A new independent review of special educational needs services conducted by Ipsos has found that, under the current system and processes, early intervention for children is almost impossible.
The report highlights the need for urgent reform. It builds on a number of critical reports and provides recommendations to improve support for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
The Children’s Law Centre (CLC) has welcomed the report and called for urgent action, and the necessary ringfenced funding, to ensure meaningful changes are made to provide earlier and more effective support.
Rachel Hogan, SEND expert at the Children’s Law Centre, said:
“This is a welcome report that highlights a number of failures already well known to those who work with children with special educational needs and disabilities. We have been raising these issues for many years and at CLC we see the negative impact on children in our daily work.
“This is the latest in a number of damning reports highlighting the many failures to enable equality of access to education for children with SEND and offering solutions to fix this broken system. We now need urgent action.
“Interventions must come earlier and the obstacles to securing support must be removed. Interventions should be focused on outcomes for the child, rather than internal process-focused outcomes. Those who work with children should be better trained on how to identify and provide special educational support, with all children’s services co-operating to put support around the child, with schools becoming more accessible and inclusive educational spaces.
“The report also highlights the urgent need for investing in reform. The Children’s Law Centre, along with 200 organisations and individuals, recently wrote to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, to raise concerns around cuts to children’s services. Playing politics with our children’s futures and failing to properly invest in stabilising and reforming SEND services will not only continue to harm children but it will strip our economy of valuable financial resources and a properly educated workforce in the long-term.”
In two landmark cases, the High Court in Belfast has declared that the human rights of disabled children were breached when they were refused access to school transport, which denied them access to education. The cases were brought before the court through applications seeking leave for judicial review. After the Education Authority (EA) provided solutions for each child, legal declarations were secured through agreement that the children in both cases had been deprived of their right to education under Article 2 of Protocol 1, along with Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The cases were brought by the Children’s Law Centre (CLC) on behalf of two children after a referral for specialist legal services by the charity Angel Eyes as part of a joint EqualEyes project with CLC, which protects the equality rights of children with visual impairment. The CLC legal team argued that prolonged and disproportionate Covid restrictions on school transport for reasons related to disability were unjustifiable and unlawful, interfering with the right to education.
One child was unable to attend specialist education placements in person for all but one day of nursery and for the entirety of the P1 and P2 academic years. The best interests of the children and their legal entitlements were entirely discounted within the decision making processes of the EA.
After protracted negotiations to seek and develop alternative educational and transport arrangements for the children, the CLC legal team secured landmark declarations where the EA acknowledged that the children’s human rights to education had been breached during the relevant time periods and they were treated differently to other children because of their disabilities.
Speaking after the conclusion of the case, Rachel Hogan, of the Children’s Law Centre, said:
“This is a significant legal milestone for these children, and for all disabled children who have been denied access to services which enable equality of opportunity. The High Court declarations reinforce the importance of ensuring that public authorities do not place unlawful systemic barriers in the way of disabled people, including disabled children. Failure to ensure accessibility of services throughout society is capable of breaching the human rights of groups of children who are protected by law.
“When we look at the experience of disabled children throughout Covid, including failures to identify mitigations before implementing restrictions, and also their much slower and ongoing return to normal life compared to others, we get a real understanding of the multiple barriers they face. In our legal casework, CLC sees a system-wide failure of equality for disabled children and their families that reaches far beyond the education sphere and into every element of daily life.
“The remedial actions taken and acknowledgements given to these children by the EA are therefore welcome as it is entirely right that public authorities should openly identify barriers to equality in order to enable these to be removed.
“We hope these landmark declarations serve as a significant reminder to public authorities and duty bearers more generally that disabled children and young people are entitled to equal treatment and equality of opportunity in all aspects of life.”
Speaking anonymously by order of the courts, a parent of one of the children welcomed the decision:
“I brought my child’s case to the attention of the Children’s Law Centre as I felt no person or child should be treated differently due to their disability and medical requirements and excluded from transport and vital education and learning with their peers. My child was made to feel different. This declaration will hopefully promote learning from public bodies and understanding that all children should be treated inclusively.”
