Desmond Swan, Desmond Swan, Emeritus Professor of Education, National University of Ireland, Dublin gives a brief overview of the changes in education for persons with learning disabilities over the past century in Ireland.


The Education Act (1998) has given an unprecedented guarantee of legal entitlement to appropriate education to every person in this state, including all those who may have special educational needs, and this is now becoming a reality for rapidly increasing numbers. But the revolution from excluding or ignoring ‘mental defectives’ (in the language of the early twentieth century) to including those with special needs (in the language of the early twenty-first century) has been a slow and erratic process.

From the beginning, private or religious initiatives frequently stood in marked contrast to inactivity by the Irish state, which, at times, yielded only to the force majeure of legal action or the threat of it. The former Minister for Education and Science, Micheál Martin, admitted as much: ‘For too long the needs of many children with disabilities, particularly those in smaller groups or in isolated settings, have been supported in a reactive and entirely unsatisfactory manner’ (November 1998). Policy followed practice, all too often.

Revolutions are a rare occurrence in education, especially in Ireland. Nevertheless, I believe this word best describes what has been happening in this regard over the past two generations, even though it is still ongoing, and far from complete. Perhaps this revolution is best illustrated by juxtaposing two quotations, from 1936 and 2000, both from official sources:

‘It is in every way undesirable that mentally deficient children, even of the higher grade, should be placed with normal children. Such children are a burden to their teachers, a handicap to other children, and, being unable to keep up with their class, their condition tends to become worse.‘ (Commission of Inquiry into Reformatory and Industrial Schools 1936).

‘Special education services should promote the inclusion of all with special education needs, regardless of disability’ (Micheál Martin, 26 January 2000).

The contrast between these two quotations, and their underlying notions of what education is–and for whom–could scarcely be greater. This article outlines briefly the progress of attitude and policy-change from the former to the latter, through three phases: the era of neglect and denial; the era of the special school; and the era of integration or inclusion.

The phase of neglect

While the education of the ‘feeble-minded’ has deep roots reaching back as far as, inter alia, Enlightenment thinking among individuals in pre-revolutionary France, by 1950 only one special school for such children was officially recognised in Ireland. Indeed, the Council of Education, which deliberated from 1950 to 1954, failed to address this problem as one requiring their attention–despite demands from the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation and the existence by that time of a small number of hospital schools and institutes for children with sensory handicaps. St Vincent’s Home for Mentally Defective Children, which had been established in 1926, was the first such special school to be recognised, in 1947. Notwithstanding the insight of Maria Montessori (1912), a qualified medical doctor, that ‘mental retardation presents primarily as an educational rather than a medical problem’, the medical model of mental retardation prevailed here until the 1960s; the problem was located essentially in the individual. The very terminology used–‘defectives’, ‘handicapped’, ‘mongol’, etc.–and some over-interpretation of the Intelligence Quotient concept led to the feeling that the individuals concerned were quite distinct from the rest of the population. According to the 1944 Education Act in the United Kingdom, they were ‘ineducable’ or ‘educationally subnormal’, which led to a policy of isolating them for ‘training’ rather than education, abroad and eventually in Ireland, and gave strong support to a policy of separate special schooling.

The Health Act of 1953 here led to the setting-up of county clinics, one of whose functions was to be the assessment and diagnosis of mental retardation–a mainly educational/psychological task. Its ready acceptance by the Department of Education illustrates the prevailing acceptance, in Ireland as elsewhere, at that time of the medical model of mental retardation as a kind of illness.

Nevertheless, by the end of the decade there were some indications that the era of neglect and denial was ending. In 1959 the first inspector with responsibility for special education was appointed, and in 1960 the Minister for Education (Patrick Hillery, who was a medical doctor) claimed in the Dáil that ‘plans are in train for increasing accommodation for making more educational provision for mentally handicapped children’ (Dáil Report 1960, 182, C402). Indeed, it may not have been so much a lack of vision on the part of Department of Education officials as a failure to elicit support from a very tight-fisted Department of Finance that slowed the pace of innovation by this time.

