus vaccinations.

Labour’s education spokesman, Aodhan O Riordain, also called for those working with special needs pupils to be prioritised for the next available round of vaccinations.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) has said it is “only right” for special education staff to be given higher prioritisation for the vaccine.

Mr O Riordain also urged Ms Foley to make a decision by February on whether the Leaving Cert would go ahead so that students have certainty.

“We would suggest to you that an early decision on this is necessary and we would say in February,” he said.

The Dublin Bay North TD added that be believes schools are unlikely to reopen before the mid-term break or even St Patrick’s Day.

“It’s much easier to close schools than it is to reopen them,” he said.

“With the numbers that are circulating around, with the death count rising, it is unlikely that we’ll see schools open before the mid-term break and possibly before Patrick’s Day, and possibly beyond.”

Meanwhile the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) and the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) said that the Leaving Certificate should go ahead as planned in June, despite calls for the exams to be axed.

ASTI president Ann Piggott said modifications have been made for this year’s Leaving Certificate and it should go ahead.

In a statement, the TUI said the “highly trusted, externally-marked” Leaving Certificate “must take place in 2021″ and that its experience of calculated grades last year had left the union in “no doubt” that the customary state examinations are “more reliable”.

Online Editors