It is timely to reflect on education in a society undergoing significant change. Many of our past certainties have been challenged and often found wanting. As a result, we are becoming used to the idea of questioning received wisdom rather than accepting everything uncritically. We have made many advances in our understanding of how we can help children to learn more effectively and it has been proved that everyone, whatever their level of difficulty, can benefit from education. The Irish education system has often found it difficult to respond to these insights; parents, their children and their allies have been forced to confront the education authorities in order to secure educational rights. Within these articles we attempt to develop reflections from several perspectives. Peggy Barragry describes positive and negative aspects of her child’s education. She provides a powerful argument for connecting education for young people with learning difficulties to the urgent need to enable these young people to lead independent lives in a community shared with their peers. Rosemary Kilpatrick gives a comprehensive overview of special needs provision in Northern Ireland. She provides many valuable insights into the impact of legislation on provision and raises challenging questions in relation to the inclusion debate. Sean Griffin and Michael Shevlin reflect on the many recent changes to our understanding of education for young people with learning difficulties. They also highlight some of the urgent issues facing educators, parents and society itself if we are to respond to the challenge of providing inclusive education in our local communities.


The joys and sorrows of education for persons with disabilities are many. Parents are always anxious that their child will benefit greatly and reach his/her potential in the rich learning environment of formal education. A child with a learning disability has the same needs and emotions as anybody. They experience hurt and disappointment as well as great joy and happiness.

It is acknowledged that all children develop in different ways and at different rates. The latter apply very much to the child with a learning disability, where the pace of learning is slower, requires greater patience, much repetition and additional visual and verbal assistance. Teaching a child with a learning disability could be regarded as a real test of ability for any professional educator in our schools, but the satisfaction gained is reportedly immeasurable for the teacher as well as the child. The trained teacher—in special or mainstream education—who is blessed with common sense and a healthy respect for the dignity of each and every individual, will ‘move mountains.’

What is education? The mission statement of the Department of Education and Science is to ensure the provision of a comprehensive, cost-effective and accessible system of the highest quality as measured by international standards which will enable individuals to develop to their full potential. The Education Act of 1998, HELIOS Council Decision of 1993 and Salamanca Statement of 1994 all ensure the inclusion of children with disabilities within the mission statement of the Department of Education and Science.

So the climatic conditions are just right for the education of all children of the nation. Or are they? When the parents of a child with a learning disability make an informed choice of schooling, it is not unreasonable to expect recommended and stated supports to be put in place without delay. A structured curriculum in a well-ordered day at school should be tailored to the child’s needs. Also important are flexibility and trained personnel who have the ability to resolve difficulties as they arise.

Formal schooling is but one facet of the educational experience for any child. Good self-esteem can be cemented in this setting when the psychological, social, moral and physical, as well as the academic, well-being of each student is considered. This holistic approach to education provides a framework which takes the many areas of personal development into account. It recognises the continuum of learning and centres on enabling each individual to develop to their full potential. The holistic approach does not measure ability or progress at the fixed formal academic level. The open-minded approach brings about progress in social skills through interaction with peers, teachers and community, and by participation in every aspect of life at school.

The attitude of those in control plays a pivotal role in determining the extent to which a child will develop. Positive attitudes produce positive results. The learning-disabled student will carve loving and accepting relationships with their surroundings. There are too many times, however, when the attitudes mirrored in the opportunities created in educational settings do not reflect the same sculptured image.

Our Department of Education and Science has allocated resources to mainstream schools to support the educational integration of the student with a learning disability, but parents report the necessity to constantly monitor the application of these supports; they are often found to be diluted and even to ‘disappear’ if the parent is not alert.

Communication between school and parent is often unclear. When this happens, integrity and trust are diminished. Parental concern is regarded as meddlesome and mutual doubts lead to stress for parent and child. Many concerns which stem from lack of clear communication lead to time-consuming, expensive litigation.

Our Department of Education and Science has many structures available to schools which cater for the varied abilities of the student population. The Leaving Certificate Applied, for example, caters very well to the student who is happier working with modules of learning. The school authorities must apply to the Department of Education and Science to make additional options available to students. This wider choice makes a great contribution towards the educational progress of the student. Unfortunately the choices available from the Department are not always utilised by schools.

