Dungannon parents fear for future of children with learning disabilities

DUNGANNON parents and politicians are calling for an urgent reform of the way young people with learning disabilities are looked after following claims they are abandoned by services once they leave school.

A meeting is being held on Thursday morning at Dungannon’s Sperrinview Special Needs School between concerned parents, teachers and local MLAs to highlight the issues amid fears that the situation is deteriorating each year.

It has been revealed at the Northern Ireland Assembly that the Southern Education and Library Board spends less than 2 percent of its entire budget on children with learning disabilities.

When it comes to educating children with severe learning disabilities, the SELB allocates 0.4% of its total budget.

However, Principal Paula Jordan and Vice-Principal Ruth Walker of Dungannon’s Sperrinview School said that in terms of education children with learning disabilities are ‘excellently resourced’.

“We have no issue with the SELB and the amount they allocate to this group of pupils”, they said.

“We have a beautiful school, excellent staffing provision and are generally very well resourced indeed. The problem comes when children leave our school and find that services aren’t adequate to their needs.

“In fact the care system falls apart. There is a severe lack of opportunities after the age of 19, with a lack of places at local FE Colleges.

“Parents are having to give up their jobs to transport their children to colleges in Cookstown and Armagh so that they can access these services.

“Our pupils are entitled to life-long learning like every other young person, and are more vulnerable to losing their skills, their confidence and experiencing mental health problems if these services aren’t provided.

“We need joined-up thinking between the Department of Health and DELL, as well as targeted funding to ensure these young people do not slip through the net.

“At the minute, too many are falling into the gap between day care services and job placements.

“Parents are very distressed when they see the difficulties their children will experience after leaving school.

“Unfortunately, the situation appears to be getting worse each year.”

Sinn Fein MLA Bronwyn McGahan, who is gathering information on local learning disability services across the fields of health and education, said she had been approached by local parents of children with learning disabilities.

She said these children must not be hampered from achieving education and learning due to lack of funding

Ms McGahan said: “Society has a responsibility to ensure that our most vulnerable people are given equality in education and learning.

“I am disappointed that more money is not available to ensure that people with learning difficulties are given opportunities to maximise their learning experience.

“I am extremely disappointed that the Department of Health refused to answer my question as they have a responsibility along with the Departments of Education and Employment and Learning to ensure that funding is available.

“I will continue to campaign for adequate funding to ensure that people with learning difficulties are given ample opportunity to excel through education and learning as they can continue to contribute to society.”

The local education board declined to comment on its funding allocation.