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Education rights in Northern Ireland

By law, children with disabilities, including those who are permanently deaf, have the right to attend childcare and school and to have their needs met, this includes children with all types and levels of deafness.

Understanding your legal rights can help you make sure that your child gets the support they need. You can also find out about the changes your child’s school should make to include your child, how absences should be recorded, how exams should be made accessible, and how to make a complaint if you have any concerns. 

Knowing your rights and being able to voice them when you need to can be very empowering for you as a parent and can give you confidence that you're doing everything you can for your deaf child.

Laws which protect your child’s rights

There are four key pieces of legislation that provide a wide range of important legal rights for disabled children and their families:

Under these laws local authorities, childcare providers and schools: 

  • can’t discriminate against your child. In other words, a childcare provider or school can’t refuse to accept your child simply because they’re deaf. They also can’t treat your child less favourably than other children by, for example, not allowing them to do certain activities that other children are able to do 
  • must make reasonable adjustments to make sure deaf children can get involved
  • must promote equality of opportunity for disabled children and think about the impact that their policies, procedures and decisions have on deaf children and their families.

These laws apply to people who have a permanent disability. If your child has a temporary hearing loss, such as glue ear, the laws will only apply if their condition has lasted or is likely to last for 12 months or more or is likely to happen again in the next 12 months.

Reasonable adjustments in education

Reasonable adjustments are changes which a service or organisation should make so that disabled people have the same opportunities as non-disabled people. By law, childcare settings and schools must make reasonable adjustments for children who meet the definition of disabled.

What is considered ‘reasonable’ depends on your child’s needs and the type of childcare or school they’re attending. Here are some examples of reasonable adjustments in education.

  • Staff receiving training on how to use a radio aid.
  • Adjusting the pace and length of a learning session.
  • Using visual cues to support teaching.
  • Creating opportunities for one-to-one and small group work.
  • Checking a child’s level of understanding after a lesson.
  • Tutoring before or after a lesson.
  • Providing equipment and technology, such as radio aids or flashing fire alarms.
  • Providing a good listening environment in the classroom for learning.
  • Making sure staff and students at the school are deaf aware.
  • Writing down homework rather than giving it verbally.
  • Making adjustments to help deaf children access specific subjects, like learning a foreign language or music lessons.
  • Meeting a child’s communication needs. For example, if your child uses sign language, they’ll need qualified sign language interpreters to access the curriculum.

The laws don’t say exactly what is or isn’t a reasonable adjustment. This is because what’s reasonable in one area might be unreasonable in another. For example, a very small school in an older building may find it harder to improve their acoustics, whereas a larger school in a modern building and with a bigger budget may find this easier.

If your child has a statement of special education needs (SEN), the reasonable adjustments your child needs should be set out in the plan. If they don’t have a statement, speak to the school about what your child will need. The school can also ask for support from the Education Authority’s Sensory Service (Education Authority Special Education Needs website). This could include deaf awareness training for all the staff at your child’s childcare setting or school.

If your child’s school fails to make reasonable adjustments, this is discrimination. If you think your child has been discriminated against, contact our Helpline for support.

Transport to school 

Some deaf children are entitled to free home-to-school transport from the Education Authority (EA). Your child may be eligible for free school transport if:

  • their home-to-school journey is longer than the set walking distance, which is two miles for children under 11 years old and three miles for children aged 11 and over
  • their special education need (SEN) or disability means it’s unreasonable to expect them to walk to school
  • the walking route is unsuitable for your child’s age or capability.

If your preferred school is beyond the set walking distance, but the EA considers that there’s a suitable school with places available which is nearer, it doesn’t have to provide transport.

If your child has a statement of SEN, this will include if they’re entitled to free school transport.

Read the Education Authority's Information on Home to School Transport.

Exam access arrangements

Schools must make reasonable adjustments to help deaf students access tests, assessments and exams fairly.

Access arrangements could involve:

  • extra time
  • use of technology such as radio aids or streamers
  • a reader (someone who reads exam questions aloud)
  • a scribe
  • a British Sign Language (BSL) or Irish Sign Language (ISL) interpreter.

