Ireland - Special needs education within the education system

The development of inclusion

There has been a very considerable movement towards the development of inclusive practices in Irish education over the last 25 years. This was initially influenced by the Report of the Special Education Review Committee (1993), which advocated a continuum of education provision for students with special educational needs and favoured ‘as much integration as is appropriate and feasible with as little segregation as is necessary’. It also proposed basic principles to guide the future development of special educational needs provision, one of which was that appropriate education for all students with special educational needs should be provided in ordinary schools, except where individual circumstances made this impracticable.

The recommendation that students with special educational needs should be educated in ordinary (mainstream) school has been of particular significance in underpinning the allocation by the Department of Education and Skills of increased resources for special educational needs provision to mainstream and special schools, in the development of new funding mechanisms for special educational needs provision in mainstream schools, and in the large increase in the number of students with assessed special educational needs in mainstream primary and post-primary schools. In 1998, the Department introduced the practice of providing additional resources to schools for students with certain special educational needs. This involved the allocation of resource teaching hours and special needs assistant support for students with special educational needs in mainstream schools.

The Department of Education and Skills’ current policy is to secure the maximum possible level of inclusion of students with special educational needs in mainstream primary and post-primary schools, while ensuring that specialist facilities continue to be provided for students whose needs are such that they need to be placed in special schools or in special classes in mainstream schools.

In implementing this policy, the Department and its associated bodies work with other government departments, statutory bodies, voluntary agencies, schools’ management bodies, third-level institutions and other professional organisations in the management and delivery of education provision for students with special educational needs. The Department is committed to enhancing services for students with special educational needs and to improving service delivery through the National Council for Special Education (NCSE).

In 2011, the NCSE submitted policy advice to the Minister for Education and Skills concerning the future role of special schools and classes in Ireland. This policy advice emphasised the NCSE’s commitment to the principle enshrined in the EPSEN Act that the vast majority of pupils with special needs should be educated alongside their peers in inclusive settings, unless it is not in their best interests or the best interests of their peers with whom they are to be educated. However, in line with the spirit of the EPSEN Act, the policy advice recognised that some children have such complex or severe needs that placement in a mainstream setting would not be in their best interests. For these children, locally based special classes in mainstream schools or special schools located on mainstream campuses are recommended as the best way to maximise inclusion.

The NCSE has also submitted policy advice on:

  • The education of Deaf/Hard of Hearing Children in Ireland (2011).
  • The education of children with challenging behaviour arising from severe emotional/behavioural disorders (BD) (2012).
  • Supporting Students with Special Educational Needs in Schools (2013).

References

Report of the Special Education Review Committee (1993)

Learning Support Guidelines (2000)

Inclusion of Students in Post-Primary School (2006)

NCSE, Guidelines on the Individual Education Plan Process (2006)

NCSE, Inclusive Framework for Schools (2011)

NCSE, Children with Special Educational Needs: Information Booklet for Parents (2011)

Other reports and circulars setting out or underpinning the Department’s policy on special education and inclusion are available on the websites of the Department of Education and Skills and the National Council for Special Education.

Current practice – Pre-school level

The Government of Ireland introduced a free pre-school year in Early Childhood Care And Education (the ECCE programme) in January 2010. The programme is administered by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Pobal, acting as agents for the Department. The City and County Childcare Committees manage the local operation of the programme. Children qualify for the free pre-school year where they are aged over 3 years 2 months and less than 4 years 7 months on 1 September in the relevant pre-school year.

The ECCE programme’s objective is to make early learning in a formal educational setting available to eligible children in the year before they commence primary school. To achieve this, services participating in the pre-school year are required to provide age-appropriate activities and programmes for the children. Both community and commercial service providers can apply to participate in the ECCE programme. All children within the specified age range, including children with special educational needs, are eligible for the ECCE programme.

The Department of Education and Skills funds dedicated pre-school education for children diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder, which is available in early intervention classes in mainstream primary schools or, where such classes are not available, through a home tuition grant to the child’s family. The Department of Education and Skills also funds the Early Start Programme. This programme is a one-year preventative intervention scheme offered in selected schools in designated disadvantaged areas. The programme caters for, to some extent, but is not focused on, pre-school children with special educational needs. The Department also provides funding for pre-school education for children from the Travelling Community.

Many other children attend some form of pre-school education provision. For detailed information on this provision, please consult the websites of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Department of Education and Skills, Pobal and the National Disability Authority.

