STUDENT JOURNEYS: THE SPECIAL EDUCATION ROUTES O’ Reilly Hall, University College Dublin, 6–7 December 2004.

by Jim Jordan


This two-day conference brought together speakers from the USA, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with expertise in different aspects of education of persons with special educational needs. Keynote speakers were David Scanlon PhD and Philip Di Mattia PhD, both from the Lynch School of Education, Boston College.

David Scanlon provided an overview of the history of special education in the US. He said that special education’s roots lie in the struggle for equal rights for all, and developments in special education reflect the shifting conceptions of equity and appropriate opportunity. Current practices encompass an emphasis on inclusion. Best practices in curriculum for children with special needs highlight the importance of development of cognitive processes. It is anticipated, however, that the future of special education will challenge the conception of full equality for people with special needs.

Philip Di Mattia presented the research and development of two pieces of assistive technology—camera mouse and Eagle Eyes—that have been developed at Boston College Both these technologies assist people with communication disorders to overcome some barriers to communication, and thus allow greater access to the regular school curriculum. Eagle Eyes allows a person to control the mouse pointer on the computer by moving their eyes. It works through five electrodes placed on the student’s head that sense the angle of the eyes. Camera mouse is a technology that allows a student to control the mouse pointer on the computer by slight movements of the head. It uses a standard video camera to track the movement of any distinguishing feature on the head (e.g. the tip of the nose) and moves the mouse pointer accordingly. For both technologies, mouse clicks are specified using dwell time. These technologies continue to be researched with a view to marketing. (Further information can be found through the Boston college website, and a demo of camera mouse can be downloaded from

Special education in Ireland – an overview

Mary Meaney of the NDA outlined developments in special education since the foundation of the Irish state, with reference to:

  • The Constitution: granting free primary education
  • School Attendance Act 1926
  • Bunreacht na hÉireann 1937
  • Education Act 1998- appropriate education
  • Education of Persons with Special Educational Needs (EPSEN) Act 2004

The presentation considered the education journey for a student with special educational needs from early (pre-compulsory) education to lifelong (post-compulsory) learning. It also considered the journey the system has made and focused on the changes of the last decade. Ms Meaney presented the EPSEN Act as a ‘promise’. In discussion that followed the presentation, concern was raised about the future role of special schools and a hope was expressed that steps would be taken to provide support and assistance for parents in coping with the special educational needs of their children.

The challenging road to inclusion

In his talk, Dr Tony Doyle of Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, focused initially on the concept of inclusion and how it differs from integration. One of the underlying principles of inclusion is that if children learn together they learn to live together. Inclusion presents a challenge for schools in that it demands a different emphasis on how teaching and pupil interaction are organised. It’s about teaching children how to learn and is more to do with learning styles than teaching styles. It requires differentiation of the curriculum to facilitate access to mixed-ability classes. It also requires a change of emphasis from the historical deficit model.

Tony Doyle then outlined the developments in special educational needs (SEN) from a legislative and policy perspective, both in the UK and here in Ireland. Dr Doyle posed a number of questions about whether or not inclusion is happening in Irish schools. Is withdrawal for extra support the common practice, or are pupils getting extra help within their class? Do SEN pupils progress to post-primary and do they complete? He highlighted some obstacles such as high class numbers, disproportionate numbers of SEN pupils in some schools, lack of in-career development, long delays for assessments, poor/inadequate accommodation, lack of clarity of roles of support staff (e.g. special needs assistant (SNA), resource teacher, learning support teacher, remedial teacher) and unrealistic parental expectations. He highlighted the need for allocation of time within a school for organisation, collaboration and liaison around SEN. He declared that in general teachers are committed to doing what is best for pupils and are continually anxious to avail of courses and conferences to improve their skills.

Early childhood provision

Maresa Duignan of the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Education (CECDE) informed delegates that CECDE had been established in October 2001 by the Department of Education and Science (DES) in response to a recommendation in Ready to learn, the White Paper on Early Child Education (DES 1999). She stated that early intervention is defined as ‘an intervention undertaken to influence the development and learning of young children (birth to six years) with or at risk of developing disabilities’ (McCollum 2002). Children with disabilities/SEN benefit disproportionately from early childhood education (Guralnick 1997; Feldman 1997), but the quality of the provision is crucial and children can suffer risk if it is not of good quality. Inclusive services are very beneficial for most, but not all, children and that as a result there is a continued need for special services if it is in the best interests of the child. In the early years education and care are inseparable. In Ireland seven different government departments have responsibility for early childhood provision, but these are not well coordinated—a fact highlighted by the OECD as something that must be addressed immediately. Further information is available from Centre for Early Childhood Development & Education Gate Lodge, St. Patrick’s College Drumcondra Dublin 9. Tel: 01 8842110 or at

Primary Education

Fr Dan O’Connor of the Catholic Primary School Managers’ Association referred to the work of Niamh Bhreathnach in her time as Minister for Education and Science in getting all school managements to sign up to a common schedule or mission which is grounded in the holistic development of the pupil. He spoke of the responsibilities of boards of management to ensure that all functions of schools are carried out as prescribed either by the Minister for Education and Science or in legislation. The Education Act of 1998, he said, clearly states that schools have a responsibility to educate all students, including those with special educational needs.

