• inclusive education;
  • intellectual disabilities;
  • special education administrators;
  • special educational needs;
  • transition adjustment


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Findings
  6. Discussion
  7. Future Research
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

In Ireland, an increasing number of students with special educational needs are leaving mainstream schools and enrolling in special education schools. A comparable context is countries that share an inclusion ideology and are at the implementation stage of inclusive education. The authors sought to investigate the reasons why students aged 12+ are leaving mainstream education and transferring to special schools, and to identify what burden this places on the special schools. Data were obtained from questionnaires sent to 54 special school principals. These administrators reported on their experiences with 246 transfer students. Descriptive analysis, Kruskal–Wallis, Mann–Whitney U, and exact tests of significance were conducted between school groups and level of agreement with perceived difficulties. The principals reported an increasing trend (40% over 5 years) in students enrolling in special schools. The main reason given for the students leaving mainstream schools was the failure of mainstream schools to meet their academic, social, emotional, behavioral, and access-to-health resource needs. Adjustment and integration problems resulted from a lack of transition planning, entering too late into the special school curriculum, and an over-dependency on supports. Students were reported to display a lack of self-confidence, classroom disengagement, peer interaction difficulties, and challenging behavior, and these dysfunctions were attributed to the mismatch between the students' educational and other special needs and the educational environments.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Findings
  6. Discussion
  7. Future Research
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

The ideology of mainstream inclusive education was brought to fruition through various government initiatives and culminated in the ratification of the Salamanca Agreement (UNESCO, 1994) in Dublin 2009. In light of the drive toward inclusive education, this paper aims to explore the difficulties experienced by special school principals and the reasons why students sought disenrollment from mainstream education. Behind this phenomenon is the fact that Irish legislation and national policy and guidelines can facilitate but not entirely control the process of implementation. A comparable context could be those countries who share an inclusion ideology (UNESCO, 1994), are at the implementation stage but have grave deficits in the strategic implementation process. A confounding factor is that a paradigm shift (i.e., from segregation to inclusion) of this nature even with full implementation support, would take more than a few years for school cultural adjustment and attitude/behavioral change among classroom personnel. The paper explores the challenges for special schools amid uncertainty of their future role and the presence of educational social, cultural, socioeconomic, and political challenges.

Is There Evidence that Inclusion Is Effective?

Studies assessing the outcome of inclusive educational practices have been mixed as the lack of tightly controlled experimental designs and small sample sizes has made it difficult to evaluate the evidence. In the UK, Lindsay (2007) conducted a systematic literature review of articles on the effectiveness of inclusive education (n = 1,373) published in eight journals between 2001 and 2005. The outcome of the review “did not show clear endorsement” partly due to the insufficient evidence from the studies under review. She notes that the impact of “politics in the formulation of policy and expediency of interested parties outweighs the research evidence available.” In an earlier study, Hornby (1992) identified seven major reviews on inclusion outcomes (i.e., increased social skills; education attainment; reduced stigma; increased self-esteem; greater racial integration; improved parental involvement and individualization of instruction) and concluded that, excluding the lower costs involved, there is little evidence that the objectives of inclusion are being met.

International comparative studies of inclusion outcomes are difficult to interpret as there are variations in the conceptualization of the term “learning disability” from an academic and disability perspective (Buttner & Hasselhorn, 2011). In an Irish study, Desforges and Lindsay (2010) conducted a study across eight countries (Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America) and concluded that outcome inconsistencies were due to variations across countries with respect to terminology and categorization of disability; variations in international classification systems, in policies and practices, in the range of assessments used and professionals involved; and inconsistent approaches in assessing special education needs (SEN) (i.e., not all countries required a diagnosis of a disability).

Buttner and Hasselhorn (2011) noted the international debates on what constitutes an outcome and how this is linked to interventions stating there “is no clear evidence that IQ or IQ-achievement discrepancies are related to intervention outcome” (p 77); nor does a diagnosis indicate the most appropriate form of intervention. However in these studies the “response to intervention” (RTI) model was advocated as a best practice model in identifying students who need additional reading, written expression, and mathematical support. It is a method of focused academic intervention, for fixed time periods, designed to prevent academic failure through early intervention for pupils who are having difficulty learning. Students who do not benefit from RTI are referred to special educational services. Buttner and Hasselhorn (2011) cautioned that further educational scientific debate is required as the “RTI approach does not solve the issue of the dimensional vs. categorical nature of learning disability” (p 78) nor the validity of the classification.

Obstacles to Mainstream Participation

Most of the literature on this topic consists of descriptive studies that show inclusion of students with SEN to be fraught with challenges and there were many obstacles to providing an equal, accessible, and a positive learning environment. In the UK, academic factors related to teacher difficulties with curriculum differentiation (Dyson & Millward, 1997; Ghesquière, Moors, Maes & Vandenberghe, 2002) and English and literacy curriculum difficulties (Norwich & Kelly, 2004) have been identified as key obstacles. Pupils falling behind in academic progress and a lack of commitment on the part of the school to accommodate the pupil's academic needs have been noted as reasons for students transferring from mainstream to special schools in a UK study detailing 13 case studies (Cuckle, 1999).

In Ireland, there is a dearth of research on the outcomes of inclusion (Shevlin, Kenny, & Loxley, 2008) and SEN interventions in Irish primary and postprimary mainstream schools. However, research has demonstrated both academic and social factors as obstacles to inclusive education. Such academic factors included a limited range of subjects being made available; complex timetabling; new subjects and new rules; lack of teacher experience, ability, and expertise to manage students' academic and psychosocial needs in the classroom; and unsuitable school environments (Daly, Keogh, & Whyte, 2007; Flatman-Watson, 2005; 2009; Kenny, Shevlin, & Loxley, 2006; Ring & Travers, 2005). Further, Murphy (2008) found mainstream schools lacked an understanding of what was academically appropriate and practical for students with SEN, which led to dissatisfaction and school drop-out. The social factors identified in UK schools included marginalisation and loneliness (De Schauwer, Van Hove, Mortier, & Loots, 2009; Lackaye & Margalit, 2006; Pavri & Luftig, 2000; Valas, 1999), and feeling less accepted and more rejected by their mainstream peers (Larrivee & Horne, 1991; Vaughn, Elbaum, & Schumm, 1996). In addition, Curtin and Clarke (2005, p. 210) noted that “attending mainstream school does not automatically lead to young people with and without disabilities mixing.” Two Irish studies concluded that: (a) students with SEN exhibit similar levels of social performance in mainstream and special school settings (n = 45) (Hardiman, Guerin & Fitzsimons, 2009) and (2) there is no statistically significant relationship between attitudes toward peers with SEN and whether or not students are in a class with children with SEN (n = 118) (McStay, McGree, & Hunt, (2008). These results may raise questions relating to the social benefits of mainstreaming.

