Roy Proposes Assembly Motion on Multiagency Support Teams

Full Hansard text of Speech in the NI Assembly, Monday 23rd April 2012

Mr Beggs: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the success of the multiagency support teams and equivalent bodies in detecting and addressing problems which children may experience in the early stages of their education; recognises the effective partnerships that are in place between the health service, schools and parents to address the needs of children; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to work closely with the Minister of Education to review the model of service provision and expand the service to the schools and nurseries which are not currently part of the scheme.

I am very pleased to move the motion. I declare an interest as a founding member of the Carrickfergus Children and Young People’s Partnership, now perhaps known as a locality group, and also of Horizon Sure Start, which operates in Larne and Carrickfergus. In both those organisations, the issue of how health and education are intertwined is central. It is clear how education is important to address health issues on occasion and how it is important that health issues that a child might have are addressed in order that they can progress in their education.

The importance of early intervention has been widely recognised internationally and, increasingly, locally. I think of the Nobel prize-winning economist Professor James Heckman, who recognised that addressing issues at the earliest stage so that people can progress and become productive citizens benefits not only the individual, family and society but brings a bottom-line benefit to the economy. I also recall hearing Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, Harry Barnes, during a seminar on Northern Ireland held by the Northern Investing for Health Partnership, recognise the importance of education in trying to address health inequalities. So the two issues are clearly intertwined. Health inequality can cause problems to our young children, and equally, as I said, if there are problems with education, there are problems in getting across health messages. Education has a role to play if we want to improve our society’s health by encouraging healthy eating, improving exercise levels and ensuring that people have resilience against drug and alcohol misuse.

Historically, Northern Ireland Departments operated largely in silos. The Education Department was responsible for schools and the Health Department for hospitals. Thankfully, with the recognition by each Department of its importance to the other, they now cross over. I recall that the first Assembly had a funding package for children and young people to encourage cross-departmental working, and, when devolution was removed, that type of funding continued under the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Multiagency working was one of the important schemes to be established.

In my area, the body currently operated by the Northern Health and Social Care Trust is known as the multiagency support team for schools (MASTS), which is important because it addresses a range of issues that may include speech and language issues; communication needs; emotional, social or behavioural needs; and sensory, motor or perceptual needs. However, specifically, there must be two or more issues before the multiagency team will get involved. If there is a single issue, the single professional can deal with it, but one form of need frequently triggers other issues and other complex needs that must be addressed. That is the beauty of the multiagency team, which includes speech and language therapy, behavioural therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, clinical psychology, specialist language teachers — certainly in the North Eastern Education and Library Board area —therapy assistant support and, indeed, clerical support for it all to work. It is also important that one of the scheme’s aims is to give nursery and primary school staff the confidence and knowledge to identify and meet the needs of children with difficulties in the areas that I mentioned. So it has brought about improvement in the close working and abilities of teachers and, ultimately, the headmaster, to whom issues must be referred when assistance has to be brought in.

Parents of children with special needs must have considerable determination to work their way through our system. It means working through your GP, perhaps travelling some distance to see a consultant, and perhaps getting referred on again. Not every parent has the ability, determination or the means to travel outside their area to have their child’s special needs addressed through the system. Through my involvement in Horizon Sure Start, I have met parents whose children had speech and language issues that had not previously been addressed. However, staff had identified such issues, the need was addressed and resources were brought in so that those children would be much more ready to start their primary school education.

Sure Start schemes operate in tightly defined geographical areas, and not every parent of a child who is entitled to attend engages with it and brings them along. The beauty of our primary school system is that there is a statutory requirement to attend school, which means that every child must go. It is important that that statutory service integrates with other services and catches any child who may have been missed at an earlier stage.

The various multiagency teams have different names. As I said, there is the MASTS team in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust area. In the Belfast area, there is the children’s interdisciplinary schools team (CIST). In the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust area, there is the additional support for children in education team (ASCET). In the Southern Health and Social Care Trust, we have action for children in education (ACE), and, in the west, we have the western education support team (WEST). A range of teams carries out similar duties in different areas. It is an important opportunity to pick up issues and address them at that early stage in primary school.

As I said, my knowledge has been built largely in my area. I am aware that there are teams elsewhere, but I will draw on the knowledge that I have gained locally. Every child must attend primary school, and teachers have a vital role and must be given the training and the network to bring in that extra support. They, too, can even work in a classroom; it is not always left to the professionals. However, under the guidance of a professional, issues can be addressed so that children are better able to benefit from their education.

One of the scheme’s benefits is its multidisciplinary nature. A range of issues can be dealt with by using a child-centred approach. I will demonstrate how one issue can frequently trigger others. What if a child has a speech and language problem and arrives at primary school? They are not able to communicate well with their teacher, and they may not integrate with the rest of the classroom. They are likely to have behavioural problems that will flow from that. They might be very withdrawn or disruptive, which, ultimately, will affect other children in the classroom. So, because there is a fundamental problem, other problems can arise. The beauty of the scheme is that it can bring in the professionals required to help the child and the family to overcome the difficulties and benefit from education.

I would like the multiagency support team to be available for every child in not only my constituency but Northern Ireland. I understand that, in the Northern Trust area, 46% of schools are not covered by the scheme; the support is not there. In the Carrickfergus area of my constituency, five of the 13 primary schools are not supported; in the Newtownabbey area, 13 of the 35 primary schools are not supported; and, in the Larne area, 17 of the 18 primary schools are not supported. There is a huge gap in the system in that children are not being helped. It was largely based on whether the schools were proactive and volunteered to join the scheme when it was introduced originally. I am aware that a lot more would wish to join the scheme now.

Feedback on the scheme from parents, teachers and children has been very positive: 78% of principals and 69% of teachers highlighted that the children benefited from the intervention of the MASTS service; 95% of parents and carers highlighted that the children benefited from the support; and 92% of the children who have been interviewed indicated that they would recommend it. The effectiveness has also been recognised by the achievement of national, regional and local awards. I am aware that the benefits that can come from the scheme can help our children to get their foot on the educational ladder.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Bring your remarks to a close.

Mr Beggs: It is vital that we bring in the scheme and allow all our children to benefit so that no one will slip through the gaps in our system.

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