Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs First Report


The Incidence of Statements of Special Educational Needs

20. The Warnock Report[23] estimated in 1978 that about 20% of children would have special educational needs at some stage in their school careers. It also estimated that only 2% of children - one tenth of the total number - would have needs sufficient to justify a statement of their special educational needs following a statutory formal assessment. These Warnock figures do not have a statistical basis, but have acquired a degree of influence in determining policy.[24] So, for about nine children in ten with special educational needs, provision is made by schools without recourse to the formal procedures of statementing and without those children having the benefits of the rights which children have under those procedures.

21. There has been a significant growth in recent years of pupils with a statement of special educational needs ("statemented pupils"). From a total of 5,480 in 1990-91, the number has risen in 1996-97 to 8,450, an increase over 50%.[25] The Department of Education for Northern Ireland (DENI) told us that the main reasons for the growth in statementing include:[26]

  • more children with profound and/or multiple mental and physical handicaps are surviving to school age and beyond, because of medical advances in post-natal care;

  • the introduction of the statutory curriculum, and the associated right of all pupils to a broad and balanced education, have heightened the awareness among schools and in Education and Library Boards of the need to consider carefully how curricular and educational needs can best be met;

  • schools are increasingly aware of the potential impact of SEN pupils, including those with behavioural difficulties, on other pupils in a school/class and are therefore more disposed to refer such pupils for formal assessment and possible statementing.

22. DENI accepts that the Warnock estimate of the percentage of children needing statements is now outdated.[27] It is not used by DENI for any administrative purposes, and, in particular, it is not used to determine levels of funding for special education or to set a quota for numbers of statements. Its use is essentially as an indicator to schools that only a small proportion of pupils are likely to have needs which would require reference to an ELB for formal assessment. The Comptroller and Auditor General reported[28] that the percentage of statemented children in Northern Ireland in 1996-97 was 2.3% overall, with the figures for individual ELBs ranging from 1.8% to 3.8%.

23. DENI has identified a range of factors which it considers may in the longer term lessen the recent upward trend in the numbers of statemented pupils, despite further increases in post-natal survival rates as medical knowledge improves.[29] However, for immediate planning purposes, DENI assumes that the recent trends in the growth of the numbers of statemented pupils will continue.

Core Principles

24. The Code of Practice lays down five fundamental principles:[30]

  • the needs of all pupils who may experience learning difficulties during their school careers must be addressed; the Code recognises that there is a continuum of needs and a continuum of provision which may be made in a variety of forms;

  • children with special educational needs require the greatest possible access to a broad and balanced education, including the Northern Ireland Curriculum;

  • the needs of most pupils will be met in mainstream schools, and without a statutory assessment or a statement. Children with special educational needs, including those with statements, should, wherever appropriate and taking into account the wishes of their parents, be educated alongside their peers in mainstream schools;

  • even before a child reaches compulsory school age, he or she may have special educational needs requiring the intervention of the Boards as well as the health services;

  • the knowledge, views and experience of parents are vital. Effective assessment and provision will best be secured where there is partnership between parents and schools, Boards and other agencies.

25. The Code of Practice embodies the following "essential practices and procedures":[31]

  • children with special educational needs should be identified as early as possible and assessed as quickly as is consistent with thoroughness;

  • provision for children with special educational needs should be made by the most appropriate agency. In most cases this will be the child's mainstream school, working in partnership with the parents, and no statutory assessment will be necessary;

  • Boards should complete assessments and statements as quickly as thorough consideration of the issues allows;

  • Boards must produce clear and thorough statements, setting out the child's educational and non-educational needs, the objectives to be secured, the provision to be made and the arrangements for monitoring and review; they must ensure the annual review of the special educational provision made for the child and the monitoring and revision of educational targets;

  • the ascertainable wishes of the child should be considered, in the light of his or her age and understanding;

  • there must be close co-operation between all the agencies concerned and a multi-disciplinary approach to the resolution of issues.

