Two mothers have accused Education Minister John O’Dowd of ‘educational apartheid’ in his decision to close the Woodlands Unit the at Belmont campus.
Kim Martin, a retired specialist nurse, and Caroline McCleary, a classroom assistant, both mothers with strong links to the unit through children who have been helped there, also accused the Minister of picking on the ‘softest of targets’ by shutting the unit which specialises in language development in children with severe communication difficulties.
Launching an ‘11th hour’ opposition campaign, Ms Martin said the closure of the unit would have a detrimental impact not only on the children attending Woodlands, but also on children in main-stream education. She is also fearful that the decision will give rise to an increase in bullying in schools resulting in a further isolation of already vulnerable children.
“The fact is, Woodlands is a fully integrated college. This decision will effect every child in the city from both communities. It is like the children are being segregated again. The decision to close Woodlands is educational apartheid,” said Ms Martin.
“I know we are in the eleventh hour, but we are determined to fight this. We need something done to get this decision stopped or overturned. We have 40 children in the unit and there is high demand beyond that for the services that Woodlands offers,” she said, continuing: “What the Minister is doing is taking children out of a small, sheltered community and putting them into main-stream schools that are not equipped to deal with children with this level of specialist need. Some schools have said they do not want these children forced on them because they are not equipped to deal with them. It will have a hugely detrimental impact on not only the Woodlands children but also every child in those schools.”
She continued: “It makes financial sense to have Woodlands Unit because it deals with special need students who are speech and language impaired and is borne out by the National College of Speech and language Therapists, whose advice the Education Minister has also ignored. The Minister is hitting the softest of targets. Statistics show a high percentage of bullying against speech impaired children - a group least able to articulate what is happening to them.”
Meanwhile, Ms McCleary said: “Legislation states that children that do not have a ‘statement of special educational need’ cannot receive the majority of their education under the management of a special school. You have to be at Stage 5 to get a statement and our children at Stage 3 under this Code of Practice.
“There is another unit on the same campus and all the children there have the same level and are at the same stage, but they are not under threat of closure. It makes no sense,” she said.