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Open Letter to Seamus Greene, Director, National Parents & Siblings Alliance
Response to an address given at a public meeting held in Dunmanway, Co Cork on Thursday the 22nd of September on the subject of Special Education Needs .The meeting was organised by the West Cork Parents Action Group and its aims were to discuss the effect of recent changes in the administration and teaching of children with special needs, resulting from the introduction of the Education of Persons with Special Needs Act 2004.
(The meeting was addressed by Mr Pat Curtain, CEO of the National Council for Special Education; Dr Michael Shevlin, Trinity College, Dublin and member of the NCSE’s independent research body and Mr Seamus Greene, Director of the National Parents & Siblings Alliance. )
During your presentation in Dunmanway last week, you made the following statement:
"The reality is, teachers will often go into the staff room and say ‘that Johnny X, he’s a real pain’ if they have a difficult experience of a child in class."
You encouraged us, as parents of children with disability, to understand that this is the way teachers sometimes respond to our children and that we should accept it as a normal and even useful exchange between professionals. This is an interesting perspective on teachers and their work.
As parents, we are instructed to believe that teachers have knowledge and skills which go well beyond anything that we would ordinarily have ourselves and that teachers are best left to get on with it, without our ‘interference’.
For the parent of a child with SEN, two myths underlie this proposition:
1. That the teaching profession is adhering to standards and ideals from a position of considered, educated objectivity.
2. That parents are emotional, ill informed and lacking in objectivity.
There is, of course, nothing surprising in the statement of yours quoted above – certainly not for this parent. However, coming from a member of a profession, which is notoriously defensive about its professionalism and any perceived encroachment onto its territory, it gives the lie to all of the profession’s grand claims on its own behalf. As an example of emotional, subjective, indiscreet and thoroughly unprofessional conduct, it does very well, in fact.
In certain respects it’s good you have implicitly acknowledged what most parents have long since known: that the concept of professional objectivity is often a sham. The reality for most parents of children with disability is that professionalism as it is actually applied (not theoretically defined) is very often nothing more than professional ego used as a barrier to mutually respectful engagement with parents, pupils and others. In fact, professional ego is a lurking demon in many encounters with teachers - a sort of spoiled brat that we have to tip-toe around for fear of waking or displeasing him. The myth of professional objectivity is also destructive to essential, cooperative partnerships with parents. Many teachers lose objectivity very quickly when asked reasonable questions about what they are doing and offered suggestions about alternative approaches - let alone challenged about the standards they are maintaining in their work.
The most critical factor in all of this is that basic teacher training does not include any training on working with children with special needs. You would think that the profession would be prepared to show more humility but no, even in this context, it generally appears to have no qualms about dismissing the involvement of a group of people who can actually tell them much of what they need to know. The net effect for parents is that they end up most often dealing with teachers whose knowledge of their children’s educational and learning needs is negligible but yet are expected to disguise and withhold their own often extensive knowledge for fear of being accused of interfering or of causing negative consequences for themselves and their children. And many of us have had our fears proved only too right on this last point.
In other words, this is a profession which is both unaccountable and uneducated about what it is doing with our SEN children. This is an issue for every parent, not just those of us who have children with special needs. However, the experiences of parents who are in the SEN predicament are bringing the worst failings of the teaching profession into sharp focus. Any parent who does not have a child with special needs should be aware that the objectives of SEN parents will ultimately benefit their children too. The need for a true parent teacher partnership that goes beyond being 'allowed' to do some fundraising for the school (cf virtually every PTA in the country) has never been more urgent. If most children get through education reasonably successfully it has as much to do with the ability of the child to cope (which is mostly to do with parental nurturing in any case) and is often in spite of much of what is happening in school. It has little to do with a professional approach to the child as an individual – a basic but as yet unrealised pre-requisite for working with SEN children. Nothing in this is intended to imply that there are no good teachers or schools. What is argued, though, is that the general ethos of the profession's attitude towards parents is doing much to undermine the work of good teachers - especially as it relates to children with special needs.
The reality of the needs of a child with learning difficulty unavoidably smashes through the one-size-fits-all approach that is necessary to keep the crowd under control. This is a frustrating experience for everyone concerned and I do not know a parent with an SEN child who does not recognise the difficulty it creates in a mainstream classroom. But we are forced to send our children into mainstream schools that lack appropriate facilities and to leave them to the educational care of teachers who are almost completely untrained in how to work with an ASD or a Down Syndrome child, for example. In the second wealthiest country in the world this is straightforwardly a scandal. In the US, parents are often involved in interviewing the specialist staff who will be working with their children. How long is the road we have to tread to get to that point? For many teachers in Ireland (probably most) such a scenario would be seen as sacrilege - a toppling of the profession form its high pedestal that could never be countenanced. And yet this practice has proved hugely beneficial to everyone concerned wherever it has been adopted.
