Country information for Ireland - Systems of support and specialist provision

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 learners with special educational needs (SEN) 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 SEN provision. One of these was that appropriate education for all learners with SEN should be provided in ordinary schools, except where individual circumstances made this impracticable.

The recommendation that learners with SEN should be educated in ordinary (mainstream) schools was particularly significant in:

  • underpinning the allocation by the Department of Education and Skills of increased resources for SEN provision to mainstream and special schools;
  • developing new funding mechanisms for SEN provision in mainstream schools;
  • the large increase in the number of learners with assessed SEN in mainstream primary and post-primary schools.

In 1998, the Department introduced the practice of providing additional resources to schools for learners with certain SEN. This involved the allocation of resource teaching hours and special needs assistant support for learners with SEN in mainstream schools.

The Department of Education and Skills’ current policy is to secure the maximum possible level of inclusion of learners with SEN in mainstream primary and post-primary schools, while ensuring that specialist facilities continue to be provided for learners who 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 to manage and deliver education provision for learners with SEN. The Department is committed to enhancing services for learners with SEN 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 emphasised the NCSE’s commitment to the principle that the vast majority of pupils with SEN should be educated alongside their peers in inclusive settings. This principle is enshrined in the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs (EPSEN) Act. However, in line with the spirit of the EPSEN Act, the policy advice also 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 (2012)
  • Supporting Students with Special Educational Needs in Schools (2013)
  • Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2015).

In 2018, the Minister for Education and Skills asked the NCSE to advise on the educational provision that should be in place for learners in special schools and classes. The Minister also requested recommendations on the provision required to enable them to achieve better outcomes. The final report will be completed and submitted to the Minister by June 2020. The NCSE also provided the Minister with a progress report entitled ‘Policy Advice on Special Schools and Classes: An Inclusive Education for an Inclusive Society?’ (2019).


Report of the Special Education Review Committee (1993)

Learning Support Guidelines (2000)

Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs Post-Primary Guidelines (2007)

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 (2014)

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-primary level

The Government of Ireland introduced a free pre-primary year in Early Childhood Care and Education (the ECCE programme) in January 2010. Since September 2018, a second free pre-primary year has been available. The programme is administered by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, with 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-primary years if they are aged between 3 years 2 months and 4 years 7 months on 1 September in the relevant year.

The ECCE programme aims to make early learning in a formal educational setting available to eligible children in the year before they start primary school. To achieve this, services participating in the two pre-primary years 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 SEN, are eligible for the ECCE programme.

The Department of Education and Skills funds dedicated pre-primary education for children diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder. It 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 is a one-year preventative intervention scheme offered in selected schools in designated disadvantaged areas. The programme is not focused on pre-primary children with SEN but caters for them to some extent. The Department also provides funding for pre-primary education for children from the Travelling Community.

Many other children attend some form of pre-primary education provision. Detailed information about this provision is available on the websites of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Department of Education and Skills, Pobal and the National Disability Authority.

A high-level inter‑departmental working group addressed the lack of a nationally co‑ordinated approach to supporting early years services with the challenges of inclusive early education practice. This resulted in the development of a strategic proposal for supports in 2016. The implementation of the new initiative will be monitored and evaluated until 2020. (Source: IECE – example of provision)

Teacher support in mainstream schools

Education for learners with SEN is provided on a continuum of support basis. They may be taught in a mainstream school and receive additional teaching support in the school. They may also attend a special class attached to a mainstream school and be partially integrated within the school. Where pupils require more specialist interventions, they may attend a special school.

Every mainstream school is allocated class/subject teachers in line with specific pupil‑teacher ratios at primary and post-primary levels. Teachers are allocated to the school to enable them to educate all enrolled learners.

Each year, the Department of Education sends circular letters to schools, outlining staffing arrangements for mainstream schools. These circular letters are published on the Department of Education website.

Each mainstream school also receives an additional allocation of special education teachers, based on the school size and the profiled needs of the school.

The Special Education Teaching allocation provides a single unified allocation for special educational support teaching needs to each mainstream school, based on each school’s educational profile. This allocation includes provision for:

  • a baseline component provided to every mainstream school to support inclusion, prevention of learning difficulties and early intervention;
  • the number of pupils with complex needs attending the school;
  • the learning support needs in schools, as evidenced by attainment levels in standardised test results;
  • the social context of the school, including disadvantage and gender.

The profiled allocation gives a fair allocation for each school. It recognises that all schools need an allocation for special needs support, but provides a graduated allocation which takes into account the actual level of need in each school.

