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Special Educational Needs Review

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 19th May 2009.

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Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin 2:00 pm, 19th May 2009

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes in which to propose and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech.

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Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the Executive to agree to publishing, for consultation, the special educational needs and inclusion policy proposals tabled to it by the Minister of Education, thereby enabling the £25 million ring-fenced by the Minister of Education to be used to implement the changes that will benefit all children with special educational needs.

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Unfortunately, I have to apologise on behalf of Michelle O’Neill, the co-signatory of the motion. She is on other Assembly business, but she fully supports the motion.

It is with regret that a motion that calls for a consultation document to be published by the Executive has to be debated today. We are not seeking the publication of a definitive policy document, nor are we seeking the ratification of legislation. Rather, we want the special educational needs and inclusion review to be published by the Executive and put out to the people for a three-month consultation period.

At this stage in the history of the special educational needs review, we should be talking about how we can spend the £25 million that has been set aside in the Department of Education’s budget for special educational needs and inclusion. We are months, if not one year, behind in delivering on the review’s proposals for the specialist schools and the children and families who are involved in this matter.

Why are we behind? There is always a delay with bureaucracy. It is almost expected, if not accounted for, in the provision of any document. However, I understand from media reports that the document in question went before the Executive in July 2008 for commentary. It was then to return to the Executive for further ratifications, and that is when it hit a snag, according to those media reports. The snag appears to relate to the DUP’s definition of special educational needs. That is despite the fact that the review had input from dozens of professionals from the field of special educational needs and inclusion.

The review itself was not implemented by the current Minister of Education, but by the British direct rule Minister Maria Eagle. In setting it out, she said:

“It is essential that we have the correct framework to meet the needs of children with special needs. This review will ensure that we deliver the most appropriate services to these children in the best way and at the best time, so they gain the maximum benefit.

We need a more timely and less bureaucratic means of identification and assessment to ensure we have appropriate provision, raising educational attainment for our children and young people with special needs whilst at the same time, providing equality of access and provision”.

She said that such equality of access and provision should be applied across the North.

That is the crux of the issue, because a postcode lottery about what sort of specialist educational support a child may or may not receive exists across the five education and library board areas. No two systems are the same across the boards. The review was about ensuring that we had equality and an equality-proofed system that delivered to all children across the board areas.

The experts in the field published the report, which was believed at that stage to be non-contentious. It went before the Executive because of its cross-departmental nature. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety had its role to play in the review. It is my firm understanding that the Health Minister and his Department are satisfied — indeed, more than content — with the review as it stands. They are more than happy to allow it to go out for consultation. It is also my understanding that several Ministers across the Executive have also said that they are happy with the review, including some of the DUP Ministers. However, somewhere, somehow, the review hit a snag, because of what I have referred to as the fundamentalist wing of the DUP.

It is fundamentalist in a number of ways, because it is not up to me or any other politician to decide which children have special educational needs. The experts decided that definition in the review and set the criteria. Over the past while, I have read DUP statements claiming that my party and the Sinn Féin Education Minister set the criteria and defined special needs. Clearly, we did not; the experts who wrote the report set the criteria. The definition of special educational needs and inclusion is included in existing legislation that did not come through this House.

The DUP is now telling us that it will not accept the inclusion of children from the Travelling community in the definition of children with special educational needs. I believe that that is racist. I am yet to hear an explanation from the DUP of why it will not include children from the Travelling community in that definition. The DUP also tells us that it will not include the children of single mothers, although it will not provide an explanation. I believe that that is because of the fundamentalist religious views of its members. To the DUP, young single mothers are not equal to everyone else in society, so it will not observe them as equal. The DUP also tells us that it will not accept the inclusion of children from care homes. From somewhere, although not an educationalist document, the DUP has decided on a narrow and exclusive definition of special educational needs.

I am more than happy to argue with DUP Members all day. However, the disappointing aspect of the continuing wrangle is that the £25 million that the Executive set aside to pump into the system remains idle. Some recent statements by the DUP have led me to worry that people have their eyes on that money and are wondering how else it could be spent. In the current economic difficulties, £25 million sitting idle is helpful to no one. However, instead of the party opposite resolving to get the problem solved, allowing the review to go out to consultation and allowing the public, families and children to respond, it has dug its heels in and refused to allow the review to go on the Executive agenda.

In his capacity as DUP spokesperson for education, the Chairperson of the Education Committee told that Committee a fortnight ago that he could confirm that the DUP was not blocking the review of special educational needs from going on the Executive agenda. However, at the subsequent Executive meeting, the review was not on the agenda. Although assumptions are sometimes dangerous, I assume that Sinn Féin did not block the review from appearing on the agenda, and I have not heard any rumours that either the Ulster Unionist Party or the SDLP blocked it. It must have been blocked somewhere.

Today’s debate will not bring a conclusion to the ongoing dispute. However, it will I hope, provide clarity on why the Executive, several months after seeing the first copy of the policy document, have not published it for consultation. The words of a spokesperson for the Royal National Institute of Blind People sum up the situation:

“Only when the politicians allow us to see these proposals shall we be able to have a full and informed debate on the future of special educational needs provision in Northern Ireland.”

All we are asking is that the review document be published so that the consultation process and the political process can take place. Once that happens, we can bring discussion on the issue to an end. The £25 million that the system requires is long overdue. Educationalists and health experts must be allowed to define special educational needs and inclusion, instead of us politicians with our sometimes narrow focus, either political or religious. Allow the experts in the field to decide, and move on.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “Executive” and insert

“to publish, for consultation, proposals to improve and modernise services for children with special educational needs including the statementing process; notes that spending on special needs has increased by £53 million in two years and that the increase year on year in the number of young people confirmed with special needs will quickly absorb additional funding; supports the existing definition of special education needs; and affirms that the focus of Executive Ministers in these challenging economic times should be on assisting those children with the most severe learning difficulties rather than seeking to broaden the definition to incorporate social factors.”

There has been much haranguing across the Chamber in recent months about special educational needs, so I am glad that it can be debated. We have been waiting for far too long for it to be aired.

The provision of special educational needs has been discussed on a number of occasions, and many Members have been waiting for the outcome of the review. We know that the matter has been awaiting approval for some time, and I welcome the opportunity that the mover of the motion has given us to discuss it in the Chamber.

I do not support the motion, because I am not in favour of all the Minister’s policy proposals. It is outrageous for the Member opposite to suggest that the DUP is looking to channel the money from SEN into another area. This is clearly an issue about money that was promised to special educational needs. Unfortunately, we have a Minister of Education who is attempting to put her hand in the cookie jar of children who have special educational needs and to reallocate those funds to a wider group.

