Supports make a difference for pupils
Big efforts are being made to enable more children with Down syndrome to continue to Leaving Cert in mainstream schools, writes Katherine Donnelly
The past decade has seen significant advances in the inclusion of children with special needs into the education system by providing additional resources to schools to support such pupils in the mainstream classroom.
This has taken the form of the appointment of extra teachers and special needs assistants, as well as a big expansion in the number of special classes attached to mainstream schools to facilitate a blended learning environment to meet the needs of individual pupils.
Being in the mainstream is not always the best option and, for children with the most complex needs, a special school may still be the optimum choice. However, research points to the benefits of properly resourced, mainstream education for the vast majority of children with special needs.
A lot of attention has focused on responding to the growing recognition of the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the population, estimated to stand at about 1.6pc. This September there will be about 1,400 special classes in mainstream schools, mainly for children with an ASD diagnosis.
Down Syndrome Ireland (DSI) has long fought for appropriate educational supports for children with Down syndrome. For years it battled over how they were categorised by the system, arguing that they were losing out on essential resources because of the classification.
In 2012, a report from the then Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, was highly critical of the way the system treated such pupils, stating that it failed to do so "as their needs befit".
Since then, there has been a revamp in the way resources are allocated to schools for children with special needs, but there are still plenty of gaps to plug in terms of delivering appropriate provision for children with Down syndrome.
DSI recognises the need for ongoing assistance for schools, specifically focusing on Down syndrome, and is putting more resources into bridging those gaps and offering tailored supports, at both primary and post-primary level, to facilitate integraton.
Last September, it put the role of education officer on a permanent footing, and Fidelma Brady, a former primary school teacher who had previously worked in that capacity with DSI on a temporary basis, was appointed.
She works with parents, teachers and schools, helping to develop understanding and capacity. Since September, she has made 70 school visits but is also spreading the word and raising awareness through DSI's own branch network and conferences and training workshops for both parents and education professionals.
According to Brady, research indicates that most children with special educational needs, including children with Down syndrome, can be included in mainstream classrooms as long as they have the necessary supports and resources in place.
While children with Down syndrome can develop more slowly than their peers, they are capable of making progress in all areas of development, which is why education support is so critical.
It is estimated that there are about 150 children with Down syndrome born in Ireland every year, which would be about 0.2pc of births. The vast majority of the children attend mainstream primary school.
One of the challenges is that not all children with Down syndrome attending primary school progress to a mainstream second-level school, and may go on to a special school instead.
Brady says she would have a lot of questions about children not progressing to mainstream post-primary and believes it is "only right if they have been with peers for eight or nine years in mainstream primary, rather than all of a sudden having to go to special school".
The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) has a number of supports in place to facilitate the transition to post-primary school.
Brady, a former resource and learning support teacher, says a lot of her work with DSI to date has been with primary schools, but now there is an increasing focus on post-primary.
The reformed junior cycle is seen as offering great scope for children with special needs, including those with Down syndrome.
While the main junior cycle programme is at what is known as Level 3 in the National Qualifications Framework, there are now also learning programmes at Level 2.
Much of DSI's work at second-level is helping in the provision of curricular material for students and teachers, although Brady says financial restraints have delayed the roll-out of more.
A key focus of this part of DSI's work is differentiation, the process of reducing the amount of work and reducing the level of work involved for students with an intellectual disability as they move through learning, assessment and exams.
Currently, DSI provides differentiation materials in a number of subjects, something that was identified by parents and teachers as essential because standard textbooks and classroom materials can be beyond the reading ability of many students with Down syndrome.
The organisation has produced booklets for subjects including home economics, English, science, history, geography and civil, social and political education (CSPE) for children with special educational needs, and has plans to expand into more subjects, finances permitting.
Brady says in her day in teacher training college there was no training in special needs and, while that has changed, even now it may only cover the basics.
"We are hoping to get into the training colleges and deliver some training," she says.
Meanwhile, the differentiation booklets offer practical advice to teachers about how to deliver at an appropriate level for students with special needs, ultimately resulting in better learning outcomes and more inclusion in the classroom.
For instance, one of the challenges for students may be seeing materials on blackboards or overhead projectors due to visual impairments, which can be accommodated by the use of binoculars or the verbalisation of the content and oral descriptions of all visually displayed materials.