School profiles are updated initially every two years. However, where exceptional circumstances arise, where a school profile significantly changes following the allocation process, schools may apply for additional allocations to be made in the interim.

Special Education Circulars 13/2017 and 14/2017 contain details of how special education teachers are allocated to mainstream schools.

There is also guidance on how schools should use and deploy their resources to provide additional teaching to all pupils who need support in their school:

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

In the 2018/19 school year, there were 1,637 special classes in mainstream schools. Of these, 1,240 were special classes for pupils with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), including 132 early intervention classes for children with ASD. Of the special classes in mainstream education, 70% were in primary schools and 30% were in post-primary schools.

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

Learners with SEN 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. 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 the Progressing Disability Services for Children and Young People programme. This programme reconfigures the way that services are provided for children with disabilities. It 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. It aims to implement 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 2018/2019 school year, there were 114 special schools in Ireland for learners with SEN arising from a disability. The special schools cater for learners 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. The number of teachers allocated to the special school is determined by the profile of learners’ disabilities within each special school (ranging, for example, from 11:1 for mild general learning disability to 6:1 for ASD).

According to NCSE figures, approximately 7,500 learners attended special schools for learners with disabilities during the 2018/2019 school year. There were over 1,230 teachers working in special schools.

Additional care supports in schools

The NCSE currently sanctions the appointment of special needs assistants (SNAs) to schools to assist in the delivery of care support for pupils with disabilities who need additional care support, although this is due to change in September 2020.

The Department of Education and Skills stipulates that SNAs’ duties are solely related to care and are strictly of a non-teaching nature. SNAs are currently allocated to special schools and special classes in line with the baseline appointment ratios set down by the Department of Education and Skills. The NCSE may allocate additional SNA posts to special schools and special classes where a higher level of care staffing is required.

SNAs 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. 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 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 learners whose significant care needs arise from a diagnosis of emotional behaviour disorder and relate to behaviour-related care needs. The learner’s care needs must be assessed and described by a professional (e.g. psychologist, doctor, occupational therapist, psychiatrist) as being so significant that the learner will require adult assistance 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 learner from receiving such care in the school setting.

The Department’s Circular 0030/2014 provides more information about the SNA scheme. However, a review of the SNA scheme took place and the NCSE published policy advice in March 2018. The review outlined the need to move away from the SNA model of support and towards an Inclusion Support Assistant (ISA) model. This was emphasised particularly for post-primary learners, with a focus on their need for development of independence. It also allows support to be provided inclusively to other learners in lessons where a need arises, under the direction of the teacher, in a more naturalised manner. The review also highlighted the need for further training of SNAs.

Other educational supports for learners with special educational needs

The following additional educational supports are available to assist in the education of learners with SEN:

  • 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 learners with ASD and severe/profound general learning disabilities
  • 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. Details are available on the Department of Education website.

Existing resources supporting learners with special educational needs

The NCSE is currently responsible for allocating additional teaching and care resources to schools to support learners with SEN, 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 2018/2019 school year, around 13,500 teachers were involved in delivering additional support for pupils. In the same year, there were about 16,000 SNA posts.

Some EUR 1.9 billion was spent on supporting pupils with SEN (approximately 20% of the total Department of Education budget) in the 2018/2019 school year. Of this, over EUR 900 million was spent on employing teachers and SNAs.

Roles and responsibilities for learners with special educational needs

Government department Services within the department Agencies of the department
Department of Education

National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS)



National Council for Special Education (NCSE)

National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA)

State Examination Commission (SEC)

The National Educational Psychological Service

The National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) is a division of the Department of Education and Skills. Its 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).

In the NEPS model of service, consultation is both an overarching framework and 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 comprising 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 learners, groups of learners and the school. They then agree on a plan which incorporates both individual and systemic approaches to meeting the identified needs.


Youthreach offers second-chance educational opportunities to unemployed early school leavers aged 15–20. The Youthreach programme aims to keep young people in education through a course of study generally lasting two years. The Youthreach programme provides learners with a flexible and personalised education that seeks to encourage self-regulated learning in core curriculum areas. These areas include literacy, numeracy, information and communication technology, 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 Education and Training Board centres. It aims to take account of learners’ SEN 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 to address 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) was established and funded by the Department of Education and is now located within the NCSE. The SESS aims to enhance the quality of learning and teaching for children with SEN in schools. It co‑ordinates, develops and delivers a range of professional development initiatives and supports for school personnel working with learners with SEN in mainstream primary and post-primary schools, special schools and special classes. In March 2017, the SESS was merged with the Visiting Teacher Service for children with hearing or visual impairment and the National Behaviour Support Service under the management of the NCSE to form the Inclusion Support Service.

