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Postcode lottery for pupils awaiting special educational needs assessment

By Lindsay Fergus

Pupils with learning difficulties face a postcode lottery when it comes to waiting times for assessment by educational psychologists.

Children struggling in the classroom are waiting on average just two weeks to see a psychologist in the Western Education and Library Board’s Educational Psychology Service (EPS), whereas those in the South Eastern Education and Library Board are waiting on average 309 days.

That means some special educational needs pupils (SEN) — including those with literacy problems — are being left to flounder in the classroom for a full academic year while awaiting assessment.

Such is the pressure on the EPS that at least one board has had to recruit more psychologists.

In the eight months running up to the end of April this year, there were 7,859 referrals province-wide — that’s an average of 982 children being put forward for assessment every month, according to a Freedom of Information request by this paper.

The North Eastern Education and Library Board, which had 1,262 referrals in that timeframe, said: “The board is in the process of recruiting educational psychologists — recently there has been a greater demand for psychologists in Northern Ireland than supply.”

Chairman of Stormont’s education committee Mervyn Storey described the current system as “not fit for purpose”.

At the start of May this year 1,988 special educational needs pupils were waiting on assessment and 155 of them had been waiting more than a year, according to data from the five boards.

And schools and parents are limited in what they can do as only the EPS can give the green light for outside specialist help for children with a wide range of problems, such as dyslexia, Asperger’s and behavioural issues.

The majority of the numbers are made up of children who struggle with literacy and numeracy.

The only other option for parents frustrated by a lengthy wait for EPS is to pay for a private assessment, which is frowned upon by the boards.

But with an assessment costing hundreds of pounds and tutoring services for children with dyslexia costing around £25 an hour that is beyond the reach of many parents in the current economic climate.

However, if a child is assessed by EPS and found to be in need of additional support, the pupil’s teacher and the school’s special educational needs co-ordinator are supported by specialists from outside the school.

North Antrim MLA Mervyn Storey, who is also the DUP education spokesman, expressed concern that pupils, particularly those in need of literacy support, were being failed by the system.

“It means that some children who are delayed in terms of assessment are then being moved from primary to post-primary with the initial problem having not been addressed and facing a much wider range of subjects,” he said. “It leaves pupils disheartened with the education system and lacking in confidence.This policy is creating failure.”

Although the EPS falls under the boards’ remit, raising literacy standards is a key target for the Department of Education.

Northern Ireland has a record of poor reading standards, which has left one in four adults without basic literacy and numeracy skills.

The Programme for Government states that by 2012/13 the Assembly should develop proposals to significantly improve literacy levels.

However, a Department of Education spokeswoman said: “The statutory responsibility for identifying, assessing and, in appropriate cases, making provision for children with special educational needs rests with schools and the five education and library boards. The Department does not have any role in the process.

“As part of the Review of SEN and Inclusion the Department is funding the five boards to run a series of pilots over three financial years which include building the capacity of the school sector in early identification, assessment and provision for SEN children.”

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