Leading children’s charities – including AsIAm, Barnardos, Children’s Rights Alliance, Inclusion Ireland, and National Parents Council Primary – are joining forces today to launch a major campaign called Children’s Futures, publishing a legal opinion and results from a brand-new parents’ survey.

While tentatively welcoming the Government’s announcement of a phased return for all schools on 1 March, campaign members are urging Government, education partners and others to come together and secure a cross-party, cross-sector public commitment to prioritise reopening – and keeping open – schools, in line with public health advice, and limiting the negative impact of lockdown on a generation of children.

This follows a legal opinion obtained by the Children’s Rights Alliance, which has found the blanket closure of schools, even with the provision of online learning, to be in breach of the right to an education, as guaranteed by the Constitution of Ireland, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The decision to close schools and the continued lack of education for some groups of children is unconstitutional.

Tanya Ward of the Children’s Rights Alliance says: “While the Government may make decisions in the context of a public health emergency, it hasn’t provided an express legal basis for this intrusion on children’s fundamental right to education. After all, Government has a constitutional duty to ‘provide for free primary education’. But it has become quite apparent that there are categories of children for whom no educational provision is currently being made, and falls short of the State’s obligations.”

The legal opinion makes clear that online lessons do not translate into an adequate education for all children, owing to the fact that some children have additional educational needs and not all have sufficient IT facilities, broadband, adult supervision, nor environments where home-schooling is possible, owing to other hardships.

This is backed up by a recent National Parents Council Primary nationwide survey of over 6,000 parents, between 9 and 11 February, which demonstrates the difficulties of remote learning for children, with:

  • only 37% of children having access to their own device, or 26% sharing with one or more people;
  • 37% of children having unreliable broadband access;
  • 46% of children either having limited access to quiet space or none at all; and
  • 55% of children unable to access remote learning without adult supervision.

Responding to the survey results above, Áine Lynch of the National Parents Council Primary said: “Our survey results relating to remote learning demonstrate very clearly why 90% of parents now think schools should reopen in line with public health advice. In less than a month, our children will have endured a year’s worth of disruption to their schooling. It’s time we came together to fix this. We’ve heard much about the impact of Covid-19 on adults’ lives – and quite rightly so – but our children’s futures matter too. Where is plan B?”

Lorraine Dempsey of Inclusion Ireland said: “The negative impact of school closures on children with special educational needs (SEN) and disabilities is undeniable and for those children requiring the most intensive educational supports, the phased return to special school has been compounded by the unsettling plan to have a maximum of 50% of children attending special schools on alternating days. This needs to be resolved immediately by all parties involved and the focus moved onto providing an effective solution for children with SEN and disabilities in mainstream schools.”

Suzanne Connolly of Barnardos says: “For many of the children that we work with, the ongoing school closures are deeply worrying. Not only have they regressed in terms of educational attainment, but for many of these children school is a safe haven away from difficult, and sometimes threatening, home environments. They will not just bounce back from this. We need to have a strong and well-resourced recovery plan in place to support children’s social, emotional and educational needs.”

The #ChildrensFutures campaign is calling on Government and education partners to work together to protect our children’s futures, recommending five urgent actions.

 

  1. Reopen special schools immediately – if the State is to meet constitutional obligations, it must provide full-time education for children with special educational needs.
  2. Reopen all schools and keep them open – schools must reopen on a phased basis as a matter of priority, in line with public health advice, and the State must develop an action plan agreed with education partners to prevent future closures
  3. Make up for the last 12 months to address the loss of learning – developing and providing a suite of interventions for all children but in particular for vulnerable groups of children to catch up, such as funding and resources to provide summer programmes.
  4. Clarity and options for 2021 Leaving Cert students – offer students the choice of a written exam or calculated grade as part of a fair process, to protect students’ wellbeing and mental health.
  5. Best interests of children and young people central to future Covid decision-making – the upcoming National Policy Framework for Children and Young People, Better Outcomes, Better Futures, provides a strategy for recovery in the context of the negative impact that Covid-19 has had on our children and young people, including those who are disadvantaged, those with special educational needs and those who are at risk of harm or neglect. The Government needs to ensure that the best interests of children are at the heart of all decisions about our children’s futures and that their voices are heard, particularly in relation to education.

 

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