He expressed concern at the ever-expanding statutory duties of the school Principal and posed the question ‘Do we perhaps as a society expect too much from schools?’ He declared that there is openness on the part of schools to accept children with special needs, but he decried the lack of the necessary support services, such as therapists.

Sheelah Flatman-Watson, an NDA scholar, presented the findings of her research conducted with parents in Dublin and Kildare into ‘Access to mainstream primary education for students with an intellectual and/or developmental disability’. Of those surveyed, 39 students (54%) had been refused entry into mainstream; 22 were offered deferred/delayed placement; 47 were advised to seek placement elsewhere; and 14, having enrolled and attended a school, were subsequently asked to seek placement elsewhere. Where they were given, reasons included ‘disability not catered for’, ‘students disability/care needs/behaviour’, ‘child not suited to placement’, ‘quota reached’, ‘no supports/personnel available in the school’.

Quotes from respondents highlighted negative attitudes such as lowering the standard of the school and use of the child’s disability as a reasons for non-acceptance. Lack of confidence about acquiring the necessary supports from the DES and lack of transport were also highlighted. When asked to express their preference for child-centred considerations, a majority choose an individual SNA, followed by an individual education programme, followed by being with family and neighbours, academic and social skills development and independent living were lower down their priority list. Other characteristics that were expressed as important were a positive school attitude, welcoming, understanding, versatility, and openness to learning with parents. The data showed that some schools are very supportive and have good structures in place, while others do not welcome children with special educational needs.

Pat Goff, principal of a large primary school in Wexford Town, represented the views of the Irish Primary Principles’ Network. He spoke about the changes in his school in the last six years. In 1998 the school had 16 teachers and a total staff of 20; now there are 31 teachers, 22 SNAs and a total staff of 58. However, the DES has not taken the increased administration involved into consideration. He feels that the whole staff (not just teachers) should be considered in the allocation of administrative/management time to principals. He estimated that 70% of his time is taken up with the students who have special educational needs, although they only constitute 10% of the school population. He alluded to the fact that schools can be victims of their own success if they gain the reputation of being good with children with SEN. He suggested that one of the ways forward in this area might be to permit dual enrolment for children who have more complex needs.

Post-primary education

A presentation by Sean Ó Longáin from Donegal VEC dealt initially with the constitutional provisions pre-1996 for people with special needs, as provided by article 40 (fundamental rights/personal rights) and Article 42 (education), and how current legislation has grown from this. The 1996 Strategy for equality provided recommendations on the rights of people with disabilities; current legislation and practice attempts to reflect these recommendations. Since 1996, great strides have been made in disability legislation, such as

  • NDA Act 1999
  • Establishment of the NDA
  • Education Act 1998
  • Equal Status Act 2000
  • White Paper on Adult Education Learning for Life 2000
  • The European Convention on Human Rights.

Sean Ó Longáin explored these developments and went on to provide an introduction of the (EPSEN) Act 2004. He concluded by providing an overview of the current status of adult education for persons with disabilities, recommending that a mainstreaming approach must be adopted, and that education providers must be adequately resourced to comply with the provisions of the Disability Bill.

Jennifer Duffy spoke of her experience as a learning support teacher in a secondary school. She said that there are great challenges to the subject teacher at second level in that she/he must identify students ‘at risk’, meet the needs of all the students in the class, complete the prescribed curriculum, and engage with parents—while creating a positive and inclusive learning environment. As a learning support teacher one of the challenges she faced was achieving a positive attitude in the school as a whole. Two-way communication with the subject teachers was very important and it was vital to take a holistic approach to students’ needs. She spoke about the lack of training generally available to meet the variety of specific learning needs that she might encounter on a daily basis.

Parental attitudes

Una O’Connor, from the University of Ulster UNESCO Centre, presented her research into parental views on inclusive education for children with SEN. Out of 7000 parents with children with special educational needs, 1032 responded to her questionnaire. A random sample of 122 were selected, 95 of whom were interviewed by telephone. Her main findings were that in general parents were satisfied with their child’s present school placement. There was broad support for inclusive education because it provides opportunities for integration. Respondents felt that there was a high level of awareness of pupil difficulties and great benefits accrue to all pupils in an inclusive setting. There are implications for schools in how they organise and provide education. Issues that need to be considered into the future are the development of partnerships with parents, educational and governmental initiatives, the future role of special schools, and training for all in the provision of SEN education.

