Autism-specific Learning Centres: Newry and Mourne

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 30th June 2020.

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Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin 2:00 pm, 30th June 2020

6. Ms Ennis asked the Minister of Education what plans he has to address the shortage of autism-specific learning centres in post-primary schools in the Newry and Mourne area. (AQO 498/17-22)

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

The Education Authority is responsible for the provision of autism support units. Any significant change to a school, such as the addition of an autism support unit, requires the publication of a development proposal, which is a statutory process.

The EA’s current proposals for change are listed in its action plan for 2019-2021, which is broken down into local government districts. The action plan for the Newry, Mourne and Down local government district contains two actions in relation to autism-specific provision in post-primary schools: one for the Downpatrick area and one at St Mark’s High School, Warrenpoint. Those changes would form part of a regional approach to reconfiguring special schools and pupil support provision at mainstream schools.

Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin 2:15 pm, 30th June 2020

I thank the Minister for his response. I am sure the Minister agrees that it is wholly unacceptable that, if your child has autism and you want them educated in a mainstream setting, you have to travel outside the south Down or Newry, Mourne and Down District Council area. That is unacceptable and it has to end. I encourage the Minister to use his influence with the EA to make sure that these development plans are expedited, so that parents and their children are not further disadvantaged.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

The Member raises a very important point about the provision for autism, and the wider context. There are two responses to that. For placements for children with particular special educational needs, we are working with EA to make sure that, whatever the longer-term position, we provide interim solutions that can be put in place so that there is adequate provision, as we move into September and beyond.

I am keen to see any development proposals move ahead as quickly as possible. The former Minister, sitting opposite me, will be able to testify to that. The one slight restriction we have on development proposals is that, as Minister, I am the person who will give a legal ruling on whether to agree a particular development proposal. Often, proposals are so obviously virtuous that it would be difficult for anybody to say no to, but legally I am bound not to take a pejorative view, for or against any particular development proposal. We want to see the overall process moving as quickly as possible. Where we can find uncontroversial development proposals, I want to see if there is a different methodology by which those can be fast-tracked.

Obviously, I cannot comment as regards individual development proposals. Apart from the broader process, it is difficult for me to say, "I want this individual proposal done at a quicker pace", because I have to give the legal ruling on that. However, I am sympathetic to the points the Member has raised.