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Thursday 30 November 2023 Dublin: 3°C

Opinion Focus on bureaucracy sells students with special education needs short

In other countries excessive bureaucracy has led to the demoralisation of teachers, writes ASTI President Breda Lynch.

THIS MORNING’S ARTICLE by Adam Harris on students with special education needs raises a very important question: How best can schools deliver an inclusive education to students with special education needs?

Since the introduction of the Education for Persons with Special Education Needs (EPSEN) Act 2004, inclusive education has become a success story for Ireland. The vast majority of students with special education needs are now attending mainstream schools and are in mainstream classes.

This is despite the significant under-funding of Irish schools and a decade of austerity cuts.

However, the ASTI believes that the efforts of schools and teachers are being significantly undermined by the Department of Education and Skills’ recent focus on form filling rather than on ensuring schools and teachers are equipped to meet the specific and unique needs of students with special education needs.

I believe that inclusive education is about supporting and empowering all students in their lives.

Bureaucracy and paperwork should never be allowed to dominate the way schools support inclusion or the important work of teaching and learning and the relationships between teachers and their students.

In other countries, excessive bureaucracy has led to the demoralisation of teachers which has impacted negatively on students’ learning outcomes.

Evidence of bureaucracy

Teachers will always want the best for their students. The professionalism and commitment of second-level teachers in Ireland to their students is acknowledged internationally and borne out by international research on students’ performance as well as their satisfaction with their lives.

Schools work hard to provide pastoral care structures and guidance and counselling services to promote the emotional wellbeing and mental health of all students. Teaching is highly relational and teachers spend the bulk of their time interacting with their students – whether that be in the classroom, during extra-curricular activities such as the school play, or in the context of school pastoral care programmes.

Recent research by RED C, commissioned by the ASTI, has however found that the work of second-level teachers has become increasingly bureaucratic and crowded by additional (non-teaching) duties and responsibilities. These include, but are not limited to, administrative tasks, planning requirements, participating in inspections and evaluations, attending whole school meetings, and liaising with a range of external agencies.

Teachers, who are contracted to teach for 22 hours per week, spend more than 20 additional hours on non-teaching work such as the above.

The vast majority of teachers are also required to undertake supervision and substitution duties each week.

In addition to all of this, teachers are required to attend a number of termly and yearly events such as school open nights, awards evenings and much more.

This is the context in which the ASTI recently advised classroom teachers not to prepare and implement Individual Education Plans (IEPs) or their equivalents (e.g. student support files), but rather to focus their efforts and time on teaching and learning for all students including students with special education needs.

IEPs are complex and technical documents which require specialist knowledge of the diverse range of special education needs. They also require each teacher to collaborate with each students’ other teachers (approx. 8-10) for the purpose of the plan. It is estimated that approximately 25% of students in our schools have special education needs.

This means that a classroom teacher – who typically teaches 250 students in any given week of a school year – has 60 plus students with special education needs. Mountains of paper work aside, IEPs require the classroom teacher to have a level of knowledge of special needs education which only specialised training can provide.

A national training programme for all teachers has never been rolled out. The political will to fund such a rollout does not seem to be there. We find this unacceptable. Not only are our students with special education needs being sold short, society is being sold short.

This is not inclusion.

Adam Harris is right to state that teachers and schools must plan to ensure the educational needs of all students, including those with special education needs, are provided for.

Parents and students can rest assured that teachers and schools will continue to provide supports that students with special education needs were receiving at the beginning of this school year including differentiated teaching, feedback and assessment, assistance with communication, visual supports etc.

These arrangements will also continue for future students with special education needs.
Finally, the ASTI is happy to, and continues to, engage with groups advocating for students with special education needs.

We have raised the issues above directly with the Minister for Education and Skills Joe McHugh and have emphasised the urgent need for action.

Breda Lynch is ASTI President and is a maths teacher in Muckross Park College, Donnybrook.

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