For Members’ information, when Maria Eagle announced the review in 2006, she said that it would focus on a number of themes:

“the arrangements for the identification and assessment of SEN; the nature, quality, extent of provision and support relating to assessed needs for children with SEN; SEN information and advice, disputes and appeals arrangements; early intervention/pre school SEN assessment and provision; capacity building for teachers, Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (SENCOs), adult assistance; the role of special schools in providing support and advice to mainstream schools; and the role and expertise within Curriculum Advisory and Support Service (CASS); inclusion of children and young people with SEN and/or disability in a mainstream setting including the impact of SENDO.”

Social factors are not mentioned. That does not surprise me, and it should not surprise other Members. I am sure that most of us agree that those who have special educational needs are in a special category and deserve specific attention. Members may also agree that it is wrong to categorise a child who has recently been bereaved with one who has severe and complex learning needs and, possibly, a physical disability. That is not comparing like with like.

The Minister is attempting to broaden the definition of special educational needs, which is to be renamed “additional needs”, and incorporate the following categories: children for whom English is not a first language; looked-after children; school-age mothers; young carers; Travellers; victims of bullying; and those who have suffered a bereavement. Although I recognise that children who fall under those headings encounter certain barriers to learning, it is wholly inappropriate to stack them in the same category as those who have severe learning difficulties.

The title of the review may contain the word “inclusion”, but that clearly refers to the inclusion of those who have special educational needs and/or a disability. Section 5 of the ‘Supplement to the Code of Practice on the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational Needs’ states:

“This Section of the Supplement primarily focuses on the inclusion of children with SEN and not inclusion in its wider definition. Inclusion is a process by which schools, Boards and others develop their cultures, policies and practices to include pupils.”

However, the Minister seems to believe that “inclusion” means that she can siphon off money to other areas. The DUP feels that the issue of special educational needs is so important that we cannot let that happen.

All the groups for which Sinn Féin is holding out already receive dedicated sums annually. Indeed, many are protected in legislation. According to the Department of Education, in 2008-09, £6·5 million was allocated to support newcomer pupils, a category into which those whose first language is not English would fall. I also understand that £1·1 million was allocated to support Traveller children and £569,000 was allocated to fund Barnardo’s regional programme of support for school-age mothers. Looked-after children had £345,000 allocated, and £1·99 million was allocated for professional counselling support for young people in post-primary schools. The DUP supports the sums that are being allocated to those groups. However, the point is that money has already been allocated to them.

We are concerned about the money that has been ring-fenced for the purposes for which it was intended. The number of young people determined as having special needs is increasing rapidly year on year. In two years, the amount of spend on special needs has grown by £53 million, and that trend will continue in the years ahead. Any extra resources for special needs will be gobbled up almost immediately.

More than 13,000 children have statements of special educational needs, a figure that represents 4·1% of our young people. Departmental figures indicate that 60,000 — 18·6% — of our children have special educational needs. However, dealing with the problems of children who are faced with those difficulties is beset by bureaucracy and delays, and there is a clear need for a structured and planned use of resources. The review was intended to address that, but it is deeply regrettable that matters have stalled as a result of the Minister’s inclusion of additional categories.

The DUP firmly believes that resources should be prioritised to benefit children with the most severe special needs. We urge the Minister to introduce proposals without further delay to improve and modernise services for children with special needs. The barriers that many children face are difficult enough without having the Minister play with definitions. It is quite simple: the Minister has ring-fenced money for a particular purpose, and it should be spent on that purpose. Muddying the waters by introducing social factors is of no assistance. Therefore, I call on the Minister to submit to the Executive, with a view to publishing for consultation, proposals to improve and modernise services for children with special educational needs, including the statementing process. In that way, children with special educational needs will start to experience the benefit of the devolved institutions.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:15 pm, 19th May 2009

Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá áthas orm páirt a ghlacadh sa díospóireacht thábhachtach seo inniu.

I am pleased to participate in this important debate. The SDLP firmly believes that all children have a right to fair and equal access to the curriculum and to learning, and children with special educational needs, in particular, have a right to the support and back-up that they need to fulfil their potential through education. To the greatest possible extent, children with special educational needs should be educated in an inclusive manner in the mainstream system, which, with appropriate support and intervention, should fully meet their needs.

A sizeable amount of the education budget — £171 million — is being expended on special educational needs, and that represents around 10% of the overall education spend. That is a considerable amount by any measure, and we must all ensure that the people who matter — the children — gain the fullest possible benefit from that resource. When we hear of inconsistencies and delays in assessments and, in some instances, long waiting lists, we must ask whether the allocated resources are being utilised to the maximum benefit. If they are not, we need to take action to change that. What we need coming out of the review is a framework that delivers the maximum benefits for children, meets their needs without undue delay, and intervenes early and effectively in a manner that leads to improvement and enhancement of their educational experience, resulting in their fulfilling their maximum potential.

There can be no one-size-fits-all solution to special educational needs. There can be a general overarching framework, yes, but children’s needs must always remain at the core. That has not always been the case under the current system. For instance, in the wider spectrum of special educational needs, our system tends to overlook children with sensory impairment, particularly children who are blind or deaf.

The inspectorate has already commented on the need for a framework to assess the progress of deaf children. Access to the curriculum has also been an issue for blind and deaf children. The review must address those issues and, likewise, the lack of support and back-up available to children with special educational needs in the voluntary and community preschool sector. Those children must be afforded the same rights as their counterparts in statutory settings.

The same could be said about children with special educational needs in the Irish-medium sector. To date, those children have been poorly served by a system that has been slow to respond to their distinctive needs.

A newcomer policy was recently published, but it contains little mention of how the system will respond to newcomer children with special educational needs: for example, children who have speech and language difficulties, need psychological assessment or have any other special need. We must know how the system will meet their needs.

At present, gaps exist in the system, and the publication of a consultation document on the review would give everyone the opportunity to highlight the deficiencies. It would also provide the Department with the feedback it requires to address them. As was mentioned, the special educational needs of Traveller children and looked-after children must also be addressed.

My list of examples is not exhaustive, but it is clear from those that I cited that many children face barriers to learning in the current system. To date, the system has not been flexible enough to respond in such a way as to remove those barriers. The SDLP expects the outcome of the review to result in a system that is sufficiently flexible to respond to the needs of all children.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

Will the Member please bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

We expect children with special educational needs not only to progress through the system but to advance educationally and maximise their potential.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

The Member’s time is up.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Their progress should be monitored in such a way as to ensure that their needs are met at all stages.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

The Member must resume his seat.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

My understanding is that the draft policy proposals were presented to the Committee for Education on 23 May 2008, which is a year ago. I am deeply disappointed that we have not been able to make progress more quickly. My principal concern and that of my party is for the children who need help and support. A way must be found to end the impasse.