Teacher support in mainstream schools

Students with special educational needs are taught in both mainstream and special schools. Every mainstream school is allocated class/subject teachers in line with specific pupil–teacher ratios at primary and post-primary levels. These posts are allocated to the school to enable them to educate all enrolled students.

Each school receives a general allocation of learning support teaching hours in line with either the number of class teachers (primary schools) or the number of students (post-primary schools).

Primary and post-primary mainstream schools are also provided with resource teaching hours (which are included in the general allocation of hours) to enable them to support students with borderline or mild general learning disabilities or specific learning disabilities (known as high-incidence disabilities). The basis for allocating these resource teaching hours is by reference to the number of class teachers at primary and by reference to historic allocations for such disabilities at post-primary.

Mainstream schools may apply for further resource teaching hours where they have enrolled students with a professional report which states that they have been assessed as having a low-incidence special educational needs, e.g. autism or moderate general learning disabilities.

Each year, the Department of Education and Skills sends circular letters to schools, outlining staffing arrangements for mainstream schools. These circular letters are published on the website of the Department of Education and Skills. Special Education Circular 02/05 contains details of the general allocation model in primary schools and guidelines for the deployment of teaching staff and resources.

Enrolment in special classes in mainstream schools and in special schools is reserved for students with assessed special educational needs. Teacher allocations for special schools and special classes are determined on the basis of the disability profile of the students within the special class or school, for example, 11:1 in the case of a class for learners with mild general learning disability (GLD) and 6:1 in the case of a class for learners with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD).

For the 2013/2014 school year there was a total of 741 special classes in mainstream schools, of which in the region of 10% were early intervention classes for children with ASD, 67% were special classes in mainstream primary schools and 23% were special classes in mainstream post-primary schools.

Support from the Department of Health and the Health Service Executive for children with special educational needs

Students with special educational needs may also access health support services. These services are provided through local Health Service Executive (HSE) early intervention or school age teams or through specialist teams. These supports include clinical psychology, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and child and adolescent mental health teams.

The HSE is working together with other relevant departments and agencies to implement a new plan, entitled Progressing Disability Services for Children and Young People, which will reconfigure the way that services are provided for children with disabilities. The Progressing Disability Services for Children and Young People programme was established in 2010 and is currently being extended throughout the country. The programme’s vision is that every child or young person with a disability is supported to achieve their potential through the implementation of an integrated service model that will allow children, whatever the nature of their disability, to be seen and supported as locally as possible to their home and school, based on their needs. Services will be provided by local primary care teams whenever possible or by Children’s Disability Network teams, supported by specialist services. There will be close co-operation and teamwork between health services and schools to help children to achieve their potential.

Teacher support in special schools

According to the NCSE, in the school year 2012–2013 there were 119 special schools in Ireland for students with special educational needs arising from a disability. The special schools cater for students with general learning disability (mild, moderate and severe/profound), emotional and/or behavioural disorders, autistic spectrum disorders, physical and multiple disabilities, sensory disabilities, and specific learning disabilities.

Special schools are allocated teaching supports on the basis of very small class sizes (ranging, for example, from 11:1 in the case of mild GLD to 6:1 in the case of ASD). The number of teachers allocated to the special school is determined by the profile of students’ disabilities within each special school.

According to NCSE figures, approximately 7,100 students were attending special schools for students with disabilities during the 2012–2013 school year. There were over 1,000 teachers working in special schools.

Additional care supports in schools

The NCSE sanctions the appointment of special needs assistants to schools to assist schools in the delivery of care support for pupils with disabilities who need additional care support. The Department of Education and Skills stipulates that the duties of special needs assistants are solely related to care, and are strictly of a non-teaching nature.

Special needs assistants are allocated to special schools and special classes in line with the base-line appointment ratios set down by the Department of Education and Skills. The NCSE may allocate additional special needs assistant posts to special schools and special classes where a higher level of care staffing is required.

Special needs assistants are allocated to assist schools to cater for the significant and additional care needs of pupils with disabilities so as to facilitate their inclusion in school. Such allocations are based on individualised applications, which the NCSE processes in accordance with eligibility criteria laid down by the Department of Education and Skills. Schools may apply for special needs assistant (SNA) support for a pupil with a disability who also has a significant medical need for special assistance or a significant impairment of physical or sensory function. Under certain circumstances, applications for access to SNA support are considered for students whose significant care needs arise from a diagnosis of emotional behaviour disorder and relate to behaviour-related care needs. The student’s care needs must be assessed and described by a professional (e.g. psychologist, doctor, occupational therapist, psychiatrist) as being so significant that the student will require adult assistance in order to be able to attend school and to participate in education. The report must state why additional care support is necessary and outline the benefits to the student from receiving such care in the school setting.

