Access to Mainstream Primary Education for Students with an Intellectual and/ or Developmental Disability: The Parents' Voice

Speaker: Sheelah Flatman Watson, NDA Scholar


The 1998 Education Act, the Equal Status Act 2000 and the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 support parents' rights to send their child to a school of the parents' choice', the rights of students with disabilities to access services on the same basis as students without the disability, and the rights of students with a disability to avail of an integrated education with students who do not have similar disability. It is official policy to mainstream educational services and to provide support to promote opportunity to avail of education to the level of ability of the student. This working paper outlines that contrary to legislation, rights and inclusion are aspirational rather than reality for many students and parents.

Research Methodology

Criteria and Sample

A questionnaire survey, targeted at the parents of students with an intellectual and or developmental disability (ID/DD), which had been identified prior to seeking enrolment in a primary school, was carried out in early 2004 through primary schools in Kildare and Dublin.

116 completed questionnaires, 58 by parents of a child/children who have a general learning disability and 58 parents of a child/children with a developmental disability are reported in this paper. 41% of students attend a mainstream school, 30% attend a mainstream school with a special/specialist class/unit and 29% attend a special or specialist school. Figure 1 illustrates the distribution of class type attended by the students. 48% attend a mainstream class, and 23% attend a special class within a mainstream setting. 12% of students attend a specialist school and 17% of the cohort attends a special school supporting general learning disabilities.


Figure 1 Type of class attended

Parent Experience of accessing placements

71% of students attend a mainstream school. However, enrolment was not straightforward. The questionnaire posed four questions:

  • Have you been denied admission to any school for your child?
  • Has admission been deferred/delayed by a school for your child?
  • Have any school personnel advised you to seek education for your child elsewhere rather than in their school?
  • Have you been advised to move your child to another school after enrolment and attendance in the school?

54% of parents answered yes to one or more of the above questions as follows:

  • 39 students were denied admission to one or more schools
  • 22 students were offered deferred/delayed admission
  • 47 students were advised to look for placements elsewhere.
  • 14 students having enrolled and attended at a school were subsequently asked to look for a placement elsewhere

Reasons given for enrolments being denied when requested:

56 respondents gave a total of 73 responses outlining their understanding of why enrolment was not forthcoming. Responses vary from the totally negative to a level of interest negated by a stated inability to meet the request for various reasons.

Table 1 Reasons given for enrolment denial when requested



No reason given - application ignored34
Special needs not catered for1521
Students disability/care needs/behaviour1622
Particular programme not available - set up own11
School's opinion child not suited to placement811
Quota Reached - no places available1014
Lack of/limited personnel/resources/supports1014
Outside catchment /religion/age/not toilet trained23
Waiting lists/assessments/transport/accessibility811

The reasons given to parents, when schools denied enrolment, cross the spectrum of attitudinal, the disability and the lack of resources. Parents' quotes include:


  • "it was felt by headmaster that student A was not a suitable candidate to maintain the standards of his school"
  • "Principal at the time did not think integration was best decision (his personal view)"
  • "No SNA wanted in the class was the excuse given"
  • "denied - school considered "not appropriate environment for child with special needs" (note this was a Montessori school)"
  • "place in special class denied - unable/unwilling to facilitate or meet his needs"

The disability

  • "Her autism"
  • " reason given but place given to our other daughter who was going to school the same year, - both children were on application form, daughter A was older so should have been given first option. One other child with 'Down Syndrome' in this class so this I believe was the reason, but was never stated."
  • "do not cater for Special Needs - have had A.S. students before and felt they presented behavioural problems (generalisation) the school could not cope with."
  • "due to student B's disability, even though the school had places and is our catchment area school - and my two older boys went to this school - the principal was most unhelpful and made it clear, he did not want any more special needs children"


  • "quota full"
  • "Head teacher knew nothing about autism / special needs"
  • "Principal did not 'deny' place, instead he shouted abuse down the phone and told me they would never get the "support" from the Department to deal with student C. The principal never replied in writing to any correspondence I sent."
  • "Said they did not have sufficient remedial assistance for student D as a private school"
  • "No special classes or teachers"
  • "Deferred - availability of suitable transport"
  • "local national schools - denied - at least 3 schools adjacent to my home. They would not be able to provide a suitable education and had no confidence that the DES would provide suitable support (there were no special placements available at the time) - only offer of placement at that time was from school A in Kerry and we were living in Dublin at the time!"

    (Note this placement would have been sought circa 2000)

Distance and time travelled

Travel distance and time would be a matter of choice for the majority of parents and their children. However, when a child has a disability and access to the local school is denied travel distance and time may become an issue. The survey sample shows that there is a wide variance in amount of time spent travelling. Figure 2 portrays the average distance from home to school for students attending in each school type and the daily times spent travelling to and from each of the three broad school types attended by the students.



