Country information for Portugal - Systems of support and specialist provision

Development of inclusion

Since the 1990s, Portugal has been improving the conditions for pupils with special educational needs (SEN) to access mainstream education and also to benefit from quality learning.

Nowadays, inclusive school basic principles – based upon humanistic beliefs concerned with human rights, equity and social justice – are unquestionable. Teachers, parents and politicians recognise that traditional, formal models can lead to segregation and discrimination, making social and educational inclusion difficult for people with disabilities. However, in order to maintain and develop quality education for these pupils it is important not only to preserve the availability of specialised human resources and specific tools, but also to implement major changes in school organisation and in pedagogical practice.

This is not a direct process and although inclusive education principles are considered unquestionable, there are some weaknesses in how they are put into practice. The concept of SEN applies to every child or young person showing any learning difficulty at any time during their academic life. Due to its very comprehensive nature, it has created some problems in schools during the detection of needs and in the evaluation process. In effect, as it based on value principles, it can have different meanings in different contexts, allowing some pupils to be considered as pupils with SEN even if they do not show any considerable problem. Other pupils who really have special needs are sometimes not cared for appropriately.

These aspects have raised some debate about the lack of conditions in mainstream schools to meet the needs of these learners, highlighting the difficulty in getting specialised resources and the lack of specialised mainstream teacher training as effective obstacles to inclusive practice.

This division of opinions does not aim to bring back the traditional models, but rather to improve the quality of education offered to pupils with SEN in mainstream school settings.

With the implementation of Decree-Law No. 3/2008, the pupils covered by SEN were restricted to those with permanent needs, redirecting the available specialised resources to them.

With the economic crisis, however, some caution was taken to avoid regression in the inclusion process.

The role of special schools

Since 2008, many special schools have mainly served as resource centres for mainstreaming. They provide specialised support through partnership with mainstream schools, established as supporting structures for the inclusion of pupils with SEN. The new role of the special schools has been critical for developing sustainable and high-quality inclusive education.

However, support provided by resource centres and special education teachers remains primarily connected to the needs of individual learners, rather than aiming at capacity-building of class teachers and the whole school.

Today, only a few special schools remain as such, covering 1.2% of learners with SEN (Sources: Financing of Inclusive Education, p. 37; FPIES – Portugal Country Report).

Special provision within mainstream education

The Education Act guarantees the principle of permeability between the mainstream and special channels. It proclaims that special education should be organised according to various models of inclusion in mainstream schools. It can be instituted in specific institutions when children and young people with SEN require specialised and differentiated support that entails significant adjustments to the educational or teaching and learning process that are demonstrably unachievable in mainstream education with the correct inclusion or when this inclusion proves demonstrably insufficient.

General objectives

As stipulated in the Education Act (Law No. 46/86, 14 October), special education aims to facilitate socio-educational recuperation and integration for individuals with SEN caused by physical or intellectual disability. The following objectives, which are part of the general education system, are particularly important in special education:

  • Developing physical and intellectual potential
  • Assistance in acquiring emotional stability
  • Developing communication possibilities
  • Reducing limitations caused by disability
  • Support for family, school and social inclusion
  • Developing independence at all levels
  • Preparing for adequate vocational training and integration into working life.

Educational measures within special education

Decree-Law No. 3/2008, 7 January, defines the specialised support given to pupils with permanent SEN and is implemented via the following measures:

  • Personalised pedagogical support
  • Individual curriculum adjustment
  • Adjustment to the enrolment process
  • Adjustment to the assessment process
  • Individual specific curriculum
  • Support technology.

In early intervention (support for children from 0 to 6 years old, preferably from 0 to 3), Decree-Law No. 281/2009, 6 October, defines regulating guidelines for inclusive support for children with disabilities or children at high risk of impaired development and their families. Early intervention is an inclusive support measure that focuses on the child and the family. It involves a variety of services in the areas of education, health, social and other community services.