The Department’s Circular 0030/2014 provides more information on the Special Needs Assistant scheme.

Other educational supports for pupils with special educational needs

The following additional educational supports are available to assist in the education of students with special educational needs:

  • Assistive technology
  • Specialist furniture and equipment
  • Special school transport arrangement
  • School building adaptations where necessary
  • Enhanced levels of capitation grants for special schools and mainstream primary schools with special classes
  • Reasonable Accommodation in Certificate Examinations (RACE)
  • Disability Access Route to (Third-Level) Education (DARE)
  • Home tuition
  • Extended school year scheme for students with ASD and severe/profound GLD
  • Visiting teacher service for children who are deaf or have a hearing impairment and children who are blind or have a visual impairment.

Schools apply for the above supports on a case-by-case basis. See the Department of Education and Skills website for details.

Existing resources supporting learners with special educational needs

The NCSE is responsible for allocating additional teaching and care resources to schools to support learners with special educational needs in line with Department of Education and Skills policy and funding parameters. As part of this responsibility, the NCSE processes applications for SNA and resource teacher supports from schools. In the school year 2013–2014, schools had in the region of 5,700 resource teachers to provide additional tuition to almost 36,000 pupils with low-incidence special educational needs. There were also approximately 5,000 teachers providing additional tuition to pupils with learning support and high-incidence special educational needs. There were in the region of 10,600 SNA posts supporting the care needs of over 24,000 pupils in mainstream and special schools in the same year.

Some €1.3 billion was spent on supporting pupils with special educational needs (approximately 15% of total Department of Education and Skills budget), of which over €900 million was spent on employing teachers and SNAs.

Roles and responsibilities for pupils with special educational needs

Government department 

Services within the department

Agencies of the department

Department of Education and Skills

National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS)

Inspectorate

Special Education Support Service (SESS)

National Behaviour Support Service (NBSS)

Visiting teacher service

Youthreach 

National Council for Special Education (NCSE)

National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA)

 

 

 

 

The National Educational Psychological Service

The National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) is a division of the Department of Education and Skills. The NEPS’s mission is to:

support the personal, social and educational development of all children through the application of psychological theory and practice in education, having particular regard for children with special educational needs (NEPS Statement of Strategy, 2001).

The NEPS model of service embodies consultation both as an overarching framework and as a process for delivering services to schools. In addressing the developmental needs of all children in education, NEPS psychologists aim to offer schools a balance between individual casework and support and development initiatives designed to promote inclusion and teacher/school effectiveness. NEPS psychologists have a list of assigned schools generally comprised of a number of post-primary schools and their feeder primary schools. An annual planning and review process with each school is an essential element of maximising the service to the school. During the planning and review process, the school and the NEPS psychologist jointly explore the needs of individual students, groups of students and the school. They then agree on a plan which incorporates both individual and systemic approaches to meeting the identified needs.

Visiting teacher service

The visiting teacher service provides a service to children who are deaf or have a hearing impairment and children who are blind or have a visual impairment from the time of referral through to third-level education. Visiting teachers are qualified teachers, the majority of whom hold postgraduate qualifications. These teachers provide advice and support to parents and schools and play a key role in facilitating the inclusion of students in mainstream settings.

The service provided by the visiting teacher service includes:

  • guidance, support and specialist teaching to pre-school children and their parents in the home;
  • specialist teaching, support and monitoring in schools;
  • advice to parents and teachers on curricular and environmental implications, including the use of assistive technology;
  • liaison with parents, teachers and other professionals;
  • advice and recommendations to the State Examinations Commission in relation to applications for reasonable accommodation in state examinations; and
  • providing a transition report for students in final year post-primary education to advise disability and access officers in third-level educational institutions about appropriate accommodations and supports to be provided for the student.

Youthreach

Youthreach offers second chance educational opportunities to unemployed, early school leavers aged 15–20 years. The Youthreach programme aims to maintain young people within education through a course of study generally lasting two years. The Youthreach programme provides students with a flexible and personalised education that seeks to encourage self-regulated learning in core curriculum areas, including literacy, numeracy, information and communication technology and oral communication skills, personal, social and health education, and vocational skills. Its goal is to enhance emotional and social development, accreditation and progression to further education, training or employment.

