Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence



  1. A review by the Northern Ireland Audit Office of Special Education is to be welcomed. However, the report is confusing in that it is based on practices and procedures operated prior to the introduction of the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 and the Education (Special Educational Needs) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1997. As a result of this new legislation, which came into operation on 1 September 1997, the Board has revised its procedures and consequently addressed many of the issues highlighted in the report.

  The investigative work on which the report is based took place early in 1997 prior to the introduction of the new legislation. The report does not establish clearly this timeframe.

  2. The Board would wish also to record that the report does not take into account all expenditure on special educational needs. A substantial proportion of the Board's expenditure on transport results from arrangements for children with special educational needs.

  3. Paragraph 1.7 Prior to September 1997, there were also statutory requirements on the Board. This paragraph implies that little if anything took place pre-1997. The report needs to establish the statutory requirements prior to September 1997 and the new requirements after the introduction of the 1996 Order and emphasise that the review is based on pre-September 1997 procedures.

  4. Paragraph 1.11 The management of special educational needs resources is also becoming increasingly difficult because of limited finance available generally and the difficulties that the Board has in managing conflicting priorities.

  5. Paragraph 1.12 The report is not an examination of recent performance but of performance early in 1997 prior to the changes introduced by the 1996 Order. A number of "improvements" identified in the report have already been implemented.

  6. Paragraph 2.4 Reference is made throughout the report to the "statementing process". This is a misnomer which reflects the view of many people, including parents, that the outcome of a statutory assessment of special educational needs will be a statement. Indeed the Code of Practice makes it clear that the outcome may not be a statement but a recognition that the child's needs can be met within his/her school's existing resources. Use of such terminology can lead on the one hand to unrealistic expectations among some parents and schools that the child will require/is entitled to additional resources and on the other to increased anxiety amongst other parents that their child will be "labelled".

  7. Paragraph 2.9 The Board is actively reviewing its practice in relation to this recommendation.

  8. Paragraph 2.10 The drive among schools to refer children for statutory assessment is related to the pressures created by open enrolment and the publication of results.

  9. Paragraph 2.13 The Board would be concerned if consideration was being given to the introduction in Northern Ireland of the Scottish model, whereby education purchases speech and language therapy from health authorities. There would be a concern that such arrangements could lead to a significant increase in both the number of children assessed as requiring speech and language therapy and in the amount being advised. The Board would question whether such a model provides value for money and accountability.

  10. Paragraph 2.20 The Board is supportive of the concept of standardisation across the Education and Library Service of criteria for identifying and assessing special educational needs. The Board believes that there is a need to establish a strategic plan for special education within Northern Ireland and would welcome the establishment of a representative group at senior level from the Boards and DENI to progress this matter.

  11. Paragraph 2.23 The Board is committed to ensuring that resources spent on the statutory assessment process are used effectively. Given the introduction from September 1998 of timescales for conduct of the statutory assessment process, the number of referrals, and the array of professionals involved (including employees of other organisations) the Board would question whether moderating panels could operate in both a time- and cost-effective manner. However consideration is being given to this issue.

  12. Paragraph 2.25 The Board does not understand the recommendation in Paragraph 2.25 that DENI should consider the regionalisation of the management of Educational Psychology Services. This recommendation appears to sit in a vacuum and there appears to be no rationale or evidence in the report for such a recommendation. It is not clear how the service would be delivered by individual Board teams while being managed by a regional management structure.

  13. Paragraph 2.31 Educational psychologists in the SEELB have already prepared draft performance targets for providing advice to the Board to take account of timescales outlined in the draft Code of Practice. Discussions are on-going with other advice-givers on the establishment of timescales.

  14. Paragraph 2.33 The inter-Board Designated Officers Group is reviewing administrative methods and procedures to identify good practice and possible areas of co-operation.

  15. Paragraph 2.35 The Board would strongly refute the suggestion made in this paragraph that educational and developmental objectives stated in psychological advice are weak. The Board would also take issue with the statement that "psychological advice tended to be much stronger on cognitive functioning rather than emotional and behavioural difficulties."

  16. Paragraphs 2.36 and 2.37 Prior to September 1997, there was no requirement for statements to be specific in terms of objectives, nor was there ever guidance given on the content or formulation of objectives. Since September 1997, the Board has been setting clear precise objectives and therefore feels that the comments in these paragraphs are irrelevant and obsolete.

  17. Part 3 Given the different types of provision available in each Board and the fact that reciprocal arrangements exist between Boards whereby children with certain specific needs from across the Province are catered for in one particular Board area, valid comparisons of costs and placements of pupils cannot be made in any accurate fashion e.g. SELB does not have any special schools for children with moderate learning difficulties; children requiring long-term speech and language provision from the whole of Northern Ireland are provided for in the NEELB; BELB provides for children with physical disabilities in Fleming Fulton and Mitchell House; the Lindsay School is financed and managed by the SEELB but provides for children from the whole of Northern Ireland and occasionally elsewhere.

  18. Paragraph 3.10 The Board would contest the suggestion implicit in the last sentence of this paragraph. Children are placed in the provision which is most appropriate for their needs.

  19. Paragraph 4.3 The SEELB can provide information which enables comparisons to be made of the costs of different types of provision for children with special educational needs.

  20. Paragraph 4.5 The SEELB would not accept this assertion and would wish to see the information which led to the comment that schools were subsidising special units from their own LMS budgets.

  21. Paragraph 4.11 The Board strongly supports this recommendation.

  22. Paragraph 4.15 The Board would strongly oppose this recommendation.

  23. Paragraph 4.17 The Board has not been aware that DENI has been pressing it to switch to entitlement to free school meals as a "proxy" measure.

  24. Paragraph 4.22 The Board understands that this system is posing considerable problems in GB and suggests that this statement should be reviewed following the receipt of more recent information.

  25. Paragraph 4.31 Agreed but not convinced, given experience in GB that an audit approach is necessarily the best way of achieving this situation.

  26. Paragraph 4.32 Agreed.

  27. Paragraph 5.4 The Board agrees that the Northern Ireland Curriculum assessment arrangements do not give sufficient recognition to the special school sector.

  28. Paragraph 5.15 The Board strongly agrees and would urge DENI to provide funding to ensure standardisation of computer systems as well as access to appropriate information relating to children with special educational needs held on CLASS e.g., Special Educational Needs Register/Education Plans. The Board believes that there is scope for using CLASS to streamline procedures for assessment and annual review.

  29. Paragraph 5.18 The Board is currently reviewing how data might be used for benchmarking and target-setting purposes.

  30. Paragraph 5.19 Strongly agree with this paragraph.

  31. Paragraph 5.20 Agreed.

  32. Paragraph 5.22 the Board would wish to emphasise that it already discusses issues surrounding special educational needs with its schools. Examples can be given if required.

  33. Paragraph 5.32 The Boards are working in partnership towards the production of common documentation.

  34. Paragraphs 5.36 and 5.37 The Board is concerned at the very significant financial implications of this suggestion. In special schools alone the Board has over 1,200 children with statements of special educational needs. Even if the Annual Review was to take only 30 minutes (a very conservative estimate) a minimum of 120 days would be required to participate in these Annual Reviews.

  35. Paragraph 5.39 The Board considers that there is an anomaly between the statement in this paragraph and that in paragraph 4.13.

  36. Paragraph 5.41 The Board welcomes the fact that such a group has been established, but was unaware of the fact. Any such group should have representation from the Education and Library Boards.

  37. Paragraph 5.44 Agree wholeheartedly. The Board sought to achieve such a situation with its proposals for the review of the LMS Scheme.

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Prepared 19 April 1999