Progress on SEN reform “painfully slow and at risk” – Children’s Commissioner

31 January 2023
Several copies of NICCY's "Too Little, Too Late" report

The slow pace of progress in transforming SEN (Special Educational Needs) provision in Northern Ireland is concerning, particularly with the prospect of devastating budget cuts, Koulla Yiasouma, the NI Children’s Commissioner has said.  

“Although the commitment by relevant authorities to reform SEN education is apparent and encouraging, there is a real prospect that progress will soon grind to a halt when it should be accelerating,” the Commissioner said. 

NICCY have published the second progress update on SEN reform today. The report charts progress made on 40 recommendations from the ‘Too Little, Too Late: A Rights Based Review of Special Educational Needs (SEN) Provision in Mainstream Schools in Northern Ireland report, published in March 2020. 

The 2023 Monitoring Report acknowledges positive steps taken since 2020 by relevant authorities, involving a wide range of actions to bring forward and develop SEN projects.  

However, the report points out that there is still considerable work to be done in several areas including:  

  • investment in early identification and intervention; 
  • efforts to reduce excessive waiting times for support; 
  • the provision of numeracy support services for children with dyscalculia;  
  • support for children with SEN needs in Irish Medium Schools, or being home-schooled; 
  • implementing a mandatory programme to ensure adequate and ongoing training and development of all relevant school staff; 
  • publication of data regarding the suspension or expulsion of children with SEN from school; 
  • progress on implementing the SEND framework. 

“Three years on from our recommendations, we were beginning to see encouraging ‘green shoots’ of progress, however there are now serious concerns that these steps will be ‘nipped in the bud’ due to budget constraints,” the Commissioner said. 

The progress update on the ‘Too Little, Too Late’ report follows recent news that “catastrophic” cuts to the education budget may be forthcoming, which would have a particularly devastating impact on children with Special Educational Needs. 

“The findings of this report suggest that positive change is underway and that the education of so many children could be transformed for the better, if these efforts were adequately nurtured and encouraged,” Koulla said. 

“In the current financial and political climate it is to the credit of the relevant authorities that they have managed to make progress in this area, albeit slow progress.  

Less than two weeks ago, I expressed my concern at the proposed £110m cuts to education funding. It is clear that if the proposed cuts were to go ahead that they would have a devastating impact on the fragile SEN system as it exists today and also on planned transformation work. 

“These children and their families are unfortunately all too familiar with ‘making do’. They are not and have not been getting the support that they have a right to and these looming cuts may mean that they have even less to work with. 

“There are services for children with SEN in place, or planned for the future, which are clearly at risk due to potential budget cuts, including increased support for children transitioning from education into adult life and an expansion of the number of available Social, Behavioural and Emotional Wellbeing (SBEW) Early Intervention Officers.  

“It is a sad fact that these desperately needed services are now unlikely to be developed for the children who need them, something that I would encourage our local political parties to take note of. 

“The negligence of political institutions and resulting budget pressures cannot be allowed to continue to impact our most vulnerable children. I call on all political parties in NI to work together to address the urgent need for provision of sustainable and long-term financial investment in the SEN system. 

“Northern Ireland has a higher proportion of children with SEN needs than the rest of the UK. For too long parents and carers have been fighting for their children’s right to be educated in an environment where their specific needs are respected and approached with dignity.  

“I consider it imperative that interim measures are put in place as a matter of urgency, to address unmet need now. 

“In the absence of a NI Executive, I strongly urge the Secretary of State for NI to prioritise the funding needed to address longstanding systemic issues and ensure that the sustainable delivery of services needed for all children with SEN, so that their right to effective education is realised, enabling them to reach their full potential.” 

Concluding the Commissioner said: “Our review of SEN provision found that the needs of children were often addressed ‘Too Little, Too Late’. Three years on it is devastating that children are facing even more dire circumstances. We must act now.” 



Notes to Editors 

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