Special Education Initiative

Short summary

Ireland has a multi-track system for inclusive education including and incorporating Special Education (SE) placement in mainstream schools, special classes in mainstream schools and special school. From fragmented minimal coverage, the EPSEN Act (2004) required that children with special educational needs should as far as possible be educated in an inclusive environment. There are have been a range of policy documents, initiatives and state funding to realize this objective which has changed the landscape of SE delivery in Irish primary and post-primary schools.

The integration of children with SE into mainstream classes has meant significant funding towards the employment of SE teachers (SET) and Special Needs Assistants (SNAs). In some cases, buildings have had to be adapted, particularly where schools have added sensory rooms or autism units etc. Tailored CPD opportunities for teaching staff have been increased. 

Within Initial teacher education there are now mandatory modules on SE where ITE students learn about inclusive practices and methodologies. There has also been a significant expansion of postgraduate diploma and masters programmes on SE (particularly focused on practical issues.

Currently, the inclusion (and integration) of children with SE in preschool placements is a DES focus with the new state-funded LINC programme. To date, steady positive movement has been made. However, some areas are seen as ripe for improvement, notably interactive teaching methods in some cases. There has been a significant amount of school inspections, evaluations and policy developments on best practice in SE over the last two decades.  

Inclusive working practices shared teaching, openness to change, defined and targeted differentiated interactive activities for pupils and imaginative use of the extra staff provided & committed management feature as promising results in DES Inspections Reports. There is a slight bias in favor of primary school settings, with additional praise for their handling of transition to post-primary education. 

Context of good practice

The 2004 EPSEN Act (Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs) required that “A child with special educational needs shall be educated in an inclusive environment with children who do not have such needs unless the nature or degree of those needs of the child is such that to do so would be inconsistent with the best interests of the child as determined in accordance with any assessment carried out. The effective provision of education for children with whom the child is to be educated.” There is now a significant emphasis on both integration and transition (into mainstream class, and/or transfer from primary to post-primary etc.) including an academic transition from one academic year to the next.  

In general, educational provision for children with special needs is made in: special schools; special classes attached to ordinary schools and/or integrated settings in mainstream classes.  In general, the emphasis is, as far as possible, for the child to be educated in mainstream class. There are now a whole range of in-school supports covering a whole range of supports provided by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE),NEPS (National Education Psychological Service),Department of Health, Department of Children and Youth Affairs, DES (Department of Education and Skills) and voluntary bodies (generally advocacy).  There is a range of supports such as assistive technology and sign language etc.  

The nature and level of the educational response are based on the child’s professionally-assessed disability. Placement in an integrated setting will normally take the form of resource teaching or special needs assistant support, or both. Internationally and within Ireland an increased emphasis on providing demonstrable outcomes in education for all children and young people including those with special educational needs has been seen as a priority (OECD, 2011; NCSE, 2012). The role (resource provision) of the independent National Council for Special Needs (NCSE) was also strengthened and allocation of Special Education Teachers increased. Department of Education and Skills circulars in 2014, 2017 and 2019 outlined how and where these teachers should be allocated with the school. There is another review due in 2020.  

The Special Needs Education Initiative is based around the Special Education Teacher who works with the class teacher to provide an inclusive environment. There is a significant emphasis on team teaching, co-teaching, small group and individual teaching. Extra supports are provided in DEIS schools as the range of issues surrounding SE is complex.  

Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) are also provided for children with severe physical or educational needs. The DES (Department for Education and Science) provide regular support circulars, guidelines and materials for those involved; covering mainstream primary and post-primary schools, schools with SE classes, Special Schools, and Special Education teachers and SNAs.  

Main characteristics of the challenge, description of the target group

There is a range of challenges from raising awareness of services on offer to overcoming stigmas associated with ‘otherness’ and changing mindsets surrounding children with SE. In addition, there was formerly a dearth of relevant active data to inform practice and indeed a suspicion of data.  Parental attitudes are also another issue and are twofold. On the one hand, acknowledging their own child’s needs and on the other hand, other parents and their unease on having children with special needs in a mainstream class and how it impacts on teacher time etc. are issues that need to be addressed. Indeed, some schools may be become known as the ‘mainstream school where children from SE can go’ – this can lead to a segregated schooling system.  

