Voices of Experience: The Views of Stakeholders

As noted in the introduction to this report, the main focus of this research was to obtain the views of key stakeholders in primary education on five key elements of the educational system and process. However, the discussion was underpinned by concerns about system knowledge and capacity in relation to disabilities and /or special educational needs and in relation to addressing the educational implications. The points made in relation to these basic issues are important both in themselves and as framing discussion on the practicalities of delivery - access, identification and assessment, supports, inclusion and outcomes.

1. The pervasive issues

1.1 Conceptual Adequacy

Across the range of participants it was generally argued that the conceptualisation of disability and special educational needs, currently informing educational provision, was seriously flawed. Many participants noted that there seemed to be a fundamental conflict between the equality of education promoted by the advocacy groups and the DES terminology of "making allowances/accommodations", and that one concrete result of this conflict was the restricted access to the full curriculum experienced by some children with special needs in mainstream schools.

There was widespread agreement among the advocacy groups that schools often lacked basic knowledge about specific disabilities and the impact of these disabilities on the child's potential to learn. This lack of knowledge was manifested in a number of ways. Assumptions were too easily made by the school that if a child had a disability they inevitably had educational/learning needs. This had serious implications both for enrolment policies governing the critical point of initial access, and for the child's progress through the school system. These respondents believed that the school's perceptions of the particular disability and the extent of the resulting difficulties for the child was a major determining factor in the decision to enrol the child. Such perceptual difficulties were not seen as peculiar to schools but as pervading the system.

Parent and advocates felt that there was little understanding or recognition that the child may experience difficulties in accessing the school/curriculum/peer networks for a variety of reasons not intrinsically connected to their disability. They do not automatically have a difficulty in learning; rather they may encounter difficulties in accessing the supports required to enable effective learning to occur.

1.2 System Capacity to Deliver Inclusive Provision

Participants concurred that a critical factor in shaping the inclusive effective education for children with disabilities was the capacity to deliver at all levels of the system - from local school level to the DES, and including planning, assessment and support services, inspection and other accountability structures, communications networks linking services/government departments, schools and families.

Systemic Issues

A frequent observation in the consultations was that lack of leadership by the DES lead to a confused situation and encouraged a lack of clarity around many issues. Schools, parents and advocacy groups believed that DES planning was inadequate, and reactive rather than proactive, resulting in strategies that seem to provide short-term solutions rather than long-term support. The DES was seen as "playing catch-up" and as not providing leadership in the development of a coherent special needs service. There was a perceived lack of communication and coordination between government departments - more communication and greater clarity of roles and procedures would simplify the process of accessing resources for children. Advocacy groups found the DES extremely difficult to deal with and asserted that more consultation with parents/disability organisations is required. The DES was also perceived by the majority of principals as extremely difficult to deal with and unhelpful (as an example of this, many cited the directive in September 2004 not to ring the Department).

A key element in system capacity is the provision of assessment and support services. This will be addressed later, under the specific headings of identification and assessment, and support provision

School Capacity Issues

At local school level three issues were raised as contributing factors to schools' capacity in this regard: leadership; staff roles and professional skills; and the introduction of the general allocation system for pupils with high incidence disabilities.

The Role of Principals

Research participants across all sectors identified the role of the principal as being critical to the delivery of inclusive special education, and highlighted a number of factors that were contributing to both the growing complexity of the role and size of workload for principals. These included:

  • No recognition of the increased workload involved in managing additional personnel such as special needs assistants: principalships are ranked on the basis of numbers of teaching staff only.
  • Absence of structures to ensure effective integration of new personnel resources (particularly of personnel classified as non-teaching) within the school team.
  • Lack of time for team planning and collaboration.
  • The process of securing and availing of assessments is very time consuming.
  • Increased responsibilities for Individual Education Plans (IEPs) under new legislation.
  • The lack of time and appropriate spaces to engage in administrative work and support inter-disciplinary interventions such as individual and team consultations with parents, social workers, speech therapy, psychologists - particularly in small schools with teaching principals (28% of all schools).
  • The proposed general allocation support system, while promising more flexible resources, will add even more to the management load for the principal.
  • The complexity of primary school timetables generated by factoring in support provision, a new phenomenon at this level, has major impact on school and classroom management, both social and academic.
  • The need for whole school training in approaches to inclusion.
Staff Roles, Capacity and Professional Development

Across all of the consulted sectors, participants suggested that teacher resistance to including children with disabilities is substantially due to lack of knowledge, training supports, and also (this was emphasised) to large class sizes. Mainstream teachers reported that, although some were excellent, short courses were inadequate to meet their full needs. There was overall agreement that there is an urgent need for whole school development.

Participants argued that there is confusion with regard to roles: classroom teachers, resource and learning support teachers, special needs assistants (and to lesser extent visiting teachers). Participants argued that as well as clearer guidelines on roles, all personnel working in schools need skills in teamwork, and structures to facilitate staff teamwork and planning. It was suggested that co-ordination of support and classroom teaching could be made a post of responsibility.

