Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills

Training and Supports for Providers of Special Needs Education and Education in DEIS Schools: Discussion

4:00 pm

Dr. Anne Ryan:

I thank the Chairman and the committee members for the opportunity meet them today. I and my colleague, Dr. Gene Mehigan, are teacher educators in the Marino Institute of Education, MIE, a higher education institution in Dublin and an associated college of Trinity College Dublin, TCD. Currently, we have an enrolment of almost 1,000 students across a range of undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes in education. However, the focus of our work is the education of future primary teachers, and almost 600 of our students are in this category. Practitioner preparation for teaching children with a variety of strengths and needs in mainstream schools, special education contexts and DEIS schools is a central element of our work in these programmes, as it is in our separate degree programme for those working or planning to work in the field of early childhood education. While provision of this nature permeates all our curricula, we also offer year-long core modules relevant to inclusive and special education, together with a range of school placement experiences in each of the school settings referred to. Our student teachers demonstrate a keen interest in this provision. They engage tremendously well with the courses and placements, and most elect to undertake their final dissertations on topics pertinent to the areas we are discussing today.

Nonetheless, as an academic staff, most of whom are also highly experienced classroom practitioners, we can empathise greatly with the very considerable challenges experienced and reported to us by these students as they take on the mantle of beginning as teachers in ever more diverse and complex classroom contexts. As has been well documented, the process of transitioning from committed student teacher to effective beginning teacher is a demanding undertaking. Learning to teach well is challenging. In today’s school contexts it can be overwhelming. As teacher educators, we recognise that we must respond appropriately to this situation, but we also know that teacher education alone is not a sufficient response. We suggest therefore, that school structures be equally addressed if our future teachers are not to resort to coping and survival strategies at the outset of their careers, to the detriment of their powerful potential as inclusive educators.

In 2016, MIE was granted significant funding under the EU Erasmus+ programme to lead a five-country study in exploring this issue. In light of European and national policies which promote mainstreaming over more specialised schooling provision, our three-year remit as a cross-sectoral, international project team of practising teachers and teacher educators is to identify best practice in inclusive education in our institutions and schools, and to recommend specific approaches that could advance such practice. Even at this early stage of the project, after study visits to schools and teacher education institutions in Finland and Belgium, the project team is unanimous about the significant potential of one particular strategy for advancing inclusion in schools, namely, that of co-teaching in both teacher education and school practice.

In schools, co-teaching entails two teachers teaching together, sharing responsibility for meeting the learning needs of pupils, and at the same time learning from each other. In the co-teaching model we observed in Finland, one of these teachers was an experienced mainstream teacher while the other was a qualified and experienced special needs teacher. As we observed, with such a co-teaching partnership in a mainstream class, all children in the class will have greater opportunity not only to be present for but also, in accordance with current policy, to participate in and benefit from mainstream education. In the teacher education context, the student teacher teaches alongside the host teacher rather than instead of him or her, and so is likely to be afforded greater opportunity at an early stage of professional development to learn about, and respond appropriately to, pupils’ diverse strengths and needs. In both contexts, the strategy entails planning together and sharing review and evaluation of teaching and pupil learning. An emerging body of research literature is pointing to the invaluable potential of such co-teaching approaches for advancing student teacher learning, experienced teacher learning and, above all, pupil learning in classroom contexts of considerable diversity.

On the basis of our own extensive experience in primary education, we would suggest that consideration be given to establishing a two-year pilot co-teaching for inclusion project at primary level. Such a project would see the introduction to the primary school system of trained co-teaching tutors who would also be in a position to serve as host co-teachers to our student teachers and others undertaking school placement experience. As outlined above, this initiative could have significant potential to advance educational provision for all primary schoolchildren in Ireland. Furthermore, our proposal supports a number of Government policies and priorities, namely, the Department of Education and Skills special education teaching allocation model as outlined in circular 0013/2017; the new primary language curriculum for English and Irish medium schools, as the suggested focus of this pilot project would be on literacy and language education; the policy on Gaeltacht education 2017 to 2022; the DEIS plan 2017; and the Department of Education and Skills literacy and numeracy strategy 2011.

We have outlined a proposed structure for such a pilot project in the documentation submitted to the committee. I thank the members.