SEN Students: Statements

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 2nd March 2015.

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Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP 3:00 pm, 2nd March 2015

6. Lord Morrow asked the Minister of Education how he is accelerating and streamlining the process of statementing for special educational needs students in mainstream post-primary schools. (AQO 7696/11-15)

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

My proposals, following the review of SEN and inclusion, contain measures to reduce the time for completion of statutory assessments for SEN children in all schools. The proposals also aim to reduce the administration around statementing. I propose a reduction to 20 weeks in the time frame for statutory assessment and statementing. A revised statutory code of practice will set out practical arrangements for the Education Authority and schools to meet a child's special educational needs. That will follow provision in the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill and the supporting regulations. The revised code will describe the new processes for three levels of support and the respective duties of boards of governors and the authority. It will complement the anticipated streamlined process following the creation of the Education Authority. To reduce the administrative burden associated with annual reviews of statements, I propose that some reviews will provide an opportunity for a swifter process. That would require parents and schools to be fully satisfied with the current provision in a statement. Parents and schools would both have to agree that a review involving other advice-givers is not necessary.

The Department will indicate to the authority and schools the acceptable time frames for completion of assessment and provision of supports. Ongoing capacity-building training for special educational needs coordinators has been delivered to ensure that schools are fully informed of the processes for the identification and assessment of children's needs. I intend that to be supplemented by training for each school and board of governors on the new SEN framework prior to implementation.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I thank the Minister for his answer. I did not quite catch whether he said that he hopes to reduce the processing time to 20 weeks or that it is 20 weeks at the moment. Could he clarify that point, when he rises to speak again?

Does he accept that the time taken for assessments is too long and is affecting the development of some students?

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

The current time frame is 26 weeks. We wish to reduce that to 20 weeks in the legislation and regulations.

I note that the Member has been asking a significant number of questions for written answer on special educational needs, and I am more than happy for my officials to meet him to discuss the issues of concern to him. There are clearly issues that he is bearing down on and wishes to have further clarification on. If it is of assistance, I am more than happy for my officials to meet him to discuss matters further.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Given the awful legacy of illiteracy and innumeracy inherited from predecessors, what hope can the Minister give to parents who believe that their child has special needs when the Education Authority believes otherwise? How will those parents approach the tribunal and what support will they have?

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

First, I would encourage parents to talk to the teacher and, if need be, follow it up with the board of governors and/or the principal of the school. They should discuss the matter in detail to ensure that whatever support is required for the child is delivered, whether it is the responsibility of the school or, as we move forwards, the Education Authority. In all cases, there is an appeal mechanism in place that I will encourage parents to follow through to its conclusion.

I introduced a Bill today that will have its Second Reading next Tuesday. We are attempting to modernise special educational needs provision to deliver a more effective and efficient service to children, families and schools. The Bill will quite rightly attract significant attention; I have no doubt that the Education Committee will scrutinise it in great detail. I have already agreed to work with it on the matter. There are many matters that I bring before the Assembly over which I am prepared to dig my heels in and fight the good fight, but this is not one of them. I believe that, if the Assembly, the Committee and I work together, we can achieve a statementing process through the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill that meets the needs of our young people.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I welcome the Minister's commitment to cut the time from 26 to 20 weeks. He will be aware that I wrote to him recently about a constituent, and the broad context of that was whether he was now prepared to say that he will accept statements from other parts of the UK? Would that not help to streamline the process, rather than repeating it? Will he now give a commitment to accept statements from all constituent parts of the UK?

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

This is not an issue about the "constituent parts of the UK", as you put it. It has nothing to do with my views on the constitution of this society, the North or whatever you want to call it. As I set out in great detail in the written response, this is to do with the different emphases in the statementing process in England, Scotland or Wales. The statementing process may be different in England, Scotland or Wales from the process here. There are variations in the processes as they would apply to a young person travelling from here to Britain. Those are just facts that we have to deal with, and I want to deal with them as quickly as possible. I want to remove obstacles to parents and children rather than place obstacles in their way. I can assure the Member that I will look for any way around this that does not interrupt the legislative process that we have to follow. Statementing and so on is all set down in legislation; it is not simply a matter for the Minister to dismiss. I assure the Member that I will not place any obstacles in the way of ensuring that young people receive the services they require, regardless of where they are from.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

I might have missed the answer to the last question, although I have been listening to all the rest. I appreciate what the Minister said about cutting the wait from 26 weeks to 20 weeks, although I recognise that that has not always been met in the past. Will he guarantee that the upcoming Bill will end the current postcode lottery?

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

One of the initial reasons why the Bill was brought forward was an attempt to end the postcode lottery. There is a difference in the delivery of some of the services across the boards. Now that we have the Education Authority in place, that body will bring together best practice from across the boards. It will take some time to do that because it has a significant work programme in front of it. The shape of the legislation now rests with the Assembly, As sponsoring Minister, I have agreement from the Executive to bring forward a Bill. That Bill will be introduced and will go through the various stages of the Assembly. The shape of the final Bill will be as the Assembly dictates. I am prepared to work with the Assembly and the Committee and vice versa. We have had a very good working relationship on the matter to date, and I hope to continue that. I have no reason to suspect that that will not be the case. Let us produce an Act that meets the needs of our young people at the end of the journey.