Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Teen with Down's Syndrome fails in appeal against being denied place at mainstream school

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A teenager with Down's Syndrome failed today in an appeal against being denied a place at the mainstream school of her family's choice.

Northern Ireland's most senior judge dismissed the new attempt to overturn a decision reached by a special educational needs tribunal.

Legal proceedings were brought after a panel upheld a determination that the 14-year-old should attend St Columbanus' College in Bangor.

Her mother instead wanted her to be given a place at St Joseph's College in Belfast.

The girl, who cannot be identified, was due to begin secondary education in September 2011.

Her lawyer argued that the decision breached her human rights and special educational needs legislation.

They claimed the tribunal's determination effectively imposed a policy of Down's Syndrome children only being educated in schools with previous experience of children with the condition.

But a barrister for the panel rejected claims of irrationality in a decision taken after exploring the practical and obvious differences between the two schools.

Earlier this year a High Court judge backed the tribunal's findings on the Statement of Special Educational Needs prepared by the South Eastern Education and Library Board back in March 2011.

That verdict led to a fresh challenge being taken at the Court of Appeal.

Delivering judgment today, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said there were plainly material differences in the level of educational support available at  St Columbanus and St Joseph's for children with severe learning difficulties.

Significant staff training issues would have to be overcome before St Joseph's could even begin to contemplate taking children with such needs, he pointed out.

Sir Declan said: "The tribunal was entitled to come to the conclusion that the ability of the schools to accommodate the child's needs was materially different."

He identified the principle issues were the time it would take to train staff, whether resources would be provided to alter the classroom setup, and the need to bear in mind the girl was due to start her secondary education.

Sitting with Lord Justices Higgins and Girvan, he confirmed: "We are satisfied that their assessment that reasonable adjustments could not have been made within a timeframe suitable for this child cannot be characterised as unlawful."

After rejecting all grounds of challenge the appeal was dismissed.

As she left court following the verdict the girl's mother directed an outburst at the three judges.

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