In January 2024, the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) published its long-awaited Policy Advice Paper on Special Schools and Classes, entitled “An Inclusive Education for an Inclusive Society”.
This policy advice paper has been in the works for a very long time. In 2019 the NCSE published a progress report with some initial findings. The publication of the progress report led to an outcry of concern from schools, their representative bodies, and parents of children with SEN, because it recommended that the State should consider a move towards full inclusion, which would see all children educated together in their local schools. The idea was that we should consider abolishing special schools and special classes and give all children appropriate supports so that they can attend the same schools, regardless of their level of disability.
Now, 6 years since the Minister for Education requested the NCSE to undertake the research, the final policy advice paper has been 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 (see below text hi-lighted on page 11 of the report):
It is a very long and detailed paper which took me 2 weeks to work my way through, however below, I want to hi-light the most important points to be aware of:
- The report is very clear in its aim: The progressive realisation of an inclusive education system for Ireland, where all children attend their local schools. The report makes recommendations for steps that need to be taken so that this will be possible, such as greater availability of therapeutic supports, the expansion of NEPS, and teacher professional learning (see picture for the full summary of recommendations).
- The report is based on extensive research which was carried out by the NCSE, including a literature review of studies relevant to this area (see picture for a summary of the research they undertook).
- The NCSE visited schools in Portugal and New Brunswick, Canada, where full inclusion is in place, and in the UK which has decided to retain the model of mainstream schools with special classes, and special schools. The also visited schools in Ireland and undertook a consultation process where they spoke to teachers, parents of children with SEN and other interested parties. The recommendation to move towards full inclusion was made on the basis of the NCSE’s research findings:
- The report states that Ireland is in breach of the United Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as long as students with SEN are not given the right to be educated in their local schools alongside their peers, and that sustaining a system of education that includes both mainstream and special/ segregated settings, is not compatible with Article 24 of the convention.
- On page 15. the report suggests that elements of the plan should be piloted in in in individual schools, clusters of schools or geographical areas, so it is likely that this is something that we will see in the coming years.
I cannot say whether or not full inclusion is coming down the tracks for Ireland, but in light of this report, it does look likely that moves in that direction will be initiated. That said, the paper recognises on page 92, that “In New Brunswick, an inclusive educational system took over 30 years to realise.”, and given the enormity of the changes that would be needed here in order to make it possible (Adaptation of school buildings, proper investments in and provision of therapeutic supports, the expansion of NEPS, rethinking Initial Teacher Education etc.), it looks like it is something that will happen in the very distant, rather than near future!
I would love to hear other people’s thoughts and opinions on this. Please let me know what you think in the comments!