Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



The Committee suspended from 5.05 pm to 5.20 pm for a Division in the House. On resuming:

  (Mr McCullough)    Chairman, if I might be so bold as to disagree, in regard to the 35 per cent, I am not quite sure that I agree, but I will give you the reasons why. Firstly, the purpose of annual review is to identify children who are in need of a change of provision, or different provision, or need to be moved to some other form of provision or placement. So, did the annual review forms at that time, the reports that were coming back from annual review, do that? In my view, they actually did, because when it was signalled, through the annual review forms, that the child needed some sort of change, required some sort of extra provision, different provision, different placement, that was picked up through the analysis that Mr Fitzsimons has already referred to. But the annual review was not the end of it. After the annual review on the identified children, they were then assessed by the Education Psychology Service, because the whole purpose of the annual review is to identify children who are in the provision that is required, as against children who require different provision. So the psychologist then goes in to see those children who have been identified through the annual review form indicating that "this child requires something", or "the provision currently is not meeting the child's needs". The psychologist then produces a report, a full, complete report, in regard to the child's needs, difficulties, requirements, etc.; that follows from the annual review. If the annual review did not pick that up, children are referred to the Board at other times of the year, outside of annual review time, because the schools are not backward in indicating that a child, at any time during the year, needs a move of place or a different form of provision; and, again, the educational psychologist goes in and reviews the child, assesses the child, gives a report on the child, and the provision is made at that time. And on the pro formas that were in operation at that time, which were in files and were several years old, we have now updated all of the pro formas to elicit, to seek the sort of information that I think Mr Browne is referring to, in regard to the effectiveness of the annual review.

  21.  One of the problems about asking questions of a committee of witnesses, of course, is that every answer has so many different sides to it, but, I think, Mr McCullough, that last answer was an historical answer, because I did not recognise, in the objectives that you just set for the annual review, any consistency between them and the objectives set out in the Code of Practice?
  (Mr McCullough)  The Code of Practice required us to amend the procedures in regard to the annual review, and the pro formas.

  22.  What I was asking was, was that——
  (Mr McCullough)  It was historical, but the new Code of Practice, obviously, has required that the administration of the annual review procedure be looked at, updated and the new pro formas seek the information that you have been referring to.

  23.  And have you set a very clear set of objectives for that annual review now. What I am interested in, and I assume what Mr Beggs was interested in, is what arrangements are you putting in place, as the Board, to monitor that annual review process, to ensure that it is meeting the objectives? For example, do you accept the Audit Office's recommendation that it would be helpful if, at more reviews, representatives of the Board attended?
  (Mr Fitzsimons)  I think we would accept that, but that requires additional resources. Certainly, we are very anxious to improve provision and improve effectiveness. And all of us, I think, in education, have to improve on our target-setting, and schools, and Mr Topping referred to the whole question of training for teachers, in target-setting and setting realistic targets for children with special educational needs and evaluating and assessment whether, in fact, those are met or not. And, obviously, if we are going to set fairly defined targets then we have got to monitor them, we have got to monitor them more effectively, and that would involve probably greater involvement in person and also in-depth monitoring of the annual review, to ensure that targets are met.
  (Mr Martin)  Chairman, it is difficult to answer this question definitively, because, for example, in our Board there are 1,400 statements, 1,400 reviews. To have an officer physically present at 1,400 reviews is very, very time-consuming, and we have to ask ourselves if that is good value for money and does that help in the process. We are looking at that. But I think you are asking what steps are we taking to monitor the effectiveness of the annual reviews. Each annual review will come to the Board in a form, and Board staff will examine that review very carefully. Whether they have been present at the drawing up of the document or not, they will look at it. Hopefully, in most cases, the review statement will very helpful, because it will set out what the targets were, to what extent they have been met, what the new targets are, what the learning programme is, and so on. Where that is set out clearly, there is little problem. Where there is a difficulty, where the Board officer does not feel, for example, that this is set out in sufficient detail or that the objectives are not clear enough, or that the school is not doing enough, then the Board officer will spend his, or her, time much more productively dealing with that proportion of the reviews which are not as helpful as they should be. This is what we have been doing, to an extent, up to now, but we will have to do it much more formally. But, my reaction at this stage is that probably the time of professional Board staff would be spent more effectively in supporting the schools, and therefore helping the education of the pupils, rather than tying up a lot of administrative time being present. But there may be merit in sitting in on a proportion of these, initially, to see how they go. I think you have to remember that this is a new process, it is uncharted waters, to some extent, and, therefore, we will continue to improve and evaluate our processes as we go along. But we will look very carefully at each of the annual reviews and then take appropriate action with the school and with all the other professionals involved.
  (Mr Fitzsimons)  The indicator, very often, of effectiveness is also customer satisfaction. Parents have the right to appeal an annual review; we do not have many appeals. Also, as a result of reviews, this year in our Board, 120 statements were removed, so we were satisfied that these children had improved and they were able to continue without specialist help. Obviously, any system which you have can be improved upon, and the Code of Practice obviously is an improvement, which we fully accept.

