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Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will also answer Question 11 as the two questions are related.
I met with the chair and interim chief executive of the Education Authority (EA) on 7 June to address the authority’s review. The chair informed me that, while good progress has been made on many aspects of the review, issues associated with the planning and provision of preschool places in special schools are complex and sensitive and will require very careful engagement with principals and parents. I emphasised the need for meaningful engagement with those who are directly affected. The chair has assured me that the review will involve the establishment of a professional practitioner group and a parent stakeholder group. It is anticipated that the review will take a further six months to complete. The authority has assured me that it will not be implementing any substantive arrangements, in terms of any review, before September 2017.
There is, however, the need for preschool places in special schools which are anticipated to increase by around 20% by September 2016. The EA has agreed to a number of interim measures to extend early years’ provision across the special school sector to meet these immediate demands. The authority has confirmed that it has engaged with the schools involved and that they are all fully aware of those plans. It advised that it is taking a careful and considered approach, with interim steps to meet the needs of children for September 2016, while planning and engaging on a longer-term approach that puts children and their needs to the forefront. I assure Members that no long-term decision on the matter will be made prior to the completion of the review. I will continue to monitor progress to ensure that the authority delivers on what it said to me and on its commitments.
The Education Minister and the Education Authority speak of no new substantive arrangements but then outline substantive interim measures. Does the Education Minister accept that this approach is leaving parents feeling anxious and confused? Will he make clear his support for the retention of full-time hours in special educational needs nursery schools, and will he accept my invitation to meet with parents on this important matter?
First, it is not universal across the board that there is full-time provision for special needs; it has been of a differential form. A range of measures has been taken. In some cases where there has been, for instance, provision of around two hours or two-and-a-half hours, that is actually extending to three hours. It is an issue of capacity and, in the interim arrangements and because of the pressures that are there, we are trying to ensure that there is a place for every child. This is the most crucial element, and I have to make that provision.
On many occasions, with children presenting because of assessments even over the summer, that figure is not finalised and we are moving on almost a daily basis in terms of increases. We are left with the interim situation of an increase of about 20%, and there is an attempt by the EA, in its primary responsibility for placements, to ensure that there are sufficient places and at least a place for every child.
The Member mentioned full-time places. I am not going to prejudge the outcome of the overall review, but the key thing is trying to ensure that there is at least something in place for children in 2016; that is fairly clear. It is important that we give that level of reassurance that there is clarity around that.
I will be happy to meet parents at some stage. The initial contact, because it is the responsibility of the EA, has to be that direct conversation between the EA and parents. That is the initial contact, but I am more than happy, as part of the process, to meet representatives of parents.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Would the Minister agree and can he give an assurance to the Assembly that we have confidence in the review of special educational needs provision at nursery level, when it has been alleged that, in March, the former Education Committee was given erroneous information by an official that Fleming Fulton nursery school was closed? Could the Minister correct the record and assure us that the existing capacity for nursery provision at Fleming Fulton is fully recognised and utilised? Will parents whose children have a statement of physical disability with associated learning needs and have expressed a preference to attend Fleming Fulton —
It is clear that there was wrong information given to the Committee, and the EA has entirely acknowledged that. I suppose I have an axe to grind on this in that I think I was Chair of the Committee when that wrong information was given.
In terms of confidence in the approach itself, that is why it is important that the review is not rushed and there is an opportunity, very directly, for proper engagement, particularly with parents and schools. Too often there is the allegation that consultation on any form of review or any consultation that is issued simply becomes a tick-box exercise. It is important on this issue more than any other that that is not the case.
As regards the specifics of Fleming Fulton, it is a school that I have visited on a number of occasions. I am aware of the issues, and I know that a lot of good work is happening in Fleming Fulton.
As regards the broad position of nursery places, we are assuring people that there will be a place for every child. It is a key issue in ensuring that provision is made. Whether that will be for the exact duration that every parent wants cannot be guaranteed, because we have to make arrangements in terms of the capacity that is there. However, we will make sure that no child is left behind in ensuring that there will be. Indeed, as we move ahead with the review, it is also clear that children will have different needs. "Special educational needs" is often thrown out as just a loose term by people when it actually covers a multitude of situations. What will be of benefit to one child with special needs may not be of benefit to another. That is also something that has to be given a degree of cognisance as we move ahead with the review.
The Minister will be aware that the Education Authority failed previously to disclose the opposition of parents to its proposals. I realise he has indicated that the first point of call for parents should be directly with the Education Authority, but what reassurance can he give parents that, going forward, the arrangements put in place by the Education Authority will be more open, transparent and effective in taking on board their views and reflecting them in the decision-making process than they have been to date?
From that point of view, the only assurance that can be given is that we are part of a lengthy process. It is not simply being bounced through, and there are indications that the Education Authority is already starting to meet some parents and, indeed, will be trying to work through not simply professional practitioners but a stakeholder group. As indicated, there are complex issues with this, and that is why the Education Authority is taking a level of time. It is also the case that I will scrutinise what will happen, and, indeed, if there is a lack of real engagement, that is something I will bring to the Education Authority. I can only seek assurances and push people to give those assurances and then try to make sure that they are delivered in practice, but I will make sure that that is the case.
Minister, you are well aware of the crushing pressures that special needs schools and statemented children in mainstream schools are under, so what action are you taking on overall funding pressures in special educational needs?
I thank the Member for her question. I pass on my best wishes to Dromore Central Primary School, which had a very good day yesterday with the service to acknowledge its 78 years as a school.
As I mentioned, the figures suggest that we are in the region of a 20% increase this year in the number of children who are seeking a place in special nursery provision. Beyond that, there has been increasing demand for SEN support and associated costs; indeed, many of those things include virtuous things in our society. For instance, thankfully, some children's life expectancy has increased greatly, and that is something that we should welcome. It is also the case that the percentage of SEN pupils with a statement has increased from around 4·3% just four years ago to just under 5% now.
A significant amount of the EA's budget is spent on special education services such as special schools, specialist support services, classroom assistants and transport costs. That funding has been protected as part of the budget-setting process in the last years, and additional funding for SEN has been secured from the Executive as part of the in-year monitoring rounds. Should the EA identify budget pressures for SEN and they cannot be met within the education budget, I will continue to work with the Executive to secure additional funding. Indeed, some of those budgetary pressures were part of the monitoring round bids that we put in, and I am hopeful that the honourable Member for South Belfast will be able to deliver on those in the near future.
If the House is to have faith in any future consultations carried out by the Education Authority, will the Minister agree that, given that we have had misleading information presented to the House, we have dissatisfaction from a major stakeholder in the process — the parents — and there was a consequent extension of the deadline to the process to accommodate a different outcome, an internal investigation will be required to learn lessons from this?
Where mistakes are made there is always an opportunity to learn lessons. That will be critical. Let us be clear on this: mistakes were made by the EA, particularly on the failure to give information, and I take that very seriously. The timescale is to ensure that we get a proper, robust outcome. There is a serious issue with the provision of special needs education, particularly at nursery level, and that cannot be done with simply a couple of meetings at the EA without consultation and the follow-through of a report. It has to substantive in its nature, and it has to be carefully examined. Indeed, there is a key role for representatives of all sectors. This cannot simply be driven by officials; it has to go through the full board of the Education Authority to have that scrutiny. Most of the major parties have representatives on the board, and, indeed, there are representatives from all sectors. That sort of robust approach will, hopefully, build some level of confidence. As with any review or report, there is no guarantee that the outcome will satisfy everyone, but we have to try to ensure that we get the best possible outcome from that review.