A study of the special classes at 12 schools that run 800 classes, 150 of which have only been in place since last year, has found varying experiences for staff and students around the country.
The study was carried out by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) for the National Council for Special Education (NCSE).
Most of the classes are sanctioned by the Department of Education, and their staffing approved by the NCSE for children with recognised needs. However, half of those run by second-level schools were created by the pooling of existing special education staff and their students are selected by teachers or the principal.
NCSE chief executive, Teresa Griffin, said that it was worrying that students in these informal classes, as well as those in classes for pupils with mild general learning disability (MGLD), felt a stigma about attending them.
The pupils also perceived that they were the “lowest achieving group” and that they were not popular with their teachers.
The ESRI researchers found evidence that, in second-level, these informal special classes are being used as a “low stream class” for those of lower academic ability. Some students in them had no identified learning difficulties, and the emphasis was on behaviour, life-skills, and school completion.
“They are more likely to experience stigma and have an awareness of being different from their peers,” said the report.
In some cases, parents were not even aware that their son or daughter had been placed in one of these special classes.
The report also examines speech and language classes, in which small groups get intensive support over two years from a teacher and speech therapist.
For MGLD classes, the emphasis was on getting students up to speed academically for when they returned to mainstream classes.
Children in autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) classes often had individual education plans and there was strong emphasis on social development, but there was little expectation that they would transfer to mainstream classes.
They were, however, more likely than those in other special class types to have positive attitudes to school, with less stigma attached to their classes, even at second level.
The NCSE has published guidelines for schools on establishing and maintaining different kinds of special classes.
The ESRI study suggests strong school leadership and teacher capacity are pivotal to improving social and educational outcomes for students in these classes.
Principals who adopted positive, whole-school approaches to inclusion, and teachers with appropriate skills, were most likely to create an environment in which students with special needs could thrive. However, principals were concerned about how some schools’ admissions policies resulted in reduced intake of children with special educational needs. They felt this led to students being concentrated in other, often disadvantaged, schools.
A new law proposed by Education Minister Richard Bruton would enable the NCSE to designate a school for a pupil with special needs who was unable to access a place.