The General Allocation System

Participants in the research generally welcomed the concept of a general allocation system whereby schools would be allocated support and resource staffing on the basis of estimated incidence of high incidence disabilities. There were concerns expressed however, about the proposed shape of the allocation at the time (end 2004). The main concerns were:

  • That children with high incidence disabilities (mild and borderline mild general learning disabilities, and specific learning disabilities) who formerly had resource teaching support would now only get learning support. Participants queried whether mild general learning disabilities should be classified as high incidence.
  • That the proposed blurring of boundaries between resource and learning support would result in the school's learning support provision being substantially taken up addressing the needs of children in the high incidence sector, further increasing the number who would lose their customary access to learning support. Participants were concerned that this would continue a process that they perceived as beginning with the introduction of the learning support guidelines in 2000, whereby children who were struggling with their class programme and who would have formerly benefited from learning support would receive no additional support because they were above the 10th percentile.
  • Some participants queried the "fit" of the gender weighting (they felt that girls' needs can be overlooked), and the adequacy of provision for needs in schools classified as disadvantaged. They also raised issues of ensuring adequate support for small schools, and in particular for rural/remote schools, in clustering arrangements.

In short, there was strong agreement that the proposed allocation scheme needs to be thoroughly researched and flexible in design, in order to make sure that it can match the level and diversity of needs.

2. Intake and Access

Parents and advocacy groups reported serious difficulties in gaining access to mainstream primary schools for their children with special educational needs. A school's perceptions of a child's difficulties appeared to be the major deciding factor in whether or not the child was accepted. These respondents said that schools seem to find it most difficult to provide for children with intellectual and emotional/behavioural disabilities, and felt more equipped to provide for children with physical disabilities - though ramps are sometimes the sum of what is presumed to be required. Regarding choice of school, an obvious urban/rural divide was identified, with less choice for parents in rural areas.

Regarding placement of pupils, certain respondents were uncertain of the benefits of mainstream for children with certain types and levels of disability. Those from the special school sector felt that children with greater levels of disability are being mainstreamed and that many mainstream schools lack the requisite expertise and experience to cater for this increased diversity. They felt that access remains a problem, and that the mainstream physical environment was often unsuitable for children with complex physical disabilities. However, respondents also felt that the appropriateness of placement in mainstream of children with marked levels of particular disabilities must be carefully evaluated.

3. Identification and Assessment

Issues relating to identification and assessment of SEN were identified as crucial yet very problematic for the education and welfare of children with disabilities. Some of these issues related to children with specific disabilities and/or to specific demographic groups, while others were more related to the systems and processes that are in place.

A number of serious issues were raised in relation to the assessment process including access to assessment/NEPS, inordinate delays, transfer of supports across various settings, and the over-reliance on parents as advocates for appropriate resourcing for their children. Generally, assessment was viewed almost exclusively in terms of accessing resources.

3.1 Early Identification

There was emphatic agreement among parents, advocacy groups and schools that early identification of difficulties for the child was essential. Parents and advocacy groups suggested that the identification process needed to begin as early as possible in the child's life and certainly before school entry. Technological advances can ensure interventions at the earliest age. For instance, an infant's hearing can now be assessed in the first weeks of life and with the appropriate hearing aids in place from infancy, the child can develop language at the age appropriate stages. Parents and advocacy groups were particularly concerned that, in the absence of early intervention, secondary behaviours could develop that would endanger the child's progress within school. In particular, children with mental health difficulties or disabilities such as Asperger's syndrome require early identification and intervention otherwise there is a real danger that they will enter school, go undetected and proceed into adolescence and adulthood without appropriate support. Schools were aware that as the identification and assessment process is often protracted, slippage could occur in the provision of appropriate supports for the individual child.

Principals and teachers also argued that there should be commitment to having children's needs identified prior to entering school and that children with special needs should have all necessary supports from the start of their school careers. They felt that the parents of children with severe and/or complex disabilities must be advised very carefully in relation to what is available in mainstream and what is possible in terms of progress for their child. Participants reported that there was sometimes conflict between schools and parents over the issue of parental expectations for their child. Some parents were perceived by schools to have "unrealistic" hopes for their children's school progress; while some teachers were seen by parents as expecting "too little" and misreading parents' well-grounded expectations as unreal. But sometimes it is the other way round - teachers recognising children's difficulties or their potential where parents seemed not to do so. It was also noted that parents were often uncertain about the appropriate type of support required for their child.

3.2 National Educational Psychological Service

Principals were aware of the recommended (NEPS) three-stage process of identification and assessment and believed that schools had made significant progress in developing the identification process of children with SEN. Generally, the classroom teacher in Senior Infants class was identifying the child, though some initial concerns might be expressed in Junior Infants. The teacher is alerted for instance by a child's language difficulties, or under-performance on a range of tasks. Some concerns were expressed that with multi-class teaching the situation could be allowed to drift and the teacher may be reluctant to tell parents as this could be seen as a reflection on the quality of teaching.

Serious concern was expressed about the inordinate length of time from identification of difficulty to assessment process to the acquisition of resources. Restricted access to a systematic psychological service often resulted in some children being assessed at a much later stage than advisable, and others not assessed who should be. It was reported that a one-year wait was quite common between identification, assessment, and resources being sanctioned. Many principals recounted how decision-making around provision of resources had been delayed - by up to two or three years in some cases.

Some participants reported limited or restricted access to NEPS, while others relied on private psychologists for their assessments. For schools not linked to NEPS there were some indications that children were assessed later than first/second class. There were some isolated examples of a child not being assessed until fourth class. Principals believed that DES restrictions and financial constraints should not disadvantage the child; they were determined that children should have an assessment as soon as possible. In situations where schools are limited to one or two assessments per year a variety of coping mechanisms emerged - boards of management paid for a number of assessments by private psychologists; boards of management and parents shared costs of assessments; other school programme finance was utilised.