The Special Educational Needs Initiative was introduced in January 2007 in approximately 20% of the Vocational Education Committee centres to take account of learners’ special educational needs and to extend the supports available to them through the use of the ‘WebWheel’ model. This model involves the systematic use of mentoring, individual planning processes and inter-agency work in order to address the learners’ difficulties and to place them at the centre of their learning and development.

The Special Education Support Service

The Special Education Support Service (SESS) is a service established and funded by the Department of Education and Skills. The role of the SESS is to enhance the quality of learning and teaching for children with special educational needs in schools. The service co-ordinates, develops and delivers a range of professional development initiatives and supports for school personnel working with students with special educational needs in mainstream primary and post-primary schools, special schools and special classes. The SESS operates under the remit of the Teacher Education Section of the Department of Education and Skills.

National Behaviour Support Service

The Department of Education and Skills established the National Behaviour Support Service (NBSS) in 2006. The NBSS provides support and expertise to partner post-primary schools on issues related to behaviour. The service provides a three-level model of support to partner schools:

  • Level 1: Whole school positive behaviour support
  • Level 2: Targeted intervention behaviour support
  • Level 3: Intensive, individualised behaviour support.

These three levels of support are customised to the specific requirements of each partner school.

National Council for Special Education

The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) has a range of functions in relation to supporting students with special educational needs. It provides its local service through the network of special educational needs organisers (SENOs). Each SENO has responsibility for specific primary, post-primary and special schools within their area. SENOs provide a service to all primary, post-primary and special schools in the country.

SENOs provide information to parents regarding educational options for students with special educational needs. They sanction resource teaching hours and SNA posts and they process applications for assistive technology and transport. SENOs are also involved in strategic local planning in consultation with stakeholders. They advise the Department of Education and Skills on local needs in relation to students with special educational needs.

The SENO, on behalf of the NCSE, liaises with local health authorities to co-ordinate the delivery of services between the health and education sectors. In this way, they facilitate the child’s inclusion in the school system.

National Council for Curriculum and Assessment

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is a statutory body responsible for advising the Minister for Education and Skills on curriculum and assessment matters relating to early childhood education and primary and post-primary schools. The NCCA has published guidelines for teachers of students with general learning disabilities (2007), which support teachers at primary and post-primary levels to include learners with special educational needs more effectively. In addition, it has published a draft curriculum framework and guidelines for children in detention and care (2007).

Two programmes at second level focus specifically on students deemed to be at risk of early school leaving, namely the Junior Certificate School Programme and the Leaving Certificate Applied Programme. Both programmes emphasise cross-curricular work, tasks and projects, along with personal and social development.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment’s planned introduction of the new Junior Cycle was due to take place from 2014. It includes the development of a new Level 2 programme and qualification which is designed for students with particular special educational needs. The National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) Level 2 learning programme is targeted at a very specific group of students who have general learning disabilities and who currently cannot access the NFQ Level 3 Junior Certificate. Further information is available on the NFQ website.

The State Examinations Commission

The State Examinations Commission (SEC) is responsible for the development, assessment, accreditation and certification of the Irish State’s second-level examinations: the Junior Certificate and the Leaving Certificate. The State Examinations Commission is a non-departmental public body under the aegis of the Department of Education and Skills.

Examination candidates with permanent or long-term conditions, including visual and hearing difficulties or specific learning difficulties, which they believe will significantly impair their performance in the examinations can apply to the SEC for reasonable accommodation(s) to be made to facilitate them in taking state examinations. Details of these schemes are available on the SEC website.

The Teaching Council

The Teaching Council is the body with statutory responsibility for the registration of teachers in Ireland. The Teaching Council acts in the interests of the public good while upholding and enhancing the reputation and status of the teaching profession. The Council registers teachers in accordance with the Teaching Council [Registration] Regulations (2009). A copy of these regulations and full details about how newly qualified and other teachers may apply to the Council for registration may be found on the Teaching Council website.

Quality indicators for special needs education

The Inspectorate is the division of the Department of Education and Skills responsible for evaluating primary and post-primary schools and centres for education. Inspectors provide advice on a range of educational issues to schools and the Department of Education and Skills. Further information regarding the Inspectorate’s role is provided on the Department of Education and Skills website.

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