Student Journeys: The Special Education Routes

Speaker: Mary Meaney, National Disability Authority

In her presentation, Mary Meaney, National Disability Authority, set out the history of the development of Special Education in Ireland.

Student Journeys: The Special Education Routes

Ireland has a very long tradition of education, stretching back over many centuries. The origins of the education system as we know it can be traced back to 1831 with the establishment of national schools. Since then, education provision has developed and expanded to a system which today caters for over three quarters of a million students in over 4,000 schools in 2003[3].

The importance which Irish people attribute to education can be seen in the fact that the Constitution for the Irish Free State contained an article dedicated to education. Again in 1937 when Bunreacht na hEireann was adopted, it contained specific provisions in relation to education. These oblige the State to make provision for free primary education and recognise the role of parents as the primary educators of their children.

However, while recognising the rights of parents, the Constitution also requires that children receive a certain minimum education - moral, intellectual and social. The State's practical support for education can be seen in the allocation of funding for schools and in various pieces of education legislation. The School Attendance Act 1926 (now repealed) placed an obligation on parents to send their children to school, or otherwise ensure that they receive a minimum education. It should be noted that while the early references applied to children, over time there was a gradual recognition of the needs of children with special educational needs.

The Education Act 1998 makes references to children with 'special educational needs' and with a 'disability' while in 2004 the education of persons with special educational needs has been addressed in an Act of the Oireachtas.

The development of provision for special education

In practice, provision for children with special educational needs was limited, if available at all, until relatively recently. The origins began to emerge as religious congregations devoted their initiatives to the education of children with various types of physical or intellectual disabilities. In the 1960s, the State granted official recognition to a number of these residential and non-residential institutions as national schools. A trend of establishing special schools also became evident, particularly during the sixties and seventies.

The State also made provision for the establishment of special classes in national schools to cater for children with a range of special educational needs. For the past number of years there has been a greater trend towards inclusion of children with special educational needs in mainstream settings.

With the passing of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, this became a statutory requirement, except where inclusion would not be in the best interests of the child concerned, or would not be consistent with the effective provision of education for children with whom the child would be educated.

Non-compulsory routes: Children with special educational needs under six years

Education is not compulsory until a child reaches six years of age. However, many younger children attend national schools or pre-schools. Children with special educational needs in this age bracket may attend ordinary or special pre-schools or alternatively mainstream (after they have reached four years of age) or special national schools. Schools come within the scope of the Department of Education and Science while pre-schools and crèches are the responsibility of the Department of Health and Children.

In practice, there is a high level of participation in education among the under-six age group, with a total figure of 83,428 of four-year-olds and five-year-olds in schools. Statistics from the Department of Education and Science show that there were 27,043 four-year-olds and 55,465 five-year-olds attending national schools during the 2002/2003 school year, and 960 three-year-olds attended various pre-schools funded by the Department.

The figures include over 1,000 with identified special educational needs in ordinary national schools and almost 300 in special national schools. The breakdown is as follows: There were 3 three-year-olds, 339 four-year-olds and 834 five-year-olds with special educational needs, giving a total of 1176 children. The special schools catered for 6 three-year-olds, 99 four-year-olds, and 182 five-year-olds for the 2002/3 school years, giving a total 287 children. Many other children attend some form of pre-school.

Pre-school services are subject to the Child Care Act 1991, and are defined as "any pre-school, play group, day nursery, crèche, day-care or other similar service which caters for pre-school children, including those grant aided by health boards". (Child Care Act, 1991, section 49). A pre-school child means a "child who has not attained the age of six years and who is not attending a national school or a school providing an educational programme similar to a national school".

Under the Child Care Act 1991, service providers must notify the Department of Health and Children of their services. As of late 2003, there was a total of 4,202 services providing approximately 70,791 childcare places (source: Child Care Policy Unit, Department of Health and Children). This total is quite close to the number of four to six-year-olds in national schools. Data from the National Intellectual Disability Database indicates that 178 children (with an intellectual disability) aged zero to six inclusive attended mainstream pre-schools, with 548 attending special pre-school for intellectual disability.

Data from the Physical and Sensory Disability Database indicates that, as of June 2004, 1,363 children (with a physical and/or sensory disability) aged less than six years attended playschool or pre-school services. This indicates that there are approximately 2,000 children in the early childhood age range identified as having some form of special need attending some form of development and/ or education provision.

