Published Wednesday, 01 February 2012
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A review of special needs education has been ongoing for two-and-a-half years, with a report published earlier this week.
"I was shocked to hear reports this morning suggesting that the statementing process was to be scrapped," Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd said.
"Headlines like these will only raise fears among parents about the future provision for their children."
But that process of statementing will undergo significant changes, if current plans go ahead, and will be broadly replaced by Co-ordinated Support Plans - in a move the minister says will cut delays.
I am in the business of improving the support we provide to children with a special educational need – not scrapping the support already in place.
John O’Dowd, Sinn Féin
"The present system is heavily bureaucratic and sees too much effort invested in feeding the system as opposed to supporting children. This has to change," Mr O'Dowd said.
Currently, the annual spend on special needs education is £210m - the minister has denied the proposals are a cost-cutting exercise or a bid to close special needs schools.
"I want to ensure schools are better equipped to deal with the needs of SEN pupils and that, where additional support is required, it can be provided without having to go through the current, protracted statutory assessment process," he added.
A formal consultation on the changes ran over nearly five months and generated 2,902 responses, with much concern about the impact, how the changes would actually be implemented and funding.
Concerns have also been raised about a perceived increased workload for school staff.
On Wednesday, DUP chair of the Education Committee Mervyn Storey said: "If the Minister proceeds with some of these proposals, many teachers will find themselves taking on the role of a social worker rather than a teacher."
I remain to be convinced that the Department of Education has in place the appropriate structures that will enable teachers in the classroom to draw a distinction between what are the educational needs and the health needs of a child.
Mervyn Storey, DUP
Among the submissions made to the consultation were a number of petitions, including a list of 1,245 signatures presented to the Stormont Assembly.
In order to test some of the key proposals, two pilot programmes have already been developed.
An 'Early Years' scheme aims to identify, assess and deal appropriately with special educational needs in the year before a child is due to start school, while a 'Level A Educational Testing' pilot aims to provide mainstream schools with a coordinated and informed capacity to identify and assess SEN pupils.
The numbers of special needs children in schools across Northern Ireland are rising, with nearly 20% of pupils on the SEN register - 64,900 of the total 330,000 school population.
Only 4,500 of those pupils attend one of 41 special schools, with the majority in mainstream units.
Further engagement with parents, schools, children and other stakeholders will now take place, in order to find out how best to move forward - but the Minister hopes to have final proposals within weeks.