Thousands of children with special needs are being denied access to a £25m boost to their education because of a major row between the DUP and Sinn Fein, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.
The multi-million pound package — ring-fenced to make important changes to special educational needs (SEN) provision — has been on hold for months while the government parties argue over the outcome of a review.
The Special Educational and Additional Needs Review — completed by the Department of Education around seven months ago — needs Executive approval before going out for public consultation.
However, the policy proposals have not yet been discussed by ministers.
The recommendations — if given the go ahead — will lead to an overhaul and modernisation of the process of assessing children with special needs and will also ensure that the services provided for them are improved. Much of the £25m would be spent on training or retraining for teachers.
In an interview with the Telegraph earlier this year, Education Minister Caitriona Ruane said that the process which legally defines children as MLAs are due to debate the situation in the Assembly tomorrow when they discuss a motion proposed by Sinn Fein that the Executive should agree to publishing the review for consultation.
The DUP’s education spokesman Mervyn Storey claims that Sinn Fein wants to expand the definition of SEN to incorporate a number of social factors.
He said: “The Minister appears to have become fixated with legislating for other groups of pupils including travellers, young carers, school aged mothers and those who have suffered a bereavement. While undoubtedly these young people require assistance, we believe it is entirely inappropriate for them to lumped into the same single category as statemented children with severe learning difficulties.
“The numbers of young people with special needs has mushroomed in recent years. The DUP firmly believes that it is those with the most severe special needs where our resources should be prioritised.”
Sinn Fein education spokesperson John O'Dowd said: “The review document was drawn up by experts from the specialists fields involved and was widely regarded as a non-contentious issue.
“The DUP is in effect blocking the democratic right of the public to be involved in policy development by denying a public consultation.
“It is time the DUP cut their objection to SEN and set aside their indefensible position to allow the SEN review to proceed.”
Dr Peter Cunningham, principal of Ceara Special School in Lurgan, said that the SEN review is “vitally important” and warned that if the stalemate is not sorted out soon, money set aside could be lost.
He said: “It represents the views of hundreds of professionals across several disciplines. A point often overlooked is the fact that it is a consultation document. Politicians are free to disagree or agree – but let the people decide. This should be sorted out in the Assembly as soon as possible.
“Under the current climate, I think if the money is not spent it will be moved to somewhere else.”
A spokesman for the Royal National Institute for the Blind in Northern Ireland said: “Only when the politicians allow us to see these proposals shall we be able to have a full and informed debate on the future of special educational needs provision in Northern Ireland.”
In Northern Ireland there are 44 special schools – including two hospital schools – and 170 special units attached to 88 mainstream schools which cater for a wide range of special educational needs.