Government alarmed by rising cost of special needs education

New study says a spike in the number of autism cases is a factor in increased spending

A sharp increase in the numbers of school pupils diagnosed with autism since 2011 is among the factors that has led to a huge jump in the budget for special needs education, according to a Government report.

The report has prompted alarm about the rising costs in Government. A spending review carried out by the Department of Public Expenditure published yesterday finds that spending on special educational needs now accounts for almost one-fifth of the total education budget.

Spending on special education has grown by almost half a billion euros since 2011, a rise of 38 per cent. In the period since 2004, spending on the area has grown by 260 per cent. Special needs education now costs the exchequer more than third-level education.

Almost 90 per cent of special education funding goes on pay for teachers and special needs assistants.


Concerns about the costs and efficiency of the special needs assistants (SNAs) scheme have prompted the department to order a comprehensive review of the scheme, which is due to be completed next year. The number of SNAs has grown from 2,988 in 2001 to more than 13,000, an increase of 336 per cent. Expenditure on the scheme has grown by almost 1,300 per cent.

The increase in costs of the SNA scheme has been driven by a huge jump in the numbers of pupils being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Between 2011 and 2016, the numbers of pupils presenting to schools with a diagnosis of ASD has increased by 83 per cent, the report says.

“This is driving almost all of the increase in the number of pupils in special classes, in special schools and 50 per cent of the increase in mainstream classes. SNA support for children with ASD tends to be primarily around behaviour or communication,” the report finds.

There have also been significant increases in the numbers of students accessing other supports for children with special needs.

The number of pupils accessing resource teaching hours now stands at more than 47,000, out of a total school population of 910,000. This represents an increase of 60 per cent since 2011.

The percentage of pupils accessing such supports has grown from 3.5 per cent to more than 5 per cent.

The report says that the number of pupils being assessed as qualifying for “low-incidence support” has grown considerably in recent years, by some 10 per cent annually, whereas the overall school population has increased by less than 2 per cent.

New system

Amid fears that children are being diagnosed inappropriately for resource reasons rather than for health or educational reasons, the Department of Education is introducing a new system of allocating special needs resources to schools which will not depend on diagnoses.

“The removal of the requirement for a diagnosis will somewhat diminish the incidence of inappropriate diagnosis and the unnecessary labelling of children,” the report says.

It says that the new system will “provide a more equitable and immediate form of support”.

The report also raises concerns about the cost of school transport for children with special educational needs. The costs of transport for special needs children, now about €85 million, now accounts for almost half of the total cost of school transport.

The cost of taxis for such children is now €25 million annually, a rise of 79 per cent since 2011.

“For comparative purposes,” the report says, “in 2016, almost 1,500 additional pupils with special educational needs were accommodated on services at a cost of €10 million, compared with 950 additional pupils on the general scheme at a cost of €1.6 million.”

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times