Being educated in mainstream school hugely benefits children with special needs
Children with special needs are increasingly being educated alongside their mainstream peers. It’s a practice which, if done correctly, can benefit both the child and society as a whole.
Jack Fox, aged nine, was diagnosed with severe autism at 19 months old.
When it came time to send him to school, his mum Catherine Bourke opted for mainstream education. Jack attended a large school in Mayo for two years, but Bourke felt that he was lost in the system. She decided to move the family to Clare in order to give Jack a better education, and ultimately a better chance in life.
For the past few years Jack has attended Clondrinagh National School in Clare, a small school with just 19 children. Bourke says it has changed his life. Although he has a learning disability and sensory processing disorder, he is no longer classed as severely autistic, but mildly autistic. Much of his progress, according to his mum, is down to the education he has received at Clondrinagh.
“When he was smaller he was non-verbal, whereas now he can verbalise. Mainstream school has made a fantastic difference,” she says.
Jack has a special needs assistant (SNA) for 16 hours a week (though he did have to wait three months to be approved for these hours), and is the only child in his school with autism.
It hasn’t always been easy, however, and Bourke says the quality of a child’s education can depend on the school they go to.
“When he first started off in mainstream in Mayo, we found it very problematic. The school was more than accommodating to him but there weren’t many resources available. When we moved to our second school, we nearly had a red carpet rolled out. It has gone above and beyond its duties to him, instilled in him the importance of education, worked with him and got him to a good place. He still has issues with reading and writing but the school has given him the desire to learn.”
The school has adjusted Jack’s curriculum to suit him, and counteracted his difficulties in reading and writing in various ways. For example, he might watch a DVD and give a presentation on the subject.
“Jack’s strengths overpower his weaknesses, and being able to send him to mainstream school meant everything to me because in the house here he gets treated as a typical child,” says Bourke.
“If down the line I have to change him to a specialised school then so be it. It was very important that we challenged him as much as we could from the beginning, and we’ve done that.”
The education of children with special needs has changed dramatically in the past decade. The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs (EPSEN) Act in 2004 provided that children with special educational needs should be educated, wherever possible, in an inclusive environment with children who do not have special educational needs.
At present, those with special educational needs can attend special schools or special classes attached to mainstream schools, or they can be integrated into mainstream classes.
Each child is assessed before going to school, and parents will talk with Special Education Needs Organisers (SENOs) from the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), and the boards of schools to help identify what is right for their child.
Not all children will be suited to going into the mainstream setting. Those with more severe levels of disability may need to go to a special school or special class within a school.
Where education within the mainstream classroom is appropriate it can be hugely beneficial to children, however.
Denis Sexton, member of the Irish Society for Autism and a former vice-principal, says he was sceptical about school integration back in the 1990s but has since been converted, having seen the significant benefits it offers children.
“We now have autism classes in secondary schools. The fact that the child has made it to secondary school is a fair indication that he’s in the upper end of the system,” he says.
Shannon Eidman, community outreach co-ordinator with Irish Autism Action, says the primary benefit of integration for children with autism is socialisation.
“When properly supported, mainstream schools provide children with appropriate peer models and opportunities to practise social skills,” she says.
However, Eidman warns that integration must be meaningful. Children must be included and “not simply placed in a classroom among peers for the sake of saying they’re being included or integrated”.
Back in the mid-1980s, Down Syndrome Ireland (DSI) started a mainstream education programme whereby it enrolled 10 children with Down Syndrome into mainstream school. The organisation paid for a resource teacher to visit the school.
Pat Clarke, chief executive, DSI, says the education of children with Down Syndrome has evolved hugely since then.
“Nowadays up to 70 to 80pc of children [with Down Syndrome] of school-going age will go to mainstream education,” he says.
Those children with Down Syndrome who receive an education in a mainstream setting have “distinct advantages over those who would not go to a mainstream setting”, says Clarke.
“They will be going to school with their peers, growing up with them. It brings benefits not only to the child themselves but to the wider population in that school. The research is there to show that children with Down Syndrome in a mainstream class bring a level of calmness to the class and school. Society benefits as well as the child.”
Choosing a school
Eidman advises parents to visit the school and meet staff before deciding where to send their child.
“Be positive but honest about your child’s strengths and challenges. Often parents will get a sense of whether the school adopts a model of acceptance and values parental input. Similar information can be gained by asking other parents,” she says.
Eidman adds that parents can ask for the enrolment policy, special needs policy and code of behaviour of the school.
The code of behaviour, for example, should focus on positive behaviour supports and discourage overly punitive sanctions such as suspension and expulsion. Parents may also want to ask whether there is a school-wide policy for tackling bullying.
The integration of children with special educational needs into the mainstream setting is not without its issues.
Sexton says the Department of Education has yet to fully deliver on individual education programmes (IEPS), as education has to suit the individual needs of the person.
“Also, there’s a bit of a geography lottery. To a large extent, you’re dependent on what’s in your area.”
Clarke says any cutbacks in resources will have a dramatic effect on children attending mainstream education.
“It will lead to a greater number of children reverting to segregated special education, which is to the detriment of the child and society. Our research has proven there is a marginal cost saving, but the added value of attending mainstream education, both for the child and society, far outweighs any cost-benefit analysis,” says Clarke.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education says resource provision for children with special educational needs has been protected, and “in some areas, increased, in 2014”.
“More resources than ever before are being provided to ensure that the educational requirements of children with special educational needs can continue to be met at primary and second level,” she says.
Moving to secondary
Transition from primary to secondary school can be difficult for any child, but particularly for those with special educational needs. In some cases, it may not be appropriate, and the child may revert to a special school or class.
“Routines and structures are very different from that of primary school, generally requiring much more transitioning throughout the day. Individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often rely greatly on routines and struggle with transitions, so this can be very stressful,” says Eidman.
“In addition, secondary school requires more independence, self-management, and more refined social skills, all of which are often areas of difficulty for adolescents with ASD. Secondary students with ASD are very susceptible to bullying and as a result can become withdrawn.”
Parents should be aware of these stressors and work with teachers and school staff to ensure the teenager, as well as the school, are adequately prepared, says Eidman.
“We’ve found that many of the adolescents benefit from advance visits to the school and transition booklets or social stories to help familiarise them with the new settings, routines, and expectations.”
DSI offers parents of children with Down Syndrome support if the child has to transition from mainstream education back into special education.