Special needs education
What is special needs education?
Special needs education is the educational arrangements that are put in place for children with disabilities. Not all children with disabilities have special education needs.
You are a person with special educational needs if your capacity to participate in and benefit from education is restricted due to an enduring physical, sensory, mental health or learning disability.
The Department of Education's policy is to provide special needs education in mainstream settings as far as possible. The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 (pdf) provides that children are to be educated in an inclusive setting unless this would not be in the best interests of the child or the effective provision of education for other children in mainstream education. You can find out more about ‘The law on special needs education’ below.
The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) has published an information booklet for parents, Children with Special Educational Needs (pdf).
You can read more about school admission for students with special education needs.
Special needs education supports
Education for children with special needs may be provided in mainstream classes in mainstream schools, in special classes in mainstream schools or in special schools.
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). You can read more about these supports for children with special educational needs in our documents on special needs education 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.
There are around 140 special schools providing for particular types of disability and special needs. Special schools generally support students with more complex special educational needs in cases where a full time mainstream placement would not be in the student’s best interest.
You can find the special schools in your area on the website on the NCSE website.
Under the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 (the EPSEN Act) each child assessed with a special educational need should have a personal education plan. This system is not yet in place but its implementation is being coordinated by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) which has published Guidelines for the Individual Education Plan process (pdf).
The NCSE has also published Implementation Report: Plan for the Phased Implementation of the EPSEN Act 2004. This sets out how the Act can be implemented. However, there is currently no date for the implementation of the assessment of need and individual education plans.
Since 2017, each mainstream school gets a single allocation of special education teachers. The number of special education teachers allocated to a school is determined by the size of the school and its educational profile.
Schools are provided with the necessary resources in advance so that students with special educational needs can be enrolled into schools and access additional supports. This enables a school to be inclusive and to put in place additional teaching support for students who need it.
Special transport arrangements, including escorts and safety harnesses are available for children with disabilities attending school.
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. You can find out more about applying for the pilot scheme.
Organisations with a role in special needs education
The National Council for Special Education
The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) works with the Department of Education to improve the delivery of special needs education.
- Plans and co-ordinates the provision of education and support services to children with special educational needs (with schools and the Health Service Executive (HSE))
- Plans the implementation of the Education for Persons with Special Needs Act – see above
- Provides information on best practice for the education of children with special educational needs
- Provides information to parents on the entitlements of children with special educational needs
- Assesses and reviews resources for children with special educational needs
- Ensures that progress of students with special educational needs is monitored and reviewed
- Reviews education provision for adults with disabilities
- Advises educational institutions on best practice
- Consults with voluntary bodies
- Advises the Minister for Education on special education matters
- Conducts research and publishes findings
- Nominates a person to carry out an assessment of education need on behalf of the HSE
The Disability Act 2005 provides for an Assessment of Need (AON) to identify your child's health needs and what health services are needed to meet these needs. The assessment is carried out by the HSE for children or young people with a disability. Since 2021, the NCSE must nominate a person to carry out an assessment of education needs on behalf of the HSE when an AON is in process. Find out more about the Assessment of Need for children or young people with a disability.
Since 2017, the Special Education Support Service, the National Behaviour Support Service and the Visiting Teacher Service have moved to the NCSE. 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.
The NCSE has published information for parents, including the following:
- Frequently asked questions
- Information on special classes in schools
- Information booklets and pamphlets
Special Educational Needs Organisers
The NCSE employs Special Educational Needs Organisers (SENOs).
SENOs are responsible for resources to support the special educational needs of children with disabilities at local level. SENOs are local points of contact for parents and guardians and schools.
Your local SENO will:
- Provide support and advice to parents and guardians on the facilities services and resources available to assist your child
- Identify possible school placements for your child
- Process applications for resource teacher support for your child
- Assist with applications for transport and Assistive Technology
- Liaise with the school, the HSE and other services
- Help plan for your child when starting school, moving between schools and their life after school.
You can find the contact details for SENOs on the NCSE website.
The 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. The Council has published Guidelines for Teachers of Students with General Learning Disabilities.
The NCCA has also produced draft guidelines for teachers of exceptionally able students.
The National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS)
NEPS provides psychological services to primary and post-primary schools, 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.
The law on special needs education
In the Irish Constitution there is information about the role of the State in providing education and the rights of parents.
All children have a constitutional right to free primary education and children with special educational needs have the right to free primary education up to age 18.
There have been significant legal changes concerning special needs education.
Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004
The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 (pdf) - also known as the EPSEN Act - provides for the education of children aged under 18 years with special educational needs. The Act focuses on children’s education but there are references to further and adult education. You are a person with special educational needs if your capacity to participate in and benefit from education is restricted due to an enduring physical, sensory, mental health or learning disability. While the Act is passed, all parts of it are not fully in effect.
