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A bird's eye view of the vineyard
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Dublin Opinion >>
Parent/Teacher Partnership for Children with Special Needs
health / disability issues |
Monday June 27, 2005 00:57 by Miriam Cotton
Margaret O’ Donoghue and Carmel O’ Donoghue (no relation) are determined to highlight the needs of parents of children with special needs in schools. As Chair and Secretary of the recently founded West Cork Parents Action Group they are encouraged by the interest they have had from parents since starting the group a few months ago. The inaugural meeting of the WCPAG was held at the Parkway Hotel in Dunmanway on 21st April this year.
In her opening address to the meeting, Margaret O’ Donoghue likened the current position of children with special needs at school to being stranded in a foreign country with no means of communication. ‘This is how it is for our children and this is why we need a better education structure in place’, she said. Over 200 people attended the meeting. Speakers for the night included: Alan Crosbie, Chair, Down Syndrome Association of Ireland; Sinead Cripps, Wheelchair Association; Dr David Coughlan (then paediatrician at the Mercy Hospital in Cork, since resigned in protest over lack of funding); Niamh Ni hAogain, Educational Psychologist, Down Syndrome Association and Jim Daly CC, former Principal of the Gaelscoil in Skibbereen.
Speaking to Margaret and Carmel a few weeks later, it’s clear they’ve done a lot of networking, having established several initiatives with education and disability services as well as linking up with other similar groups around the country. Margaret says ‘parents are no longer willing to sit back and watch their children going through school without the support and understanding they need. We’re aware that parents everywhere are feeling they have had enough of not being listened to and of not being properly included.’ Carmel mentions another group in Limerick who recently drew a crowd of between 800 and 1,000 to their launch. Government representatives were not given an easy time on that occasion and it seems likely that this will be a major issue, come the next general election.
The government have not helped their reputation in relation to disability matters by waiting until the end of the academic year to announce the details of the new system for allocating educational support. The new ‘General Allocation Model’ has caused widespread consternation and flies in the face of the principle of properly funded and timely, individual assessment which every disability group in the country has been calling for. The GAM is to many a relatively crude method for establishing levels of support which divides children into only two broad categories: high and low incidence special needs. The logic appears to be that if a disability occurs more frequently in the population then less resource is needed for each child in that group. While economies of scale may be possible in the production of, say, shoes or machinery, it might be argued that no such logic could responsibly be applied here. Children with mild and borderline learning disabilities are most affected by this new system – they are to lose the 2.5hours per week of resource teaching they were previously entitled to. No account will be taken of psychological assessments of these children – the most critical information in determining what and how a child could learn to the best of his or her ability.
WCPAG recently sent a copy of the minutes of its inaugural meeting to the Minister for Education, Mary Hanafin and have requested a meeting with her to discuss the aims of the group. While their letter has been acknowledged, no commitment has yet been given to meet with them. All who attended the meeting were asked to write to the Minister in support of the need for the group and its aims. WCPAG are currently collating these letters and anyone who would like to support this initiative could forward one to the address below. WCPAG have also sent a petition to every school in West Cork, requesting signatures for improvements in the number of resource hours for SN children. Any parent who has not been given a copy of this petition can contact their school Principal or WCPAG if they would like to sign it.
While the principle of integrating special needs children into mainstream schools is in theory a more inclusive and accepting approach, unless the professionals involved are adequately trained there can be little chance of significant progress in the quality of the education that is provided. WCPAG say parents want more than mere behaviour control. ‘The Principal is the key to success’ say Margaret and Carmel. ‘So much more can be achieved where the Principal is sympathetic and well informed. We are both very lucky in the Principal teachers we have at our children’s schools (Drimoleague Junior National School and Castledonovan National School). They have been receptive to using different teaching techniques and the extensive use of visual aids, for example. But the differences in need between, for instance, a child with Downs Syndrome and a child with an autistic spectrum disorder are considerable and teachers need a lot of information about such conditions to work effectively with them. Special needs do not yet form part of basic teacher training. Resource teachers will have had training but not necessarily specific to the conditions of the children they work with and while the maximum allocation of resource hours is only 5 in a week (and very few children are allocated 5 hours), that leaves each child in a potential 29-hour hiatus depending on their ability to join in with general classroom teaching.
Michael Crowley of the Teacher Training Centre in Dunmanway is supportive of the general aims of WCPAG and is assisting them to organise a training day for teachers in West Cork in the autumn. Crowley is optimistic that the Department of Education is working positively towards a longer-term strategy for improving the current situation. He says that Ireland has one of the highest levels of spending in special needs education in Europe and argues that parents need to give the new system a chance. ‘There is no doubt that the Department is committed and that the professionals within the system are sympathetic’, he says. Kathleen Lowney, ICT Adviser in Dunmanway agrees and adds ‘there is a need for great sensitivity about the differing roles of teachers and others in the school setting. Principals, resource teachers, class teachers and SNAs all have different and equally important contributions to make and parents need to be aware of that.’ It might be equally helpful if the teaching profession could develop a similarly sensitive approach to the position of parents and recognise the urgent need for inclusive and mutually supportive communication. Parents almost always have encyclopaedic knowledge of their child’s condition by the time they reach school age and for want of including their views and availing of their considerable experience a great many avoidable mistakes continue to be made.
While many parents may wonder about the level of government spending that Michael Crowley cites, what cannot be denied is that huge numbers of children are loosing resource hours and SNA allocations. As has already been observed elsewhere, if we can withstand an alleged overspend of no less than 12 billion Euro on our national road building plans to no nationally significant benefit then what confidence can we have in the management of resources invested in other areas of public life? A well-managed investment of 12 billion in special needs education would have transformed the situation beyond recognition.
WCPAG’s main aims are to circulate information and to put people in touch with organisations and others who may be able to help. ‘We are not a vigilante group’ say Margaret and Carmel ‘we want only to make a constructive contribution to this situation’. In the near future WCPAG will set up an online register of email contacts and a website and they are working towards encouraging the development of the contribution of Special Needs Assistants who they see as having the potential to play a more educationally orientated role.
WCPAG wish to stress they are not in competition with CoAction West Cork. ‘We are concerned with education services only and there is no overlap between our activities and CoAction’s’ say Margaret and Carmel. ‘There has been some misunderstanding about this and in fact, CoAction have referred a number of parents to us for support and advice.’
If you would like to support WCPAG, you can make a donation directly to their account at AIB in Dunmanway: Sort Code: 93 60 73 /Account Number:02438031. All donations will be very gratefully received.
WCPAG will be holding another general meeting early next term. For further information contact:
Margaret O’ Donoghue, Chairperson on 028 31411/Email magsod (at) msn.com
Carmel O’ Donoghue, Secretary on 028 31678/Email cmdmodonoghue (at) eircom.net
Or write to Carmel O’ Donoghue, Secretary, West Cork Parents Action Group, Deelish, Drimoleague, Co Cork.