Caleb's Cause: Stormont support for Lisburn mum's campaign for Post-19 SEN legislation


Campaigners calling for new legislation to protect post-19 special educational needs (SEN) pupils descended on Stormont on Wednesday to have their voices heard.

Unlike England, Northern Ireland has no legislation in place to protect post-19 SEN special pupils and that's something Alma White wants to change.

The campaign was established eight weeks ago by mum-of-three Alma White from Lisburn whose teenage son Caleb has complex special needs. The 16-year-old has autism, ADHD and sensory and learning difficulties and he currently attends Harberton North Special School.

READ MORE: NI mum takes campaign for new law to protect post-19 SEN pupils to Stormont

READ MORE: NI teenager with complex special needs faces uncertain future after school

Mums like Alma, a qualified classroom assistant, say young adults with a dual diagnosis of autism and learning disabilities are being denied legal protection and statutory services once they leave school and treated as if they are invisible.

Alma's groundbreaking #CalebsCauseNI campaign for her son is calling on Stormont to introduce Post-19 legislation for all young people with additional needs here in Northern Ireland.

In Northern Ireland, a statement of educational needs stops at 19 year of age and there is nothing to replace it. In contrast in England, when a young person reaches 19 they are entitled to an Education Health and Care (EHC) Plan, which is put in place until they are 25 (under the Children and Families Act 2014, which was extended).

This specifies the support needed and the outcomes the young person would like to achieve. In England, a young person can express a preference for a specialist Further Education College, which is then stated in their EHC plan.

Also in England, some organisations currently offer apprenticeships and Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) for children leaving school at 19 but again these are not widely on offer in NI.

While there are some opportunities available here through local charities such as work experience or supported jobs in the hospitality or retail sectors, these are limited in number with high demand.

Campaigners calling for new legislation to protect post-19 SEN pupils descended on Stormont on Wednesday to have their voices heard.
Campaigners calling for new legislation to protect post-19 SEN pupils descended on Stormont on Wednesday to have their voices heard. -Credit:Harry Bateman/Belfast Live

Along with other parents, Alma gathered at the gates of Stormont on Wednesday at a protest rally where they urged politicians to introduce the necessary Post-19 legislation. Representatives from the political parties also pledged their support at the event.

Alma explained how she fears for her teenage son's future when he leaves school in three years time, telling Belfast Live: "Caleb is 16 so I have three years to fight to get legislation put into place for his future. At the minute, a statement of special educational needs that you fight for from the ages of 3-19 becomes void.

"So at 19 there's nothing to replace that and nothing to hold the government to help us get that provision and those services but it needs to start with that Post-19 legislation.

"While this campaign is centred around Caleb, it's very much also about all of our young people in Northern Ireland because there's such a gap for them in terms of services and we need to be doing this now. It's 2024 and we're still no further ahead," she added.

Alma has also launched an online petition, which has gathered thousands of signatures, to help create new legislation for Post-19 SEN Northern Ireland, which she says would make a massive difference to the lives of so many young adults with a disability.

The White family from Lisburn who are campaigning for new legislation to protect post-19 SEN pupils in NI - Alma and her husband Alistair with their son Caleb and daughters, Lauren and Emma.
The White family from Lisburn who are campaigning for new legislation to protect post-19 SEN pupils in NI - Alma and her husband Alistair with their son Caleb and daughters, Lauren and Emma. -Credit:Harry Bateman/Belfast Live

Also lending their support to Alma's campaign were members of Mencap NI, which is marking Learning Disability Week with its latest campaign Do You See Me?, focusing on challenging the barriers people with a learning disability face.

Karen Gilgunn, Senior Communications and Influencing Lead at Mencap NI, told us: "It's a recurrent theme for us that young people Post-19 in transitional phases are faced with these problems and it's leaving many parents feeling very anxious, worried and stressed.

"We wanted to help and support Alma's campaign and journey because it's really important that our young people have the best start in life," she added.

"We are very much focused on early years and early intervention is extremely important, however when children reach that critical age of 19, we need to ensure there's a pathway for them through until adulthood which includes that holistic approach around education, employment and well-being."

An independent review of Northern Ireland's education system, published last December, called for more education, training and employment support for young people with SEN and said that many young people like Caleb face "particular difficulties at the point of leaving school and embarking upon adult life".

The Department for Education has said clear and appropriate pathways for young people moving from education into adulthood is a key theme within the End to End Review of Special Educational Needs.

They added: “We recently conducted a survey of practitioners and parents to better understand their experience of the current process and seek their views on potential solutions for the future.

"We will continue to engage directly with practitioners, parents and young people who are going through or have gone through the transition process to help inform recommendations on how we can improve pathways for young people with SEN.”

Video by Belfast Live videographer Harry Bateman.

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