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Special Needs Funding Gap Worsens Anxiety As Parents Are Forced To Pay For Private Assessments

Government targets to have children to have an assessment and statement of special needs within 34 weeks could be at risk unless another £30m of funding is made available, according to evidence given to Department of Education officials.

Ricky Irwin was giving evidence to the Assembly Committee for Education in the wake of a scathing report from the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) which said that 85% of children wait more than the statutory 26 weeks for an assessment and statement.

Meta Auden, founder of Spectra Sensory Clothing, said parents are being forced to pay out hundreds.

“One of my customers has private health care but it does not cover the autism spectrum, so she is going for a diagnosis to a private clinic where the cost is nearly £400.00,” she said.

“There are not many who can afford this and considering that 85% of young adults with autism are unlikely to be in work compared to the rest of the young adult population the private route is not feasible.”

The evidence to the Assembly committee comes two weeks after health minister Robin Swann revealed that 603 have been waiting for more than a year for assessment.

The NIAO report said that the wait for children to have the assessment completed is nearly as bad, with an average of 45 weeks on the list.

New rules and a code of practice states that the limit for an Education Authority to complete the assessment and statement of special needs will be cut from 26 to 22 weeks.

“This means that the children are struggling at school, as no help without diagnosis,” said Meta. “The problem for many of our customers and in support groups, is the length of time before a diagnosis.

“Most parents know before a diagnosis that their child is on the spectrum, but also some for whom a diagnosis brings relief and understanding of their child’s behaviour.”

In his evidence to the committee for education Mr Irwin said that there is some worry that the extra monies needed may not be available.

“The financial environment next year will be extremely challenging,” he said. “We haven’t got any confirmation at this stage around the £30m pressure.”

Funding for Special Educational Needs covers support in special schools, children in mainstream with SEN and statements, SEN transport and support services for SEN through the Education Authority.

Meta Auden said that often it is not always clear what support is needed even once a child receives an assessment.

“There is not a one size fits all, each child will have different needs and the longer they go undiagnosed the more their education will suffer,” she explained. “I also feel that many do not understand the pressure parents are facing on a daily basis just getting their child out to school, only for the child not to receive any help when there.

“With no help, these children are being let down and their full potential not being realised.

The waiting lists are not going away, they will grow as more children will be diagnosed this year with autism than with cancer or Downs.”

Chairman of the Education Committee, Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, said that without funding there is no likelihood for change.

“The new regulations and code of practice can introduce new time limits and new deadlines but if the resources aren’t in place are they going to address the abject failure to assess and respond to special educational needs of children in a timely way?” he said.

The Northern Ireland Audit Office said that the Educational Authority procedures may not be “fit for purpose”. This came after an internal audit by the EA said that there were many failings. There is another internal investigation underway.

Meta Auden said that it has been an ongoing problem for so many years.

“I was lucky when my daughter was younger to have an assessment and a great classroom assistant,” she said. “However, too many parents are waiting too long and ultimately this causes problems and is, frankly, a disgrace.

“Of course we need the investigations to show the way to improve the situation, but we also need the funding and the will to make changes.”

At present one in five of Northern Ireland pupils has special educational needs, more than 67,000 pupils.

Find out more about Spectra Sensory’s range of sensory clothing and autism aids at


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Action Plan for the Return of Driving Tests

Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon today confirmed action plans for a priority booking system for driving tests following the Executive’s decision to reinstate practical driving tests from 23 April 2021.  

Between now and 26 April, those customers affected by the restrictions and who had their appointments cancelled and fee refunded will be advised by the DVA how they can book a new test date before the booking system will open in three phases:

PHASE 1: The booking system for Phase 1 customers, whose theory test pass certificates will expire by 31 October 2021, will open from 26 April. 

PHASE 2: The booking system for Phase 2 customers, whose theory test pass certificates will expire between 1 November 2021 and 31 March 2022, will then open from 4 May 2021. 

PHASE 3: The DVA is set to reopen the booking service for all other customers in mid-May and they will issue further communications through nidirect and social media channels, and write to all Approved Driving Instructors to confirm the process and the exact date.

The DVA will contact Phase 1 and Phase 2 customers directly to advise them when they can access the booking system.

Keep Safe, Minimise Disruption

Minister Mallon said: “My priority during this crisis continues to be to keep customers and staff safe while minimising disruption. Practical driving tests along with other close contact services have been disrupted due to the Executive regulations introduced to help stop the spread of Covid-19.  These are challenging times for us all and I appreciate the frustrations felt by learner drivers who have been unable to take their practical driving tests during this time.

