Rise in special needs pupils in schools ‘linked to spike in suspensions’

The UTU says educational cutbacks are hitting special needs children particularly hard
The UTU says educational cutbacks are hitting special needs children particularly hard

The “alarming” rise in suspensions of primary school children is linked to the increasing number of special needs pupils in mainstream education – and serious cutbacks to their support, it is claimed.

The Ulster Teachers Union (UTU) made the claim in the wake of an Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) report stating that four and five-year-old children are among a rising number of pupils receiving suspensions.

It said 4,084 pupils of compulsory school age were suspended in 2016/17, with the ETI noting that “alarmingly”, 286 were of primary school age, with 74 in primary one or two. Repeated infringement of school rules was among the main reasons for suspensions.

But UTU deputy general secretary Jacquie White said that schools “will not be scapegoated by the cynical funding shortfall for NI’s most vulnerable children”.

She told the News Letter: “The ETI has highlighted these suspension and exclusion statistics yet surely even it must see that their growing trajectory inversely reflects the declining funding of special schools and other supports for children with additional needs.

“For whatever reason – societal and economic – we are seeing an ever increasing number of children with increasingly complex behavioural and learning needs coming into the mainstream.”

Principals are being forced to cut back on specialist classroom assistants and formal psychological assessments but are seeing “a growing number of violent incidents in the classroom” due to particular needs not being met.

She added: “These are among our most vulnerable children. They deserve the best.”

Autism NI CEO Kerry Boyd confirmed that exclusions and suspensions for autistic children are on the rise. “In the UK, a child with autism is three times more likely to be excluded from the school environment which is an unacceptable and distressing statistic for the autism community,” she said. Even children who are formally recognised as autistic are often not get getting the correct support, she added.

Children’s Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma did not underestimate the challenge of cutbacks. “If alternatives to suspension are not available to schools due to such a lack – including specialist and support staff – then this must be addressed as a matter of urgency,” she said.