Monday 16 September 2019

Sarah Caden: 'School exclusion makes a lie of inclusive Ireland'

Special needs inclusion isn't easy - but it can work. After all, no child should be left behind, writes Sarah Caden

SCHOOL: Nikki Curran and her son Tim. Photo: James Connolly
SCHOOL: Nikki Curran and her son Tim. Photo: James Connolly

Sarah Caden

'Authority comes with numbers," says Deborah Brennan. She is the lead author of the report Education, Behaviour and Exclusion: The Experience and Impact of Short School Days on Children with Disabilities and Their Families in the Republic of Ireland, which was published last Thursday.

The "numbers" of the report were that one in four children with a disability in Ireland has had shortened school days imposed upon them. Where shorter days were objected to by parents, the report found, the alternative often offered was to take their children out of the school entirely.

The report was met with shock. The ''numbers" do not chime with who we believe ourselves to be now: inclusive, compassionate, forward-thinking. But none of it would have come as a shock to any parent of a child with special needs.

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I rank among them, and I know plenty of stories, personally, of schools simply refusing to take children with a disability. Of children sent home at little break, or when the infant classes are going home. Of a child with a disability spending school hours in a room with one adult and no other children, every single day.

The stories would break your heart, and emotions run high around an issue like this.

"Take the emotion out and there are the facts," says Deborah Brennan, who is part of Technological University Dublin's Centre for Critical Media Literacy and School of Multidisciplinary Technologies. "If you think of all the protests and all the campaigns over the years, that should have worked," she says. "That's what angers people. One case should be enough. It annoys me that you have to find hundreds for government to pay attention."

Almost 400 families contributed to the report, which was undertaken with Inclusion Ireland. The results told of virtual "suspension" of children from schools without officially suspending them. The report spoke of families up-ended by the difficulty caused for parents trying to hold down jobs and care for their other kids, of children with disabilities missing out on education, but also socialisation.

This is all without delving into the effect of all this on the classmates of children with disabilities. Children with disabilities are being told that they are unmanageable and unwanted, but actions of exclusion are also telling typical children that people with disabilities are difficult and better off elsewhere.

As one parent said to me this week: "The model of inclusivity is that we'll embrace your children - but only if they're prepared to act like they don't have a disability."

The behaviours that saw a lot of these children excluded were, the report said, behaviours in keeping with their disability. Something is being communicated, but not in the way a typical child will communicate, and not in a way that is as easily understood or interpreted, perhaps.

If the behaviour isn't dealt with, it will deteriorate on the side of the child trying to communicate, and the side of the adult, who is likely to feel increasingly frustrated and under pressure. No one conducts themselves well in those circumstances.

Nikki Curran lives in Sligo with her husband and three children. Her son, Tim (now 14) has Down syndrome, and when he first started school, the family lived in Co Kildare. Tim started mainstream school at the age of six and had a happy experience in the junior classes, before things deteriorated steadily from the start of first class and he was ultimately expelled.

"The school was there 20 years and he was their first child with Down syndrome," Nikki says, adding this should have told them something.

"It all comes from the ethos in the school. We had a special school locally so it was always being said to me, 'Would you not think of the special school?' I don't think they ever saw the school as a fit for Tim and probably just appeased me in the beginning."

In first class, Tim's behaviour deteriorated and Nikki began getting daily phone calls to come to the school, then occasionally take him home early, then it escalated to three or four times a week that Tim was on short days.

"Initially," Nikki says, "I was saying, 'Of course I'll bring him home.' Then it was getting more frequent. They were sending him home because they said they needed to give the staff a break."

A breaking point came one day when Nikki got a phone call to come to the school, as Tim had been disruptive in the yard and had locked out his whole class in the yard. Nikki got to the school to find the classroom emptied of all other students, and three adults standing over Tim, sitting on the floor. The message was very distressing, she says.

"I got all sorts of psychological reports," Nikki explains. "Behavioural specialists came in. They gave four different tips for managing Tim's behaviour. The school tried them. They didn't work and they didn't see that these were strategies that you try out for weeks before you see any change. They were just trying them for a day and then discarding them."

Tim was eventually expelled on the grounds that his behaviour was a danger to himself and others. The family moved back to Nikki's native Sligo, where he started in a special school, as there was no available place in the local mainstream. Layers of behaviour were peeled off like an onion, says Nikki, and his "communication behaviours" were listened to and responded to. He's a different child, she says, but it didn't have to be this way. If Tim had been truly included in mainstream school, he could still be there.

Inclusion isn't easy, it takes effort, but it can work. The effort needs the will behind it, but it also needs support.

"Situational factors influence how bad the behaviour to be and how bad it is perceived to be," says Deborah Brennan.

In a nutshell, it comes down to individuals and those individuals' ability to adapt, interpret and address the needs of children with disabilities in their schools. School principals were cited regularly by participants in the report as that one individual who can influence a whole ethos. "If your principal isn't on board," says Nikki Curran, "walk away."

What could be argued, however, is that it shouldn't come down to individuals. It is too much to ask teachers to know exactly how to manage children whose needs are outside the typical. Not unless we train them. Not unless we provide proper back-up instead of constantly cutting back support services. Not unless we give them support to also teach the other 28 or 30 children in the class, who also deserve care and attention and an education.

Over the next two years, Deborah Brennan, with her co-author Harry Browne, plans a study into the experiences of teachers in the area of special-needs education.

"Someone needs to come in and teach the teachers," says Deborah Brennan.

But are there the people to do that? "No," she says. "There are not."

What we need to take out of this report is the extent to which no one within the education situation really knows where to turn. There is a shortage of staff within the Special Educational Needs Organiser (SENO) service and National Education Psychology Services (NEPS). Resource teachers have minimal extra training compared to a regular teacher but are expected to conduct themselves as disability specialists. SNAs are under-trained, underpaid and overworked.

A startling statistic within this latest report was how few children have access to any support services, a fact that surprises people outside of the world of disability but is a wearying fact within it.

In this environment, parents - if they are able - basically train themselves up to become experts - and it is often to them that the schools turn in desperation if behaviour become an issue. And parents of children with special needs are often scared to rock the boat, because, as one said to me last week, "what if there's no other boat to get into?"

Nikki Curran has a great expression -"unconscious incompetence". It sums up an attitude to children with disability that last week's statistics show us still exists, despite years of efforts at inclusivity. One in four children suffers short school days because the blame for their behaviour falls almost entirely on them. This reports forces the adults and the schools - and even those who are doing well - to take a closer look at their attitudes, behaviour and even prejudices.

"If you never look to yourself and what you did wrong," Nikki says, "you never learn anything."

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