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Initial identification of special educational needs - Ireland

Policy context

Until about 10 years ago, access to special education services and supports for children and young people with special educational needs was not universally available in the Republic of Ireland, sometimes depending upon geographical location and/or the availability of resources.

However, the Programme for Government “Action Programme for the Millennium” (1998) had, among its priorities: “Ensuring that people with disabilities have equal opportunities to participate fully in all aspects of society” and “To give primary education a clear priority in allocating resources, including the provision of remedial teachers and resources for special learning.” This policy direction was codified in legislation described later.

Automatic entitlement to resources

In November, 1998, the Department of Education and Science introduced for the first time:

  • automatic access to additional teaching support for all children attending schools on a fully integrated basis who had been assessed as having special educational needs
  • automatic access to child care support for all children with special needs, including those in special schools, special classes and ordinary schools, who had been assessed as requiring such support,
  • and formal recognition of the distinct educational needs of all children with Autism. 

A significant investment was made in resourcing schools at primary and post primary level. following this announcement.  This was done through the allocation of additional teachers for pupils with special educational needs and Special Needs Assistants to support them in mainstream and special educational settings.  At the beginning of the 2007-2008 school year, of the approximately 53, 000 teachers working in primary and post-primary schools, approximately  8, 500 were appointed to work specifically with pupils with special educational needs. Over  9,250 special needs assistants were working with those pupils also. 

DES Circular letters

In order to ensure that the allocation of additional resources would be made in a transparent and fair manner, the DES issued a series of circular letters to schools, defining the main categories of disability and listing the assessment criteria that would be acceptable as evidence of the existence of these disabilities and of consequent special educational needs. Strict compliance with these circulars is a condition of the allocation of additional resources. However, the monitoring of compliance has presented a challenge to both professional and administrative staff in the DES. 

General allocation to schools.

The circulars have reflected a change in emphasis since 1999, from the concept of each additional resource being earmarked specifically for a named child - individual allocation - which necessitated a considerable number of individual assessments, to the concept of a general allocation of resources to be made to a school. As explained in the 2007 National Report to the European Agency, it was assumed that, by the school year 2005/6,  every primary school would have a certain proportion of children who needed learning support or who had “high incidence” disabilities (such as mild general learning disability) and would therefore be assigned additional resources without the need for individual assessments (Special Education Circular 02/05). Additional resources would continue to be assigned in respect of named children with “low incidence” disabilities, mainly physical and sensory disability and autistic spectrum disorders, but only if a consequent special educational need was established and quantified in the assessment report.

As promised at its introduction, this means of supporting schools in meeting the needs of pupils with SEN is being reviewed in consultation with the partners in education in 2008. 

Responsibility for the provision of individual assessments for children with special educational needs


Originally, special education in Ireland was provided by voluntary bodies formed at the instigation of parents of children with disabilities or by religious orders. They provided a range of services, including assessments by medical personnel and psychologists. These services were funded by the Health Boards and were carried out under their aegis. Over time, the work of these bodies was supplemented by the establishment of special national schools. 

From the 1960s to 1999, special education in Ireland was provided by voluntary bodies that were formed at the instigation of parents of children with disabilities or by religious orders. These organisations established special national schools that were funded by the Department of Education. They also provided a range of other services for children and adults with disabilities, including assessment services. The assessment services were carried out by medical personnel and psychologists and were funded through the Department of Health. 

During this period, the Department of Education recruited a small number of psychologists who operated within the Inspectorate of Schools. The work of these psychologists was focussed mainly on the post-primary sector, with a limited involvement in the primary sector. The main contact of these psychologists with students with special educational needs was in the context of mainstream schools, rather than special schools. 

1999 onwards:

The Minister for Education and Science formed a Planning Group in the early 1990s to prepare proposals for the establishment of an educational psychological service for schools. Acceptance of the Planning Group’s recommendations led to the establishment in September 1999 of the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) as a dedicated section of the DES, separate from the Inspectorate. The Report of the Planning Group ( recommended that 200 educational psychologists would be needed nationwide. However, the 200 psychologists that were anticipated by the planning group report may need to be reviewed in the light of subsequent decisions by the Department of Education and Science to expand services for children with special educational needs and in light of the requirements of legislation, particularly those of the EPSEN Act 2004. 

For operational reasons, recruitment to NEPS was organised on a phased basis, with an initial 5-year plan for expansion of the service to all schools. As a means to provide an assessment service forthwith to all schools, a special scheme which has become known as the Scheme for Commissioning Psychological Assessments (SCPA) was established. Under the SCPA, all schools that do not have access to a NEPS service may commission a limited number of assessments from psychologists who are on an approved list. The number of assessments that can be commissioned depends on the pupil numbers in the school.

Parallel to the work that is carried out by NEPS, other psychologists who are employed by the HSE and by voluntary bodies under its aegis still provide assessment services to pre-school children and adults with special educational needs and to a number of special schools and units.



  • DES – Department of Education and Science
  • EPSEN Act – Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act
  • HSE – Health Services Executive
  • NEPS – National Educational Psychological Service
  • SCPA – Scheme for Commissioning Psychological Assessments
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