Gap in special needs provision leads to ‘two-tier’ education system

Disadvantaged schools more likely to have special classes for children with autism

Special classes are designed to cater to the needs of young people who have been assessed as requiring more specialised support and might not cope in a regular classroom. Photograph: iStock

Special classes are designed to cater to the needs of young people who have been assessed as requiring more specialised support and might not cope in a regular classroom. Photograph: iStock


Is there a two-tier gap in the education system for children with autism or learning disabilities? Many campaigners and parents of children with special needs certainly think so.

It’s most glaring in the case of special classes, which provide education for children with special educational needs in mainstream schools.

These are smaller settings, typically six students to one teacher, with two special needs assistants. They are designed to cater to the needs of young people who have been assessed as requiring more specialised support and might not cope in a regular classroom.

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

This represents a shift in policy to provide education for young people with additional needs in mainstream education.

However, latest figures indicate they are not being distributed equally across the education system.

An Irish Times analysis of official data indicates that about 29 per cent of mainstream secondary schools now have special classes to cater to the needs of children with special educational needs.

Among disadvantaged or Deis schools, this rises to about 42 per cent; meanwhile there are no special classes in the 52 secondary schools that make up the fee-paying sector.

Part of the gap is explained by official Department of Education policy not to fund special classes in fee-paying schools.

Soft barriers

There is also evidence that other schools are using restrictive admission policies – or “soft barriers” – to deter these students.

Some schools tell parents they don’t have the room or resources for special needs children (even though resources follow the child, according to authorities) or advise parents that there are other schools in the locality better suited to their needs.

As a result, many parents face travelling long distances to access schools with special classes, or children with special needs may end up in mainstream schools without the support they need.

These children are then at a higher risk of dropping out of education altogether, or may end up receiving home tuition without the benefits of mixing with other people their age.

Secondary schools that have developed progressive policies over the years – such as Ballinteer Community School – say they are heavily over-subscribed with requests for places for children with special educational needs.

“We cater to everyone here, ranging from students going to top colleges to those with special educational needs,” says Gina Potts, the school’s co-ordinator for special education.

Potts says there are 33 children on a waiting list for a special class at the school.

She says many parents have either been turned away by other schools or advised to try her school because of its track record in catering to the wider community.

“There is a real under-provision in the area,” she says. “It’s discrimination based on people’s strengths . . . There is something very wrong with it and it’s not inclusive.

“When parents come here, they get the feeling of the school and how inclusive it is and the level of respect there is here among students.”

Admissions Bill

The Department of Education says amendments to the School Admissions Bill, published last week, are aimed at tackling this issue.

The Minister for Education will be given the power to force a school to open a special class for children with special needs where it is deemed necessary.

In addition, any school that is not over-subscribed must accept all students who apply.

However, it seems that fee-paying schools are unlikely to be opening special classes anytime soon. A department spokesman said, based on expert advice, schools in the free education system can continue to establish sufficient special classes to meet identified need.

Some in the private sector say the issues are not as simple as a "two-tier" education policy. They say fee-paying schols provide extensive supports for those with special needs, which is reflected in resource hours and the numbers of special needs assistants in the sector. However, because they are not funded for special classes, they say their hands are tied.

Students such as Mathew Rosenkranz, 18, meanwhile, are testament to how students can flourish with the benefit of special classes.

He has mild autism and other needs, but is due to sit his Leaving Cert at Ballinteer Community College this week.

Mathew divides his time between the mainstream classroom and the special class, where he receives more tailored support.

“The resource teacher there is able to help me with subjects and it makes it easier to understand things,” he says.

“Being in a regular school is important. There can be a bit of a stigma that goes with kids who might have special needs . . . they think you’re infantile. I feel like I belong. I have friends. I feel like I fit in. It’s not something I really think about that much.”