From listening to the proposers of the motion and the amendment, I understand that the particular problem appears to be the broadening of the definition of special needs. However, I read the draft policy proposals over a year ago, and there will be more fundamental issues to address than that. I am interested in hearing what the schools have to say about those draft proposals, because they fundamentally change the relationships involved.

The draft proposals place a great onus on schools and teachers to take responsibility for deciding what intervention is required and providing the necessary resources. That will concern some schools. I am concerned about the practicalities of that. Perhaps the Minister will address the issue of whether, even if we reach agreement quickly on moving forward, we can meet the time frame that we have set for ourselves. There is much work to be done and a great deal of training to be organised, and considerable reassurance is required.

The motion refers to £25 million. Considerable sums of money have already been allocated, but they come to schools via the education and library boards. If and when the ESA is established, the money or moneys would, it is suggested, be transferred directly to the schools. I am concerned that the £25 million over which we are fighting will be lost in red tape and bureaucracy and that it will not reach its intended recipients.

With all those factors in mind, I urge the two protagonists in this dispute — Sinn Féin and the DUP — to find a way to resolve the issue to their mutual satisfaction so that the Assembly and the Executive can move forward together and look after the —

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

The Member called for what he called the “protagonists” to move forward. Would sending out what is a consultation document to the sector and to the public requesting feedback on its content not be a better way to referee this dispute? It must be remembered that experts in the field, not Minister Ruane, drew up that document.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

The Member will be allowed an extra minute in which to speak.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I note, as the Member said, that different stakeholders drew up the paper. I agree that the sooner that we get it out to consultation, the better. However, I recognise that some, not insurmountable, points of principle are involved that people could discuss. It must be possible to do something to attain some sort of a workable solution for the relatively small number of groups that has been hoyed out. The most important thing is that we must manage by agreement — by consensus. I am trying to provide a well-measured approach and to say that the Minister would have our collective support for a solution that looks after those who are in most educational need.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I will, if the Member promises to be quick.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that this issue and others are caught up in a game of ping-pong at the Executive between Sinn Féin and the DUP and that the real losers in that game are children with special needs?

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I was trying not to use that language, but that is my sentiment. There are real losers out there, red tape is in the way, and our schoolteachers face a problem getting adequate support for pupils that they have to support already anyway. Therefore, I agree that we must find a way forward.

In relation to how Ulster Unionist Members will vote, we are here with an open mind, willing to be convinced by the argument. We urge the Minister and those who tabled the motion and the amendment to find a solution that sends a clear signal to Northern Ireland that the most important people are children with special needs. We must find a way to look after them.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

I concur with Basil McCrea. We in the Alliance Party are disappointed that the review is stuck in the Executive like so many other major policies that have been held up because the two main parties cannot reach a collective decision for the good of the whole community.

It is shameful that there is a budget to implement the recommendations, yet, months after their scheduled publication, we are still arguing about them. We must bear in mind that the delay in publishing the review is unhelpful to our children’s development and detrimental to their progress. Like other Members, I urge the two major parties to agree on the publication of the consultation document so that we and the public can debate the matter and make a decision on it.

After speaking to representatives of some integrated schools and to educational psychologists, I know that it is generally accepted that the SENDO is very positive. The order has strengthened the rights of children with special educational needs to be educated in mainstream schools, thereby giving parents much more choice in selecting schools for their children.

I think that 67·6% of all statemented pupils are now in ordinary schools, which is what the majority of parents want. However, people are frustrated about various aspects of the current arrangements. They will certainly very much welcome the review.

There are plenty of inconsistencies between boards, and there are no standard procedures for referrals or assessments. The criteria for any special-needs provision vary from board to board. Not every board has a SENDO co-ordinator. Parents are very confused about the different criteria that are given to them.

Last year, I examined two applications from children with special educational needs. The applications were transferred from board to board, and one was lost and the other was mislaid. As a result, the two children lost their places in two schools in Belfast. Lagan College was very concerned about referrals coming from different boards in bits and pieces. That is very difficult for schools. Children with special needs are classified as supernumerary, so they are in addition to the set enrolment numbers for schools. Teachers and schools have to consider class sizes and health and safety issues when they take in extra pupils.

There are also delays in assessments and provision. It takes a long time for children to reach stage 3 and get assessed by educational psychologists, of whom there are clearly not enough because the waiting list is very long. In April 2008, over 2,000 children were on the waiting list. I believe that children now have to wait for a year or more before they are assessed. Accessing the provisions is also a very lengthy process. Very often, schools and parents themselves have to fight for those resources.

The year-on-year increase in the number of statements means that a growing number of children with special needs are in mainstream schools. The schools are expected to do so much, but they do not receive the training, the support or the resources that they need to help the children. It is important that children get the appropriate support as early as possible so that the problem is addressed. That way, they will not fall further behind and will achieve their full potential. Time and resources for schools to do preventative work is also very important. If schools do not receive enough training in special educational needs, teachers find it very difficult to support the children.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin 2:30 pm, 19th May 2009

The Member should draw her remarks to a close.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

Currently, the strategy is very reactive. I would like to see a more strategic use of limited resources.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

It is with a great degree of sadness that we have had to come to this House today to discuss and debate this issue. I support the amendment. It is shameful that politics is clearly being played with an issue such as special educational needs.

Some months ago, I had the privilege of visiting Ceara Special School in Lurgan, which had recently been attacked by vandals. Anyone who has visited that type of school will know that we must ensure that we deliver for those children. We can all come to this House, and, one by one, we can all stand, wring our hands and say that it is all for the children. However, the buck stops with us in relation to the delivery of what will be put in place for those children.

When Mr O’Dowd, the proposer of the motion, rose to speak, he was somewhat perplexed about how we had come to be in this position.

I cannot understand why he should be concerned or perplexed because he knows the reason; there is a degree of disingenuousness on the part of Sinn Féin. Many of us are heavily criticised for coming into these institutions and for sitting in a Chamber with Sinn Féin, given its past. However, we made a political judgement that it was for the best of the people of Northern Ireland.

As I said in a debate earlier today, the public are saying, “a plague on all your houses.” That is because of the expenses issue and the way in which democracy is being put through the mill at the moment. Far more important, people wish a plague on all our houses when we cannot agree to release a document for consultation — not about our expenses or how we cut the grass or some trivial issue — but about the most vulnerable children in our society.

