Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Further Memorandum from the Department of Education for Northern Ireland

Question 1 What monitoring of expenditure on special educational needs does the Department undertake? Is there any analysis of this expenditure across Boards? What range of information on special education does the Department collate from Boards and what analysis of that information is carried out?

  At general level, Board spending plans for all services, including special education, are made available to the Department through financial schemes requiring DENI approval and progress is routinely monitored at various stages in the financial year. Monitoring is informed by analysis of a range of statistical information on pupils with special educational needs which DENI collects directly from schools. This includes information on types of disability in respect of pupils at special schools and units, and numbers of statemented pupils placed at various types of school.

  The Special Needs sections of the Boards also complete two annual returns, one relating to activity on assessments and the other updating unit cost information about various types of provision in the special education sector. DENI Special Education Branch collates from these returns information on trends (e.g., mainstream placements of statemented pupils) and pressures (e.g., educational psychology services), both locally for each Board and centrally for DENI, and these data are used to inform decisions about resource allocation and policy developments (e.g., the introduction of time limiting of assessments).

  Returns are examined by DENI and justification is sought for any unexplained changes or possible discrepancies. In practice, meaningful cost comparisons between Boards—and indeed between individual schools, even in the same Board area—are particularly difficult to establish in this sector, mainly because of differences in accommodation standards and enrolment patterns. Comparison between special schools is particularly problematic since each specialises in catering for children with particular learning problems and there are no standard sizes. In particular, a number of these schools are small and the accommodation in many of the SLD schools (as inherited from DHSS in 1987) is particularly poor, necessitating high maintenance costs. Similar difficulties arise, though on a lesser scale, in dealing with per pupil costs at special units, and Boards have not applied standardised approaches to the apportionment of costs between special units and the mainstream schools to which these are attached.

  The procedures and forms relating to these exercises were established by a joint DENI/inter-Board working group in 1994. They were informed by practice in England, and have since been revised from time to time on an ad hoc basis. DENI will be reviewing the statistical requirements from Boards within its overall ELB Strategic and Management Review.

Question 2 The NI Forum Report refers to a Service Level Agreement which will set out the respective roles and responsibilities of DENI and DHSS and specify the standards of medical and therapy services which health authorities should supply to the Education and Library Boards. Is this agreement available? Will it address the issue of provision of such services for children who live within a different HSS Trust or Board from their Education and Library Board?

  The Service Level Agreement (SLA) referred to in the Forum Report focuses on the respective roles and responsibilities of the Education and Library Boards and the Health and Social Services authorities, rather than those of DENI and DHSS. A proposed model SLA on the provision of health services in school for children with special needs is still in draft form, and a copy has not yet been officially made available to the Department.

  Drafting is being taken forward by the Regional Review Group set up in 1997 (with ELB and HSS membership) at the joint initiative of DENI and DHSS. The model SLA will provide a context for further more detailed agreements at Board and Trust level, which would be able to encompass any particular local issues arising of the kind referred to in the final sentence of question 2.

Question 3 What arrangements does the Department have to monitor implementation of the Code of Practice and its effectiveness? What action will be taken where monitoring indicates problems?

  As with other aspects of the Schools Improvement Programme, progress with implementation of the Code of Practice in schools will be systematically monitored on the Department's behalf by the Education and Training Inspectorate as part of the on-going process of schools inspections. ETI further propose to target a sample of schools for focused SEN inspections and structured visits. The emphasis will be placed on establishing how successfully each school is catering for its SEN pupils rather than scrutinising in detail the application of the letter of the Code.

  Action to be taken to address any problems identified by monitoring will depend on their precise nature. Decisions will be further informed by reports from Education and Library Boards, who will be working closely with schools in implementing the guidance provided by the Code and providing training for teachers and school governors. Any such action might well be expected to include the following:

    —  the provision of further advice to schools, both specific and general;

    —  organising activities to disseminate good practice, e.g., seminars, conferences;

    —  establishing ad hoc working groups;

    —  revision of procedures, both statutory and non-statutory.

Question 4 In respect of the suggestions made in the "Dyson report", what steps have the Department taken to ensure that there is a shift in "the focus of their implementation effort from the detailed procedures of the Code towards its underlying principles"

  It is noted that the quote is taken from the (as yet unpublished) report[2] of a research study commissioned by DENI (after advertisement) from the SEN Research Centre at Newcastle University. This project was initiated by DENI in order to establish a baseline for future monitoring of the SEN Code of Practice in Northern Ireland. The research team appended some further observations to their report which, while not arising directly from their brief, were nevertheless seen by them as central to the successful implementation of the Code.

  The Code of Practice has since been published by the Department (on 1 June) and will be operative from September 1998. A letter was issued to each school to accompany the Code, together with a copy of the DfEE SEN Co-ordinator Guide. The letter identified the key principles of the Code as follows:

    —  most children's special educational needs being met within mainstream classes;

    —  children with special educational needs, in common with all others, having access to a broad and balanced curriculum;

    —  schools having in place appropriate assessment and diagnostic procedures to identify pupils' special educational needs at the earliest possible stage;

    —  the development of suitable school-based intervention strategies as part of a whole-school approach to meeting special educational needs;

    —  the effective involvement of parents in the development of appropriate special educational programmes.

  The letter acknowledged that for many schools, it would be a challenging task to address the practical arrangements for dealing with special educational needs in the light of the Code, and indicated the additional resources which were being made available. Amongst other information and guidance offered to schools, the letter included the particular assurance that, in monitoring the implementation of the Code, the Inspectorate will concentrate on how successfully the school is catering for children and young people with SEN in terms of the quality of the provision, and appropriateness of the outcomes for them, rather than scrutinising in detail the application of the letter of the Code.

Question 5 The Education (NI) Order 1996 does not include regulations setting time limits on a Board's response to a parental request for a statutory assessment and a Board's response to a parental request for a change of named school on a child's statement. Both of these have time limits placed on them in the English Code. Is there any particular reason for such omissions?

  The Northern Ireland legislation on time limits for assessments differs from that in England, reflecting in particular local consultation outcomes and previous DfEE experience. In particular, it was decided that the statutory regime on time limiting (by means of regulations which take effect from September 1998) should be simplified so as to apply only to the complete period taken by Education and Library Boards to issue draft statements (for which purpose 18 weeks will be the prescribed period). All other interim and additional time targets, including those indicated in question 5, have been retained in the Code of Practice.

  Subsequently, representations were made to the Department by one voluntary organisation that the targets specified in the Code of Practice for the two circumstances indicated should also be prescribed in regulations. In the course of its consideration of these representations, the Department received legal advice to the effect that, even if there were general consensus that such time limits should be prescribed, any such regulations would be ultra vires in terms of existing enabling powers.

  Such targets could only be included in regulations by first amending the primary legislation and we will monitor the position before taking decisions as to whether or not to make this legislation and if so, what form any amendment should take.

10 July 1998

2  This report has now been published as DENI Research Report No. 11, 1998. Back

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