Risk of Poverty: The Reality - A Primary School's Experience (Case Study)

Speaker: Pat Goff, Irish Primary Principals Network

The recent enactment of legislation such as the Education Act, the Equal Status Act, the Education Welfare Act and more recently the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act have significant implications on the schools system. In this presentation Pat Goff examined the impact of these legislative changes on the staffing, staffing roles, accommodation, special needs provision, policies and other supports on primary schools.

Case Study

In this presentation, Goff concentrated on one school, a primary school in County Wexford. In 1998, the school had a total staff of 20 (16 teachers: 11 class teachers, 1 learning support, 3 supply panel, 1 principal, 0 special needs assistants, 1 caretaker, 1 secretary and 2 cleaners.) In 2004, the staffing of the same school increased to a total of 58 (31 teachers: 17 class teachers, 1 learning support, 8 resource teachers, 3 supply panel, 1 home school, 1 principal, 22 special needs assistants, 1 caretaker, 1 secretary, 3 cleaners).

Not only did the number of staff increase but the roles of the primary staff also evolved. Due to the enactment of the above legislation, the amount of administrative and managerial workload has more than doubled for the principal of the school. The time and effort required to secure the proper assessment and resources for students with special educational needs have dominated the day-to-day work of the principal.

Approximately 70% of the principal's time in the last four years has been dedicated to special educational needs. This year the school has restructured its management team and created a Special Education team to cope with the workload.

The role of class teachers has also evolved with the demands of the students. Previously, class teachers concentrated their efforts in teaching the class. Now, with many having support assistants in their class, their role as an educator has changed to one of class manager, team leader, and innovator. Meetings with parents, other staff meetings and training of support assistants are now part of their work. Of course, they also still have to teach the class.

Role of the Teacher and School Principal

The reality is that all these extra duties put tremendous strain on the teacher's time. With the increasing demands on the teacher to meet the differentiated needs of the students, the learning support teacher must keep up to date on training and resource development. They need to acquire new skills in dealing with children with language, behavioural and emotional problems. The special needs assistants are appointed to pupils who have physical or toiletry needs or those who may endanger themselves or others around them.

Twelve special needs assistants are assigned to two autistic classes and the remainder are assigned to individual students. They too require constant training to cope with the students' needs. Currently the only qualification for special needs assistants is a junior certificate with basic "ABA" training. Their contract is fixed-term with the first year in probation. As special needs assistants are assigned to each student, the issue of continuity and transition arises as the student develops and continues to progress in school.

With a staff of 22 special needs assistants, the school feels that there is a need to develop a supervisory role; a special needs organiser to oversee all special needs assistants. The role of the special needs organiser would be to manage the day-to-day operations of the policy, support and advise colleagues, liaise with parents and external agencies and co-ordinate and manage all provisions to meet the student's needs.

Strain on other resources

The increase of resource staff places a huge pressure on the physical accommodation of the school. Currently the school has expanded with the rental of seven additional prefab structures. The Department of Education and Science has not sanctioned all additional rental costs, even though the environment for pupils with special educational needs is extremely important.

Every special needs pupil is entitled to an individual education plan (IEP). These IEPs address the pupil's full range of needs and include details from the class teacher, assessment results, reports from other agencies or professionals, learning strengths, learning targets, class based learning and home support activities. It is a small steps approach with finely graded steps and targets, which help ensure that the child achieves his/her fullest potential.

Based on the IEPs and resources available, the school should allocate:

  1. Individual tuition (one-to-one) outside the classroom;
  2. Small group tuition (more favourable due to limited resources);
  3. Intervention in the classroom;
  4. Shared or paired intervention;
  5. A class teacher to provide the resource while resource teacher assumes the teaching role; or
  6. Shared teaching in the classroom by both class and support teacher.

Currently in this primary school, the support teachers work with 44 students who are below the 10th percentile mark. There are also language teachers to work with 43 non-national students and two support teachers to work with twelve autistic students. The other support teachers support the remainder of special needs students in the school.

School policies are affected by the changes necessary to achieve inclusion in mainstream settings. At this school, many policies had to be re-written and revised to cater for this change. Policies such as enrolment and discipline were most affected. New policies on special needs provision, restraint, staff roles and responsibilities, health and safety issues, etc. were included in the new school policies.

The administration and management of special education provision has presented many challenges to the school. Fortunately, the school in question has the capacity to grow its staff and cope with the additional workload and has the physical capacity to handle more students with special educational needs. In theory, each school should be able to provide for students with special educational needs. In Goff's view, it is more of a challenge for a smaller school.

Conclusion

For the future, Goff recommends that the Department of Education and Science revisit the weighted system when allocating resources. In his view class sizes must be reduced. Training for class teachers and all support resources is a priority. A new post such as an administrative principal should be created to assist with the workload. Resource provision for students with special educational needs must be determined by what the pupil needs and not what the government is prepared to pay. There is a need for adequate special educational needs organisers and assistants in each county. There is a real difference with schools providing full inclusion versus those that merely integrate student with special educational needs in the school.