Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills

Advanced Skills Teachers and Special Classes in Mainstream Schools: Discussion

3:30 pm

Mr. John Curtis:

The joint managerial body, JMB, represents the managements of over 370 voluntary secondary schools. Voluntary secondary schools of all denominations are extraordinarily inclusive and have a long history of putting those who are marginalised at the centre of school enterprise. Each school community reflects the spirit of a Christian family and the Government policy of integrating young people challenged with special educational needs aligns with the ethos of our schools. Young people get a single chance at education and the option of standing still in a changing landscape of new insight is not the way forward. Our principals and boards of management are, as ever, open to engaging fully with the Department and the NCSE on the continued roll-out and development of special class provision in our schools. The JMB works closely with the Department and its agencies such as the NCSE, the SESS, the NEPS and the State Examinations Commission, SEC. We also work in collaboration with the ACCS and ETBI. In 2013 the JMB proposed a new model for allocating resources on the basis of school profiling, a proposal which was eventually adopted as policy and implemented as the school profile model, which is proving to be very successful.

Such special education provision operates within a set of parameters: students with the greatest level of need require access to greater levels of support; schools need resources to facilitate early intervention; schools require stability in SEN staffing; there must be flexibility in response at both school and system level; schools need professionally delivered support to develop their capacity to provide for special educational needs; and there has to be external oversight of the use of resources to ensure equity and support best practice.

To support schools, the Department, the NCSE and the NEPS have published a number of advisory and guidance documents on special classes, but guidelines only get a school so far. The national challenge of mainstreaming virtually every child and young person with special educational needs demands a serious commitment to putting in place appropriate infrastructure, annual funding and human resources, but, particularly in the area of therapeutic supports, this has yet to materialise. The JMB is, therefore, heartened to note the recent launch of a proposed model of support for students with additional care needs and looks forward to engaging with the Department and the NCSE on its implementation.

Whether in special or mainstream class settings, special education provision relies on three guiding principles, the first of which is that all students, irrespective of their special educational needs, are welcomed and enabled to enrol in their local schools. As I said, voluntary secondary schools have, well in advance of any legislation or regulation, provided for the inclusive enrolment of, and an appropriate education for, all of their students, irrespective of their physical, sensory or cognitive abilities. Voluntary secondary school managements, therefore, continue to welcome the establishment of special classes within our schools. The JMB strongly affirms the provisions for designating special classes in schools under the forthcoming admission to school Bill and looks forward to engaging with the Department on the regulatory framework under which this provision will be made.

The second principle is that additional teaching supports are deployed and managed effectively by schools to support students with special educational needs. Effective deployment requires time, administration, equipment and expertise. In particular, the professionalisation of special education teaching must be extended to a much wider cohort of teachers than has so far been achieved. We ask the Minister to increase the number of funded postgraduate special education places in third level colleges.

A whole-school approach needs to be adopted by schools to the education of students with special educational needs. To achieve this, schools need to maintain and appropriately share records of baseline information, goals and progress. A raft of other administrative tasks associated with special classes include frequent meetings, reporting, assessment, co-ordination, planning, evaluation, crisis management, scheduling, parent support, liaison with external agencies and primary schools, accountability measures, NEPS requirements, SENO requirements, staff development and pupil testing, all of which are also associated with best practice but which make extraordinary demands on already overwhelmed principals and special education teachers. At a minimum, therefore, the JMB urges the Department to allocate a special needs co-ordinator post of responsibility to all post-primary schools based on the existing programme co-ordinator model of POR with time for duties. This would significantly enhance school-level capacity to comply with the new accountability measures comprehended by current policy, as well as reducing the erosion of student time, for which the allocation of hours was made in the first instance.

We in the JMB have a strong record of supporting the roll-out of special class provision at both school and system level. Inclusion represents a clear gospel value for our schools, but the State must equally ensure its policy of mainstreaming young people with complex SEN challenges is resourced and supported. To this end, the JMB has worked closely with the autism advocacy organisation AsIAm to jointly develop a set of resources to support families and educators of young people with autism in our schools. At the education conference in the last academic year the theme was special educational needs and we were delighted that Mr. Adam Harris was our keynote speaker. Following the conference, he has engaged with the JMB to help to support schools in understanding autism and special needs requirements in that space. Perhaps he might comment in more detail on it later today. We will, of course, continue to work closely with our management colleagues across the sectors and the Department and its agencies and look forward to engaging with the Oireachtas committee on this most important issue.