Calls for government to address school issues for Ukrainian children

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A representative for the Ombudsman for Children’s Office has called on the government to use the summer months to put better supports in place for refugee children ahead of the new academic year.

Nuala Ward, director of investigations at the Ombudsman for Children’s Office, told the Joint Committee on Education that a failure to provide children arriving from Ukraine with a school placement is a “deep concern”.

Almost 6,800 Ukrainian children have been placed in Irish schools.

Some 4,766 of these pupils have been accommodated in primary schools while 2,031 pupils have enrolled in post-primary schools.

Russian invasion of Ukraine
A welcome room at a processing facility for Ukrainian refugees at Dublin Airport (Brian Lawless/PA)

Several have also reported that their children were forced to change schools as the family was being moved to a different part of the country.

Meg Ryan of Irish Red Cross said that the summer months is an opportunity to bridge the educational gaps for refugee children.

“A huge number of schools have a substantial waitlist for Irish students and the prioritisation is being placed for those that have legacies or other connections.

“An experience that I am finding with my clients, of the parents who have approached multiple schools, sometimes over the 15 schools, looking for a space for a child in secondary education and being told they have to adapt within, that the child will either have to repeat a year or go into a year with a different age group than is inappropriate for the child.

“Huge issues around certain years, first year in particular is a big issue that my clients are experiencing.

“We’re in a summer month period now whereby something could be introduced, some exceptions could be placed in that would allow for schools to expand their classrooms to accommodate these children.

“I think that this summer month period is a time where action should be put in place given it is a pause, where it can give a chance for caseworkers, supporters, parents of Ukrainian children to find appropriate school and placement and a guarantee which will then remove that sense of insecurity, both at home for the parents and for the child and this applies for special education access as well.

“We are in a window where these these holes can be filled.”

Ms Ward said that it is a fundamental right that children have access to their education.

“So not having a school placement is a deep concern, especially for children arriving from the Ukraine as education is where they make their friends,” Ms Ward told the committee.

“They get to know about this new country they’ve arrived into, about the language so it’s critical importance for their recovery that they have a school placement.

“I agree with what’s been said by my colleagues that this is a pause, this is a time to reflect on what is a crisis, but it’s time now to gather what’s worked, what hasn’t worked and put a new process for September for the new year.”

“A sudden change without information, a sudden change without choice and without control,” she said.

“The impact of trauma that we would see children experience is such that they’re constantly scanning their environment for threats, constantly uncertain what’s going to happen next, constantly at a state of high arousal, which then has an impact on their physical well being, their behaviour, their interactions with peers, their relationships with others.

“They will bounce off their parents’ high arousal when they are not aware of what’s happening next.

“I can refer to a situation in Dublin when we were reaching out to a group that were housed in one of our regions, but overnight up to 150 people were removed quite suddenly, within a day or two, and we would see the impact of that.

“Children who have experienced trauma would need safety, security, certainty. They need stability, they need to know what’s happening next, and they need to be made aware of it before it happens.

“So from our point of view, when you are in a situation like that, a traumatic situation, control and choice are very important to you.

“That sense of powerlessness comes with trauma. So early information, certainty, security, safety and knowing what’s going to happen next.

“It’s an absolute necessity for these children so sudden changes, being taken out of schools and then arriving at another centre to go to another school, is very traumatising and re-triggering a child.”

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