Inclusive Education in Irish Primary Schools

What is Inclusive Education?

This depends on who you ask!

According to the ASTI ‘In Ireland an inclusive education has been interpreted as providing a continuum of educational provision for students with special educational needs that encompasses mainstream classes, special classes in mainstream schools and special schools.’ (ASTI, 2023).

However, according to UNICEF ‘Inclusive education means all children in the same classrooms, in the same schools. It means real learning opportunities for groups who have traditionally been excluded – not only children with disabilities, but speakers of minority languages too.’ (UNICEF, 2023).

In effect, UNICEF is talking about a Total or Full Inclusion Model. A move towards full inclusion in Ireland has been recommended by the NCSE (2019 and 2024), however this has not been received well by schools or parents. 

But inclusive education is multifaceted doesn’t just relate to special education. It also includes children from different faith (and none), cultural and ethnic backgrounds (including Traveller and Roma), refugee and asylum seekers, children with EAL, as well as children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Is Full Inclusion Possible in Ireland at Present?

Almost 90% of Irish primary schools are denominational and have the ethos of one religious’ tradition (mostly Catholic), so by their very nature, they cannot be fully inclusive of children from all faith backgrounds. They can strive to be as welcoming to these pupils as possible, but the faith of the school is given priority in a denominational school.

Even in multi-denominational schools where no one religious background is given priority over another, schools are limited by the resources given to them by the Department of Education. A school may wish to be fully inclusive to all pupils, but this requires enough SNA, SET and EAL teacher allocation to fully meet the needs of all of the children, and I have yet to hear of a school who has this!

 

Furthermore, children with complex needs frequently require support from occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, psychologists, behaviour therapists, toileting specialists etc. to succeed in school, and as most schools and parents of children with additional needs will tell you, these services are almost nonexistent.

Therefore, in the current Irish primary school system, a fully inclusive school system is not possible, however schools can strive to be as inclusive as possible given the constraints of the structure of the Irish school system and resources available.

What Does the Department say about Inclusion in Irish Primary Schools?

The Department of Education want schools to prioritise inclusion (but not to give the resrouces needed to facilitate this!), so they have a strong focus on it in Looking at Our Schools 2022: A Quality Framework for Primary and Special Schools. In fact, the inclusion of all pupils in one of the 10 key principals which underpin the document and which are outlined on page 8. The document states that “The quality framework emphasises the need for all pupils to be meaningfully included in their school community. It recognises the importance of high-quality learning and teaching that is inclusive, pupil-centred, informed and evidence-based, and that supports children and young people to participate in and make progress in all areas of their learning and development. It also recognises the need for high expectations to ensure that all children and young people are provided with opportunities to meet their full potential in accordance with their abilities, strengths, stages of development, and identified learning needs.”.

The document also gives a list of Characteristics of a school with a positive school culture and environment its appendix, and the first of 4 areas specified rates to inclusion.

The Department also published an Inclusive Education Framework through the NCSE in 2011. The framework “invites schools to consider the quality of their inclusive practices. The framework comes with user-friendly tools which will enable schools to show what they are doing well; identify areas where they need to improve; rate their levels of inclusion; and put plans in place to address the areas for improvements”. But it’s use or implementation is not mandatory.

 

In 2019, the NCSE recommended that the State should consider a move towardsfull inclusion, which would see all children educated together with the appropriate support in place. The idea was that we should consider abolishing special schools and special classes and place all children in mainstream schools, regardless of their level of disability. It cited the example of a model adopted in the province of New Brunswick in Canada and argues that Ireland may be in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by segregating pupils with special educational needs. The publication of this policy document led to an outcry of concern from schools, their representative bodies, and parents of children with SEN. Final advice on the policy was due to be submitted to the Minister for Education in June 2020, but it was delayed considerably. In May 2021 the chief executive of the NCSE, Teresa Griffen, spoke at the IPPN annual conference and said that the Irish education system is not ready for full inclusion.

In January 2024, the long awaited policy advice paper entitled “An Inclusive Education for an Inclusive Society” was published. In it, the NCSE makes key recommendations for the Department of Education to consider, with the overall aim of progressing Ireland towards a system of educational provision where every student attends their local school i.e. full inclusion. For a summary of this policy advice paper, see my separate post here

In my opinion, a move towards full inclusion in Ireland will be next to impossible unless significant increases in supports for students (OT, SLT, nursing, physiotherapy, psychiatry, psychology etc.) as well as extensive training for teachers, SNAs and schools leaders is made available. Given the current recruitment crisis in the HSE and the school system, I cannot see this happening any time soon. It will also be met with huge resistance from parents and schools unless a very clear, systematic and fair process is put in place to ensure the best education possible is provided for ALL students. Furthermore, the NCSE has only considered full inclusion with reference to special educational needs. They do not mention inclusion in the context of gender, children from different faith backgrounds (and none), cultural and ethnic backgrounds (including Traveller and Roma), refugee and asylum seekers, children with EAL, as well as children from disadvantaged backgrounds! To ensure all of these students are included (as well as children with SEN), would require a complete overhaul of the Irish education system! Given these constrains, I do not see full inclusion happening in Ireland in the near future. 

