Like others, I welcome the general principle of the Bill and thank the Minister for bringing it forward. It becomes a bit of a cliché and can be said too often, but society is often judged by the way in which it treats the most vulnerable in society.
In this case, we are talking about children and young adults, many of whom have very complex needs and some of whom have less complex needs. Nevertheless, the purpose of drafting legislation is to provide betterment and to improve the position of the people whom the Bill is targeted towards. In this case, it is those who have a vulnerability: children with special needs. They are among the most vulnerable in our society and, in many cases, comprise a section that needs as much support as society can offer. We are dealing with legislation today, but we need to remember that, at the very heart of that legislation, are children and families. Indeed, in the professional way in which support is offered, we need to address the legislation towards teachers and support staff and to improve the holistic package that is offered to all of them.
In the Chair's initial remarks, she very adequately indicated the position. The Department's most recent figures show that the percentage of children with special needs has risen from what we thought at one stage was around 16% of the school population. That figure was taken 10 years ago and, in the intervening period, has risen, so that 22% of the school population are children with special needs. Included in those figures are 73,000 children with special educational needs, 16,000 of whom have been identified as having no formal statement of their needs.
An increasing number of parents are coming to my constituency office with autistic spectrum disorder issues, and a number of children with autism have come to me for work experience. I can well understand the concerns of those parents. In five years, autistic spectrum disorder has increased by about 67%. Those are phenomenal figures, and I do not think that society in general appreciates them. It is our children whom we are dealing with, and the legislation needs to be addressed towards their needs. The Chair said that it is self-evident that the statementing process is complex, confusing and overly bureaucratic, and I know that from parents who come to the office. Even with support staff, it is difficult for me to find my way through it. Parents get confused, and that often leads to frustration, which is not good for the family atmosphere, for the child or for other children.
Last week, the Minister spoke to the Committee about where he was going to orientate his budget, about services that are being offered and where he would have to reduce services and budgets. Indeed, many will be disappointed that the very services that offer support will be targeted in the 2015-16 budget and will receive cutbacks. We are looking to bring in legislation to improve the situation for children while, on the other hand, we are looking at cutbacks to the budget that provides the support services for them.
I have a few remarks to make about the Bill in its totality and a little bit about what it does or should do for our children, their parents, and the teaching profession which deals with them. I was invited to Glenveagh Special School a number of weeks ago. I walked around the school with the principal and one of her staff, and I do not think that I could have been more impressed by a school that is probably at the more extreme end of the spectrum for children with very complex needs. I could not have been more impressed by the way those children were being taught, and being trained in many cases. I had the opportunity to see them in the classroom and coming in from work experience, and you only had to look at the staff to see their dedication.
The point has been made already about the need for this Bill to ensure that the education system and health provision are joined up. In the case of the pupils at that school, and, I imagine, across the board, we need to see Education and Health joining up in the provision of support for the professional staff in that school in particular.
As I was leaving the school and saying, "Thank you" to the two professional teaching staff, I remarked to them that I had never seen a school with more smiles in it. The principal said that that comment is often made by people who come to visit Glenveagh Special School. They notice the smiles of the pupils as they are going around the school. It is the professional staff who support those pupils whom we need to support through this legislation.
I will talk a bit about the children. This legislation has to target the children, in the sense that it helps to build their confidence in their future and their abilities to survive beyond the normal school environment. That needs an approach that is child-centred — if that is not too much of a cliché — an approach that supports the child in their school environment and prepares the child for life beyond their school years. Mr Swann made some comments about the reaction by DEL in that area, as the child goes on to further education. This is about building the confidence of the child as a pupil in the school and maximising the full potential of the child to enjoy a quality of life beyond the school years that any of us would want for any of our children as they travel through school and into manhood or womanhood.
I will say a few words about the parents. I have already said that parents who come into my office looking at the early stages of statemented needs find the situation confusing and frustrating. Too often — this point has already been made — the parents find themselves battling against bureaucracy. If this Bill does not help in that battle against bureaucracy, we will have failed those parents in many ways, certainly in the very early years. What we need to think about is a simple, joined-up approach, so that all the support mechanisms that can be brought to bear for the parents are brought to bear for them. The system should be designed to benefit the parents, and therefore benefit the children in their journey through life — in many cases, a very difficult journey through life.
I do not want to say any more than that. The Chair has already made some comments regarding where we, in the DUP group, will be expressing concern. We are looking forward to working on the Bill and hopefully making the situation — in legislative terms — better for the children, the parents and the professionals who work in this field.