Primary Schools: Providing, Promoting, Protecting

Speaker: Tom O'Sullivan, Assistant Secretary General, Irish National Teacher's Organisation (INTO)


Not for the first time special education in Ireland is in serious crisis. Just six years ago, calls for special education provision in mainstream schools were met with a stubborn refusal. Vulnerable but determined parents were forced on behalf of their special needs children to take on the might of the system in the courts in order to drag resources out of an unresponsive government.

There followed a short period of resource provision on an "automatic response" basis thanks to a number of high profile court cases - not least the celebrated O'Donoghue and Sinnott judgements. This was also helped by the fact that, in a number of national partnership agreements, the INTO managed to ensure government commitment to provide increased teaching resources in primary schools. Teachers and parents had every reason to hope that such progress would be sustained into a future where mainstream resource provision would accompany mainstream educational placement.

The "automatic response" to special needs resource provision was based on the SERC Report (1993) which built on best practice in many countries. Under this system, each pupil with a defined degree of disability or special educational need is allocated a proportion of a teaching post, expressed in teaching hours, to which that child is theoretically entitled in a special school or special class designated for the category to which he or she belongs.

The automatic response method of quantifying teacher resources offers a number of advantages. It provides for the allocation of additional teaching resources on an equitable and feasible basis in a wide variety of circumstances. It is flexible. It allows for the deployment of a resource teacher across a number of schools. It enables pupils to be drawn from a number of special needs categories, and it can be adapted to take account of pupils with multiple needs. It obviates the possibility of the school being deprived of even the part time services of a teacher.

Problems with "Automatic Response"

The automatic response is not without its problems and it has been the subject of severe criticisms. It clearly favours those with the financial means to buy assessments, and penalises schools that are unable to access psychological services. It is conditional on referral, assessment, centralised approval and availability of resources. It is open to manipulation at any of those stages by a government intent on limiting or curtailing responses.

It imposes unsustainable bureaucratic demands on principals and other teachers, miring them in paperwork, form filling and extra work such as arranging to have schools open on Saturdays so that children could be psychologically assessed, giving up weeks of holidays to battle with the Special Education section of the Department of Education and Science so that staffing decisions could be made, and advertising, interviewing, recruiting and training Special Needs Assistants at the eleventh hour following the eventual concession of posts.

During the last six years of the automatic response there were very limited opportunities for specialist training for the teachers involved. No attempt was made to compile a database of children with special needs, something recommended over a decade ago in the report of the Special Education Review Committee. There was no tracking system. The officials in the DES, despite their best efforts, failed to cope with the volume of applications because of under-resourcing in the Special Education Section.

The application process was also subject to arbitrary changes on a number of occasions, adding further confusion and delay. A considerable proportion of teaching and special needs assistant support was allocated on a part-time basis leading to recruitment and qualification difficulties, as well as more bureaucracy.


To balance my criticism of this approach to resource allocation, it must be pointed out that the automatic response policy led to the appointment in the last five years of 2,500 full time resource teachers. It led to the appointment of 4319 full time and 1353 part time Special Needs Assistants in primary schools. Though not specifically covered by the automatic response, the number of Learning Support Teachers in primary schools rose to over 1,500.

However, the failure to put a formalised structure on the automatic response has left special education vulnerable to dismantling in that it is not protected by structures. It is governed by economics and not by education. It is determined by how much government is prepared to pay, rather than by what children need to access the education system. It is resources based, not rights based.

Time for Change

It is obvious that current arrangements cannot continue. The chaos and uncertainty of recent times is as unsustainable as it is unforgivable. A new way must be found to allocate resources in a reasonable manner and within an acceptable time frame.

On the basis of putting in place a fairer, more responsive and educationally sound model of provision, the INTO engaged the DES in talks and agreed to consider a weighted model of provision.

We outlined how, by allocating teaching resources to schools based on identified prevalence of needs that were sensitive to factors such as disadvantage, size of school and gender, a replacement for the current system could be introduced. Such a system would obviate the need for individual applications for resource in respect of individual pupils other than in the most exceptional circumstances.

Our proposals were based on recent European research that shows clearly where other countries have grappled with this difficulty and found alternative ways to fund and organise special education. "Pupil based" or "pupil bound" funding was found to lead to less inclusion, more labelling, rising costs, increased litigation and bureaucratic diagnostic procedures.

