Ireland’s ‘Special Needs’ Crisis

Recent calls from local TDs for more access to psychologists for school children have highlighted a worrying trend in the younger sections of Ireland’s population. Educationalists notice a yearly increase in the number of children entering secondary school who already have a ‘report’ (a psychological assessment’, who have been diagnosed with a specific emotional or behavioural disorder or who have been identified by primary teachers as possibly needing a psychological assessment. There has also been a corresponding increase in the numbers of pupils presenting with reading ages considerably lower than their actual age, or with a severe numeracy/literacy deficit. Social and behavioural disorder diagnoses are also increasing.

Recent statistics released by the National Educational Psychologists Service (NEPS) show that 1 in 4 Irish pupils have special educational needs and up to 1 in 5 are experiencing emotional or behavioural disorders. It would be morally wrong for us to refuse to acknowledge that we have a major crisis on our hands if 25% of our children are labelled as having SEN. Such a statistic spells havoc for schools which are already understaffed and in many cases, are struggling to give children with SEN the professional, structured help which their diagnosis has declared they must receive.

There are many children who genuinely do have special needs, a lower than average IQ, or an emotional disorder. They do need help. However, from observing the surge in SEN and social/cognitive disorder diagnoses, I have been often given reason to wonder how genuine some of these perceived ‘issues’ are – or whether perhaps they are issues that have arisen due to inadequate parenting, motivational and discipline issues, sheer laziness, or the fact that Mom and Dad have enough money to pay for a private psychologist.

Because the hidden dangers in this consistent growth are firstly, the risk that the children who genuinely do need help are getting lost in the system and secondly, that by filling our classrooms with a variety of diagnoses, we, as teachers, are being forced to lower our own standards to ‘include’ everyone.



The Irish Education Inspectorate has spoken strongly against streaming or setting, even in Maths and English, and has intimated that best practice is to have all abilities together in the same classroom. While there are a limited number of separate classes provided for SEN pupils, they will still spend most of the school-day in mainstream classes. Thus, we have children presenting with diagnoses ranging from dyslexia, dyspraxia, Asperger’s Syndrome, anxiety, depression, and very low numeracy and literacy abilities all in the same classroom. As a rule, we are mainstream teachers trained in one or two specific subject areas, with little or no knowledge of accommodating SEN or other issues in our classrooms. Our lack of training and resources combined with the unreasonable demands by the Department of Education to educate all levels together and the unrealistic expectations of certain parents are contributing to a serious sense of disillusionment and burnout in our staffrooms.

Several problems ensue consequently. Our classes become either ‘who-cares’ sessions where everyone has great fun but very little learning occurs, or unable to cope with catering for everyone, we focus on the few pupils who seem eager to learn and will do reasonably well while the rest tune out. The pupils who have psychological assessments do not worry however, because they will probably receive several allowances during exam time, including perhaps a reader, a scribe or a spelling exemption. Other pupils, realising both these benefits and their own intellectual inadequacies, wonder whether they perhaps should also undergo psychological assessment – or their parents recognise that a child with a ‘report’ appears far better than a lazy, unmotivated child. Thence the vicious circle, and the eventual dumbing down of education.

While I re-emphasis that there are many children who do have SEN, we must acknowledge that there are parents who are simply abusing the system. I once spoke to a mother about how her child’s irregular attendance was resulting in poor assessment results; she responded by saying that he had an ‘anxiety issue’ and that I was exacerbating it by asking him to give oral answers in class. When I asked to see proof of this issue, I was told coldly that the boy was undergoing appointments with a psychologist. I was now to ‘be careful and accommodating’ when dealing with this pupil. In another case where a teacher reprimanded a pupil for negative behaviour in class, she was informed that the pupil was suffering from depression – even though a psychologist’s report was not forthcoming.

Psychological fairdiagnoses are often subjective and ‘incorporate an ever-increasing range of cognitive and self-regulatory deficits including poor working memory, processing speed limitations, attention/concentration problems, difficulties in analysing and synthesizing complex information and in organising and expressing ideas’ (Julian Elliott, author of The Dyslexia Debate).

