Secret Diary of an Irish Teacher: Minister is using the word 'segregated' to describe children with special needs

Secret Diary of an Irish Teacher: Minister is using the word 'segregated' to describe children with special needs
Minister for Education Joe McHugh

I’M MORE than a little worried. I’m worried about the use of a single word. I’m not usually afraid of words but there’s something sinister about this one.

The word is ‘segregated’, as used by our Minister for Education Joe McHugh to explain his decision to create a completely inclusive education system.

Another word that demands attention. The word ‘segregation’ implies the separation of individuals for no good reason. It recalls acts of prejudice in the United States, India or South Africa. It suggests injustice, determined by arbitrary factors like the colour of your skin or the practice of your religion.

However, our minister is using this word to describe children in our care with special needs, with sometimes complex educational and emotional needs, in relation to their non- disabled peers. There is an implication that there’s no good reason for separation in this instance. That it is simply cruel and prejudicial. The minister has used this word to prevent all schools from asking anything about the specific needs of a prospective student from 2021.

In so doing, the minister seeks to deny these disabilities any part in the admissions’ process, suggesting that even asking about them is offensive.

Is disability offensive? My mum is disabled and for her, small tasks are extremely difficult. However, she continues to do them, and I respect her hugely for it. Should I no longer mention this disability, either to her face or otherwise? Is this a form of ‘segregation’ as the minister suggests. Should I take away the walking aids, the gadgets for putting on socks, the bag around her neck with a phone in case of emergency? Are these items offensive to him? Is this what ‘inclusion’ looks like?

The fact is some students need extra and tailored supports that cannot be provided in a mainstream setting. This is the truth and we must be truthful with our children and with their parents. In my classroom, I know some students are not getting an optimum education despite my best efforts. In one class, in the same room, I have kids who are years ahead developmentally and I have a student who is at least five years behind, with an extremely significant intellectual disability. I have the support of a special needs assistant but I also have another five students in the room with specific learning needs. Our system is already under-resourced and under-supported and my worry around the minister’s use of the word ‘segregated’ is that he is using it to reduce costs even further and to rely solely on single teachers in their single classrooms.

It would be really refreshing and exciting if this minister had a more nuanced and comprehensive approach.

What would that mean? Firstly, it would address the fact that some schools are genuinely unwelcoming to students with special needs. These are the schools that tell parents how ‘academic’ they are; they tell them ‘this really isn’t the place for them’.

These are the schools that are often regarded as the ‘best’ schools in our cities. These are the schools the minister needs to recognise and deal with. Every parent reading this article will know the schools I’m talking about. If they have a child with special needs, they will no doubt be able to name them. One look at the NCSE website will reveal the schools without special needs assistants, the schools which actively dissuade certain children from attending.

Then there is my school, still suffering from the decision in 2017 to no longer provide support at an individual, child-by-child basis, but instead, to ‘profile’ the school and decide what supports are needed in a general sense. This profile is decided by factors like exam results, gender, numbers and feeder primary schools. Administration in Ireland is slow.

My school was profiled two years before it got exam results and when the student body was half the size it is now. It has left us without the supports for significant learning needs. We have no special classroom, not enough hours and our teachers and students are over-stretched and over-stimulated. Our students are not ‘segregated’ but they could do with being separated more; they could do with being fully resourced in environments that meet their needs.

If the minister is serious about making everyone feel included, he needs to address individual needs rather than denying or silencing difference. He needs to put money into specialised teacher training in special needs, better school buildings with nearby units so that children with profound disability can be scaffolded into the mainstream system if that is the best thing for them. He needs to look at class sizes, special needs assistant training and therapy. I’m tiring of people blaming teachers for what is a systemic problem. We need to get less tolerant of sloppy policy making. Schools should not be allowed to turn away students with special needs. They also shouldn’t have to fight for resources. Maybe then parents wouldn’t have to hide disability so that schools might take their child. The minister’s focus on ‘segregation’ puts the blame on all schools and is not specific enough. I really hope I’m wrong about this. I hope this new ‘model’ will be about supporting students. Because that’s what I signed up for.

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