'Of course we will help her at home, but I want to be Emer's mam, not her teacher'

As the school year begins, Penny Cronin looks at the resources available to Down syndrome pupils

Penny Cronin

FROM the time that Hannah Brennan was ready to start school, her mother Joanna faced an uphill battle in her quest to convince others that her daughter would benefit most from a mainstream school setting.

But against all the odds Hannah made it through the school system. Last month after a decade spent at St Leo's College in Carlow she joined almost 56,000 nervous students who collected their Leaving Certificate results.

Hannah was overwhelmed when she was awarded a merit in 11 subjects after successfully completing her Leaving Cert Applied.

This week another one of her dreams will come true when she attends her Debutante ball with her classmates and puts on that very special dress.

As is the case for all children with special needs behind every success story is a dedicated parent who tirelessly fights for their child to enjoy the same rights as every other.

Hannah first attended Ballylinan National School in Laois where she flourished and after primary school she moved on to St Leo's College in Carlow where her principal Clare Ryan was a tremendous support.

An early diagnosis of a moderate learning disability mean that Hannah qualified for resource teaching hours of two and a half hours a week and access to a Special Needs Assistant.

"When she was being assessed it was felt that she would fare better at the Delta Centre in Carlow which is a special school, but she didn't want to go there.

"I always believed Hannah would be happiest and most fulfilled in a mainstream setting."

Hannah is now set to continue her education by taking an access course in the National Learning Network in Portlaoise, about which she is very excited.

The Department of Education has a list of disabilities which automatically qualify for resource teaching hours.

Down syndrome is not included on that list despite being a complex disability affecting not only intellectual functioning but also speech and language, gross and fine motor skills, hearing and vision.

Heart disorders, bowel abnormalities, digestive problems and thyroid functioning disorders are also common.

In this country children with Down syndrome are assessed before they begin their primary education.

The quality of their future education is based on this one assessment.

The choice available to them is mainstream primary school or special school.

All research points to the fact that outcomes are better for children with Down syndrome who attend mainstream school, not only educationally, but socially and behaviourally also.

If they opt for mainstream, the results of the assessment of their intellectual disability dictates the amount of extra educational help they get in schools, such as resource teaching hours.

A child with Down syndrome who has been diagnosed as having a Global Developmental Delay is entitled to approximately three resource teaching hours per week, taking the cuts of the last two years into account.

A child assessed as having a moderate intellectual disability is also entitled to three resource teaching hours per week.

If the child is considered to be within the mild range of intellectual disability, they do not have access to these vital hours and are supported in a different way in primary mainstream schools – through the General Allocation Model.

Education Officer with Down Syndrome Ireland, Patricia Griffin explained: "In itself, the General Allocation Model is a good model.

However in the administration, the fact that the child has Down syndrome is not considered.

"No resource hours are allocated to them – they are dependent on receiving extra help in a way which varies from school to school and from year to year depending on demand."

A hard-fought lobbying campaign undertaken by Down Syndrome Ireland to convince Minister Quinn to address this deeply inequitable situation hit a stumbling block last month.

In a highly critical report in May, Children's Ombudsman Emily Logan said Mr Quinn's department had significantly delayed any response after concerns on this point were raised in 2010.

She also found there was no monitoring of the progress of children with Down syndrome who were catered for by the General Allocation Model, who number around 24 of the 80 children with the syndrome starting primary school every year.

But the same week, a report of the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) told Mr Quinn that Down syndrome on its own should not be re-classified as making pupils automatically eligible for individual resource teaching.

It found no research concluding that a child with Down syndrome with a mild general learning disability should be given more supports than others in the same range of intellectual disabilities.

Down Syndrome Ireland (DSI) discussed the issues with the minister at a meeting in June, however, he said in recent weeks now is not an appropriate time to reclassify certain disabilities.

He has decided to await the report due by next Easter of an NCSE working group appointed to develop a new system for allocating special needs teaching resources to schools.

Mr Quinn wrote that he accepts there may be perceptions of discrimination between children depending on their IQ level, but he sees no merit in making immediate changes in the absence of evidence pointing to unequal or unfair treatment.

For Margaret McQuillan from Naas Co Kildare, the implication of the current situation means her five-year-old daughter, Emer, who started school last Thursday, will not be entitled to extra supports.

Emer was diagnosed as being in the mild category of intellectual disability.

"It was not a surprise but it was bittersweet for us as we know the implications – she would not get any resource hours and that is a very hard thing to stomach.

"If you look at her it is hard to understand how somebody could say this child is not entitled to these vital supports.

"She has been attending pre-school for two years, seven children to one pre-school leader and in addition she had her own pre-school assistant a number of days a week.

'How could anyone think that Emer could go from this into a classroom of 30 kids with one teacher and be able to learn?

"I would like to ask Minister Quinn does he honestly, truly believe that a child with Down syndrome can reach his/her full potential with no resource teaching.?

"Does he think that a child like Emer could thrive unaided in a class of 30?

"I feel very passionately that this is discrimination.

"Emer has a diagnosis of mild learning disability but she also has other issues which are part of her Down syndrome and will impact on her learning ability.

"She has a significant speech and language delay, poor fine motor skills, a mild hearing loss and frequent medical appointments.

"She is being denied a couple of hours a week of resource teaching where a teacher would go through what the class did that day .

"And more importantly introduce the learning that is about to happen in the big class – thus enabling her to maximise her learning potential.

"We have found the denial of these hours difficult to accept. We are much more used to focusing on what Emer can do and we are very positive about her development to date.

"But we have to be realistic and we know that she can't possibly keep up with all the work going on in a busy classroom unaided. Of course we will help her at home but I want to be Emer's mam not her teacher.

"She had a great first day at school she turned to me several times in the car and shouted 'I'm starting school today!' and she really had a sense of the importance of the day.

"She absolutely loved it and had a very positive experience but it's not keeping her positive that will be the issue it's her capacity to learn unsupported.

"Her teacher was amazing today and Emer was sitting right up at the front.

"She has access to a Special Needs Assistant for toileting issues etc but not having a resource teacher is a real problem for us.

"I know the school and the staff will do everything they can to help her achieve her potential but really without the extra support it will be an uphill battle."