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Opinion: Children with special needs are being failed – this is not inclusive education

We are a society, not a collection of economic units where some of our children can be victimised in the name of “value for money”.

Catherina Woods

IN THE IRISH education system we have an Inclusion Policy. This means that children with Special Educational Needs (SEN), are welcome in our schools and given the necessary support that their conditions require. Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) provide invaluable support to help these children to reach their full potential.

However, in the past few years the Department of Education and Skills (DES) has repeatedly targeted children with Special Educational Needs, by systematically eroding their supports:

  • Resource hours have been cut;
  • Access to SNAs has been drastically cut.

The DES latest circular (0030/2014) will further reduce the level of support for children and teenagers with special needs. A shocking aspect of this circular is their intention to remove almost all access to SNAs in secondary school. They clearly have no idea of the catastrophic effect this will have on children and teenagers with special needs and the other children in the class.

This affects many people throughout the country

As a parent of two children with special needs, one with Down syndrome and another with Aspergers, this affects me, as it does so many other parents throughout Ireland. I am also a teacher of three children with special needs in a mainstream class of 28 children in St Anne’s school in Shankill, Co Dublin. My children also attend this school. Both of my children have access to an SNA as part of an individualised plan and appropriate interventions. Without their invaluable help they would not be as productive and independent as they are.

The junior infants with special needs will not be as lucky as my children have to date. According to the new circular, children with special needs will not automatically be entitled to access to a Special Needs Assistant when they come into junior infants. This is the case regardless of whether it has been proven that these children could not survive in pre-school without extra assistance. The DES are setting up these children for failure, disrupting the other children in the class, and all in all creating a negative experience for the child and the class in their first year in school.

My son is starting in mainstream secondary school in September. He suffers from extreme anxiety as part of his Asperger’s syndrome and requires access to an SNA to take him out of class for breaks to keep him calm. He knows when he needs to go and get some time out and then he can return calmly to class without affecting his classmates. If, as the circular suggests, he should be left until he has a meltdown, he would disrupt and upset all the other children and the teacher, embarrass himself and reduce his self-esteem.

Behaviour modification programmes

The DES is refusing to recognise that SNAs are needed to support the implementation of behaviour modification programmes in order for them to have any hope of success. The Department suggests we should wait until the behaviour spirals out of control before we intervene – contrary to best practice, which advocates early intervention as a preventative strategy. This is a health and safety issue, as the teacher who may have 30-plus children to deal with cannot accompany the child. A proactive strategy is being replaced by a reactive strategy under the guise of ‘value for money’.

What is being suggested is that SNA support be reduced from 4th or 5th class on, and in secondary school there will be almost no access. How can the DES reconcile this? Moving to secondary school is very stressful for the average child (which they acknowledge), but for a child with special needs it is exceptionally difficult. Yet they are to survive transitioning not only from one class to the next, but also from one school to the next, without support. Special Needs Assistants support independence. They help support behaviour modification programmes rather than replace them.

This withdrawal of SNA support in secondary schools comes at a very crucial stage for both students and teachers. Secondary schools are only now having to cope with increasing numbers of children with special needs as they come up through the system. Many teachers are still in the early stages of working with children with special educational needs in an inclusive environment. Many of them have not been provided with relevant training to up-skill in order to meet the challenging demands of working with children with SEN.

This is not inclusive education

We are a society, not a collection of economic units where some of our children can be victimised in our “Value for Money and Policy Review”. This so called ‘inclusion policy’ is negligent and finance driven.

Did these policy reviewers come into classrooms? Did they talk to teachers? Did they talk to parents? This is not inclusive education. On the contrary it is blatantly excluding children with special needs from reaching their full potential and is therefore denying them the right to access the same educational opportunities as their peers. By removing access to SNAs the rights of all children in these so-called ‘inclusive classrooms’ to an equal education will be denied.

Maybe these policy reviewers need to up-skill themselves on what is really needed in our schools. I invite them to come to our school any day of the week to see how invaluable the SNAs are. With the stroke of a pen they can cause such damage to the lives of those who are most in need of our help. Is value for money, and not best practice, the only relevant criteria?

Is it not better practice if an SNA accompanies the child out of the classroom, rather than a teacher? According to this circular we should wait until the child or teenager displays violent behaviour or self-harms before we intervene.

Why, yet again, are the most vulnerable in our society being targeted by the Department of Education?

Isn’t it time we speak out for the rights of these children who as yet do not have a voice or a vote that is valued in our so-called democracy?

Catherina Woods is a mother of two children with Special Educational Needs, as well as a teacher of children with SEN. Follow this issue on Facebook: WE Care DO You.

Uploaded by Catherina Woods

Read:  Mother was asked by the HSE if her son ‘still had Down syndrome’

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