Often, early childhood intervention, a secure relationship with parents, good emotional and physical health, consistent parental involvement with all aspects of the child’s life including homework completion, loving discipline and a healthy spirit of motivation can go a long way in eliminating/curing many psychological diagnoses.

Perhaps the answer to Ireland’s perceived need for psychologists is to instead encourage parents to get involved with their kids and to emphasize to them by words and actions that all children can achieve their dreams.

That might free up the psychologists to deal with the children who genuinely do need help.


#timetotalk…but are we listening?

As the number of children suffering from depression and anxiety rises, the government response includes mental health programs, social media campaigns, more youth clubs, new school subjects such as wellbeing, mindfulness and philosophy and continual discussion in the media regarding positive self-esteem.

There has never been so much money poured into mental health programs, youth facilities and anti-bullying measures. There have never been so many politicians, sports starts and celebrities declaring that ‘Bullying is wrong’ and ‘It’s ok not to be ok’. We have Walk in My Shoes, the Green Ribbon, Time to Change,, Lets Go Mental, and the hashtags #LittleThings, #IAmaReason,#MindYourSelfie, #timetotalk..bullying_fi.

So, in SPHE class a while ago, I decided it was just that – #timetotalk. After discussing the whys and hows of that ever-present evil, Bullying, we came to the big question – If you are being bullied, what should you do? The responses were varied. Most popular was the answer, ‘If people hate you for no reason, give them a reason!’ and as I tactfully tried to point out the shortcomings in this solution, I was greeted by innocent derision. ‘But Miss, you have to do something!’

Eventually one shy child gave me the answer I wanted – ‘Tell someone’.

‘Good’, I said. ‘Tell someone – your mum or dad, guardian, aunt, uncle, teacher, coach, friend, school counsellor. Get it out there. The worst thing you can do is to say nothing, and to keep it all bottled up tightly inside’.

I sensed a resigned disappointment from some pupils and asked, ‘What do you all think? Talk to me!’

Youthful openness can be achingly honest.

One voice spoke up bravely. ‘That doesn’t necessarily do any good, Miss. You can report an incident to a teacher and sometimes they don’t do anything about it. Nothing changes’.

‘Do you just think so, or are you speaking from experience?’ I asked curiously.

The girl responded briefly, ‘From experience’, and turned to gaze out the wide classroom window. Already she bore scars and already the people in her life who were supposed to care had let her down.

Another child piped up. ‘If I told ______ I was being bullied, he would just say, ‘Alright, Alright, Alright…!’ The class dissolved into hollow laughter.

And from the back – ‘If I was being bullied, and I told my Gaelic coach, he’d drop me’.

There wasn’t much I could say really. At this age of early adolescence, what an utter travesty that these precious children were already cynical; that when they did that which they were being told continually to do, when they did talk – no one really listened. No one really cared.

All I could do was tell them my own story, one of being harshly bullied by heartless peers at a summer camp, when I came home a sad and quiet girl with all my wounds covered up in the deepest, darkest part of my heart. I told them how, weeks later, I broke down and cried into the arms of my mother and father, and how they were righteously angry for me, and how they told me they loved me to bits, and that I was uniquely special and precious. I told my pupils how the world became alright again , because the problem wasn’t just mine alone. I told someone, and that was enough.

The children were silent. Some were visibly moved, some stared fixedly at me, others moved nervously in their seats. And I knew deep down that many of them had already been bullied, hurt, wounded. They needed to talk – they wanted to talk. But was there anyone to really listen?

The answer to rising levels of depression and anxiety among our children is not more programs, new school subjects, celebrity confessions or catchy Twitter campaigns, but rather a return to the days when parents took the time to listen and teachers took the time to act.

