I was sitting in my noisy old Opel at a red traffic light in Castleknock, revving to prevent an embarrassing cut-out in the stylish suburb where I worked as a young teacher. Glancing sideways I spotted Philip, a wheelchair-bound student on the pavement, smiling in his usual cheeky way. He nodded towards the school ahead, while making hand gestures as if he was a young Marlon Brando about to easy ride his Harley Davison across the desert. I responded in kind and, pulling down my imaginary goggles, revved again. Philip, thrilled with the challenge, catapulted his chair forward with a quick gear shift, encouraging me to ‘eat his dust’ as I awaited the light change. Moments later I was tooting the horn and passing him by as he made his steady way. My ‘ hare’ was again overtaken by his ‘tortoise’ at the next traffic lights and by the time I drove into the school car park, Philip was waving at me from the front door. I almost had to queue to ‘high five’ him, such was his popularity among classmates.
Children argued over whose turn it was to help Philip with the daily chores he found difficult. Many wanted him as their ‘best friend.’ He was a regular birthday party attendee, and parents enjoyed the thought that their children had such empathy for their friend whose mobility was so restricted.
Our little race took place more than 20 years ago. Much has changed, and changed again, for pupils and teachers like Philip and me in the interim. Special Needs Assistants, once as scarce as TDs at a junior ministers Dáil presentation, increased and multiplied in numbers until one.in.three adults in schools were so employed. Kathy Synnott and other campaigners on behalf of children with special needs raised awareness of issues and gained rights through the courts and the ballot box. Applications for SNA and resource teaching support were almost assured of approval once the criteria were met.
I can recall one class in a local school from around the millennium where a mainstream class teacher competed for space with 6 SNAs in a classroom, each assigned to an individual child. Some schools had more SNAs than teachers on staff.
Before the Celtic Tiger came tumbling down the tree, all education partners realised that change was necessary. The Department of Education and Science (as it then was) sought to limit SNAs to a maximum of one per classroom. As the shock of the banking collapse took hold, the same tree was attacked from the bottom for its’ low hanging fruit—the recent and rapidly expanded number of SNAs. A limit of 10,365 employees was imposed on the service. Whether an applicant child would be granted support was dependent on that figure not being breached. SNAs were now shared between pupils, not always in the same class. Many were granted reduced hours.
An old teacher once advised me that a child whose only talent is hammering nails should have the opportunity to do so in school. With this in mind, I have always found it important to find out, through talking to and observing the child, what they enjoy and what they have a talent for, before giving them all possible opportunities to display their ability.
My young friend Philip, I’m sure, has gone on to have a happy and productive life, though I regrettably can’t confirm it as I too moved on soon after that. Children I have since encountered with similar disabilities have, by and large, enjoyed similar degrees of popularity. By coincidence, as I write, RTÉ News is carrying the story of Killian MacDonnell’s achievement in overcoming the joint disabilities of profound deafness and Down Syndrome to pass his Applied Leaving Certificate. His achievement is celebrated by everyone associated with him, including extraordinary SNAs and teachers and his peers who regard him so highly.
As popular as a child with obvious physical disabilities may be with peers, the opposite frequently applies to children with ADHD, ASD, ODD or Aspergers Syndrome. These are the children who are suffering most from reduced SNA numbers and the 15% decrease in allocated resource hours. When children with non-physical disabilities have SNA support, it is usually applied in a way that helps disguise the intended beneficiary, particularly in junior classes. Often, children in the class are completely unaware that the extra adult is assigned to anyone in particular, such is the subtlety and professionalism the two colleagues bring to their work.
The criteria for granting SNA support now effectively limit the service to those with extreme physical disability or those adjudged by a clinical psychologist to be a danger to themselves or others. Critically, this leaves many children with a non-physical disability outside the loop. Their condition may involve a lack of social skills, an unwillingness to share or cooperate with others, a propensity for over-reacting to the least stimuli, positive or negative, or a lack of concentration in class. This can lead to increased need for correction by the teacher and frustration for the children themselves. Where a child with ADHD over-reacts on a regular basis and upsets or strikes another child, figuring out if there is bullying involved and which child is the victim can be a complex issue for the teacher. Is the child who strikes out when ‘his buttons are pushed’—a bully? If the same children continuously provoke and are lashed out against, where lies the greatest fault? In such cases, it is not uncommon to have both sets of parents at the principal’s door, screaming ‘bully’ at the other party.
A child who loses their temper easily through no fault of their own and acts inappropriately towards another child quickly becomes unpopular with peers, if there is no obvious physical reason to suggest that they are in any way different. After a number of such incidents, peers become openly hostile towards such a child, accentuating the problem. Parents ask for their child to be moved away from the child they consider disruptive, adding further issues for the teacher. Many of these issues could be countered by having an SNA available. However, access to SNA support for such children may now be no more than 15 hours per week, leaving them over 13 hours to fend for themselves.
So, how do you integrate children with special needs into mainstream schooling, especially in these tight times? Schools with ASD units take a gradual approach, introducing integration for subjects such as visual arts, religion (where appropriate) and PE, with academic subjects coming later in the process. Schools with sensory and cooking facilities sometimes bring in the mainstream classes to use the facilities along with their autistic peers. Many schools use a ‘Buddy System’ to foster integration during playtime. School plays and concerts also offer chances to integrate children with special needs. An old teacher once advised me that a child whose only talent is hammering nails should have the opportunity to do so in school. With this in mind, I have always found it important to find out, through talking to and observing the child, what they enjoy and what they have a talent for, before giving them all possible opportunities to display their ability.
In every primary school, academic subjects are but one spoke in the wheel of a day’s proceedings. Children can learn valuable lessons from organising the library, attending green schools meetings, or updating the school’s website or blog. Getting the PE equipment ready for a lesson, rearranging displays, gardening, attending the bird feeders or setting out the GP room for evening functions all contain nuggets of inclusive learning and the potential for self-esteem enhancement. Children with their own vegetable or egg enterprises can design and display advertisements on an assigned school noticeboard, or on the schools website. Differentiation based on each child’s needs and abilities means homework is given in proportion to the child’s ability to complete the task.
Cuts in access to resource teaching and SNAs, as well as crippling reductions in DEIS provision, mean that schools are fighting a rearguard action to maintain a quality of service for pupils with special needs. The Special Education Support Service (SESS) is of huge importance to schools, as they provide an excellent advice, training and back.up to teachers, principals and SNAs. Any cut in this service would be a real disaster for children with special needs and those providing for them.
Daily, schools seek to provide equality of educational opportunity to each and every child. Maintaining this as our ideal keeps us focussed on the job at hand. However, the cuts in service have had a serious effect on equity in the system. Only a restoration of services and a reprioritisation by the DES can ensure that the child with a non-physical disability can enjoy and benefit from their school experience as much as my friend Philip.