Encouraging Voices

Encouraging Voices

The Voice of the Pupil: Pupils' perspectives on their inclusion in mainstream following transfer from special school

Speaker: Margaret O'Donnell, Director, Curriculum and Assessment National Council or Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA)

In her presentation, Margaret O'Donnell outlined findings from her research which explored the academic, social and emotional experiences of pupils with disability following their transfer from a special school to a mainstream school. The purpose of the research was to provide a forum for pupils with disability to describe their own experiences and thus to highlight the factors which helped or hindered them in the inclusion process.

The bulk of the primary research centred on 28 students in North County Dublin, who had transferred from special schools to mainstream schooling over a fifteen year period. Both qualitative and quantitative methods were employed with interviews and questionnaires. The six themes which emerged from the data provided insights into pupils' perception on: Changing School; Schoolwork; Parents; Teachers; Friendship and Opinions.

Transfer from a special school to the mainstream school presents many new experiences for the pupil with disability. These experiences can be challenging physically, intellectually, socially and emotionally. For the pupil, it involves leaving their peer group and joining a completely different group in a totally different environment. The sheer size of the class group, the lack of support networks for parents and pupils and the differences in the organisation of the schooldays are but a few of the experiences that await them. How the pupil responds to these new demands seems critical to the success of the transfer.

Changing School: Why did they move?

Data from the study suggest that pupils are not included in the decision making regarding transfer from special school to mainstream schools. Despite the fact that all pupils interviewed transferred to local schools, only one visited the school prior to entry. 'No, I didn't visit, but I saw it, I knew where it was', 'Yes I did, but I only saw it on the outside, I didn't go inside'. Many pupils saw themselves as too clever and the curriculum in special school as being too narrow and restricted to meet their needs. Younger pupils had clearly confused ideas as to the reasons for transfer, 'because I was getting older'.

Older pupils saw their academic progress as the main determining factor for their transfer, 'well I was the highest in my class and I needed more tuition like'. One pupil when asked if he thought he needed to go to a special school at all responded, 'well yes in the beginning, but when I started to get smarter than all my other classmates, it was time for some decent education, but I never knew that I'd have to change schools, I just came home one day and Mum and Dad said that "was your last day at the - because you're changing to a new school'.

Many descriptions in literature and poetry describe the pupils' first day at school. For these pupils who had left the familiar environment of the special school and transferred into schools where they were now in the minority, it was a time filled with emotion. Nearly all of the pupils remembered their first day as a day filled with emotion. Emotions of sadness and happiness, fear and anxiety, nervousness and feeling different were all present:

"at the start I felt a bit shy and stuff, it took me a while to mix with the others but after a while it got fine and that".

Some pupils felt different, 'weird, and different because nobody was in a wheelchair except myself'. 'I remember coming into class and when we were coming into class and seeing everybody walking, that's the only thing I remember'. 'The building was different, 'it looked real big'.

Sadness at the loss of friends was another emotion often mentioned, 'I'll never forget him, I knew him through for six years, he was my best friend'. 'I was very nervous, well I didn't know anyone and it was all different'.

The curiosity of the other pupils at the new arrival to their school was often difficult to endure, 'Well you know how hard it is for us, they all stared at us and I felt what are they staring at? We're just in a wheelchair, I didn't feel good. I told them not to look at me'.

Schoolwork: What subjects caused greatest difficulty?

Many pupils had difficulties with mathematics and did not receive additional support. These are some of the sentiments expressed:

'Well, maths was a bit hard but I managed most of it. It took me longer to do the maths than any other subject'.

'At the start, it was hard to keep up. I had to get grinds and stuff. I'm still getting grinds in maths'.

'Well the one I hate the most is maths because I haven't been doing very well over the last week. He jumped to something new like percentages. I don't understand it very well'.

While the majority of pupils needed help with homework, they stated that their parents explained homework differently than their teachers. The volume of homework presented a problem for many pupils with mathematics being the subject most frequently mentioned:

'Well I know that I wouldn't be able to do it so I just wouldn't do it'. 'The teacher used to give us a whole chapter in maths, which were about 30 sums'.

Most pupils felt they worked hard and kept up with the rest of the class. However, many pupils stated that they sometimes felt left out of things at school. They highlighted a lack of inclusion in Physical Education, and going on class tours:

'Well they play football and running and things like that and I can't do those'.