True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.
– Arthur Ashe

Not One Brave Voice: Dáil calls for Gnadentod

In Germany more than half a century ago, certain children were victims of ‘Gnadentod’, (mercy killings) because they were considered unworthy of life. Under Hitler’s Operation T4, all children under the age of 3 suspected to have Down’s Syndrome, microcephaly, hydrocephaly, paralysis, or any other form of disability were murdered by lethal injection or starvation in specially designed pediatric clinics under the guidance of Germany’s most eminent physicians. Official reasons for ‘Gnadentod’ included eugenics, compassion on the child and on his/her parents, reduced suffering and of course the cost to the government of caring for an individual who would never be capable of participating appropriately in citizen life. Very few people protested against Operation T4; those who did endangered their own lives as they were viewed as opposing the common good, of not having the best interests of the community at heart. It was morally upright, at that time, to unreservedly support Operation T4.


Given the atrocious crimes, the human genocide, and the ignoble ending of the Third Reich that the hindsight of history affords us, one would presume that any proposal that bears even a whiff of Nazi policy would be condemned by modern legislators. Unfortunately, that is not the case; this week members of the Irish Dáil met in the chamber of Leinster House and with one accord, across all of the major parties, both in government and in opposition, proclaimed heartfelt support for a the sentiment behind a proposed Bill which would legally allow parents to kill their imperfect children. This Bill called for the legalization of abortion of fatal foetal abnormalities, a phrase which in itself is problematic as medical expertise maintains that it is never possible to guarantee how long a child with such an abnormality may live. The Minister for Health, Simon Harris, in clarifying the constitutional situation, noted that an unborn child is a child that is capable of being born – but he went on to explain that while he would not be able to support the Bill on constitutional grounds, he found the Constitution ‘frustrating at times’, and recognised the Bill as being ‘absolutely well-intentioned’. Other TDs rode in behind him, in full support of the sentiment behind the Bill, clamoring to declare how strongly they felt about the issue and how it was of paramount importance that the women of Ireland be given the right to terminate pregnancies. Reasons given mirrored those given for ‘Gnadentod’ – compassion for the stricken parents, consideration of the time and expense of travelling to the UK for a termination etc. Logic was conspicuously absent from the discussion; Kate O’Connell of Fine Gael related her story of experiencing a ‘foetal’ abnormality diagnosis – and despite the fact that this child is now a healthy five-year-old, she still wishes she had the choice in Ireland to terminate the pregnancy. One wonders how her child will feel when he, someday, comes face to face with the fact that his mother wanted to be allowed to murder him.


Not one politician from any side of the chamber spoke up in defence of the unborn child; each spoke in defence of the mother, the father, the medical profession, the government, the judiciary, but the lives right at the centre of this burning question were noticeably absent. A tone of affected concern prevailed, and while there was gentle disagreement as to how the abortion of imperfect children could be legislated for, all were in agreement that legislation was necessary as a matter of urgency.


For the common good – just like ‘Gnadentod’.


Of course, Minister for Health Simon Harris, Minister for Children Katherine Zappone, and other Cabinet members know that in the eyes of the European Union and the UN Human Rights Commission, Ireland is behind schedule with this legislation. Bunreacht na hÉireann and its 8th Amendment is an embarrassment to Minister Harris and Taoiseach Kenny, an awkward obstacle to their fawning attempts to be good boys for Europe, a reminder of the Christianity which has never been approved of by the European project, a fragment of natural law left behind in an era where positive law and legal revision reigns supreme. In 2002 an EU-approved resolution, the Van Lancker resolution, put forward by the EU Committee on Women’s Rights called for “national irregularities” within the EU on abortion to be abolished. 14 years later abortion is still illegal in Ireland by the will of the people – life is still sacred, untouchable, protected in all of its forms.


Now, once again, the government calls sanctimoniously for abortion. Simon Harris has thrown objective analysis to the wind and pledges to listen to the ‘real stories of people’ – as ‘our present law adds to the pain’ – with of course the recent criticism of the UNHRC ringing loudly in his ears. This criticism declares that Ireland’s protection of unborn life has subjected women to ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment’, and urges us to change our Constitution as soon as possible. Capitulation to these demands would indicate that we are now content to be a society which no longer believes in the inherent worth of life, or in the fact that each life is a special creation of divine origin and endowment, with fundamental rights bound up in the very fact of its existence. Sadly, however, in this centenary year, when the Irish nation professes to celebrate its independence from external control and tyranny, our spineless government listens with abject reverence to the United Nations and the European Union, derides the Irish Constitution, the blueprint of our nation, as embarrassingly antiquated and ridicules the democratic decision of 1983, which resulted in the 8th Amendment.


Oh, for some national pride! Oh, for one voice to honour the right to life! Oh, for a politician to truly care for all of the imperfect, yet invaluable, children of Ireland, born and unborn!


Hitler regarded Operation T4 the rehearsal for the Final Solution which saw the
extermination of millions of Jews and other unwanted citizens. Once the right to life for imperfect children was removed, then the right to life for every individual was negotiable. Disposable. Similarly, we devalue the lives of imperfect unborn children at our peril – for when we devalue any life, we devalue every life.


Is there any voice in Leinster House brave enough to speak up?

Welcome Inn Closure…What Recovery, Enda?


Today the Welcome Inn closed its doors after over 50 years serving the people of Castlebar.

It’s a central part of the town, just around the corner from Penneys and SuperValu, the first major landmark when you come into the town from the wild west of the Nephin Mountains. I remember attending the Feis there, its huge, warm rooms filled with excited, nervous children, proud parents, bustling teachers, its corridors crammed with conversation and laughter, while every door opening brought the sound of poetry being recited, the thin, dancing notes of a tin whistle jig or the solemn silence that falls just before an adjudicator speaks.

This evening I drove by and had a look at the picturesque, old-fashioned building; the street was eerily silent, and the curtains drawn across the windows allowed no chink of light shine in or out. I was not alone; others too came and went, wordlessly surveying the closed hotel, reading the sparsely written notice on the door. It wasn’t a shock20160218_174730 to see yet another service forced to bow to the relentless demands of a hungry recession, yet on the street this grey February evening there was a palpable sense of sadness that an era of small-town rural prosperity was being driven to an ignominious end.

Another closure. Another shuttered, vacant building to join the many more in Castlebar.

A mere stone’s throw away on the corner of New Antrim and Linenhall Street, another building bustles with activity. It’s Enda Kenny’s new campaign office. Bright lights show the party faithful busy inside, clustered around maps on the wall, tapping away at computers, doing crash courses on political jargon. A huge drop down banner covers the upper part of the building, displaying our Taoiseach himself, Enda Kenny; digital screens with images of Kenny at different events fill the windows and the slogan Let’s Keep the Recovery Going screams out at passer-bys. Everything is shiny and high-tech and at this stage, Mayo people are taking a drive though the town just to have a look at the somewhat incongruous sight.

Incongruous because in Castlebar, Enda Kenny’s hometown, shops are closing down every week.

Incongruous because on Main Street there are as many boarded up shopfronts as there are functioning stores.

Incongruous because, in spite of the recovery that Fine Gael claim we are in the middle of, Castlebar’s iconic Welcome Inn Hotel closed its doors today and entered voluntary liquidation.

Across the road from Kenny’s campaign office is a small white terraced house, empty now for the past two and a half years. Tom and Jack Blaine lived quietly and contentedly here until one July night in 2013 when a violent intruder murdered them both in one of the most horrific crimes Castlebar has ever witnessed. It seemed utterly wrong that such an atrocity could occur in the Taoiseach’s own town, right beside his constituency office. But it did. Now the lights of Kenny’s office reflect in the dark, empty windows of Tom
and Jack’s violated home.

Lots of lights have gone out in Castlebar town. Right now it seems the brightest lights are those in Fine Gael’s campaign office, shining down on the words, ‘Let’s Keep the Recovery Going’.

And Castlebar simply asks ‘What Recovery?