There was a widespread perception that accessing a NEPS psychologist will increase chances of getting resources. Principals also noted a lack of consistency and clarity around assessment procedures. They reported that no explanation was provided for unsuccessful assessment applications. There were difficulties with some privately commissioned assessments whose reports did not adhere to DES criteria. One principal reported that three children had been assessed with a recommendation for resource teaching support and special needs assistant provision; however, a NEPS review "without consultation with anyone" resulted in a "red biro through the reports". There were reports of children receiving support in their previous schools, but on transferring to another school the process of acquiring resources had to begin all over again.

It was apparent that the level and depth of service varied enormously. Some cases will serve to illustrate. It was stated that psychologists who assess Deaf children should be proficient in ISL, but too few were. A principal illustrated the lack of co-ordination between health and education services: a psychiatrist would not see a child who had a behavioural/learning difficulty until he had been assessed by an educational psychologist; but the school could not access an educational psychologist. In another situation a visually impaired boy, in the opinion of his parents and the school, required resources but was denied them. The principal questioned how the assessment was carried out and who decided which children should have access to resources. Another child had acquired resources including a full-time special needs assistant in his previous school but application to the DES to continue this provision in his new school proved fruitless with "no reply, not even an acknowledgement from the DES" in nine months. Finally, in cases where the assessment seemed not to 'fit' the child, or where the child actually was showing improvement, the prospect of reassessment often prompted fears that support will be withdrawn if the process was gone through again.

In the experience of participants a small number of assessment reports were very helpful in suggesting teaching strategies to support particular learning needs of the child. This was usually connected to a very positive experience of a NEPS psychologist who had undertaken a proactive role in supporting the long-term progress of the child/children. However, most reports were deemed to be of very limited value with some described as "hopeless", "parroting what the teacher had said", "glossing up teacher's language". Some principals observed that often psychologists do not know schools so their recommendations were of limited value and tended to put pressure on schools to deliver on unrealistic expectations in a less than ideal setting.

Principals recommended a pro-active role for NEPS in providing ongoing supports to the school/child/ teachers/parents. Examples were recounted where NEPS had provided valuable referral information on a range of services that the schools were unaware of, including Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Service/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)/ Family Counselling Service and had helped schools to develop an identification process in screening/prioritising individual children's needs.

4. Supports

Regarding the range and level of supports available for children with special needs, participants raised a number of important issues. These, in turn, relate to: some specific types of disability or demographic groups; some difficulties with the new allocation system; the role and function of special provision; and issues regarding education personnel.

4.1. Diversity and Needs

Participants raised social class issues in relation to accessing appropriate supports for children with disabilities. Parents from lower socio-economic groupings often lacked access to information about particular disabilities and the means to pursue the appropriate educational/ health services for their children. It was noted that membership in some disability organisations was comprised almost exclusively of parents from middle and upper class social groupings, who are better placed to be proactive in paying for the expensive process of identification and assessment. In addition, these parents were seen as better placed to encourage schools to pursue appropriate resources for their children. Participants were concerned for parents who did not have access to such resources or were otherwise isolated.

For the majority of principals the issue of children with disabilities from ethnic/cultural minorities did not appear to be a concern. Where language support teachers were employed they were believed to be very effective. However, one school reported that they had never had anyone from an ethnic minority assessed partly because they felt that the parents were suspicious of authority. There exists the potential for further confusion in the possible equation of non-English speaking with special educational needs. Refugee and asylum-seeking children with possible intellectual or behavioural disabilities could also be wrongly presumed to be suffering the effects of trauma.

There was a general perception that Traveller children were not included in the assessment process and provided with resources as readily as settled children. The often protracted assessment process was seen to impact adversely more on some Traveller children than on their settled peers because of the nomadic nature of their culture. In some cases, minority ethnic children with suspected difficulties such as speech and language disorders, intellectual disabilities, or social disorders are not assessed until they have completed the two-year period attending tuition in English as a second or other language. Meanwhile they are in mainstream classes without appropriate support.

It was reported that Irish-speaking schools experience difficulties, with no assessments or specialised resources available through the Irish language. There is official provision for exemption from Irish for pupils with special learning needs on the presumption that their mother tongue is English; exemption from English is not available for pupils whose first language is Irish. Resource teaching is conducted through English.

The historic development of special educational provision occurred predominantly within the Roman Catholic tradition with the involvement of religious orders and this raises issues around the inclusivity of school ethos. For example, there are no special schools other than under Roman Catholic patronage. Only one minority denomination school has a special class.

Some participants from the Deaf community felt that the visiting teacher service was grossly overstretched and could hardly be expected to offer specialised support to a range of disabilities. Some of these participants noted that Irish Sign Language (ISL) is not just a tool to get around their difficulty with oral communication, but a language in its own right; generally in the education system this is not recognised. They felt that this underestimation of the cultural significance of sign language contributes to situations such as visiting teachers with responsibility for Deaf children being insufficiently skilled in sign language, and not appreciative of the significance of this cultural factor.[1]

It was reported that there is extremely limited availability of educational services for Deaf children in some remote rural areas. There was also a perception that Deaf children are not guaranteed full curricular access. Early intervention in terms of screening tests for hearing capacity at a very early age was also emphasised, as it was argued that children can lose out on educational and social opportunities when a hearing difficulty remains undetected. There was major concern about low reading scores for Deaf children and the resulting low educational attainment for this cohort. It was noted that within mainstream Deaf children and children with hearing impairments tended to become isolated as they progressed through the education system. This was at least partially due to the lack of a sign language infrastructure to support and enhance communication between school personnel, parents, Deaf children and their counterparts. The inclusion of Deaf special needs assistants in special schools was viewed as a positive initiative because of their ability to empathise with the children. However, there is an urgent need for Deaf teachers to be trained and employed more widely within the educational system to make the education system more inclusive.

