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(Ireland) Changes to special ed; parents exhausted/outraged

Minister for Education Norma Foley Leah Farrell

Feb 14, 2024, The Journal: 'Exhausted with the fight': Outrage as Minister defends changes to special education criteria

MINISTER FOR EDUCATION Norma Foley has asked for the backing of schools for changes to the allocation of special education supports for students – even as parents and teachers express huge concern over the move.

Earlier this month, the Department of Education received criticism when it accidentally published what it later said were “sample test files” detailing the changes to how special education teachers would be allocated to schools. 

The Department later published the details in full, with Minister for Education Norma Foley confirming today that the changes will go ahead as planned.

The changes will apply to the 2024/25 school year and come off the back of a review which began in 2022.

One of the core changes is the removal of “complex needs” as one of the criteria for the allocation of special education teacher adults – this includes children with autism, ADHD and Down Syndrome, among other conditions.

Autism charity, AsIAm said the change will impact the most vulnerable children in schools.

AsIAm argued that children starting school who require the highest levels of support needs, now risk receiving less support this September as a result of this change.

It said that ultimately the change will push more students in mainstream education into special school or class settings. 

AsIAm also argued that this is complete at odds with the Government’s goal of working towards a system which supports all children to be able to access mainstream education.

Speaking to The Journal, one parent, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that as the mother of a child with Down Syndrome who is due to start school in September she is horrified by the changes.

We are so nervous that she will be in mainstream without suitable supports.

“This memo writes her out of consideration when the Department decides what to allocate to the school,” she said.

This mother said that some parents would actually opt for places in more tailored educational settings, but that there are simply not enough places available and none for children like her daughter who have a mild or moderate intellectual disability.

She added that the Department of Education has been “very clear” that it wants more inclusivity of disabled children in mainstream schools. 

“They said they would achieve this by increasing supports in mainstream. They have literally done the opposite,” she said. 

“We should be looking forward to our child thriving in school; instead we are facing into September, devastated, upset and wondering if she can survive there.”

Another parent, who also wished to remain anonymous, told The Journal that her five year old daughter has a dual diagnosis of Down Syndrome and autism but has only had refusals from special schools which have said they are oversubscribed or have to prioritise older children. 

“The school most suitable, which only takes kids with a dual diagnosis, only had four places and there are six on the waiting list in front of her,” she said.

 “We have reports specifically saying that mainstream and even an ASD (autistic spectrum disorders) unit are not options for our daughter, yet here we are.

“We are going to be competing for places in ASD units in mainstream schools that aren’t even going to fulfil the needs very clearly spelt out by her professional recommendations,” she said.

The Minister’s position

When asked by The Journal today what her response is to parents with these sort of concerns, Minister for Education Norma Foley stressed that there is a review mechanism built into the new model. 

 “It’s a new model. We’re asking people to work with it. And if it’s not working for your school to please participate in the review,” she said. 

The minister also said today that 67% of schools will see no change or an improvement to their allocation of special education teaching hours. 

However, 10% of schools will see their hours reduced by between five and 25 hours a week and 23% of schools will see their existing allocation reduced by less than 5 hours per week. 

“Look, we engaged with the unions, we engaged with the management bodies, we engaged with the schools on the ground, they pointed to significant issues with the model that was there in 2017. It beholds all of us, if there are issues that we would seek to do better,” the Minister said.

What schools are saying

One school principal told The Journal that parents in her school are exhausted and outraged by the changes, as are the teachers. 

Niamh Cullen, who is the principal of Grace Park Educate Together National School, in Dublin said that while she appreciates the change the Department is trying to achieve, it isn’t working. 

“I really believe in working with the department so this isn’t an attack but we need to move this quicker. It’s not fair. All children should have the same access [to supports], it shouldn’t be just because of where you go to school,” Cullen said. 

Cullen explained that as her school was only established in 2016, it receives significantly less special education teaching hours that older schools of equivalent size. 

As a result of this, she is engaging in the review process and hopes to have it resolved for September but she stressed that the process is hugely burdensome and time consuming. 

“The hoops you have to jump through to get the supports, I’m three years fighting for this since I became principal,” she said. 

“One of the biggest problems that we have is that when parents come to us in school, a lot of them are already exhausted with the fight just to get access to services, or to try and get assessments for their children, or to get their child a school place.

“So they are appalled [by this]. They’re feeling that their children are left out.”

Cullen added: “The new model was supposed to make it easier for families to access supports but it has actually made it more difficult.”

The issue has also been condemned by opposition parties with Labour and the Social Democrats both criticising the Minister and calling for her to immediately reconsider the decision.


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