A new report by staff in Ireland’s Department of Public Expenditure & Reform highlights the recent steep rise in government spending to meet pupils’ special educational needs (SEN).
The topic paper on Special Educational Needs Provision was published as part of the country’s review of day-to-day government spending to prepare for setting its 2018 budget. It shows that SEN expenditure increased by €465m (38 per cent) between 2011 and 2017 to €1.68 billion, representing an estimated 18.9 per cent of the Department of Education and Skill’s gross current allocation.
Since 2004, expenditure on SEN has increased by almost 260 per cent, from a baseline of €468m. The level of special education expenditure is now in excess of what is allocated to the entire Higher Education sector (€1.58 billion).
In Ireland planning and co-ordinating the provision of education and support services to children with special educational needs is the responsibility of an independent statutory body, the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), which was set up in 2003.
NCSE’s role is specified in the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act (EPSEN) passed in 2004. The introduction of the EPSEN Act broadened the definition of special educational needs and has had major implications for the number of children estimated to have SEN. However, parts of the Act remain unimplemented following the financial crash of 2008, which ushered in an era of fiscal constraint in Ireland.
Currently Irish schools get a general allocation to meet the needs of children with high incidence or less severe special needs but have to make individual applications to the NCSE for resource teaching hours for children with low incidence or less commonly occurring, more severe special needs. These include hearing impairment, visual impairment, moderate general learning disabilities or autistic spectrum disorders (ASD).
The NCSE also allocates the time of special needs assistants (SNAs) to schools to work with children who have specific care needs. SNAs provide non-teaching care support to pupils who have needs resulting from a disability, behavioural difficulties or a significant medical issue.
A 2011 review of the SNA scheme found that it did not deliver value for money due to over-allocation of SNA posts and a resistance to deleting posts that were no longer needed. A further review of the scheme is currently taking place and is expected to report in early 2018.
From September 2017 a new system of resource allocation comes into force. In part this is to combat ‘risks associated with schemes that are diagnosis driven… [where]children can be diagnosed as having a special educational need for resource allocations purposes rather than such a diagnosis being required for health reasons’.
The new system will remove the requirement for a diagnosis, which it hopes will diminish ‘the incidence of inappropriate diagnosis and the unnecessary labelling of children’.
Currently there are approximately 47,000 students in Ireland in receipt of NSCE resource teaching allocations (5.2 per cent of the school population) and an estimated 32,500 in receipt of SNA care (3.6 per cent of school population). This has increased from 3.5 per cent and 2.7 per cent respectively in 2011.
Sixty-one per cent of total SEN expenditure is spent on additional teacher pay and 27 per cent on pay for SNAs.
While the topic paper identifies a number of drivers responsible for the increase in SEN expenditure it singles out three: an 83 per cent increase in diagnoses of ASD during the period 2011-16; the growth in the number of SNAs; and the spiralling costs of school transport.
The number of SNAs has grown from 2,988 in 2001 to the current cap of 13,015, an increase of 336 per cent. Expenditure on the SNA scheme rose by 1,287 per cent between 2001 and 2017. The report suggests the separation of budgetary responsibility from responsibility for resource allocation may have contributed to this growth.
Expenditure on transport for children with SEN has increased by 42 per cent since 2011, which the report says may be due to an excessive use of escorts — approximately 1,500 are employed on school transport services — and the use of taxis rather than public transport. School transport for SEN purposes currently (2017) costs about €85m, an estimated 47 per cent of the total cost of school transport, while pupils with SEN account for about 9 per cent of the overall numbers participating in the scheme.
The report says:
Given the significant amount of State investment in this area, an estimated €1.68 billion in 2017, it is of the upmost importance to ensure that the most appropriate form and level of support to provide better outcomes for pupils with special educational needs is identified and provided.
It is crucial that all special education schemes, including eligibility for school transport provision, are monitored, regularly reviewed and revised as necessary, and the outcomes for pupils are captured in a meaningful way to ensure that the most appropriate form of support is provided to support the education of pupils with special educational needs.