Schools must do more for special pupils
The system has been too slow to help students with special needs reach their potential, says Mary Mitchell O'Connor
Special people have special needs. Truly wonderful, unique, vibrant people sometimes require and always deserve extra support and a little more attention. This is something that really hit me years ago as principal of The Harold School, Glasthule. Ciara was enrolled in our school when I was appointed principal. At the time, I tried to inform her mother, Anne, that in a class of 30 pupils, I was concerned that we could not facilitate her daughter's additional needs.
Last week, as Ciara accepted her award at a Special Olympics ceremony we held in Dun Laoghaire, having won three medals at the event in Limerick in June, her mother and I looked back on this first fractious meeting. She recalled her anxiety and frustration as a mother of a six-year-old girl with Down Syndrome, who was being directed away from the local school where her siblings were already in attendance.
I remembered, with embarrassment, my initial assertion that Ciara's educational needs may be better served in a 'special school'.
I recalled how Anne vociferously reminded me that it was my job, as principal, to ensure that Ciara's educational needs were met. I remember clearly that at one stage, Anne looked me straight in the eye and said, forcibly: "Principal, what would you want for your sons if they had Down Syndrome?"
This was a moment of true understanding and awareness; it changed me forever in my professional role and set me on a path of setting up a Special Education Department in the school.
The school diversified and adapted over the following years, and when appointing teachers we looked for expertise in dealing with special needs. We welcomed children with special and additional needs. It was their right to access the school, as much as any other pupil attending. A right, not a privilege.
As Ciara, a wonderful girl with a huge personality and bags of talent, accepted her Special Olympics award last week, I was thankful that special education has advanced so much in the past number of years, but I know that there are still massive deficits that need to be addressed.
The reality faced by parents of children with disabilities was highlighted to me again recently when my friend's little boy was diagnosed with autism. In the past, a family would present at our school, usually with a diagnosis, and we would put in place resources and individual education plans. What I didn't know was the horrible struggle families had to face to get that diagnosis. My friend's family are in the same position as thousands of others.
Getting a diagnosis for autism seems to be the first major hurdle to overcome. Waiting lists, lack of appointments and a deficit of resources meant, in the case of my friend, it took over two years for her son to be diagnosed. She already knew he was autistic but you cannot enter the system until it's official. This whole process was exhausting and extremely stressful for the family. My friend is checking every website, Facebook page and following Twitter accounts to learn as much as she can. There is information out there but it is inconsistent and I have learned that the support available is piecemeal depending on where you live.
County Wicklow has a very good reputation for autism services while support in my own area of Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, is dismal.
Fine Gael supports diversity in the education of children with special needs, we recognise that both intensive education and mainstreaming can be seen to work for individual children.
As the economic situation improves, we are working towards improving conditions for families and I am committed to representing the families of children with special needs in working to improve the systems in place.
We need to provide more specialised training for teachers and encourage practising teachers to consider masters and diplomas in teaching of special needs. All children in mainstream schools benefit from the attendance of children with special needs.
This promotes integration, understanding and diversity, so we need to make sure schools are adequately equipped with dedicated classrooms and speech and occupational therapists.
A child with a stammer can access speech therapy, but a child with autism or Down Syndrome or other syndromes has to jump through hoops.
Special needs assistants are hugely helpful in schools but I firmly believe they should be trained to deliver programmes tailored to meet the needs of the child.
I am proud of the work that I have done as a teacher and as a TD to advance support available in schools to those with special needs, but I know more can be done. If I was back in my office at Harold School and I was sitting down to mark the copybook of the Department of Education and Skills, I would write in bold red pen: "Has improved in the past 10 years, but needs to do much better."
Mary Mitchell O'Connor is the Fine Gael TD for Dun Laoghaire and Chairperson of the Internal Fine Gael Education Committee