My Aunt - Hannah O'Connor

My Aunt - Hannah O'Connor

Presentation by: Rev. Dan O'Connor, General Secretary,
Catholic Primary School Management Association

When I was preparing for this presentation I was wondering if I knew anyone who went through the Irish Education System with some form of disability or a special need. I was at home racking my brains and I looked at a photograph of my father's family - there in the photo was my father's sister Hannah along with her four brothers and other sister. Then it dawned on me - my aunt Hannah O'Connor was disabled - she was born with only one hand. My grandmother Mary O'Connor gave birth to twins on July 11th 1918 - a boy and a girl. The boy did not survive the night of July 11th and the girl Hannah was born with one hand.

When she went to school to the Presentation Sisters in Millstreet in 1922, Sr. Benignus was the Sister who changed my aunt's life. She treated her as one of the class; she encouraged my aunt to write. Put your left hand behind your back and try writing with your right hand - pretty hard is it not. Now imagine a class of 54 juniors and one child in the class has a disability - it would be so easy to leave that child in the corner and not put in an effort - what is one when 53 demand more time.

Yet Sr. Benignus taught my aunt to write in beautiful copperplate writing. Hannah was also taught how to sew, step dance and take part in all forms of school activities.

At the age of 13 Hannah left seventh class in the Primary School - she was kept on because she was clever - and moved to the "Secondary Top" where Sr. Kevin was Principal. Sr. Kevin taught her how to type! She learned book-keeping and the usual Intermediate subjects. She left school at 16 a confidant woman.

In her school she was accepted and her talents were encouraged and developed. She became the centre of our family circle. To her 15 nieces and nephews, she was our advocate in times of disputes with our own parents. Aunty always had wise advice and a listening ear. She ran the family farm with my uncle and his wife. We as her family never thought of her as being different or disabled - she was "aunty"! As a woman in her seventies she began to share with us her difficulties in life. She said that the letter "E" was important in her life.

Explaining: Hannah said that she always had to explain her disability. She was often asked - were you in an accident? When her answer was - "No, I was born with one arm", the look of pity on people's faces used to upset her.

Exclusion: Hannah would have liked to study for nursing. A person with one hand cannot be a nurse. Yet, Aunty was always with her sister and with her three sisters-in-law when a new baby arrived and she cared for the mother and newborn for some weeks. She nursed her mother, her sister and her sister-in-law in their last illnesses.

Hannah always regretted that she never married and had her own family. She used to go to the dances with her brothers but it was never part of her life or her family that she would marry.

Education: It was her positive experience in school of being treated as a student with her own gifts and talents that as she said herself "set her up for life".

Education was the key that opened doors for her. School was the place where she learned several skills and where she became part of the school community.

Current Irish Situation - Special Education in Primary Schools

Schedule.

A Roman Catholic School (which is established in connection with the Minister for Education) aims at promoting the full and harmonious development of all aspects of the person of the pupil: intellectual, physical, cultural, moral and spiritual, including a living relationship with God and with other people. The school models and promotes a philosophy of life inspired by belief in God and in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Catholic school provides religious education for the pupils in accordance with the doctrines, practices and tradition of the Roman Catholic Church and promotes the formation of the pupils in the Catholic faith.

Just look again at the first line, especially the words "aims at promoting the full and harmonious development of all aspects of the pupil: intellectual, physical, cultural, moral and spiritual".

St. Thomas Aquinas in "Summa Theologica" reminds us of the dignity of the human person and of the right of a person to be given every opportunity to develop their talents and to lead a full life. We, as Boards of Management of primary schools, are required by our mission and by the Schedule to be open to the needs of all the students in the area where the school is founded.

Education Act: The 1998 Education Act lists in Section 15 the functions of a board and a school. Amongst the functions listed is "to provide for the educational needs of the students, including those with special needs".

Under the Education Act, the Board of Management is required, along with the teaching staff, to "Promote the Moral, Spiritual, Social and Personal Development of the Students".

So in Irish schools the Schedule and the Act require the local Board to provide for the needs of the pupils. The Education Act lists 7 basic policies that BOMs must publish. Amongst the basic policies are a policy on Disabilities and a policy on Special Education Needs.

