Education funding in Northern Ireland Contents

5Special Educational Needs and Disability

115.In this chapter we consider:

SEND in Northern Ireland

116.One of the greatest pressures on the education budget in recent years has been the rising level of spending on Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) provision. In its 2017 report on Special Educational Needs the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) reported that spending by the Education Authority on SEND had grown by 30 per cent between 2011–12 and 2015–16.242 The Department of Finance has estimated that demand for support creates £10 million of additional demand on the education budget each year.243 In its most recent annual report the EA reported a 4 per cent increase in SEND related budget pressures between 2016–17 and 2017–18. It said that it had overspent its SEND budget by £12.7 million, making this by far the largest part of the Authority’s £17.6 million overspend.244

117.The rising cost of SEND provision reflects the increasing prevalence of children presenting with SEND in the school system. The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People told us that there were 2,800 additional pupils with special needs—of whom 800 had special needs statements—in 2017–18 compared with the previous year.245 The Commissioner reported that altogether there are 79,000 pupils in Northern Ireland with some form of special needs, 23 per cent of the school population.246 The The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) told us that the number of children with SEND was rising more quickly in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the UK.247

118.Pupils with SEND can be educated either in mainstream schools or in one of Northern Ireland’s 39 special schools. Mainstream schools often have special units attached to them, where pupils with SEND are given specific support. Mainstream schools receive funding for their special units as part of the Common Funding Scheme, and also receive funding for costs associated with meeting the statemented needs of individual children.248 Special schools’ budgets are not calculated using the Common Funding Formula, but are paid by DE from the General Schools Budget and based on historical funding patterns.249 We examine special school funding later in this chapter.

119.In 2017–18, 30.5 per cent of statemented pupils and 7.5 per cent of all SEND pupils were enrolled in special schools—approximately 5,400 pupils in total. There has been a gradual but noticeable shift towards educating pupils with special needs in mainstream schools in recent years. In 2003–04, 39.6 per cent of SEND pupils were taught in special schools.250 The NASUWT expressed their concern that this trend could be a result of budget pressures:

Pupils may be inappropriately placed in mainstream, not because it is necessarily the best place but because the employing authorities, due to financial considerations, are having to put the responsibility for that provision on schools. Our concern is that when that provision is put in schools—and in most cases it can be delivered in schools—the support is not put there.251

120.DE’s current Code of Practice sets out a five stage approach for identifying children with SEND, assessing their needs and providing support to meet them. The first three stages happen within schools, while at stages 4 and 5 the Education Authority assesses the child’s needs and considers whether to issue a Statement of Special Educational Needs.252 A “statemented” child is entitled to additional resources to support their particular needs, beyond those that would normally be available in mainstream schools. These additional resources are provided by the EA. Up until that point, schools have to make use of their existing budgets to provide any additional support deemed necessary for a pupil.253

121.Although the overall level of spending on SEND has increased, we heard examples where support for children had been scaled back due to budget pressures within individual schools. Witnesses told us that when schools had to reduce their spend on staffing, classroom assistants were often the first roles to be made redundant, and there was a perception that SEND was a “soft target” for cutbacks.254 Gerry Murphy, Northern Secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), gave evidence that statemented children who previously received 25 hours of support from a classroom assistant were now receiving between 10 and 15 hours.255 The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools said that some schools no longer had the budget to appoint a Special Educational Needs Co-Ordinator (SENCO) from within their staffing complement, and that instead principals were carrying out these functions at the expense of other aspects of their work.256 We also heard widespread concern that large numbers of children were not receiving appropriate support. Participants at our engagement event told us there were restrictions in the number of children in a school who could access educational resource centres or referral units. One individual said that their school of 1,500 pupils was allowed only one place per year group.257 Another explained, “You could have seven in a class who all need support, but you’re told you can only refer the worst two, so children are left behind.”258

122.Witnesses also raised concerns that the Department and the Education Authority could not demonstrate that their spending on SEND offered value for money. The NIAO found in its report on SEND that neither DE nor the EA had a formal process for monitoring or evaluating the effectiveness of interventions. For example, the report noted that:

The provision of a classroom assistant (at an annual cost of £55 million) is often considered as a key form of support given to children with a statement of SEN yet their impact, or that of any other support provided, has not been evaluated at a strategic level.259

Evidence from the Division of Education & Child Psychology NI (DECP NI) noted that decisions about what kind of support a child should receive were not always evidence-based:

One of my schools spoke to me about a project whereby it ran over 3 years. The school reported that they were bought iPads, inflatables and other items from this project without a rationale as to why or consultation with the school for what they needed to meet pupil need. The school felt the focus of the project was to ‘spend the money’ rather than to help meet the need of the children.260

DECP NI warned that in some cases this lack of an evidence base could lead to children being allocated support that was ineffective or even counterproductive in meeting their needs.261 The NIAO also cited research from England which argues that one to one support from a classroom assistant may have a negative impact on SEND pupils’ progress.262