Let us have some honesty. The DUP has not hidden its unhappiness that the consultation document includes children whose first language is not English, looked-after children, school-age mothers, young carers, Travellers, victims of bullying and those who have suffered bereavement. It is not our agenda to have a go at the Travelling community. For the Member opposite to link our position to our fundamentalist views — I assume that he was referring to me and to others — is absolute, pathetic nonsense. He has done himself a disservice by claiming that we are somehow racist and that because of my fundamentalist views I will block the release of a document for consultation.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

No; I will not give way.

I am sick, sore and tired of the party opposite telling us that it is all about listening, coming together and having consensus; however, when we raise genuine concerns and say that we would prefer that the document did not include those elements, we find that that party is less interested in listening. Those issues have already been dealt with; therefore, it is not that we have not given money to Travellers, as my colleague said, or that we are ignoring school-age mothers or those who have suffered bereavement. The Minister tells us that there will be a review of the common funding formula at some stage — probably ad infinitum — and we will look at how those issues can be addressed.

The challenge that I make to the Minister today — in fact, it is more than a challenge, it is a plea — is to get the document to the Executive, put it out for consultation, and then we will move forward on the issue. Stop playing politics, and, for the first time, Minister, please tell people the real reason why you want the document held: you want to make a scene about the issue so that you can be seen to have concern for children.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the debate and, as with previous debates today, I commend the Business Committee for selecting the motion. Unlike some Members, I welcome the Minister. We criticise Ministers when we need to, but the Ulster Unionists are keen to highlight the number of motions that their Health Minister has attended, and it is important that we recognise that the Education Minister has been in the Chamber for two motions today.

It is interesting that today’s motions have all related to children and young people. Whether Members agree with them or not, it is useful that, probably for the first time in a long time, the issues that affect children and young people are starting to take centre stage in government and on the Assembly’s agenda. Whatever the outcome of the debate, that needs to be recognised. I thank my colleagues John O’Dowd and Michelle O’Neill for bringing to the Floor of the House the motion calling on the Executive to agree to publish for consultation the special educational needs and inclusion policy proposals.

Unfortunately, Mervyn Storey is not in the Chamber, but I agree with him: it is shameful that people are playing politics with the issue. If he were in the Chamber, I would ask him why he will not support the policy proposals being published for consultation, as that will get us away from the accusation that people are playing politics. Perhaps the DUP Member who makes the winding-up speech on the amendment will answer that question. We need to know whether Mr Storey is saying that children in care, children who have suffered and those from the Travelling, Chinese and other communities do not, or will not, have special needs. Earlier today, we debated the juvenile justice system, and Members must take on board the fact that there is an issue there about children with special educational needs.

The purpose of agreeing to publish the proposals for consultation is to enable everybody to have their say, be they political representatives, individuals, people from our communities, people from the education sector or the community and voluntary sector, or individuals who are directly or indirectly involved with children with special needs. Let the experts, for want of a better word, have their say. Members are not experts; we listen to experts from different sectors who come to us to tell us how things really are.

I agree with Basil McCrea that people with special educational needs are not going away. However, in response to what he said later in his contribution, the longer that the delay continues, the longer those children continue to suffer, and that is not right.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I want to confirm and reiterate that point that I made. Regardless of what we do, there will be children with special educational needs. People are trying to manage the situation, and the sooner that we can find some way forward, the better it will be for all those children.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

The Member has an extra minute in which to speak.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

I completely agree with what the Member said. However, the longer that the delay continues, the more children will be affected.

I do not want to get caught up in the politicking of the issue. People who know me know that I do not get caught up in that; I take a common-sense approach to things. If we block the consultation, we will create a rod for our own backs. Let us publish the proposals for consultation; let the experts have their say. From that, we will move forward.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

There seems to be some confusion around the issue. Were children who do not have English as a first language, looked-after children and school-age mothers included in the original document? Or is it the case that they have they been included by educational advisers or the Minister’s adviser, who has a political hat? Will the Member clarify that for us? We do not want to be unjustly casting aspersions on a sector.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

I have no difficulty giving way to a Member if his or her contribution adds to the debate. I will not answer Mr Storey’s question; it is the Minister’s job to answer it. Perhaps one of his colleagues may have informed him of this, but the Member was not in the Chamber when I asked whether he believed that particular groups of people do not have special educational needs. I believe that the groups of people that he mentioned do have special educational needs, and that is an issue that we need to examine.

A number of Members have quoted different sources. In a press release this morning, the Commissioner for Children and Young People said that the review of special educational needs and inclusion is an essential development in providing appropriate support to children and young people who require help in their education.

She also said:

“I hope that today’s Assembly debate will serve to remind all involved that while the discussions and arguments are batted back and forth children and young people are waiting for the support that this policy is designed to provide”.

I am conscious of time, Mr Speaker. Other Members quoted direct rule Minister Maria Eagle. I will finish by quoting our local Minister. In a press release on 27 March 2009, she said:

“We need to provide education to children with special needs that is individual to them and will help them get the best from their school years … It is important that children with special educational needs or disabilities can be educated together with other children and they all have the access to the same range of educational opportunities.”

Members should note that she said “educated together”, because we are talking about inclusion.

I do not see any difficulty with the motion. I support the motion and commend my colleagues for tabling it.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I thank the Members who tabled the motion. It deals with an issue that is vital for many vulnerable children and their families.

However, the Sinn Féin motion and DUP amendment are clear indications of the failure of the Executive lead that those two parties provide and their failure to work in partnership on an issue that will have a significant impact on the lives of some of the most vulnerable children and their families. This debate is a public display of the DUP and Sinn Féin’s inability to work together to overcome problems that will affect thousands of vulnerable children.

As an Assembly Member, I am debating an Executive paper that I have not read — none of us is supposed to have read it. No doubt the public are suggesting, rightly, that we are entering the realms of farce. Are the Executive now porous? Are they an extension of the entire DUP and Sinn Féin parties?

A measure of any society is how well it supports, encourages and facilitates children and people with special needs, and how it enables them to fulfil their potential and live satisfied lives. Although we accept that issues still need to be resolved on the way forward for special educational needs and, indeed, the definition of who should be considered to have those needs, I understand that Ulster Unionist Party representatives were prepared to allow a redrafted paper to be issued for consultation in the interest of moving the process forward to ensure that young people with special educational needs would receive the education and care support that they require and deserve. That would have enabled the public to respond to the ideas in the consultation paper and, hopefully, their views to be taken on board.