Implementation Challenges: The Irish Context

In the Republic, up until 2004/2005 students with SEN had an option to either enroll in special schools provided they met the criteria relating to the category of disability, or enroll in a mainstream school (in an ordinary class, special class or special educational unit). The changes were influenced by socio-political factors, educational system reviews, high profile court cases, and parent advocacy groups which led to legislative changes in special education set forth in the Education for Persons With Special Educational Needs Act (ESPEN; Government of Ireland, 2004) and the Disability Act (Government of Ireland, 2005) in Ireland (Rose, Shevlin, Winter, & O'Raw, 2010). Shevlin et al.'s (2008) study reported that while the ideology of inclusion and benefits to all students were generally supported by their small sample of Irish mainstream primary school and special school principals, the implementation of support structures to support national policies and changes in mainstream attitudes lagged far behind. Indeed, inclusion support strategies in Ireland have been mainly based on resource allocation models, special support services, and examination accommodation support to primary and postprimary schools.

There are two specific implementation issues relating to the EPSEN Act (Government of Ireland, 2004) which appear to hinder systemic educational cultural change: (1) special schools are not specifically referenced and would have serious ramifications if an increasing trend of students leaving mainstream is established, and (2) a date for full enactment has been deferred which has led to inadequate monitoring of student education support needs, through the non-completion of individual educational plans (IEPs).

In relation to the educational system, there are five significant implementation issues: (1) postprimary teacher trainees did not have any formal education training of students with SEN (training modules only included in 2012); (2) assessment of special educational need is by diagnosis of disability followed by assessment of SEN that arises from this disability; (3) difficulties in accessing educational psychologist assessments and the excessive delays and concerns over the quality of the reports (Kenny et al., 2006, Irish National Teachers' Organisation, 2009); (4) special schools follow the national primary school guidelines, even for students aged 12+, which could limit full access to postprimary curriculum options; and (5) there are cultural and educational differences between primary and postprimary education (Smyth, 2009) and between mainstream and special educational school environment (Feeney, Gager, & Hallett, 2010).

The inconclusive research evidence for the success of inclusion in Ireland suggests that students' needs may not be met in mainstream postprimary education, unless, the national implementation challenges, the mainstream school obstacles, and challenges to full participation can be overcome. Rogers (2007) insight into the difficulty of inclusion in practice, where a child may be “placed in” a mainstream environment is not the same as the child “experiencing inclusion,” alludes to the phenomenon. In the meantime, cognizance of where the support needs for students should be best met may lie in special schools though debate about their retention has been avoided (O'Keefe, 2004) and has led to uncertainty as to their future role.

In summary, given the national contextual issues and research studies outlined above the paper does not set out to assess the outcome (effectiveness or efficacy) of mainstream inclusive practices but rather to assess the reasons why students aged 12+ with SEN who were enrolled in mainstream schools are seeking admission to special schools and to provide an understanding of the core contributing factors to students leaving mainstream. As such, this report's function is to identify associated adjustment problems. Taking into account the unique perspectives of the administrators of special schools (the “principals”) and their experiences with dealing with the students can provide a considerate and analytic perspective on the complex and sensitive issues relating to the process of inclusion—at least in the Republic of Ireland. The results may contribute to the growing understanding of the support needs of students with SEN in mainstream educational settings and highlight the elements in the mainstream system which requires further examination. Lessons from this study may help other countries who are similarly at the implementation stage of inclusion and will offer support for the belief that the primary consideration should be the students' best interests during the implementation phases of inclusive education.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Findings
  6. Discussion
  7. Future Research
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

A research advisory group (comprising special school principals from schools for pupils with a mild general learning disability, schools for schools for pupils with a moderate general learning disability and schools for emotionally disturbed children) was set up and held regular meetings during the course of the study. Meetings were also held with representatives from the National Educational Psychological Service, Youthreach, and the Parents and Siblings Alliance Group. Ethical approval was received from the host institution.


The study population was composed of 54 senior administrators (the “special school principals”) whose schools met the study's eligibility criteria and which agreed to participate. Information was not readily available from the Department of Education and Skills (DES) relating to the number of schools that registered students over 12 years of age and had students aged 12+ enrolled from mainstream education (eligibility criteria). To ascertain school eligibility to participate questionnaires were distributed to the full list of special schools listed in the National Directory of Special Schools for the years 2008/2009 (N = 119; not including schools for young offenders) across 13 designated categories. Some 27 schools were deemed not eligible, as they did not register students over 12 (n = 9); 2 schools for students with autism had just opened and had no children over 12 years; schools for students with a severe and profound disability did not enrol students from mainstream education (n = 9); and hospital schools catered for students only during their stay (ranging from 1 week to 1 year) and they were registered elsewhere (n = 7). Therefore the number of eligible schools was 92.

Response Rate

Taking the whole school population (N = 119 schools), some 85 schools responded, yielding a 71% response rate. Out of these 85 responses, only 58 schools were eligible to participate. Of the 58 schools, 4 declined to participate, leaving 54 participating schools a participation rate of 63% (i.e., 54 out of 92 known eligible schools) (see Table 1). Possible reasons for schools not responding (n = 34) or declining to participate (n = 4) include: the nonapplicability of the questionnaire for their school; incorrect postal addresses; concerns relating to results of the study; other school commitments such as the annual returns to the DES; and a National Special School Audit which was being conducted at the same time.