Commemorating 1916: Rediscovering the word ‘Wrong’

2016. A year of remembrance. This year we reflect on our identity as a nation – as the Irish nation. It is a time to re-trace our 100-year journey, a time to focus on what has shaped and formed us, to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of where we are today. It is only when we truly are convinced and proud of our identity that we can take our place fearlessly among the nations of the world, confident that our uniqueness will never fade away.

Recently I went on a school trip to France where some of my pupils spent a week attending school with children from 6 other nationalities. Mostly I was supervising and I spent my time comparing, observing, conversing – thinking about my identity as a teacher, and my responsibilities to the members of Ireland’s future who were under my care. I watched as my pupils spent time in the company of children from other nationalities, and my thoughts were drawn to the values that are characteristic of our nation – friendliness, importance of family, kindness…

Then we came home and the story of Alex Ryan and his friends hit the headlines, and we all read with horror the account of their party that went terribly wrong. The N Bomb claimed its first Irish life and we lost another piece of our security as a nation. So many questions to ask – of his teachers, of his parents, of his friends, of the Gardaí, of ourselves as the guardians and protectors of our future.

Our children were horrified too. A first year, a blonde bundle of energy, burst out at the beginning of German class asking to please be allowed to tell a scary story. Tentatively I nodded, and the story came tumbling out: “There were two friends walking home late one night last week, and they passed a house where a man was outside with no clothes on and he was covered in blood. He was dancing but they tried to help him, and when they went into the house there were more people naked too, and they were dancing, and there was blood everywhere….’

Her tale petered away, and she looked at me ashen-faced while her classmates sat with furrowed brows as if to ask how blood and dancing could go together.

And so I put aside the lesson plan for a minute, and talked to my first years.

Yes, this is a scary story but it’s true. Those poor people were talking drugs, and didn’t know what they were doing. Yes, one of them died.’

And then I said, “It is utterly wrong to take drugs and you should never, ever take them. Be strong, stand up for yourself and say no if they are ever put before you.’

I didn’t want to leave them with some vague judgement of drugs as merely being a health hazard – no, I wanted them to feel that taking drugs is akin to stealing or punchinRight-Wrongg someone in the face.

So I just said that taking drugs is wrong.

I believe it is high time for us, as teachers, to re-introduce the word ‘wrong’ into our classrooms. Often the only thing we pronounce wrong is the maths answer or the grammar article. We have become afraid of making any concrete moral statements in our lessons and too often we shy away from broaching controversial topics in debates and discussions. We sometimes disagree personally with the very principles we are teaching, yet we stifle our consciences and just turn the page a little quicker. Are we becoming opinionless beings, afraid of the status quo, afraid to be ourselves, afraid to speak out, afraid to be different? Then the death of Alex Ryan and many others like him is just a little bit our fault too.

100 years ago, a group of ordinary men, one of them a teacher, decided that it was wrong for them to live under the rule of a foreign nation. They believed it was wrong that Ireland had no self-autonomy. And because of that we stand today an independent nation, unique and special in the world.

And now, 100 years later, we need to rediscover the immense, powerful, compelling effectiveness of the word ‘wrong‘.

Why I Believe History Should Remain Compulsory for Junior Certificate

I wrote this in 2013, but it is relevant for today –

Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, recently challenged historians to show the country why their subject mattered. He proposes to make history an optional subject at Junior Cert level.

