Resources for students with disabilities in Irish schools: What do we know?

New research shows most children with disabilities attend mainstream schools. It is time to discuss what they need, and what they get

it is important to have greater transparency about how students are assigned places in special classes and schools. Photograph: iStockphoto

it is important to have greater transparency about how students are assigned places in special classes and schools. Photograph: iStockphoto

 

New research published today by the Economic and Social Research Institute and the National Disability Authority indicates that the majority of children with disabilities in Ireland now attend mainstream schools. Furthermore, many of them do not need any additional supports in order to progress successfully through the education system. To work out what supports are needed, we need to know the characteristics of the children with disabilities so that we can devise a coherent, effective and efficient system of delivery.

The report’s findings show that more than two-thirds of the children have multiple disabilities and that the most common disabilities are intellectual disabilities, for example Down syndrome, or learning difficulties, for example dyslexia. The findings also show that more boys than girls have disabilities and these children are more likely to come from disadvantaged social-class backgrounds.

In particular, the research provides new information about the population of children and young people with emotional, psychological and mental health (EPMH) disabilities. Young women with EPMH have a greater risk of absenteeism from school compared with children with other types of disabilities, while young men with EPMH have a greater risk of social isolation, in that they are far less likely to engage with their peers at school. These findings raise questions about whether schools provide adequate social and personal support to children and young people with EPMH. This is an opportune time to debate the role of schools and guidance services in providing necessary supports.

How good are existing supports?

This research is being published at a crucial time when resource models, both in Ireland and internationally, are under scrutiny, as governments grapple with an increasing prevalence of disability in mainstream schools and a shortage of resources. This report shows that 13 per cent of the children with disabilities in Ireland are educated in special class settings within mainstream schools, and 15 per cent are in special schools for students with disabilities. This means most of the children with disabilities are in mainstream schools; however, they do not need any additional supports to attend school, follow the curriculum or take exams. Those who do need resources mainly require assistance from learning support or resource teachers. Since the evidence shows that placement in specialised settings is more common for children from disadvantaged social class backgrounds, it is important to have greater transparency about how students are assigned places in special classes and schools.

The issue of resources for children with disabilities is very pertinent in Ireland. For example, last week Minster for Education Jan O’Sullivan announced extra resources for children with Down syndrome. According to the Minister, and as reported in this newspaper on March 25th, this action was in “recognition of the length of time it will take” to introduce the new resource teacher model. This announcement follows the decision in February by the Minister to delay implementation of the proposed new resource model for children with special educational needs in order to allow for a greater period of consultation with education stakeholders. Details about this new model are outlined in a 2014 National Council for Special Education Report, Delivering for Students with Special Educational Needs. To date, there has been little public discussion of the report and what it will mean for these students and their families. It would make sense to use the extended period of consultation to allow further examination of the newly available evidence about the lives of children with disabilities and, in particular, how they experience mainstream school.

Elements of the proposed new resource model

The new model proposes a number of innovative changes that should have a positive impact on the lives of children with disabilities, and their families. A key feature is that parents will no longer need to get a diagnosis for their children to be able to access additional resources. Instead, each school’s allocation of resources will be based on a formula linked to numbers of pupils with complex needs, children with low reading-test scores, the social mix of pupils, and the gender mix of the school.

The use of outcome measures such as test scores may, however, be problematic. There are concerns about the negative consequences of an increased emphasis on testing on the educational experiences of these particular students, when it is known that such tests can create anxiety for students. Perhaps, more importantly, their use as a funding criterion may act as a disincentive for schools to achieve greater progress, as this will risk a reduction in their funding allocations.

Nevertheless, there should be a welcome for other aspects of the new model, such as the emphasis on students’ levels of need rather than on the type of disability they have. This will mean a move away from labelling and potentially stigmatising students, in that professional assessments won’t be required for accessing supports.

This report provides a timely opportunity to explore whether all aspects of the proposed new resource allocation model are best served to support the needs of children with disabilities in Ireland as part of the Minister’s consultation process.

Insights into the Lives of Children with Disabilities: Findings from the 2006 National Disability Survey is published by the ESRI and the National Disability Authority. The authors, Dr Joanne Banks, Mr Bertrand Maître and Prof Selina McCoy, are researchers at the Economic and Social Research Institute

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the view of either the ESRI or the NDA

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