Another boy was very aware of the extent of his inclusion:

'The writing and the studying and all that, but I'm not always included in P.E. and sport, like in 3rd and 4th class when everyone went to P.E. we had to stay back in class and that was really boring'. 'I just sat there and watched them'. When questioned as to how he saw his inclusion in the P.E. class, one boy responded:

'Well I could have kept the score, couldn't I?'

Pupils who felt that they were not given the same treatment as their peers also highlighted the fact that while they were included in class trips, all of them had to have their parents drop and collect them;

'Yeah we'd get to go but we couldn't go on the bus, we'd have to be dropped there'.

How did they view the teachers?

The relationship between the teacher and the pupil is of crucial importance. For pupils with special educational needs who have transferred from the safe environment of the special school, the help and understanding of the teacher is of paramount importance. The teacher acts as a role model for others. How the teacher relates to the pupil with special needs will influence the self-concept of the pupil and subsequently will affect relationships with peers.

The pupils' views of their teachers in this study are positive. Teachers were encouraging, listened to their needs, never ignored or made them feel less able. Hard work was encouraged but sometimes pupils felt that teachers gave low marks and didn't understand their problems. Very few pupils interviewed reported negative attitudes from teachers and principals. For one pupil who needed extra time to get in line, it angered him when the principal would shout at him to hurry up,

'Well if I was out in the yard he'd say come on come on hurry up and get in there in that line and I'd be taking my time to get in line cause of my legs you know the way'.

He felt that overall, teachers didn't understand his needs:

'They just didn't know what to do; they didn't understand not to push me around, 'cause I couldn't be pushed around.'

Best and Worst Aspects of School

Two factors clearly emerged from the data: having friends and mixing with other pupils who were not disabled:

'The most important thing for me is having friends, because if you have friends you are happy'.

Very positive attitudes towards friends and friendships were revealed and this was reflected by the majority of pupils for whom having friends was the best thing about school. Friends are kind, look out for them and also like to be with them. Pupils are rarely ignored, made fun of or seen as different because of their disability.

The caring quality of friendship shown by other pupils was widely reported:

'Yeah they were all nice...well if I had any problems they'd help me'.

'I'd say my friends would help me a lot'.

'This guy from 3rd class, he'd bring me down to the toilet and wait outside with my chair as well and stuff and he's still my helper now'.

Pupils reported that they made friends easily with only two pupils stating that he did not have a best friend. Others stated:

'Yeah, I have a load of friends.'

'Oh God I've got a ton. Yeah most of them are here on the road and then I've got a load of friends in sixth, fifth all the way from third to sixth'.

Name calling and "slagging" were reported by many pupils interviewed. However this seemed to diminish after the early stages of adjustment and friendships were formed:

'Perhaps the pupils who slag just grow up'.

'They used to slag me and my Dad had to go up to them and everything because they were slagging me in school and all that, and we had to warn the school and tell the school about the fellas who were slagging me'.

Poor home background and lack of understanding were reasons why pupils engaged in slagging:

'Up the top of the road people used to slag me, it's a rough part'.

'They came from a wild family'.

'In the primary school they were only young kids and they didn't know right from wrong and all this and they were slagging me and all but in secondary school they're brilliant. It took me only a week to get used to the school'.


Pupils with disability have, by virtue of their disability, many different life experiences in comparison to their able-bodied peers. Their life experiences, their relationships, their self-concept and their ability to compete are limited by the restraints of their disability. Learning does not take place in isolation but is intrinsically bound up with the many complexities of life which pupils experience. Inherent in this learning process is the relationship between the pupil and the parent, the relationship of significant others and how positively or negatively they shape the self-concept of the pupil with disability. Learning cannot be assessed in isolation from these factors. This study indicates that pupils have valuable insights into their own realities and their views add a depth to our understanding of the educational process.

The findings indicate that there is a need for an infrastructure to be put in place to provide effective continuity of educational provision between special and mainstream schools. While these pupils adjusted well to mainstream school and were integrated in the general school system, there was inadequate accommodation in certain aspects of the curriculum in order to facilitate the inclusion of pupils with disability. Friendship and being educated with able-bodied peers emerged as the two most important factors for pupils with physical disability attending mainstream school. Integration leads to acceptance, normality and inclusion in the community.