Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from Department of Education for Northern Ireland (DENI)



  The law defines special educational provision in terms of the provision required to meet a child's learning difficulty.

  "Learning difficulty" means that a child has a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of his or her age, and/or has a disability which hinders his or her use of everyday educational facilities.

  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 (70,000 children in Northern Ireland) 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. Those needs which are relatively minor are invariably addressed by the child's school from within its own resources. More complex learning difficulties (affecting some 8,500 children in Northern Ireland) are assessed by professionals and the required provision is specified by the relevant Education and Library Board in a formal statement of special educational needs.


  1.1 The Committee has asked for information on current expenditure on special needs education and a comparison of the figures over the last 10 years with figures for England, Wales and Scotland.

  1.2 The figures below show annual recurrent expenditure by Education and Library Boards on special schools (including hospital schools) and home tuition over the 10-year period from 1987-88. Figures are taken from Board and DENI annual accounts.

  1.3 The figures do not include expenditure on SEN pupils in ordinary schools or in special units attached to ordinary schools; expenditure on these pupils is included within the totals for the various school sectors and cannot be separately identified.

Identifiable expenditure on special schools and home tuition
Financial year(£ million)
In addition to the sums shown, expenditure by Boards on the employment of educational psychologists amounted to £2.69 million in 1996-97: these provide educational psychology services and advice in relation to any children with special educational needs, or who are considered as possibly having such needs.

  1.4 When adjusted for inflation, these figures represent a real increase of 66 per cent in 1996-97 compared to 1987-88. During the same period, enrolments in special schools increased by 22 per cent.

Expenditure in other UK regions

  1.5 The following table shows available expenditure data for England, Wales and Scotland, though it should be noted that in the case of Scotland in particular, the figures are not on the same basis.

LEA expenditure on special schools and related support services (England and Wales) LEA assessed provision on pupils in special units at LEA schools (Scotland)
 (£ million) England(£ million) Wales(£ million) Scotland
1N/A = Not available.
—Figures show net expenditure on special schools, pupil referral units, home tuition, hospital tuition, education in social services establishments charged to education, including recharges of LEA costs of administration and services such as educational psychology. They exclude expenditure on SEN pupils in mainstream schools and special units. The figure for 1996-97 is provisional.
Wales—Figures show local authority expenditure on SEN insofar as it relates to maintained special schools and SEN support services costs. They exclude expenditure on SEN pupils in mainstream schools. No figures are available prior to 1990-91.
Scotland—Figures show the special education assessment, one of 17 which comprise the GAE (Grant-Aided Authority Expenditure) in Scotland. The special education assessment uses as a primary indicator the number of pupils in a specified age range (ages 5-15 in the period covered by these figures) who attend special units attached to education authority schools in the relevant year. GAE assessment is the method used to assess the needs of councils to maintain a standard level of delivery for a standard level of council tax; councils may spend more or less than the GAE on special education according to their own priorities.

  1.6 Meaningful inter-regional comparisons are not readily possible. Quite apart from differences of accounting treatment and coverage, as evident from the notes to the above tables, there are other substantiative factors which contribute to regional variations in expenditure patterns. These include:

    —  the fact that NI has a higher proportion of school age children than other UK regions, which affects overall expenditure levels per head of the general population;

    —  the relatively higher reported incidence of certain conditions (for example, conditions such as Downs' Syndrome and Spina Bifida) in NI compared to other regions;

    —  structural differences in provision with a higher proportion of statemented children in England and Wales being placed in mainstream schools, the costs of which are outside the identifiable expenditure shown in the tables above.


  2.1 The Committee has asked for information on the extent to which Targeting Social Need (TSN) money is used for special needs education.

  2.2 The TSN factors in LMS funding formulae provide a mechanism for targeting additional funds at those schools facing the greatest problems of social and educational disadvantage. Some £36 million is allocated to controlled and maintained schools in this way.

  2.3 Education and Library Boards have hitherto allocated TSN funds to individual schools on the basis of two main factors. The bulk (68 per cent) of TSN funds are allocated on the basis of free school meals. A great deal of research literature shows a very close correlation between educational need and free school meal entitlements in schools. Moreover, when LMS was first introduced, there were no readily available alternative indicators of need and free school meals were accepted as a suitable proxy. The balance of 32 per cent of TSN funds has been allocated primarily on the basis of an average measure of the incidence of special educational need, known as the Warnock factor. That factor did not, however, sufficiently target SEN resources at the schools with the greatest percentage of pupils with SEN. Subsequently, some Boards allocated this element of their educational needs funding on the basis of either transfer test results or special tests.