We need to improve special educational needs provision in Northern Ireland. That means providing a more strategic vision across the education spectrum that is fully integrated with health and social care services. It is my understanding that the Minister of Education’s paper is steering us in the direction of a more integrated strategy that would enable children with special educational needs to be further integrated into mainstream education among their peers.

I support that approach in general. However, I seek assurance that adequate long-term resources and training will be provided and that time will be made available to mainstream teachers and other staff to enable them to carry out their duties. It is not a matter of allocating one-off funding; there must be long-term support in that area. That planning has to happen, and I am interested in hearing the Minister’s response to that point.

Furthermore, I would be interested to hear how the new proposals would integrate with the existing free school meals provision, which provide some support and a potential area for interaction with the proposed services.

The need for greater strategic vision has been highlighted by the case of the Middletown Centre for Autism, which has taken a new and controversial twist this week. That centre represents what can happen if flawed policy is implemented, if politics is placed above the needs of the children and if money is spent without the commitment of all the experts in the field.

That white elephant of a project has cost £6 million, which could have been used to help young people with autism and their families directly and much more productively. With that in mind, I respect what appear to be genuine concerns from DUP Members. However, I reiterate that this is not the correct platform for the debate. The issue must be resolved at the Executive. This debate is a disgraceful reflection of the way in which the two main parties in the Executive do business. More pertinently, it reflects the two main parties’ inability to do any meaningful business and produce any legislation other than that agreed in some sort of carve-up and subsequently pushed through the Assembly with accelerated passage.

I am sure that numerous parents of children with special needs are listening intently to this debate, wondering what the outcome will be. The DUP and Sinn Féin are letting young people and their families down, and Ministers should take that into consideration when the Executive next meet.

This issue will not be resolved here —

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin 2:45 pm, 19th May 2009

The Member must bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

We need the Executive to take a decision, not a public spat between the Executive parties.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

It is always good to follow Mr Beggs, because his incoherent drivel makes the next Member to speak sound particularly good.

On the one hand, Mr Beggs tells us that the DUP is engaged in a cosy carve up and a sweet relationship with Sinn Féin; on the other hand, he says that we cannot get on with each other and that nothing is being done. He cannot have it both ways. Neither is true. We are engaged in a Government with four parties: sometimes we can come to arrangements and find agreement on moving things forward; at other times things take longer and involve hard bargaining before a consensus is achieved. That is how Government in Northern Ireland was set up. The Member’s party had much to do with the establishment of that Government in the first instance, so he need not criticise the DUP, as it made significant improvements to the Belfast Agreement through the St Andrews Agreement.

It is important to deal with the issue of special educational needs. The Minister has put forward proposals, but I am worried about the motion, which states that we should allow:

“the Executive to agree to publishing, for consultation, the Special Educational Needs and Inclusion policy proposals tabled to it by the Minister of Education, thereby enabling the £25 million ring-fenced by the Minister of Education to be used to implement the changes that will benefit all children with special educational needs.”

Is this another case of the Minister of Education threatening everybody else? She is saying that she is sitting on £25 million, which is ring-fenced, but that no one with special educational needs will be able to utilise it unless she can publish her paper for the public to see. Many children with special educational needs could use that money now, and the Minister has no reason not to utilise it. She may be able to clarify the matter and tell us that the money is being utilised and will continue to be utilised. The Sinn Féin motion has been drafted in such a way that it would appear that there is an implicit threat that the money for those with special educational needs will not be forthcoming until the Minister gets her way.

I have serious concerns about diluting the definition of special educational needs. I could have a little sympathy for the Minister — believe it or not — in that she inherited the problem. Children with special educational needs were not treated fairly or appropriately before she took office. We saw that when the South Eastern Education and Library Board was stood down because it was given insufficient funding to meet the circumstances of children with special educational needs and commissioners were brought in to cut services. Unfortunately, the Minister, who has been in office for two years, has kept the commissioners and has not brought the board back, which would have had a degree of public accountability. She has endorsed what was done by the direct rule Minister, who brought in commissioners to make cuts for children with special educational needs.

We do not have adequate funding for children with special educational needs. Additional funding has been given to the Minister to deal with the issue, and now the Minister wants to broaden the scope.

Ms Ramsey seems to think that children from certain categories will automatically have special educational needs. That was a very disparaging comment for Ms Ramsey to make about groups that have been identified —

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

The Member has misquoted me. In replying to Mr Storey, I asked him whether he was saying that people who are in care — those who were referred to earlier and who might have special educational needs — are not in need. I have no doubt that children from some of those communities and backgrounds have a very high educational attainment, and that has been proven. I was saying that there is a focus on people who have need; let us put the money and the resources where it is needed.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I was hoping that Ms Ramsey would intervene, as she has strengthened my case. Anyone who falls into those groups is entitled already to seek to have those children statemented and to go down the same routes as everyone else and identify a special educational need.

There is nothing in the current assessment process that would preclude any of those children from being identified as having special educational needs. Ms Ramsey wants a broad-brush approach applied, so that everyone in that group would be classified as having special educational needs. I find that grossly insulting and wholly inappropriate. Sinn Féin should withdraw that notion very quickly.

We need the resources made available to the young people with special educational needs. We do not need to dilute the process. Those who are most in need should receive. I will wholly resist any attempt to dilute or take away resources from those who need them most.

Photo of Mary Bradley Mary Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Children with special educational needs, however slight or severe, all need and deserve appropriate attention. They have a right to an education that meets their needs, and it is not good enough to hold them to ransom through political ball games that are fictitious to say the least. We have been here before with a similar motion pertaining to the Barnett consequentials. At that time, we asked for money to be ring-fenced to meet the needs of disabled children; here we are again, begging for the approval of funds for children with special educational needs.

Children with special needs are always in need of help. Their teachers are frustrated by the lack of classroom assistants, and it is not so long ago that the classroom assistants debacle threatened to shut down our schools. Parents are at their wits’ end: having children assessed and statemented is like mining for gold. Those parents face unnecessary delays, as they may have to navigate their way through a difficult system.

I have no doubt that many Members’ offices are as busy as my own, with parents complaining that they cannot get the help that they need for their children, inside and outside the educational system. In some cases, children cannot attend school because appropriate support and help is not available. That is not acceptable. The school census of 2007-08 shows that 18% of schoolchildren have special educational needs. Therefore, we need a comprehensive policy framework to guide the provision of education for those children. Parents and teachers alike are crying out for help, and they deserve better than they get at present.

