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Creating transition pathways for young people with SEND: an example from Ireland

June 11 2017, by

In this article, I illustrate how transition from secondary school can be viewed as more than an episodic event, but can be broadened to include pre- and post-transition interventions.

Planning post-school transitions for young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is a statutory requirement in the USA (IDEA, 2004, 2006), and is notionally catered for within Education, Health and Care Plans in the UK (Children and Families Act, 2014).

In Ireland, such future proofing is acknowledged within an IEP, which should “plan coherently for the student’s transition between settings and for the young person’s transition into adult life” (NCSE, 2006). In reality, a failure to enact all sections of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act (2004) means that young people with SEND are not provided with person-centred transition plans, and rarely receive support with identifying strengths and challenges, building personal skills such as self-awareness and self-advocacy, or researching positive outcomes for life after school.

Pre-transition strategies

Post-primary students in Ireland study for the Leaving Certificate, a highly competitive points-based examination. Students usually sit seven subjects and points are calculated on the best six results, which must include Mathematics, English and Irish. Each Higher Education Institution (HEI) offers places via the Central Applications Office (CAO) to students who meet the minimum requirements for the course of their choice. Where there are more applicants than available places, these are offered to students with the highest score in the CAO points system.

Since 2004, HEIs have operated an additional admissions route for students with disabilities who have the ability to benefit from and succeed in HE, but who may not be able to meet the points requirement due to the impact of their disability. In 2010, the scheme was formalised as the Disability Access Route to Education (DARE) scheme, an initiative that is unique to Ireland. Students may disclose a disability within the categories of:

  • Autistic Spectrum Disorders,
  • Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder,
  • Blind / Visually Impaired,
  • Deaf / Hearing Impaired,
  • Developmental Co-ordination Disorder,
  • Mental Health Conditions,
  • Neurological Conditions,
  • Physical Disability,
  • Significant Ongoing Illness,
  • Speech, Language and Communication Disorders,
  • Specific Learning Difficulties.

There are currently 20 participating HEIs who allocate a finite number of places using a non-specified reduction in points. Students with disabilities from other EU countries who wish to study in Ireland, may also apply to the DARE scheme.
There are three parts to the application process:

  1. Completion of a personal statement outlining the impact of disability on education,
  2. Documentation providing evidence of disability
  3. A ‘reference’ from the secondary school confirming difficulties and supports.

In an evaluation of the DARE scheme, Byrne et al (2013) found inherent socio-economic and geographical biases linked to sourcing medical and psycho-educational documentation. To address these issues, DARE introduced an Educational Impact Statement (EIS), the purpose of which is to identify specific indicators representing an educational disadvantage, such as learning and academic performance, attendance, and intervention and supports.

Capturing these aspects of educational history requires a longitudinal assessment, and as such, application to the DARE scheme has become a de facto part of transition planning. DARE admissions have risen by 190% since 2010, with 2,254 SEND students achieving a place in HE on reduced points (DARE, 2015), demonstrating the success of the scheme as a transition pathway.

Pre-transition experiential programmes

For many students with Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) and their families, the progression and transfer from school to FE or HE can be stressful and uncertain. Programmes that facilitate a smooth transition into college benefit both students and parents, encouraging early connections with HEIs prior to departure from secondary school. Whilst robust international models exist, this concept is in its infancy in Ireland, with few opportunities to address the particular needs of secondary students with ASD. Experiencing a taste of college means that students have the chance to meet other young people who deal with similar challenges, and prepares them for new teaching and learning methods, and different physical environments.

Between September 2011 and April 2013, transition planning workshops were provided on one Wednesday afternoon each month, to students with SEND enrolled in the final two years of secondary education, their parents, and supporting practitioners. Two theoretical perspectives were identified as being essential to the ethos of this intervention

  • Transformative Learning (Kokkos et al., 2015; Mezirow, 1991, 2002; Sammut, 2014) and,
  • The Person, Environment, Occupation Model (Law et al, 1996; Olsson et al., 2013; Quinn, Gleeson, & Nolan, 2014).

In June 2016, the workshops were expanded into a pilot programme for students with ASD, and subsequently 19 students aged between 15 and 18 years attended five days of non-residential camp. This was facilitated and directed by an Educational Psychologist and Occupational Therapist, and supported by five Student Ambassadors registered with the Disability Service.

The programme was designed as an immersive experience in which students engaged with college staff and students. The content was informed by our knowledge of supporting young people with ASD in post-primary and HE settings, using a modular transition planning tool (Doyle, 2016), and shaped by input from current HE students. The curriculum encompassed a wide range of academic, pastoral, and leisure activities, that maximised social participation both within the group and the wider social environment. Students attended lectures, seminars, tutorials and laboratories, and engaged with assistive technologies and social skills training. The programme was not part of a research study, and therefore no formal measures were taken. However, observations and feedback from students and parents indicated positive gains in knowledge, confidence and social interaction.