It was reported that children with visual impairments also experience some of the difficulties outlined above. There were reported difficulties and significant delays in accessing necessary assistive technology. It was perceived that these children cope reasonably well in primary school, but go on to encounter serious problems at second level. Difficulties in transferring resources from primary to secondary was cited along with the view that these children become more isolated within the more complex environment of the secondary school.

It was felt that there was a marked deficit in knowledge on autistic spectrum disorders throughout the school system, perhaps particularly at central administrative level. Schools were perceived as unable to provide leadership in identifying and responding appropriately to the educational and social needs of these children. Parents were also unsure about appropriate supports and were determined to secure and retain available support despite insufficient knowledge about their effectiveness. The identification of children with Asperger's syndrome was seen as a real difficulty as this disability is not always immediately apparent and can often go unnoticed and undetected. In addition, the crossover between Asperger's syndrome and other learning difficulties such as dyspraxia and dyslexia can complicate the identification process. This is further exacerbated by the perceived lack of experience of identifying Asperger's syndrome among psychologists that can result in both over- and under-identification. Early intervention was seen as essential to enable children who have autism to become gradually accustomed to and comfortable with change in their environment and to ensure that they do not develop secondary behaviours.

Respondents also noted that children with intellectual disabilities are another grouping who would benefit especially from early identification and appropriate programmes. This was seen as one of the most significant factors in ensuring that they could progress among their peers in mainstream to the best of their ability.

The lack of statistical data on children with specific learning difficulties constitutes a major barrier to developing effective educational services for this population. In addition, there was a perceived lack of awareness among teachers about dyslexia and the resulting educational difficulties for the child. This was attributed to the historic neglect of this issue in pre-service teacher education and ongoing professional development. Dyslexia encompasses a very broad spectrum of learning difficulty and a whole range of appropriate provision is required. The limited availability of reading schools and reading units was cited as a major concern. In addition, there were concerns that the more generic reading tests currently used in schools were not specific enough to identify children who have dyslexia. There were real fears that under the proposed general allocation system children with dyslexia are classified as "high incidence" and so could not avail of individual resource support.[2] These children would be taught by a learning support teacher in a group setting and the child would not receive individually focused resource support. This was deemed to be wholly inadequate to meet the needs of a child who has severe dyslexia.

4.2 Resources and the General Allocation System

Existing Problems:

Participants highlighted difficulties in ordering resources, describing the process as a "go slow" beset by bureaucracy. This applied also to controls on how resources can be utilised. For example, participants cited instances where the school secured specialised computer software for a child and the family had to re-apply for the same resources for their home computers, as they are not permitted to take the resources home from school. If the children were permitted to use the same resources at home the DES would save money.

Participants also noted that when children with disabilities, who have been provided with the relevant resources in primary school, move to secondary school they lose their resources and have to re-apply for the same resources for secondary school. This results in a period at the start of their career at second level when their lack of supports makes their difficulties highly visible to their peers. It was felt that this is hurtful and a waste of time and that there should be some continuation between primary and secondary schools. Parents expressed frustration because they have to contact a number of different people in relation to resources and support for their children. They felt that it would be much more practical if there was one person within the school who the parents could contact, who would act as a liaison between the parents and the relevant bodies.

The New System:[3]

While the proposed scheme for weighted allocation of resources was welcomed in principle, participants expressed concerns about the practical implications. Schools were concerned that they would lose out on their existing resource allocations; they believed that progress had been made since 1998 under the automatic entitlement system and that there was a real danger that this system could represent a backward step. There appeared to be a degree of confusion around what constituted high and low incidence disabilities, and serious concerns were expressed about the impact of the proposed weighting system on the capacity of schools to respond appropriately to individual pupil need. This confusion was exemplified in one comment by a principal who believed that speech and language difficulties were subsumed under the high incidence category and predicted that this would be a "disastrous development".

There was unanimous agreement that children who have mild general learning disabilities should not be considered as high incidence, that this would have negative effects on both that group and on the meeting the needs of other children who are struggling with the class programme. Participants argued that learning support, construed as a temporary intervention principally in literacy for children experiencing a certain level of difficulty, was viewed as inappropriate for this cohort of children who previously received resource support. There was concern as to what will happen to children who traditionally received learning support, when this cohort of children are included and - it is predicted - will monopolise learning support time and space. They also queried if it is educationally sound to place children with vastly different learning needs together in the one group. The type of support offered by resource teaching is qualitatively different to that offered in learning support. The emphasis in resource teaching is on enabling pupils to develop self-confidence and social skills; this will be lost under the proposed allocation system. Participants provided examples of the effectiveness of these personal development programmes. Outcomes include fewer discipline difficulties with these children in senior classes, more social interactions with peers, pupils with mild general learning disabilities being given responsibilities - for instance, they organise the recycling programme in one school.

Resource and learning support teachers felt that within the broader framework of resource sessions, children can explore issues to do for instance with their learning difference. They felt that children with mild general learning disabilities, dyslexia and dyspraxia will lose out under the new system when they can no longer access the individual or small group support that they need to make progress. Under the old resource allocation system these children were guaranteed two and a half hours resource teaching; that has now disappeared. For learning support these children will be in groups double the size of the resource groups, which means that the support for their learning will not be as effective. Finally, this cohort of children would have an IEP in resource teaching/support. These respondents believed that this will not be feasible under the new arrangements in learning support, and any plans produced will represent tokenism when a learning support teacher could have a case load of thirty children.