As a young historian and as a secondary school teacher, I would like to briefly respond to Mr, Quinn’s challenge. I am firmly against this move, as are all history teachers in Ireland. I believe that the removal of history as a compulsory subject can only have a detrimental effect on the study of history in general. History is important on one level as a practical subject: it teaches one how to research, how to evaluate sources and viewpoints and how to argue. More importantly it teaches us who we are and where we have come from – it links us with the past and brings a sense of order and continuity to our existence.
Mr. Quinn tells us that making history is simply a logistical decision – one part of a long overdue revamp of the junior cycle. Questioning the position of history however is far more than simply to do with timetabling and finances. Rather it has to do with power, underpinning political belief and ultimately an attempt to create a different Ireland.
We all know how important our history is to our identity. As a small and relatively new nation, Ireland is still establishing itself as a young democracy and at this time of change and upheaval in Europe, it is important to realize that our strength lies in maintaining our Irish uniqueness and individuality. In order to fully understand why we are unique, it is crucial that we as a nation, and as individual citizens, have an adequate knowledge of our history. The old proverb says, You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been’ – if we want to remain respected as a credible state among the nations of the world, as a country which has a clear idea of how it wishes to develop in the future, then we must have a firm, knowledgeable grasp of where we have come from and how we have got to where we are.
In England, history is optional at GCSE level. Statistics show that in 2011 only 30% of students in state schools studied the subject. The result has been a shocking fall in the quality of historical knowledge among British teenagers, with a recent survey revealing that many did not know which countries had taken part in World War II. Historian Eric Hobsbawn wrote that when history is not taught, young people ‘grow up in a permanent present, lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in’. This results in a disinterest in sustaining community, and little awareness of one’s own responsibility as a public citizen. Healthy interest in politics and public development will fall and the domination of certain, inadequate world views becomes probable. Debate dies away because national knowledge is no longer deemed important.
Mr.Quinn’s proposals are therefore worrying. When one downgrades history and other ‘knowledge’ subjects, and places heavy emphasis on practical aspects of the curriculum such as literacy and numeracy, there is a real danger that upcoming generations will lack ‘higher order’ skills such as analysis, critical thought and creativity. They will be able to perform simple maths; they will be able to write; they will be able to read; they will be able to follow instructions; but if they have not been allowed to experience and become acquainted with the lives of those who came before them, the development of society, the power of propaganda, the signs and effects of dictatorship and tyranny, the causes of war, the changes in religion, the Reformation movement, the potential of revolutions and rebellions, the acquisition of power, the importance of knowledge, they will have no precedent to refer to, no sense of societal continuity, and indeed no knowledge of the mistakes and successes of the past to aid them in their evaluation of the present. Life can then become very simple. Society can become very orderly. A population with no troublesome criticisms based on historical knowledge can become a useful ‘human resource’. People can content themselves with a regular wage, food on the table and access to leisure pursuits. Without a knowledge of the past, there is little impetus to change, criticize, suggest better ways, demand a better life or to engage in critical thought.
Finally, Mr. Quinn encourages us, as history teachers, to lure students rather than coerce them. While this is an admirable sentiment, and indeed it would be hugely desirable that students choose to study history of their own accord, it must be pointed out that it is 12 and 13 year olds in question here. It is out of character for this age group to want to study most subjects that are important, including Maths and English. Let us be careful of treating children like 3rd level students. It is our duty as teachers to choose the subjects for our pupils that will enable them to develop into fully-formed, capable, well-educated citizens who are an asset to the country. Many national leaders were one-time students of history and it must be remembered that Winston Churchill declared that it was through the study of history that ‘statecraft’ would be learned.
The study of history is fundamentally important for the future of Ireland. The recent decision by Mr. Quinn to make it simply optional is to be regretted. The parents and teachers of this country owe it to our nation to demand that history be maintained as a compulsory subject in our schools, and to ensure that our talented children be given the opportunity to know, and to be proud of, who they are and where they have come from.

Leaving Cert German Revision 2015

The Leaving Certificate German exam is just around the corner; I’ve put together a few last-minute topics for my students to revise in a document I’ve uploaded below. Quality versus Quantity always wins out in this exam – examiners want to read answers to the questions asked, not a page of waffle about your family, your home and your favourite school subjects! As an examiner myself, I have come across short, precise letters which receive more marks than long, winding 3-page essays. Also remember that the two reading comprehensions receive the most marks and the grammar section gets the least – don’t waste time trying to figure out whether an article is accusative or dative when there’s a full reading comprehension waiting to be completed.

All the best on Friday morning – here is a last-minute revision aid:

Leaving Certificate German Revision Aid 2015


…and remember – the summer holidays are nearly here