Mr Browne:  Thank you. I have to say, Mr Chairman, I am very tempted to go down the road which I am being invited to go down, that the level of appeals from any process is a measure of its effectiveness, but I will resist the temptation, in the interests of the other members of the Committee and, if there is time perhaps at the end I can come back.

Mr Donaldson

  24.  Can I bring the representatives on to the issue of the Regional Review Group and the draft Inter-Agency Agreement, which I think all of the Boards refer to in their submissions to the Committee. Just first of all, from a general perspective, what differences do you feel the proposals in such a draft Inter-Agency Agreement would make to the actual practice in special educational needs?
  (Mr Fitzsimons)  Mr Chairman, I think, first of all, it is a recognition of a shared responsibility for the holistic development of the child, and that, very often, many of the children, for example, in our schools have attendant medical problems and psychiatric problems, and there is a need for the specialist services, which the health authorities are responsible for, to be provided for children in schools and to our authority, to ensure that we meet the provision for these children. For example, there is always a problem with speech therapy and the absence of sufficient provision, yet the education authority is responsible for making that provision but is dependent upon the health authorities to provide it. For example, in SLD schools, we have children who are sick, and need nursing care, and continuing nursing care, so that the children are not put at risk. Progress has been made on making this provision. But, as a result of negotiations with Health Authorities a service level agreement has been drawn up, and we can be assured of the level of support of nursing care. Obviously, we are not entirely happy with the levels though, because there are competing priorities in health for the limited resources which they have, but at least we can be assured of the level of resource available. We will continue to negotiate with the Health Authorities and work together, so that we have a shared perception of the difficulties and the needs, and a recognition that the holistic development of the child is the responsibility of all authorities, not just education.
  (Mr McCullough)  Chairman, if I could maybe add to that. The Regional Review Group has produced a service level agreement, which is really a basis to be worked from, because there has not been agreement between the Health Boards and the Education Boards before, about the basis that we are moving from. The Agreement has now to go to Health Trusts and agreements should then be made between Health Trusts and the school, because the provision for therapy, and so forth, is made in the individual schools. We do have difficulty, and I am sure Members are aware of it, through our legislation from the education side, we have a responsibility to meet the needs of the individual child; that is through the statement. This can be through provision that is made by Health and Social Services, over which we have no control, unlike the situation in England and Wales, where the local authority actually does control both education and perhaps therapy services, we are dependent on health services to fulfil our obligation; they do not have the same obligation that we have. We have a responsibility, through our legislation, to identify the needs of the child and provide for the individual needs of the individual child. Health services have a responsibility, through their legislation, to provide a service, full stop; there is a difference between the two, a conspicuous difference between the two. And, if there is any shortfall, and this is our fear, if there is any shortfall in the provision made by Health and Social Services in respect to those areas that they cover for us, for children, in special schools and special units and special provision, there is an expectation that education will pick that up and provide for it in some way; education is not funded for that, education is funded for education, for providing schools and providing teachers. That is a basic problem that lies there, lies ahead of us. Health services are aware of this, they quote it, they indicate, that, in England and Wales, when there is a shortfall, education has to top up the lack of provision. Now, so far, they have tried, as much as they can, within their own resources, to meet our needs, but our parents, parents of children with special educational needs who require a lot of therapy, particularly speech therapy and other therapies, are often not satisfied with the level of therapy they are receiving, and the Education and Library Boards can be brought to Tribunal, the Special Needs Tribunals, because of the lack of, or the shortfall in, therapy provision for children in schools; that is a major concern for us. And, whilst the Regional Review Group is the first step down that path to producing a solution, it will not actually solve it.
  (Mr Topping)  I think, Chairman, in summary, we are very pleased that we have got this far; what we would be concerned about is that the resources that the Health Boards have available and the Trusts have available will be insufficient to meet the demands that are going to be placed on us.