- Provides that people with special educational needs are educated in an inclusive environment, as far as possible
- Establishes that people with special educational needs have the same right to avail of and benefit from education as children who do not have those needs
- Provides for the greater involvement of parents in the education of their children and decision making
- Establishes the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) on a statutory basis
- Gives statutory functions to the Health Service Executive with regard to the education of people with special educational needs
- Establishes an independent appeals system – the Special Education Appeals Board – where decisions made about the education of people with special educational needs can be appealed
The Act sets out a range of services to be provided to people with special educational needs. These include assessments, education plans and other support services. Parents can seek assessments of a child’s educational needs. Assessments can be initiated by the Health Service Executive (HSE), by a school principal or by the National Council for Special Education. The system for personal education plans is not yet in place and its implementation is being co-ordinated by the NCSE.
The HSE is currently responsible for providing health services to pre-school children and may provide speech and language therapy services. The NCSE will be responsible for providing services to school-going children.
In line with the EPSEN Act, the Department of Education provides supports to children with a disability.
The Special Education Appeals Board and mediation
The 2004 Act provides for alternative methods of dispute resolution and encourages a move away from the courts as the forum for redress. The Special Education Appeals Board was established in 2006 for the resolution of disputes and the determination of appeals and the first Board members were appointed. The Board is not yet in operation.
When the Appeals Board comes into operation, the Act provides for the following:
- If the council refuses to arrange an assessment of a child or to prepare an education plan, the parents of the child or the school principal may appeal to the Appeals Board.
- The Appeals Board will have the power to direct the council to arrange the preparation of an assessment or of an education plan. In this case, the council must comply with the direction of the Appeals Board.
- The Appeals Board may dismiss the appeal of the parents or principal. The 2004 Act also provides for a process of mediation following the exhaustion of any rights of appeal under the legislation.
The Education Act 1998
The Education Act 1998 deals with education generally but emphasises the rights of children with disabilities and with other special educational needs. This Act provides that every person concerned with the implementation of the legislation must have regard to a number of objectives including:
- To give practical effect to the constitutional rights of children including children who have a disability or who have other special educational needs, as they relate to education
- To provide that, as far as is practicable and having regard to the resources available, a level and quality of education appropriate to the needs and abilities of the people of the country
The Minister for Education is obliged, among other things, to ensure that everyone living in Ireland (including people with disabilities and people who have other special educational needs) has available support services and a level and quality of education appropriate to his/her needs and abilities.
The 1998 Act gives the Minister for Education certain functions in respect of funding, including the funding of support services for students with disabilities.
Schools must use their available resources to ensure that the educational needs of all students, including those with disabilities, are identified and provided for.
Boards of Management must use the State resources provided to the school to make reasonable provisions and accommodation for students with disabilities or other special education needs. This includes, where necessary, the alteration of buildings and the provision of appropriate equipment.
The Act also provides that the criteria for funding of schools may allow for the payment of additional grants to schools, having regard to the level of educational disadvantage.
The 1998 Act defines support services including:
- Assessment of students
- Guidance and counselling services
- Technical aids and equipment, including means of access to schools, adaptations to buildings to facilitate access and transport for students with special needs and their families
- Provision for students learning through Irish sign language or other sign language, including interpreting services
- Speech therapy services
- Provision for early childhood, primary, post-primary, adult or continuing education to students with special needs otherwise than in schools or centres for education
The Education (Provision in Respect of Children with Special Educational Needs) Act 2022, allows the Minister to direct a school to work with the NCSE and put a special class in place. The Department of Education has published information for schools about providing for children with special education needs.
The Equal Status Acts 2000-2011
The Equal Status Act 2000-2011, outlaws discrimination in areas of life - mainly the provision of services. The Acts apply to educational services, including private schools and pre-school facilities.
There are certain specific provisions in the Acts in relation to education and some of these deal with people with disabilities or people who have special needs.
The Equal Status Acts outlaw direct and indirect discrimination on a number of grounds including gender, religion, disability, race and membership of the Traveller community.
Under the law, a school may not discriminate in relation to:
- The admission or the terms and conditions of admission of a student
- The access of a student to any course, facility or benefit provided
- Any other term or condition of participation in the school by the student
- The expulsion of a student or any other sanction
Discrimination on grounds of disability
The Equal Status Acts set out certain activities that do not constitute discrimination. The following relate to discrimination on the grounds of disability:
- Schools may make different arrangements for sport for children on the basis of age, gender or disability if these are reasonably necessary.
- Schools will not be considered to discriminate against a student with a disability if compliance with the provisions of the legislation would have a seriously detrimental effect on or make impossible the provision of services to other students.
- In certain circumstances, discrimination on the grounds of disability can occur if there is a failure to do all that is reasonable to accommodate the needs of a person with a disability. If a person with a disability cannot avail of a service without the provision of special treatment or facilities then the service provider may be required to provide such special arrangements if there is only a nominal cost involved.
- The Act includes a provision that clarifies that the nominal cost issue does not prejudice or dilute the various provisions in the Education Act 1998 in relation to children with a disability. It should be noted that these provisions all relate to the use of public funds. This means that private primary schools are only obliged to make special provision for children with disabilities if there is only a nominal cost involved.