Oct 17, 2023, Belfast Telegraph: Department of Education approves plans for 450 new special school places in Belfast https://m.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/education/department-of-education-approves-plans-for-450-new-special-school-places-in-belfast/a2004554912.html
The Department of Education has approved a plan to create almost 450 more special school places in Belfast with the construction of a new special school and an extension of the existing Harberton School.
Harberton, which has around 330 pupils, currently runs on two campus in south and north Belfast.
The two new projects are expected to cost over £80m [$98M] and are dependent on funding being obtained.
The decision will provide some relief on the pressure for places in special schools which left many families struggling to find places for their children over the summer.
Across 10 special schools in Belfast the number of pupils has risen by 25% in five years, from 1,470 in 2018 to 1,845 in 2023, with the Education Authority faced with a major problem in finding appropriate school places for hundreds of children who need specialist education.
The Education Authority want to build a new special school for 275 pupils while creating around 170 additional places in Harberton School, admitting young people up until the age of 19, as opposed to 11 at present.
Enrolment at Harberton would rise to 500 from the current 330 pupils.
While the plan has now been approved by Permanent Secretary at the Department, Dr Mark Browne, it will likely be the end of the decade before any new school will be available for use, and that depends on the necessary funding being found.
The Education Authority is pressing for some of the new places to be available in temporary buildings by September 2024 to ease the pressure on places but admitted that would be a “significant challenge”.
Last year the Education Authority estimated that building the new school would cost around £49m [$60M] and another £32m [$39M] would be needed to provide additional places in the shorter term, including extending Harberton in the Fortwilliam area of north Belfast.
Despite the uncertainty over funding, the decision has been welcomed by Harberton’s principal James Curran as ‘hugely significant’.
“The much reported capacity pressures are increasing at an alarming rate and this decision will hopefully, with adequate funding, ease some of those pressures in Belfast,” he told BBC News NI.
“For Harberton, this is hugely significant….
Meanwhile, the department has announced an additional £5m [$6M] of maintenance funding for Special Schools this year. …
“The Department is facing an exceptionally difficult funding position given high construction price inflation, a static education budget and rising levels of need across the entire education estate,” Dr Browne added.
“The Department recognises the significant need in the Special School estate and will continue to make the case for additional investment.”