Special needs education in mainstream schools

This is a longer version of an article published in the Irish Times Health and Family supplement on January 7. It is the first part of a two-part series. The second part will be published on January 14. 

Special education in mainstream schools

Part 1 – the Cost of Cuts

By John Cradden

Mary Doherty and her son, Aaron

Mary Doherty and her son, Aaron

When the Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, proposed a 10pc cut in resource teaching hours earlier this year, the reaction from parents of children with special needs was furious.

“Over the last two years, our children have faced individual cuts of 15 per cent in their resource teaching time per week, and to ask parents to take another 10 per cent cut that would really affect their childrens’ educational outcomes, it was just too much,” said Lorraine Dempsey of the Special Needs Parents Association, a national cross-disability parents support group. “It’s like the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

It sparked a round of 13 separate demonstrations that took place across the country on June 26, and which still went ahead despite the INTO calling off its own protest after the government announced on the day that it would scrap the proposal. The parents’ clearly still felt they needed to make a point.

If the government was surprised at the extent of the fury, it’s probably fair to say that some others were, too. After all, total spending on special education has shot up significantly over the last decade, from €468 million in 2004 to €1.3 billion in 2011, and which now accounts for around 15pc of the education budget.

But anyone in school education circles will be aware that it was a system playing catch-up. It was only from the early 1990s that government policy on special education changed from one that was almost entirely catered for by special schools to one where the majority of children with special needs are today educated in mainstream schools.

Parents were also playing catch-up, too. As funding increased year-on-year, parents’ awareness of special needs and what supports their children were entitled to also rose, particularly since 1998, when the then Minister for Education, Michael Martin, introduced the ‘automatic entitlement’ policy.  This guaranteed a minimum level of support for inclusive education in the form of one-to-one resource teaching hours and special needs assistants (SNAs).

However, after 2008 the Department of Education started to roll back on automatic entitlement, finally telling the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) in 2011 that it was no longer allowed to allocate resource teaching hours or SNAs on a “demand-driven basis”.

As well the 15 per cent reduction in resource teaching hours for low incidence children since 2010, there had been a cap on the number of whole-time SNA posts at 10,575 since 2011, approximately 2,000 of them working in special schools. (Although the cap remains in place, it was increased last month by 390).

The number of resource teaching posts, which had remained largely static since 2010, was increased by a recent Budget 2014 allocation of 455 resource teaching posts to just over 5,700.

Joe Travers, director of special education at St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra, says that this new allocation was  what the 10 per cent cut – if it had gone through – would have meant. “It was going to be 455 teachers who would not be employed.”

The caps and cuts of the last few years amid rising demand has forced schools to spread SNA support much more thinly. According to the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), the number of pupils currently “accessing” SNA support in mainstream schools in 2010 was 13,000. In 2013, the figure is 15,000.

Catherine Cummins’s seven-year-old daughter, Niamh, who has Tourettes and Aspergers, goes to a local mainstream school in north Co Longford, and is very happy there. But her mother says she needs a full-time SNA but there is just one part-time SNA, who is shared between four other children in the 200-strong school.

“The school is fantastic, absolute brilliant, but they can only do so much with what they’ve got,” said Catherine. “It’s a constant battle to get SNAs.”

Ever since the school was forced to let go one part-time SNA last June, Catherine has been contacting the SENO (Special Educational Needs Organiser), local TDs and councillors and anyone else she can think of try and reverse the decision. “I might as well have not bothered. No-one is interested.”

“It’s ridiculous. If children who need a full time SNA don’t have one, it can hinder them in accessing the curriculum and therefore stop them reaching their potential.”

With a lid firmly on the number of resource hours and SNA support provided but school populations and demand still rising, something has had to give. While few would suggest that the special education system is creating any kind of artificial demand or that the Government has a bottomless pit of money, it’s clear from talking to several parents of children with special needs, along with experts, teachers, researchers and academics in the field, that the key issue now is how best to allocate what is now an effectively shrinking pool of funding.

The ESRI estimates that 25pc of children in Ireland have a special educational need. Not all of them need support at school, but for the purposes of allocating resources, the disabilities are classed as either ‘high-incidence’ – mild but quite common disabilities, such as dyslexia or other learning or behavioural difficulties – or ‘low incidence’ – complex but rarer physical, sensory or intellectual disabilities like cerebral palsy, deafness or autism.