The two sectors, pre-school services and national schools, provide approximately 154,000 places for children. To put this figure in context, the entire population of under sixes in the State is 332,477 (Census 2002 Vol. 2 Table 10). This means that the majority of children in the early childhood age range (approximately 178,256) do not attend any type of formal provision. Therefore, home/ family settings remain the largest providers of early childhood care, development and education.

While the school and pre-school sectors each make a valuable contribution to children, there is a significant division of roles, with the pre-school sector catering predominantly for the care of children and the school catering predominantly for the education of children.

This traditional arrangement may not be in the best interests of children with special educational needs who may require care and education supports in the same setting.

Dr. Kelleghan has highlighted the limitation of this situation as regards the pre-school sector as follows:

"It is perhaps unfortunate that child-care and educational programmes have grown independently of each other and that communication between the two traditions has been rather limited since, viewed from the child's point of view, it is unlikely that either type of programme on its own can fully meet the needs of the child".

Participation by children with special educational needs in first level education

Pupils with assessed special educational needs comprise slightly over 3.6% of the national population of primary school pupils, or 16,191 pupils. It should be noted that this includes over 1,500 children with special educational needs in the early childhood age range. The figure includes 9,384 in national schools and 6,807 in special schools. This is illustrated in the chart below.


Source: DES Key statistics, 2002-03

In recent years, there has been a very significant increase in the number of children with special educational needs enrolling in mainstream schools, with an associated trend of fewer young children attending special schools. The pattern is evident in the table below.


Source: DES Statistics 2001-02, Table 1.2

The categories of special educational needs and the numbers of students assessed with the particular type of special educational needs is evident in the table below.


Source: DES Census of special education, 2003

The second level routes

Since the mid 1960s, free second level education has been available. Special schools have traditionally catered for students with special educational needs until their 18th birthday. Special schools are categorised as 'national schools', and the table above indicates that many students in the 13+ age group continue their education in special schools.

Data supplied by the Department of Education and Science indicates that there are more than 5,000 students in vocational schools, more than 3,000 in community and comprehensive schools, and over 1,000 in secondary schools with a dedicated allocation of special educational supports. In addition, there are also dedicated posts available to a school, which may be used at its discretion to support students with special educational needs.

The duration of the education journey for persons with special educational needs

While free second level education has been available since the 1960s, the rate of participation in second level education by persons with a disability is less than the rate of participation of their non-disabled peers. Fewer of today's disabled adults went on past primary school - just 54% compared with 82% of non-disabled adults. This pattern continues to date with today's disabled teenagers less likely than their non-disabled peers to be in school.

Data from the census taken in 2002 reveals that one third of disabled teenagers, in the 15 to 19 year age group, have exited the school system. Students with physical/ motor disabilities are most likely to leave school early. The percentage gap in education participation between disabled and non-disabled persons in the 15 to 19 age group is just over 10% for males and 15% for females.

Students with disabilities in second level may encounter challenges in terms of the built environment in schools. Many schools are housed in two or more storey buildings and are not all equipped with lifts. Where circulation in the school is limited, there may be associated subject restrictions. If a student requires to access a room specifically equipped for a particular subject (for example language, science or woodwork) this may not be possible and as a result a student's subject choice and his/her further education and ultimately his/her career options may be restricted.

Further education

Historically, relatively few students with disabilities participated in education at post-compulsory levels. However, in recent years funds have been provided to assist students with disabilities. In 2003 there were over 1,000 applications for support. In 2003 students with disabilities comprised approximately 1% of the population at third level.

Policy at national level

As mentioned earlier, the Constitution addresses education in Article 42. In practice however, provision for education for many years was for children who did not have disabilities and/ or special educational needs. In the 1960s, the Department of Education granted recognition to some facilities which were operated by religious orders to cater for the education of children with specific disabilities. Throughout the 1970s, there was a practice of establishing special schools and special classes. However, the rate of expansion slowed and there were relatively few significant developments in special education from then until the 1990s.

The Special Education Review Committee was set up to review the provision for special education and to make recommendations for improvements to the system in the future. The report provided a comprehensive analysis of existing responses and made valuable suggestions for improvements.