We hear virtually every day about the superiority of our education system and how it is among the best in the world. This is yet another myth. Illiteracy is now running at 22% in Ireland. Nothing can tell us more about how our education system is failing. Of course the fact of being an unaccountable profession is what is creating many of the problems in the first place. As one senior officer in the Department of Education and Welfare expressed it: 'Three independent witnesses to an open act of child abuse would be about the only thing that would result in any kind of reprimand to a principal or teacher'.
Any teacher or principal doing a reasonable job of work has nothing to fear from being accountable. The best of them would actually welcome it as a support and as being in the interests of promoting high standards. Parents are not out to ‘get’ teachers – we are much too committed to our children’s education for that and, being normal people, the majority of us prefer to communicate pleasantly and reasonably with teachers. But we demand as much in return for ourselves and have, as primary carers, a far greater interest in what is happening to our children in school than the teachers themselves.
There is an urgent need for a layer of effective management to whom Principals should be accountable and to whom parents can appeal if unprofessional conduct is experienced. Relying on Boards of Management is miserably failing our children and schools in this respect. It is virtually unheard of for a BOM to uphold a complaint against a teacher, let alone a principal. Most of them will include several teachers from the very school which is being investigated. If we put three of his colleagues on the jury of an investigation into a Garda’s conduct, imagine the outcry we would have.
Not even the Educational Welfare Officers, the very people charged with ensuring the welfare of children in schools have any authority to direct a principal to modify his or her behaviour where they are behaving unreasonably – even to the detriment of a child. What is the point of the EWO at all, if that is the case? Of course the teaching profession would squeal if proposals like these were taken up. The howls of outrage over providing a report on how each school is performing (and there is no such thing as a reasonable objection to a FAIR system of school assessment) have given us an indication of how the profession turns when it is made to do a little of what it is doing to our children all the time: to undergo a little test or two of its own every few years.
We need organisations like the NPSA to get behind sensible propositions like this. However, it seems that instead, we are likely to have to go on suffering the sort of stereotypical and patronising attitude that, in my view, characterised your references to parents during your talk last week.
On Thursday last, you outlined your theory on the 'stages' that parents go through when they find out that their child has a disability.
1. “The misery and anger stage”
‘Lets not even go there’ you said, such was your contempt for the worth of this response.
You failed however to mention at all, the most relevant thing to your audience – or at least it was elided into the issue of discovering that one’s child has a disability: that the misery and anger that many teachers are causing parents and pupils is all very rational given the attitudes that we are encountering in schools. The suggestion was that there was no dealing with parents who were in this state of mind. Where schools are concerned, most parents have worn out every other possible approach before we arrive at this stage. Many of us have been very badly treated and our children’s interests abused by the time we become necessarily angry. This is something that I would have expected any self-respecting organisation calling itself a parents support group to address boldly and plainly, in view of the reality. It needs urgently to be said that the teaching profession is frequently driving parents to the point of distraction because of their intransigence even though they openly acknowledge that they are not trained and badly need the information that parents can give them. But no, the professional ego problem means that the possibility of sensible and mutually respectful dialogue is taboo for most of them.
2. “Internet and other research stage” - leading to the erroneous conviction by the parent that they are now some sort of expert about their child’s educational needs.
This caricature of parents as going through some impliedly intense, misguided and manic quest for information does an enormous disservice to the truth. The majority of parents, in fact, set about understanding their children’s conditions calmly and collectedly. Yes, and no apologies for it, they use the internet and libraries and any other source of information usefully available to them - which often includes extensive access to other professional inputs and therapies all of which can have a direct bearing on what is urgently needed in the classroom. This is called research or careful study in every other context. To disparage it when it is the parents of a child with SEN who are doing it is profoundly insulting to both the intelligence and motives of the parents and also to the extent of the very real, and very professional experience that parents have gained by the time their children reach school age. But there again, it appears, there is nothing to make a lot of teachers feel more threatened and inadequate than the presence of a parent who actually knows what they are talking about. As is pointed out in the article referred to in one of the links below, this valuable knowledge base will cost the state nothing to tap into. All that is required is a directive to teachers to cop themselves on and to start learning from and respecting the parents of their SEN pupils. Again, I would have expected the Director of the NPSA to make a priority of promoting this objective. Instead, your definition of ‘listening more to parents’ turned out to mean not listening at all in fact, but patting us on the head and ‘giving us the good news’ as though all we needed from teachers was to be patronised.
3. "Discussion and engagement - there are no rights and wrongs”
You presented this as the third stage and in fact as the one that you yourself had favoured from the outset. I believe you meant to imply that this stage alone was the only rational one of the three. Firstly, it is not the parents who are delaying the possibility of discussion and engagement where teachers are concerned. This is ordinarily one of the first things we ask for – whichever profession we are trying to communicate with. We are, rather, being told to ‘butt out’ – as if we had no business in our children’s education.
Also, there are plenty of ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’. There are right ways and wrong ways to work with SEN children and teachers need to know this. A lot of serious and unnecessary mistakes continue to be made by teachers for lack of discussion and engagement with parents.
