Thousands of pupils with special needs risk missing out on support in mainstream schools under changes to how additional teaching hours are allocated to schools, according to campaigners.
Until now, the level of support given was based on indicators such as enrolment, the proportion of pupils with “complex needs”, gender and outcomes of standardised tests. However, a revised model has removed “complex needs” as a criterion for the allocation of special education teaching hours.
Inclusion Ireland, the association for people with an intellectual disability, and autism charity AsIAm have warned that the changes will impact on the most vulnerable.
Adam Harris, AsIAm’s chief executive, said children who require the highest level of support risk receiving less support from later this year. This, he said would push more students from mainstream into special school or special class settings, which are not affected by the changes.
“This change will affect students starting junior infants this coming September and represents a potential loss in support, for children and school communities most in need, into the future,” he said.
“At its most basic, children with the highest level of need appear to be being told that they can access more support in special classes than in a mainstream class, irrespective of their parent’s choice, the voice of the child or where they are most suited to learn.”
The Department of Education said the criterion was removed on the basis of concern over the accuracy of HSE data on children with special needs.
It said this resulted in the potential for significant variations from one area to another, while it was not possible to verify if data related solely to educational need as distinct from care needs, which are resourced through a separate special needs assistant allocation process.
However, Inclusion Ireland chief executive Derval McDonagh said the rationale for the removal of “complex needs” for allocating additional resources to schools was of real concern. The solution was to work towards making the data more accurate in partnership with the HSE and ensuring consistency rather than “completely removing” the criteria, she said.
Inclusion Ireland has previously raised concerns about the reallocation of special education teachers to plug staffing gaps in schools, which leads to vulnerable pupils losing out. “We need to resource and equip schools better so that all children can have an inclusive school experience,” Ms McDonagh said.
To ensure schools are not negatively impacted by these issues, the department has pledged that existing hours assigned for complex needs will be maintained for each school.
Overall, it said the changes will “strengthen the capacity of the model to give a more sustainable allocation to schools, which recognises where there are significant learning needs”.
It said the new model will not lead to any reduction in the overall number of special education teachers. Instead, it said, it will allocate them to the schools with greatest level of need.
Another change for allocating resources is the removal of gender as a criteria.
The department said the general consensus of research a few years ago was that there was a greater level of identified special education need among boys in Irish schools. This resulted in a specific portion of hours being applied to the male cohort of a school’s enrolment.
“It is now accepted that female pupils have a similar level of need and, in addition, it is apparent that this need is manifesting itself at later stages in their growth and development,” it said.
Mr Harris, however, criticised what he described as a lack of consultation with the disability community in advance of the changes. “An inclusive education system will only be achieved based on trust in the system whether a child needs to access a special school, special class or mainstream class in the context of our current system.”