The 1998 Education Act Section 2 (i) defines "disability" to mean:

  1. The total or partial loss of a person's bodily or mental functions, including the loss of a part of the person's body, or
  2. The presence in the body of organisms causing, or likely to cause, chronic disease or illness, or
  3. The malfunction, malformation or disfigurement of a part of a person's body, or
  4. A condition or malfunction which results in a person learning differently from a person without the condition or malfunction, or
  5. A condition, illness or disease which affects a person's thought processes, perception of reality, emotions or judgement or which results in disturbed behaviour;

The Board and teaching staff of a primary school under Catholic patronage welcome a pupil with disability into the school. CPSMA advise Boards, principal and staff not to delay enrolment of pupils with disabilities until the support services are provided. We advise the Board, principal and staff to enrol the student but to explain to the parent exactly what the school can provide. CPSMA also advises the Board, principal, and staff to assist the pupil and his/her parents in negotiating with the Department of Education and Science (DES) for support services for the student.

The experience of schools regarding the supply of services varies. There is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed regarding speech therapists for schools.

The current audit of special education services by the DES is welcome and hopefully will result in a better structure for all pupils. The DES, management and unions need to address the contracts and conditions of employment of Special Needs Assistants.

CPSMA proposes that the Special Education Council take over the employment of Special Needs Assistants and establish a service in an area. This would be similar to the Visiting Teachers Service. We look forward to cooperating and working with the Special Needs Officers. Our experience as management with the National Education Welfare Board has been successful and productive for pupils at risk. The local Education Officers have been most helpful to Boards regarding issues of students' attendance. Our hope is that the same will be true for the Special Education Officers.

However, these services require a financial commitment from Government. CPSMA calls for a dedicated generous budget for the National Education Welfare Board and the Special Education Council. CPSMA does not have representation on the Special Education Council - why? We do not know.

The School Plan

"It is a statement of the aims and objectives of the school and how it proposes to achieve them.
It deals with the curriculum and with the organisation of all the school's resources including staff, spec, equipment, time and financial resources. In particular it outlines the contribution that can and will be made in the implementation by all the partners."

Niamh Bhreathnach
Minister for Education.

We have been very luck as a country with our Ministers for Education and in particular Niamh Bhreathnach and Michael Martin were very committed to the pupils and parents especially pupils with Special Education Needs.

The parents are partners in education and a recent DES Inspectorate publication titled "50 Schools - What the Inspectors Say" is a wake up call for Boards. In that survey, the inspectors found that parents are still on the margins when it comes to consultation regarding the school plan.

At CPSMA Board of Management training, we stressed the importance of including parents in all aspects of the school. The parents and pupils are the customers, and we must follow Fergal Quinn's advice "Care for the Customers". No Exclusion!

However, the experience of frustration amongst parents and principals when the needs of a student are being processed by the various statutory bodies can be and must be avoided. The Board accepts and enrols the pupil, but in many cases the services are very slow in coming. The burden is left with the principal and the teaching staff, and it is unfair to the pupil and the other students in the school if there is not an immediate response to easonable requests for support services.

The School Principal

There is a list of 16 statutory duties for the Principal Teacher. The Education of People with Disabilities Bill lists 48 duties for the principal. The Education Welfare Act requires 12 specific duties from the principal teacher.

Circular 16/73 "Responsibilities and Duties of Principal Teachers" list 29 direct duties for the principal and 14 duties that may be delegated.

Now can you imagine a principal, teaching a class and looking after a staff of 6 plus 6 special needs assistants, bus escorts, transport and then she or he has a part time secretary. A demanding post indeed.

Our principals and teachers in primary schools are hard working, committed people but they need the support of the community.

Parents, principals and teachers, in trying to get the best services for students, find the process very difficult at times.

The National Parents' Council (Primary) has been and continues to be a valued association in education. CPSMA and our sister organisation - The National Association of Boards of Management of Special Schools - maintain close contact with NPC. The Education Act requires a Board to assist in founding and supporting Parents' Associations in accordance with Section 26 of the Education Act.

