Are we comfortable with continuing to fail children with SEN?

16 Feb 2023 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 16 Feb 2023

Phot by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
Phot by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

For years, mental health provision was described as Northern Ireland’s ‘Cinderella Service’. What words would best describe services for special educational needs?


Children with special educational needs are at risk of being left behind.

SEN provision has been lacking for years, if not decades. Some progress has been made recently, but that progress has been slow and – with huge cuts on the horizon – improvements may stall. Services could even go backwards.

Those cuts are massive. The Department of Education (DE) has directed the Education Authority (EA) to explore ways to chop £110m from its spending plans in order to balance the books.

The response from the EA – so far – is to simply say no. That is a bold move from the agency’s board. Whether that is a position that can hold is an interesting question. The very fact that a statutory body would take such a stance shows the potential impact of the “devastating” mooted cuts.

In mid-January, Children’s Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma responded to this news by saying these cuts could be “catastrophic.”

“The language of savings is not appropriate. What is happening is severe cuts and disinvestment in our education system. Schools serving our most deprived communities and children with SEN will be paying the price for the absence of a NI Assembly and Executive.

“Services for children with SEN in schools have been subject to significant concerns and review in recent years and there is widespread agreement of the need for improvements which inevitably will require investment but instead cuts are being proposed.

“Statistics show that Northern Ireland has a higher proportion of children with SEN needs than the rest of the UK, yet spend per pupil in NI is the lowest in the UK.”

One of those significant reviews was carried out by the Children’s Commission (NICCY) itself. Too Little, Too Late was published in March 2020. For a quick precis of its main points, just read the title again. For more details, read here.

At the start of this month, the NICCY published a follow-up to Too Little, Too Late – saying that there has been some “painfully slow” progress in the past three years but it was all now at risk.

Ms Yiasouma said: “Three years on from our recommendations, we were beginning to see encouraging ‘green shoots’ of progress, however there are now serious concerns that these steps will be ‘nipped in the bud’ due to budget constraints.

“The findings of this report suggest that positive change is underway and that the education of so many children could be transformed for the better, if these efforts were adequately nurtured and encouraged.

“In the current financial and political climate it is to the credit of the relevant authorities that they have managed to make progress in this area, albeit slow progress. 

“Less than two weeks ago, I expressed my concern at the proposed £110m cuts to education funding. It is clear that if the proposed cuts were to go ahead that they would have a devastating impact on the fragile SEN system as it exists today and also on planned transformation work.”


In the past 25 years, demand for SEN services has increased dramatically.

This reflects, in large part, a growing appreciation, recognition and understanding of different educational needs. All of those are good things, but crafting adequate services in response takes time, money and resources. As demand has risen, any advances in provision have failed to keep up.

By 2016-2017, 22% of all schoolchildren were reported as having some form of special educational need. At the end of that academic year, the NI Audit Office (NIAO) published a report criticising provision for children.

The majority of children with SEN are educated in mainstream settings, their needs catered for via reasonable adjustments. Where this is not suitable, the Education Authority carries out an individual assessment for need.

There is a statutory commitment to complete those assessments within 26 weeks of the process beginning but, in 2015-16, 79% of assessments breached this timeframe.

Kieran Donnelly, the Comptroller and Auditor General, said there were failures both in mainstream support – with neither DE nor EA able to “demonstrate value for money in terms of economy, efficiency or effectiveness, in the provision of Support” and within the specialist system.

“Despite the widespread acceptance of the need for early intervention, inconsistencies in the identification of children with special educational needs persist and delay in the completion of formal statements remains a major issue.

“This continued rise in the numbers of children with special educational needs presents a challenge for the Department, the Education Authority and schools, in terms of increasing pressure on the education budget.”

Three years later, a period which largely overlapped with a collapsed Stormont and then ran into Covid-19, the Audit Office produced a follow-up report that reiterated many of its previous criticisms and said that, while there were improvements in some areas, in others services had actually deteriorated.

The pandemic, of course, continues to have an impact on everything to this day. Budgets were tight before March 2020, and are much tighter now. The circumstances are tricky – but, without change, some of NI’s most vulnerable children still face years of lacking provision.

What next?

The calls for better SEN provision have been loud, consistent and consistently not met.

Last year, Parenting NI published a policy document outlining the changes they want to see over the next few years.

A manifesto for change 2022-2025 has six specific calls to action, one of which centres on SEN, noting: “It is unacceptable that more than 5,000 children are waiting to be assessed for autism or ASD in Northern Ireland. We are calling for this to be addressed as a priority along with ensuring that appropriate investment in support for these families is included to ensure positive outcomes for children and parents.”

They are not a lone voice. Other organisations like Early Years and Mencap NI have been making the same case for years.

And, yet, we are where we are. The question is where we go next.

As the Children’s Commissioner said further: “These children and their families are unfortunately all too familiar with ‘making do’. They are not and have not been getting the support that they have a right to and these looming cuts may mean that they have even less to work with.

“There are services for children with SEN in place, or planned for the future, which are clearly at risk due to potential budget cuts, including increased support for children transitioning from education into adult life and an expansion of the number of available Social, Behavioural and Emotional Wellbeing (SBEW) Early Intervention Officers. 

“The negligence of political institutions and resulting budget pressures cannot be allowed to continue to impact our most vulnerable children. I call on all political parties in NI to work together to address the urgent need for provision of sustainable and long-term financial investment in the SEN system.

“Northern Ireland has a higher proportion of children with SEN needs than the rest of the UK. For too long parents and carers have been fighting for their children’s right to be educated in an environment where their specific needs are respected and approached with dignity. 

“In the absence of a NI Executive, I strongly urge the Secretary of State for NI to prioritise the funding needed to address longstanding systemic issues and ensure that the sustainable delivery of services needed for all children with SEN, so that their right to effective education is realised, enabling them to reach their full potential.”

Public services in Northern Ireland face many tough choices over the next few years. But that is what all of them are: choices. Does it really seem right to continue to leave vulnerable children with slow, inadequate support?

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