Collaboration in Providing for Students with Special Needs: A Challenge for the Irish Education System

Dr Jean Ware Director of Special Education, St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, Dublin 9

In this paper I am going to discuss the role of collaboration in meeting the needs of students with special educational needs. First, I shall examine what is meant by 'collaboration' in relation to providing for children with special needs.

Then I shall look at the current pressures towards collaboration within the Irish system, focusing particularly on recent DES circulars and especially 'The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004'.

I shall examine why collaboration is needed, and discuss the evidence for the benefits of collaboration.

I shall then move on to look at ways in which collaboration can be achieved and how these practices can and have been adapted to an Irish context.

What is meant by collaboration in relation to providing for children with SEN?

Collaboration can be defined very simply as 'a team approach' however this simple definition covers a wide range of different teams.

Lacey (1998) suggests that several different collaborative teams need to be involved if special educational needs are to be met effectively. In addition to the multidisciplinary team which will draw up and review the education plan, there is a school team and a classroom team.

Lacey also points out that true collaborative working is at one end of a continuum of different ways in which professionals work together. This continuum ranges from liaison at one end to collaboration at the other. The four points on the continuum can be defined as follows:

  • Liaison: making and maintaining contact with other organizations
  • Co-operation: the minimum manner in which people/organisations work together, e.g. by responding to requests for information, by not cutting across each other's work etc.
  • Co-ordination: streamlining and timetabling work to create a balanced package of education/care
  • Collaboration: the most advanced system of people working together: sharing, trusting, handing over skills, doing joint assessments plus mutual training

Of course it is the multidisciplinary team which the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act has in view when it talks of a team being convened by the SENO to prepare an Education Plan for a child with SEN. (ESPEN Act 2004: Section 8: 3-4). So then the Act envisages a basic team consisting of the SENO, parent(s), principal/ teacher, child, and psychologist.

Pressures towards collaboration

It is clear from this section of the Act that it exerts considerable pressure towards collaborative working; for although it is possible to envisage a team advising a SENO on a consultancy model, the thrust of Section 8 is towards a group who will actually meet and work together to devise an Education Plan for the child. It's also clear that while the basic team will consist of just five to six persons, for a child with complex needs the team could be quite large, and include, for example, a number of therapists, nurses, respite carers etc.

There are also other pressures towards collaboration which operate more at school and classroom levels. First, there is the ever-increasing number of SNAs appointed to work either with individual children or more generally with classes or schools - meaning that the primary teacher (and no doubt soon the secondary teacher too) has one or more additional adults in the classroom who must be organised.

Then, at a school level, there are the plethora of people who may be involved in the education of an individual child with SEN in addition to the classroom teacher and the principal; resource and learning support teachers, visiting teacher, speech and language therapist, physiotherapist etc.

Why is collaboration needed?

In mainstream schools in addition to the child's parents the resource and learning support teachers may be collaborating with a large number of different classroom teachers and SNAs, each with their own style of working and with differing expertise, as well as with each other, and, perhaps, visiting teachers, psychologists and therapists. In a Special School each team may be large and complex, with a number of therapists, and perhaps a psychologist or nurse being involved as well. Indeed on a recent visit to a special class for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders I was struck by the fact that the class teacher was responsible for managing more adults than she was children. Working in such diverse teams demands a high level of skill in collaboration and organisational expertise. It will be clear from this that, unless there is a degree of collaboration, it is unlikely that such a variety of individuals will be engaged as effectively as they might in meeting the needs of the individual child with special educational needs.

Furthermore Lacey (amongst others) suggests that the expertise of the various individuals who advise the SENO or work directly with the child will be used most effectively where they adopt a collaborative model of working.

It is also clear from recent circulars that many pupils with milder or higher incidence SEN may not have an Education Plan. Instead, it is envisaged that their needs will be met by a combination of class teacher and learning support or resource teacher, which for some of these teachers may mean a considerable broadening of their role. The school therefore needs to form flexible collaborative teams to address problems or issues which may arise from time to time in the education of individuals or groups.

Effective methods of collaboration

Research documents the effectiveness of a variety of forms of collaborative practice in schools both within and outside the classroom for example team teaching and support teaching. Most research on collaborative practice has been directed to collaboration within the classroom. There is less research on collaboration outside the classroom.

Teacher Support Teams are one version a flexible collaborative team operating outside the classroom. They are defined by Daniels, Creese and Norwich (2000) as 'an organised system of peer support which consists of a small group of teachers who take referrals from individual teachers on a voluntary basis' Work from both the United States (Chalfant and Pysh, 1989; Harris, 1995) and the UK (Norwich and Daniels, 1997; Stringer, 1998) shows that they can be effective.

Essentially, TSTs are a form of group problem solving, they aim to complement existing structures not to replace them. They involve sharing of expertise between colleagues, rather than some teachers acting as experts to others.

A team might consist of the learning support and/or resource teacher, and one or two others. The referring teacher brings a problem which may be about an individual or about a class or group, and the process is as confidential as that teacher wishes it to be.

The team meet and brainstorm possible strategies for dealing with the problem, then those that might work in the circumstances are highlighted, one is selected and tried. A follow-up or review meeting is held to evaluate the success of the strategy adopted after 4-6 weeks, and further strategies are tried and evaluated if necessary.

Daniels et al. say that TSTs 'provide an opportunity to support students indirectly by supporting teachers. As a form of group problem-solving they have the potential of extending staff involvement in the development of SEN policy and practice. They can help focus on the balance between addressing students' individual needs and bringing about change in school systems.'

Barriers to collaboration

However, despite the evidence that collaborative practice in schools has benefits not only for pupils with SEN but more widely for both pupils and staff there remain a number of barriers to such practices. The attitudinal barrier is described by Nias (1993) as 'professional individualism'. Nias suggests that such individualism is encouraged by the organisation of schools, but it can also be reinforced by a staffroom ethos which suggests that teachers should be able to solve their own problems.

In Ireland, time for meeting also constitutes a considerable barrier, in a way which may not be so much the case in other countries, where the teachers' working week includes some non-teaching time in school.

Ways of overcoming the barriers

None the less, teachers in Irish Primary Schools have found a number of creative solutions to setting up teacher support teams or other collaborative structures, for example in schools which have infant classes, the infant teachers provide cover to release other teachers to meet together at the end of the day. In other schools the principal or one of the SEN teachers has provided cover for a class teacher to meet with colleagues. Elsewhere teachers have opted to meet at the start of the day, before the children arrive.


  • Chalfant, J. and Pysh, M. (1989) Teacher assistance teams: Five descriptive studies on 96 teams. Remedial and Special Education Vol. 10 (6) pp 49-58
  • Daniels H., Norwich, B. and Creese, A. (2000) Supporting collaborative problem-solving in schools. In H. Daniels (Ed) Special education re-formed: Beyond rhetoric. London: Falmer
  • Harris, K. (1995) School-based bilingual special education teacher assistance teams. Remedial and Special Education Vol. 16 (6) pp 337-343.
  • Lacey, P. (1988) The multidisciplinary team. In P.Lacey and C. Ouvry (Eds) People with profound and multiple learning disabilities: A collaborative approach to meeting complex needs. London: Fulton
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  • Stringer. P. (1998) One night Vygotsky had a dream: Children learning to think..... and implications for educational psychologists. Educational and Child Psychology Vol. 15 (2) pp 14-20.