Belfast Telegraph

20,000 tell Education Minister not to shut specialist language unit for children

By Donna Deeney

More than 20,000 people have put their names to a petition pleading for Education Minister John O’Dowd not to close a specialist language unit for children.

Woodlands Speech and Language unit is under threat because it is located within the grounds of a special needs school and the Western Education and Library Board says it should not be accessed by a child without a statement of special needs.

Foyle Assembly members have united to retain the unit and handed the petition in to Stormont alongside a delegation of parents.

The battle against closing the unit began in February after parents received a letter informing them that the WELB intended to shut it at the end of this school year.

Caroline McCleary's son Caomhan (7) started attending the unit last September and she is one of the parents leading the fight to keep Woodlands open.

Speaking to the North West Telegraph, Caroline said: “The reason we were given for closing the unit was nonsense.

“Our children are not attending a special needs school, they are attending a unit which happens to be located in the same grounds — but Woodlands is separate in every way from Belmont school.

“Closing the unit would be a disaster of huge proportions for us and for the pupils attending Woodlands, not least my own son Caomhan.

“Caomhan started the unit last September and goes four days a week and the change in him is just remarkable.

“He language skills have gone through the roof.

“He is able to communicate so well now which means he doesn't get frustrated so he is calm and he can understand what we are saying to him.

“Before Caomhan started at Woodlands he received some outreach language therapy at his mainstream school but it wasn't successful at all.

“What it did do was add to Caomhan's feelings of isolation because he was taken away from the rest of his class for the therapy whereas at Woodlands he is the same as everyone else in the class, not different, and that is important.

“These changes in Caomhan are down to the Woodlands staff who are dedicated beyond belief. This is not just a job to them, they care so much for the children and our children deserve to get the specialist treatment they can give and that is what we will fight and fight for.”

SDLP MLA Pat Ramsey said: “People from all sections of our community are extremely concerned at the proposed closure of this unique centre of excellence and we are united in our campaign to protect it.

“The Western Education and Library Board, in particular, has lost sight of the reality of the set-up at Woodlands, where pupils from many different primary schools come together for speech and language sessions four days out of five before going back to their own schools for the remaining day.

“This is a unit which operates on a cross-community basis, doing sterling work with non-statemented pupils who have benefited hugely from what they learn at Woodlands and from the friendships they make across the city there.

“I encourage parents, teachers, governors and anyone else with an interest in keeping Woodlands alive to respond to the consultation and send a message to WELB that they are wrong on this issue.

“I am pleased the minister is listening to the overwhelming majority who are interested in the fate of this much-loved facility.

“However, he has not made a final decision as to whether or not to close the unit, and will wait to see submissions on the consultation regarding Woodlands so that no decision will be made before he hears a presentation from staff and parents.

“This is a very sensitive, delicate and emotive issue for parents and families, and hope still remains that there will be a positive future for this remarkable facility.”

The Western Education and Library Board was contacted by the North West Telegraph but declined to comment.

Background

Woodland Language Unit offers specialist therapy for children with specific language difficulties. Pupils aged from primary one to primary seven from all schools across the North West attend for a minimum of one year up to two years. There are four teachers and five classroom assistants for the 40 available places in the unit which are allocated after referrals from an educational psychologist.

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