  25.  Mr Fitzsimons mentioned as an example, nursing care for children with severe learning difficulties. Can you just tell us a little bit about the progress you have been able to make on that, in terms of liaison with the health authorities?
  (Mr Fitzsimons)  This was a very difficult one, in that the schools, and indeed the Board, identified that there was a need for specialist care for children who are sick, who are very sick, in SLD schools. There was a reluctance on the part of the Health Boards and some of the Trusts to admit that there was a need, and there was a question of whether, in fact, a Board and education authority would be capable of deciding whether, in fact, nursing was the appropriate level of care; the question put was, "We don't tell you whether you need a teacher or not, why should you tell us why they need a nurse?". But we reached a compromise where the Board will pay 50 per cent of the cost of nursing provision but the nurses will be part of the health service structure, so they can access other means of specialist help for children. We were very concerned, in that we had a number of children who were very sick, who in some cases almost died, and we were concerned about the risk which these children were being put to, and we are now happy that that has been resolved.

  26.  Thank you. Belfast Education Board and some of the voluntary agencies have emphasised the conflict between the Health Service's responsibility to provide speech and language therapy and the Education Boards' responsibility for ensuring that the speech and language needs of the individual child are met, and there seems to be, and we have just touched on it, on the nursing care issue, there seems at times to be this kind of conflict. Do the Boards have any view on the solution to this particular problem? You have mentioned that the Review Group is a welcome development, but it is not the solution; do you have a solution to proffer?
  (Mr McCullough)    Chairman, there are a number of solutions. Firstly, Health and Social Services employ certain staff, and therapists are among those. It would be appropriate if the level of provision that was required for children, as indicated through our assessments, through their assessments, because it is the speech therapists, for example, who produce the assessments for us and tell us the level of need, then we indicate that to the Health Service, saying, "This is the level of need with this particular child in regard to speech therapy", and, if there is a shortfall, that would have to be met, in our view, and should be met, by Health and Social Services. The other possibility is that the responsibility, and we are not necessarily advocating this, for the provision of services like therapy within special schools and special units should move across to education, but there is already a shortfall in the system, we think, we are unable accurately to identify the shortfall, but we know, from what parents are saying, that they are not satisfied with the therapy levels that their children are getting in certain circumstances. If it moves across to education, we would be taking on something where there was not sufficient funding available currently in the system.

  27.  When you say a shortfall, Mr McCullough, you mean a shortfall in terms of the delivery of speech therapy and language therapy provision?
  (Mr McCullough)  A shortfall in regard to the amount of time, the number of sessions that individual children get.

  28.  Finally, Chairman, it seems, from the memoranda we have been looking at, that another conflict arises, for example, where a child's residence is in a different Health and Social Services Trust from that where the educational provision is actually located, and that there may be difficulties in ensuring that the child's health needs, in terms of certain therapies, are met, where that conflict arises. And it must be difficult for you, as Boards, having to deal with a multiplicity of various agencies, Hospital Trusts, and Health Boards, and so on; is there any movement to resolve such difficulties? I am aware of, obviously, the Regional Review Group and the Inter-Agency Agreement, but, in terms of residency and the delivery of services to meet the needs of specific children, have you been able to make any progress in having those difficulties resolved?
  (Mr McCullough)  Chairman, it continues to be a problem. It can only be resolved, these particular issues, in regard to the overlap, children from a particular Trust getting and receiving therapy, for example, in another Trust, usually, the Trust in which the provision is located takes responsibility for all the children who attend that particular school, that particular unit, but there are complications in regard to things like social services provision, social services provision to individual children. It has only been solved through negotiation across the Trusts and with our encouragement, but it still is an issue and still a problem, because, when Trusts were formed, the whole thesis behind it was that you give each particular Trust a budget and they operate within that.

Mr Hesford

  29.  You are welcome. Thank you for coming. I want to ask you questions about funding; in particular, I want to ask you questions about Local Management of Schools. Local Management of Schools, I think, as you have already indicated, Mr Topping, is very prevalent on this side of the water but not so in Northern Ireland. One of the special schools that we visited had indicated a keen desire to have their budget delegated down to them from the Board, and, excuse my ignorance, I do not know which Board covers that particular area. What comment, if any, do you have around that desire by someone who appeared to me to be a very keen, good and enthusiastic headteacher, at a very well-run school, from what we saw, what comments do you have about that?
  (Mr Topping)  Chairman, could I maybe make just a few initial comments and I am sure others will want to follow up. I think there are two different issues here. I think the first issue is the issue of Local Management of Special Schools, which I think is what the question is referring to, and, I think, in that particular instance, there is partial delegation at the moment, I believe, in most of the Boards. What is held back is the staffing costs; because they think it was more——[2]

  30.  Which is 80 per cent of them?
  (Mr Topping)  Yes, which is 80 per cent of the costs; because I think it was felt that it was more beneficial, because of the scale of some of these schools, to manage a larger amount of money centrally and to be able to take the troughs and the peaks on a central basis, rather than impose that on a local basis. But, in principle, I think we would all accept that local management and delegation at a local level is a good way of getting the money spent according to the needs of the school. I think that is the first point. The second point is, there is an issue in relation to local management of special education, which is a slightly different point because it deals with children who are in mainstream schools, and I think there is probably an argument that that might be an appropriate way to go to achieve better value for money, particularly when these children are categorised, as the new 1996 Order will probably lead us to, because then you can say the main needs of a particular child fall into a particular category and that category is worth so much. So that was what I meant, at the start, whenever I said there are two different philosophies here that we are aggressively trying to strive with, one is the past, the 1986 Order, but the new Order takes us into, I think, a new regime, and we will be trying to respond to that.
  (Mrs McClenaghan)  I would agree, in principle, with what Mr Topping has said.

  31.  You said the "way to go", on mainstream funding. I did not follow that entirely?
  (Mr Topping)  I think what I meant by that, Chairman, was, at the moment, I think, all the Boards hold back centrally the funding for children who are actually placed in mainstream schools, and there is a kind of negotiation exercise, I suppose, actually goes on, when a child with a statement is placed into a mainstream school, where we negotiate with the Principal of how much resource will actually be required to educate that child in that school, that mainstream school. What I was pointing to was the idea of delegating for a local management of special education fund to those schools.

  32.  Is that what, in one of the documents here, from the NEEB, is described as top-up funding?
  (Mr Topping)  No. The way it works at the moment, Chairman, is that, certainly in our Board, and that is the North Eastern Board, we have a certain amount of money, that schools already probably have, because most of these children are in mainstream schools, on the basis of the amount that is given to all children; we top that up according to the needs, so if a child has a particular need then we give a particular resource to that school to meet the need of that particular child, once the statement is allocated.

