The impending stand-off between parents who advocate for the rights of their children with special needs and the teaching profession has been a clash waiting to happen. And what started as a footnote in the newspapers last week has all the potential of growing into a raging storm.
First, the background. Ireland’s national autism charity has gone on record as accusing secondary school teachers of refusing to support children with special needs. The facts, as always, are more nuanced than that.
The teachers’ unions are resisting what they say are new bureaucratic diktats from the Department of Education that will require teachers to implement individual education plans for children with special needs. The autism charity – AsIAm – accuses the teachers of ‘truly shocking discrimination’ against students with disabilities.
It is, and always has been, an emotive issue, and it is easy to see why the parents of special needs children are so vocal about their entitlements to fairness in the education system. True, we have come a long way from what a generation ago was a bleak place for children who fell outside the mainstream. The introduction of SNAs into classrooms, the readiness of the Department of Education to fund wheelchair and accessible facilities in schools, special examination arrangements for those with specific learning difficulties, psychological assessment and support, have all helped to bridge the education gap for those with special needs. It’s a long way from the one-size model of old, where those unable to keep up with the bus got left behind.
But it easy to see as well how teachers can feel themselves caught in the crossfire of competing demands. The secondary education system is an unforgiving battle to score well on a points system where parents demand results from teachers and where success is all that matters. It is jungle law where survival of the fittest is what counts, and where there is little room for sentiment or sympathy when a teacher must explain to a demanding parent why progress is slower than it ought to be. The points system has evolved to an extent where there is a pitiless demand for success in the classroom, and where the notion of a level playing field for all comes a distant second.
Long gone is the day when the teacher turned up in the morning (most often on his bicycle) and spent the next six hours drumming knowledge into often unreceptive and reluctant heads, before folding up his bag and leaving for home. Teaching was his calling, and teaching was what he did. Little could he have seen the day when the teacher became a social worker, a psychologist, a first responder, a counsellor, an assessor of the individual needs of each of his charges. Least of all could he have seen the situation where teachers would become meticulous record keepers, form fillers, servants of overbearing bureaucracy, where – not unlike the demands of nurses in our hospitals – keeping the paper work all squared was all that counted.
The current stand-off between AsIAm and the teachers will be fudged or kicked away or stamped out. But only until the next time. Because there is a conflict of interests at work here that just will not go away, and parental demands for equality will always exceed what the system (represented, to their misfortune, by the teachers) will be able to offer.
Nor will blaming the messenger help the cause of either side.