There is a clear and defiant atmosphere among educationalists. They are dealing with the fallout of transfer 2010 and all the difficulties that that will bring. They cannot, and should not be expected to, take on the burden of non-supply of the appropriate special-needs tools and assistance that they need to make life special for the children and equip them to live as full a life as possible within their individual capabilities.

There is also the issue of equality. Equality quietly educates these children’s classmates in how to treat and support them, and encourages them to demand the same respect that others, who have no such needs, demand without apology and expect without thought.

The Executive constantly reminds us of the cross-cutting themes of a shared and better future for all, through equality, fairness and inclusion. Public service agreement 10 is entitled “Helping our children and young people to achieve through education” and its third objective is to:

“Provide more effective interventions to support children and young people with Special Educational Needs (SEN) and Additional Educational Needs (AEN)”.

Its target is to:

“Introduce greater consistency and better value for money in the delivery of Special Educational Needs services by 2010-11”.

We are now almost through 2009, and I am sorry to say that there is little hope of realising those objectives and targets.

I ask the Executive to be more open-minded in their dealings with Ministers and their proposals. The review of special educational needs and inclusion is long overdue, and must be published for consultation without delay so that all children with special needs can access the most appropriate form of education. There is not a parent or educationalist who will give Members any respect for what they are doing. We should not have to be standing here, negotiating something like this for these children.

I support the motion.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Mr Storey said he visited Ceara School: so did I, and I, too, spoke with the principal. That was well over a year ago, and I have met him on many occasions since.

The principal is a member of the steering group that was established to oversee the review of special educational needs and inclusion. During my first visit to the school, he said to me that the review is one of the most important to have taken place and that I should bring it forward quickly.

I will answer the question about the origin of the review. The original document covered a review of all children with special educational needs, including Traveller children and newcomer children, because the legislative definition of special educational needs includes all those children. The steering group advised that the proposed overarching framework should take account of the needs of all children who experience barriers to learning. The original document was produced before I became the Minister of Education and refers to the groups of children that face barriers to learning. That does not mean that I not believe that those groups should be included; of course they should. However, we should not use the narrow definition that some people have used.

My officials have been working very hard on the review. They have also been working hard with officials from other Departments, such as the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department for Employment and Learning, to deal with significant, cross-cutting issues. I know that Michael McGimpsey and Reg Empey are very interested in addressing the transitions and supporting children with special educational needs.

Some Members commented on the Middletown Centre for Autism. I will not go into a big debate about that now. The time and place for that debate is tomorrow at the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in education sectoral format, which is actually taking place in Middletown. Given some Members’ comments, I want to praise the centre for the important work that it has already done. More than 700 health and education professionals have been trained there. That is just one of the many areas of work that the centre does. Therefore, before people make criticisms, they should take into account the work of those professionals.

Children with special educational needs were the key focus of the review of special educational needs and inclusion. Part of the review’s remit, and its terms of reference, was to recognise the increasing diversity of need in schools. During the policy development stage of the review, significant pre-consultation was carried out with education and health and social care professionals, the statutory and voluntary sectors, and parents, children and young people. That pre-consultation activity helped to develop and shape the policy proposals that I forwarded to my Executive colleagues in July 2008. In case Members are not listening, I will repeat that: I forwarded the policy proposals in July 2008.

Worldwide academic research recognises consistently that early identification and implementation of appropriate support interventions enables children to catch up with their classmates and provides support for those who need it on a continuing basis. It also means that help is available as early as possible, thereby reducing the risk of long-term underachievement and disaffection. I plan to establish a robust and accountable framework that identifies children’s needs as early as possible and provides support for them.

Many Members spoke about parents’ concerns today. Many of the parents to whom the review team spoke during the development stage of the proposals expressed concern at the fact that their children had to go through a formal assessment process before they could even begin to receive the support that they needed and that their child had to be seen to be noticeably failing before that formal assessment even commenced.

That predicament is compounded further by the fact that until the current bureaucratic process has run its course and a label has been assigned to a child, many schools delay in providing any form of support programme. That is particularly worrying given that earlier intervention may either prevent a child from falling even further behind or render continuation of the formal statementing process unnecessary.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

No, I will not.

Many children are already being supported in their learning. However, we need to ensure that well-developed systems are in place and that those are sustained by an appropriately skilled workforce that operates at different levels to ensure that no child falls through the net and that their learning needs are not left undiscovered until it is too late. Therefore, the proposals emphasise the role of schools, particularly teachers, to be more aware of the increasing diversity of need and ability in classes and to respond as quickly as possible before the child begins to experience difficulties that may become more deeply entrenched as time is allowed to slip by.

Tá sé ríthábhachtach mar sin go dtugtar na scileanna, an fhéin-mhuinín agus an tacaíocht do phríomhoidí, do mhúinteoirí agus do bhaill foirne eile i scoileanna le freastal ar na dúshláin a thugann an éagsúlacht riachtanas dóibh ina ranganna gach aon lá.

Therefore, it is vital that school principals, teachers, classroom assistants and other staff in schools are given the confidence, support and training to meet the challenges that are presented by the diversity of need that they experience in their classrooms. In recognition of that fact, I secured an extra £25 million through the 2007 Budget in addition to the current annual amount that is spent on SEN. That funding will be used to commence capacity building programmes in educational settings to enhance the current provision to ensure that the education system can provide an effective continuum of support for a continuum of need.

Those programmes will build on the existing expertise of teachers and facilitate the sharing of advice and experience among the special school sector, the mainstream school sector and other professionals. It is anticipated that that increased expertise will reduce the current over-reliance on external assessment and assistance to support children who face barriers to learning and that it will diminish the need for the acquisition of a statement and the associated delay, costs and bureaucracy. Most importantly, it will provide children with the support that they need when they need it.

One Member said that we do not have enough educational psychologists, which is the wrong way to view the issue. Consideration must be given to whether educational psychologists are being used in the correct way, and I argue that they are not.

The Executive have already set a number of challenging targets that aim to reduce the gap in expertise. The proposed inclusive framework in the consultation document complements and supports the anti-poverty and social inclusion strategy, which is part of the Executive’s programme.

Raising standards for all children and young people is at the heart of every departmental proposal and policy. The SEN and inclusion review policy proposals, therefore, sit firmly in tandem with the literacy and numeracy strategies and are an integral part of the Department’s school improvement programme, ‘Every School a Good School’, and the raising standards agenda. The policy proposals advocate a concept of additional educational needs that recognises the challenges and overlapping barriers that already exist for many children.

