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SEN cuts in Ulster risk 'blighting young lives'

Teachers accuse politicians of slashing services and call for statementing system to be retained

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The Northern Ireland Assembly government's "abysmal" record on special educational needs has left children struggling in schools and will cause further social problems in the future, teachers say.

Teachers have accused politicians in the province of dismantling systems designed to help children simply to save money.

Mainstream schools now get only a limited numbers of hours of support from educational psychologists, they said, and parents of children with learning difficulties are being told the best option is to send them to a special school.

However, teachers said pupils who go to specialist centres were made to feel segregated, as they travel on distinctive yellow buses.

Delegates at the NASUWT annual conference heard that budget cuts were responsible for the problems, and this was also leading to lower pay for non-teaching staff.

Members of the union voted to campaign for all children to be given the right to a statement of special needs and for improved pay and working conditions for SEN teachers.

Liam Kelly, a special needs teacher in North Down, said the Assembly government was refusing to consult on the issue.

"We are seeing the demise of the statementing process. In my school, the number with statements went down from 4 per cent to 2 per cent - a reduction of 50 per cent - and many now asking for access to it are being refused. This has had a big effect on the school," he explained. He said the support a statement provides can help the whole family.

Peter Scott, of the NASUWT Northern Ireland executive, accused the Assembly government of systemically failing children with special educational needs.

"This is demoralising teachers and education welfare officers who have to work with school refusers, educational psychologists and children," he said. "It also affects the communities where these children not being given help end up carrying out anti-social behaviour.

"In parts of Northern Ireland, there are disaffected, alienated young people who are failed by the system that is meant to look after them and help their life chances.

"These children are the citizens of tomorrow. Their parents' lives were blighted by the Troubles, and there is a real danger we are blighting their lives too and leading them to disaffection, which means problems in communities will continue.

"The cost of providing SEN education might be expensive, but the cost to human lives of it not being given is far greater."

Seamus Searson, the union's Northern Ireland organiser, said: "The expert teaching in Northern Ireland's special schools is undervalued and unappreciated. The authorities seem to have a lack of understanding of the contribution special schools make to young people and their life chances.

"Parents of children with special needs have a right to a special school, and they are not being fully informed of this option.

"Special schools are part of the education picture and are slowly being erased by administrators, but teachers in mainstream schools would not be able to cope with an influx of children with a wide range of special needs should these schools close."

Fred Brown, an executive member who put the motion for a campaign to the conference, said: "Children are becoming disruptive, but the actions teachers could take are now not available to them. These pupils are getting a lot more attention in class because of their actions, which must look like a reward for anti-social behaviour."

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