The mainstreaming of educational provision for children with special needs versus the provision of special education is a debate which has huge and significant implications for parents and schools alike. The debate is of special significance for parents of young children and teenagers with learning disabilities or intellectual disabilities. Over the last decade, the majority of parents of children with a disability have opted to enrol their children in neighbourhood schools in mainstream classrooms or in special classes in local schools.
This exercise of parental choice on a mass scale has produced huge change in how educational provision is to be resourced, distributed and organised in local schools. Special education in special schools has tended to take a back seat in this social-parental movement. Legislation, finance and teaching resources are now beginning to catch up with the choices that parents have made in the direction of enrolling their children in local schools. Now is perhaps a good time to consider whether the organisation of schools, their curriculum content and examination systems are adapted to the new school students.
Transition year for teenagers is a case in point. Transition year for school students is a break from the routine of a strict and relatively inflexible curriculum, a break between public examinations and an opportunity to try out some different skills. It is a milestone or pause before heading into a two-year academic programme leading to third-level education or employment. Designed for mainstream students able to exercise autonomous and independent choices, transition year is fun for students at ease with dipping into short practical and study modules. Originally designed to provide students with a taste of work during a period of high long-term unemployment and emigration rates, Transition Year was never planned or resourced with students with special needs in mind.
Do students with learning or intellectual disabilities or special needs require a Transition Year sandwiched between two sets of academic examinations? The answer to this question will lie both in future research and in the monitoring of school retention rates for pupils with special needs. For students who are not completing academic examinations, the biggest transition is between school and further vocation training, pre-vocational training, rehabilitative work or training, and life-skills programmes. Ironically the significance of this transition for socially disadvantaged pupils has been recognised by the provision of Youth Reach Programmes and Community Workshops. These provide interesting full time support programmes to disadvantaged teenagers who have left school early, face problems at home or have experienced other setbacks in their education.
But what about teenagers with intellectual disabilities? Could they not be provided with their own special transition year at the end of their formal school education and before taking the plunge into the more adult world ? At present some day services, pre-vocational training, rehabilitative training and sheltered workshops, as well as FÁS, are in the midst of restructuring to better adapt themselves to more modern thinking about disability and to provide improved progression opportunities for service users. This will generate new choices for young people, but it will also require deeper consideration of the education and training choices to be made. It is a sad fact that some young people with disabilities are at home and claiming Disability Allowance before they reach the age of 20-
An extra year of school—a social year or Special Transition Year—would recognise and reasonably accommodate the special needs of school students with intellectual and learning disabilities. If it occurs at the age of 18 or 19 years, this is a better and more mature moment than in the early phases of the teenage years. As a bridging year, it would provide parents and students with the opportunity to give considered reflection and thought to the new choices that can be made nowadays, while ensuring that service providers can concentrate on developing the specialised content and development of their options. For example, sheltered workshops, as presently constructed, will disappear, to be replaced by Sheltered Occupational Services under the Department of Health, and Sheltered Enterprises under the Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment.
The Austrian Ministry for Education is experimenting with an additional school year for students with a disability. In Austria, a special full-time social year is being piloted for teenagers with disabilities at the end of school provision. While other children go on to third-level education, children with disabilities are provided with an extra year at school. During this year the teenagers are given the time to explore their options, enhance their independent living and social skills and get extra support to prepare for the future. This additional year is a special year for special needs pupils. Such an experiment would be interesting to pilot in Ireland.
The 2004 Education for Persons with Special Needs Act, Section 1 defines special education need. Children and teenagers with intellectual disabilities appear to be included under the heading of ‘… learning disability or any other condition that results in a person learning differently from a person without that condition.’
Section 2 of the Act presents a strong view on the subject of mainstreaming educational provision:
A child with special educational needs shall be educated in an inclusive environment with children who do not have such needs unless the nature or degree of those needs is such that to do so would be inconsistent with …the best interests of the child (or)…the effective provision of education for children with whom the child is to be educated.
On the face of it, Section 2 of the Act shows a marked preference for the education of children with special needs alongside those without a special need. However, Section 20 (g) of the Act rebalances the emphasis on mainstreaming and confers an important function on the National Council for Special Education. This function is to:
‘…ensure that a continuum of special education provision is available as required in relation to each type of disability.’
Section 20 provides a legal basis for considering extending the continuum of educational provision for children with learning and intellectual disabilities, if they require it. With the development of legislation and provision in a more inclusive direction, it is opportune to reconsider some special provisions in the best interests of the child.