Successive Governments have encouraged the inclusion of Special Needs Children, where possible, in mainstream schools for many years now. Thankfully, as a result, more and more children are taking this inclusive route every year. And it can be very successful too, enriching the lives of ALL the children in the school, as this video from We Care Do You demonstrates ...
The thing is, this inclusion can only be successful if properly supported by trained and up-skilled SNAs and Resource/Learning Support Teachers. Although successive Governments have encouraged this inclusion they have also successively and increasingly cut-back on these available supports.
Every time they do this, schools rush to to re-arrange and re-schedule in a desperate attempt to spread their increasingly reduced and precious resources, to ensure that every child who needs help gets at least some. As SNAs are a school resource, and not assigned to specific pupils, this means SNAs being shared among an increasing number of pupils, and spreading themselves very thinly as they rush from class to class to give support. While successive governments may think that this is value-for-money productivity at it's best they have forgotten one tiny little fact: children with Special Needs can't always schedule their difficulties to occur to suit these shared timetables.
Sadly, our Government have recently issued circular 0030/2014 which proposes even more cuts in this area, with effect from September 2014.
This has caused upset and disbelief for many teachers, parents and support groups around the country. And not without good reason.
Teacher Catherina Woods, who is also a mum to two children with Special Needs, wrote this eloquent letter to the Irish Times last week and also this article for The Journal.ie. She explains the impact these cuts will have in the classroom very well. This Voice For Teachers Blog explains it well too.
I am not a teacher, just a concerned parent; albeit one who has successfully navigated this inclusion route. Well so far anyway, we haven't quite reached the end of our road yet. I have read the above mentioned circular in depth and all the articles too, and it is clear to me (and to others) that these cuts, being sold under the guise of being 'value-for-money', will have a devastating impact on ALL children in our education system.
The highlights for me are:
* Children must have an assessed disability with significant Primary Care Needs requiring assistance which must be 'way beyond that which would normally be provided by the class teacher, support teacher or other school teachers or by their fellow pupils in school'?! (Really?)
* Children with behaviour related care needs will only qualify for an SNA if they have a separate Emotional Behavioural Disorder/Severe Emotional Behavioural Disorder diagnosis - in conjunction with another disability. And let's not forget: "SNA support should only be provided where it is clear that
behavioural management strategies have not been successful to date and where it is
demonstrated how access to such support can assist with ongoing planning and intervention for the child"
* Children must be "enrolled and have commenced attending school before any application for support will be made"
* The over-all responsibility for ensuring "that each pupil is taught in a stimulating and supportive classroom environment" lies with the class room teacher and that they have "a central role in identifying and responding to pupils with additional needs."
* As a result of the above it would seem that the child attending post-primary will then be fully independent and not in need of any SNA support unless they have "chronic and serious care needs". Instead support "will be a combination of differentiated and additional teaching supports from class teachers, from resource/learning support teachers either though team teaching or withdrawal, and from other relevant teaching staff, as opposed to care support from an SNA." (Good luck with that....)
* "The views of the child, where possible, should therefore be taken into account in reviewing the
extent of access to SNA support required." I agree with the child's views being considered, at second level, but they should be considered in conjunction with what's best for the child. And let's hope that GPs and hospital doctors and surgeons don't adopt this principal.
The DES may be adamant that this circular does not mean cuts but it is hard to see how making it more difficult to access these supports does not mean a reduction in SNA posts.
I very much worry about the children with Special Needs attending mainstream post-primary school. For some the assistance of the Special Needs Department (if it's properly resourced with interested and up-skilled teachers) will be sufficient, but for some it will not. Independence skills may come with their growing maturity but very often so does increased anxiety levels, with high levels of school refusals and ultimate drop-outs. There is data for the former but not the latter, so I believe. Also, secondary school is far less forgiving on children with Aspergers and ASD, believe me. They will help as much as they can but ultimately their priority concern will be for the greater good.
I also worry about how far-reaching the effects of these cuts will be. Will mainstream schools cope by raising the criteria for admitting children with Special Education Needs? In which case further demand will be put on Special Needs schools, many of whom are closing or have their own admittance criteria, and are far more expensive to provide than SNAs. Will we see an increase in the abusive use of Inclusion rooms in an effort to manage challenging behaviours? Will these cuts ultimately cause a divide between parents who have children in school with no Special Needs and those who do? And what is to happen to the teenagers who can't cope and end up quitting school entirely? Will they become dependent on our difficult to access Mental Health Services, or on substances they shouldn't? Or will they become misunderstood, juvenile delinquents in trouble with the law? And will we have the 'value-for-money' financial resources to deal with that?
This circular is yet again tightening up the rules and criteria surrounding entitlement to SNA support and 'restating and clarifying' the purpose of this scheme 'for both parents and schools'. In case any of us have forgotten: The purpose of the SNA scheme is to provide for the SIGNIFICANT CARE NEEDS which some people with Special Education Needs may have'.
And right there, in my honest opinion, is the problem.... and the possible solution. I said it before and now I'll say it again: They keep pulling this scheme back to how it was initially set up and tightening the rules to exclude more and more children who don't have 'significant care needs'. They are increasingly setting the children with SEN up to fail. Here's a radical thought: How about accepting the changes that have organically occurred to this scheme over the years, and extend it to facilitate the changing needs of the children who are now availing of inclusion in mainstream education? After all it has been very successful, as the above video - just one little example -demonstrates. Perhaps the DES and the HSE could even find a way to work together to provide the education and clinical interventions that these children need, instead of both constantly cutting these supports, without giving due consideration to the over-all devastating impact their changes can have.
If you have a child (or grandchild, niece or nephew) in school or due to start school in the next few years then this very much concerns YOU. We need to continue to make very loud noises to keep this issue on the front page.
We Care Do You are very much trying to do that, they even have an online petition for signing.
They really do care.
* I discussed the changes that the last DES circular in 2011 brought in my Dear Minister post, it is interesting to note that they seem to have 'cleared up' the misinterpreting of the care needs surrounding behavioural issues by inserting the 'EBD/SEBD' diagnosis stipulation.
* I shared The Story of the SNA who lost her job in 2011 here and the SNA who stayed behind here. The latter confirms my point about SNA sharing.