The most frequent complaint that children with ‘low-incidence’ disabilities often have to ‘tick the right box’ of a set list of 11 disability categories in order get resource teaching hours, even if their educational needs are more complex in reality. According to the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), which allocates resource hours and SNAs, any child with a formal diagnosis of a disability like autism, deafness, moderate general learning disability or emotional disturbance will get between 3 and 5 resource teaching hours a week.

Mary Doherty from Dunshaughlin, Co Meath, who has a son with Down syndrome, is one of a number of parents who has had to deal with the inflexibility of this allocation system.

For reasons that are still unclear, Down syndrome is not listed by the Department as one of the 11 low-incidence disabilities, but parents can apply for resource hours on the basis of their childrens’ assessed IQ. A child with Down syndrome who is judged by an IQ test to have moderate general learning disability would get three and a half hours, but someone with a mild general learning disability is not guaranteed any resource hours.

“I took my son for an assessment in January and, basically, if he did well in his assessment, I was told he wouldn’t get resource hours,” said Mary.

She managed to get resource hours by getting a second diagnosis. “Children with Down syndrome have many complex needs, but not all of them would have them to such a degree as to get a second diagnosis. It’s those children who are falling through the cracks, and other children are only getting resources because of other diagnoses.”

“You have parents running out hoping their kids will get a moderate diagnosis before they go to school, hoping they’ll fail this assessment,” she said, while other parents might desperately try and get their children assessed for any other possible disability, such as deafness or emotional disturbance. “They spend the money going to all these psychologists to try and get a diagnosis just so their child will have help at school.”

Mary has been involved in an ongoing campaign to lobby the DES to classify Down syndrome as a low-incidence disability, but is exasperated how hard she has had to fight.

“When my older girl started school, it was all about her uniform, getting her ready for school, getting her excited. With him, I couldn’t even enjoy or do that because it was all about trying getting him resources, fighting to get the money needed.”

The system also demands, in most cases, a formal assessment leading to a formal diagnosis of the disability before resource teaching hours or SNAs can be allocated.

But the clamour for formal assessments has also created a huge bottleneck in the form of a long waiting list for psychological assessments that the public system – namely the National Educational Psychological Service – can’t cope with, forcing many parents like Mary Doherty to fork out for private assessments in order to ensure that early intervention is not delayed.

Not surprisingly, this has provoked many to complain about unfair access to resources for better-off families because they can afford to pay for private assessments. But Brendan O’Sullivan, a special needs teacher in Leixlip, Co Kildare and president of the INTO, says this is not always true, as he has heard principals from disadvantaged schools saying they use any additional funds they get to buy more assessments for its pupils.

But elsewhere there is strong evidence of inequity in how resources are distributed. A recent Department of Education investigation revealed that children in wealthy parts of Dublin benefit from more resource teaching for special educational needs than their counterparts in disadvantaged areas, even though ESRI studies have shown that children from working class areas are more likely to be identified with a special need.

Dr Michael Shevlin, a senior lecturer on special education in TCD, agrees that it is difficult to quantify what resources a child needs simply on the basis of a disability category.

“You could have a child with Asperger’s Syndrome who would have very few support needs, but you could have another child with Asperger’s Syndrome who would have enormous needs. So it’s a bit of a crude model to say you will get three hours or you will get five hours. What does that mean?

“The three hours only means something if you have highly qualified people who are well able to deliver that kind of support.”

But following advice from the NCSE, Minister Quinn has appointed a working group to come up with a more flexible and more equitable system that allocates resource teaching on the basis of the profile of need in a school rather than individual diagnoses of disability, and which is expected to report back by Easter 2014.

The hope is that any new model will allocate resources more efficiently as well as more equitably, but even if the Minister accepts any of the working group’s recommendations, he told the Dail recently that any changes would be at least two years’ away.

Despite a reportedly wide consultation among parent groups, teachers and disability organisations by the NCSE, there are few hints about what model the working group might come up. Some sources suggest that it could be based more on the general allocation model (GAM), which is used to distribute resources for pupils with ‘high-incidence’ needs and which is regarded as working quite well, at least in the primary sector.

Under this model, resources are allocated to schools according the number of children it has identified as having milder or less complex disabilities, such as learning difficulties, social or emotional difficulties, or attention-control difficulties, and who need extra learning support. Unlike low-incidence children, there is no formal assessment as the screening is done within schools at selected stages.

