“Children with additional needs are being utterly let down”

Niamh Neville, parent of a student in Firhouse ETNS, gives a parent’s perspective on the consequences of inadequate Additional Needs Provision.  

Additional Needs Provision is one of the key issues of Educate Together’s election awareness campaign: ‘Treating All Children Equally’.  Read more about the campaign  here. 

‘From the minute you suspect your child is “different” or may have an additional need, you start to battle. You battle against the lengthy endless waiting lists for the HSE Assessment of Need to get a diagnoses. Then you battle again for services from the Early Intervention Team (EIT) across all departments – OT, SLT, Psychology. Many children are never seen by the EIT as they move onto the School Age Team – and so another battle.

Then the battle for a school place takes over, requiring endless paperwork, reports, phone calls, letters and emails to Principals and SENOs (Special Education Needs Organisers). Your child, if luck is on their side, gets a school place. For the vast majority of children with Autism this “place” is unlikely to be the best place to meet their needs, as ASD Special Class places are few and far between. This “place” is likely to be as one of up to 30 children in a mainstream setting – where a parent knows their child will not cope without support, never mind thrive.

Firhouse ETNS, Dublin

And right back into a battleground again – the SNA application process, which requires parents to prove there is a “care need” for their child.  A diabetic child may require an insulin injection, but an child with autism doesn’t often qualify for “care”.  The fact they can’t tolerate the loud noises of a classroom, or the lights, or can’t physically sit for long periods as their core muscles are weak, the fact they need help regulating emotions as they just cannot manage to stay calm all by themselves and often lash out doesn’t appear to constitute a “care need”.  Many children end up without any access to SNAs or at the very best, some shared access to an SNA.  Many more have to do without – resulting in endless cases of shortened hours in school, or expulsions, as some children can’t cope in a mainstream setting unaided. There are 20,000 applications to the NCSE per annum and just 15,000 SNAs in total.

The current issue in Firhouse Educate Together NS means that 77 children with additional needs (of the 288 children in the school) share seven SNAs in the mainstream school and just three Special Education teachers.  Staff are doing an amazing job in these challenging circumstances but are completely over-stretched. Learning outcomes of all children are being impacted.

Through no fault of the teachers, children with and without additional needs are not being supported or developed to their best potential, children in ASD Special classes are being denied opportunities to integrate socially with their peers and develop their full academic potential, and no child is getting the optimum attention they deserve.

So now as parents we battle again – forced to hold public meetings to get our voices heard by public representatives, who have neglected to put Additional Needs/Special Education Teaching Provision on their agendas in any meaningful way. We have been forced to take to our stories to the press and onto social media. Forced to sign petitions. Forced to challenge the Department of Education and the National Council for Special Education.

Instead, the Government has proposed a Full Inclusion Model whereby all children, regardless of need are educated together in a mainstream setting.  As parents, we very much favour inclusion – but with proper supports.  The current system is failing our children as proper, meaningful supports are simply not in place.

The solution:

  • Smaller class sizes in mainstream schools particularly those with high numbers of children with additional needs;
  • Stop the Front Loading quota for Special Education Teachers and SNAs as this must be based on needs of pupils.
  • Provision of choice for Teachers while training to undertake specialist areas such as Specialist in ASD etc
  • Children with ASD supported in class by a teacher, SNA and Special Education teacher;
  • ASD Special Classes within all mainstream schools, to meet individual complex needs of children, while developing opportunities for inclusion in the mainstream setting (supported appropriately by teachers, SNAs and Special Education teachers) ;
  • OT, SLT, Psychologist and Behavioural Therapist to be provided based in each  school.

All children are being utterly let down. This is our chance to make Additional Needs/Special Education Teaching Provision to benefit all children a priority as we vote for a new Government.