Table 1. Designated categories of special school: Sample and participation rate
Designated categories for special school: Schools for pupils with …Number of special schools participatingNumber of applicable schoolsTotal number of schools, Irish directory of special schools, 2009
Mild general learning disability172930
Moderate general learning disability183333
Multiple disabled children111
Physically disabled children477
Children with autism226
Emotionally disturbed children71113
Visually impaired children011
Hearing impaired children233
Children with a specific learning disability224
Children of traveling families122

Participating Special Schools

Some 59% (n = 17) of schools for pupils with a mild general learning disability1 ; 56% (n = 18) of schools for schools for pupils with a moderate general learning disability and 64% (n = 7) of schools for emotionally disturbed children participated in the study. Other schools for physically disabled children (n = 5); children with autism (n = 2); hearing impaired children (n = 2); pupils with a specific learning disability (n = 2) and children of travelling families (n = 1) were included (see Table 1). The majority of special schools (54%; n = 29) were located in a city/suburb; 35% (n = 19) were located in a large town, and 11% (n = 6) were located in a small town or other.


A questionnaire was developed by the research team and piloted with members of the Research Advisory Group and a further sample of principals in schools for mild general learning disability, schools for moderate general learning disability, schools for emotionally disturbed children and schools for physically disabled children, the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS), and a parent advocacy group.

Study Instrument

Principals were requested to consult the “School Statistical Return for the School Year, Attendance Book, and Student Register” record book as a source for factual information. The questionnaire (13 questions) was divided into 4 sections: Section A (5 questions) sought information relating to overall numbers students aged 12+ enrolled in special schools; numbers enrolled (2008/2009 school year) and trends (over 5 years); Section B (5 questions) related to the 2008/2009 school year or most recent intake year and addressed student educational, age and gender profile; reports shared on enrollment; class level originated from and type of mainstream school attended. Section C: (3 questions) asks principals to: indicate their level of agreement (“agree,” “don't know,” and “disagree”) on 37 items relating to academic, social, emotional, behavioral, physical, and health-related difficulties experienced in mainstream and to provide comments in an open-ended question; to report reasons why students enrolled from mainstream school for the 10 most recent students; and to provide comments to an open response question related to adjustment behaviors on enrollment.


In late 2009, contact was made by telephone with each school listed in the Directory of Special Schools (2009) to establish the name of the current principal, confirm school postal address, and draw up a workable contact list. Questionnaire packs, administered to principals of all special schools (n = 119), included the questionnaire2 (Kelly & Devitt, 2010), an informational letter, and a prepaid stamped self-addressed envelope. Each questionnaire distributed was coded (to ensure anonymity) according to the designated school category (DES); follow-up phone calls were made to principals and reminder letters were forwarded to them. In addition, the research advisory group circulated an e-mail to all school principals; delays in returning the questionnaire were due to the following: the midterm break in schools, the busy schedule of schools in completing the Annual School Return Forms (DES), and a national schools audit and whole school evaluations. An extension of 1 month was allowed for return of the questionnaire.

Data Analysis

Data from questionnaires (n = 54) were entered into Predictive Analytics SoftWare v18 (SPSS Statistics, IBM Corp., Chicago, IL, USA). Descriptive data analysis was conducted, and responses to open-ended questions were coded and analyzed thematically. Statistical differences between school type (i.e., schools for pupils with mild general learning disability, with moderate general learning disability, and for emotionally disturbed children) and level of agreement on items on the “Typical Difficulties in Mainstream” question were investigated using Kruskal–Wallis, Mann–Whitney U, and exact tests. Due to the small sample size other school types were excluded from analysis.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Findings
  6. Discussion
  7. Future Research
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

Overall Numbers of Students Aged 12+ in Special Schools

Special school principals (n = 54) reported there were 1,781 students aged 12+ enrolled in their schools. This represents 45% of the overall population of students aged 12+ (n = 3,912) enrolled in all special schools throughout Ireland in 2008/2009 (DES 2009).

No national statistics were available from the DES on the numbers of students aged 12+ with special educational needs in postprimary mainstream education. One indicator of the number of such students (n = 2,139 in 2008) is based on data in the National Intellectual Disability Database and the National Physical and Sensory Disability Database. However, as not all children with SEN enrolled in mainstream schools are represented in these databases, it is not possible to arrive at a definitive prevalence rate from the mainstream schools.

A Profile of Students Aged 12+ Enrolling in Special Schools—2008/2009 School Year

School profile

Results from the 54 special schools surveyed indicate (see Table 2) that 75% (n = 246) of new student entrants were from mainstream schools. This represents, overall for the five categories, 14% of the total number represented students enrolled in schools for pupils with mild general learning disability (n = 139), moderate general learning disability (n = 23), emotional disturbance (n = 79), or specific learning disability and a physical and sensory disability (n = 5). Of these new entrants 56% (n = 138) were male.

Table 2. Number of new student entrants aged 12+, number from mainstream schools by school year, over 5 years
Number of special school responses n = 54Number of all new entrants to special schoolsNumber of new entrants from mainstream schools
School yearTotalMaleFemaleTotalMaleFemale
2008/2009327 (n = 41)194133246 (n = 37)138108
2007/2008291 (n = 41184107206 (n = 33)12581
2006/2007262 (n = 31)146116189 (n = 28)10782
2005/2006242 (n = 30)14795183 (n = 28)10578
2004/2005229 (n = 30)15376148 (n = 28)9454
Total number1351824527972569403
Enrollment trends over 5 years

Overall, there is a gradual increase in the number of students with SEN leaving mainstream school for special education from 2004/2005 (38.9% male) to 2008/2009 (59% male) (see Table 3). Of the 40 special schools who responded to questions investigating enrollment trends, 56% (n = 25) indicated an increase of more than 5%. In particular there was a 16% increase from 2007/2008 to 2008/2009 in schools for pupils with a mild general learning disability and in schools for pupils with a moderate general learning disability. Moreover, in comparison with 2007/2008, there were 40 more new enrollments from mainstream in 2008/2009.

