Northern Ireland

SEN crisis ‘robbing children of their right to an education’, warns commissioner

Of the 40 recommendations, NICCY has found only 11 to have ‘clear progress evident’
A report was launched by NICCY on Monday

The Northern Ireland children’s commissioner has warned that failure to deliver on special needs provision is “robbing our children of their right to an education”.

A report from the NICCY reveals just one quarter of recommendations made to help transform provision for children with special educational needs in the north has had “clear progress” over the past four years.

A report launched on Monday found commitment from authorities to implementing recommendations NICCY made in 2020 to progress SEND provision has been “painstakingly slow”.

Four years on from its Too Little, Too Late review of SEND provision in mainstream schools, NICCY found just 11 of its 40 recommendations have “clear progress evident”.

There has been “fledgling progress” across 28 of the recommendations.

One recommendation for the provision of a comprehensive range of therapeutic interventions had “no evidence of progress” over the past four years.

This was to include nurture groups, sensory rooms and counselling in all primary settings, which should be made available to children in mainstream settings.

The NICCY had highlighted in 2020 the challenges faced by the SEND system, which struggled to meet the growing and diverse needs in mainstream schools.

It says the recent strain on the system has been worsened by educational funding crises, leading to cuts in both the SEND transformation budget and broader funding.

It said a reduction in the SEND Transformation Programme budget has “hindered the progress and scope of work essential for implementing our recommendations and transforming the SEND system effectively”.

Chris Quinn said taking on the role of commissioner in September “every conversation I have with parents, the same issues arise time and time again regarding lack of communication, and lack of specialist support available for their children”.

“Our monitoring report today highlights that these issues are not being addressed and progressed at an acceptable rate,” he said.

Chris Quinn, NI Commissioner for Children and Young People
Chris Quinn, NI Commissioner for Children and Young People

“The setback on the SEND Transformation Programme is hugely disappointing, especially as the urgency for systemic enhancements is higher than ever, with schools dealing with a rise in pupils with SEND and more complex needs.

“Despite recognising the limitations in resources and acknowledging the commitment of relevant authorities to transform and progress the implementation of our recommendations and wider transformation, their progress remains unacceptably slow.

“While we appreciate the groundwork laid for transformational change, such as reviews, data collection, research, stakeholder engagement, there is a need for robust front facing actions to translate into tangible improvements for children with SEND.

“I would urge the new Executive to work together to effectively address the urgent need for provision and ensure sustainable and long-term financial investment in this system.”

NICCY recognised work done, particularly in preparing to establish multi-disciplinary local integrated teams from September 2024.

“Moving forward, it is crucial to secure the necessary changes and allocation of resources to expedite the long overdue transformation of our SEND system and not be robbing our children of their right to an education,” added Mr Quinn.

A Department of Education spokesperson said: “The education minister has made the transformation of the existing special educational needs (SEN) system one of his key early priorities and reaffirmed that commitment to fellow MLAs in the Assembly chamber last week.

“The department welcomes the NICCY monitoring report and is committed to addressing the recommendations.

“The department, in collaboration with the Education Authority, is leading an End to End (E2E) review of SEN, to examine SEN policy from a holistic perspective and bring forward options to deliver transformational change. 

“The review is the strategic overarching piece that brings together work underway by the EA SEND Transformation Programme and from within the department.

“The department’s priority is that ‘every child and young person is happy, learning and succeeding’ and this is no different for children with SEN.

“The vision of the E2E Review is that children with SEN have their needs met with the right support, delivered by the right people, at the right time and in the right place.

“The department engages with NICCY on a regular basis and NICCY are members of the E2E review programme board and this positive engagement will continue as part of consultation around the E2E review.”