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A new report recommends phasing out special education. Is this the right approach?

The NCSE recently recommended that all students with special needs ‘should be educated in mainstream schools’. Two parents debate the implications

Lucinda Murrihy: Yes. It’s no wonder parents are battle-weary, but the dream of my little boy in an inclusive classroom keeps me going

Earlier today, my husband clung desperately to my arm as we sat shoulder to shoulder staring at the laptop screen. Our son’s psychologist was about to appear on a Zoom call to announce his educational assessment result, which would determine whether he could stay in the “special” school where he had attended preschool, or early intervention. For two years he has been thriving there, thanks to an incredible teacher, SNAs and principal. He needed to meet certain intellectual criteria to be successful in his application for the primary section.

As we anxiously waited for the psychologist to get to the results, I looked out the window and watched parents making their way to pick up their children at the primary school 70 metres from our home. These parents always expected that their child would attend their local school. For now, what I want for my son is that he gets into his “special” school. But I hope even more that one day I’ll get to return to having the same expectation as those parents and that he will be able to attend his local mainstream school.

At the heart of the success of my son’s current school is not rocket science but people - people who support, celebrate, embrace and respect him in an environment that is flexible, adaptable and tailored to his individuality. There is absolutely no reason this cannot be extended to all 4,000 schools across Ireland. This concept is at the core of the National Council for Special Education (NCSE)’s long-awaited policy advice for Government, “an Inclusive education for an inclusive society”. It recommends “an Irish education system which includes all students in local schools, will foster a greater understanding of difference and perspectives, build greater empathy amongst young people, and help develop a more inclusive society”.

This recommendation has landed to a mixed reaction from families who are understandably battle-weary. Endless fighting to be valued, to be seen and heard, to be accepted, for services and supports. No wonder the utopian picture painted in the advice seems a long way off, if not impossible. If we can’t get the basics right now, how can we hope for this inclusive future? To those parents: I hear you.


Families need to trust their child will get the support they need at their local school, whether that is a small amount of support or intensive support. Schools need to trust that they will get the resources they need to support all children in their community. It is the responsibility of the NCSE, the Department, Government, and our leaders to build that trust. So that they can believe what I believe - which is that real inclusion amounts to a set of values, a set of beliefs; you belong here, we will support and accept you as you are, we will not give up on you.

We received the result from the psychologist 10 minutes later and once again my eyeline moved back to the window. This time I watched the children returning home after school with their parents. I imagine them sitting next to my little boy in an inclusive classroom, instead of seeing him setting off in a taxi every morning. I imagine him teaching them about difference, granting them the experience of seeing what stimming and sensory breaks mean, showing them how to communicate with a non-speaking child. Injecting them with empathy and understanding as they grow up.

And giving them the chance to grow up to become teachers and education ministers, parents and employers who accept and embrace different behaviours, different developmental pathways, different styles of communication. I imagine never needing to raise my children’s rights in that kind of society. Yes, it will take some time to get there, and leaders need to earn our trust, but it starts by returning to the expectation we once had when we started out on our parenting journey. Our children deserve the same expectations as everyone else. And the children that pass by my son’s house every weekday deserve the chance to go to school with him.

Lucinda Murrihy is a parent of two children

Victoria White: No. You can’t wave a magic wand called “inclusive education” and make a complex disability disappear

Some dreams don’t come true. Parents of seriously disabled children learn that early. It’s time the NCSE learned it too.

Its recent recommendation to Government that special schools and special classes should be phased out so that all disabled children can have the “opportunity” to be educated in their local schools is outrageous.

You can’t wave a magic wand called “inclusive education” and make a complex disability disappear. The refusal to recognise difference in the name of “inclusivity” feels like another effort on the part of society to make the troubling issue of its seriously disabled fellow citizens vanish from sight.

Listen up, NCSE: some children can’t do mainstream school. My child, autistic and with a moderate intellectual disability, could not.

I wished very hard that it would work out. But when you’re lying over your child in the playground as he wriggles and screams the realisation does begin to dawn that “inclusion” is not going swimmingly. As is the case with many autistics, his sensory system could not cope with the number of stimuli in a mainstream classroom.

The council displays no awareness of the physical pain and mental distress that the sensory inputs of a mainstream school setting can cause many autistic children. And that’s before you even consider learning.

Autistic children are the NCSE’s main subject as these are the children who are mostly responsible for the increase in the number of pupils in special schools and classes: there were 126 special schools, with four more planned at the time the report was written (it was originally due to be published in 2020); the number of special classes in mainstream schools had risen from 214 in 2010 to 1,463, with 287 more planned.

This provision cost €2.6 billion in 2023, or 27 per cent of the Department of Education’s budget. The NCSE’s pitch to Government seems to be that sending every child to his or her local school regardless of disability may cost less in the end. It suggests that these children may be more independent as adults.

Lose this dream, NCSE. The unfortunate reality is that autism doesn’t go away. Autistic kids in special education rarely transition to mainstream because they are where they should be. The hard fact is that some of them will never live independently because dreams don’t always come true.

Of course, most disabled children, including many less disabled autistics, can cope with mainstream if properly supported. Every school should welcome disabled children who wish to attend, as has been the law since 2022. All schools should offer a broad curriculum including the Leaving Certificate Applied - but many don’t. And no school is currently resourced with occupational therapists, speech therapists, psychologists and other services, as the NCSE recommends.

But the 2 per cent of kids whose disability requires a tiny class of perhaps six pupils with a teacher and two SNAs should get just that. The NCSE could not find even one student who was unhappy with such a placement, but did record some who remembered a difficult time in mainstream.

Only 7 per cent of stakeholders supported abolishing special education in favour of the “inclusive” model in the NCSE’s consultations. Is their advice informed by ideology or evidence? While most developed countries have special schools, the three countries they visited included the only two places to have done away with Special Education: Portugal and New Brunswick, Canada. By contrast the UK plans 40 new special schools and does not interpret Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as meaning that all disabled children should be forced into mainstream education in the name of “inclusion”. Nor should we. Instead of ideology, we should focus on children. And for me that means the trauma ebbing out of my six-year-old as he clutched Ms Durcan’s hand on the edge of the playground on his first day at special school. We do still have dreams, you see. They are just different ones.

Victoria White is a journalist and carer