Saturday 16 December 2017

System playing catch up to continue putting pupils first

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Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

It was to Ireland's shame in the late 1990s that parents had to turn to the courts to force the State to make adequate educational provision for a child with special needs.

A lot has changed since then, not least new mindsets that recognise the right of all children to fulfil their potential along with legislation that underpins those rights.

Ensuring that children with special needs get their education costs money, particularly in the case of pupils with more complex needs who may require several forms of support and, at times, one-to-one attention to allow them to participate in school life.

Ireland's education system has made great strides in this regard over the past decade, much of it to cater for the needs of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

ASD is a neurological, developmental disorder that affects how people communicate and interact with others and can be characterised by repetitive behaviours, interests and activities. Academically, children with ASD may be very bright, but they face these social challenges.

In 2015, it was estimated that there were about 14,000 children with ASD in Irish primary and post-primary schools. As the school enrolments continue to rise, it is probably higher now.

The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) puts the incidence of ASD among young people at almost 1.55pc, which is in line with international norms. Previously it was thought to be 1pc.

According to the NCSE, increases in ASD prevalence have been well documented in recent decades and may be linked to changes in diagnostic practice, the availability of services and greater awareness of the condition. The NCSE advised the Department of Education to plan for an incidence of 1.55pc.

The department's response to the growing demand for supports for pupils with special needs includes the recruitment of thousands of resource teachers and special needs assistants and provision of school transport, including taxis.

While it remains appropriate for many children to attend a special school, official policy has promoted greater integration of such children, particularly those with ASD, into mainstream education.

Since 2011, there has been a doubling to more than 1,100, in special classes in mainstream schools, which allow ASD pupils to spend time in the regular class, but also to retreat to a dedicated room as necessary.

The growth in spending on special needs has been very significant, but it is a system playing catch-up after years of under-provision.

Irish Independent

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