Soft barriers: Why some schools shut their gates to special needs students

Will new rules be enough to improve access for students turned away at second-level?

Campaigners say many children with special needs are refused access to secondary schools through use of “soft barriers”. Photograph: iStock

Campaigners say many children with special needs are refused access to secondary schools through use of “soft barriers”. Photograph: iStock


Are secondary schools using “soft barriers” to turn away students with special needs?

Yes, says research. Latest studies show disadvantaged schools have a much higher concentration of students who require special supports because they have been unable to access other schools in the locality.

The National Council for Special Education, which conducted the recent study, also found some schools were using restrictive admission policies to deter these students.

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

While in some cases teachers or schools feel they are not equipped to handle special needs students, others worry that their academic standards might be tarnished.

Here, for example, is an extract from the admissions policy for a fee-paying school in Dublin.

“The college must be made aware of special educational needs of the student in order to ascertain if the education, which the college can offer, would be suitable...

“If a particular child has special educational needs which are outside what the college can provide, even with additional resources which may be provided by the Department of Education, then the board of management reserves the right to refuse to enrol such a student.”

School admissions

New amendments to the School Admissions Bill, published last week, aim to change this practice.

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 oversubscribed must accept all students who apply.

“The Government is committed to ensuring every child with special educational needs has the opportunity to fulfil their full potential,” Richard Bruton says.

“This year, almost €1.8 billion is being invested in special education, nearly a fifth of the overall education budget.”

Campaigners are not so optimistic about the changes.

They feel the new powers are subject to a lengthy and complex series of steps that potentially involve arbitration and modification to properties or new builds.

While there has been massive investment in special needs support at primary level in recent years, many campaigners say there is a “huge gap” at post-primary level.

Graham Manning, an ASD co-ordinator at a mainstream secondary school in Cork, has compiled a database of special classes at both primary and second level schools throughout the country.

The list shows there were about 2.5 children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) attending a special class at primary level for every place at a secondary school during the school year 2016-2017.

The biggest impediment to setting up new special classes is the attitude of schools, says Graham Manning

The pattern varies in different parts of the country. In Dublin, there were 105 special classes operating at primary level but only 30 in secondary, with similar or worse ratios in Kildare, Laois, Offaly, Louth and Roscommon.

Worst ratio

The ratio was a bit better in Cork (81 to 41) and Galway (24 to 13), but by far the worst ratio was in Monaghan, with just one special class for children with autism at a secondary school in the county compared with six at primary level.

But even these figures may only be the tip of the iceberg, he says.

“That’s without counting kids who don’t need a special class in primary but do in secondary,” says Manning, adding that about three-quarters of his students fall into this category.

There’s also the spectre of a “population bubble” at primary level moving its way into second-level, along with a continuing rise in the numbers of kids being diagnosed with ASD.

However, the biggest impediment to setting up new special classes is the attitude of schools, says Manning.

Ignoring requests

As he sees it, schools are ignoring repeated requests from parents and teachers to set up special classes, despite a clear need.

Manning says that while he has heard many reasons why schools refuse to set up a special class, he insists there are only three good ones: a lack of demand, a lack of space and the existence locally of other schools with special classes.

Another issue for secondary schools is that for every student with ASD in a primary school with a special class, the school gets €642 in extra capitation funding. Yet, the same student student at a secondary school receives nothing, according to Manning.

The department has said the number of special classes at second level has jumped dramatically, with close to 300 ASD classes now in mainstream secondary schools.

It also says the new provision to force schools to set up special classes will have real impact in making admissions fairer.

Signatures collected

Judith Clarke, a parent of a child with autism in Dublin, who has collected nearly 8,000 signatures for a petition calling on the Government to provide more special classes, is not convinced.

“Schools aren’t opening classes. They don’t have to even if there is a recognised need in their area for one. Many of the schools with classes are Deis schools.

“Many of the schools with an existing class have more than one class or are being asked to open another class, instead of approaching another school. This doesn’t solve the problem of location and children having to travel long distances to access one.”

One parent’s story: ‘Some schools feel special needs students will lower their standards’

Maeve*, from Cork city, is a mother of three children, including a son with ASD who will finish primary school next June.

Following his diagnosis in 2012 at the age of seven, the recommendation from his multidisciplinary special needs assessment team was to attend mainstream primary school with a special class.

“We were very lucky in that our local school was opening a special class in September 2013, so it meant going to the same school as his peers, the very same guys he would play with at school break times, and then after school in the estate we lived in,” says Maeve.

By the time he finished fifth class last year, his teachers felt he was progressing well, but the advice from the assessors was for him to attend a mainstream secondary with a special class.

However, finding him a place in such a school in the southside of Cork city where they live was easier said than done.

Out of the 11 secondary schools in the area, only four had ASD special classes but places were either oversubscribed or unavailable for September 2018.

They were advised to look at schools a long distance away on the northside of the city, and eventually accepted a place at one of the two schools with places available.

While Maeve and her husband are grateful to have the place, they are disappointed about their son not being able to go a school with an ASD class closer to home, where he could mix with his local peers .

“This is all because of poor government education policy in this area, and perhaps in some cases a sheer unwillingness on the part of some schools to embrace all students at the expense of lowering the school brand or image and their academic standards,” she says.

* Name has been changed