The Special School phase

By 1966, 28 special schools for children with mental handicap, and a smaller number for those with sensory and physical handicaps, were recognised. But it was the Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Mental Handicap (1965)–again, significantly set up by the Minister for Health–that was to consolidate the special schools policy, although it also suggested the establishment of some special classes for slow learners in mainstream schools, and recommended a sharing of responsibility between the ministers for Health and Education in this area. However, separate schooling still remained the essential thrust of government policy; by 1989 we had reached a plateau of 65 special schools for pupils with intellectual disabilities.

On one level, this development contributed to the perception of these as a parallel school system offering an entirely different form of education for quite a different kind of pupil. Indeed, this could apply to the whole special schools sector. The establishment of teacher training courses–the Diploma for Teachers of the Deaf at UCD in 1956, and the Diploma in Special Education at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, in 1960–(however necessary these were) probably heightened the perception of difference. And, unlike mainstream national schools, special schools had a very high proportion of teachers who had done their teacher training in the UK or elsewhere.

Several relevant developments were occurring simultaneously. Remedial teachers had been appointed since the 1960s, first in primary and later in post-primary schools, seemingly to teach pupils with specific learning difficulties. Their unclear role, however, embodied a distinction between remedial and ‘special’ education, whose basis was questionable, and the unhelpful misnomer of ‘the remedial pupil’ was born! In 1977, a Department of Education circular (Circular 23/77) indicated that children with a mild level of mental handicap would be placed in special classes, while curriculum guidelines for moderately mentally handicapped children were issued in 1978, and a report on the education and training of severely and profoundly mentally handicapped children followed in 1983.

Two major developments abroad were meanwhile turning the tide away from separate special schooling, towards integrating pupils with learning disabilities with their peers. These were the passing of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in the US in 1975, and the Warnock Report (1978) followed by the Education Act (1981) in Britain. There is also evidence that by 1983 parental opinion in Ireland had begun to turn against separate special schooling to some extent (O’Connor 1983). Indeed, the Report on the Education of Physically Handicapped Children (1977) advocated a policy of integration for many children, thus tentatively initiating the era of integration of children with special needs.

The phase of integration/inclusion

During the 1980s and 1990s, the momentum for integration, however confused and ill-defined as a concept, grew from a trickle to a flood, with little enough critical analysis of it in Ireland. The White Paper on Educational Development (1980) proposed integration as ‘the first option’, but retained other options, including complete segregation. The Programme for Action in Education 1984-1987 (1984) put forward the establishment of special classes in mainstream schools as ‘integration’ in their view, while recommending that special schools become resource centres for other schools in their areas. Although the decade of the 1980s was a period of financial constraint, the Green Paper on Education (1992) noted that 1.2 per cent of the total school population were in special schools, and by 1989 a considerable erosion of state support had taken place in this area. Some critics felt that the change of policy in favour of integration was motivated more by financial than by educational considerations, while others saw it simply as ‘a bandwagon’, with many unquestioned assumptions (Lyng 1993). The policy change also gave rise to some anxiety among teachers in special schools about their role, and the future of their sector, which had been central to government policy a decade before, was now in question.

Uncertainty had indeed been developing, especially because of the absence of a clear legislative base for Irish primary and secondary education as a whole–for 100 years! The system was ruled by ministerial circulars which had little or no legal standing and which could be revoked or ignored in response to changing conditions.

Eventually the Minister established the Special Education Review Committee, whose Report (1993), despite some shortcomings, proved to be a landmark in this area; it was a very comprehensive audit of both need and provision especially in primary schools across the whole spectrum of disabilities, and gave useful pointers for future policies. In particular, the report laid the basis for the legislation which followed in 1998, first by bringing conceptual clarity where considerable confusion had reigned, and second by showing how a policy of integration (the Review Committee’s preferred option within a continuum) would have to be supported if it was to be taken seriously. The extent of the mismatch between need and provision was quantified, especially by enumerating the numbers of pupils with disabilities in mainstream schools and classes who had no appropriate support.

