Teachers need better training in special needs


Written by Nicola Corless   
A CLARE senator is calling for teachers to be better trained in the area of special needs education. Senator Martin Conway made the call after attending an international conference on the Rights of People with Disabilities last week.
The purpose of the International Conference on Good Policies for Disabled People was to establish a formal structure to audit the performance of a country when it comes to the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Senator Conway was the only Irish politician who attended the event and while there, he chaired a plenary workshop attended by senior policymakers from across the globe.
“This was a unique opportunity for me to compare and contrast Ireland’s policies relating to people with disabilities to those of other countries. What I liked most about this conference is that it showcased the strength of some countries that have led the way in various aspects of disability policy. There was a huge amount of material that I will be bringing back to policymakers within the Departments of Justice, Health and Education in terms of case examples of best practice in certain areas,” he said.
“The plenary session I chaired examined in great detail the structure of integrated education in Italy and examined the reasons for its success – 99.5% of people with disabilities from the very severe to the very mild attend integrated education in Italy. Segregated education is practically a thing of the past. In spite of the difficult economic environment that prevails in Italy at present, the country has achieved incredible success in its integration policies, which has directly led to a high percentage of people with disabilities attending third-level and gaining meaningful employment in both the public and private sector.”
Senator Conway told The Clare Champion he didn’t believe greater numbers of special needs assistants and resource teaching hours are necessary in schools to achieve higher levels of integrated education.
“The system in Italy is rather different in that incorporated into teacher training for all teachers is a level of expertise in dealing with people with all forms of disability. There are certain very severe forms of disability that require specific training and that is where support would come into place. This model is something I would support. I would also go back to the theory that more than one billion euros is pumped into disability through the HSE each year and, in my view, it is not the resources that is the issue but the manner in which this money is spent. The billion-plus is fragmented between over 600 organisations, some receiving a lot more money than others. This leads to vast amounts of money being spent on administration, salaries and other expenses instead of being channelled to the service user. We have a situation in this country where there are over 10,000 SNAs in schools across Ireland but really to achieve anything like the Italian model, the changes need to be made to teacher training. I am speaking as someone who went to integrated education myself with a severe vision disability where there were no SNAs,” he stated.
Senator Conway clarified that he did not want to see further cuts to SNA and resource hours.
“I believe we need a whole new approach to teaching, incorporating the special needs supports that are there. Obviously, I don’t want to see a further reduction in SNAs or resource teachers because our best chance of integrated education is by keeping the structures that are there and improving them by incorporating special needs as a significant module in teacher training and building that type of support [special needs] into the contracts of teachers. The Italian model is like the Nirvana, the ultimate, and that is why it was showcased,” he continued.
Senator Conway attended a workshop on the Right to Live Independently in Sweden, Access to Justice in Israel and Support in Personal Decision-Making in British Columbia, each of which are regarded as world leaders in these areas.
“The overall theme of this event is to ensure that all countries ratify and implement all aspects of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. As a result of the conference, the Zero Project, which will monitor and audit each country’s performance, has now been well established and well embedded in disability policy-making internationally. I look forward to continuing a good working relationship with the Zero Project and indeed the Essl Foundation and the World Future Council,” he added.