Paper 9 - Access to Mainstream Primary Education for Students with Intellectual and/or Developmental Disability

Sheelah Flatman Watson, National University of Ireland, Maynooth


Access to an education is the constitutional right of all children. This right was endorsed by the enactment of the Education Act on December 23rd 1998. The passing of the Act affords the Irish education system a reference point for service providers. It was the culmination of years of progressive campaigning, research and consultation with parents, advocates and professionals, including persons with a specific interest in the education of students with intellectual and developmental disability (ID/DD).

Nominally, the Act acknowledges that all children have the right to be educated alongside their peers regardless of ability, and further, have the right to supports as deemed necessary to facilitate their education.[1]

Today many parents of students with ID/DD are seeking inclusion in mainstream education with support as deemed appropriate, rather than placing their child/ren in the special system, which may have been the only placement, offered or deemed appropriate, historically. Societal norms are changing and are being challenged.

The education system is in a state of transition. It has moved from a state of almost total exclusion from mainstream of students with a disability to inclusion at varying levels.

This paper explores the current situation with respect to access to a mainstream educational placement for students with an intellectual and/or developmental disability. It sets out both the schools’ and the parents’ perspective. It explores how the lack of special educational needs and learning support training may inhibit the implementation of the policies outlined in the Education Act.

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Research Methodology

Schools Survey

A questionnaire was mailed to all education providers in the Department of Education and Science primary sector in Dublin and Kildare, a total of 578 schools, of which 252 returned replies (43.5%). 245 (42%) are included in the data set. (3 questionnaires were returned blank, 3 schools explained that they either had no students or had no students under age of twelve and 1 was returned unopened, not known at the address).

As figure 1 detail, mainstream schools represent almost 66% (65.57%) of this cohort, many of whom educate students with special educational needs. 25% of the sample is mainstream schools with special class/es, of which more than 14% are for students with a general learning disability, almost 5% are for students with a developmental emotional or behavioural difficulty and 6% have disadvantaged status or disadvantaged status and a special class. The remaining 9% of respondent schools are from the special/specialist education section.

Figure 1: School Sample by Type

Parents Survey

Research criteria

The parent survey was targeted at the parents of students with a recognised intellectual and or developmental disability, which was identified prior to seeking enrolment in a primary school. Parents of 388 students, deemed by the schools’ personnel to meet the research criteria, were forwarded a questionnaire.

To date this has yielded 127 completed questionnaires (c33%), of which 114 (29%) are included in the data. One questionnaire was returned blank. 12 students did not meet the criteria for the research.

The research sample includes 58 parents of a child/ren who have a general learning disability and 56 parents of a child/ren with a developmental disability.

Figure 2 illustrates that the sample includes a good balance of respondents from the various placement types. 42 students attend mainstream, 40 attend a mainstream with a special/specialist class and 32 students attend special/specialist schools.

Within the special school category 11 respondents represent schools for general learning disability, 15 represent schools for developmental disability and 6 students attend a special school for children with emotional/behavioural difficulties.

Figure 2: Number of respondents and school type

Higher Qualification in Special Educational Needs/Learning Support (SEN/LS) of Teaching Staff

Further education toward facilitating special educational needs (SEN) in the education system may enhance the understanding and capability of school personnel to facilitate the needs of all students.

Teaching qualifications to date have not included mandatory modules in SEN/LS. Specific higher qualification programmes have been available for approximately thirty years but with a very limited number of placements and generally limited to specific members of teaching staff in the primary sector.

At present there are 50 placements per year specifically for Primary educators, with a further 85 per year for a mixture of Primary and Secondary educators. Access to enrolment is restricted. Candidates for these courses must already have 3 year experience of teaching and at least one with children with SEN and must be in a permanent special educational post before being allowed applies for one of the available programmes[2]

Distribution of Qualifications

A total of 12.62% of schools’ teaching personnel in the sample, reported having completed a higher qualification in Special Education Needs or Learning Support.

This cohort represents 1.63% of school principals, 8.18% of classroom teachers, 18.30% of resource teachers, 43.60% of remedial teachers and 12.90% of peripatetic teachers, (figure 3).

