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Inclusion in Northern Ireland: cracking the code.


Teachers in Northern Ireland are faced with the introduction of new legislation relating to the identification, assessment, and provision for, children with special needs. In line with the United Kingdom and Europe, teachers are increasingly finding themselves under scrutiny. They are now expected to accept greater responsibility and accountability. The introduction of a new Code of Practice has had particular implications for how teachers work with pupils with special educational needs, and additionally, within a system which is placing increased budgetary constraints upon them.


Since 1981, legislation within the United Kingdom has promoted the integration and inclusion of a wider range of children in mainstream settings (Chapman and Ware, 1999). In particular, the introduction of The Code of Practice (Department of Education Northern Ireland, 1998:2, 1.6) has addressed the issue of inclusion and integration in Northern Ireland by stating, "the needs of most pupils will be met in mainstream schools, and without a statutory assessment or a statement. Children with special educational needs, including those with statements, should, wherever appropriate and taking into account the wishes of their parents, be educated alongside their peers in mainstream schools" (a "statement" refers to a formal, and legally binding statement of a child's special educational needs and the resources required to meet these needs). According to the Code of Practice (DENI, 1998) 20% of children are likely to have a special educational need at some time in their school career but with only 2% of this group being taught in special schools. This, therefore, leaves a higher percentage of children with varying types of special educational needs being educated in mainstream schools. This has particular implications for teachers in Northern Ireland who have been used to a very traditional system of education, where the majority of children are prepared for the Transfer Examination, at around eleven years of age. Success in this examination facilitates entrance to grammar schools, which are popularly perceived to be highly academic. Competition for places in these schools can be considerable. Many teachers, therefore, can find themselves responding to enormous pressure from parents of children with special needs such as Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Attentional Deficit Disorder (ADD) to make early and accurate assessments of their children in order that they gain success and possible entrance to a grammar school.

New Challenges Facing Teachers

The Code of Practice (DENI, 1998) sets out a five-stage approach to identifying, assessing and providing for children with special educational needs. The first three stages are primarily the responsibility of the classroom teacher (and thus the school). This has important implications for the classroom teacher. Initially, prior to any decision being taken to place a child on Stage One of the Code, teachers are required to make themselves aware of the needs of their pupils; hence observation becomes the first vital step to be undertaken. Observation helps teachers get to know individual children and builds upon their knowledge of that child. In addition to careful observation, teachers now have a responsibility to collect all previous records and knowledge of their pupils from any previous schools or pre-school nurseries, in order to gain further insight into their pupils. Such information, derived from observation and collection of previously recorded information, can help the teacher to determine if a child might require special educational provision. Dean (1996:26) notes, "The teacher's observation of children is the major way in which children are initially identified as having difficulties."

The Code of Practice states that all teachers, "are aware of the importance of identifying, and providing for, those pupils who have SEN" (Deans, 1996:9). If teachers formally express initial concerns about a pupil in their class, then they have embarked upon Stage One of the Code (concerns may also be expressed by a parent or other professionals involved in the pupils life). At this stage, it is the responsibility of the teacher to inform the Special Educational Needs coordinator, who registers the child's special needs. At Stage One, the Code notes how, "the class teacher should collect and record information about the child, consulting with other teachers as appropriate and make an initial assessment of the child's special educational needs (DENI. 1998:14, 2.46). The Code lists the types of information to be collected by the teacher, incorporating: class records, national curriculum Attainments, standardised test results or profiles, records of achievements, observations about the child's behaviour, information from parents on their child, child's perceptions of his/her difficulties and any information from other sources (health and social services), (DENI, 1998). At this stage, there are three possibilities: no special education help is needed, but child is kept under review; further advice and support is needed (child moves to Stage Two) or special help is given within the normal classroom setting, keeping a record of the nature and aims.

Knight (1999:5) states, "Gathering information and being able to problem solve with others during implementation is critical to effective teaching and the implementation of inclusion". So how can teachers gather information to ensure successful inclusion? Initially, whilst teachers may previously have kept records of children's learning, this has now become a requirement by law under the Code of Practice (DENI, 1998). Furthermore, these records should be made available to other professionals or adults involved in the child's development (DENI, 1998). To maintain these class records efficiently, teachers must continue their monitoring and observation of those children with special educational needs (SEN) on a regular basis. Therefore, continued observation and record keeping of the SEN child is one implication classroom teachers face as a result of the Code.

