Auditor warns that £1.3bn cost of services for special needs children is ‘not sustainable’ – and reveals review of services still not completed after 13 years
The Audit Office has warned that the current provision of Special Educational Needs (SEN) services in Northern Ireland’s schools is “not financially sustainable” - as it revealed that expenditure over the past five years has exceeded £1.3 billion.
The auditor also reported that a review begun by the Department of Education 13 years ago into the the increase in the number of children with SEN, and the inconsistencies and delays in identification, has still not been completed.
In a scathing report Auditor General, Kieran Donnelly has concluded that there has to be a “systemic review of the SEN policies, processes, services and funding model to ensure the provision is sufficient to meet the needs of all children with SEN”.
Mr Donnelly’s report found:
• A time limit for issuing statements of special educational needs is broken for nearly nine out of every 10 children assessed in Northern Ireland - 85% of statements are issued outside the 26-week statutory limit. Statements are legally binding documents issued by the Education Authority (EA) detailing a child’s needs and setting out what specialist provision they require within the education system. They are issued after an EA assessment process.
• Annual expenditure on SEN reached £312 million in 2019-20, an increase from £233 million in 2015-16. Expenditure over the last five years has totalled over £1.3 billion.
• There is an urgent need for the Department of Education and the Education Authority to evaluate the support provided to children with SEN. This will enable resources to be focused on the types of support which have the best outcomes for children.
• It is over 13 years since the Department began a review of SEN at a cost of nearly £3.6 million. This review is still not complete.
The report stated: “Nearly one in five pupils in Northern Ireland has a reported SEN, with 5.5% cent of the school population having a statement of SEN.
“This is significantly higher than the 2% of the school population anticipated by the Department.
“There has been a 36% increase in children with a statement in the past nine years.”
Mr Donnelly’s report recommends that the Department and the Education Authority consider the potential benefits of directing more investment towards effective early intervention measures which may, in turn, reduce the requirement for statements of SEN.
Mr Donnelly said: “Support for pupils with SEN is a vital and valued service and the educational achievements of children with SEN are improving, which, of course is to be welcomed.
“However, there remains evidence of an inconsistent and delayed approach to assessing pupils. It is also disappointing that the Department and the Education Authority are still unable to clearly demonstrate value for money.”
The latest Audit Office publication is a follow-up to Mr Donnelly’s 2017 Special Educational Needs report which made 10 recommendations.
A Department of Education spokesman welcomed the report’s publication.
“The department is working closely with the EA on addressing the issues in the report,” he said.
He noted the issue would be discussed by the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee on October 15.
“The general guiding principle is that it is inappropriate to comment in detail in advance of a potential PAC hearing and the Department of Finance minister’s (Conor Murphy) response,” he added.