While schools welcomed the replacement of part-time support posts with full-time equivalents, there were concerns that the blurring of learning support and resource roles could endanger the level of support offered to individual children. Principals questioned whether the proposed changes could result in more all age group teaching by resource teachers, with the danger that it would be demeaning for a senior class child to be receiving support teaching alongside a child from a junior class. Like resource and learning support teachers, principals also viewed the provision of learning support as inadequate and inappropriate to meet the needs of children who have a mild general learning disability. Fears were expressed that those children not assessed at present would not receive appropriate provision under the new system. It was argued forcibly that special needs assistants should also come under the new weighted system of resource allocation. The introduction of SENOs was perceived as a positive development in dealing directly with the school and providing much needed co-ordination "on the ground."

Principals argued for consistency within the allocation system so there would be a set amount of resources per year to enable constructive planning to take place. Others were concerned whether they would be reimbursed if they paid for resource hours before official sanction. Not being able to access authority (DES) remained their greatest difficulty.

Principals noted that incremental additions of resource teaching support can result in a school having one full-time resource teacher and two part-time resource teachers, one working in the morning and one in the evening, instead of having two full-time resource teachers. Suggesting that the school should have two full-time instead of one and two part-time is met with a lot of bureaucracy and red tape. Often regulations prevent schools from offering a full-time/permanent position to temporary or part-time resource teachers who may be excellent. Therefore, although that school has gone to the trouble of inducting that person they are at risk of losing him/her to another school because they are good at their job. Teachers close to retirement age, who despite their experience may not be suited to the role, often take on a learning support role, (mistakenly) seeing it as an easy option. In addition, some newly qualified teachers are appointed as resource teachers.

4.3 Special School Provision

While mainstream placement was strongly endorsed, participants also asserted that the need for special schools remains, because some children with disabilities need to access special schools for support and for access to highly specialised resources. Some principals expressed serious reservations about the feasibility and advisability of including children from particular disability/SEN categories within mainstream. They argued that mainstream schools were not equipped to deal with children who have autism or ADHD and cited difficulties in accessing the required level of support from language therapists and occupational therapists. This perspective is balanced by the view expressed by many participants - that special schools could play a supportive role in relation to provision for these children in the mainstream school system.

Participants from administrative and managerial levels in special schools advanced a very positive view of their ability to provide effective education for children who have a complex range of disabilities. They pointed out achievements such as curricular innovation and the development of expertise in a variety of areas. It was argued that special schools, freed of the mainstream constraints, had huge opportunities to develop a curriculum centred on the child's interests. Parents valued this freedom to be innovative and believed that their child benefited from the different type of educational/social expectations in special schools compared to mainstream. Special schools faced key challenges: enabling the child to fulfil his/her cognitive potential; ensuring that the young person was employable and equipped for post-school life; challenging behaviour exhibited by pupils and the urgent need for staff training in this area.

However, it was pointed out that there were major gaps in support services for special schools - many could not avail of a psychological service unless they were part of a clinic team that included a psychologist. Limited speech therapy was available for many children and this service was regarded as seriously inadequate.

The concept of dual enrolment was frequently mentioned. In such a system a child is enrolled in both the special and his/her local mainstream school; the time the child spends in one or the other could be designed to meet his/her specific needs and to maximise educational opportunities, both social and academic. It permits flexibility and ensures both the child's relationship with his/her local peer group and with peers who share a similar life experience, as well as his/her access to specialist supports. This was recommended for children with autism who encountered severe difficulties in social interactions with their peers. It was also seen as a possibility which would give children with disabilities and/or special educational needs access to specialised support while also enabling them to stay connected with their local friends and peer groups.

Many participants felt that special schools could play a supportive role in relation to provision for children with special needs in the mainstream school system. Partnership between mainstream and special schools was envisaged as a way of securing the future of special schools and providing much needed support to mainstream in facilitating successful inclusion of those children who have greater levels of disability and traditionally attended special schools. It was argued that special schools should become a resource to mainstream and enable mainstream teachers to avail of the expertise in special schools. Also, special schools could provide specialist courses for mainstream teachers.

Some advocacy groups had registered parent members' difficulties in developing relationships with certain special schools. These members experienced a lack of consultation; they encountered severe difficulties in operating Parents' Associations as stipulated by the Education Act (1998); and Board of Management decision making processes lacked transparency. However, participants cited examples of positive partnership between school and parents. For instance in special schools catering for children who have autism, parents were directly involved in drawing up School Plans and IEPs, and in many aspects of school life.

4.4 Mainstream Schools

Conditions for Inclusion

In general it was agreed that class sizes were too large and militated against the successful inclusion of the child who has disabilities and/or special educational needs and who found progress extremely difficult in a larger classes. It was recommended that class numbers should be reduced particularly in junior classes to a maximum of 20:1 and that the presence of these children should warrant a reduction in class size.

In participants' experience school and classroom design can compound exclusion. Premises, and permitted class sizes are designed for non-disabled children; a child whose disability requires additional space allocations (for instance for a large wheelchair) can find the standard classroom with its full complement of pupils very constricting, and it also impacts on the mobility of other pupils. The presence of additional adults (e.g. personal assistants) also adds to classroom crowding. Teachers reported that this can affect what is possible in terms of delivering the curriculum.

Delays in assessment and support delivery can damage the promotion of inclusion. Cases were reported where children with pronounced ASD were enrolled in mainstream classes but left without supports and their classmates' capacity to cope with this was severely strained.