The Assessment Mechanism

26. The Code[32] sets out a five stage approach to the identification of children having learning difficulties, the assessment of their special educational needs and the making of whatever special educational provision is necessary to meet those needs. The first three stages are based in the school, with Stage 3 calling as necessary on external specialists. At Stages 4 and 5 the appropriate Education and Library Boards shares responsibility with schools.

Stage 1:    teachers identify and register a child's special educational needs[33] and, consulting the school's SENCO, take initial action.

Stage 2:    the SENCO takes lead responsibility for collecting and recording information and for co-ordinating the child's special educational provision, working with the child's teachers.

Stage 3:    teachers and the SENCO are supported by specialists from outside the school.

Stage 4:    the Board considers the need for a statutory assessment and, if appropriate, makes a multi-disciplinary assessment.

Stage 5:    the Board considers the need for a statement of special educational needs; if appropriate, it makes a statement and arranges, monitors and reviews provision.

27. As we have noted earlier, the needs of the great majority of children with special educational needs are expected to be met under the school-based stages. In this context, the Dyson Report revealed a wide variation in the extent and quality of mainstream schools' special educational needs provision. While some schools were found to be highly organised and to have provision and practice corresponding to the recommendations of the Code of Practice, others were considered to have much development work to undertake in order to implement those recommendations. In addition, the Dyson Report comments that the quality and extent of support available to schools from external services is highly variable and that this casts some doubt on the ability of schools to construct a meaningful response at Stage 3 of the Code of Practice.

28. If a Board decides that a statutory assessment might be necessary, or receives a valid request from the parents for such an assessment, it has, under the Code of Practice, six weeks in which to decide whether to make an assessment.[34] Having decided to make an assessment, the Board is required under the Code to reach the stage of issuing a prepared statement normally not later than 18 weeks from the date of the parental request or the date of its decision to make the assessment.[35] Health and Social Services Trusts ("HSS Trusts") are required normally to respond to requests from Boards for advice within six weeks.[36]

29. Once a Board has decided to make a statement, the parents have a right to state a preference for the grant-aided school their child should attend. The three main options are a mainstream school, a special unit in such a school, or a special school. It is, however, for the Board to decide where the child's special educational provision should be met and this may include education otherwise than at school, placement at an independent school or other non-grant-aided institution in Northern Ireland, or at an institution outside Northern Ireland.[37] The Code provides that the period from proposed statement to final statement should not exceed eight weeks.[38]

Time Limits

30. The Comptroller and Auditor General drew attention in his report to delays between the decision to proceed with formal statementing and the issue of a final statement of special educational needs.[39] Under the Code of Practice, a proposed statement should be issued within 18 weeks[40] and the final statement should be issued within a further 8 weeks,[41] making an overall period of 26 weeks. In the period 1994-95 to 1996-97 no ELB apparently came remotely near this target period on average.[42] The delay was, in most cases attributable both to delays in receiving professional advice and to the time taken within the ELB to process that advice.

31. The Code indicates[43] that when seeking the necessary professional advice needed for the statement - notably, parental, medical, educational, psychological and social services inputs - ELBs should ask all concerned to respond within six weeks. This is substantially quicker than the average achieved in the case of all but one type of advice with a single ELB in 1996-97.[44]

32. On the question of the timeliness of advice from HSSBs, Dr Telford, of the Southern HSSB, cited the result of a sample survey in respect of formal medical advice and return of completed assessments.[45] The average response time was 5.8 weeks, with 78% being completed within the six week period, and 89% within eight weeks. A variety of reasons were given for exceeding the recommended time interval. We note that these figures represent a significant improvement on those for the same speciality in 1996-97,[46] and hope that all Boards will make efforts to improve compliance with the target, which is an essential component of ensuring that the statutory 18 week time limit is met. There is also a need for ELBs to take steps to improve the timeliness of professional advice in areas for which they are responsible. These include psychological advice and educational advice. The Comptroller and Auditor General's report demonstrated[47] that, in 1996-97, some of this advice took up to 6 months to reach the ELB, a timescale wholly inconsistent with meeting the statutory timescales in the statementing process. While there are, as the Code of Practice notes,[48] certain circumstances that may necessarily prevent ELBs meeting these, we believe it is essential that ELBs seek to ensure that their own procedures for securing psychological and educational advice are not the cause of delay.

