Support in education

This advice applies in Northern Ireland only. Read information for families in England, Scotland or Wales.

Here you can read about support in education for children with special educational needs in Northern Ireland.

In this article

Introduction to special educational needs

A child has special educational needs (SEN) if they need extra help in school. This can be due to additional learning needs, physical needs, medical needs or a combination of these.

Having additional needs means finding it much more difficult to learn than the majority of children of the same age. It could also mean having a disability that makes it difficult to use the same facilities or take part in activities as other children.

The extra help children with SEN receive is called special education provision.

You can more read about special educational needs from the Department of Education.

What does the law say?

The law dealing with special education in Northern Ireland is contained in The Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, as amended by The Special Educational Needs and Disability (Northern Ireland) Order 2005 (SENDO) and the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (Northern Ireland) 2016.

The 1998 SEN code of practice is an important guidance document that all schools must follow when making decisions about children who have special educational needs (SEN).

The legislation gives parents the right to choose that their child goes to a mainstream school. Most children can have their needs met in a mainstream school.

Your child’s school must tell you if they start giving special help to your child. Your child may need help for a short time or over many years, and the school should consult you at every stage and tell you about your child’s progress.

What support will my child receive?

Education settings in Northern Ireland use a five-stage process for supporting children with special educational needs (SEN). The stage your child gets to depends on their level of need – though they might not go through every level of support to reach the next one.

If you’re concerned about your child and think they need extra help in school, talk to their teacher.

As a parent, you have an important role to play at each of these stages. You have unique knowledge and experience of your child’s needs to share with their school. This helps everyone involved with your child decide on the best way to support them both in school and at home.

The school’s special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCo) is a key person in the school throughout each of the stages. The SENCo will help to put the necessary steps in place so your child can access the curriculum. They will work in partnership with parents and other school staff to provide the support your child’s needs.

Currently, all children with SEN are recorded on the school’s SEN register under one of the five stages. The Department of Education is currently finalising a new code of practice, which will replace the 1998 Code. In the new code, schools will record children on the SEN register under three stages.

Stage one: Identifying SEN and making changes to your child’s education

Initially your child’s teacher will assess your child’s needs and talk to relevant teachers to gather as much information as possible. Your child’s teacher will also talk to you and ask you what you think would help your child. They will then draw up a plan and discuss this with you.

The plan will look at how different ways of teaching, changes to class work or classroom set up, and other things that could help to meet your child’s needs. The school will monitor your child’s progress against the changes they’ve made.

The SENCo will also give advice to the class teacher and add your child to the school’s SEN

Stage two: Individual Education Plans

If you or the school are still concerned about your child’s progress after reviewing the action taken in stage one, your child may move to stage two.

At this stage the school’s SENCo will assess your child’s needs, and together with their teacher they will draw up an Individual Education Plan (IEP).

Many schools use IEPs as a planning, teaching and reviewing tool for children and young people with SEN.

The plan should include:

The SENCo will monitor and review your child’s progress and make sure they involve you in this. The school will meet regularly with you to discuss your child’s needs and agree targets for their IEP. They will also discuss what you can do to help.

Stage three: Specialist help from outside the school

If the measures put in place in stage two do not seem to be helping your child, their teacher may talk to you about seeking advice from people outside the school.

These people could include a specialist teacher or a speech and language therapist, who may give advice to the school or might work directly with your child. You’ll be kept informed and invited to a stage three review meeting to review your child’s progress, normally within one term.

Stage four: Statutory assessments

If after this review your child’s school still cannot give your child all the help they need, they might refer your child for a statutory assessment.

A statutory assessment is a formal and detailed process to find out what your child’s special needs are, and what additional help they may need in school. A statutory assessment may lead to getting a statement of special educational needs (SEN), though it doesn’t always.

Who can ask for an assessment?

You, your child’s school or other agencies, for example health services, can request a statutory assessment. The Education Authority will consider all the available information and decide whether an assessment is required.

If the Education Authority decides not to proceed with a statutory assessment, they will tell you the reasons in writing. If you do not agree with the decision, you will be given details on how to appeal to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal.

What happens during a statutory assessment?

During the statutory assessment, important decisions need to be made, and this process takes time to complete.

Decisions must be based on detailed information. The Education Authority will gather information from:

Following a statutory assessment, the Education Authority may decide to prepare a report called a statement of special educational needs (SEN).

Stage five: Statements of SEN

Following a statutory assessment, the Education Authority may decide to give your child a statement of special education needs (SEN).

A Statement of SEN is a document that sets out your child’s needs and the special help that they will get to help them meet those needs. It should be reviewed annually.

Statement of SEN are for children whose needs are such that extra resources, or different resources from those normally available in mainstream schools, must be given by the Education Authority.

Putting things right

You can make a complain to the Education Authority if you’re not happy with the standard of service you’re receiving. Read the Education Authority’s booklet about complaints.

There are also situations where you can appeal to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDIST) against a decision made by the Education Authority about your child’s education. For example, you have the right to appeal against a decision not to assess your child or to give your child a statement of SEN.

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Further help for you

Useful documents and reading