Participants from all sectors reported that, on the one hand, parents of children with disabilities must often lobby to secure resources for their child's schools. On the other hand, many schools effectively act as advocates for parents - principals contacting agencies, government departments, local politicians - where parents do not have confidence or skills to lobby. They argued that neither parents nor principal should have to do this. Some advocacy participants suggested that inadequately informed and resourced mainstream provision was pushing parents into a crisis and that if mainstream provision for these children was not properly supported, parents will turn back to special provision.

Classroom Teachers

Participants agreed that the experience of inclusion can compensate for low attainment for children with special educational needs; however, if appropriate and adequate supports are lacking, these children suffer a loss of self esteem which is exacerbated with age as the attainment gap widens between children with special educational needs and their peers. In integrated classrooms, class teachers found the Social, Personal and Health Education programmes the best context for addressing issues to do with inclusion. This curriculum framework permits discussion of topics that might be difficult to introduce if they were not legitimated in this way.

There was a perception that there was resistance from teachers to the inclusion process, and that this was mainly attributable to their lack of preparedness, insufficient pre-service and limited ongoing professional development opportunities in this area. Participants questioned the assumption that all teachers should be able to do everything when they graduate. The "one-method-suits-all" classroom practice was also questioned. Participants felt that differentiated teaching should be within teachers' professional capabilities. It was also suggested that lack of experience and expertise could lead to some teachers over-identifying the number of children with disabilities and/or special educational needs in their classes.

Class teachers reported a lack of knowledge and information about individual children who enter the class, and about how to meet their needs professionally. They reported seeking information from parents, other teachers and the internet. However, this can be variable in quantity and quality, or may not be made available. They welcomed classroom assistants, but felt however that they needed new skills to manage situations in which more than one adult is working in a classroom.

Resource and Learning Support Teachers

Resource teaching posts are new to schools whereas learning support posts are well established. However, the role of learning support teachers has recently undergone major changes, and the general allocation framework will move the whole specialist support system into a new mode of operation. When they were consulted for this study, some resource teacher participants were filling both learning support and resource roles, and they spoke positively about the flexibility that the blurred boundaries permit. However, these are still two separate support systems and participants had reservations about full impact of the proposed weighted allocation system on both services.

Most learning support and resource teachers provide support for children individually or in small groups, outside their normal classroom. This is seemingly the preferred option for most teachers. Time tabling can be problematic. In theory children should not miss the same curriculum areas every time they go for a support session; however, participants concurred that trying to meet the range of individual needs, individual strengths, and the range curriculum organisation in all the classrooms, was a dauntingly complex task. It was suggested that co-ordination of support and classroom could be made a post of responsibility.

Teachers: Skills and Training

It was felt that 'ordinary' teachers need more training in addressing special educational needs, particularly in the areas of curriculum differentiation and whole school approaches to these needs. Some classroom teachers lack basic knowledge of the educational implications of particular disabilities and SEN. Resource teachers felt that all class teachers need opportunities to learn about specialist support teaching, the methods used and how support teachers and class teacher can work as a team. Some participants had attended an in-service day addressing this issue in their school, and it was found by the staff to be excellent.

Teachers felt that the short courses and in-service days which they and some classroom assistants are currently offered are not adequate: hands-on training is required for teachers to work with children with SEN. They argued that awareness of disability issues, and skills in teaching and learning strategies suited to children with disabilities should be a compulsory programme element for students in teacher education colleges. Teachers also need skills in identification and knowledge of assessment processes.

Schools reported that though a number of learning support teachers had completed officially recognised specialist training, the vast majority of resource teachers had received no such training. Some were accessing special education courses offered for instance by the INTO, Education Centres, and on the Internet, and some have done the Special Education Diploma, but all this was on an ad hoc basis, always in their own time and often at their own expense. Resource teachers noted that although in their schools they usually had more knowledge of disability and special educational needs issues, they needed comprehensive training specific to their role.

Participants from all sectors strongly argued that there is an urgent need for investment in developing school leadership and whole school team planning in order for schools to foster an ethos of inclusion with team capacity to implement it in effective provision for children with disabilities and/or special educational needs and for all children. Resource teachers were positive about possibilities in team work with special needs assistants but they reported that there were no structures for this. All felt that the respective roles of class teachers, learning support and resource teachers, need to be clarified by the DES.

The Special Needs Assistant (SNA)

Special needs assistants believed that their role in supporting the education of children with disabilities had not been properly thought out. They observed that schools were in "uncharted territory" in devising educational programmes for this cohort of children, that the place of SNAs had not been defined adequately, and there was a tendency for schools to "make things up as they went along". The DES stipulation that the main function of the SNA was to respond to the care needs of the child was regarded as less than helpful. It was resulting in a variety of practice both among and within schools with little informed knowledge about what constituted "best practice". The SNAs themselves perceived their role to be more educational than caring. One stated: "The job description I got from the Department is not the job I do, it's mostly educational. We need more skills". This view was supported in discussions with other participants, who asserted that these assistants should be involved in educational tasks to support the inclusion of the child through paired reading and social skills programmes. They recommended taking joint professional development courses with class teachers.