Early school leavers are a great concern to our government. Parents have voiced their own greatest difficulty: getting their student to go to school each day. Students who are not keen on the academic programme complain of being bored and disinterested with what is being presented at school. Additional options should be utilised by all schools to encourage the less academic to continue in education.

Restrictive choices cause difficulties, disruptions, poor morale and low self-esteem. It is not good enough that a student should be obliged to ‘pass the time’ in school, when that time should be rich and fulfilling. Learning disabled students could slot into appropriate modules and with suitable supports progress their own abilities with their peers and at their own pace.

I recently met a group of students at the theatre—students of the Leaving Certificate Applied who were enjoying the production, accompanied by their teachers. They told me the theatre visit was a module on their school programme. Another module was a mini-company they formed, to make and sell hair-bobbins and framed mirrors. One student proudly told me she had made a seven-pound profit from her own investment. Physical education, drama, music and dance, art, cookery and photography formed the greater part of their curriculum. They were all healthy, happy, interested students who took great pride in their own worthwhile achievements.

Education is for life. It should lead to full-time employment, independence and useful preoccupation. This goal is in the mind of every parent who endeavours to steer their child through the education system. A culture of cooperation and good communication, with choices, flexibility and parental input will reduce negative stress in students and parents. The best interests of all of our children must be foremost in our minds if the joys of education are to exceed the sorrows.


Children with special educational needs are not a new phenomenon- In the United Kingdom they were included in education legislation as far back as the Education Act of 1944, which identified eleven categories of handicap. However, at that time there were no formal procedures for identifying and providing for such children and it was not until the inquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People, chaired by Lady Warnock in 1978, that provision for children with special educational needs came to be a topic of greater public concern and increased priority. The Warnock Report shaped current provision for special education throughout the United Kingdom and formed the basis for the Education Act in England and Wales 1981 and the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986. This legislation introduced the concept of special educational needs, established procedures for identifying, assessing, recording and reviewing individual needs and gave parents greater opportunity for involvement in the decision-making process. In addition, the Warnock Report anticipated that approximately twenty per cent of pupils (or one in five) would have special educational needs at some stage in their school career, with approximately two per cent of these children having such needs as to require long-term, additional support and therefore requiring a statement of special educational needs.

While these figures do not have a sound statistical base, they have acquired a degree of influence in determining policy. However, the Department of Education (DE) accept that the estimated percentage of children needing statements is now outdated and state that they are not used for any administrative purposes, to determine levels of funding or to set a quota for numbers of statements[1]. Furthermore, DE agrees that recent trends in the growth of statemented pupils will continue in the immediate future.

Ten years further down the road, special education again came under scrutiny when the government conducted a general review of education in England and Wales. This review resulted in reforms to provision for special educational needs which were echoed in Northern Ireland through the Education (Northern Ireland) Order (1996) and associated regulations. One of the major changes introduced through the Education Order 1996 was the greater involvement of parents of children with special educational needs and their right to appeal through the Special Educational Needs Tribunal. In relation to parental involvement, there is increasing evidence of parental dissatisfaction[3] and the potential for conflict between parents, schools and Education and Library Boards (ELBs) is considerable. Most parents wish their children to receive the support necessary to ensure that they make as much progress as possible at school, yet schools and ELBs are faced with limited resources to be shared equally among a range of children with special needs. Increasingly it is envisaged that any disagreements in this area will be resolved through appeals to the Special Educational Needs Tribunal.

Attention also should be drawn to the extremely limited reference to the involvement of the child, as opposed to the parent, in all the recent education legislation. This is in contrast to the Children (NI) Order (1995) which is based on the principal of paramountcy of the child and requires childcare authorities to take the child’s point of view into account. This difference in emphasis could possibly lead to differences of opinion in situations where the two agencies are required to work in close liaison. Take, for example, the scenario where a young person identified as having special educational needs is ‘looked after’ by the local health and social services trust, but he or she has a preference for an educational placement which differs from that of the trust which is responsible for his or her care.