Collaboration in providing for students with special needs

Dr Jean Ware, Director of Special Education at St Patrick’s College, Dublin, examined what was meant by the term ‘collaboration’ in terms of providing for children with special educational needs in a variety of educational contexts, and the benefits of collaboration in these contexts.

The current pressures towards collaboration were considered, particularly in the context of current legislation and DES circulars. Dr Ware referred to the EPSEN Act 2004, which stipulates that the special educational needs organiser (SENO) may convene a team for the purpose of drawing up an education plan. She went on to outline a number of different collaborative teams that are needed if special educational needs are to be met effectively (Lacey 1998). There should ideally be a school team, and a classroom team, in addition to the multidisciplinary team that will draw up and review the education plan.

Dr Ware outlined issues that would arise in relation to collaboration between members of each of these teams in the Irish context. She concluded with a discussion of how potential difficulties might be overcome in the interest of more effective education for pupils with special educational needs.

Best practice in further education, employment and training services

Donie O’Shea of the NDA spoke on the that body’s report Towards best practice in the provision of further education, employment and training services for people with disabilities in Ireland. The study examined the policy and the legislative framework in order to assess what is, and should be, provided. It looked at vocational education, vocational training, employment, rehabilitative training, sheltered work and supported employment. The key findings were:

1) Mainstreaming

  • Progress has been slow
  • There is a lack of targets
  • Poor coordination
  • Pathways to employment from 2nd level education is fragmented

2) Benefits trap

  • Much of the official help with cost of living is tied to remaining out of work
  • The medical card limits are set below the minimum wage
  • Earnings do not cover the loss of benefits in many cases.
  • People with disabilities also risk losing benefits related to specialised equipment for their disability.

3) Access issues

  • Issues regarding lack of information
  • The physical infrastructure of places of employment often doesn’t support inclusion of people with disabilities
  • There are transport issues regarding getting to and from work

4) Data deficit

  • There is an actual deficit in data that reflects current employment situation.
Comparative analysis of the special needs assistance approach

Máire Bergin is being funded by the NDA through its Research Scholar Programme. Her conference presentation focused on one part of a wider ongoing study which aims to examine the ‘Role, Definition, Function and Training Needs of the Classroom Assistant and Special Needs Assistant in the Primary and Secondary Education Settings in Ireland’. In her research Máire is comparing recent developments in special education in Sweden, England and Ireland and the resultant impacts on the provision of special needs assistants. Sweden has had a phased closure of special schools because of relatively low levels of mainstreaming. Since 2000 education provision for students with SEN is devolved to the local municipality which must provide an ‘education equal to that received by others in the community’ ( The Swedish Institute for Special Needs (a statutory agency) assists resource teams in schools with materials and skills development. A multidisciplinary-team approach (including teachers, parents and support assistants) is taken to meeting the needs of the student. This has raised the profile of support assistants leading to provision of short tailored courses.

In England and Wales the 1996 Education Act affirmed the statutory obligation of Local Education Authorities (LEAs) to provide supports for children who have SEN for whom they are responsible. The Act further identifies the requirement to meet the non-educational needs of children with SEN. To meet the latter requirement special needs assistants were employed directly by the LEAs. The role of these assistants has developed to include some of the educational attainments set out in the statutory assessment. Their title has changed from Learning Support Assistants to Teaching Assistants. This change has brought with it a move towards differentiated training paths, which includes appointing assistants to subject specialists in secondary schools.

Máire gave an outline of developments in Ireland in relation to SEN from the Special EducationSERC to the present day. She noted the increase in numbers of SEN children in mainstream and the corresponding increase in supports. She recommended teacher training and SNA training.

Encouraging voices

The ‘Encouraging Voices’ project has been developed by Michael Shevlin, Education Department, Trinity College Dublin, and Richard Rose, Centre for Special Needs Education, University College Northampton, in collaboration with colleagues in Ireland, the UK and Iceland.

A book bearing the project title is the culmination of the project. It explores the perspectives of young people from diverse backgrounds (including disability) regarding their educational experiences. What these young people have in common is the fact that they have been pushed to the margins and left out of the decision-making process in their own education. What these young people desire is universal access to the education system and ambition for their success from policy makers and teachers. What is also apparent from their contributions is the fact that schools are a microcosm of society at large—where disability, culture and social background still prompt stereotyped beliefs about what individuals can achieve. Very often difference is presented as a reason for failure. (See review of Encouraging Voices in Frontline 56 (October 2003, p.30).


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