Northern Ireland

Education Authority to suspend plans to cut nursery hours in special schools

Classroom
Image caption The EA has been accused of failing to consult parents and principals fully about the planned cuts to pre-school provision

The Education Authority (EA) is to suspend a plan to cut the hours of children attending nurseries in eight special schools for at least a year.

The authority had proposed children receive 2.5 hours a day in all schools that offer pre-school provision rather than 4.5 hours from September 2016.

That plan had been criticised by former education minister John O'Dowd, who ordered the EA to review it.

The EA said it will engage with principals and parents.

In a letter to Education Minister Peter Weir, also given to MLAs on Stormont's education committee, the EA have now said they will not introduce new arrangements until September 2017.

However, the authority have clarified that eight out of 14 nurseries will continue to offer 4.5 hours a day in September 2016.

Six other special schools which currently offer full-time nursery hours will be reduced to 2.5 hours.

They are: Greenwood and Harberton schools in Belfast, Knockevin school in Dundrum, Parkview school in Lisburn, Ardnashee in Londonderry and Brookfield in Moira.

Image caption The letter from EA chair Sharon O'Connor is to update the minister on the "decision that the pattern of pre-school provision in special schools would be part-time for all children"

The BBC understands that these are interim arrangements to meet demand until the review, which will take six months, is completed.

The letter from EA chair Sharon O'Connor is to update the minister on the "decision that the pattern of pre-school provision in special schools would be part-time for all children".

"It is clear to me that the issues associated with the planning and provision of pre-school places in special schools are complex and sensitive," she writes.

They "will require very special engagement with principals and parents".

"The consequences of this are that the authority will not be implementing any new arrangements before September 2017."

Image caption Martina McComish from Knockavoe school gave evidence to the education committee on Wednesday

A number of special school principals had also contacted the EA to criticise the plan to cut hours from full to part-time.

Two principals, Colm Davis of Tor Bank school and Martina McComish of Knockavoe school, gave evidence to the education committee on Wednesday.

They appeared alongside a number of parents of children with special needs.

Ms McComish said special school nursery pupils had very complex needs.

"If they are tactile defensive, they've got sensory needs, they've got hearing impairment, they've got visual difficulties, they can't stand, they're only learning to walk, they're not toileted, all of that work has to be put in," she said.

Image caption The vice-chair of the education committee Chris Lyttle said that the EA's approach had been "shambolic"

"You cannot do that in two and a half hours."

The vice-chair of the education committee, Chris Lyttle, said that the EA's approach had been "shambolic".

"It would appear that there has actually been an attempt to obfuscate clear opposition from principals and parents," he said.

However, in her letter, Ms O'Connor also warned that the demand for places in special schools is set to increase by 20% this year.

Representatives from the EA are due to appear before the committee on 15 June.

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