Sept 29, 2020, Belfast Telegraph: Audit Office urges an overhaul of Special Educational Needs sector https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/audit-office-urges-an-overhaul-of-special-educational-needs-sector-39570701.html An urgent overhaul of the Special Educational Needs system in Northern Ireland is required, with demand rising and key targets now routinely missed, a report warns today. More than £300m is spent every year on special needs provision, with the cost increasing by a third since 2015. The number of children with a relevant statement has also grown by 36% in the last nine years. Meanwhile, a time limit for issuing statements is broken for nearly nine out of every 10 children assessed. The findings emerge in a damning report from the Northern Ireland Audit Office. Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said that despite growing spending, the Department of Education and the Education Authority (EA) are still unable to clearly show value for money. He said a proper evaluation of services is needed. A child has special educational needs (SEN) if they have learning difficulties and are assessed as requiring special help. Statements are legally binding documents issued by the EA, following an assessment process, and set out a child's needs and the additional help required. In the last academic year (2019/20), 67,224 children were reported as having SEN - 19.3% of the school population. Some 19,200 children had a statement (5.5% of all pupils) - almost treble the department's estimate. Other key findings include: • Annual expenditure on SEN reached £312m in 2019/20, an increase from £233m in 2015/16. Expenditure over the last five years totals more than £1.3bn. • It is over 13 years since the department began a review of SEN. Costs are approaching £3.6m but the review is still not complete. • In 2015/16, 79% of new statements were issued outside the 26 week statutory limit. But last year 85% of all assessments exceeded that timeframe. • The 5.5% of pupils with a statement is significantly higher than the 2% anticipated by the department, and higher than in England (3.3%). Mr Donnelly's report warns that more still needs to be done to ensure schools are applying a clear and consistent approach to identifying and providing for children with SEN. It notes how, earlier this year, the Children's Commissioner raised concerns around failings in early identification and intervention. A 2017 Audit Office report on the issue raised concerns around value for money, and made 10 recommendations. Today's report found that, while some progress has been made, none of the 10 recommendations have been fully addressed. The number of appeals against the EA's decisions is rising, primarily as a result of its refusal to conduct a Statutory Assessment or reassess. The report states: "There is a clear need for an urgent review and overhaul of the SEN processes in place within the EA." With costs now running at £312m annually, Mr Donnelly's report warns the current funding of SEN services "is not financially sustainable". Today's report also criticises the lack of progress on a review of SEN launched by the department in 2006, but still ongoing. The report adds: "To date, the Department has spent more than £3.6m on the review which has been ongoing for over 13 years and the outworking of the process is not yet complete." A Department of Education spokesperson said: "The department is working closely with the EA on addressing the issues in the report." He noted the issue would be discussed by the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee on October 15. "The general guiding principle is that it is inappropriate to comment in detail in advance of a potential PAC hearing and the Department of Finance minister's (Conor Murphy) response," he added.