The second major change associated with the Education Order of 1996—which has had a much more significant impact on teachers and schools—is the provision for the Code of Practice on Special Educational Needs which schools are required to ‘have regard to’ when making decisions about these children. The Code (which came into force in September 1998) introduced a formal five-stage process for identifying and assessing special educational needs. Stages One to Three are school-based and refer to children who have special educational needs but whose needs are not seen as so great as to require a statement. The school is required to place these children on a special educational needs register and inform the parents of this decision. When the child is referred for a statutory assessment they move into Stage Four; on the basis of this assessment the child may receive a statement and thus be at Stage Five of the Code.

For pupils without statements of special educational needs (i.e. those at Stages One to Three of the Code) funding for resources etc. is included in the Targeting Social Need monies which are allocated to schools through each board’s Local Management of Schools formulae. The Boards use different methodologies for allocating special needs resources and this difference, along with the fact that the money is not ring-fenced, results in variability across and within boards and schools in provision for non-statemented pupils. Distribution of support and resources for non-statemented pupils within a school therefore depends to a large extent on the decision of the individual principal (though the Code states that it is ultimately the responsibility of the Board of Governors). Indeed as Lundy[4] points out, there is little opportunity of ensuring equity of resources for these pupils until there is some clearer matching of funding to non-statemented children with special educational needs.

In contrast, statements identify both the child’s educational needs and the provision to be made available to meet those needs and the child’s ELB undertakes responsibility for the various aspects of the statementing procedure, including providing funding to meet statement requirements. Children with statements may be educated in mainstream or special schools, but although there is still an excellent network of special schools in Northern Ireland, and a clear and continued role for these schools (which are full to capacity), there is also a stated government policy in support of the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream provision.

The Department of Education commissioned research to establish baseline data at the time of the introduction of the Code of Practice in Northern Ireland. Findings from this research identified wide variation in the extent and the quality of responses to the Code on the part of schools and support agencies (Dyson et al. 1999)[5]. The researchers further argued that special education needs policy and practice in many schools appeared to be based on a narrow model of special educational needs which focussed principally on difficulties in literacy and numeracy, with a tendency to respond to such difficulties outside the mainstream classroom. This was not to deny that there was evidence of apparently successful special needs practice, though this practice was not closely aligned with the inclusive spirit of the Code which states that:

Children with special educational needs, including those with statements, should, wherever appropriate and taking into account the wishes of their parents, be educated alongside their peers in mainstream schools. (para?)

On the basis of the findings from the research, it was argued that there was a need for a ‘re-visioning’ of the Code with the focus on the principles rather than practice. This, it was argued, could be achieved through the involvement of schools and other stakeholders and the establishment of a series of working groups which would review the specific implications of these principles.

Following the introduction of the Code, substantial funding has been dedicated to special education by the Department and there has been an intensive training programme for special educational needs co-ordinators as a result of this. However, despite the recommendations of the Dyson report there has been little evidence of any initiative aimed at re-visioning the Code and this is somewhat disappointing, especially given the Minister for Education’s avowed support for the inclusion in a recent interview for the magazine Special (Spring 2001). It does seem somewhat unfair and unrealistic to imagine that schools will be able to devote the time and energy to create an inclusive philosophy without support and guidance. It is also relevant to note here that when discussing the issue of inclusion with teachers taking continuing professional development courses, it becomes clear that there is a lack of any shared understanding of the concept across Northern Ireland.

