Belfast Telegraph

Cut in nursery hours for kids with special needs put on hold after O'Dowd orders a rethink

By Rebecca Black

A controversial decision to slash nursery hours for pre-school children with learning difficulties has been suspended, Assembly Members have been told.

Education Authority chief executive Gavin Boyd made the announcement while giving evidence to the education committee at Stormont.

It had been proposed to cut the early years provision for children who attend nursery in special schools from 4.5 hours a day to 2.5 hours.

The reduction was revealed in a letter sent from the Education Authority to a parent earlier this month - sparking concern among families of special needs children.

It confirmed that from this September "all pre-school children will receive 2.5 hours in pre-school per day".

But Education Minister John O'Dowd intervened last week and ordered the Education Authority to review its decision.

He claimed the decision was flawed.

Mr Boyd and Dr Clare Mangan appeared before the education committee at the Assembly yesterday morning.

Mr Boyd said the decision had now been "set aside" while a review takes place.

Dr Mangan said the review should be completed relatively quickly, as a policy had to be in place before the next school year.

"It is not anticipated to run for a long period of time," she told the committee. "We need to ensure we can make arrangements for children for September 2016."

Dr Mangan explained the proposed policy was designed to bring consistency to early years provision for children with special needs across Northern Ireland.

"At this point in time there is inconsistency and there are issues around access," she explained.

There are currently 41 special schools in Northern Ireland and the proposal to cut hours would have affected 29.

Mr Boyd told the committee that far more children with special needs attended mainstream schools, and the Education Authority would encourage that. He said around 17,000 children with special needs attended mainstream schools.

Mr O'Dowd said it should "go back to the drawing board".

"The Education Authority have to come forward with a decisive position in relation to the future of special needs education in the nursery sector. But their current decision is flawed," he claimed.

"It's flawed in two elements. They've made their decision based on the Learning to Learn policy. The Learning to Learn policy does not relate to special educational needs.

"And they've made the decision without consultation. It's key - particularly in areas such as this - that you consult with the schools, the parents and the pupils about the future of early years education in the special educational needs sector."

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