Department of Education disputes accuracy of school principals’ petition over controversial changes to learning support

Department says 100 signatories were either not school leaders or are principals at schools unaffected by the changes

The Department of Education has disputed the accuracy of a petition from a school principals’ group which purported to show that more than 700 school leaders supported a reversal of controversial changes to how special education resources are being allocated.

Changes to how resources will be provided to thousands of students with disabilities attending mainstream schools have sparked controversy amid fears that some schools and children will lose out.

The National Principals’ Forum – which describes itself as a grassroots lobby group of primary school principals – published a petition last week indicating that 718 principals were opposed to the changes.

However, department officials who analysed the petition maintain that almost 100 signatories are either not school principals or are principals at special schools unaffected by the changes.


While the department said it is reasonable to assume there would be one signature per school in the petition, it found a total of 18 signatories were from a single primary school. In addition, there were nine signatories from a single school in Cork; a school in Limerick had six signatories; and multiple signatories from a further 27 schools.

The department also said that of individual schools on the petition, more than half will either have no change or an increase in their special education resource allocations. Most schools with a reduction, it said, also had a reduction in their enrolments.

In response, Simon Lewis, a school principal and member of the National Principals’ Forum, criticised the department’s “desperate” response and said the survey had been sent to schools with the intention of school principals signing it.

“Whether it’s 600 or 700 principals, it is a significant number who are brave enough to put their names on a petition. Many are nervous of doing so and fear a backlash from the department or worry that they will be targeted or treated less favourably ... this seems a bit petty, a bit desperate by the department,” he said.

On the issue that many signatories would not lose out, Mr Lewis said: “It doesn’t matter if you stand to lose or gain. It’s the ethics of how they removed complex needs from the allocation model. It needs to be revisited to ensure that if a child needs support, they get support.”

Controversy over learning support in schools follows publication by the Department of Education last month of a revised special education teacher allocation model which will determine how resources are provided to students with disabilities in mainstream schools.

The department estimates that, overall, about a third of schools will lose out on teaching hours, while two out of three will hold on to what they have or gain under the new model.

However, disability advocacy groups such as Inclusion Ireland, Down Syndrome Ireland and AsIAm have called for the new approach to be paused and for “meaningful” consultation with representatives of children with disabilities and their families.

Adam Harris, chief executive of autism charity AsIAm, said information provided by the department to parents on the changes over recent weeks has been “inconsistent, incoherent and, at times, contradictory”.

He said the department has chosen to remove “complex needs” from its model for allocating resources to schools, and replaced it with literacy and numeracy scores, which have “no relevance for significant proportions of children with the highest level of support needs”.

Separately, two other school principal groups and the National Parents Council have said they support the controversial changes.

The Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) and National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) at second level, said there has been “inaccurate commentary” and “misconceptions” since the changes were first communicated.

They said the purpose of their communication was to allay “misconceptions ... that have caused significant concern and anxiety among parents and in schools”.

“We would not support or welcome any model that proposed a decrease in supports for children with complex needs,” they 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