Every child deserves to be as happy as Sophie
Finding a mainstream school for a child with Down syndrome can be a huge challenge. We report on a conference today that wants the issue tackled urgently
It wasn't supposed to be like this. When five-and-a-half year old Sophie Twiss started in junior infants, at the Nagle Rice Primary school in Milltown, Co Kerry, it was anticipated she wouldn't partake in the Irish language element of class - but Sophie had other ideas.
"She's completely surprised us with her cúpla focail. Every week she's picking up new words and she loves it," explains Sophie's proud mother Gillian.
Sophie has Down syndrome and after two years at Montessori school her parents had to decide how and where they wanted their eldest daughter to continue her education.
Like so many parents of children with the condition Gillian, and her husband Ian, had to weigh up many considerations.
They asked themselves should Sophie attend a mainstream or special school; was the school able to offer her the care she needed; what about resource hours; what would the reaction of other children in the school be; and what of communication difficulties with teachers?
Today, Down Syndrome Ireland is hosting a 'Preparing for School Conference', at the Louis Fitzgerald Hotel in Dublin, where a speech and language consultant and the group's national education officer will advise parents about what they must consider before deciding where their children should go to learn.
"We were extremely fortunate in that the principal and staff in our local school were wonderful in preparing for Sophie's arrival, she's the first child with Down syndrome to enrol," explains Gillian Twiss.
She adds: "We wanted Sophie to go to a local school and to be part of the community. So far she's getting on fine, a little tired when she gets home in the afternoon, but full of chat about her day."
But not every national school in the country is as accommodating as Nagle Rice.
"Unfortunately we do hear of some schools which present soft-barriers when parents ask if their child might be able to attend," explains Patricia Griffin, Down Syndrome Ireland's National Education Officer.
She explains: "Some immediately suggest another school instead so while they're not refusing to take the child outright, they're making it clear they'd rather not accept a new pupil with Down syndrome."
The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 promised to provide special needs education in all mainstream settings - but it's claimed some schools are trying to side-step their commitments under the legislation.
"All international studies show that children with Down syndrome who enter mainstream education fare better than those enrolled in alternative schooling models," explains Patricia Griffin.
She continued: "This would be in terms of academic and behavioural performance and with respect to language and social development. Also, and this shouldn't be forgotten, there's a beneficial impact for the classes or schools which welcome a child with Down syndrome with open arms. The learning can go both ways."
For Liam Fell, Sophie's school principal, the need to do everything required to provide support for their bright young student was a given.
He told the Review: "Sophie's parents came to me about a year ago with all the paperwork and assessments required at the time. We were eager and delighted to get the ball rolling and applied to the local Special Education Needs Officer for the additional resources needed."
He added: "There's a lot of hoops to jump through initially but we got there. Now Sophie gets just short of three resource teacher hours per week and is building up a good relationship with Breda, her Special Needs Assistant (SNA). Of course we could do with more resource hours and it would be good if funding for that came in next week's budget but for now we're doing our best and Sophie is settling in perfectly."
Each year about 120 children with Down syndrome begin mainstream education in Ireland. Earlier this year the government decided to offer resource teaching hours to children with a 'mild' form of the condition.
Previously only children considered to be 'moderate' or 'severe' qualified. Broadcaster and journalist Brendan O'Connor, who has a daughter with Down syndrome explained the difficulties with accessing state assistance. He said: "A mild diagnosis became something that parents dreaded from the day they learnt their child had Down syndrome. To be classified mild meant the kids were cut off from State services and got no extra help in school."
With the resource hours issue partially addressed and an additional 610 SNA's now available to the education system, advocates for children with Down syndrome say the next issue to tackle relates to second-level education.
Patricia Griffin explains: "Many secondary schools are simply not prepared or set-up to meet the needs of the student with Down syndrome. This is especially true in the area of 'Differentiation' where adequate learning levels are not always accommodated. If second-level education is totally geared towards getting the best exam results then accommodating those with special educational needs is being overlooked - and that's something which needs to be addressed rapidly."
Back in Milltown, Sophie has finished another day at the school she loves.
Many of those who attended Montessori with her started in infants this year as well so there's a lot of familiar faces around.
She tells me her teacher is Mrs O'Sullivan and that she gets a little homework each evening. When I ask what she loves playing most at break time she has a think and tells me "blocks".
"You can tell by chatting with her that she's very relaxed in her new school," says Gillian, adding, "of course for us there were lots of anxious days and sleepless nights before she started school. Sophie's early intervention team told us they didn't think she was ready to start this year but we knew she was. She's so precious to us and it's a big step for her but she's taken it in her stride. She's making new friends all the time and the other children have been fantastic. We couldn't have asked for more."