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NEWTOWNARDS has been explicitly identified as ‘an area of pressure’ for special educational needs places.

That’s according to Strangford MLA, Nick Mathison, speaking after education officials revealed they’re calling around local schools trying to set up emergency places for the next school year in September.

Mr Mathison chairs Stormont’s Education Committee, and says that the town’s under pressure status was revealed to him in briefing documents given to the committee’s April meeting.

During that meeting officials confirmed that this September, around 7,000 children across Northern Ireland need a place in either a special school or specialist provision in a mainstream school.

But right now around 14% of them won’t get it, due to a shortage of suitable places in both types of school.

During this month’s committee meeting, Education Authority officials said they’re now calling around schools in ‘areas of pressure’, trying to get mainstream schools to agree to set up new specialist provision.

That led Mr Mathison to conclude that the special educational need (SEN) system is running ‘under crisis management’, as according to him the emergency rush for large numbers of extra places happens year after year.

“It is incredibly concerning that the creation of additional specialist provision in mainstream schools, at pace and as an emergency response to SEN placements rather than long term planning, is becoming the norm,” he said.

“There was no clear evidence to demonstrate that hurriedly set up new provision will deliver for SEN pupils, and no effective evaluation of the provision in mainstream schools that we currently have in place.

“I am regularly contacted by concerned constituents who are becoming increasingly concerned about what sort of specialist placement their child will be able to access this September.”

Education officials revealed that of the 291 schools they’ve so far contacted in under-pressure areas, so far 80 have agreed to set up new provision for SEN pupils, but over 130 have refused.

Said Mr Mathison: “Questions must be asked as to why more schools are not coming forward.

“We are incredibly lucky to have a number of fantastic schools in the Newtownards area and they must be supported to deliver for our SEN learners. 

“I am concerned, however, that schools are not confident they will receive the necessary support when establishing new provision in the classroom. The focus for all involved should be the best interests of our SEN learners, there is a real risk this will be lost as we operate on a crisis footing.”

Mr Mathison added that while long-term reform of SEN services needs to happen, education authorities also need to tackle the immediate problems that result in casting around for emergency places.

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