How Can Irish Primary Schools Become More Inclusive Under the Current System (Within the Constraints of Their Ethos and Level of Resources)?

  • Make sure all school policies are as inclusive as possible e.g., children not segregated by gender for RSE teaching
  • Have a clear and up-to-date school SEN policy which reflects current NCSE and Department of Ed. policies and guidance including:
      • Inclusive Education Framework
      • Frontloading Allocation Model
  • Celebrate difference, for instance organise an event to celebrate Culture Night and celebrate the food, dress and traditions of children from all backgrounds.
  • CPD is imperative to keep in line with best practice as things are changing rapidly e.g., language around autism, best practice in SEN teaching e.g., literacy interventions (for more information on this see this post).
  • Participate in the Schools of Sanctuary Programme 
  • Adopt a change in mindset in relation to celebrating neurodiversity. Special needs aren’t defects or deficiencies, rather they are part of the variety of human existence and should be celebrated. For more on this see Neurodiversity Ireland
  • Use the NCSE’s Inclusion of Students with SEN checklist to evaluate how your school is doing

  • Establish a core SET team so expertise can be built up over time as recommended in the Guidelines for Primary Schools on Supporting Pupils with Special Educational Needs in Mainstream Schools

  • Special class teachers and mainstream class teachers should have scheduled regular meetings as they have joint responsibility for the child’s education
  • SET/ EAL teachers and class teachers should have regular meetings to plan for the children’s needs
  • Look at accessibility of school building e.g. Does the learning environment promote inclusion? e.g., access ramps, calm corners in each classroom etc.
  • Invite HSE OT and SLT to the school to give advice on the learning environment and on accommodations for pupils

Where Can I Learn More?

I recommend you listen to 2 podcast episodes on this topic. One is the very first episode of DCU’s Conversations from the Classroom podcast and it looks at inclusion from the perspective of a Catholic school context. The other is from Simon Lewis on his Anseo.net podcast and he examines whether inclusion is actually possible in the Irish school system.

References:

ASTI (2023). Inclusive Education. Available at: https://www.asti.ie/education-and-curriculum/inclusive-education/ (accessed on 6 October 2023)

Department of Education (2022b). Looking at our school 2022: A quality framework for primary schools. Available at: https://assets.gov.ie/232720/c8357d7a-dd03-416b-83dc-9847b99b025f.pdf (accessed 6 October 2023)

National Council for Special Education (2024). An Inclusive Education for an Inclusive Society: Policy Advice Paper on Special Schools and Classes. Available at: https://ncse.ie/policy-advice (accessed 23 January 2024)

UNICEF (2023). Inclusive Education. Available at: https://www.unicef.org/education/inclusive-education (accessed 6 October 2023)

 

If you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!

 

2 thoughts on “Inclusive Education in Irish Primary Schools

  1. Ann says:

    I have a question. Do sen teachers still have 1 hour of dedicated planning time in their weekly timetable? Has this been superseded in the new models? Where is the information on this?

    • Teaching Plans says:

      Hi Ann, There was never an hour allocated to SETs for personal planning. It would be completely unfair to give this to SETs and not class teachers!
      Planning time can be included on SET timetables (usually 30minutes on a Friday), but this time is intended for collaborative planning with the class teachers i.e. time to meet with the class teachers of the children who are being supported to review interventions and plan for the upcoming week’s learning. This is outlined in circular 0013/2017, section 23. Coordination Activities, which states:

      The allocation includes provision for the conducting of planning and co-ordination activities required to
      ensure the most effective and optimal use of the special educational needs teaching hours provided to
      schools, for children. The effective use of resources will be dependent upon effective timetabling practices
      that ensures continuity and avoids undue fragmentation of provision.
      The extent of co-ordination time required to be used by schools will vary depending on school size, the
      number of pupils requiring additional teaching support, and the number of teachers proving this support.
      Co-ordination time, should however, be kept to a minimum in order to ensure that the most teaching time
      that can be provided for pupils can be given to those pupils.

      Kind regards,
      Claire

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