Policy of containment towards special needs

Policy of containment towards special needs

Containment was the name given to US policy during the Cold War to prevent the spread of communism. It consisted largely of arresting, or containing, the spread of communism, particularly in developing countries.

Containment might also best describe the policy of the Irish government to provide an education for all the state’s children.

Instead of ensuring that all children receive an education, the approach appears to be to contain the failure to do so by spinning and prevaricating. This policy is most evident in the failure to educate children who have special needs.

Hundreds of children – even the Minister for Education doesn’t know the exact figure, or at least claims he doesn’t – didn’t get a school place this month.

For these children, most of whom are on the autism spectrum, the prospect of developing and growing in an appropriate educational environment is receding.

Hundreds, if not thousands, more children with special needs do have a place in a school, but their needs are not being met. If you are, for instance, on the autism spectrum, your educational needs are quite obviously different from those of other children.

To put that in context, imagine for a minute that a number of schools in Cork city decided that they are adopting a policy to refrain from teaching maths.

There would be uproar. Parents would be interviewed on the national airwaves about how their offspring are being discriminated against, how the state is falling them and their families. There would be swift political intervention.

Yet a considerable cohort of children are being denied a basic education simply because their needs are different from those of the majority.

One example of this was provided last Tuesday on RTÉ’s Prime Time. Suzanne McKeever fought long and hard to get a school place for her son Michael.

Eventually, he was accepted in St Paul’s CBS in Dublin, where there is a unit for children with special needs. But attending school doesn’t not necessarily equate to being educated.

“The unit doesn’t have trained staff,” Ms McKeever said, while also praising the teachers.

His teacher has not got training. It’s more like a containment unit. His education needs are not being met, not even close.” The school principal concurred, adding that he gets very little support from the department.

“Children like Michael are being abjectly failed,” Patrick McCormack told the programme.

“It’s like parents are expected to spin a wheel and hope they get a school that has a more developed infrastructure.

“Oftentimes it’s really a more dysfunctional system of containment for children.”

There is a considerable body of evidence to suggest that containment is the de facto policy to address the shortfalls in educating children with special needs.

This week we learned that the Minister for Education Joe McHugh does not know how many children with special needs require an appropriate school placing. There are no official figures for the number of children not receiving the education they require.

In official circles, if you are not officially in possession of information, you can claim to be ignorant of it, and therefore not held responsible for it.

The state knows, for instance, how many children are homeless. Yet it claims not to know how many children are not receiving an education?

One tactic in containing a problem is to minimise it in the public mind.

Last April, Joe McHugh was reported to have stated there were sufficient places to educate all children. Until recently, his department would only acknowledge that there was a problem in the Dublin 15 area.

This week, the Minister accepted there were “acute” shortages in other parts of Dublin and in Cork. This scenario would have evident to anybody who read the Irish Examiner or a number of other media outlets over the last year.

Another element to the provision of special needs education was uncovered in a report published earlier this month by Inclusion Ireland.

It showed that one in four children with disabilities were being subjected to shorter school days, known as “reduced timetables”.

For children with autism, the report found that this applied to one in three children.

As far as statistics are concerned the children on a “reduced timetable” each has a school place. Officially, their needs are being met.

Imagine for a minute that teachers in say, west Clare, backed by their union, decide to shorten the school day because they think they’re worth it. Would anybody put up with that?

Yet, those who have the greatest challenges in integrating and advancing in the world are subjected to such a level of discrimination.

Another area the government references to illustrate a commitment to educating all children is recent changes to the law. The Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018 makes provision for the minister to instruct a school to open a special education unit.

However, the provision is contained in a section with ten subsections, each representing a hoop which must be jumped through before the minister can issue his instruction.

Once again, the fine print disputes the impression being given that so much is being done.

The reality is that the government is deploying a policy of containment because it simply does not have the stomach to do what is required to give all children an education.

To do so would, for one thing, require much more resources. For schools to be properly supported with infrastructure and staff, serious investment is needed.

That money would have to come from somewhere. Within government there is a perennial competition for resources.

The cold fact is that properly resourcing special education needs would not be the most politically advantageous use of resources, irrespective of the case to do so, both morally and in terms of constitutional duty.

Beyond the need for investment there is a lack of political will to prioritise special education in the existing structure. Why at a time of a major school building programme to cater for a bulging population is every school not required to have a unit for special education?

Why are fee paying schools not tackled for their failure to make any provision for special needs education? Rebalancing priorities within the existing system is required but there is little sign of the political will to do so.

In that regard, the policy of containment looks set to continue. It’s a policy that is callous, disingenuous and expedient.

Thousands of children are thus condemned to a life in which they do not receive the basic developmental tools available through a proper education.

Thousands of parents are fated to spend their lives loaded with further stress, worry, and not infrequently exhaustion because of the state’s neglect of their loved one.

As of now there is no sign that the needs of all these people are going to be met.

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