Monday , 17 May 2021
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Special needs education: giving children every chance

Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

or decades, Government policy towards children with special needs was one of denial and neglect. There was little policy or legislation. Most education was carried out by religious orders. Even as late as the 1990s, the State argued that certain groups of children with intellectual disabilities were “ineducable”.

Thankfully, much has changed since. A series of landmark court cases taken by parents of children with disabilities, along with greater awareness of children’s rights, has led to substantial investment and progressive legislation. Government policy is now focused on fulfilling the potential of all children with additional needs.

This costs a serious amount of money. A report published by the Department of Public Expenditure last week shows spending on special education needs now accounts for almost one-fifth of the total education budget. In the period since 2004, spending on the area has grown by 260 per cent. Special needs education now costs the exchequer more than third-level education.

The report, however, paints a one-sided picture. The cost-driven findings do not show improved educational outcomes for children with special needs or the enormous savings to the State on foot of this. Nor do they refer to our human-rights obligations in responding to children who require support.

Given our lamentable track record in investing in this area, it is little surprise that spending jumped so dramatically. There has been much catching up to do. It is now estimated that about 25 per cent of children in Ireland have some form of physical, learning and emotional or behavioural difficulty. This rate aligns with other jurisdictions such as the UK and the Netherlands.

Although there is little doubt major funding is required, the report is correct to point out that resources must be spent efficiently and effectively. There are claims, for example, of children being unnecessarily labelled with emotional and behavioural conditions simply to secure more educational resources. A new resource allocation model, due to be rolled out from next September, should help. Under this system, parents will no longer need a diagnosis for their child in order to get teaching supports. Instead, a fairer model for allocation of supports aims to deliver earlier intervention and better outcomes.

It is vitally important that our approach to special needs education is guided by a determination to deliver the best outcomes for children, rather than cutting costs. Gaps still remain. Supports for students at second level are sorely lacking and many children are waiting far too long for vital interventions such as speech therapy. For all that, we are finally beginning to make real strides in meeting the educational needs of our most vulnerable young people. We need to re-double, not reduce, this commitment.