Fee-paying schools not providing special classes for children with autism

Campaigners say special needs children concentrated in disadvantaged schools

Disadvantaged schools have much higher concentrations of students with special needs,  an Irish Times analysis of data on education supports found. Photograph: iStock

Disadvantaged schools have much higher concentrations of students with special needs, an Irish Times analysis of data on education supports found. Photograph: iStock


Fee-paying schools do not provide any special classes for children with autism or learning disabilities, it has emerged.

Disadvantaged schools, by contrast, have much higher concentrations of students with special needs, according to an Irish Times analysis of data on education supports.

The gap between the two categories of school is likely to lead to accusations of a “two tier” gap in education.

The Department of Education has confirmed that its policy is not to fund special classes in fee-paying schools.

A spokesman said this was to ensure access to special classes is available on “the basis of children’s need rather than their ability to pay” for fee-charging schools.

A spokesman said new legislation – the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill – will give the Minister for Education the authority to require all schools – including the fee-paying sector – to open special classes for children with special needs.

However, the department said it is satisfied that, based on expert advice, schools in the free education system can continue to establish sufficient special classes to meet identified needs.


Special classes are typically set up in cases where there is demand from students with autism or learning disabilities who would struggle in a regular classroom.

They are small classes – typically with six students – with one teacher and two special needs assistants who provide tailored support for young people.

Many parents of children who have been assessed as requiring special classes report acute difficulties finding secondary school places with appropriate supports for their children.

The Campaign for ASD Special Classes in South Dublin, for example, says there is no special class in any of the 26 secondary schools in Dublin postal districts 2, 4, 6, 6W and 8.

While there are several special classes for such children in primary schools in the area, campaigners say these children have no second-level school to go to in the area.

Áine Hyland, retired professor of education of University College Cork and an adviser to the campaign, said the policy of excluding fee-paying schools from special classes is contributing to the problem.

“It means they don’t have to cater for children with special needs who might be very talented in some ways, but won’t be higher achievers in the Leaving Cert,” she said.

Secondary schools in south Dublin areas which do provide special classes – such as Ballinteer Community School, which is classified as disadvantaged – says it is hugely oversubscribed by students who require special classes.

Missing out

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said it was clear that a “two-tier system” was at play due to schools cherry-picking students.

“All our students are missing out. The students at the schools that do not welcome special needs children grow up in a world thinking there is no such thing in real life,” he said.

“They do not get the wonderful lessons learned in life from living and growing up with somebody who has special needs. This applies to my area and, I am sure, in other parts of the country.”

Sources in fee-paying schools, however, insist that while they do not have special classes, they provide extensive supports for children with special or additional needs.

This, they say, is reflected in the provision of resource teaching hours and special needs assistants in these schools.

The number of special classes across the education system has jumped by more than 130 per cent since 2011, up from 548 to 1,300 this year.

They represent a shift in policy to provide education for young people with additional needs in mainstream education.