Northern Ireland is failing children with special educational needs

2 Jul 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 2 Jul 2020

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

The Covid-19 pandemic has drawn attention away from the ongoing crisis of SEN provision in the education system. There is no easy fix.


Northern Ireland’s education system faces a sustainability crisis.

Last year, almost half of our schools went over budget. The number of pupils has risen by 2.5% over the past decade but real-terms spending per child has declined.

Sara Long, the Chief Executive of the Education Authority (EA), has admitted that no more can be done to trim back schools’ budgets.

Teachers’ pay, which comprises a significant slice of the budget, has stagnated and a recent deal averted fears of widespread industrial action.

The pressures go all the way down. Last week, it was revealed that almost 300 children with a statement of Special Education Needs (SEN) still have no school place for September – more than 10% of SEN children seeking a place.

According to a BBC report last week, as of June 23 the EA had placed 2,206 children with statements in mainstream or special schools, or in specialist learning units within schools, for the 2020-21 school year.

That leaves 285 statemented pupils without a place, at that time, more than half of whom – 156 – are waiting for a place in special school. Officials were unable to guarantee that every child with SEN will have a school place come September.

The EA is responsible for finding places for children. In the Assembly on Tuesday, Education Minister Peter Weir of the EA and its “long-term systemic failures”. He said it had been subject of an internal report and, while change has begun, the pandemic has made reform more difficult.

This links with wider issues in SEN provision. Back in March – as the pandemic was taking hold, and drawing everyone’s attention – the Children’s Commissioner (NICCY) released a report looking at special needs support in mainstream schools, specifically.

NICCY paper

Around 80,000 school-age children in Northern Ireland have some form of special needs, almost a quarter of all pupils. More than 18,000 of those have a statement.

However, it is likely the statementing figure should be higher. For instance, at the end of last year, almost 3,000 children were waiting for an autism assessment.

Most children with special education needs attend mainstream schools. Therefore, the NICCY report covers the circumstances faced by a majority of children with SEN and, to some degree, all of them. Amongst its significant criticisms are those focused on delays in early identification of needs and intervention to help.

Too Little, Too Late – A Rights Based Review of Special Education Needs Provision in Mainstream Schools describes a system that is under perpetual, extreme pressure.

Parents and carers have little faith in the quality of the system, its accessibility, and the value placed on the needs and views of the children themselves.

Per the paper: “Review findings revealed particular issues with the procedures for the identification  and assessment of children’s needs, the extent to which children are able to access vital educational supports, the adequacy of supports and services, and the overall timeliness and efficiency of the system in meeting the needs of children with SEN in mainstream settings.”

Data held by schools is incomprehensive, to the extent that the “the scale of unmet need is currently unknown” while schools themselves lack the capacity to provide proper services, and “specifically lack the capacity and skill to support children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.”

Perhaps most alarmingly, the EA’s response to a lack of capacity is to try and pretend some of the demand for services does not exist.

“Throughout the Review, stakeholders consistently identified a lack of transparency in the SEN system, specifically with the statutory assessment process and the criteria for identifying and establishing the relevant provision for children with SEN in mainstream settings.

“Stakeholders identified particular issues with the decision making processes at the statutory assessment and statementing stage. Alarmingly, many EPs [Educational Psychologists] reported that their autonomy has been diminished and that recommendations are not being taken on board or progressed by the Education Authority.

“They indicated that recommended provisions are ‘disputed’ and often turned down by EA assessment panels without adequate explanation. It was also reported that decisions regarding necessary educational provision are driven by the resource that is available rather than the needs of the child and, as such, EPs are increasingly directed  by senior officials on what they can and cannot recommend for pupils…

“Concerns about transparency largely relate to the fact that the system is driven by the resource that is available rather than the needs of the child. A consistent theme emerging from stakeholder engagement is the significant under-funding of the SEN system in Northern Ireland.

“Although expenditure on special education in mainstream schools has increased year-on-year, it is clear that the budget for SEN provision is wholly inadequate to meet the growing numbers of children with SEN.”


Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma foreword to the report is really quite something.

“On becoming the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People in March 2015, I laid out the priorities of the office for my term. One of these was educational inequalities.

“I will be honest and say what I had envisaged was addressing the way our system appears to discriminate against children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and indeed, whilst NICCY continues to work on that issue, we have found inequalities in other areas.

“I was not prepared for the scale of the concerns regarding the access to mainstream education for children with Special Educational Needs and was taken aback, during my first years  in office, at the amount of times I found myself in the office of a primary school principal  with them telling me about the lack of support and services for children who they believed had SEN.

“This issue represents the biggest area of work for our Legal and Investigations team as well as for third sector child rights organisations. We have met with many groups of parents who described their constant “fight” to have their child’s right to education met but also that they did not feel that their role was fully respected.

“It became apparent to us that despite the evidence from our work, parents and schools, the Education Authority (EA) did not always share our perspective on the systemic issues for children with SEN in mainstream settings. It was apparent that the facts and realities needed to be outlined in a robust and evidence-based piece of work…

“This report, “Too Little, Too Late”, reflects the harsh reality of aspects of our SEN system. It outlines the frustrations of many parents and professionals in trying to get their voices heard by an education system that has, to date, consistently demonstrated an inability to prioritise and respect the perspective of these key stakeholders. There is clear evidence that our education system, as currently organised, cannot fulfil its obligation to all children with SEN…

“It is with huge pride that I present “Too Little, Too Late” to you. The education of children with special educational needs is an area that has caused deep concern, frustration and, at times, distress for all of us at NICCY.”

The Commissioner vowed to continue to appraise the impact of her report, and the implementation of its 40 wide-ranging recommendations, in the months and years to come. The pandemic has put much of the world on hold, but that is temporary and SEN in Northern Ireland is an issue that will not go away.

Wider issues – and the future

There is no one big problem with SEN, there are many issues, big and small.

However, the shortage of cash and resources at all levels of the system mean there is little room for singular reform, such as creating functioning and sustainable SEN provision.

Perhaps improvements at the EA will help but if, fundamentally, there are not enough resources for the current education system to work, any improvements will still not be solutions.

Factor in Covid-19, and the almost incomprehensible recession this seems certain to cause, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a comprehensive reformation of SEN must be a key objective of a restructuring of the entire education system.

New Decade, New Approach included a commitment that the Executive would pursue and external, independent review of the education system in Northern Ireland.

The pandemic has seen the brakes put on on all sorts of issues of governance and government in Northern Ireland.

Education Minister Peter Weir has suspended work on drawing up terms of reference for the independent review and, therefore, that entire process is on hold.

But, given the tremendous and multi-layered problems apparent within SEN provision, and given the general crisis of resources in all of education, special needs services will continue to fall short until the wider system is reformed.

Indeed, this is substance of the 40th and final recommendation in NICCY’s report: “The Terms of Reference for the ‘external, independent review of education provision’ must include the structure and effectiveness of the EA in meeting the needs of children with SEN and disability.”

A key priority for the Education Minister right now is getting as many pupils back to school as possible, amidst the global pandemic.

The importance of this is clear. Education is invaluable. However, education is not just a matter of getting bums on seats. School has to properly benefit each individual pupil.

For many children in Northern Ireland, the educational experience is not what it should be. This is a matter of urgent need.

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