'Progress expected' on special needs places

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

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image sourcePA Media
image captionThe pressure for special needs places is most acute in schools in Belfast and Newry

The Education Minister has said it is "unacceptable" that 285 children with statements of Special Educational Needs have no school place.

Peter Weir's comments came after BBC News NI revealed those children did not have a place for September.

He was responding to a question from the Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle during Thursday's sitting of the Stormont Assembly.

Mr Lyttle said they are "some of the most vulnerable" in our community.

A statement sets out a description of a child's specific needs and the help that is required to meet them.

156 of the 285 statemented children without a place are seeking to be admitted to special schools.

The others are seeking a place in a mainstream school or a specialist learning unit attached to one.

But the Education Authority (EA) has said that there is particular pressure on special school places in areas including Belfast and Newry.

'Enormous level and burden of uncertainty'

Mr Lyttle, who also chairs Stormont's education committee, asked the minister what action he was taking to get the children a school place for September.

Mr Weir replied that departmental officials had met with the EA on Thursday.

"We expect to see progress on that," he said.

"For each individual family within that it creates an enormous level and burden of uncertainty.

"This is something which does need to be tackled as quickly as possible and as thoroughly as possible because it's unacceptable to any child that's left without a school place," he added.

image sourceJacob King/PA Wire

Mr Weir also said the number of children with statements, and without a place, was much greater than in previous years.

In March, an internal audit found multiple failings in the way the EA provided support for pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEN).

Mr Weir told MLAs that audit had shown "a level of dysfunctionality within the Education Authority in relation to Special Educational Needs".

"Those are the systemic issues which need to be tackled particularly in the short to medium term," he said.

Asked separately by the Sinn Féin MLA John O'Dowd if there would be summer schools for children with SEN, Mr Weir replied there would be "but not to the same extent as previous years".

'Hopeful' of full return to school in September

Mr Weir also told the assembly that he wanted all pupils to return to school full-time after the summer break if possible.

"My overriding aim remains a full return for every pupil to classroom learning full time," he said.

"The restart arrangements that I have outlined reflect the current position, but my hope remains that, if the wider public health situation continues to improve, further decisions will be able to be taken before the start of the new term to enable schools to resume classroom teaching for all students full time, subject to protections to mitigate risk and protect public health."

However, he said that if social distancing restrictions remained in place there would be "substantial" problems over school transport in particular.

Previous guidance issued by the department to schools said that many primary and post-primary pupils would only be in school part-time in September and would have to observe 1m social distancing.

The Education Secretary in Scotland said that schools there were aiming to reopen full-time with no physical distancing in August if coronavirus continued to be suppressed.

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