Comparative Analysis of the Special Needs Assistance Approach: Ireland, England & Sweden

Speaker: Maire Bergin, NDA Scholar

Máire Bergin presented a comparative analysis of supports for students with special educational needs, analysing educational settings and the role of special needs assistants in Sweden, England and Ireland. While her research interests cover a broader area, for the purposes of the presentation she concentrated specifically on the role of Special Needs Assistants (SNA) and the Classroom Assistants in these three countries.


In Sweden, the organisation of special needs education has experienced a seismic shift, leading to the phased closure of special schools. The "FUNKIS" evaluation highlighted a relatively low level of mainstreaming for students with special educational needs, despite the establishment of the Disability Ombudsman in 1994.

Since 2000, the education of students with special needs has been devolved to the local municipality, which shares joint responsibility for schools with the central government. In accordance with national objectives set by the government through the Education Act, municipalities must provide for persons with disabilities an 'education equal to that received by others in the community.' (Source:

Through the Swedish Institute for Special Needs (a government funded body), municipalities are assisted in the provision of special needs support through the provision of educational material and skills development initiatives for special needs assistants. The Swedish Institute personnel are mandated to work with resource teams and not directly with the students in need. Thus, there has been a change in the role of special education teachers in Sweden, from that of direct involvement with the student to a more support-based role.

In the interim period, the Swedish Institute provides temporary training stays for students, while municipalities build up the necessary level of expertise and support. The National Agency for Special Education Supports (SISUS) also fulfils an advisory role for specialist adaptive and assistive technology.

With such structural changes, the emphasis on special needs assistants has increased and they are now considered a vital element of the team responsible for the educational development of students with special educational needs. Previously occupying a largely supportive role, the assistants have moved to become part of a multi-disciplinary team working towards a common documented purpose.

Following the student's assessment, the support assistant, together with the parents and child, attends a 3-day training programme at the a Swedish Institute centre which focuses on the student's identified needs and the resources required to meet those needs. Previously, training interventions were only directed at the teacher who would then disseminate the recommendations to the parents and other support staff. Swedish Institute personnel now work with all staff interacting with the student to support a more multi-disciplinary, inclusive approach to the needs of students with special educational needs.

This approach has increased the profile of support assistants and has ensured them more equitable access to training. The resource centres provide tailored courses to support staff that are specific to the student's particular needs. The inclusion of teaching support assistants and special needs assistants in a collaborative approach to meeting identified student needs has resulted in initiatives to address the training needs of such personnel.

Stockholm University has since initiated several courses to address such training requirements. The full-scale impact and benefits from such a structure has yet to be realised. A report on the preliminary impact of special education is due out next year.


In England and Wales, the 1996 Education Act affirms the statutory obligation of Local Education Authorities to provide support for children who have special educational needs. The Act further requires that the non-educational needs of the child must be met as documented in the Statement of Needs. As a result, the Local Education Authorities are required to employ special needs assistants in order to comply with the law.

Schools can also directly hire special needs assistants. The role of such assistants has developed to encompass educational attainments and support for the child. As a result, the term 'Learning Support Assistant' has been changed to 'Teaching Assistant'.

In 1999, OFSTED's Review of Primary Education acknowledged that 'well-trained teaching assistants are a key resource and are used very effectively in many primary schools' (DFEE 1999). In 2001, the Code of Practice further defined the role of teaching assistants in the classroom in relation to students with special educational needs.

In 2003, the British Government established a National Agreement called "Raising tandards and Tackling Workload". This agreement is intended to further reform the education system to ensure effective teaching and learning. In doing so, it develops the role of teaching assistants to assist with other teaching duties and also addresses the administrative duties required to fulfil the Statement of Needs.

In 2000, there were over 68,000 full time teaching assistants. This represents an increase of 112% on the 1992 figure. In practice, it means an allocation of 1 support assistant for every 2.7 teachers. It has been projected that there will be 20,000 more support staff in England and Wales by the end of 2004.

Such developments serve as an acknowledgement of the pivotal role of teaching assistants. It further highlights the need to differentiate training paths and entry levels for teaching assistants. Currently, Plymouth University offers four levels of development programme for support assistants, including a degree course at the fourth level. The programmes are recognised by the National Vocational Qualification Awards ( NVQ) system.

With such dramatic development in the roles of teaching assistants, the deployment of these roles has also changed. Significant also is the deployment of teaching assistants to a variety of roles, ranging from that of supporting an individual student or a small group of students, to that of being allocated to a particular department. The latter development has facilitated teaching assistants at secondary level to specialise in areas such as maths, science etc.

Teaching assistants are actively tracking and supporting the student's progress. This collaboration amongst teaching staff has evolved into an interdisciplinary approach to meeting the needs of students, and reinforces the significant role of the teaching assistant.


In 1993, the Special Education Review Committee defined special needs and suggested a continuum of educational provision with a flexible approach to cater for differentiated placements within the education system.

In 1997, the Commission for the Status of People with Disabilities' report A Strategy for Equality acknowledged the existence of two separate education systems - a special system and a mainstream system. It recommends a more flexible enrolment approach and transport service. It suggests that funding be linked to the student and his/her support needs. Moreover, the report states that funding should follow the student as he/she moves to the most appropriate educational settings.

In 1998 the Education Act 'gave practical effect to the constitutional rights of children to access education, including children who have a disability or other special educational needs.' It asserts that the Minister for Education is responsible for ensuring that an education that is appropriate to their needs is made available. It defines the responsibilities of the schools and their management boards to make proper provision for such students. The Equal Status Act of 2000 and the Equality Act of 2004 affirm the rights of students with disabilities to be educated in a setting of their choice.

The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, 2004 details the role of individual assessment in ensuring proper levels of service provision in the mainstream sector for students with disabilities. The Act established the National Council for Special Education to co-ordinate resources to support schools and students.

In 2003-4, the Department of Education and Science conducted an audit of special education support provision through the mainstream sector with a view to assessing the level of need for support staff. The audit found that there is an increased number of students with special needs, but that schools have more support and teaching staff. One of the conclusions drawn from the audit was the need for further development and training for both support and teaching staff.

In June 2003, there was an estimated 5,400 full time special needs assistants at primary level. In October 2004, the Minister for Education and Science announced the creation of an additional 295 full-time posts. However, the number of support staff dramatically reduces at secondary level. In June of 2003, there were only 380 fulltime support staff. The projected number for the end of 2003 was 450 special needs assistants (Irish Independent June 03).

The recent developments in special educational needs have impacted significantly on general needs schools and the demand for support resources there. The number of students with disabilities has continued to rise in general needs schools. With such trends, there would appear to be an urgent need to establish a training structure with progression routes which would develop and grow the resources to meet the differentiated needs of each student.

The needs of students in transition from primary to secondary level also require examination. Bergin concluded that this was an opportune time for Ireland to examine best practices and policy implementation in other countries and to adapt those to maximise the utilisation of existing special needs resources.