Plan for radical changes to special needs education requires scrutiny

Micah Jennings at Glenveagh Special School, where he is a pupil
Micah Jennings at Glenveagh Special School, where he is a pupil

Our 10 year old son Micah has autism, ADHD, severe learning disability, challenging behaviours and a sensory processing disorder.

Providing equal opportunities in education for Micah requires consistent, specialist expertise provided by staff at Glenveagh Special School, a provision which we believe to be at risk under the recent ‘super-school’ proposals from the Education Authority (EA).

Currently, children and young people who attend special schools have had their needs assessed and documented in a legally binding ‘Statement of Educational Needs’.

This process revolves around the individual pupil, as required by the Education (NI) Order 1996. The individual is then placed in best matched specialist school, where the whole school ethos, shape of curriculum delivery and wealth of expertise are designed and best suited to meet the specific needs of their pupils.

The EA’s recent ‘super schools’ proposal may deliver special education which is local, but sadly at the expense of the specialist, and hold serious implications for the education system at all levels.

Firstly, all children with a diagnosis of moderate learning disability will no longer be given a place in special schools, but placed within mainstream schools.

Despite the obvious concerns and consequences, this move is dressed up as a beneficial, ‘positive transformation’ for all. Can the EA demonstrate, beyond using positive terminology, how they are committed to the educational, emotional and social needs of these children?

Secondly, under the EA’s ‘super school’ proposal, the criteria which determines any special school placement is shifted from the individual child’s specific needs to the child’s locality and postcode.

Effectively the EA intend to address all special needs pupils with a cost-cutting, ‘one size will have to fit all’ mentality, a wide range of needs lumped (or dumped) in together. How can the EA justify such a shift in the light of existing legislation, which ensures an equal education for such children purely by focussing on their individual needs?

Thirdly, no longer schools shaped by a specialist skillset, these ‘super’ schools will struggle to cater effectively for the vast range of needs within the catchment area, which will fluctuate unpredictably from year to year.

The EA’s proposals will inevitably result in the dilution and loss of specialist whole-school expertise, which is the means by which many pupils’ needs are currently being met.

For Micah this means that autism specific communication aids and strategies are used throughout the school, there is appropriate accommodation for sensory needs, and staff are skilled in understanding and managing challenging behaviours and able to integrate speech, language and occupational therapy strategies into all aspects of his everyday school experience.

Currently, under the suggested East Belfast school amalgamations, for children like Micah, there are no staff trained and capable to meet such requirements; and more alarmingly, no plans to detail such provision despite the tight time-frame suggested in the proposals.

These proposals are concerning not only for parents and pupils, but also for the staff. Principals and teachers are already voicing concerns, not only over job security, unmanageable class sizes, limited support and resources, unmanageable accommodation but most importantly, the expectations being placed on them to meet educational requirements for pupils who present with a very different type of special needs to their current skillset.

Finally, we must ask is it appropriate for the EA to publish their proposals, and proceed with consultations regarding these proposals while there is still no Minister for Education in place?

To whom is the EA accountable throughout this process? These proposals must be ‘signed off’ by a designated role, so who will be putting their name to this, and is it right that they claim responsibility for a process in which they have been absent?

In response to these proposals many pupils, parents, staff, politicians and non-statutory organisations have joined together to voice our belief that the ‘super-schools’ proposed by the EA may be super in size, but not in the quality of education which these children and young people both require and deserve.