It is very difficult for a parent with a child who has special needs to obtain a voice especially in Mainstream Schools. At the "YES" consultation process in Tallaght, a mother with a special education needs child contributed to the debate saying: - "If school league tables become part of the Irish Education system then I will not be able to place my child in a mainstream school because she will be seen as a burden and an underperformer".

That is a sad statement. Remember Hannah she was accepted into a mainstream school, she was clever but she had a severe physical handicap. I also taught a student in St. Finian's, Swords. Robert was his name. He had a muscle wasting illness and used a motorised wheelchair. The other pupils treated him as one of them but when it came to the social side of the school life it was hard. You could not get a wheelchair on a bus. A visit to another school could only be on for Robert if that school was on the flat. The education side of his life was well looked after but the physical difficulties of buildings limited Robert's social life. Again the Exclusion word comes to mind. Robert died after sitting his Intermediate Certificate.

The Way Forward: Learning from Others

In December 2001, I went on an Arion visit organised by the DES to Galicia in Spain. There are similarities between Galicia and Ireland. Spain had just passed into law a new Education Act. In Galicia, a large number of Romany gypsies have moved into the region, along with immigrants from Argentina. There are increasing numbers of gypsy pupils with special educational needs.

The Education Ministry of Galicia has established, in each of the four cities of Galicia, an Education Council for the schools in each city and region.

On each Education Council there are educationalists, a psychologist, a physiotherapist, a family social worker and a health care person. The schools in the region can call on these services to assist a pupil and her/his family.

The service prepares an education plan for the pupil and can give the student the psychological and health care assistance needed. The family social worker meets with the pupil's parents/guardians and a home school programme is prepared.

Our newly established Education Council can learn from models of good practice in Europe.

It is important to acknowledge the commitment of principals and teachers in our special and mainstream schools. There is a wealth of experience, knowledge and commitment amongst the staff of our special schools. This needs to be protected and strengthened. Integration in the mainstream schools must also mean inclusion of students with special needs.

The experiences of parents and pupils with special education needs have been most painful in some cases. The mainstream primary school accepts the pupil, the system fails the pupil, the parents look for another school involving a move for the pupil from familiar to new and away to school from home. The student moving from a mainstream school to another special school feels like a failure. The student is placed in a special school with students who are used to the special school and who are ahead of the student - so the failure message is compounded. Special education needs costs money, and will continue to do so. But it is money well spent. Integration and Inclusion is a successful and expensive way. Spain is prepared to invest, so should we.

Remember!!

  1. The Boards of Management are voluntary bodies. The Board are bound by the Education Act, the Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Act.
  2. The DES needs to support the Board.
  3. Pupils have rights.
  4. Boards must fulfil their obligations.
  5. Statutory bodies and Government must fulfil obligations to BOMs and pupils.

Conclusion

If Hannah O'Connor was in school now in 2004 she would be affected by the proposed WEIGHTING SYSTEM. She would be in Presentation N.S. Millstreet, an all girls' school without disadvantage service. These schools get a special education post for every 200 girls in the school. In the all boys' school across the road, 140 boys means a special education resource teacher, and over in the co-ed primary school in Rathcoole 4 miles away, 150 pupils means a resource teacher appointment. Guess which group will lose out?

So the class teacher gives time to Hannah - maybe the other parents will be concerned that so much time is spent in class on Hannah. So parents object. Exclusion! Today, December 6th, is the Feast of St. Nicholas, the Patron Saint of Children. In Myra he saw the needs of children and responded. We too must make the same response.

Last Friday the Crosscare Agency launched the Cedar report on the inclusion of people with special needs in the liturgical and parish life of the Archdioceses of Dublin.

The M.C. was blind and in her speech she said of people with disabilities: "Remember, it is your body impairs you, your community disables you".

As educators and school managers, we must ensure good news stories like those of Hannah O'Connor and Robert. If it was done in 1922-1932 for Hannah, what can be done now for so many young people like her in today's world?

Presented in memory of my brave aunt, Hannah O'Connor
11th July 1918 - 19th June 1998.
May she rest in peace.