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Evidence suggests that a very significant proportion of children with Down syndrome could be placed successfully in a mainstream school. Research data, although still somewhat limited, indicates that such placements lead to academic as well as social gains and increase the chances of the child making local friendships that extend beyond the school day. These facts have lead increasing numbers of parents to seek an inclusive placement for their child. In some parts of the country over 80% of primary and 50% of secondary aged children are already included, although the picture is very different elsewhere.
In all too many Local Education Authorities, parents still have to put up a fight to secure an adequately funded place in their local school. From the current sample of 315 parents who have succeeded in gaining a mainstream place for their child, 29% report difficulties with either the Local Education Authority or the school itself. While a majority of children with Down syndrome are able to take part in at least some activities with little additional support, maximum benefit will only be obtained if the child has access to a classroom assistant or support teacher for much of their time in school.
Further, tasks will need to be modified and adapted to ensure that they are relevant and appropriate. While there clearly are students for whom only minimal support is required throughout the day, the practice is not generally recommended. All children benefit from some time without direct supervision, enabling them to gain in independence and mix socially with their peer group.
On the other hand, it is not possible for a busy class teacher to deliver an appropriately flexible and differentiated curriculum on their own, without disadvantaging the rest of the class.
A nationwide survey recently carried out by the author indicates that the majority of children with Down syndrome in mainstream schools are supported by a learning support assistant for between 20 and 27 hours a week. Of the children in the survey sample, 58% at primary and 61% at secondary level were largely unsupported at dinner time, at break times and during assembly. A further 25% at primary and 18% at secondary level took part in lessons such as physical education, drama and music without support. However, only 2-3% were unsupported in more academic lessons
In some schools, particularly in the secondary sector, young people with Down syndrome are increasingly being supported by more than one assistant. This can work well where communication is good and support staff are placed in settings where their particular skills can be used to best effect.
This approach, while still relatively uncommon, has several advantages: a. it avoids the unnaturally close relationship which sometimes develops between child and assistant, b. it allows cover to be arranged more readily if one assistant is ill or on a training course, and c. t avoids the trauma caused to a child whose support assistant leaves.
In the author’s survey, virtually all primary aged pupils were being supported by one assistant. However, in the secondary sector, 32% had two or three assistants, while 19% were being supported by different assistants in different subject areas.
Lee and Henkhuzens, in their study of ten inclusive secondary schools from five different Local Education Authorities, recommended the attachment of support assistants to subject departments as: a. It enables learning support assistants to become familiar with the subject area and the way in which each topic will be approached. b. It allows the assistants to feel more confident in their ability to support students appropriately, particularly where it is possible to place assistants in subject areas where they already have confidence, expertise or interest. c. It increases opportunities for assistants and subject staff to work together to produce a bank of appropriate materials.
Data from over 300 questionnaires, followed up by discussions with parents and teachers, show quite clearly that successful inclusive education for many children with Down syndrome is a reality both at primary and at secondary level. Yet for others, mainstream placement appears to be offering little in terms of skilled teaching or peer group interaction. While adequate levels of resourcing are clearly important, greater attention needs to be focussed on the way in which support is used. The key factors for successful inclusion appear to be:
If these are in place, there is no reason why the majority of children with Down syndrome could not attend their local school and benefit both socially and academically from an inclusive placement both at primary and at secondary level
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