REFLECTIONS FROM NORTHERN IRELAND

by Dr Rosemary Kilpatrick, Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Education, Queen’s University, Belfast

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In the United Kingdom, children with special educational needs have been included in education legislation as far back as the Education Act of 1944, which identified eleven categories of handicap. However, at that time there were no formal procedures for identifying and providing for such children and it was not until the inquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People, chaired by Lady Warnock in 1978, that provision for children with special educational needs came to be a topic of greater public concern and increased priority. The Warnock Report shaped current provision for special education throughout the United Kingdom and formed the basis for the Education Act in England and Wales 1981 and the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986. This legislation introduced the concept of special educational needs, established procedures for identifying, assessing, recording and reviewing individual needs and gave parents greater opportunity for involvement in the decision-making process. In addition, the Warnock Report anticipated that approximately twenty per cent of pupils (or one in five) would have special educational needs at some stage in their school career, with approximately two per cent of these children having such needs as to require long-term, additional support and therefore requiring a statement of special educational needs.

While these figures do not have a sound statistical base, they have acquired a degree of influence in determining policy. However, the Department of Education (DE) accept that the estimated percentage of children needing statements is now outdated and state that they are not used for any administrative purposes, to determine levels of funding or to set a quota for numbers of statements. Furthermore, DE agrees that recent trends in the growth of statemented pupils will continue in the immediate future (NI Affairs Committee 1998).

Special education again came under scrutiny when the government conducted a general review of education in England and Wales, which resulted in reforms to provision for special educational needs—echoed in Northern Ireland through the Education (Northern Ireland) Order (1996) and associated regulations. One of the major changes introduced through the Education Order 1996 was the greater involvement of parents of children with special educational needs and their right to appeal through the Special Educational Needs Tribunal. However, there is increasing evidence of parental dissatisfaction (e.g. Riddick, 1996) and the potential for conflict between parents, schools and Education and Library Boards (ELBs) is considerable. Most parents wish their children to receive the support necessary to ensure that they make as much progress as possible at school, yet schools and ELBs are faced with limited resources to be shared equally among a range of children with special needs. Increasingly it is envisaged that any disagreements in this area will be resolved through appeals to the Special Educational Needs Tribunal.

Attention also should be drawn to the extremely limited reference to the involvement of the child, as opposed to the parent, in all the recent education legislation. This is in contrast to the Children (NI) Order (1995) which is based on the principal of paramountcy of the child and requires childcare authorities to take the child’s point of view into account. This difference in emphasis could possibly lead to differences of opinion—as, for example, in a situation where a young person identified as having special educational needs is ‘looked after’ by the local health and social services trust, but he or she has a preference for a different educational placement.

The second major change associated with the Education Order of 1996—which has had a much more significant impact on teachers and schools—is the provision for the Code of Practice on Special Educational Needs which schools are required to ‘have regard to’ when making decisions about these children. The Code (which came into force in September 1998) introduced a formal five-stage process for identifying and assessing special educational needs. Stages One to Three are school-based and refer to children who have special educational needs that are not seen as so great as to require a statement. The school is required to place these children on a special educational needs register and inform the parents of this decision. When the child is referred for a statutory assessment they move into Stage Four; on the basis of this assessment the child may receive a statement and thus be at Stage Five of the Code.

For pupils without statements of special educational needs (i.e. those at Stages One to Three of the Code) funding for resources etc. is included in the Targeting Social Need monies allocated to schools through each board’s Local Management of Schools formulae. The Boards use different methodologies for allocating special needs resources and this difference, along with the fact that the money is not ring-fenced, results in variability across and within boards and schools in provision for non-statemented pupils. Distribution of support and resources within a school therefore depends to a large extent on the decision of the individual principal (though the Code states that it is ultimately the responsibility of the Board of Governors). Indeed as Lundy (1998) points out, there is little opportunity of ensuring equity of resources for these pupils until there is some clearer matching of funding to non-statemented children with special educational needs.

In contrast, statements identify both the child’s educational needs and the provision to be made available to meet those needs and the child’s ELB undertakes responsibility for the various aspects of the statementing procedure, including providing funding to meet statement requirements. Children with statements may be educated in mainstream or special schools, but although there is still a clear and continued role for the excellent network of special schools in Northern Ireland (which are full to capacity), there is also a stated government policy in support of the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream provision.

The Department of Education commissioned research to establish baseline data at the time of the introduction of the Code of Practice in Northern Ireland. Findings from this research identified wide variation in the extent and the quality of responses to the Code on the part of schools and support agencies (Dyson et al. 1999). The researchers further argued that special education needs policy and practice in many schools appeared to be based on a narrow model of special educational needs which focussed principally on difficulties in literacy and numeracy, with a tendency to respond to such difficulties outside the mainstream classroom. This was not to deny that there was evidence of apparently successful special needs practice, though this practice was not closely aligned with the inclusive spirit of the Code which states that: ‘Children with special educational needs, including those with statements, should, wherever appropriate and taking into account the wishes of their parents, be educated alongside their peers in mainstream schools’.

On the basis of the findings from the research, it was argued that there was a need for a ‘re-visioning’ of the Code with the focus on the principles rather than practice. This, it was argued, could be achieved through the involvement of schools and other stakeholders and the establishment of a series of working groups which would review the specific implications of these principles.

Following the introduction of the Code, substantial funding has been dedicated to special education by the DE and there has been an intensive training programme for special educational needs co-ordinators. However, despite the Dyson report recommendations there has been little evidence of any initiative aimed at re-visioning the Code and this is somewhat disappointing, especially given the Minister for Education’s avowed support for the inclusion in a recent interview for the magazine Special (Spring 2001). It does seem somewhat unfair and unrealistic to imagine that schools will be able to devote the time and energy to create an inclusive philosophy without support and guidance. It is also relevant to note here that when discussing the issue of inclusion with teachers taking continuing professional development courses, it becomes clear that there is a lack of any shared understanding of the concept across Northern Ireland.

In this respect it is of interest that the Inclusive Index (which has been distributed to all schools in England to assist them in breaking down barriers which may prevent children and young people with special needs from being fully included in mainstream schools) has not, as yet, featured in Northern Ireland. This may, of course, be a recognition that the current education system may shortly undergo radical changes. The system is based on selection at eleven years of age, which could not possibly be seen as inclusive, a viewpoint which is supported by the recent research commissioned and published by DE into the effects of the selection system. However, in the autumn of 2001 the Post-Primary Review Body, which was tasked with consulting on the selective system and making recommendations on the future structure of post-primary education, published its findings. Their Report proposes that academic selection at eleven years of age should be abolished, that pupil profiles should be developed to provide information to parents, pupils and teachers on the child’s attributes and achievements, and that local collaborative networks of schools be created to form a system of ‘collegiates’. This last proposal could provide the perfect setting for the inclusion of all pupils with special educational needs regardless of where they were educated. It was therefore truly disappointing to find no mention of special schools in the proposed collegiates, despite the inclusive rhetoric. It also is interesting to note that the Report has developed its own categories of special educational needs which differ to those in the Code of Practice, though the implications of this are unclear—especially given the lack of any in-depth discussion regarding the rationale underpinning these new categories.

As a result of the various Orders and Regulations outlined above, special educational needs provision is now one of the most highly regulated areas of education in Northern Ireland, but there are still several issues which are the source of much concern. Underpinning these is the inclusion debate which, with increasing national and international obligations, alongside possible changes in the Northern Ireland educational system, is likely to remain key for some time to come. We await the outcome!

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