Children with disabilities in Ireland are often placed on short school days, denying them their right to education, as well as the chance to socialise with other children, a new report has revealed.
According to the report's lead author, Deborah Brennan of Technological University (TU) Dublin, many parents "are being forced to either accept a short school day or to remove their child from school".
The report was carried out by researchers at TU Dublin and Inclusion Ireland, which is the national association for people with intellectual disabilities. It includes the findings of an extensive survey and interviews with parents.
It found that one in four children with a disability has experienced short days, and this figure rises to one in three for children with autism.
Furthermore, many children on short days were found to be missing certain subjects partially or entirely, and were therefore being denied their legal right to education.
"Half of the children put on short school days had that reduction for 20 days or more, with many suspensions extending to years without a medical reason and against their parents' wishes. This is likely to represent thousands of children around the country," it noted.
In light of the findings, Inclusion Ireland is calling on the Minister for Education, Joe McHugh, to compel schools to meet their obligation to educate children with disabilities.
It said that the use of short days for children with disabilities is "widespread and hidden".
"Children are being denied their right to education because of the lack of acceptance and accommodation of their differences," Ms Brennan noted.
The report shows that the average short school day lasted just two to three hours, with many children forced to attend school for less than an hour per day.
"It is very worrying to us the impact that short school days are having on both parents and children. It is causing severe anxiety in the children, so much so that many have indicated not wanting to go to school at all," commented Enda Egan, CEO of Inclusion Ireland.
Parents were also found to be deeply affected, with some experiencing mental and physical health problems as a result. Almost one in three had sought professional help from a doctor or therapist for themselves as a result.
Mr Egan also pointed out that this is having a major financial impact on families "as they scramble to keep afloat and hold onto their jobs while being available to mind a child for extra hours each day or to collect their child from school at a moment's notice".
Almost eight in 10 parents said that they had experienced work difficulties as a result, while one in three said their career progress had been negatively affected.
One in four had given up a job as a direct result of short school days.
The report pointed out that children's behaviour is the most common reason that schools give for imposing short school days, despite Minister McHugh previously stating that short days should not be used for "behaviour management".
"Schools appear to be using a short school day as a behaviour management ‘shortcut', sometimes when dealing with quite serious behaviour problems, without consulting experts outside the school or addressing root causes.
"Some of these ‘challenging behaviours' are ways that children normally act when they have a certain condition, so this is simply discrimination. And some behaviours are a response to how a child is treated in school," explained Ms Brennan.
Furthermore, the report noted that when behavour was given as a reason for short school days, in the majority of cases, no behaviour management plan was put in place and the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) was never consulted.
According to the study's co-author, Dr Harry Browne of TU Dublin, the findings show that schools "are taking advantage of their relative autonomy in the Irish system to avoid their obligation to educate children with disabilities".
Inclusion Ireland highlighted that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Ireland ratified only last year, "provides that people with disabilities shall have the same right to avail of, and benefit from, appropriate education as their peers".
"We are calling on the Minister for Education to compel and monitor schools so that they stop blocking the admission of children with disabilities, including by their admissions policies," Mr Egan added.
The report also recommended that parents be provided with "accessible information about their rights and the protocols and remedies available when disagreements arise about a child's educational needs, capacities and potential".
"Schools should only impose short school days in very exceptional circumstances, and never in hidden and informal ways," the report added.
The report, Education, Behaviour and Exclusion, can be viewed here.