The range for each school type is quite broad. 10% of mainstream students, 27% of students in mainstream with special classes, and 56% of students in special schools travel one hour upwards each day. Each of the 3 school types accommodate approximately one third of the students who were denied access.

Table 2 shows the difference in time spent travelling for those who are attending a special school in comparison with the overall outcome for students who experienced denials.

Table 2 Travel time - Negative outcomes experienced


time in minutes

special system

67%travel 10 - 40 minutes43%
16%travel 45 - 90 minutes28.5%
17%travel 120 -180 minutes28.5%

81% of placements denied to students were in the mainstream. The remainder of denials or referrals elsewhere were in the special system.

Students' Care Needs

Parents were asked to note whether their child had additional care needs e.g. feeding, dressing. Circa 50% reported that such help was needed at varying levels of intensity. Table 3 below outlines the required level of support reported.

Table 3 Additional Care Needs Levels



not applicable5547.4
General help supervision with dressing feeding, toilet, play, social skills,4135.3
Full time all round support and supervision needed1613.8
No answer given43.4

Fulltime all round support takes cognisance of difficulties such as lack of toilet training, no sense of fear or danger for the self or others, difficulty with language, social or emotional skills or restricted diet that needs to be understood, monitored and facilitated. This was the situation for 14% of students.

Analysis of the data shows that only 32 of the 63 students who were denied placements are students who report requiring care support, and just 11 of those need the higher level of support. It is interesting to note that 5 students who require fulltime supervision and support were amongst those who were not refused placements. Two of these students are in a mainstream class.

Further relevant information with respect to choosing a placement

Students' difficulties range from the mild to the more complex. The varieties of difficulties include 11% of students who have specific speech and language difficulties, and a further 5% combine this with behavioural problems. 7% of students have difficulties including, AD(H)D, dyslexia, dyspraxia, total deafness, sensory integration dysfunction and anxiety disorder. Individual education programmes are required by 7%.

However, similar to the cross-referencing of denials of placement with level of care need, the analysis of data on denials with respect to the level of educational support needed does not readily equate. Of the 63 students denied placements only 31 reported having the above difficulties.

On the other hand 35% of respondents who report similar educational needs have not experienced negative outcomes when seeking a placement and the majority are in a mainstream placement. Only 3 students amongst these are currently in the special education system.

It would appear that the lack of knowledge, understanding and structures within schools, or the willingness to develop these, result in a denial of enrolment rather than an increase in the level of support required by the child. Some mainstream schools include students with varying disability level while other schools will not accommodate children with relatively mild difficulties.

Preferred School Setting

72% of parents would prefer to place their child in a mainstream school, 24% of who would prefer a special class. 16% note that a specialist school (ABA) would be their first preference, and almost 9% would choose the special system if all choices were available and resourced. Many parents commented on this question and a sample of those is as follows:

  • "because of lack of facilities in the west of Ireland we cannot move or live where we want because adequate education is not widely available".
  • " ...... any setting for child would be only appropriate if it was capable of meeting her assessed needs at time of transfer".
  • "a right to access the activities i.e. sports, social, Special Olympics, provided to children who remain in the special sector".
  • "opportunity to integrate into mainstreams with specially trained (e.g. ABA) resource and S.N.A.(not currently available)"

Child Centred Considerations

When a child has an ID/DD the balance of considerations in making a choice of placement may shift with respect to overall needs. In ranking the most important child centred considerations, individual special needs assistant ranked number one with the greatest number of parents at 29%. Following this, 21% put an Individual Educational Programme as first preference. Being with siblings and neighbours is chosen as number one by 14%. When all 5 rankings are taken into account, it is interesting to note that social skills development ranks highest overall.

The main theme of comments by parents on child centred considerations is the endeavour to place their children in schools with a good reputation, that provide appropriately experienced and qualified teaching staff, have an understanding of the child's disability, and are capable of meeting the child's needs. Parents further note that a good attitude toward children with a disability, an inclusion ethos and availability and willingness of staff to discuss the child's progress with parents, is important.

Sample parent quotes are as follows:

  • "School atmosphere, openness to learning about student E's disability - availability of teachers to discuss ongoing progress"
  • "comfort and friendliness - kindness and friendliness from principal and teachers - very comforting and very important"
  • ".....staff's belief in full potential of the child. Many special needs staff think they are just "minding" the children they are supposed to be teaching."

Lack of choice is also a dominant theme with 12 parents commenting on this issue. Many parents report that choice was non-existent and the placement taken up was the only one offered or available at the time of enrolment. Many parents renege choice and accept the status quo. Comments include:

  • "To be honest we had no choice. We got no help from the persons who diagnosed student F. A couple on the internet told us about school B and the travelling etc. didn't come into our decision - we were so happy our application was successful and school B took student F. There are no ABA schools in South Dublin".
  • "the only school that accepted him"
  • "We were just so glad that any school would consider taking student G".
  • Social, personal and language skills development is a consideration deemed important by several parents. Differentiation within an holistic educational system is at the core of parent comments.

