SEN demand outstripping places

Almost 100 pupils with statements of special educational needs (SEN) are awaiting re-placement in the education system, as the Education Authority (EA) struggles to meet growing demand of SEN pupils.

As of 5 July, a total of 103 pupils with a statement of SEN were without a school place for the academic year 2022/23 but a further 98 SEN pupils, with a secured place in the new academic year, have been recommended for a change of placement following annual review of their statement, to better suit their needs.

According to an Education Authority strategic area plan for special education provision, the number of pupils accessing a placement in a special school has jumped by 26.4 per cent in the last five years, while in the same timeframe, a 24 per cent increase has been recorded in the number of pupils accessing a placement in specialist provision within mainstream schools.

Comparatively, for pupils in mainstream education (without a SEN statement), there are 68 pupils without a confirmed school placement, although 64 of these were due to having not been nominated to a particular school by their parents. This is out of a total mainstream education population of 236,766.

According to the Department of Education, there are 64,486 pupils with special educational needs. This figure includes the 22,198 students with a SEN statement. The EA additionally confirmed that there are 12,840 pupils with a statement who have not enrolled in a special school or have specialist provision in a mainstream school.

Placement challenges

The EA stated that there are 4,411 new pupils with a SEN statement who have sought a school place ahead of the new academic year. These pupils include ones entering school for the first time, and those who have been in education and have only recently acquired a SEN statement.

There are 40 special schools in Northern Ireland, with specialist provision provided in 976 mainstream primary and post-primary schools. The EA projects that the number of SEN statemented pupils could increase by a further 25 per cent by 2030.

The EA’s Planning for Special Education Provision: Strategic Area Plan 2022-27 report has outlined the framework to meet the increasing demands of the special education sector, which will be framed by: increasing parity of access for all to appropriate pathways; promoting cooperation, collaboration and sharing between all special schools and specialist provision in mainstream schools across all sectors; maximising resources and capacity; and informing strategic infrastructure planning and investment.

Increase in SEN pupils

Despite the placement crisis, the Education Authority confirmed that there are “five or less” pupils with a SEN statement who are entering school for the first time or “at a key transition point”.

The pressure in the special education sector is coming amid the sharp increase in pupils with a SEN statement which follows reforms since 2020, when an internal audit found that there had been “unnecessary and undue delays” in the statutory assessment and statementing process, with additional concerns raised about the security of confidential information about children held by the EA.

As a consequence, the number of pupils with a SEN statement has increased by 33 per cent since the 2015/2016 academic year.

Figures from the Department of Education show that there are 57,833 pupils with SEN needs being educated within mainstream schools, 55,128 of which have no specialist provision within these schools.

Additionally, in spite of the fact that pupils with a SEN statement only account for 6.3 per cent of the pupil population, 15 per cent of home-schooled pupils, known to the EA, had a SEN statement in the past academic year.

The Planning for Special Education Provision: Strategic Area Plan 2022-27 report outlines that: “In the last five years, there has been a 26.4 per cent increase in the number of pupils accessing a placement in a special school and in the same period there has been a 24.1 per cent increase in the number of pupils accessing a placement in specialist provision in mainstream.” The report further states that, based on the Department of Education projections, this trend is expected to continue.

“There is a changing profile of pupils, often with a multiplicity of needs. The complexity of pupil need and the profile requires a special school to be adaptable to meet the multiplicity of need. This has a direct impact on the type of accommodation, teaching and ancillary support, the size of classes as reduced pupil: adult ratios are required in many circumstances have an impact on special school provision.”

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