Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



Mr Donaldson

  60.  I want to come on to the question of statements in respect of children with special needs and to ask the question how you feel the Boards can be certain that they will be able to meet the 18 week target set out in the Code of Practice which came into force in September, given that in England currently only 48 percent of all councils achieved this target in 1996/1997, four years after the introduction of their Code of Practice?
  (Mr Martin)  Chairman, may I pass that question to Mr O'Loane in the first instance?
  (Mr O'Loane)  It is a hard question to start with, for my first question. Nevertheless I will do my best. We have all, as Boards, set ourselves the target of trying to meet the 18 weeks deadline. We recognise that it will not be possible in all cases and that we will not have a 100 percent record in meeting that because there are exceptions anyway in relation to the providing of advice, the dates when assessments start, which take account of holiday periods. We do experience already difficulties at times with parents whose children fail to keep appointments with medical officers. So there are those reasons which could lead to us not having a 100 percent record anyway. Our Department of Education has treated the introduction of the Code of Practice very seriously and indeed has made available additional resources, part of which are related to schools being able to meet the requirements of the Code and part of the funding is to enable Boards to meet the requirements of the Code. So as additional funding—each Board would have got funding related to additional administrative help within Board headquarters to carry out assessment procedures and additional funding for educational psychologists. We have set ourselves the targets. We have had meetings across each of the Boards with all the other providers of information, the schools, those in the Health and Social Services Boards who are required to provide advice, so everybody is aware of the legislation, aware of the deadlines and will do all they can to try and meet them. It has been pointed out to us that it will be difficult, but we will keep it under review and part of the brief of the strategic group which is to be established will be to monitor that performance. Indeed each Board will also be setting up a panel, as recommended in the Audit Office report, and part of the brief of that panel too will be to monitor performance in the context of the timescale, to try to adhere to it. So we will set ourselves targets, we will try to adhere to them, but we are aware of the difficulties that are being experienced in authorities in England and Wales and we hope that we will set our targets to improve upon them.

  61.  Has any study been done or carried out by any of the Boards into what has happened in England and whether there are any lessons that can be drawn from it?
  (Mr O'Loane)  There have been inter-Board groups of Special Education Officers who have visited clusters of authorities in England over the last four years to try and see what lessons we can learn from the English experience, in anticipation of the Code and the various elements attached to it. One of the key issues probably in helping this to be addressed, also arising out of the Audit Office, will be the use of information technology and better information systems to enable us to plan. That is certainly one thing. A second thing is to try and co-ordinate as far as possible, within each Board, the support both at administrative and educational psychology and advisory level, to try and ensure that we meet the targets set. So we have visited authorities in England, we have talked to them. One of the major problems that has been highlighted is that the problems are the same, they are not different. There are certain areas of need as defined within the Code which have led to difficulties; the whole area of children who have dyslexic problems, the range of children now on the autistic spectrum, children with language difficulties and the ways in which you try to intervene to meet those needs. So the issues are not different, they are common and sometimes at the core of all of this is the resourcing available, both to carry out the administrative side and having done that, more importantly, to put in place the provision which is required to meet the child's needs.

  62.  May I ask what happens in the cases where a statement needs to be completed and where a problem is identified but there is no place for the child in terms of the provision that is available? What happens in those cases and are there temporary placements available?
  (Mr O'Loane)  We are faced with legislation which is difficult in itself in that what the legislation states is that once the statement is made, provision should be made immediately. It is sometimes difficult to make the provision immediately that is specified in the statement because there are certain areas of provision for which there is high demand and the places may be already taken. In those cases we do not do nothing; we look at alternative types of support which can be provided for that child pending admission to a special school or a special unit or a specialist type of provision. So it is not the case that, once the statement is made though the actual placement may not be available, we leave it for whatever length of time. We would then, in discussion with the schools and the parents, try to agree a level of support that can be provided pending the placement becoming available.

  63.  Finally, Chairman, in respect of statements, there appear to be significant numbers of children with statements waiting for placements, a wait which may already have been preceded by the assessment process and the time that that can take. Again, similar to the last question, what kind of provision is made for these children while they are waiting for their placements and I suspect—you know, you have partially answered that already in terms of the discussions with parents and principals about some level of support?
  (Mr O'Loane)  Again, there is not a general way of answering that question. I have answered in general terms before. Each case has to be treated as an individual case, so it depends on the particular nature of the need, the nature of provision that is required. If a child has a learning difficulty which is related to poor attainment in reading or number work, we would then look at providing the school with additional teaching help, perhaps through peripatetic or outreach teachers, additional classroom assistance which may supplement the direct teaching from the teacher, or additional funding to the school to enable them to have some part-time teaching hours targeted at that time. So that is one example. Again, in the case of children with emotional or behavioural difficulties, if there is not a place available in a unit we would look at supplementing support within the school; classroom assistance again, additional teaching, perhaps sometimes the provision of micro-technology, provision of lap top computers because sometimes with some of the children their motivation for learning can increase if they are given access to micro-technology. It depends. Some of the provision which is required is quite high, some of it is not so high. So we look at each individual case and we try and work out an action plan to try and do something pending placement.
  (Mr Martin)  Chairman, there is one issue relating to that which Mr O'Loane mentioned. It is the issue of educational psychologists which, in fact, would have an impact on the length of time involved. I think Mr Fitzsimons would like to address that, if you do not mind.


  64.  No, of course not?
  (Mr Fitzsimons)  Mr Chairman, obviously the role of an educational psychologist is key in the whole process and the Code identifies that the educational psychologist needs to be involved at Stage 3. So in fact the workload of the educational psychologist will increase and we have a bigger problem in Northern Ireland in that we do not have sufficient educational psychologists in post and we do not have sufficient educational psychologists who are being trained. So there is an issue there, an issue about having sufficient resources to meet that need in terms of funding and also having appropriately qualified staff. The other issue which I think Mr O'Loane mentioned was the whole question of the actual provision of places and what we are finding now with the Code—and certainly in some of the Boards—is that there has been a radical increase in the number of children being statemented; in some Boards these have increased by 19 percent. In some Boards also there seems to be an increasing incidence of children with severe learning difficulties and there are various reasons for it which people have attributed to that; obviously handicapped children living longer through improvement in medical science but also the incidence of SLD children seems to be increasing. Now to make provision for an SLD child requires a fairly long timescale, otherwise it is a matter of just adding temporary provision to an already very poor provision in SLD schools. We have two new SLD schools in our Board, but most Boards have taken over SLD schools from the Health Authority and are at present trying to bring those up to date.

Mr McWalter

  65.  Good afternoon. The situation with statementing is markedly different between England and Northern Ireland and you answered quite a number of questions about that last time you were here, so we will not pursue too many of those horses again, but the Government seems to envisage in its most recent Green Paper that there will actually be a decline in the number of statemented children. You just referred to the prospect, indeed the reality, that there seems to be rather an escalation of this. How are we going reconcile the two?
  (Mr O'Loane)  That is an even harder question.


  66.  Take your time?
  (Mr O'Loane)  There are a number of ways in which we hope—and it is a hope at this stage—the Government have indicated that they would like to see statementing rates around about the 1.5 to 2 percent which, in a way, reflects the Warnock Report of 1978 which indicated roughly 2 percent. Probably that Warnock Report and the figures used are bandied about and have been for the last 20 years and they are still used. I would suggest they are out of date in that there is a whole range of new needs which are now being identified which possibly were not then. So that is the reason why there would be an escalation in the number of children being referred for statements. How do you then make provision to ensure that the rate of statementing is held at 2 percent, because if the rate of statementing is not held at 2 percent and increases beyond 2 percent in each of our Boards, the corollary of that is there will be additional funding required to meet the statementing. Firstly, in carrying out an assessment, there is a cost factor because that involves psychology time, professional time, administrative time preparing the statement. Implicit in making the statement is giving something extra to the child that is not normally available, so if we do not try to keep the statementing within the 2 percent and it does increase there is going to be additional funding required. To get back to your question as to how, as I said we hoped, there might be some things that might help. Firstly, there is now in place in Northern Ireland a number of initiatives. There is the Government initiative which applies in England and Wales, and now in Northern Ireland, that all pre-school children will have pre-school education. With that, one would hope that the earlier intervention at pre-school level might help to reduce incidence of special needs later. Also in place now in Northern Ireland is a School Improvement Programme and within that School Improvement Programme there have been targets set and support provided to enable schools to improve and some of the focus is on improving basic skills, literacy and numeracy. As part of that School Improvement Programme there is also a package related to improving behaviour in school. So that package, the pre-school expansion, the School Improvement Programme will ultimately through time—it will not happen immediately, but through time—help schools deal more effectively with children, including those with special needs. As well as that, if we target resources to schools at stages earlier than Stage 4 or 5 of the Code to enable schools to make more effective provision at Stages 1 to 3 of the Code, that may stop the number of children moving through to 4 or 5. One of the other issues which that strategic group which is being set up will address, is an issue that was raised within the Audit Office Report and I think was raised here the last time. We will agree common thresholds and agree what is the threshold beyond which a child should have his needs met within school and below which the child should have his needs met through statementing. So those are measures that hopefully will reduce the incidence of statementing, but what I would have to say to you too is that if you were a teacher of a class of 30 children in a primary school, the child whose ability level and attainments are at the third or fourth centile—in other words they are in the third percent or fourth percent—the challenge for teaching that child for the teacher is no different than teaching the child that is in the bottom 2 percent who may be statemented. So the 2 percent is an arbitrary figure related in some ways to the availability of funding, but nevertheless it is a threshold and as I said some of those measures that I have talked about will hopefully help us to retain the statementing at that level.

Mr McWalter

  67.  Does that not imply that this target figure, as it were, should be higher in the short term to recognise both historic educational under-achievement and also the specific problems in Northern Ireland relating to social disunity and that what we should be asking the Government to do is to raise that level for a period and have a negotiation of that figure downwards from medium to longer term?
  (Mr Fitzsimons)  I agree totally with what Mr McWalter said. I think that what Mr O'Loane has pointed out is that obviously the intention of the Code is that we will have earlier intervention in schools, we will have schools taking responsibility for the identification of special education needs and picking up children who slipped through the net in the past so that more children will be catered for. In the interim, as Mr O'Loane pointed out, there will be an increase in statementing and I think that has to be accepted, but if the policy is effective—and I think that is the key, the implementation of the Code has to be effective; in other words schools have to take responsibility for provision for special needs, teachers have to be trained, there has to be sufficient time allowed for teachers to implement the Code and the implementation needs to be monitored. If that happens then I believe that down the line there may be fewer statements required. But I cannot be sure of that; it may well be that already there are a number of children who have been missed in the process who have special educational needs and have gone through the school system and not been picked up and they are now being picked up.

  68.  In addition, the mechanisms that Mr O'Loane described for handling this problem seem to me to be much more effective for the English system where children in those low percentiles are nevertheless integrated into non-specialist schools than is the case in Northern Ireland where there is a much greater emphasis on special schooling. Of course, the Government's view is that one should integrate and secondly you get efficiencies caused by being able to share some of the teaching resources and activities with the whole class so there is an efficiency gain there. So it is both the case that your mechanism assumes greater numbers of integration so that you pick up those things earlier so that means you have, in inverted commas, a normal class that you are trying to pick these things up from and you are not trying to put the person into some special unit or whatever. Also it suggests that there needs to be a very radical change in the way special educational needs are met, does it not?
  (Mr O'Loane)  Yes, you are referring now to the report by Newcastle University and in the context of that report really it is about that broad range of special needs, the non-statemented special needs.

  69.  Yes.
  (Mr O'Loane)  In Northern Ireland the system is organised whereby the English model of the Code is based upon mixed ability classes with mixed ability teaching and differentiation and consequently the point is made in Northern Ireland that a lot of the system at present is based upon streaming, withdrawing rather than in-class support. Those are issues—again, that report like the Dyson report is a useful report because it is an objective report from somebody coming in from outside to look at the situation and no doubt again it will be addressed but it will not happen immediately. We have in place in Northern Ireland a transfer system which leads to secondary education either at grammar school or—it is a selective system basically—so again that is something that would have to be looked at radically if the Dyson Report was to be implemented. What I would say to you is that in relation to Boards and some of the figures quoted in relation to the English authorities, if I look at the comparison between the figures used in the Audit Report of Cornwall and the Western Board that in Cornwall there is more inclusion, which is the word now, of children in mainstream. If I then look at that report and see that in Cornwall 5 percent of children have statements and in the Western Board 2 percent. If we were to move to 5 percent, the likelihood is that those additional 3 percent are mainstream and therefore we are already integrating, including children in mainstream education, but they are not having statements and that is maybe the difference.

Mr McWalter:  Good point.


  70.  Mr Irwin?
  (Mr Irwin)  If I may just make a comment. In many ways the issue of special education is a little like an interlocking jigsaw where if we get one part of that wrong it knocks the other parts out of kilter, but I believe strongly that the Code of Practice as referred to in the Newcastle report when it asked were we going to embed it superficially or really make it the core activity of the Boards and the core activity of schools and I would say to date, with the Code of Practice, we are at the superficial level and that would reflect a tremendous commitment already to get the system to a level where everyone is aware of the implications of the Code of Practice, if we are eventually wanting to embed it into all the schools. One of the big resources that we feel that schools still need is time because there are so many pressures and challenges facing schools. We have said that the Code of Practice is a pivotal piece of legislation which, if taken on board, should change the way in which schools are managed. I still believe that there is a tremendous amount of work to do in increasing that awareness in schools and we are still really at the tip of an iceberg. In a way it would not surprise me that the number of statements is still going up because schools feel they are struggling with so many other pressures. They are giving their best shot to the Code of Practice but until they really feel empowered and confident to address the essence of it I do not think we will see schools making the full potential of it. That is a possibility for the future, but in the meantime, we can anticipate an increasing number of statements.

Mr McWalter

  71.  Finally, Chair, the last time we met there were clear differences between the various Boards and I understand Mr Martin's initial statement to mean something like that there has been a greater effort to have a more cohesive approach. Would that be right? And if that is so—if I am perhaps luring you in the direction of saying that you should have a 5 percent level or a 4 percent level or whatever for some time, that would need to be a more integrated approach from yourselves and there would need to be less diversity among the different Boards. Do I get the impression that the Boards are moving to a more common understanding and a more common agenda on these matters?
  (Mr Martin)  Very, very much so.

  72.  Have we helped or was it happening anyway?
  (Mr Martin)  Well, I think you have helped. The Audit Office report has also helped, but both were nudging us very strongly in the direction that we had already embarked upon. While there are real differences, some, I think, are more apparent than real, but we are very anxious to ensure as much commonality of approach as possible. We do feel very genuinely that this regional strategy group, by looking in particular at the Audit Office report, will produce a much greater degree of commonality in approach than we have had to date and we believe that that will lead to a very good outcome.

