Brian Moss, Solicitor, discusses the impact of potential widespread cuts on Education Provision, particularly in relation to children with special educational needs
The current political impasse at Stormont has led to ever increasing talk of widespread cuts across all government departments. This will undoubtedly be a matter of huge concern for our new Education Authority, for parents and most importantly, for our children with special educational needs, for whom the Authority (now established in the place of our Education & Library Boards) usually fund the additional resources that they require for their education. Such children often require additional resources and assistance not commonly provided by schools, to ensure that they can access their education and achieve their potential. It is important that these children are not deprived of necessary resources, to ensure that a level playing field is created and maintained, between them and other children their age. That is why, in passing the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, Parliament imposed a statutory duty upon the Education Authority, to firstly use their powers to ensure that children with special educational needs are identified (see article 13 of the Order), and assessed if necessary (see article 15).
For many children with special educational needs, the educational provision which needs to be made for them is protected by law, as it is written into a statement of special educational needs. The Board responsible for such a child is under a legal duty to ensure that the stated educational provision is made for that child - see article 16(5) of the 1996 Order:
Statement of special educational needs
(5) Where a board maintains a statement under this Article-
(a) unless the child's parent has made suitable arrangements, the board-
(b) if the name of a grant-aided school is specified in the statement, the Board of Governors of the school shall admit the child to the school.
Therefore, if the educational provision set out in a statement is not being provided by the Authority, then it would in most circumstances be open to the child (acting by their parents) to challenge the lack of (or failure to make) provision through the courts, on an urgent basis. This right of legal action can equally be open to children with special educational needs who do not have statements, where certain provision has been curtailed or removed. However, the legal duties of a Board towards such children are not as clear cut as they are towards children with statements.
It is therefore in the interests of all children with special educational needs, that their educational provision is safeguarded by a statement, insofar as possible. For children with special educational needs without the legal protection of a statement of special educational needs, it is open to their parents to request their Board to assess their child, usually at any time (see article 20 of the Order). If dissatisfied with the assessment of a child’s special educational needs, or with a decision not to assess their child, parents can then appeal to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal, under certain specific grounds.
There are many other issues which can arise in school life and which can cause considerable concern to parent and child alike. If you or your child are affected by such an issue or decision by a school or the Education Authority, it is best to seek legal advice promptly. Legal aid is usually available in any matter which requires court proceedings, particularly where the interests of a child are at stake.
Please do not hesitate to contact Brian Moss, solicitor in our litigation department, for advice about any issues you may have.