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Minister announces action plan on special needs 23 February 2007

EDUCATION Minister Anne Craine MHK has pledged to address shortcomings highlighted in an external review of the Special Needs and Psychology Service.

The report, by consultants Frances Gander and David Halligan, is published today (Friday) and points to considerable strengths in the Service and in schools but highlights weaknesses in the management and delivery of special needs provision.

The review was carried out at the request of Director of Education John Cain, who wanted to identify the Service’s strength and weaknesses and obtain advice about how the Service should be developed.

The consultants have replied with 15 recommendations for improvements to the Service, designed to bring about greater consistency and an improved level of service to children with special needs, who make up 20 per cent of the school population.

Mrs Craine said:

‘While we are pleased with the positive aspects the review has highlighted, we need to act straight away to correct shortcomings in the management and provision of special needs services. ‘An action plan is already being drawn up and we will work to a tight timetable to ensure weaknesses identified in this review are addressed.’

The review criticises the leadership and management of the Service and calls for it to be more closely linked with the Education Improvement Service. The consultants recommend an action plan be drawn up for the Service, saying schools feel they do not receive sufficient support and are uncertain over the level of service they should receive.

Schools value the advisory support they receive from Area Heads of Inclusion Support and Psychologists but need more of this sort of support, the consultants say. The ‘considerable expertise’ of Area Heads of Inclusion Support is recognised but the report suggests the five AHIS should be given more administrative assistance so their skills can be better utilised.

Head teachers need to be provided with greater clarity over the division of responsibilities between schools and the Service in running special needs units and nurture groups. Units should be encouraged to specialise in particular needs as it is ‘uneconomic and unworkable’ for each unit to meet the full range of needs.

Methods of assessing pupils’ progress are inconsistent, the review states, calling for targets to be set that are more closely related to the learning needs of individual pupils. The review praises the work of the Pre-School Assessment Centre, saying it gives youngsters with special needs a ‘good start’ that the later stages of their learning can build on. The Minister stresses the importance of early intervention in supporting children with additional needs and is pleased that the good work of the Centre is recognised in the report.

The review welcomes the readiness of schools to take on more of a role in meeting their pupils’ special needs. It says that both within schools and the Service, there are dedicated and talented staff.

A senior member of the Special Needs and Psychology Service is now tasked with drawing up an action plan stating how and when shortcomings will be addressed. That will be presented to the Minister and Department Members in the spring and will be evaluated by the consultants to ensure all the areas of concern are being addressed.

Ongoing work on addressing deficiencies will be monitored closely by the Department and reassessed by the consultants in July. Implementing the review’s recommendations may have budgetary implications for the Department, but many of the improvements will be made by making better use of existing resources.

The Minister said:

‘We know that parents are generally pleased with the support their children receive but we look forward to being able to provide better organised and managed services. A very important judgement in the report is that the Department has the capacity to improve its work in special needs. We intend to prove we have the capacity and the will to make the improvements recommended in the report.’

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