A golden opportunity to reform the special needs system in NI, and get right system in place to identify needs of deaf and other children

There has recently been an abundance of damning reports into Special Educational Needs (SEN) support in Northern Ireland, with an audit office report concluding the Department for Education can’t demonstrate value for money, writes ALASDAIR O’HARA.

A teacher using sign language. Deaf children are still twice as likely not to get five good GCSEs
A teacher using sign language. Deaf children are still twice as likely not to get five good GCSEs

Meanwhile, Education Minister Peter Weir launched a consultation on a new way of delivering services for disabled children and the Stormont assembly debated the education support deaf children are receiving and how it’s been affected by the pandemic.

This may sound like talk without action, but it presents a golden opportunity for real change and reform to our system for supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities

The findings from the audit office report were no surprise for the families we support at the National Deaf Children’s Society. Parents are routinely trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare, waiting months for confirmation of what support their child is entitled to.

Alasdair O'Hara, head of Policy and Influencing in Scotland and Northern Ireland for the National Deaf Children's Society

It is appalling that in almost nine out of ten cases, the already lengthy 26 week time limit to put support in place is missed.

Agreement on what will be provided often only comes once appeals processes begin. This can be exhausting and upsetting for parents, children and for teachers.

Meanwhile, frontline teachers of the deaf, who play a massive role in a deaf child’s life, have fallen by almost a third across Northern Ireland since 2011.

Put simply, we’re spending larger sums on SEN support and it still isn’t always reaching the children that need it. If we want to remove unnecessary costs, let’s make sure assessments are done accurately in the first place, and reduce the time, money and energy wasted on unnecessary appeals.

Good support provided in the right way is vital because when deaf children receive it in the early years and at school, there’s no reason why they can’t achieve the same as every other child. Despite recent improvement and the best efforts of education professionals, deaf children are still twice as likely not to get five good GCSEs including English and Maths.

In the face of these huge challenges, there are two key factors that can make a difference.

Firstly, we need leadership from the top. Seeing assembly members discuss the key issues affecting deaf children is crucial, but we need action to address the gap in achievement between deaf and hearing children, particularly as so many have fallen even further behind during the pandemic.

Most importantly, we must address the problem before it begins and this is where the education minister’s announcement progressing our new SEN system will be critical.

Our first task must be making sure we have the right system in place for the assessment and identification of a deaf child’s needs at the very beginning. Without having to challenge schools or the Education Authority, families must be told who will be supporting their child, for how long and how this will improve their lives.

With 1,500 deaf children in Northern Ireland, parents and teachers really do need access to specialist support and the right technology, especially as many often have limited or no prior knowledge of childhood deafness.

But leadership from the top isn’t enough – the second priority must be accountability. It’s abundantly clear that we need to establish a stronger accountability system for SEN services, one which challenges them to improve and provides both families and policy makers with the information they need. How can we know if support is effective and efficient if we do not have robust monitoring, evaluation and inspections?

With better leadership and an accountable support system that really delivers, change is possible. This is particularly relevant for the current generation of deaf young people, who amid the pandemic will leave school to enter a very different labour market.

Deaf young people can work anywhere and have the same dreams as hearing people, but to realise their potential, they need support before starting school, when they’re at school and as they leave it. For a rarer disability like childhood deafness, receiving tailored transition support is incredibly important and this requires input from specialist staff. Their progress will show us whether the changes being made are getting through.

In all of this, we also need to remember that each child is different and in many cases, needs change as children grow older. Implementing these improvements can help us build a dedicated support system that responds to and provides for the needs of the children who rely on it.

Deaf children could finally get the support they need to close the attainment gap between them and their hearing classmates and to live the lives they have always aimed for. Every child deserves the same chance in life, and deaf children are no exception.

• Alasdair O’Hara is head of policy at the National Deaf Children’s Society (Scotland and Northern Ireland)

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