Schoolchildren in Derry and the rest of Northern Ireland are falling "further and further" behind those in Britain due to the absence of a government, according to the Children's Commissioner.
NI Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY), Koulla Yiasouma, said the country needs an Assembly in place to introduce up-to-date policies.
She has been heavily involved in the creation of a newly published cross-departmental Children and Young People’s Strategy 2019-2029.
A public consultation was launched on the Executive Children and Young People's Strategy 2017-2027 in December 2016. One month later Stormont collapsed.
Enshrined in the new strategy is the human rights of all children. More than three years in the making, the strategy sets out a strategic framework for improving the well-being of all children and young people in Northern Ireland.
However, it can't be implemented fully without a minister in place.
It outlines how all government departments, agencies and those who provide children’s services will work together to deliver better outcomes for all children and young people and links directly to the draft Programme for Government outcomes, primarily "we give our children and young people the best start in life".
Speaking to the Derry News, Ms Yiasouma said it identifies groups of children who may need more attention such as those with special educational needs (SEN). To ensure the strategy is working she will have regular contact with the children to listen to their concerns and those raised by their parents and carers.
In September a parent from Derry told this paper that her 5-year-old daughter, who has "complex special needs", had to wait two years to get the one to one support she needs.
An Education Authority whistle-blower revealed that the public was being misled and applications were intentionally not being stamped so the date they arrived would remain unknown.
At the time, Ms Yiasouma, said it highlighted the need for "immediate improvements to be made and long-term solutions to be identified.”
Speaking to the Derry News this week, she said there has been "no improvement" in the system and SEN is the biggest area to work on in a fractured education system.
"SEN for me is a top issue and we announced earlier in the year that we are reviewing the extent of SEN in mainstream schools. We will be making some very clear recommendations in March," she added.
Ardnashee School in Derry was supposed to have a new build commence by March 2020, however, it has experienced several setbacks and has been pushed back until 2021.
It provides education and pastoral care for up to 270 pupils who have learning difficulties and associated disabilities,
The Commissioner said it is reflective of many schools in Northern Ireland which are "crumbling" and in need of new builds or extensive maintenance.
"This is a symptom of the fact there is no government here, no minister to make decisions and we do not have enough money in our education system to meet the physical needs of our children and young people.
"There is a very long list of schools that need a new build, or where I've been and classrooms and bits of playgrounds are out of bounds or bits of the roof are falling off. The state of some of our schools is woeful and the amazing work of principals and school staff to maintain education standards is those schools is just to be wondered at.
"The fact the system has continued to provide a service in the last three years is just amazing. But we are falling further and further and further behind our colleagues across the water and across the border.
"Children in NI deserve as much as children in Scotland or in the South and I cannot go to another meeting with colleagues from around the UK and Ireland to listen to how their children are progressing and ours aren't, simply for the fact of a government to introduce up-to-date policies."
Mental health is another area that needs enhanced services, she believes, NICCY published a report in 2018 which included early intervention and support to improve children's mental health. They are working to implement their findings which include a full counselling service in primary schools. "We're hearing increasingly that children's mental ill-health is showing itself at a younger age now, so we need to be able to provide a service to those children and not wait until it gets worse.
"We need to make sure we remove the stigma, particularly for our boys, to let them know that's it's okay not to be okay and we all have our ups and downs. There is a huge job to be done on children's mental health but we have a plan in place.
"Big decisions have to be made about a way forward for this place, the people, particularly the children, deserve a government to make the decisions that will improve their lives."
Commenting on the strategy, Derek Baker, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Education said: “The strategy lists eight outcomes we want to achieve for all children and young people. These cover almost all aspects of children’s lives including their physical and mental health, play and leisure, learning and achieving, safety and stability, economic and environmental well-being, contribution to society, rights and equality”.
“It stresses the importance of allowing children and young people opportunities to participate in society and to have their voice heard and their views respected, especially on issues which affect them.
“In addition, there is recognition of the contribution which children and young people make to society, through volunteering and youth work or as carers for family members, and the need to support them as they do this.”
“Issues which children, young people and stakeholders have identified as requiring particular attention, and groups of children and young people in greatest need, are also highlighted.”
Sinn Féin Education Spokesperson Karen Mullan MLA attended an all-party meeting of education spokespeople with the Chief Executive of the Education Authority, senior directors and the Chairperson of the Board were all present. This meeting took place after the parties’ spokespeople met a few weeks back in relation to ongoing concerns around Special Educational Needs.
Ms Mullan stated: “I along with the other spokespeople deal with families and children who are experiencing difficulties in relation to special educational needs support in school on a daily basis. These vary from delay in statements, statements not being fully implemented, schools not receiving the resources required and a lack of communication.
“As a parent of a child who has a statement, I am aware of the worry and stress that a parent experiences ensuring that their child is getting the best possible support in their educational journey. I organised the cross-party meeting as I believe it is best working together and listening to how things can and need to be improved.
“I believe that all the parties’ spokespeople in attendance expect that the Education Authority will take our concerns on board and implement them to ensure parents have a less stressful time going through the statementing process for their child.”
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