Table 3. Number of new entrant students enrolled, by age, school group
New student entrants from mainstream schoolSpecial schools overall n = 40Mild general learning disability n = 17Moderate general learning disability n = 18Emotional disturbed n = 9Physical & sensory disability n = 7Specific learning disability n = 2Children of Travelling Families n = 2
nn (%)n (%)n (%)n (%)n (%)n (%)
12 years4531 (68)7 (16)5 (11)1 (2)1 (2)
13 years7555 (73)11 (15)5 (7)4 (5)
14 years6146 (75)6 (10)9 (15)1 (2)
15 years3224 (44)1 (33)1 (33)
16 years268 (31)3 (12)14 (54)1 (4)
17 years +231 (4)21 (91)1 (4)
Total262165 (63)28 (11)55 (21)8 (3)1 (3)
Trend in new students from mainstream schools over 5 years (2003/2004–2008/2009)
Increased25 (56)12 (75)5 (36)5 (72)2 (33)1 (100)
Remained the same17 (38)5 (25)7 (50)1 (14)4 (67)
Decreased3 (7)2 (14)1 (14)
New entrants 12+ 2008/20093271864189900
New mainstream entrants 12+ 2008/20092461392379320

Profile of New Students from Mainstream

The principals (n = 54) were asked to review their student records in relation to students who had enrolled in their school in 2008/2009 (or the most recent year of entrants if there were no students in the specified year) (n = 262). From the 262 students reported on, 69% (n = 181) were aged 12–14 years at enrollment and the remaining were aged 15–17 years. The majority of students in schools for pupils with a mild general learning disability (90%), schools for pupils with a moderate general learning disability (95%), and schools for pupils with a physical and sensory disability (75%) were aged 12–15 years at the time of enrollment. In contrast, 67% of students in schools for emotionally disturbed children were aged 15+ (see Table 3).

For 234 students, information was provided on the type of class from which students transferred. Some 64% (n = 150) enrolled from primary level, 21% (n = 49) from postprimary level, 13% (n = 31) from a vocational educational college or community comprehensive school, and 2% (n = 4) from home-based education. Further, 62% (n = 145) enrolled from an ordinary class, 23% (n = 53) from an ordinary class with additional support, 9% (n = 20) from a special class, and 5% (n = 12) from an autism spectrum disorder unit. Of the 84 students who enrolled from mainstream postprimary (a 6-year program), 71% (n = 60) originated from 1st to 3rd year class, and 29% (n = 24) originated from 4th (transition) to 6th year class. Some 66 students were reported to be following state examination programs: 41.2% (n = 35) were following the Junior Certificate; 17.6% (n = 15) the Junior Certificate School Program; 10.6% (n = 9) the Leaving Certificate; 4.7% (n = 4) Leaving Certificate Applied; and 3.6% (n = 3) Leaving Certificate Vocational programs. Not all students started in the special school at the beginning of the school year; 30% started during the 3rd term and 50% during the 1st term, increasing the burden on special schools to organize and accommodate these students.

In all, enrollment figures show that 36% of students, sought enrollment too late into the special school junior cycle curriculum (i.e., aged 14–15 years for pupils with a learning disability and 15–16 years for those with emotional difficulties).

Contributing Factors to Students Leaving Mainstream Education

The principals were asked to indicate their agreement or disagreement to a list of difficulties that their students may have experienced in mainstream education. Of the 54 special school principals, response rates on each item ranged from 54% (n = 29) to 74% (n = 40) (see Table 4).

Table 4. Administrators' perceptions of transition and academic related difficulties in mainstream education
Difficulties in the transition from primary to postprimary (n = 54)AgreeDon't knowDisagree
n (%)n (%)n (%)
Parents have difficulty finding suitable postprimary school (n = 40)36 (90)3 (8)1 (2)
The transition is stressful for the student (n = 37)33 (89)4 (11)
Transition from having one teacher in primary to a range of teachers in secondary (n = 40)30 (75)9 (23)1 (3)
Inadequate support for student in dealing with the transition (n = 38)28 (74)5 (13)5 (13)
Lack of adequate planning of the child's day, especially free periods (n = 36)14 (39)17 (47)5 (14)
The process of transition is not well developed (n = 37)20 (54)16 (43)1 (3)
No transition planning (n = 35)15 (43)15 (43)5 (14)
Academic difficulties (n = 54) AgreeDon't knowDisagree
n (%)n (%)n (%)
  1. SEN, special educational needs; SNA, special needs assistant.

Class sizes too large (n = 33)28 (85)3 (9)2 (9)
Mainstream curricula did not meet students' needs (n = 34)27 (80)6 (18)1 (3)
Postprimary curriculum has too many subjects (n = 34)27 (79)5 (15)2 (6)
Students were unable to concentrate/settle in a large group (n = 30)23 (77)5 (17)2 (7)
School focused too much on academic performance (n = 32)18 (56)12 (38)2 (6)
Over reliance on SNA support for the level of student need (n = 30)16 (53)11 (37)3 (10)
Curriculum did not include a life skills program (n = 33)17 (52)15 (46)1 (3)
Language difficulties hindered students' performance (n = 32)14 (44)12 (38)6 (19)
Class teachers are not student-focused (n = 30)13 (43)15 (50)2 (7)
Lack of staff training for autistic spectrum disorder (n = 30)12 (40)17 (57)1 (3)
Class teacher expectations for student was low (n = 29)6 (21)18 (62)5 (17)
Level of SEN did not become apparent until student was in postprimary (n = 29)4 (13)16 (53)9 (30)
Teachers' concern regarding health and safety (n = 31)9 (29)20 (65)2 (6)
Lack of individual education plan (IEP) (n = 29)5 (17)18 (62)6 (21)
Transition from mainstream primary to postprimary related difficulties

The majority of the principals agreed with five of the seven statements regarding transition difficulties, namely that parents have difficulty finding a suitable postprimary school; that the transition is stressful for the student; that moving from one teacher in primary to a range of teachers in secondary is difficult and there is inadequate support in dealing with the transition; and that the transition process is undeveloped. The results (see Table 5) suggest that most principals view factors relating to the transition from primary to postprimary as a barrier to inclusion in postprimary school. Further, some of the principals were unaware (“don't know”) of the dynamic between school teachers and students in mainstream postprimary schools, which highlights the gap in information about the student on enrollment to special schools and the need for a planned transition process.