33. On the question of the time taken by ELBs to produce statements we were glad that Mr McCullough, of the Belfast ELB, was able to reassure us that ELBs were "very keen" to improve on the performance included in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report.[49] He cited as possible causes of delays the dependence on receiving information from other parties and the fact that schools are closed for nine weeks in the summer, during which period, he maintained nothing can be received from them. He also commented that the speed with which a statement can be produced is a function of the availability both of resources and of places "because you cannot actually complete a statement for a school if there is no place to go to, or provide a resource when there is no provision available",[50] although Mr Topping mentioned[51] the possibility of temporary placements pending completion of the statementing process.

34. We are concerned about the possible implications of Mr McCullough's remarks, which suggest that in some cases the decision to issue a statement may be resource-led. We do not believe that such an approach would be consistent with either the statutory requirements or the spirit of the Code of Practice. We recognise that the present statutory definitions leave a considerable amount of discretion in the hands of the ELBs when deciding whether to issue a statement, and it may well be that there is a case for the ELBs to develop common assessment criteria, to avoid inconsistencies between Boards, and to avoid allegations of a resource-led approach. We comment further on the criteria for statementing in paragraphs 51 and 77 below.

35. It is obviously in the best interests of parents and children alike that the statementing process takes as short a period of time as possible. We urge ELBs to make every effort to secure the completion of the statementing process within the limits prescribed in the Code of Practice. We recommend that they review their practices and procedures as a matter of urgency with a view to ensuring that as many cases as possible are so completed. This will include ensuring that adequate administrative and professional resources are available to be devoted to this important function. The review should include an examination of Boards' own administrative procedures with a view to ensuring that there are no unnecessary administrative delays.[52] We also recommend that the Boards consider jointly how best to complete the statementing process as rapidly and efficiently as possible. This would provide a mechanism both for disseminating best practice and promoting consistency of approach across the whole of Northern Ireland.

Review of Statements

36. An important requirement of the Code is that all statements should be reviewed at least annually and that parents' views should always be sought. The aims of the annual review include:[53]

  • assessing progress towards meeting the objectives specified in the statement; collating information for use in planning future support for the child and assessing progress towards meeting targets;

  • reviewing the special provision made for the child, including the appropriateness of any special equipment provided, in the context of the Northern Ireland Curriculum and associated assessment arrangements;

  • considering, in light of the child's performance and any additional needs which may have become apparent, whether it might be appropriate to cease to maintain, or amend, the statement;

  • where appropriate, setting fresh targets for the coming year.

37. The outcome of the review process may include the ELB amending or ceasing to maintain the statement. In practice, amendments and withdrawals are relatively rare.[54] The Comptroller and Auditor General examined a sample of annual reviews;[55] their scope was in some cases limited. He also drew attention to the fact that ELB representation at the reviews was the exception rather than the rule, and that, in a number of cases, the parents were not present either. The ELBs told the Northern Ireland Audit Office that they could not spare adequate officer or professional staff time to support the review process fully. Mr Martin, of the Western ELB, doubted[56] whether having an officer present at each of his Board's 1,400 reviews would be an efficient use of resources. He took the view that the Board's professional staff would be better employed in supporting the schools "rather than tying up a lot of administrative time being present". Mr Fitzsimons, of the South Eastern ELB, suggested that the present arrangements were effective, as measured by the lack of parental appeals against annual reviews.[57]

