Special needs education: giving every child a chance

Most now learn in mainstream classes with vastly improved developmental and educational outcomes

Gillian Duffy and her sons Joshua and William (17) at home in Ballindangan, Mitchelstown, Co Cork. Gillian’s son Joshua goes to school with the help of a special needs assistant.  Photograph:  Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Gillian Duffy and her sons Joshua and William (17) at home in Ballindangan, Mitchelstown, Co Cork. Gillian’s son Joshua goes to school with the help of a special needs assistant. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

 

Not so long ago Government policy towards children with special needs was based on denial. There was little understanding of their condition, a near absence of official policy and an insistence that some could not benefit from education at all. But much has improved over the past two decades and progressive legislation and substantial investment mean our education system is geared, finally, toward helping them fulfil their potential. Most of those with special needs now learn in mainstream classes with vastly improved developmental and educational outcomes.

The incidence of special needs is increasing due to a rising child population, medical advances and better diagnosis

This requires significant investment, a fact reflected in records which indicate there is alarm within the Department of Public Expenditure over the rising cost of providing special needs assistants, resource teachers and transport for children with additional needs. In the run-up to Budget 2018, Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe and his officials expressed concern that there are now “more special needs assistants than gardaí” and that State investment in special education is “greater than higher education”.

These observations suggest a narrow analysis: the incidence of special needs is increasing due to a rising child population, medical advances and better diagnosis. The proportion of children involved, research shows, is not out of line with neighbouring countries. Nor do the concerns expressed by the department take account of improved educational outcomes or capture the enormous savings to the State on foot of children going on to fulfil their potential and living independent lives.

It is legitimate that maximum benefit be secured from Exchequer funding. However, it is equally important that any assessment of cost is balanced with a determination to deliver the best outcome for children. Our track record in investing in this area has been lamentable until relatively recently. After years of playing catch-up, progress is being made in meeting the needs of some of our most vulnerable. Every child deserves every chance and this commitment should be reaffirmed, not reduced.