Scandal Of Special Needs Tests Delay

Children with special needs are being forced to wait almost two years to be assessed by educational psychologists at a cash-strapped schools board. New figures reveal children are enduring extraordinary waits to have their needs assessed by experts at the South Eastern Education and Library Board.

Average waits in the area ran at just under a year in 2006 – a statistic branded “absolutely and utterly scandalous” by one primary school principal. The longest wait was 20 months.

The figures, published in Parliament, reveal a post code lottery, with children in the Belfast Education and Library Board waiting on average one month in 2005/06. The longest wait in the BELB area was, however, similar to SEELB, at 18 months.

An assessment by an educational psychologist is required before any child can receive a statement of special needs, which outlines a child’s needs and legally obliges the board to provide specific educational support.

There are five stages to be completed before a statement is issued, with stages three and four being the areas where some of the longest delays build up.

The figures revealed the average wait at SEELB last year for the stage three assessment was 47 weeks and for stage four five weeks and one day.

Children in the BELB area waited on average four weeks for both stages combined.

Those in the North Eastern board area (NEELB) had an average wait of just under 15 weeks for both stages in 2006 and those in the Western board area (WELB) waited on average 10 weeks. Southern board (SELB) had an average combined waiting time of 18 weeks in 2005/06.

The longest recorded wait at NEELB was 11 months and 27 days. A 14-and-a-half month wait was endured at WELB and a 13-month wait at SELB.

Ronnie Milligan, principal of Cregagh Primary School in east Belfast, said: ” The waiting time is absolutely and utterly scandalous.

“I personally find it mind-boggling. It’s no wonder that more and more parents are bypassing the system and going privately to educational psychologists who are charging several hundreds of pounds for consultations.”

DUP MP Iris Robinson, who received the figures from Education Minister Maria Eagle, said: “A 20-month wait could be an awful lot of damage to a child’s morale. It really is an unacceptable wait. I will be asking the minister, now that she has seen these figures, what she is going to do about it.”

SEELB is the only board not to use a ‘time allocation’ system for its psychologists. In the other board areas, schools are each allocated a certain number of visits each year by psychologists. They then recommend which pupils see the experts during each visit.

In contrast, SEELB pledges that every pupil which a school believes should be see a psychologist will eventually receive an assessment after being placed on a central waiting list.

However, staff shortages mean this system has led to 518 children waiting to be seen.

Sid Irvine, the principle educational psychologist at SEELB, yesterday admitted the figures were “not acceptable”.

But he stressed that a consultation was carried out in 2005 in which SEELB schools said they wanted to keep the ‘waiting list’ system.

He told the Telegraph: “The advantages are that any children the school deems to have a problem are referred and they will be seen. If I was to allocate some schools six visits a year, then they would decide on the number of children to be seen and not all the children would be.”

He said the most recent figures had been affected by a series of long-term absences among the department’s 29 staff with no new staff recruited as cover.