Northern Ireland news

Spending watchdog welcomes commitment to improve special education

An independent examination of special educational needs (SEN) services is to begin "as soon as possible"

THE assembly's spending watchdog has welcomed a commitment to radically improve education for children with additional needs.

An independent examination of special educational needs (SEN) services is to begin "as soon as possible".

There will be a second review of the effectiveness of the Education Authority (EA).

A Northern Ireland Audit Office report last year called for an urgent overhaul of the SEN system. Expenditure over the last five years has totalled more than £1.3 billion.

There are more than 67,000 SEN children in schools. This has risen by about 30,000 in a decade and a half.

In February, the assembly Public Accounts Committee (PAC) highlighted systemic problems.

It said there were elements of dysfunctionality within the EA and recommended an independent evaluation to assess the body's effectiveness.

The committee found there was a culture within the EA "that has allowed it to continually deliver a sub-standard service for far too long".

The department has agreed to accept seven different PAC recommendations.

The independent review of the EA will consider "the need for the EA and its various functions, its governance, and its efficiency and effectiveness, including the extent to which the organisation is delivering against its priorities".

It will last six months and be commissioned "as soon as possible once expenditure approval has been secured".

It has further agreed to a PAC call that there "should be an immediate independent, external review of the SEN service provision and processes".

This will include an evaluation of all types of SEN support provided by developing benchmarks and collating data to demonstrate the progress made by children.

It will also involve an assessment of the impact of adult assistance on children's outcomes, for both primary and post-primary pupils, to determine the best form of support.

The review will seek to understand why there is a higher proportion of children with SEN and specifically children with a statement in Northern Ireland compared to England.

"While carrying out our investigation we were troubled by the problems with SEN provision and the fact that the department and EA had failed to address these in the past," said PAC chairman William Humphrey.

"We also stressed the importance of ensuring every pound is well spent, in meeting the needs of children who need assistance, whether they have or do not have a statement of SEN.

"The department has now agreed to our recommendation to undertake an independent review of the EA and an external review of the effectiveness of SEN processes as soon as possible, once funding is in place.

"In addition, we also welcome the department's resolve to improve the EA's performance against the statutory timeframe for assessment and statementing.

"We are pleased to see that the department is taking our report and recommendations seriously - we know that in the past not all of our recommendations have been acted on."

The department has been asked to report back to the PAC in six months.

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