Northern Ireland

Special school: Education Authority apologises to parents over plans to cut hours

Classroom
Image caption The EA proposed cutting pre-school provision for all pupils in special school nurseries from 22.5 hours a week to 12.5 hours

The Education Authority has apologised to parents for how it has handled plans to cut hours for pupils in special school nurseries.

MLAs from Stormont's education committee questioned officials on Wednesday.

It heard "serious reputational damage" was caused to the Education Authority by its "mishandling" of the plans.

Committee chair Barry McElduff said the authority should apologise to parents of affected pupils.

Chair of the Education Authority (EA), Sharon O'Connor, said she was "very sorry for the upset that parents are continuing to experience".

After the meeting, Ms O'Connor said: "On behalf of the Authority, I apologise unreservedly to parents who have been upset by the handling of this issue to date.

"I wish to assure them today that no long term changes to existing arrangements will be implemented in advance of the outcome of the review which will include a full consultation involving school principals, parents, early years' practitioners and other relevant stakeholders."

In March, the BBC revealed that the EA proposed to cut pre-school provision for all pupils in special school nurseries from 22.5 hours a week to 12.5 hours.

The cut would have affected disabled children in 14 special schools who currently offer full-time places.

That decision was criticised by the former education minister John O'Dowd, who ordered the EA to review it.

Image caption Committee chair Barry McElduff said the EA should apologise to parents of affected pupils.

A number of MLAs expressed further criticisms at the committee hearing.

Vice-chair of the committee, Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, said he was unhappy at how the EA had consulted on its plans.

'Unacceptable'

"The approach has been unacceptable," he said.

"It has been inconsistent, it has been contradictory, evidentially disputed, and there has been wholly inadequate communication and engagement."

Sinn Féin MLA Catherine Seeley said she had "huge concerns" over the move to make all children attend special school nurseries for 2.5 hours a day.

"I don't think that is receptive to the different needs of different, individual children," she said.

The DUP's Lord Morrow also asked why it seemed Fleming Fulton school in Belfast had been "ignored" by the EA when they had offered to provide nursery accommodation in 2016.

"Let's hear what is going on and why Fleming Fulton has not got the treatment they feel that they deserve," he said.

Image caption The EA's chair, Sharon O'Connor, said she was "very sorry for the upset that parents are continuing to experience"

Staff at Fleming Fulton had written to members of the committee claiming that, despite having capacity for 10 nursery places, their nursery had been "mothballed".

In response, the EA's chief executive Gavin Boyd said they would "re-engage" with the school.

"That has to be worked through," he said.

"It is not just a simple question of saying we're open for business again."

Last week, the EA announced that a review of its plans would take six months to complete.

In a letter to special school principals, it said it would not be going ahead with the original plan to cut hours in all schools until at least September 2017.

However, that suspension will not apply to six special schools which will see cuts to hours for nursery pupils from September 2016, due to what the EA has said are interim plans to meet demand.

EA officials told the committee that there was an unprecedented increase in demand for special school nursery places this year.

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