LISTEN: Auditors call for urgent overhaul of special educational needs provision in NI

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By David Young, PA & Q Radio News

A time limit for issuing statements of special educational needs is broken for nearly nine out of every ten children assessed in Northern Ireland, audits have found.

In a scathing report on special needs provision, auditors found that 85% of statements are issued outside the 26-week statutory limit.

Director at the Audit Office, Collete Kane has called for an urgent overhaul” of the system. 

Auditor general Kieran Donnelly has also called for an “urgent overhaul” of the system to improve provision for children with special educational needs (SEN).

He warned that the current system is not financially sustainable.

Statements are legally binding documents issued by the Education Authority (EA) detailing a child’s needs and setting out what specialist provision they require within the education system.

They are issued after an EA assessment process.

The NI Audit Office found that the number of children with statements, 19,200, is almost treble the Department of Education’s estimate of those within the wider school population who should require one (2% compared with 5.5%).

It found there had been a 36% increase in the number of statements issued in the last nine years.

Last year there were 67,224 children with a reported special educational need in Northern Ireland, including those with and without formal statements.

Auditors highlighted the importance of swift intervention with children with special needs and said the earlier issues were identified, the less likely a statement would be required.

The Audit Office issued a damning report on SEN provision in Northern Ireland in 2017 and called for reform of the system.

Three years on, they said all of the ten recommendations remain outstanding and the percentage of statements issued outside the statutory 26-week limit has actually risen from 79% to 85%.

Auditors also found inaccuracies in the way compliance with the timeframe was being recorded, warning that performance could actually be “worse than that reported”.

The Audit Office, which evaluates value for money provided by public bodies, found that £312 million was spent on special needs provision in 2019/20 – a significant increase on the £233 million spent in 2015-16.

It said a £3.6 million departmental review into how SEN provision was delivered had still not been completed, 13 years after it was started.

Auditors said there was “no evidence” that schools were identifying children with SEN in a “consistent and timely way”.

They said the department and Education Authority could not demonstrate value for money in the provision of support to children with SEN.

Mr Donnelly said there was a need for a “systemic review of the SEN policies, processes, services and funding model”.

The report found that about 90% of children with SEN left school with at least five GCSEs in A* to G grades in 2017-18.

“Support for pupils with SEN is a vital and valued service and the educational achievements of children with SEN are improving, which of course is to be welcomed,” said the auditor general.

“However, there remains evidence of an inconsistent and delayed approach to assessing pupils and getting them access to the help they need.

“It is also disappointing that despite growing expenditure, the department and the Education Authority are still unable to clearly demonstrate value for money.

“As we move forward, it is clear that proper evaluation of these services is needed to ensure support is sustainable and produces the best outcomes for pupils.”

A Department of Education spokesman welcomed the report’s publication.

“The department is working closely with the EA on addressing the issues in the report,” he said.

He noted the issue would be discussed by the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee on October 15.

“The general guiding principle is that it is inappropriate to comment in detail in advance of a potential PAC hearing and the Department of Finance minister’s (Conor Murphy) response,” he added.

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