Northern Ireland's "under pressure" education system cannot fulfil its obligation to children with special educational needs (SEN), it has been warned.
Children's Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma reviewed the extent of SEN in mainstream schools in a newly published report, Too Little, Too Late.
Ms Yiasouma said the pressure on schools has been compounded by a significant rise in the number of children with SEN over the past 15 years.
Student numbers have increased by 48% since 2004/05, and over the same period the number of children with statements of SEN has risen by 60%.
From 2008 to 2018 the number of pupils enrolled in special schools in Northern Ireland rose by 30%.
There are now 78,917 pupils in schools who have some form of SEN, representing 22.8% of the entire school population.
Of these, 18,425 pupils have a statement of SEN, outlining the extra help they are to be given in school.
If a pupil is believed to need extra support in school due to SEN, the Education Authority (EA) carries out an assessment of their needs and then issues a statement of what additional help they are to receive. The Children's Commissioner says adequate support for children with SEN is one of the concerns raised most with her office.
"The education of children with special educational needs is an area that has caused deep concern, frustration and, at times, distress," she said.
Her review highlights the detrimental impacts for children with SEN in mainstream schools when their needs are not identified and supported.
Parents/carers who participated in the review highlighted the severe negative consequences of the current over-stretched system on children's mental health and wellbeing.
The review also found delays at all stages of the SEN process: in identifying children's needs; providing supports and services to meet these needs; delivery of information and guidance to parents/carers; and in assessing children's progress.
Feedback from school principals highlighted that a lack of funding, combined with insufficient time, opportunity and resources, has impeded schools' ability to effectively and efficiently respond to children's needs, implement appropriate supports and engage in early intervention practice.
Many teachers also lack sufficient training, and subsequent knowledge and skill, to identify and respond to the varied support requirements of children with SEN in mainstream schools.
Ms Yiasouma said her report "reflects the harsh reality of aspects of our SEN system".
"It outlines the frustrations of many parents and professionals in trying to get their voices heard by an education system that has, to date, consistently demonstrated an inability to prioritise and respect the perspective of these key stakeholders," she said.
"There is clear evidence that our education system, as currently organised, cannot fulfil its obligation to all children with SEN."
Ms Yiasouma has made 40 recommendations on reforming the systems.
Appearing before Stormont's Education Committee earlier this month, EA chief executive Sara Long said that the authority was guilty of "significant shortcomings" after an internal audit found a series of failings in the way it provides support for pupils with SEN.