Figure 3: Percentage of Teaching Staff with Higher Qualification SEN/LS

Distribution of Posts

However, when one looks at the distribution of posts within the sample, figure 4, one can see the beginnings of the possible difficulty that schools’ personnel may have with facilitating inclusion. A less favourable picture becomes evident.

Figure 4: Staff Post as % of Whole Teaching Staff

Principal teachers, some of whom hold teaching posts, form a little more than 7% of the total educational posts. Although only 1.63% have a higher qualification this may not be significant in the day-to-day education of the individual student. On the other hand, it may become most significant when a parent wishes to enrol a child with a disability. The principal is usually the first and possibly the only person to meet with the parent when enrolment is sought.

Classroom teachers, working fulltime, occupy almost 70% of all teaching posts, and only 8 % of the cohort has attained SEN/LS qualifications. The classroom teacher has overall responsibility for the education of each individual student in their class and therefore this may be considered an important factor in facilitating placements for the student group addressed in this research.

Remedial teachers, with the highest level of the higher qualification by post type, at almost 44%, hold less than 6% of posts. Remedial hours are generally granted on a short-term basis. Student with ID/DD would not normally be granted remedial hours as the learning difficulty are generally regarded as long term.

Resource teachers, 18.3% of who recorded having the SEN/LS qualification, hold 10% of teaching posts fulltime. Students with ID/DD will generally be assigned 2.5 - 5 hours resource per week, (i.e. probably less than 20% of their school week) if they qualify. This is not necessarily even given on a one to one basis. [3] This situation may appear to be relatively good as not all students need the support of resource and remedial teachers, but the majority of students with ID/DD will require at least this level of support.

Teaching staff that work on a part time basis only, account for almost 7% of the total. Almost 25% of resource teachers are employed on a part time basis only. When part time teaching posts figures are removed from the equation the percentage of classroom teachers as a portion of all full time teaching staff rises to almost 75%.

77 (31%) schools report that they have no full time resource assignment. 12 schools reported that the position was not applicable for them. Further analyses of the data would be necessary to ascertain if these figures relate significantly to the numbers of children with support needs in the individual schools.


Experience of meeting students’ varied educational needs within a teaching career is also very valuable. Many teachers attend in-service training and 16 (6%) schools have personnel who have taken a module in SEN/LS in their degree course. Some personnel may have experience of disability in their own lives through family members or voluntary work.

These various experiences over a period of time, along side suitably qualified personnel in schools, may enhance openness to inclusion and willingness to adapt to new challenges. Some schools have embraced the opportunity to develop their experience, whilst others, in spite of the Act, continue to refuse or defer admission for students with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities.

Enrolment Applications

Schools’ Survey

78 (34%) respondents in the school survey confirmed having denied or deferred placements to students of the client group, with 14 (6%) leaving this question unanswered.

79 respondents offered 128 reasons for this practice. Broadly speaking these came under four themes, namely, ‘waiting’ cited by 15 respondents, ‘deficiencies’ within schools 63 responses, ‘student characteristics’ cited by 36 respondents, and ‘parent or professional’ issues at variance with what the school are capable of accommodating, account for 14 responses.

The theme ‘waiting’ includes responses citing waiting to get an assessment carried out for a student or the results of same, procurement of resource hours as outlined in completed assessments, supports in the form of personnel, typically care assistant or resource teacher assignment, or simply waiting for an answer from the Department of Education and Science.

‘Deficiencies’, cited by 80% of the 79 schools as reasons given for refusals of placements, include not having suitable personnel, resources, space or physical access to facilitate the student.

‘Student characteristics’ ranged from disability type or degree (11), the level of care need that the student would require (7), or the behavioural difficulties that needed to be catered for (2). Further, 14 responses deemed the student not suitable for the particular school. Half of these placements (7) relate to special system placements. Criteria for such placements are not necessarily transparent with degree of disability being the major division between facilities.