123.One of the most common issues raised around SEND was the difficulty teachers and parents experience in obtaining statements for children. We heard that the statementing process was lengthy, and that fewer statements were being issued. The statutory time limit for processing a request for a statement is 26 weeks from the date of receiving the request. However, the NIAO’s review of Special Educational Needs found that in 2015–16 only 21 per cent of statements issued met this target.263 The EA claimed that many delays were due to valid exceptions recognised under the code of practice—for example, delays in receiving relevant advice from a health trust—but did not hold detailed data on the reasons for delays.264 Geri Cameron from the NAHT stated:

There are a range of professionals who have to submit evidence and advice for that child, and the audit report suggested that there were significant delays in providing that advice so that the statement could be completed. In many cases, it is well beyond the statutory 26 weeks, which is unsatisfactory.265

The Department told us that the new regulations 2016 SEND Act would reduce the time limit within which statements had to be processed.266

124.We heard evidence that, because the statementing process is only the last of several steps towards obtaining SEND support, it could take more than a year to go from a child’s needs being identified to support being delivered. One participant in our engagement event explained that:

Referrals are taking much longer. In primaries you have children moving from P1 to P3 without any support, and it’s up to classroom teachers to pick things up.267

Geri Cameron told us this created challenges for schools, because until a statement is obtained the needs of children have to be met from within a school’s existing resources.268 This could mean that schools are asked to meet the needs of a child whose SEND should entitle them to support—but for whom a statement has not yet been obtained—without having the additional resources required to do so. We heard that this prevented the benefits of identifying a child’s needs early from being realised.269

125.The EA said it was trying to “build the capacity of the system to carry out assessments more quickly” but that as part of its reorganisation it had made staff reductions through its Voluntary Exit Scheme.270 They told us that essential staff such as educational psychologists had been retained, but acknowledged that “if you have reductions in your admin support, if you have managers go, there is bound to be a consequence”.271 The EA explained that one way they hoped to build capacity was by training staff in schools to carry out part or all of the assessment process.272

126.Witnesses felt that excessive bureaucracy and high qualifying thresholds for support were other obstacles to obtaining support for children. Trade unions wrote that:

An inordinate amount of principal and Special Educational Needs Co-Ordinator [SENCO] time is spent fighting to obtain any kind of support for children with additional educational needs. We are seeing fewer statements of Special Educational Needs in cases where schools and parents see a clear requirement for them, and we are seeing such statements committing less support than is necessary for the child.273

An attendee at our engagement event described “a large layer of bureaucracy when you try to access funding for children with long term issues,”274 while a school principal wrote “it does appear to schools that there is a trend to put as many hurdles in front of schools in order to delay the support needed for pupils.”275

127.Witnesses told us that the number of children requiring support with Special Educational Needs and Disability was increasing rapidly, and that this was one of the most significant pressures on the Education Authority’s budget and on individual schools. It is clear that the system does not currently have the resources it needs to meet demand for SEND support. We recommend that future budget allocations to the Department of Education reflect the increasing number of children with Special Educational Needs and Disability in the Northern Ireland school system, so that these children can be identified and assessed at the earliest age possible and appropriate support can be put in place.

Changes to SEND legislation

128.The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 was passed by the Assembly in March 2016. This Act brings substantial changes to previous legislation governing SEND. The Act: requires every child with special needs to have a personal learning plan; gives parents and children new rights to appeal EA decisions where the Authority does not change a statement to reflect a change in circumstances; and places a new duty on the EA and health and social services to co-operate when identifying, assessing and providing support to children with SEND.276 However, the Department explained that the more detailed regulations and Code of Practice that would be needed to implement this change could not be taken forward because there was no Assembly in place to approve them.277 The Department has consulted on the draft regulations in the interim, and the Permanent Secretary, Derek Baker, told us that DE would be “ready to go with a code of practice” this calendar year.278 The Children’s Services Co-operation Act 2015 also aims to improve young people’s well-being by improving collaboration between different departments and agencies and through the development of a Children and Young People’s Strategy.279 The Department consulted on a draft Strategy and is currently preparing the final Strategy.280 However, the Strategy cannot be given effect until it is laid before the Assembly.281

129.The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, Koulla Yiasouma stated that the new SEND legislation was a way forward, and that “we absolutely need to accelerate the implementation of the SEND Act.” However, she said that lack of funding would continue to be an issue.282 Participants in our engagement event expressed concern that the new legislation was likely to increase schools’ responsibilities but without allocating additional resources or training to help them meet those duties.283 As noted in Chapter 6, however, the Permanent Secretary told us that the Department would fund the cost of teaching cover to enable staff to attend training on the new arrangements.284 The NASUWT confirmed that this training was already being rolled out to SENCOs.285

130.An important feature of the 2016 Act is the duty it places on health and social services to co-operate with education in identifying, assessing and meeting children’s needs.286 The Northern Ireland Audit Office noted that some special needs statements are delayed because input from the health service was delayed.287 Principals emphasised the importance of early identification of and support for children’s special needs, and that health visitors were in a position to identify SEND before children reached school age.288 Graham Gault, the Principal of Maghaberry Primary School, explained that “right across the Province, schools are finding that children are presenting on their first day with very complex needs that have not been diagnosed or even identified.”289

131.Witnesses identified shortcomings in the way children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities are supported. Action was being taken to remedy this before the collapse of the Stormont institutions, and the Assembly passed legislation establishing a clear agenda for change. The Department has progressed this work as far as it can, but in the absence of an Assembly work has stalled. The Secretary of State should lay before Parliament consequential regulations and documents arising from the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 and the Children’s and Young People’s Co-operation Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 in order to give full effect to those Acts and so improve the support offered to children with SEND.