To get access arrangements put in place for exams, your child’s school will need to show the exam boards that these are part of your child’s ‘normal way of working’. If you think your child will need access arrangements for their exams, discuss this with their learning support coordinator (LSC) or Teacher of the Deaf (ToD) well in advance of any exams or assessments. LSCs used to be known as special educational needs coordinators (SENCOs).

If your child has a statement of SEN, access arrangements should be discussed at their annual review.

For further information, see:

Absence recording

Your child may need to miss school often for audiology or other medical appointments.

School absences are recorded as authorised or unauthorised. If you’ve let your child’s school know about their medical appointment in advance, this should be counted as an authorised absence.

Some schools have an attendance reward scheme to encourage children to attend school and discourage parents from taking their child out of school unnecessarily. Attendance reward schemes are fine as long as they make reasonable adjustments to make sure they aren’t putting disabled children at a disadvantage.

For example, a reasonable adjustment could be to have a policy where children are rewarded as long as they have 100% attendance for the time they could reasonably be expected to be in school, that is, not including medical appointments or any time off due to their disability.

Read the Department of Education's information on How absences are recorded.

If you have any concerns about how your child’s absences are being recorded, contact our Freephone Helpline 

Medical conditions 

Nurseries, pre-schools and childminders must take steps to make sure children with medical conditions get support to meet their medical needs. If your child has glue ear or another form of temporary hearing loss, this can be regarded as a medical condition. 

Read the guidance DENI Supporting pupils with medical needs (Education Authority NI). This guidance requires education settings to make sure that: 

  • children with medical conditions are supported so that they have full access to education, including to physical education and school trips 
  • staff receive appropriate training 
  • there is someone in charge of how the school supports children with medical conditions 
  • they have a policy that sets out how they will support children with medical conditions (this should be readily available). 

Find more information and resources about how your child’s medical needs should be supported in the early years and throughout their education (SEND Education Authority NI).

Making a complaint

If you have a concern or complaint about your child’s education, it’s important to know who to speak to about it.

Complaining about your child’s school

Before making a complaint, read up on policies and guidance that could help you.

  • All schools should have a complaints policy, which should be available on their website. Ask to see this policy so you know what to expect and how your complaint should be handled.
  • Ask if the school has specific policies relating to the issue you’re complaining about, such as an equal opportunities policy or anti-bullying policy.
  • The Northern Ireland Government has published a list of all circulars that schools should follow to comply with the law.

To make a complaint about your child’s school, follow these steps:

  1. If possible, raise your concern or complaint informally with the people involved. For example, if you’re worried about your child’s progress, talk to their class teacher.
  2. If the person you’ve spoken to can’t help, or you aren’t satisfied with their response, you could make a formal complaint to the headteacher.
  3. If you aren’t happy with the school’s response to your complaint, the next step is to raise it with the school board of governors. The complaints policy or any letter you receive in response to your complaint should explain how to do this, how your complaint will be heard and when you can expect a response.
  4. In some cases, if you aren’t happy with the response from the board of governors, there may be an opportunity for an independent review by the Education Authority (EA), the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) or another external body. The response you receive from the board of governors should tell you if this option is available for your case.

Tips for making a complaint 

  • If possible, always raise any concerns you have informally before making a formal complaint.
  • When making a formal complaint, make it clear that you’re making a formal complaint and ask them to treat your complaint in line with their complaints policy.
  • Think about what you want your complaint to achieve. Do you want an apology? For the other person to admit they made a mistake? To make sure bad practice doesn’t happen again? Make sure you explain what you want to happen when you make the complaint.
  • Try to keep all correspondence in writing and keep copies of any letters, emails, meeting notes or reports to do with the complaint. If you speak with someone  on the phone, keep a record of what was said and the name of the person you spoke with. These records may be useful later if you need to take your complaint further.
  • Read up on your rights in education. Sometimes, just showing that you’re aware of your rights can make it more likely that your complaint will be taken seriously.
  • Try to stay calm and polite. It will be easier for other people to dismiss your concerns if they feel that you’re being aggressive or unreasonable.

Help with your complaint

For advice on making a complaint, contact our Helpline. If you need specialist advice, they will refer you to one of our Advice and Guidance Officers who can give one-to-one advice and guidance.

Useful resources