“The advantage with the general allocation model is that you can get access to resources without having to have a label,” says Dr Travers.

Mary Doherty understands the moving-away-from-labels approach, but has reservations. “My only worry would be is, if you don’t have a starting point, how do they decide what cases they are going to assess? Are they going to start assessing kids who tick this box or this list. Are they going to start assessing every single child that goes to school? I don’t think so. It’s impractical.”

Despite the obvious appeal and simplicity of GAM, Dr Travers concedes that doing away with individual assessments altogether would be unworkable.

“But what they can do is set up what are called different levels of response,” he said.  “So, you would have children maybe at a ‘level one’ who require a certain level of support then level two, level three, level four.  So instead of using labels, you can say that the child has needs that would require a ‘level three’ response or a ‘level four’ response.  And that would be equated to certain hours of resource teaching, one-to-one tuition, small groups or whatever it was.”

Brendan O’Sullivan would worry that the responsibility for failing to spot precise needs could fall on the teacher if individual assessments were scrapped. “There is the fear that if there isn’t the level of assessment provision, which is quite small as it is, that decisions – and quite acutely difficult decisions – would be put on teachers in schools who may not have the precise qualifications to distinguish the levels of need.”

On the other hand, others point out that the danger with a model like GAM it is that children could fall through the net, and that there is no way of ensuring that schools are using the money in the most appropriate way.

Whatever way the resources are allocated, Dr Travers says that school principals should have more flexibility around using the teachers that they have, with schools encouraged to assign the teachers with the most experience and the most qualifications to work with those with the most complex needs. “You don’t want anything to happen in the allocation process that would prevent that from happening,” he said.

According to ESRI researcher Joanne Banks, most other countries are using a combination approach like Ireland’s: a GAM model for less severe disabilities with individual allocations for low-incidence disabilities – although in most cases this is not tied directly to hours so to ensure they get the resources they need, she adds. Some countries, such as the UK and Holland, are moving back to individual allocations, but Banks says this wouldn’t be practical for Ireland given that is still playing catch-up in terms of mainstreaming disabled children.

The other worry that is frequently expressed is that any new model will be just another way to cut back on resources by stealth. “The reason why they are doing this is to take resources away from children. Of course, they are never, ever, ever going to admit that,” says Mary Doherty.

Shevlin agrees that it’s a bit of a ‘catch 22’, with parents going through economic sacrifices to pay for private assessments to get a diagnosis, only for them to risk losing out again under any new system. “I think what you have to see, and what the system has to deliver, is confidence and trust.” But having observed the special education sector for the past 20 years, he believes that’s beginning to happen, albeit slowly.

But regardless of any new allocation model, the point is frequently made that the key Education for Persons with Special Needs (EPSEN) act, which was introduced nearly 10 years ago, remains largely unimplemented.

In response to questions from the Irish Times, the Department of Education said that, due to the “difficult economic situation” and the multi-million euro cost of implementing EPSEN (estimated by the NCSE to amount to €235m a year over a number of years), the government has put it on the long finger indefinitely.

Educational psychologist Dr David Carey published a book in 2005 entitled ‘The Essential Guide to Special Education in Ireland’, which aims to help parents navigate the horrendous complexities of the special education system here. “It was a time of great optimism, actually,” he said. “We were looking forward to changes, and eligibility for services for children with special needs.”

However, Carey says that if he was to write his book today, he wouldn’t come across as quite so optimistic, mainly because most of the 2004 EPSEN act is gathering dust on a shelf somewhere.

“This legislation enshrines the statutory right of the child to receive a free and appropriate education based on their profile of strengths and weaknesses once they are identified as having a special education need.”

Without it, little hard progress will be made, he said. “The establishment of this working group, in my opinion, serves one unique purpose: to see to it that no progress is ever made. We don’t need working groups, we need legislation. It’s simple.”


Panel: A 20-year history special education provision in mainstream schools

1993: Publication of the ‘blue report’ by the Special Education Review Committee (SERC). This report essentially kick-started the change in government policy on special education that would see most children with special needs educated in a mainstream school environment rather than a special school.

1998: The Minister for Education, Michael Martin, granted all children with special needs an ‘automatic entitlement’ to special support services.