There could also be strains on the capacity of space in a classroom or school, teacher knowledge and skills in dealing with SE and access to essential equipment (such as assistive technology). Full integration of children with SE into a mainstream class be an issue.  Moreover, class teachers now have to work with (and plan with) other adults (SE teacher and SNAs) in the classroom. 

Teachers have to plan for differentiation and provide for an inclusive classroom. This can take time and skill. Teachers may have to plan for a wide variety of need in their classroom.  There may be resources issues in terms of pedagogical tools and equipment. Ultimately, challenging and changing beliefs and attitudes may be difficult. Issues of sustainability may also be an issue for some schools, particularly not having the resources to provide for a child with profound special needs.  

Success factors and processes

1. Preparation: identifying the problem and outlining resolution (necessary tools, etc.) 

Definitions of need have to be established via individual education plans that are adaptable and flexible, buy-in from schools; legislation such as SE Acts & guidelines are essential: assessment tools; appointment and training of special education teachers etc., cross-agency teamwork and collaborative ethos; parental/community information; tools for assessment and de-briefing for children & parents.

2. Description of main activities; the approach used (necessary tools, timeframe, etc.)

Prepare student-support files: well prepared interactive lessons and activities – an integrated approach, inclusive teaching methodologies, differentiated and tailored lessons; good classroom management skills including links to prior learning; the use of concrete materials and visual and multi-sensory approaches including ICT; 

3. Useful competencies of a problem-solving team to reach main aim (necessary tools, etc.)

Share principles on inclusive teaching; agree approaches (team teaching, co-teaching etc.) and feedback; encourage collaborative learning; assess best use of intervention techniques, praise and encouragement; positive behaviour approached utilised; adapt teaching to individual student ability but within a challenging context; agree flexible alternatives if learning is not going to plan.

4. What is the estimated timeframe of implementation? Is this a quick solution or a long-term investment? When is it recommended to be carried out?

Long term investment is required: from birth onwards and in connection with other initiatives that contribute to the well-being of the child from a social, medical and educational perspective.  It has to start at pre-school.  Parental support and buy-in is key.  Flexible and adaptable plans that are reviewed periodically are essential to a child’s success in terms of inclusion and transition. Targeted State funding (and review of same) is necessary and also an ethos of ‘one size does not fit all’ is important.

Impact of measures taken

There is now a continuum of support provided which is based on the whole school and classroom support for all, school support for some and school support for a few. This support is based on a continuum from mild to more complex needs.

There are three stages in the process:

  1. Identification of need – and the development of a support plan (general plan, behavioural plan, individual profile and learning programme)
  2. Meeting the need – and determining the level of support required
  3. Monitoring and reviewing outcomes

There is a strong emphasis on the assessment of need and designing individual learning plans with the child and his/her parents. There is also a strong focus on student voice and an inclusive ethos is promoted. 

Lessons learned

  • Long-term central commitment from policy makers, funders, agencies, suppliers and all participants is vital;
  • Along with a shared ethos and aims reflected in planning, integrated discussion fora, training, teaching and learning methods are recommended on the strength of reviews to date;
  • Provision of standardized forms; 
  • Legislation underpinning SE is important;
  • Willingness to engage as a team at a school and class level to support all children;
  • Planning incorporating whole school curriculum and learning targets;
  • Timely assessment of pupils needs pre-placement to ensure appropriate targeted resources;
  • Individual educational plans and recording of progress of each pupil; 
  • A measure of autonomy for all;
  • Thinking outside the box promotes enquiry and hither-to envisaged positive actions;
  • Access to therapeutic etc. support is important:-
  • The need for all teachers to have access to continual CPD on SE (assessment, inclusive methodologies and strategies etc.) is important;
  • Appropriate/prompt waiting times for assessment reviews to take place (particularly for families who may not have the resources to seek private psychological assessments);
  • Danger of some children being assessed wrongly – or remaining with the same ‘label’ rather than re-assed and placed appropriately;
  • Parental pressure to get an ‘assessed status’ or being motivated for dubious reasons not always in the best interest of the child;
  • ‘Labelling’ can be self-fulfilling and detrimental to ambition and endeavour.

