Schools will be prohibited within the next two years from asking parents during enrolment whether their children have disabilities, Minister for Education Joe McHugh has pledged.
The move is aimed at helping to remove “soft barriers” which parents of special-needs pupils face when trying to find school places for their children.
It would represent a major change in enrolment policy for most schools who routinely ask parents for details of any special or additional needs.
Schools argue that this information is crucial in determining whether they have the expertise or capacity to cater to the needs of children.
The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) formally recommended the move to Mr McHugh in a report published on Tuesday. The measure is provided for under the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018.
A spokesman for Mr McHugh said the Department of Education was consulting with education partners in relation to the move.
“The Minister has said that he intends to commence the remaining provisions of the Act so that they will apply to applications for enrolment for the 2021/22 school year,” he added.
In a radical move, the NCSE report also says the State should consider moving to a “total inclusion” model, where all children are placed in mainstream schools, regardless of their level of disability.
It says Ireland may be in breach of a UN convention by "segregating" up to 16,000 special pupils into special schools and special classes.
It says all children should be educated together, with the right supports in place, unless there is strong evidence to support a different approach.
It is to engage in further discussion and consultation before finalising policy advice for the Minister in June 2020.
Mr McHugh said any decision about whether to move towards greater inclusion of all students in mainstream requires “very careful consideration”.
“This is a long-term vision and it is important to say that if any change is to be made it will have to happen gradually and by putting the needs of children with the most complex needs at the heart of this,” he said.
The response to introducing a total inclusion approach has been very mixed.
Adam Harris, chief executive of the autism charity AsIAm, said while every child should be accepted in every school many children are not receiving the support they need either in mainstream schools or special classes.
“This is due to the fact that, without changing school culture, providing mandatory teacher training and changing how we assess outcomes, we will never have a universally inclusive system,” he said.
“We cannot close special schools and classes until we are satisfied that every child will have their needs met in mainstream settings, their rights enshrined and their support needs recognised.”
No special classes
A policy of full inclusion has been in place in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, where there are no special schools and no special classes.
The province's former minister for education, Jody Carr, said the roots of the policy extend back to the 1980s when legislation was enacted to phase out special schools.
He said research in Canada indicated that students in special settings achieved less favourable longer-term outcomes than their peers in mainstream.
In addition, he said research found that inclusion did not negatively impact on students without special educational needs.
“Fundamentally, it’s a human rights issue: having access to public school and education . . . everyone should have an equal opportunity to the same high quality education as all other children,” he said.