Participants identified an absence of guidance from schools to structure the work of the SNA and define their role and relationship to the classroom teacher and child with disabilities. School practice varied in the deployment of SNAs. In one school an assistant supported nine children as more children required support than had actually been sanctioned by the DES; another assistant reported that originally she was assigned to one child with Down syndrome, but that for half an hour a week she also helps another "borderline" child with ADHD who isn't entitled to an SNA under the DES rules. Although not sanctioned by the DES to have this support, the child with ADHD was moved in to the same class as the child with Down syndrome so she could work with both of them simultaneously. The child with ADHD is, as a result, missing out on interaction with his friends and classmates, and the child with Down syndrome is missing out on the extra time allocated to the child with ADHD.

The assignment of SNAs to individual children was referred to as the "Velcro" model, a number of limitations of which were highlighted. Assistants operating according to this model constantly focused on the child in their charge; participants felt that this could encourage over-dependency in the child. A preferred mode of operation was where the assistant became involved in group activities, keeping "a caring distance" which allowed their charge to get on with classroom or playground activities, with the security that support would be there when the necessity arose. Some SNAs were attempting to promote independence for the child especially as they approach the age for transfer to second-level. However, they appeared to have received little support in devising strategies to enhance independence while retaining the trust of the child. Another SNA stated that she had become very attached to a particular child and making the transition to work with another child was difficult.[4]

These participants (SNAs) believed that establishing a positive working relationship with the class teacher was critical to ensuring successful educational outcomes for the child. They reported that their role was more supportive to teachers as children with special educational needs can require more time and attention than their classmates. However, in order to carry out this educational role more training is urgently required. Again, practice varied widely. For some, this appeared relatively straightforward as they were automatically included as part of a team developing education programmes for these children. Class teachers worked closely with the SNA, designating tasks for them to enable the child to benefit from the education plan. In this situation, the assistants felt more secure in their role and had a defined work programme, supported and monitored by the class teacher. However, for others it was not that simple. There were reports that some class teachers appear uncomfortable about the presence of SNAs in the classroom. This was attributed to a fear of the unknown combined with a lack of teacher confidence or unfamiliarity with working closely with another adult within the classroom. Others were reported to be uncertain about how to work with children who have particular difficulties such as a profoundly Deaf child and a child who has Down syndrome. There were reports that in some situations the SNA worked almost exclusively with the child, sometimes outside the classroom for long periods, with limited support from the class teacher. Another reported that her role is very "hands on" as she had to devise a work plan herself for the child without any input or guidance from the teacher.

There also appeared to be variation in how well SNAs were integrated into the fabric of the school. Some assistants attended staff meetings and met with psychologists. Others appeared to be on the margins of school life with little recognition or support for their position.

In addition, SNAs reported little security of tenure or the possibility of developing and enhancing their career. These participants expressed serious concerns about their lack of job security. At the time of the research SNAs were assigned to a particular child and when this support was withdrawn or the child left the school then the assistant was no longer required. This contributed to the uncertainty felt by many in this service in relation to their capacity to carry out their tasks effectively. It also had implications for attracting and retaining SNAs within the education system. [5]

Schools spoke very positively about the role of SNAs in supporting the inclusion of children with special educational needs, and recommended that they be employed flexibly rather than totally linked to one child. Schools reported that in their everyday practice they often ignored DES guidelines on the employment of SNAs (emphasis on care role). SNAs operated across classes and not just with the child originally appointed to support. Some schools expressed concerns about the qualifications issue: no available courses and no career increment when accredited courses (organised and financed by school management) are done.

In summary, participants reported that many special needs assistants help with teaching even though they are not trained for this. They is little specific training for assistants and there is no consistency in the type of assistance these personnel provide. They felt that a team-orientated approach could be adopted in the classroom, but that it would be necessary to ensure a clear distinction of roles.

5. Integration and Inclusion

There was strong agreement across all sectors of participants that inclusion in mainstream schools promotes socialisation skills and enables children with disabilities and/or special educational needs to develop relationships with children their own age and in their own geographical region. Inclusive education was also endorsed as being good for all children, enabling them to experience the variety in their community. There was a general recognition that schools were facing a period of transition - from a time when separate provision for children with disabilities was legitimated and promoted, to the contemporary situation in which enrolment in mainstream schools is strongly endorsed.

The topic of the new general allocation system and subsequent transitional period raised a number of issues for participants from all sectors. This transition phase combined with the growing intensification of the teaching role and the introduction of new curricula created school uncertainty about ability to cope with the increased inclusion of these children. Schools encounter difficulties at a variety of levels. Whole school planning, deployment of resources and the development of skilled classroom practitioners in special educational needs represent a considerable challenge. Schools need to be supported if there are to be discernible improvements in provision. The difficulty of transition from a complex of separate forms of provision, to inclusive schools/classrooms in which children with disabilities and/or special needs are supported, is summed up in the following question from an advocacy group discussion: "How can you support inclusion and give the specialist support required?" The discussions among participants highlight that this requires investment in whole school development and planning, as well as in individual professional development. Mainstream placement was strongly supported but participants also asserted that the need for special schools remains, because some children with disabilities need access to special schools for support and for access to highly specialised resources.

5.1 Perceived Advantages of Inclusion

Participants generally supported the concept of inclusive education as currently defined in the EPSEN Act 2004. In particular, the benefit of social inclusion for children with disabilities was commended, with several examples cited of increased self-esteem for the child and a greater sense of belonging to the local community. All placed a high value on the critically important socialisation skills that are developed in mainstream schools.

There was strong agreement across all sectors of participants that inclusion in mainstream schools promotes socialisation skills and enables children with disabilities to develop relationships with children their own age and in their own geographical region.

