‘My staff need to work in a safe environment’

INTO case study: Angela Leonard, principal of a special school in Dublin

School principal Angela Leonard speaks about assaults on teachers at the INTO annual congress in Belfast. “There are days when I want to go home at 10am.” Photograph: Moya Nolan

School principal Angela Leonard speaks about assaults on teachers at the INTO annual congress in Belfast. “There are days when I want to go home at 10am.” Photograph: Moya Nolan

 

Angela Leonard is principal of a special school in Dublin.

Many of the pupils have one or more of autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, ADD or learning difficulty, and about half of them do not speak. The school takes children up to the age of 18.

Like teachers in other special and mainstream schools, her staff have been assaulted and abused by the children.

There will always be an element of challenging behaviour in special schools

New and expensive equipment has been broken and the Department of Education makes no allowances for this when technology grant money comes in, Ms Leonard says.

“Our first priority is the children, but my staff need to work in a safe environment,” she says. “Parents are hugely supportive and we are supportive of them too. There will always be an element of challenging behaviour in special schools and, indeed, in any school. It’s part of the job and we prepare as much as we can for it. We know that, for many children, their behaviour is beyond their control, and we want to support them.”

Little guidance

However, she says, there is little guidance from the department on handling serious incidents, and no funds provided to train staff.

Legally, the school’s board of management is the employer, but it is made up of volunteers and they do not often know how to tackle the issue, which could potentially leave them legally exposed.

The training helps. It makes a real difference to the wellbeing of the students and the teachers

Action always seems to come after a major incident, and the department has failed to lay out a best-practice vision for assaults, she says.

“The training helps. It makes a real difference to the wellbeing of the students and the teachers. Therapeutic interventions and supports for the children help. The department needs to sit down with the unions and with the teachers who know these kids and lay out a vision for the future, instead of being reactionary.”

Second-class status

Ms Leonard is concerned that the focus on mainstreaming children has left special education with a second-class status, but educational experts do recognise that there are still many children who are best supported in separate schools. Now, she says, it’s time to look at best international practice and develop a vision for the next 20 years.

Why has she stayed in this job for 30 years?

“It can be tough. There are days when I want to go home at 10am. But I love the job and I love making a difference to these kids.”

Angela Leonard has asked for the school not to be named in order to protect the privacy of the children who attend it.