Specialised support provided in state, private and co-operative pre-primary, basic education and upper-secondary education aims to create the conditions for adjusting the educational process to pupils’ special educational needs. The goals of special education are educational and social inclusion, educational access and success, autonomy, emotional stability, the promotion of equal opportunities, and preparation for further study or post-school or professional life.

Teachers from the special education recruitment group, with specialised training in specific areas, are placed in schools to promote support activities for learners with permanent SEN.

Information and Communication Technology Resource Centres for Special Education

The national network of Information and Communication Technology Resource Centres for Special Education (CRTICs) was created in the framework of the inclusion policy for pupils with permanent SEN in mainstream schools, dating back to 2007/2008.

CRTICs aim to assess pupils with permanent SEN with regard to assistive technology and the use of information and communication technology. The Ministry of Education finances part of the products and technologies they recommend.

CRTICs also have an important role in disseminating information and training teachers, staff and families in using the recommended devices, as well as in dealing with different kinds of disabilities.

There are 25 CRTICs distributed across the country, located in schools. Each CRTIC supports a large group of schools at district level. CRTICs carry out their activity according to central guidelines, presenting annual activity plans and activity reports to the central department that co-ordinates them (Directorate-General of Education).

CRTICs have webpages, blogs and learning management system platforms to disseminate their services and activities to the school communities they support. The Directorate-General of Education manages a Moodle community area, integrating all CRTICs, as a sharing and discussion platform.

Special education staff

In 2006, a specific recruitment group was created for special education teachers. It was made operational by Decree-Law No. 20/06, 31 January.

The organisation of educational provision in the area should focus on a limited group of learners whose needs demand a specialisation of material and human resources. The school is responsible for managing those resources in such a way that it meets the needs of all learners.

The school is involved in a set of activities based around the curriculum and curriculum enhancement, aiming to create conditions for the expression and development of exceptional capacities and the resolution of any problems.

For each learner, the school can implement measures to promote educational success, such as, among others:

  • Study support
  • Temporary constitution of groups of learners according to their needs and/or potentialities
  • Classroom coadjuvancy
  • Tutoring programmes
  • Reception and follow-up of learners who do not have Portuguese as their mother tongue (Order No. 1-F/206, 5 April).

Ministry of Labour, Solidarity and Social Security

Special education approaches are also organised with the aim of integrating adolescents with disabilities into the world of work. To this end, within the Ministry of Labour, Solidarity and Social Security – which is also an authority on social and socio-professional integration – there are official schools, residences and centres for occupational support. Similarly, this Ministry funds individuals through subsidies and finances private institutes for social solidarity with socio-educational schools. The major group in this sector is the Portuguese Associations of Parents of Pupils with Intellectual Disabilities, to which the Ministry of Education contributes significantly through the provision of teachers, support for school social action and co-funding with families.

Employment and Vocational Training Institute

Via support given to the vocational training units of the institutions, the Employment and Vocational Training Institute has incentives for practical vocational training courses in industry and for job adaptation. The Institute also gives support for self-employment and protected employment centres.

Special provision

According to Decree-Law No. 3/2008, 7 January, the specific types of education for learners who are blind, partially sighted, deaf and those with multiple disabilities and autism include:

  • special schools for bilingual education of deaf learners and for the education of learners who are blind or partially sighted;
  • structured teaching units for learners with autism and specialised support units for learners with multiple disabilities and congenital deafness and blindness.

These responses are given in the mainstream school and integrate specialised human resources and specific material resources appropriate to learners’ characteristics. Decree-Law No. 3/2008, 7 January, establishes, with regard to reference units and schools, the implementation conditions, the objectives, the human and material resources and the organisation and running of the above-mentioned units and schools.

As already mentioned, special schools have begun a re-orientation process for Resource Centres for Inclusion (RCIs). In partnership with the community, the RCIs support the inclusion of children and young people with disabilities by facilitating access to education, training, work, leisure, social participation and an autonomous life, while promoting the full potential of the individual. The RCIs work in partnership with school clusters.

