Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs First Report


10. The concept of special educational needs was introduced into education legislation in Northern Ireland by the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986. The Order anticipated that approximately twenty per cent of pupils would have special educational needs at some stage during their school career. Of this twenty per cent, the majority (around eighteen per cent) would expect to have their educational needs met through the normal resources provided in mainstream schools. The educational needs of the remaining two per cent or so would be of such proportion as to require their local Education and Library Board (ELB) to make special educational provision available for them.[10] This group of children would have their needs assessed formally through a statutory assessment procedure and have a statement issued which identified both their educational needs and the provision to be made available to meet those needs. The ELB would be under a statutory obligation to make the provision identified in the statement. In practice, rather more than 2% of children in Northern Ireland have such statements.[11]

11. The 1986 Order also promoted integration, that is, the inclusion of children with statements of special educational needs in mainstream schools. In practice, most children in Northern Ireland with statements[12] are still educated in special schools or in special units attached to mainstream schools, although a growing minority are educated in mainstream classrooms.[13]

12. The Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 prescribed a Northern Ireland Curriculum (NIC) for all grant-aided schools. All pupils, including those with special educational needs, therefore are entitled to receive a broad and balanced curriculum, relevant to their individual needs.[14] The same Order introduced Local Management of Schools (LMS), which has made schools more conscious of funding and their performance in examinations.

13. To a great extent, practice in Northern Ireland follows that of the rest of the United Kingdom. In 1992, a report by the Audit Commission and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools on the provision made for special educational needs by local education authorities in England and Wales reflected the increasing concern on the part of Government, professionals and parents,[15] about the education of children with special educational needs. The Government responded with a White Paper and subsequently included new provisions for pupils in England and Wales with special educational needs in the Education Act 1993.[16]

14. The Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 echoed many of the main themes addressed in the Education Act 1993 in relation to England and Wales. The Order was followed by the Education (Special Educational Needs) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 1997 and a Code of Practice, implemented in September 1998. Together, these moves are intended to develop the responsibility for special educational needs at the local school level, to provide for more coherent planning between schools and Boards in assessment and provision and to increase parental involvement and enhance parents' rights.

15. With the coming into effect of the Education (Northern Ireland) Order in September 1997, there was a statutory requirement on Boards and schools to draw up and maintain special educational needs policies. Additionally, more structure and detail has been required both in statements and annual reviews of statements. Transition plans for children over 14 with statements of special educational needs must also now be prepared and parental rights of appeal have been extended; an independent Tribunal (the SEN Tribunal) to hear appeals has been established. Furthermore, parents of children with statements of special educational needs now have a statutory right to express a preference for a school.[17]

16. In September 1998, the Code of Practice on the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational Needs[18] came into effect. This provides guidance on the organisation of special education needs within mainstream schools. Generally, the Code of Practice promotes a whole-school approach to special educational needs, with an emphasis on support in class and inclusion. It also prescribes an extended and developmental role for the member of staff within mainstream schools who has responsibility for children with special educational needs, usually referred to as the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO). Of particular significance is a formal five-stage process for identifying and assessing special education needs, and a statutory 18 week limit to the statementing procedure.[19]

17. In October 1997, the Government published a Green Paper[20] on special educational needs which marked the first step in a fundamental review of provision in England and Wales. While this document does not cover Northern Ireland, its key messages may have some relevance for the special education sector in the province. The Green Paper reinforces the Government's commitment to children with special needs and in particular its wish to see more such children educated in mainstream schools. However, there is an over-riding concern that proposals in the Green Paper to reduce the number of statements and make them less detailed in some respects will, if implemented, weaken children's legal rights to the provision required to meet their needs.[21]

18. In Northern Ireland, February 1998 saw the launch of a School Improvement Programme by DENI which has seven separate but related elements designed to address the key issues faced by schools. Two of these elements are particularly closely related to maintaining children with special educational needs in mainstream schools: the strategy to improve standards in literacy and numeracy and the strategy for promoting and sustaining good behaviour in schools.

19. Child care legislation also has implications for those in the education field. Of particular note is the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 which is based on the principle of paramountcy of the child and introduces the legal obligation for child care authorities to take the child's point of view into account. This is in contrast to much education legislation which gives rights and powers to the parents and the school (although the Code of Practice does refer to the views of the child). The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 promotes a holistic view of the needs of the child which requires close co-operation between Education and Library Boards and Health and Social Services Trusts.[22]

10  This reflects the assumptions made in the Warnock Report, rather than any statistical classification: see paragraph 20 below. Back
11  See also para. 22 below. Back
12  74% in 1996-97. (Ev. p. 78). Back
13  Ev. p. 78 and 84. Back
14  Parts of the NIC can be modified or disapplied in the statement (Article 16 of the 1989 Order). In very limited circumstances, Principals may direct that the NIC should either apply with modifications, or be disapplied: see the Education (Curriculum) (Temporary Exemptions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1990 and the Code of Practice, para. 2.73. Back
15  "Getting in on the Act". Back
16  Now consolidated in the Education Act 1996. Back
17  For a summary of the key provisions, see Ev. p. 82. Back
18  Referred to in this Report as "the Code of Practice". Back
19  To the issue of a draft statement, or a decision not to issue a statement. Back
20  "Excellence for All Children", Cm. 3785. Back
21  Particular concern has been expressed about proposals to reduce the number of statements and to make them less detailed. (See, for example, "Rights at Risk": the response of IPSEA to the Green Paper.) Back
22  See also Ev. p. 126. Back

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