Access to education

We were contacted by the parents of a child with autism who had been informed that their child would not be admitted to his school for the upcoming academic year. Their child had been attending the ASD Unit of a primary school since the age of six.  The child had been refused a place on the grounds of the discharge policy of the ASD Unit. The school’s policy was to discharge pupils once they reached the age of 12. The child would turn 13 before the start of the upcoming school year. There was no corresponding discharge policy in place in the mainstream school.

The parents had applied to more than 20 schools to secure a place for their child for the upcoming school year without success. They feared that their child would have no school place come September.

We assisted the parents to submit a Section 29 Appeal to the Department of Education and Skills in respect of the school’s decision. This is a procedure available to parents where their child is being refused a school place, placed on reduced school hours, being suspended from school or expelled. Parents can represent themselves in this process.

Where there is a discharge policy based on age in place for an ASD Unit but not in place for students in the mainstream part of the school, the policy may be discriminatory against children with disabilities. Such a policy could be challenged under the Equal Status Acts before the Workplace Relations Commission. However, in the circumstances of this case, it was clear that should the Section 29 Appeal be unsuccessful, it may be necessary to judicially review the school’s decision to refuse admission to the child. Given the lack of an alternative school for the child and the tight time frame, a decision of the Workplace Relations Commission could not be relied upon to ensure a school place for the upcoming academic year.

During the course of the Section 29 Appeal, the school withdrew their decision and the child was admitted for the academic year of 2019/2020. There was no longer need to consider a judicial review.

This case highlighted yet another difficulty parents face when trying to secure education for children with disabilities.  Schools and parents deserve guidance and clarity on this issue from the Department of Education and Skills.