A Gael Scoil cites dual language difficulty, which would appear to make good sense unless the child’s first language is Irish. However, 2 schools explained that they had to consider the interests of other children in the school. In one case the decision included consultation with a psychologist but in the other it stated the reason as:

  • “Lack of specific help from DES”
  • “Child’s behaviour such that other children’s education would suffer (one child)”


Of the 78 schools that confirmed having denied or deferred enrolment only circa 19% recorded that they offer(ed) a placement once the required supports are in place.

Over 70% of schools stated that they have a written policy on inclusion. However, only one school noted that they have a proviso stipulated in this policy document: “written policy on inclusion in general for special needs with provision of waiting until necessary and appropriate support services, resources and structures are in place.”

Parent Survey

The parent responses differ somewhat from those of the schools. Parents were asked:

  • Have you been denied admission to any school for your child?
  • Has admission been deferred/delayed by a school for your child?
  • Have any school personnel advised you to seek education for your child elsewhere rather than in their school?
  • Have you been advised to move your child to another school after enrolment and attendance in the school?

61 parents representing 54% of respondents in the survey have experienced negative outcomes with two thirds of this cohort experiencing multiple refusals. The most common response is that advice was given to look for placements elsewhere. This was the experience in 45 cases. 36 parents were denied a placement and 21 had placements deferred. Having secured placements and attended at the school, 14 placements were withdrawn and parents were asked to seek placements for their children elsewhere.

When parents were asked to note reason given for placement denial, if known, a total of 72 responses were given by 55 respondents who had answered yes in one or more of the above four questions. The occurrence of responses shifts in comparison with those of schools’ responses.

Deficiencies in schools cited by 80% of the 78 respondents who recorded that they did not give a placement when it was sought, account for 64% of the 55 respondents for whom this reason was offered.

Students’ characteristics, which accounted for 45.5% of negative responses in the schools survey was cited in 47% of parent experience.

Waiting for relevant services such as assessments, resource hours, supports, accessible buildings and suitable transport to be put in place, accounts for 19% of responses from the schools while only 14.5% of parents reported that this was the experience that was their reality, (8) responses. However, in the earlier question on deferral of placement, 21 parents, just over on third or parents with a negative experience, have recorded that placement had been deferred. Further investigation of the data is needed to ascertain the reason for these deferrals.

Parent comments on reason(s) given to them for denial of access include;

  • "letter of application ignored, calls unanswered"
  • "lack of places in special unit"
  • "lack of knowledge around autism"
  • "school principal most unhelpful and made it clear, he did not want any more special needs children"
  • "principal did not "deny" place, instead he shouted abuse down the phone and told me they would never get the "support" from the Department to deal with ---. The principal never replied in writing to any correspondence I sent."

The child in question is diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, with mild level of developmental difficulty and has to travel THREE hours a day to access education at age.


Therefore, of 61 parents who recorded 116 negative responses between them, only 8 (13%) recorded that they were offered placements once the correct structures were in place. This leaves 53 families who therefore did not achieve enrolment for their child in the school of their choice and who had to go elsewhere to find an educational placement. This figure falls short by 6% of the already low figure of 19% of schools who were prepared to offer deferred enrolment.

Parent Experience in General

Access to Information

Only 10 respondents in the parent survey had previous experience of intellectual or developmental disabilities. Four respondents had a sibling with a disability and five had experience through their work. Endeavouring to choose an educational placement for a child with an intellectual or developmental disability was a new experience for the majority of parents.

Parents, new to the situation may require a lot of support and access to information. However, on the question of access to information being readily available locally, the majority of parents, 70%, disagreed that this was so with half of them actually ticking the strongly disagree option. A further 9% were not sure if there is information available locally. This is a significant group of parents, 79% of respondents.

However, 54% of respondents agreed that assessment personnel were helpful in supporting access to the parents’ choice of educational setting. This still leaves almost half of the parents either unsure of the situation or without this support.


Sound decision-making is based on comprehensive information assimilation. The absence of access to information locally may create difficulty for a parent in choosing an educational placement and especially so when the local school has been denied them for their child.

