Woodlands Speech and Language Unit on the Racecourse Road has changed the life of Kim Martin’s six year old daughter.
Schoolgirl Claire Martin, from Charlotte Street, had only been able to utter a few words until she started going to Woodlands in January past. Over the past number of months, her mother Kim says her daughter has developed at an “unbelievable” rate.
“We got nothing, just the very odd word, and since January, we’re able to have conversations with our daughter for the first time. There are full sentences. She’s able to say full sentences, I can’t explain how much that means. That would never have happened if she hadn’t been at Woodlands, We’re determined to do everything we can to keep it open,” says Kim.
Kim is one of the people spearheading the battle to keep the Racecourse Road Unit open. She’s operating on the frontline of an assertive campaign, alongside local mother Caroline McCleary, who says staff at the unit changed the life of her son Caomhan, who has now finished his two years at Woodlands.
Caroline is only too happy to lead the charge too. So convinced is she that the unit should stay open that she’s one of the most vigorous opponents of the closure, even though her son has now left the unit. She wants, she says, to make sure that other children have the same chance her son was given.
Both women are busy mothers, more accustomed to navigating the school run than listening to the political rhetoric of Stormont debates. But recently, the situation regarding Woodlands has generated significant discussion in the corridors of power.
Education Minister John O’Dowd says legislation going back to 1996 means that the unit can no longer operate as it does. He says that for the children to avail of the provisions at a special school, they must be statemented (categorised as having special educational needs). Caroline, Kim and other parents claim there other children being educated in the same campus as Woodlands who are not statemented. They say the Minister’s decision is not taking all the relevant matters into account.
Currently, around 40 children from local schools attend the unit four days a week, They receive intensive help and support for a range of speech and lanugage difficulties. Much of it is dedicated one on one support which, say their parents, it would not be possible for already overworked teachers to deal with.
Under the proposals for reconfiguration laid out by the Department of Education, children currently attending Woodlands will be dispersed into two Derry based schools, St Anne’s in Rosemount and Ebrington Primary School. Some children would also be hosted by a primary school and Ballykelly.
Parents say they’re outraged that the Minister has refused to be drawn on the practicalities of those moves. They say they’ve asked repeatedly about what physical space will be available in the already busy schools. They have questions, too, about staffing and provision.
“To date, none of those questions have been answered,” says Caroline,
Kim, whose daughter still attends Woodlands, says the uncertainty surrounding her daughter’s future has had a massive impact on her.
“I’ve been worrying non stop, I haven’t slept properly with the thought that Woodlands might no longer be there. I don’t think people in this city realise the amount that goes on there. Claire, who had never spoken, had never felt better. I know when I go in there that she’s part of this amazing community where people can take the time to help her. She now has a best friend who she’s so excited about. I never thought I would see my little girl be able to do all this, and I know for a fact it would never have happened without Woodlands. I hope the Education Minister realises that we won’t give up without a fight on this, it’s worth every bit of it.
“This is the future of young people in this town we’re talking about.”
Caroline, who has gone from classroom assistant, to stay at home mum, to ardent campaigner for Woodlands, says the knock on effects of a specialist unit like Woodlands, are huge for the local community.
“There’s documented evidence that proper speech and language provision, in a setting like this, can have a massive impact on a child. I know for my son Caomhan, he was seen as troublesome and difficult, but because of Aphasia, he couldn’t process what he was being told. He had so much frustration in him and it was totally misdiagnosed until we went to Woodlands. Within days, I saw a difference.
“Recently, the speaker in the House of Commons, who has a child with speech and language difficulties himself, produced evidence of a high percentage of young people in juvenile detention centres who have speech and language issues, There are wider implications of taking away places like Woodlands. And from what we’re hearing the replacement options being put in place are just not good enough,”
Kim agrees. “With this decision, the Minister is putting generations of young people at a disadvantage.”
As for the argument that the children might progress better in a fully mainstream environment, Caroline employs a quote from a senior member from the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists.
“If you believe that, are you going to put children who need wheelchairs into a room where children can walk in the hope that they’ll get up and walk too?”
Kim says she’s still in shock that the decision has not been overturned. She expected, she says, that someone “might have seen sense about it all.”
“In my heart, I didn’t think it would go this far,” says the mother of two.
Caroline sees the decision as another example of the most vulnerable people in society being targeted.
“These are the softest targets and this decision has been taken against the advice of leading speech and language therapists, and it flies in the face of everything we know about how children flourish in this environment.”
Kim agrees. “It’s hard to stand there and look at John O’Dowd after this, he’s clinging onto this legislation, but legislation can be amended.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Education said:
“The Minister has repeatedly set out his reasons for agreeing to the WELB proposal to close Woodlands Speech and Language Unit in Derry. The Department will deal with correspondence from the Ombudsman if any is received.”
The spokesperson said that another unit, within the same campus, which does not require children to be statemented is governed by different legislation to that of Woodlands. The spokesperson added that referrals to that unit took place via “a completely different process by which a child would be referred to Woodlands.” The Spokesperson went on to outline the fact that the Western Education and Library Board had developed the policy responsible for relocating children who require speech and language provision away from the Woodlands campus.
“All Education and Library Boards and schools have a duty to comply with Article 7 of the 1996 Order which stipulates that if a child does not have a Statement of SEN, they should access their education in a mainstream school. This is the case with the vast majority of children attending the Woodlands Speech and Language unit, very few of whom have a Statement.
“But the Woodlands unit is not part of a mainstream school. It is located on the same sites as and falls under the management of a special school – Belmont House.
“To comply with the legislation, the Western Board has developed a policy to ensure that special units (now known as Learning Support Centres) are located at mainstream schools.
“The proposals approved by the Minister will relocate the four classes at Woodlands to two at Ebrington Primary School and two at St Anne’s Primary School, both in Derry City.”