  2.4 Last year the Department commissioned a report on LMS funding from consultants. Their report suggested that the development of pupil assessment at each of the curricular Key Stages should provide a reliable indicator of educational need, which it should be possible to incorporate into LMS formulae. The report went on to suggest that there should, therefore, be a change in balance of the way in which TSN funds were allocated, with a greater emphasis being placed on direct measurements of educational need rather than using free school meals as a proxy. The report did, however, conclude that an element of funding should continue to be distributed on the basis of free school meals to take account of social deprivation problems.

  2.5 It was not possible to make progress on these elements of the consultants' recommendations in allocating resources to schools in 1998-99. Statutory pupil assessment was only introduced for the first time in the 1996-97 school year and results were incomplete because of industrial action by one teachers' union. Further work is also needed to see how, in practice, key stage testing results can be used on an objective basis in the LMS funding formula. In addition, there is a need for further debate and consultation on the appropriate balance between the two factors making up the TSN allocations. The objective is that arrangements will be introduced in 1999-2000 to target TSN funds more accurately at those schools with the greatest number of needy pupils.

  2.6 Research undertaken by the University of Ulster on the implementation of LMS shows that schools are aware of their TSN allocations and of the need to target them at the most needy pupils. General Inspection Reports now comment more specifically on the provision which is made for pupils with special educational needs. In addition, the Code of Practice on the identification and assessment of special educational needs states that the annual report of all grant-aided schools should include information on:

    —  the success of its SEN policy;

    —  any significant changes in its policy;

    —  the outcome of any consultation on the policy which has taken place; and

    —  the SEN resource allocation over the year.

  The Code, which will come into operation on 1 September 1998, forms part of the new provisions for special educational needs introduced by the 1996 Education Order. The Education and Library boards and all grant-aided schools are required by law to have regard to the Code.


  3.1 The Committee has asked for information on the present demand for special needs education and the expected future demand, and an indication of how future demand is estimated.

  3.2 Special educational provision (including school placement) for statemented pupils is determined by the Education and Library Boards. The numbers of statemented pupils by type of school in the 1996-97 year are provided in the following table, together with comparative statistics for 1990-91 and 1993-94 to illustrate trends:

Special schools3,800 (70 per cent)4,390 (61 per cent)4,680 (55 per cent)
Special units940 (17 per cent)1,400 (20 per cent)1,600 (19 per cent)
Mainstream740 (13 per cent)1,360 (19 per cent)2,170 (26 per cent)
Total5,480 (100 per cent)7,150 (100 per cent)8,450 (100 per cent)

  3.3 The growth in enrolments in special schools reflected in the above figures means that these schools are in most cases now operating at or close to their physical capacity. This coupled with the growing tendency for parents to express a preference for mainstream education for their children has resulted in a significantly greater proportion of statemented pupils attending ordinary schools.

  3.4 The main reasons for the growth in statementing have included:

    —  more children with profound and/or multiple mental and physical handicaps are surviving to school age and beyond, because of medical advances in post-natal care;

    —  the introduction of the statutory curriculum, and the associated right of all pupils to a broad and balanced education, have heightened the awareness among schools and in ELBs of the need to consider carefully how curricular and educational needs can best be met;

    —  schools are increasingly aware of the potential impact of SEN pupils, including those with behavioural difficulties, on other pupils in a school/class and are therefore more disposed to refer such pupils for formal assessment and possible statementing.

  3.5 Decisions as to whether a statement should be made, and on the most suitable school placement, are made by Boards on the basis of individual assessment of pupils' needs. In addition, the right for parents of statemented pupils to express a preference of school, introduced this year, has to be taken into account. It is consequently not possible to make reliable estimates of future demands for SEN provision. Whilst post-natal survival rates can be expected to go on improving with medical knowledge, this would impact primarily on the enrolments of special schools specialising in children with severe learning difficulties. Viewed more widely, however, there are a number of factors which are likely to influence SEN provision and which could potentially have the effect of lessening the recent upward trend in the numbers of statemented pupils. These include:

    —  Government's commitment to extend the range and quality of pre-school provision, which will increase the potential for earlier diagnosis of learning difficulties and the opportunity for early intervention, thereby removing or reducing the problems that might give rise to special needs (statemented or non-statemented) later in a child's schooling;

    —  the outworking of the SEN Code of Practice, which likewise places emphasis on early identification and effective intervention. The Code should also have the effect of increasing consistency of approach across NI as to whether pupils' needs are such as to require a statement;

    —  the Government's drive on literacy and numeracy, as part of the School Improvement Programme, which will ensure that pupils are given the help they need to master these basic skills from as early as possible in their school career.