Only 42% of parents found decision-making straightforward. Having made the decision on placement and making application to the chosen school, only 39% of parents found that their choice of placement was/is available to them when and as required. Again, this leaves a significant number of parents having to source alternative facilities.

Availability of Mainstream Placements

Not all parents want a mainstream placement for their child. Slightly more than half (53%) of respondents believe that a mainstream placement is available to them locally. Interestingly, 72% of respondents’ children are in mainstream placements, 41% in fully inclusive placements whilst 31% are in a special class within a mainstream school.

This would suggest that many of these children who are in mainstream placements are not actually attending their own local schools. Further investigation of the data is needed to ascertain the level of access afforded to students’ in their own local schools.

Resources and Supports

Recommended supports as assessed by a psychologist are outlined in a child’s report. When parents were asked if the supports outlined in their child’s assessment is available to their child only 48% of parents agreed that this was so. Nevertheless, when asked if adequate resource and remedial teaching is available to the child, up to 55% agreed that it is. This would suggest that although there is availability of some supports they do not meet the suggested recommendations of the assessor.

Upwards of 10% were unsure of the situation but over a third of parents disagreed that the required support is available or that adequate resource and remedial teaching in place for their child. Again this question requires further analyses to discover if there is a particular trend with a specific disability type or if this is the situation across the board.


It would appear from the parent survey that the correct education is more important than distance travelled as 87% of parents agreed that this is so, with 57%, ticking the strongly agree. Only 8% disagreed. The greater majority of parents therefore have high aspirations for their child/ren with an intellectual or developmental disability and want the best education possible to enable their children reach their full potential.


Access to primary education placements and more particularly in the mainstream domain (72% of respondents) is not a straightforward process for many parents of students with an ID/DD. More than half of the parents in this study have experienced negative outcomes when seeking enrolment of their child.

A large number of schools, 34% confirmed that they did not enrol members of this student group when placements were requested and only 19% of these recorded that they were prepared to enrol the student if and when the correct structures were in place.

Many schools offered credible reasons as to why they have engaged in this practice. Back up from the Department of Education and Science with respect to assessments, resource hours, and qualified personnel to provide supports as required, and the lack of care assistants, make inclusion difficult to attain.

There is a lack of suitably qualified teachers in the primary education sector. Only 8% of classroom teachers, all of whom have responsibility for the education of each individual child in their class, are equipped with further education qualifications in SEN/LS. Without this training fear of the unknown may deter schools’ personnel from supporting inclusion. When a child is enrolled they will generally be in the placement for up to eight years depending on the school designation. Schools’ personnel need good structures to be in place and have the back up of the department if Government policy is to become practise with a satisfactory outcome for all parties.

The following quote is representative of a view frequently expressed by schools principals in this sample;
‘If a child has obvious physical needs we would not be able to accommodate them as our school is full of steps. As regard intellectual disadvantage we can cater for mild in our one special class which works on a withdrawal basis from mainstream class but if the learning difficulty was sever we would not have the facilities to cater for that. We have no speech therapist etc. If you accept a child with severe learning needs and the government do not give the required help she needs this would be very difficult to manage in a mainstream school. If she came with required helper that would be fine’

Parents likewise have needs ranging from access to information through faith in the transparency of the system. Some schools have embraced the inclusion ethos. However some parents and their children are rejected, some repeatedly.

There is much work to be done before schools will be in a position to meet the aspirations of the Education Act of 1998, almost six years in existence at this point. The Disabilities Bill 2004, recently finalised, will hopefully continue the drive for positive change toward an inclusive society. Educators, especially at primary level where the formative years are spent, can enhance this process. This paper has outlined a major gap between policy and practice for students with ID/DD, possibly the most vulnerable group of people with a disability


  • Government of Ireland, Education Act 1998
  • Department of Education and Science Circular 31/04
  • Department of Education and Science Circular letter SP ED 24/03

[1] Government of Ireland 1998

[2] Department of Education and Science Circular 31/04 Section 6 (i)

[3] Department of Education and Science Circular 24/03 Section 6

Page last updated: 12/08/2010