38. We accept that the evidence described above is based on experience prior to the coming into effect of the Code of Practice. However, we agree with the Northern Ireland Audit Office that a lack of involvement of ELBs in the annual review process weakens their ability to manage special educational resources effectively. It may also mean that the most appropriate provision is not made for the child in the forthcoming year. We therefore recommend that ELBs consider carefully the case for devoting additional staff resources to this important function, as the Comptroller and Auditor General recommended.[58]

Demands arising from the Code of Practice

39. DENI considers[59] that substantial adjustments in procedures and practice on the part of Boards and schools, particularly during the current financial year, will be required to reflect the new legislative environment. These include:

  • greater responsiveness by schools and Boards to the special educational needs of children;

  • training programmes for teachers and school governors;

  • expansion of Board statementing and educational psychology services to meet the new statutory time limit for statementing; and

  • promoting better inter-agency liaison.

40. DENI anticipates[60] that the new requirements will create or increase demand for school-based support for pupils with special educational needs who are not statemented (i.e., those pupils whose needs require provision at stages 1-3 of the Code of Practice). It also expects increases in demand for training programmes for teachers in relation to identification and assessment procedures, preparation of education plans and adoption of appropriate teaching strategies. Greater demands are also expected both for outreach teaching services from special schools to support increased mainstream placements of statemented pupils and for ELB support services, in particular educational psychology, peripatetic teaching and statementing administration.

41. DENI told us[61] that resources to meet the needs referred to above are being provided as specific funding in 1998-99, earmarked for implementation of the Code of Practice and as part of the School Improvement Programme. About £2.9 million is allocated in 1998-99 specifically to implementation of the Code of Practice. This figure rises to over £7 million for 1999-2000.[62]

23  Cmnd. 7212. Back
24  See the Code of Practice, para. 2.2 and Lundy, L, in Child and Family Law Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1998), p. 39. Back
25  Ev. p. 78. Back
26  Ev. p. 78-79. Back
27  Ev. p. 84 and Q85. See also Q66. Back
28  HC898 (1997-98), p. 23-4. Back
29  Ev. p. 79. See also Q48 and 67 for some ELB views. Back
30  Para. 1.6. Back
31  Para. 1.7. Back
32  Para. 1.8. Back
33  Parents must be notified of such registration (See Code of Practice, paras. 2.50-51). Back
34  Para. 3.19. Back
35  Para. 3.35-36. Back
36  Para. 3.38. Back
37  Paras. 4.33 to 4.52. Back
38  Para. 3.37. Back
39  HC898 (1997-98), paras. 2.26-2.32. Back
40  Paras. 3.35-36. Back
41  Para. 3.37. Back
42  HC898 (1997-98), p. 29. Based on a random sample of 450 cases over the period, 30 cases per year per ELB. Back
43  Para. 3.30. Back
44  HC898 (1997-98), p. 30. Back
45  Q150-1. See also Ev. p. 123. Back
46  Compared with data given by the Comptroller and Auditor General based on a sample survey. See HC898 (1997-98), p. 30. Back
47  HC898 (1997-98), p. 30. Back
48  Para. 3.36. Back
49  Q48-9. Back
50  Q48.  Back
51  Q50. See also Q62. Back
52  See HC898 (1997-98), p. 31, for comparative data for the time taken from receipt by ELBs of latest advice to production of a draft statement. In 1996-97, the Board averages ranged from 1 to 10 months. Back
53  Para. 6.3. Back
54  In the period 1994-96, 6% of statements were withdrawn as a result of the annual review process and 7% amended (See HC898 (1997-98) p. 34). Back
55  See HC898 (1997-98), p. 61-3. Back
56  Q23. Back
57  Q23. Back
58  See HC898 (1997-98), para. 5.37. Back
59  Ev. p. 82. Back
60  Ev. p. 82-83. Back
61  Ev. p. 83. Back
62  Ev. p. 81, 87. Back

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Prepared 19 March 1999