The following is my speech during the Adjournment debate on Special needs provision in Taugmonagh on 13th November 2012.
Mr McGimpsey: I thank Jimmy Spratt for securing this debate, concerning special needs within Taughmonagh Primary School. As Alex Maskey said, Taughmonagh is surrounded by the affluent Malone and Upper Malone areas, but is an area of strong social and economic disadvantage. Therefore, it needs proper support.
I was at the opening of the new primary school a couple of months ago. I was pleased that the Minister also attended that event, when Dame Mary Peters opened the school. It is a beautiful school with good facilities, led by a very committed headmistress and a team of teachers and support workers and delivering to the very best of their abilities for the local community and its children. They do those children proud. The new school is the result of many years of campaigning. Taughmonagh is a very committed community, and I was proud, over the years, to give it what support I could to deliver a new school.
We have the new school in place. However, it does not stop there. We have to provide an education system that is specially tailored to the mixed talents and abilities of our children, and we also have to bear in mind the needs of those children. In fact, as indicated, around 49% of pupils in the school have special needs. They have a variety of special needs, and that includes the 12% who are on the autistic spectrum.
Early detection and early intervention are key. After that, the appropriate support for each child, as an individual, must be provided. It seems to me that the situation is a bit like health: you assess the need and then you address that need. It is not about saying that our budgets are curtailed and that we will curtail them to save money. If we do that, and if we ignore or do not fully provide, the effect on special needs children of their not getting the support that they need is highly detrimental to them personally, and can be detrimental to the class and to the wider community. It is important that money follow need, and there is a clear, identifiable need here.
There is a huge challenge for the teaching staff, and Janet and her team are up for that. However, they must get the support that is required. As has been mentioned, classes in Taughmonagh are small; therefore, the percentage of the pupils with special needs is commensurately higher. It may be that the teacher has one classroom assistant only for a class that has a number of special needs children, and that creates great challenges and pressures for that teacher.
There is also a particular concern around funding for early-years special needs, and early intervention is key. Early intervention and early detection equals a better outcome.
Another issue that could be mentioned is that when the inspectorate comes into the school, it is made fully aware of the situation in the school. It is not, perhaps, like another primary school in South Belfast, where the percentage of children with special needs would be much lower. For example, I am on the board of governors of Stranmillis Primary School in Knightsbridge Park, and its special needs pupils account for about 6%, which is very much lower. Therefore, the inspectors need to be aware of the challenges that the staff face, the different environment that the teachers operate in and the different situation that they face.
The Minister was present at the opening of the school, and the local community was very pleased to see him and grateful that he took the time to come along. Therefore, I appeal to the Minister that, having provided the brand new facility of a beautiful new school, the next step is to ensure that the needs of the children in that school and the needs of the local community are fully met in one of the key areas for government in Northern Ireland. If we look at our key areas, this is obviously one. The sooner we can provide the support that is required, the better. Early intervention and early appropriate support are everything for those children as they grow up and develop.