Benefits for non-disabled children were noted: the presence of children with disabilities in their classes makes them more aware of disabilities, and more accepting of people with disabilities within society, which, in turn, can reduce prejudice. However, it was also noted that fostering inclusion often requires positive action by advocacy groups and schools. Having children with disabilities in mainstream classes was not necessarily a guarantee of successful peer interactions.

5.2 Perceived Disadvantages of Inclusion

The very limited availability of Irish Sign Language in mainstream schools was cited as a major barrier to successful inclusion for Deaf children by some members of the Deaf community, who felt that there was inadequate systemic recognition of their culture and language. Early intervention in terms of screening tests for hearing capacity at a very early age was also emphasised, as it was argued that children can lose out on educational and social opportunities when a hearing difficulty remains undetected. It was noted that within mainstream Deaf children and children with hearing impairments tended to become isolated as they progressed through the education system. As mentioned earlier, children with visual impairments are also affected by some of these difficulties - with access to necessary assistive technology a major problem. It was noted that these children tend to cope reasonably well at primary level, but can encounter serious difficulties on transition to secondary school, where they can become isolated in the more complex environment.

Participants felt that for many children with intellectual disabilities the social experience of inclusion can compensate for low academic attainment. However, they qualified this by noting that if adequate supports are lacking then these children suffer a loss of self esteem. This loss is exacerbated with age as the attainment gap widens between them and their non-disabled peers. Participants from special schools noted that despite the hopes of parents, social inclusion in mainstream is not always successful and some children either transfer or return to special provision. An example was given of one 12 year old child who had returned from mainstream despite serious parental reservations and had reconstructed his self-confidence to become "a shining light in our school". Dual enrolment of children in mainstream and special settings was recommended as a possible solution to these difficulties for particular children.

Special needs assistants believed that some children with behavioural difficulties were very difficult to accommodate in mainstream provision even with support. They also pointed to the increased academic gap between the child and his/her peers as they progress through the school, particularly by the senior classes. They also noted that noticeably different rates of social development seriously hampered certain children in their social interactions with their peers.

Finally, the issue of the "rights of the majority" was also mentioned by all sectors: some parents complain that the attention teachers give to children with disabilities takes from what is "due" to non-disabled children. However, this difficulty was also seen as owing a lot to the lack of supports that would enable the child with disabilities to engage successfully in school life and work.

6. Personal Outcomes and Transition to Second Level Schools

As noted above, when identifying the benefits or outcomes of a good experience for children with disabilities at primary school respondents focused mainly on the social outcomes. Parents expressed concern for their children's social futures. In primary schools inclusion was a rich social experience for many. However - and this applied in different degrees depending on the nature of each child's difficulty - as they moved up through the school system they became more at risk of being left out: the "social dividend" of inclusion is progressively eroded. Concern was particularly strong in relation to children with intellectual disabilities. Comments from principals included those who said that these children find transition "very difficult" and get "so lost when they go to secondary school." Participants agreed that if possible children with disabilities should progress with their peer group.

Participants reported that due to DES regulations resources did not transfer from one sector to the other. In one case there appeared to be a huge disparity between resource hours granted to a comparatively small rural school (48 pupils-16 hours resource) and the local secondary school (600 pupils-10 hours resource). Many students with disabilities leave school before they sit their Junior Certificate. Participants noted that there is a deep contradiction between inclusive education and the "points race". The system does not seem to facilitate diversity of needs: for instance when a child seeks exemption from a subject area that their disability precludes for them, some second level schools find this problematic and cite difficulties with supervision.

Transition to secondary school was seen as problematic. Teachers noted that parents needed to be fully informed and to think carefully about possible choices. There is also the difficulty of children losing their supports (including SNA allocation) at the top of primary school and having to go through a fresh assessment to secure supports for second level. Entrance exams were a source of particular concern, as pupils with certain disabilities cannot demonstrate their abilities in these exams. Also when these exams determine future class placement there is a great risk that these children will be placed in "weaker ability" classes and they may begin to experience learning failure.

6.1 Mainstream versus Special: Transition Issues

One major concern registered regarding the special school system was that even those institutions that cater for adolescents and young adults are constituted as primary schools and so there is limited curricular access for these post-primary age pupils. In addition, pupils received little state accreditation on completion of school, and links to training for whole-time mainstream employment were tenuous. A perceived lack of positive teacher expectations for these children was noted by some advocacy group participants as a severe limitation on the efficacy of the education received in certain special schools.

On the other hand participants from special schools noted that despite the hopes of parents, inclusion in mainstream is not always successful and some children either transfer or return to special provision. It was argued that special schools, freed of the mainstream constraints, had huge opportunities to develop a curriculum centred on the child's interests. Some parents in the advocacy groups valued this freedom to be innovative and believed that their child benefited from the different type of educational/social expectations in special schools.


[1] The NCSE now has responsibility for conducting research and developing policy on issues relating to the education of Deaf and hard of hearing pupils.
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[2] Circular 02/05 was since issued by DES in August 2005 with the aim of providing “guidance for mainstream primary schools on the deployment of the teaching resources that were allocated recently under the general allocation model.”
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[4] In this regard, Circular 15/05 was since issued by DES in August 2005 with the aim of clarifying the contractual situation of SNAs. The Circular states that “all newly approved Special Needs Assistant posts are related to the special needs of one or more pupils… and may be utilised by the school having regard to the needs of those pupils and the duties of the post. The practice of issuing child specific contracts should cease with immediate effect.” A new contract of employment for SNAs was also issued for schools. Existing SNAs were given the option of transferring to a revised contract in line with this new policy.
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