It appears that some of those who have had sight of the policy proposals have not fully understood the concept of additional educational needs, so I shall take a few moments to clarify what I mean when I use that phrase. That change in educational terminology is an indication of the extent to which the spectrum of support needs has widened over the years. In some cases, support needs are mild and temporary, and they may arise from the context in which the child is located: for example, school, family or community. At the other end of the spectrum, the child or young person’s impairments may be multiple and permanent.

The concept of additional educational needs is not intended to be an extension or redefinition of special educational needs. The definition of special educational needs is set out in legislation, and I have no intention of changing that. I shall repeat that: the definition of special educational needs is set out in legislation, and I have no intention of changing that. The Members opposite know that, so before they start giving out about parties playing politics, they should examine their consciences.

Factors such as unemployment, poverty, domestic violence, sexual violence and abuse, and racism often feature heavily in the background of children who experience difficulties in school and beyond.

As my colleague Sue Ramsey explained much more articulately than I will, it is not about labelling children or assuming that certain circumstances will always give rise to similar difficulties in learning but about developing an holistic approach in education that identifies the educational needs of all children when they occur, and supporting those needs.

The emphasis is very much on preventative intervention. The Assembly has heard much from the Members who sit on the Benches opposite about preventative intervention. That is what the matter is all about. Through earlier identification and tackling the difficulties, whether those be in the short or long term, that the wider group faces, it is proposed that fewer children will have to progress down the statementing route before their needs are met.

I must also stress that the three advisory groups, whose membership consisted of teachers and professionals drawn from the education and health fields, agreed on the use of the term “barriers to learning”. It is the terminology that is used in the rest of Ireland, in England, Scotland and Wales, in Scandinavia, and throughout the world where progressive and thinking people understand the importance of reducing barriers to achievement.

The number of children formally identified with special educational needs continues to grow steadily. It equates to 14·5% of the school population in 2003 and to 18·6% in 2008. I note that the amendment proposes that Ministers’ focus should be limited to assisting children who have the most severe learning difficulties. Please, almost 2,000 children are recorded as having severe learning difficulties, which represents only 3% of more than 60,000 children who have been identified as having some form of special educational need.

Does the proposer of the amendment seriously suggest that one group of children is more important than another? It is not helpful to raise the concerns of parents whose children do not fall into the severe-learning-difficulty category that their child or their child’s school may lose out in a funding war. I am committed to improving outcomes for all children, including the 60,000 children who have some form of special educational need and the 4·1% of children who have SEN statements.

It must be ensured that all available funding — £192 million and the additional £53 million, to which the amendment refers, that was secured through the 2004 spending review and utilised between 2005 and 2008 — is used to improve outcomes for all children with special educational needs.

I take the opportunity to respond to comments that the current SEN budget will be stretched to accommodate and support children who are not on the SEN register. Many children who are already identified as having special educational needs face additional barriers to learning: the two are not mutually exclusive.

In order to facilitate more progressive thinking, I distributed the equality impact assessment of those policy proposals to my ministerial colleagues in February 2009 to help to inform their understanding of the consultation document. The equality impact assessment demonstrates the range of special educational needs and additional needs, which can overlap, that is presented in schools.

There is no intention to divert money that supports children who have special educational needs in order to support the other additional-needs groups. The additional-needs groups attract their own levels of funding, which Members have discussed. Some 70% of children who have statements of special educational need now attend mainstream schools. As I said, my officials have worked closely with their colleagues in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Both Departments are committed to improving interventions and outcomes for all children and young people.

I wrote to my ministerial colleagues in July 2008. In November, I issued a further Executive memo that included amendments to reflect Ministers’ comments. That delay in launching the consultation has already raised concerns about the possible loss of the £25 million that has been mentioned.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

I ask the Minister to bring her remarks to a close.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Although the shift in timescales means that I may not be able to commence implementation of the full package of proposals in 2010 — for example, those that require changes to legislation — I plan to use that money for its intended purpose.

Of course, I will review on an ongoing basis any financial implications that arise from further slippage. I will not tolerate children with special needs being disadvantaged in any way by a lack of progressive thinking. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Photo of Nelson McCausland Nelson McCausland DUP 3:15 pm, 19th May 2009

The debate began poorly when John O’Dowd attacked some members of the Democratic Unionist Party. His comments could at least be regarded as sectarian and were extremely offensive. [Interruption.] Sometimes people who accuse others of sectarianism are themselves the most guilty of sectarianism. I suggest that he examine his own conscience in that regard.

Michelle McIlveen’s response to Mr O’Dowd’s comments was extremely significant, and she pointed out the key issue, which, for us, is that resources would be spread across other sectors rather than concentrated specifically on special educational needs. That broadening of the definition creates difficulties. Other children may have distinctive and particular needs and varying degrees of need. However, those degrees of need may be more social than educational, and, in practice, if the Minister pursues her approach, she will, in effect, rob the most vulnerable children in our society.

As Michelle McIlveen said, we acknowledge the current system’s shortcomings, the delays in assessment and the problems with the statementing process, and recognise the need for review. Those of us who have served on education and library boards and who have worked with children in those sectors are well aware of the need for review, but it is important to get it right.

Dominic Bradley said that an efficient and effective system is required to meet children’s needs. One could not disagree with that assertion in any way. Other Members expressed their disappointment at the delays, and Anna Lo outlined a specific example. Those of us who have worked in that field for many years are aware of the issues involved. Only this morning, I dealt with a constituency case on special educational needs. There is recognition across the Chamber about that matter. Anna Lo also commented on the increasing numbers of children with special educational needs. Therefore, it is important to address the issue properly and to ensure that any policy review achieves the right outcome.

Mervyn Storey spoke of his sadness at the current situation and said that he was concerned about the definition of special educational needs. He emphasised that John O’Dowd’s approach had done a disservice to his argument. Moreover, he said that the concentration and emphasis must be on children with special educational needs, who are the most vulnerable in our society.

Roy Beggs also used the word “vulnerable”, which was used repeatedly during the debate. He referred to the example of Middletown and talked about a flawed policy. That shows the importance of creating the right policy, and that is why this debate and other discussions on the spread of resources have taken place.

Edwin Poots responded to Roy Beggs and reminded him of the reality of a coalition system of Government that was initially negotiated by his own party.

The issue of the £25 million was mentioned, and the Minister almost seems to be saying that unless we do what she says, the money will be lost. There is no reason why the money cannot be spent now, because the money is available and the need exists. Therefore, it is not a question of money being lost; the money could be spent. The issue is about diluting the definition. Our experience of education and library boards shows that there is a shortfall in funding for special educational needs across the boards. Therefore, if the money is available, it should immediately be put into the service.

Mention was made of the question of inclusion and additional categories. No one in the additional categories is excluded, and those with special educational needs are already included. While listening to the Minister, it seemed that the issue is one of confusion and a lack of clarity, because two elements have been combined: special educational needs and inclusion. The Minister pointed out that many children with special educational needs have additional needs; one could not disagree with that assertion.

However, not all children with additional needs have special educational needs. That confusion must be addressed; the need for clarity is fundamental to the debate. Special educational needs and additional educational needs are not the same. We need to ensure that children with special educational needs are not in any way deprived of resources by a broadening of the policy.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I commend my colleagues John O’Dowd and Michelle O’Neill for tabling the motion. At times, the debate digressed from the motion, so I will concentrate on what Members said and on the motion itself.

John O’Dowd said that the review of special educational needs has hit a snag at Executive level because of the DUP’s interpretation of special educational needs. He made the argument that the equality of access that the policy proposals would provide for children who have special educational needs is the core issue of the debate. The review is cross-departmental, and several Ministers have already supported its findings. We are at pains to see why there is such a hold up on something that is so important.

On the definition of special needs, some Members said today that children from the Travelling community, the children of young single mothers and children who come from care homes and difficult backgrounds should not be included in the review. It is shameful if people believe that. Nelson McCausland said that some children do not have those special educational needs. Is he seriously saying that a child who has been bereaved of a parent, for instance, does not have special educational needs at that stage in their life?

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

No, I will not give way, because I have only 10 minutes. The Member’s party did not give way much during the debate.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley DUP

The Member never gives way.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

I do.

At the core of the debate is the narrow definition of special educational needs. John O’Dowd said that the public should be allowed to decide. The policy proposals should be put out for consultation. Why are the Members frightened of that? The people whom the issue concerns should be allowed to make the decision; it should not be held up any longer than has already been the case.

In moving the amendment, Michelle McIlveen said that the definition of special educational needs should not include particular groups. The review was carried out by specialists in the field of educational health, not by Sinn Féin or the Minister of Education, and it is not aimed at furthering the political agenda of Sinn Féin. That is an important point.

Dominic Bradley referred to the delays in assessments and the need for a framework that will lead to improvements for children, because all children should realise their potential. He mentioned the lack of support in the voluntary and community preschool sector, which was also an important point. He went on to call for the publication of the consultation document.

Basil McCrea expressed concern at the delay in progress. That concern was expressed by quite a number of Members, who felt that the policy proposals should be put to the people.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

No, I will not give way, because I want to make a number of points. I will give way if I have time at the end.

Anna Lo echoed the comments of Basil McCrea that the review has been held up for too long, and she expressed concern that the delay is having an impact on children who have special educational needs. The waiting lists for assessment are still very lengthy.

Mervyn Storey played the political card and asserted that Sinn Féin was playing politics on an important issue. I repeat that experts in the field, not Sinn Féin, conducted the review. It became very clear during the debate that the DUP is playing politics and is holding things up. The review must go out for consultation.

Sue Ramsey and Roy Beggs outlined the need for a strategic vision that adopts a holistic approach across the sector and that includes health and social care services.

Edwin Poots returned to the definition of special educational needs. He said that Sue Ramsey had been disingenuous when she mentioned the groups of people who have such needs. However, I will point out that children who are entitled to free school meals are twice as likely to leave school without any qualifications; care leavers are 20 times more likely to leave school without any qualifications; and as little as 23% of pupils from the most deprived backgrounds achieve five or more GCSEs, in contrast to 64% of pupils across the North of Ireland. It is clear that children from those backgrounds need extra help and support.

Mary Bradley said that delays and bureaucracy are affecting children and their families, and she called for the review to go out to consultation as soon as possible.

In her response, the Minister said that a pre-consultation exercise involving education and health and social care professionals had taken place before the review was brought to the Executive. That exercise helped to develop the proposals that had been brought forward. Early intervention is essential in preventing children from falling further behind. The review must be brought forward, because, as the Minister said, school principals, teachers and other school staff must be given the support and confidence that they need. She went on to say that £25 million had been secured in addition to the current annual amount that is being spent on special educational needs.

The Minister had to repeat herself several times, but I will say it again, in case anyone is unclear: the definition of special needs is set out in legislation, and the Minister has no intention whatever of changing it. That is an important point to make. If that is what is holding things up, the definition is there, and the Minister explained it again today.

It is to be hoped that the debate will highlight the need for the review of special educational needs to be brought forward —

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

No. I am trying to finish, and Dominic Bradley will be first to speak if I do give way.

The review of special educational needs must be brought forward and put out for consultation. It is shameful that anyone in the Assembly or in the Executive should hold up that review. We must look after those children and their families. It is not up to us; let the people decide what they think of that consultation document.

I will give way to Dominic Bradley.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. She said rightly that there is a need to put the review document out for consultation, because it is far behind schedule already. This morning, I heard the Children’s Commissioner call for a short consultation period. Does the Member agree that it would be foolish to issue the consultation document on the verge of the beginning of the school holidays, at a time when teachers will not have the opportunity to engage properly with the consultation? This is an important consultation, because it is concerned with the most vulnerable children in society. It is important that all the relevant professionals have ample opportunity to consider it and to respond to it.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his intervention, but I have to say no. There has been enough delay already. It is important that the document goes out for consultation now. Let the people decide, because they are the ones who matter. This is about children with special educational needs and their families; it is not up to the Assembly or the Executive to hold the up consultation.

[Interruption.]

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

It would seem that the Member has finished.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 22; Noes 41.

AYES

Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr T Clarke, Mr Dodds, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Storey.

Tellers for the Ayes: Miss McIlveen and Mr Storey.

NOES

Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr Doherty, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Ms Gildernew, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Lo, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Ms Purvis, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Brady and Mr F McCann.

The following Members voted in both Lobbies and are therefore not counted in the result: Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Elliott, Mr Gardiner, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCallister, Mr B McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr K Robinson, Mr Savage.

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 41; Noes 27.

AYES

Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr Doherty, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Ms Gildernew, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Lo, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Ms Purvis, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Brady and Mr F McCann.

NOES

Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr T Clarke, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir.

Tellers for the Noes: Miss McIlveen and Mr Storey.

The following Members voted in both Lobbies and are therefore not counted in the result: Mr Cree, Mr Elliott, Mr Gardiner, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCallister, Mr B McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr K Robinson, Mr Savage.

Main Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly calls on the Executive to agree to publishing, for consultation, the special educational needs and inclusion policy proposals tabled to it by the Minister of Education, thereby enabling the £25 million ring-fenced by the Minister of Education to be used to implement the changes that will benefit all children with special educational needs.

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]