Speaker: Tony Doyle, Director of Special Educational Needs,
Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick
Tony Doyle's paper examined the challenging road to be travelled by teachers in their efforts to ensure successful inclusion of students with learning disabilities in mainstream education.
In Doyle's view, students have a basic human right to be included in both a social and curricular sense in mainstream schools. However, he noted that in other jurisdictions there were those who questioned whether it is morally right to include certain children in mainstream education if they get no benefit from inclusive education. They have a right to be included, but they also have a right to an appropriate education. The beginning of real inclusion for students with SEN is the development of the communication skills of all students in the classroom. It is also accepted that for some students with SEN, behavioural and social skills may be more important than reading and writing.
The success of inclusive practice is dependent on how the teaching is organised and how well the curriculum is differentiated. Without appropriate differentiation, certain pupils will not be fully included and will not benefit from being in mainstream schools. Teachers are now addressing the issue of differentiation and in so doing, are considering their enhanced role as educators in responding to the learning styles of all students, including those with SEN.
He also mentioned that teachers are now re-examining their own methodologies and teaching styles and focusing more on the learning styles of students with SEN. Many teachers who are familiar with Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences now address auditory, visual and tactile -kinaesthetic learning styles in responding to the needs of those students.
He referred to the experiences of our neighbours overseas in their implementation of inclusion policies. It was noted that too great a focus on national standards of attainment in the UK did not help the education of those with disabilities, and that it was accepted there that inclusion could not flourish in an era of competition.
He spoke of the impetus given to the issue of inclusion in Ireland by the recent legislation here and by the numerous DES circulars, all of which have served to inform those working at different levels in education of the rights, entitlements and needs of students with SEN.
Recent DES circulars have highlighted the need to minimise the withdrawal of students from mainstream classes because of the disruptive nature of this practice. Too much withdrawal and one-to-one support could create also a dependency on the resource teacher only, while the student would be missing out on the social interaction.
For mixed ability classes it is now a particular challenge for teachers to ensure that all students are included in a meaningful way in all curricular areas. In Doyle's view, the overall size of classes in schools has not been addressed in the context of special education and it is unfortunate that special needs students are not, as yet, given an enhanced rating for the purposes of securing an improved staff/student ratio which is necessary to enable teachers to provide the appropriate education for all students.
Among the difficulties around the area of inclusion outlined by him were the following; unacceptably large classes at primary and post-primary, the fact that some students with SEN were being taught by people without appropriate training, difficulties regarding the transfer of students with SEN from primary to post-primary, lack of clarity concerning the evolving role of the Special Needs Assistant, lack of essential resources (e.g. books, test material, IT software), problems finding time for staff meetings to discuss ongoing SEN issues and to ensure the necessary collaboration between mainstream and support teachers and time to discuss IEPs and their implementation and time for regular meetings with parents.
He was particularly concerned with what appears to be a growing practice in some post-primary schools where four or five of the teachers were assigned the same student with SEN, with a view to implementing a literacy/numeracy programme in a piecemeal fashion. In many cases there was no co-ordination of this work so that there was no coherent programme in place which addressed the real needs of the student.
Doyle acknowledged that teachers were committed to doing what was best for all students but that there was a need for ongoing training to support those who work with students with SEN, especially in view of the rapidly changing SEN landscape. There is also an urgency about monitoring inclusive practices in the next few years to ensure that we are making progress in this area. It is important for schools to keep verifiable evidence to show that they are succeeding in including all pupils.
Finally, he stated that though we had commenced our journey on the road to inclusion, we still had a long way to travel.