Table 5. Administrators' perceptions of other academic related difficulties
Academic related difficulties—Administrators' statements
Pupil/student not able to access fully the primary program—after 4th class roughly
Child was attending a rural mainstream school. While the school was very receptive to him and happy to look after him during his primary school years, difficulties associated with his [condition] and cognitive level of ability would have made it very difficult for him to access the curriculum in a secondary school
Students lack organizational skills to follow timetable, select correct books for lessons, find way to various rooms throughout day, manage own resources
Teacher expectations may be too high thinking students can achieve Junior Certificate level. Level of language too complex for students and reaching level of textbooks too challenging
Curriculum in mainstream [is] very focused as the “majority”- race for points does not help our students with special needs
Unrealistic teacher expectations
Over dependency on SNA [special needs assistant]
Accessibility of curriculum—Basic life skills not catered for in mainstream schools
Students disengage from the curriculum—students often on “photocopy duty” with SNA
Academic difficulties

The majority of the principals agreed with 7 of the 14 statements relating to academic difficulties as reasons for leaving mainstream school. The results suggest that most principals believe that academic problems present significant challenges due to the complex and inaccessible postprimary curriculum; large class sizes; too many subjects; the focus on academic performance; an overreliance on special needs assistant (SNA) support; the lack of a life skills program and a curriculum that did not meet the students' needs. As shown in Table 5, responding to an open-ended question, the principals added that difficulties with the mainstream curriculum were apparent from about 4th class (in primary school); the complexity of the postprimary curriculum; the points-race to third level; and unrealistic teacher expectations and over-dependency on the SNA. It points to a very linear system, unresponsive to the needs of students with SEN. Principals' comments are reflected in Table 5. Notably, over half of the principals indicated “don't know” in relation to 5 of the 14 statements; this reflects a lack of knowledge and awareness of mainstream academic process difficulties.

Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Difficulties Experienced by Students in Mainstream

The principals' perspectives on the social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties experienced by students with SEN in mainstream education illustrate some of the obstacles to student inclusion and integration in mainstream schools, poor early identification strategies, and the lack of interventions and appropriate supports available (see Table 6).

Table 6. Administrators' perceptions of social, emotional, behavioral, health and other related difficulties in mainstream education
Social difficulties (n = 54) AgreeDon't knowDisagree
n (%)n (%)n (%)
Difficulties in interacting with peers (n = 40)33 (83)6 (15)1 (3)
Lack of friendships (n = 39)29 (74)8 (21)2 (5)
Lack of peers in the school with whom they can form a social bond (n = 39)29 (74)10 (26)0
Students awareness of their own difficulties impacted on relationships (n = 38)26 (68)10 (26)2 (5)
Students felt peer pressure (n = 39)20 (51)15 (39)4 (10)
Students tend to form groups and isolate students with SEN (n = 37)18 (49)18 (49)1 (3)
Emotional difficulties (n = 54) AgreeDon't knowDisagree
n (%)n (%)n (%)
Students often feel segregated/isolated from peers (n = 37)33 (89)3 (8)1 (3)
Students with special needs are subject to bullying (n = 36)23 (64)11 (31)2 (6)
Made to feel “different” (n = 36)23 (64)10 (28)3 (8)
Students have undiagnosed emotional difficulties (n = 37)15 (41)19 (51)3 (8)
Behavioral difficulties (n = 54) AgreeDon't knowDisagree
n (%)n (%)n (%)
The student's behavior was disruptive to teachers (n = 38)31 (82)4 (11)3 (8)
The student's behavior was disruptive to other pupils (n = 37)28 (76)6 (16)3 (8)
School had inadequate response to students with behavioral difficulties (n = 38)25 (66)10 (26)3 (8)
Classroom staff not trained in behavioral support techniques (n = 39)25 (64)12 (31)2 (5)
Lack of behavioral support for the whole school (n = 39)22 (56)15 (39)2 (5)
Health, Physical and other difficulties (n = 54) AgreeDon't knowDisagree
Difficulties in managing students with dual diagnosis (n = 34)24 (71)10 (29)
Lack of multidisciplinary team support (n = 33)20 (61)11 (33)2 (6)
School was unable to address the health needs of the student (n = 34)14 (41)15 (44)5 (15)
Lack of psychiatric support in mainstream (n = 38)22 (58)14 (37)2 (5)
Limited access to relevant health services (n = 39)13 (39)15 (46)3 (15)
A lack of respite support for students and their families (n = 36)12 (36)16 (49)5 (15)
Inadequate resources to meet the physical needs of students (n = 32)10 (31)16 (50)5 (15)
Resources such as play equipment; sensory rooms, etc., unavailable (n = 37)19 (59)9 (28)4 (13)
Poor access to post-school employment and/or study opportunities (n = 38)18 (56)13 (41)1 (3)
Social difficulties

Of the principals who responded, the majority agreed with the presence of five of the six statements relating to social difficulties experienced by students in mainstream school. Noted difficulties related to peer–peer interaction; a lack of friendship and peers to form a social bond with; feeling peer pressure; and the students' own awareness of their own difficulties was thought to impact on relationships. In an open-ended question, two principals added that “[Some] students had difficulty in maintaining friendships. Pupils were being ‘minded’ or ‘looked after’ by their peers” or “by their SNA resulting in loss of opportunity to develop independence.” These results highlight the principals' views on the social obstacles to integration in mainstream education.

Emotional difficulties

The majority of principals agreed with the four emotional related factors investigated: that students often feel segregated or isolated from their peers; are subject to bullying; are made to feel different; and may have undiagnosed emotional difficulties in mainstream school. In an open-response question, one principal added that “internet cyber bullying [is a problem].” These findings suggest that students feel the isolation, experience loneliness, and are vulnerable and that there is a lack of awareness of the student's psychosocial educational profile in mainstream school.