In this respect it is of interest that the Inclusive Index (which has been distributed to all schools in England to assist them in breaking down barriers which may prevent children and young people with special needs from being fully included in mainstream schools) has not, as yet, featured in Northern Ireland. This may. of course, be a recognition that the current education system may shortly undergo radical changes. At the moment the system is based on selection at eleven years of age, which could not possibly be seen as inclusive, a viewpoint which is supported by the recent research commissioned and published by DE into the effects of the selection system. However, in the autumn of 2001 the Post-Primary Review Body, which was tasked with consulting on the selective system and making recommendations on the future structure of post-primary education, published its findings. Their Report proposes that academic selection at eleven years of age should be abolished, that pupil profiles should be developed to provide information to parents, pupils and teachers on the child’s attributes and achievements, and that local collaborative networks of schools be created to form a system of ‘collegiates’. This last proposal could provide the perfect setting for the inclusion of all pupils with special educational needs regardless of where they were educated. It was therefore truly disappointing to find no mention of special schools in the proposed collegiates, despite the inclusive rhetoric. It also is interesting to note that the Report has developed its own categories of special educational needs which differ to those in the Code of Practice, though the implications of this are unclear—especially given the lack of any in-depth discussion regarding the rationale underpinning these new categories.

As a result of the various Orders and Regulations outlined above, special educational needs provision is now one of the most highly regulated areas of education in Northern Ireland, but there are still several issues which are the source of much concern. Underpinning these is the inclusion debate which, with increasing national and international obligations, alongside possible changes in the Northern Ireland educational system, is likely to remain key for sometime to come. We await the outcome!


‘When you look into a child’s face
You are seeing the whole human race
And the endless possibilities there
Where so much can come true
And you think of the beautiful things
A child can do’

Jackson Browne, How Long

Children begin their lives full of possibilities and endless potential. Very soon limitations are imposed and children are classified as ‘bright’, ‘clever, ‘a little slow’ or ‘not so bright’. These classifications are given added force as children enter school and are gradually expected to perform more complex tasks. It is frighteningly easy for children to be seen as educational failures at an early stage. This can do tremendous damage to the child’s self-esteem and confidence in learning. Yet children of similar ability levels can be viewed as failures in one school and in a neighbouring school they may be seen as youngsters who need a sensitive intervention to ensure success in learning. This leads to the conclusion that definitions of learning difficulties can be both subjective and relative. When we take an alternative view of learning difficulties another perspective emerges. When we begin to view difficulties in learning as an ordinary part of schooling, rather than the exception, then change can occur. All of us can and certainly have experienced some difficulties in learning at some stage in our lives. Overcoming these difficulties and receiving support to do so successfully should be the norm in schools. At all costs we must prevent a difficulty in learning becoming a learning difficulty. This perspective enables us to take an optimistic view of children and a determination to enhance their potential. Whatever their difficulties every child is capable of learning and our job as teachers is to encourage this learning. The same view must inform the learning potential of children officially classified as having learning difficulties.

In Ireland, education for young people with learning difficulties has achieved great prominence in recent times as a result of a series of high-profile court cases and an increasing recognition that the rights of these children and their families have effectively been ignored for decades. It is fair to say that the government has been very strong on the rhetoric of inclusion—partially influenced no doubt by European Union directives—and progress has been achieved, though often through sustained battles by families and friends of young people with learning difficulties. As a result, the reality of inclusion for these children in Ireland remains to be adequately researched and fully documented. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that inclusion in practice is problematic and considerably under resourced. This is hardly surprising given the relatively impoverished notions and charity-model traditions underlying education for children with learning difficulties within Ireland.

Worldwide, the history of special educational provision has tended to follow a familiar pattern. A categorised group of children, such as the visually impaired, have been deemed to be educable and included in our school system, though usually in separate, segregated provision. This pattern persisted, as gradually children with a range of disabilities were included in a formal way within education systems. The integration movement that emerged in the 1970s emphasised that children with learning difficulties should attend their local school alongside their peers. This was motivated by a well-meaning desire to promote greater acceptance of children with learning difficulties within their local communities. However, the school system remained substantially the same and the children were expected to adapt and conform as best they could. Often integration took place in name only and for very limited numbers of children. It became clear also that other groups of children were being systematically excluded from appropriate education.

