Special educational needs

What are special educational needs?

You are a person with special educational needs if your ability to take part in, and benefit from, education is restricted, due to an ongoing physical, sensory, mental health or learning disability.

Not all children with disabilities have special educational needs.

Some schools use the term ‘additional educational needs (AEN)’ instead of special educational needs.

You may want to read about:

You can also read about the law on special educational needs.

Special educational needs in schools

Children with special educational needs may be educated in:

  • Mainstream classes in mainstream schools
  • Special classes in mainstream schools
  • Special schools

Mainstream classes

Many children with disabilities or special needs are in mainstream classes in mainstream schools. They may get help from learning support and resource teachers, and care support from special needs assistants (SNAs).

Read more about supports for children with special education needs in primary schools and post-primary schools.

Special classes in mainstream schools

Some children attend special classes in mainstream schools. These classes generally have low pupil-teacher ratios.

Special schools

There are around 130 special schools in Ireland. These schools provide for children with certain types of disability and special needs. They provide education to people aged 4 to 18.

Special schools generally support students with more complex special educational needs, where a mainstream school would not be in their best interest.

You can find special schools in your area on the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) website.

Allocation of special education teachers

Each mainstream school is allocated a number of special education teachers based on:

  • The size of the school, and
  • Its educational profile

Schools are given the necessary resources in advance so that students with special educational needs can be enrolled into schools and access additional supports. This lets a school be inclusive and create additional teaching support for students who need it.

Read more about how special education teachers are allocated in primary school and post-primary schools.

Supports for students with special educational needs

Individual education plans

The EPSEN Act 2004 says each child with a special educational need should have an individual education plan. However, the relevant section of the Act has yet to be commenced, so there is currently no legal entitlement for students to have these plans. Some teachers may use their own form of individual education plan when teaching students with special educational needs.

Read the guidelines for the individual education plan process (pdf) from the National Council for Special Education (NCSE).

School transport for children with special needs

Children with disabilities who are attending school can access special transport arrangements, including escorts and safety harnesses.

Nursing supports to attend school

The HSE and NCSE have a pilot scheme to put nursing supports in place for children with complex healthcare needs to attend school.

Parents or guardians who wish to make an application should contact their child’s school. Schools make the application to the NCSE on behalf of the child.

Read more about applying for the pilot scheme.

Educational Therapy Support Service

The Educational Therapy Support Service (ETSS) is a new service provided by the NCSE. It is expected to be operational in some regions from September 2024.

The ETSS will provide occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, and behaviour practitioners to schools. Therapists will work with teachers in a classroom to identify any educational needs a student may have, and provide support.

Schools will apply to the NCSE for access to the ETTS. The application process is currently being developed.

Organisations with a role in special educational needs

National Council for Special Education

The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) works to improve the delivery of education services to people with special educational needs. The NCSE is an independent statutory body established by the Department of Education.

The NCSE gives information to parents and educational institutions on:

  • Best practice for educating children with special educational needs, and
  • The entitlements of children with special educational needs

The NCSE also:

  • Plans and co-ordinates the provision of education and support services to children with special educational needs (with schools and the Health Service Executive)
  • Assesses and reviews resources for children with special educational needs
  • Makes sure that the progress of students with special educational needs is monitored and reviewed
  • Reviews education provision for adults with disabilities
  • Consults with voluntary bodies
  • Advises the Minister for Education on special education matters
  • Carries out research and publishes findings
  • Nominates a person to carry out an assessment of education need on behalf of the HSE (see ‘Assessment of Need’ below)

The Special Education Support Service, the National Behaviour Support Service and the Visiting Teacher Service moved to the NCSE in 2017. The NCSE support service was set up to provide a more integrated service to children and their families, as well as to teachers and schools.

Assessment of Need

An Assessment of Need (AON) identifies your child’s health needs and which health services are needed to meet these needs. The assessment is carried out by the HSE for children or young people with a disability.

If your child has special educational needs, the NCSE nominates an appropriate person to help the HSE assess these needs.

Under the EPSEN Act 2004, a nominated person can be:

  • A psychologist
  • A medical practitioner
  • The principal of the school that the child attends, or a teacher nominated by that principal
  • An appropriately qualified social worker
  • A therapist qualified to provide support services to children with special educational needs

The nominated person must complete a Report of Education Needs (pdf), which is sent back to the HSE. It will be considered as part of the wider AON. Read more about the assessment of educational needs in Circular 0025/2024 (pdf).

Read more about the NCSE on its website, including:

Special Educational Needs Organisers (SENOs)

The NCSE employs Special Educational Needs Organisers (SENOs). SENOs support the special educational needs of children at a local level.

Your local SENO will:

  • Give you support and advice on the facilities, services and resources available to help your child
  • Identify possible school placements for your child
  • Process applications for resource teacher support for your child
  • Process transport and Assistive Technology applications, and send these to the Department of Education for approval
  • Work with the school, the HSE and other services
  • Help plan for your child when starting school, moving between schools, and their life after school

Find contact details for SENOs on the NCSE website.

National Council for Curriculum and Assessment

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) advises the Minister for Education on the curriculum and syllabus requirements of students with disabilities or with special educational needs.

You can read the NCCA’s:

National Educational Psychological Service

The National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) provides psychological services to primary and post-primary schools, in both State and private schools.

NEPS provides training and advice to schools on applying for 'reasonable accommodation' in the State examination arrangements for children with disabilities.

More information

You can visit our section about the rights and entitlements of people with special educational needs.

You can also contact your local Citizens Information Centre to speak with an information officer.

Or, contact any of the organisations listed below:

Special Education Section

Department of Education and Skills

N37 X659

Tel: (090) 648 4187

National Council for Special Education

1-2 Mill Street
C15 P2KC

Tel: (01) 6033200

National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA)

ESRI Building
Whitaker Square
Sir John Rogerson’s Quay
Dublin 2
D02 K138

Tel: +353 1 661 7177

National Educational Psychological Service

Marlborough Street
Dublin 1
D01 RC96

Tel: (01) 889 2700

You can find contact information for the NEPS offices in Ireland (pdf).

Page edited: 25 June 2024