A damning assessment of the provision for special educational needs was given by the Children’s Law Centre (CLC) at a meeting of Stormont’s Education Committee on Wednesday.
The CLC’s Rachel Hogan said "disability discrimination was institutionalised" in the system and that not enough had been done to address concerns consistently raised over the years.
She told MLAs that 97% of parents taking a case against the Education Authority (EA) concerning a child requiring special educational needs had been successful.
She said that was a clear indication that the assessment process was fatally flawed.
"The CLC’s legal advice service has been dealing with continuously increasing numbers of queries about SEND (special educational needs and disabilities)statutory operations for many years, to the point where these now form the largest proportion of our workload," she added.
"Parents are the experts when it comes to their own children, but the EA is not basing decisions on the evidence. There are very serious questions to be asked on that.
"The issues experienced by children and their parents and carers and schools have been caused by unlawful operation of that framework and process failings which were essentially allowed to continue and to escalate unchecked, probably driven at least in some part by chronic under-resourcing relative to growing need.
"In 2015/16, there were 145 SEND appeals (of which only four were dismissed), compared to 378 in 2018/19 (of which only 11 were dismissed). A total of 184 cases were recorded as conceded by the EA in 2018/19.
"This means that in over 97% of cases, parents obtained a successful outcome for their child by either winning or settling and withdrawing their appeals.
"This indicates poor first instance decision-making which is not evidence-based.
"Disability discrimination is flowing from unmet need which has caused barriers to educational access and inclusion within school. It has become institutionalised within our education system."
EA chief executive Sara Long took issue with the words ‘institutionalised discrimination’.
"I’m not sure it’s the terminology I would use," she said.
"What I would say is that they have been failed and we can do better. We should do better and we will do better.
"I don’t think it’s for the EA alone to undertake this reform.
"When I have been before this committee, I have only been honest and transparent. I have acknowledged the issues we have faced and apologised for them.
"We have now embarked on our programme of improvement.
"As of March 31 this year, no child is waiting longer than 26 weeks for their statutory assessment to be completed.
"There is still more that needs to be achieved right across the SEND system. We still have more than 150 recommendations for change. It will take time."
But the CLC’s Ms Hogan said the public should not tolerate mere headline "wins" or bare statistics in terms of progress.
"There has been a very significant focus on the 26-week statutory time limit for production of a statement," she added.
"The CLC is aware that the EA has been making a considerable effort to bring all statements within the timeframe.
"While the CLC welcomes all improvement in EA systems and processes, statutory timescale compliance is a very basic mandatory legal requirement.
"Although the EA has mountains to climb to get to the point of legal compliance with various aspects of the SEND framework, it will not be enough to demonstrate basic legal compliance. Lawful operation is not optional. It is, or should be, a default position for a public authority."
She also questioned how many children were being left behind since only those people with knowledge, support and resources can access appeal rights and challenge a decision.
SDLP education spokesperson Daniel McCrossan said the rate of successful appeals was "a complete disgrace" and urged the Education Minister "to get a grip of the situation".
"I was astounded to learn that in 2018/19, 97% of appeals had a successful outcome," he said.
"This is a startling figure, but behind the statistic is children and their families in anguish, battling for fairness in a system that is completely broken.
"Children with special educational needs and their families are being put through an appalling process, led by the EA.
"While frontline education staff are working hard, the system is flawed and is failing children day and daily.
"It is also deeply concerning that Minister for Education Peter Weir appears not to have seen fit to act on these appalling figures.
"It is not that he is unaware of the concerns around SEND — I have raised these issues with the minister repeatedly. He must get a grip of this spiralling problem and urgently commission a root-and-branch review of SEND."