Teacher Styles

Because the Code states that a child has a learning difficulty if he/she "has a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children the same age" (DENI, 1998:1, 1.4), classroom teachers need to compare performances of their pupils against those expected by the National Curriculum. In addition to the Code of Practice, the inclusion statement contained within the National Curriculum (DFEE and QCA, (1999a, 1999b), {quoted in Lawson et al; 2001:165)}, emphasises that teachers at all key stages "should teach the knowledge, skills and understanding in ways that suit their pupils' abilities", and that they "may need to use the contents of the programme of study as a resource or to provide a context, in planning learning, appropriate to the age and requirements of their pupils". Scott (1994), {quoted in Dyson and Gains, 1993:94)} notes, "Effective learning results not simply from direct classroom intervention, but from a curriculum which takes account of individual differences, is adjusted to meet pupils needs and which is therefore, planned and organised". This, in itself, has many implications for the classroom teacher. Teachers must be aware of the needs of their pupils with SEN (through observation and recording) and must provide for them individually as part of their normal daily work. To do this effectively, classroom teachers must take into account their own teaching styles and strategies, the child's style of learning, setting clear objectives, differentiation in the classroom, ongoing monitoring and reviewing and evaluation. Teachers must begin to examine their own teaching styles and develop teaching strategies to assist children's style of learning. By using varying strategies such as group work, paired work, role play, linked cross-curricular topics and flexible learning approaches, this will assist children in their individual learning styles. Children with different special needs will have different learning abilities and styles and teachers must also be aware of this.

Richards (1999:101) in his study on inclusive schools found teachers adopted flexible approaches to teaching pupils with emotional and behavioural problems by placing emphasis on, "avoiding problems through motivating and enjoyable lessons rather than on systems for controlling behaviour or dealing with appropriate behaviour once it has occurred". He noted that pupils with such special educational needs are extremely sensitive to issues of control. Therefore, by using this approach, pupils, he maintains, become more engaged in their work. Children with learning difficulties need work addressed to their individual difficulties and which is broken down into small steps so they can see completion is possible and children with physical special needs usually have poor kinaesthetic learning styles (Dean, 1996).

Striking a Balance

Male and Thompson (1985), {quoted in Stakes and Hornby, (1996:24)} propose that, "a balance must be struck between the special needs of the child and the opportunity for them to participate in the widest possible general school curriculum". One further implication of the Code of Practice on classroom teachers is, therefore, the ability to correctly match the work expected from pupils with their ability to do it, to differentiate the curriculum. Stakes and Hornby (1996:24) report, "Differentiation is a developmental skill which needs much practice to gain consistency. For those working with pupils of SEN ... it is an area of particular importance". To successfully differentiate work, teachers must take into account the ability of the child, the outcome they expect the child to reach, the length of time required to complete the task, the appropriate resources and the support needed to help the child accomplish the task, being aware that the level of work will vary according to the ability of each pupil with SEN. So teachers must decide to differentiate by task or outcome or both. "The size of each step or intermediate goal should be carefully matched so that it is within pupils' reach but is sufficiently stretching to challenge and motivate them" (National Curriculum Council, 1987b), {quoted in Dyson and Gains, (1993:78)}. Richards (1999:100) notes, "in the inclusive school, curriculum content is critically examined and developed to supply meaningful and relevant knowledge and skills at a level that provides challenge and achievement". Evaluation within the classroom needs to be ongoing to monitor progress and reassess special educational needs. "All pupils with learning difficulties ... benefit from the provision of regular feedback on how they are progressing and this necessitates close monitoring by their teachers" (Dyson and Gains, 1993:82).


In addition to all record keeping and assessment noted above, one further requirement of the Code at Stage One is for teachers to gain information from parents about their child and also from other sources such as health professionals. This most commonly occurs at Stage Two. Should a child be moved onto Stage Two of the register (as a result of unsatisfactory progress), one further implication for the classroom teacher is the introduction of Individual Education Plans (IEP's). The Code of Practice (DENI, 1998:16, 2.56) stresses, "The SEN co-ordinator, working with the class teachers ... should ensure that an education plan is drawn up for the child taking into account as far as possible the child's own views on his or her difficulties and the proposed provision".

When the child is at this stage (2), the SEN co-ordinator takes responsibility for special needs provision, the implementation of appropriate strategies and targets are still the responsibility of the classroom teacher. Stakes and Hornby (1996:57) express this as follows: "the responsibility for determining the targets and the strategies to be used to teach and monitor progress in many lessons lies with the classroom teacher". This, of course, causes further implications for classroom teachers whereby they must continue to observe, assess, differentiate and evaluate as at Stage One, but here they have additional responsibility in setting specific learning targets for individual children over a set period of time, attending additional meetings with the Special Educational Needs co-ordinator and parents, as well as engaging in a continuous and formalised review of the IEP's they have put in place. Busch et al (2001), in their study of teachers' attitudes, found meetings to discuss IEP's to be "challenging", as a result of the number of people involved and the necessary information required. Furthermore, at this stage, continual monitoring and record keeping are required in order to determine changes in the child's targets or, perhaps, on the appropriateness of their stage within the Code.

Teachers may also need to liase closely with health or social care professionals. Teachers need to be flexible in organising activities within the classroom as the SEN child may need to attend meetings or appointments and these times may not always by suitable for the classroom teacher. Stakes and Hornby (1996:25) suggest that, "There is a considerable need for cooperation and flexibility between the various professionals so that the work can be done with the minimum of disruption for all concerned". In addition to this, at Stage 3 of the Code, external support in the form of an Educational Psychologist may be introduced with further implications for the classroom teacher, in terms of recording and time constraints.