Among the many lacunae identified was the lack of a comprehensive School Psychological Service in primary schools. Although this had been called for by the Commission of Inquiry on Mental Handicap in 1965, the fact that it took 33 years for a blueprint for it to be produced must rank as an outstanding example of masterly inactivity by the Department of Education. Such a service must play a critical role in determining both access to and deployment of the essential expertise and resources, but even now it is still at an early stage of its establishment, and the only professional training course in Ireland is the one established at the Education Department of UCD in 1994.

As the 1990s progressed, the concept of integration was superseded by inclusive education, placing an added emphasis on adapting school to the varied needs of individual pupils with learning disabilities. This is implicit in the Education Act of 1998. While it is a milestone in the history of special needs education in Ireland, the greatest failure of the act is that, in response to powerful interest groups, it did not establish the devolved administration of education which would have been crucial to ensure the equitable distribution of resources and personnel needed to support inclusive education at local level.

The fact that the Act was so slow in coming about, and that it followed much successful litigation by parents–most notably Marie O’Donoghue–against the Department of Education, should not obscure its importance. The Act’s clear focus on persons with disabilities and the guarantee it gives to them will have finally vindicated the committed and tireless work of many often isolated individuals who have laboured in this field. Already its implementation has proceeded with unusual haste but, with the deadline for its measures to be fully implemented by 23 December of this year, so much remains to be done that it seems incredible that this deadline will be met in all respects.

The Minister claims that the Act confers an ‘automatic entitlement’ to appropriate education on all pupils who are professionally assessed as having a disability, e.g. intellectual disability. But this leaves open the question whether every child is automatically entitled to psychological assessment and, if so, (1) following what set of procedures, (2) under what conditions, and (3) within what period of time? None of these questions is answered in the Act. So, for instance, is a waiting period of one year for assessment deemed acceptable? Again, no ‘filtering’ procedure of any kind is suggested. So, is any pupil whom any teacher may feel like referring for assessment to have an equal right to the time and attention of a very understaffed and over-stretched school psychological service? Even under ideal conditions, this would not be reasonable.

Section 28 of the Education Act does propose the establishment of an appeal procedure; presumably this includes appeals by parents against recommendations made in the special needs context. But it is clear that the appeals committee will not be entirely independent of the providers, viz. The Department of Education and Science.

Lastly, from a legal standpoint, it is interesting to note the opinion of one eminent authority that ‘it appears that the Irish courts would be unlikely to hold that the Oireachtas intended to confer a right on parents to sue for breach of statutory duty under the Education Act 1998’ (Glendenning 1999, p.208). This raises highly technical legal questions which cannot yet be answered, as the Act has not yet been tested in the courts. Until such time, we do not know how the judiciary will interpret this unprecedented legislation, and such comment must remain speculative. The constitutional context may also be highly relevant here.


In the space of fifty years we have moved from a culture of neglect and denial to one of inclusiveness and entitlement–where policy now leads practice. The revolution has been erratic, and in some areas it has still scarcely begun. But a lot has been learned from our years of trial and error in breaching the long-impassable frontier of educating the ‘ineducable’ and including the excluded, in order to realise that every child can learn if they are appropriately helped to do so.

Some significant specific achievements have been:

  • a reduction in teacher/pupil ratios in teaching pupils with disabilities;
  • the trebling of the number of resource teachers and childcare assistants;
  • a great improvement in the allocation of learning support/remedial teachers;
  • an improved allocation of school psychologists;
  • increased teaching resources and learning aids;
  • the establishment of an Interdepartmental Committee (Health and Education).

Some specific shortfalls remain:

  • a highly centralised administration (without a local tier of government) which cannot be equally responsive to varying local needs;
  • some duplication, as well as large gaps, in support structures;
  • parents still not fully empowered;
  • a considerable mismatch between needs of pupils with disabilities and an exam-driven post-primary system;
  • no curricular guidelines for pupils with severe, profound or multiple disabilities;
  • special needs of exceptionally able pupils still largely ignored;
  • requirement for much more differentiated teaching of mainstream classes in order to include exceptional pupils of all kinds.