SEN: Post-COVID-19 Support

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 30th June 2020.

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Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 2:15 pm, 30th June 2020

7. Mr Blair asked the Minister of Education what support services are in place for children with special educational needs following the closure of schools and special schools as a result of COVID-19. (AQO 499/17-22)

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Vulnerable children, including those with statements of special educational needs, have been prioritised since the start of lockdown, with schools, including special schools, encouraged to remain open for the provision of supervised learning.

Each child with SEN has their own individual needs. Sometimes, we have a stereotypical view of special educational needs and there is a wide spectrum of those needs. Approaches are, therefore, tailored to the individual pupil by the teacher, in conjunction with the school's SEN coordinator (SENCO).

Schools put in place innovative arrangements, reflective of pupil age, developmental stages and their SEN. Examples of this include learning packs, online learning, and sensory and other specialist equipment that has been delivered to homes. The Education Authority SEN Pupil Support Services have provided ongoing support to parents, children and young people during COVID-19 by telephone, and have developed an extensive suite of online resources. The Middletown Centre for Autism has remained open and operational, to deliver high-quality remote support to children and young people with autism and their families. They have also developed new online training for educational professionals, including classroom assistants, and are delivering a number of webinars during the summer.

The Continuity of Learning project, initiated by the Department and coordinated by EA, provides an opportunity for practitioners, school leaders and education support organisations to work together to produce and disseminate high-quality online guidance, providing for the emotional health, resilience and well-being of learners, and facilitating the progression of learning.

I recently issued guidance to schools which provides advice and support designed to bring together what we are learning about emerging practice, during this unprecedented time for the education sector.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for his answer. Given that so few direct support services have been in place for the most vulnerable special educational needs pupils during COVID-19, I ask whether the Minister has secured the special school places for the 150 pupils still unplaced, who are waiting for placements?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

We are working with the Education Authority, because theirs is the direct responsibility to place pupils. Let me make it absolutely clear. Not everybody gets the place that they want. At the beginning of each summer, there is always going be a small number of pupils who will be unplaced. To have this number of unplaced children with special educational needs is totally unacceptable.

We are working with the Education Authority. Indeed, last week, while I was in the House, my officials met representatives of the EA. The issue has arisen through long-term systemic failures in the Education Authority, which was subject to an internal report. While some work has been done on that, the level of progress has probably been limited by the response to COVID. We are trying to work with the EA to provide longer-term solutions so that issues of that nature do not arise again, while also being mindful of the fact that whatever long-term solution is put in place by way of a development proposal or, indeed, long-term provision, that is not something that will automatically solve the problem for those particular families. We are looking to solve it for every family. As such, we have been working up a suite of interim solutions with the EA that will feed into the longer term in order to ensure that, from September, all those children will have placements. In particular, that is about providing additional facilities and opportunities because, obviously, some of the limitations that exist with regard to SEN placements do not simply apply to schools that have pressures with mainstream admissions.