T4. Ms Rogan asked the Minister of Education to outline a time frame for the full implementation of the new special educational needs (SEN) arrangements, given that we are all too aware of the shortcomings in recent years in the administrative and operational processes involved in the provision for SEN children, albeit that the new SEN framework and the associated regulations in the code of practice will hopefully represent a new beginning in supporting those children and their families. (AQT 814/17-22)
The current arrangements, the terms of the SEN regulations and the code of practice are things that all of us would welcome. The fine details are out for consultation, which will finish before the end of Christmas. I hope to move ahead with that in as full a way as possible as soon as I can.
The only issue, which, again, I urge Members around the Chamber to support me on, is the requirement for a significant financial investment. In this year's Budget, around £7·5 million was directly allocated to that. A full-year cost will be £30 million. Therefore, resources will have to be either provided or found. To some extent, the speed of movement on that will depend on the wider financial settlement that we are able to reach. I believe that the Finance Minister is hoping to bring proposals on draft Budgets to the House fairly soon.
To be fair to the Finance Minister, we are potentially going to be in quite a difficult situation across the board next year because, effectively, once you take out particular elements of COVID, or at least one major ring-fenced element, the financial settlement that will be provided to the Executive is likely to be pretty close to flatlined cash, which will make things very difficult. Implementing the SEN regulations is a priority and a critical commitment, and I will do everything that I can to move them as fully and as fast as I can.
Minister, you may be aware that in the Downpatrick area of my constituency of South Down there is a serious shortage of special school places. I take this opportunity to commend the great work and leadership of Knockevin Special School. It is well oversubscribed, indicating that there is a need for increased provision in our area. Will the Minister commit to looking into that in order to ensure that provision is available for local families in the area so that they do not have to travel miles for a suitable placement?
Again, there is always a bit of a balance to be struck in trying to ensure that people do not have to travel too far while ensuring that there is an element of specialist quality. As with anything, if you simply spread that too thinly, you do not get the quality. If there was to be, for instance, extra provision directly either through additional schools or units, in the first instance, that would be for the EA. If it requires a development proposal, that would be something that I, as Minister, would have to sign off on, but, certainly, we want to make sure that every provision is made for our special educational needs students.