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Education minister right to review special needs decision

Fiona McGarry

A plan by the Education Authority (EA) to reduce pre-school provision for children with moderate learning difficulties caused considerable concern yesterday and led to an intervention by the minister, John O'Dowd.

This move would have meant the number of hours a child spends at a special needs nursery being cut from 4.5 to 2.5 hours a day.

It was a considerable change which had been due to come into effect from September and would involve all 39 special schools in Northern Ireland.

There may well be entirely robust reasons why the EA has taken this decision, which was agreed in June last year. The authority said special school principals were advised of the change in October.

However, the issue has only now come to light and has caused understandable disquiet, especially among parents of children with learning difficulties.

Public sector union Nipsa also expressed dismay in terms of the impact on vulnerable children as well as staff who are worried about what it will mean for jobs.

General secretary Alison Millar added: ``I am angry that staff have heard this announcement over the airways and via the media. This is no way to treat staff who deserve more from the Education Authority and the education minister.''

This raises questions for the EA in relation to how it has reached this decision and the way in which it has been communicated to employees, parents and the wider public.

The authority defended the move saying it is `designed to increase the opportunity for children to access special school places, preferably nearer to their homes.'

It has to be recognised that while children have no legal right to a pre-school place, once provision has been made then any reduction will be regarded as a significant loss.

The education minister has now asked for the plan to be reviewed which is an appropriate step in the circumstances.

Parents need to be reassured that any change in provision is the right decision being taken for the right reasons.

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