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All special needs students ‘should be educated in mainstream schools’, council recommends

National Council for Special Education urges move towards ‘fully inclusive’ school system over coming years

All students with special educational needs should be educated in mainstream schools instead of separate special schools and special classes over the coming years to become a “fully inclusive” education system.

That is the recommendation of the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) in new policy advice to the Department of Education.

The council says such a goal would involve significant challenges, such as reassuring parents of the benefits of an inclusive education system, increasing access to psychological and therapeutic supports and boosting training for teaching staff.

Minister for Education Norma Foley welcomed the advice, which was requested in the context of Ireland’s ratification in 2018 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as well as significant growth in the number of special classes in schools.


However, she said special schools will remain for children with the most complex needs and emphasised the long-term nature of developing new school campuses, which would cater to all students.

“To the greatest extent possible, we want children, whatever their ability, to have the opportunity to learn in their local school with their siblings and peers, be it in a mainstream class or a special class,” she said.

“And there will always be a place for special schools in our country because they play a vital role in meeting the needs of children with the most complex educational needs well into the future. We are currently opening four new special schools in September.”

Latest figures show there are about 8,000 children enrolled in special schools and a further 10,500 pupils in special classes in mainstream schools, or 2 per cent of the overall student population.

The number of special classes – which are typically six children, one teacher and two special needs assistants (SNAs) – in mainstream schools has climbed dramatically in recent years, up from almost 490 at primary level in 2010 to 1,800 last year.

The NCSE report, An Inclusive Education for an Inclusive Society, recommends setting up a planning group, led by the Department of Education, to “progressively realise” a vision of an inclusive school system.

It says there would be no compulsory re-enrolment in mainstream schools of students who are currently enrolled in special schools and special classes.

“Students currently enrolled in special schools and classes would have the option of availing of inclusive education among their peers in the same way as new entrants to the system,” the policy states.

It says moving to an inclusive system will require time and the phased development of various elements over a “number of years”. Ensuring there are psychological, therapeutic and behaviour supports for schools would require the employment of a significant number of speech and language, occupational therapists, behaviour practitioners and psychologists.

It is recommended that elements of the plan should be piloted in individual schools or clusters of schools.

Adam Harris, chief executive of autism charity AsIAm, said he welcomed the advice which appeared to recognise the need to continue to provide access to special class and school places, while simultaneously working to create an inclusive education system.

However, he warned: “Too often, particularly in recent years, our families have had little cause to trust the system ... While we go on this journey together, the will and preference of each autistic student, and the parent’s role as the primary educator, must be respected.”

Derval McDonagh, chief executive of Inclusion Ireland, said she was delighted to see a direction of travel for inclusive education and said it was vital that no child is excluded from the “mainstream” conversation.

“For too long children with intellectual disabilities have been forced to fit into narrow boxes – special classes, special schools or mainstream. We want to challenge that kind of thinking. It is not the child who should bend to suit the system and fit into available choices, rather the system should bend and flex to suit the child,” she said.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent