A profile of special educational needs and disability in Northern Ireland using educational and social data

Lead Research Organisation: University of Ulster
Department Name: Sch of Education


Background: Pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEN) in Northern Ireland (NI) experience extreme educational disadvantage and the Department of Education (DE) has made considerable investment to ensure identification, assessment and appropriate support to meet their individual learning needs. Where there are delays in identifying SEN and inadequate resource provision, there can be short and longer term impacts, affecting these pupils' attainment levels and options in further or higher education or employment.
Pupils with SEN represent 22% of the NI school population and these figures are projected to rise with a growing population, advancements in medical technology and better recognition of conditions. Provision for SEN costs education authorities a substantial proportion of their budget and is becoming increasingly unsustainable. It is imperative, therefore, that education provision is relevant, responsive, efficient and cost-effective.

Context: Research on SEN in NI, however, is limited to small studies that do not involve all of the pupil population. Evidence suggests an ecological relationship between SEN prevalence, educational outcomes and wider social, health and economic influences exacerbated by a volatile political situation and under investment. Understanding this relationship has accountability implications, in terms of identifying appropriate provision in the short term and in strategizing for the longer term prospects of these pupils. Outcomes based accountability (OBA) is used by government as a monitoring tool for policy planning and decision making. Population accountability is one dimension of OBA that measures the well-being of vulnerable groups through population level data in order to generate joined-up policy responses for improved provision. It is within the context of population accountability that the project is located.

Purpose: The purpose of the project is to create a longitudinal profile of pupils with SEN in NI using a range of available government data sets. Through exploration and exploitation of the data, researchers will generate a population accountability framework for this pupil population: individual pupil data will enable comparative analyses of SEN prevalence with wider educational outcomes, whilst linkage with other data sets will create, for the first time, a whole child profile that illustrates the contextual circumstances of the lives of children with SEN.

DE data from 2010 onwards will be used along with NI Census data and NI multiple deprivation data (NIMDM). The DE annual pupil survey and school leaver's survey record individualised disaggregated data on all pupils. Census data details the household circumstances of pupils with SEN, whilst the multiple deprivation measures illustrate the socio-economic context in which the pupil lives.

Aims: The project aims to:

1. Create a typology of SEN pupils based on their individual educational profile.
2. Identify associations between the educational profile of pupils with SEN, and their family and socio-economic circumstances.
3. Understand how SEN varies and is influenced at a School level e.g. how does SEN vary across school type/sector?
4. Understand how SEN profiles change overtime and why.
5. Create a population accountability report card to inform and influence the policy development, planning and monitoring of SEN in NI.

Policy on SEN has changed significantly in NI and across the UK, with implications for education and health providers. The project, therefore, is extremely timely in terms of its educational insights and longer term impact. It addresses a critical policy knowledge gap but also demonstrates the rich potential of future data linkages to profile and track these children across transitions from childhood and adolescence into adulthood. This will be insightful for NI but will have wider influence across UK jurisdictions and Ireland in proactively planning for pupils with SEN.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from the research?

The project team are committed to sustained engagement with key stakeholders in the areas of education (mainstream and special school sectors, school support, teacher training) and national policy, with the aim of improving educational provision for pupils with SEN. Primary beneficiaries of the research will be pupils with SEN, parents, families, teachers, non-academic partners (Children in Northern Ireland), statutory (Department of Education, Education Authority, Health and Social Care Boards) and non-statutory (Mencap, Autism NI) sectors. The project team will have an active role in influencing how policy and research is commissioned and how education provision is delivered for the SEN pupil population.

The timing of the project offers a unique opportunity for maximum impact. Whilst the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (NI) (2016) places legislative duties on schools, education authority and health and social services to make equitable education for pupils with SEN, a NI Audit Office report concluded current provision was neither efficient nor effective. Collaboration to address persistent inequalities affecting marginalised groups of young people, including those with SEN and disabilities is stressed in the national Strategy for Children and Young People (2017-2027) and Children's Services Co-operation Act (2015). The proposed project therefore will be of particular interest to a range of government departments, health trusts, service providers, outreach services, policy makers, statutory and voluntary agencies. The project team is also commited to sharing this knowledge with all ADRC-NI partners on completion of the project.

How will they benefit?

The analytic process and corresponding findings will be used by non-academic, statutory and voluntary partners to directly inform targeted education support, allied health care, teacher training and national policy interventions. Involvement and representation from the statutory and voluntary sectors along with service user group representation provides a unique and opportunity to raise the profile of SEN, contributing to and enriching policy and practice to ensure key messages reach a broad audience in NI, UK, Ireland and beyond. As expert project partners with representation on the All Party Working Group for Children and Young People, they have a pivotal role to contextualise research findings across education, health, welfare, social and economic domains, using this to promote better coordination inside and outside government and ensure that policy and practice impacting on the lives of children with SEN is informed by their needs and circumstances.

