Sheelah Flatman Watson, PhD Student, Geography Department,


The 1998 Education Act, the Equal Status Act 2000 and the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 support parents’ rights to send their child to a school of the parents’ choice and, for students with disabilities, the right to access services on the same basis as students without the disability, and to avail of an integrated education. It is official policy to mainstream educational services and to provide an education to the level of ability of each student. This short article outlines that, notwithstanding the recent legislation, rights and inclusion are still largely aspirational, rather than a reality, for many students and their parents.

Research Methodology

The data reported below were generated using a questionnaire survey. This survey targeted the parents of students with an intellectual and/or developmental disability (ID/DD) which had been identified prior to seeking primary school enrolment. It was administered in early 2004 through primary schools in Kildare and Dublin.

After screening, a total of 116 responses (58ID/58DD) were obtained. Forty-one per cent of students attended a mainstream school; 30% attended a mainstream school with a special/specialist class/unit; 17% attended a special school; and 12% attended a specialist school. Although 30% of the students attended a school with a special class, 7% of these students are being educated in a mainstream classroom.

Accessing placements

While 71% of students attended a mainstream school, the survey responses demonstrated that enrolment was not straightforward. The questionnaire posed four questions:

Have you been denied admission to any school for your child?
Has admission been deferred/delayed by a school for your child?
Have any school personnel advised you to seek education for your child elsewhere rather than in their school?
Have you been advised to move your child to another school after enrolment and attendance in the school?

54% of all parents surveyed answered yes to one or more of the above questions as follows:

39 students were denied admission to one or more schools
22 students were offered deferred/delayed admission
47 students were advised to look for placements elsewhere.
14 students having enrolled and attended at a school were subsequently asked to look for a placement elsewhere

Reasons given for enrolments being denied when requested

Responses on why enrolment was not forthcoming vary from the totally negative and discriminatory, to a stated inability to meet the needs of the student (see Table 1).

Reasons given for enrolment denial when requested

No reason given - application ignored34
Special needs not catered for1521
Student’s disability/care needs/behaviour difficulty1622
Particular programme not available11
Schools thought child not suited to placement811
Quota reached - no places available1014
Lack of/limited personnel/resources/supports1014

These reasons can be categorised into three broad types: attitudinal, impairment and resources, and were reported in the open-ended statements made by parents.

  • ‘It was felt by (the) headmaster that Harry was not a suitable candidate to maintain the standards of his school.’
  • ‘Principal at the time did not think integration was best decision (his personal view)’
  • ‘No SNA wanted in the class was the excuse given.’
  • ‘Place in special class denied – unable/unwilling to facilitate or meet his needs’
  • ‘Her autism’
  • ‘… reason given, but place given to our other daughter who was going to school the same year – both children were on application form, Sally was older so should have been given first option. One other child with Down Syndrome in this class, so this I believe was the reason, but was never stated.’
  • ‘do not cater for special needs – have had Asperger Syndrome students before and felt they presented behavioural problems (generalisation) the school could not cope with.’
  • ‘Due to Jane’s disability, even though the school had places and is our catchment-area school – and my two older boys went to this school – the principal was most unhelpful and made it clear, he did not want any more special needs children.’
  • ‘quota full’
  • ‘Head teacher knew nothing about autism / special needs.’
  • ‘Principal did not ‘deny’ place, instead he shouted abuse down the phone and told me they would never get the ‘support’ from the Department to deal with Justin. The principal never replied in writing to any correspondence I sent.’
  • ‘said they did not have sufficient remedial assistance for Martha, as a private school’
  • ‘no special classes or teachers’
  • ‘deferred – availability of suitable transport’
  • ‘local national schools – denied – at least 3 schools adjacent to my home. They would not be able to provide a suitable education and had no confidence that the DES would provide suitable support (there were no special placements available at the time) – only offer of placement at that time was from school A in Kerry and we were living in Dublin at the time!’ (placement sought circa 2000)
Distance and time travelled

While the travel-time involved in going to school may be only a minor consideration for the majority of parents and their children, when a child has a disability and access to the local school is denied, travel may become a significant issue. The sample showed a wide variance in the length of time parents and children spent travelling. Figure 2 portrays the average distances from home to school for students attending each school type, and the time spent travelling daily to access education.

When the figures are analysed by class type attended, the data showed that circa 9% of students with ID/DD in mainstream classes, 36% in mainstream special/specialist classes, 30% in special schools and 71% in specialist schools travel for one hour or more each day. Further investigation of the data is required to ascertain the level of choice involved in undertaking such journeys daily. Travel times undertaken by parents and students who were denied access to their choice of placement are outlined in Table 2.

Travel times of students who were denied placements on request

Time in minutesMainstreamSpecial / Specialist ClassSpecial / Specialist SchoolOverview
5 to 30 1524.191016.1369.6850-00
40 to 60 812.9046.4558.0627.42
70 to 120 58.0669.6817.74
135 to 18034.844.84
Total 62 (1 missing)2337.101930-652032.26

Children attending special classes and schools, frequently outside their own locality, may use the special school transport system, where available. This typically necessitates longer periods away from home than their siblings and peers. Distance and/or lack of transport may alienate families from the school attended and this may be a source of concern, as one parent noted:

‘…my family lives in a small village in county A where there is only a handful of children with special needs. Although they may be different in their needs I don’t see why they cannot have a special classroom in local national school to cater for them. Johnny’s bus collects him at 8:20-8.35am …and returns him 3:20-3.35pm and when he gets in, as he has no speech, he cannot tell me how his day was. I drop his sister to school at 9:15am and I can hear her playing at break times. If anything was to happen to either of them I can just collect the sister; with Johnny I have the worry of getting to his school as I don’t yet have a full licence. I’m not being a broody mother; I would just like it to be possible to walk my 2 children to school in our village…’

Care needs

Clearly one of the main reasons schools deny placements is due to additional care needs of children with disabilities. Circa 50% of parents reported that additional help and care were needed, to varying degrees, to facilitate their child attending school (see Table 3). Fulltime, all-round support may be required to meet such difficulties as lack of toilet training, no sense of fear or danger to self or others, difficulty with language, social or emotional skills, or a restricted diet. Analysis of the data shows that 32 of the 63 students who had been denied placements are students who require care support (11 of the 32 need the higher level). However, half of those denied placements did not require such additional support.

