Northern Ireland

Spending on special education spirals to more than £300 million a year

The auditor general has called for an urgent review of SEN spending
The auditor general has called for an urgent review of SEN spending

SPENDING on special education has spiralled by almost £80 million in four years.

Auditors have called for an urgent review and overhaul of special educational needs (SEN) policies to respond to soaring costs.

Expenditure over the last five years has totalled more than £1.3 billion.

The rising number of children with SEN is driving costs upwards.

There are now more than 67,000 children with reported SEN in schools. The total has risen by about 30,000 in a decade and a half.

A handful of mainstream schools now educate 200 or more children with SEN.

In 2019/20, the annual spend reached £312m, an increase from £233m in 2015/16.

A new report by the Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said a review would enable resources to be focused on the types of support which have the best outcomes for children.

It is more than 13 years since the Department of Education began a review at a cost of nearly £3.6m. This is still not complete.

Nearly one in five pupils in Northern Ireland has a reported SEN, with 5.5 per cent of the school population having a statement.

This is significantly higher than the 2 per cent anticipated by the department.

There has been a 36 per cent increase in children with a statement in the past nine years.

Mr Donnelly's report recommended that the department and the Education Authority (EA) consider the potential benefits of directing more investment towards effective early intervention measures which may, in turn, reduce the requirement for statements.

Today's publication is a follow-up to Mr Donnelly's 2017 Special Educational Needs report. That found that neither the department nor the EA could demonstrate value for money in the provision of support to children in mainstream schools, making 10 recommendations for improvement.

While some progress has since been made, none of the 10 previous recommendations have been fully addressed.

In some areas, performance was found to have deteriorated. Delays in assessing and providing for children have increased, with 85 per cent of new statements of SEN now issued outside of the statutory

26 week limit, compared with 79 per cent in 2015/16.

"Support for pupils with SEN is a vital and valued service and the educational achievements of children with SEN are improving, which, of course is to be welcomed," Mr Donnelly said.

"However, there remains evidence of an inconsistent and delayed approach to assessing pupils and getting them access to the help they need. It is also disappointing that despite growing expenditure, the

department and the Education Authority are still unable to clearly demonstrate value for money.

"As we move forward, it is clear that proper evaluation of these services is needed to ensure support is sustainable and produces the best outcomes for pupils."

The head of the EA previously apologised for "unacceptable" failings in the way the body supported pupils with special needs.

An internal audit found some children faced delays of two years before receiving a statement.