The Implementation of Education for Persons with Special Needs: The latest!

by Michael McKeon Dublin City University

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The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) published its Implementation Report on the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs (ESPEN) Act 2004 on 18 December 2006. The Report sets out the views and recommendations of the Council for the phased implementation of the Act.

It identifies the policy issues that need to be addressed and actions that need to be taken over the next four years to ensure that the Act is fully implemented over that period. Pat Curtin, NCSE Chief Executive, said that ‘The report maps out how the vision and practical measures set out in the Act in relation to the provision of inclusive, appropriate education for all children with special educational needs can be made a reality. Policy changes that need to occur and the resources that need to be provided to deliver the outcomes envisaged in the Act are clearly set out in a price tag action plan.’

The report examines in detail the number of children who will come within the much broader definition of special educational needs, as set out in the Act. The report’s finding is that the number of such children could be up to 18% of school-going children. The report identifies the areas in which investment is required and estimates the level of investment needed across a range of areas, but with particular emphasis on teacher training and support for schools. Over four years the total investment needed on the education side is estimated at €397 million, of which supports for schools, including the training and development of teachers, is estimated to cost €243 million.

The Council maintains that progress in making the EPSEN Act vision a reality will require change on the part of parents, representative bodies, schools, teachers, education and health sector administrators and professionals and a wide variety of other statutory bodies and stakeholder interests — including the Council itself- The goal of enabling children with special educational needs to participate in, and benefit from, inclusive education and in achieving meaningful outcomes from education in terms of progression to employment, further and continuing education, fulfilled lives and independent living is an extremely challenging one which will require the combined efforts of all concerned if it is to be delivered as a new deal for children with special educational needs.

According to Tom Murray, Chairman of the Council, the action plan presented by the Council is ambitious, as it provides for the commencement of the rights-based provisions of the Act by the end of 2009. The Council’s view is that these provisions cannot wait until the end of the five-year implementation phase. Much needs to be done in the intervening period to ensure that the framework for delivery of the provisions of the Act is put in place. The Council looks forward to engaging with the Department of Education and Science on the range of policy changes and actions to give effect to this report.

In a response from the Department of Education and Science, Minister Mary Hanafin welcomed the report, indicating that her department will consider it in detail. The Report acknowledges the difficulties in identifying precisely the number of pupils who will access services under the Act, and estimating the level of additional resources required. It also signals that a process of engagement needs to be undertaken between the Departments of Education and Science and Health and Children, as well as other participants in the education and health sectors in conjunction with the NCSE, to identify the detail of the way forward.

The Minister maintains that the implementation of the Act will provide a challenge to all involved in making educational provision for pupils with special needs, where much has already been done to pave the way for implementation. Significant resources had been allocated to schools to cater for such children and enormous advances in the provision of resources for pupils with special educational needs have been made in recent years with continuously prioritised special education in the allocation of resources and a committed to continued improvements in educational provision for children with special educational needs.

The Minister endorsed the work of the NCSE, maintaining that the establishment of the National Council for Special Education with its locally-based Special Educational Needs Organisers (SENOs) has enabled significant improvements to be made in the delivery of service to pupils with special educational needs, their schools and parents. The Minister highlighted the fact that because of increased investment in recent years, there are:

  • More than 1100 teachers in special schools
  • Over 5000 teachers at primary level dealing directly with children with special educational needs, compared to less than 1500 in 1998
  • At second level, approximately 1854 whole-time.equivalent additional teachers are in place to support pupils with special educational needs. This compares to the approximately 200 teachers who were in place in 1998 for such pupils.

In addition, there are approximately 534 whole-time.equivalent learning support teachers We now have more than 8200 special needs assistants — compared to 300 in 1998.

In addition:

  • Over €50m is being spent this year on school transport for special needs pupils.
  • Approximately €3 million is being provided towards specialised equipment and materials
  • A 30% increase in capitation rates has been approved for all special schools together with an increase in capitation grant to certain categories of special classes in mainstream schools. The total cost of this new measure will be €1.5million.
  • A Special Education Support Service has been established to provide professional support and training for those providing education services to pupils with special educational needs.
  • Additional resources have been provided in the estimates that will fund additional measures to facilitate the implementation of the EPSEN Act. Over €820 million is being provided for special education in 2007— nearly 30% (€180 million) more than announced for the 2006 estimates

The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) has also launched Guidelines for Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for children with special education needs. The Guidelines present a checklist of the essential elements required for an IEP. It is intended that this will form the template for best practice in the future. The Guidelines do not yet have statutory effect and are designed to provide a good practice guide to schools on the IEP process. The NCSE recognises that IEPs and their implementation will have significant resource implications for schools. Copies of the Guidelines have been sent to all schools as the process of implementation begins.

Tom Murray, NCSE Chairperson, stated that the guidelines will provide an important resource for parents and teachers. “The launch of the IEP guidelines is another important step in responding to the needs of children, parents, teachers and schools. These guidelines build on the good work already being done in schools all over Ireland, to ensure that those with special educational needs can achieve not only the same outcomes, but also have access to the same kinds of opportunities as everyone else. These guidelines will further inform me, as a parent of a child with special needs, as to what actions I can take at home with my child to provide her with the best possible opportunities to develop both educationally and socially.”

The IEP guidelines will be of tremendous benefit to all teachers in special education. Sinéad Mc Loughlin, primary school principal and NCSE member, argued that teachers are committed to ensuring that the individual learning needs of pupils with special educational needs are catered for in the school setting. Effective planning and resource provision will ensure access to the curriculum for all pupils, and participation in a relevant and meaningful learning environment.

NCSE state that the publication of these guidelines will benefit everyone in the special education sector and outline the benefits:

  • The Individual Education Plan will bring key people together in the best interests of the individual child.
  • The Individual Education Plan will mark out a clear route for every child with special needs
  • The Individual Education Plan will identify any areas where there is a deficit in a child’s development to date, and highlight where the child can make specific achievements and progress.

The IEP is individual, specific and inclusive and will deliver measurable outcomes for children, parents and teachers alike. The child is provided with ‘a road map’ to chart his/her development, parents will be fully informed of what progress is being made with their child and what outcomes to expect, and all teachers will have a greater involvement in the education of children with special needs.

Minister for Education and Science, Mary Hanafin, who launched the Guidelines, stated that she was aware of past failings in not providing adequately for special education. Since 1998 unprecedented levels of investment have been targeted towards special education and significant progress has been made. The publication of the guidelines is a further development to enhance education provision for children with special education needs. While the Minister is aware that some schools have already drawn up IEPs for children with special education needs, these guidelines will provide further support for schools and parents and all involved in the education of children with special education needs.

The Implementation Report on the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs (ESPEN) Act 2004 is available on the Council’s website at www.ncse.ie .

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