  3.6 It is reasonable to envisage that, over time, the combined effect of these factors may be to reduce the incidence of more complex needs of the kind which require formal statements, as schools become better able to identify and remedy children's learning difficulties at a much earlier stage. For immediate planning purposes, however, the assumption is made that recent trends in the growth of the numbers of statemented pupils will continue.

  3.7 The effects of these factors would not diminish the importance of special schools, whose particular skills and expertise will continue to be required for the foreseeable future to secure educationally appropriate provision for those children with the most acute needs. Special schools also provide valuable outreach support to mainstream schools—where, on present trends, increasing numbers of SEN pupils are likely to be placed—for example, to assist with speech and language problems, dyslexia, or behavioural difficulties. Action is being taken to augment this outreach provision as part of the recently announced School Improvement Programme.


  4.1 The Committee has asked for information on the representations received from Education and Library Boards and others on the need for special education facilities, and the Government's response.

  4.2 Capital schemes for special schools are included with other major school building proposals in the Department's capital prioritisation arrangements. The key objectives of these arrangements are:

    —  to improve the strategic planning of the schools building programme;

    —  to identify on a Province-wide basis those schemes which should be accorded priority in planning terms and to ensure that they are advanced to an appropriate stage of planning;

    —  to ensure that the available capital resources are directed as far as possible to the highest priority schemes based on educational need.

  4.3 Under these arrangements, all identified major building schemes have been grouped into six categories of priority in a single, prioritised Schools Planning List, with the highest priority given to schools where it is agreed that additional accommodation must be provided to meet population requirements. The list includes primary, secondary, grammar and special schools and covers the controlled, maintained, voluntary grammar, Irish-medium and grant-maintained integrated sectors. It is reviewed on an annual basis, in conjunction with the Education and Library Boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and other school interests to ensure that it is kept up-to-date and properly reflects capital building needs across all school sectors.

  4.4 In view of the large number of the schemes in the planning list, it is necessary for the Department to differentiate between those projects in the higher priority categories on which planning should continue and other schemes which, realistically, have little prospect of being included in the capital building programme within the foreseeable future. Consequently, only those projects in the top three categories—a total of over 100 schemes—attract priority for planning purposes. Schemes for special schools normally qualify for inclusion in Category 3.

  4.5 There are currently 11 special school schemes in Category 3 of the Capital Planning Lists. The majority of these schemes involve the replacement of the existing accommodation: as such they will have only a marginal effect on the overall enrolment capacity in the special school sector. The schemes are at various stages of planning and have an estimated total cost of some £26 million. Details of the schemes are listed below:

Special School schemes on capital priorities list (Category 3)
Board AreaName of Special SchoolDescriptionCost £ million
BelfastFleming FultonNew residential accommodation0.70
WesternBelmont HouseNew school on existing site4.75
North-EasternHillcroftNew school on new site2.10
 LoughanExtension to existing building1.00
 RoddensvaleNew school on new site2.10
 SandelfordNew school on new site2.50
South-EasternBrookfieldNew school on new site2.61
 CliftonNew school on new site3.80
SouthernCearaNew school on new site1.90
 DonardNew school on new site1.70
 Rathfriland HillNew school on new site2.50

  4.6 All major special school projects which are sufficiently planned are considered for inclusion in the annual capital building programme. The inclusion of individual schemes in the programme is dependent on various factors—the availability of resources, the priority accorded by the relevant Education and Library Board and the cost of schemes competing for a place in the programme. Other factors being equal, and in the interests of a balanced capital programme, the Department has endeavoured in recent years to include at least one special school in each year's new starts programme.

  4.7 Recently, the Western Education and Library Board submitted a number of additional schemes for inclusion in Category 3 of the Capital Prioritisation arrangements. DENI will discuss these projects with the Board and arrange site visits to determine if the accommodation needs warrant their inclusion in the planning lists.

  4.8 The table below indicates the level of capital expenditure on special schools in each of the last five years and its relationship to overall capital expenditure.

Total Capital Expenditure (£ million)86.783.982.680.678.3
Expenditure on Schools (£ million)
Expenditure on Special Schools (£ million)
Special Schools Expenditure as percentage of Schools Expenditure96586
Special Schools Expenditure as percentage of Total Expenditure74464
Figures reflect spend on major works, minor works, professional fees, temporary accommodation, purchase of sites, furniture and equipment. The 1996-97 figures are taken from the unaudited analysis of capital expenditure.