The role of parents in The Code of Practice at all stages has been strongly documented. The Code highlights this in saying, "The relationship between the parents of a child with special educational needs and their child's school has a crucial beating on the child's educational progress and the effectiveness of any school-based action" (DENI, 1998:9, 2.21). According to Bird and Buckley (1994:91), "understanding the parents' perspective and planning to meet their needs for example, regular meetings to exchange information and communicate clearly, will help to ensure successful placement" in mainstream schools. Teachers need to ensure, therefore, that they establish and maintain effective communication with parents and that any changes should be discussed with parents prior to implementing them. Teachers must develop their own interpersonal skills, demonstrating empathy, sensitivity and openness with parents. Furthermore, parents need to have "comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date information about their child's disability" (Clark, Dyson, Millward and Skidmore 1997:60).

As teachers and parents, in partnership, work closely with the child they can come to share with each other more accurate and richer information (Wolfendale, 1997). Stakes and Hornby (1996:79) suggest that, "establishing constructive working relationships with parents is a key element of meeting the educational need of all children, but it is particularly important for those children with SEN". Typically, parents of SEN children require greater support and guidance, which has further implications for the classroom teacher. The teacher should be prepared to listen to the parents, attend all relevant meetings with parents to discuss their child's progress. This may mean going outside of normal working requirements in order to carry this through effectively, as frequently, parents may be unavailable during school time. Furthermore, should it be decided that a child moves onto Stage Four or Five of the Code, parents will perhaps become more fully involved in their child's continuing education. At this stage, parents have the tight to request a statutory assessment and of the right to appeal to a Tribunal, which is an independent body, should the Board go against their request (DENI, 1998).


As we can see, with the implementation of the Code of Practice there are many implications for mainstream teachers in Northern Ireland. Within the classroom, teachers have many additional duties to incorporate into their daily duties, including differentiation of the curriculum, monitoring National Curriculum attainments, observation of children's behaviour, recording standardised test results or profiles as well as records of achievements, attending reviews and setting individual IEP's. This leads to further time restraints and pressures on the classroom teacher. Furthermore, they must continually evaluate their own work, and assess their own teaching styles and strategies as well as the child's style of learning. Outside of teaching, the classroom teacher has the further tasks of dealing with parents and other professionals as well as additional in-service training. The most significant implication, perhaps, is the impact of the financial budget on the classroom teacher as this affects all other areas of the teachers' work and their ability to carry out these duties as effectively as possible to ensure successful inclusion in what is still a traditional education system, with high expectations from many parents that their children will enter a grammar school.


Bird, G. and Buckley, S. (1994) Meeting the Educational Needs of Children with Down's Syndrome, University of Portsmouth.

Busch, T.W., Pederson, K., Espin, C.A., and Weissenburger, J.W. (2001) Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities: Perceptions of a First-Year Teacher, The Journal of Special Education, 35 (2), pp 92-99.

Chapman, L. and Ware, J. (1999). Challenging traditional roles and perceptions: Using a transdisciplinary approach in an inclusive mainstream school, Support for Learning, 14 (3), pp104-109.

Clark, C., Dyson, A., Millward, S., and Skidmore, D. (1997). New Directions in Special Needs. (Series: Special Needs in Ordinary Schools) London: Cassell.

Dean, J. (1996) Managing special needs in the primary school, London: Routledge. DENI (1998) Code of Practice on the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational Needs.

Dockrell, J., and Mc Shane, J (1993). Children's Learning Difficulties: A Cognitive Approach. Oxford: Blackwell.

Dyson., A and Gains, C. (1993) Eds, Rethinking Special Needs in Mainstream Schools. David Fulton.

Hornby, G (1999) Inclusion or delusion: Can one size fit all? Support for Learning, 14 (4), pp152-157.

Johnstone, D., and Warwick, C. (1999) Community solutions to inclusions: Some observations on practice in Europe and the United Kingdom, Support for Learning, 14 (1), pp8-12.

Knight, B.A. (1999) Towards inclusion of students with special educational needs in the regular classroom, Support for Learning, 14 (1) pp3-7.

Lambert, M. (2004) Conductive education: links with mainstream schools, Support for Learning, 19 (1), pp31-37.

Lawson, H., Marvin, C., and Pratt, A. (2001) Planning, teaching and assessing the curriculum for pupils with learning difficulties: an introduction and overview, Support for Learning, 16 (4), pp 162-167.

Richards, I.C. (1999) Inclusive schools for pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties, Support for Learning, 14 (3), pp 99-103.

Stakes, R. and Hornby, G. (1996) Meeting Special Needs in Mainstream Schools. David Fulton.

Wolfendale, S. (1997). Meeting special needs in the early years: directions in policy and practice. London: David Fulton.

Nyree McCurry, Stranmillis University College, Belfast

Scan MacBlain, Stranmillis University College, Belfast

Nyree McCurry is a postgraduate student. Scan MacBlain Ph.D., is senior lecturer in education and developmental psychology.
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Author:MacBlain, Sean
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:4EUUN
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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