Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence



  The definition of special needs in the Education and Libraries (NI) Order 1996 is as follows:

  A child has special educational needs if he has a learning difficulty which calls for special educational provision to be made for him.

  A child has a learning difficulty if he has a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of his age and/or has a disability which hinders his use of educational facilities generally provided for children of his age in ordinary schools.

  A learning difficulty may be intellectual, physical, sensory, emotional, behavioural, medical or of some other nature.

  It is estimated that some 20 per cent of pupils (12,000 children in the Western Education and Library Board area) may experience special educational needs at some stage in their school careers. For some, this will be short-term—for example, recovering from a period of illness. For others it will be long-term.

  The majority of children with special educational needs will have their needs addressed by their school from within its own resources. Those children with more complex learning difficulties will have their needs assessed in accordance with statutory legislation and the required special educational provision will be specified by the Board in a formal statement of special educational needs.


The Committee has asked for information on the Board's current expenditure on special education and a comparison on this per head over the past 10 years.

  The figures below show annual recurrent expenditure by the Board on special schools and home tuition over the 10 year period from 1987-88. Figures are taken from the Board's annual accounts.

  The figures do not include expenditure on special educational needs pupils in mainstream schools or in special units attached to mainstream schools. Expenditure on these pupils is included within the totals for the various school sectors and cannot be separately identified.

Tables: Identifiable expenditure on Special Schools and Home Tuition
Financial Year(£m)
1 Prior to 1992-93 the cost of teachers' salaries was met centrally by the Department of Education.

  In addition to the sums shown above, the following expenditure is part of the Board's budget for special education for the 1997-98 financial year:

Fees for pupils attending special schools outside the Board's area: £190,000

Peripatetic teachers for children with special educational needs: £608,000

Educational Psychology Service: £562,000

Education Welfare Service: £580,000

Targeting Social Need

  In the Board's LMS formula for funding mainstream schools, additional funding is targeted at those schools facing the greatest problems of social and educational disadvantage. The Board has allocated such funding to individual schools on the basis of two main factors. The bulk of Targeting Social Need funds are allocated on the basis of free school meals. The balance of such funds have been allocated primarily on the basis of an average measure of the incidence of special educational need.

  The funding allocated to controlled and maintained schools in this way since the introduction of LMS is detailed below:



The Committee has asked for information on the present demand for special education and the expected future demand.

    (a)  Pupils with statements of special educational needs

  Special educational provision (including school placement) for statemented pupils is determined by the Board. The number of statemented pupils by type of school in the 1996-97 year is provided in the following table, together with comparative statistics for 1994-95 and 1995-96 to illustrate trends:

Special Schools880847849
Special Units605556

    (b)  Referrals to Educational Psychology Service

  The Educational Psychology Service provides advice in relation to any child with special educational needs or who is considered as possibly having such needs. The number of children who have been referred to the Educational Psychology Service for assessment in the 1996-97 school year is provided in the following table, together with comparative statistics for 1994-95 and 1995-96 to illustrate trends:

    1996-97    2005

    1995-96    1997

    1994-95    1777

  A very important aspect of special educational needs provision is the availability of specialist support services. The Code of Practice presupposes that schools have access to a wide range of specialist services to support provision at Stage Three. Effective intervention, particularly at Stage Three of the Code, may reduce the need for expensive assessment and statements of special educational needs. The Educational Psychology Service is likely to play a crucial role in the implementation of the Code. It will be required both to offer guidance at Stage Three and to "gate-keep" at Stage Four of the Code. It is likely, if the English experience is replicated, that the Code will increase demands from both schools and parents on the Educational Psychology Service. There is a particular danger that increasing referrals from schools will decrease the time available for the Educational Psychology Service to play a more developmental and consultancy role, and that this in turn will increase the likelihood of referrals.

    (c)  Support Services for Children with Special Educational Needs

  Support services are provided by the Board, through peripatetic teachers and outreach teachers from special schools, for learning difficulties including behavioural problems, language disorders, hearing-impaired, visually-impaired and for pre-school children. These services offer support to the parents and teachers of children with special needs as well as teaching support to the children themselves. Where a child is experiencing difficulty in a mainstream school, the service can be involved prior to a formal assessment of special educational needs being required, at what equates to Stage Three of the Code of Practice.

  The number of pupils who were provided with such support in 1996-97 is as follows:

 Number of
Number of
pupils on
waiting list
for support
Specific Learning Difficulties274178
Moderate Learning Difficulties185155
Emotional Behavioural Difficulties31675
Speech and Language Difficulties13085

  The demand for these services is increasing with consequent strains on the services resulting in growing waiting lists.

