SEN: Department appeals to principals to set up classes for children

The Department of Education has written to all principals asking them to set up classes for children with special educational needs (SEN).

In a letter, the permanent secretary warned it would be a challenge to ensure sufficient school places.

The education minister previously said that SEN pupils need more than 1,000 extra school places in 2024.

In 2023, hundreds of children waited weeks to find out if they had a place for September.

Emma Morgan's five-year-old autistic son Tom was one of those who faced a long wait for a P1 school place - and also had issues before that.

"The previous year we struggled to get a nursery space for our son," she told BBC News NI.

"We actually had to pay for a private independent nursery at a very high cost but there was no other option for early intervention for him at that stage.

"When it came to a P1 place we thought it would be a more straightforward process.

"However, there were so many barriers in the way."

What is behind the SEN school place shortage?

Ms Morgan joined other parents of children with SEN at Stormont to protest about the wait for school places for their children.

She also helped form the SEN Reform NI group of parents.

Tom eventually got a place in a specialist social and communication class in a mainstream school.

"He's happy there and the development that he's made has shown what the right environment can do," she said.

Permanent secretary Mark Browne's letter, seen by BBC News NI, appealed for more principals to set up specialist education provision in mainstream schools - classes known as SPiMS.

He warned of "significant pressures in ensuring appropriate provision for all children in their local community".

"There is an increasing number of children who require specialist provision," his letter continued.

"Ensuring sufficient appropriate places for September 2024 is a challenge for us collectively as an education system.

"I would, therefore, ask each of you to begin the process of engagement around specialist provisions which we expect to become a feature of the majority of schools over the next number of years."

'Critical strategic challenge'

On Wednesday, the chief executive of the Education Authority (EA) told a Stormont committee he was "reluctant to use the word crisis" in relation to places for SEN pupils.

"I would be very comfortable to say it is a critical strategic challenge for us," EA interim chief executive Richard Pengelly told the education committee.

Mr Pengelly did admit that the EA had to "up our game" in communicating with parents of children with SEN.

The committee was also told it was unlikely all children would have a place by the end of the current school year.

"The reality of the situation is I don't believe that say come the end of June we are going to have all children places at that point," EA official Dale Hanna said.

He added: "This is going to be a process that is going to continue throughout the summer".

Ms Morgan said the timing of Mr Browne's letter would be "very concerning for parents".

"There's a feeling that they're being scrambled together with this late plea to local schools," she said.

"It doesn't build trust and confidence in the SEN education system.

"There's so many problems with communication, with placements, with early intervention that it's very concerning for parents."

She added: "If you think of the position we were in, we were able to go to Tom's unit that had been running for 16 years, meet the staff and see the children in the unit who were very happy.

"We just had a gut feeling that would be the right school for our son.

"With regard to the SPiMS we would plead that these are being done in the right way."

Schools asked for 'urgent' SEN consideration

Ms Morgan also said many children with SEN needed additional "interventions and therapies".

"We would be asking how are these SPiMS going to offer support to children with SEN.

"There seems to a complete lack of planning.

"It's no surprise that we're in this position this year because we were in this position last year."

A Department of Education official recently told Stormont's education committee that more than 100 schools had refused to create new specialist classes for children with special educational needs.

Mr Browne's letter asked school heads to complete "an online survey to articulate your position in relation to establishing a SPiM for the first time, or additional SPiM classes, and what support you need to enable your school to do so".

"I ask you to give this request the most careful and urgent consideration," he concluded.