Ireland lagged seriously behind other countries in responding adequately to the needs of children with autism and those with profound and complex disabilities. Parents and advocates mounted a series of successful campaigns to highlight and redress this situation. Parents undertook this course of action out of a sense of desperation and frustration at the unwillingness of the state to adequately address these issues. Most notably, the O’Donoghue case in 1993 established that the state has a responsibility and a duty to meet individual needs that are not catered for in regular education. Most recently the Sinnott case highlighted that in particular situations young people over the age of eighteen may require access to basic education that had been denied at an earlier stage. Also, this case illustrated in a graphic way the lack of preparedness of the state to put in place the necessary provision to ensure a decent quality of life for these children and their families. One might suspect that, at a certain level, the state did not accept that these children had an unqualified right to education, or that they could be educated and that they would benefit from schooling just like other children.

In our opinion, the Report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities (1996) has been the most significant document to emerge in the recent past. This report recognised the centrality of people with disabilities in the decision-making processes that affect their lives. The dependency model within education was explicitly rejected:

‘All schools have a responsibility to serve children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment.’

‘All people with disabilities should be offered an appropriate education in the environment of their choice.’ (A Strategy for Equality, 1996, p.34).

For the first time, special needs issues have achieved a new prominence in the broader landscape of Irish education. Few educators can claim to be unaware of the significance and relevance of these developments that must inevitably affect all aspects of school life. The Education Act (1998) and the Equal Status Act (2000) have signalled that past attitudes that informed an ad hoc provision as a response to special needs provision will no longer be acceptable. Despite these positive signs, it is also clear that the Education Act only provides a restricted access for children with special needs to mainstream education, insofar as their presence is not deemed to be detrimental to the education of their so called non-disabled peers. The resources issue has begun to be addressed through the Martin initiative (1998) that enabled schools to apply for extra resources to meet the needs of children with learning difficulties included in mainstream classes. However, these resources are not guaranteed in the long term through legislation and are dependent to some degree on a ‘grace and favour’ approach from the government in power. Equally significant is the fact that resources are allocated to schools and not to individual children. As a result, there is no guarantee that these resources will follow the child as he/she progresses through the school system.

Some positive trends have emerged. These include increased training opportunities for teachers involved in support provision. However, ordinary schools have yet to seriously implement a whole-school policy on special needs that acknowledges the importance of the ordinary classroom teachers in the education of these children. Another positive step involves the development of collaborative relationships between mainstream and special schools. Indeed, these programmes would be considerably enhanced if they were recognised and endorsed as models of good practice, offering support and interaction opportunities for teachers and children from what remain the largely parallel systems of special and mainstream education. In many parts of the country there are individual examples of innovative practice that usually remain well hidden secrets. There appears to be no formal mechanism for disseminating and celebrating these encouraging achievements. Some recent research has belatedly begun to examine the experiences of children with disabilities within education from the perspective of the children themselves (e.g. Hidden Voices, 2000). Young people with disabilities reported that positive expectations from their schools and teachers were the most significant factors in a successful mainstream experience. However, they also recognised that fundamental changes in society were urgently required for young people with disabilities to achieve an independent lifestyle.

Many issues need to be addressed when we try to create an inclusive school system in Ireland. Obviously, there needs to be a willingness by government to allocate resources for educational provision for children with learning difficulties. There is an understandable fear that with the economic downturn recent progress will be curtailed. The creation of a Special Needs Council signalled by government could be a very positive initiative, as long as the Council has real power to monitor special needs provision and enable significant development to occur. The Council could coordinate the available support services to provide a coherent response to the needs of individual pupils, their families and their schools. In addition, teacher knowledge, skills and understanding of special needs must be increased to enable the inclusive school to develop. Models of good practice need to be developed and disseminated by Irish teachers to their colleagues.

In the end, it is a decision for society as a whole to make. Do we want a fairer society where everyone is valued and respected, whatever their level of academic ability? Do we want an education system that celebrates diversity and encourages collaboration? If the answer is yes, then we have no choice except to work for the inclusive school that reflects an inclusive society. A young person with a disability (Kenny et al., 2000) captured this vision of an inclusive society where disability is no longer associated with exclusion:

‘… it would become normal, just everyday life and people would be able to understand it, ‘ ah sure we don’t even know what that is, we just know it’s a normal thing. [He’s] like everyone else’. When it comes like that we would get good jobs.’