General objectives

The general objectives to be fulfilled are those legally enshrined for all pupils, with no discrimination against pupils with SEN.

Geographical accessibility

Special schools and specialised support units are created whenever the number of pupils in a school or adjacent school cluster and the nature of the response, the specific facilities and professional specialisation justify their presence. Many local authorities provide school transport for pupils, as do many special schools.

Admission requirements and choice of school

The Portuguese education system comprises three years of pre-primary education, which are not compulsory, and twelve years of mandatory schooling divided into cycles: first cycle – four years; second cycle – two years; third cycle – three years; secondary level – three years. Children start to attend compulsory school at six years old. The right and obligation to attend school lasts until the learner has completed 12 years of schooling or has reached 18 years old (Sources: IECE – Portugal Example of Provision, pp. 1-2; IECE – Portugal Case Study Visit Report; CPRA – Portugal Country Report, p. 20).

Children and young people with permanent SEN benefit from special access and attendance conditions:

  • They have priority in terms of enrolment and can attend nursery schools or mainstream schools regardless of their area of residence.
  • In exceptional and duly justified circumstances, they can postpone enrolment for the first year of compulsory education for one year (this is non-renewable).
  • They can sign up for individual subjects in the second and third cycles of basic education and secondary education, as long as the sequence of mainstream education is maintained.

If the measures provided for in Decree-Law No. 3/2008 prove to be insufficient, due to the type and degree of the pupil’s disability, those involved in the assessment can suggest that the pupil attend a special school.

Age levels and grouping of pupils

The number of pupils supported in each unit (structured teaching units for pupils with autism and specialised support units for pupils with multiple disabilities or congenital deafness and blindness) should not exceed six.

There are 20 learners in pre-primary classes, first, second and third cycle classes and vocational classes that include learners with permanent SEN whose individual education plan provides for it and whose respective degree of functionality justifies it. These classes may not include more than two learners under these conditions (Order No. 1-B/2017, 17 April).

Organisation of the school year

The school year is defined annually by ministerial order. It takes into account all the pupils who attend the mainstream school system, including the pupils with SEN. A school year is defined in the same way for pupils with SEN who attend private special education establishments.

Curriculum and subjects

An individual education plan (IEP) is defined for pupils with permanent SEN. The IEP documents each pupil’s specific needs and stipulates and justifies the educational response and the respective form of assessment. No form of adjustment to the teaching and learning process is permitted without an IEP.

The class teacher or class tutor is the co-ordinator of the IEP, depending on the teaching or education level that the pupil is attending. The IEP is drawn up by the pupil’s teachers, a special education teacher and parents or guardians, i.e. whoever knows the pupil best and whoever works directly with them. For it to be implemented, it has to be approved by the pedagogical council and have express agreement from parents or guardians.

With regard to changes in the curriculum, pupils can benefit from individual curriculum adjustment or a specific individual curriculum. The individual curriculum adjustments mean not compromising the common curriculum or the pre-primary curriculum guidelines. To this end, subjects or specific curriculum areas can be introduced, such as Portuguese Sign Language (L1) and Portuguese Language/Second Language Portuguese for deaf pupils (LP2), reading and writing in Braille, orientation and mobility, vision training and adapted motor activity, among others, allowing access to the common curriculum, as well as greater autonomy. These adjustments can also mean the introduction of objectives and intermediate content or exemption from activities where the pupil’s functional level means it is extremely difficult or impossible to achieve the respective task. Exemption should happen only when support technologies are insufficient to help achieve the task in question.

The specific individual curriculum presupposes significant changes in the common curriculum, which may mean:

  • the prioritisation of curriculum areas or certain content over others;
  • the elimination of objectives and content;
  • the introduction of complementary content and objectives regarding very specific aspects (i.e. non-verbal communication, the use of support technology in communication, mobility, accessibility);
  • the elimination of some curriculum areas.

