Education Authority apology over special educational needs failings

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

  • Published
Schoolgirl in classroomImage source, Getty Images/HRAUN
Image caption,
Almost a quarter (23%) of NI schoolchildren have some form of special educational needs

A "shocking" report has found a number of failings in the way the Education Authority provides support for pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEN).

An internal audit found "unnecessary and undue delays" in the statutory assessment and statementing process.

It also raised concerns about the security of confidential information about children kept by the EA.

Sara Long, chief executive of Education Authority (EA), apologised to families for the "distress and worry" caused.

Speaking before members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLAs) on Stormont's Education Committee, Ms Long said that the authority was guilty of "significant shortcomings".

The chair of the committee, Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, said the EA's findings were "shocking" and demonstrated "systemic failure" of children with SEN.

"The findings of this report present - for whatever reason and that's what we have to establish - the development of a culture of delay, non-compliance and a lack of accountability," Mr Lyttle said.

A number of other MLAs on the committee also described the findings as shocking.

The committee's vice-chair, Sinn Féin MLA Karen Mullan, said the Education Authority had systematically failed some of the most vulnerable children.

SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan said: "What I've heard today is nothing short of chaotic, shocking, reckless, dysfunction, utter failure."

'Meltdown'

The internal audit was ordered by Ms Long following allegations by a whistleblower on BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan show.

The whistleblower had alleged a number of shortcomings in the way the EA dealt with applications for support with children with SEN.

A Belfast primary school principal had also said the EA was in "meltdown" after she encountered repeated problems trying to get support for some pupils.

Almost 80,000 pupils in Northern Ireland have some form of special educational need - almost a quarter (23%) of the school population.

Image caption,
EA chief executive Sara Long appeared before the Education Committee to answer questions

About 20,000 of those pupils have a "statement" which details extra help they are to be given in school.

If a pupil is believed to need extra support in school due to SEN, the EA carries out an assessment of their needs and then issues a statement of what additional help they are to receive.

The maximum length of time for that process is meant to be 26 weeks, although there can be valid reasons for it taking longer than that - for example, if the EA needs to get advice about the child from a number of agencies.

However, according to separate data released by the Department of Education, the average time the EA took to complete each statement in 2018-19 was 40 weeks.

A total of 280 children have been waiting over a year for their statement to be completed.

The EA revealed before the Stormont committee that one pupil had been waiting two years for support.

The EA's investigation into how it handled the assessment and statementing process took place between October 2019 and January 2020.

The resulting report found "unnecessary and undue delays in the operation of the process across all SEN teams".

It found that 85% of over 1,300 statements examined were not completed within the recommended 26 weeks.

'Inaccuracies'

The report's authors were also critical of a lack of "proactive and effective management" within the EA.

"There was found to be a lack of management focus or accountability on the importance of the 26-week statutory assessment timeframe," it continued.

The EA's Donna Allen told the committee that there were inconsistencies and inaccuracies in when the EA recorded the required starting date of the statementing process.

"There was evidence to suggest that the dates that the referral was received was not the date that was recorded on the system," she said.

The report also said that even after a child had a statement detailing what extra support they needed, the timeframe of delivering that support was not monitored which often resulted in delays.

It also highlighted concerns about how confidential information about children was kept by the EA.

"The security of the highly sensitive information about individual children contained within offices is not currently managed effectively," it stated.

It added that while individual EA staff were doing their best, there was a lack of "proactive and effective" management.

The report called for a "change of culture" within the EA and included a number of recommendations to that end.