School Leadership and Teacher Capacity Key to Improving Outcomes for Students in Special Classes

Developing strong school leadership and teacher capacity is pivotal to improving social and educational outcomes for students in special classes, according to a new ESRI report published today (9 August 2016). Special Classes in Irish Schools, commissioned by the National Council for Special Education, tracked the experiences of students and staff over two years in six primary and six post-primary schools to evaluate if special classes meet the needs of students with special educational needs.

The report 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.

Special classes in Ireland

  • The number of special classes in Ireland is increasing significantly, particularly for students with autism. 149 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 National Council for Special Education. A smaller number of special classes operate, without official sanction, by pooling resource hours within schools.

Key Findings

Establishing and operating special classes

  • Principals have varied ideas of the purpose of a special class. In some schools, a special class is seen as a ‘safe haven’ and in others, it is seen as an opportunity to bring students up-to-speed when required.
  • Schools also have differing approaches to integrating special classes with mainstream classes and to moving students into and out of special classes.
  • Principals raised concerns that admissions policies in some schools result in a reduced intake of children with special educational needs, concentrating these students in other, often disadvantaged, schools.

Concerns of teachers

  • Teachers assigned to special classes do not always have relevant experience or qualifications; some teachers reported feeling ill-equipped to meet the needs of their students, particularly where there was no whole school approach to inclusion/SEN.
  • Teacher capacity greatly improved when they had access to additional professional support or had qualifications specific to SEN.
  • Teachers raised concerns about the suitability of the curriculum for some students and also reported a need for greater emphasis on students’ social development.

Students’ experiences

  • Students in classes designated for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) reported the most positive experience. These students often have tailored lesson plans, integration with students in mainstream classes, teachers that emphasise social development in addition to strong parental involvement.
  • Special classes for students with no identified need produced the most negative experience. Students reported feeling stigmatised and experienced lower levels of parental involvement.

Implications for policy

The report finds that addressing issues in three key areas could positively influence outcomes for students in special classes.

Supporting school leadership

  • Formal guidelines, a network of support and an information contact point would provide crucial support for principals in implementing best practice when setting up and running special classes.
  • Helping principals to implement a positive whole-school approach to inclusion results in teachers feeling supported and having greater access to professional development.
  • At system level, greater flexibility in the number of students required to maintain a special class would increase mobility into and out of the class as required, reducing stigma.

Building teacher capacity

  • Access to training, both prior to teaching a special class and on an ongoing basis, is critical to enhancing teacher ability and confidence.
  • Increased support from colleagues in mainstream classes would support integration and reduce the isolation felt by teachers.
  • Financial incentives may increase the appeal of teaching special classes and promote a higher regard for the position.

Addressing the needs of individual students

  • Students benefit from learning plans customised to suit their individual needs.
  • The curriculum for special classes should consider the needs and capacities of students.
  • Schools, rather than individual teachers, should take responsibility for supporting the transition of students from primary to post-primary level.

Dr Selina McCoy, author of the report, commented “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.”