Over 30% of NI special schools not fully open, says kids’ commissioner

Over 30% of special schools are only operating on a part time basis or on reduced hours despite being told to remain open.

Koulla Yiasouma
Koulla Yiasouma

That is according to the Northern Ireland Children’s Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma, who has asked authorities to explain what they are doing to hold the schools not opening fully to account.

While most schools were closed to most pupils as part of the current period of strict lockdown, special schools which provide education and care for children with disabilities have been asked to stay open.

“Despite the fact that, at the start of this lockdown, two months ago, the minister for education issued a directive requiring all special schools to remain open for over 6,000 children and young people, we know there have been a number of schools that have only been able to offer part-time provision,” the commissioner said.

She estimated “over 30%” were offering only part time or reduced hours.

“It is unacceptable that many children are still not receiving the education and health care they require, and indeed are entitled to, from their Special School setting.

“Urgent action must be taken by the Department of Education the Education Authority (EA), Health and Social Care, and Special Schools Principals and Boards of Governors to identify and resolve the issues preventing those Special Schools from offering full-time education.”

She continued: “It is my understanding schools are facing a number of issues including workforce absence, concerns that risks haven’t been appropriately assessed and adequate safeguards put in place and uncertainty regarding testing and vaccinations.

“I appreciate this is a significant task but it is disappointing that insufficient work has been undertaken by relevant authorities to anticipate these issues and address them as soon as they arose.”

The commissioner has urged the the Department of Education and the EA to outline how they are “holding the Boards of Governors and Management of Special Schools to account to ensure they are doing all they can to keep schools open.”

She has also asked for more action to reduce staffing pressures, improve communication with schools and parents, speed up the roll-out of coronavirus testing programmes and the vaccination of eligible staff, and for more work to be done to assess the impact of part-time learning.

Ms Yiasouma added: “There must be a concerted, collaborative effort to ensure the safe, full and sustainable opening of all our special schools.”