Special needs provision in Ireland has evolved since the founding of the state in 1919. Until the early 1990s practically all education and care of children were carried out by the religious orders in Ireland. The government therefore had little need for policies or legislation surrounding education and care. Ireland established its education system in 1831 while under English rule. This made it mandatory for children between the ages of six and fourteen to attend school. The Department of Education was established in 1924.
However, the government did not consider that the education of children with special needs was necessary as their needs were seen as purely medical. It was considered more appropriate for them to be sent to hospitals, asylums and county homes. With the decline of religious orders in Ireland, the situation regarding education and care changed. Many schools and institutions were taken over by the state. This with an increased awareness of how special needs provision had fallen behind other countries resulted in a change in government policy and legislation.
In 1947, St Vincent’s Home for Mentally Defective Children became recognised as an official school by the state. This school along with others like it reinforced the belief that children with special needs should not be educated with ‘normal’ children. At this time in Ireland, County Clinics assessed children with special needs which resulted in them being put into institutional care or at best some sort of training. In 1959, the first inspector for special education was appointed by the Department of Education.
In 1960 the Minister for Education announced more provision for mentally handicapped children. From this time until the mid 1980s a number of special schools were established throughout the state to cater for children with physical, mental and sensory impairments. A report (Commission of Enquiry on mental handicap) in 1965 accepted that this was the way forward and even suggested that there should be some classes within mainstream schools for slow learners. However separate schools continued throughout the 70s and 80s. In 1971 the primary curriculum was introduced.
This led to most special schools and classes providing a modified curriculum for their students. The Department of Education developed Curriculum Guidelines for Schools for the Moderately Handicapped. One important principle of these guidelines was that children have needs as children that have to be satisfied at school as well as their needs as future adults. The notion of integration began to appear in the mid-eighties with the idea that special classes could be part of mainstream schools and also from parents who were not availing of special education.
In a report on the training and education of severely and profound mentally handicapped children in Ireland 1983 it was recognized that these children should also be entitled to education. Teachers were to be trained to educate such children in special classes within mainstream education. By 1993 over 2000 pupils were being educated in such a way. In 1993 the report of the Special Education Review Committee (SERC) was published. This report dealt comprehensively with the educational implications of special needs.
It provided a definition of special needs which included those with severe and profound difficulties through to those who were exceptionally able and included both physical and mental disabilities. It recognized that the desire of the majority of parents of children with special needs was that they be educated in mainstream schools. It made a recommendation for a school psychology service to be set up linked to the School Health Service. This service should deal with assessment etc. It also recommended additional support personnel to be provided in schools.
Integration was to be the most desirable option with as little segregation as possible for all children. It recommended the establishment of a continuum of educational provision to meet a continuum of special educational needs. The 1995 White Paper on education, ‘Chartering our Educational Future’ reiterated the report’s findings stating that ‘all students, regardless of their personal circumstances, have a right of access to and participation in the education system, according to their potential and ability’.
In 1996 a report was published on the needs of people with disabilities. A Strategy for Equality: Report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities highlighted the lack of co-operation between special and mainstream schools, the lack of support services, transport, resources and the lack of flexibility in the curriculum for people with special needs. In 1999 the government published ‘Ready to Learn, a white paper on early childhood education’.
This report highlighted the importance of early intervention for children with special needs. In recent years legislation has changed and promotes inclusion and equal access to education of all. In 1998 the Education Bill was passed. This Act provided for the education of every person in the state including those with disabilities or any other special educational needs. It was the first piece of legislation ever passed in Ireland that outlined the government’s rights and legal obligations in relation to education.
Schools are required to ensure that the educational needs of all students, including those with a disability or other special educational needs are identified and provided for. The Equal Status Act 2000 refers to education in relation to the policies of establishment regarding admissions, access to courses, access to any facility or benefit provided or any other condition of participation in the establishment. The next piece of important legislation created was The Education Welfare Act 2000.
This Act created the National Education Welfare Board (NEWB) which aims to promote the importance of education in children’s lives and ensure that all children receive a certain minimum education. Possibly one of the most important pieces of legislation in relation to special needs education is the Education for Persons with Special Needs Act 2004 (EPSEN). A major focus of this Act is inclusion with regards to children in mainstream schools.
The Act set up the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) and outlined the responsibilities of Special Education Needs Organisers (SENOs). EPSEN also set out a range of services that should be provided for children such as assessments and Individual Education Plans (IEP’S) in schools. This was to be fully implemented in January 2009 but due to budget cuts this very important process has been delayed. In Ireland over the years government policy has moved from denial and exclusion, to segregation and at long last to inclusion.
Today, The Department of Education policy provides for the education of children with special education needs through a number of support mechanisms depending on the child’s assessed disability. Its policy is to achieve as much integration as possible, as envisaged in the EPSEN Act. Where placement in an integrated setting is considered appropriate, support in the form of resource teaching or special needs assistant (SNA), and learning support is provided. The form or forms of support depends on the child’s needs.