Monday 23 October 2017

The new faces of diversity in Irish schools

Inclusiveness of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other special needs is at the core of the Scoil Sinead philosophy

Support: Sherene Powell-Ikafor at Hope Montessori Autism Care Centre, Mountview, Dublin. Photo: Doug O'Connor
Support: Sherene Powell-Ikafor at Hope Montessori Autism Care Centre, Mountview, Dublin. Photo: Doug O'Connor
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

There is a battle royale going on over control of schools, at both primary and post-primary level. Whether it is the divestment of some Catholic schools to other patrons to meet demand for greater diversity, or patronage contests for new schools being built to cater for rising enrolments, competition is fierce.

At primary level, the main contenders are Educate Together, the Irish-medium An Foras Pátrúnachta and, more recently, education and training boards (ETBs) with their community national schools. At second level, there is some variation in the names, but they are just as established.

How then, when a new post-primary was proposed for Lucan, Co Dublin, last year, did Scoil Sinead arrive at the bidding table, as if from nowhere, with 697 parental preferences, 39 times more than the 18 presented by a Catholic trust, CEIST? Parental support is key to deciding who gets patronage.

Scoil Sinead has a multi-denominational ethos, but the huge backing for it was not only about religion: its 697 name count was more than 10 times the number gathered by Dublin and Dun Laoghaire Education and Training Board (DDETB), also a multi-denominational patron.

Scoil Sinead established only in May 2016 and, when it bid for the school, it was not fully recognised as a patron. In November, patronage was awarded to DDETB - but with Scoil Sinead as a trustee partner.

The new school, Griffeen Community College, which will be developed to cater for 1,000 pupils, will open its doors in September and is currently enrolling.

Then, a week ago, Scoil Sinead was awarded sole patronage of a new primary school in the Pelletstown/Ashtown area of north west Dublin, also opening in September.

In this case, its bid was backed by 52pc (68) of all valid parental preferences, compared with 24pc (32) for An Foras Pátrúnachta, 15pc (19) for City of Dublin ETB and 9pc (12) for Educate Together.

Who or what is Scoil Sinead Ltd, and how did it garner so much support under the noses of the educational establishment? At the core of the Scoil Sinead philosophy is inclusiveness of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and other special needs.

The education system has made considerable progress in recent years in meeting the needs of children with special needs. There are extra resources in the form of teachers and special needs assistants, while increasing numbers of schools now blend integration in the mainstream classroom with time-out, as necessary, in a special ASD unit, a space to which a child may retreat.

But Scoil Sinead's particular brand of inclusion has clearly struck a chord with parents.

It is named after Sinead, the 10-year-old daughter of Sherene Powell-Ikafor, a Jamaican primary teacher who came to Ireland on a student work placement in 2000, and her husband, Dr Ike Ikafor, an accident and emergency consultant in Temple Street Children's Hospital. The couple met in Ireland and have four children.

Sinead was diagnosed with autism at a young age and, when Powell-Ikafor had difficulty finding a pre-school that met her needs, she decided to open her own. By the time it was up and running, Sinead had already settled elsewhere.

Hope Montessori Autism Care Centre opened in Mountview, Dublin 15, with one child, in September 2011. There are now three Hope centres in Dublin - two in west Dublin, and one in Inchicore. Earlier this month, it opened one in Limerick, it opens in Cork in June, and a sixth is planned for Dublin 2 in 2018.

Powell-Okafor is CEO of Hope. She has a master's in psychology and a post-graduate qualification in Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA), a widely-recognised approach to dealing with children with autism. She is studying Irish at Marino Institute of Education, so that she can gain full Teaching Council recognition.

"How Scoil Sinead came about was we were thinking about where the kids would be going when they leave our setting," she says.

While they have a particular expertise in autism, Hope Montessori caters for all children, both those with special needs and others, and will bring the Hope philosophy into primary and post-primary education.

Hope's director of education, Jennifer Sheridan, who has a master's in ABA, is among the Scoil Sinead directors.

Their vision for Hope-inspired schools extends both to physical layout and cultural changes, for the good of all.

Powell-Ikafor says a child with special needs is often on the edge of a class to facilitate the special needs assistant (SNA). "If we get away from things like keeping these children at the back of the class, and try to be more inclusive, well that is a great step."

They plan a variation on the traditional model of autism and special needs units that are separate and, perhaps, far away from the mainstream classes and to have resource facilities attached to each classroom.

"(By) structuring the school appropriately, we aim to eliminate difficulties faced by students with autism, such as bullying, and to foster a culture of acceptance in all students," she says.

She recognises that children with autism have a very good support system in schools but asks, "why is it limited to them? Other children need support."

She also believes that proper teacher training can go a long way to minimising the need for additional supports.

Scoil Sinead will not segregate pupils for religion classes.

Hope is expanding, and so are the ambitions of Scoil Sinead. "We do see ourselves applying for more schools. We have a very good team," says Powell-Ikafor.

Irish Independent

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