Policy, Pathways and Practice

Meeting the standards set by ‘New Directions’ in relation to providing greater access to accredited education and training for adults with intellectual disabilities is challenging. Nonetheless, ASDAN education programmes offer many flexible learning opportunities in a changing disability services sector.

  • It is challenging for people with intellectual disabilities to access appropriate education and training opportunities in their local communities.
  • New Directions, a policy document from the Health Service Executive recommends person-centeredness, community inclusion, active citizenship, and high quality service provision.
  • New Directions places a greater emphasis on accessing education and training opportunities in the local community for people with intellectual disabilities.
  • Flexible, accredited education programmes and curriculum resources, known as ASDAN, provide such opportunities.
  • This article focuses on Towards Independence, part of ASDAN’s Preparing for Adulthood programme, designed for learners with special educational needs and disabilities.


Accessing appropriate educational opportunities is a struggle for people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and it is a struggle that persists throughout their lives. This year alone media reports have chronicled how long school waiting lists (O’Brien, 2019a) and reduced school timetables (Holland, 2019, O’Brien, 2019b) remain unresolved issues in SEND education provision for children and young adults in the Republic of Ireland. Conversely, there are young people who require individualised supports, and access to clinical services, which many mainstream education settings cannot provide due to a lack of funding and/or a lack of suitably trained teaching staff. These are huge obstacles to overcome in pursuit of education, for both students and parents alike.

The Education for People with Special Educational Needs (EPSEN) Act 2004 states that people with intellectual disabilities have a right to learn in an inclusive environment appropriate to their needs and abilities. What constitutes as inclusive and appropriate will vary from person to person and family to family. Currently SEND education provision for young people is provided through attending mainstream classes within mainstream schools, special ‘units’ in mainstream schools or special schools. Aside from the academic benefits of literacy and numeracy, access to formal education brings with it many social advantages from increasing independence and peer learning, to forming social networks and community inclusion. It also provides structure to the day, a chance to set goals and plays a pivotal role in personal development and active citizenship. This does not stop when young people reach adulthood.

However, in the Irish context at least, there are few opportunities for formal learning for people with ID once they finish secondary school. Negative perceptions and attitudes concerning intellectual disability persist; buildings and toilet facilities are often inaccessible and appropriate transportation is limited. What small gains have been made, within the Irish further and higher education sectors, are for those considered ‘most able’. Consequently, when young people with ID, in particular those with severe learning disabilities (SLD) and profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD), reach adulthood they usually make the transition to adult day support services; providing a range of clinical, social and recreational facilities for those attending.

A nationwide review carried out by the Health Service Executive (HSE), beginning in 2012, found wide variability on the structure and quality of such services in the Republic (HSE, 2015). The subsequent publication of Interim Standards for New Directions: Services and Supports for Adults with Disabilities (HSE, 2015) marked a policy shift regarding how adult day support services were to operate. The central aim ofNew Directions’ is to establish a clearly defined service model, focused on three guiding values: person-centeredness, community inclusion and active citizenship, and high quality service provision. It places greater emphasis on access to education and training, specifically in terms of disability services working in tandem with community and mainstream education providers to promote and deliver greater access to accredited courses for people with ID. Given the lack of accredited, SEND education programmes in the Republic, adult day support services, and increasingly schools, have been working with alternative curriculum programmes best known by the acronym, ASDAN.

ASDAN – Towards Independence

The Awards Scheme Development and Awards Network, or ASDAN for short, is a curriculum development organisation and awarding body based in Bristol, England. Set up as an education charity in 1997, its programmes promote and accredit personal and social development, work-related and independent living skills through a variety of different programmes (ASDAN, 2019). The remainder of this article focuses on Towards Independence, part of the Preparing for Adulthood programme, for learners aged 14 + years to adulthood. Towards Independence is structured so that it can be used in a variety of settings from mainstream and special schools to youth centres and further education colleges. The modules can be used as a learning support to students following a formal curriculum, for instance, the Junior Cycle in the Republic of Ireland. In other cases, the programme provides a flexible learning framework for those outside of formal education, for instance, attending adult day support services or receiving home tuition.

Choice is a key element of New Directions namely that people with ID play an active role in how they spend their time while attending day services. Towards Independence offers learners this choice. There are 76 modules in total which can be categorised according to different themes: communication and numeracy, creative studies, sports leisure and recreation, cultural studies and work skills. All students complete the mandatory ‘Starting Out’ module designed to record likes and dislikes as well as asking questions regarding what a learner would like to try. Starting Out is designed to be student led and, used correctly, should become a reference point for selecting future modules as part of individual education plans (IEPs) in school settings or person centered plans (PCPs) in adult day settings.

