THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO SPECIAL EDUCATION IN IRELAND

Reviewed by Ida Carroll, Our Lady’s Grove Secondary School, Dublin 14.

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At a period of rapid change in the area of special education in Ireland the publication of this reference book is timely. It takes a comprehensive look at special education from the assessment and identification of a child with special needs, through planning and teaching, to a review of new structures, new Department guidelines and new legislation which will define the area for years to come. It is written with parents, teachers and students of colleges of education in mind. It does not assume previous knowledge; terms, special education conditions and a wealth of relevant information are explained in simple language. Furthermore, the layout of the book allows the reader who needs to access specific information to do so easily.

Following the Prologue, this guide is laid out in eight parts, dealing with assessment and planning; special education conditions; understanding special education; understanding the con.text of special education, using the curriculum and interventions; legislation, guidelines and structures; special education and the courts; reports of the Task Forces; and author’s recommendations.
The process of establishing the specific nature of a child’s special education condition or learning difficulty is set out by means of a staged approach to assessment. This is a clear guide.line of good practice. In a case where referral to specialists out.side the school is necessary, the referral process is clearly explained, including the roles of parents, principals, special education teachers, the SENO and the psychologist. Teachers will find the section on referral information particularly useful as Carey sets out a series of questions that need to be considered when referring a student for assessment.

The author then considers how assessment information is translated into educational practice with the drawing up of an Individual Education Plan (IEP). He lists nine points which, as a matter of best practice, should be contained in the IEP. Planning for children with behavioural problems is considered separately by means of a series of questions that the IEP team need to ask.

A detailed description of the nature, characteristics, signs and symptoms of the various special education conditions that are recognised as having an entitlement to special education in Ireland is set out in Part Two. This will be a useful reference for teachers as well as for parents. In each case the setting in which students with these conditions may receive support is detailed. Guidelines for the differentiation of instruction of students with exceptional ability/giftedness are also included in this section.

The focus of Part Three is understanding the student with a special education need and it goes on to consider the most appropriate response to that need. Carey discusses mainstreaming, integration, inclusion and segregation in the Irish context and concludes that the principle of least restrictive environment is central to appropriate special education provision. There fol.lows an article that aims to help understanding of challenging behaviour and two articles specific to adolescents—on development, and on the occurrence of ‘hidden disabilities’ at secondary level.

The chapter on differentiating the curriculum is signalled as a ‘need to know’ for teachers. The principles outlined relate to differentiating the learning environment, the content, the process and the product for students with special needs. The author intends this to be a ‘guide to thinking about special edu.cation rather than a reference guide’.

In the following three chapters, Carey provides a comprehensive review of recent legislation and Department guidelines, special education and the courts (detailing the O’Donoghue and Sinnott cases), and reports from the Autism Task Force and the Dyslexia Task Force.

The author’s recommendations are offered in the final chapter. His recommendation that teachers must be given adequate time for planning, meetings and review of special educational provision during the school week will be welcomed by those who are attempting to provide an appropriate, quality education for students with special needs.

This is an informative guide to the area of special education in Ireland that will give a breadth of understanding to all interested readers. It is predicated on the author’s uncompromising view that ‘nothing is more important than children and that the needs of the children supersede the needs of the system and the people employed within the system.’ This will, I have no doubt, encourage debate on existing processes and systems and the context in which they exist. It is important, I think, to question the rationale behind the system and to investigate if it serves students well.

Much of the information contained within the book relates to both the primary and secondary sectors. There are, however, fundamental differences between the sectors which I believe need to be debated. Some of these relate not only to provision of education to students with special needs, but to all students. Society has, by and large, defined success at second level in terms of academic achievement only, and this view is rarely challenged. In such an atmosphere the nurturing of the whole per.son needs to be supported by a strongly held philosophy, and systems and resources need to be put in place to support it. In relation to students with special needs, Carey acknowledges that ‘the inclusion debate is as much a social debate as it is an educational debate’.

The chapter on using the curriculum contains many principles which should underlie the teaching of students at both primary and post primary level. It is based on the primary school ‘child.friendly’ curriculum and it raised many questions for me about how it might be applied effectively in the much more complex world of the post primary school. These questions relate to the ethos of the secondary system, the appropriateness of the curriculum to effect real development, both intellectual and social, and the commitment to supporting teachers to provide an integrated education to students with special needs. This book will have done students with special needs in post primary schools a great service if it raises these questions.

I would like to recommend this practical guide as one that is presented from a partnership perspective. Parents, teachers, and all involved in special education will find in it a philosophy which, if adopted, will improve the lot of children with special needs in Ireland.

THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO SPECIAL EDUCATION IN IRELAND, by David J. Carey. (2005) Primary Abercorn House. Dublin ISBN 0-9545837.2.8 €15.99

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