What will be done to ensure they have the opportunity to benefit?

The project beneficiaries represent expertise from a wide range of perspectives and stakeholders will have unique opportunity to inform and influence policy and provision for the SEN pupil population in two key ways. Firstly, partners have been involved in the project from the outset and have given their commitment to policy relevant documentation and dissemination of findings. They have been introduced to and guided through the data by an expert team, with opportunity to inform its design and analytic strategy over the lifetime of the project. Secondly, through co-ordinated and accessible knowledge transfer, the project offers potential impact in terms of its significance and reach beyond education, exemplifying cross-cutting, inter-agency relevance across statutory and voluntary agencies and government departments with a strong social agenda including health, welfare, employment and youth justice. A joined-up approach demonstrates commitment to equality of opportunity that connects the educational profile of pupils with SEN and the wider social circumstances of their lives eg access to services and facilities; transition to training and employment; and increased public awareness.
Description Key Findings
There has been a proportionately higher increase (21%) in the overall numbers of pupils with SEN compared to the wider pupil population. This increase was higher in post-primary schools (26%) than in primary schools (16%), with substantive growth evident in special schools (34%).

Of the seven over-arching categories used to record SEN, the majority of pupils were located in three of these: Cognitive and Learning; Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties; and Communication and Interaction.

Within the category of Communication and Interaction:
Prevalence rates were highest in the Belfast region although there was a greater change ratio in the North Eastern region.
Prevalence rates were consistently higher among males across school types, with the exception of females at Stages 1-4 in secondary schools in the Belfast region.
Prevalence rates for Dyslexia/SpLD, Moderate Learning Difficulties and Mild Learning Difficulties were highest in secondary schools and change ratios were generally higher among females across school types.

Within the category of Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties:
Prevalence rates were highest in the Belfast region although there was a greater change ratio in the Western region.
Prevalence rates were consistently higher among males across school types, with the exception of females at Stages 1-4 in secondary schools in the Belfast region.
Prevalence rates for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (SEBD) were higher in secondary and special schools and change ratios were generally higher among females across school types.

Within the category of Communication and Interaction:
Prevalence rates were highest in the Belfast region, with the greater change ratio in the Belfast and North Eastern regions.
Prevalence rates were consistently higher among males across school types, although the highest change ratios were among females in the majority of instances.
Prevalence rates for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) were highest in primary and special schools and for Speech and Language Difficulties in primary and secondary schools. Change ratios for ASD were highest among females across school types.

Cross-sectional analysis of Census data showed that:
Children deprived in employment, tenure and education, children enrolled at schools with below average attendance and above average rates of Free School Meal Entitlement (FSME); children in single parent households and male children were more likely to have a learning, intellectual, social or behavioural difficulty.
Children deprived in employment and living in social housing, children enrolled in schools with below average attendance and above average FSME and male children were more likely to have a communication difficulty.
Children deprived in household employment and living in social housing, children from single parent households and male children were more likely to have an emotional, psychological or mental health condition.
Exploitation Route The education and social data accessed and analysed in the project afforded an opportunity to create a profile of the SEN pupil population in NI. The lessons learned over the course of the project highlight how the findings can be utilised in the short and longer-term, as well as what issues need to be resolved to maximise best use of administrative data in NI. The availability of administrative data has been a step-change in social science research, bringing cross-cutting reach to benefit academics from a range of disciplines and reinforcing the value of data sharing across the UK and beyond. Although the initial trajectory of the project was diverted, the accessible and available data can meaningfully contribute to understandings of SEN in NI and be used to inform, frame and contextualise any policy relevant discussion.

In the short term, findings will provide a useful evidence base upon which to build future research and facilitate future data sharing as new data becomes available and accessible; in the longer term, a key legacy goal will be to encourage and facilitate further data sharing in NI. The range of education and social data accessed and analysed in the project highlights administrative data as a valuable resource that can inform understanding of the sizeable, and growing, SEN pupil population, who can be monitored over time and in a manner relative to certain characteristics. This will be important as procedures for assessing, identifying and recording SEN in NI have changed as part of a formal SEN Review, including changes in how SEN is recorded and reported.

Successful use of administrative data is rooted in the expectation that data will be available and accessible, and the difficulties encountered in the project highlighted some fundamental challenges. These included the challenge of using alternative (and potentially more restrictive) data; the challenge of linking data from different sources; and the challenge of navigating remote access to data. The profile of children and young people with SEN in terms of their educational outcomes and the wider association of SEN status with a range of social, economic and health inequities position them as a particularly vulnerable group who are more likely to experience adversities across their life span and underlines the importance of contemporaneous available and accessible data. It is hoped that the findings of this project will promote the utility of data on special educational needs and disability in NI; inspire future use of administrative data in the region; encourage data custodians to facilitate improved opportunities in data access; and contribute towards the formulation of a larger study as opportunities for future individual level data linkage and analyses emerge.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Healthcare