NCSE research carried out by Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and Trinity College Dublin (TCD) found that some teachers felt ill-equipped to teach in special classes due to the complex and diverse needs of students. However, once they had received training, teachers considered that their ability to meet these needs was greatly improved.
The ESRI research report – Special Classes in Irish Schools – tracked the experiences of students and staff over two years in primary and six post-primary schools to evaluate if special classes meet the needs of students with SEN.
It found that schools take varied approaches to establishing and operating special classes and concluded that principals who adopt a positive whole-school approach to inclusion and teachers who have appropriate skills are most likely to create an environment where students with special educational needs can thrive.
The research also highlighted that some students felt a stigma attached to attending special classes and felt they were not popular with their teachers.
The number of special classes in Ireland is increasing significantly, particularly for students with autism. One hundred and forty-nine new classes were announced for the academic year 2015/2016, in addition to 659 special classes already in existence across primary and post-primary schools.
Most special classes are sanctioned by the Department of Education and Skills and are the responsibility of the NCSE. A smaller number of special classes operate, without official sanction, by pooling resource hours within schools.
The NCSE guidelines highlight the need for school leaders to proactively plan to meet the continuing professional development (CPD) needs of special class teachers to ensure that they are equipped to meet a wide range of special needs. They also recommend that school planning should include whole-school policies in relation to the education and inclusion of students with SEN to mitigate the risk of students feeling stigmatised.
Jennifer Doran, Head of Research at the NCSE, said,
Our research highlighted a number of worrying issues regarding special classes, such as students feeling negative about attending special classes and teachers feeling unprepared to teach in these settings. That is why we developed these guidelines — to provide good practice points to schools to ensure that all students feel valued and welcomed under a whole-school approach to inclusion.
Dr Selina McCoy, author of the research report, said,
The research identifies key opportunities to equip every young person with the skills they need to succeed at school. Given the recent increase in the number of special classes in Ireland, it is an opportune time to apply this new evidence to ensure that special classes act as a valuable and effective resource for young people in Ireland.