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Special educational needs: systemic failures

There are “systemic failures” in the provision of help for children with special educational needs according to Northern Ireland’s Children’s Commissioner. This statement comes after the Education Authority issued an apology for its failings in the area after an internal audit found similar.

The Education Authority’s apology, issued in March, came after an internal audit found that there had been “unnecessary and undue delays” in the statutory assessment and statementing process. Additional concerns were raised about the security of confidential information about children held by the Authority.

Sara Long, Chief Executive of the Education Authority, apologised for the “distress and worry” caused to families affected. Long told members of the Assembly’s Education Committee that the Authority was guilty of “significant shortcomings”. Chris Lyttle, Alliance MLA and chair of the Education Committee said that the “shocking” findings of the internal audit demonstrated a “systemic failure” on the part of the Education Authority in dealing with children with special educational needs.

The audit had been ordered after allegations made by a whistle-blower that there were a number of issues with the processing of applications for support for children with special educational needs. Almost 80,000 pupils in Northern Ireland – 23 per cent of the school-going population – have some form of special educational need. Roughly 20,000 of these have a statement, which explains the extra help that they are to be given in school.

A student believed to be requiring extra support will have an assessment carried out by the Education Authority, who will then issue the statement. This process is supposed to take a maximum of 26 weeks to complete, although this maximum can be breached in acceptable circumstances such as the Authority having to consult a number of agencies. However, information released by the Department of Education shows that the average time it took to complete a statement in 2018/19 was 40 weeks, with 280 children left waiting for over a year for their statement to be completed.

The Education Authority’s audit, which took place between October 2019 and January 2020, found that 85 per cent of the 1,300 statements examined had taken over 26 weeks to complete and that one child had been waiting over two years for their statement. The report also criticised the lack of “proactive and effective management” and the “lack of management focus or accountability on the importance of the 26-week statutory assessment timeframe” within the Authority.

Donna Allen, the Authority’s Assistant Director of Pupil Services and Procurement, also told the Education Committee that there was “evidence to suggest that the dates that the referral was received was not the date that was recorded in the system”. The audit also found that the timeframe of delivering the support was not being monitored, often resulting in delays, and that “highly sensitive information about individual children contained within offices is not currently managed effectively”. Committee chair Lyttle said: “The findings of this report present… the development of a culture of delay, non-compliance and a lack of accountability.”

Following on the heels of the internal audit was the publication of a report by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People that further accused the Authority of “systemic failures” and found that the needs of children with special education needs were “largely not being met” in mainstream schools.

Decisions regarding necessary educational provision are driven by the resource that is available rather than the needs of the child. 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.

— Koulla Yiasouma, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People

The Commissioner carried out a yearlong review into the provision of help for children with special education needs in mainstream schooling. Roughly 6,000 students in Northern Ireland attend special schools, leaving the other 74,000 with some form of special education needs in mainstream schooling. The Commissioner’s review found major failings in all main areas of provision for children with special educational needs, including the already-identified delays in identification and assessment, but also including when and how much support is offered in school and how effective that support is.

The Commissioner said that the process left carers and parents isolated and frustrated, facing “a battle or fight to have their child assessed, to receive the necessary supports”. The Commissioner, Koulla Yiasouma, also found that, despite the cost of provision having risen to over £250 million, it was still significantly underfunded. The report states: “Decisions regarding necessary educational provision are driven by the resource that is available rather than the needs of the child. 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.”

Also reported are “alarming gaps” in information held by the Education Authority about the process of providing support to children with special educational needs, pointing to the Authority’s failure to provide data on the number of pupils schools have referred to its psychology service. The report also states that the Authority disclosed that the number of psychologists it employs has decreased by 24 per cent, from 140 in 2015 to 106 in 2019.

The Commissioner’s report, which was based on responses from 608 parents and carers, 84 school principals and 57 school psychologists, makes 40 recommendations including the carrying out of an independent review into the effectiveness of the Authority in meeting the needs of children with special educational needs, the recording by the Department of Education of every instance of informal exclusion or a child being put in isolation and mandatory training for teachers on how to deal with children with a range of special educational needs.

In an online meeting of the Education Committee in June, Long said that the outbreak of Covid-19 had “set back the pace of change that was outlined in March, but, despite the challenging headwinds, progress is being made”. Long reported that the 1,070 open assessment cases delayed beyond the 26-week limit in November 2019 had fallen to 597, and that there had been an 82 per cent reduction in children waiting over 60 weeks for a statement and a 61 per cent reduction in those waiting over 40 weeks. She admitted that “those figures are still too high, but they are beginning to move in the right direction”.

However, further news broken by the BBC in June — that 285 children with statements were without a school place for the approaching September — served to emphasise the mismanagement at hand. Education Minister Peter Weir said that it was “unacceptable” that these children, including 156 seeking places in special schools, were left with no places. By early August, that number had been reduced to 33, but the numbers reducing across the reported significant shortcomings in meeting special educational needs should only be seen as the start of addressing an inexcusable imbalance in provision of help for children with special educational needs.

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