Behavioral difficulties

The majority of principals agreed with the five behavioral statements relating to students difficulties in mainstream. Difficulties noted included students' behavior being disruptive to teachers and other students, the lack of an adequate response by mainstream schools to student behavior, the lack of adequate staff training, and a lack of a whole school behavioral approach. These findings point to inadequate and inappropriate resources for managing behavior problems and supporting the student in the mainstream classroom.

Health, physical, and other support difficulties

The majority of the principals reported that in mainstream schools there was an absence of adequate health-related supports, multidisciplinary team supports, and the schools had difficulties in managing students with a dual diagnosis. Between 30% and 40% of principals reported that mainstream schools experienced an inability to support the health needs of students; that there was limited access to relevant health services; and there was a lack of respite support for students and their families. Meeting the physical needs of students (31%) was also difficult as resources (such as play equipment and sensory rooms) were unavailable to students in mainstream schools (59%; n = 19). One important obstacle was the limited opportunities in employment, training, and education for students with SEN when they graduated from mainstream schools (56%; n = 18). In contrast, students in special schools had access to Junior and Leaving Certificate programs, as well as Further Education and Training Awards Council or FETAC qualifications, which provided a practical skill level and international accreditation—thus opening the door to a range of job opportunities, supported employment, and training opportunities at the postsecondary level.

Statistical Analysis

Tests for statistically significant differences between school types were conducted for reported typical difficulties experienced in mainstream schools. Schools were coded thus: MILD: mild general learning disability; MOD: moderate general learning disability; and ED: emotional disturbance. Kruskal–Wallis exact tests were conducted between item means due to the small sample size. Items were scored as: “Agree” = 3; “Don't Know” = 2; and “Disagree” = 1. In order to determine direction and effect size, follow-up Mann–Whitney U exact tests were conducted between: MILD and MOD school groups; MILD and ED school groups, MOD and ED school groups, and to control for Type 1 errors, Bonferroni adjustment was applied and the alpha level was revised to 0.017 (0.05/3).

Significant differences were found on items 1, 2, and 5, between MOD and ED schools with the latter principals indicating more difficulties associated with the item “Over reliance on SNA support for the level of student need” (U = 5, z = −2.39, p = 0.014); results indicated a large effect size (r = 0.6). For “Students felt peer pressure” (U = 10, z = −2.45, p = 0.015), the results also indicate a large effect size (r = 0.6). While MOD students had more difficulty with “Not given equality of access” (U = 9, z = −2.66, p = 0.012); here the results indicate a large effect size (r = 0.6)—see Table 7.

Table 7. Typical difficulties by school types (mild and moderate intellectual disability and emotionally disturbed): Kruskal-Wallis exact tests
 n; nX2dfpMeanSD
  1. Note: ED, Schools for Emotionally Disturbed Children; MILD, Schools for Mild General Intellectual Disability; MOD, Schools for Moderate General Intellectual Disability; SNA, special needs assistant.

Over reliance on SNA support for the level of student needn = 256.7920.028  
MILD n = 11   2.96.52
MOD n = 10   2.70.67
ED n = 4   1.75.50
Students felt peer pressuren = 336.8920.007  
MILD n = 15   2.53.64
MOD n = 13   2.15.69
ED n = 5   3.00.00
Lack of multidisciplinary team supportn = 305.7020.047  
MILD n = 14   2.29.61
MOD n = 13   2.77.60
ED n = 3   2.33.58
Resources, such as play equipment, sensory rooms, etc., unavailablen = 329.4020.007  
MILD n = 13   2.15.69
MOD n = 14   2.86.53
ED n = 5   2.20.84
Not given equality of accessn = 328.2020.011  
MILD n = 13   2.38.51
MOD n = 14   2.67.51
ED n = 5   1.60.55

As presented on Table 8, significant differences on items 3 and 4 were found between MILD schools and MOD schools, with the latter indicating more difficulty with a “Lack of multidisciplinary team support” (U50, z = −2.29, p = 0.013); the results indicate a medium to large effect size (r = 0.4). With “Resources such as play equipment; sensory rooms, etc., unavailable” (U = 38, z = −3.01, p = .003), results showed a large effect size (r = 0.6).

Table 8. Typical difficulties by school group: Mann–Whitney U exact tests, effect direction/size
  1. Note: ED, Schools for Emotionally Disturbed Children; MILD, Schools for Mild General Intellectual Disability; MOD, Schools for Moderate General Intellectual Disability; md = Median; SNA, special needs assistant.

Over reliance on SNA support for the level of student needn = 14 50.0140.6
MOD n = 10MOD md = 2   
ED n = 4ED md = 3   
Students felt peer pressuren = 15 100.0150.6
MOD n = 13MOD md = 2   
ED n = 5ED md = 3   
Lack of multidisciplinary team supportn = 27 500.0130.4
MILD n = 14MILD md = 2   
MOD n = 13MOD md = 3   
Resources such as play equipment; sensory rooms, etc., unavailablen = 27 380.0030.6
MILD n = 13MILD md = 2   
MOD n = 14MOD md = 3   
Not given equality of accessn = 19 90.0120.6
MOD n = 14MOD md = 3   
ED n = 5ED md = 2   

These findings show that the principals view students with a moderate learning disability as not having adequate access to: multidisciplinary teams; psychiatrists; play equipment and sensory rooms; and respite care for the student and family. The diversity of student need is not accommodated for and points to an inadequate assessment of need process. Caution is extended in the interpretation of results due to a very small group statistical size.

Reasons Students Left Mainstream Education

Of the 33 principals who responded to the question whether they knew the actual reasons for students enrolling from mainstream school, 94% (n = 31) indicated they knew the reason(s). Principals' response (for the 10 most recent students aged 12+, n = 200) relates to 147 pupils from primary and 53 pupils who enrolled from postprimary school. For the majority of students (84%; n = 168) there was more than one reason for leaving mainstream education. Some 16% (n = 32) of students left their mainstream school because of one reason only; 31% (n = 61) left because of two reasons; 27% (n = 54) left because of three reasons; 33% (n = 49) left because of four reasons; and 2% (n = 4) left because of all five reasons. In addition, 36 students left mainstream school due to dual diagnosis problems (see Table 9). The findings suggest that students are struggling and there are complex comorbidity needs unresolved in mainstream education. It provides further evidence of the lack of monitoring and early identification of students' academic; psychosocial, emotional, and behavioral needs.

