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Parents' dismay as school hailed for teaching special needs pupils faces closure

By Lindsay Fergus

A school highly praised for its work with special educational needs (Sen) pupils has been told it is facing closure.

Devastated parents whose children attend Knockmore Primary School in Lisburn were told the shock news by officials from the South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB) yesterday.

One in three children who attend the mainstream school are catered for in its special unit, which had to expand down the years due to increased demand.

Sybil Skelton from the SEELB told furious parents that if the school closed “the board will relocate the special needs children”.

But she couldn’t tell concerned parents, many of children with autism or speech difficulties, where, or even what type of school, they would be transferred to.

Its latest inspection report in January said Knockmore boasted:

  • 159 pupils (above that set out in the Sustainable Schools Policy).
  • Increased enrolment — up from 149 in 2008/09 and 157 in 2009/10.
  • Good quality of education.
  • A very good provision for special educational needs.
  • l Across the social and communication unit (SCU) and speech and language unit (SLU) the quality of provision is very good.

But the SEELB claims the school is unviable in terms of pupil numbers — if children being supported in the special units are not taken into consideration.

That argument met with outright fury from anxious parents. Many have children who began in the special unit and transferred to mainstream classes.

The Belfast Telegraph can reveal that Knockmore has no financial problems. It is also currently “in surplus”, meaning it meets all the criteria outlined by the Education Minister for a viable school — pupil numbers, quality of education and finances. In terms of enrolment, there are 58 schools in the SEELB’s area with the same or fewer pupil numbers.

As the bad news was delivered by officials, it emerged that Knockmore has been waiting 15 years for new windows and 10 years for replacement toilets. When quizzed by parents about the lack of investment in the school, Mrs Skelton admitted: “There may be some issues in terms of fabric.”

The SEELB needs to invest £283,226 in maintenance at the 41-year-old school, according to figures obtained under Freedom of Information (FoI).

Some parents of the 66 pupils supported within the special units are concerned about how disruption will impact on their vulnerable children.

Sharon Marston (below), whose autistic son Kyle attends Knockmore, is just one of them.

She said: “My son has autism and he needs routine and does not react well to change. He is very settled at Knockmore. If they closed this school down it will be absolutely terrible.”

The inspection report showed 11.8% of Knockmore’s pupils have statements of special educational needs — well above the Northern Ireland average (4%), and 26.9% are on the special needs register.

“The quality of teaching in almost all the lessons observed in the mainstream classes and in the SCU and SLU was good or very good; in a small number of the lessons, it was outstanding,” said inspectors.

“In the SCU and SLU, the teachers’ joint sessions with the speech and language therapists are a very good feature of the best teaching and provide excellent opportunities for the children to learn together and to develop a sense of achievement.”

Inspectors noted: “There is a very good exchange of professional expertise between the teachers in the SCU and the SLU and the mainstream school.”

The report stated that approximately 50% of children in the two units transfer to mainstream education and require no additional or specialist support.

Knockmore’s first speech and language unit opened in September 1990, followed by a second in 1993. In 2002 a further two units opened and in 2005 a new specialist unit catering for children on the autistic spectrum also opened.

Stormont education committee member, Lagan Valley MLA Jonathan Craig, has already raised the matter with Education Minister John O’Dowd.

He said: “Yet again the board has failed to follow its own rules. It has also jumped the gun and is not following the minister's policy for the closure of schools. But what do you expect from a board run by unelected and unaccounted commissioners?”

An SEELB spokesman said the authority to close a school rested with the minister, adding: “On an annual basis the board reviews the provision throughout its area and as appropriate engages with those schools which may be impacted upon by future plans. This scheduled review began prior to the statement from the minister.

“The contents of his statement were neither public nor known to the board in advance of his announcement to the Assembly.”

Story so far

Knockmore Primary School is the fourth school to have been told it is being earmarked for closure.

Dunmurry High, south Belfast; Redburn Primary, Holywood, and Ballykeigle Primary, on the outskirts of Comber, are also on the SEELB’s hit-list.

So far the SEELB is the only board to have initiated development proposals to close schools ahead of a viability audit of every school ordered by the Education Minister John O’Dowd.

His department has confirmed that the education authorities received the terms of reference for the audit last week.

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