Review: Classroom assistant upskilling necessary to meet SEN demands

An independent review into the needs of pupils with a statement of special educational needs (SEN) has recommended a fundamental overhaul of the role and remit of classroom assistants.

The independent review, carried out by Ipsos, finds that the SEN system needs to be re-aligned and reformed to move from a process-system driven to a child-centred approach which meets the needs of children with SEN.

Providing early support to children with a SEN statement is “almost impossible” due to the pressure placed on teachers and staff in schools, the review states, further highlighting the limits of classroom assistants, a role which it recommends undergoes reform to meet the needs of SEN pupils.

Calling for a “rethink of the role” of classroom assistants, the review states that those children who are most in need of additional support, i.e., pupils with a SEN statement, “should have greater interaction with teachers, not less”.

Exactly what reforms should be undertaken to either upskill the role of the classroom assistant, or divert funding from classroom assistants in favour of more teachers, is not stated in the report. However, the report does state that there is a growing body of evidence that classroom assistants can be deployed in ways that enhance student learning and facilitate teachers in carrying out their professional roles.

The review outlines that certain conditions must be met for this to happen, in particular, well-structured settings where teachers and classroom assistants work closely together, have time for planning and review, and where classroom assistants receive appropriate professional development as a matter of course.

DUP education spokesperson, Diane Dodds MLA, has stated her view that the role of classroom assistant should be “professionalised and made more attractive as a long-term option for staff”.

“A more highly-skilled workforce, benefitting from continuing training, will be necessary for us to achieve the best outcomes. Earlier intervention is crucial, and fundamental reform will be required to establish a fit for purpose SEN service for our young people,” Dodds commented.

Increase in SEN demand

The review explains how the number of pupils in Northern Ireland schools has been growing steadily since 2017, with almost 341,000 pupils registered in the previous academic year in primary, post-primary, and special schools.

In addition to this, the number of pupils with a statement of Special Educational Needs (SEN) has also increased steadily over the past number of years, for example in 2021/22 there were 21,956 (6.4 per cent) children on stage 3 of the SEN register compared to 17,709 (5.4 per cent) in 2017/18. Most children with SEN are educated within mainstream education (70.8 per cent).

In a letter to heads and governors in May 2023, the Education Authority (EA) stated that there is a 15 per cent rise in the number of children with a statement of special educational needs (SEN) seeking a school place in the next academic year.

An Education Authority committee meeting on 6 April 2023 was told that that meant a need for 853 additional pupil places in special schools and 400 places in specialist classes in mainstream schools. To cope with those numbers, it is estimated that special schools will need an additional 76 classrooms by September 2023.

Implementing and driving change

The review states that accountability within the Department and the Education Authority is needed to drive the change needed. “The strengthening of [the Department’s] governance and oversight in relation to SEN is key to leading, implementing and driving change within the EA and the wider SEN system,” the report states.

In order to drive change, the report recommends that, by May 2024, the Department sets in place “a plan that will set out the actions that will be delivered to implement transformational change to SEN and the wider education system within reasonable timescales”.

“The plan should be led by a senior civil servant who is directly accountable to the Minister and who will give annual reports to Northern Ireland Assembly through the Education Committee of the Assembly.”

Permanent Secretary of the Department of Education Mark Browne commented: “This report indicates that systemic reform is critical to ensure the delivery of high quality, child-centred provision through earlier intervention, a highly skilled and trained workforce and pupil support services that are flexible, timely and responsive as children’s needs emerge.

“There are a number of recommendations contained in this review, some of which will challenge how things are currently done, however, I am confident that in collaboration with key partners we can drive forward change at pace to improve the lives of all children with special educational needs.”

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