  73.  We would certainly welcome that?
  (Mr McCullough)  Could I just maybe add to that? We should all be aware that the 2 percent figure is a national figure and there will be a difference between the leafy glades and the inner cities, obviously, and in each category of disability there will be a threshold and the threshold might well be the same across all the authorities in England and Wales and in Northern Ireland, but the incidence rate will differ and there will be a significant impact on that incidence rate if provision has been made at earlier stages. Mr O'Loane has indicated, for example, Stage 3; if education authorities make provision at Stage 3 which in other authorities is only available at Stages 4 and 5 then the number of statements will reduce. The children with severe handicaps, disabilities, will still be provided for through special schools, presumably, but others with lesser disabilities will be provided for in another way. In Northern Ireland two things have been happening over the past six or seven years. The number of pupils in special schools have been increasing, the incidence rate has been increasing in most categories. The number of pupils with moderate learning difficulties has been increasing, too, because of better diagnosis perhaps, but many of those children have remained in mainstream schools and been provided for in mainstream schools, so there are two elements in this dynamic. Every authority will have to recognise that when a child passes a threshold where a statement would be required or some other form of provision should be made, the child must receive that provision. But that will vary across the authorities, that is why it is difficult to compare one authority with another authority. It is not known how much Stage 3 provision would be made, for example, in Cornwall as compared to a Board in Northern Ireland. We do not know that.

Mr Hunter

  74.  Chairman, I think perhaps I would feel that by this stage many of the points I had in mind to ask have already been covered, but perhaps I could focus specifically on the points I had in mind. It is paragraph 2.12 of the Code which defines the role of the SEN Co-ordinator and obviously that is key or central to the whole Code and I am wondering if there are any further comments that could be made on the extent to which the Boards are taking steps to ensure that the SEN Co-ordinators are adequately trained for this central role?
  (Mrs McClenaghan)  If I may begin, Chairman, and then my colleague will take over. Advisory and support services of the Education and Library Boards have now been in place for some 10 years and they have a multiplicity of tasks and amongst those that they have tackled with great urgency in the last couple of years has been indeed the very matter to which Mr Hunter refers and that is the training of the SENCo. Essentially in a Board such as our own that was concentrated training on that person within the school, always bearing in mind that schools' circumstances can vary considerably and the training must be appropriate. So in our rural Board you could have a three teacher school where the SENCo has other duties. She may for example—and it frequently is `she'—be the literacy co-ordinator and that ties in very happily and the training is then appropriate. In a much larger school it may be a distinct duty which a member of staff undertakes, but I believe at this stage that the very great majority of SENCos who are currently in place have received training. That of course is an ongoing training programme because SENCos will change to other duties and SENCos will leave schools and their successors will have to be trained. But another very significant area is the management of the school and it is, I believe, of critical importance that the senior management in the school, and particularly the Board of Governors, receive training, and here I can speak of a five-Board emphasis and five-Board operational arrangements. We have a group drawn from officers of all five Boards who draw up Governor training programmes and deliver them and their focus has also been over the last year in particular on ensuring that the Governors in their management role ask the right questions and ensure that appropriate provision is made in their schools. They form a very significant part of the monitoring procedure for the education of the children who have special needs and of course, as the Code of Practice is implemented, to ensure that it is properly implemented in their own schools. So we have both the specialist teacher receiving training and we have also management in the form of the principal teacher and the Governors engaged in such training.

Mr Hunter:  An impressive answer.


  75.  I think Mr Irwin would like to come in?
  (Mr Irwin)  If I may just augment what Mrs McClenaghan said, I think we all believe that the Principal is a key person in the ethos of the whole school in ensuring the Code of Practice is imbedded at the heart of the school and we were delighted to receive some extra funding from the Department of Education, something which I do not believe happened in England and Wales, and that additional resourcing enabled us to target training towards some of those key groups to which Mrs McClenaghan referred to. As an example, to give you some concrete evidence, the training would have concentrated on issues such as policy writing, roles and responsibilities of SENCos, staged assessment and an overview of the Code of Practice, and that was delivered by a multi-disciplinary group of officers so that the message was conveyed to schools and particularly to SENCos that there were a number of different agencies in the Board and outside the Board who could help them in their task. There have also been a number of cluster groups set up across the Province so that SENCos have an opportunity to meet on a regular basis to receive ongoing support from those groups and it would be our intention again, as Mrs McClenaghan said, to continue to offer extensive training for Governors, again on an inter-Board basis.

