Money might be tight, but Northern Ireland has to treat vulnerable children better
Two children with sight loss were denied access to education because the Education Authority (EA) refused to provide them transport to school.
One of the children missed her entire first two years of primary school.
The High Court this week declared the human rights of both children were breached by the EA’s failure to act.
It is another example of an uncomfortable reality: Northern Ireland does not look after its vulnerable children, particularly when it comes to education.
Vulnerable children can include those with physical disabilities, sensory challenges such as sight or hearing loss, those with special educational needs, those in care, and more. We, as a society, do not give them enough support.
That is a galling statement, but the list of examples – now including this week’s court case – is too long to ignore.
The cases ruled on this week were brought by the Children’s Law Centre NI (CLC) on behalf of the children after a referral for specialist legal services from another charity, Angel Eyes, which provides support to the kids in question.
The CLC legal team argued that prolonged and disproportionate Covid-19 restrictions on school transport for reasons related to disability were unjustified and unlawful, interfering with their right to an education.
One of the children was unable to attend specialist education placements in person for all but one day of nursery and for the entirety of P1 and P2. After protracted negotiations to develop alternative arrangements, the EA acknowledged the children’s human rights were breached and they were treated differently from other children because of their disability.
Rachel Hogan, from CLC, said: “In our legal casework, CLC sees a system-wide failure of equality for disabled children and their families that reaches far beyond the education sphere and into every element of daily life.
“The remedial actions taken and acknowledgements given to these children by the EA are therefore welcome as it is entirely right that public authorities should openly identify barriers to equality in order to enable these to be removed.
“We hope these landmark declarations serve as a significant reminder to public authorities and duty bearers more generally that disabled children and young people are entitled to equal treatment and equality of opportunity in all aspects of life.”
These are miserable circumstances and it’s good these matters have been resolved, although the kids involved should never have been in that position and redress should not have required the courts in any capacity.
Altogether, however, it speaks to a big problem for NI: supporting children who have additional needs.
To state the obvious, extra support requires resources, whether that is money or people’s time (which tends to cost money), or something else.
In Northern Ireland, resources are tight, we – as a society – can’t fund everything, and some things that would be good to do will not get done. What should we choose to do? What should we choose not to do?
Just a couple of weeks ago, Scope wrote a piece headlined “Are we comfortable with continuing to fail children with SEN?” which outlined how special educational needs provision has never been up to speed and is, because of rising demand, currently getting worse and worse.
That piece also noted how the Department of Education (DE) floated the idea of a £110 cut to the EA’s budget.
It would be easy to frame DE as the villain in that case, and perhaps the EA as a hero, but the reality is different and much more complicated.
Nobody wants to neglect any children, in particular those with additional needs. The department is trying to square its budget – just as the EA was presumably trying to fulfil its duties (and perhaps balance its own resources) when dealing with the children whose cases were before the High Court this week. The organisation just made a mess of things.
It’s not about ill intent but the consequences are still dire.
It’s a similar story with hearing loss. As Scope wrote last year: “Deafness is not a learning disability and deaf children’s attainment at school should be the same as the general population - but this is far from the case.
“In 2019-20, only 52.8% of deaf children sitting their GCSEs achieved good grades (defined as five or more GCSEs with grades A*-C, including English language and maths), compared with 76.2% of young people in general – an attainment gap of 23.4 percentage points (pp)…
“Deaf children who get the right support can thrive. Those who do not are more likely to struggle at school, experience mental ill health and have fewer opportunities in employment.”
We have also written previously (way back in 2017) about the educational opportunities for children with sight loss, and in particular about how “specialist support is essential for curriculum access and attainment.”
But that’s always the case with additional needs. Children can thrive, with appropriate support. We choose to provide that support. Or we choose not to.
What about the two children from this week’s court case?
CLC said that, since securing access to education, the impact on the children has been clear to see.
The child who missed two full years of primary school, as well as effectively an entire year of nursery, has shown huge strides when the proper support was in place.
She initially received sessions of home education and showed immediate improvements. She is sleeping better, has more energy and is happier. She is now fully enjoying social and sensory stimulation, loves going to school and is learning to communicate.
She now goes to school three days a week, has home tuition for two days and is gradually moving towards full-time, school-based education.
Speaking anonymously by order of the courts, a parent of one of the children said: “I brought my child’s case to the attention of the Children’s Law Centre as I felt no person or child should be treated differently due to their disability and medical requirements and excluded from transport and vital education and learning with their peers.
“My child was made to feel different. This declaration will hopefully promote learning from public bodies and understanding that all children should be treated inclusively.”
A parent of the other child said: “My child was denied access purely on the basis of their disability, with no serious effort to risk assess the situation or consider the best interests of my child.
“I’m pleased with the declaration, I only wish it wasn’t yet another case where a disabled child has to go to the courts to get access to services. I hope the Education Authority learns from this and properly considers the impact policies have on disabled children.”
Making the best of tough situations
CLC does great work but it should not be down to organisations to take state agencies (or any service provider) to court to get an acknowledgement that meeting children’s basic needs is something we should be doing.
There is no easy fix. Right now, in the policy sphere, you can find sticky situations wherever you look.
But freeing up more resources to ensure services for children with particular needs get adequate funding is a choice.
Either we do it, or we don’t.
Bringing Stormont to its feet would help. An Assembly and proper Executive will not be able to magic away all our challenges, but they can at least choose where to direct resources in a proper forum.
Continued political failure is dismal. A minority of operators have made Northern Ireland a single-issue jurisdiction.
It would be a delight if we only had one challenge to face. Unfortunately, that’s far from the truth.
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