A shortfall in special school places for the September term is “appalling”, the head of a teaching union has said.
The Education Authority (EA) sent a letter to principals and governors, saying mainstream primaries were being asked to open units for pupils with severe learning difficulties (SLD).
The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said the request had been left to “the last moment”.
An EA committee previously heard NI needs 850 more special school places.
Dr Graham Gault of the NAHT said the “system” had again failed to make timely and adequate arrangements to meet requirements.
He said the request to schools was being made at “the last moment when the pertinent issues have been widely known for a long time”.
The EA has previously announced plans to expand special school places in Belfast, including opening a new school.
But that will cost more than £80m and will not help ease the pressure on special school places in the short term.
‘It feels like our children are second-class citizens’
Deborah, whose daughter has additional needs, told the BBC’s Nolan Show that she went through a horrific time trying to secure a special educational needs placement last year.
“Left with nothing and nowhere to go” she organised protests, eventually finding a spot for her child, who has autism.
She said she is now frightened she will go through this process again with another of her children.
“It’s so detrimental not only to the child but everyone around them,” she said.
Deborah said parents were angry, isolated and unheard. It felt like their children were being left behind by the education system, she added.
“Why are the most vulnerable children in society being treated like second-class citizens?
“It’s always our children who suffer, it’s always our children who are left to the last, it’s always our children who don’t have what they need to reach their full educational potential.”
Demand for places in special schools has risen substantially in recent years.
In the 2022-23, there were almost 7,000 pupils in Northern Ireland’s 39 special schools and a further 3,200 were in specialist provision in mainstream schools.
Those are special classes or units which provide extra support to pupils with additional needs in primaries and post-primaries.
In their letter to heads and governors, the EA said there was a 15% rise in the number of children with a statement of Special Educational Needs (SEN) seeking a school place in 2023.
An EA committee meeting on 6 April was told that meant a need for 853 additional pupil places in special schools and 400 places in specialist classes in mainstream schools.
To cope with those numbers, special schools also need an additional 76 classrooms by September 2023.
But the committee heard that, at present, only 18 of those extra classrooms were confirmed for the start of the new school year.
An additional 49 classes will be needed in mainstream schools.
The EA’s letter to heads and governors said that mainstream primary schools were now being contacted to see if they could open specialist classes for SLD children for September.
It said the primaries would receive support and “staff resourcing” and would be linked to a “neighbouring special school”.
“The introduction of SLD provision in mainstream schools will help to ensure that best use is made of existing resources to provide educational placements for children with SEN across Northern Ireland,” the letter said.
Orla Fitzsimons of Parent Action NI said the Education Authority’s request “puts more pressure on schools, which puts more pressure on parents”.
She added: “The major impact will be on those children who are just left at home on the first of September.
“A child starting a pre-school specialist nursery can’t get into it because they’re all bursting at the seams.
“The trauma that that causes to parents, because they’re fighting all summer with an education system that isn’t responding and then on the first of September all the other children are going to school and these wee ones are being left because there’s no placement.”
The NAHT’s Dr Graham Gault said that the EA had been “put in an impossible situation by the decisions of the Permanent Secretary, the policies of austerity and the failure of the Stormont Executive”.
“It is, frankly, appalling that very significant and life-defining decisions for vulnerable children are being made on the criteria of cost rather than according to their need.”
“It has been known for quite some time that there has been a projected increase in children with statements of special educational needs,” he added.
In a statement to BBC News NI, the EA said that the growth in demand for places for pupils with SEN was most notable for Early Years and Primary 1 children.
“Capacity meetings between the EA and special schools are now complete for September 2023 intake and show there will be a significant shortfall in placements available in our special schools,” the EA said.
“The EA along with the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) and Education Support Bodies are therefore working intensively to ensure there is appropriate provision in place for September 2023.
“The EA is committed to meeting the needs of all children and young people who have special educational needs and disabilities and to continued engagement with children, parents, schools and other stakeholders to ensure that children’s placements are high quality and appropriate to meet their assessed needs.”