“To mitigate the impact on customers due to the cessation of practical driving tests, I brought forward legislation to extend the validity of theory test pass certificates. As I announced in January, bookings for driving tests will be prioritised based on the expiry dates of theory test pass certificates. I can confirm that the booking service will open in three phases between now and the middle of May and it is right and fair that priority is given to those who have been waiting for the longest time.

“The DVA has, and continues, to work hard to maximise the availability of test slots and plans to release additional slots in May, June and July to provide further capacity.

“The DVA continues to increase its capacity by recruiting additional examiners and will be offering evening appointments as we move into spring and the brighter nights.  The DVA will continue to offer driving tests on a Saturday and driving tests for Heavy Goods Vehicles on Sundays where it is suitable to do so without compromising the integrity of the test.  Overtime will also be used to rota off-shift dual role driving examiners to provide further capacity.

“All driving test services across these islands are experiencing high demand with longer than usual waiting times, like all public facing services, the Covid restrictions mean that the DVA has had to adapt its services to ensure that they can be provided safely. The Department, the DVA and I remain committed to minimising disruption and ensuring our plan for the restoration of services is in hand, and most importantly remain committed to protecting the lives of staff and customers during this pandemic.”

Theory Test

The theory test provider has confirmed that theory tests will resume from 23 April 2021. Customers can book appointments through the online theory test booking system, with priority initially being given to customers whose tests have been affected by the suspension of theory test services due to Covid-19 restrictions.  These customers have been contacted with details of how to reschedule their appointment. The DVA is working closely with the theory test provider to ensure that additional theory test appointments are made available, through a combination of extended opening hours at the six existing theory test centres here and the opening of an additional temporary centre in Ballymena.

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Update on Current NI Restrictions

The Executive has today agreed a package of relaxations to the current Coronavirus Health Regulations.

From April 23:

  • Resumption of driving instruction and theory tests;
  • Driving testing can resume;
  • Re-opening of close contact services including training;
  • Re-opening of outdoor visitor attractions including outdoor activity centres;
  • Resumption of Equine Assisted Therapy and Learning (EATL) on an indoor and outdoor basis in gatherings of up to 30 people;
  • Outdoor sport organised by a club, individual or individuals affiliated will be extended to include squad training;
  • Competitive outdoor sport organised by a club, individual or individuals affiliated, with participant numbers not exceeding 100 and no spectators permitted can return and
  • Static band practice/rehearsal will be permitted in agreed outdoor locations.

From 30 April:

  • Increase the numbers permitted to gather in Domestic Setting Outdoors – to 15 people from no more than 3 households;
  • Reopen all of retail;
  • Reopen and permit overnight stays in self-contained tourist accommodation for one household only;
  • Reopen unlicensed premises, outdoors only with a maximum of 6 people from 2 households per table and contact details recorded;
  • Reopen licensed premises, including social clubs, outdoors only, limited to 6 people from no more than 2 households and contact details recorded;
  • Remove the curfew on takeaways;
  • Remove the curfew on off licences; and
  • Permit individual activities in gyms, swimming pools and other large venues – including with a carer and to allow 1-2-1 training/coaching with social distancing.

An indicative date of May 24 for:

  • Reopening unlicensed and licensed premises indoors with mitigations;
  • Reopening the remainder of Tourist accommodation;
  • Allowing visits indoors in domestic settings;
  • Reopening indoor visitor attractions; and
  • Resume indoor group exercise and training in numbers limited to suit the venue.

First Minister Arlene Foster said: “This is a landmark day for Northern Ireland as we step firmly and with confidence on our pathway to recovery.

“I am pleased and proud that through our collective efforts we have reached a point where we have established a good level of control over the virus.

“We are now entering brighter and better times.

“This balanced package of relaxations will restore those familiar aspects of everyday life that have been missed dearly.

“I urge everyone to stay with us and keep following the health advice so that we can continue with our plans to more fully open up our society over coming weeks.”

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said: “Today, the light at the end of the tunnel has just got a little bit brighter.

“This is a day of positive progress. We have agreed a significant package of easements which will make a fundamental difference to people’s lives and wellbeing.

“The restrictions have been a necessary response to the pandemic, to suppress the virus and save lives.

“But they have taken their toll on people right across our society. I’m delighted that we are now in a position to move forward, thanks to the efforts and sacrifices of the public and the success of our vaccination programme.

“We can all take comfort from this progress and look forward to doing the things that are important to us while keeping ourselves and others as safe as possible.” 

The next formal review of the Coronavirus regulations under the Pathway out of Restrictions will be carried out on May 13, 2021.

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