Visiting teacher service

The visiting teacher service is located within the NCSE and 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 learners in mainstream settings.

The visiting teacher service includes:

  • guidance, support and specialist teaching to pre-primary 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;
  • providing a transition report for learners 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 learner.

National Behaviour Support Service

The Department of Education and Skills established the National Behaviour Support Service (NBSS) in 2006. The NBSS provided support and expertise to partner post-primary schools on issues related to behaviour. The service provided 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 were customised to each partner school’s specific requirements. In March 2017, the NBSS was merged with the Visiting Teacher Service for children with hearing or visual impairment and the Special Education Support Service under the management of the NCSE to form the Inclusion Support Service. The Inclusion Support Model development project is being piloted in 75 schools across early years, primary and post-primary settings.

National Council for Special Education

The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) has a range of functions in relation to supporting learners with SEN. It provides a local service through a network of special educational needs organisers (SENOs). Each SENO currently 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 learners with SEN. 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 learners with SEN.

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 published guidelines for teachers of students with general learning disabilities (2007). These guidelines support teachers at primary and post-primary levels to include learners with SEN more effectively. It also published a draft curriculum framework and guidelines for children in detention and care (2007).

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

In the context of a new Junior Cycle Framework, the NCCA has developed a new Level 2 programme and qualification which is designed for learners with particular SEN. The National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) Level 2 learning programme is targeted at a very specific group of learners with general learning disabilities who currently cannot access the NFQ Level 3 Junior Cycle. Further information is available on the NFQ and NCCA websites.

The State Examinations Commission

The State Examinations Commission (SEC) is responsible for developing, assessing, accrediting and certifying the Irish State’s second-level examinations: the Junior Cycle and the Leaving Certificate. The SEC is a non-departmental public body under the aegis of the Department of Education.

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 examinations, can apply to the SEC for reasonable accommodation(s) to facilitate them in taking state examinations. Details of these schemes are available on the SEC website.

The Teaching Council

The Teaching Council has 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 are available 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. There are bespoke evaluation models at primary and post-primary levels to provide the system with a mechanism to report on the quality of provision for pupils with special education and additional learning needs. Further information regarding the Inspectorate’s role is provided on the Department of Education website.

Resource Allocation Model 2017

The Department of Education and Skills published Primary Circular 13/2017 and Post‑Primary Circular 14/2017 on 7 March 2017. These circulars provided details on the Department’s Resource Allocation Model (RAM) for learners with SEN in primary and in post-primary schools and on how special education teachers will be allocated to schools at both levels. It replaced the previous allocation model, which was introduced in the late 1990s and further developed in the mid-2000s. This was a very significant development for the Irish education system.

The RAM was introduced based on NCSE policy advice in 2013. The advice stated that the previous allocation system was inequitable, as:

  • Some children could experience delays in accessing support because of delays in allocating resource teaching hours.
  • It took little account of the differing needs of different schools, as allocations were made based on the number of mainstream teachers in each school.
  • There was a real risk that children were being diagnosed as having a special educational need for resource allocation purposes, rather than such a diagnosis being required for medical reasons.
  • There is a spectrum of ability and disability within every category of special educational need.
  • It allocated the same level of support for pupils within certain categories of SEN, even though one pupil may have a greater need for support than another with the same disability.

Under the RAM, the Department provides a single unified allocation for special educational support teaching needs to each school. This is based on a baseline component which every school will receive, as well as the school’s educational profile. The educational profile takes account of:

the number of learners with complex SEN enrolled in the school;

  • the learning support needs in the school, as evidenced by standardised test results;
  • the school’s social context, including gender and disadvantage.

This single allocation will allow schools to provide additional teaching support to all pupils who require it. Schools will deploy resources based on each pupil’s individual learning needs.

An additional 900 special education teaching posts were allocated to schools to support the introduction of the RAM. Some 13,400 teachers were expected to work with learners with SEN at primary and at post-primary levels in September 2017.

The introduction of the RAM gave schools the autonomy to deploy their resources based on their pupils’ needs. The challenge for schools is to ensure that, having received an allocation of resources from the state, the pupils who are in greatest need of additional support at any given time can actually receive that support. Schools received guidelines to support them in deploying their resources effectively. (Source: Legislation Updates 2017).


Last updated 23/09/2020


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