Special Schools

132.Special schools are funded differently to other schools in Northern Ireland. Their budgets are not determined by the Common Funding Formula; instead, the EA allocates funding to each school based on historic funding patterns, adjusting for changes in the school’s enrolment. Each pupil also receives resources to meet their particular needs, as set out in their individual statements. The Permanent Secretary explained this was because “the needs in those schools are very particular and very varied, and we do not think the common funding formula mechanism would take account of the bespoke needs of all the pupils in those schools.”290 He told us that the total amount of money provided to the 39 special schools in 2018–19 was around £110 million.291

133.The Controlled Schools Support Council (CSSC) wrote that the current arrangements for funding and management of special schools caused some difficulties. For example, they noted that staffing costs are not delegated to special schools, and that Boards of Governors in special schools had no decision making powers over staffing levels. The CSSC said it could be difficult to get the EA to agreement to increasing a school’s staffing complement.292 Geri Cameron, a principal in a special school, said that as with other centrally held elements of the education budget the budget for special schools was not transparent, and it was difficult to tell whether it provided good value for money.293

134.The Department told us that work was ongoing to develop a formula for consistent budgeting across special schools, and that consultations had taken place with special schools in November 2018.294

135.The funding arrangements for special schools are not transparent, and it is not possible to tell whether this money is being well spent. While we accept that these schools cannot be funded according to a simple formula, the more transparency the Department is able to provide the better. In responding to this report, the Department should set out which key factors it considers when determining special school budgets.


242 Northern Ireland Audit Office, Special Educational Needs, 27 June 2017, p 24

243 Department of Finance, Briefing on Northern Ireland Budgetary Outlook 2018–20, December 2017, p 65

244 Education Authority, Annual Report and Accounts for the Year Ended 31 March 2018, 8 April 2019, p 16

245 Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (EDU0057), p 41

246 Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (EDU0057), p 33

247 National Association of Head Teachers NI (EDU0038) ,p 10

248 Department of Education, Common Funding Scheme 2018–19, 14 November 2018, p 44

249 Department of Education, Common Funding Scheme 2018–19, 14 November 2018, p 6

250 Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (EDU0057), p 40

254 Education Funding in Northern Ireland Engagement Event, 28 January 2019, Holy Cross College, Strabane (EDU0064), p 7; Q211

256 Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (EDU0056), p 5

257 Education Funding in Northern Ireland Engagement Event, 28 January 2019, Holy Cross College, Strabane (EDU0064), p 6

258 Education Funding in Northern Ireland Engagement Event, 28 January 2019, Holy Cross College, Strabane (EDU0064), p 6

259 Northern Ireland Audit Office, Special Educational Needs, 27 June 2017, p 24

260 Division of Educational & Child Psychology NI Branch (EDU0063)

261 Division of Educational & Child Psychology NI Branch (EDU0063)

262 Northern Ireland Audit Office, Special Educational Needs, 27 June 2017, p 32

263 Northern Ireland Audit Office, Special Educational Needs, 27 June 2017, p 2

264 Northern Ireland Audit Office, Special Educational Needs, 27 June 2017, p 2

267 Education Funding in Northern Ireland Engagement Event, 28 January 2019, Holy Cross College, Strabane (EDU0064), p 8

269 Education Funding in Northern Ireland Engagement Event, 28 January 2019, Holy Cross College, Strabane (EDU0064), p 8

273 INTO/NEU/UTU (EDU0053) p 4

274 Education Funding in Northern Ireland Engagement Event, 28 January 2019, Holy Cross College, Strabane (EDU0064), p 8

275 Mr Ray Cromie (EDU0006), p 4

278 Department of Education, New SEN Framework, Accessed 14 May 2019; Q346

279 Children’s Services Co-operation Act (Northern Ireland) 2015; Department of Education, Children and Young People, Accessed 24 May 2019

280 Department of Education, Children and Young People, Accessed 24 May 2019

283 Education Funding in Northern Ireland Engagement Event, 28 January 2019, Holy Cross College, Strabane (EDU0064), p 7

287 Northern Ireland Audit Office, Special Educational Needs, 27 June 2017, p 2

288 Education Funding in Northern Ireland Engagement Event, 28 January 2019, Holy Cross College, Strabane (EDU0064), p 5

292 Controlled Schools Support Council (EDU0061), p 4




Published: 22 July 2019