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A Brief to the Ministry of Education from the BC Teachers’ Federation, August 2017 

Inclusive Education: Special Needs Designations and Categories in BC 

The Issue

The Ministry of Education has established a funding model and designation system for identifying and channelling supplemental funding to districts with identified special needs. In BC, the Ministry of Education Special Education Services: A Manual of Policies, Procedures, and Guidelines delineates the diagnostic and identification criteria for children with special needs across twelve (12) designations (Figure 1) and the annual operating grant manual establishes the supplemental funding amounts for students with Level 1, 2, or 3 designations (Figure 1). Designations A–H are considered “low incidence” and designations K–R are considered “high incidence.” Low incidence designations are generally (although not universally) special needs that require higher levels of supports and services.

Figure 1: Special Needs Designations and Supplemental Ministry of Education Funding

Figure1: Special needs designations and supplemental Ministry of Education funding


Over the past 16 years, the percentage of students with special needs in the BC public school system has remained relatively constant at just over 10% (Figure 2). The designations and needs levels, however, have grown significantly over this same period. There has been an over 58% increase in the number of students with low incidence (high needs) designations in BC over the past 16 years, and an over 35% decrease in the number of students with high incidence designations over this same period (Figure 3). These changes in the numbers of students with low and high incidence designations have, to a certain extent, been driven by changes in diagnostic criteria in the special education manuals. For example, there has been significant growth in the number and percentage of students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) designations in BC; 455% growth in the number of students with ASD from 2001–16 (Figure 3). This designation, however, is now (based on DSM IV diagnostic criteria) capturing students that would have otherwise been designated in other low incidence categories, including C and H, and high incidence categories K, Q, and R. Streamlined diagnostics coupled with improved public awareness of autism spectrum disorders has also led to increased designations of students with autism spectrum disorders.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Students with special needs as a percent of total student population

Figure 3
Figure 3: Changes in numbers of students with special needs in BC by high and low incidence category

Figure 4
Figure 4: Changes in numbers of special needs students in BC, by designation, 2001/2 - 2016/17

Key recommendations

Recommendation 1

Special education designations are crucial in allowing governments and school districts to identify student exceptionalities and special needs and to accordingly drive funding and supports into the public school system and classrooms to support students and their teachers.

Recommendation 2

Special needs designations are evolving and must reflect existing scientific community standards (i.e., DSM V).

Recommendation 3

The government must provide additional funding and supports to improve assessment and diagnostic services across BC. This includes funding for hiring teacher psychologists to reduce lengthy psycho-educational assessment wait times, and funding and supports for health and social services to reduce wait times and improve access to assessment, diagnostic, and treatment services for physical disabilities, mental health, neurodevelopmental disorders, and behavioural disorders.

Recommendation 4

The government should review the supplemental funding model with the view to enhancing and improving the alignment between student educational needs and funding. The current formula-based (vs. need-based) model provides no supplemental funding for high incidence categories while also failing to account for students with multiple and co-morbid special needs.

Further Reading

BC Ministry of Education. (2004–17). Student Statistics – (Various Years) Province - Public and Independent Schools Combined. Victoria: Government of British Columbia.

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