Paving the way to third level for students with disabilities to PLCs
Report calls for a new approach to supporting those with special needs in their post-school choices, writes Katherine Donnelly
Welcome advances in the provision of supports for pupils with special educational needs in mainstream schooling, and further and higher education, does not paint the full picture about how well the system is catering for all such children and young adults.
While mainstream schools are integrating thousands of pupils with special needs, both into regular classrooms as well as, where necessary, special units, children with the most complex needs attend special schools.
Figures for 2017 show that there were almost 8,000 pupils in special schools, supported by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), through the allocation of 1,197 teachers and 2,405 special needs assistants (SNAs).
Many pupils with intellectual disabilities will do the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA), while others will complete the junior cycle programme, but the big issue is what education and training options are available to them at 18? At the moment, there is heavy reliance on transfer to adult day care or rehabilitative training services, run under the auspices of the Health Services Executive (HSE).
New research from Dublin City University (DCU), shines a light on the gulf in post-school education services for school-leavers with intellectual disabilities and points a way forward to supporting them in making informed choices about their future and accessing mainstream opportunities.
The research was done by DCU's Dr Geraldine Scanlon (right) and Dr Alison Doyle of Caerus Education, an independent consultancy specialising in support for students with disabilities and special needs.
Dr Scanlon says that while school-leavers with intellectual disabilities need additional supports, they have the same aspirations as any other school-leaver in terms of continuing education, employment and being active citizens.
Their research investigated the concept of a 'supported transition' model as a means of accessing mainstream opportunities in further education, training and employment.
Specifically, they examined the outcomes for school-leavers who engaged in the WALK 'supported transition' programme in Louth during their final two years at school. Features of the programme include work sampling and guidance counselling. Their Progressing Accessible Supported Transitions to Employment (PASTE) study took on board the views and experiences of 31 students and 18 parents, as well as educational professionals from special schools and career employment facilitators working on the programme.
One of the biggest challenges identified for young people with intellectual disabilities and their parents was how to move from a structured ordered environment, offered by 13 years of schooling, to the fulfilling next phase of life.
A key finding was that the move to HSE Adult Services was the least favourable option for many parents, and was seen as appropriate for only a few young people. But according to the report, "significant gaps in knowledge were highlighted by parents in connection with rights and entitlements and this was of particular concern for parents of students approaching the end of formal education". Parents also "expressed outrage at the perceived ability and capabilities of their children, and how such perceptions narrowed choices and perpetuated inequalities", while education professionals also spoke about the assumptions that are made about attending a special school.
And while younger students spoke knowledgeably about access to equal opportunities, towards the end of their school career, stress and anxiety was evident.
However, what came through strongly was that engagement with a supported transition programme increased the levels of self-awareness and self-determination among students. From a school perspective, pathways and options were perceived to be limited. One challenge is how to bridge the gap for students who complete junior cycle, and aspire to a post-Leaving certificate (PLC) course. Parents acknowledged the benefits of the further education and training advice offered through WALK, and would like to see that sort of support available in school. It is among the key recommendations in the PASTE report, which calls for a Personal Transition Plan for each student, setting out realistic pathways, with the supports to help them reach their destination.
Dr Scanlon says there has been "decades of rhetoric" on this topic and PASTE findings should be used to inform the development of a national framework of transition for school-leavers who require support moving from compulsory education to further education, training and employment promised in the 2015 Comprehensive Employment Strategy for People with Disabilities.