At a time when the Department of Education and Science are currently reviewing the provision of special educational resources to mainstream schools, it seems reasonable to ask if the integration of children with special educational needs into mainstream schools is working well. Sadly, there seems to be little research into this in Ireland.
For most parents, the choice of school for their child is fairly straightforward, starting often with the local primary school and on to the same secondary school as their brothers, sisters and neighbours. However, when parents learn that their child has special educational needs, the decision requires a lot more thought. Their decision is often more difficult, as there is no one person who can offer all the answers to parents’ questions. A parent can feel confused by the options and opinions offered by all those around them. I think it is important that parents ask lots of questions and visit all the different types of educational facilities available, before making the final decision. Every child is different and parents know their child best. The choice is usually between the mainstream school, a special class (although many of these have disappeared over the past few years) and the special school.
In recent years, mainstream schools have welcomed children with special educational needs and teachers have voluntarily undertaken a huge amount of additional training to try to meet the needs of children with many different abilities and disabilities. Additional personnel in the form of resource teachers, learning support teachers and special needs assistants have been employed to support children with special needs. These initiatives must be welcomed—they have enabled many children to integrate successfully into their local school. However, it is questionable whether there are enough resources available, given that most children receive only two and a half hours of additional help per week. The current changes under consideration would maintain this in some schools, increase it in others, but decrease it in others. I believe any change should improve the current situation for all schools and all children.
Special schools and classes came about in recognition of the fact that many children with special educational needs learn at a different pace and often in a different way to other children. In these classes the curriculum is adapted to meet the individual child’s educational needs and the emphasis on social and personal development and independence is highlighted. The entire daily programme is geared towards the individual needs of children in small classes. Alternative programmes at second level prepare pupils for adult life and are usually based on continuous assessment rather than exams. The curriculum is wide and varied and focuses on abilities, talents and interests.
But the choice for parents often involves more than knowledge about schools. There can be other pressures that come to bear—the desire to have all their children educated together in the same school, conflicting opinions from family and professionals, and the fear of choosing something different. As parents we all want what is best for our children and we want them to be happy in school—although children might not think it cool to admit they could ever be happy in school!
It might seem that the integration of children with special needs into mainstream schools has removed the burden of such decisions from all parents. I believe this is not so. I don’t believe in the ‘one size fits all’ philosophy. I think that the options available in special schools, while sometimes confusing, offer a valuable choice and that some children require the specialist help available in special schools and classes.
For some children integration may not be the best answer. We must look at the whole child and consider how they progress throughout their school life. Many professionals will say that integration becomes more difficult for a child as they reach the upper classes in primary school. The difficulties are not so much academic, as social. Some children find it hard to keep up with their peers as the language of the classroom and the playground becomes more complex and the games more challenging. The child can become socially isolated. Many parents of children with a learning disability will tell you that their child plays with younger children. This is to be expected as they are developing at a slower rate than their peers and often feel more comfortable and competent playing with younger children where they understand the rules of the games and share the same interests. It is at this stage I believe parents should consider whether their child should continue in the mainstream school or move to a special class or school. It is also important to consider the type of second-level education available for a child with special needs. Will they be able to cope with a highly academic curriculum, changing classes every forty minutes, lots of different teachers and classmates, or will they get lost in these large establishments?
The special school is not about separating children from their community, but rather about giving them the skills, confidence and knowledge to integrate fully into their community as independent adults. I applaud the parents and teachers who have made inclusion in mainstream schools a successful reality for so many children and I am relieved that specialist facilities still exist for those who require more specialist help.