Additional Care Needs Levels

Not applicable5547.4
General help, supervision with dressing, feeding, toilet, play, social skills,4135.3
Full time all round support and supervision needed1613.8
No answer given43.4
Education needs

Students’ educational difficulties ranged from mild to more complex needs. Eleven per cent had specific speech and language difficulties. A further 5% also had behavioural problems. Seven per cent had difficulties such as AD(H)D, dyslexia, dyspraxia, total deafness, sensory integration dysfunction or anxiety disorder. However, as with the cross-referencing of denials of placement with level of care need, the analysis of educational support needs does not match neatly. Of the 63 students denied placements only 31 reported having the above difficulties. On the other hand, 35% of respondents who report similar educational needs have not experienced negative outcomes with the majority in a mainstream placement.

It would appear that the lack of knowledge, understanding and structure within schools, or the willingness to develop these, resulted in denial—rather than the level of support required by the child. Some mainstream schools included students with varying disability levels, while other schools did not accommodate children with relatively mild difficulties. In other words, there was a lot of inconsistency across the sector.

Preferred school setting

Of course, it is a mistake to think that all parents prefer a mainstream school for their child; some recognise the benefits of the special education placements in particular cases. In this study, 72% of parents would prefer to place their child in a mainstream school, 24% of whom would prefer a special class. 16% note that a specialist school (ABA) would be their first preference, and almost 9% would choose the special system if all choices were available and resourced. Many parents provided further detail on this question, illustrating their frustration at the limited options available to them:

  • ‘Because of lack of facilities in the west of Ireland we cannot move or live where we want because adequate education is not widely available.’
  • ‘…any setting for (our) child would be only appropriate if it was capable of meeting her assessed needs at (the) time of transfer’
  • ‘opportunity to integrate into mainstream with specially trained (eg. ABA) resource and special needs assistant (not currently available).
Child-centred considerations

Clearly, parents’ preferences are mediated by the child’s impairment. When a child has an ID/DD, making a choice with regards to placement shifts with respect to overall needs. In ranking the most important child-centred considerations, ‘having an individual special needs assistant’ ranked number one (29%); 21% chose an ‘Individual Educational Programme’ as first preference; being ‘with siblings and neighbours’ was most important for 14%. When all preferences, first through fifth, are included ‘social skills development’ ranked highest overall in selection.

The main theme of parent comments was their wish to place their children in a school with a ‘good reputation’, that provides appropriately experienced and qualified teaching staff, who have an understanding of the child’s impairment, and are capable of meeting the child’s needs. Parents further note that a good attitude toward children with a disability, an inclusion ethos, and availability and willingness of staff to discuss the child’s progress with parents, are important. Parent comments included:

  • ‘…..staffs’ belief in (the) full potential of the child. Many special needs staff think they are just ‘minding’ the children they are supposed to be teaching.’
  • ‘Resource teaching, in general, is with teachers who do not have experience of autistic children. Special Needs Assistants – have no training requirements and need constant help and analysis from parents. No instruction or support (is available) for mainstream teachers on (the) child’s disability – (this is) dependent on (the) personality and interest of individual teachers’.

Lack of choice was also a dominant theme. Many parents reported that choice was non-existent and the placement accepted was the only one offered. Comments included:

  • ‘To be honest we had no choice. We got no help from the persons who diagnosed Niall. A couple on the internet told us about school B and the travelling etc. didn’t come into our decision – we were so happy our application was successful and school B took Niall. There are no ABA schools in South Dublin.’
  • ‘We were just so glad that any school would consider taking Angela’.

One parent reported

  • ‘We are lucky to have encountered a very positive school, with caring attitudes and very willing to learn new techniques. We are fully involved in the education and have regular meetings. But I realise this is not the same for most parents.’

Many schools have taken on the challenge of supporting all children. However, the quality of life within schools for some children does not always live up to the ethos portrayed, as explained by one parent:

  • ‘…despite the wonderful teachers my son has, I am disappointed that even though his school promoted integration, no actual integration takes place at his school. This is a cause of some concern, as he now wants to engage and interact with children he perceives as being the same age as he is. He is desperate for company and in reality is very lonely even though he has 3 younger siblings.’

Despite legislation, choice of school placement is not a reality for significant numbers of parents and their child with an ID/DD. Parents encounter lack of knowledge, experience, confidence and willingness on the part of principals and teachers to support the special needs of their children. Some schools are very supportive and have put structures in place to meet students’ needs. However, inclusion is not universal. It would appear that the problem of placement denials lies with particular schools, because 67% of the children who were denied placements are now in mainstream schools (35% of that number are in a mainstream classroom). As a consequence, despite some successes, there is a need for much further reform that needs to be led and supported by the Department of Education and Science.

(*Pseudonyms have been used throughout this article.)


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