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Thursday 30 March 2023 Dublin: 13°C
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Opinion How is it legal for schools to refuse to set up special classes?
Students with special educational needs have enough challenges place in front of them, they should not have to fight the education system as well, writes Graham Manning.

WHAT WOULD HAPPEN if schools decided enrolment by skin colour or the Department for Education sanctioned a policy that meant members of a specific community couldn’t access an education?

Well that question is not rhetorical for students with autism (autistic spectrum disorder/ASD) who need the support offered by special classes in order to achieve to their full potential.

Somehow in Ireland in 2018 it’s still legal, and acceptable to the Minister for Education, for schools to be allowed to groundlessly refuse to set up special classes for students with autism (and other special classes).

They can ignore their duty to provide an appropriate education for all those in their local community. While an education based in a mainstream school may not be in the best educational interests of all, it should most certainly not be denied to those who want and will benefit from it.


Because of this institutionalised discrimination students and their families are being placed at a significant educational disadvantage and subjected to unjustifiable stress and anxiety.

Some students with special educational needs are being misplaced in special schools, attending mainstream schools without the support they need and are entitled to, or are dropping out of education altogether.

It is far from uncommon for students to have to travel 40km+ per day in order to access an appropriate educational setting, passing innumerable schools who refuse to provide that setting en route.

At present the Schools Admissions Bill is before the Oireachtas. After much lobbying, there is an amendment proposed to this Bill in relation to special classes. It has cross party support and will give SENOs, through the NCSE and the Minister for Education the authority to instruct schools to set up special classes where there is a need and where schools refuse to do so.

A step forward

While the passing of this Bill and accompanying amendment will be a significant positive forward step it is still just a step, and a baby step at that. There needs to be wholescale reform of how special classes and associated services function in Ireland.

There are many vital systemic structural problems. For example:

  • The lack of special classes, especially at secondary level.
  • The huge variance from school to school in what a special class actually provides.
  • Primary schools receive €642 per student in a special class per year in extra capitation while their counterparts in secondary schools receive nothing. This despite the NCSE recommending the funding should be equal and the Department of Education and Skills doing the same until they edited it out of their literature and denied it had ever been there.
  • Schools taking the teaching hours assigned to special classes and repurposing them to be used as mainstream teaching hours despite the fact they are not permitted to do so.
  • Principals having the authority to take SNAs allocated to a school for students in a special class and using them elsewhere.
  • Complete lack of or poorly written enrolment policies.
  • Regular rotation of teachers working in special classes and, in secondary schools, teaching posts being fractured between an excessive number of staff.
  • Lack of experienced, qualified teaching staff.
  • No training opportunities for SNA staff and limited access to such training, aside from single day, for teaching staff.
  • The NCSE guidelines on how to set and run special classes being entirely inadequate and unfit for purpose.
  • Little to no access to psychological services, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy.

This list is representative as opposed to exhaustive but serves to highlight the progress needed of which the amendment to the Schools Admission Bill is just the initial step.

Even when this amendment passes it has been delayed to such an extent that it will not be in place in time for student looking for places in special classes that, currently, won’t exist this coming September. So yet another cohort of students will be denied their right to an appropriate education.

Students with special educational needs and their families have enough challenges place in front of them, they should not have to fight the education system as well.

Graham Manning is a husband, father of two boys, secondary teacher, ASD programme coordinator and campaigner for the reform of special classes for students with autism.

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