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Monday 11 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C

Opinion Teaching unions' stance on education plans for students with disabilities sets a worrying precedent

I believe that the unions are targeting industrial action at a minority and that this sets a worrying precedent for all minority groups, writes Adam Harris.

AS SCHOOLS OPEN up across Ireland this week, it is business as usual for most students.

They will be taught by the same teacher, in the same way, with the same curriculum and supports that were always in place. Indeed, after a day or two, it will probably feel like the Christmas break never happened and routine will reign once more.

While the idea of returning to school probably sends shivers down many students’ backs, only a minority are facing a new reality.

As bells signal the start of the school day this week, they will ring in a harsh, unsupportive reality for second level students with disabilities for the first time.

Just as people were winding down for Christmas and most of us weren’t paying as much attention to ‘needs’ as we focused on our festive ‘wants’, Ireland’s largest second-level teacher union cried ‘bah humbug’.

Individual Plans

On the 19th December, the Association of Secondary School Teachers in Ireland issued advice to its members informing them that they should no longer participate in formulating or implementing Individual Education Plans or Student Support Files as they are not legally required.

This followed a similar call from the Teachers’ Union of Ireland in its most recent members’ magazine.

Individualised planning is essential for students with disabilities. It is something schools have been doing successfully for many years and which, effective this month, school inspectors will be ensuring is in place for students who are in receipt of additional supports.

It recognises that small changes may need to be made to enable a student to reach their potential – this could vary from a student who needs to be given movement breaks throughout the day to a student who may require extra processing time when asked a question.

They ensure that everyone involved in a student’s education is on the same page and working towards the same goals. Critically they recognise that the voices of the student, and his/her parents, should be central to this process.

Individual Education Plans were put on a statutory footing by the Education for Peoples with Special Educational Needs (EPSEN) Act, 2004. That act describes a detailed, legally binding process which needs to be followed in putting in place such plans.

The unions are correct to say this particular process is not presently obligatory as it has yet to be commenced. However make no mistake about it – individualised planning is required now and it is already part of a teacher’s job.

Both the Education Act and the EPSEN Act guarantees a student’s right to an “appropriate education” and it is internationally recognised, and has been upheld in Irish courts, that this involves putting in place plans to meet the needs of specific students with disabilities.

Union Action

So what is this union action really about? If this is something schools are already doing – why is this action being taken now?

We note both unions cited the need for additional resources to support students effectively. As an autism advocate and someone who knows first hand the difference access to support can make, I will be the first to agree with this.

We need to invest more in supporting schools to enable students to reach their potential. That does not mean we don’t use the resources already in place to help the students enrolled now who went back to school this week. 

If either of the teachers’ unions had contacted our organisation, we would have pointed out the countless teachers we meet around the country who are fully committed to supporting our students and would never stop doing so.

We would have pointed out that 20% of the teacher allocation is Special Education Teaching hours and surely these teachers could lead on the development and implementation of these support plans. (Second level teachers teach 22 hours per week during term time and this is to allow time for planning and administration.)

Another main point made by the unions is that teachers require training in supporting students with special needs. 

Had the unions contacted us before taking this action we would have pointed out that there are numerous training opportunities already available to teachers free of charge and indeed we would have offered our training services.

We would have pointed out that at a minimum their members could not ethically refuse to meet the needs of a student if they had a plan in front of them.

Finally, we would have gladly stood shoulder to shoulder with the unions in recognising the good work many teachers in our schools are doing and demand that they are further supported in doing it.

However, I suspect that this action is not really about any of those issues.

Industrial Action

I realise teachers feel under pressure presently. After a decade of austerity, pay disparity continues to exist. There is also a sense of ‘initiative overdrive’ with the Department of Education developing new programmes, plans and circulars left, right and centre.

As a result, there is a certain resistance to anything ‘additional’ – anything above and beyond what they are already contracted to do.

Herein lies the problem. It appears to still be the perception of the teachers’ unions, as well as a minority of their members, that teaching students with additional needs is a new requirement or something above and beyond their existing contractual obligations.

Teachers sign up to teach students – all students. No diagnosis or condition makes any child less deserving of the right to access education. No diagnosis or condition changes the obligations that a teacher already has to differentiate their teaching to meet the needs of a student sitting in front of them.

We are keen to discuss ‘how’ we can best support students with disabilities in the education system. Indeed, we have some wonderful partnerships already in this regard however we cannot and we will not entertain a discussion on ‘can we’ or ‘will we’ support students with disabilities.

The right to access mainstream education has been enshrined in both the EPSEN Act and the UN Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities and no union can be allowed to interfere with that for their own purposes.

Targeting industrial action at a minority group sets a worrying precedent for all minority groups. It goes totally against the culture and traditions on which the Trade Union Movement was formed. Most importantly, it is not characteristic of the majority of members these unions claim to represent.

Let’s hope that the union leaders can make a new year’s resolution to leave students with disabilities out of their industrial disputes and leveraging tactics and that such students can rest easy that they can still access the appropriate education they are entitled to and deserve.

Adam Harris is an autism advocate and the Founder and CEO of AsIAm, a national autism charity.

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