50% cut to special needs budget branded ‘attack on vulnerable’ and ‘amputation’ of service
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Derry City & Strabane District Council Governance & Strategic Planning Committee blasted the Department of Education’s decision to reduce funding from £22m to £11m.
Members agreed to write to the Department expressing ‘alarm’ at what were described as ‘drastic funding cuts’ in a proposal by People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin.
"DE has decided that they are going to slash the budget from £22m to £11m and I think that this is going to impact a lot of children who may not now receive additional support in their schools.
“It is going to impact the staff, the SEN coordinators, it will have an overall impact I think inside the schools. It is not an acceptable way for DE to treat children, especially some of the most vulnerable.
“I've already been contacted by quite a few parents. Some parents were actually sending me videos of their children, before and after they received special educational help in the schools, and they are very worried about what the next year will bring.
"I would also worry about the many parents who are hoping that their children could get additional support in schools and that is less likely now,” said Colr. Harkin.
Sinn Féin Councillor Paul Boggs said: “There is nobody in schools, there is no parent, who can even think about the impact these cuts are going to have because any teacher you speak to, any SEN coordinator you speak to, anybody that comes in from EA will tell you the exact same thing - we are already under immense pressure. There are teachers who are working harder than ever to try and support young people.”
Independent Councillor Gary Donnelly blasted: “Once again the most vulnerable in society are being attacked. There is no other way to put it and this will have a knock-on effect, an immediate knock-on effect on the carers and parents.
"This will have a further effect on vulnerable children and young people as they get older. It is an absolute disgrace and it is not acceptable.
“I'm sure every councillor in here at this time of year has been approached by the parents of children with additional needs who find it difficult with regards to the allocation of school places and you can see the stress that this causes to parents and in particular the very, very negative effect this will have on the children while other children will be allocated schools.”
"A lot of children need that stability. They need that routine. They need that assurance.”
SDLP Councillor Brian Tierney described the cut as ‘extremely alarming’.
"I have been an elected representative for just ten years and over that time we are seeing more and more families coming to us looking for help for children who have special educational needs whether it is...supporting schools, support with benefits or access to services.
"There is an increasing demand out there and the very fact that the DE are suggesting that they are going to cut it is extremely, extremely confusing to me.”
UUP Alderman Derek Hussey said: “When I retired from teaching 25 years ago special needs had been underfunded and it has progressively been underfunded for decades.
"It has got to the point that we should no longer be talking about cuts because this is amputation of provision to the service of those vulnerable people in our society.”
The ‘Journal’ asked the DE for a response to the councillors’ criticism and it pointed to a significant reduction to its budget which has led to pressures running into the hundreds of millions.
DE also said the £11m reduction will be made available for SEN coordination but that this will be rolled out over a longer period.
A spokesperson said: “The education budget has been reduced by 2.5 per cent and faces estimated pressures of £382m. Despite this, funding allocated to the Education Authority (EA) for SEN has been maintained at the same level as last year to support services to children with SEN and this will be monitored carefully over the year.
“Schools have received £70m to date to support implementation of the SEND Act [Special Education Needs and Disability Act] which will ultimately deliver better outcomes for children.
"The reduction of £11m referred to forms part of funding to support schools and teachers in preparing for new duties which will now be rolled out over a longer period, supported by the remaining £11m budget provided for this purpose.”
The spokesperson also referred to DE’s support for the Middletown Centre for Autism in Armagh, a facility which was established in 2007 by the Irish Department of Education and Skills Ireland and DE to ‘support the promotion of excellence throughout Northern Ireland and Ireland in the education of children and young people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders’.
“The Department will also continue to provide support through the Middletown Centre for Autism, SEN early years programmes and summer provision.
“The Department’s aim is that every child with Special Educational Needs is happy, learning and succeeding.
"To achieve this, we will continue to work closely with the EA and other stakeholders to progress the comprehensive transformation agenda to improve outcomes for children with SEN through delivery of high quality, child-centred and cost-effective services.”