Many European countries have concluded that pupil based budgeting is not advisable for pupils with milder forms of special needs, and that a fixed part of the budget for special needs education should be allocated to schools regardless of the need, based on the assumption that every school should have some facilities for pupils with special needs. A further part of the budget can then be distributed among schools on the basis of an independent assessment of need. This has been found to work well in Austria, Denmark, Belgium, The Netherlands and Sweden.

Among the benefits of such a system are:

  • Certainty attaching to staffing allocations
  • Increased ability to plan on an ongoing basis.
  • More flexibility in the deployment of the resources
  • Centrality of school/ teacher based judgements about children
  • Better time-tabling
  • Reduction of bureaucracy
  • A decrease in cluster size

Among the dangers are:

  • The possible diminishing of services in certain categories of schools, particularly those with smaller pupil numbers and educational disadvantage.
  • Combining teaching roles could dilute valuable expert experience.
  • An arbitrary prevalence figure could be used to cut back staffing levels.
  • Workloads, particularly for learning support teachers, could increase significantly if rigid norms and percentiles are applied.

However the key issue is whether this government is prepared to resource such a system adequately. Making a system work is conditional on how much this government is prepared to spend.

Adopting a crude across the board system of allocating resources will create greater inequity. Moving from an individual budget response to an allocated response has the potential to create havoc in the system if not properly managed and resourced.

Prevalence of Disability

For some time now the Department of Education and Science has been intimating that the incidence of children with special educational needs in this country is running above the international norm. Current provision covers approximately 13% of the school population in either a learning support or resource teaching situation. But these figures are deceptive and do not reveal the true level of disability in our schools. Applying a system based on this data ignores the fact that we do not have a comprehensive nationwide psychological service. The figures are also well below best international practice. In Finland, for example, 21.2% of children receive additional resources for either disabilities or learning difficulties. It is no coincidence that Finnish students had the lowest number of students below or at Level 1 in the 2000 PISA Reading literacy survey, and Finnish students were, on average, two-thirds of a level above the OECD average. Finnish students were also ranked above Irish students in scientific literacy and mathematical competence. Educational outcomes are a factor of the resources we are prepared to put in. Special education resources are a factor of what we as a society are prepared to spend. It cannot be done on the cheap.

Following a review of provision in other countries, the INTO demanded:

  • An increase in the current level of learning support provision from 10% to 12% of the pupil population.
  • Provision for 5% of pupils in the mild and borderline general learning disability category, as well as children with specific learning difficulties.
  • An allocation for 2% of pupils with moderate or severe disabilities.

We concluded that this level of provision would require an additional 1,000 teachers. At our Annual Congress this year, the then Minister for Education and Science, Noel Dempsey T.D., announced the recruitment of an additional 350 teachers. We therefore still have some way to go to ensure an adequately resourced and staffed system.

The Future

A number of recent developments give cause for optimism that the chaos and uncertainty of the past may be coming to an end. The passing of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, the establishment of the National Council for Special Education and the recruitment and deployment of Special Educational Needs Organisers are to we welcomed. The announcement of a review of the weighted model by the new Minister for Education and Science, Mary Hanafin T.D., and her commitment that children currently in receipt of services would not lose out also show a new realisation of the difficulties to be overcome. The real test will be the level of resources provided and the availability of those resources for pupils and schools. This will have to include adequate provision of educational psychologists, child psychiatric services, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and other professionals as necessary.

In all the discussions and focus on mainstream provision, and the overall policy of inclusion of pupils with special educational needs in mainstream settings, one area that is overlooked at times is the place of special school provision. These schools have made an invaluable contribution to the education of children with disabilities over many decades. The INTO believes that a strong, well resourced and accessible special school sector should be part of a continuum of provision for pupils, and that policy makers should ensure that all the partners in the education system are aware of the variety of choices available. This needs further discussion and strategic direction as a priority.

If this government fails to properly resource services to children with special needs, then I confidently predict the tribunals of the future will not be concerned with land rezoning or shady business deals, but with the failure of the state to provide for its most vulnerable and weakest citizens. The INTO will continue to be an advocate for children with special needs and will make no apologies for doing so. Staying where we are is not an option. There is a moral imperative on those of us who care about equality of provision in society to act decisively to end the current most unsatisfactory situation.

The INTO came forward with constructive proposals to improve the provision of resources to special needs pupils. We engaged in talks to eliminate bureaucracy, to bring certainty in relation to resource provision and to meet the needs of children in our schools. We now want to see real progress for our pupils. Investment in human capital, in the social fabric of this country, can never be accorded a lower priority than physical infrastructure.