Reform call for Northern Ireland's 'broken' special education system

A young mother has spoken of the difficulty in getting a place in a special school for her autistic son.

Emma Morgan says she can't understand why getting a nursery place was such a breeze for her three-year-old son, but so difficult for her other little boy who has autism.

The Newcastle mum told UTV's View From Stormont she finally got a place but only after starting a protest, and contacting the media.

"This needs to change," she said, "it's not good enough that the parents that shout the loudest get the space because there's lots of people that aren't shouting."

View from Stormont explored Northern Ireland's struggling Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) system.

A special school principal who has worked in the sector for 30 years says that things are now "much worse" than she has ever been.

A university professor of disability and children's rights was interviewed with her hearing aid dog Robyn by her side, and says that children "only have one chance at a childhood", and a charity says its case-load regarding potential disability discrimination has gone through the roof.

Joanne Whyte is principal of Clarawood School and Outreach Services in Belfast and she firmly believes that every child "should be flourishing and shining".

She is the current spokesperson for the Senior Leadership Group of NI's 40 special schools, and said that despite the commitment from all her peers to do their best with the funding they have, at present, some schools don't even have hot water or heating.

The Education Authority's (EA) End to End Review of services had been welcomed by those in the sector, because they thought it would be "different" to what had gone before.

Funding for this was halved last term though, around the time severe cuts were being made to education as the Department was facing a funding gap of £382million.

Everyone interviewed said they understand the financial pressures experienced by the EA and the Department, but that doesn't make them any less frustrated by how children are losing out amid the budget problems.

Nuala Toman works for Disability Action.

She said this "broken" system needs fixed, but that with no Stormont, there can be no investment.

If there is no transformation, it is likely that the same problems will keep popping up year on year.

More children without places come September, more children in mainstream schools who may be better off in special.

It means that parents like Emma Morgan will likely have to keep raising their voices for their children, time and time again.

Her son, Tom, is five and has autism.

"I filled in all the forms, contacted everybody I should, made sure that everything happened on time, and still we couldn't get him a suitable space," said Emma, who co-founded SEN Reform NI at the end of last term.

"And it was only after starting a protest, helping other families contact the media, contacting media ourselves, that we actually got a space for Tom. 

"And it's our view that this needs to change, that it's not good enough that the parents that shout the loudest get the space because there's lots of people that aren't shouting.

"A modern society shouldn't be where children with disabilities face such discrimination and there are lots of children that are that are still waiting," she said.

Professor Bronagh Byrne is an expert in Disability and Children's Rights at Queen's University.

Children "only have one chance at a childhood", she said, stressing the importance of the End to End Review.

For Rachel Hogan from the Children's Law Centre, the case-load in-tray is only growing.

She told UTV that chronic underinvestment, years of austerity, the coronavirus pandemic and now the cost-of-living crisis have led to what she labelled a "human rights regression" as highlighted by "critical and damning reports" that have already been carried out relating to SEND provision.

When asked if money alone would solve this, she responded by suggesting that the Department of Finance could consider pooling resources for Health and Education relating to special educational needs and disabilities.

The Education Authority said no-one was available for interview.

In a statement, it said: "The Education Authority (EA) continues to face an unprecedented funding gap in 2023/24 of over £200million – in addition to a deteriorating school estate, with a backlog of works estimated to be in the region of £500million. 

"In response to the specific issues being faced by special schools, the Department of Education has recently provided a further £5million of maintenance funding specifically targeted at special schools in order to address pressing concerns.  This is in addition to the overall school maintenance budget of £20.5million for 2023/24.

"In the longer term, the needs of the special schools' estate will be identified though the Department's Capital Investment Strategy and End to End Review and will require significant investment.

"We remain very concerned that the quality of education and outcomes for children and young people will deteriorate even further without additional significant investment in education services and transformation, along with a sustainable funding model for the long term."

The Department for Education was also contacted for an interview with the permanent secretary, and for a written statement.

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