A parent of the other child spoke of his frustration that his child was treated unfairly:
“This is an important recognition of the failure to treat disabled children fairly, particularly through Covid restrictions. While my child was being denied access to school transport and denied their right to education, other children were permitted to travel on packed school buses with no masks.
“My child was denied access purely on the basis of their disability, with no serious effort to risk assess the situation or consider the best interests of my child.
“I’m pleased with the declaration, I only wish it wasn’t yet another case where a disabled child has to go to the courts to get access to services. I hope the Education Authority learns from this and properly considers the impact policies have on disabled children.”
An immediate impact
Since securing access to education, the impact on the children was clear to see. One of the children initially received sessions of home education and immediately began to show signs of improvement. She began sleeping better, had more energy and became much happier in herself. She is now fully enjoying social and sensory stimulation, loves going to school and is learning to communicate. The family have more ability to recharge their batteries and to carry out their intense caring role while also looking after their younger child. The child now goes to school three days, has home tuition two days a week and is gradually moving towards full time school based education.
Speaking about the collaborative EqualEyes project, Karen Wilson, Education Advocate Lead at Angel Eyes said: “This result demonstrates the benefit of collaborative work to identify needs and protect the rights of disabled children and young people. Through our work in the EqualEyes project, we were able to identify additional barriers to education and signpost across the project to our partners at CLC to find a legal remedy.”
High Court Declarations
IT IS HEREBY DECLARED that:
The Proposed Respondent breached Section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 for the period of time from 24th February 2021 to June 2022 insofar as there was an unlawful interference with the Applicant’s access to education and he was treated differently to other children in the State on the basis of his medical condition contrary to Article 2 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights in conjunction with Article 14 ECHR.
IT IS HEREBY DECLARED that:
The Respondent failed to discharge its obligations under article 16(5) of the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 to arrange that the special educational provision indicated in the applicant’s Statement was made for her at school, for the period of time from September 2020 to June 2022, save for periods whereby the applicant was unable to attend school because of illness or otherwise including 16th September 2021 to 24th September 2021 and 15th November 2021 and 28th November 2021 and other various dates;
The Respondent failed to discharge its obligations under Article 86(1) of the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 to make arrangements for the applicant’s suitable education at school or otherwise for various periods of time between September 2021 and February 2022 when the applicant was unable to attend school due to the lack of school transport or unfit to attend school but was fit to receive education at home;
The Respondent breached Section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 for the period of time from September 2020 to June 2022 insofar as there was interference with the applicant’s rights under Article 2 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights in conjunction with Article 14 ECHR, as there was interference with the Applicant’s access to education on the basis of her medical condition and she was treated differently to other children in the State because of her disability.
Systemic failings worsened by the impact of COVID-19
Daily life still impossible for many as we emerge from the pandemic
07 April 2022
The Children’s Law Centre (CLC) and the National Autistic Society NI have warned that disabled children and adults are being discriminated against because of the lack of adequate service provision to meet their needs. The charities, who advocate for people with complex and high support needs, witnessed a sharp increase in the number of people, particularly children, who have lost access to vital services in the past number of years.
However, both charities insist the systemic failings have been there for a long time, and only worsened by the response to the pandemic. While others in society return to everyday life, many disabled children and adults have been ignored and left isolated, living restricted lives and having their freedoms and autonomy severely curtailed.
Speaking ahead of a special hustings debate titled ‘Forgotten Voices’, the charities called for urgent and meaningful action to address the failings.
CLC Mental Health Solicitor, Eamonn McNally, said: “We should be horrified and ashamed at the treatment of disabled children with complex needs. What some young people, as well as their parents and carers, are having to go through is nothing short of a disgrace in a modern society. How can they expect to live their lives without access to the services that make that possible?
“We know from recent reports that the health and well-being of disabled people has not improved as restrictions have lifted, and that their access to health services continues to remain limited. This is reflected in our everyday casework at CLC, which has grown in both size and complexity.
