Groundbreaking trial afoot to deliver new therapy service boost to schools
An innovative project is integrating additional supports for students, writes Katherine Donnelly
Ireland's education system has transformed in the past 20 years in terms of the supports it offers children with special educational and additional care needs.
There has been groundbreaking legislation and funding to deliver resources, including special needs assistants (SNAs) to cater for a pupil's non tuition needs, such as mobility, eating and toileting.
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The focus has been on making the system inclusive, so that, where possible, a child with special needs can be educated with, and given supports to enable them to access the same opportunities as, their peers. Overall, supporting pupils with special educational and additional care needs amounts to 19pc of the Department of Education budget.
From where the system was in the late 1990s when mothers were going to the High Court to secure an education for a child with special needs, the change has been revolutionary.
Despite the progress, the inclusion journey is not over. As evidenced by the protest outside the Dáil yesterday, parents are still battling on behalf of their children, including many wondering why their local school is not providing necessary support for pupils on the autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Another identified gap is the absence of therapy services in school itself. The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) has proposed the School Inclusion Model to fill that gap. It describes it as the delivery of the right supports at the right time to students with special educational and additional care needs.
Bringing the health system into schools in this way would be a further revolutionary step for Irish education, but one that those who have experienced it say delivers big benefits.
It translates as having a team of professionals, including occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, psychologists, nurses with experience of complex medical needs and behavioural practitioners, working full-time with, and in, a cluster of schools, responding to their distinct needs.
It started as a review of the SNA scheme. Ultimately, the NCSE concluded that a better model of support was required, one that would involve both an upskilling programme for SNAs, but also the introduction of a range of other personnel with relevant qualifications and skill-sets into schools.
It led to various Government departments and agencies dipping their combined toes in the water with a demonstration project across 150 schools and early-childhood settings in the Kildare, Wicklow and South Dublin region over the course of the current school year.
The collaboration involves the Departments of Education and Skills, Health, and Children and Youth Affairs, as well as the NCSE and the Health Service Executive (HSE).
While a formal evaluation is ongoing, the anecdotal evidence is strong and the promising outcomes have led to a further phase, in the form of a trial, to be conducted in the 2019/20 year.
The trial is limited to the 75 schools, both primary and post-primary, involved in the demonstration project, but will be deeper in scope: it retains the therapy element and additional features include more intensive support from the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS), nursing services, front-loading of schools' SNA allocation and SNA training.
Some 19 speech and language therapists and 12 occupational therapists will deliver supports within the 75 schools, and they will have the backing of an NCSE regional support team with four speech and language therapists, two occupational therapists and two behaviour support practitioners.
The occupational and speech and language therapists work in teams, typically across 14 schools each.
A multi-tiered approach involves working with individual and small groups of pupils, as well as upskilling staff to build capacity within the school generally to include pupils with additional needs and to provide other supports for pupils. A new national training programme for SNAs is also part of the plan.
Amy Collins, the clinical lead for speech and language therapy on the demo project, says it has been "really positive".
Initial contact with a school involves setting up an in-school project team, and it is that team that sets the agenda for the service.
Occupational therapist Brian Fitzgerald says that setting up those structures is very important. "The therapists are not in the school every day of the week; the project team is on the ground and they can prioritise," he says. In the course of the demo project "in the morning, you could be working with a two-year-old and, in the afternoon, you could be working with a 17-year-old", he says.
In-school supports are not intended to replace attendance at a HSE clinic such as for speech and language therapy, "but if you have a child attending a clinic, the therapist in school could liaise with the therapist there", says Fitzgerald.
The purpose of the trial is to see how this will all knit together.
Then the big question will be the level of Government commitment to extend a final version of the model to all 4,000 schools. Education Minister Joe McHugh says that if a Government decides it is working, there would be "a duty on the Government to roll it out nationally".