The new faces of diver­sity in Ir­ish schools

Inclusiven­ess of chil­dren with Autism Spec­trum Dis­or­der and other spe­cial needs is at the core of the Scoil Sinead phi­los­o­phy, writes Kather­ine Don­nelly

Irish Independent - - EDUCATION -

THERE is a bat­tle royale go­ing on over con­trol of schools, at both pri­mary and post-pri­mary level. Whether it is the di­vest­ment of some Catholic schools to other pa­trons to meet de­mand for greater diver­sity, or pa­tron­age con­tests for new schools be­ing built to cater for ris­ing enrolments, com­pe­ti­tion is fierce.

At pri­mary level, the main con­tenders are Ed­u­cate To­gether, the Ir­ish-medium An Fo­ras Pátrú­nachta and, more re­cently, ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing boards (ETBs) with their com­mu­nity na­tional schools. At sec­ond level, there is some vari­a­tion in the names, but they are just as es­tab­lished.

How then, when a new post-pri­mary was pro­posed for Lu­can, Co Dublin, last year, did Scoil Sinead ar­rive at the bid­ding ta­ble, as if from nowhere, with 697 parental pref­er­ences, 39 times more than the 18 pre­sented by a Catholic trust, CEIST? Parental sup­port is key to de­cid­ing who gets pa­tron­age.

Scoil Sinead has a multi-de­nom­i­na­tional ethos, but the huge back­ing for it was not only about re­li­gion: its 697 name count was more than 10 times the num­ber gath­ered by Dublin and Dun Laoghaire Ed­u­ca­tion and Train­ing Board (DDETB), also a multi-de­nom­i­na­tional pa­tron.

Scoil Sinead es­tab­lished only in May 2016 and, when it bid for the school, it was not fully recog­nised as a pa­tron. In Novem­ber, pa­tron­age was awarded to DDETB — but with Scoil Sinead as a trustee part­ner.

The new school, Grif­feen Com­mu­nity Col­lege, which will be de­vel­oped to cater for 1,000 pupils, will open its doors in Septem­ber and is cur­rently en­rolling.

Then, a week ago, Scoil Sinead was awarded sole pa­tron­age of a new pri­mary school in the Pel­let­stown/Ash­town area of north west Dublin, also open­ing in Septem­ber.

In this case, its bid was backed by 52pc (68) of all valid parental pref­er­ences, com­pared with 24pc (32) for An Fo­ras Pátrú­nachta, 15pc (19) for City of Dublin ETB and 9pc (12) for Ed­u­cate To­gether.

Who or what is Scoil Sinead Ltd, and how did it gar­ner so much sup­port un­der the noses of the ed­u­ca­tional es­tab­lish­ment? At the core of the Scoil Sinead phi­los­o­phy is inclusiven­ess of chil­dren with Autism Spec­trum Dis­or­der (ASD), and other spe­cial needs.

The ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem has made con­sid­er­able progress in re­cent years in meet­ing the needs of chil­dren with spe­cial needs. There are ex­tra re­sources in the form of teach­ers and spe­cial needs as­sis­tants, while in­creas­ing num­bers of schools now blend in­te­gra­tion in the main­stream class­room with time-out, as nec­es­sary, in a spe­cial ASD unit, a space to which a child may re­treat.

But Scoil Sinead’s par­tic­u­lar brand of inclusion has clearly struck a chord with par­ents.

It is named af­ter Sinead, the 10-year-old daugh­ter of Sherene Pow­ell-Ikafor, a Ja­maican pri­mary teacher who came to Ire­land on a stu­dent work place­ment in 2000, and her hus­band, Dr Ike Ikafor, an ac­ci­dent and emer­gency con­sul­tant in Tem­ple Street Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal. The cou­ple met in Ire­land and have four chil­dren.

Sinead was di­ag­nosed with autism at a young age and, when Pow­ell-Ikafor had dif­fi­culty find­ing a pre-school that met her needs, she de­cided to open her own. By the time it was up and run­ning, Sinead had al­ready set­tled else­where.

Hope Montes­sori Autism Care Cen­tre opened in Mountview, Dublin 15, with one child, in Septem­ber 2011. There are now three Hope cen­tres in Dublin — two in west Dublin, and one in Inchicore. Ear­lier this month, it opened one in Lim­er­ick, it opens in Cork in June, and a sixth is planned for Dublin 2 in 2018.

Pow­ell-Okafor is CEO of Hope. She has a mas­ter’s in psy­chol­ogy and a post-grad­u­ate qualificat­ion in Ap­plied Be­havioural Anal­y­sis (ABA), a widely-recog­nised ap­proach to deal­ing with chil­dren with autism. She is study­ing Ir­ish at Marino In­sti­tute of Ed­u­ca­tion, so that she can gain full Teach­ing Coun­cil recog­ni­tion.

“How Scoil Sinead came about was we were think­ing about where the kids would be go­ing when they leave our set­ting,” she says.

While they have a par­tic­u­lar ex­per­tise in autism, Hope Montes­sori caters for all chil­dren, both those with spe­cial needs and oth­ers, and will bring the Hope phi­los­o­phy into pri­mary and post-pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion.

Hope’s direc­tor of ed­u­ca­tion, Jen­nifer Sheri­dan, who has a mas­ter’s in ABA, is among the Scoil Sinead direc­tors.

Their vi­sion for Hope-in­spired schools ex­tends both to phys­i­cal lay­out and cul­tural changes, for the good of all.

Pow­ell-Ikafor says a child with spe­cial needs is of­ten on the edge of a class to fa­cil­i­tate the spe­cial needs as­sis­tant (SNA). “If we get away from things like keep­ing these chil­dren at the back of the class, and try to be more in­clu­sive, well that is a great step.”

They plan a vari­a­tion on the tra­di­tional model of autism and spe­cial needs units that are sep­a­rate and, per­haps, far away from the main­stream classes and to have re­source fa­cil­i­ties at­tached to each class­room.

“(By) struc­tur­ing the school ap­pro­pri­ately, we aim to elim­i­nate dif­fi­cul­ties faced by stu­dents with autism, such as bul­ly­ing, and to fos­ter a cul­ture of ac­cep­tance in all stu­dents,” she says.

She recog­nises that chil­dren with autism have a very good sup­port sys­tem in schools but asks, “why is it lim­ited to them? Other chil­dren need sup­port.”

She also be­lieves that proper teacher train­ing can go a long way to min­imis­ing the need for ad­di­tional sup­ports.

Scoil Sinead will not seg­re­gate pupils for re­li­gion classes.

Hope is ex­pand­ing, and so are the am­bi­tions of Scoil Sinead. “We do see our­selves ap­ply­ing for more schools. We have a very good team,” says Pow­ell-Ikafor.

PHO­TOS: DOUG O’CON­NOR

Sup­port: Sherene Pow­ell-Ikafor at Hope Montes­sori Autism Care Cen­tre, Mountview, Dublin and (be­low) with mem­bers of Hope staff: area man­ager, Feli­cia De­ji­coo; direc­tor of ed­u­ca­tion, Jen­nifer Sheri­dan; sec­re­tary, Tanya Nee­son; and par­ent rep­re­sen­ta­tive,...

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