    (d)  Future demand for special education

  It is not possible to make reliable estimates of future demands for special educational needs provision. The Warnock Report in 1978 concluded that approximately 20 per cent of children may have special educational needs at some time in their lives and that a smaller proportion, 2 per cent, might require a formal statement of special education needs. The Code of Practice recognises the following areas of learning difficulty which have emerged since that time:

Specific learning difficulties, e.g., dyslexia;

speech and language difficulties;

emotional and behavioural difficulties including Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

  There has been a significant increase in referrals to the Board of children who fall into the above categories.

  The Audit Commission's statistics for England and Wales show that 102 LEAs (88 per cent) have recorded an increase in the number of the statements maintained over the two year period 1994-96. Eight-two LEAs (71 per cent) saw a growth of over 10 per cent in the number of statements. Only 14 LEAs (12 per cent) recorded a decrease in the number of statements. There has been a steady increase in the proportion of the Northern Ireland school population receiving a statement of special educational needs. This is now edging above the theoretical 2 per cent level established by the Warnock Report.


The Committee has asked for details of the representations received by the Board on the need for special education facilities and the subsequent representations made by the Board to Government.

  A prime focus of capital expenditure in the Special Education sector has been a programme to replace the former special care schools, which were transferred from the Department of Health and Social Services to the Department of Education in 1987. Since 1987, two former special care schools in the Board's area have been replaced—Foyleview in Londonderry and Killadeas in Enniskillen. The Board has recently submitted a number of additional schemes to the Department of Education for inclusion in its capital priorities list.

  In general, accommodation and equipment provision in the majority of special schools and units are considered satisfactory or better. These schools and units are subject to regular general and focused inspections. If deficiencies in accommodation or equipment are highlighted in the inspection report, the Board attempts to address such deficiencies from within its allocation of funds or through representations to the Department of Education for additional funding.

  Other areas of need for which representations have been made include the following:

    (i)  Paramedical Services

    The provision of speech and language therapy is the prime responsibility of Health and Social Services Boards and Trusts, but the Education Board is held ultimately accountable. The level of speech and language therapy provided to children in different parts of the Board's area is patchy, and numerous representations have been made about this to the Western Health and Social Services Board and to the Department of Education. Similar problems arise from the provision of physiotherapy and, particularly, occupational therapy.

    More children with profound and/or multiple mental, physical and medical problems are surviving to school age and beyond. The need for appropriate nursing care for these children has been regularly highlighted by the Principals of the schools which they attend.

    (ii)  Access to schools

    There is an increasing number of children with physical disabilities who are attending mainstream schools and a major problem for them is access to the school buildings and appropriate facilities. The Board receives representations and recommendations from occupational therapists and other professionals regarding the need for stairs-lifts; ramps; disabled toilets; changing tables; special seating arrangements; and information and communication technology aids.

  The above areas of need are discussed at meetings of the inter-board Special Education Officers Group which are attended by representatives from the Department of Education. A Regional Review Group, representative of Education and Health and Social Services Boards, has been established to consider more effective methods of co-ordination of services. Arrangements are also being made for the establishment of Area Children and Young People's Committees in each Health and Social Services Board area, involving representatives of education services and other key agencies and bodies.


The Committee has asked for information on what shortfall, if any, in special education has been identified by the Board.

  As indicated in Section 3, there has been a signficant increase in referrals to the Board of children who fall into the following categories of learning difficulties:

    Specific learning difficulties—dyslexia

    Speech and language difficulties

    Emotional and behavioural difficulties

  The numbers of children who are on the waiting list for support from the Board's peripatetic and outreach teaching services are increasing, with consequent waiting lists of up to one year for such support to be provided.

  The Code of Practice presupposes that schools can access, on some rational basis, high quality external services to supplement their own endeavours at Stage 3. The availability of such services is an essential part of the staged process and an important means of enabling mainstream schools to make provision for pupils with special educational needs. Adequate resourcing is required to enable appropriate support services to be provided at Stage 3 of the Code.

  There is a major gap in provision in the area of teacher training. One way of ensuring that teachers in mainstream schools can respond to a range of pupil diversity, including pupils with special educational needs, is to develop their skills in recognising and addressing such needs. The Code of Practice will apply to all schools, so all teachers must have the opportunity to acquire such skills. In addition, there are no longer any special initial teacher training course for teachers in the special school sector. A framework of accredited training for Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators should be developed within Northern Ireland.

  The current staffing of 17 educational psychologists in the Western Board is providing inadequate to meet the increasing and varied demands put upon the Educational Psychology Service. Funding has been provided recently by Department of Education to the Boards to enable them to appoint two educational psychologists each during the coming financial year. At present, Queens University's MSc course trains about six or seven educational psychologists per year, not all of whom wish to work in Northern Ireland. It is likely, therefore, that the Boards will experience difficulty in recruiting and filling all of the additional posts.

