SEN Assessments: Electronic Record-keeping

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 10th February 2020.

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Photo of Paula Bradley Paula Bradley DUP 2:00 pm, 10th February 2020

4. Ms P Bradley asked the Minister of Education whether he has any plans to introduce an electronic system of record-keeping for special educational needs assessments. (AQO 61/17-22)

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

The Education Authority is engaged in phase 1 of a small business research initiative procurement process that includes the development and introduction of an electronic system of record-keeping for special educational needs assessments. This phase of the process is due for completion on 31 March 2020. The objectives of the process are to improve efficiency and effectiveness in the use of data to provide a child-centric and insight-driven service for parents, carers and young people with SEN. Be it in education or other fields, we can talk about vast statistics, but behind, for instance, any decision on special needs education, as, indeed, on other issues, we should all remember we are talking about individual children, so it has to be child-centric.

Key metrics of the process will be expected to include reduced time for statutory assessments; reduced costs of administration of those statutory assessments; improvement in the experience of the assessment and review process for parents and service users — considerable concerns have, at times, been raised about that, particularly by parents; improvement in the quality and timeliness of information for service providers; advanced analytics; and an electronic system of record-keeping.

Photo of Paula Bradley Paula Bradley DUP

I thank the Minister for his answers thus far and welcome his answer. I have spoken to several SENCOs in schools in my area who highlighted the amount of duplication and paperwork required during an educational pathway for a child. What work is being done to share information between the Education Authority and the health trusts during the statutory assessment process?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

The Member is right. There is a desire to look at that, and it is perhaps most acute in special needs education. Across the board, where there is unnecessary duplication — sometimes it can be between different statutory bodies in education or across education — we need to look at how we can roll back and ensure that how the burden can be reduced for parents and schools is almost a separate issue.

Very specifically, on the issue of the health trusts, led by my Department, there is an implementation of improvements to the joint education and health notification referral and statutory assessment — NRSA — project, which is nearing completion. Many of the key recommendations have been implemented: for example, revised standard templates for the health trusts to record information needed for statutory assessment. The EA and the health trusts are testing a mechanism to securely transfer information between them electronically, because we live in an era of GDPR and, indeed, data protection.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

The Education Minister will be aware that serious concerns for the Education Authority's administration of special educational needs led to an internal audit. Does the Minister believe that that is an adequate approach to investigating those concerns, and will he update the Assembly on that review?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I understand that the audit has reached completion. It will be shared first of all, I think, with the Education Authority board. I hope to receive that fairly soon.

It is important, in terms of processes, to get this right. While much of that is directly for the EA to implement, as a Department and as a Minister, we want to make sure that all provisions are made and lessons learned for our special needs children and particularly for their parents. All of us as MLAs will have experienced the frustration of individual parents and throughout our constituency. Whatever the audit comes back with, if there are key recommendations, it is important they are implemented swiftly, so that we are not faced, particularly when it comes to the placement of children with special educational needs, with another summer of difficulties when records appear to be lost and there is inadequate communication. It is a time of high stress when a family is looking at where their child will be placed for their special educational needs. It about getting the substance right but also ensuring that the communication strategy is right.

Photo of Karen Mullan Karen Mullan Sinn Féin

Given the concerns raised and the sensitive information about children that is recorded in special educational needs assessments, how will the Minister ensure that any introduction of electronic record-keeping is compliant with data protection safeguards?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

The Member raises an important point. The work that is being done between the EA and the health trusts to trial this and ensure that what they have is fit for purpose has to be on the basis that the information is secure. The EA and the health trusts are testing the secure sending of this before it goes live. All documents used to collate and share information relating to statutory assessment have been amended to include explicit parental consent — there is no point in going ahead with any sharing of information unless it is with the buy-in of parents — and ensure that they are GDPR-compliant. While explicit consent will be a choice for the individual parents, the process will mean that there is a better sharing of data and hopefully a more timely, more efficient and better process. Once the testing has been done in respect of GDPR, I will urge parents to give their consent, but that is obviously a choice for each individual parent.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. I welcome news of the new electronic system, which sounds like it will increase the speed with which assessments are carried out. However, will the system have more agility or flexibility than the current system, so that, as children's needs change, so does the support that they receive, without their having to go right back to the start?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

To be fair to the Education Authority, it has introduced a couple of digital systems recently, the trialling of which has actually worked out quite well: for instance, the checking of eligibility tor transport worked well. It is important that there is that level of agility. If we are talking about the digital system, the agility is largely about the transfer of information. The information can transfer, but it is important that we have a wider level of support and protection for special needs education. This will also feed into the new SEN framework, which I hope to consult on in the spring. It is important that we have adaptability. One of the problems that there has been in the past is that a particular assessment is done on a child and then it becomes a fixed point, effectively. That sometimes gives assurance to people, but it can also mean that what we have is not up to date with what is required. Hopefully, the flow of secure information can make the system a little more agile; it certainly cannot hurt. Hopefully, it will also mean that, in respect of special educational needs, we can look at more tailored interventions and, indeed, perhaps earlier interventions. In the past, there has maybe been a little bit too much of a one-size-fits-all approach.