2004: The 2004 Education for Persons with Special Needs (EPSEN) act was introduced. Among other things, it gives all children with special needs the right to an ‘individual education plan’. It has still not been implemented.

2005 NCSE established (under the Act)

2005 Introduction of the General Allocation Model, under which children with high incidence disabilities, such as dyslexia or other learning difficulties, can get access to resource teaching without an individual assessment, but which low-incidence children continue to need.

2010 Cap on whole-time SNA posts at 10,575

2011 End to automatic entitlement.

2012: 15pc cut in resource hours


This is a longer version of a panel article that appeared here

Panel: Constitutional rights vs legislation

“We are judged by legislation that is out of step with the constitution”

Kathy Sinnott has no regrets about taking her infamous case against the Department of Education in 2001 seeking to compel the Department of Education to provide an appropriate education past the age of 18 for her son Jamie, who has ASD.

While the former MEP and disability rights campaigner lost that high-profile case, it joined a long list of cases taken by parents of children with special needs against the government since the 1990s, which each highlighted serious deficiencies in this country’s special education provision, but also helped to shape the development of the field in the years that followed.

However, Sinnott says any optimism that followed in the wake of her case was short-lived. “There were some really good services set up,” she said. “A good start was made.  And then the Education for Persons with Special Needs Act (EPSEN) was brought in. And all that did was, if you like, dampen it all down again.

“It’s disheartening to see it ignored when every child has a constitutional right – and it is constantly being ignored – to an education according to need,” she said.

Along with the Sinnott case, the High Court case taken in 1992-93 by Cork mother Marie O’Donoghue on behalf of her son Paul, who had severe and profound general learning disabilities, were critical in establishing that the constitution gave every child – even those with the most severe learning disabilities – a legal entitlement to a free State education based on whatever the child needs.

But what’s wrong with EPSEN? Surely, if the government got around to implementing this act, things would improve? Sinnott believes the legislation was all about the Department of Education taking back the control from families and forcing them to choose from special educational options approved only by them.

“What the O’Donoghue and then the Sinnott case did was it gave the control to the child.  In other words, the needs of the child determined what the child got.

“There was a period after the case when you could go to an independent expert, an educational psychologist or whatever, and they would look at your child and could say what that child needed, and that was a legal entitlement.  That was your constitutional right.

“Now that’s all over.  No expert opinions are accepted anymore.  It’s only what one of the Department of Education-paid psychologists say you need and then when they described your need, it only refers to a set menu of things.  If you need something that’s not on the set menu, you don’t get it.

But surely you have to keep a reign on costs to some extent – to give carte blanche to any method of special education under the sun means costs would run away?

“If you don’t meet their needs, you are wasting money anyway. If you are going to give the child what they don’t need, it’s a waste.”

But after one of the most expensive and long-running cases in 2007, when Yvonne and Cian O’Cuanachain were seeking a particular form of education – applied behavioural analysis – from the State for their son Sean, who has ASD (and which they lost), the number of court cases taken by parents dropped off markedly.

In 2003 and 2004, for instance, the Department of Education contributed €3.6m and €5.1m in legal costs and court settlements respectively. By 2010, those costs fell to around €650,000, while in the year to October, the figure was up to just €60,000.

A spokewoman said that the fall-off in legal costs was partly due to precedents on some of the legal issues being set in a number of cases in the High Court and Supreme Court.

But psychologist David Carey, who has provided testimonies in a number of High Court cases on special education, insists there is more to this. “The fact that they’re not mentioning is that there weren’t a lot of precedents. The majority of those cases were settled out of court and agreed between the parties, so we’re talking about only a small number of precedents actually having been established.”

He adds that the number of court actions by parents dropped off markedly after the O’Cuanachain case because the department decided to pursue them for costs. “That frightened a huge number of parents who were thinking of bringing cases before the High Court. And so a lot of cases fell by the wayside.”

Sinnott also believes the O’Cuanachain case was the “turning point” in how special education court cases were settled or resolved. Her view is that even though the O’Cuanachains fought on the basis of the constitution, the judge in that case did not consider the constitutional right.

“And it was tragic. Instead it took the constitutional right and stuck it back in a confined box.”

Additional research by Alvean Jones

This article and the accompanying videos were supported by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund.

This entry was posted in Writings. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

  • LinkedIn

    If you want to see my LinkedIn profile, click on this button:

    Milan Petrovic