Table 9. Reasons for leaving mainstream education—Administrators' responses
 Transition processAcademicSocialEmotionalBehavioralPhysical/HealthDual diagnosis
n (%)n (%)n (%)n (%)n (%)n (%)n (%)
Students from Primary Schools, n = 14732 (22)118 (80)104 (71)69 (47)58 (40)26 (18)28 (19)
Students from Secondary Schools, n = 5330 (57)30 (57)36 (68)29 (55)12 (23)8 (15)

Adjustment Difficulties on Enrollment to Special School

Thirty-six (88%) of the principals viewed students who enrolled from mainstream schools as being appropriately placed in their special school. In response to an open-ended question the principals were able to present their view of student adjustment difficulties (which include transition and social–emotional difficulties and the presence of challenging behaviors).

Transition difficulties

Eight principals reported that they perceived integration difficulties associated with the transition process. These difficulties included settling into the special school, a dependency on supports, difficulties with class participation, and a general anxiety over the transition process.

Socio-emotional difficulties

Eleven principals reported that students often presented with social-emotional difficulties as a consequence of negative experiences in mainstream schools associated with a loss of self-esteem, poor self-image, a lack of self-confidence, and feeling like a failure. Another principal noted that it may take “2–3 years to redevelop self-esteem and confidence” and it could lead to disengagement from the learning process. Five of the principals reported that students had difficulty catching up with their peers, even in relation to very basic classroom skills; that class participation and their social skills were not as well developed as their peers in special schools; they showed dependency on other students; had difficulty forming friendships and in finding a new level to interact with peers, and that they often isolated themselves in the play yard.

Challenging behavior

Some 24 principals reported that students presented with challenging behavior; half listed more than one type. The most common include passive defensive behaviors (n = 7) (such as refusing to try for fear of failure and noncompliance); and externalizing behaviors (n = 17) (outbursts of anger and temper tantrums (n = 6); aggressive acts toward students and teachers (n = 11), self-injurious behavior, and socially inappropriate behavior).

An analysis of the principals' comments point to the intense and complex adjustment difficulties students often experience following the transition to a special school (see Table 10). Inclusive strategies that would engage students in classroom learning and opportunities for continued interaction with mainstream peers could support students' psychosocial integration and maximize their potential. There is also a need for pre-transition planning and a focus on training staff to manage the psychosocial and behavioral manifestations during this transition process.

Table 10. Administrators' statements on adjustment behaviors
Extracts of administrators' statements
  • Dealing with outbursts of anger—inability to deal with situations in a calm manner. Violent, outbursts which could lead to aggressive acts if student not given time and space to calm down. Staff reactions hugely important—staff require patience and training in de-escalating techniques to deal with such situations
  • Very low self-esteem shown by aggressive behavior, threatening behaviors, verbal attacks on peers and staff. Generally academic attainments well below norm for age group of “non special” peer group—result in defensive behaviors during class work time (i.e., child refuses to try for fear of failure).
  • Aggressive behavior toward pupils and staff alike. Antisocial behavior. Feeling like a failure.
  • Unable to cope in large group or become involved in group activities. Needs a behavioral support plan and the staff and resources to implement it. Exhibits self-injurious behavior, injury to other pupils/staff, and damage to property.
  • Mainstream schools tend to send pupils home or suspend them routinely when difficulties arise.
  • Not enough training in positive behavior in mainstream. Not enough training provided for mainstream teachers in how to manage or understand students with special needs.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Findings
  6. Discussion
  7. Future Research
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

The current challenges encountered by special schools in Ireland are not a unique phenomenon. Ireland's inclusive educational experience is akin to those of countries still struggling with introducing inclusion practices amid socioeconomic and educational resource restraints. The results show that there are students struggling with inadequate supports for their academic learning, and having their psychosocial, emotional, and behavioral needs met in mainstream schools in Ireland. They also indicate that there is an increasing trend in the numbers of students enrolling in special schools, and illustrate the burden placed on special schools in accommodating these students as they adjust to the special school environment. The research evidence suggests that for successful inclusive education not only is there a need for full implementation of systemic educational change but also universal, responsive, classroom practices that are responsive to the diversity of individual student needs.

Conceptualizing the reasons why students left mainstream schools for special school education can provide a deeper understanding of the underlying factors as to why students are leaving mainstream schools and enrolling in special schools, despite a national inclusion policy. It provides a context from which we can begin to understand the challenges of inclusion in the mainstream schools in Ireland.

Our data indicate that obstacles to student inclusion and integration in mainstream schools relate to the diversity of student needs. Further, as some psychosocial needs go undiagnosed, what is apparent is the lack of awareness of the most appropriate method in which student needs could be accommodated in the classroom. For example, children with emotional disturbance needs (the majority of whom were over 15 years of age and going through normal teenage development), tended to overrely on an SNA and were more vulnerable to peer pressure than those students with a moderate intellectual disability. The situation was confounded by overreliance and nonsupportive interaction making them feel different and less confident with their peers. For inclusion to work students need to feel supported and independent and socially integrated—but without the stigma of being/feeling different and isolated from forming friendship bonds as a result. In contrast, specific issues for students with moderate intellectual disabilities, who were generally younger (i.e., 12–14 years of age), were related to the lack of multidisciplinary support, play equipment, and sensory rooms, which are all more accessible through the special schools system. Most of the principals reported that there was limited access to relevant health services and further educational and employment opportunities in mainstream schools, while special schools offered more health and physical support, life skills programs, and practical skill level courses with international accreditation, thus providing a more holistic approach and preparation of the student for adult life.

