Country information for UK (Northern Ireland) - Systems of support and specialist provision

Development of inclusion

The inclusion of learners with special educational needs (SEN) in mainstream settings is a key tenet of the Department of Education’s policy, while recognising that there should be a continuum of provision to meet a diversity of need which, through legislation, recognises the learner’s individual needs. The continuum of provision therefore includes placements of learners in mainstream classes, in special units attached to mainstream schools, in special schools within the grant-aided sector and in a small number of independent special schools.

The Education and Training Inspectorate inspects special educational provision across the range of school types and settings. In recent inspections, it has found quality provision in both special schools and in special units attached to mainstream schools.

Special schools are active members of Area Learning Communities. These communities, established by the Department of Education, enable clusters of schools within a certain geographical area to determine their priorities regarding the delivery of the Entitlement Framework. This framework guarantees all learners access to a minimum number of courses at Key Stage 4 and post-16 to enable them to reach their full potential no matter what school they attend. In most of these communities, there is a sub-group for SEN chaired by the principals of the participating special schools. This sub-group helps to drive the inclusion agenda and widen the range of learning pathways and accreditation courses for all learners. In addition, this work is underpinned by the Department of Education’s policy on shared education and reconciliation.

Current provision

SEN provision is matched to the learner’s individual needs. Provision may be made in:

  • special schools, designed, for example, for learners with particular needs, e.g. severe learning difficulties and moderate learning difficulties;
  • Learning Support Centres attached to mainstream schools;
  • mainstream classes themselves.

It may consist of home or hospital tuition, pre-primary support or placement outside Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, there are 39 special schools (plus 1 hospital school) and approximately 188 special units attached to around 90 mainstream schools. These cater for a wide range of special educational needs. Units make specialist provision for needs such as autism, speech, language and communication difficulties, hearing impairment, and moderate learning difficulties.

Special educational needs review

The on-going review of SEN will see the introduction of a new SEN Framework. Some of the key aspects of the new Framework include:

  • a move from five stages to three stages of support, as outlined in the new Code of Practice on the identification, assessment and provision of Special Educational Needs;
  • new rights for children with SEN who are over 16 years of age;
  • a proposed reduction in the timescale for the statutory assessment and statementing process from 26 to 22 weeks;
  • the introduction of a proposed upper time limit for the statutory assessment and statementing process. A number of exceptions can be applied during the process. Under the existing SEN Framework, once a prescribed exception applies there is no end point by which a stage must be completed – it is an open-ended exception. It is proposed that the new Framework, even where an exception applies, will impose an upper time limit;
  • a statutory requirement for children with SEN to have a Personal Learning Plan;
  • a requirement for each school to appoint a Learning Support Co-ordinator (LSC) who will have responsibility for co-ordinating provision for children with SEN (this must be a teacher on the staff of the school);
  • a proposal for a more streamlined Annual Review process so that schools can focus on provision for the child rather than facing a large administrative burden. Some flexibility will be introduced, which may mean that an annual review meeting will not be required in certain circumstances;
  • a new right of appeal following annual review of a statement, if the EA does not wish to amend the statement;
  • new co-operation duties on health and education to identify, assess and provide for children who may or may not have SEN and for transition planning (for children aged 14). There is a new duty for education and health to prepare a joint plan in relation to new co-operation duties;
  • a new mediation service for children and parents. This service will be made available when the EA has made a decision that carries a right of appeal to the Tribunal.

Quality indicators for special needs education

Indicators of SEN are now in place in all schools to inform planning and provide for monitoring of individual progress. The Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) introduced the Inspection and Self-Evaluation Framework (ISEF) for special education in 2016. It uses these indicators as part of its external quality assurance of the provision in schools. The ISEF provides a framework for schools and governors to self-evaluate outcomes for learners and quality of provision, leadership and management, along with governance, care and welfare, and safeguarding. ISEF documents can be found on the ETI website. Schools themselves are encouraged to use indicators as part of their internal quality assurance. The indicators are also supported by a resource file on SEN for mainstream schools. A separate support guide for pupils in the Irish-medium sector is available.

Special schools may have links with mainstream schools and follow the same curriculum and are part of the Area Learning Communities. For further information, please refer to the Together Towards Improvement section on the Education and Training Inspectorate's website.

Last updated 18/02/2020

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