The history of education for children with special educational needs in Ireland has been one of neglect and exclusion. However the past three decades have seen a shift in attitude and policy. A shift which, Professor Desmond Swan has described as a progression in three phases: the era of neglect and denial; the era of the special school; and the era of integration or inclusion . The right to education is recognised in Ireland under Article 42 of the Constitution. However, in 1993 The Special Education Review Committee (SERC) reported: “Ireland has a conspicuous lack of legislation governing much of education but particularly covering educational provision for students with special needs ”
During the 1990’s litigation in the sphere of education emerged as an important agent for change in special education. Since the landmark O’Donoghue judgement of1993, parents have sought the protection of the courts to give practical effect to a constitutional right to an education for their children with special educational needs and forced Government to give legislative effect to this right.
Over the past ten years there have been a number of key legislative developments in education for people with special educational needs. A stated objective of the 1998 Education Act is “to give practical effect to the constitutional rights of children, including children who have a disability”. The Equal Status Act 2000 refers to education in relation to the policies of establishment regarding admissions, access to courses, access to any facility or benefit provided or any other condition of participation in the establishment. In suspected cases of discrimination recourse can be sought through the Office of Equality Investigations. The Education (Welfare) Act 2000 is to ensure school attendance. It provided for the establishment of a National Education Welfare Board. The objective of the Board is to ensure that all children attend a recognised school or otherwise receive a certain minimum education.
It is Government policy to encourage the integration of pupils with disabilities into the mainstream education system. In a speech in the Dáil in October 2003, Noel Dempsey, Minister for Education and Science signalled that the “education of children with special educational needs alongside those who do not have such needs has long been Government policy” . The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 refers to inclusion rather than integration, and notes that “A child with special educational needs shall be educated in an inclusive environment with children who do not have such needs… ” The Act is specifically concerned with children who have special educational needs. It aims to enhance the rights of children with disabilities to avail of, and benefit from, an appropriate education.
The Act sets up the National Council for Special Education and outlines the responsibilities of Special Education Needs Organisers. The Act also provides for a range of services which must be provided within a certain timeframe and in constant consultation with the parents / guardians of the student, including assessments, individual education plans and support services as well as providing for a process of mediation and appeals where needs are not met.
Such developments might seem to suggest that the concept of inclusion has become embedded in legislation and in Irish Schools but there is still considerable confusion as to what constitutes government policy in relation to children with special needs. Education continues to be provided on a continuum that ranges from separate special schools for children with severe, moderate or mild intellectual disability to special classes within mainstream schools to inclusion within mainstream classes with appropriate support. The National Council for Special Education itself is charged with ensuring that “a continuum of special education provision is available as required in relation to each type of disability” Section 20(g)5.
The debate on inclusion for children with disability has just begun in this country and there is still a very long way to go. The rapid pace of development and change in special education has been problematic. Students with special educational needs may not necessarily have their needs met by appropriately qualified staff. Resource teaching time may not be sufficient, new curricula need to be developed and the physical environment of the school may present a barrier to access.