Sinn Féin spokesperson on Education Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire TD has said that every effort must be now be made to press ahead for agreement with stakeholders to secure the speedy return of special education.
He said that commitments made to school staff by the government must be kept on the table and built on, and that the return of special education cannot be contingent on the full return of schools.
Teachta Ó Laoghaire said:
“Given the government’s failure to ensure that special education reopened this week, there may be a temptation to walk away and to let this issue drift.
“That cannot happen. I appreciate there may be lingering tension between the Minister for Education and trade unions, but no one expects them to be best friends. They just need to work together – and get a result.
“Despite the denials of the government, they have absolutely failed in ensuring there was an agreement. There was no agreement. A shared objective exists – it always existed – but to secure agreement now requires real collaboration, which has been absent from the Minister’s approach.
“I am concerned that the issue of special education will be rolled into the overall process of reopening schools. It can be considered in conjunction, but reopening special education must be an objective in and of itself.
“We want to see all schools reopened as soon as possible, once it is safe to do so. Schools are the best place for children to be and the best place to learn generally. However we all know that cannot be guaranteed and that public health advice will dictate the full reopening of schools.
“If a decision is made to delay the return of schools – until mid or even late February – it would be a profound tragedy if children with special educational needs are left behind yet again.
“We have always said that children with special educational needs must be a first priority for a return to school and we support this where it is being delivered in the north.
“But this cannot be contingent on the full return to school. It must be a separate objective and talks must continue on that basis.
“I note some of the last minute commitments made by the Minister yesterday. It is frustrating that these commitments seem to have been made when the die was more or less cast, given many of the issues these assurances sought to address have been well flagged since August.
“If the government is sincere in their efforts, then these commitments have to remain on the table and solutions need to be found to other outstanding issues, including; flexibility for high-risk staff, serial testing for staff, the 40% cut in the grant for PPE/sanitising to be reversed and the extension of supply panels.
“The government is focused on redirecting blame on anyone but themselves. This helps no one, especially children with special educational needs.
“We need work to continue to repair relationships and to deliver.
“It has been done elsewhere, and it can be done here, but we need a change of approach from Minister Foley, from Minister Madigan, and indeed the Taoiseach – who must take direct responsibility for fixing this mess.”