Why is the cost of special education soaring?

Analysis: State is playing catch-up in education policy after years of neglect

When Marie O’Donoghue went looking for a special school for her intellectually disabled son Paul in the 1990s, the Department of Education’s response was blunt: he was, it said, “ineducable”.

Even though other countries had been providing this type of education for decades, the absence of any meaningful government policy meant thousands of vulnerable children were, in effect, left on a scrapheap

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

In the period since 2004, spending on special needs education has grown by 260 per cent

The State has been playing catch-up over recent decades, a fact reflected in a report by the Department of Public Expenditure into spending on special educational needs.


In the period since 2004, spending on special needs education has grown by 260 per cent. There are approximately 47,000 students in receipt of resource teaching (5.2 per cent of the school population) and an estimated 32,500 in receipt of care by special needs assistants (3.6 per cent of school population). This has increased from 3.5 per cent and 2.7 per cent respectively in 2011.

So what exactly is driving these dramatic increases?

Firstly, 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. Most research links greater inclusion to better outcomes.

Secondly, 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.

Thirdly, more children are qualifying for special needs assistants and special educational needs supports, and in particular, the increasing number of pupils 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 where the equivalent figure is 26 per cent.

Nonetheless, there is concern within Government at the rising cost of special needs education and whether resources are being spent in the right way.

There is evidence, for example, of children being unnecessarily 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, due to be rolled out in schools from next September, should help matters. Under this system, parents will 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”.

While 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, there will doubtless be fears that “reform” could simply be cover for cost-cutting.

The question of whether we are spending a disproportionate amount on special needs is an issue which is often whispered about within Government circles. The Department of Public Expenditure report hints at this, stating that the level of special education expenditure is now in excess of what is allocated to the entire higher education sector (€1.58 billion).

It is worth noting, however, that the higher education budget has been cut by up to a third over the past decade. In fact, the further education and training sector now has a bigger budget than higher education.

Parents of children with special needs argue that the report’s findings are one-sided and only reflect the costs. They do not show improved educational outcomes for thousands of children with special needs. Nor do they capture the enormous savings to the State on foot of children who will go on to fulfil their potential by living independent lives.