Sunday 30 April 2017

Why the new approach to special education must be monitored

In my opinion by Joanne Banks

Dr Joanne Banks of the ESRI
Dr Joanne Banks of the ESRI

Special education is expensive. Research by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) shows that the number of children with special educational needs in Irish schools is increasing year-on-year with one-in-four reported to have a special educational need.

This growing population is diverse and includes children with physical and intellectual disabilities, emotional and behavioural difficulties and learning difficulties. How we support these children in mainstream schools has become a focus of attention for the Government in recent years, seeking a sustainable response to growing demands on resources. These efforts have resulted in a new model of resource allocation to schools being rolled out from September 2017. Chairman of the working group responsible for the design of this model, Eamonn Stack, described it as a "fairer and better way" to allocate resources to support children with special educational needs. So what will the new model mean for children with special educational needs?

One of its most innovative features is that it removes the need for assessment and diagnosis in order for children to receive resources, a system which had been seen as unfair by disadvantaging those unable to pay for private assessments. So how will funding be allocated to students? Instead of individual assessments, all schools will receive baseline support with additional teaching resources allocated to schools based on a formula linked to a range of school factors including the numbers of pupils with complex needs in a school, the outcomes of standardised tests, the social mix of pupils, and gender mix.

The use of a school's social characteristics such as disadvantaged status and gender-mix to target funding is important here. ESRI research has consistently shown that boys, and children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, are more likely to be identified as having special educational needs, with higher concentrations of children with special educational needs in disadvantaged (DEIS) schools.

The new funding model will mean increased autonomy and flexibility for school principals to allocate resources on the basis of the needs they see in the classroom. Clive Byrne of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, welcoming this, described how the "new model of allocating resources, based on educational needs and the opinion of those at the coalface of teaching, will ensure that a pupil can access resources immediately". But where does this new model fit in terms of the Government's commitment to inclusive education? ESRI research shows that there is little clarity among principals and teachers about what inclusive education means and how it can be implemented at a practical level.

How should resource hours be utilised to the benefit of individual students and the school as a whole? What is best practice in this area and how can we ensure true inclusion rather than a continued use of disability labels for resources? The lack of consensus on how inclusion works may result in variation in the nature of provision and an 'implementation gap' with discrepancies between policy intentions and school practices on the ground. Furthermore, there are no plans in the new model to monitor or audit how the funding is spent in terms of support for individual students.

One interesting aspect of the new model is the focus on measuring student progress or outcomes through standardised test results. This measure sees a shift in focus towards school accountability for funding received but it may be problematic. An increased emphasis on testing may be to the detriment of the educational experiences of these students, since such tests can create anxiety for students. They may also act as a disincentive for schools to do better, as doing so will risk a reduction in funding.

Test results may not have any real meaning for some students, whose progress is more appropriately measured in other ways. ESRI research shows that some children with special educational needs are not happy in school and more likely to report not liking school than their peers, have fewer friends and have more negative peer relations.

Test results are important but as we look at this new and innovative funding model perhaps more subtle aspects of children's education can be taken into account.

Dr Joanne Banks and Dr Selina McCoy of the ESRI presented research at the INTO Conference on Special Education

Irish Independent

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