  4.9 A prime focus of recent capital expenditure in this 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. These had not been built in accordance with the Department's school building standards. Since 1987, ten former special care schools have been replaced at a total cost of £26 million.

  4.10 In general, accommodation and equipment provision in the majority of special schools and special units are considered satisfactory or better, with the new schools exhibiting a wide range of appropriate provision. The new SLD (former special care) schools, for example, have good provision for practical subjects; all have well-equipped sensory rooms; and some have a hydrotherapy pool.

  4.11 There remain, nevertheless, significant accommodation needs, with 15 of the 47 special schools having a high incidence of small or temporary classrooms, which can inhibit the effective use of certain equipment. A further nine schools would be regarded as having poor accommodation; all of these are on the current priority list.


  5.1 The Committee has asked for information on what shortfall, if any, in provision for special needs education has been identified by Government.

  5.2 Both the special and mainstream school sectors have been experiencing growing pressures in recent years as the numbers of pupils with statements of special educational needs have increased. In 1990, some 1.6 per cent of pupils in Northern Ireland had statements; by 1997 this had increased to 2.5 per cent. Factors contributing to this growth are discussed in section 3 above.

  5.3 The numbers of pupils referred by schools to Education and Library Boards for SEN assessment have also been increasing. Boards have reported the following numbers of referrals over the last four years for which figures are available:


All pupils referred are first seen by an educational psychologist to determine the need for a formal multi-disciplinary assessment of needs. Backlogs of referrals have been addressed by resourcing new educational psychology posts and streamlining procedures, with the result that numbers of outstanding referrals have been reduced over the same period by 30 per cent.

  5.4 The implementation of the SEN Code of Practice will place further requirements on ELBs to undertake assessments and complete statements within an appropriate timescale. Additional funds are being made available for this.

  5.5 At school level, the increase in the number of pupils presenting with severe learning difficulties (SLD) has imposed demands on the 22 schools which are organised to meet the highly specialised needs of these children, all of which are operating at close to their full capacity. The provision made by these SLD schools is resource intensive in terms of staffing and equipment. There is a low average pupil:teacher ratio (PTR) (approximately 1:8). SLD provision also requires very concentrated specialised input from health authorities, for example in the form of therapy services.

  5.6 Many special schools and units for children with moderate learning difficulties (MLD) and those which specialise in particular disabilities, are also at or near full capacity. These schools also have lower PTRs than mainstream schools (approximately 1:12 on average) and many of them provide outreach teaching services to support SEN provision in local mainstream schools.

  5.7 Placement of statemented pupils at mainstream schools tends to be most appropriate for children with mild sensory, physical or intellectual problems, and will be underpinned by the provision of additional equipment, sensory aids and classroom support staff as specified in the statement. Given the finite enrolment capacity of special schools, the recent trend (see section 3 above) has been that statemented pupils with an increasing range of special needs are being placed in mainstream schools. This in turn has implications for the Board's peripatetic teaching services, and outreach provision from local special schools, which will require to be expanded to provide the more specialised support required for statemented children by the mainstream schools. This need has been recognised and is being addressed as part of the School Improvement Programme.

  5.8 SEN provision for non-statemented pupils in mainstream schools will be better focused under the forthcoming SEN Code of Practice which will introduce with effect from September 1998 new standards for identifying and assessing the special educational needs of pupils by schools and Boards. The Government has made £3.6 million available to support the necessary training and other preparation during the run-up to the introduction of the Code, which includes £0.6 million for a computer-based SEN record system for schools. It is recognised that further resources will be required in future years to consolidate and develop good practice.

  5.9 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 Government has recognised this issue and is moving to address it via a range of measures just announced in the context of the School Improvement Programme. These measures include:

    —  new Behaviour Support Teams in each ELB area to assist schools in drawing up discipline policies and in dealing with individual pupils;

    —  new "short stay" provision in which disruptive pupils could be placed for a short period during which they would receive intensive remedial support aimed at promoting acceptable patterns of behaviour.

Existing provision made by mainstream schools for children with emotional and behavioural problems is the subject of a current study by the Education and Training Inspectorate. The report, which will be available later this year, will identify good practice and provide a basis for further development.

  5.10 Another key dimension of the School Improvement Programme is the focus on literacy and numeracy. These are issues with a particular relevance for many children with special needs, whether statemented or non-statemented, especially in the areas of speech and language difficulties. The School Improvement Programme will require all schools to formulate clear policies for literacy and numeracy throughout the school. This will serve to heighten awareness of the need to deploy suitable teaching strategies to raise the level of attainment of pupils who experience particular difficulties in these areas.


  6.1 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, will have on the need for provision.

