“I welcome the Ipsos review into Special Educational Needs which highlights that spend on SEN has mushroomed to around £500m per year, despite parents and professionals remaining frustrated by the service offered. I have had the privilege to visit a number of special schools and special units across Northern Ireland in recent months to see at first hand the challenges they face.
I support transformational change of the SEN system in Northern Ireland, and across education in general I have argued we are experiencing a funding crisis and that a sustainable funding model is essential.
The current system does not allow us to maximise outcomes from our investment. If we are investing half a billion pounds into this area- a very substantial chunk of Northern Ireland’s block grant- we need to do better. There is clearly scope for greater effectiveness and efficiency.
Unfortunately, provision has become process-driven rather than focussed on individual children. Close to 800 children with SEN do not yet have school places confirmed for September, and across Northern Ireland just under 1 in 5 of the school population- close to 70,000 pupils- has some form of SEN. We are not helped by diverging approaches across different parts of the UK with separate definitions, legislation and terminology.
The Ipsos report is blunt in its conclusions: “current systems and processes are ineffective and unsustainable. Early intervention is almost impossible”. The overall cost of SEN support in 2022-23 was £490m, almost double what it was in 2017-18.
The role of classroom assistant needs to be professionalised and made more attractive as a long-term option for staff. A more highly-skilled workforce, benefitting from continuing training, will be necessary for us to achieve the best outcomes. Earlier intervention is crucial, and fundamental reform will be required to establish a fit for purpose SEN service for our young people”.