What is the primary concern of school principals as the 2023/24 school year gets underway? In addition to the predictable and well-worn annual issues associated with the start of a new school year each September brings fresh and timely new discussions of concern to parents, children, teachers, special needs assistants and principals alike.

As this new school year looms media headlines are focussing on ‘voluntary contributions,’ teacher-recruitment/shortages and some continuing discussion on post-Covid concerns with children’s anxiety or associated dips in standards of attainment. 

However, in my discussions of school issues with school principals, one very sensitive mega-issue looms large; namely that of the optimal inclusion of children with special needs into mainstream school, whether in mainstream-classrooms or in ASD or other special classes within those schools. 

Principals, in particular, are located in a deeply frustrating and perilous nexus in the optimal delivery of this right to education for these children and for all children. In her conversations with the child and the child’s parents the Principal is obliged to be, and will be, rhetorically inclusive; reassuring and sincere in her promise to do her best for this child in this school this school year. But the optimism and sincerity of this declaration is accompanied by an internal whisper. This whisper articulates the knowledge and experience that the Principal holds that there is no such confidence or assurance that can be given. In reality, inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream classes or in special units in mainstream schools is frequently failing both the children with special needs and all school-going children. This tacit knowledge is often only spoken in hushed conversations between Principals and few will raise them beyond this limited circle, lest they be viewed as insensitive, unprofessional, incompetent or uncaring. Or just a moaner. 

So what are these failures, or properly perhaps better termed ‘below-satisfactory’ likelihoods that Principals know? 

Let’s start with the child. The vast majority of children with special needs, as individuals and citizens of our State, will not be in receipt of the services they require from those statutorily obliged to be delivering them within the State’s Health system or children’s services. This will range from the child who has not yet accessed even the most rudimentary starting-point in acknowledging her special-needs through a range of wait-listing or partial assessment procedures and, crucially and scandalously, to the complete absence of therapeutic and support needs by the appropriate heath/professional skillsets. The Principal knows that, in desperation, the despairing parent will look to the school for some such attention or will be fobbed off by these services to expect that the school can deliver such services. The Principal knows that the school can and will play a crucial role in the education of this child through the pedagogic skillsets for which teachers are trained, but schools and teachers cannot deliver what our State rightly expects from psychologists, speech-therapists, occupation therapists and other multiple support persons. 

Let’s move from the child as a rights-bearing individual to the ‘child-in-the-classroom.’ What dark knowledge does the Principal have here? The central issue is the fact that the Principal knows that the inadequately supported child with special needs in very many cases will be frightened, be grossly uncomfortable and may perhaps be traumatised in the confines of the classroom, in the company of up to thirty other children. Some of this cohort may also be children with special needs who themselves are overwhelmed by the duration and procedures of the traditional school day…. never mind the heightened experience of the schoolyard at playtimes. These children will, understandably, act-in in the form of quiet desperation and anxiety or act-out in the form of fight or flight. 

But surely, you will ask, will these children be adequately supported? The short answer to this, and one that requires more words than I can give here, is that only a minority of children with these needs will receive adequate support that will be satisfactory from a Principal’s perspective. 

Let’s conclude this with the final piece of whispering knowledge that the Principal has and this concerns the teacher. The Principal understands the teacher to have the best interests of all the children in her class at heart, that all children are unique and of equal status and importance. The Principal also understands the teacher to have as her primary concern that of the education of the children in her care. She will strive for high standards of attainment and the provision of a broad curriculum requiring its many and varied forms of pedagogy, resourcing and planning for all children, including those with special needs. In this regard teachers and Principals are on the same page, so too the parent-body and the schools Inspectorate charged with monitoring for high standards of education-provision and attainment. It is reasonable in this contract of service, to expect that day-in-day-out and for the full duration of each school day, this process of education takes place in a happy, ordered and child-centred classroom. But Principals knows that teachers cannot achieve this optimally when the chaos, distress and volume of incident that manifests when inadequately supported children with special-needs are experiencing their classroom, their peer-group, their long school day in a traumatised state. Yes, accommodations can be designed and implemented, more scaffolds can be trialled, all within human-resource boundaries; but there comes a time when Principals can only conclude that this isn’t satisfactory; classrooms are unsatisfactorily chaotic and the teaching and learning desired is simply not happening, children are having suboptimal experiences of their right to education. 

As the 2023/24 school year begins, I suggest that most Principals of primary and second-level schools will be ‘girding’ themselves as to whether this will be the case in one or two classes in their school this year, or perhaps in half of their classes, or to a greater or lesser degree in all of their classes. There will be successes, but there are too many failures. Far, far too many. 

Unfortunately, for very, very many Principals, this is the issue of the day (elephant in the room? Unfortunate reality? Main concern?) as the school year begins. 

By Fintan McCutcheon
Education Specialist
Emu Ink Publishing