The special needs scandal in schools

 

A serious backlog means that thousands of students with special needs are left waiting for support. And when they do finally get it, professional recommendations can be watered down because of a lack of resources

It is a sign of the growing anger among parents, teachers, pupils and school managers that many of the recent Your Education System meetings were dominated by the question of special needs provision.

Those involved in education are concerned that the needs of some of the most vulnerable in our school system are being ignored due to a serious backlog in the provision of special needs resources.

The Department of Education, for its part, says it is doing its best to deal with some 6,000 outstanding applications for special needs resources. It also points to the significant increases in resources for special needs that have been put in place in recent years.

The number of resource teachers has increased from 104 in 1998 to over 2,500 at present. There are some 4,319 full-time special needs assistants in primary classrooms throughout the State, compared with 300 in 1998.

But what is it like to be a principal of an inner-city secondary school catering for special needs pupils? What are the frustrations - and the challenges - that come with providing for such children on a day-to-day basis?

Ken Duggan is principal of one such school: CBS Westland Row in Dublin's south inner city.

Since taking over at the school some four years ago, he and his team have succeeded in turning an average further education participation rate of 20 per cent among his Leaving Certificate class into a figure somewhere between 80 and 90 per cent.

Despite successes such as these, he remains continually frustrated by the way the special needs system works.

Out of a current school population of approximately 120, he has eight pupils who have been assessed and found to require special needs tuition. Many simply "can't cope" with normal school, he says. The most obvious sign of this are behavioural problems, for example temper tantrums.

All of these assessments were conducted privately, however, with financial assistance from the Dublin Docklands Development Authority. Without this, he fears that some of these students might still be waiting to be assessed.

But succeeding in having a child assessed, be it privately or publicly, is only half the battle. Once assessed, they often face months of delays before receiving the resources they need, he says.

"We have one case where the child has been psychologically assessed. We have applied for resources and haven't got them. We can't deal with the child, so he's on permanent suspension. . . We're letting that child down," he says.

This also raises the wider question of the type of resources allocated to children with special needs, he believes. This is particularly the case with older teenage boys. The idea of being left with a "minder" all day long is not very appealing to them. All too often, Duggan and his colleagues find the special needs assistant's role is reduced to that of a "babysitter".

While the Department might rightly point to the increase in special needs assistants in recent years, Duggan's colleague, Kate Byrne, who runs an innovative unit in the school that keeps at-risk children in the system, says the allocation of a special needs assistant should not be seen as the answer to all ills. While some do a good job, she says, this does not hide the fact that the minimum requirements for the role are Junior Certficate-level qualifications.

"You could have a child with no literacy or numeracy skills," she says. "You need a qualified remedial teacher, but a special needs assistant is cheaper."

Duggan says he frequently gets frustrated with what he sees as a lack of transparency in the decision-making process used by the Department to allocate resources. Frequently, he says, the recommendations of the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) psychologist will be watered down.

"What qualifications do the people making these decisions on special needs have? Tell me you can't afford them, but don't tell me you don't need them. And I'll say well, target the money you do have towards priorities," he says.

"Our kids deserve these hours. . . The Department should come out and say if it is a question of economics. If it is, then why are the most severely disadvantaged treated the same as everybody else - they should be first in line. It is economic, socio-economic and educational discrimination."

There are times when things do go right, however. On those occasions when he has received the special needs resources he has requested, albeit usually at a reduced level and after a lengthy delay, Duggan has few doubts about the positive effect this can have on a student's self-esteem.

"Lots of kids in the inner-city are used to rejection. When they find professional adults who like them and value them, a young person's perception changes," he says.

"There is a lifting of the negative veil from their eyes that I see as one of the most important things. What special resources do is say to the child 'I'm important'. It says to the child 'I have the ability to do A,B and C. And I can do it.'"