State plays catch-up with spending boost for special needs

Fears mount that reform of special needs assistant scheme a cover for cost-cutting

It is now estimated that about 25% of school-going children in Ireland have some form of physical, learning and emotional or behavioural difficulty. File photograph: Getty Images

It is now estimated that about 25% of school-going children in Ireland have some form of physical, learning and emotional or behavioural difficulty. File photograph: Getty Images


It looks alarming on paper. Spending on higher education has climbed by almost half a billion euro since 2011, an increase of about 40 per cent.

The number of teachers in special classes has jumped from 600 in 2011 to more than 1,700 next year.

Over the same time frame, the number of special needs assistants has risen from just over 10,000 to almost 14,000 next year.

This all comes at a cost: in fact, the State is investing more in special education than in all of higher education.

It’s little wonder that Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe – whose job is to keep public spending under control – is concerned .

So, what’s driving these dramatic increases?

  • First, the school population has changed. More and more children with special needs – who once might have been in special schools, residential care or simply left at home – are in the mainstream education system. This is because education policy has shifted from segregating children to integrating them within regular schools with supports or in special classes. Research links greater inclusion to better outcomes.
  • Second, the wider school population is growing. A baby boom means the number of children attending primary school is projected to peak next year when some 575,000 children will be enrolled, a figure not seen since the baby boom of the 1980s.
  • Third, more children are qualifying for special needs assistants and special educational needs supports, and in particular, increasing number of pupils are presenting with an autism diagnosis. This is partly down to the fact that legislation passed in 2004, the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, includes a broader range of difficulties including physical, sensory, mental health and learning disabilities.

It is now estimated that about 25 per cent of school-going children in Ireland have some form of physical, learning and emotional or behavioural difficulty.

While the rise in numbers may sound alarming, these prevalence rates align with other jurisdictions such as the UK and the Netherlands.

In essence, we are playing catch-up after years of neglect. When Marie O’Donoghue went looking for an appropriate special school for her intellectually disabled son Paul in the 1990s, the Department of Education’s response was that he was “ineducable”.

Much has changed in recent decades. A series of landmark court cases taken by parents such as O’Donoghue and Kathy Sinnott have helped prompt large-scale investment and rights-based legislation.

Nonetheless, there is concern within Government at whether resources are being spent in the right way.

There are allegations, for instance, of children being labelled with emotional and behavioural conditions simply to secure additional educational resources, a practice known as “dollars for diagnosis” in the US.

A new resource allocation model which has rolled out since last September should help. Under this system, parents no longer need to secure a diagnosis for their child in order to get teaching supports.

There are also concerns about the cost and efficiency of special needs assistants, which have prompted a comprehensive review of the scheme.

This report, we are told, will seek to identify the “most appropriate form of support options” to provide better outcomes for pupils “having regard to the significant amount of exchequer investment in this area”.

The question of whether we are spending too much on special needs is an issue often whispered about within Government circles.

Donohoe hints at this when he states that the level of special education expenditure is now in excess of what is allocated to the entire higher education sector.

It is worth noting, however, that the higher education budget has been cut by up to a third over the past decade.

A key aspect missing in the wider debate is how much this investment saves us in the longer term.

Research shows early intervention and appropriate support can lead to dramatically-improved educational outcomes for children with special needs.

The savings to the State on foot of young people who will go on to fulfil their potential by living independent lives are enormous.

All these issues should be factored in to the forthcoming review of special needs assistant scheme.

Many in the sector acknowledge that the special needs assistant model could be reformed to make it more responsive to the needs of young people.

But given the smoke signals from Donohoe on these issues, there will doubtless be fears “reform” may end up as cover for cost-cutting.