EDUCATION Minister John O’Dowd says children attending a specialised language unit in Londonderry will be able to complete their two-year period in the facility but by the end of 2014/15 all classes will be relocated to Ebrington, St Anne’s and Ballykelly. It effectively means a temporary reprieve for the unit, which was supposed to close in 2013.
His decision on the future of the Woodlands Language Unit is centred on the best interests of the children involved, he said.
Back in 2012 Mr O’Dowd said the Woodlands Unit’s location within the grounds of Belmont House Special School was “unsuitable” due to the Western Education and Library Board’s (WELB) policy of providing support for children with linguistic disorders in mainstream primary schools.
And the announcement of a £7.4m funding boost for Belmont in the summer of 2012 did nothing to alter this situation.
At the end of the 2011/12 academic year the parents of children at the unit received notification of the proposed closure of the unit in the 2012/13 academic year.
Now Mr O’Dowd has announced a stay of execution for the local unit. He said: “I am modifying the proposals for the new provision to commence from September 2014 rather than 2013.
“This will allow sufficient time to ensure all the necessary steps have been taken to get the new units up and running. Children currently enrolled at the Woodlands Unit will, if necessary and in line with parental wishes, be able to complete the two-year period in the Unit.
“However, should any parent wish to avail of a place in the new units before the two-year period is over, then I have asked the WELB to give these children priority when allocating places in the new units.
“My Department and the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) will monitor progress against the implementation plan for the new units to ensure that all the new provision is in place before the classes at the Woodlands Unit relocate. I will ask the ETI to evaluate the new provision at the earliest practicable opportunity and most certainly within the first year of operation.”
Londonderry SDLP MLA Pat Ramsey said: “I am appalled by the decision of the Minister to implement the development proposals that would close Woodlands and scatter the classes throughout the North West.
“There has been wide-ranging and prevalent opposition to this proposal from every section of the community and I cannot comprehend how the Minister could come to such a decision in the face of overwhelming and tangible evidence that the in-house facility at Belmont was giving new hope to parents and children who have speech and language difficulties.
“There will be families and children across the region who use the unit who will be absolutely devastated by this move, and I totally condemn it. The colleagues of the Minister locally will find it hard to defend this situation given they urged people to respond to the consultation on the future of woodlands and nothing more – and now their Minister has decided to over-rule the concerns raised in the consultation
“This is not Standing Up for Derry – this is the systemic destruction of a facility that we should have been doing everything we could to save and promote, instead it will now be decimated and the future of the services rendered unclear.”