It highlighted many gaps in the services which were then available, stressed the importance of early intervention, addressed the need to provide care and education services for certain children, recommended improvements in the pupil teacher ratio and considered aspects of professional development for teachers. The report was presented in 1993.

The emergence of litigation

At about the same time a new development emerged which would have a very significant impact on the education of persons with special educational needs. Parents of children with special educational needs brought allegations that the State failed to provide for the education of their children to the High Court. The Courts upheld the rights of children with special educational needs to a free primary education and the practice of seeking redress through litigation became a feature over the course of the past decade.

The route of legislation

By 1998, the right of persons with disabilities or other special educational needs was enshrined in legislation in the Education Act 1998. There was another important development that same year as the government decided that once a child was identified as having certain special educational needs, he/ she would have an automatic entitlement to additional supports to facilitate his/ her education. This has resulted in a very significant additional allocation of resources to schools over the past few years.

It also revealed the wide range of needs with which students present and generated very high levels of applications from schools for supports.

Within a few years of the 1998 Act, plans were made for enacting legislation specifically in relation to the education of persons with disabilities and special educational needs. By July 2004, those plans became a reality with the enactment of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, 2004.

Future routes

The Act sets out how education is to be provided for persons with special educational needs in the future. It does not define 'education' or 'person' but does define the term 'child' as 'a person less than eighteen years of age'. 'Special educational needs' means a 'restriction in the capacity of the person to participate in and benefit from education on account of an enduring physical, sensory, mental health or learning disability or any other condition, which results in a person learning differently from a person without that condition'.

The Act acknowledges that persons with special educational needs have the same right to education as their peers who do not have special educational needs. It aims to ensure that children with special educational needs will be enabled to leave school with the skills necessary to participate, to the level of their ability, in society and to live independent lives.

Education is to be 'inclusive' unless there are specific reasons why a specialised placement is required for a child. The Act highlights the role of parents in the education of their children with special educational needs. Parents are to be consulted in relation to their child's assessment, the child's education, kept informed of the child's progress and involved on the team for preparing an education plan.

A formal assessment process is described in the legislation. Where special educational needs are identified, an education plan is to be drawn up for the child and schools will be entitled to additional resources and supports to assist in implementing the plan. The plan is to be reviewed regularly and the parents and special educational needs organisers are to receive reports about the child's progress.

The Act assigns the principal of a school an important role in the education of children with special educational needs. S/he has duties in the identification of children who may have special educational needs, in arranging for assessments, in consulting parents, in preparing, implementing and reviewing an education plan and in making arrangements for transfer/ transition from one school to another.

The Act also makes provision for parents to notify the principal that they are of the opinion that their child is not benefiting from the education provided in the school to the extent that would be expected, and in turn the principal is required to take appropriate steps to address the needs of the child.

Where a child is not a student, the relevant health board is generally responsible for the assessment. Where special education needs are confirmed, the health board informs the Council of the child's needs and a plan is then developed at the direction of the Council.

At various stages in the process, there are opportunities to refer disputes to the Appeals Board. Various parties may bring an appeal or seek resolution of a dispute, including parents, boards of management, health boards and the Council.

The Act provides for three major changes to current structures. In the first place, at present the Department of Education and Science has responsibility for special education. This will evolve as the provisions of the Act come into effect. Three ministers, the Ministers for Education and Science, for Health and Children and for Finance will have roles and must take government policy into account in discharging responsibilities in relation to special education.

Secondly, the National Council for Special Education is established. Much of the work currently undertaken by the Department of Education will be transferred to the National Council for Special Education.

The third development is that an Appeals Board will be established. Until now, if parents were dissatisfied with the provision for their child, their only option, if their concerns were not resolved locally or in consultation with State organisations, was to go to court. Under the Act, several types of complaints can be brought to the Appeals Board and the Board will determine these within a specific time period.

In addition to the appeals mechanism, the Act also provides for mediation in certain cases.

A time of change

As can be seen from the above, this is a time of change and development in the provision of education for children with special educational needs. The Act of 2004 provides for a period of several years for the implementation of its provisions in full. It is to be hoped that the aims of the legislation will be realised in the shortest possible timeframe.

[3] Key Education Statistics, Department of Education and Science, Dublin.