Mr Hunter

  76.  If I can make an observation, rather than ask a question, in my constituency experience the problem is in maintaining continuity of how you deliver it, that any given school at any given moment can be well geared to the special needs of some children and then for a variety of circumstances staff will change and other appointments will be made, and it is maintaining the continuity and the ongoing aspect which you emphasise which I find particularly pleasing?
  (Mr Irwin)  That is why we would feel very strongly that the Principal and the Governors should be key target groups for training. So indeed if we lose a particularly skilled SENCo, because SENCos by their very nature tend to be exceptionally dedicated teachers, if you lose a key SENCo in a school, you lose a key resource.

  77.  Moving on, if I may, quite near the beginning, Mr O'Loane was talking about resources. He may feel he has said all he wishes to say on that subject, but can I give him another opportunity to tell us further, if he so wishes, about the extra resources that are being made or will be made available for the implementation of the Code?
  (Mr O'Loane)  Yes. In this financial year the Department of Education made available, I think, £3.5 million to the Boards and in the next two financial years there will be an additional £7 million, we are promised, to enable us to implement the Code, in each year. The money which was made available to the Boards this year was for a number of areas to target. Most of the money was devolved to schools and when we would have devolved the money to schools we would have suggested to them ways in which the money could be used. So, for example, we suggested that some of them—and within the scope of their needs and how they might use the money would differ. Essentially however the money was ring fenced and had to be used really to devolve into special needs, so they could not use it for something else. Some of the things we suggested use of the money for were purchasing books, practice materials related to special needs, the provision of additional teaching, the release of teachers to enable them, either individually within their own school or in clusters, to avail themselves of training, the release of SENCos to get training or sometimes just to work within their own school, and additional clerical assistance because with the Code there is increased administration, additional classroom assistance. Some schools have used the money to put it towards the cost of a reading recovery teacher. So those are some of the areas in which the money is being used and targeted. There was additional funding provided to the Boards to take account of the administrative difficulties in administering the statementing procedure and there was additional funding to all of the Boards to enable us to appoint two educational psychologists. The unfortunate thing was there are five Boards and two psychologists per Board equals 10 and there were six psychologists training in Queens whom we were all after at the same time. So it goes back to a point which was made earlier. One of the keys to implementing the Code at certain stages, but certainly from Stage 3 onwards, is the availability of educational psychologists. At present, in Northern Ireland, there is certainly difficulty in recruiting educational psychologists and that may become worse because it is proposed that the present one-year course will become a three-year course. So there may be difficulty arising there.

  78.  Did you say—sorry, forgive me— that ring fencing is continuing or that it is only current?
  (Mr O'Loane)  Ring fencing will continue with that particular money because it is specifically related to the Code of Practice.


  79.  In the context of the answer Mr O'Loane has just given, and this is, I have to agree, tangential but we happily have a small latitude of time on this occasion. In the far-off days when I was Higher Education Minister for England and Wales—I think actually the responsibility was extended further than that—the Nation only needed 55 vets per year and they were required to have universal A's at A level, but because the Almighty has a sense of irony there were always more than 55 who had got all A's at A level. It was then the case, in the slightly procrustean way, the Almighty intervened to make sure there would be enough drop-outs in the first year—and I will not go into why there were drop-outs—that in the end we would end up with 55 vets graduating to fill the places that were available. So it just shows that there is a wider purpose in these matters! I have a couple of questions in conclusion. Is there any intention to differentiate between schools on the basis of the number of pupils from socially disadvantaged areas which are more likely to have pupils with special needs, but not require statements?
  (Mr Martin)  To differentiate between schools?

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