In many cases there was more than one reason why students enrolled in special schools. The administrators we surveyed indicated that there were at least four reasons (academic, social, emotional, behavioral, and physical health) for leaving and about a fifth due to reasons associated with their dual diagnoses. While the main reasons for primary students coming from mainstream schools were mostly academic and social, the reasons for the postprimary students were more varied (across the seven categories). This raises the issue of comorbidity; as Buttner and Hasselhorn (2011) have noted that often “a [intellectual] disability does not occur as an isolated phenomenon, but rather in combination with other cognitive disabilities or emotional/behavioral disorders” (p 83). Thus, comorbid intellectual disabilities may need to be reconceptualized, together with a greater understanding of the resources and interventions needed. Contributing academic factors for students who left mainstream education were related to the mainstream learning environment (culture, structure, staff attitudes, and skills), the inaccessible mainstream curriculum (as early as 4th class in primary school), the focus on academic performance, large class sizes, too many subjects and unrealistic teacher expectations, the inability in practice to assess adequately, meet and be responsive to the needs of the student (pedagogical approaches and appropriate interventions), and the inability to monitor student social inclusion. Many of these findings are in alignment with the literature relating to obstacles to participation in mainstream education and, in addition, reflect the need for earlier referral to academic and psychosocial–behavioral interventions and monitoring of student responses to educational support at the mainstream classroom level. The results suggest that the fundamental criteria necessary for implementing a change in an educational system were not explored sufficiently prior to implementation and that the shortcomings of this process may have led to a number of students struggling for very basic educational access in a safe and nurturing environment.

Initial Adjustment Problems for Special Schools

Few research studies comment specifically on the initial adjustment experiences of students on the transition from mainstream postprimary to special schools; however, Greene and Kochhar-Bryant (2003) indicate that most transitions affect a person's self-concept and his or her motivation with some anxiety. The findings of this study provide insight to the complex student adjustment needs and perhaps it is so because it is a new phenomenon for special schools (i.e., preparedness to manage students without an understanding of the students' experiences in mainstream schools and their impact on the students). First, the intense behavioral support needs in conjunction with classroom integration problems make the process more difficult to manage. Evidence suggests that the impact of mainstream, that is, learned (negative) behavior, a sense of failure, different school cultural norms, and the long-term unsupported academic, social, and emotional needs of these students, could contribute to a more difficult adjustment with displays of challenging behavior leading to student disempowerment and alienation. The result is a delayed integration to the special school environment. The administrators we surveyed indicated that it could take from 1 to 2 years for students to adjust, thus impacting their learning and their ability to reach their full potential. Second, our results uncovered a disorganized approach to the transition process from mainstream to special education, with only one-third of the principals receiving key information about the student prior to transition (particularly in the absence of individual educational plans) and with some students arriving too late into the second level curriculum.

To overcome adjustment difficulties, there needs to be additional support provided to special schools, such as (1) having more access to multidisciplinary support services and ongoing specialized behavior management training for their staff (in topics such as de-escalating techniques, crisis prevention intervention and positive behavior support interventions—such as multielement behavior support (Kelly, Carey, McCarthy, & Coyle, 2007)); (2) providing opportunities for continued interaction with their mainstream peers; (3) engaging more parental involvement in decision making; and (4) introducing a preplanned transition program based on consultation with the mainstream school, as well as parents, students, special needs organizers, and home-school liaison support, which would provide special schools and parents with adequate support and time to put in place a transition program specific to their needs. Streamlining transition processes, interactive information exchange between schools, collaborative relationships with parents, teachers, and students are paramount to successful transitions. The outcomes of inadequate transition processes are evidenced by nonintegration to school environment, disengagement, behavioral problems, and student stress.

It is clear that more responsive, coherent, and integrated approaches are needed in the Irish educational system that can accommodate diversity of student needs and are not bound by restrictive socio-political-economic influences and the ideology that “one size fits all” (Hornby, 1999). Given the latter, more likely to occur in the immediate future is a continuum of transitions and more flexible learning contexts between mainstream (with special units/classes) and special schools (with partnership/expertise sharing/dual placement options) during the course of one's educational trajectory. While there are good educational model examples there are insufficient studies conducted to provide evidence of efficacy and effectiveness.

Limitations of the Study

Limitations include the lack of national statistics on the number of students with SEN in mainstream schools; the nonresponse from some schools (n = 34) making it difficult to assess reasons for nonparticipation; small statistical sample size. Parent, student, and teacher interviews were not included but could have provided a deeper insight to their experiences; and the perspective came from special school administrators and did not include the perspectives from mainstream school administrators.

Future Research

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Findings
  6. Discussion
  7. Future Research
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

Future research needs to focus on obtaining a prevalence rate of students with SEN aged 12+ in mainstream postprimary education. Further, large scale studies that include the perspectives of mainstream administrators and teachers and studies that evaluate the effectiveness of different educational models for students with SEN in mainstream and special schools are needed. Further research is required on: the experiences of students, the impact of comorbidity, and on academic and psychosocial outcomes relating to student's educational experience in mainstream postprimary schools. Moreover, research into mainstream teachers' attitudes toward their ability to integrate and teach students with SEN and strategies to help teachers' management of behavioral, social, and emotional difficulties is needed in Ireland. Further studies could also evaluate/audit school practices in relation to new national guidelines—Guidelines for Supporting Pupils with Behavioral, Emotional and Social Difficulties (DES, 2012) and the Inclusive Education Framework Guide (NCSE, 2011).


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Findings
  6. Discussion
  7. Future Research
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

The opinions and views contained in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the view of Saint John of God Hospitaller Services or the funding source, the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education, Ireland.

  1. 1

    The Irish term ‘learning disability’ was retained when describing these students to be consistent with the names used for the schools. However, it is assumed that most, if not all, of the students termed ‘learning disabled’ have an intellectual disability unless otherwise indicated.

  2. 2

    The questionnaire was named “A Survey of Special Schools in Ireland: A Prevalence Rate Of Enrollment Of Post-12 Year Old Students Who Have Attended Mainstream Schools And Reasons For Seeking Admission To Special Schools”; a copy is available from the corresponding author.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Findings
  6. Discussion
  7. Future Research
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References
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