Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs First Report


80. The following are the Committee's summarised principal conclusions and recommendations:

    (a)  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. 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. (Paragraph 35)

    (b)  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. (Paragraph 38)

    (c)  Our predecessors reported in February 1997 on underachievement in Northern Ireland secondary schools and reached a number of conclusions about school funding and social disadvantage, and TSN funding in particular. In its response in July 1997, the Government reported that it had received a consultants' report on TSN methodology and, in particular, dealing with two separate, but inter-related, strands of the policy - social deprivation and special educational need. The Government agreed that more should be done to monitor how targeted resources are used and to evaluate their impact on pupils with social and educational needs. We recommend that the Government take the opportunity of its response to this Report to state what progress it has made in this area. (Paragraph 46)

    (d)  Given that schools are now required to state in their annual reports their policy with regard to provision for special educational needs, we believe they should also be required to publish details of how they have used that part of their delegated budget intended to be spent in this area. Quantification of expenditure would provide an objective basis for future allocations, and remove the need for indirect formulae. (Paragraph 47)

    (e)  There is a need to seek to establish, as far as possible, common criteria on the purpose and aims of statementing. We recommend that the Government commission appropriate research. Without such benchmarks, it is not possible to assess with any confidence the effectiveness of the considerable level of public expenditure involved. (Paragraph 51)

    (f)  The Comptroller and Auditor General also expressed concern about the variations in the levels of statementing, which he considered might reflect a lack of consistent criteria for identifying pupils with special educational needs, or different interpretations of the definition of special educational needs. We recommend that the Comptroller and Auditor General's recommendations designed to improve consistency be carefully studied. (Paragraph 52)

    (g)  We recommend that DENI reviews the current scope and extent of training for teachers in special schools and takes steps to ensure that adequate funds are available to ELBs for in-service training in this area. We also recommend that special school inspections specifically include an assessment of the current state of staff training. (Paragraph 56)

    (h)  It is clear to us that the success or otherwise of a mainstream school's SEN policy will stand or fall on the competence and commitment of the SENCO. It is therefore vital that schools select their SENCO with particular care and ensure that they receive appropriate training. The Dyson Report emphasised the contribution to be made by in-service training in this respect. We understand that there is likely to be pressure to extend the duration of training for SENCOs. While we note Mr Manning's assurance that the withdrawal of funding for award-bearing in-service courses has not, as had been feared, depressed demand, we hope that DENI will take steps to ensure that appropriate funding arrangements are in place to ensure that lack of funding does not discourage potential trainees. We welcome the ring-fenced resources which DENI is providing for training, including SENCO training, which is designed to have a significant impact on the quality and status of SENCOs within schools. We believe that the introduction of the Code of Practice means that teachers generally, and not just SENCOs, will need greater training in special educational needs, not least because of the likely increase in the number of children with such needs placed in mainstream schools. We recommend the continued provision of ring-fenced training resources in this area. (Paragraph 59)

    (i)  We are pleased that Mr McFall saw the need to remedy the current shortage of educational psychologists as an urgent issue and that he proposes to have discussions with both the Queen's University and the ELBs. We recommend that these discussions include the scope for increasing the teaching and training resources with a view to seeking to eliminate the shortage in this key function as soon as is practicable. (Paragraph 62)

    (j)  We consider it important that the opportunity to train as an educational psychologist should be available to as wide a pool of applicants as possible. In particular, we consider there is a good case for attracting teachers with a greater degree of experience. We have seen suggestions that the present level of funding of Temporary Employment Contracts may be a deterrent to applicants, particularly more experienced teachers. We understand that in Scotland there has recently been a move to increase significantly the value of Temporary Employment Contracts to address this problem there. We recommend that the value of such contracts in Northern Ireland be reviewed. (Paragraph 63)

    (k)  We recommend that steps be taken to seek to improve the recruitment and retention of speech and language therapists in Northern Ireland. We note that the Department of Health and Social Services is seeking to update the methodology for identifying needs in terms of manpower planning in partnership with HSSBs and Trusts. We look to the Secretary of State, in responding to this Report, to indicate how it is intended to tackle the recruitment and retention problems. (Paragraph 65)