“Respite services have been crippled for many years and the impact of the pandemic has exposed the inequalities for disabled children and adults. But we can’t hide behind the pandemic or make excuses, these failings have long been apparent. Disabled children have a wide range of legal rights and those rights include access to services that allow them to live a full and dignified life, as well as services to support carers by providing them with the help they need to maintain care for their loved ones within the family home.
“The failure to provide adequate services to children with complex needs and their families breaches a range of fundamental human rights.”
Shirelle Stewart, Director of National Autistic Society NI, added: “As we emerge from the pandemic, much of society is feeling the benefits of a return to normal life. Yet this isn’t the case for many disabled adults and children with complex care needs, including many autistic people. Many are still facing a daily struggle to cope, as services remain wholly inadequate in providing for their needs. In some cases, already stretched services have disappeared completely.
“When are we going to start listening to the people who have had to suffer most during the pandemic and start giving them their lives back? We need to listen to the voices of people with complex needs, their families and carers. Their concerns need to be acted upon by the government and public authorities, recognising their protected status under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act. We need to see a significant drive towards joined up, properly planned and funded cross-departmental work, including the collection of disaggregated data to assess the level of unmet need.
“Disability discrimination in education settings, including informal exclusion, part-time schooling or no schooling, lack of required therapeutic input, failure to provide school transport to disabled children with complex needs and unauthorised restrictive practices must end. “Anything less than swift and targeted action by government departments and public authorities to address these unmitigated inequalities will be an abject failure of human rights compliance.”
Jillian Black is mum to Peter who is nearly twenty. Peter is autistic and has a severe learning disability, ADHD and uncontrollable epilepsy, Peter can often become distressed because of his profound disability, which can result in harm to himself, others or property. When Peter was in children’s services he accessed four overnights a month. Although this was not a lot, it provided a welcome break to providing the 24/7 care that Peter needs.
When Peter turned 18 he entered adult services and the family have never been told what their assessed respite is. Since becoming an adult, he has only had four nights respite, two in December 2020 and two in spring 2021. The respite unit he was using had to be closed to house an adult on an emergency placement.
Peter’s mum, Jillian, said:
“You just feel absolute desperation when you are told that you will have no respite. We don’t begrudge our caring role but providing care on a 24/7 basis with no breaks really takes its toll. There is only me and his dad, as his sister is at university, so we are exhausted. No one would expect anyone to work all that time with no breaks.
“Peter is at the age where he needs to become less dependent on his mum and dad and allow others to help, but the lack of respite is not allowing this transition to happen. We don’t know what will happen in the future.”
The Children’s Law Centre has urged the Education Authority (EA) and the Department of Education to grasp the opportunity for meaningful improvements to the special educational needs and disability (SEND) process. The briefing comes at a time when the EA is conducting an internal improvement plan, including input from key stakeholders. It also follows shortly after the Children’s Law Centre submitted a critical response to draft SEND code and regulations.
In a briefing to the NI Assembly Education Committee, a number of key areas were identified to ensure improvements are meaningful and achieves positive outcomes. This included the need for meaningful consultation with children, their parents and carers. Other issues raised included the need to focus on early intervention and improve primary decision making, in the knowledge that over 97% of SEND Tribunal appeals achieve a successful outcome.
Rachel Hogan, the Children’s Law Centre SEND expert said: “The failings in the system have been largely operational, rather than caused by legal deficiencies. There is a robust legal framework around SEND – compliance is key. The EA and the Department must grasp this opportunity for improvement. It should be meaningful and must benefit those who are impacted by it – children.
“The SEND framework is there for the children & young people who need it. When will their voice be heard? How will they be empowered to participate in driving improvements & monitoring outcomes? This is a key concern if we want to make meaningful improvements. If we listen to those who are impacted – namely children, their parents and carers – then we can go a long way to providing better solutions.
“Those solutions must include a process for identifying unmet need, improving primary evidence-based decision making and a cultural shift in how we treat children with special educational needs and disabilities.”