Teaching methods and materials

For the teaching of specific areas of the curriculum, such as Portuguese Sign Language, Braille or the use of support technologies, special education teachers and other professionals with specific training, such as Portuguese Sign Language teachers and interpreters, are placed in schools by the Ministry of Education.

The Ministry of Education resource centres produce school books in Braille, in large font and in DAISY (Digital Accessible Information SYstem) format.

The network of Information and Communication Technology Resource Centres for Special Education also produces adapted material and trains teachers to use special software for different disabilities.

Progression of pupils

In the field of internal summative assessment, Order No. 1-F/2016, 5 April, defines the evaluation and certification of learning, as well as measures to promote educational success that can be adopted in the monitoring and development of learning, among others that schools can adopt according to their own autonomy.

According to Decree-Law No. 3/2008, 7 January, pupils with permanent SEN can benefit from changes to the assessment process. These can consist of a change in the types of test, the assessment and certification mechanisms, and assessment conditions regarding, amongst other aspects, the ways and means of communication and how often they occur, their duration and location.

With the exception of pupils with specific individual curriculums, all pupils with SEN are subject to the system of transition of year common in mainstream education, as defined in Implementing Order No. 1-F/2016, 5 April. Pupils with specific individual curriculums are subject to specific assessment criteria defined in the respective IEP.

Educational/vocational guidance and education/employment links

Whenever pupils have permanent SEN, which prevent them from acquiring the learning and competencies defined in the common curriculum, three years before they reach the age limit for compulsory education, the school should complement the IEP with an Individual Transition Plan (ITP).

The first phase of the ITP is to discover the wishes, interests, aspirations and competencies of the respective young person. Based on this data and the learner’s capacity to exercise a professional activity, this phase includes an assessment of the labour market needs in the learner’s community and the seeking of training opportunities or real work experience.

Once the possibilities of training or internships are recorded, it is important to identify the competencies (academic, personal and social), adjustments and special equipment required. After this assessment, it is necessary to establish agreements with the services and institutions where the young person will train or be an intern, to define the tasks they will do, the competencies required and the support needed to achieve these tasks, if and when necessary.

With regard to young people whose disabilities do not allow them to work, research should focus on finding occupational activity centres that can provide activities that interest them and are appropriate for their individual competencies.

Decree No. 201-C/2015, 10 July, stresses that mainstream schools must seek support from existing organisations in the community (such as enterprises, municipalities, vocational training centres, etc.) in order to prepare the transition of pupils with disabilities from education to active life (Source: CPRA – Portugal Country Report, p. 3).


Those legally stipulated formulations and norms commonly used for the educational system are the same for school certification in special education.

Certification mechanisms should be adjusted to the special needs of pupils who have an IEP, identifying the adjustments to the teaching and learning process that have been applied.

Private education

After the political change in 1974 and the appearance of the new Constitution of the Portuguese Republic, which enshrined some general principles of education, covering state and private schooling, there was an upsurge in private and co-operative education. The number of co-operative schools increased, particularly in the area of special education, and the Ministry of Education began to give them funding.

In line with the Education Act, special education is preferably organised according to various models, taking into account specific service needs in mainstream schools, with special education initiatives belonging to central, regional and local authorities. Other collective bodies – namely parents’ and residents’ associations, civic and religious groups, trade union and company organisations, as well as social groups – can also be involved in creating special teaching and education initiatives.

Quality indicators for special needs education

General Supervision of Education, a central service of the Ministry of Education, is responsible for monitoring quality in education as far as every school is concerned, regardless of its nature and educational level. This is carried out by means of systematic monitoring methods and by examining educational practices, teachers’ professional attitudes and integration of the school in the local community.

The Directorate-General of Education, another central service of the Ministry of Education, has a permanent observatory for educational support which annually collects data that helps to characterise and to monitor the education system in the field of special education.

Decentralised education services of the Ministry of Education, at a regional level, also have responsibility for follow-up and monitoring led by educational support co-ordination teams.


Last updated 13/04/2018

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