One school’s response to the integration of students with special needs in the secondary schools programme

by Aoibhinn Foley, Knockbeg College, Knockbeg, Co. Carlow

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Knockbeg College is a voluntary secondary five-day boarding and day school for boys, with 376 students and 27 teachers. The aim of the school is to enable and empower students to acquire the self-confidence, academic qualifications, life skills and attitudes for leading satisfying lives.

We find that many parents of children with special needs are now attending mainstream education. In line with the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill (2002) we believe in an integrated, inclusive approach to education. Our policy is to provide special needs education in a mainstream setting. The Education Act (1998) directs that the educational needs of all students be met appropriately.

Disability covers the broad spectrum of sensory, physical, learning and mental/emotional disability. It is our belief that special needs require diverse provision, with cooperation between the support services for special education, flexibility in the curriculum and transparency of resources in relation to assessment. Heretofore, we have responded to specific needs of children who present with: Asperger’s Syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Down Syndrome, Dyspraxia, Visual Impairment, Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Exceptionally Able or ‘gifted’ students. We aspire to put into place the necessary special supports to facilitate each pupil’s integration and development. Such an aspiration can be hugely challenging when the Department of Education and Science fails to grant the necessary resources. We liaise with a wide range of professionals in meeting the identified needs of our students. While the contribution of all specialists in the diagnosis of special needs is valuable, the insights and recommendations of psychologists, speech and language therapists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists are of special importance in preparing for the student’s arrival and in developing their Individual Education Plans. The recommendations and advice of clinicians are made available to all the teaching staff working with special needs students. The school Guidance Counsellor / Learning Support Coordinator is the main channel of communication between subject teachers, pastoral care team, whole school staff and management.

Knockbeg’s objective is ‘to ensure a continuum of provision for special educational needs ranging from occasional help to fulltime SNA support within the school’ (Department of Education and Science, 1995). We find that approximately 1.2% of our students are affected by disability, but a larger group (approximately 10%) experience learning difficulties. These students need an educational provision, which is extra or different from that made for others of a similar age in our school. Delivery of such provision is governed by the capacities of individual students and the availability of resources and informed by clinical reports. Interventions are also guided by the Learning Support Guidelines which set out the various roles of personnel within schools, as well as guidance on curriculum, policies, teaching strategies and use of ICT.

Some students come from the national school system where their special educational needs were not already identified. This can happen when their level of disability was above the fourth percentile ranking (the cut-off point which determines the national schools’ ability to give support to these students). These students have often struggled in their learning, and some may have behavioural presentations. Pre-entry assessment also identifies students with difficulties in comprehension and reading ability.

In Knockbeg, teaching practice is modified in accordance with the Education Act (1998) and the Education for Persons with Disabilites Bill (2002). A full-time Special Needs Assistant (SNA) who has been recruited specifically to assist in the care of a student with disabilities. The duties of an SNA are specified as being of a non-teaching nature, and have been modified to support the particular needs of the student concerned, to assist the class teacher.

The additional allocation of the post of Resource Teacher, is invaluable in meeting the special needs of children. As well as providing additional teaching support, the Resource Teacher advises and liaises with other teachers, parents and relevant professionals. The Resource Teacher also advises and explores alternative teaching strategies and the use of special equipment, as requested, to support the student in their learning.

Learning support includes both teaching and non-teaching duties, and in particular that of liaising with clinicians, parents and teachers.. ‘Support’ is complemented by the use of computers, tape recorders and board games. The whole approach is structured to provide an enjoyable learning experience in a caring and supportive atmosphere, with the objective of encouraging each student to cope with difficulties, improve self-image and develop full social and academic potential.

The principal role of the learning support teacher is to provide supplementary teaching to students with special education needs. This takes place on an individual basis, inside or outside the classroom, or in small groups. This role also includes collaborating and coordinating with colleagues and parents in the planning and implementation of learning support strategies, which have been of immense help to many students. The progress of students is regularly reviewed to monitor progress and revises the individual education plan. All teaching staff share in the role of learning-support, which is organized to be an enjoyable, happy and secure experience, to assist all students to develop to their full potential.

Our special education needs programme incorporates: exemption from Irish, waiver in spelling in all house exams, exemption from reading aloud in class, reader in-house exams, extra time (15 minutes) for 1st and 2nd year house exams, and the use of a word processor, tape recorder, reader and/or scribe for house exams. Learning Support is available up to Leaving Certificate. Application is made to the Department of Education on behalf of all SEN students for special arrangements in both the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate examinations.

Every child with special needs is different and each requires an individual educational programme. No one fits into a neat category. In striving to equip every teacher with the expertise and level of understanding needed to deal with every learning disability, the school provide a Learning Support Information Booklet for all subject teachers. This includes both our Resource Register and Learning Support Register, which identifies the students and their specific educational need. It also provides them with guidelines to support effective teaching and learning.

Practical strategies for inclusion activities in the classroom and the school are also set out. A copy of this booklet is given to every subject teacher, and to the school management. It is also available in the Staff Room.

Our Special Educational Needs Organiser (SENO) is responsible for allocating additional teaching and other resources to support the needs of our students with disabilities. As the point of contact for parents/guardians and schools, our SENO processes applications for support in respect of students with disabilities and decides on the level of support to be given to the school. This, however, can be challenging in itself, when—despite clear recommendations made by the referring psychologist—the SENO may decide that the school or student will not get such support. The school is put in a most difficult position at this point, because the needs of the students are being blocked. The school now faces a dilemma where we feel a duty of care to implement the requirements of the psychological report, but are not in a position to do so having been refused appropriate resources. Our ‘custom and practice’ is to include these students in our general Learning Support service. However, our experience shows that there have been students who have been left without the critical one-to-one support they needed, in the form of a Special Needs Assistant or extra resource hour allocation, and as result they have not been able to engage in learning. They have effectively been left in a vacuum and have dropped out of second-level education. This, we believe, poses a very serious issue for education.

Every August our society and the media measure the success of secondary schools—and, more importantly, students—as ‘points scored in the Leaving Certificate’. This is a very narrow and limited focus of education which does not allow students who have special educational needs to receive recognition for their achievements. They have overcome their difficulties and disabilities. They have achieved their personal best. They have invested a lot of time, effort and interest in their learning. But they are ‘judged’ alongside others who have had no obstacles to overcome. Very often our best Leaving Certificate results are not those of students who have received 600 points, but those students who do less well in points, but achieve beyond their disability. As a school it is important to know if these special needs students transfer and continue into third-level education, that their needs will be met through the colleges’ ‘Access’ programme.

Striving to effectively and appropriately include our special-needs students requires a cooperative and planned approach. The school is solution-focused, and believe it is important to ‘walk and journey with our students’. The school is conscious that flexibility of our curriculum, supported by a dedicated staff, in meeting the needs of students with special needs is needed. Thomas Groome states: “regardless of what we teach, we teach people, and the better we teach the more we influence the whole person—head, heart and hands.’ Knockbeg continually seeks to improve and provide a model of good practice.