Minister rules out 11th hour reprieve

NO REPRIEVE. . . .The Woodlands Unit, at Belmont House School. DER2914MC059
NO REPRIEVE. . . .The Woodlands Unit, at Belmont House School. DER2914MC059

The Minister for Education has confirmed there will be no last minute change of heart regarding the closure and replacement of the Woodlands Speech and Language Unit.

In a letter to Derry City Council, the Minister makes it clear that the plans will go ahead.

Education Minister John O'Dowd

Education Minister John O'Dowd

The Mayor of Derry, SDLP Councillor Brenda Stevenson, described the correspondence as “really, really disappointing” and claimed that plans for the replacement were nowhere near finalised.

The matter was due to be brought before the July meeting of Derry City Council’s Policy and Resources Committee, but the meeting could not go ahead because of industrial action by public sector workers and is being rescheduled.

Derry City Councillors earlier this year had agreed to write to the Minister seeking clarification on his decision to close the specialist facility at Belmont and replace it with three units at existing mainstream primary schools.

Previously children needing specialist help have attended Woodlands for four days a week, and their own Primary School one day a week while they were receiving specialist treatment.

Brenda Stevenson

Brenda Stevenson

The replacement units within Ebrington, St Anne’s and Ballykelly Primary Schools are expected to open in two months time within the 2014/15 school year.

In a letter received by the council last month and due to be discussed at last week’s abandoned meeting, the Minister responds to the council’s request for further information by stating:

“In making my decision, I have had to consider the best long-term solution for children with speech and language needs in the area.

“The Speech and Language provision that Woodlands Speech and Language Unit provides was delivered under the management of a Special School and was not in line with the Policy of Inclusion as set out in legislation in the Education (NI) Order 1996.

“I also explained that the new arrangements would provide increased and more localised provision in the future , based on a tried and tested model which fully complies with the legislation.”

He added: “I modified the proposals from the Western Education and Library Board for the new provision to commence from September 2014 rather than 2013 to allow sufficient time to get the new units up and running.

“The WELB have provided assurances on the availability of resources to support the expanded speech and language provision at the three new sites.

“Whilst this was not an easy decision, I believe it is in the best interests of children who avail of this service both now and in the future.”

Mayor Stevenson said: “This is really, really disappointing after all the lobbying that has been done on behalf of the children the school staff and parents. We had hoped he would see sense but obviously he has gone ahead and railroaded this through. I work in this sector and it is disappointing for the staff and most importantly for the children who need the service.”

Ms Stevenson claimed that contrary to the Minister’s assurances, there were still many resourcing issues to be resolved regarding the three separate units.

“Not only has the Minister decided to close a very good facility he has failed too in his duty to resource the ‘new’ units.

“These ‘new’ units are actually classrooms in other schools. Children will be taken out of their mainstream school to spend four days a week in another mainstream school rather than a specialist unit.

“They are not getting specialist provision.”

Woodlands Language Unit was a specialised facility for children who had specific language disorders which meant it was difficult for them to cope in mainstream education. The classes at the Belmont site was staffed by five teachers, four classroom assistants, and three speech and language therapists.

Up until this year, a maximum of 40 children attended the Unit on a Monday to Thursday basis for up to two years, while a number of others received support in their own schools.

Over 20,000 people signed a petition to keep the Woodlands facility open as part of a major campaign run over the past few years.

The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists also strongly backed the retention of the centre at Belmont.

During one of the debates at Stormont while consultation on the move was still going on, SDLP Foyle MLA Pat Ramsey urged the Minister to rethink the WELB proposals to create two specialist classes in each of the new three school sites.

Mr Ramsey said: “I cannot speak highly enough of the wonderful staff and the dedicated facility currently at Belmont. The unit at the school has truly become a haven and a place of remarkable success and advances for the young people who attend and their families.”

Announcing his decision in September 2013, the Minister stated:“I have had to consider the best long-term solution for children with speech and language needs in the area.

“It is evident that the Woodlands facility has served children well but there is also a strong case for providing increased and more localised provision for the future. Furthermore the proposed new model is tried and tested and fully complies with the legislation.”