Comprehensive Irish Ministry of Education 2024 Report Recommends Phasing Out Segregated ‘Special’ Settings – A Missed Input to the Disability Royal Commission

By Cátia Malaquias

Consistent with the position of Australian Royal Commissioners Rhonda Galbally, Alastair McEwin and Barbara Bennett in the Final Report of the recent Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People With Disability (Disability Royal Commission), the Irish National Council for Special Education (NCSE), an independent statutory body established in 2003 by order of Ireland’s Minister for Education, has recommended in a landmark policy paper, that the Irish education system be progressively transformed into a genuinely inclusive education system where all students with disability are educated with appropriate supports and accommodations alongside their non-disabled peers in regular classes in mainstream schools.  This primary recommendation is noteworthy coming from the NCSE, which has previously issued papers supporting the retention of segregated ‘special’ settings.

In October 2018 the NCSE was tasked by the Irish Minister for Education to advise on the educational provision for students in special schools and classes and to make recommendations on the future provision required to enable them to achieve better outcomes.  The NCSE was requested to prepare a policy advice report examining, amongst other things:

  • whether there is evidence to suggest that placing students with disability in segregated ‘special schools’ and ‘special classes’ improves educational outcomes; and
  • what factors were causing the significant increase in segregated ‘special classrooms’ for students with disability.

The NCSE report entitled ‘An Inclusive Education for an Inclusive Society’ (Report) was expected to be published in 2020 but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and only published in January 2024, after the Disability Royal Commission was completed and its Final Report delivered in September 2023.    Accordingly, one can only speculate whether the more timely publishing of the Report would have resulted in a clear majority, or even all, of the Disability Royal Commissioners ultimately recommending the phasing out of segregated education settings in Australia.

The NCSE undertook a comprehensive analysis and “took great care to establish a strong evidence basis to inform … [the Report]” including extensive consultations with stakeholders and school visits, a comprehensive review of academic research, surveys of numerous international education systems and study visits to England, Portugal and the Province of New Brunswick in Canada (the latter two transitioning to inclusive education systems without segregated ‘special’ settings).   Pathways to post school life options for students with special education needs were also analysed.

In terms of its review of academic research and studies, the NCSE found that:

  • there is evidence that academic and school qualification outcomes are better for students with disability educated in mainstream classes rather than in segregated ‘special’ settings;
  • there is no evidence that academic and school qualification outcomes are better for students with disability educated in segregated ‘special’ settings; and
  • the evidence does not suggest that the academic outcomes of non-disabled peers in mainstream schools are adversely affected by students with disabilities being educated in mainstream classrooms.

The NCSE noted that segregated ‘special classes’ had grown significantly in number in Ireland between 2010 and 2022 – and that increase was almost completely driven by ‘special classes’ for autistic students – up by 714% at primary school level and up by 905% at secondary school level over the period – and that growth was expected to continue unless mainstream classrooms were made more accommodating and inclusive.

While the number of students diagnosed with autism had increased since 2000, that increase did not in itself explain the increase in demand for establishing special classes for autistic students.  Rather, the Report suggests that against the empirical evidence the increase in segregated provision (particularly for autistic students) is driven by the “widely and strongly held beliefs” of parents and education stakeholders.  The NCSE recognised that the ‘beliefs’ of parents and school staff included:

  • the view that a ‘continuum of education provision that includes mainstream classes, special classes and special schools’ is required because of a perception that ‘only special schools and classes can be equipped to meet the very complex needs of some students’ and that this perception is ‘exacerbated by fears that mainstream schools do not have the capacity to educate students with complex needs, and that some mainstream schools continue to hold negative attitudes towards the enrolment of students with special education needs’;
  • the view that students with disability were better ‘minded/cared for’ in segregated ‘special’ settings and they achieved better outcomes there in smaller classes dedicated to meeting their complex needs;
  • the view that teachers in segregated ‘special’ settings were more experienced and better skilled at teaching students with disability than their mainstream colleagues;
  • the view that students with disability were happier when educated in segregated ‘special’ settings because ‘these students will not perceive themselves as different when they are with other students who also have disabilities’;
  • the view that students in segregated ‘special’ settings receive better health and therapy supports; and
  • the view that segregated ‘special’ settings are more cost-effective by ‘cluster[ing] students with more complex needs together in one setting’.

The NCSE noted that the perception that placement of students with disability in segregated ‘special’ settings was better, received ‘strong support from politicians and from the media, which in turn has increased the pressure on the education system to increase special education provision’.  In light of this entrenched ableist societal bias in favour of, or tolerating the segregation of, students with disability, the NCSE sanguinely stated:

“The NCSE believes that it is only when parents and guardians believe that the full range of provision in mainstream schools is at least equal to what they can expect for their children in special education settings that they will be willing to enrol their children with complex special education needs, including autism, in mainstream schools.”

In that regard, the NCSE recognised that transitioning to a genuinely inclusive education system and phasing out segregated ‘special’ settings “will require a clearly articulated multi-year implementation plan with adequate resourcing and time-bound milestones, political will, a dedicated focus, and a coalition of stakeholders across the education system … to drive the process”.  However, while taking significant and dedicated effort to establish, such an inclusive education system will then create:

“A system of inclusive schools [that] will ultimately enable all students to receive their education in their local school, and to maintain links with their local communities.  A system that includes all students with special educational needs in local schools will support a greater understanding of diversity and build respect for those in … society who experience exclusion and discrimination.  An … education system which includes all students in local schools, will foster a greater understanding of difference and perspectives, build greater empathy among young people, and help develop a more inclusive society.”

The NCSE policy advice also sought to consider how existing good practices may be incorporated and further developed in the design of an inclusive education system informed by, and aligned to, the relevant articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

We welcome the publication of this important policy paper and hope that it will inform the efforts of Ireland’s government to reform its education system to improve educational outcomes for students with disability and to meet its international obligations to ensure an inclusive education system.

[Cover photo ©NCSE2024.  ALT: Photo shows a graphic of an outline of the map of Ireland at the centre and against a bright orange background, encircled by child-like line drawings showing children learning and playing alongside other symbols of schooling such as a book and apple, etc.]

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