Post-transition options

An article in the Irish Times last year claimed that

“…a culture of ‘low expectations’ and a limited supply of appropriate training courses have been identified as key barriers to people with intellectual disabilities entering further education” (Humphreys, 2015).

In March 2016, students enrolled on the Certificate in Contemporary Living – a course provided through the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities – presented findings from a research study which investigated barriers and supports for students with disabilities in college. Students engaged in field research, gathered and analysed data, discussed the findings, and wrote up the results as posters and in a Powerpoint presentation. Research which they disseminated in a clear and confident manner in a seminar to the general public.

The Certificate has now been renamed the Certificate in Arts, Science and Inclusive Applied Practice. It is a two-year, full- time programme for adults with intellectual disabilities, delivered through Trinity College Dublin. The initiative has been designed to support successful transitions into independent life and employment. Students attend college for three days a week, participating in lectures, completing coursework, sitting examinations, and engaging in work placement. There are ten modules:

  • Language and Society
  • Expressive Arts
  • Human Rights
  • Learning Theory and Practice
  • Emergency and Disaster Management
  • Applied Health Science: Body Systems and Functions
  • Application of Numbers
  • Self-managing Services
  • Exploring Art or Italian for Beginners
  • Occupational Therapy: Personal and Self-development

Each module consists of lectures, tutorials and self-directed learning, with continuous assessment through presentations, portfolios and assignments. Elective modules in Dance and Drama, Art and Design, and Creative Arts Appreciation and/or Performance enable students to participate in expressive arts.

The ethos of the Certificate pathway is to include adults with intellectual disabilities in an HE setting, providing them with exactly the same college experience as their peers. This model illustrates how continuing adult education can be absorbed into HE settings, in response to a mandate for closer links between educational sectors, and engagement with the needs of all members of society (HEA, 2015).

Sustainable initiatives

The pre- and post-transition initiatives described in this article represent organic models of intervention, which respond to changing needs at an individual and community level. Thinking about recent debates around the replicability of psychological studies, could we expect to observe the same successful outcomes in other settings or locations? Cultural differences, economic restraints, attitudes towards inclusion, and the accuracy and quality of implementation and measures, will all affect results. However, I do not think that this is a sufficiently valid argument for discouraging creative transition solutions.



Adreon, D., & Durocher, J. (2007). Evaluating the college transition needs of individuals with high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders. Intervention in School and Clinic, 42, 271–279.

Byrne, D., Doris, A., Sweetman, O., and Casey, R. (2013). A national evaluation of the HEAR and DARE supplementary admission routes to higher education. Maynooth: National University of Ireland.

DARE. (2015). Facts and figures.

Doyle, A. (2015). Scaling the mountain: The Topography of Disability and Transition to Higher Education in Ireland. (Unpublished doctoral thesis). University of Dublin, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.

Doyle, A. (2016). Planning transitions from school for young people with special needs and disabilities: A workbook for students and parents. Dublin: Caerus Education. ISBN: 978-1-910179-93-2.

Higher Education Authority. (2015). National Access Plan 2015 – 2019. Dublin: HEA.

Humphreys, J. (2015, 1st March). Colleges running fewer courses suitable for students with disabilities. The Irish Times.

IDEA. (2004). Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), as amended in 2004, PL 108-446, 20 United States Congress 1400 et seq. Full text of IDEA Statute, December 3, 2004.

IDEA. (2006). The Federal Regulations for Part B of IDEA 2004, 34 CFR Part 300, Assistance to States for the Education of Children with Disabilities, Federal Register on August 14, 2006, Vol. 71, No. 156.

Kokkos, A., Kasl, E., Markos, L., Marsick, V. J., Yorks, L., Sheared, V., & Taylor, E. W. (2015). Celebrating 40 Years of Transformative Learning. Journal of Transformative Education, 13 (4), 290-315.

Law, M., Cooper, B., Strong, S., Stewart, D., Rigby, P., & Letts, L. (1996). The Person-Environment Occupation model: A transactive approach to occupational performance, Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 63, 9–23.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (2002). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 74, 5-12.

NCSE. (2006). National Council for Special Education. Guidelines on the individual education plan process. Trim: NCSE.

Olsson, A., Thoren-Jonsson, A., & Marensson, L. (2013). Occupational Therapists’ experience concerning occupational performance in adults with Asperger Syndrome. Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, 29 (1), 42-59.

Quinn, S., Gleeson, C., & Nolan, C. (2014). An Occupational Therapy support service for university students with Asperger’s Syndrome. Occupational Therapy in Mental Health 30, (2), 109-125.

Sammut, K. (2014). Transformative learning theory and coaching: Application in practice. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, Special Issue No.8, June 2014, 39-53.

About Alison Doyle

Dr. Alison Doyle is a teacher, psychologist and researcher with a long history of supporting students in primary, secondary and higher education, and across a range of SEN settings internationally.

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