Introduction

The National Disability Authority hosted a two-day conference in December 2004 focusing on students with special educational needs. The conference, which was titled: 'Student Journeys: The Special Education Routes', gathered experts and professionals to share their experiences and knowledge. The conference sought to identify emerging issues in the Irish system and, where good practice exists, to share this with the ultimate aim of finding practical solutions and new directions to achieve excellence. While the Irish system was clearly the focus, two keynote speakers from Boston College in the United States added an international dimension.

As the presentations that follow demonstrate, the conference identified a number of very important trends and challenges. Perhaps the first of these is that special education in Ireland has been transformed in recent years.

The enactment of legislation such as the Education Act, the Equal Status Act, the Education (Welfare) Act and more recently the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act have had significant implications on the schools system. Presentations examined the impact of these legislative changes on teachers, principals, parents, Boards of Management and the child.

The move towards special education in a mainstream setting has presented challenges. As one school principal stated, in his school, special educational needs were simply not identified in any form among their students up to 1997, just eight years ago. The suddenness of the change presents a challenge for the integration of students with special educational needs so that they are included as an integral part of the school. Conversely while many speakers welcomed the change to mainstream schooling, they identified as a further challenge the need to build on and share the acknowledged good practice and experience accumulated in special education schools.

What may strike the reader is the importance placed by many speakers on the philosophical underpinnings of special education. Piaget, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas are quoted and numerous references are made to the student as participator rather than spectator.

Some of the many other themes that emerged include: how schools are dealing with the extra workload when accepting students with special needs; the challenges faced by class and support teachers; the implications of further educational provision beyond secondary level; how different countries provide for students with special educational needs; legislative change to be reflected in practical application; and the need for a continuum of provision between specialist and mainstream schooling.

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