The root cause of all this frustration, debate and wasted effort is that we do not have appropriate, rights-based legislation. Politicians and professionals are everywhere making lucrative careers out of the issue but nothing changes for the children. In fact the direct services that children receive are being cut back while jobs for administrators have increased. Voluntary groups are mushrooming all over the country and collectively beating their heads ineffectually against a system which is designed to keep them doing just that, indefinitely. Politicians turn up at their meetings to seem concerned but all the time they are signing up to policies they know are not going to give us what they pretend they want to see too. It is only by guaranteeing entitlements and standards that the appropriate measures will ever be taken to eliminate all of these difficulties. We need rights-based legislation and we need it now. Again, Seamus, we did not hear you speak of that objective last Thursday. The finger of blame points directly at the political establishment, which has now ranged itself against this solution. Fianna Fail, the PD’s (of course), Fine Gael and Labour have proved themselves uniformly treacherous to this essential objective. Unless or until they reverse their policies in favour of rights for people with disability, no parent, family member, true friend, neighbour or person with a disability should even contemplate voting for any of them. There is a growing consensus among the million-strong disability lobby on this point and there are many of us out here who are dedicated to making it the litmus test of the kind of society our elected representatives are prepared to commit themselves to.
Prior to the adoption of the Disability Bill 2004, there were plenty of voices warning that the government had no intention of giving us the legislation we wanted. But those voices were silenced and rubbished from within the disability lobby itself. Kathy Sinnott, for one, was vehement in her opposition to this legislation and warned time and again that we should coalesce around rejecting the Education of Persons with Special Needs Act (which she rightly predicted was the blue print for the Disability Bill itself). She pointed out all of the imperfections in the former not least of which was the larding of the legislation in ministerial discretion rather than rights for individuals. She also pointed out that the so-called ‘rights’ it mentions are seriously restricted to the amount of resource allocated to them - whic is exactly the way it has always been.
In effect, nothing has changed. I noticed, Seamus, that you failed to challenge Mr Pat Curtain when he claimed that the EPSN Act incorporated a number of rights. Certainly, the word ‘rights’ is used extensively throughout the bill. However, the Act emphatically and explicitly does not guarantee any rights. A right without a guarantee is no right at all. Mr Curtain has of course been appointed under the terms of the act itself by ministerial discretion (as are all of the Council’s officers) and is unlikely ever to do anything for a parent or a child that would incur the ire of Minister Hannafin. And we all know where she stands on this issue.
Of the few provisions of the EPSN Act that have actually come into force, it’s telling that one of the first is one that emphasises the right, not of SEN children at all, but of typical children to an appropriate education! The government has scarcely begun even to consider addressing the neglect of children with disability before it is already rendering them second-class citizens again. This is clearly an intentionally divisive aspect of the legislation – designed to create antipathy between the two groups of parents and children and to characterise SEN parents and their children as wanting more than our fair share when, in fact if we could only catch up we’d be doing well.
Mr Curtain also had to admit that so far, the Individual Education Plan, which is the heart and soul of educational provision for SEN children has not yet even been defined. There are no guidelines for schools and none anticipated until next summer. A network of Special Education Needs Officers (SENOs) have been appointed at huge expense with no information available to them with which to advise schools on how to design and implement and IEP. The SENOs, it seems, have been spending their time, not advising teachers about how to teach SEN children, but on carving up the resource allocation under the new General Allocation Model - another nightmare altogether. So, the new ‘rights’ Mr Curtain referred to translate in reality into the rights of thousands of children to have their resource allocations cut. Well, we can now understand at least why the government can claim to have increased spending on SEN. The money has been taken from the children themselves, increased, and redirected to the National Council and its staff, presumably. But again, Seamus, not a word from you about the reduction in resources for the children themselves. Not a word from you about the need to employ the best quality Special Needs Assistants. In fact, you went so far as to defend principals who were employing poorly qualified SNAs without even interviewing better qualified applicants, by saying that it would be difficult for principals to know exactly what criteria they should use.
In conclusion, I revert to what I believe, in common with a majority of the disability lobby, is the root of this whole problem. For all the best intentions of many people on the Disability Legislation Consultation Group (of which you were a prominent member) and the undoubted commitment of most of them to securing rights-based legislation, they were, at best, naïve in the extreme ever to trust that this government would deliver on what were self-evidently hollow promises being made for some time beforehand. The tragedy is now that it appears that some of the self-same people are readying themselves for a similarly foolhardy relationship with the possible FG and Labour coalition - who have already declared that they do not support rights-based legislation. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
I don’t suppose Kathy Sinnott derives much pleasure from being able to say ‘I told you so’.
National Parents Council
Interview with a parent about her experience of trying to obtain appropriate support from professionals.
The West Cork Parents Action Group
National Parents & Siblings Alliance
The National Council for Special Education