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(UK) Belfast: $61M needed for new special school; "substantial rise in demand"

Oct 17, 2023, BBC News: Harberton: New Belfast special needs school to be built
A new special school is to be built in Belfast but there is no indication yet that the near £50m [$61M] needed is available.

The Department of Education's permanent secretary has approved a plan to create almost 450 more special school places in the city.

Dr Mark Browne said his decision was "critical" to address pressure on places.

He has approved a new special school and an expansion of the existing Harberton School.

But the two projects are expected to cost over £80m in all and, according to the Education Authority (EA), are dependent on "funding being obtained".

There has been a substantial rise in demand for places in special schools in recent years.
In 10 Belfast schools alone, the number of pupils has risen by 25% in five years - from 1,470 in 2018 to 1,845 in 2023.

That demand meant hundreds of children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) faced long waits to have their school place confirmed this year.

The plan to increase places in Belfast was first put forward by the EA in October 2022.

The EA want to build a new special school for 275 pupils and create about 170 additional places in Harberton School.

A second Harberton School campus was opened in 2021

Harberton, which currently has about 330 pupils, runs on two sites in south and north Belfast.

Under the EA proposal, its pupil numbers will rise to 500 and it will admit young people up until the age of 19, rather than 11 at present.

In the continuing absence of an education minister, Dr Browne has now approved that plan. The EA wants some of the new places to be available in temporary buildings by September 2024 but admitted that would be a "significant challenge".

It has estimated that the new special school will not be open until 2029 at the earliest.

In 2022, the 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 north Belfast.

Harberton's principal James Curran says Dr Browne's decision is "hugely significant" for his school.

Despite the uncertainty over funding, Dr Browne's decision has been welcomed by Harberton's principal James Curran.

"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.

"Our pupils and their parents now have security and stability in the knowledge that provision is in place for pupils from three to 19 years old.

"This is a very welcome and significant decision and has been needed for such a long time."

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