Cog Notes: The fallout from the unfilled forms

By last week only 62 per cent of post-primary schools had returned questionnaires designed to determine the allocation of resources for special educational needs

Plans to have a new system in place by next September for the allocation of special educational needs supports are looking increasingly optimistic.

Only 62 per cent of post-primary schools had returned their “school profile” questionnaires by last week – well after the September 26th deadline.

This compared with 81 per cent of primary schools.

Principals were a little peeved about being asked to track down pupils’ medical-card details and to calculate how many of them lived in social housing, or to estimate unemployment rates in households. Some made educated guesses; others left sections blank. A temptation to “gild the lily” underlined the process, as did concern over whether schools would be penalised for failing to complete the form.

Under the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) plan, the school profile will be one of three sources of information used to allocate resources, the other two being standardised tests and the number of students who have very complex special educational needs.

The section that really baffled principals was the final one on parents’ engagement with schools. The questionnaire asked: “For what percentage of students did at least one parent or guardian show evidence of engaging in their child’s learning at home by supporting their child with homework and/or providing and encouraging learning-related activities?”

Without visiting the child’s home, it is difficult to see how an accurate answer can be given.

For all its flaws, though, the plan is well-intentioned, and schools are broadly supportive. The main aims are to direct resources where they’re most needed, and eliminate the necessity for children with special educational needs to get a medical diagnosis.

However, the big question is whether the Department of Education has the stomach for a fight. The NCSE had hoped to move on the plan months before Ruairí Quinn was ready to announce it, and the clock is ticking to an end-of-year deadline for the allocation of resources for 2015-2016.

The NCSE realises that if it doesn’t get the new system in place by September 2015, politics may stall the process entirely.

Labour and Fine Gael were reminded in the local elections of the sensitivities surrounding special educational needs, and the last thing they’ll want is a furore over resource teachers and learning supports erupting in early 2016.

Tensions emerge between unions on Junior Cert reform

The ASTI and the TUI are continuing to put up a united front over their junior cycle campaign, but there was no small amount of tension between the pair at their last meeting on the subject.

The unions sit with other stakeholders on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), which last month met to sanction the new draft specification for science going out for consultation.

ASTI president Philip Irwin had other ideas, however, first seeking a vote on whether to allow the move, and then negotiating a compromise whereby only the course content would go out for consultation while the assessment element would be parked for now.

The deal done, a day later the ASTI standing committee met and vetoed the plan, saying it breached the union’s mandate for non-cooperation with the junior cycle reforms. To maintain unity, the TUI had no choice but to order its members to refrain from inputting the science specification, reversing the stance it took at the NCCA.

Irwin and his lieutenants will be buoyed by the new mandate for strike action but the 44 per cent turnout by ASTI members was hardly a ringing endorsement of the union’s strategy.

There’s a belief in the ASTI’s officer class that parents can be won over to the cause – but only, some members fear, at the expense of reputational damage. One of the main arguments produced to date for retaining the Junior Cert is that school-based assessments would be vulnerable to corruption. That’s hardly the sort of message teachers will be proud to spread.

Bite eats away at disadvantage

Hats off to the Ballymun Initiative for Third Level Education (Bite), which helps school-leavers from one of Dublin's most disadvantaged areas make the leap to higher education. The registered charity, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this week, supports young people attending Trinity Comprehensive School, Ballymun, through after-school supervised study and subject tuition, backed by DCU's maths learning centre.

Bite has strong links with DCU access service, and nine of its Leaving Certs went on to level-eight options there this year. Part of its success has been the Maureen Smithwick Academic Scholarship, which supports students in fifth and sixth years in taking higher level maths and Irish. Programme co-ordinator Michelle King says that since 1989 it has supported more than 400 pupils to pursue careers "in many fields, from medicine to media and engineering to science". biteballymun.com

Great minds

Applications close on Friday to sign up for 100minds.org, a campaign uniting Irish students in order to raise €150,000 to support Barnardos children's charity and Blossom Ireland. Founder of 100minds, Declan Egan from Google Ireland, said it would " build and showcase students' skills, to achieve our goal of raising €150,000 for these two fantastic charities. Students will gain real experience in project management and can make a valuable contribution." The website showcases the students, allowing them to promote themselves and inspire others. 100minds.org