  Some of the special schools and special units in the Board's area are at, or near, full capacity. Belmont House Special School, for children with moderate learning difficulties, and Foyleview Special School, for children with severe learning difficulties, both situated in Londonderry, are at full capacity. Similarly the Language Units in Londonderry, Omagh and Enniskillen are at full capacity. Speech therapy is a key part of the provision for children with speech and language difficulties. As indicated in Section 4, the level of speech and language therapy provided to children in different parts of the Board's area is, at best, patchy.

  A category of special need which is of particular concern to mainstream schools relates to pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties, where disruptive behaviour may have a detrimental effect on the education of other pupils at the school. The Department of Education has recognised this issue and is moving to address it via a range of measures recently announced in the context of the School Improvement Programme. It is important to recognise, however, that there is a continuum of emotional and behavioural difficulties and it is likely that there will continue to be gaps in provision for those children and young people who are most seriously disturbed and who require the intervention of child and adolescent psychiatric services.

  Since September 1997, parents of children with statements of special educational needs have had the statutory right to express a preference of school. An increasing proportion of children with statements who have a range of special needs are being placed in mainstream schools in accordance with parental preference. The Board's budget for special education is finite and is not demand-determined. It would be regrettable if the Board has to dip into the general schools' budget for all children to meet the statemented needs of a few; a self-defeating process which would leave schools less able to cater for children with learning difficulties from their diminishing resources and increase the pressure from parents and Principals to secure the earmarked funding attached to statements.


The Committee has asked for information on what effect the Children Order and related Code of Practice, especially the right of parents to request assessments of their children's needs, will have on the need for provision.

  The Children Order (NI) 1995 promotes a holistic view of the needs of the child and has had the effect of promoting closer and more effective co-operation between the Western Education and Library Board and the Western Health and Social Services Board. In relation to special educational needs, the main legislation is the Education (NI) Order 1996 which makes the following key provisions:-

  From September 1997:

    parental rights of appeal have been extended;

    an independent appeals Tribunal has been established;

    parents of children with statements of special educational needs have a statutory right to express a preference of school;

    statements of special educational needs are more detailed;

    annual reviews of statements are more vigorously structured;

    transition plans are required for young people over age 14 with statements of special educational needs;

    Education Boards and schools must develop and maintain policies for special educational needs.

  From September 1998:

    A Special Educational Needs Code of Practice will provide guidance on the organisation of special educational needs within mainstream schools, including a formal five stage process for identifying and assessing special educational needs.

    A statutory time limit will apply to the assessment and statementing procedure.

  The new legislation and Code of Practice will require the Board and schools to review and adjust existing practice and procedures in order to meet their statutory responsibilities. Particular requirements include:

    In-service training programmes for teachers and school governors;

    expansion of Board administrative and support services;

    the promotion of effective inter-agency co-ordination;

    the development of greater parental involvement in assessment procedures.

  These requirements will increase demand for the following provision:

    School-based support for pupils with special educational needs who require provision at Stages 1-3 of the Code of Practice;

    in-service training programmes for teachers in relation to:

    identification and assessment procedures;

    preparation of individual education plans;

    adoption of appropriate teaching strategies;

    peripatetic and outreach teaching services from special schools for pupils with special educational needs in mainstream schools;

    Board support services, in particular the educational psychology service;

    Board administrative support to meet its statutory requirements within appropriate timescales for the completion of statements of special educational needs, annual reviews and transition plans.


The Committee has asked for information on how many children are awaiting assessment within the Board's area and what the causes of delay are; and how many parents have requested assessment.

  The main source of referrals for children to be assessed by the Board's Educational Psychology Service are schools. Other referrals arise largely from various professionals within the Health and Social Services Board, particularly school medical officers. A small number of parents have requested assessment of their children's needs.

  The number of children referred for statutory assessment, Code of Practice Stage 4, during the previous 2 school years was as follows:

    1995-96    179

    1996-97    222

  Currently 248 children are in the process of being assessed.

  The number of children referred to the Educational Psychology Service, Code of Practice Stage 3, in 1997 was 2005. The position at 31 December 1997 of children within this number of referrals awaiting assessment by an educational psychologist was as follows:


    6-12 months    184

    0-6 months    540

  The general aim of the Educational Psychology Service is to undertake the psychological assessment of children referred for the first time by various referrors within six months of the date of referral. Assessment is conducted as quickly as is consistent with thoroughness. The amount of time devoted to the assessment of any child is dependent upon the age of the child, the child's concentration span, the nature and complexity of the problem, the co-operation of parents and the need for consultation with other professionals. Court of Appeal judgments have emphasised the necessity for educational psychologists to exercise a duty of care to children and young people when assessing and advising. Failure to do so may result in allegations of personal negligence for which the Board could be vicariously liable.

  It is essential that common criteria are developed within the Board and across Northern Ireland for the referral and assessment of pupils with special educational needs to ensure that the limited resources available are concentrated on those pupils with the highest levels of need.

19 March 1998

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