  33.  So it is top-up funding?
  (Mr Topping)  Yes, that is top-up funding, but not what I am describing to you, it is a much wider concept, the idea of delegating a fund for special educational needs to schools and then giving the children to those schools with the money already in the schools.

  34.  What are the problems, in brief, that you could foresee about doing that?
  (Mr Topping)  I think there are a number of problems. One of the problems is that the particular needs of the child might, in fact, be more expensive than the amount of money that has been delegated to the school in the first place, and the school has to find those resources out of its own pocket of money. I think the second thing is that by holding money centrally you get an economy of scale, and, as I said earlier, you can actually deal with the troughs and the peaks; but once you get down to school level the amount of money that you are actually dealing with is much smaller, and, therefore, when there are troughs and peaks, for example, substitute teachers required, for maybe three teachers who happen to be out on illness, that is suddenly a huge amount of money and the school may have to pick that up. So there are a variety of things like that which could cause some difficulties because of the size of many of the special schools. But, again, in principle, I think we are probably saying it is a good idea to move in that direction.
  (Mr Fitzsimons)  But it would need to be earmarked for special education, because one of the difficulties at the present moment, money is given to schools for targeting social need and special education, and there is a feeling that that money may not be used efficiently for special education, mainly because of competing priorities.

  35.  You mean, by the school?
  (Mr Fitzsimons)  By the school, because the school, for example, has to have a certain staffing level, it has to cope with the needs of the generality of children, and there are peaks and troughs. There are costs which come in which they are not aware of and they have got to live within their budget. So some of that money may be used for things other than special education. And I think what the Code is asking us to do is to target resources for special needs in schools, there should be a special education policy and there should be a clear indication of what money was earmarked for special education, and what money was spent on special education. I think that is why I have said that it is important that it is earmarked for special education.

  36.  Would it be a reason to go along the road that we have been speaking of, because there would be a greater efficient use of resources?
  (Mr Topping)  I think, certainly, Chairman, if that is true, the extent, obviously, that is a very good reason to be moving in that direction.

  37.  Would you anticipate that that would be the outcome?
  (Mr Topping)  Not necessarily, Chairman. I think what may happen might be that resources would be spent perhaps within the priorities of the school, and they may be more effectively spent, not necessarily more efficiently spent. And, of course, if we have a resource pool, which obviously is limited, then the more effectiveness you can get out of that the better, because that is the business, in a sense, we are in, making sure that these children get the best deal possible and that we educate them to their full potential.

  38.  Can you define for me effectiveness, as opposed to efficient?
  (Mr Topping)  This is the hard question, Chairman. We actually had a discussion about this outside.

  39.  You made the differentiation?
  (Mr Topping)  Yes, I did. We had a discussion about this outside, actually, and we think, in special education, it is actually very hard to define what effectiveness is for special education, but we thought, actually, probably three things, and depending on the type of child there are maybe three things. The first one is, there are children who are in mainstream schools who perhaps do not have a statement but have special educational needs; what we want is to improve their performance and obviously make sure, through the Key Stage assessments, that they can improve and they can achieve, and that, year on year, we lever up their performance. I think that is one way of measuring effectiveness. I think the second way is, there are children who are statemented and who have needs which really require them to develop in terms of independent life skills. What I think we should be trying to do there is to try to give those children those skills, and some of them are not measurable, let us face it, when we are talking about self-esteem. The third group of children, who are very seriously, multiple handicapped, I think the fact that they are being educated with other children, that they are having an experience with other children, that they are being encouraged, that they are being motivated, that they are being, in a sense, given an atmosphere and a potential to develop in a very small way, that that too is a means of achieving and a means of being effective. So I think those are the kinds of categories we looked at. Now, obviously, effectiveness is all about performance, it is all about enhancing the achievements; efficiency is all about doing it within the financial limits. What I think I was trying to define was that, by delegating to schools, you might get the money spent in a better way according to the needs of those schools; you might not make savings, in doing that.

2  See also Ev, p. 67. Back

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