St Michael’s House special school in ‘temporary’ accommodation for 36 years

‘We feel we’re falling through the cracks of the system’

 Karen Byrne, (right) principal of St Michael’s House Special School, Skerries, Co Dublin,  with students, teachers and assistants, outside the old building. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Karen Byrne, (right) principal of St Michael’s House Special School, Skerries, Co Dublin, with students, teachers and assistants, outside the old building. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

 

St Michael’s House Special School, based in a converted farmhouse in Skerries, Co Dublin, has been in “temporary” accommodation for the past 36 years.

The special school does not have wheelchair access. The farmhouse, which is affected by damp, needs regular repairs and its PE hall, a converted henhouse, has an asbestos roof and is unsuitable for much physical activity.

“We feel we’re falling through the cracks of the system,” says school principal, Karen Byrne.

“The needs of children in special schools has become more complex but we feel that special schools are not near the top or even halfway to the top of priorities in education.

“It feels like we’re an afterthought, whether it comes to having a permanent school premises or in leading teaching and learning.”

St Michael’s is one of 134 special schools across the State which provide education for more than 8,000 pupils.

The move towards greater inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream education means that most schools have a growing proportion of young people with complex needs.

This can involve children with behavioural problems or specialised medical conditions.

However, most principals of special schools feel they are not sufficiently resourced to meet these needs.

Lack of progress

At St Michael’s, the school – which is oversubscribed – has 30 pupils, ranging in age from seven to 18 with moderate intellectual disabilities such as Down syndrome or autism.

Ms Byrne says providing the kind of tuition and services that can help them reach their full potential is a constant battle.

Changes to the school curriculum, she says, often do not take into account the needs of children in special schools.

At St Michael’s, she says, they don’t have specific textbooks for teachers or pupils, so they have to make up their own by printing off extracts from others.

“Everywhere you turn to, it’s a fight and a battle. These are children who are very capable of learning and are quite extraordinary in their own right, through music, dance or knowledge of history.”

“They all have their gifts and talents; it’s about accessing those and finding the right route . . .”

The move to a new school premises has been promised by successive government ministers for years, she says, though it has yet to materialise.

“A site was identified and was at an ‘advanced stage’, but nearly 12 months later no further action seems to have been taken.”