  6.2 The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 promotes a holistic view of the needs of the child and has had the effect of securing closer and more effective co-operation between Education and Library Boards and Health and Social Services authorities. 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 Tribunal has been established;

    —  parental rights to receive information have been enhanced;

    —  parents of statemented children have the statutory right to express a preference of school;

    —  statements are more detailed;

    —  annual reviews of statements are more rigorously structured;

    —  transition plans are prepared for statemented children over 14;

    —  Boards and schools must maintain SEN policies.

  From September 1998:

    —  a SEN Code of Practice will provide guidance on the organisation of SEN within mainstream schools, including a formal 5-stage process for identifying and assessing special educational needs;

    —  a statutory 18-week limit will apply to the statementing procedure.

  6.3 The new legislation and Code of Practice will require substantial adjustments in procedures and practice on the part of Boards and schools, and this will be particularly felt during 1998-99, when new procedures are being put in place and mechanisms to meet new statutory responsibilities are being introduced. Particular requirements include:

    —  greater responsiveness by schools and Boards to the special educational needs of children;

    —  greater opportunities for parental involvement;

    —  additional teacher time for SEN planning;

    —  training programmes for teachers and school governors;

    —  expansion of Board statementing and educational psychology services to meet the new statutory time limit for statementing;

    —  promoting better inter-agency liaison (e.g., the recent establishment of a joint ELB/HSSB review group to plan co-operative issues).

  6.4 Viewed as a whole, these new requirements will create or increase demand for the following provision:

    —  school-based support for pupils with special educational needs who are not statemented (i.e., those pupils whose needs require provision at stages 1-3 of the Code of Practice);

    —  training programmes for teachers in relation to:

  —  identification and assessment procedures;

  —  preparation of individual education plans;

  —  adoption of appropriate teaching strategies;

    —  outreach teaching services from special schools to support increased mainstream placements of statemented pupils;

    —  Board support services, in particular educational psychology, peripatetic teaching and statementing administration.

Resources to meet these needs are being provided as specific funding in 1998-99, earmarked for implementation of the Code of Practice and as part of the School Improvement Programme.

  6.5 The Department has commissioned research from the University of Newcastle to establish a baseline for future measurement of the effectiveness of the SEN Code of Practice. This report, together with possible new initiatives in England and Wales, will provide a basis for consideration of measures to further improve provision for pupils with SEN in Northern Ireland. It can be expected that such measures would include:

    —  further encouragement for the education of children with special educational needs within mainstream schools;

    —  increased emphasis on cost-effective prevention and early intervention;

    —  the achievement of greater consistency among Boards in determining whether statementing is required in given cases.


  7.1 The Committee has asked for information on the extent to which the cost of special needs education is shared between the Department of Education and any other Northern Ireland Departments.

  7.2 The Children (NI) Order 1995 recognised that the needs of children (including children with special educational needs) cannot be met by any single agency and contains a number of specific provisions which recognise the importance of collaboration between the health and social services boards, education and library boards, district councils, Northern Ireland Housing Executive, and other interests. The need for greater co-ordination at Departmental level is reflected in the Interdepartmental Group involving lead officials in the DHSS, DENI and NIO. At local level, arrangements are in place for the establishment of Area Children and Young People's Committees in each Health and Social Services Board area, involving representatives of the education services and other key agencies and bodies.

  7.3 There are already good examples of multi-disciplinary groups working at local level and, from March 1999, local Children's Services Plans will be published which will pave the way for greater collaboration between agencies in assessing need and afford greater opportunities for quality services to be developed and delivered in a cost-effective way.

  7.4 Specifically in relation to SEN, DHSS is the only other NI Department exercising significant support functions and these are outlined below. The support involves input from professional staff including paediatricians, school doctors, child psychiatrists and psychologists, speech and language therapists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and social workers. The main support functions provided by the Health and Social Services sector include:

    —  early, pre-school, identification and assessment of disability and notifying the relevant Education and Library Board where a child is suspected as having special educational needs;

    —  advice to Education and Library Boards in the assessment and annual review of each child's special educational needs;

    —  day-to-day specialist support for schools, in the form of therapy or nursing support to cater for the medical needs of pupils;

    —  determining whether statemented children (at age 14) are to be classified as disabled persons for the purposes of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Act 1989.

  Specific information on the costs of Health and Social Services support for special educational needs is not available, since most providers have wider responsibilities and resources for SEN purposes are not measured separately. The cost of direct therapist support in special schools is estimated to be in excess of £2 million but this is just one element of the wider programme of care for children.

10 March 1998

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