School Characteristics

Caring and concerned staff, (23%), teachers' experience of intellectual and developmental disabilities (22%) and level of support (20%) are ranked highest by parents. This finding is enhanced further when all five rankings are viewed. Almost 60% of parents who ranked teacher experience of ID/DD as most important are parents of children who are on the autistic spectrum, which may be a significant factor. The remaining high-ranked attributes do not appear to relate to the degree or type of disability experienced by the student.

Schools' Resources

The majority of schools' personnel have had little or no training in supporting the education of children with an ID/DD and their potential additional care needs. A survey of resources within primary schools across Dublin and Kildare (inclusive of special school) carried out in late 2003[4] reported that only 12.6% of schools' teaching personnel had undertaken a Higher Qualification in Special Education Needs (SEN).

Of this cohort circa 8% of classroom teachers and 1.6% of principals were represented.

Not all primary schools have designated resource teachers and of those that do the survey showed that circa 18% reported having a higher qualification in SEN. The lack of trained and experienced personnel may explain some of the negativity around giving placements in the school of choice to students with an ID/DD. Some parent comments include:

Problems Encountered

  • "Resource teaching, in general, is with teachers who do not have experience of autistic children. S.N.A. - have no training requirements and need constant help and analysis from parents. No instruction or support for mainstream teacher on child's disability - dependent on personality and interest of individual teachers".
  • "My son was promised a care assistant and 5 hours remedial but now the Dept of Education cannot guarantee this for Sept. 2004"

Positive Responses

  • "...we are lucky to have encountered a very positive school, with caring attitudes and very willing to learn new techniques. We are fully involved in the education and have regular meetings. But I realise this is not the same for most parents."
  • " has a huge amount of supervision to ensure effectiveness of Content and Method"
  • "All special schools are full. Mainstream with Autistic Units are full as well - school C showed eagerness and willingness to help and support student H"
  • "...the staff are wonderful"

There are many schools that have taken on the challenge of supporting the needs of all children and do not refuse placements, but the quality of life within schools for some children does not always live up to the ethos portrayed as explained by the following parent comment:

  • "...despite the wonderful teachers my son has I am disappointed that even though his school promoted integration no actual integration takes place at his school. This is a cause of some concern, as he now wants to engage and interact with children he perceives as being the same age as he is. He is desperate for company and in reality is very lonely even though he has 3 younger siblings"

Being denied a place in the local school affects the family on a daily basis and having to put a child on a bus may be distressful for many parents. Distance and lack of transport may alienate the parents from the school attended by the child and leaves the parent less able to be in touch with the child's progress and development on a daily basis especially when the child has a speech difficulty. These issues are given voice by a parent, who comments:

  • " family live in a small village in county A where there is only a handful of children with special needs. Although they may be different in their needs I don't see why they cannot have a special classroom in local N.S. to cater for them. Student I's bus collects him at 8:20-8.35am .....and returns him 3:20-3.35pm and when he gets in, as he has no speech, he cannot tell me how his day was. I drop his sister to school at 9:15am and I can hear her playing at break times.....If anything was to happen to either of them I can just collect the sister...., with student I, I have the worry of getting to his school as I don't yet have a full licence. I'm not being a broody mother, I would just like it to be possible to walk my 2 children to school in our village....."

Summary Findings

An overview of the questionnaire shows that over 70% of parents would prefer to place their child (children) in mainstream placements if all settings were available and resourced. However, 54% of the parents report having experienced negative outcomes on seeking enrolment for their child.

Mainstream placements account for 81% of these negative outcomes. It would appear that the majority of the problems with respect to denials lie with the particular schools involved as 67% of the children denied placements with an education provider are now in a mainstream placement, with 35% being educated in a mainstream classroom. 30% of the students travel 60 minutes or more with almost 20% travelling 90 minutes or more, 13% travelling more than 2 hours and 2% travelling 3 hours per day.


Choice of school placement is not a reality for significant numbers of parents and their child(children) with an ID/DD. Many mainstream schools' personnel do not welcome these children. Parents encounter lack of knowledge, experience, confidence and willingness on the part of principals and teachers to support the special education needs of their children. Some schools are very supportive and have put good structures in place to meet students' special needs. Although some schools purport an ethos of inclusion it is not a reality experienced by some of the students.

Practices re enrolment of many students with an ID/DD are not meeting the aspirations outlined in the 3 pertinent policy documents, namely the Education Act 1998, the Equal Status Act 2000 and the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill 2004.

[4] Flatman Watson NDA Disability Research Conference Proceedings Oct.19th 2004