Five-year-old Tom and his sister May, four, will start school next September but their educational needs are quite different.
Tom has Down Syndrome and an IQ of 58 but, unlike most children with the syndrome, he will not have set weekly hours of resource teaching, as his is a mild, rather than a moderate, general learning disability. If he had a diagnosis of an additional disability from a list in the Department of Education’s 2005 rules for the sanctioning of individual resource teaching, he would qualify.
His mum, Sarah Murphy, says his additional needs are much more complex than a typical child with mild general learning disability. Yet, she says, none is enough to tick the right box to qualify him for his own dedicated resource teaching hours.
“It’s like one of those insurance policies — when you read the small print you find that they don’t cover you for resource hours,” she says. “But there’s a big difference between having a mild general learning disability and having Down Syndrome with mild general learning disability.
“He has a bit of everything, the big one is a speech and language disorder; he has mild hearing loss; he has sight problems; poor fine motor skills for writing; and gross motor skills in terms of being clumsy.
“And because of all those things, he also has behavioural problems because he gets frustrated at not being able to do what the other kids are doing.”
If Tom had resource teaching hours sanctioned for the school by the National Council for Special Education, he would be guaranteed four and a quarter hours of his own each week.
“The psychologist says Tom will struggle in mainstream without definite support,” says Sarah, who lives in Bray, Co Wicklow, with partner Rupert O’Neill and the two kids. “The local national school is great, the principal said they will try and help him with whatever learning support hours they can give.
“But he won’t bring any hours with him, he’ll be a draw on the school’s general allocation of learning support, from which around one fifth of pupils get help.”
The clear indication from the Department of Education this week, and in yesterday’s Dáil debate from Minister of State Sean Sherlock, is that this general allocation model and the separate system of individual guaranteed resource teaching approved by the NCSE are to be replaced.
Instead, although it will be at least September 2015 before implemented, schools would be entitled to use professional judgment on how much additional teaching support each child requires for their individual special needs.
However, Sarah agrees with Down Syndrome Ireland that time is of huge importance in providing equality for their son and others like him.
DSI chief executive Pat Clarke says the biggest concern is for children such as Tom due to start school next September if Finian McGrath’s bill is not passed. This is his concern after comments from Mr Quinn’s spokesman to the Irish Examiner this week suggesting a new allocation model will be in place before the bill can pass.
“We need this implemented as a matter of urgency, children who need resource teaching simply cannot afford to wait,” says Mr Clarke. “It is imperative that this bill be passed to ensure all children get equal opportunity to an education in this country.”
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