In recent times, there has been intense debate as to the most appropriate educational setting and provision for students with disabilities within the Irish education system. The SERC Report (1993), the most comprehensive policy document to date in the area of special education needs, recommended what it called the educational integration of students with a disability, which it defined as ‘the participation of pupils with disabilities in school activities with other pupils to the maximum extent which is consistent with the broader overall interests of both the pupils with disabilities and other pupils in the class/group’ (SERC Report 1993, 18–19 ). As a result, special schools have developed closer links with mainstream schools or have been supplemented by special units attached to mainstream schools. In Killina Presentation Secondary School, the first purpose-built facility was established to cater for students with moderate general learning disability (MGLD) at post-primary level.
Ours is a co-educational school with approximately 466 pupils, located in a rural setting. It was established by, and remains under the trusteeship of, the Presentation Sisters. In 1999, approaches were made to enrol students with moderate general learning difficulty on the school campus. We were told that the school had been chosen because of the caring attitude shown to pupils with learning difficulties who had previously attended mainstream classes in the school. Initially there was some apprehension on the part of the staff, owing perhaps mainly to a lack of awareness of what moderate general learning disability means. Eventually agreement was reached, and in September 2000, six students started in a separate prefabricated unit attached to the school. In September 2001 a further eight pupils were enrolled. In December 2001 a state-of-the-art facility was officially opened. It is the first purpose-built facility in the country to cater for students with moderate general learning disability at second level. In addition to learning disability, the majority of the students present with multisensory impairments, speech and mobility problems. Students are referred by a psychologist and an admissions group selects students for placement.
When the special unit was agreed, mainstream subject teachers with an interest in special education volunteered to become involved in the development of the class. The class, which is called Fourth Year, is allocated two special teacher positions shared primarily among three teachers who teach the balance of their hours in the mainstream. In addition, eight other mainstream specialist teachers teach their own subject area to the Fourth Year class. There are six special needs assistants.
Our educational philosophy
In Killina, our educational philosophy for students with moderate general learning disability favours as much integration as is appropriate and practical, with as little segregation as is possible. We also place a strong emphasis on optimising the appropriateness of the education our Fourth Year students will receive. We endeavour to give our students access to a broadly based curriculum and to all the facilities in the school, where possible, and to enable our students ‘to spend part of their time in social contact and where appropriate working with students from other classes’ (SERC Report, 1993, 66).
At present, for our Fourth Year students it is a case of locational and social integration. This means that they join the mainstream pupils for lunch in the canteen area and they also join them for assembly, religious ceremonies, choir and games during set periods. Mainstream pupils from Second and Fifth Year classes come to the Fourth Year classrooms at certain periods each week. They work in small groups or on a one-to-one basis with each Fourth Year student. Mainstream students help with reading, writing, language skills, arts and crafts and practical subjects like cookery, woodwork and gardening. Transition Year (TY) students are timetabled for two periods each week. The Fourth Years and the TY students collaborate on a specific project in a very structured environment. In the past, these groups have learned sign language together and the TY students have helped the Fourth Year students to improve their computer skills.
The mainstream students and those with general learning disability have benefited from the interaction they share. The mainstream pupils are given the chance to learn about different forms of disability and its effects on individuals and their families. In the future, this should enable them to be more caring and more understanding of persons with disability. They enjoy the spontaneity and sense of humour of the Fourth Year students. On the other hand, the Fourth Year pupils have the opportunity to mix with their mainstream peers, to enhance their communication skills and to share their interests with other adolescents. As many of the Fourth Year group were in primary school up to the age of 14 or 15 (17, in one case) an important benefit for them is that they now are in an age-appropriate environment.
In Killina, we believe that the various integration strategies described above are the foundation blocks in any future steps we may take in creating a more inclusive environment for our Fourth Year students. From a practical point of view, the physical layout of our school is conducive to inclusion. The school principal, deputy principal, Board of Management, and many of the staff members would favour a more inclusive form of education for our students with moderate general learning disability. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that this will be achieved in the short term.
There is a need to broaden understanding relating to the teaching of students with learning disabilities. Four years on, we are seeing progress in this area. Indeed during 2004, two 4th Year students have joined a mainstream first-year CSPE class accompanied by a special needs assistant. We would hope that they will attempt this exam at Junior Cert level. Shortly we hope to accommodate other Fourth Year students into other mainstream subject classes, e.g. home economics and art at Junior Cert level.
Our students with moderate learning disability who also have multiple disabilities face enormous challenges in accessing education in mainstream classrooms. One particular requirement is for the further professional development of teachers.
Furthermore a lack of resources, in terms of special needs assistants, equipment, etc., militates against pupils being included in mainstream, as each included pupil would require a second adult as support in the classroom.
We also consider that all relevant groups involved within the school—teachers, management, pupils, parents and external experts—must be consulted in developing a policy of inclusion for the benefit of the whole school community.
At present, those of us involved in teaching the Fourth Years feel that we too are on a learning curve. Development of an appropriate curriculum, becoming familiar with our pupils’ needs, building up suitable resource material and so on, demand a great deal of time and planning at this relatively early stage of the special unit’s development. We think that it is important to make haste slowly, in order to avoid making decisions that may, in the end, hinder the process of inclusion on our school. We hope that in the coming years it will be possible for a small number of students with learning disability to attend some mainstream classes. Next year too there will be a Transition Year class in the school and we hope that, together with the Fourth Years, they will undertake a project in which they can all engage on a reciprocal basis, for example, a paper-recycling project.
Integration, particularly locational and social integration, is happening for our students with moderate learning disability in Killina. However, the development of more inclusive practices in the future will require deep changes and extensive collaborative teamwork amongst staff. It will take time and extensive planning to achieve, but it is a process in which we, as professionals, must all engage and in that process, we must not lose sight of the fact that our primary concern must always be to meet the needs of each individual child in our care.