In a small village in South Armagh something rather wonderful is beginning to take shape. After some difficult early years the Middletown Centre for Autism, a North/South body whose mission is to create a centre for excellence in Ireland for the education of children and young people with autism spectrum disorders, is beginning to take off.
In 2009 the Centre, set up two years earlier with funding from the two Departments of Education, was in serious danger of having no future, after the then Irish Education Minister Batt O’Keefe announced a funding ‘pause’ for the project because of financial cutbacks on the Southern side. This pause was lifted following eight months of representations from the Centre’s board and the Northern Minister, Caitriona Ruane. However there were continuing questions both from unionist politicians and so me Northern parents about the wisdom of taking autistic children out of their home setting for assessment and treatment.
These concerns were triumphantly put to bed by an extremely positive report on Middletown’s services by a joint team of inspectors from the two Departments a year ago. They rated these services as ‘outstanding’: the highest assessment category. Earlier the education committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly had visited the Centre and had also gone away impressed, including sceptics like the DUP chair of the committee, Mervyn Storey.
Referrals of young people with particularly challenging learning difficulties (at the moment only happening in the North) represents a small part of the Middletown Centre’s work. It also provides training services for parents, teachers and other education professionals all over Ireland. For example, its 2013 spring programme shows training events in a range of autism-related provision taking place in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Kildare, Navan, Letterkenny, Belfast, Londonderry, Coleraine and Omagh, as well as in Middletown itself. In April and May, there are 21 events in areas such as sensory processing, promotion of positive behaviour, anxiety management, autism and play; autism, art and music; challenging behaviour, the hidden curriculum and the use of the curriculum to create an autism-friendly classroom.
The Centre’s services are slightly different in the two jurisdictions. In the South they concentrate on research and the training of parents and teachers. In the North they work in particular with teachers, classroom assistants and speech and language therapists, and directly with particularly challenging young people referred to them by the autism teams of the Education and Library Boards. After the positive joint inspectors’ report, plans are in hand to expand very significantly the services offered throughout Ireland.
The Centre also carries out research into autism, and has an input into the training of teachers in a number of colleges of education in both jurisdictions. There is, for example, a great dearth of research into the condition available to parents with children over 16, and Middletown organises events at which they can hear the findings of the latest international research. Since the Centre began training parents and educational professionals at the end of 2007, over 23,000 people have been trained.
Another innovative and highly successful North-South training-based initiative is the Social Welfare Summer School, held alternately every year in Queen’s University Belfast and National University of Ireland Maynooth since 2000.
This week-long school provides civil servants in the North’s Department of Social Development (DSD) and the South’s Department of Social Protection (DSP) with an opportunity to reflect on and debate the key social policy issues of common concern facing both jurisdictions. The event is largely targeted at junior and middle management who have not previously experienced higher education and who would benefit from this kind of intensive and challenging learning opportunity. The civil servants stay on campus, providing them with a real university experience. Since its inception, over 600 civil servants from the two jurisdictions have been through the school.
A demanding week involves academic lectures, study groups (each of which must produce a written report on their particular topic), expert visitors, and speeches and observations from senior management from both Departments. Under the tutelage of the school’s academic director, Professor Madeleine Leonard of Queen’s School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work, last year’s 48 students examined issues around disability, older people, workless communities, one-parent families, youth unemployment and reforming welfare and work in the context of the current economic crisis.
Professor Leonard has been involved with the summer school since 2004, and her energy and drive have helped both to provide the civil servants with a unique cross-border learning opportunity and, as a consequence, to cement links between the two Departments.
Apart from its academic rigour, the school generates greater understanding between civil servants from the two jurisdictions. As the week progresses, camaraderie heightens and the much-needed breaks away from studies – which last year included a tour of Stormont’s Parliament Buildings – help build a relaxed atmosphere that is most palpable on the Friday evening when certificates are presented to students. To whoops and cheers, students are called one by one to receive their certificates, accredited by the Institute of Leadership and Management, in recognition of the hard work they have put in during the week.
Senior management in both Departments also use the opportunity to renew relationships and exchange views. The Heads of the two Departments, Niamh O’Donoghue from the DSP and Will Haire from the DSD, attended last year’s school and strongly reaffirmed their commitment to continuing the initiative.
PS Many thanks to Ciaran Lawler of the Department of Social Protection for providing the text for the second part of this ‘Note’.