In St. Vincent’s Centre, part of the Daughters of Charity Disability Support Services, 41 people have successfully completed the Towards Independence programme for the period 2017 – 2019. Students received their certificates at an annual ceremony in a range of topics such as Out in the Community, Craft Making, Engaging with the World: People, Horticulture, and Independent Living, amongst others. All of the modules promoted and encouraged self-advocacy, a sense of independence and community integration through making choices, communication, self-expression through art, and/or using community facilities. Tutors on the programme used a variety of mediums to verify completion of goals within the modules ranging from worksheets and photographs to computer assignments and video recordings. Building on this recent success, there are currently 62 people, from school leavers in community hubs to older adults in residential settings, now following the programme.

Katie Rooney receiving her ASDAN: Towards Independence certificate from Fergus Craddock, Adult Education Programmes Coordinator, Dublin North West Area Partnership and Lisa Maria Reilly, St. Vincent’s Centre.

ASDAN: Towards Independence awardee Deirdre Redmond

One challenge for tutors is selecting an appropriate timeline for completion of a module. Officially, each module has a deadline of three years, after which it must be submitted for external examination or ‘moderation’. While this may be useful in compulsory education settings such as the primary sector, where students and teachers are (generally) in the same place for the same period of time, it can be difficult to maintain interest and track progress as learners move on to adult services. Setting a shorter internal deadline, appropriate to learners’ needs and abilities, is useful in sustaining interest and keeping focus. Additionally, we must recognise that learner preferences and abilities can, and do, change over time. Thus, the ‘Starting Out’ module should be continuously revisited, and updated, to ensure that a learner does not become stuck at a particular point, or age level, in his/her life.

A step forward

At a time when SEND education provision in the Republic of Ireland is once more making headlines for all the wrong reasons, it is worth remembering that steps are being taken by many disability services to deliver educational opportunities to those who wish to avail of them. Towards Independence is one such example, providing flexible curriculum resources and individualised learning. The modules link in nicely with the personal support services advocated by national policy such as New Directions including, but not limited to, communication, literacy and numeracy, personal and social development and maximising independence (HSE, 2015). Many of the modules give the learner the opportunity to connect learning with the wider community as learning takes place in the wider community. Collaboration amongst staff in relation to ASDAN programmes can encourage students to transfer learning from one context to another. Furthermore, there is the sense of achievement upon completion of a module and, later again, when students receive their certificates. For some learners, this may be the first time their efforts have been acknowledged in this way.

The Preparing for Adulthood curriculum resources are used by many schools in the Republic of Ireland as part of the Level 2 Learning Programme (L2LP) for Junior Cycle students with special educational needs. This Junior Cycle programme aligns with a minor or special purpose award, at level two, on the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) and is validated by Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI).

Taking into account that QQI programmes, at levels one and two, on the NFQ are primarily designed for the further and adult education sectors, there may be an opportunity for ASDAN registered adult day centres to qualify for programme validation at these levels. Conversely, QQI validation is a stringent process – as it should be – and centres must first meet statutory conditions set out in the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Act 2012. Additionally, any centre providing an education programme organised or developed by an external provider, such as ASDAN, must first consult with the provider before applying for programme validation.

Given the challenges accessing appropriate, formal education courses in a community setting, seeking QQI validation of education programmes, such as ASDAN, is one way for adult day support services to meet the requirements set out by New Directions. It will also take creativity, collaboration between education providers and disability services and, most importantly, adequate funding to see it realised.


ASDAN (2019). Towards Independence. Retrieved from: https://www.asdan.org.uk/courses/programmes/towards-independence

Government of Ireland (2004). Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. Retrieved from: http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/2004/act/30/enacted/en/html

Health Service Executive (2015). Interim Standards for New Directions, Services and Supports for Adults with Disabilities. Retrieved from: https://www.hse.ie/eng/services/list/4/disability/newdirections/interim-standards-and-plans-to-progress-implementation-in-2016-.html

Holland, K. (2019, 13 May). Children on ‘reduced timetables’ being denied education. The Irish Times. Retrieved from: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/children-on-reduced-timetables-being-denied-education-1.3889623

O’Brien, C. (2019a, 24 August).  Not going to school next week: ‘Our children are slipping through the cracks’. The Irish Times. Retrieved from: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/not-going-to-school-next-week-our-children-are-slipping-through-the-cracks-1.3994081

O’Brien, C. (2019b, 13 June). Reduced timetables have ‘serious’ impact for children. The Irish Times. Retrieved from: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/reduced-timetables-have-serious-impact-for-children-1.3923613

Dr. Lisa Maria Reilly coordinates the adult and community education programme for Daughters of Charity Disability Support Services, St. Vincent’s Centre in Dublin, Ireland.