Educating a Gifted Child in Ireland - Accessing Educational Resources
Navigating the often murky waters of the Irish Education system represents a real challenge ifor exceptionally able children and their parents. At the hub of the matter is the question: is giftedness seen as a special needs issue by the Department of Education & Science? The answer is yes and no; which is almost akin to saying that a woman can be a little bit pregnant. In particular this makes it extremely difficult for parents when trying to ascertain their child's right to extra resource hours.
Our experience as parents of exceptionally able children tells us that our kids need extra help (see Myths & Misconceptions) whether it's a differientiated curriculum, ad hoc learning resource hours, help with social skills and/or extra resource hours specific to the child's needs. But the system as it stands serves to undermine this need at every turn.
Example of a Journey Through Gifted Education in Ireland
At 3 years old John can read, has a ferocious appetite for knowledge and is an expert in all things jurassic, that's dinosaurs to you and me! He doesn't like Montessori School that much; they make him do "stupid" things like marching about. He is seen as difficult because he won't toe the line. John thinks differently than other kids his own age. He has big thoughts for such a little boy. His parents are told that his fine motor skills are poor. No recommendations are made.
At 5 years old John starts primary school. Week 1 is a disaster, the noise levels are scaring him and they're still learning ABC. He thought they'd be discovering how the universe worked! The teacher thinks he's difficult. John won't stop asking questions and is disruptive. His ability remains unrecognised. Few party invitiations come John's way because he finds it difficult to fit in. The other kids don't like to talk about the things John likes. His parents are told his gross motor skills are poor. No recommendations are made.
At 6 years old another parent suggests the Irish Centre for Talented Youth and gives John's mum a press cutting. They didn't know that this was an option. John's mum rings the Centre and is amazed to find out that John's often "peculiar" behaviour is quite normal for a "gifted" child. He's booked in a for an assessment for their 6-7 year old programme. His parents don't like the idea of testing a 6 year old but John loves the challenge and treats it like a game. Guess what? It turns out John is in the top 2% and is offered a place. His parents are dumbfounded; why didn't the school have any idea that this was the case? They go back to the school with the news, thinking that this will bring more understanding and better support for their son. But John's school is under pressure with large class sizes, a lot of children of varying abilities and languages and an increasing number with special needs. It's going to be difficult to accomodate John. The school tries to include him in ad hoc group learning support sessions. John enjoys them but these sessions are not designed around his needs. The Learning Support Teacher is also stretched and has little experience or knowledge of gifted education programmes. She's doing her best to cater for all in her care, but John's needs are not seen as pressing. Eventually, the learning support falls off. John sinks back into mainstream classroom life and starts to feel isolated.
At 8 years old it's obvious that John is underacheiving, even to his overstretched teacher. His parents are worried. John wonders aimlessly around the school yard at breaktimes and is finding it very difficult to develop friendships. Sometimes he gets so frustrated in the classroom that he gets very angry with his teacher. The school recommends a NEPS educational assessment. This is news to John's parents, they didn't know that this Deparment of Education Unit even existed! The NEPS Educational Pyschologist gets on well with John. They spend most of the day together and again John excels in the all of he tests; once again relishing the challange of something new. The Psychologist even spends some time looking at John in the classroom environment. The results are in. John is once again in the top 2% and is underacheiving, particularly in maths. John's parents, teacher and Learning Support Teacher all sit down and discuss John. They discuss a differentiated curriculum, group work scenarios, special projects; even additional resource hours. It all sounds so positive and John's parents go away thinking that their son will finally get the support he so desperately needs. But the school is under pressure and these are just recommendations. No one explained to his parents that although these recommendations came from a Department of Education representative there was no legel imperative that these should be implemented by his school. At least his Teacher has a better understanding of John and cuts him some slack.
At 10 years old it's obvious, John is going nowhere fast. Another meeting is called with the NEPS Pyschologist who recommends that John see a Clinical Psychologist and refers him on. If this is pursued the school will be able to draw down funding from the local SENO for additional resource hours for John. Giftedness, it seems, is not one of the special needs areas which will be funded by the Department of Education & Science. John's parents have a difficult choice to make. Do they assign another label to their son in order to get the help that he needs or do they just accept that any help that John gets will have to be at the discretion of the School?
We left John at what may turn out to be the beginning of his journey but what happens when it comes to Secondary School. Are there any support structures in place for gifted children at second level? If the child has received no support at the primary level and is underacheiving now what chance has he got at when he gets to second level? Some would say that secondary school with it's system of streaming already provides some form of differentiated curriculum. But what if the child is twice exceptional and his ability has been missed as a consequence of this? Or what if his underachieving translates into poor exam results which puts him in a class not commensurate with his abiltiies. We've seen that gifted children can be found in remedial classrooms. This is the worst case scenario. There is some support to be found in the CTYI's Talent Search Programme which is for secondary school children from age 13 upwards. This provides a fantastic opportunity for teens to socialise and network.
John's story was just one example of how things can work out. Your story may be very different or you may recognise certain elements, but the fact remains that "giftedness" or "exceptional ability" is not seen as a special needs issue by the Deparment of Education & Science. (The recent Exceptionally Able Students: Draft Guidelines for Teachers although an advance in the right direction, are just guidelines after all and without proper funding to implement them they will languish at the bottom of the School Principal's drawer. It's easy to point the finger at our schools and say that they're not doing enough; but schools are hugely underfunded and this is the root cause of the problem.) The Department will not fund extra resource hours on the basis of a gifted assessment alone. A child will need to be diagnosed with a "disability" for example behavioural or emotional problems and be receiving ongoing treatment (this is an important point) before it will fund those hours. And even when and if you do pursue this road and get your child his or her resource hours it is still entirely up to the school what they do within those hours. Even though NEPS can make recommendations, they do not have an inspectorial role. Nobody it seems inspects the quality of the resource hours' content. This is a problem for a lot of parents. In theory a child who is in receipt of resource hours should have in place an Individual Educational Plan or IEP which parents should have an input into. Again, overstretched Resource Teachers often find this a difficulty whereas we as parents would consider it an absolute necessity. In fact there is no legal requirement for an IEP; again there are only guidelines.
The Essential Guide to Special Education in Ireland by Dr. David J. Carey is probably one of the best resources available for information on Special Needs from an Irish perspective. Dr. Carey explains in the Introduction that "things are changing at a rapid pace". Getting yourself up to date with current legislation may help you in any discussions with your school or local SENO. Knowing your rights can only help. It is our intention to detail out all of the Department of Education Circulars related to giftedness and dual exceptionality but in the meantime you can download all circulars from the Special Education Support Service (SESS) website.
Disclaimer: This is not an expert site, it is run on a voluntary basis and as such is based on opinion and experience but we hope that it acts as a signpost for educational resources and other support services for Irish families with exceptionally able children. By using this website you accept that any dependence by you on such information, opinion or advice is at your own risk.