Allocation of special needs resources in schools should be based on the research
Recent report showed wealthy areas got more support than poorer ones
Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn: has set up a working group to develop a new model for allocating resource teachers in schools from 2013/2014. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Provision for students with special educational needs has been the focus of much media and public attention in recent weeks. Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn announced the formation of a working group to develop a new model for allocating resource teachers in schools from 2013/2014.
Given the 12 per cent surge in demand for resource teacher support this year alone, the Minister is looking for an explanation for this “unsustainable” increase.
Mary Minihan’s article in this paper on Monday, August 5th, reported on a Department of Education and Skills investigation which shows that children in “wealthy areas” receive more special education teaching. It is therefore timely to re-examine the models of special education funding in a comprehensive, rigorous and cost-effective way.
Research by the Economic and Social Research Institute provides evidence that can be used to guide the developments in special education funding and resourcing, in particular asking which schools have greatest levels of need and to what extent need is matched by teaching and other educational supports.
Recent ESRI research shows that demand for resources for special educational needs has been steadily increasing since a broadened definition of special needs was introduced in the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, 2004. During this period, a new general funding model was introduced, which allowed increased numbers to be eligible for supports.
Understanding why there is a dramatic increase in demand for special education resources this year is complex. Is there more “need” or is the growth in demand due to other factors? One possible explanation is the greater awareness about available supports among parents and teachers; in the past many of these may have slipped though the net. Given the pressures at school level due to more diverse student populations, cuts to special education supports, English language supports, Traveller education and increasing class sizes, it may be the case that securing additional special educational needs supports is becoming increasingly important.
The system of allocating resources is based on a list of 14 disability categories – in use for decades – which determine access to supports. It is crucial we assess how the current resource allocation in our schools operates, and create a more sustainable and equitable funding system.
Where is the need greatest? Since €282 million of special education funding is allocated to primary schools under a general model (criteria are school size, gender mix and disadvantaged status), we need to ask: are resources being targeted in the most effective way? Mary Minihan reported that resource teaching hours for children with low-incidence disabilities in primary schools are higher in “middle-class” areas.
There appear to be inequalities in the system. Recent research at the ESRI highlights problems in the system of funding. This research shows the level of need varies considerably across schools so a general funding model based on limited criteria is not ideal.
For example, disadvantaged status schools all receive additional supports but they vary widely in levels of special educational needs; consequently treating all disadvantaged schools equally is inefficient and reinforces disadvantage. This research can play an important role in contextualising the current work being undertaken at the Department of Education and Skills.
It can also help those redesigning the model of funding at primary level and inform the development of a similar funding model for second-level schools, helping to ensure that resources are targeted across and within schools to where student need is greatest.
We must ask what exactly we want to achieve. In designing any system of resource allocation, it is paramount to have clear objectives and accountability from the outset. What do we want the child to gain? The ESRI research provides an empirical platform from which we can ask what could be achieved with and without these extra supports, and what would be lost with reduced resources.
Crucially, the research also shows how students with special educational needs fare in mainstream schools in terms of academic and social engagement. Research using the Growing Up in Ireland study (funded by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs) shows that children with special educational needs have lower levels of engagement with school than their peers, despite accessing resources and supports.
Thanks to foresight and investment in longitudinal research projects, Ireland does have the evidence to guide important developments in supports for students with special educational needs. It makes sense that this evidence is used.