SPECIAL schools are sacrificing vital health therapy spaces to cope with ever-increasing numbers of pupils.
Sports halls, physiotherapy suites, stores, occupational therapy (OT) rooms and even potting sheds are being used as makeshift classrooms.
Principals of special schools shared their concerns about accommodation with the assembly education committee yesterday.
Members were told that many buildings could not cope with rising pupil numbers.
There has been an 18 per cent increase in the proportion of pupils attending special schools since the establishment of the Education Authority (EA) in 2015.
More than 6,000 young people attend 40 special schools.
An Education and Training Inspectorate report that covered 2016-18 described accommodation in most special schools as "insufficient".
The committee was told that there were greater numbers of children presenting with more complex needs. This was having a direct impact on class sizes.
Sharon Tennant, principal of Sandleford Special School in Coleraine, said she was using physiotherapy rooms and a former OT store as classrooms.
"We need to have breakout rooms, we need to have chill rooms, we need to have sensory spaces," she said.
"OT now no longer has specific accommodation in our school. Our pupils need very specialist equipment which is very large. An ordinary store does not cut the mustard."
She added that her school had worked with the former north-eastern board to change some of its toilet accommodation into hygiene rooms.
Paula Jordan from Sperrinview Special School in Dungannon shared similar concerns.
The school has had two building projects but has "nowhere left to expand".
"We no longer have a PE hall. At the moment we have a class in our PE hall, so we can't provide statutory PE at this time of year - we can in the good weather when we are able to get outside," she said.
"We have a class in our staff room, which means staff are now having their tea in a corridor, outside a toilet. We have a class in a medical room. I've had two cloakrooms knocked into one.
"In the last five years, the profile has changed significantly. Children have much more complex medical needs and much more challenging behaviours. We also need outdoor space as they often need time-out to calm."
Committee chairman Chris Lyttle asked the principals and EA officials how was it that accommodation "so clearly fails to meet the needs of pupils".
He said it was clear that much of the accommodation was "unfit".
The EA's Kim Scott said: "Right across our schools estate, across our 1,100 schools we have severe accommodation issues".
The officials later told the committee there may be a need to open new special schools.