Special educational needs: 'Systemic failures' in Northern Ireland

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

Published
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image captionAlmost a quarter (23%) of NI schoolchildren have some form of special educational needs

There are “systemic failures” in providing help for children with special educational needs (SEN).

That is according to a highly critical report from Northern Ireland’s children's commissioner.

Koulla Yiasouma also said the needs of children with SEN were “largely not being met” in mainstream schools.

An internal review by the Education Authority (EA) had previously found serious failings in the way it provided support for children with SEN.

The children's commissioner also carried out a year-long review into provision for pupils with SEN in mainstream schools.

It aimed to find out if their needs were being met and what problems they faced.

While about 6,000 pupils attend special schools, the majority of children with SEN are in mainstream schools.

image captionNI Children's Commissioner made 40 recommendations for improvement

According to the Department of Education, 67,000 children in Northern Ireland have some form of special educational need – almost a fifth of the school population.

Of those, about 19,000 have a “statement” of SEN which entitles them to specific extra help in school.

If a pupil is believed to need extra support in school due to SEN, the EA carries out an assessment of their needs and then issues a statement of what additional help they are to receive.

The maximum length of time for that process is meant to be 26 weeks, although there can be valid reasons for it taking longer than that - for example, if the EA needs to get advice about the child from a number of agencies.

In 2018/19, only about one in 10 (11%) statements were completed within that statutory time limit, according to data from the EA.

The average time was instead 40 weeks.

The NICCY (Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People) review found failings in all main areas of provision for children with SEN, including:

  • Delays in the identification and assessment of their needs
  • When and how much support they get to help them in school
  • How effective that support is

The commissioner said parents and carers were left feeling isolated, confused and frustrated.

They described the process “as a battle or fight to have their child assessed, to receive an appropriate statement and to receive the necessary supports".

The report contained personal accounts from a number of parents about the distress delays or a lack of support had caused them and their children.

Principals also said there could be multiple problems in getting essential help for pupils.

“Decisions regarding necessary educational provision are driven by the resource that is available rather than the needs of the child,” the NICCY report said.

“The review found a system under extreme pressure finding it difficult to respond to the scale of need and the complexity of issues that children are presenting.”

Despite the cost of provision rising to well over £250m, Ms Yiasouma said that it was significantly underfunded.

Recommendations for improvement

The commissioner also said that there were “alarming gaps” in information held by the EA about the process for providing support to children with SEN.

For instance, the EA was unable to provide her review with data on the number of pupils schools had referred to its own educational psychology service.

The EA also disclosed that the number of educational psychologists it employed had decreased by 24% in under five years - from 140 in 2015 to 106 in 2019.

The commissioner made 40 recommendations for improvement, including an independent review of the effectiveness of the EA in meeting the needs of children with SEN.

She also said instances of putting children in isolation or informally excluding them from school should be formally recorded by the Department of Education.

Ms Yiasouma also said all teachers should receive mandatory training in how to help a range of children with SEN.

The NICCY findings were based on responses from 608 parents and carers, 84 school principals and 57 educational psychologists – about two-thirds of who were employed by the EA.

Experts in education and special educational needs were also involved in the review as well as researchers from Stranmillis University College.

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