Resources needed

  • Governmental and ministerial commitment including forward funding and resource;
  • All ‘whole-country’ approach – legislated if necessary;
  • Researched definitions of ‘need’ and tailor-made processes for intervention;
  • A statutory School Census of provision: records of additional ‘needs’ given;
  • Adequate guaranteed funding and resourcing – plant-staff – back-up;
  • Cross-agency commitment & involvement with agreed ethos & goals;
  • Good and continuous communication channels involving national recognition of and acceptance of the needs;
  • First-class support and enabling CPD across all strata involved;
  • Supply of school places, special classes and trained practitioners etc. to meet the level of needs identified;
  • Varied standardised ‘tests’ to assess potential and measure/check encourage school towards progress for pupil, staff, school, parents;
  • Constant adaption and revision;
  • Research – practitioner and independent;
  • Comparison of SE provision and success (integration and transition) – local, national and international.

Any other information

A selection of IRLS Special Needs Education (some with multiple references: in no particular order and subject to revision)

Inclusive Education Framework: https://ncse.ie/inclusive-education-framework

Department of Education and Skills, A New Resources Teaching Allocation Model for Primary Schools: https://www.education.ie/en/The-Education-System/Special-Education/Delivery-for-Primary-Students-with-Special-Educational-Needs.pdf

A new model for Allocating Special Education Teachers to mainstream Schools (2017):https://www.education.ie/en/The-Education-System/Special-Education/a-new-model-for-allocating-special-education-teachers-to-mainstream-schools.pdf

Special Education Needs: A Continuum of Support: Guidelines for Teachers: https://www.education.ie/en/Schools-Colleges/Services/National-Educational-Psychological-Service-NEPS-/neps_special_needs_guidelines.pdf

Guidelines for Primary Schools – Supporting Pupils with Special Educational Needs in Mainstream Schools:https://www.education.ie/en/The-Education-System/Special-Education/Guidelines-for-Primary-Schools-Supporting-Pupils-with-Special-Educational-Needs-in-Mainstream-Schools.pdf

Guidelines for Post-Primary Schools – Supporting Pupils with Special Educational Needs in Mainstream Schools: https://www.education.ie/en/The-Education-System/Special-Education/Guidelines-for-Post-Primary-Schools-Supporting-Students-with-Special-Educational-Needs-in-Mainstream-Schools.pdf

Supporting you with the new Special Education Teacher (SET) Allocation Model: http://ncse.ie/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Madeline-Hickey-New-Model.pdf

Supporting Students with SEN – Key Actions for Primary Schools:https://www.education.ie/en/The-Education-System/Special-Education/supporting-students-with-special-educational-needs-key-actions-for-primary-schools.pdf

Supporting Students with SEN – Key Actions for Post-Primary Schools:https://www.education.ie/en/The-Education-System/Special-Education/supporting-students-with-special-educational-needs-key-actions-for-post-primary-schools.pdf

All information pertaining to Special Education can be accessed at the National Council for Special Education website: https://ncse.ie/

NCSE reports include the following:

National Educational Psychological Services (NEPS): https://www.education.ie/en/Schools-Colleges/Services/National-Educational-Psychological-Service-NEPS-/NEPS-Home-Page.html

School Inclusion Model (2019):https://www.education.ie/en/Press-Events/Press-Releases/2019-press-releases/PR19-03-27-1.html