    (l)  We welcome the conclusion of the Interagency Agreement for the provision of education, health and social services to children with special educational needs. We hope this will provide a catalyst for improved service provision to children with special needs. In their evidence to us, both ELBs and HSSBs have described details of the ways in which they work together to meet the needs of the child. Given the collective constraints of both human and financial resources, we look to the Boards to build on their experience when they review the operation of the Agreement later this year. (Paragraph 72)

    (m)  We believe that both HSSBs and ELBs may need collectively to work together more closely in meeting parental expectations for services. As the Interagency Agreement states, the HSSBs and ELBs believe that through collaborative work more effective use can be made of the available resources and best long term effect can be gained for children. We hope that they will pay full regard to parental concerns in this respect, and seek to draw on the expertise of organisations with particular interest in and experience, of assisting children with special educational needs. (Paragraph 73)

    (n)  It is clear that the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 and the Code of Practice represent a watershed in special education provision in Northern Ireland. The Government has recognised that this will involve significant additional resources, both for schools (including special schools) and for implementing the Code of Practice. It will also require a change of approach to the delivery of education to children with special educational needs to ensure that there is compliance with both the spirit and the administrative mechanisms of the Code. In changing the approach, it will be important for all concerned to keep in mind that fact that the overwhelming majority of children with special educational needs - perhaps as many as nine out of ten - will have those needs assessed and met outside the statementing framework and within the resources ordinarily expected to be available in mainstream schools. We hope, therefore, that very careful consideration will be given to implementing the recommendations of the Dyson Report. We consider that an informed debate involving both service providers and their "customers" - the children and their parents - would be beneficial. (Paragraph 74)

    (o)  Given the likely growth in the number of statemented children, at least in the short to medium term, and the limited capacity of special schools and units, it is likely that an increased number of these children will be educated in mainstream schools. The challenge for such schools will be enhanced by the fact that many of these children are likely to have more profound needs than such schools have normally faced hitherto. This will need to be reflected in the funding such schools receive. Greater targeting of resources where they are needed will be facilitated by our recommendation that schools take steps to identify expenditure on meeting special educational needs. (Paragraph 75)

    (p)  Given the likelihood that there will be continued pressure on resources for meeting special educational needs, we consider there is a case for ELBs to look closely at their expenditure on special schools and special units, and at provision for meeting special educational needs in mainstream schools, to ensure that resources are deployed to greatest effect. There would appear to be a good case for according higher priority to capital expenditure on special schools, where to do so would improve their capacity to deliver good quality services, and to provide specialist support to mainstream schools. (Paragraph 76)

    (q)  There is a variation between Boards in the number of children referred for assessment and in the number of statements written. The Comptroller and Auditor General has also drawn attention to a number of other differences between Boards and with comparable local authorities elsewhere in the United Kingdom. While we recognise the reality of such differences, and that the reasons for their existence are likely to be complex, we recommend that the ELBs seek to agree common bases for their definition of assessment of special educational needs and seek to develop common approaches. The research we have recommended in paragraph 51 may have a part to play in this process. As the problems encountered are not unique to Northern Ireland, there may be scope for drawing on experience elsewhere in the United Kingdom. (Paragraph 77)

    (r)  While we recognise that there have been many moves to improve parental involvement and increase their right to appeal through Tribunals within the field of special educational needs, there are still many unresolved issues. Recent research in the Graduate School of Education at Queen's University indicates that parents frequently feel alienated by the assessment process and do not feel well enough informed to make a meaningful contribution. They also complained about the delays in the statementing process and often did not understand the statement when it eventually was completed. Furthermore, they perceived a lack of cohesion in the statementing procedure when both education and health and social services were involved. We recommend that DENI, the ELBs and the HSSBs review the scope for improving parental perceptions of their involvement. A greater attention to this aspect in the training of the professionals involved might be appropriate. (Paragraph 78)

    (s)  Given the scope and nature of the changes likely to arise in meeting special educational needs provision following the introduction of the Code of Practice, we consider it important that progress should be kept under review. We recommend that DENI do so, and amend the Code as necessary in the light of experience. There is also a case for continuing parliamentary interest in this important and sensitive area. (Paragraph 79)

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