June 2, 2022, Irish Examiner: Irish Teacher: Teachers are at breaking point. Why won't the department of education listen? https://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/people/arid-40886876.html
By Jennifer Horgan
Some students throw chairs — but the woman with the clipboard, who never visits our school, tells us we’ll 'have a hard case'
In one class, I have five children awaiting an autism diagnosis. They have one SNA.
There is an untold story in education. It’s hidden beneath distraction, beneath Norma Foley claiming she’s on the side of children with additional needs, beneath Josepha Madigan’s effort to blame schools for her department’s failings....
Special classes are alarmingly more common at primary; only 28% of them exist at secondary. But we all have a part to play in that sorry tale, and until we stop carrying on the way we do, dissecting league tables and CAO points, it’ll stay the same. At primary, the story is more straight-forward. And this week, with the help of various primary principals, it’s the story I’d like to tell.
Few people understand how special educational needs work in Ireland. People assume that principals hold the purse strings. They don’t. The NCSE [National Council for Special Education] decides how much support each school receives, based on an algorithm they refuse to share. It’s the NCSE, headed by Josepha Madigan, that decides on the allocation of supports for each school for every coming year. This year, that announcement came at the latest possible moment, yet the wait was for nothing. Jennifer Horgan: The story of St Stephen’s National School, like many schools, is one we need to hear because it’s our story, the story of our country. It’s the untold story of the state we’re in. Every school allocation is frozen for 2022-23, for the third consecutive year: Frozen.
The faces in these classrooms, these corridors, these yards, have changed over the last three years. Their needs have changed accordingly. Yet the allocation of support is frozen. Developing schools will have gained three new year groups — maybe 100 children — in the last three years. Yet their allocation is frozen. In this instance, as primary principals rightly point out, the term ‘frozen’ is misleading. It isn’t frozen, it’s reduced....
Principal Claire Matthews will see an increase from 190 to 275 pupils in September, with no additional SNA support. As she says, there is nothing ‘exceptional’ about increasing numbers. It’s a normal, predictable event in a developing school, and yet she’s being asked to waste time on an arduous and difficult ‘exceptional’ review. And these appeals often fail. Hours of administration and form-filling fail to achieve anything.
Niamh Cullen, another primary principal of a developing school, now has five teacher posts and five SNAs fewer than developed schools of the same size and three posts fewer in autism classes. “How is this equity in education?” she asks.
Sinead Lowe, principal of St Stephen’s School, a Band 1 DEIS school in Waterford City, says they’ve never witnessed the same level of need.
“Our NEPS psychologist tells me that she’s never seen such a level of need in her 25 years of work. The school’s public-health nurse says it’s unprecedented. These are the people on the ground and yet we’re being given an allocation by someone who has never visited us. Our school is nothing like it was three years ago.”
Ms Lowe is worried for her staff and for the children in her care. She’s been in the role for two years and is still surprised by “the level of let-down” she experiences on a daily basis.
“I taught for 20 years before becoming a principal, so I know the benefits of a truly inclusive school. It benefits everyone. But the department is trying to make us inclusive without giving us the resources.
In one class, I have five children awaiting an autism diagnosis. They have one SNA. The teachers are close to breaking point. Some students throw chairs - yet, when I ask our SENO, who ultimately works for the NCSE, for help, she tells us we’ll have a hard case trying to get a one-to-one SNA for any child. This woman with a clipboard, who never visits our school, tells us we’ll have a hard case.”
For Ms Lowe, it’s frustrating that the Department of Education and the NCSE simply don’t communicate.
“The Department has refused to give us funding for a sensory room and a multi-purpose space. They have refused to give funding to convert our basement into a workable area and yet we’ve been approached twice by the NCSE to open a special classroom. We’ve no space for it. We’re overwhelmed as it is.”
This story, the story of St Stephen’s National School, like many schools, is one we need to hear because it’s our story, the story of our country. It’s the untold story of the state we’re in.
Jennifer Horgan: The story of St Stephen’s National School, like many schools, is one we need to hear because it’s our story, the story of our country. It’s the untold story of the state we’re in.