Access and Inclusion Model information can be found here: https://aim.gov.ie/

How NCSE Supports Schools (ACCS, 2019): https://accs.ie/cmsAdmin/uploads/system-and-allocation-model-overview.pdf

Department of Education and Skills Circular to Primary Schools on SET allocation 2019:https://www.education.ie/en/Circulars-and-Forms/Active-Circulars/cl0007_2019.pdf

Department of Education and Skills – Circular to Post-Primary Schools on SET Allocation 2019: https://www.education.ie/en/Circulars-and-Forms/Active-Circulars/cl0008_2019.pdf

Department of Education and Skills Circular to Primary Schools on SET allocation 2017: https://www.education.ie/en/Circulars-and-Forms/Active-Circulars/cl0013_2017.pdf

National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education: https://www.nabmse.org/

Irish Primary Principals Network – New SEN Model:https://www.ippn.ie/index.php/resources/school-policies/new-sen-model

Information on the current Evaluation of the School Inclusion Model:  https://www.esri.ie/current-research/evaluation-of-the-school-inclusion-model

Transition from Primary to Post-Primary for Children with Special Education Needs: https://www.sess.ie/resources/transition-primary-post-primary

See also: https://www.ncca.ie/en/primary/reporting-and-transfer/education-passport

Leadership Approaches to Inclusive Education: Learning from an Irish Longitudinal Study: Article by M Shevlin & R. Rose (2017) https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/S1479-363620170000011004/full/html

Perceptions of teachers on the provision of additional supports to SLD students:

https://www.tcd.ie › assets › pdf › Dissertations MSc. in Disability Studies

Small Changes can make big differences (Patsy Daly): https://www.mic.ul.ie/news/2020/dr-patricia-daly-book-launch

Meeting the Special Education Needs of Children with General Learning Disabilities in Primary School: https://www.curriculumdevelopmentunit.com/store/p14/STRANDS.html

What Difference? Working effectively with Children who have Special Needs in Early Years Settings:https://www.curriculumdevelopmentunit.com/store/p15/What_Difference%3F.html

Responding to the challenges of inclusion in Irish schools: (T Day ‎2015):https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03323315.2014.955746

Collaborative classroom practice for inclusion: perspectives of classroom teachers and learning support/resource teachers (Journal Article M. Mulholland & U O’Connor: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13603116.2016.1145266

Collaborative teaching: exploring the impact of co-teaching practices on the numeracy attainment of pupils with and without special educational needs (Article by P. Lehane & J Senior): https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08856257.2019.1652439

Effective Interventions for Struggling Readers (NEPS 2019):https://www.education.ie/en/Education-Staff/Information/NEPS-Literacy-Resource/neps_literacy_good_practice_guide.pdf

Alliances for Inclusion: Cross-Sector Policy Synergies and Interprofessional Collaboration in and around School (EU Report by A. Edwards and P. Downes (2013): https://nesetweb.eu/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/2013-Alliances-for-Inclusion-cross-sector-policy-synergies-and-interprofessional-collaboration-in-and-around-schools.pdf

Moving to Further and Higher Education: An Exploration of the Experiences of Children with Special Education Needs (NCSE Report No 14):http://ncse.ie/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Report_14_Higher_Ed_09_04_14.pdf

School Development Planning Initiative, Department of Education and Skills: Addressing Educational Disadvantage:http://www.sdpi.ie/guidelines/PDF/Unit10.pdf

(This publication provides a set-by-step series of suggestions covering all perceived items attitudes/curriculum/expertise/social circumstances etc. contributing to the amelioration of practice across the participants and stakeholders. A blueprint for possible action)

The Experiences of Pupils with SEN and their Parents at the stage of pre-transition from Primary to post-primary school, (Article by G. Scanlon et. al., 2015):https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08856257.2015.1087128

McCoy S et al (2012) School Matters: How Context Influences the Identification of Different types of Special Education Needs: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03323315.2012.669568

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Mary Byrne, Head of Special Education


National Council for Special Education (NCSE)

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